Faraji wiped the last speck of blood off his scimitar and held it up against the campfire’s light. Even after all the nicks and scratches it had collected over years of combat, it still shone with an almost heavenly brilliance. The inscriptions in its blade, written in cursive Aradyic, invoked the Moon’s blessing of strength towards whomever wielded the sword. Thus far it had never failed Faraji, and certainly not during his latest raid.
Around the fire his warriors bantered, joked, and laughed with each other, as warriors across the world always did when resting at camp. They were all Kiswahans like himself, dark brown-skinned with off-white kanzu tunics and turbans over their black, tightly curled hair. In truth, their physical features differed little from the miserable heathens they had yoked and manacled to one another in the darkness at the camp’s edge.
But those sad-eyed idolaters, naked but for loincloths of woven bark and jewelry fashioned from cowrie shells and dinosaur teeth, were not lovely to look at. Even the nubile young women in their ranks had their skin blemished with hideous scarifications of pagan significance. They may have been kin to the Kiswahan race by blood, but the old superstitions they clung to made for a very different, barbaric culture.
A faint yet high-pitched cry, almost like some kind of flute, whistled from the black depths of the surrounding rainforest. Even with the nocturnal humidity and the campfire’s warmth, Faraji could not deny the chill prickling his skin from that eerie noise. He had made a whole career of penetrating these jungles from the east, braving an immense variety of beasts and heathens alike. But never in all his previous ventures had the Kishawan slaver heard such a sound.
Then again, the jungle housed more species of creature than could fit in all the world’s menageries. It might have been nothing more than some rare bird that had sung. Regardless, it did not call again. There was nothing to fear.
“Bwana!” Hasani, Faraji’s right-hand fighter, rushed to his side and tapped his shoulder. Sweat sparkled on Hasani’s terror-wrinkled brow. “I think I saw something.”
He pointed to the darkness close to where the heathen captives squatted. “I could have sworn it shone like iron in the night.”
“Jungle sickness must be getting to you,” Faraji said. Cold sweat may have started to bead his palms, but as the party’s Bwana, he had to maintain his composure as an example for his followers.
Hasani shook his head. “Come see for yourself. I think it is a djinni.”
According to the sacred scriptures, djinn were beings made of smokeless fire, but they could take on many forms as part of their tricks. Faraji wondered if the whistling he had heard earlier had any connection to whatever Hasani had seen. If so, there could very well be a djinn lurking out there.
Faraji followed Hasani to the far edge of the camp, passing the captives who murmured amongst themselves in their barbarous tongue. In the corner of his eye he spotted some of them smiling instead of sulking as before. No, they could not have summoned the djinnI. Such ignorant unbelievers probably did not know djinn even existed. But they must have sensed something out there.
Other than faint light from the fire and the Moon dappled on a few leaves, Faraji could only see a towering black wall of jungle ahead of him. The crickets chirped, the frogs croaked, and the nocturnal birds hooted, but no other sounds escaped the darkness. The only other thing Faraji could hear was the thumping of his own heart.
He turned around, and he caught the gleam of an iron point high up in the branches. Right next to it twinkled a pair of eyes—not the glowing gaze of a jungle creature, but dark glaring ones like those of a human being. In one blink, they vanished, leaving a vine shaking in their place.
Hasani raised his scimitar with a trembling hand. “Show yourself, djinni!”
“It might not be a djinni after all,” Faraji said. “I think it might be human.”
“You mean one that can climb trees like a monkey, Bwana? That’d be a rare breed of human.”
Faraji grinned. “Then we could price them for extra at the market—if we can catch them.”
The two Kiswahans plunged into the jungle with a sprint, following the direction whence Faraji had seen the eyes disappear. They hacked their way through the undergrowth between bursts of jogging while shouting after the being. Even as they went deeper into the forest, they had yet to catch even a glimpse of their quarry. Not even the guiding glow of the Moon, which shafted in scattered beams through the treetop canopy, had revealed it to them.
Sooner or later, it would. Faraji had sworn it to himself by the inscription on his scimitar. The blessing of the Moon could never fail him.
Hasani stopped to pant. “We should go back. We lost—”
He fell onto the jungle floor with a gag. Sticking up from Hasani’s breast was the slender iron head of a heathen spear.
Faraji stood there, motionless except for the wobbling of his shins. His scimitar slipped out of his hand to bounce onto the spongy earth. Every vein in his body was cold with sheer horror. “What are you, demon?”
At first it appeared as a black apparition when it dropped from an overhanging branch before him. When it stood up, the Moon’s light revealed it as a svelte young woman who glistened like polished ebony. Though clad with nothing more modest than a brief breast-cloth and thong, she had raptors’ teeth, claws, and feathers looped around her neck and limbs, and even a raptor skull crowning her head. It was a shame that this maiden would have appeared quite attractive, even beautiful, were it not for such savage attire.
“Call me Matadi.” She plucked the spear out of Hasani’s body and pressed its bloody tip into Faraji’s neck. “I’ll make this simple. Cut the people of my faith free and I’ll have you and your companions spared.”
Faraji laughed, trying to sound mocking even if it came out uneasy. “My companions? Do you plan to take on all of them by yourself?”
Matadi touched a bone with holes drilled into it, like a primitive flute, that hung from her necklace. “I have already summoned some allies of mine to take care of your friends. I won’t say it again. Free my people and I’ll call them off.”
