The Journal of Jack Dalante

📅 Published on May 22, 2022

“The Journal of Jack Dalante”

Written by Dirk Stevens
Edited by Craig Groshek
Thumbnail Art by Craig Groshek
Narrated by N/A

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ESTIMATED READING TIME — 25 minutes

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The sun hangs low in the western sky, painting the jungle in shades of pink and lavender.  A cacophony of howls rise lending a primeval aura to the trees. The sounds speak to me. Some deep ache mixing with a fervent longing whispers at the core of my being. Smiling, I wave the cloud of mosquitos from my face and let the flap of my tent fall closed. Sweat trickles down my neck as I sit down at my little traveling desk, dig out my inkwell and pen, and flip open my journal, wondering if it’s possible to be born on the wrong continent.

August 12, 1925

Where to begin…

“You need anything, Boss?” Comatzi, the porter I hired, calls from the entrance.

“No. No thank you, Ole Boy. Just making an entry before turning in.” I twist in my chair to peer at him over the top of my spectacles, once again drawn to his unusual accent. Spanish, with some of the native flair I encountered on my other excursions. But unlike my other porters, he not only speaks virtually every language I’m likely to encounter perfectly, but his Spanish and English are flawless. Remarkable for a lad of… my glasses slip down to the end of my nose. I suppose I’d put him at seventeen. “Well, we’ve had a bit of lark today. Haven’t we?”

Comatzi shrugs. “If you say so, Boss. We’re deep in the jungle, now. I’m gonna set fires around camp to keep the jaguars from eating our donkeys.”  A slow smile spreads from the corner of his mouth. “So, we have more of a lark.”

“Cheeky,” I laugh. “Good Lad, but don’t make a night of it.”

“No, I’ll get the boys to work in shifts. Never good to all sleep at once, not in the jungle. Goodnight.”

“Good Lad,” I mumble, getting back to my entry.

I write this by lantern light, listening to the deafening symphony only the jungles of the Amazon could compose. This venture marks my third attempt to locate the lost city of Z, as Colonel Fawcett calls it, El Dorado to the rest of the world, and should I fail to produce any tangible evidence, likely my final attempt. 

“My final.”  I sniff and tap the tip of my pen against the side of the inkwell. Regardless, this will be my final, unless I manage to locate the city itself. The Royal Geographical Society made it quite clear they would fund no further expeditions without ‘overwhelming proof’. Colonel John Stephens saw to that.

“Malaria,” I snort. I still can’t believe they bought it. But, after all, I suppose he is president of the Royal Society of Tropical Medicine. The ultimate expert.

I tug back my sleeve and attempt to gather my thoughts, but malaria. I mean, really. To insinuate that all the conquistadors, all the native tribes accounts, are mere hallucinations induced by blood parasites? And all of the same golden city?

I shake my head and press the tip of my pen against the page to continue my entry. “Poppycock.”

But events have taken a… bit of a strange turn.

Upon arrival in Cuiaba, I was met by Henry Costin, a compatriot and longtime friend of my mentor Colonel Fawcett. I must confess, I had harbored the childlike hope of once again crossing paths with the Colonel himself. But alas, that was not to be.

Henry’s greeting was of a sober nature. He was not at all well, suffering from a wound inflicted at the hands of the natives, I’m afraid, and not quite in his right mind. It seems Fawcett sent him back for medical attention… a turn that seems to have put Henry at rather strong odds with the Ole Boy.

Henry claimed that Fawcett abandoned him but left specific instructions that should he not return from his venture, no rescue was to be attempted.

I was taken aback by all this and immediately decided to go after the poor boy. But Henry was quite adamant. He stated plainly that the natives in that region were of a violent nature, and his wound lent credence to that claim.

Indeed, after exploring that region myself, I know he’s quite right. The memory of the Conquistadors has not faded, and the recent slave trade has done little to lessen their hatred. It took Colonel Fawcett years to foster friendly relations with the Kalopalo before he was granted passage. Us, they would surely kill on sight.

So we departed Cuiaba with heavy hearts.

That was three days ago. And every night I’ve sat up pondering his fate. But as this is our final camp along his route, I must abandon the hope of meeting him on his return. From here, we turn west.

God’s speed Colonel, I hope to see you again soon.

Finishing my entry, I wipe the pen clean, cork the inkwell, and blow out the lantern. Sleep comes easily, when the jungle sings its lullaby.

