Hawker glanced at the computer screen; the electromagnetic radiation had almost destroyed it by now, but from what he could see the gathering at the western edge was still growing. “Get to the temple,” he said to Danielle.
She looked at the screen. “I’m not leaving.”
Hawker pointed to Brazos. “He won’t make it without you.”
She nodded reluctantly.
“Fill the trench and light it,” he added. “And do it quickly. You don’t have much time.”
Danielle grabbed Brazos’ arm and helped him stand. “Come on,” she said. They began walking and the two dogs followed.
Hawker gazed out at the tree line. The trees had begun bending from the wind, branches swaying, leaves turned inside out. In the spaces between he saw movement if not shapes. The animals were there, jostling for position, grunting and calling to one another. They seemed nervous, hesitant; perhaps it was the fires or the remaining daylight, or the death of the first animal, but something seemed to be holding them back.
Whatever it was, it wouldn’t last. The sky was growing darker by the moment and the wind had turned cold; downdrafts in the looming thunderstorm. Leaves and chaff were blowing across the clearing in a haphazard fashion. Before long there would be a tipping point, when neither the sun nor the rain was present. The charge would come then.
“Let’s see if we can give you something else to think about,” Hawker said, as he fired a quick burst into the pack and then turned and loosed a few shells at the remaining drum of kerosene, halfway between him and the western forest.
The container blew apart in a baritone explosion and the animals scattered, but they quickly re-formed, and a minute later one of them stepped through the trees.
Hawker stared at the animal in awe. The animal was a beast; the size of a Roman war horse, nine feet tall at the shoulder, broad and angled. Its jaw opened slightly with its breathing, exposing daggerlike teeth. It perched for a moment on its hind legs, sniffing the air, a hideous gargoyle chiseled from some black volcanic stone.
Down the row, a slightly smaller copy stepped through the tree line, grunting softly, the rows of bristles behind its neck moving back and forth like reeds in the wind. Its eyes went from Hawker to the raging kerosene fire, to the temple looming beyond.
Hawker put his hand on a concussion grenade, slipped it loose and pulled the ring. With his eyes on the largest beast, he hurled it toward the trees, watching as the animals tracked it against the dark sky. It exploded beside them, just as he opened fire.
Dark blood and chunks of bone flew in all directions as the jacketed rounds from Hawker’s rifle tore into the larger beast. It fell where it stood, as if its legs had been cut out from under it. The second animal turned back toward the trees, but collapsed under a hail of bullets as it entered the forest.
Startled by the sudden attack, some of the Zipacna retreated but several charged. The first group fared better. Hawker took down the charging beasts in quick succession, his aim as cold and accurate as any machine.
When the last of the charging beasts fell dead, Hawker jammed another clip in the rifle and drew his fire across the tree line on full automatic. The bullets cut into the forest like a blade, tearing into the Zipacna hidden there even as the first sound of thunder rolled in the distance like the great tumbling boulders.
Lightning flickered across a canvas of heavy slate as Hawker continued the assault, raking the trees from left to right and back again. He fired and loaded and fired again, spent shells flying around him, the gun smoking, the barrel hot, the first hints of rain splattering in the dirt.
He felt it on his shoulders and the back of his neck, a few sporadic drops, heavy and cold, followed by a sickening pause.
And then, the torrent finally came down.
Thunder shook the ground again as lightning flashed across the sky and the rain began to fall. In seconds, the storm grew louder than the gunfire, an overwhelming downpour hammering the clearing and the forest with a sound like a rushing train. The creatures were hiding now, cowering in the tree line, backing away from the gunfire and the wind-whipped rain.
Unleashing his own anger and guilt in the assault, Hawker stepped forward, pressing the attack. Loading, firing and loading again, relentless and oblivious until the bolt of the rifle slammed itself open and refused to move. He’d burned through fourteen clips—over four hundred shells. But it didn’t matter now. The rain was pouring from the sky, flooding the ground and sweeping across the clearing in great lashing sheets.
Thunder shook the air as he peered through the darkness. Everything in sight was moving, tree limbs and bushes swinging back and forth with the wind; leaves were torn loose and whipped around like confetti. It was a hurricane in all but name and Hawker stood in the middle of it, balancing with difficulty, squinting through the storm and the stinging rain, getting brief glimpses of the animals in the trees. The dead and injured littered the ground.
One of the beasts crawled from the forest, wounded, dragging its leg. It fell in a heap, its body convulsing rhythmically. Another dropped behind it, its angular head just visible.
Watching the devastation, his chest heaving with adrenaline, Hawker unconsciously lowered his weapon. He heard the high-pitched cries of the Zipacna, anguished and wretched calls cutting through the wind and rain. The animals were suffering from the rain and the gunfire, dying in the storm.
And yet, even as it poured, one of the Zipacna poked its head through the trees, locking its eyes on Hawker. It snarled, looked up through the rain and then ducked back into the relative shelter of the forest.
A few seconds later another one appeared. It began to pull back like the first one had, but it stopped, whipping its head from side to side, like a horse trying to shake away flies. Sheets of water flung off in all directions and the animal growled menacingly. Instead of retreating, the beast stepped forward, moving free of the trees completely. It tilted its triangular head skyward and released a defiant, bellowing howl.
Next to it, another one stepped through, growling and scratching at the ground. Farther down, a third one joined the group.
Hawker stared at them in disbelief. They were standing in the rain now. Standing in it! Even as it poured and swept across the clearing in great lashing sheets. And though it was bothering them, stinging and burning perhaps, by no means was it killing them.
As the full dread of this realization dawned on Hawker, he mumbled an extended curse and took a cautious step back. And when the largest of the beasts looked right at him, Hawker turned and ran.
The Zipacna charged.