Across the camp Hawker stood beside Danielle, staring into an empty ammunition box, now covered with a makeshift grate. Scampering around in the box was the larva they’d retrieved from the body in the forest. It had been just two hours, but the thing barely seemed like the same creature. It had grown little arms and legs and the beginnings of the lethal tail. Viewed from above, it was beginning to resemble the animals from inside the temple.

Hawker could hardly believe the change. “How long did all that take?”

Danielle glanced at her watch. “Ten minutes after we got it back here, its skin hardened into the bony shell we saw on the adult animals. Then the tendrils separated and it ingested them.”

The little thing disgusted Hawker and this latest revelation did nothing to change that. “It ate its own arms?”

“Uh-huh,” she said, smiling at his discomfort. “You should have seen it.”

“No thanks,” he said, looking around. There was only one grub in the box, a fact that concerned him. “Where are the rest of them?”

Danielle frowned. “This one killed them before I could stop it. As soon as its shell had hardened, it became very aggressive.”

“All of them?” Hawker said.

She nodded. “For the most part. I pulled one of the half-eaten things out before it could finish, but it would have gulped it down if I’d let it.”

“Hungry little bastard,” Hawker noted.

“It is,” she said. “And I think I know why. I took a sample from the dead one and looked at it under a microscope. Its cells are packed with mitochondria, maybe three to four times what a human cell has. That gives it a tremendous metabolic rate. To maintain such a metabolism it would likely have to eat its body weight in food every four or five days. I would guess the need at half of that for the adults. Maybe less, but still very accelerated.”

“That might explain why they’re so aggressive,” Hawker said.

“I think it explains something else too, something that might help us to fight them,” she said.

Hawker leaned toward her, interested in any detail about the creatures that might make them easier to kill. “Tell me,” he said.

“Let me put it this way,” she said, “there are many different rates of life in the natural world. A hummingbird has an extraordinarily high metabolic rate; its wings beat so rapidly that they’re a blur to the naked eye. To keep that rate up they have to consume their body weight in nectar every twenty-four hours or so.

“In comparison, a species like the tortoise or the starfish has a glacial metabolism. To the naked eye a starfish looks immobile. Yet they are moving, not just wafting around in the current but traveling—there are even great migrations of them roaming unnoticed across the ocean floor. You can see it with time-lapse photography.”

Hawker smiled at her excitement. “Let me guess, oceanography was another major.”

She shook her head. “A summer hobby really. I liked the sun and the surf, and I looked pretty good in a wet-suit.”

He laughed. “I bet you did.”

“The point is,” she said, “if a starfish could see us, we would be nothing more than a fleeting blur to it. Yet, to the hummingbird we move like molasses in winter. Almost as if we’re in slow motion.”

She pointed to the grub now scratching around in one corner of the box. “These animals live somewhere between the hummingbirds’ scale and our own. They move rapidly, they react with incredible quickness.” She held up a pair of tongs. “Go ahead, try to grab it.”

“I’ll pass,” Hawker said. “Otherwise I’ll never be able to eat Chinese food again.”

“Chopsticks or tongs,” she said, “you’d be hard-pressed to catch this thing. It jumps out of the way; no matter how fast you go for it, it scampers around. I think it—and by extrapolation they—see our movements as ponderous and slow.”

So they would have to be quicker, he thought. It now made sense how he’d killed the one that charged him when Kaufman had been taken. He fired blind, acting on instinct. Not taking the time to think or even aim. It was a good point, a good lesson. “Any other cheery news?” he asked.

“Two things actually. First, the man we took this from had an enzyme in his blood that kept it from coagulating, allowing the larvae to feed off of it. It’s likely that the enzyme was injected at the time of death, like the mosquito does when it bites and draws blood. I think it is the same enzyme that retarded the biological decay.”

“And the second thing?”

She looked toward the tree line. “If these animals need as much food as I think they do, they face a problem. The more life they destroy, the less remains behind to feed them or to lay eggs in. Most likely they’ve killed or eaten everything in this area and then moved outward in search of better prey. I’m guessing that’s why we didn’t encounter them when we first got here. Because we basically entered a vacant space, like a burned-out spot in a forest fire; you’re safe among the charred timber because the fire has already moved on.”

Hawker thought about what he’d seen in the trees; all of it suggested that Danielle was right. “A break for us,” Hawker said. “But why are they coming back, then?”

“Maybe they picked up our scent,” she said.

Before he could ask her anything else, Professor McCarter and Susan Briggs came running over.

“We’re making a big mistake,” McCarter said loudly.

“What are you talking about?” Danielle asked.

“Sitting here, it’s a mistake. We should be out there.” He pointed toward the trees. “With the Chollokwan.”

Hawker raised his eyebrows. “The ones who put the curse of a thousand deaths on us?”

“I know,” McCarter said, holding up a hand to hold off the questions. “I remember what was said. But I think it was a warning as much as a threat. I think they made it because they knew what would happen if we entered the temple.”

“How could they know?” Danielle asked.

“Because it’s happened before,” McCarter said. “When we were looking for a radio Kaufman told me you had another team here before us, a team that got wiped out. I’m sure he was trying to con me into helping him at the time, but even then I didn’t think he was lying.”

