Two hours later, the group had made it back to the clearing. Verhoven greeted them as they arrived, but from his tone it was clear what he assumed.

“What the hell happened?”

“We found them,” Danielle said, dejectedly. “And they don’t really care what we do. As long as we die alone and let them do the same.”

Susan and Brazos looked stricken as Danielle explained what had happened.

Hawker stepped away; he didn’t want to hear the details again. He stared into the western sky at the rapidly falling sun. There was an hour before dusk, maybe a little less. Enough time to put some distance between them and the clearing, if they dared.

He interrupted Danielle’s report. “Come on,” he said. “We’re getting the hell out of here.”

Brazos stood up, leaning heavily on a walking stick, but the others didn’t move.

“Grab your things,” Hawker said. “We have a lot of ground to cover, and we have to move while we still have some light.” He threw his own pack over his shoulder and reached for an extra canteen.

Danielle put a hand out, stopping him. “Where are we going?”

“To find a stream like the one that protected the Chollokwan village. We’ll follow it or build a raft and float on it or wade in the damn thing if we have to. But once we reach the water, we’ll be safe. And from there—all roads lead to Rome.”

He could see their confusion, their tired minds trying to make sense of his plan.

“The water is poison to these things,” he said. “And the sun burns their skin. An open stream with blue sky above would be sanctuary for us, but the water itself should be enough.”

He turned to McCarter. “You said it without realizing it; the river will take us home. And it will, but we’ve got to move now, while we still have a chance.”

“What about the helicopter?” someone asked.

Hawker shook his head. “Without Kaufman here to signal it, who knows if it’ll land? And even if it does, we might not be here to see it. We used up more than half our ammunition last night, and at that rate, three days of waiting will be at least one day too long.”

The group looked around at one another, beginning to understand his argument, beginning to believe in it.

“I passed over a couple of streams on my way back from the crash,” he told them. “If we hustle, we can reach the closest in an hour or so, before it gets completely dark. But we have to leave now.”

One by one, the others began to move, shaking off the sluggishness that despair had brought on. Brazos grabbed his pack and pointed to the water he’d collected, Susan began gathering the belongings that lay around them.

“Okay, let’s go,” Danielle said.

“About damn time,” Verhoven added.

Their pace quickened as a sense of hope began to spread through the gathering. They were excited again, energized by the possibility of survival, thrilled, at the very least, to be leaving the accursed clearing behind.

In the midst of the activity Professor McCarter remained still. He’d spent the entire hike back from the Chollokwan village dwelling on the subject of survival, pondering both life and death and trying desperately to shake the image of the playful three-year-old from his head.

And though he’d considered surviving the night an unlikely possibility—at least until the advent of Hawker’s new plan—he’d begun to realize that there was more at stake here than just their lives. Finally he spoke. “I think we should stay.”

The movement around him stopped.

“What?” someone asked.

“I think we should stay,” he repeated.

Devers dropped his pack. “You’ve got to be kidding me.”

“We won’t last here,” Hawker said, speaking in a more kindly tone. “If you want to see home again, this is the only way.”

“This is our responsibility,” McCarter replied. “Those things are free because we set them free. We opened the temple, just like Dixon’s group did before us. We ignored the warning. Now the stone is destroyed and the temple can’t be sealed again, and we’re just going to walk away? Leave it to the Chollokwan to fight these things … or die trying?”

The others were quiet.

“We’re not the only ones in danger here,” McCarter continued. “The whole place is in danger, the Chollokwan, the other tribes out here, the Nuree downriver. These things are a plague, like a swarm of locusts with no natural enemies, but it’s not crops they’re stripping, it’s every living thing in the area.”

He looked from face to face. “Aside from the Chollokwan, and the rain, there’s nothing to keep them in check. Well, the Chollokwan won’t last much longer, and with the temple open, even the rains will be powerless to do any harm to those things. They’ll crawl back inside like roaches hiding from the light and when the storms pass they’ll come out again and they’ll continue clearing the forest of life and moving on to new hunting grounds. They’ll burn their way through the jungle like a fire in search of fuel, until eventually they’ll reach other places where they can hide from the rains, places with windows and cellars and doors.

“The Chollokwan have taken it upon themselves to fight these things,” he added. “They’re honoring an oath made three thousand years ago, and they’re paying with their lives.”

Of all people, Devers spoke. “Who the hell cares?”

Verhoven shoved him to the ground. “You don’t get a vote,” he said, then looked at McCarter. “You’re bloody crazy if you want to stay here.”

McCarter was undeterred. “If we leave now, we may live. And then again we may not.” He turned to Hawker. “I admit, from everything I’ve seen, your plan should work, if we can make it to the water. But that’s not a certainty. Not with an hour of light left and the pace we’re likely to keep.” He looked at Brazos, who could hardly walk; he’d been hobbling around the flat ground of the clearing with great difficulty. How much he would slow their pace in the jungle was anybody’s guess, but it would be substantial. And Brazos wasn’t the only problem. Susan’s asthma made it impossible to run or walk quickly over long periods. Danielle had been limping since her leg had been slashed in the cave; she’d struggled to make the hike they’d just completed, her calf repeatedly cramping for the last hour back.

