CHAPTER SEVEN

THE ROARwas critical. If the panther had clamped its fangs clean around my throat, I wouldn't have stood a chance. But the animal was excited - probably by having outsmarted us - and tossed its head, growling savagely as we rolled over and came to a stop with the powerful beast on top of me.

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As it roared, Harkat reacted with cool speed and launched a cactus missile. It could have bounced off the animal's head or shoulders, but the luck of the vampires was with us, and the cactus sailed clean between the panther's fearsome jaws.

The panther instantly lost interest in me and lurched aside, spitting and scratching at the cactus stuck in its mouth. I crawled away, panting, scrabbling for the knife I'd dropped. Harkat leapt over me as my fingers closed around the handle of the bone, and brought his club down upon the head of the panther.

If the club had been made of tougher material, Harkat would have killed the panther - he could do immense damage with most axes or clubs. But the wood he'd carved it from proved unworthy of the task, and the club smashed in half as it cracked over the panther's hard skull.

The panther howled with pain and rage, and turned on Harkat, spitting spines, its yellow teeth reflecting the gleam of the afternoon sun. It swiped at his squat grey head and opened up a deep gash down the left side of his face. Harkat fell backwards from the force of the blow and the panther leapt after him.

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I didn't have time to get up and lunge after the panther - it would be on Harkat before I crossed the space between us - so I sent my knife flying through the air at it. The bone deflected harmlessly off the creature's powerful flanks, but it distracted the beast and its head snapped around. Harkat used the moment to grab a couple of the mud-balls hanging from his blue robes. When the panther faced him again, Harkat let it have the mud-balls between the eyes.

The panther squealed and turned a sharp ninety degrees away from Harkat. It scraped at its eyes with its left paw, wiping the mud away. As it was doing that, Harkat grabbed the lower half of his broken club and jammed the splintered end into the panthers ribcage. The club penetrated the panther's body, but only slightly, drawing blood but not puncturing the panther's lungs.

That was too much for the panther - it went berserk. Even thoughit couldn't see properly, it threw itself at Harkat, hissing and spitting, swiping with its deadly claws. Harkat ducked out of the way, but the panther's claws snagged on the hem of his robes. Before he could free himself, the predator was on him, working blindly, its teeth gnashing together in search of Harkat's face.

Harkat wrapped his arms tight around the panther and squeezed, trying to snap its ribs or suffocate it. While he did that, I leapt on the panther's back and raked at its nose and eyes with another cactus head. The panther caught the cactus with its teeth and ripped it clear of my grasp - almost taking my right thumb with it!

"Get off!" Harkat wheezed as I clung to the panther's heaving shoulders and scrabbled for another cactus.

"I think I can?" I started to shout.

"Off!" Harkat roared.

There was no arguing with a cry like that. I let go of the panther and slumped to the ground. As I did, Harkat locked his hands even tighter together and spun, looking for the pit through the green blood streaming into his wide left eye. Finding it, he clutched the struggling panther close to his chest, stumbled towards the pit - and threw himself in!

"Harkat!" I screamed, reaching out automatically, as though I could grab and save him. The picture of Mr Crepsley falling into the pit of stakes in the Cavern of Retribution flashed through my head, and my insides turned to lead.

There was an ugly thud and an agonizing screech as the panther was impaled on the stakes. No sound came from Harkat, which made me think he'd landed beneath the panther and died instantly.

"No!" I moaned, picking myself up and hobbling towards the edge of the pit. I was so worried about Harkat that I almost toppled into the pit myself! As I stood on the edge, arms swinging wildly to correct my balance, there was a low groan and I saw Harkat's head turn. He'd landed on top of the panther - he was alive!

"Harkat!" I shouted again, joyously this time.

"Help - me - up," he gasped. The panther's limbs were still twitching, but they no longer presented a threat - it was nearing the final stages of its death throes and wouldn't have had the strength to kill Harkat even if it wished to.

Lying on my stomach, I reached down into the pit and offered Harkat my hand, but he couldn't reach. He was lying flat on the panther, and although the creature - and the baboon underneath - had taken the worst of the stakes, several had pierced Harkat, a few in his legs, a couple in his stomach and chest, and one through the flesh of his upper left arm. The wounds to his legs and body didn't look too serious. The one through his arm was the problem - he was stuck on the stake and couldn't raise his right hand high enough to clutch mine.

"Wait there," I said, looking around for something to lower to him.

"As if - I could go - anywhere!" I heard him mutter sarcastically.

We didn't have any rope, but there were plenty of strong vines growing nearby. Hurrying to the nearest, I sawed at it with my fingernails, cutting off a two metre length. I grabbed it tightly near both ends and tugged sharply to test it. The vine didn't snap under the strain, so I returned to the pit and fed down one end to Harkat. The Little Person grabbed it with his free right hand, waited until I'd got a good grip on my end, then yanked his left arm free of the stake. He gasped tightly as his flesh slid off the piercing wood. Grasping the vine tight, he swung his feet on to the wall of the pit and walked up it, pulling on the vine at the same time.

Harkat was almost at the top when his feet slipped. As his legs dropped, I realized his falling weight would drag us both down if I held on to the rope. I released it with snake-like speed, collapsed to my stomach and clutched for Harkat's hands.

I missed his hands, but my fingers closed on the left sleeve of his blue robes. There was a terrifying ripping sound and I thought I'd lost him, but the material held, and after a few dangerous, dangling seconds I was able to haul the Little Person up out of the pit.

Rolling on to his back, Harkat stared up at the sky, his grey, stitched-together face looking even more like a corpse's than usual. I tried to get up, but my legs were trembling, so I flopped beside him and the two of us lay there in silence, breathing heavily, marvelling inwardly at the fact that we were still alive.

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