Date: September, 2015
Location: Kalimantan, Indonesia
Agent: Dr. Nyugen Tan Duc
By day, the dense tropical woods of Borneo were alive with birds and animals. Now, by night, only silence remained. Not from the absence of life, but the silence of an abundance of creatures lying in wait. For each other, and for the two people in their small boat, rowing upstream by the light of a small lantern and the blueish shine of a satellite GPS device.
The river sloshed against the hull of the boat as Chandra and Rand manoeuvred it up the middle of this nameless tributary. On either shore, the jungle rose like a pitch-black wall, recognisable only by the narrow line overhead, where the canopies didn’t quite hide the countless stars in the night sky. They had cut the engine a mile or so back, but the darkness magnified the slightest sound. Each time they dipped their oars into the water, a small explosion erupted. Chandra welcomed the exercise. The night air chilled the fabric of her shirt, already damp with humidity and droplets splashing up as they rowed, but the exertion kept her warm.
She squinted as she checked the GPS for their position. It wasn’t all that accurate and even dimmed, its screen scorched her retinas, but right now it displayed coordinates close enough to where they needed to be. She nudged Rand. Without further prompting, her partner switched his oar to the other side of the boat and helped her row towards the right bank.
Before long, the yellowish light of the bow lantern revealed vegetation, branches and vines instead of murky water. Chandra stared intently at the shadows just ahead of the light. It shouldn’t be long now before they reached—
Her sharp hiss alerted Rand moments before their boat hit the tangle of dead branches hanging from the tree that had fallen into the river. In their circle of light, the dead, barkless trunk stood out against the surrounding darkness. Rand steered their boat through the maze, stopping twice to cut away a clinging branch with his machete, and then drove on to the muddy embankment that began some hundred feet further upstream.
More liquid explosions echoed through the jungle as they jumped into the shallow water. Due to the lack of a jetty or mooring pole, they pulled the boat onto the riverbank. The bow lantern tilted a little under the incline, giving them a clear line of sight of this makeshift beacon, because beyond its light, the world seemed non-existent.
Rand retrieved two canes and two large canvas satchels from the boat and handed Chandra one of each. Inside the bag, she found the modified torch she brought on assignments such as these. Like the bow lantern, by design it produced only a weak light, reminiscent of old-fashioned tar-and-wood torches rather than an LED. It made the contrast with the darkness less painful to her eyes, and was less likely to disturb the locals, human and otherwise.
Only ghosts travelled the forest at night. Better to blend in with them.
As they followed the wildlife trail that led from the river into the jungle, the smell of wet plants cloyed Chandra’s nostrils. Nothing about the greenery gave away what was special about this location. Only after she had counted twenty steps – some thirty feet – did the glow of their torches illuminate the outlines of a crooked pole with a carved figure on top. One of the remnants of this abandoned Dayak settlement.
They had visited this very place two weeks ago in the guise of freelance reporters. That was always a perfect excuse to examine every inch of a site, take as many photos as they needed, and thoroughly scout the place and the route in preparation for the ‘harvest’. Remoteness and reputation had done a fine job protecting the site from tourists and other scavengers. Even their guide had been too afraid to leave the boat, insisting the village was haunted. A reputation that would cover their tracks quite well if their presence here were ever discovered.
Having memorised the layout, Chandra knew exactly which structure marked which part of the settlement, how it related to the majestic longhouse that had been the heart of the community, and what they would find in each location.
Since any sound would give them away as something less frightening and more edible than phantoms, they had discussed the plan and its details before departing from their camp downstream. Rand would recover selected items from the longhouse, while she went to harvest their finds in the surrounding structures, those being two smaller huts and the wooden crypts opposite the longhouse. With everything planned in advance, words weren’t necessary and with a quick nod, Rand took off.
Before she did the same, Chandra briefly bowed to the effigy on its pole, as she had done when they first visited. Dayak tradition demanded that visitors stated their business before a village’s guardians, who permitted only friendly souls to enter. On their first visit, she had silently asked the once-proud guardian for permission. But not now. Personally, she didn’t consider claiming rejected objects as theft, but just in case the local spirits were of a different opinion, she begged their forgiveness for what she and Rand were about to do.
