A dark shape burst from the water. It slammed into Lang and knocked him backward, sending the camera and his body flying in different directions. As the camcorder crashed to the stone floor its floodlight blew out, bathing the cave in a flash of electric blue.
The others turned at the flash, and in the dim illumination of the remaining lights they saw a shape mauling Lang. It pinned him down, clamping its jaws onto his torso and yanking its head from side to side. As Lang struggled, it reared back and, accompanied by Lang’s screams, tore him completely in half, slinging the top half of his body toward the shocked mercenaries.
That sight jarred them from their trance and, as the black shape charged toward them, in a panic they grabbed for the weapons they’d just cast aside.
Despite the frantic shots sent its way, the thing hit one of the soldiers in full stride, plunging into the lake with the man in its jaws and disappearing. They watched the light on the man’s belt going deeper and then going dark. A trail of bullets followed after it, but to no avail—the beast and the man were gone.
The other soldier looked at the water briefly and then shook his head. It wasn’t dead, but their comrade was. He looked at the seven pools and what remained of Lang’s body. That was enough.
He took off, sprinting down the pathway in a reckless attempt to get out of there, tripping and stumbling in his haste. His eyes flicked from the path ahead, to the exit on the other side of the lake, then to the water beside him.
His friend shouted to him, but he kept running, dashing for the exit, leaping over piles of rock like a hurdler. He seemed as if he might make it, until a surge in the water’s black surface started toward him. The wave closed on him rapidly and the animal burst from the lake, slamming him into the cavern wall and snapping its jaws on his legs like a crocodile taking a water buffalo. Shrieks of agony echoed through the cave, followed only by gurgling sounds as the creature dragged him back into the water and beneath it.
Susan Briggs and the last of the mercenaries remained at the site of the first attack, out on the plaza at the edge of the dam. Susan was on her knees, gasping for air, in the grips of an asthma attack, while the remaining mercenary pulled the blood-covered ELF unit from the lower half of Lang’s torso. He shouted into the device. “We are having an emergency!”
He waited for a reply, and then tried again, holding the switch down with all his might, as if that would somehow boost the signal. “Lang is dead, only me and the girl are left. We have been attacked. We need help.”
The mercenary stopped transmitting and switched off his flashlight, backing deeper into the cave, farther from the dam and the lake and directly across the smooth stone from where Susan was struggling.
From this position he scanned the cave, now eerily lit by the unmoving flashlights of the fallen men. At the lake’s edge, a bulky shape was pulling itself free of the water.
Across the plaza, the girl remained on her knees, coughing and wheezing, unaware of the danger. It would go for her and, once it had committed, he would open fire. He placed the radio on the ground beneath his feet and brought both hands to his rifle.
In the shadowy light, the bony, angular thing stalked her. It moved with its belly pressed against the ground, its long limbs folded awkwardly beneath it, its claws quietly clicking with each step. It seemed to move with deliberate caution now, pausing at one point, holding a limb off the floor as if the ground were hot to the touch. It lowered its head to sniff the spot, and then moved around the area for reasons unknown.
A moment later the beast stopped again. The girl had somehow managed to stifle her coughing. The resulting silence seemed to confuse the creature. The head lifted slightly, turning from one direction to another, rotating like a turret.
The mercenary clenched his jaw as the hideous thing crouched; the girl had her back to it, she wouldn’t see it coming. He raised his weapon. From this distance he would not miss.
The soldier glanced at his feet. The radio was squawking in a scratchy, electronic tone. He looked up as the animal hit him.
A blur of teeth and claws slashed him, his own blood splattered across his face. It whipped him to the side and his foot kicked the orange radio, sending it flying across the stone. The rifle was gone; he grabbed his knife and swung it upward, but it was jarred from his hand as if it had impacted solid rock. He kicked at the thing and tried to pull free, but the creature’s claws dug into his gut and it pulled him closer and then sunk its teeth into his neck. His mouth opened, as if to scream.
Susan watched in horror, backing away as the animal stood above the lifeless body. Strangely, it did not damage him further. It just stood there, eyeing him, its jaws opening and closing, its bony exterior glistening in the dim light. It sniffed the dead man. In the space behind its neck, a row of short, bristly hairs waved back and forth, swaying and parting like reeds in the wind. A gurgling noise resonated from deep within its throat and its segmented tail rose up above its head like a scorpion’s stinger. As the tail shot forward, the animal’s head tilted back and it released a hideous, inhuman cry.
