They’d been in the jungle for three weeks already, their map having proven as useless as the intel that sent them on this fool’s mission in the first place.

“Locate and engage,” was the sum total of their orders. What did that even mean? Three weeks deep, MRE’s all gone, left to forage for roots and berries like savages, which was what they were on their way to becoming. Three weeks of sweltering heat, stinging, sideways rain, bloodthirsty mosquitos and leeches, three weeks bad jokes and old complaints and bullshit stories about the tail that Barnes had scored back in the world. Three weeks and counting, to locate and engage an enemy with neither face nor soul.

There had been a trail when they’d lit out, but it had been swallowed by the jungle weeks ago. They had an old, outdated map and a compass that was given to random twitches, as though they were walking across magnets. The dense foliage ruined any chance for sighting on the horizon, the heavy cloud cover made celestial navigation impossible. All throughout their trek, the jungle furnished its own soundtrack, the nonstop buzz of the insects, shrieks and calls of monkeys and birds in the trees, and the occasional lumbering crash on the ground to keep them alert and paranoid. By way of the endless visual and aural assault, it felt as though the jungle itself were conspiring against them, as if it were a living, sentient being, and nerves were starting to wear thin.

The men continued their slog through the marshy jungle, the mud sucking hungrily at their boots, sweat cascading across foreheads and down noses, onto rifles impossible to keep dry, patches of rust seemingly springing up in a moment’s time, dirty socks pulled snug over the barrels in hopes of keeping the worst of the mud and bugs out of their weapons because at some point, they might be needed. No idea when or where, or indeed if ever, the enemy was to be located. On the plus side, the men were hungry to engage, to focus their hopelessness and frustration at this chickenshit bug hunt and put a serious hurt on something, someone, whatever, wherever, just open up and unload a whole clip into the little pricks whose fault it was that they were out here in the first goddamn place.

McFarlane had taken point for the shift, and with a start he realized that the jungle had fallen totally, completely, stone silent. Rare indeed are the times in which this happens, and those are times in which no one is happy at the absence of sound. It takes something big, very big, or something bad, something very, very bad to shut down the complex network of shrieks and buzzes, mating calls and challenges, from bug to mammal to bird, to reach across the vast gulf of species and shake them into non-communication. McFarlane raised his fist, the silent signal to the others to halt in their tracks and quietly draw their weapons. Eyes open wide, McFarlane quietly walked a tight circle, scanning the jungle from floor to canopy, looking for something, anything, that warranted their attention.

Then he saw it, little more than a vague silhouette through the trees, but there it was – a straight, horizontal line, something rarely seen in nature because nature doesn’t follow the rules of geometry. Beneath the line was shadow, which indicated the possibility of something manmade, perhaps a structure, although how anyone could get in and out of this mess to find it was God’s own mystery.

“Pfft,” McFarlane whistled quietly while pointing forward, and the men instinctively fanned out behind him, advancing quietly, heel to toe through the tangled mess of roots, leaves, and mud, their training rendering them nearly silent. As they approached, form began to take shape and they could see that it was indeed a structure, built of chiseled stone, heavily and intricately carved, so much so that there wasn’t a blank space to be found. Moss covered many parts of what now came into view as a building of some sort, seeming to be maybe two stories high, with doorways and windows that appeared as blackened holes, like the missing teeth of a dangerous drunk. McFarlane signaled for the men to stay low as they approached the building; flashlights came out and were held at the ready, while curious eyes canvassed the structure for signs of activity, signs of life.

Barnes sidled up to McFarlane, whispering almost inaudibly.

“Sarge, I seen places like this before. This here’s a temple, one of them monk places. I think it’s where the targets are supposed to be hiding.” McFarlane nodded, and raised his fist again. The men went still as statues, straining their ears for any sound that would betray the occupants of the temple. His eyes played over the walls of the temple, seeing elaborate carvings of men and animals, some of the men appearing to have wings, others having more limbs than normal. While the temple looked as though it had been in this place since the dawn of time, the carvings were distinctly out of place for this part of the world. Hell, McFarlane thought to himself, there’s no place on earth where this would make sense. Bullet holes sporadically pockmarked the walls of the structure, a mute reminder for the team to be on their guard as they investigated. Bullet holes meant battle, which ratcheted the tension up several notches.

After several minutes of absolute stillness, they proceeded forward, their boots stepping onto heavy stones of the temple’s courtyard. As if triggered by their footfalls, the men became aware of an odor coming from the temple, a stench of decay that was more than just the mustiness of mildew and exposure to the elements. No strangers to carnage, they all knew the smell of death, and Death had visited this place, on a grand scale.

Tentatively poking their heads into the doorways, the men switched on their flashlights and listened intently for any sounds coming from within the darkened temple. Hearing none, they shined their lights inside and, with audible gasps, the combat-hardened team bore witness to that which they could scarcely comprehend.

There hadn’t been a battle here; this was an outright slaughter. The enemy had indeed been here, the shredded remains of their uniforms testified to that. For all the gore and viscera, there was little to the inside of this temple that appeared to be human until, McFarlane realized, this mess, this horror, was that of humans turned inside out, pulled apart and flung about like ragdolls, their blood and entrails painting elaborate designs on the walls and the ceiling and the floor.

None of the men had ever seen anything like the savagery of the scene; surely, they collectively hoped, no human would do something like this, no human could do something like this. This was not simply the beating of an opponent or an enemy; there was a fury to what had happened here, a rage that no one would willingly call human. And yet, seeing loops and swirls of blood on the walls, the dawning realization that whoever or whoever committed this brutality, they seemed to have enjoyed themselves immensely.

“No bones,” McFarlane whispered, his eyes not believing the truth that glistened wetly in the beam of his light. “There’s no goddamn bones. What the hell does this?”

“Another thing, Sarge,” Barnes said. “Ain’t no flies, neither. All this mess oughta have all sorts of critters gorging on…this, but there aint’ nothing here.”

With a shudder, McFarlane stepped into the building, his senses on high alert. Almost imperceptibly, he could hear a droning sound, very faint, from deep within the temple. He switched off his light.

“You hear that?” he asked the men, who nodded and strained to hear. “What the hell is it?”

No one knew, and they slowly walked into the building. In the immediate darkness of the temple, McFarlane cocked his head, moving slowly in the direction of the sound he couldn’t quite identify.

It was Rafferty who put a name to the sound. “That’s human, Sarge. Sounds like people chanting somewhere in here. Well, maybe it’s people, at least.”

McFarlane nodded, and in the dark stillness, he could see a dim, flickering light coming from somewhere in the depths of the building. The men fell into line behind their leader.

As they went deeper into the building, the dim light gradually brightened, while the chanting grew louder. Turning a corner, McFarlane saw a stone staircase cut into the floor, its outline illuminated from the light below. Quietly, and with weapons at the ready, the men descended the stairs, seeking whatever lay below.

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Comments
  1. Barb Olson says:

    You seem to be proving that your writing skills are not just a lucky happenstance! This “work in progress” is as riveting as your first novel. Keep up the great work, and I am as proud as I’m sure all of your ‘loved ones’ are! Can’t wait for the finished product!

  2. Terry Pressel says:

    I am in awe of your writing style. I love the way you put words together. I’m still not sure I like this genre, but I think I would read this when finished. I can’t describe the voice I hear when reading, but you have every reason to be proud. Terry Pressel (Horton)

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