Mbeki had always been fascinated with the night sky. As a child his mother had joked that he should have been born an owl, such was his habit for staring up at the stars and orbs with big round eyes. His father had grumbled that if he put as much time into hunting and fishing as he did into star gazing he would be able to provide enough meat for the entire village. As it was Mbeki had grown tall and strong and became a competent fisherman and hunter, so despite his sometimes distracted ways he was still a valued member of his tribe. But as much as his fellow villagers still included him there was no mistaking that Mbeki was different, not different in a bad way, but different all the same. It was perhaps because of this that he had reached his thirtieth birthday still unmarried, something highly unusual for his people.
This night was as good as any for stargazing. To the east the full moon hung in the sky, illuminating the savannah and scrub. The rest of the sky was cloudless and displayed its thousands of stars and hundreds of orbs magnificently. Mbeki knew many of them by name, some taught to him by the elders and others of his own creation. Some of the orbs where green, others mostly blue and one particularly large one a dull murky brown. Most of them were circular in shape but at least two were elliptical, like round flat breads seen from an angle. In the far distance was one that some people swore was a giant turtle swimming its way leisurely through space, but it was so far away Mbeki suspected no one had keen enough eyesight to tell for sure. Tonight the night sky held something new, a faint shimmering line that reached straight up from beyond the savannah into the heavens itself. Mbeki had tried to work out what this new phenomena was, but so far even his knowledge of the night sky had failed him.
‘Mbeki, come on’ a voice interrupted his musings impatiently. It was Dayo, the chief of the hunters. Mbeki looked down from the stars to the scene around him. He was standing in grass knee high, dressed in just a loin cloth and holding a spear. Five other men were already ahead of him, each clutching a spear and keeping low to the ground as they moved through the long grass. Mbeki followed them, mirroring the way they moved. The constant chirruping of cicadas and croaking of frogs masked any sound they made as they moved through the grass. Before them, asleep and unawares yet still standing, was their prey. It stood out like a great white rock beneath the moon, one end of it curving sharply up into a great horn. Its broad back stood easily twelve foot above the ground. Mbeki knew he was looking on a species so rare in this region that some of his tribe could go for a lifetime without seeing it. It was a fine specimen of a nadulk, the great white rhino that was a giant even among the large creatures of the Savannah. The hunters began to fan around him, readying their spears. Mbeki had his raised when he saw two figures caught in the dappled moonlight beneath a tree. He quickly raised his free arm to point towards them and hissed ‘Dayo, what are they?’
Dayo followed his arm, but the figures had now disappeared. ‘I see nothing’ he said irritatedly.
‘Two creatures beneath the tree.’
‘No, they stood upright, like men’.
Dayo shook his head dismissively. ‘You’re seeing things Mbeki’.
‘They were there. This could be what that Abidemi was talking about. He said there is a new race of demons that has arrived in the south. They have been attacking villages, killing everyonel in them and burning them to the ground.’
Dayo shook his head disbelievingly. ‘Abidemi’s tales are as tall as a giraffe. Have you heard from him of the pale-faced men who arrive in giant canoes to help fight these demons?’
‘I have heard that too’ said Mbeki without cynicism.
‘You’re disturbing the hunt’ Dayo told him and turned away towards the rhinoceros. The six men now drew as close to its head as they dared. They drew back their spears, hoping to strike it in the neck and throat and make as quick a kill as they could. The rhino’s great head was held two feet above their own, its lip quivering and making snorting sounds in its sleep. Mosquitoes whined about it, and it subconsciously flicked its tail to prevent them landing. From the tip of its horn to its twitching tail the beast must twenty-five feet, and neither Mbeki, Dayo nor any of the other hunters had ever tackled an animal of such size.
