Rip Jagger performed his morning rituals of slow-motion forms called kata, movements that were a kind of dance imitating martial arts moves. As he prepared his body for the coming day, his mind was reviewing what he knew of the Shen Kuei, and what he knew wasn’t all that appetizing.
A mysterious Chinese-based system of martial arts that was allegedly started by outlaws who were called the Forest Demons, they developed many ways to fight and kill. They were essentially the forerunners of the Japanese Ninjutsu, whom they allegedly trained centuries ago. And the fact that this group was still around was a good indication of its internal structure and training.
As he made movements of hand and foot in perfect coordination, he remembered how he had first heard about the Shen Kuei. During the war, he had heard reports from the Chinese mainland about some kind of guerilla warriors who were more feared than the Nationalists or the Communists, whom the Japanese Occupation referred to as demons. His old friend Bushuri had explained to him that these warriors were Shen Kuei, and when he expressed curiosity about their martial arts style, he was warned to avoid it, because that system was on a dark path.
Judomaster planned to be on total alert during this patrol.
In her own tent, sitting in perfect zazen position, left leg over right and hands poised in perfect calm, her mind in focus, the woman known as the Huntress was mentally reviewing her contracts with the South African Police and with Commander N’kruma and could find no way out. She would have to take this Yank out on a patrol and bring him back in one piece, and him having the audacity to wear the costume of a legend.
Meanwhile, in another encampment, a slenderly muscled man was tying his long brown hair back and preparing to don his own form-fitting outfit in shades of blue. Nearby, his quiver of arrows and longbow were ready to go, his hunting knife and a small axe were on his belt, and he had a pouch of special arrowheads as needed. He was under orders to seek out and capture or kill the Asian mercenary.
But what he really wanted to do was go hunting for a different prey — the devil-beast, which he knew was not a giant crocodile from the nearby river. No, reflected Vladimir Vostov, it could only be some sort of dinosaur. Whatever it was, the Huntsman wanted it dead. And dawn was minutes away.
The expedition was going well. True, the Huntress had been curt with Judomaster, but he had expected no less. They had warned him not to interrupt her or ask questions, but instead to observe and learn, and he had done so. In fact, both had been watching each other warily throughout the patrol along a well-worn path that would take them to the mighty river that formed the border in this part of the land between South Africa and Mozambique, a country lush with green foliage and a colorful array of plant life, as well as herds of gazelles and other animals.
Halfway to the goal, Judomaster was impressed when he and his guide had encountered a mounted horse patrol consisting of three men — two white and one black — armed with pistols and rifles and wearing tan uniforms. They were, as it turned out, security for a local ranch who were on patrol for possible signs of infiltration into the country by enemy forces who could have potentially been a threat to the ranch and its white owners.
What impressed Judomaster was twofold. First, these men — who were as tough-looking as any he had ever encountered, and obviously battle-experienced soldiers — acted with deference to the Huntress with just barely concealed respect and a touch of loathing. This struck the American hero as something that must be caused by their recognition of everything she had accomplished as a formidable fighter and by the fact that such deeds had been accomplished by a mere woman.
Still, they shared the potentially valuable piece of information that a tracker had found evidence across the river that the devil-beast had killed some Cuban soldiers, which made it the first known killing of humans by this mysterious creature, and rumors had drifted in that some serious action was being planned there. That was why the patrol was farther afield than its normal route.
For Vladimir Vostov it was a beautiful sunrise, and he was ready to begin his own probe. Kwame was also refreshed and ready, and he proudly showed the blue-clad Soviet hero his pistol. “I am honored to be allowed to use this handgun; it belonged to a great hero of my people, and I hope I to can use it to kill imperialists.”
The Huntsman pulled his cowl up, checked his bow and arrows, and nodded. “Then let us hope your dream will come true, my friend. But today I merely want to explore the area around the river, not engage in battles.” As they started to leave, the Huntsman asked Kwame, “You ever kill anyone?”
“Allah preserve us, no. But I am ready.”
Vostov shook his head.
They made good progress and easily reached the river within a few hours. Kwame was looking for signs of crocodiles when they both heard gunfire across the river, as well as the sounds of horses screaming and a load roaring.
The Huntress and Judomaster ran swiftly toward the sounds of gunfire and stopped dead in their tracks when they saw what was going on.
“Holy moley!” Judomaster exclaimed.
“By the Buddha’s skull!” the Huntress stated, stunned.
