Much like the night of the Chollokwan inferno, this battle ended with a shroud of smoke hanging in the air. In this case, there was also the acrid smell of gunpowder, exhaust from the flares and a growing swarm of moths and other insects flicking around the lights in a maddening, random dance.

In the dark void between the floodlights, Hawker and Verhoven turned from point to point, checking for any sign of life and warning Devers and Kaufman not to move.

Eventually Hawker lowered the rifle, his face a mask of despair. His friends were safe now, but at a terrible cost.

Verhoven seemed to sense the conflict within him. “This is what you are,” he said. “Whatever you chose to believe, this is what you were made for.”

Behind them Richard Kaufman spoke. “You don’t know what you’ve done. You just don’t know.”

Hawker stepped toward him, putting the tip of the rifle under his chin and tilting his head up. “But I know what you’ve done, you son of a bitch. And I’m about to undo it. I’m going to go get my people free, and then I’m going to come back here, and I’m going to kill you.”

Kaufman replied coldly, strangely confident for a man in such a position. “Go get your friends, then. You should, they can help. But don’t waste your time if you plan on killing me, because without my help, none of you will make it out of here alive.”

“We’ll see about that,” Hawker said. “Where are the keys?”

Kaufman gestured unsteadily toward the dead mercenary. “On him.”

Hawker searched the man and pulled a set of keys from his breast pocket, testing the small key on Verhoven’s remaining handcuff. It released and fell to the ground.

Hawker turned to go. “Kill the lights,” he said.

Verhoven flicked the switch and the metal-halide bulbs faded to a dull orange and then went black. The artificial daylight vanished and the darkness rushed in again, swallowing them whole.

Hawker moved across the clearing quickly, traveling with the distinct impression that he was being watched—a feeling that had come and gone several times in the past few hours. He’d had a similar feeling at the Wall of Skulls. And he now wondered if Kaufman had additional men out there somewhere, if that was the basis for the man’s arrogant boast. He stopped, taking cover in one of the foxholes and scanning the area with the night-vision scope. He didn’t see anything.


Left behind at the command center, Verhoven moved to a position where he could better see his two prisoners. He waved the gun at Devers, instructing him to move closer to Kaufman.

Devers slid over, his good arm putting pressure on his injury, which was a through-and-through bullet hole in the fleshy part of his shoulder. “You could at least give me something to stop the blood,” he said.

Verhoven looked at him with scorn. “I could,” he said. “You’re right about that.”

Kaufman turned to Verhoven and began to plead his case. “Your friend won’t listen but maybe you will,” he said. “I can help you. But if you let him shoot me you’ll never get out of—”

Verhoven bore into the man with his eyes. “Good men you’ve killed,” he said, with a voice like gravel. “Mates of mine for twenty years. So you’d better hope he shoots you, because if he doesn’t, I’ll stake you to the ground, cut off your hands and leave you for the animals.”

“You don’t understand,” Kaufman replied, slowly. “We’re all in danger. Not just me. You, your friends, all of us. If you don’t—”

A soft electronic beeping interrupted him. It came from the Perimeter Warning System. Something had set off one of the sensors.

Out in the clearing Hawker’s radio squawked. “Hawk, you listening? There was a target on the west side. It’s gone now, but it was confirmed. Cut east before you go down toward the tree, that’ll give you some distance from it.”

Hawker looked through the night-vision scope again, still wondering about Kaufman’s men and remembering they had been shooting into the forest long after his charade had ended. Could the Chollokwan really be closing in? He clicked the talk switch on his radio. “What kind of target? How far back?”

“Target was a single. At the limit of the sensors. About fifty yards into the trees.”

Hawker acknowledged and, after a quick glance to the west, did as Verhoven suggested, moving east in quick bursts, before stopping cold at a strange sound: the barely audible whine of a crying dog.

Back at the defense console, Kaufman’s face seemed to contort. “Your friend’s in danger,” he said. “You should call him back.”

“The screen’s clear now,” Verhoven replied.

