I.18 The monster

I heard the screams and the shuffle of feet in the sand around me, but I could not take my eyes off the beast. As it bore down on us, moonlight rose over its serpentine shape, revealing the coiled skin, gaping mouth and twin scythe-like fangs of a gigantic sand-worm. Its head pounced downward, crashing on the plaza. The shapes of men lay round its enormous jaws, crawling back in terror, but it didn’t seem that it had attacked anyone. Then the sound of water came to my ears. Looking to the side, I saw the small stream in the canal flowing faster and faster. The worm had gone straight for the water, which it was absorbing at extreme speed. This was our chance. I looked round and caught a glimpse of Salvacion driving the terrorised villagers towards the temple. We had to channel the people out of the plaza, to let her use the full extent of her powers. There were women and children on the corner of a street to my right. I recognised Mercedes among them. If I could get her to help me, we might be able to reach the temple through the back alleys. But as I stepped forward, shouting her name, her eyes turned from the beast and she ran towards her house in the opposite direction.

I would have followed her, but a sudden roar coming from behind made me look back, causing me to trip and fall to the ground. Once again, my abilities in the thick of disaster are not a great object of pride. Confused and with sand in my eyes, I made out a chaotic struggle in the middle of the plaza. Some of the men had rushed back to their picks and axes, and thrown themselves at the worm in a desperate bid to save the water. Their weapons struck at its carapace with little effect, but it appeared to have noticed them. The drinking paused, and its gaping jaws reached for the sky once again before swiftly falling down on their frail shapes. Then in a flash, Ernesto’s long, thin body leaped across the plaza to reach their position, and a jet of sand rose among them and hit the monster’s underbelly. Its head reared as its entire body writhed in an ominous rumble, above which I heard the priest’s voice rise:

“Go, go away!”

He turned to help a man up, and my throat closed down in a spasm. In what felt like a succession of unconnected instants, I saw the worm’s tail soar from the hole, then cut across the plaza and slam against his thin upper body, which was sent crashing through the air. The rest was hidden in a rising cloud of dust.

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