A second volley of roars echoed through the tunnels. "I'll show you. C'mon, before we're someone's dinner."
Michaelson stuck close to his brother. The tiny figures scurried around him, some passing him and running forward, others hurrying behind him to check their trail. He struggled to keep up, biting his lower lip, but his bum ankle soon began throbbing in protest again. A gap started forming between himself and his brother.
Harry slowed down, grabbed Michaelson's arm, and hooked it over his own shoulder, supporting his injured side. By now, only two or three of the little hunters still jogged behind them, guarding the rear. "I'm not leaving you behind, Dennis."
"I'm slowing you down. I didn't come down here to get you killed."
"Shut up, brother. No one is going to get killed today." He squeezed Michaelson's shoulder. "Besides, hooked together like this, it's just like the three-legged race in Kearney when we won the blue ribbon at the fair."
Grimacing with pain, Michaelson spat out, "It's because you cheated!"
"I didn't see you giving back your ribbon."
There was a sudden eruption of commotion from behind them. One of the hunters scurried toward them and growled something to Harry. Harry's expression sobered. He answered something unintelligible. The figure nodded its chin and scrambled forward. Only one tiny figure remained behind them now.
"What did he say?"
"One of the crak'an is closing the gap. We won't make safety."
Michaelson ground his molars. Now he had put his brother in new danger. "I told you-
"Yeah, yeah, you're always right." His brother stopped their shuffling gait. The remaining hunter, black-furred with a scar down the right side of his face, halted beside Harry. "Dennis, go on ahead, try to keep up as best as you can. Nob'cobi and I'll try to slow it down. Buy some time for the others."
"To hell with that! I've got the gun."
"Yeah, and I've got the experience. Now move it!"
He recognized the stubborn set to his brother's eyes. There would be no arguing. "Well, at least take my gun, then."
Harry shook his head. "You may need it." His brother then hefted the long spear still held in his right hand. "Besides, using nontraditional weapons lessens our chance to gain il'jann from the kill."
Harry waved him on. "It's sort of like counting coup. A measure of honor." A scrabbling of claw on rock could now be heard coming from down the tunnel. "Now get going!"
Michaelson nodded and started down the tunnel. No way was he going to leave his brother to fight with only a spear. As soon as he reached a side tunnel, he ducked in and checked behind him. His brother and the other hunter had their heads together. The little figure was gesturing with his hands and nodding.
Dropping his pack, he unhooked his gun and lay flat in the tunnel, sighting back down the passageway. He waited, listening to the increasing noise of the approaching predator.
Suddenly his brother tensed and swung his spear forward, apparently seeing something still out of sight from Michaelson's position. The tiny hunter pressed himself flat against the passage wall. Harry planted the haft of his spear in a divot on the floor and held it in place with his foot, leaning the length of the shaft forward, blade pointing down the tunnel. He crouched, holding the spear steady.
A roar of rage echoed down the tunnel; then the monster stalked into view, filling the entire tunnel, massive, larger than any Michaelson had seen before. Black as if soaked in pitch, it twisted its head back and forth, snorting explosively. When it spotted Harry, it froze, tensing on its two thickly muscled hind legs. It backed a step, stretching its neck forward, then opened its mouth and screamed.
Harry held his position, but answered the monster with his own yell: "Fuck you!"
Michaelson let a small smile come to his lips. Nothing intimidated the foolish bastard. Laying on his belly, Michaelson narrowed his eyes, raising the rifle's butt to his shoulder, eyeing through the sights. His shot was blocked by his brother. Shit.
With a howl of fury, the beast burst toward his brother, barreling across the gap between them. Everything happened too fast for Michaelson to react. Harry ducked down as the head lunged at him, then braced himself as the beast rammed into his planted spear, impaling itself through the chest. The shaft snapped in half as Harry rolled away.
Just then the tiny hunter leaped from the side wall and landed straddled on the neck of the monster, a long knife clutched in his fist. He drove the blade at the eyes of the beast, gouging viciously.
The beast reared with an agonized roar, throwing its head back, dislodging the hunter. The long knife, though, protruded from the monster's left eye.
The tiny hunter landed hard where he was flung, but he quickly scrambled away from the thrashing beast and crawled toward Harry.
The predator spotted the hunter with his one good eye, and snapped at him. Harry tried to reach his fellow hunter first and yank him out of reach of the beast, but his hand fell just inches too short. The little man was snatched up in the jaws of the monster. Still Harry scrambled forward with the snapped half of his spear, apparently intending to use the sharpened remains as a weapon to free his friend.
