The first thing Alastair Stone noticed when he woke up was the dampness. It was everywhere—his clothes were damp, his hair was damp, and his entire body felt like he had been sweating all night. He sat up slowly, cursing the stiffness in his body—although he was in good physical condition, he was getting a bit old to be sleeping on the hard ground with nothing but a thermal blanket beneath him. Old Whittaker must be bound up like a pretzel, he thought a trifle sourly as he swiped his hand across his stubbled face.

“Morning, Dr. Stone,” said Peter Hsu. The Thaumaturgy student looked somewhat rumpled but otherwise reasonably awake.

“Morning.” Stone looked around the camp. The fire was still burning in the center, and some of the party was moving around near it gathering things and stowing them in backpacks. A few were still asleep, though they were showing signs of rising. “Anything to report?”

Hsu shook his head. “No—it was pretty quiet after you went to sleep. Lots of weird noises, but nothing got near us. Except the plants,” he added, pointing.

Stone hadn’t noticed until Hsu indicated it, but sure enough it appeared that in many places the local flora had encroached into their clearing significantly more than had been the case the previous night. He nodded. “It does that. It’s probably covered up the plane already, without the fire to keep it at bay. If you’re patient you can almost see it growing.” He noticed also that Whittaker and Prakesh were over near one clump of it, examining it with interest. Whittaker appeared to be using the situation as an opportunity for an impromptu lecture.

Stone got up the rest of the way, feeling even more rumpled than Hsu looked and wishing ardently for a shower, a shave, and a change of clothes. “Right, then,” he said, sighing and once more shoving his damp hair off his forehead, “let’s get everybody together and see what we’ve got for breakfast. Then we’ll decide what to do from there.”

Aside from the food items they had in their backpacks, it quickly became apparent that there was plenty of available food in the form of fruit growing abundantly in the area around the campsite. Whittaker, Meriwether, and Prakesh gathered a good supply while the others picked up their small campsite, put out the fire, and stowed their gear in their packs. “You should eat lightly,” Gustavo Santiago told them as a few began tucking in to their breakfasts in earnest. “Take some with you and eat throughout the day—do not fill yourselves up now or you will have discomfort when we are moving. There will be plenty to eat along the way.”

The students all took his advice and put their remaining fruit in their pockets. “Are we moving, then?” Catherine Merriwether asked through a mouthful of banana. “I still think it would be best to stay near the plane—that’s where they’ll be looking for us.”

If they are looking for us,” Santiago, who was sitting near Stone, muttered.

Stone nodded slightly in acknowledgement, then looked up at the group. “Ms. Merriwether’s suggestion makes a certain amount of sense,” he admitted, “although this isn’t a standard plane-crash situation. In the first place, no one is keen to go into the Amazonian jungle for any purpose, let alone to hunt for a plane that it’s possible no one even knows where it went down. In the second place, even if someone does know our approximate location, mounting a rescue expedition around here isn’t a simple matter.”

“He is right,” Diego Corazón said. He was looking better this morning after a full night’s sleep. “There is much—” he struggled for a moment with the word “—bureaucracy here. Before it would be possible to begin a rescue mission the proper papers would need to be secured—”

“—and the proper palms greased,” Stone added. Corazón nodded in agreement.

“So you think it would be best if we tried to find our way out on our own,” Frasier said.

Stone nodded. “Not out, perhaps, but at least to somewhere safer than here. I’ve no idea how close we are to civilization or even to a river—if we find a river we might be able to find a village or something near it. But with the astral the way it is and the way this place buggers up electronic equipment, I doubt sitting here will do us any good at all.”

“What about the pilots?” Merriwether persisted. “You said we could revisit that in the morning. We can’t just leave them there to rot in the jungle.”

Stone sighed and drew breath to answer, but Frasier spoke first. “Catherine, they’re dead. They don’t care anymore what happens to their bodies. I know that sounds harsh, but I don’t think it’s wise to risk our lives trying to get them out of the plane and bury them, do you?” He paused, looking like he didn’t want to continue, but forced himself to do so: “Besides—after a night in this place, I doubt there’s much of them left to bury.”

Merriwether shuddered, and so did a couple of the others.

“He’s right,” Stone said gently. “I didn’t want to say it, but you heard the jaguar last night—I’m sure he’s got plenty of friends, not to mention the scavengers. I think we’ll have to settle for some sort of memorial when we get out of here.”

Merriwether didn’t look happy, but she sighed at last and nodded. “Okay,” she said. “I’m outvoted, and you know more about this than I do. Let’s go if we’re going.”