Quiet rustling accompanied her on her way to the first structure. She prodded the dense ferns that covered the ground with her cane to scare off snakes and other crawlers before she trod on them. Taller plants and low-hanging branches brushed her arms in the passing. Around her, the forest giants groaned from time to time, as if they sensed what she was about to do and uttered their disapproval. Despite the relative cool beneath the trees, sweat beaded on her skin.
She counted her steps to the first hut, a family’s former living quarters. It wasn’t common for Dayak communities to have huts away from the longhouse, but neither was it unheard of. The village must have prospered before its people abandoned it. But when they did, it must have been in fear, given what they had left behind.
After one hundred and eighty-four steps, she reached the hut. Like the longhouse, it was built on ironwood stilts. The jungle had invaded most of the settlement, but this structure stood firm. The tangka, the decorated notched log that served as a ladder to the elevated living space, had not been reclaimed by vines since she had cleared it two weeks ago. She stuck her cane in the mud and climbed up. But the tangkas were made for bare feet rather than military-issue boots, and Chandra nearly slipped on the damp wood several times before reaching the platform.
Something small ran out between her legs as she entered the hut’s single room. She swung her light around to encourage other animals to vacate, but nothing else moved. The room itself was empty, except for a small ritual corner that had been left by the former occupants, perhaps as a peace offering to assure a safe retreat. By the look of it, it hadn’t been disturbed since she had found it during the ‘photoshoot’.
The improvised altar consisted of a small box containing brass earrings and a carved statuette of the family’s ancestor or guardian. The earrings were disk-shaped, with tiny lines embossed in decorative patterns. Not unlike the bracelet Rand had given her as a present last year, and which she hadn’t taken off since. For tonight, she kept it under her shirt sleeve, but combined with these earrings, it would certainly make a nice set. Such a shame the client had specified he wanted all the items they brought back.
Above the box hung a wooden ritual mask. Hardwood barely rotted, and though its paint was flaking, it was in good condition. She cut it loose from the wall and wriggled it into her hungry satchel, which fitted snugly around the hollow-eyed face.
Mentally ticking off the list of objects she was to retrieve, Chandra headed out again. Without walls around her, the light of her torch melted into the dark within five feet in every direction. The second structure should be right beside this one, fifty steps at most. Yet even when she knew it should be there, the hut remained hidden in the endless darkness.
She waited a moment for her eyes to adjust before she descended the tangka, her torch between her teeth to free her hands in case she slipped again. As far from civilisation as they were, something as innocent as a sprained ankle could pose a serious problem.
Once she had both feet firmly on the ground, she pulled her cane from the muck and proceeded towards the second hut. Only her footsteps and the buzz of insects broke the eerie silence that bore in from the void around her.
Somewhere another tree groaned, long and loud. The dark made it impossible to judge distance, but its source could only be living wood slowly tearing apart. Chandra stopped in her tracks. She listened for cries of fleeing animals, hoping to distinguish where it came from before the earth trembled under a falling trunk, with her underneath it. She counted the seconds until it did.
Nothing. Perhaps just a branch breaking? It had to be, because the drawn-out screech stopped without a noticeable thud to follow. Only a vague scratching sound, like sandpaper on wood, lingered for a few seconds. When it, too, ebbed away, the jungle was once more alive with silence.
Chandra waited a bit longer, ears primed for anything unusual. She breathed deeply, and the forest breathed with her. Then an odd, off-key whistle rose up through the night, making her smile. She put two fingers in her mouth to return Rand’s call with a similar sound. All was well. Time to get on with the job.
She continued on her way, only to realise that she had lost count of her steps. A small matter, since the second hut wasn’t far from the first. More alarming was that she wasn’t quite sure of her direction anymore. Distracted by the noise and Rand’s signal, she had turned on the spot. She shone her torch around, but ferns were not particularly known for their distinguishing features. Her lips formed a silent curse as she stared harder. There. The imprints of her boots. She stepped into them and recovered her bearings. Fifty steps from the first hut to the second, she told herself, and began walking.