Hawker’s march of just more than an hour would take three or four, or maybe five—and most of that in the dark. As McCarter spoke, the others followed his gaze, and he hoped his thoughts as well.

“If we walk out of here now,” he said, “we leave knowing we’ve killed off an entire race of people, brought this curse down on them and then just left them here to die. Men, women and children—an entire village. But if we stay, we can hold the high ground, morally and physically. We can fight those things on our own terms and maybe keep them away from this place long enough for the Chollokwan to recover, long enough for them to get the upper hand.

“We can’t reseal the temple,” he said. “But we can keep those things from getting back inside, at least for a while. Who knows how much that could help?”

McCarter truly didn’t believe they would make it through the jungle if they left and he wasn’t sure they had the right to leave anyway. “Maybe it’s not about living and dying anymore. But what we live for and, if necessary, what we die for.”

When McCarter finished a heavy silence lingered. Some of them looked off into the distance, others at the dusty ground, anywhere but right at him.

Danielle had listened to McCarter closely, her own thoughts heavy with all that had occurred. She remembered Hawker’s words, his prediction that she would regret staying, that there would be a price to pay for what they’d done. Now she felt it with all her heart.

To her it seemed unlikely that any of them would make it out alive, but as she stared at Brazos, the only survivor from the group of porters she’d hired, she knew it would be almost impossible for him.

In fact, as she saw it, there was probably no way out. If they stayed, the animals would soon overwhelm them and retake the temple. And if they left, then the animals would reclaim their nest with ease and then branch back out into the jungle, foraging for food once again. They would find the NRI group quickly, long before the stumbling humans reached the nearest stream, and that would be the end of them.

Good people, she thought. Her people. And in a few hours they would all be dead.

Unless there was another way.

She’d come here and stayed because she finished things, that’s who she was. But for all her efforts, there had been nothing there to find. The only thing left to do now, the only job left to finish, was to get her team home. She guessed it would take everything she had.

She turned back to McCarter. “I brought you all here,” she said. “I lied about the reasons and the danger. The explanations don’t really matter, but you have to believe me when I tell you I’m sorry.”

She looked at McCarter. “More than that, I understand why you want to stay … but you can’t. You have to leave,” she looked around, “all of you. This is my responsibility. I’ll stay and I’ll hold those things off as long as I can. If you can help Brazos while Hawker and Verhoven cover the flanks, you’ll be able to move faster. I’ll stay behind and make life difficult for those animals while you make your way. Perhaps they’ll be distracted long enough for you to reach the stream. You never know, a couple of hours might make all the difference.”

McCarter smiled at the gesture. “That’s brave,” he said. “But it doesn’t change things for me. I’m not going anywhere. Not this time.”

Susan said. “I’ll stay too, if that’s what we all decide.”

Brazos nodded as if he knew he would not make it through the forest. “Maybe the helicopter will come?”

Devers cursed and complained, careful to stay out of Verhoven’s reach. And then all eyes turned toward Hawker.

All Hawker wanted to do—all he’d wanted to do since everything blew up—was get them the hell out of there. Take Susan, Brazos and McCarter back to Manaus, where they’d be safe, where their blood wouldn’t be on his hands. Apparently McCarter felt the same way, only in his mind, the arc of responsibility cut a wider swath. And Danielle … Hawker turned to her, gazing at her face, her sweaty, dirty, beautiful face. Apparently she agreed with McCarter. He hadn’t expected that.

“You know we can’t win this,” he told them. “You understand that, right?”

McCarter shrugged.

Danielle allowed a smile. “Sounds like your kind of fight.”

Hawker looked around him, and then out at the approach of dusk. He would have chosen to leave, out of his own survival instinct as much as anything else, but he understood better than the others just exactly what McCarter and Danielle felt, exactly why they would make this choice. To McCarter it meant living for something that mattered, dying for it if necessary, an act that gave life meaning in the process. For Danielle it was penance, a chance to make amends for past choices and mistakes. For Hawker, it might be both.

He looked at the two of them, almost thanked them. “We’re going to need fire,” he said, thinking about the Chollokwan village. “As much as we can build.”

Across from them, Pik Verhoven shook his head in disgust. He didn’t give a damn about the Chollokwan or the ecosystem or anything else on McCarter’s long, drawn-out list, but he believed in the soldier’s code: you never let your brothers down. Hawker had come back for them and even though Verhoven might have made it to the river by himself, he would not leave now. He glared at Hawker. “So that’s it, then. Another damn crusade?”

The two stared at each other for a long moment and then Verhoven turned to the others. “Well, you heard the man,” he said. “Let’s get him some damned fire.”

Over the next hour they built a small network of fires using splashes of fuel on bundles of cloth, dry brush and wood. Soon, thirty small blazes were burning around the perimeter, with others surrounding their cluster of foxholes. Bathed in the flickering glow, they waited as the shadows deepened and night fell.

Black Rain