After a brief consultation between Santiago, Corazón, Stone, and Frasier, the group chose a direction approximately , figuring that based on where they had intended to land and how far out they’d been when the engines had failed, this direction would likely take them to either a river or the coast in the shortest amount of time. They applied fresh coats of insect repellent and set out with the two guides in the lead, Stone next, and the wary Frasier taking the rear position. The others maintained a loose clump in the middle of the group.

It was slow going: it was not terribly hot, but the humidity was so high that all of them were quickly soaked with unpleasant slicks of sweat that would not dry. Stone was only too happy to turn over leadership of the group to Santiago and Corazón—the ease at which they moved through the vegetation and the watchful postures they maintained, guns ready, gave him confidence. He too remained vigilant, and when he glanced over his shoulder at the rest of the group he could see that they were picking their steps carefully and keeping an eye overhead. Before they’d set out, the guides had warned them about dangers from above—not just snakes like the one that had attacked Merriwether but also monkeys, jungle cats, some of the larger predatory birds, and a few species of vines. Apparently their warning had not gone unheeded.

They had walked for only about an hour when the Santiago held up his hand, calling a halt. Stone made his way to the front of the group. “What is it? Is something wrong?” He glanced around looking for immediate threats but saw none.

Santiago shook his head, swiping the sweat off his forehead with his kerchief. “No, señor. The climate here can drain one’s energy quickly. Because the humidity is so high, the sweat does not evaporate as it should. We should stop frequently for water and light meals. We will not move as quickly this way, but it will prevent exhaustion.”

Stone nodded, looking back at the group. Dr. Whittaker had already dropped to the ground, panting with exertion. Merriwether and Prakesh both looked tired as well. Frasier moved around the perimeter keeping watch, as did Corazón. Stone, satisfied that everything was well for the moment, joined them.

They resumed their trek again after about twenty minutes, and once again Santiago let them walk for about an hour before declaring another rest period. “I’d forgotten how frightful it is here,” Stone told Whittaker. “I’d say it was like walking through a damp sweat sock, except that it smells better. The bugs are about right, though,” he added, smacking at a large one that had lit on his neck.

“I meant to ask you about that,” Whittaker said. “What were you doing in Amazonia? It hardly seems a choice holiday spot, and as far as I know the University hasn’t sponsored any trips here in the last few years. This one was a bit of a big deal, as I recall.”

Stone nodded. “I didn’t go with the University, and it certainly wasn’t a holiday. I—” He paused to make sure he worded the explanation just right “—went with another expedition. Some friends and I provided our services to a group who was seeking those kiwis mentioned in Dunkelzahn’s will. Remember?”

Whittaker looked surprised and astonished. “You’re not serious!” His tone was more excited than Stone had ever heard, and possibly even a little envious.

“Every bit,” Stone told him. “Nasty business.”

“Oh? Come to think of it, I don’t recall ever reading anything about those kiwis—did your group manage to find them, or did it end up being a futile effort?”

“Oh, we found them all right.” Stone’s voice grew grim. “Once Dunkelzahn’s people found out about them, they decided they didn’t want them after all.”

“Why is that?” Whittaker leaned forward expectantly.

“Let’s just say they were playing host to some rather nasty beasties and leave it at that, shall we?”

Whittaker looked disappointed, but nodded. “As you wish, Alastair. Perhaps you can tell me more at some later time.”

“Perhaps so,” Stone agreed, rising. He suspected that Whittaker knew as well as he himself did that this wasn’t going to happen. There were just too many pieces of his other life tied up with that story for him to share the details with anyone.

The march continued for the rest of the morning, with most of the marchers getting progressively more tired and drained as the day went on. By noon, Santiago and Corazón led them into a small clearing and dropped their packs. “We will rest here for the remainder of the afternoon,” Santiago said. “The afternoon is too hot for us to continue, but in three hours or so we should be able to get three or four more hours in before we make camp.”

Nobody argued—in fact, most of them were already following the guides’ lead, tossing their packs down and finding reasonably clear looking spaces on the ground to sit down.

Stone chose a spot near Frasier and Gina Kane. It was raining again, and although they found ready shelter under one of the area’s ubiquitous trees, the ground was damp and uncomfortable. Most of them were sitting on their packs. “Do you think your watcher spirit made it to your friend?” Kane asked suddenly. She looked like she had been deep in thought for quite some time.

Stone shrugged. “I certainly hope so. I did summon it while we were in the air, which means that it might have avoided some of the more...interesting aspects of the astral around here. I see no reason why it wouldn’t find him, but I wouldn’t advise placing too many of your hopes on the possibility.”

