That night, a wailing call echoed across the clearing, a human voice, rising and falling in a wavering chant. It was a hollow and haunting sound. And one Pik Verhoven had been expecting.

Danielle turned to her left where Verhoven sat, his coffee mug on hold in front of his mouth. He’d told her earlier that something would happen, he’d told her it would happen tonight. Movement in the trees had given it away. Voorloopers, he said: scouts.

In the hours since, he and his men had made a sweep into the trees looking for the natives, hoping to chase them off. They’d found only footprints, strange gouges in the trees—like some kind of territorial markings—and tracks with only two claws. Nearby, they’d found the remnants of two animals, butchered horribly, covered in mud and the same open blisters they’d seen on the body in the river. “More warnings,” he’d told her.

In response, Danielle had chosen not to sleep. She ran a battery of tests on the ring of motion sensors they’d placed around the clearing and made sure the laptop on which their inputs displayed was close at hand.

For his part Verhoven had positioned his men at various points in the clearing and had brought one of the German shepherds to sit beside him at the table. As the eerie chanting wafted through the air, the canine stiffened and put itself between Verhoven and the source of the call.

Danielle watched as Verhoven patted the dog proudly and glanced her way. She turned back to the laptop. The motion sensors had yet to register an alarm.

When a wailing cry drifted in on the night air, Verhoven put his mug down and grabbed a walkie-talkie. “What do you see?”

“Nothing out here,” came one reply.

“Clear on this side,” came a second report.

“Well, open your damn eyes,” he said, “because you’re missing something.”

Danielle had heard enough. “I’m waking the camp.”

There was no need. Stirred by the chanting, the other members of the team were already in motion, peering out of their tents or making their way to spots beside the fire, near her and Verhoven.

Polaski was one of the first to reach her. “What is that?”

“Sounds like a cat in heat,” Devers said.

The porters gathered together. McCarter and Susan arrived by the fire with Hawker right behind them.

Danielle stepped nearer to Devers. “Is that the Chollokwan?”

He did not reply immediately, seeming startled by the echoing voice.

“Of course it is,” Verhoven replied.

She wanted confirmation. “Come on, yes or no?”

“I think it is,” Devers said. “It sounds like their language but …”

As Devers strained to listen, Hawker stepped past, taking a seat on a wooden crate. “Time to see if this plan of yours works.”

The plan was simple: they’d create a secure area at the center of the camp in case of attack. The area was ringed with smoke canisters and a group of tripods holding metal halide flood lamps, like those used in the Olympic stadiums.

If they faced a daylight raid, the smoke canisters would pump out thick volumes of dark smoke, obscuring the group in seconds from any onrushing attackers. But the smoke would not interfere with the infrared scopes attached to Verhoven’s rifles and they could fire at will from this hidden spot.

If the attack came at night, like the one that seemed imminent, the floodlights would do the same thing, blinding anyone and anything that came at them, while the NRI team disappeared into the dark void at the center, firing out of it if necessary.

Danielle scanned the clearing. For now they were alone.

“Anything on the screen?” Verhoven asked.

Danielle looked at the laptop. “Not yet,” she said. “They must be too far out.”

“I see them now,” said one of Verhoven’s men over the radio. “A few in the trees to the south.”

As he spoke, the laptop began to beep softly. Targets popped up on the screen: little red dots on a field of gray, some to the south and a few more on the west side.

Verhoven picked up his radio. “Fall back. No need getting all strung out if we’re going to have ourselves a tussle.”

Verhoven calmly unslung the rifle on his shoulder. “It’s going to be an interesting night,” he said. He sounded more aggravated than concerned, like a man being forced to perform a chore he’d put off far too long.

Danielle looked his way. “We’d better get out the extra rifles,” she said.

Verhoven tossed a key to one of the porters. “Move quick, now.”

The rifles were in a long crate near Verhoven’s tent, but as a precaution the box was locked. It would take the man a minute to reach it and retrieve the rifles inside.

As he dashed off, the voices came around again, louder this time, a chant of several joined together. “This isn’t good,” Polaski said. “I really don’t see how this can be good.”

“What are they saying?” Danielle asked.

“It’s hard to tell,” Devers said. The voices rose, then fell away, then rose again. “It’s almost a song of some kind, not really a—”

A second native voice interrupted Devers, breaking in over the top of the chorus with a shout from the western edge. It was quickly answered by one from the east and then one from the north and finally the south.