Her light slid across leaves, roots, and the occasional spider until, out of the gloom, the ruins of the second hut materialised. Forty-three steps since she lost her way, which together with the first stretch meant that she had miscalculated the distance. An easy mistake to make when the world ended five feet in front of your face, but not one she could easily forgive someone with her experience. Had she deviated from her intended path from the start? She glanced back, where she believed the river to be. A black wall stared back. Even if indeed she was facing the right way, the dense trees obscured every glimpse of the beacon.
Chandra resisted the urge to whistle that other tune she and Rand used between them. She knew where she was now. No need to panic. Grab the harvest from this hut, move on to the graveyard, and then she would worry about finding her way back.
Poking with her cane, she waded through the vegetation and climbed over cracked tree trunks that had once been stilts. They had to have been knocked down long ago, causing the hut to collapse. All that remained now was an undignified heap of broken wood. A real pity. The ritualistic carvings she had photographed were quite beautiful and would have fetched a pretty penny to the right buyer – if they had been intact. As it was, all she could salvage were two blow pipes and a small statuette. Anticipating her return to these ruins at night, she had hidden the items in a more accessible place than where she had initially found them. Now all she needed to do was pocket the lot and be on her way.
However, at several feet in length, the blow pipes poked awkwardly from her satchel. She shifted the shoulder strap, only for the mask to stab her in the back for her trouble. She contemplated leaving the blow pipes, so they wouldn’t hinder her during the gruesome task ahead, and return for them later. If she could find her way back here without unintentional diversions. There was a recognisable path between the graveyard and the longhouse. If Rand was still there, finding him and the boat would be the better option.
She whistled into the night, a slightly different tone than before. Short and shrill, it stipulated the silence that returned in its wake. Rooted to the ground, Chandra waited for a reply. It didn’t come. Her heart beat in her throat as she whistled again. Tense seconds passed like hours until, at long last, Rand answered. With a distress signal.
She hurried back as fast as the darkness, the terrain and that blasted satchel permitted. When her step count back to the first hut reached eighty, she doubted her course, but then her waving torch lit a sliver of the tangka she had climbed earlier. Assured of her position, she restarted her count for the stretch back to the effigy, all her senses primed for any sign of Rand. After twenty-two paces, she saw his torch swishing through the darkness and broke into a run.
He caught her when she ran into him and clasped his arms. The torches dangling from their wristbands painted gruesome shadows on his face.
‘You all right?’ she whispered, her voice nigh on inaudible and yet too loud in the silence. ‘What’s the emergency?’
Rand’s face grimaced. He opened his bag and took out a sizeable, almost spherical object. It was wrapped in a piece of soft cotton they had packed for one specific purpose.
‘Oh! You didn’t!’ she hissed under her breath.
Without a sound, Rand pulled back one slip of cloth to reveal an intricately adorned human skull resting in his palm.
Chandra pressed her hands to her mouth to stifle a cheer. ‘There weren’t any, you said!’
‘Of course I did,’ he teased. ‘Otherwise you’d have called dibs on the longhouse.’ He carefully rewrapped the skull and put it back in his satchel. ‘Just the one, though. You?’
‘So far, so good.’ She patted her bag, causing the blowpipes to swing wildly at Rand. ‘Sorry. Still need to do the graves, but without these.’
Rand gestured down the track to the river and headed for the boat. Between two torches and the growing light of the bow lantern, progress was quick. In the dark beyond, the river gurgled. Moments later, the bow lantern jerked. Then again, as if performing some modern dance. Unnerved, Chandra shone her torch across the water’s surface as soon as she reached the muddy bank.
The weak light was just enough to reflect on a peculiar pattern of ripples in the water, like a boat’s bow wave ebbing away. Every time a wave hit the side of their boat, it rocked a little and the bow lantern swung on its hook. Perfectly natural, if indeed there had been other boats on this tributary in the dead of night.
‘Crocodile?’ Chandra whispered at Rand, swallowing her disgust at the thought. The last thing she wanted out here was the company of a dinosaur that had neglected to become extinct.
Rand examined the embankment, the wet sand squelching under his boots. He gestured at something near the water’s edge. The yellow glow of the torches emphasised the embossed ridges of a shallow trail. It was about three feet wide and ran from the river’s edge to the undergrowth. Before their eyes, the lines in the mud gradually dissolved.