Frasier nodded. “I wonder how much longer we’ll have to hike before we find a river or some other landmark we can navigate by. I hope it’s not too long, because I doubt some of our group are going to be able to keep it together for much longer than a few days.”

“We’ll do what we need to,” Kane said, sounding a little nettled.

Frasier quickly raised his hands in a gesture of surrender. “I’m not trying to put anyone down,” he said quickly. “That’s not what I mean. But this kind of heat and humidity can be insidious. It saps your energy slowly, and don’t forget, some of these people were injured. Just because they’re healed now doesn’t mean we were able to replace the blood they lost, nor completely get rid of the trauma they’ve suffered.”

Kane was mollified by his words, her look of annoyance turning to one of contemplation. Finally she nodded. “True. But we don’t have much choice, do we? We can’t just sit here and wait for the vines to grow over us.” She glanced over to where the parabotany students and Whittaker had once again huddled up to examine some bright flowers surrounded by creeping vines. “And now that we’ve moved away from the plane, nobody will even know where to look for us.”

“I’m afraid you’re right,” Stone agreed. “We are on our own here, but I think we’re up to the task. Most of our group are young, and no one is in frightfully bad shape, just a little out of condition. What we’ve got in our favor is that there’s plenty of food and water, and with all the mages we have in the group, injuries aren’t a big issue unless someone wanders off.”

“Is it really as dangerous as you’re leading us to believe?” Kane asked, lowering her voice. “Or was all that just exaggeration to keep everyone together?”

Stone shook his head. “Every bit is true,” he said. “You didn’t see the snake that attacked Ms. Merriwether—that thing was as big as she is. Snakes, jaguars, monkeys—I don’t want to alarm anyone unnecessarily, but there are some very nasty things in this jungle.”

“Nastier than that,” Frasier added, “but fortunately most of the really scary things are fairly rare and don’t come out often.”

“Like what?” Kane asked, eyes widening.

Frasier looked at Stone, who shrugged and reluctantly took up the story. “I’ve seen a basilisk once, and a couple of macareu in the water...”

“And dragons,” Frasier put in, dropping his voice even more.

Kane stiffened and her eyes flashed. “Yeah, right. You’re lying, Kevin! You said yourself you’ve never been down here before. Now you’re just trying to scare me.”

Frasier grinned. “No, I haven’t been here before, but everybody knows dragons live in Amazonia. Didn’t you do your research? There are even great dragons, feathered serpents: Hualpa lives here, and the rumors say so does Sirrurg and at least one more. Not to mention who knows how many smaller dragons. Isn’t that right, Dr. Stone?”

“I don’t think we have anything to worry about from any dragons,” Stone said, catching the look on Kane’s face which warred between fear and anger. “They tend to mind their own business. Unless you blunder into their lairs, and that’s not an easy thing to do.”

“Speaking from experience?” Frasier chuckled.

Stone was spared having to answer because suddenly there seemed to be a commotion on the other side of the clearing. He leaped up and hurried over, followed closely by Kane and Frasier.

The group that had been looking at botanical specimens had scrambled up and were now backing away, holding their hands up in protective poses. Stone was about to ask what the problem was when a large chunk of wood sailed through the air and smacked him in the shoulder. It wasn’t hard enough to hurt but it nonetheless did startle him. “What the—?”

This time it was a yellow fruit that looked like an oversized banana, and it hit Kevin Frasier in the chest. The two parabotany students and Whittaker were making a quick retreat back toward where Stone, Frasier, and Kane stood. “What is it?” Stone demanded, looking around for the source of the thrown objects.

Before he could answer, the entire group (including the two guides and Peter Hsu, who had come in from the far side of the clearing) were suddenly pelted by objects ranging from fruit to wood chunks to large wads of vines. Stone got a quick impression of a large brown face that almost looked human before it ducked back into the trees.

“Monkeys!” Santiago said at the same time Stone figured it out. He backed up toward the center of the clearing. “Move away from the trees,” the guide ordered. “We will go now. Gather up your things.”

“Are they dangerous?” Prakesh asked, hastily stuffing things into his pack as everyone else scrambled to do the same. “They’re just monkeys, right?”

Now that he’d gotten a look at their attackers, Stone had a better idea of what they were dealing with. “If they’re like the ones I’ve seen before, they are dangerous,” he said. “They like to jump out of trees and attack.” He joined the group gathering up gear and looked at Santiago. “Agropelter?”

