In the darkness of the cave beneath the temple, Hawker stood back from the edge of the lake and gazed into the clear water ahead of him. The bottom was lined with a smooth layer of whitish calcite, dotted in random places by pea-sized spheres called cave pearls. And in the glare of his flashlight, everything shimmered as if covered in a coat of wet lacquer.

He redirected his light toward the ceiling, forty feet above. Different formations loomed there: huge stalactites hanging in clumps, great daggers of stone pointed toward them, some of them fifteen feet long, three feet thick at the base. Cutting between them was an angled row of smaller, jagged spikes, like an endless row of shark’s teeth, a formation known as a welt line, and farther off an array of delicate strands called soda straws dangled from an overhang, their tips glistening with moisture.

“Hell of a cave,” he said. The words echoed.

Behind him McCarter, Danielle and Verhoven were reaching the same conclusion. “Sulfur cave,” McCarter said, shining his own flashlight around. “Most caves are formed from limestone, but some are carved from the rock by the effects of sulfuric acid. Lechugila in New Mexico for instance. That might explain the acidic water in the bottom of the well. This water too.”

Hawker scanned the water with his light. He and Verhoven had viewed Lang’s recording several times and they’d heard large splashes. They knew the danger came from the water, but the immediate area seemed to be clear.

“Which way?” Danielle asked.

Hawker pointed. “There’s a pathway on the right; it leads to the other side.”

He clipped his flashlight to the barrel of his rifle. The others followed suit, except for Verhoven, who carried a different weapon—a pump-action Mossberg shotgun lifted from Kaufman’s arsenal. His right hand held the trigger, his swollen left hand duct-taped to the pump, tight enough that he could reload it.

They moved onto the pathway, traveling in a single file and watching the water for any sign of danger. Hawker had the point, with Danielle right behind him. She wore a small backpack stuffed with equipment while a portable Geiger counter strapped to her leg clicked away softly.

“Just a precaution,” she’d explained. “The Martin crystals showed traces of radioactive contamination. So does the soil up above.”

“Thanks for telling us.”

“Don’t worry,” she said. “It’s all low level. We’d have to stay here for years to be affected.”

If there was one thing Hawker was sure of it was that they wouldn’t be sticking around that long. He continued on, following the rugged pathway to the dam. The seven pools and the smooth stone of the plaza lay just beyond.

Hawker stopped. “The last images on the recording were of this place. You ready?” he asked Verhoven.

Verhoven nodded. “You know those shells won’t do much beyond a depth of five or six feet.”

“Yeah,” Hawker replied. “But it’ll be a hell of a wake-up call if anything’s down there.”

Verhoven nodded. “I’ll watch your back.”

Hawker moved away, stepping onto the dam, scanning the lake and then turning his back to it. Verhoven took a position at the end of the structure, poised and ready should something come at Hawker from the lake behind.

Hawker stepped up to the first pool, fired two quick bursts into it and then jumped back, waiting for some reaction.

The sound of the gunfire boomed through the cave and echoed back at them from the darkness, vibrating in receding, diminishing waves, but nothing moved in the pool. One down, six to go.

Hawker stepped toward the other pools and repeated the procedure until the entire honeycomb arrangement was clear. It appeared that the pools were empty.

He stepped off the dam and made a quick inspection of the surrounding area. Satisfied, he gave the all-clear.

“Strange formation,” McCarter said. “Seven pools. I wonder: Seven Caves, Seven Canyons.”

Danielle acknowledged him. “And the Place of Bitter Water,” she said.

Hawker aimed his flashlight across the plaza and into the cave beyond. Fronted by the lake, the plaza stretched sideways for at least a hundred feet, with the back edge hard against the cave’s stone wall. On the side closest to them lay the dam and the pools and more open cave. On the far side, the broken trail of the pathway seemed to continue into a deeper section of the cavern. Hawker guessed that would be the way to go.

He brought the beam of his light back across the plaza, toward the path they’d just come down. He stopped. Ripples were moving slowly across the surface of the lake, a surface that had been like glass only moments before. His eyes darted back and forth, as he swung the beam of light through the depths of the cave and back out over the water once again.

“What’s wrong?” Danielle asked.

“Something disturbed the water,” he said. “Went in or came out.”

The dried swaths of blood on the stone showed that both victims had been killed in the open part of the plaza. Not a good place to stand. “Come on,” he said. “We need cover.”