August 20, 1925

We arrived in Chavante territory late yesterday morning after two days of traveling through hard rain. Upon crossing into their lands, Comatzi informed me that he was, in fact, a member of the tribe. And so, hoping to seize on this good fortune, I sent him ahead with the usual gifts. He returned a few hours later and informed me that their chief, Teju, wished to meet with us.

I confess, I was quite apprehensive of this meeting. The Chavante have been at war with the surrounding tribes for some time. And while I knew that any information Teju could provide would be invaluable,  I couldn’t help but wonder if our friendly interactions with the Chavante might complicate our relations with other tribes in the region.

Teju, by means of Comatzi’s translations, greeted us warmly. Along with some of our equipment, I produced a rubbing I’d taken from one of the relics Colonel Fawcett brought back from one his previous expedition…A depiction of a pyramid with lines tracing out as if glowing, that Fawcett claimed indicated the existence of  Z… to demonstrate we meant his people no harm, that we were merely explorers only and hoped to depart as we arrived, as friends.

Teju was far more interested in my binoculars than anything I had to say. But when I showed him the rubbing, he took it and conversed with several of his elders at some length… to my great trepidation. In the end, however, the Chavante not only agreed to grant us passage but also informed me of some ruins bearing the same inscription as rubbing located several days to the south. A place he called Luison.

This was exactly the sort of information I was hoping for. I offered him the binoculars in thanks, a gift he accepted eagerly. He then pressed us to spend the night with them in the village… a most welcome offer.

I just finished capping the inkwell and placing it back in its case when Comatzi’s voice calls from the doorway. “You need anything, Boss?”

“Comatzi,” I wipe the end of my pen clean and place it beside the inkwell. “Quite.” I wave him over to my desk and point at the rubbing. “Have you seen this symbol before?”

He glances at the paper but shivers and looks away. “Y-yes, Boss. I know it. I saw it once, in that place.”

He’s afraid. My left eyebrow twitches. “You mean in Luison? Why does it trouble you?”

As I speak the word “Luison,” Comatzi cringes. “Don’t say that name, Boss. Not ever.”

“Why?”

“It is not good to have these thoughts, Boss.” He licks his lips, glances up at the dark corners of the hut, and twists his folded hands. “She is the darkness that haunts the mind, the all-consuming void… the goddess of death.”

My gaze follows his to the shadows. “And the place we are bound? You say you’ve been there?”

“Yes.” He swallows. “Once, with my father, when I was small. It was a time of no rain, and we went deep into the forest to find food. Monkeys with the faces of men and paws like Jaguars lived there. They carried clubs made of human bones and wanted to eat us. My father died fighting them off so the rest of us could get away.”

My gaze jerks around, but when I catch his eyes, Comatzi smiles.  “I got you good. Huh, Boss?” He chuckles and heads for the door. “My father died in his sleep as an old man. I saw that mark, sure, but those stories are for elders and old women.”

“Cheeky,” I sniff. I don’t know if it’s the way he smiles when he walks out the door, or the last glance he throws at the shadows, but I’m not certain I believe him. In either case, I doubt very much I will be sleeping soundly tonight. “Very cheeky.”

August 23, 1925

We have arrived at Luison a few hours ago. Benjamin, the quartermaster, has taken ill. Malaria, or so it seems. Fortunately, we have a good supply of quinine, and having reached our destination, we can afford him a few days rest. I’ve asked Comatzi to assign one of his porters to assist the poor boy until he regains some strength, but these are the perils of the region, I’m afraid…

Luison. The ruins are not the sprawling complex I had hoped for. Though, I suppose that’s not terribly surprising. The jungle claims everything. The temple itself looks more like a Scottish hill than a monument to Luison’s Goddess of Death and Darkness. What lies buried beneath? Who can say? In the morning, we’ll begin clearing the undergrowth, no simple task, but unavoidable. Until we find stone, symbols, or an entrance, there’s little more that can be done. But tomorrow is another day. Tonight, I must tend to my friend.

August 25, 1925

I yawn and push last night’s dream from my mind as I stuff the whisk broom into my back beside the little pick I use for fine cleaning, but something is missing. Rubbing my eyes, I glance around the room and try to remember what I’ve forgotten.

“Ach, yer worse than me mother. I can sit up on me own. Git off,” Benjamin’s voice shouts from outside the tent.

A smile pricks the edge of my mouth as I snatch the paper and crayon from my desk, grab my pack, and head out outside.

