PROLOGUE

DEATH WASon the cards that day, but would it be ours or the panther's?

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Black panthers are really leopards. If you look closely, you can see faint spots blended into their fur. But trust me - unless it's in a zoo, you don't ever want to be that close to a panther! They're one of nature's greatest killers. They move silently and speedily. In a one-on-one fight they'll almost always come out on top. You can't outrun them, since they're faster than you, and you can't out-climb them, because they can climb too. The best thing is to stay out of their way completely, unless you're an experienced big game hunter and have come packing a rifle.

Harkat and I had never hunted a panther before, and our best weapons were a few stone knives and a long, round-ended stick that served as a club. Yet there we were, on the edge of a pit which we'd dug the day before, watching a deer we'd captured and were using as bait, waiting for a panther.

We'd been there for hours, hidden in a bush, clutching our humble weapons close to our sides, when I spotted something long and black through the cover of the surrounding trees. A whiskered nose stuck out from around a tree and sniffed the air testingly - the panther. I nudged Harkat gently and we watched it, holding our breath, stiff with fright. After a few seconds the panther turned and padded away, back into the gloom of the jungle.

Harkat and I discussed the panther's retreat in whispers. I thought the panther had sensed a trap and wouldn't return. Harkat disagreed. He said it would come back. If we withdrew further, it might advance fully the next time. So we wriggled backwards, not stopping until we were almost at the end of the long stretch of bush. From here we could only vaguely see the deer.

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A couple of hours passed. We said nothing. I was about to break the silence and suggest we were wasting our time, when I heard a large animal moving. The deer was jumping around wildly. There was a throaty growl. It came from the far side of the pit. That was great - if the panther attacked the deer from there, it might fall straight into our trap and be killed in the pit. Then we wouldn't have to fight it at all!

I heard twigs snap as the panther crept up on the deer. Then there was a loud snapping sound as a heavy body crashed through the covering over the pit and landed heavily on the stakes we'd set in the bottom. There was a ferocious howl, followed by silence.

Harkat slowly got to his feet and stared over the bush at the pit. I stood and stared with him. We glanced at each other. I said uncertainly, "It worked."

"You sound like you didn't - expect it to," Harkat grinned.

"I didn't," I laughed, and started towards the pit.

"Careful," Harkat warned. "It could still be alive."

Stepping in front of me, he moved off to the left and signalled for me to go right. Raising my knife, I circled away from Harkat, then we slowly closed on the pit from opposite directions.

Harkat was a few steps ahead of me, so he saw into the pit first. He stopped, confused. A couple of seconds later, I saw why. A body lay impaled on the stakes, blood dripping from its many puncture wounds. But it wasn't the body of a panther - it was a red baboon.

"I don't understand," I said. "That was a panther's growl, not a monkey's."

"But how did ?" Harkat stopped and gasped. "The monkey's throat! It's been ripped open! The panther must?"

He got no further. There was a blur of movement in the upper branches of the tree closest to me. Whirling, I caught a very brief glimpse of a long, thick, pure black object flying through the air with outstretched claws and gaping jaws - then the panther was upon me, roaring triumphantly.

Death was on the cards that day.

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