“I don’t think it matters,” Kaufman said, quickly. “There are animals out there. Animals the natives use to hunt people like us, foreigners, infidels. The same animal that attacked my people in the cave.”

Verhoven glared at him. When Kaufman had told them of Susan’s death, he’d called it an accident, a collapse in the cave’s roof. At the time, all Verhoven really cared about was escape, and he’d been privately pleased that Kaufman had lost five of his people in exchange for the young woman.

“Not a cave-in, then, ay?”

“I know,” Kaufman said. “I lied. But you have to listen. They were mauled.”

Verhoven recalled the looks on some of the soldiers’ faces after the incident. He’d seen fear—not the kind of fear an accident brings but the unease of an ethereal danger, one that cannot be completely controlled. It had struck him as odd at the time, and now Kaufman’s words had him wondering. He guessed that was Kaufman’s goal. “Shut up,” he said. “I’m tired of your mouth.”

Hawker’s voice came over the radio. Verhoven could hear the dogs whining in the background. They were fearful, pathetic sounds, nothing like the sound the dogs had made when the Chollokwan arrived.

“I need the lights,” Hawker said.

Verhoven checked his watch. “Can’t do it.”

“Call him back,” Kaufman said. “Our only chance is to hole up here with the rest of the guns.”

“Shut up.”

“Bring up the damn lights.”

“Five minutes,” Verhoven said, reminding Hawker of the cool-down period. The lights burned so hot that they needed five minutes to cool off before re-lighting, otherwise the hot filaments would blow out with the power surge.

“Forget the others,” Kaufman said. “They’re as good as dead.”

“Shut your damn mouth!” Verhoven shouted. From seventy yards away, he could hear the dogs’ cries drifting through the still night air. And then a sharp call echoed across the clearing, similar to the Chollokwan wail, but more powerful, more resonant.


“They’re coming,” Kaufman insisted. “They’ll kill him and then us. Call him back!”

Verhoven swung the pistol toward Kaufman. “One more word and I’ll blow your goddamned head off.”

Staring at the black pistol, Kaufman complied, but even as he did the perimeter alarm began chirping again. A new target had appeared. This one directly across from where Hawker stood.

Hawker had come across the section of camp where the dogs were kept. They called it the kennel, but it was nothing more than a heavy post driven into the ground, to which the animals were tied. The dogs had grown agitated during the battle, barking angrily at the gunfire, but they’d settled down in the minutes after. Something new was bothering them. Something they could sense and smell but not understand.

They sniffed the air with flared nostrils, their eyes darting around. They seemed confused and afraid. Hawker’s approach startled them, but they recognized his scent and then turned back toward the trees. One lowered its head, growling and baring its teeth, but the rest of the pack began retreating, backing away from the trees and whatever they smelled. When they reached the limit of the leashes, they began straining against the lines, pulling and stretching them. One of them began to panic, yelping and crying and whipping its head around, trying desperately to slip its lead.

What the hell is out there? Hawker wondered. He’d never seen a pack of dogs act like this.

Verhoven’s voice came over the radio. “Target straight across from you. Two of them now.”

A loud screech echoed from somewhere back in the woods and Hawker put the night-vision goggles to his eyes. He saw nothing.

One of the dogs howled.

“It’s right in front of you,” Verhoven insisted.

“Shoot it,” It was Kaufman’s voice, tinny and hollow from somewhere behind Verhoven. “Shoot the damn thi—”

Verhoven cut the line and, to Hawker’s right, a twig cracked.

The dogs shot forward, charging at something still hidden within the trees. Hawker spun and fired blindly, shooting into the tree line. Whatever had been there was racing south, away from Hawker and the dogs and directly toward the prisoners, still chained to the tree.

Hawker cut across the camp, sprinting with everything he had. He’d covered only half the distance when the shadow in the forest reached the prison tree.

Hideous screams rang out, the voices of his friends shouting in terror and the sound of a horrendous struggle. Two flares rocketed into the sky behind him, fired by Verhoven. The phosphorous canisters burst into light and something lunged at Hawker’s face, stretching out toward him like a cobra trying to strike. Hawker dove to the side and the jaws snapped shut on nothing but air. He rolled and came up firing, blasting the thing as it raced away and disappeared into the trees.