“He wasn’t,” Danielle said blankly. “We didn’t know they’d come here, but we found some of their equipment.”

McCarter nodded, seeming to appreciate her honesty. “Kaufman told me that a man named Dixon survived. He crawled out of here with a broken leg, which was lost to gangrene—but Dixon held on to what he found, a crystal that came from inside the temple, one that matched the Martin’s crystals.

“Okay,” she said. “I’d believe that. What does it mean?”

“It means your earlier party did more than just find this place,” McCarter explained. “It means they opened the temple and went inside. Yet when we arrived, the temple was sealed shut. So who closed it up? Someone had to do it, and certainly not the men who were running headlong into the jungle, trying to escape. So who? The only possible answer is the Chollokwan. They came here and put the stone back in place to keep those animals inside.”

“What about the fire?” she asked. “The first one and then last night?”

“Same thing,” McCarter replied. “Bad conclusions based on false assumptions. Fire for fire, they said, remember. Fire for the plague. We assumed that we were the plague. But the fire was for the trees, where we found that thing.” He pointed to the grub. “I’m guessing it was to burn them out, to destroy the nests before the larvae hatched. And then last night we heard their voices and drums again. We assumed they were building a war party or something. But they didn’t attack, and if you remember the sequence, the animals disappeared just as the drums came. I’ll bet the Chollokwan were hunting them then too.”

“With spears and clubs?” Danielle said.

“And pits filled with water,” McCarter replied, reminding them of the strange trap at the wall of skulls.

“But why would they even try?” Danielle asked. “It’s almost suicide.”

“Because they’re not just primitive nomads who live in the rain forest,” he said. “They’re the descendents of the Mayan people who once lived here. The Chollokwan are the ones who stayed behind.”

“In the Tulan Zuyua story?” Danielle asked.

“Yes,” McCarter said. “And in reality as well. In fact, I’m pretty certain that there’s not much of a difference. At least as it concerns this place.”

He turned to Hawker. “Don’t you see,” he said, “it’s the answer to your question. You asked me why they cared about this place. The only response I could come up with was that they shouldn’t. They should pass it by as if it were just another spot in the forest, ignoring it or at most regarding it as some type of curiosity. But they don’t ignore it, they come here every year, they burn the trees back and keep this place clear of foliage, just like Blackjack Martin said they’d done at the Wall of Skulls. They tend to this place and keep outsiders away, year after year, century after century, because it’s theirs. Blessing or curse, it belongs to them.”

“But you said the city was abandoned,” Danielle reminded him.

“It was,” McCarter told them. “The inhabitants deserted this place. They sealed those animals inside—just like the story of Zipacna being sealed under the mountain of stone—but it’s not a rock-strewn mountain, it’s a structure shaped like a mountain, a pyramid made out of stone blocks.” He turned around. The pyramid of the temple stood behind him.

Hawker stared at it. He understood what McCarter was getting at. “So the legend is real.”

“It’s a version of reality,” McCarter replied, “distorted through time and retelling but essentially true.”

Danielle looked at the temple. “In the legend the Maya left Tulan Zuyua like refugees,” she noted, “while others—unidentified others—stayed behind. You think those remnants were the Chollokwan.”

McCarter nodded. “You paid me to tell you if this place was Tulan Zuyua and in my opinion it is, at least it’s one source of that legend, and the pyramid temple over there is likely to be a form of the Mountain of Stone. In the legend itself the two are not that closely connected, but legends have a way of morphing. A few thousand years and few thousand miles can wreak a lot of changes. But there are always touchstones of truth that remain, and in our case, we’ve found enough to convince me.

“I think this place was or is Tulan Zuyua,” he reiterated. “And I think those who built it were being tormented by a group of people who seemed only vaguely human to them—the body we found in the temple being one of them. They called those people the wooden people. If you’re right we might know them as our descendents, but to these people they were despots, and if we follow the legend, the people who lived under their tyranny eventually threw off their chains with the help of a thunderous storm. Finally free, but probably fearing it wouldn’t last, they took their possessions and left this place, leaving a band of warriors behind to keep this temple sealed forever. Perhaps they even continued to communicate with the ones who remained behind, but over time and distance it eventually became impossible, actions that are mirrored in the Popul Vuh as the departure from Tulan Zuyua, the receiving of different gods and the inability of those who left to communicate with the tribes who stayed behind. Over time the people who left became the Maya, while the warriors who stayed became the Chollokwan, and their one task became a religion of its own.”

“But they don’t write, or keep time, or build anything,” Hawker said.

“If our civilization was wiped out today, no one would be building skyscrapers or jet planes tomorrow. We’d be lucky if we could put up a house without a leaky roof. All civilizations build up a body of what we call societal knowledge, knowledge that’s only useful as long as the body stays intact; specialization leads to interdependence, interdependence leads to vulnerability. Break up any civilization and the specialized skills are the first to go as the people struggle just to cover the basics.

“In the Mayan world only the priests wrote and understood the calendars. Only the artisans could carve the glyphs and build. That’s how the elite controlled the masses. A legion of warriors wouldn’t have any of those skills. All they would know how to do is fight.”

