“Sarge, we’ll stop here,” the captain called back, then returned to his lieutenant who held the map. “Five minutes, then we go on; I want the men sharp before we reach the villages.”

“There shouldn’t be any trouble there. Whoever attacked them has moved on,” the other remarked.

“Says who? The few who fled to us without checking for other survivors?”

“They were pretty scared, Captain. Whoever drove them out did so in such a ferocious way they didn’t stand a chance, let alone get a good description.” The taller, younger officer protested while maintaining respect for his superior. It was appreciated.

“I’m not insulting them, just saying we’ve no idea of the enemy or the aftermath. We rely on our own reconnaissance and nothing else,” the captain stated, patting his arm. He was an experienced leader; at thirty-three he was young enough, and fit enough, to handle the pace but wise enough to know when you should slow down or speed up. The lieutenant nodded in response, smiling too. He had been part of this squad for over a year and was starting to realise he could trust his captain’s judgement. Well educated and keen, he liked to voice his view, even though it had shown his naivety several times. It had amused the men, but he was certain enough of himself to take it and the captain had a lot of patience.

They joined the rest of the squad, sitting or crouching in the jungle’s undergrowth, several standing farther out on guard. Something moved in the trees that clustered overhead, yet none even flinched; they knew the natural sounds of this land, understood the ways of what was out here. Still, guns were always in hand. They were soldiers and well trained ones at that.

“Corp, sit somewhere else,” urged one of the privates.

“Why? Nowhere’s safer than beside me,” responded the broad-shouldered soldier, slapping his barrel-chest.

“Nowhere’s more dangerous, you mean! What if a relative of one of your trophies turns up?” Corp just grinned, proud of his lion-skin sash, snakeskin belt, crocodile boots and strings of teeth.

“No hunting this time, Corp,” ordered the captain. “I want your focus completely on the mission, we need you and the heavy-gun.”

“But what about the bazooka and the flamethrower? Do we really have to carry all this so far?” a soldier complained.

“Yeah, it feels like we’re going to war,” added another.

“Sounds like the squad’s going soft,” remarked Sarge, eating a biscuit and brushing crumbs from his thick moustache.

“Too true, our break ends now.” The captain rose. He was a fair man who let his troops speak their minds, but he had a limit and none dare cross it. Now all were quiet as they moved out.

The squad consisted of twenty-two armed and equipped soldiers, moving almost silently through the jungle, heading south into denser undergrowth as the mission dictated. Machetes were used at times yet, more often than not, they left the land as undisturbed as possible – to cover their tracks, but as this was also their home, they didn’t want to ruin it. True, they lived in the cities, yet the jungle was theirs as well. They were trained out here as people, as well as soldiers, and some even grew up in the villages before moving to civilisation.

The Dark Land was a vast place and the Northern Federation only ran along the edge, so it had always been necessary to have troops out in it and for the people to learn of it. They couldn’t make progress; the cities that existed now had been rebuilt or reshaped where old ones had stood. It would take tremendous effort to create space and then construct new cities, not least because the jungle would try to reclaim territory. Since the Shadow World came, Africa was an untameable land.

When many nations were decimated by monsters, mutants or machines, or all of them, people fled to wherever there was less danger, near or far. Africa, despite having plenty of monsters, was the instant choice for those descended from its inhabitants to take refuge on and hordes from Europe, of all colours, took the short trip to safety, bringing what resources they could with them. That was how the Northern Federation was born; cities swelled with those from the U.S.A. and Europe, then they were fortified against the horrors that plagued the world.

However one good thing came from it all, as Africa, for so long a suffering land, ceased to bear the brunt of the sun’s heat with the Shadow World’s presence dulling the day. That gave the chance to a number of powerful magic-users who created a spell to re-ignite Africa, to bring back the lush beauty it had once known. Unfortunately, the spell took the lives of those who cast it; some wondered if the thirsty land drank more than they could spare. But what resulted was that Africa was now overgrown, covered from coast to coast to coast by plant life of many kinds. Out in the jungle, it was rare to see the pale sun.

“Lieutenant, take Yakubo and Jason and move ahead,” the captain whispered before watching the three disappear into the gloom and growth ahead of him. He halted his squad. He knew a village was near, and he was extra wary because of how far south they were. Glancing about, he saw it was the same with his men. Even Sarge and Corp, veterans who had served with him for years, were on edge. It had been that way since he had noted they were nearer the equator than their homes.

Captain Traore removed his cap and rubbed his clean-shaven head, a common feature for soldiers out in the jungle. Even if it wasn’t as hot as history told, it was still enough to make a human sweat. Only Sarge and a few others had any hair on their heads.

He signalled Sarge and Corp to him. “Keep to the flanks. I’ll need you two to keep us in shape and, if this goes wrong, organise a retreat.”

“You think this is bad, don’t you, Captain?” noted Corp.

“Six villages are nearly annihilated in four days; no one nice is responsible for that,” came the reply.

“Must be a lot of firepower,” agreed Sarge. He had started life out in a village, farther north, and he knew that, while they had no soldiers, they could defend themselves. They had to.