Hawker led them to the back of the plaza, to a spot where the smooth floor butted up against the jagged natural stone of the wall. They pressed themselves against it, with Hawker on the right end and Verhoven on the left and the broad open space of the plaza in front of them. It was a good spot tactically, nothing could come at them from behind, only from the sides and front, and that would leave any attacker open to a withering fire.

“You see anything?” Verhoven asked.

“Just the water.”

Verhoven went to speak again but stopped as muted noise reached their ears, a scraping sound, a raspy scratching, like stone dragged across stone.

Danielle switched off the Geiger counter so they could listen.

“What was that?” McCarter whispered.

No one could say. But their eyes darted around in search of its source, their lights crisscrossing in the dark.

The sound returned. Two long, slow scrapes, preceded by a strangely muted click.

The group fell into utter silence, barely breathing, their eyes straining into the dark.

“What if it’s Susan?” McCarter asked. They had tried to reach her on the radio several times since entering the cave, but to no avail. “What if there was a cave-in and she’s trapped and trying to signal us? Avalanche victims are found like that sometimes.”

Hawker listened as the sounds were heard once again. “It’s not her,” he said.

“Are you sure?” McCarter asked. “It could—”

“The sounds are overlapping,” Hawker said. “There’s more than one source.”

From out of the darkness the scraping noise whispered to them, soft but unmistakable now: click, click, scrape, scrape.

“Where the hell is it coming from?” Danielle asked, her eyes darting back and forth.

It was a fair question. With the strange acoustics of the cave, the noise seemed to be coming from everywhere at once. Click, click … scrape, scrape, click, click.

To Hawker’s left, Danielle and McCarter struggled to keep still. He ignored them, grimly sweeping his field of view. He knew Verhoven would be doing the same, and that, armed and waiting with their backs pressed to the wall, they were in a good position. Whatever was out there, stalking them, crawling from the edge of the lake or moving toward them from the farther depths of the cave, it would have to cross the open ground before it could strike.

“Stay against the wall,” he whispered. “Whatever happens, stay back against the wall and out of our way.”

Click, click, scrape, scrape. Louder this time, closer.

Danielle and McCarter pressed into the stone.

Hawker squinted into the darkness, waving the light around. To the right side—his side—the plaza ran for sixty feet before the jagged teeth of the cave took over once again. Beyond that, the cave opened up and a long finger of the lake appeared to stretch into the rocky formations beyond. That area offered the only real cover for anything approaching them, but a near-constant watch had caught nothing. “On your side, Pik.”

Verhoven shook his head. “I don’t think so.”

Click, click.

“Has to be.”

Verhoven bristled. “I’m telling you, there’s nothing over here.”

The hollow scraping sound reached them once again, slower and muted. And then there was only silence, more dreaded before long than the sounds that had come before it.

In that lingering quiet they waited, straining for any sign of danger, listening for the faintest sound.

But they saw nothing and heard nothing; there was no movement, no clicking, only the pounding of their hearts, the rhythmic dripping of water in the distance and the unearthly feeling of time standing on end.

The stone floor glistened with moisture and the heavy sulfur fumes lingered in the air, but nothing in the cave was moving.

Hawker scanned to the left, to make sure Verhoven hadn’t missed anything, and then back to the right. What the hell are we missing?

As this question ran through his head, a minuscule flash caught the corner of his eye: a speck of dust falling through the beam of Danielle’s flashlight, flaring incandescently as it passed, like a microscopic shooting star. Only now did he realize their folly. He looked up.


He grabbed Danielle and slung her out of the way as a shadow dropped from the ceiling fifty feet above. The animal hit the ground where she’d been standing, slashing the back of her calf with the sweep of its claws even as Hawker pulled her away. The group scattered, beams of light swaying wildly in the darkness as claws and teeth flashed and strings of vile saliva swung through the air.

The animal spun and lunged at McCarter.

A slug from Verhoven’s shotgun sent it reeling across the floor.

“Look out!” McCarter shouted.

A second beast had dropped in behind Verhoven. As it launched itself toward his back, flashes erupted from the barrel of Hawker’s rifle, staccato bursts lighting the cave in a strobelike effect. The bullets tore into the beast as it flew through the air and slammed down on Verhoven.

He tumbled forward as Hawker fired again. The animal shrieked and jumped. And as McCarter’s light hit its eyes, the thing hissed, spitting at him and shooting off into the darkness with a trail of bullets chasing it.

