Hawker sprinted for the temple, tossing the rifle aside for speed.
Two of the Zipacna chased him. The leader closed in on him rapidly, reaching striking distance and lunging toward him before crumpling to the ground at a full run, its right leg ripped off by a massive shell fired from the Barrett rifle, high atop the roof of the temple. The second animal leapt over the first and continued the pursuit.
Hawker never looked back, never saw it. He raced to the edge of the trench with the second animal following him. He leapt just as someone hit the detonator for the explosives. The charges blew simultaneously and the length of the trench flashed. The blast knocked Hawker off course in midair and he hurtled toward the phalanx of sharpened pry bars. He twisted to avoid being skewered and hit one with a glancing blow. It punched through his shirt and scraped his ribs, but didn’t stab him.
It did, however, hold him, like an insect pinned to a board. As he tried to rip free, he heard the echoing howl of the Zipacna. He turned back to the wall of flame to see the second Zipacna hurtling over it, aimed right for him.
He flattened out and the beast impaled itself on the bars around him. It retched in agony and ripped the spikes out of the ground, stumbling away and releasing a cry that Hawker thought would burst his eardrums.
Even as it screeched, Hawker could see it was not dead, and he quickly realized the danger he was in. There would be no cover fire here. He was too close to the steep face of the temple. The tripod-mounted Barrett rifle could not depress that sharply.
The animal turned toward him, a four-foot length of metal still lodged in its chest. Hawker ripped free of the bar that held him, but it was too late; the creature was raising its claws and baring its teeth to strike. It lunged for him, but its head jerked sideways and its skull exploded, shattering from a stream of bullets.
Hawker turned to see Danielle, down at the base of the stairs, jamming another clip into her rifle.
“Tired of seeing my people die,” she shouted. “Now let’s get the hell out of here.”
She fired across the clearing, as more of the Zipacna began their desperate charge.
Hawker yanked the bar from the dead animal’s chest, and then he and Danielle raced up the stairs to the temple’s roof.
By the time they reached the top, the battle was raging; equal parts gunfire, thunder, lightning and rain. The Zipacna were spread out before them, trapped in a killing field without cover, caught between the forest, to which they did not want to return, and the rapidly fading wall of flame. At least thirty living animals had made it into the clearing, many of them wounded and limping, but their numbers were dropping rapidly as the automatic-weapons fire rained down on them from above. Still, the mass of the group continued to push forward, and other Zipacna could be seen sprinting from the trees.
Eric handled the Barrett rifle, firing at the creatures with brutal accuracy, picking his target, pulling the trigger, then retraining the rifle on another animal. Spread out around him, Danielle, McCarter and Brazos strafed the field with the assault rifles, while behind them Susan loaded new clips and Devers stood by, unarmed and panicked, shouting what he thought were helpful instructions.
A group of the animals breached the trench, jumping the fading barrier and rushing onto the stairs. Danielle fired down the stairway, blasting the attackers to pieces before they got halfway up. At the same time, McCarter took aim over the side at a pair of animals ascending the wall he had been certain could not be climbed.
Susan pointed out another on the south side and Brazos shot it until it fell away, writhing and unable to stand.
Out in the clearing more of the creatures were slogging through the mud, slower now, a trudging herd, pressing forward even as the humans continued to rake the field.
Hawker grabbed a rifle and found it empty. He grabbed another, but that one was also empty. He looked at Susan. She shook her head, there were no more cartridges. He turned to shout a warning, but it was too late.
First one weapon and then another went silent, until only hammer blows of the fifty-caliber continued to sound. And when the echo of its last report faded in the distance, the voice of modern man disappeared from the clearing.
With the rain spitting and hissing on the near-molten barrel, Eric stood up and stepped back to join the group.
Hawker asked again to be sure, but there was nothing left. He stepped to the edge of the temple as a fork of lightning ripped across the dark sky. In that flickering instant of purple light, he saw the mud-soaked field clearly. Dead creatures lay strewn about everywhere, while dozens more struggled and twitched, mortally wounded and lying in the mud, their oily secretions destroying their own bodies and blackening the earth around them.
But others still moved toward the temple, latecomers perhaps, beasts that had avoided the slaughter by mere chance. These survivors moved across the field at a much slower pace, as if dragging heavy weights.
The rain was harming them. Even if it wasn’t killing them in the dramatic fashion they’d seen with the grub, it was doing substantial damage. It might still destroy them given enough time, but Hawker doubted anyone on the temple would live to see it.
As the lightning flashed again, he counted six Zipacna approaching. Try as he might, he couldn’t think of a way to kill even one. He checked his pistol: it had only three shells left, and in all likelihood the soft lead bullets would splatter on the creatures’ bony armor like so many paintballs.
Behind him the others picked up various weapons to use as clubs, metal bars like Hawker’s or the rifles they’d exhausted.
One of the Zipacna had reached the stairs now, followed a moment later by a second one—but a few steps up, the two animals stopped. The Zipacna in the clearing halted as well, their heads turned back toward the forest.
Danielle moved up beside Hawker. “What are they waiting for?”
The animals remained still, gazing warily at the forest, their raised tails snaking back and forth, their heads tilting oddly.
One of the German shepherds began howling, and soon the humans heard it too, barely audible above the storm, a resonance closing in from the forest.