Michaelson gritted his teeth. His brother still partially blocked his shot but obviously wasn't going to leave the tiny hunter to the jaws of the beast. Damn him! Holding his breath, Michaelson squinted and pulled the trigger, the explosion from the rifle deafening in the narrow space.
The sudden noise froze everyone. Harry stopped his approach to strike the creature, the stump of his spear still gripped in his hand. The beast paused in midstride.
"Harry!" Michaelson called. His voice shattered the tableau. The beast collapsed to the floor, dead, a bullet through its brain. As it fell, it released its prey, the hunter tumbling from its jaws. Harry ran forward to his friend.
Michaelson crawled from his hiding place and approached his brother, eyeing the bulk of the beast that blocked the passage. "How is he?"
Harry helped the tiny hunter stand. "He'll live. They're a tough-skinned lot. A few punctures in his shoulder. Nothing seriously damaged, though."
"Good." Michaelson knelt beside the mimi'swee hunter and lay a hand on his good shoulder.
Harry sat back on his haunches. "Dennis, I thought I told you to get out of here."
Michaelson frowned. "Besides being your older brother, I also outrank you."
"Suddenly I'm glad you rose through the ranks faster than me. Otherwise you might've actually listened to me." Harry then turned to him, his eyes serious. "Thanks, Dennis."
The tiny hunter started spouting gibberish, a pained expression in his eyes. Harry nodded soberly. The tiny figure reached to his injured shoulder and dabbed a finger in the seeping blood, then turned to Michaelson.
"Nob'cobi wants to share his il'jann with you," Harry explained. "It's a distinct honor among his people. Equivalent of blood brothers."
The furry hunter reached forward and placed a bloody finger to Michaelson's forehead. "Br… brother," he said in a half growl.
KHALID WATCHED AS LINDA EMBRACED THE FRIGHTENED boy, her cheek resting atop Jason's head. She whispered consolations in the boy's ear. Khalid crossed to Blakely's form sprawled on the rock. The doctor's eyes were open and staring at him, his breathing still ragged and hissing. The doctor had information he needed, data necessary to complete his mission. He knelt beside Blakely and offered his canteen, pouring a small stream of water into the doctor's mouth.
Blakely closed his eyes and swallowed greedily, then pushed the canteen away, sloshing water across his chest. "Thanks," he muttered.
"What happened?" Khalid asked. "How did you end up here?"
Blakely spoke with his eyes closed, as if remembering. "The camp… it was attacked… destroyed." He breathed thickly, catching his breath.
Khalid's first thought was that someone had outmaneuvered him. A second agent? But the doctor's next words dismissed this idea.
"Huge creatures… hundreds of them… overwhelmed the camp. We escaped in the raft. Ended up stranded here."
Khalid frowned at the bad news. Damn, so there were more of them. He had hoped the few they had run into were the only ones. He looked up at the series of waterfalls. If they should eventually find their way back up, awaiting them lurked a herd of those predators. He sat back on his haunches and holstered his pistol.
"What now?" he mumbled to himself.
The doctor heard him and answered, his voice still hoarse but steadier. "We wait. Leave it to the military. Once they realize what happened, they'll be swarming through here. Let them find us."
Khalid rubbed the thick stubble on his cheek. The doctor was right. The military would be mobilizing shortly, reestablishing the security of the base. And with the entire U.S. Navy down here, combing the place, his mission would be that much more difficult, if not impossible.
He rubbed at his tired red eyes, sandy grit ground under his lids. He would have to reach Alpha Base somehow before military reinforcements did. And with enough spare time to finish setting his charges and get the hell out of the place. A tall order, even for himself.
Perhaps this was a test from Allah. The forces of nature pitted against him, testing him. How else could one explain the vile monsters that blocked them, the innumerable obstacles, the new horrors at every turn? It had to be a test from the Almighty.
He closed his eyes, placed his palms across his face, and prayed for the strength to succeed and for a sign that he was honorable in his mission. He prayed for five minutes, his heart beating in his ears. But still no sign appeared. Finally, he sat back with a sigh, placing his hands on his knees. Nothing.
Then, when he raised his eyes, he saw it. A plume of oily smoke curling out from an opening halfway up the wall of the cave. Khalid sat up straighter. "Doctor, was the camp burning? Was there lots of smoke?"