A spear shot past Mbeki, nearly hitting him before it struck the tough hide of the rhino’s flank. The rhino immediately awoke and bellowed in alarm. It swept its head to the side, knocking one of the tribesmen from his feet. ‘You fool!’ shouted Dayo, ‘who threw that spear?’ Mbeki was angry too, for not only had the spear served little purpose other than to wake the sleeping giant but it had also been very close to impaling him. But for now there was no time to work out who was to blame. The nadulk reared up onto its hind legs, its front ones kicking out at the men below it. Most of the men threw their spears, Mbeki included, but only two of them hit, and these struck the thick skin of its tree trunk like legs where they did little damage. Mbeki flung himself to the ground as the rhino swept its head over him.
The full moon bathed the battle in a ghostly glow, with both rhino and the long grass that surrounded it illuminated in a milky white. The hunters seemed to dance and weave around the rhino as it spun around to try and strike them. In reality they were desperately seeking for their thrown spears amongst the long grass before the nadulk had the chance to impale them on its horns. The relative calm of the Savannah night was shattered, and many birds had erupted from the grass and the trees, shrieking as they flew to safety.
Mbeki picked himself to his feet just in time to see the great flank of the rhino rush forwards to meet him, the spear that was first thrown still embedded in its side. He caught hold of the spear and for a few seconds was left hanging from it with his feet dragging through the grass as the rhino moved furiously in circles. Then the spear came loose from its side and Mbeki fell to the ground gripping it. As he brandished the spear to see of another attack from the nadulk he saw how it was ended with several jagged hooks and felt quite different in his hands from his own weapon. He had little time to ponder who could have thrown it, for the rhino once again lunged at him. Mbeki knew it was time the hunt was abandoned and he sprinted away, the long grass slapping at his bare legs. From close by he heard the laugh of hyenas, but he gave it little attention, for not even a pack of hyenas would dare approach a nadulk in such a furious state. Then the laugh came again, and he stopped in his tracks unnerved, for the laugh was like a hyenas, yet at the same time subtly and unnervingly different. Looking back behind him he saw that even the nadulk had paused, its ears twitching to locate the source of the sound. Several of Mbeki’s fellow hunters had followed his lead in fleeing from their quarry. Now they paused also, stuck between an angry rhinoceros behind them and the deranged beast-like laughter from creatures still hidden in the grass before them.
There was a whistling as a weapon was flung into the air and one of the hunters fell with a scream, a spear impaled in his chest. Mbeki and his fellow tribesmen scarcely had time to react, for almost instantly a band of bipedal creatures erupted from the grass they had been hiding in, just twenty feet from where Mbeki stood. The creatures sprinted straight for his companions, two of whom just turned and fled. Dayo called out for them to stand their ground and fight, but already Mbeki could see that to stand against such demons was foolhardy in the extreme. The moonlight glinted of their machetes and gave glimpses of their gaunt savage faces. Dayo shouted his battle cry as he clashed with the first of the creatures, but the fight was over all too soon.
Mbeki did not see what happened to the rest of his friends, for he was focused on the beast that ran directly for him, machete raised high. He thrust his spear forwards, catching the demon in its shoulder and causing it to drop the machete where it was lost in the grass. It screamed at him until he felt its foul breath on his face. The creature seized the spear and pulled it from its shoulder with its good arm. For a few seconds Mbeki and the beast were locked in a battle for possession of the spear, before the beast gained the upper hand and knocked him to the ground. It towered above him, spear held poised to strike. But behind the beast was a larger and more powerful creature still. The nadulk ran in a panic, the Savannah echoing with the pounding of its great feet. It loomed up behind the demon like a white freight train, knocking it to the ground. Its foot crushed the demon’s head with a sickening crunch. Mbeki threw his arms over his face and curled up as the rhino’s feet flattened the grass on either side of him, its belly passing just above his face. Its back foot clipped Mbeki’s head as it passed, knocking him unconscious.
It was not long after that, as he lay partly concealed in the lane of grass that was left untrampled by the nadulk, that Mbeki began to dream.