McCarter’s gaze moved from Hawker to Danielle. “Here’s the proof: eighty-odd years ago Blackjack Martin stole those crystals from the Chollokwan after they were used in a rain-calling ceremony. Now ask yourself why the Chollokwan would even want it to rain. Agricultural societies want the rain, not hunting societies. The Chollokwan aren’t farmers—they’re hunters and gatherers, nomadic and migratory wanderers. The rain makes their lives exponentially more difficult. It turns the ground to mud and keeps the animals hidden in their dens and nests. It allows what game there is to spread far and wide instead of gathering at the edge of the rivers. If the Chollokwan were just simple nomads they would abhor the rains, but they don’t, they pray for them to come, just like the early Maya did.”

“Why?” Danielle asked.

“Partially because of their heritage,” McCarter admitted. “A learned and ingrained behavior. But there’s another reason as well, a more important reason.”

He paused for a moment, and seemed to decide that actions would speak louder than words. He took the canteen from his belt, unscrewed the top and began to pour the contents over the torpedo-shaped grub in the box.

As water hit the thing, it jumped, shrieking as if it had been zapped with a thousand volts. It banged into the grate covering the box and fell back again, writhing around violently, flipping itself onto its feet and darting from corner to corner in search of safety.

As McCarter kept pouring, the parasite hissed and spat, scratching at the smooth metal walls, trying to climb. It jumped and clung to the grate, falling back as he finished dumping the canteen over it.

By now, the water sloshed an inch deep in the metal box and there was no way for the creature to escape it. It shot to the front corner and tried in vain to climb the wall. It jumped and fell and jumped again. Springing repeatedly, doing all it could to stay out of the water, until it landed on its back and began convulsing in a series of violent spasms. The box shook with its movement as the convulsions became more pronounced. In thirty seconds it was writhing in a death spiral of agony.

Eventually the intensity of the reaction began to wane and the angles of the grub’s body began to soften, deforming into a thick, black ooze. The chemical bonds of its structure were breaking down and separating. It was melting, like a slug coated in a thick layer of salt. The water in the box was turning murky and dark with the residue.

“What the hell happened to it?” Hawker asked.

Danielle answered. “It’s secreting that chemical base I told you about: the dark oil that was destroying Verhoven’s jacket. A substance like that can be as destructive as sulfuric acid, only in the opposite way. It’s caustic instead of corrosive, but the results are similar.”

McCarter nodded his agreement. “In the temple their secretions were used to counteract the acidic water. But the canteen was filled with distilled water. No acid content. So the animal’s own secretions are destroying it.”

“It rained all day and all through the night,” he added, quoting the ancient Mayan text. “And the earth was blackened beneath it. This is how the wooden people were destroyed, and these are the Zipacna, the sons or creations of the wooden people.”

“From the legend,” Danielle said, and before he could correct her, she added, “and in reality.”

Hawker stared at the animal dissolving in its own fluids. At first it struck him as odd that the creature’s own reaction could destroy it, but even in humans the body’s overreactions were sometimes self-destructive and deadly. Autoimmune disease and allergies were a prime example. Anaphylactic shock could cause a sudden massive drop in blood pressure from a small quantity of otherwise harmless allergen. He could think of other examples, including a friend who’d died when his plane skidded off the runway into shallow but frigidly cold water. Undamaged as the plane was, all Hawker’s friend had to do was pop the canopy and release his seat belt. But the water was so cold that his body instantly restricted the blood flow to his extremities, a natural defense mechanism designed to maintain the body’s core heat. In this case, it caused the pilot’s hands to clench into unusable fists, and Hawker’s friend drowned in ten feet of water, otherwise unharmed by the crash.

As he stared at the dead grub, Hawker guessed that the thing had met a similar fate. As soon as McCarter had dumped the canteen over it, the grub began releasing the base secretions, manufacturing them as a defense mechanism possibly in proportion to the amount of water hitting it. Only, without the water being acidic, the animal’s secretions had nothing to counteract, and its own defense mechanism destroyed it.

He looked at Danielle, who nodded her agreement as McCarter began to summarize.

“I believe the body in the temple entered Mayan mythology as Seven Macaw. And these animals, as the Zipacna. In the legend, only the wooden people were present for the deluge, but they both came from the same place—or time.” He glanced at Danielle. “And the rain—our rain—will do the same thing to these Zipacna that it did to the wooden people three thousand years ago.”

Danielle had one more question. “And the natives?” she asked. “You think they know this.”

“They know,” McCarter insisted. “They’ve always known.” He jutted his chin toward the forest. “For three thousand years they’ve been coming here in their wanderings. Always to this place, always in the dry season, guarding it, waiting for the rains to come and grant them absolution for the rest of the year. Eighty years ago, when Blackjack Martin took those crystals from them, they were waiting for the rain to come, praying for it out of spiritual dogma, out of sheer habit. Now, somewhere out there, they’re doing the same thing, only this time out of a desperate need. If we want to survive, we have to find them, we have to show them that we know, and beg for their help.”

Black Rain