Facing the storm's attack, Khalid jerked awake, confused as the roar followed him from his dream. He cringed against the roar until he realized it was just the waterfall crashing nearby. Swallowing hard, almost imagining his throat was caked with sand, he pushed out of his sleeping bag. He reached for his canteen. It was gone. He bolted up.
In one scan of the empty sleeping bags, like so many discarded snakeskins, he realized he had been duped. Damn her. He raised the pistol as if expecting an attack. He peered around. No sign. He glanced toward the distant smoking tunnel, where only a whispery black trace still seeped from the opening. At least he knew where she had gone.
He kicked through the scattered debris, inventorying the remains. All the lanterns were gone. Batteries too. No light source.
He reached into his pocket and pulled out his cigarette lighter. He flicked it open. A flame burst upward. It would be a fire to light his path.
A smile of determination pressed his lips flat. He would teach her. Soon she'd know his wrath and beg his forgiveness.
He would be like the black storm of his dream. Merciless and unstoppable.
ASHLEY TOOK A STEP BACK, WONDERING IF HER EARS were playing tricks. How could this creature speak English? It had to be a coincidence, a common series of sounds that just happened to match an English word.
"Death," the old silver-haired creature repeated, pointing his stick and shaking it at her as if trying to get her to understand. He then planted his staff and leaned heavily on it, a saddened set to his shoulders. "Dobori dobi!" he finally said in a tired voice.
At his words, a gasp arose from around her, igniting a scurry of commotion. The few curious onlookers who still thronged around her scrambled away, disappearing into cave openings, cloth flaps quickly drawn across entryways. Not a single face peeked around a corner.
Only a scattering of the small creatures remained-those armed with diamond spears. And even these warriors shifted their feet nervously.
Ben spoke up beside her. "Ash, we've got trouble."
She glanced at him; his eyes were huge. "Ben?" she whispered, feeling exposed under the eyes of the creatures. "What do we do?"
"Hell if I know. You're the anthropologist."
"Maybe we should-" Ashley was interrupted by a firm stamp of the old creature's staff on the rock, demanding their attention.
"Dobori dobi!" The creature boomed, pointing at Ben with a long crooked finger. Then he turned and hobbled away.
"Wait!" Ben called.
The creature turned to face him, but it took much effort. He was obviously exhausted, coughing raggedly and leaning heavily on his staff.
With large, moist eyes, he stared back at Ben. He lifted a finger and placed it at the tip of his ear, then lowered his finger to the center of the design painted on his chest, just above his heart. He turned away and thumped across the empty rock to vanish into a cave opening.
"Ash, what do you make of that?"
"I'm not sure. He was trying to tell us something. But who knows what?" She swallowed hard, trying to dislodge a solid lump that had stuck in her throat. She swiveled around to check behind her. Nothing. She and Ben stood alone at the edge of the yellow fields. The cliff walls that contained the village cupped around them.
Swinging back around, she counted ten guards who remained out in the open, stationed at the ramps that led up to the second level of dwellings. No guards blocked them from just heading out into the fields.
As she was about to suggest that maybe they should just leave, try to find their own way back across the fields, a deep booming erupted from the cliff face, rhythmic and slow. The low resonant throb cut to her diaphragm, vibrating through her as if she were a plucked bowstring. She knew even if she crammed her fingers in her ears she would still feel the sonorous beat.
"Drums," Ben needlessly explained.
She nodded. "Cultures use drums to mark ceremonial rituals." She turned to stare again across the yellow fields. Especially rituals of death, but she left that unsaid.
Ben, though, knew what the drums meant. Hell, he had watched enough Tarzan movies to know the natives were restless. Still, a strange calm enveloped him. He knew his heart should be racing, and his palms should be clammy with fear. But no, instead he felt detached as if viewing events through another's eyes. Ever since the old man had touched his finger to his chest, a sense of peace had descended upon him.
With each new drumbeat, odd thoughts intruded upon him, almost as if the drums spoke to him. Boom… Death approaches. Boom… Survive and live. Boom… One way out. Boom… Prove your blood.
"Ben?" Ashley's face appeared before him, seeming to appear out of nowhere, her voice tiny when compared to the call of the drums. She waved a hand in front of him. "Are you okay?"
"I'm fine." He shook his head. "Just trying to think."
"You were mumbling something. Something about blood."