Seconds later, the Chollokwan burst from the tree line, howling and raging, pouring into the clearing from all directions, charging with spears and axes hoisted up above their heads.
They swarmed over the Zipacna that remained in the clearing, drowning them with sheer numbers, covering them like ants on fallen fruit.
The two animals on the stairway turned and pressed their attack.
One of them was injured and could not take the stairs with any speed, and the natives caught it halfway up. But the other beast raced forward, charging up the stairs, rushing toward the safety that lay inside the temple.
As it reached the top, Hawker aimed at its head, firing the last shots from his pistol and swinging the pry bar with his other arm.
The animal jumped to the left at the sting of the pistol shells; as the metal bar clanged off of its back, it swung its head sideways and up like a bull, sending Hawker flying over the front of the temple and tumbling down the stairs.
Farther back on the temple’s roof, the other NRI survivors were trapped against the gaping hole of the open stairway. Danielle flung her rifle at the beast and it bounced off the animal’s head, distracting it long enough for one of the Chollokwan warriors to jump up on its back, swinging his stone axe.
The Zipacna flipped the tribesman off and lunged for him, grabbing the man in its jaws and whipping him aside, but other natives rushed in undaunted.
One of them went for the beast’s legs with an axe, only to be crushed under a bloody claw. Another jabbed toward its eye, but the animal swung its head away and its flying tail whipped around, decapitating the man. A third swung his axe in a great arc, smashed it into the plating, cracking both the shell and the stone of the man’s weapon.
The Zipacna lurched to the side, then spun and snapped its jaws on the warrior’s neck, flinging him over the edge of the temple.
It was free for a second, but then a new surge of Chollokwan warriors threw themselves at it. One native drew blood, jamming a spear into the beast’s side, finding the notch between the shoulder and the breastplate.
The pain sent the creature into a howling rage, which seemed to restore all the strength and speed that the rain had taken away. It slashed the man lethally across the throat and face. It snapped its jaws on a second man and plunged its claws into the ribs of a third. The tail whipped around like a flying blade, slashing yet another man, who fell backward, clutching at his abdomen, trying desperately to hold his intestines in.
In its frenzy the animal was fearsome, howling as it lashed out. But the Chollokwan matched its intensity, and though they were dying on all sides, they pressed the attack.
Putock, the warrior who’d led them to the Chollokwan council, was with the attacking force. Covered in blood from head to toe, he somehow managed to survive the hail of teeth and claws. He lunged forward just as the animal turned, the joint between its neck and body exposed for a second. He drove his spear downward and into it with all the strength and weight he had. The surface erupted in a geyser of black blood; the Zipacna’s head tilted back and upward with the blow, and it released a hideous, inhuman scream, a sound that echoed across the forest.
As the creature came back down it lashed out at Putock, and he stumbled back with a vertical gash from his shoulder to his waist. But even as he fell and his life poured out onto the stone of the temple roof, Putock saw the damage he’d done.
The animal grabbed frantically at the embedded spear, splintering the shaft into kindling in an attempt to pull it free. And then, as it realized it couldn’t overcome the wave of attackers, the beast turned toward the dark hole in the temple’s roof.
It stumbled forward, no longer interested in the fight. But the main body of the Chollokwan force had reached it now and they overran the beast, bringing it down with heavy blows and the weight of their own bodies.
It tried to throw them off, rearing up one more time and howling thunderously, as if the titanic sound of its own voice might somehow set it free, but as the last spear was driven home, the Zipacna buckled and collapsed under the weight. Its head hit the stone with a heavy thud.
For a minute or two longer, the Chollokwan continued to hack at it. But as they exhausted the fury in their hearts, they began to step away. One by one they turned from the hideous creature, moving to their wounded and cleansing themselves in the falling rain.
At first, no one in the NRI group stirred. They looked on in disbelief, unsure of what to do. Danielle gazed through the storm, but not a single beast could be seen alive. The only things moving in the clearing were the native warriors and the wind-driven sheets of rain. It was hard for her to believe, but the madness had finally come to an end.
As her sense of balance returned, she asked McCarter and Devers to speak with the Chollokwan, and then began to pick her way across the temple’s roof, looking for Hawker. As she approached the stairs, he reappeared.
He struggled to the top, looked over the carnage and then glanced at her and the others. Seeing that they were safe, he turned around and sat down on the top step, looking out over the rain-soaked clearing.
Danielle made her way to where he was and sat down beside him just as the thunder crashed again. “You okay?” she asked, half shouting to be heard above the storm.
He looked at her and nodded, appearing too exhausted to speak.
She looked across the clearing at another flash of lightning and then pulled her wet hair back from her face. The rain was still pouring, but the wind was at their backs. “I can hardly believe it’s over,” she said. “I can hardly believe we’re still alive.”
As he managed another exhausted nod, she turned her eyes skyward, squinting as she looked up through the rain, laughing at the sudden joy that it brought to her. “It’s a beautiful feeling, being alive.”
He turned to her and smiled, a satisfied look creeping onto his face. “They have a saying in Africa: the rain is life.” He looked around and then back into her eyes, staring at her for a long moment. “The rain is life,” he repeated. “The rain is life.”
The thunder crashed above them and he closed his eyes and leaned back against the temple’s wet stone roof.
She smiled and then reached out to touch his face. Without a word, she lay down beside him, both of them alive and reveling in the glorious, pouring rain.