Danielle turned in each direction, looking for the source of the cries even as they died away, replaced once again by the low, rhythmic chanting.

Polaski mumbled something unintelligible at this latest development and McCarter put his hand on Susan’s shoulder, glancing around.

“What do they want?” she asked.

“I don’t know,” he said.

Civilians in danger, exactly the situation Danielle had hoped to avoid. She turned to Devers. “What the hell are they saying?”

“It’s hard to make out.”

“Come on,” she snapped. “You’re useless right now.”

“It’s not that easy,” Devers insisted. “Their language isn’t like ours, it’s not completely linear.” He strained to hear. “They’re calling on the spirits,” he said. “Asking them to wipe the forest clean of the plague and infestation that we’ve brought to it. Or maybe we are the plague and infestation. Either way, we seem to be the problem.”

Verhoven laughed. “Of course we are.” He racked the slide on his rifle and stepped forward. “Well, they’d better bring more than spirits if they want to get rid of us.”

As the wave of chanting grew again, Danielle had the distinct impression of a situation spinning out of control. She was afraid the Chollokwan would attack en masse, and almost as afraid that Verhoven wanted them to, just to prove what he could do.

She glanced at Hawker. He seemed unconcerned, almost amused. He shook his head calmly, his eyes suggesting there wouldn’t be trouble, that it was all bravado, just Verhoven and the natives puffing themselves up in some kind of pissing contest.

She turned back to the trees, hoping he was right, and just then, the chanting stopped.

As the silence lingered she turned to Devers. “Now what?”

He shook his head.

A moment later Verhoven’s men rejoined the group and he directed them to cover the points on the compass with the expedition’s members gathered between them.

Danielle feared that four armed men would not be enough. She stared into the darkness searching for the burly porter who’d gone to get the extra rifles. She couldn’t see him and she wondered what could be taking him so long. “Should we hit the lights?”

“Not yet,” Verhoven said.

New shouts issued from the trees as the gathering of red dots on the computer screen grew and the chirping alarm continued unabated.

“Look out!” Polaski shouted.

Everyone ducked as an object trailing flames hurtled through the dark sky toward them. It fell short, bouncing and skipping oddly across the ground, some type of bololike device burning at both ends. The dry grasses lit around it, just as more flames arced into the sky.

“Everybody down,” Verhoven said.

The trails of fire swung through the air in strange wobbling paths, two balls of flame orbiting each other on a piece of twine. They crashed and sparked. Ten, then twenty, then more, one after another in bunches, hailing down from all directions.

Susan began kicking sand toward the licks of fire that came closest. McCarter joined her, but the thin weedy grasses quickly burned to embers and there was no real danger.

Just then, the porter returned, awkwardly carrying four rifles and a box of loaded clips.

Verhoven grabbed them.

“Pass them out,” Danielle ordered. The chanting voices around them had taken on a different sound, darker and more ominous, curling around the clearing as one voice after another repeated a single word.

From the look on his face, Devers recognized the word, but this time he didn’t translate it. That was a bad sign.

Danielle checked the computer screen—there were targets all around them, too many to count. She turned to Devers.

“White Faces,” he said, catching her glare.

“What does it mean?”

“The White Face is a spirit. The ghost. The bringer of death.”

Before long, the shouting voices began to seem like a roll call. One after another the Chollokwan were announcing themselves. Bellowing at the top of their lungs, working themselves into a frenzy. Danielle guessed their number in the fifties, and then the seventies, and then more.

Beside her, Hawker stood up. He stepped forward to where Verhoven was about to hand over the last rifle. “Better give that one to me,” he said.

Verhoven held back for a second and then slapped the rifle into Hawker’s outstretched hand.

Danielle gazed at Hawker once again, but this time she found no comfort in his eyes. They were cold and grim. He was amused no more.

One of Verhoven’s men spoke. “There’s a hell of a lot of them out there. A hundred at least, maybe more.”

Verhoven disagreed. He glanced at the screen and its multiple flashing dots. “Less by far. Certainly less than they want us to believe.” He glared at the man.

“Maybe,” Devers said, “but this sounds like a war party, these guys consider themselves the spirits of death. They cover themselves in white paint and they go out on raids. They believe the paint makes them invincible like the White Face, the one they consider already dead. They believe it protects them, because if they’re already dead then they can’t be killed.”