Judomaster stared at the creature he saw before him. To say the least, it was one gigantic, frightful-looking creature — a reptilian behemoth of fierce demeanor, somewhat in appearance resembling a tyrannosaurus rex but possessing longer front limbs, a larger jaw, and what looked to the American martial artist like very intelligent eyes. It also had a horse in its mouth and a man under one foot, while the other two men of this mounted patrol were circling around, rifles at the ready, trying to get a good shot or two in.
Watching from nearby, Kwame could not believe his eyes. It was the devil-beast, and obviously his pistol was not going to be of any effect, judging by the inability of the other men’s rifles to make any noticeable damage.
The Huntress swore, then reached into one of her pockets and pulled several arrowheads out, which she quickly screwed onto fiberglass arrows, not knowing that across the field the Huntsman was performing a similar ritual.
Judomaster was attempting to chart a course of action with the intent of rescuing the man under the monster’s foot when its tail came lashing around and sent him sprawling.
The Huntress and the Huntsman each fired their arrows with precise aim from opposite directions, both shafts flying true. Seconds later there were loud explosions, and dirt, grass, and other natural parts of the environment erupted and scattered.
But of the devil-beast there was nothing. It had vanished.
Judomaster got to his feet and puzzled over what had happened. The moans of one of the men — the one who had been under the creature’s foot — brought his attention back to earth, and he rushed over to the fallen patrolman, whose friends were already pulling canteens out.
Looking over the man, Judomaster saw that he was so badly torn up that his life expectancy could be measured in minutes at best. One of his comrades put a cigarette in his mouth and lit it. The injured man sipped some water, coughed, puffed on the cigarette for a moment, then expired.
“Damn!” one of the patrolmen said. “Jake was a good man.”
When Judomaster looked around, he saw his partner the Huntress aiming an arrow in his direction, until he noticed that it was aimed at a man in a blue costume who was simultaneously aiming an arrow at her. He spotted a black man in camouflage who pulled a pistol out of a worn holster and aimed it at the patrolmen. Quickly he made his decision; he grabbed a rock and hurled it, knocking the pistol out of the man’s hand.
Then he saw both arrows leave their bows, flying straight lines. With speed like a cheetah, Judomaster ran, then jumped, rolled, and caught both arrows on the fly, one in each hand. With his thumbs he broke the heads off both of them.
“Yank, that man is an enemy!” the Huntress exclaimed.
One of the patrolmen took Kwame’s pistol and looked at who he was. “Bloody hell! It’s Kwame!”
“Anyone moves, and this explosive arrow will go flying!” the Huntsman said. “I don’t know who you are, masked man, but try that trick of yours again, and you will pay!”
“Look, Robin Hood, I don’t know who you are or why you’re here, but your buddy just pulled a pistol on an injured man!” Judomaster exclaimed.
“Yank,” shouted the Huntress, “that other’s clown suit has the sickle and hammer of the Soviets on his costume, and I see CCCP — that means USSR! Now move and let me take him down!”
Judomaster looked at the blue-clad man and whistled; amazingly, her eyes were good enough to make out the barely visible Soviet symbols in the distance.
“OK, you!” Judomaster said calmly. “I would suggest you drop the bow and arrows and surrender! You’re not in Mozambique anymore!”
The Huntsman lowered his bow, nodded, then swiftly used his left hand to toss an arrowhead toward Judomaster, who jumped backward and flattened before the explosion went off.
The Huntress let her arrow fly, but the intended target had vanished as swiftly as the creature had earlier. She ran toward Judomaster and looked at him as he lay on the ground. “Some warrior you are.”
Rip Jagger stood up, looked around, and shrugged, then went over to the patrolmen and their prisoner. “Who is this?” he asked.
“His name is Kwame, one of the leaders of the rebels here,” a patrolman told him. “He’s connected to the Cubans across the river. Look! A Soviet-made pistol.”
Judomaster wanted to ask the Huntress about this guy, but she, too, was missing. “OK, let’s see about getting your friend back to your ranch, and we’ll take this guy prisoner. You still have two good horses, right?”
“Yes. We can fix a way to carry Jake’s body, but what about the Huntress and that costumed commie?”
“Honestly, son, I don’t know,” Judomaster replied. Looking around the veldt, he knew that somewhere out there two armed warriors were hunting each other, and somewhere there was a creature that could seemingly teleport. “I have a feeling this situation is swiftly deteriorating.”