The Northern Federation may have been born as the world drowned in chaos, yet it took a long time to grow up. Many cities were assaulted by various foes and the people spent long periods in the jungle, along with the monsters and wild animals. The monsters grew in number as many came to this land of scattered, low-tech people and soon the humans were endangered, fearful of the things that skulked through the dark. Yet the near constant blackness wasn’t a help to the monsters either; they were not things from nightmares and only a few had the ability to see without light. It was those who were clear to them who were taken, until only the darkly brown-skinned were left. Then the tide turned.

The humans had spent so long being hunted in the dark that they had gotten used to it. They adapted to their world yet again, maybe they were actually changed by being in this land of new life. They began to be born with slightly larger irises to see into any shadow and grew up knowing every sound and smell that could occur. The monsters didn’t develop, however, they struggled to spot the black figures in the Dark Land. The screams soon transformed from human to inhuman.

Even as the cities improved and became secure, the people had their children raised in the jungle, honing them in the environment that their ancestors had thrived in. They would never return to being the prey.

Lieutenant Holden reported quicker than expected.

“The village is there and a pack of ghouls are having a feast.” Others heard this and word spread. Traore sensed the eagerness of his men, as did the lieutenant and he smiled. “They’re all gorged; they won’t sense us until we’re on them.”

“Well, we need to check the village,” the captain admitted and the others chuckled. This was where they stopped being soldiers and remembered their lessons as youths and the horrid tales they were told as infants. They were hunters with wicked intent. Traore gave orders and his squad rearranged themselves before moving out.

They swiftly reached the huts, built between trees and in bushes, and also found the holes in the ground used in emergencies. It wasn’t long after when they spotted the ghouls. Gangly, yellow-skinned and dead-eyed, they had gathered corpses and were ripping off pieces with long fingers, chewing or sucking meat off. Ghouls were despised even by other monsters, only interested in eating what was already dead. Yet, if need be, they would kill, and then they could be quick, even graceful.

Shots rang out from rifles, then Corp opened up with the heavy-gun, it bellowing away as it ripped up foliage and monsters. Surprised, the ghouls dashed from the flashes of fire, only just seeing those who came at them. Another barrage came from the side. More fell, torn open numerous times; they were being herded, driven from parts of the village and then out, except they didn’t get far. The captain and lieutenant waited with a dozen men, knives ready, then were all over the enemy remnants, silent and deadly.

With the fun over, the soldiers became just that again as Captain Traore ordered a search of the village. While much still stood, most was scattered and wrecked, and what did stand was only ruin. The ghouls had made it worse, it was hard to tell how many villagers had been slain here, but there were tracks and other evidence.

“You see this, Captain,” Sarge said, pointing to a fallen wall, numerous holes punctured in it. “Looks like the work of a heavy-gun. Someone shot through this hut and everyone in it. But that wall has the same damage, it was crossfire, and I doubt they would use the only serious weaponry they had to destroy one hut.”

“So they had more than just two such weapons,” remarked Traore.

“There’s scorch marks on a lot of trees and huts too,” added the lieutenant, looking about. “The attackers had explosives and flamethrowers.”

“And something else,” Sarge put in. “There’s scorch marks I’ve never seen before, concentrated and piercing wood.” Before the captain could reply, a call came and they ran to one end of the village, then moved on a bit farther to join three soldiers who stood open-mouthed.

“What did this?” wondered Lieutenant Holden.

“How could it possibly be done?” countered Traore. “Whatever it was, it seems the attackers also knew how to ambush people into a killing ground.”

The land had been ravaged. Several craters lay before them and blackened bodies were scattered about each, unappetising even to ghouls. Clearly whoever had carried this assault out had no concern for the land; devastation and slaughter were their handiwork, and there didn’t seem to be any gain from it.

While monsters were the main foe of the humans here, conflict between themselves was known. The captain’s first mission had been to punish a village that had raided others. Yet those attacks had been done carefully, as had the final one Traore had been a part of. More importantly, no village had this kind of fire power.

“It looks like the work of cannons, but you can’t bring those through the jungle,” said Sarge.

“If they did manage it we’d see the trail,” replied the captain. He removed his hat and rubbed his head as he considered this. Holden walked ahead to inspect a crater, yet kept out of the pool of sunlight; exposure was death in the jungle and, even in the cities, night was more active than the day. Then Traore put his hat back on and called him over.

“Let’s see some more villages before we start inventing answers. Get the squad focused and back in formation, then we go.”

With that, his subordinates broke up, giving orders as they went, and the captain took a pen and notebook from a pocket to write down his findings. It was a habit he would never let his men know about. Ever since becoming an officer, he feared failing a mission so that he and all his squad died in the jungle, leaving him unable to tell anything he had learned to his superiors. Now, if he fell, someone might find him and use his notes to go further, even succeed. It was a negative view and his men would see it as bad luck or doubting them, but he quickly wrote his discoveries down and tucked the notebook away before leading his squad on.



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