He whipped around toward his screaming friends, just in time to see another shape fleeing from the space. It was bulky and black and dragging something with it. Hawker aimed and fired, lacing shells into the trees, trying to track the thing by the sounds of its movement, trying to lead it, but it was gone, vanished into the jungle and gone.

Danielle shouted to him. “Hawker!”

He ran over, dropping down beside her and unlocking her cuffs. Handing her the key, he stood guard while she freed the others. He lit a flare of his own and flung it out into the forest, hoping to light up anything that might come their way. The shadows flickered and jumped, but the jungle itself was still.

He glanced at the prisoners. Danielle and McCarter appeared unharmed. Brazos, the last of the porters, was alive but injured and struggling to stand. Roemer, Verhoven’s right-hand man, was gone. His cuffs lay on the jungle floor, bands of bloody skin shaved off and clinging to their edges. Something had ripped him from their hold.

In the far distance, they heard him scream.

“It dragged him right out,” Brazos said. “It bent my leg, my knee.”

McCarter helped Brazos to steady himself, as he could put no weight on the leg.

“What the hell was that?” Hawker asked. “A jaguar?”

“Not a cat,” Brazos said. “It stank, dank and rotten.”

Danielle agreed. “Whatever the hell it was, we need to get out of here before it comes back,”

Brazos hobbled and leaned on McCarter, his knee swelling where the animal had trampled him as it pulled Roemer from the cuffs.

“Get to the command center,” Hawker said. “Verhoven’s there.”

Without a word the survivors moved off, Brazos leaning on McCarter and Danielle. Hawker stayed behind, backing away from the forest, guarding their retreat. He glanced at the ground. The two-pronged tracks were unmistakable, the same tracks Verhoven had seen near the butchered animals, just before the Chollokwan attack.

The sound of human screaming reached him from deep in the bush. Hawker loosed a few shots in that direction, hoping to hit the animal or even the tortured soul it had taken with it, but he wasn’t going out there.

A minute later, at the center of camp, Richard Kaufman saw Hawker coming, saw the purpose in his step and the fury. He wedged himself against one of the light poles to stand. “I tried to tell—”

Hawker slammed him back against the pole before he could finish. “What the hell was that thing?”

Kaufman opened his mouth and blood trickled from the corner. He’d bitten through part of his tongue. “I don’t know what they are,” he said, turning to spit some blood onto the dirt. “They attacked my people in the cave.”

“What cave?” Hawker demanded.

“Beneath the temple,” Kaufman said. “They seem to guard this place. We could have killed them, but now that you’ve interfered there probably aren’t enough of us left to do the job. Once they feed on your friend, they’ll be back for the rest of us. And if what I’ve heard is correct, the natives who tried to burn you out will come along with them. Only this time they won’t hold back.”

Kaufman turned his head and spat out another mixture of blood and saliva. With his hands now taped together, the best he could do was wipe the side of his mouth against his shoulder. He addressed Danielle. “It seems you’ve brought your people in unprepared.”

“I don’t know what the hell you’re talking about,” she said.

“Oh, I think you do,” Kaufman replied.

With the point of the rifle, Hawker physically turned Kaufman’s face away from Danielle. “You were talking to me,” he said.

Kaufman wanted to throw a few more shots at Danielle, enough to start her worrying about the lack of candor shown to her charges, enough to set the groundwork for a deal. And this was the time for it, but as he looked into Hawker’s burning eyes, he realized the man was unlikely to let him go on for long. He chose to proceed, hoping that Hawker’s response would not be fatal or otherwise permanent.

“Just pawns in the game, Ms. Laidlaw?”

Even before the last syllable had escaped his mouth, Hawker’s knee came crashing into his gut. Kaufman crumpled to the ground. As he rolled on the floor, mute and in pain, his eyes focused on Danielle.

She returned his stare, unblinking, and then turned toward the flashing screen of the laptop. The perimeter alarm had begun sounding once again.

Black Rain