The guide nodded grimly. “They will not leap down on us as long as we stay in the clearing, but this is their territory. If we don’t leave, they will grow bolder.”

“No problem,” Kane said. “Hey, if they want it, they can have it. We’ll just find another damp, overhumid part of the jungle.”

Once everybody stopped running into each other in their frightened haste, the gear-gathering went fairly quickly. In less than five minutes they were packed up and ready to go. Santiago and Corazón moved on either side of the group, rifles at the ready. A few more items came flying out of the trees and hitting various people, but no one was hurt. Frasier plucked a banana out of the air and proceeded to eat it as the expedition fell into line and hurried away.

Nobody spoke for several minutes—they were moving faster than they were accustomed and needed all their breath for hiking. Finally Stone broke the silence. “Well, that was fun. Nothing like an encounter with the local wildlife to liven up an afternoon.”

“What were those?” Catherine Merriwether asked. “I’ve never seen a monkey get that aggressive before.”

“How many monkeys have you seen?” Frasier asked with a grin. “Outside a zoo, I mean.”

Merriwether gave him a dirty look and looked back at Stone first, then at the guides, still waiting for an answer to her question.

“Agropelters,” Corazón said. “Large, low intelligence, very aggressive, especially when their home territories are threatened. Although they are mostly vegetarians, they are quite capable of killing humans. And they are known to congregate in groups. I count us lucky that we were able to escape with nothing worse than a few bruises.”

Everybody got sober after that, and kept careful watch in all directions as they continued their march. The guides slowed them down to about half the speed they had been going to flee the monkeys. “It is not wise to travel at this time of day,” Santiago said, “but the agropelters have large territorial areas and it would be best for us to leave them before we settle down for the night. We will go slowly to ensure that everyone can keep up.”

The afternoon passed mostly in silence—at least in silence from the group of travellers. The jungle itself, as usual, was alive with sounds: the familiar bird calls and far-off predator roars, rustlings in the vines, and a few sounds no one could identify. However, there were no signs of the two sounds all of them would have given a lot to hear: water or civilization. “It’s strange,” Peter Hsu said at one point, dropping back to walk next to Stone, “Not hearing any of the things we take for granted: cars, planes, radios—anything mechanical or technological at all.”

Stone nodded. He had been thinking the same thing, though not quite in the same words. “I’d like to have been here back at the beginning, when the dragons took over and began magically reclaiming the land. It must have been quite a sight to see. Too bad the only ones who saw it aren’t talking.”

Hsu tilted his head and gave him an odd look. “You know, Dr. Stone, if I didn’t know better, I’d say you were enjoying all this.”

Stone didn’t answer for a moment. Then he chuckled, but it wasn’t a happy sound. “Enjoying? Hardly. A plane crash that killed our two pilots and dropped us into God knows what with a group who isn’t used to wilderness survival—not the sort of thing I get up in the morning looking forward to. It’s just that for the moment we seem to be all right and on the right track, and I do like Amazonia, for all its dangers. I wouldn’t have volunteered to come along if I didn’t.”

“I thought I liked it,” Hsu said ruefully. “Now I’m not so sure. If we get out of this, I think I’ll confine my magical studies to places a little more civilized.”

“I wouldn’t blame you,” Stone agreed. He was going to say something else, but at that point the group stopped. It was only then that he noticed that the sunlight filtering through the network of branches up above had dimmed somewhat. He glanced at his chrono and was surprised to see that it was already late afternoon, almost moving into early evening.

Santiago came back to confer with Corazón, then both of them turned to Stone. “This is good place to camp for the night,” Santiago said. “There is still no sign of water, but the clearing we have reached up ahead is large enough that we can establish a safe perimeter around the camp. Neither Corazón nor I have seen any sign of agropelters.”

“Whatever you think is best,” Stone said, nodding and pulling off his pack. “You’re the experts.” Raising his voice to be heard by the group, he called, “We’re stopping here for the night. Señor Santiago says there’s a suitable clearing up ahead. Let’s set up camp and see what we can do about something to eat.”

Everybody was happy to settle in, and soon they had a comfortable, if not cozy, camp set up in the middle of the place the guides had indicated. It was a larger clearing than any of the others they’d seen so far, which meant that once they had set up, there was about a three-meter area of clear space between the camp and the jungle. Subconsciously it seemed to be making everyone feel a little safer, especially since there weren’t branches overhead and they could actually see the sky for a change. The sun was going down slowly, coloring the jungle with rich reds and golds to go with the unrelenting green.