As if in response to what Devers had said, the voices stopped cold. Danielle looked around: no one had charged yet. The bolos still burned where they’d fallen and thin wisps of smoke drifted across the camp. But the air was still.

Danielle saw the movement on the screen and looked up. She saw a shape in the tree line, silhouetted by small fires. In seconds, a dozen or more were burning, blazing up into the trees, with new fires being lit all along the perimeter. The end result was like a fuse running slowly around the edge of the clearing, tracking along the trees in a clockwise motion, down to the south and up along the east.

The undergrowth crackled and burned as the fires merged and the flames tracked up the eastern perimeter. With the naked eye, she could see the silhouette of runners with torches in their hands, sprinting past the fires, the flames trailing out behind them. Before long, the clearing was encircled in a rapidly growing conflagration.

“My God, they’re going to burn us,” Polaski whispered.

Hawker tried to calm him. “There’s nothing to burn in here.”

Danielle took a breath. That was true. The clearing was barren of any major source of fuel, but smoke was another problem. The fires surrounding them were oily and the smoke hung thick and heavily. It quickly became difficult to breathe. With one eye on the perimeter, she broke into the first-aid kit, pulling out a stack of thin paper respirators. With only a half dozen, she gave one each to Susan, Polaski, McCarter and the porters.

One of Verhoven’s men dropped his night-vision goggles. “We’re blind now. They’ve made the scopes useless.”

“They don’t know that,” Hawker said.

Aside from Verhoven and Hawker, everyone had become jumpy. She sensed it even in herself. She needed information and turned to Devers. “Come on. What the hell do they want?”

“I don’t think they want anything,” Devers said.

“What do you mean?”

“They just keep repeating the same words over and over again. Fire for fire, fire for the plague.” He shouted to be heard above the crackling flames now surrounding them. “They’re either telling us something or telling themselves. Winding each other up.”

In places, the merging tongues of flame had reached an inferno stage, climbing up into the trees, creating their own wind, spinning in wicked little vortexes like whirling genies unleashed from their bottles.

“That’s it,” Danielle said. She glanced at Verhoven.

“Turn on the damn lights and hit them with a few flares. We’re not waiting anymore.”

Verhoven smiled and pressed the switch. The lights blazed instantly and the generator cranked to life. A blinding glare reflected back at them as the swirls of white and gray smoke lit up like a fog of overlapping ghosts. In truth, the visibility got worse.

Verhoven pressed another key and began firing flares from the canisters pre-positioned in the forest. Two flares went off to the north and then two more in the west; he fired more in the south and the east, flares from canisters that were behind the Chollokwan warriors.

Danielle hoped the sound of the flares launching would startle the natives. And as she looked to the computer screen, she saw holes in the Chollokwan lines where groups of them backed off, but they weren’t leaving en masse, and in a moment the lines began to reform. She turned back to Verhoven, eyes burning from the smoke. “Now what?”

Verhoven was silent for a moment; he turned to one of his men and then looked past him to Hawker. “What do you think? Are they coming in?”

Hawker shook his head. He pointed the rifle toward the towering fires around the edge of the clearing. “If they come in now, they’re silhouettes against the flames; a good way to die, even if you are a White Face.”

Verhoven turned back to Danielle. “You see, they know better. We watch for now. But they’re not coming in. Not tonight.”

Danielle sighed, more convinced because Hawker and Verhoven had actually agreed. “So this is a warning, then. I suppose we won’t get another.”

Devers coughed. “They’re not known for giving one in the first place.”

For the rest of the night, the group watched the flames burn in the circle around them. Occasionally there were new waves of chanting, especially when the higher branches burst into flame, but at no point did the Chollokwan attempt to enter the clearing. As dawn approached, they drifted back into the forest and disappeared.

The jungle around the clearing continued to burn. But though the forest was dry by Amazonian standards, it wasn’t the type of parched brush that lent itself to an inferno. The flames could not reach the critical temperature required to become self-sustaining, especially as it reached the wetter foliage back from the clearing’s edge.

With the cool mists of the dawning hours, the fires began to die. The layer of ash and smoke thinned throughout the morning, and by late afternoon all that remained were the smoldering hunks of burnt and blackened trees and the trepidation of what the next encounter might hold.

Black Rain