Benjamin is outside siting on the edge of his cot, pale but sporting his usual grimace of distain for all things not Scottish…which right now, is almost entirely focused on Comatzi, or the bread in in his hand. I can’t be sure. After all, neither are of them are Scottish.

Tossing my arm through the strap, I swing my pack onto my back. “Greetings, Ole Boy.”

Benjamin’s glare turns on me. “Aye?” He pushes Comatzi aside. “And what’s good about it?”

“I never said it was good, Benny,” I laugh. “I said, ‘Greetings’.”

Benjamin’s eyes narrow. “Aye, but ye be thinkin’ it.” He rips the bread from Comatzi’s hand and tears off a chunk with his teeth. His scowl softens. “Hmm…you sure this not from the supplies, Boy?”

“Yes, Boss.” Comatzi nods. “That bread you bought is gone. I brought this from the village. It is the bread of my people. For journeys.”

“Well, it tastes Scottish,” Benjamin grunts and takes another bite.

“My word,” I gasp. “High praise if ever I heard it.” Comatzi flashes me an amused smile, but Benjamin’s scowl deepens. “Well, I’m off to the dig… assuming you have things well in hand?”

“Of course, I’ve got things ‘well in hand’, ya slack-jawed idiot! Takes more than a wee bit o’ fever ta put a Scott off his duties.”

“As I know well, my friend. That’s why I brought you on this little expedition.”

Benjamin growls something in response but goes back to eating.

“All’s well, then.” I straighten my pack and glance over at the porters waiting for me. “That being the case, expect me at nightfall.”

I catch Comatzi’s eye, dip my head, and let my glasses slide to the tip of my nose, hoping he understands what I’m asking. His mouth curls into an exasperated smirk, but he gives a slight nod to let me know it’s alright. He’ll look after Benjamin. “Good lad,” I mutter and trot off to join the porters.

August 25, 1925

Benjamin took breakfast this morning, so I left him in the care of Comatzi. I took two of the other porters along and began deciphering the hieroglyphics the diggers discovered at the base of the mound… a veritable boon if ever there was.

I discovered that Teju was slightly mistaken.  This was, indeed, a temple dedicated to the goddess of the dead, but her name was Miclecacihuatl…which literally translates to ‘Lady of the Dead’. Her duty seems to revolve solely around that literal purpose as she guards the bones and keeps the souls of the dead safe so that the other gods may weave them back into the world of the living. A belief in a type of reincarnation, which I did not expect to find here.

Luison, as far as I was able to decipher, was Miclecacihuatl’s son. Depicted as a sort of deformed, wolf-man creature with a necklace of human fingers, the symbols cast Luison in the role of the Grim Reaper, who rips the souls from those whose time has come and delivers them into his mother’s arms.

Miclecacihuatl, on the other hand, appears in the carvings as a desiccated corpse with sagging breasts and a giant open mouth. In several, she seems to be swallowing the stars, or sky. I can’t be sure of that as yet. Though, I confess that being here, at the base of her temple, and seeing her face carved in the stone has set my imagination on fire. I see movement in the shadows, hear footsteps outside my tent, and the very air seems tainted with the scent of death.

It is a strange thing to ponder, that this temple to death would be overcome by the jungle, buried in a tomb of plants. Death overcome by life.

These things fire the imagination, and invoke dreams and thoughts that defy reason. But dreams, after all, are nothing more than phantoms of our waking experiences. So, I know I have seen Luison’s depiction before. I simply can’t place where. I’ll check my journals. I must. For as rattled as I am, I have no doubt I shall find no sleep. Not tonight.

August 27, 1925

My fingers fumble the wheel on the side of the lantern. The flame jumps, sending black smoke billowing out of the glass chimney before I can steady the base and retract the wick. Bright, yellow light streams across my writing desk.

“Blast,” I mutter as I massage the tendons in my wrists, but my hands simply won’t stop shaking. It takes some doing before I’m finally able to calm them enough to risk uncorking my inkwell, and even longer before my writing becomes legible.

Suffered a few ill turns since my last entry, I’m afraid. We were fortunate enough to locate the entrance to temple without any undue fuss…only to find the hallway behind a nearly impenetrable tangle of roots. Hard, thick blighters, too, big around as my bloody leg and hard as iron. To top it off, it’s only safe for one man to swing an axe at a time in that narrow passage. So, we could be here days before we reach the inner rooms…if anything of any real interest is here at all.

