The darkness of the jungle loomed above, its dense, tangled layers spreading like a circus tent from the towering pillars of massive trees. Gorged on the rain, it grew impenetrable and unyielding, a home to thousands of species, most of which never left the confines of its elevated embrace. Life was lived up there, high in the canopy; the ground was for shadows and crawling things and for that which had died.
Jack Dixon allowed his gaze to fall from the lush world above him to the soil beneath his feet. He crouched, examining a set of tracks. The tread of the heavy boots was easy to discern, but subtly different from those he’d found earlier. These were deeper at the toe, pressed down into the earth and spaced farther apart.
So the targets were running now. But why?
He looked around, wondering if he’d come up too quickly and given himself away. It seemed unlikely. Knotted undergrowth blocked most of the sight lines, and where one could see, the vaporous fog grayed the distance to infinity. It was as if nothing else existed, no world beyond, only endless trees, clinging moss and vines hanging limp in the mist like ropes from an empty gallows.
Besides, if they had seen him, he’d already be dead.
Dixon motioned to a man trailing him. He pointed to the tracks. “Something spooked them,” he said.
The second man, whose name was McCrea, studied the print for a second. “But not us.”
Dixon shook his head. “No. Not us.”
As cicadas buzzed in the distance, a subtle tic fluttered across McCrea’s face. But nothing more was said and the two men moved on, holding their assault rifles in front of them and creeping even more slowly than before.
A few minutes later they came upon what Dixon had begun to expect. Another kill. A fresh kill with no stench, though the birds had found it already. As Dixon brushed past the last of the blocking undergrowth, the carrion flock scattered in alarm, flapping to safety in the trees.
Exposed by their departure was the mangled body of a man in the same jungle fatigues as Dixon and McCrea. He lay facedown on a swath of crimson mud with a native spear broken off in his back. Chunks of flesh had been gouged from his legs, and his right arm and shoulder were gone, not cut clean but torn away, leaving only tattered strips of flesh and sinew draped over bloody spits of protruding bone.
“What the hell,” McCrea said, turning at the sight.
Dixon stared, disturbed but pragmatic. He addressed the dead man. “That’s what you get for trying to leave me behind.”
The bastards were a native group known as the Chollokwan, a tribe that had been harassing them ever since they came west of the river. In a pair of skirmishes weeks before, Dixon and his men had gunned down a handful of the charging natives. But it seemed one lesson was not enough.
“Saved us the trouble,” Dixon said. “Now search him.”
McCrea dropped to the ground and rifled through the man’s pockets. Finding nothing, he pulled out a small device and switched it on. It began clicking slowly, accelerating into a rapid buzz as he zeroed in on the right spot.
“I told you he had them,” Dixon said.
McCrea put the Geiger counter away and dug into the man’s pack. He froze in place as a shrill cry rang out from the depths of the jungle.
Silence followed in its wake.
“It’s just another bird,” Dixon said.
“It sounds like …”
Dixon glared at McCrea. “It’s a long way off,” he growled. “Now just find the damn stones and we’ll get out of here.”
Under the weight of Dixon’s gaze, McCrea went back to work, soon plucking a greasy rag from the litter. Unfolded, it revealed a group of small stones, slightly larger than sugar cubes but twelve-sided and shimmering with a dull metallic gloss. Beside them lay a scratched, colorless crystal.
Dixon eyed the stones, the crystal and then the tortured face of his former charge. “Thief,” he said finally: a last pronouncement on the dead man, an epitaph for a traitor who would never see a proper grave.
McCrea rewrapped the bundle and Dixon took it.
“His papers too,” Dixon said.
Reluctantly, McCrea held out the man’s passport.
As Dixon took the ID packet, the shrill cry sounded in the distance once again. And this time a second call answered it, louder than the first, closer; a wailing screech that seemed to bypass the ears and pierce the brain directly.
“That’s not a goddamned bird,” McCrea said.
Dixon did not reply, but silently he agreed. They’d heard that call before, back at the temple, just before everything went to hell. He was not happy to be in its presence once again.