It was about the time when Stone looked around and realized that he hadn’t seen Kevin Frasier for awhile that he heard a voice from the trees on the left side of the clearing: “I’ve got dinner!” Frasier broke through some brightly-colored foliage carrying what looked to be a small deer in his arms. The deer wasn’t moving, although there didn’t appear to be any blood on it.

Stone didn’t know whether to be angry with him for leaving camp or to congratulate him on his prize. Finally he took the middle ground. “I thought we agreed we were going to stay in camp,” he said evenly.

Frasier nodded. “I did. This little fellow came poking around while you lot were setting up, and I’ve been watching him. When I got a good shot I stunned him—just had to nip out for a second to retrieve him.”

“So he’s not dead?” Catherine Merriwether asked.

“Not yet. Why? Is he endangered or something?” Frasier grinned—as the resident parazoology expert he would know this better than anyone.

“How should I know? But you’re going to—?”

Surprisingly, Professor Whittaker spoke before Stone had a chance to. “Catherine, this is not a normal situation. We must do what we must to survive, and that means making use of the area’s resources. It certainly wouldn’t hurt us to have some protein.” He was looking rather hungrily at the deer.

“You didn’t think we were going to eat vines, did you?” Gina Kane asked.

“Don’t worry,” Frasier said. “I’ll make sure it’s killed humanely—it won’t feel a thing. And if you don’t want any, there are plenty of other things to eat.”

Merriwether looked unconvinced, but didn’t argue. Instead, she, Prakesh, and Hsu got up and began moving around the fringes of the camp, gathering fruit from the abundantly-stocked trees. Santiago and Corazón were already getting a fire ready, and speeded their efforts at the sight of the deer. They, like Whittaker, looked like they wouldn’t object to a little meat to supplement the ubiquitous fruit.

Frasier was as good as his word, and even Merriwether couldn’t complain about the care he used to kill the deer quickly and painlessly. He dressed it out and gave it to the two guides to cook, then went off to bury the entrails where they wouldn’t be a lure to predators. Once again Stone was glad Frasier was along—this was exactly the sort of thing he knew nothing about. He had no doubt that he could have spotted and killed the deer, especially with his enhanced cybernetic vision and superior offensive magical skills, but once he’d killed it he wouldn’t have had the first idea about what happened next. He wondered, if he got out of this alive, if he should prevail on his nature-loving troll teammate Joe to teach him some wilderness survival skills.

Before long the deer was roasting nicely over the fire, and the meat-eaters’ stomachs were rumbling in anticipation. Prakesh, Hsu, Merriwether munched contentedly at their haul of fruits, upwind of the aroma that was making everyone else hungry. The sun was going down fast now—it was already twilight by the time the guides pronounced the first helping of deer ready to eat. Everyone except the three vegetarians gathered around and claimed a chunk of meat, and soon the camp resembled some kind of bizarre semi-civilized caveman gathering as they all gnawed away heedless of niceties like utensils and napkins.

Stone noticed that, like himself, the two guards and Frasier were keeping an eye on the clearing’s perimeter as they ate. So were Prakesh and Kane. Everyone else, including Whittaker, were focused on their meals.

None of the jungle predators bothered them while they ate.”Maybe they don’t like cooked meat,” Frasier joked.

“Maybe we’re just lucky,” Merriwether said.

“You are probably closer to correct, señorita,” Santiago said. “As soon as we are finished, we should gather up the remains and bury them. We can wrap up any cooked meat we don’t eat, but it will not be good for long in this climate.” He himself was already finished eating and so got up and began carefully picking up bones and scraps of fatty meat. Some of the others were about to get up and join him when suddenly Corazón stiffened.

“What—?” Stone started, but the guide cut him off with a raised hand.

Immediately everyone grew silent, and it was only a few seconds before they all heard what had startled Corazón. It was a rustling sound out in the jungle, getting louder as if something was approaching them at a high rate of speed.

The two guides instantly went for their rifles. Stone, shifting into combat mode without even noticing it, motioned for the students and Whittaker to take cover and did so himself behind one of the trees. Frasier looked ready with a spell behind another tree. Nobody made a sound except for some harsh breathing. They waited.

It didn’t take long. After only a handful of seconds more a dark figure broke through the treeline and crashed into the camp—a dark humanoid figure. As soon as it reached the fire it dropped to its knees, looking around wildly. In the firelight they could all see that it was a human, his stubbled face pale, his eyes wide, his ragged clothes stained with blood. “Please,” he cried in Spanish, “Help me!” Then he pitched forward and landed in a heap next to the fire.

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