 But stiff upper lip and all that.  I set a rotation schedule to keep the axe swinging and the men fresh. It’s not all cloudy weather. While taking account of the situation, I noticed a section of exposed wall just outside the entrance with an inscription that caught my eye. Fawcett’s gleaming pyramid poked out from behind a tree trunk. It could be nothing, or it could be what I was hoping for, clues to Z’s exact location.

Regardless, I can’t afford to leave men idle, so I put the rest of the porters to work clearing away debris and brush, in the event that there is more information to be had.

I’m developing a great respect for these people. They are sharp-minded and possessed of a vibrant sense of curiosity. Using them as mere manual labor seems a crime against decency. Comatzi in particular. I began teaching him to read the hieroglyphs only a few days ago, and he’s already begun studying the walls, giving me his interpretation as I translate. Truly a remarkable young lad.

With the quinine, and a Chavante remedy Comatzi mixed and slipped covertly in his canteen, Benjamin is recovering, but still lacks the strength to perform his duties. Comatzi has become his right hand, running between the dig and camp like a March hare. He tries to balance filling in as quartermaster while slating his curiosity. If only the boys back home had a tenth of his determination and wit.  Perhaps, I can convince him to return with me when I leave. I should like to see what he could make of himself with a proper education. If I had a son…

My word… Here I am, weeping as I pen these words. It’s fatigue. It must be. I’ve not slept three hours in the last four days. One bloody nightmare that evening when Benjamin took ill, and I dare say, it’s put me off sleep entirely. Such a silly thing…a wolf with long black hair, walking on its hind legs, and wearing a necklace of fingers, stood in the door of my tent. It fixed its yellow snake-like eyes on mine, raised its foreleg…which turned into the skeletal arm of a man as it moved…uncurled its boney index finger, and pointed at me. “In madness, you will come to me,” it growled.

Initially, I was able to brush it off as nothing, merely the influence of the jungle and Comatzi’s story. But then, I saw the wolf again in the carvings I translated. In Luison.

I’ve tried to dismiss it and told myself I’d seen the depiction before, but I already knew that wasn’t true. I’ve been through every scrap of research I’ve brought along, but he simply isn’t there. Not even mentioned before our meeting with Teju, which leaves me with one undeniable conclusion. I dreamed of Luison before I even knew he existed.

Now, rationally, I know it’s all complete poppycock, but the fear persists. Every time sleep comes, a twig breaks, one of the men coughs, or a frog calls, and I jolt straight up, heart racing. What I wouldn’t give for a good night’s rest and a clear mind.

August 30, 1925

Unfolding a fresh sheet of paper, I smooth it over the inscription under Fawcett’s pyramid. I wave over one of the porters whose name I can’t pronounce, and press his hand against the upper right corner of the sheet. “Like this. Don’t let it move.”

He nods, smooths down the edge with his other hand, and watches as I dig my rubbing crayon out of my breast pocket.

Bracing my knee against the lower corner, I hold the paper taunt and carefully drag the crayon over the paper until every word appears. “Well done, Ole Boy.” I nod and when he’s removed his hands, hold up the rubbing for inspection. It’s transferred well. Clear and crisp. “Well done, indeed.”

Taking care, I roll the rubbing into a tube and hand it to my assistant. “Take this to my tent and place it on my desk but be careful.”

His eyes travel over the length of the rolled paper as he takes it. “You find what you want? We go, now?”

The tremble in his voice sets my teeth on edge. If the men are afraid, then the entire expedition is in jeopardy.  I have to get control of the situation before matters escalate.

I clap my hand on his shoulder and put on the bravest, most assured face I can manage. “Soon, my friend. I need to translate that to know for certain, but with luck, we’ll  leave first thing in the morning.”

“We go tomorrow?” His eyes flick back and forth between mine, searching for a lie, I believe, but I don’t lie. Deception, even small, breeds mistrust, and I am entirely reliant on the goodwill of the natives.

“Possibly,” I hold his gaze unflinching. “I can read most of the symbols. They speak of a valley where the rivers join as brothers, and of shining golden houses. A few, though, I’m unfamiliar with. I need to compare them with my notes before I know for certain.”

He seems to chew on this a spell before nodding and turning back for camp, but he only takes two steps, when a quiet howl issues from somewhere deep inside the temple. He freezes dead in his tracks.

A chill creeps into my bones as I lean over and peer into the dark passageway. Another unearthly moan sounds in the deep, but before my eyes get a chance to adjust, Comatzi explodes from the temple. His eyes dance wildly as he waves his torch like a madman. “Boss! Boss!”