The beams of light crisscrossed in the dark. The sounds of the animals scurrying and hissing competed with the heavy footsteps of the men, shouts of warning and the booming sound of gunfire echoing through the chamber.

By now, Danielle had crawled back to the wall. Her leg was cramping, the muscles burning from the pain. She pulled out a flare and threw it across the plaza. The flash of the magnesium blinded at first but as the crimson light filled the cave, it exposed one shape sliding into the lake, another animal pulling its damaged body across the stone of the plaza and a third still on the ceiling, scampering away from the scene of the battle, its claws hooking into the crags in the cave’s roof, its back to the lake below.

“Hawker!” Danielle shouted, pointing to the ceiling.

Hawker twisted, sighted the creature and fired. It shrieked in pain—the voice of some tropical bird amplified a thousand times over. Its hind legs lost their grip and it dangled for a second as Hawker fired again. Hit a second time, the animal fell toward the lake, howling in agony. A stream of broken ceiling fragments followed it down as it crashed into the water with a thunderous splash.

Hawker now understood what had happened. The animals had come out of the water, gone up the side walls and stalked the humans from their inverted positions on the ceiling above. The clicking noise was the sound of the animals’ claws grabbing and releasing the stone; the scraping, their stiff bodies sliding between the stalactites and other formations.

He scanned the ragged surface above. Stalactites and other projections guarded the pockmarked surface, making it impossible to search quickly or completely from a single location. His slid sideways, craning his neck around. Twenty feet away McCarter did the same, while Danielle threw out another flare.

As the others searched the ceiling, Verhoven got back on his feet. He’d landed on his wounded hand and it throbbed with a pain beyond anything he could have imagined. The tape holding it to the shotgun had been partially torn, but Verhoven managed to load one more shell before ripping the hand angrily from the pump. He scanned the plaza around him and then glanced briefly at the ceiling above. With no sign of danger, he turned his attention to the cause of his pain; the injured animal wriggling spastically on its side, desperately trying to drag itself to the lake.

Verhoven walked toward it, cursing as he struggled to shake loose the remaining tape. When he reached the creature, he aimed carefully and then blasted a slug through its skull. The thing slumped instantly to the floor.

With great satisfaction, Verhoven lowered the Mossberg. The others were still searching the ceiling. He made another quick scan himself and then a smirk came out. “They’re gone,” he shouted, the buoyancy of a conqueror in his voice. “Dead or gone, take your pick.”

Verhoven had been in more firefights than he could count. Each one had its own unique pace; this battle was no different. With one animal dead, and the others gone, wounded and bleeding back into the lake, he could feel the energy of the fight dissipating already, blowing past like a storm on the wind. He took a final look around, ground level and roof above. They were in the clear. He walked back to Danielle.

“You all right?”

Danielle was sitting, first-aid kit by her side, pouring hydrogen peroxide on the slash across her calf. “I’ll live,” she said, as the peroxide bubbled and foamed.

Verhoven turned to where McCarter and Hawker were systematically checking the ceiling. “Give it up,” Verhoven shouted. “You’re liable to get hurt swinging your necks around like a bunch of bloody pelicans.”

McCarter paused in his search, took a few more peeks, then lowered his rifle and started back toward the others. But beyond his position, Hawker continued checking the deeper part of the cave, systematically scanning the shadows between the chandeliers of hanging stone.

Verhoven laughed. “Paranoid,” he said.

He turned back to Danielle, examining her injury. “A good war wound, that. Make you a nice scar.” Danielle glared at him and Verhoven laughed again, more animated than any of them had seen.

On his way back to the others, McCarter stopped for a closer look at the animal that Verhoven had killed. It lay on its side, very much dead, but still twitching in places. Dark fluids oozed from its wounds and an oddly pungent odor wafted from its body. The smell reminded McCarter of rotting vegetables. At close range the scent was strong enough to compete with the sulfur of the cave.

This animal was smaller than the one that had attacked them on the chain the night before. Maybe half the size. It looked sort of gangly and long in the limbs, almost like a juvenile. He guessed its weight at two hundred pounds, though it had seemed much larger as it dropped toward them.