He shoved the stone-filled rag into a pocket and tightened his grip on the rifle, the veins on his massive forearms bulging. His eyes darted around as he strove to see through the mist and the trees and the same blocked sight lines that had hidden his own approach.
His thoughts turned to his dead former comrade. This was not good ground to be stalked upon.
Beside him, McCrea mumbled something unintelligible and then added, “We stayed too long.”
Dixon ignored him, drawing a machete from the scabbard at his hip and stepping forward, rifle in one hand, long metal blade held high in the other. He pushed through the fronds and then stopped.
On the jungle floor, beside another trail of dark, coagulating blood, he spotted a new set of tracks, long two-pronged depressions, like someone had shoved a tuning fork into the earth and then bent it forward. Try as he might, Dixon could think of nothing that left such a mark.
As he crouched to study them, he smelled a familiar odor. Pungent, almost ammonialike. And then the piercing call echoed through the forest once again, rolling over them like a wave and on into the distance.
“We need to get out of here,” McCrea said.
“Quiet,” Dixon replied as he studied the tracks.
“Man, don’t you see? It’s happening again.”
“Shut up!” Dixon ordered. He struggled to concentrate. Running would get them killed, but staying … There was something wrong with this place, a truth he hadn’t recognized until it was too late. Men were not the hunters here but the hunted.
From somewhere far ahead of him, Dixon heard movement, soft, like the flutter of owl’s wings, but at ground level. He put the rifle to his shoulder.
“Dixon,” McCrea begged.
The sound was coming toward them, faster now, racing through the forest but treading lightly.
Dixon rose up, preparing to fire, but the sound dodged to his left, passing him. He spun, pulling the trigger even as a dark blur exploded through the trees.
McCrea screamed. Gunfire boomed through the forest and a spray of red mist fanned out over the leaves, but there was nothing left to hit; no target, no enemy, no McCrea, just the low-lying fronds, swaying from the impact and covered in a sheen of human blood.
He listened for sounds of struggle but heard none. McCrea was gone, dead and gone just like all the others. Only this time it had happened right in front of him.
Dixon began to back away. Not a man given to fear, he could feel his heart beginning to pound, the flight reflex growing uncontrollably within him. He looked in one direction and then another. He began with measured steps, but soon found his pace quickening. His heart was pounding, his mind spinning. And when the echoing screams rang through the forest once again, he took off running with all he had.
Unbalanced and panicked, Dixon charged forward, crashing through the undergrowth like a bull, stumbling as the vines clutched at his feet. He twisted at the sound of hidden movement, turning one way then the other, shouting angrily and firing into the trees.
“Get away from me!” he screamed.
As he ran, he heard movement, crunching foliage and native voices, chasing him, closing on him.
He tripped, landed on his hands and knees and came up firing. The flash of a dark shape hit him anyway and sent him flying. Tumbling through the air, he caught a brief glimpse of his attacker before it disappeared into the forest. Eight men dead and this was the first sight he’d had of their killer, its hide like polished, blackened bone.
He hit the ground with a jarring crash, aware enough to hold on to his rifle even as a stabbing pain shot up through his leg.
With his breath coming in spurts, he rolled over and forced himself to look. The lower bones of one leg were broken, the tibia sticking through the skin. Running was no longer an option; he probably couldn’t walk.
In agony, he propped himself up. He used his good leg to scoot backward until he reached the base of a wide, gray trunk. With shaking hands, he checked his rifle, then lodged it in the crook of one arm and braced himself for the inevitable and painful end.
In a few moments, he was shivering and growing weak. His head wavered and tilted backward until it rested on the fallen trunk. Far above him the tangled web of branches moved on a breath of wind that did not reach the ground. Pinpoints of light made their way through gaps in the foliage, painful to look at with eyes grown accustomed to the shadows. As he watched, the light seemed to be fading, though perhaps it was his vision.
A minute went by without incident, and then another. The silence surrounded him, broken only by his labored breathing. As the seconds ticked away Jack Dixon prayed that he might be left to die on his own, to fade and fall into an endless, peaceful sleep. After another minute or two he even began to feel hope.
And then that bitter shriek rang out again, freezing his heart, piercing his skull and echoing across the depths of the Amazon.