He bolts past me, drops his torch in the dirt, cups his hands to his mouth, and screams, “Bo-“ His gaze catches me as his voice dies out in an odd hiss.  “Oh good, you heard me.”

“Bloody hell,” I shout, clutching my chest. “What the devil are you playing at?”

Comatzi blinks. “Oh, sorry, Boss. I found something real good for you to look at. I guess I got a little excited.”

“A little?” I cough and wave the porter on his way. “I haven’t seen anyone that excited since Colonel Russet dropped that dummy hand-grenade in the latrine at London Station.” I try to sound angry, but I simply can’t bring myself to reprimand his enthusiasm, and by the time he squats down to collect his torch, I can’t keep from smiling. “What did you find?”

“I don’t have the words. You must come and see.”

August 30, 1925

I was working on an inscription near the entrance when Comatzi came running out of darkness, screaming about something he’d deciphered further in. I have never seen a boy so excited. So, it was not without fervor that I took up my lantern and followed him below.

He led me into a cold room devoid of roots, where even the light of my lantern seemed unable to push back the darkness. It gave me an uncomfortable feeling, as though I was being watched, almost welcomingly by unfriendly eyes.

            Such feelings are common when one is deep in the earth. I’ve often felt the eyes of the dead upon me as I wandered through the halls of their final rest. This was no tomb, of course, but Miclecacihuatl’s hideous visage leering out us from stone after stone carried life under the dancing light of our torches. The sight filled me with the same sense of unease.

All unease vanished when Comatzi stopped at the end of the passage in front of a set of solid gold doors. Each door was a mirror of its mate, and they were sealed by a bar of what appeared to be pure silver. Miclecacihuatl’s image was cast into the surface, her mouth opened wide as her hollow eyes stared back down the passageway. But when I saw the inscription on the silver bar, my blood iced. Or perhaps, it was the waver in Comatzi’s voice which unsettled me as he begged me to tell him he hadn’t translated the symbols correctly.

I set down my lantern, adjusted my glasses and studied the carvings. They spoke of betrayal, milk souring the breast, the harvester being overtaken by those who plant, and similar imageries. As I contemplated the meaning, the darkness around us seemed to move.

Usually, there’s some hullabaloo about the craftsmen offering their service to the great and noble god of whatnot… but in this case, that was missing, which gave the distinct impression that this temple was dedicated to Miclecacihuatl. Its absence suggested that, rather than this being a temple dedicated to Miclecacihuatl, it was erected by her.

Ordinarily, I would have dismissed it. It’s not a hard and fast rule, and I’ve seen it absent before, on the odd occasion. It was the story that followed that shattered that rendering.

It spoke of  Miclecacihuatl’s son, Luison, and his attempt to murder her and claim his position as god of the dead. It spoke of his essence being trapped in this place… a prison, sheathed in life with the purpose to jail Death, the harvester of souls.

There was no mistaking the message. It said this “temple” held Luison.

September 5, 1925

I date the top of the page, but my hand trembles as I dip the tip into the ink well.

How does one capture the passing of a friend? What words can possibly capture the ache, give voice to the open wound ripped into my soul at knowing I must leave him here? That he will never see his beloved homeland again? Were that I was a poet, I could, at least, send him to Christ with words befitting the brave heart that beat within his noble breast.

Tears sting my eyes. I lay the pen in its holder and tug my handkerchief free from my breast pocket.  I dab my cheeks, blow my nose, and read over the lines once again. They are too much.

“What the blazes is the matter with you, Jack?” Ripping the page from my journal, I crumple it into a ball, toss it on the ground, and take up my pen once more. “A little bit off on your sleep, and you fly apart at the seams. Good Lord, Man. He was your mate, not your bloody wife.”

I plunge the pen in the inkwell, clear my throat, and begin again.

Benjamin, my friend through many adventures, passed away last night. I don’t understand it. The quinine seemed to be working, and he had begun taking up most of his usual duties. I suppose I should have realized his damned pride would have him on his feet before he was ready. The fault is mine, and I won’t deny it. I wrote two letters, one informing his poor wife, Silvia, and one to the Royal Geological Society enumerating his better qualities as well as detailing the admirable bravery he displayed in his final hours. I tasked one of porters to deliver them to Cuiaba, and he left in such haste. I do not expect him to return.

“No, I should say not,” I mutter and dip the pen into the well, refreshing the ink.