He examined what was left of its head, damaged badly by the shotgun blast that had killed it, a blast that would have disintegrated a human skull. The head was large in proportion to the animal’s size, and very angular, almost wedge-shaped, narrowing sharply at the front. Its remaining eye was unlidded, glistening beneath a viscous gel, like a polished, wet stone. It was black from head to toe, with stripes of a slightly lighter shade that were mostly visible as differently textured skin. The surface of the skin itself was slick with some type of dark secretion, which it seemed to be oozing from millions of tiny pores.

Whatever it was, it was unlike anything McCarter had ever seen or heard of. Even the shape was foreign. The body was all angles, like overlapping plates. The arms and legs were thick, but the joints were simple and exposed, like hinges on a door, one slot for the lower half and one slot for the upper. Muscular sinew could be seen where they bent, like bundled wires in a conduit. The severely pinched neck seemed almost insectlike and behind it stood distinct rows of stiff, bristlelike hairs that grew in a converging V-shaped pattern.

An evil-looking thing, McCarter thought, with all the tools of a predator: stereoscopic vision, a sleek, strong body, claws that resembled angled steel blades. Its mouth hung open on a set of powerfully muscled jaws and was filled with teeth like sharpened railroad spikes.

McCarter looked up toward the ceiling, upon which the animals had been crawling. The image of that ancient Mayan painting came to him, humans standing erect on the ground, blithely unaware of the Xibalbans directly beneath them, walking inverted with their feet on the underside of the earth’s surface. If I knew something like this lived down here, he thought, I’d consider this the underworld too.

As he shook off a chill, Danielle and Verhoven came up beside him, gawking at the thing, just as he had. Danielle seemed especially interested in the entry wounds from Verhoven’s shot. The damage resembled a pane of glass punctured by an errant baseball, with long fissures radiating from the wounds.

With the barrel of her rifle, Danielle reached out and pushed on the body. It was stiff. She tapped on it. It almost sounded hollow. “An exoskeleton,” she said. “Bones on the outside. Large animals don’t grow like this. Only insects and crustaceans.”

“It’s a damn gogga, then,” Verhoven said, using the Afrikaner slang for crawling bugs.

McCarter nudged Verhoven and pointed out a broad purple smear on his jacket, where the animal had hit him. The fibers of the coat were fraying and discolored, as if the smear was corrosive.

“Some kind of secretion,” Danielle said. “It’s all over the body of this one.”

As Verhoven pulled off the field jacket and tossed it aside, Danielle leaned closer to the animal. “Do you smell that?”

McCarter nodded. “Almost like ammonia,” he said. “I smelled it when the other one attacked us last night. But this is a lot stronger, even though this one is smaller.”

Danielle nodded, looking back toward the pools by the dam. “I was thinking the same thing,” she said. “And I think I know why. Ammonia is a base, an acid neutralizer. I think that’s what this thing is secreting—only, from the way it’s destroying that fabric, I’m guessing it’s a lot stronger than ammonia.”

“What good would that do them?” Verhoven asked.

Danielle nodded toward the pools. “That’s how they survive. They secrete this stuff to counteract the acid.”

McCarter remembered trying to help his son learn chemistry and repeated trips to the science department to ask fellow professors questions he could not answer. Bases were just as dangerous as acids. When the two were combined they would neutralize each other, but individually acids were corrosive and bases were caustic. Both were horrendously destructive to organic tissue and to materials far stronger than human skin. He turned to Danielle. Her calf was exposed where she’d cut off the torn section of the pant leg. Her skin was red but not blistering. “What about your leg?”

Danielle looked down; she guessed the torn section of her pant leg was fraying like Verhoven’s jacket, although she’d discarded it into the darkness somewhere. “I put peroxide on it,” she said. “I was thinking about infection, using it as an antiseptic, but peroxide is an acid, to some extent, it must have counteracted any of the base that got on my skin. It does feel strange though, almost like it were burning with a cold fire, like peppermint on the tongue.”

“Might want to use some more peroxide,” McCarter said.

As Danielle pulled out the plastic bottle, Verhoven held his hand out over the dead creature. “Notice anything else?” he said, looking at Danielle.

She shook her head.

“Dead animals radiate heat,” he said. “When you take one down, you can feel it pouring from the wounds. But not this thing.”

“What does that mean?” she asked.

“Cold-blooded maybe, or colder-blooded than we’re used to.”

“Might explain why the heat sensors have trouble picking them up,” Danielle said.

Verhoven pointed to the tail, where the tip split into a pair of spikes, like dual stingers. “Remind you of anything?”