From across the river came another loud roar. The devil-beast was over there.
“You men take the prisoner and your friend,” instructed Judomaster. “I am going after that beast.”
The black patrolman looked Judomaster over. “Without weapons? You crazy, man?”
“Yes,” Judomaster answered. “I am.”
The Huntsman was sitting in a large tree branch. The fabric his costume was made from had some sort of built-in camouflaging ability, he knew from his training, so he sat and watched. At one point he saw the Huntress briefly moving between the trees.
Oddly, into his mind came the song Kwame had entertained him with last night. It was a song he had heard once years ago and tried to remember. “Secret Asian Man, Secret Asian Man, they’ve given you a number and taken away your name.” Somehow it seemed to apply, but he wasn’t sure exactly why. Did Kwame think this mercenary was male? He himself had thought so until he heard her voice; the loose-fitting clothing and shaven head had certainly made him think he was facing a male. Her voice, although cold, was still female in sound.
Vladimir Vostov asked himself whether he could actually kill someone. He felt he could if he had to, but as he sighted his bow aiming for a likely spot between trees, he wasn’t sure he could. However, this other archer — whom he knew only as N’kruma’s panther — definitely could, and from all Vladimir had heard, had indeed killed.
The Huntress listened and watched, occasionally darting from tree to tree. Whoever this Soviet was didn’t matter as much as the fact that he was an enemy who was on her side of the river, and that meant that she had the duty to bring his head in. His weapons would also be good spoils of war for her own usage. As for the judoka, well, he had some good moves, and she admitted that, but in her mind he was still only a white man in the costume of a legend her sifu had spoken of highly and obviously admired. But this Judomaster had a long, long way to go to earn her respect.
Then she caught a glimmer of movement. It was brief, but it was enough. Catlike, she leaped into a tree and peered cautiously. Yes, there she saw again a flash of metal; the fool obviously didn’t know enough to use dark arrowheads while in hiding. Too bad he won’t live to remember the lesson, she thought as she notched an arrow. But then, not all students live to graduate training. She smiled.
Judomaster wasn’t sure of his next move. Heading back to base was an option, and he could find his way there easily — he was certain of that — but his instincts told him he needed to capture the Soviet agent and find out what information, if any, this archer could tell him about that creature. His instincts also told him he had to find this Russian Robin Hood before his partner did, because she obviously did not believe in taking prisoners.
Crouching to keep his head low, he started to look around when he spotted a flying arrow, followed swiftly by an explosion and the body of the Soviet falling out of a tree. The Soviet landed on his feet, an arrow flying from his bow even before he landed, and he was running swiftly in Judomaster’s direction.
Judomaster crouched lower, waiting patiently. As the bowman ran nearby in search of cover, Judomaster reached up, grabbing an ankle to bring the blue-clad warrior to the ground. Quicker than the blink of an eye, Judomaster was on his feet, and he struck his quarry with a hand chop, stunning the man.
The Huntress appeared immediately, her right shoulder bleeding slightly. “Good move, Yank. Now we take his head.”
“No!” said Judomaster. “Now we take him to base for interrogation.”
She glared at him. “‘Interrogation’? Why waste the time? What could he tell us? How many troops are running around waiting to be killed? How many more clowns like him are there? No.” The Huntress pulled a machete out of its case on her back. “I’ll kill this one, if you haven’t the guts.” She reached for the Huntsman’s head and found Judomaster’s left foot sending her backward.
“This man is my prisoner — mine!” Judomaster yelled, sounding as fierce as any army drill instructor. “You have a problem with that?”
The Huntress grinned. “No, not at all, judoka. It just confirms you Yanks are too weak to win wars anymore.” She got up, shrugged, wiped herself off, holstered her machete, and nodded. “We’ll do it your way… this time.”
“Good. You lead the way.”
“Afraid to have me at your back, Yank?”
“No, just cautious,” said Judomaster. “But first let me look at your injury.”
“Nothing but a scratch,” she replied. “Don’t worry about it. Very well, I’ll lead; that way we won’t get lost.”
“Good. And I’ll carry his weapons,” Judomaster said, tying the Huntsman’s hands behind his back and stripping off his weaponry.
Halfway back to the base camp, they came across a horrible sight. Kwame, the two patrolmen, and the two horses were all dead, torn apart.
“The devil-beast!” the Huntress said, notching an arrow.
“Its trail leads in the direction of the base!” Judomaster said grimly.