Two days passed, and Comatzi and I returned to Luison’s door, as I’ve come to call it, to find the silver bar broke. The doors had been bent and thrust against the walls of the passage as though some great force from within had smashed them down and cast them aside.

I feel no shame in admitting my fear at the sight of it, a fear only heightened by the hundreds of skeletons littering the floor of the chamber within and the deep claw marks marring the walls and ceiling. I saw the same fear etched into Comatzi’s young face. It was abject, unadulterated horror.

To his credit, the lad stood his ground, and though clearly shaken, reminded me there are no such things as monsters or pagan gods. The deed was done by men and nothing more. So, we began to search for clues.

Therein lies my greatest blunder.

I meant to question the men, and perhaps, if these damnable nightmares would ever relent, I wouldn’t have been so fool-hearty… I gathered the entire group. In a rage, I told them that someone had breached the inner sanctum, that such actions would not be tolerated, and that the responsible persons would be held to account. As soon the words left my mouth, I knew what I had done, but it was too late.

One of the younger lads spoke up. “Luison, is free?”

 Since then, the men have fallen quiet. This morning, we discovered that several had deserted during the night, taking three of our pack mules with them. Comatzi demanded to go after them, but I think that would only add to the fire. If the rest believe I would keep them by force, I’ll lose them all. Comatzi seems to have taken his fellow’s betrayal extremely personal… and I can’t risk any more death.

Not today.

September 7, 1925

“Three times, the crescent moon appears beside the sigil of life.” I smooth the paper against the stone with my forearm, pull the crayon from between my teeth, and press the length against the inscription. I have no idea what it means, but I think I can piece it together using bits from the other hieroglyphs outside Luison’s chamber. As I pull the crayon down the paper, it slips loose from under my arm.

“Confound it all,” I shout and slide it back into position.

Light flickers behind me, casting my shadow on the rubbing. “You need help, Boss?”

“Good Lad,” I sigh and move my lantern over to give Comatzi enough space to kneel down beside me. “Would that I was born an octopus, eight arms would prove a boon, eh?”

He places a hand on my shoulder. I turn my head to offer him an appreciative smile, but my eyes catch on the necklace of human fingers dangling from his neck, the two glowing, snake-like eyes peering at me from behind a curtain of long dark hair. My mind stutters at the change before the sharp claws clinging to the torch in his hand break all thought. The crayon falls from my fingers.

“Luison,” I gasp.

The beast tips back its head, sneering at me through a nightmare of razor-sharp teeth, and laughs.

I jolt awake, scattering the rubbings I made earlier as my arms fly to shield my head from the horror in my dream. Heart pounding, I take hold of the mosquito net hanging over my cot, jerk it over my head, and roll out of bed. The weight of his paw still tingling my shoulder, I brace myself on my trunk, work my way over to the shaving stand, and finally flop down in the chair. My fingers trace the edges of my desk, as I fight to case the vision from my mind, but I can’t stop shaking.

Cupping my hands over my face, I close my eyes. It was a dream. Only a dream. But the scent of death still hangs heavy in the air, the sound of his laugh still echoes in my ears.

My eyes crack open as my hands slip from my chin. In the dim light of the moon penetrating the canvas, I catch a glimpse of the rubbing laying on the desk in front of me, the image of Miclecacihuatl. I shiver burry it under a stack of blank paper, and reach for the lantern. I need a distraction. Something to clear my head.  Striking the match, giving my hands something to do other than shake steadies them enough to light the wick on my lantern. So I reach for my journal, ink and pen.

September 7, 1925

Work has gone slowly, due to lack of sleep and ready hands. We translated only one inscription today. It described the ritual the high priest was to follow before opening Luison’s door. In short, a young warrior would be killed. The High Priest would coat himself in the sacrificial blood to hide his own living soul and would, then, adorn a mask made to resemble Miclecacihuatl’s horrid face so as to ensure Luison wouldn’t dare attempt an escape. Then, he would toss the poor fellow’s remains into the darkness. I have yet to discover the purpose of this ritual, but I confess my heart is no longer in it.

The native men have continued to vanish. More leave every night, and I’m becoming concerned that we may have to abandon the mission. Only Comatzi and two other porters, Izzy and Pacha are willing to enter the temple. And only we seem to be affected by these confounded nightmares.

