AWEEKafter leaving the desert behind, we entered a jungle of thick cactus plants, long snaking vines, and stunted, twisted trees. Very few leaves grew on the trees. Those that did were long and thin, a dull orange colour, grouped near the tops of the trees.
We'd come across traces of animals - droppings, bones, hair - but didn't see any until we entered the jungle. There we found a curious mix of familiar yet strange creatures. Most of the animals were similar to those of Earth - deer, squirrels, monkeys - but different, usually in size or colouring. Some of the differences weren't so readily apparent - we captured a squirrel one day, which turned out to have an extra set of sharp teeth when we examined it, and surprisingly long claws.
We'd picked up dagger-shaped stones during the course of our trek, which we'd sharpened into knives. We now made more weapons out of thick sticks and bones of larger animals. They wouldn't be much use against a panther, but they helped us frighten off the small yellow monkeys which jumped from trees on to the heads of their victims, blinded them with their claws and teeth, then finished them off as they stumbled around.
"I never heard of monkeys like that," I remarked one morning as we watched a group of the simians bring down and devour a huge boar-like animal.
"Me neither," Harkat said.
As we watched, the monkeys paused and sniffed the air suspiciously. One ran to a thick bush and screeched threateningly. There was a deep grunt from within the bush, then a larger monkey - like a baboon, only an odd red colour - stepped out and shook a long arm at the others. The yellow monkeys bared their teeth, hissed and threw twigs and small pebbles at the newcomer, but the baboon ignored them and advanced. The smaller monkeys retreated, leaving the baboon to finish off the boar.
"I guess size matters," I muttered wryly, then Harkat and I slipped away and left the baboon to feed in peace.
The next night, while Harkat slept - his nightmares had stopped since coming to this new world - and I stood guard, there was a loud, fierce roar from somewhere ahead of us. The night was usually filled with the nonstop sounds of insects and other nocturnal creatures, but at the roar all noise ceased. There was total silence - once the echoes of the roar subsided - for at least five minutes.
Harkat slept through the roar. He was normally a light sleeper, but the air here agreed with him and he'd been dozing more deeply. I told him about it in the morning.
"You think it was - our panther?" he asked.
"It was definitely a big cat," I said. "It might have been a lion or tiger, but my money's on the black panther."
"Panthers are usually very quiet," Harkat said. "But I guess they could be - different here. If this is his territory, he should come by - this way soon. Panthers are on constant patrol. We must prepare." During his time in Vampire Mountain, when he'd been working for Seba Nile, Harkat had spoken with several vampires who'd hunted or fought with lions and leopards, so he knew quite a lot about them. "We must dig a pit to - lure it into, catch and truss a deer, and also find some - porcupines."
"Porcupines?" I asked.
"Their quills can stick in the panther's - paws, snout and mouth. They might slow it down or - distract it."
"We're going to need more than porcupine quills to kill a panther," I noted.
"With luck, we'll startle it when - it comes to feed on the deer. We can jump out and frighten it into - the pit. Hopefully it will die there."
"And if it doesn't?" I asked.
Harkat grinned edgily. "We're in trouble. Black panthers are really leopards, and leopards are - the worst of the big cats. They're fast, strong, savage and - great climbers. We won't be able to outrun it or - climb higher than it."
"So if plan A fails, there's no plan B?"
"No." Harkat chuckled dryly. "It'll be straight to plan B ?Panic !"
We found a clearing with a thick bush at one end where we'd be able to hide. We spent the morning digging a deep pit with our hands and the rough tools we'd fashioned from branches and bones. When the pit was done, we harvested a couple of dozen thick branches and sharpened the tips, creating stakes that we were going to place in the base of the pit.
As we were climbing into the pit to plant the stakes, I stopped at the edge and started to tremble - remembering another pit that had been filled with stakes, and the friend I'd lost there.
"What's wrong?" Harkat asked. Before I could answer, he read it in my eyes. "Oh," he sighed. "Mr Crepsley."
"Isn't there any other way to kill it?" I groaned.
"Not without proper equipment." Harkat took my stakes from me and smiled encouragingly. "Go hunt for porcupines. I'll handle this - end of the operation."
Nodding gratefully, I left Harkat to plant the stakes and went looking for porcupines or anything else to use against the panther. I hadn't thought much about Mr Crepsley lately - this harsh world had demanded my full attention - but the pit brought it all crashing back. Again I saw him drop and heard his screams as he died. I wanted to leave the pit and panther, but that wasn't an option. We had to kill the predator to learn where to go next. So I quashed thoughts of Mr Crepsley as best I could and immersed myself in work.
