CHAPTER EIGHT

IPATCHEDHarkat up as best I could, cleaning out his wounds with water from the stream, slicing my jumper into strips to use as bandages. If I'd been a full-vampire I could have used my spit to close his cuts, but as a half-vampire I lacked that ability.

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The wounds to his face - where the panther had clawed him - should have been stitched, but neither of us had any thread or needles. I suggested improvising and using a small bone and animal hair, but Harkat waved the idea away. "I've enough stitches," he grinned. "Let it heal as it likes. I can't get any uglier - than I already am."

"That's true," I agreed, and laughed as he swatted me round the back of my head. I swiftly grew serious again. "If infection sets in ?"

"Looking on the bright side as usual," he groaned, then shrugged. "If it sets in, I'm finished - no - hospitals here. Let's not worry - about it."

I helped Harkat to his feet and we returned to the edge of the pit to gaze down at the panther. Harkat was limping worse than normal - he'd always had a slight limp in his left leg - but he said he wasn't in much pain. The panther was a metre and a half in length and thickly built. As we stared at it, I could hardly believe we'd bested it in the fight. Not for the first time in my life, I got the feeling that if vampire gods existed, they were keeping a close watch on me and lending a helping hand whenever I strayed out of my depth.

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"You know what worries me - the most?" Harkat asked after a while. "Mr Tiny said the panther was - theleast of our worries. That means there's worse ahead!"

"Now who's being pessimistic?" I snorted. "Want me to go down and get the panther out?"

"Let's wait until morning," Harkat said. "We'll build a good fire, eat, rest - and drag the panther - up tomorrow."

That sounded good to me, so while Harkat made a fire - using flinty stones to create sparks - I butchered the deer and set about carving it up. Once upon a time I might have let the deer go, but vampires are predators. We hunt and kill without remorse, the same as any other animal of the wilds.

The meat, when we cooked it, was tough, stringy and unappealing, but we ate ravenously, both aware of how fortunate we were not tobe the main course that night.

I climbed down into the pit in the morning and prised the panther off the stakes. Leaving the baboon where it lay I passed the panther's carcass up to Harkat. It wasn't as easy as it sounds - the panther was very heavy - but we were stronger than humans, so it wasn't one of our harder tasks.

We studied the panther's gleaming black corpse, wondering how it would tell us where to go. "Maybe we have to slice it open," I suggested. "There might be a box or canister inside."

"Worth trying," Harkat agreed, and rolled the panther over on its back, presenting us with its smooth, soft stomach.

"Wait!" I shouted as Harkat prepared to make the first cut. The hair on the panther's underside wasn't quite as dark as elsewhere. I could see the stretched skin of its stomach - and there was something drawn on it! I searched among our makeshift knives for one with a long, straight edge, then scraped away some of the hairs on the dead panthers stomach. Thin raised lines were revealed.

"That's just scar tissue," Harkat said.

"No," I disagreed. "Look at the circular shapes and the way they spread out. They've been carved deliberately. Help me scrape the entire stomach clear."

It didn't take long to shave the panther and reveal a detailed map. It must have been gouged into the panther's stomach many years ago, maybe when it was a cub. There was a small X at the extreme right of the map, which seemed to indicate our current position. Towards the left an area was circled, and something had been written within the circle.

"Go to the home of the worlds largest toad," I read aloud. "Grab the gelatinous globes."

That's all it said. We read it a few more times, then shared a puzzled look. "Any idea what 'gelatinous' means?" Harkat asked.

"I think it's got something to do with jelly," I answered uncertainly.

"So we've got to find the world's - largest toad, and grab globes made out of jelly?" Harkat sounded dubious.

"This is Mr Tiny we're dealing with," I reminded him. "He makes jokes out of everything. I think our best bet's simply to follow the map from here to the circle and worry about the rest once we get there."

Harkat nodded, then set about the panther's stomach with a sharp stone knife, cutting free the map. "Here," I stopped him. "Let me. I've got nimbler fingers."

As I carefully cut around the edges of the map and sliced the panther's flesh away from its insides, Harkat strolled around the dead beast, mulling something over. As I peeled the map free of the panther and wiped the inside of it clean on a patch of grass, Harkat stopped. "Do you recall Mr Tiny saying he'd - thrown in a clue to my identity?" he asked.

I cast my thoughts back. "Yes. Maybe that's what the message within the circle means."

"I doubt it," Harkat replied. "Whoever I was before I died, I'm pretty - sure I wasn't a toad!"

"Maybe you're a frog prince," I giggled.

"Ha bloody ha," Harkat said. "I'm sure the writings got nothing - to do with me. There must be something else."

I studied the dead panther. "If you want to root around in its guts, feel free," I told Harkat. "I'm content with the map."

Harkat crouched beside me and flexed his stubby grey fingers, intent on ripping out the panthers insides. I shifted away, not wanting to be part of the messy task. As I did, my eyes flicked to the panthers mouth. Its lips were curled up over its teeth in a frozen death snarl. I laid a hand on Harkat's left arm and said softly, "Look."

When Harkat saw what I was pointing at, he reached over to the panther's mouth and prised its stiff lips entirely clear of its fangs. There were small black letters etched into most of the creature's teeth - an A, a K, an M and others. "There!" Harkat grunted with excitement. "That must be it."

"I'll hold the head up," I said, "so that you can read all the?"

But before I'd finished, Harkat had grasped one of the panther's largest teeth with his fingers and attacked its gums with a knife held in his right. I saw that he was fixed on extracting all the teeth, so I left him to it while he hacked them loose.

When Harkat was done, he took the teeth to the stream and washed them clean of blood. When he returned, he scattered the teeth on the ground and we bent over them to try and decipher the mystery. There were eleven teeth in all, host to a variety of letters. I arranged them alphabetically so that we could see exactly what we had. There were two A's, followed by a single D, H, K, L, M, R, S, T and U.

"We must be able to make a - message out of them," Harkat said.

"Eleven letters," I mused. "It can't be a very long message. Let's see what we can come up with." I shifted the letters around until I got three words - ASK MUD RAT - with two letters left over, H and L.

Harkat tried and got SLAM DARK HUT. .

As I was juggling them around again, Harkat groaned, pushed me aside and began rearranging the teeth purposefully. "Have you worked it out?" I asked, slightly disappointed that he'd beaten me to the punch.

"Yes," he said, "but it's not a clue - just Mr Tiny - being smug." He finished laying out the teeth and waved at them bitterly - HARKAT MULDS.

"What's the point of that?" I grumbled. "That's a waste of time."

"Mr Tiny loves playing with time," Harkat sighed, then wrapped the teeth in a piece of cloth and tucked them away inside his robes.

"What are you hanging on to them for?" I asked.

"They're sharp," Harkat said. "They might come in useful." He stood and walked over to where the map was drying in the sun. "Will we be able to use this?" he asked, studying the lines and squiggles.

"If it's accurate," I replied.

"Then let's get going," Harkat said, rolling the map up and sticking it inside his robes along with the teeth. "I'm anxious to meet the world's - largest toad." He looked at me and grinned. "And to see if there's any - family resemblance."

Laughing, we broke camp quickly and set off through the trees, eager to leave behind the clouds of flies and insects gathering to feast on the corpse of the defeated lord of the jungle.

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