Faraji did not know what she meant by “allies”. But he could not let this pagan harlot intimidate him. He and his slavers had fought off whole armies of pagans deep in these jungles, all because they had the Moon’s blessing flowing through them. To give into this barbarian’s demands would insult the Moon that had listened to all his prayers and watched over him with a perfect father’s love. Faraji would betray his faith, everything he believed in, and his friend Hasani’s memory if he made the slightest concession to this savage.
He lunged and grabbed his sword back. “How about we fight you off instead!”
Faraji swung after Matadi, but his blade only sliced through empty air. He spun around, searching the jungle overhead for the slightest sign of his opponent. She must have disappeared back into the darkness, like a true Moon-forsaken coward.
“So much for your threats,” Faraji muttered as he sheathed his scimitar back into its scabbard. “Must have been bluffing about her ‘allies’ too.”
He turned again to Hasani’s body, which stared straight up with still, unblinking eyes that shone wet under the Moon’s light. Kneeling by its side, Faraji whispered a prayer for his friend’s passing through Judgement into the Paradise that awaited all righteous men. “May peace forever be upon him.”
When he got back up, Faraji found a spear flying straight from the darkness towards him.
He sidestepped, but its edge still grazed him on the arm. He stumbled onto the ground, with the pain seeping deeper into his flesh, and struggled to push himself back up.
Matadi stood over him with spear digging into the nape of his neck. “Now will you free my people, Kiswahan?”
“Not for the friend you slew!” Faraji rolled himself into her shins, knocking her off her footing, and sprang up with scimitar back in hand. He laid one foot onto the head of her spear and chopped its shaft in two before she even had the chance to retrieve it.
“You better call your ‘allies’ as soon as possible, lest I send you to the flames of sin,” Faraji said with a triumphant sneer.
Matadi looked up at him, at first with fear or resignation, but then her expression shifted a defiant smirk of her own. “By now they should be too busy playing with your own friends.”
And with a cackle she leaped back into the jungle’s darkness.
Faraji remembered the flute she had indicated on her necklace earlier. Only it could explain the whistling he had heard back at camp. He could only guess what the tune had meant, or what it had called. But if that heathen had spoken the truth, he had no time to waste before his comrades fell into serious peril.
He raced back along the trail he had cut out earlier. The hollers and screams of men and women reached his ears, as did the rustling and thrashing of foliage. Adding further to this chaotic clamor were bestial barks, screeches, and shrieks which Faraji recognized all too well. They were the cries every man who dared venture into these jungles dreaded to hear.
The moment he returned to camp, Faraji saw his worst nightmare play out before his very eyes.
Raptors were attacking his party. Blood sprayed all over the campsite as the feathered devils slashed, shredded, and ripped his fighters into pieces with their oversized talons and jagged teeth. Neither the Kiswahans’ spears nor scimitars could match the monsters’ lightning speed and agility, or their zealous bloodlust. Not a second passed without the petrified Faraji witnessing at least one more of his brethren fall beneath this storm of saurian savagery. One man, after taking a blow to the chest, even collapsed onto the campfire and exploded into flame himself.
Faraji had seen enough of his people die. Yelling the Kiswahan battle cry, he charged into the fray brandishing his scimitar. Hatred blazed like the fires of sin in his soul as he stabbed, cut, and cleaved his way through the raptor pack. Their claws raked across his flesh and their teeth tore it off in slivers, but the sheer heat of Faraji’s rage drowned out any pain their attacks would have inflicted. And if he were to die, he would rejoin his friend Hasani in Paradise. Faraji had nothing to fear anymore.
Something long and sharp pierced through the back of his skull into his brain. Cold and metallic, it felt less like a raptor’s talon and more like the point of a spear. But before Faraji could look back, pure darkness consumed everything Faraji saw. And every muscle in his body went numb.
At last, the blessing of the Moon had failed him.
Matadi picked up the scimitar that the slavers’ Bwana had dropped. She could not read the script of strange cursive letterings written into its blade, but guessed they invoked some kind of power from the foreign god these Kiswahans had come to worship. Regardless, Matadi needed a new weapon. She could only throw the head of her former spear so many times before it too broke.
She did not fear the raptors who feasted on the Kiswahan corpses around here. They had made their kills for the night, so they would not pose a threat either to Matadi or the captives who awaited her beyond the scene of carnage. Even if they did, she could talk them out of it through her flute. It was through that makeshift instrument that she could tame even these most fearsome of jungle predators.
To see the slavers’ victims sitting there, bound to one another through yoke and manacle, made Matadi’s heart ache. She herself had experienced such treatment when she was a girl, also at the hands of Kiswahan slavers. They had burned her village to the ground, massacring half of her people and then marching the rest in chains like cattle through the wilderness. And all because Matadi’s people had not sacrificed their native religion for this strange cult of the Moon as the Kiswahans’ own ancestors had done.
It had taken a rare miracle sent by the gods, in the form of a tyrannosaur attack on the slavers, to free Matadi from their clutches. Since then, she had sworn to do the same for all the people the Kiswahans terrorized. Someone out there needed to stand up to them, so the gods had chosen her.
With the scimitar she sawed through the yokes and manacles until she had freed all the men, women, and children. “Show me whence you came, and I will lead you back there.”
The people all clapped and chanted with glee as they followed her away from the devastated campsite and the raptors who gorged in it. At that hour, the light that beamed down at them from the jungle treetops came not from the Moon, but from the waking Sun.