It would be more than thirty minutes before any help arrived. The leader of Kaufman’s mercenaries brought six of his men, half the remaining force. They’d come ready to fight, but encountered nothing that would force them to do so. The only man they found was far beyond help.
One of the soldiers bent close to the body. The smell of sulfur was intense; the acid was still eating away at him. A trail of blood led to the pool next to them.
He picked up the man’s discarded shirt and threw it in. The water foamed up and the shirt quickly sprouted holes. “The water. It’s acid.”
Another soldier suggested a possibility. “Perhaps the girl pushed him.”
“Then what happened to the rest of them?” someone else asked.
Their leader looked around, aiming his flashlight into the corners of the cave. He spotted Lang’s camcorder and two more great swaths of blood. There was no acid smell at these sites, but there were marks in the blood, two-pronged tracks that led away from each site.
As the soldiers examined them, a piercing call echoed from the depths of the cave. The soldiers froze. It was a haunting sound.
Guns raised in all directions, the leader made a quick decision. “We’re going.”
“What about the others?” one man asked, remembering that there were still two soldiers unaccounted for. “And the girl.”
The leader motioned to the swaths of blood. “You won’t find them,” he replied, “not alive anyway.” He turned around and began heading for the exit.
“I need to talk to you,” he said.
“Now is not the time,” Kaufman warned him.
“When the hell is the time?” Devers asked. “You said I’d be out of here as soon as you took the camp. First flight out, you said. Well, your helicopter is gone but I’m still here.”
“Plans have changed slightly,” Kaufman said. “The natives might come back and I’ll need you for that.”
“Well, maybe I don’t want to be here if they come back,” Devers said, more loudly than he should have.
Kaufman stood up, glaring at Devers, but it was not enough to stop the complaints.
“It wasn’t supposed to be this way,” Devers insisted. “No one was supposed to get hurt.”
The temptation to have one of his men beat a lesson of humility into Devers coursed through Kaufman’s veins, but he decided it would be more important to straighten Devers out himself, rather than give the man something else to sulk about.
Kaufman glared at him. “You are embroiled in a web of self-deception, Mr. Devers. You have no rights here. I own you. Not just because of the money I paid you but because you’re now an accomplice to multiple homicides. What did you think was going to happen when two groups of armed men went after the same thing?”
Devers was silent. The first silence Kaufman had heard out of him since the day they’d met, since the day Devers and another member of the NRI, a man who had died with the first team, had volunteered to funnel information to Kaufman on various NRI initiatives, culminating in a project Devers had been asked to interpret for: the Brazil project. Even then, it was not until Kaufman had hacked the NRI’s files that he’d realized the importance of what they were looking for.
“This was more than I expected to do,” Devers said. “It was just supposed to be information.”
Kaufman understood his thinking; it was always the same. As if a little traitorous behavior was somehow less offensive than a lot. “In for a penny,” he explained, “in for a pound.”
Devers stared at him.
“Now get out of my sight until I need you again.”
Devers skulked away just as the mercenaries began to emerge from the temple. “Where’s Lang?” Kaufman asked as they reached him. “Where are the others?”
“They were killed,” the group’s leader told him. “Attacked. The animal you were told about is real. It’s down in the cave. I heard it.”
Kaufman had made the soldiers aware of Dixon’s ranting out of prudence, but he’d been more worried about the natives than anything else. “Are you sure?”
“Tracks in their blood,” the mercenary told him. “Two claws.”
Just as Dixon had described. “Dixon saw them in the forest,” Kaufman said. “Not the temple.”
“Then there must be more of them,” the head mercenary said, holding up his weapon. “We should get ready.”
Kaufman was momentarily shocked. Not only by the loss of Lang, but by the attack itself. It had happened inside the temple, a place he’d assumed would be safe. It had been safe for Dixon. It had been safe for the NRI group.
“We should seal the tunnel,” Vogel said.
Kaufman wasn’t listening. He had come to the error in his thinking. The attack hadn’t occurred in the temple, it had occurred in the cave beneath it. Those places were not one and the same; a miscalculation.
He turned back to the soldiers and spoke to their leader. “The real danger is out here,” he said, meaning the forest. “Dixon said there was more than one, even then. He heard them calling to one another, running with the natives. They came after nightfall.”
Kaufman looked out over the trees; dusk was almost upon them. “Seal the tunnel,” he said. “And get ready for a fight.”