"Are you sure you're all right?"
"Considering our predicament, I'm peachy keen." He offered her a weak smile, hoping she would swallow his lie, while wondering himself just what the hell was wrong with him. "I'm fine," he repeated.
Still she wore a worried expression on her face. "Any idea what they might be planning?" she asked while searching the cliffs for movement.
He shrugged. There might be any of a number of ways the creatures could murder them: rush at them with spears, drop boulders on them, sic those wolf creatures on them, let those damned leeches suck them dry. Who knew? He rubbed at his temples. Oddly enough, he did know. They would be attacked by air. Death approaches. But just how the hell did he know this?
He turned around and searched the skies above the fields, trying to see if anything was visible. Nothing but glowing fungus roofed the world. But he was sure. He even knew from which direction. He squinted his eyes to the left. Then he saw them, black specks against the greenish background glow, approaching swiftly, growing rapidly in size as they closed the distance. He pointed. "Over there, Ash. Do you see them?"
He tilted her chin until she was looking in the correct direction. "The drums must be calling them," he said. "My guess is they're acting like a dinner bell."
"What are they?" she asked.
"Something hungry. 'Cause they're coming in bloody fast!"
Ashley pointed to the gun at his waist. "How many bullets did you say you have left?"
"Only two." He scanned the horizon, counting the flying black figures. Larger than specks now, their wide wings could be seen beating the air. "I'd say there's a flock of at least fifteen aiming our way."
"So we can't shoot our way out." Ashley eyed the fields. "Maybe we could run for it. There are no guards out in the fields anymore."
"No, we'd be just sitting ducks out there. We need to find cover." Ben turned to the village. The drums had increased in fury, pounding wildly, making it harder to think clearly. He surveyed the village. All the dwelling openings were now securely covered with thick drapes. Nervous guards stationed at the ramps watched him with narrowed eyes, clutching spears tightly. No guards stood between him and a handful of openings on the ground level. He nudged Ashley and nodded to the six black openings. "How about we take cover in one of those?"
"Will the guards let us? Those spears don't seem too inviting."
"Notice they're only guarding the way up. These dwellings," he said waving an arm to encompass the six black openings, "are uncovered and unguarded."
"We'd better take a chance, then. Look!"
Ben swung around. "What the hell are they?" The flock had approached close enough to make out details. Leathery wingspans spread several yards wide, armed with hooked black beaks and ebony talons longer than his forearm. And their eyes! Black dull orbs, unblinking, like those of a great white shark.
"Some flying predator! A descendant of the pterodactyl, maybe," Ashley said, tugging on his arm. "Let's go. They're almost on top of us. We need cover."
He tore his eyes from the approaching flock, now only fifty meters away. "Run!" he hollered as he pushed her forward. The guards made no move to stop them.
The drums suddenly stopped, the frantic pounding ceasing in a single beat, leaving only a heavy silence. He hurried his pace, struggling to keep up with Ashley.
Behind him, he heard a loud thud followed by several others, like boulders crashing to earth. The flock had landed, screeches erupting from several throats.
Ahead, Ashley had almost reached the closest opening, the five remaining black holes spread farther along the wall. Suddenly he remembered the message from the drums, almost like the words blazed across his mind's eye: One way out! He again studied the six openings. Six! And only one way out! He noticed a small carving above the entrance Ashley was driving toward: a circle with a triangle within it. Not the correct symbol. Wrong way!
He sped faster and tackled Ashley as she tried to duck into the opening. He rolled across the floor, jamming his shoulder as he cradled her from the fall.
She struggled free. "What're you doing?"
"No time!" He pushed up, yanking her with him. "Follow me."
"Ben! Behind you!"
He swung around, pulling his pistol free as he turned, knowing what he would find. It stood taller than an ostrich, but unlike the thin-necked bird, it was all muscle and beak. It lunged at him, striking low, trying to gut him with its hooked beak.
Bloody hell! He was getting damned tired of things trying to eat him. He fired two shots into its skull, the last at almost point-blank range. "Bugger off!" he screamed, ducking away, pulling Ashley aside.
With Ashley in tow, he sprinted across the cliff's base, searching for the correct symbol. Behind him, the beast's carcass was attacked by the others. Hot blood splashed across the back of his legs as he ran. He prayed the body would buy them the time they needed.