September 11, 1925

No sleep yet again, only brief excursions into the realm of nightmares. But, even Luison’s dire warnings of death and madness were nothing to the horror that greeted me when I emerged from my tent yesterday morning. The men had all gone, even those who’d sailed with me from England were nowhere to be found. No mules and the supplies raided. Only the sad remains of what couldn’t be sold, bartered, or eaten lay left scattered over the camp.

Comatzi, and two others remain, those who had entered the temple, Pacha and Izzy.  Why they didn’t flee with the others, I can only guess. None of them will say. When I broach the subject, Comatzi falls silent and stares over my shoulder in a truly disturbing fashion. As though, he’s watching something behind me, something I can’t see.

I let the matter drop. It’s not worth fostering ill will, at this point. So, we gathered what we could find and carry on our backs before beginning the long trek out on foot. Our only hope, now, is to reach Teju. Perhaps, we can negotiate for enough supplies to hold us until we reach civilization. But, without the customary gifts to give in return, I have little hope for success.

That aside, the Chavante value strength. They are likely to view my failed expedition as a result of the gods’ judgment and refuse aid so as not to risk their anger.

Even now, exhaustion weighs to the point I’m barely able to stand. I cannot sleep, and when sleep does come, I receive no rest. Only nightmares. They always appear, the same one, a monstrous seven-headed snake, winding its way through the jungle just on the edge of sight.

We see the beast. We share the nightmare.

That is, everyone but Comatzi. He gave up on trying to find rest. Now, he spends the dar hours sitting by the fire and watching us. “To keep us safe,” he says, but the firelight in his eyes reminds me more of a hungry jaguar studying its prey than that of a guardian angel.

The thought gnaws at me, but I push doubt aside. It was his remedy we added to Benjamin’s canteen, to give him strength. When the others abandoned me, he stayed. While those I’d known and trusted for decades gave no word or apologies, he remains. I don’t understand his reasonings. I’d claim it was due to friendship but dare not. I can’t help wonder if Teju ordered him to stay. It would’ve been all too easy for him to have poisoned Benjamin’s canteen or supper. Perhaps that was his purpose all along, to sabotage our mission from within…

No. He’s a good lad, simply hard set as are we all. Lack of sleep muddles thoughts and births doubts, illusions of a tired mind. Nothing more. Comatzi is a good lad, one of the best I’ve run across during my years. It is wrong to cast him in a light of doubt.

What I wouldn’t give to think clearly again. What I wouldn’t give for sleep.

September 16, 1925

I lift my arm and cop at the leaves and vines barring my path, but between the lack of sleep, the rigors of hacking my way through the jungle, and the infernal heat, my machete holds the weight of …lead in my grasp.

“We rest here.” I let my arm drop to my side and slip my pack free in a single motion. It’s only midday, but that doesn’t matter. I couldn’t move another inch if jaguars were nipping my heels, and taking our waning supplies into consideration, they’d not be treated with much of a meal.

“Good idea, Boss,” Comatzi pants and braces his hands on his thighs as he fights to catch his breath. After a moment’s pause, he nods at a large tree just ahead. “You see that?”

Three diagonal lines cut across the trunk like pages in a book. “Border markers.”

I uncap my canteen, take a long swig, and pour a handful over my head. “What are you thinking?”

“I think some of those cowards will have run back home and told Teju how you disturbed Luison.”

My jaw clenches as the word ‘you’ passes his lips, but I hide it by wiping my mouth on my sleeve. “What do you suggest?”

“I think you, Pacha, and Izzy should wait here. Let me go ahead to see where his mind is and try to talk sense to him if it is in a bad place.”

A prickle twinges up the back of my neck. There’s too much eagerness in his voice. If it was his ‘remedy’ that killed Benjamin, if he is working for Teju, I’d be a fool to let him go alone. “No.”

His mouth falls open. “No?”

I glance back at Pacha and Izzy flopped down against the base of the tree, already half dead. “They can barely carry their packs. You and I are stronger, and so we should send one of them on ahead with no pack. We’ll share the extra load between us.”

“It is too far to journey by dark. Pacha is only half Chavante,” Comatzi snorts as his face twists into an angry scowl. “If Teju is angry, Pacha won’t make it. The warriors, will kill him on sight.”

“Then, we send Izzy. He’s Chavante, is he not?”

Comatzi rips the hat from his head and throws it on the ground. “No, it must be me! I am Comatzi. Don’t you know anything? I am the only one Teju will not kill. I am Comatzi. Co-mat-zi!”

My fingernails dig into the handle of my machete. That’s it. All the proof I need. I don’t know what he’s planning, but I’ll go to hell before I turn my back on him again.