I picked some of the sturdier cacti to use as missiles against the black panther, and made mud-balls using leaves and fresh mud from a nearby stream - I hoped the mud might temporarily blind the panther. I searched hard for porcupines, but if any were in the vicinity, they were keeping an ultra low profile. I had to report back quill-less to Harkat in the afternoon.
"Never mind," he said, sitting by the edge of the completed pit. "Let's create a cover for this and - catch a deer. After that we're in the lap - of the gods."
We built a thin cover for the pit out of long twigs and leaves, laid it over the hole and went hunting. The deer here were shorter than those on Earth, with longer heads. They couldn't run as fast as their Earth counterparts, but were still pretty swift. It took a while to track down a lame straggler and bring it back alive. It was dusk by the time we tied it to a stake close to the pit, and we were both tired after our long, taxing day.
"What happens if the panther attacks during the night?" I asked, sheltering under a skin I'd sliced from a deer with a small stone scraper.
"Why do you always have to anticipate - the worst?" Harkat grumbled.
"Somebody has to," I laughed. "Will it be plan B time?"
"No," Harkat sighed. "If he comes in the dark, it's - KYAG time."
"KYAG?" I echoed.
"Kiss Your Ass Goodbye!"
There was no sign of the panther that night, though we both heard deep-throated growls, closer than the roars of the night before. As soon as dawn broke, we ate a hasty breakfast - berries we'd picked after seeing monkeys eat them - and positioned ourselves in the thick covering bush opposite the staked deer and pit. If all went according to plan, the panther would attack the deer. With luck it'd come at it from the far side of the pit and fall in. If not, we'd leap up whilstit was dragging off the deer and hopefully force it backwards to its doom. Not the most elaborate plan in the world, but it would have to do.
We said nothing as the minutes turned to hours, silently waiting for the panther. My mouth was dry and I sipped frequently from the squirrel skin beakers (we'd replaced the lizard-skin containers) by my side, though only small amounts - to cut out too many toilet trips.
About an hour after midday I laid a hand on Harkat's grey arm and squeezed warningly - I'd seen something long and black through the trees. Both of us stared hard. As we did, I saw the tip of a whiskered nose stick out from around a tree and sniff the air testingly - the panther! I kept my mouth closed, willing the panther to advance, but after a few hesitant seconds it turned and padded away into the gloom of the jungle.
Harkat and I looked questioningly at one another. "It must have smelt us," I whispered.
"Or sensed something wrong," Harkat whispered back. Lifting his head slightly, he studied the grazing deer by the pit, then jerked a thumb backwards. "Let's get further away. I think it will return. If we aren't here, it might be - tempted to attack."
"We won't have a clear view if we withdraw any further," I noted.
"I know," Harkat said, "but we've no choice. It knew something was wrong. If we stay here, it'll also know when - it returns, and won't come any closer."
I followed Harkat as he wriggled further back into the bush, not stopping until we were almost at the end of the briars and vines. From here we could only vaguely see the deer.
An hour passed. Two. I was beginning to abandon hope that the panther would return, when the sound of deep breathing drifted towards us from the clearing. I caught flashes of the deer jumping around, straining to break free of its rope. Something growled throatily - the panther. Even more promising - the growls were coming from the far side of the pit. If the panther attacked the deer from there, it would fall straight into our trap!
Harkat and I lay motionless, barely breathing. We heard twigs snap as the panther closed in on the deer, not masking its sounds any longer. Then there was a loud snapping sound as a heavy body crashed through the covering over the pit and landed heavily on the stakes. There was a ferocious howl and I had to cover my ears with my hands. That was followed by silence, disturbed only by the pounding of the deer's hooves on the soil as it leapt around by the edge of the pit.
Harkat slowly got to his feet and stared over the bush at the open pit. I stood and stared with him. We glanced at each other and 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 me, hefting a knobbly, heavy wooden club. "It could still be alive. There's nothing more dangerous than - a wounded animal."
"It'd be howling with pain if it was alive," I said.
"Probably," Harkat nodded, "but let's not take any - needless risks." Stepping in front of me, he moved off to the left and signalled me to go right. Raising a knife-like piece of bone, I circled away from Harkat, then we slowly closed on the pit from opposite directions. As we got nearer, we each drew one of the small cacti we'd tied to our waists - we also had mud-balls strapped on - to toss like grenades if the panther was still alive.
Harkat came within sight of the pit before I did and stopped, confused. As I got closer, I saw what had bewildered him. I also drew to a halt, not sure what to make of it. 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 muttered. "Monkeys can't make the kind of growling or howling sounds we heard."
"But how did ?" Harkat stopped and fear flashed into his eyes. "The monkeys throat!" he gasped. "It's been ripped open! The panther must?"
He got no further. Even as I was leaping to the same conclusion - the panther had killed the baboon and dropped it into the pit to fool us! - 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 as it dragged me to the ground for the kill.