"No!" Fiona screamed as she reached the bottom of the stairs.
The rifleman didn't even smile as he pulled the trigger.
HLUHLUWE-UMFOLOZI GAME PRESERVE
ZULULAND, SOUTH AFRICA
"Run!" Khamisi repeated.
Dr. Fairfield needed no further prodding. They fled in the direction of their waiting Jeep. Reaching the watering hole, Khamisi waved Dr. Fairfield ahead of him. She shouldered through the tall reeds—but not before silently meeting his gaze. Horror shone in her eyes, mirroring his own.
Whatever creatures had screamed in the forest had sounded large, massive, and whetted from the recent kill. Khamisi glanced back at the rhino's macerated carcass. Monsters or not, he needed no other information about what might be hidden in the maze of heavy forest, trickling streams, and shadowed gullies.
Twisting back around, Khamisi followed the biologist. He checked over his shoulder frequently, ears straining for any sound of pursuit. Something splashed into the neighboring pond. Khamisi ignored it. It was a small splash. Too small. His brain teased out extraneous details, sifting through the buzz of insects and crunch of reeds. He concentrated upon real danger signals. Khamisi's father had taught him how to hunt when he was only six years old, drilling into him the signs to watch when stalking prey.
Only now, he was the hunted.
The panicked whir of wings drew his ear and eye.
A flick of movement.
Off to the left.
In the sky.
A single shrike took wing.
Something had frightened it.
Something on the move.
Khamisi closed the distance with Dr. Fairfield as they cleared the reeds.
"Hurry," he whispered, senses straining.
Dr. Fairfield craned her neck, her rifle swiveling. She was breathing hard, face ashen. Khamisi followed her gaze. Their Jeep stood at the ridgeline above, parked in the shade of the baobab tree at the edge of the deep hollow. The slope seemed steeper and longer than it had coming down.
"Keep moving," he urged.
Glancing back, Khamisi spotted a tawny klipspringer doe leap from the forest edge and skip-hop its way up the far slope, kicking up dirt.
Then it was gone.
They needed to heed its example.
Dr. Fairfield headed up the slope. Khamisi followed, sidestepping, fixing his double-barreled rifle toward the forest behind them.
"They didn't kill to eat," Dr. Fairfield gasped ahead of him.
Khamisi studied the dark tangle of forest. Why did he know she was right?
"Hunger hadn't goaded them," the biologist continued, as if struggling to qualm her panic with deliberation. "Hardly anything was eaten. It was as if they had killed for pleasure. Like a house cat hunting a mouse."
Khamisi had worked alongside many predators. It wasn't the way of the natural world. Lions, after a meal, seldom proved a threat, usually lounging about, even approachable, up to a distance. A sated predator would not tear apart a rhino, rip its calf from its belly, just for the sport of it.
Dr. Fairfield continued her litany, as if the present danger were a puzzle to solve. "In the domesticated world, it is the well-fed house cat that hunts more often. It has the energy and the time for such play."
"Just keep moving," he said, not wanting to hear more.
Dr. Fairfield nodded, but the biologist's words stayed with Khamisi. What sort of predator kills just for the sport of it? Of course, there was one obvious answer.
But this was not the work of any human hand.
Movement again captured Khamisi's gaze. For just a moment, a pale shape shifted behind the fringe of dark forest, caught out of the corner of the eye. It vanished like white smoke as he focused on the spot.
He remembered the words of the wizened Zulu tribesman.
Half beast, half ghost…
Despite the heat, his skin went cold. He increased his pace, almost shouldering the older biologist up the slope. Loose shale and sandy dirt shifted treacherously underfoot. But they were almost at the top. The Jeep was only thirty meters away.
Then Dr. Fairfield slipped.
She went down on a knee and fell backward, knocking into Khamisi.
He took a stumbled step back, missed his footing, and went down hard on his rear. The angle of the slope and momentum tumbled him ass over end. He rolled halfway down the hill before he finally braked his fall using his heels and the butt of his rifle.
Dr. Fairfield still sat where she had fallen, eyes wide with fear, staring back down.
Not at him.
At the forest.
Khamisi twisted around, gaining his knees; his ankle screamed, sprained, maybe broken. He searched and saw nothing, but he raised his rifle.
"Go!" he screamed. He had left the keys in the ignition. "Go!"
He heard Dr. Fairfield scramble to her feet with a crunch of shale.
From the forest edge, another ululating cry arose, cackling and inhuman.
Khamisi aimed blindly and pulled the trigger. The boom of his rifle shattered through the hollow. Dr. Fairfield cried out behind him, startled. Khamisi hoped the noise also startled off whatever lurked out there.
"Get to the Jeep!" he bellowed. "Just go! Don't wait!"
He stood, leaning his weight off his bad ankle. He kept his rifle poised. The forest had gone quiet again.
He heard Dr. Fairfield reach the top of the slope. "Khamisi…" she called back.
"Take the Jeep!"
He risked a glance behind him, over his shoulder.
Dr. Fairfield turned from the ridgeline and stepped toward the Jeep. Above her, movement in the branches of the baobab drew his eye. A few of the tree's droopy white flowers swayed gently.
There was no wind.
"Marcia!" he yelled. "Don't—!"
A savage cry erupted behind him, drowning out the rest of his warning. Dr. Fairfield turned half a step in his direction.
It leaped down from the deep shadows of the giant tree, a pale blur. It struck the biologist and knocked them both out of sight. Khamisi heard a curdling scream from the woman, but it was ripped away in half a breath.
Silence again settled.
Khamisi faced the forest edge again.
Death above and below.
He had only one chance.
Ignoring the pain in his ankle, Khamisi ran.
Down the slope.
He simply let gravity take hold of him. It wasn't so much a sprint as a freefall. He raced back to the bottom of the hill, legs struggling to keep him upright. Reaching the bottom, he pointed his gun toward the forest and squeezed out a second shot from his double barrel.
He had no hope of scaring off the hunters. He sought only to buy himself an extra fraction of life. The rebound of the rifle also helped him keep his feet as the slope leveled out. He kept running, ankle on fire, heart thundering.