Danielle nodded and McCarter thought of the body in the water with the two great holes in its chest, wounds from something that went in and came back out. It was terrible, a killing machine—but part of McCarter could not help but be in awe. “What the hell are these things?” he asked.

He exchanged glances with Danielle and Verhoven, but it was clear that neither of them had a clue.

A moment later Hawker joined them. He took a brief look at the animal. “Nice,” he said, sarcastically. “This trip is so much fun. Remind me to bring the whole family next time.” He turned to McCarter. “Let’s not forget why we’re down here.”

Despite an unshakable sense of awe they moved on, following the path that led beyond the plaza as it took them back into the deeper part of the cave. Soon, the craggy walls narrowed, closing in on them before becoming smooth with tool marks once again. They continued in a narrow valley that soon became a tunnel as the ceiling sloped down on them. The carved tunnel led to an even narrower rectangular doorway less than four feet high and perhaps eighteen inches wide at the most. They had to squeeze and duck to force themselves through. As soon as they reached the other side, a weak, raspy voice called out to them.

“Mr. Kaufman?”

McCarter responded. “It’s us, Susan. Not Kaufman.”

She stepped from the shadows. “Professor McCarter?”

“Are you all right?” he said.

She ran to them. Right into McCarter’s arms, who grabbed her in a bear hug, only slightly embarrassed. He could hear her wheezing and pulled out her inhaler, which he’d found and remembered to bring with him.

She used it immediately. “I heard the guns,” she said, her eyes welling up with tears. “I didn’t know if—”

She broke off her sentence, scanning the faces and stopping on Hawker’s. She seemed confused. “What are you doing here? What happened to Kaufman’s men?”

“Most of them are gone.” McCarter said. “Kaufman’s up on the surface. Brazos is guarding him. We heard you on the radio,” he added. “Apparently you couldn’t hear us.”

“I didn’t get any response,” she said. “Not sure I was using it right, and I think I killed the battery trying to call out.”

She went on to explain the attack, and details of her survival. “When it killed the other man, the radio came sliding across the floor and hit me. I grabbed it and I just ran,” she said. “I came down here and I found this door. It turned out to be a dead end in there, but by the time I tried to get out those things were trying to get in. They scratched and dug at the entrance for hours, but I guess they couldn’t fit through. So I stayed put.”

“That’s somewhat comforting,” Hawker said. “But we still have to go back that way to get out. And the sooner we go the better.”

Susan took McCarter by the hand. “Yes,” she said, very seriously. “But there are some things you have to see first.”

She led them deeper into the chamber, down a long, narrow passageway, past one empty room after another, rooms that had been cut from the rock itself, rooms with smooth, vertical walls and flat, even floors. It was a level of workmanship more advanced than that of the plaza outside. In fact, where Susan’s footprints had cleared the dust, the ground shone like expensive marble. McCarter bent to examine it, but Susan beckoned him to follow.

She pointed out a wall, covered with strange geometric symbols and, beside them, carved Mayan glyphs. And then she led them to a pile of debris where part of one wall and the ceiling had collapsed. She knelt down beside it.

McCarter paused, stunned. A figure lay there, half-buried in the rubble, partially hidden by the piles of rock. In the gray darkness it appeared to be the body of a child, but as the lights converged on the remains it became clear that it was something else.

The body was perhaps four feet tall. The legs and pelvis had been separated from the torso and whatever meat or flesh it once carried had long ago succumbed to decay. The skull was shaped like a man’s but deformed and bulbous. A pair of great empty holes that must have once contained eyes sat in the upper half of the face, with bony ridges above and a forehead that sloped radically backward.

Instead of a rib cage, the body had two broad plates that curved out from its backbone, wrapping the body and fusing together in the front, completely covering the chest cavity. Somewhat like the exoskeleton of the animal outside, with thousands of pinprick holes in the bone.

McCarter touched the fragile skull, running his finger across its smooth surface. It reminded him of a horseshoe crab he’d found washed up on the beach when he was a child.

“It was almost completely buried,” Susan told them. “I cleared most of this away. It helped me pass the time.”

“What is this?” McCarter asked.

Susan shook her head.

Danielle didn’t seem to hear. She was staring, eyes and mouth wide open. “My God,” she whispered. “I never expected … I don’t believe it. I just don’t believe it.”

Black Rain