“Izzy,” I snarl, never taking my gaze from Comatzi’s dark eyes. “Leave your pack. I’m sending you on ahead.”

September 16, 1925

After crossing into Chavante territory, I took on Izzy’s pack and sent him on ahead to beseech Teju to come to our aid. Today we found his body, impaled on a Chavante spear. A warning. Now, I don’t dare enter their territory.

Comatzi suggested we keep to the southern boundary, claiming that if we keep to the edge, it will show our respect and keep the Chavante from murdering us.

Perhaps, he’s right. Perhaps not. But I no longer trust my ‘friend’.

Upon finding Poor Izzy’s remains, Comatzi took his machete, lobbed off Izzy’s fingers and now wears them on a string around his neck.

Perhaps it’s some Chavante mourning ritual I’m unfamiliar with, Perhaps that’s the reason Luison wears his. But, when I asked, Comatzi reminded me, rather vehemently, that Izzy’s blood is on my hands. Now, he barely speaks at all, only glares at us, Pacha and myself… the non-Chavante. But his hair has gone wild, and his eyes almost glow they’re so full of hate. Venomous. Snake-like.

He is not the same lad I brought with me.

And I wonder… Luison lies so near to their village, Teju had to know what we’d find there. What if Teju was using us? What if we were meant as a sacrifice to appease the old gods? What if Comatzi opened Luison’s vault to fulfill this task? Or perhaps, his purpose was to spread fear and turn my men against me. Cleverness lies in leading men to their deaths without losing an arrow. Then, my thoughts turn to Benjamin and the lack of reason behind malaria as the cause of his death. He was in good health. The quinine should have cured him if such a disease did befall him.

Before Izzy died, Comatzi said his name held a special meaning. Now that I think on it, there is something familiar about it. Something from my last expedition… if only I could remember.

But these musings serve no purpose. The nightmares visit me now, even as we walk. I can feel something watching from the shadows of the jungle, hear the gentle hiss of scales coiling through the bushes all around.

I’m losing my mind.

But in truth, it doesn’t matter. Hostile or friendly, I am utterly at Comatzi’s mercy. Him and his snake eyes. He wears Luison’s necklace.

September 20, 1925

The jungle whispered to me two nights past. It spoke of Tau and Luison. Of death. Of life, and the serpent’s skin. And now I understand. Spirit needs flesh.          

Night closes around me but, as always, she grants me no rest.

He’s here. Tau, Lucifer, Comatzi… Jack. The jungle told me. The ritual, the sacrifice. Luison needs the living. He wears their bodies like clothes and chooses whatever name he wishes.

But not Pacha.

 I would not let him become a vessel, and when Comatzi went to get water. And he kneeled down to tend the fire, I took my machete cut off his head, and hid the body.

None of us must be allowed to leave this jungle.

Comatzi. I remember now. It is an honored name, a priestly name. He’s been toying with me since the beginning, turning my men against me and keeping me from sleep to break my mind. It’s been his plan all along. We have been infected with Luison, and we are his clothing. The plan held a tight weave, which underscores Comatzi’s cleverness. We were to carry him to civilization. To chase all non-Chavante from these shores.

Time grows short. Even now he claws inside my head, twisting my thoughts, weakening my resolve with lack of sleep.  I can’t stand against him much longer, but I can kill Comatzi. I can kill myself before it’s too late.

God help me.

I glance over at Comatzi. He squats by the fire with arms folded over his knees and stares at me. Unblinking. Unmoving, except to roll Izzy’s fingers between his own.

He doesn’t need to move for me to hear his thoughts. I know them in my dreams. They whisper the same message every day. Over and over. “In madness, you will come to me.”

But he won’t take me. I’ve already won against the evil devouring my soul. So long as my courage holds. Closing my eyes as far as I dare, I slip my hand under my pillow and grasp the handle of my machete. I won’t strike. Not yet.

Comatzi’s snake eyes droop, his head nods, and he jerks awake, fixing me with a glare.

I don’t react. I don’t move at all. My chance will come. It’s only a matter of time before I slay death.

Rating: 10.00/10. From 1 vote.
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🎧 Available Audio Adaptations: None Available


Written by Dirk Stevens
Edited by Craig Groshek
Thumbnail Art by Craig Groshek
Narrated by N/A

🔔 More stories from author: Dirk Stevens


Publisher's Notes: N/A

Author's Notes: N/A

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