While the group prepared to journey into the forests north of Hooghly, Idrissa set out to hire a local guide. Baron da Silva directed her to a local establishment where capable hunters gathered. After asking around, she procured the services of a Bengali named Gopal, who claimed to know of the location where Christovao da Franc, the famed Portuguese hunter, fell to the Beast.
The group set out north along the Hooghly river. They passed many farms and small communities along the way. The local Bengalis were watchful and even suspicious of their approach. The men would stop and stare, while mothers would hurry their children from the paths of these strangers. Around midday, they arrived at a village of modest-size where they witnessed a ceremony to the forest goddess, Bonbibi. Ever curious, Isabella inquired to Gopal for details. The guide explained that the people of the village were praying to Bonbibi and Dakshin Rai, the King of the South, for protection against the beast that now stalks the lands surrounding the colony of Hooghly. “They believe,” he said, “that the presence of the Europeans has angered Dakshin Rai. They offer him flesh for his appeasement and protection.” Indeed, the villagers slaughtered three goats, whose remains were offered before the elaborate shrine. Isabella asked Gopal what he believed. “I am not fool enough to forsake the gods. I pray to Bonbibi for guidance and protection each morning. But do I believe as they do that, in his anger, DakshinDakshin Rai has belched forth a demon that slaughters children and women? No. I believe it is some tiger or leopard that has found these people to be easy pray.”
Idrissa, meanwhile, inquired among the villagers for any link between the beast and the Black Heart of the Deccan. As much as the villagers obviously feared and reviled the mere mention of the witch, none would confirm even the rumor of a connection between the two.
Initially skeptical of the explorers, the villagers quickly warmed to them with the help and assurances of Gopal and Idrissa. The priests blessed them and the journey ahead.
After witnessing the ceremony, the group turned northeast and into the forest. As they traveled, the jungle grew dense around them. Life stirred in sudden unexpected rushes all around them. As dusk came upon them, they arrived at the remains of da Franc’s campsite. A Portuguese bureaucrat and a small contingent of Bengalis had been dispatched from Hooghly the day before to see to the Hunter’s body and his effects. They were excited at the arrival of Father Diego. “Wonderful,” the portly European said. “Now you can preform the last rites and we can get this sordid business behind us. The heat of this infernal jungle taxes me so.”
Two dalits (low-caste or untouchables) were digging shallow graves not far from the campsite. The bodies of da Franc and one of his porters were wrapped in white shrouds. By the look of the bloodstains on da Franc’s shroud, it was obvious he had met with a gory end. Wilhelm assisted Father Diego and the pygmy shaman, Santiago, examine the bodies. Christavoa da Franc had been opened from throat to scrotum. It was obvious that the grave diggers had done what they could to stuff his entrails back in place. It was impossible to tell if any of his organs were missing, but it was clear that whatever had killed him had feasted on his flesh before abandoning the corpse. His porter was a different story. A quick, clean bite to the back of the neck had severed his spine. Likely the man had died before he felt the weight of the killer upon him.
Of the second porter, there had been no sign. Isabella and Wilhelm set off to find him while Idrissa took one of the dalits to examine the site of da Franc’s death. The location had been prime: a clearing with low grass and scrub. A stake sat poised in the center, a fragmented length of rope still dangling from it. Nearby, a tiger pit lay undisturbed. The tree against which da Franc had died was still stained dark with his blood. His musket had been found only inches away from his cold hands. A blood trail led the Nair woman to the sad remains of a goat, likely bait for the beast. By the look of the carcass, many animals had fed upon it since it had been killed.
Meanwhile, Isabella’s hunting dog had the second porter’s scent, and was leading Wilhelm and her deeper into the jungle, away from the clearing. It came to a dark tangle of foliage where it stopped and began to bark frantically. Wilhelm cut through the brush in two mighty strokes to reveal a crude alter smeared in dried blood. Isabella and he determined that it was meant to be a likeness of Dakshin Rai, though one made by unskilled hands. The blood sacrifice was old and dark in the offering cup. On the chest of the effigy, traced in blood, was a three-armed spiral the likes of which neither of the explorers recognized.
Nearby, another bloodtrail was found that led them to the body of da Franc’s second porter. His body sat high in a tree, still clutching his musket in his death grip. A mortal wound had been slashed across his side, and yet he’d still found the stamina to climb high and away from danger. The group immediately dismissed the theory of the killer leopard.
Sunset found the group debating the nature of the beast. Some believed only men could pull off such a coordinated attack. None of the hunters had fired a single shot before they died. Were there multiple killers? Was the beast indeed a demon belched forth from hell? How silent and efficient must a beast be to kill three men unknown to the others?
No one saw any wisdom in remaining in da Franc’s bloodied campsite. So they struck forth and pushed on back towards the river until they could safely go no further. They made camp off the trail on a low hill and set watches, two men apiece. The skies were clear and the moon fat that night, and everyone was on guard for their lives against something unseen that prowled the forests, ever watchful.
Night was darkest when Isabella’s hound raised the alarm. With hardly a second to respond, the beast was upon Wilhelm. It was a monstrous black thing against the moonlight, all claws and fangs of fury. The Bavarian’s steel cut back against it, keeping it at bay. But neither could the swordsman land a telling blow. Isabella raced for a clear shot. She raised the pistol and aimed.
Wounded, the beast took a parting slash at Wilhelm and plunged deep into the forest. Father Diego gave an enthusiastic shout as he gave chase. The hunt was high in his blood. His steed raced after the thing that cut through the tall grass like water. He jabbed with his lance and struck home. Up ahead, the forest closed in. Once beyond the tree line, the beast would certainly be lost to them all. The Jesuit focused and spurred on his horse. He struck out again and managed to slow the beast just long enough for his warhorse to deliver a powerful kick. The iron hooves struck home. The beast tumbled and lay still.
Father Diego dismounted as the rest of the explorers came up from behind to lay eyes on da Franc’s killer. There, in the grass, lay a monstrous tiger.
Still skeptical that a creature such as this could have killed three skilled hunters in one night, Wilhelm der Grosse took his knife to the beast’s belly. It’s stomach was full of flesh and some of it was most certainly human. Behind them, the dalits rejoiced.
The beast is dead! Blessings be to Bonbibi!
…to be continued.