‘Fresh,’ Rand concluded. He directed his light at the undergrowth. Large leaves of a bush bobbed a little as water droplets trickled down from the canopies. Further away, a faint scraping sound dragged itself through the jungle.
‘That was definitely something.’
Chandra shivered. ‘Maybe the spirits of this village still protect it,’ she said, thinking of the effigy and the statuettes in her bag.
Rand scoffed. ‘Ghost or beast, we’d better finish the harvest together.’
‘Finish it? Why not come back tomorrow, when whatever this is, has gone?’
‘Too big a risk to stay with this in our possession.’ He tapped his satchel. ‘It has to be done tonight. Hauling out the larger carvings from the longhouse is too risky, but the santung art is smaller.’
‘Easier to carry.’
‘And half the value of this trip,’ said Rand. ‘We can’t leave those.’
He carried their bags onto the boat and deposited their trophies in the aluminium case under the captain’s seat, while Chandra kept an eye out for the unseen intruder. When Rand came back with the emptied satchels, he carried the machete in the other hand.
‘Just in case,’ he said, and began trailing back to the ruined settlement.
The path to the longhouse was wider than her route to the huts had been. Over time, young trees and indomitable plants had diverted its otherwise straight course, but apart from Rand’s shirt catching on a thorny bush, they reached the longhouse without incident.
Having seen the magnificent building by day, Chandra had a good idea of its size and stature. Good thing, because right now the light of her torch hardly reached the banister of its elevated porch. Below the house, all was darkness. Only the occasional glint of green betrayed that the jungle was steadily climbing up the stilts and through the floorboards.
Rand held his torch high, while she kept hers aimed at what was left of the path. At the edge of the light they passed a once-beautiful tangka, flanked by statues of guardians much larger than the effigy near the river. The shadows cast by their movement carved new expressions in the wooden faces. Chandra hurried along, reluctant to look at them.
A sudden cry, far too close, tore through the darkness. Swinging her torch, Chandra suddenly stared into two reflecting eyes staring at her. A fraction of a second. Then they took off with another shriek that echoed in the forest.
‘Monkey,’ Rand whispered. ‘Keep going.’
The looming presence of the longhouse perimeter ghosted their steps for miles, it seemed, even though Chandra knew the building was no longer than eighty yards. Roughly one hundred and twenty steps from one end to the other. Useless knowledge, since she had stopped counting her steps after they passed the tangka. But behind, Rand mumbled under his breath.
‘One hundred,’ he said, a fraction louder, and grabbed her shoulder. ‘Keep left.’
From that direction, palm leaves reached for her like elongated nails. Mere inches from her face, a hairy caterpillar slowly chewed the rim of one. She snorted with disgust, but Rand steered her onward a few steps, where the palms thinned and made a corridor not unlike the wildlife trail near the river.
After the monkey and their whispers, the jungle had gone silent again, as oppressive as the black void beyond their torches. The noise of their progress carried much further than Chandra liked, knowing some unknown creature lurked nearby. If whatever had left that trail had no taste for warm human flesh, it might have already moved on. She wished she could be sure it had.
Rand hacked away shoots and vines obstructing their path. He had cleared the corridor to the burial grounds last time they were here, but the jungle had no consideration for such efforts. The once-brilliantly painted arch that marked the cemetery had been claimed in the same way. Chandra expected that in this poor light they would miss it despite its size, mistaking the massive, over-grown pole for yet another tree.
However, what it guarded was as plain as day, even half-hidden by foliage and darkness.
Amidst the advancing undergrowth stood several long, ornate coffins, balanced on stilts like miniature houses. Which, in a sense, they were. Each coffin was an ossuary that housed the remains of several family members under one elaborately decorated ‘roof’. Their flaking paint looked pale in the glow of the torches, but they had a wondrous beauty about them. To Chandra they appeared festive despite – or perhaps because of – their content. The Dayak had a very different, and possibly healthier, view on death and bodies than Europeans. That deep respect had seeped into these santungs, which made the task the two of them had come to perform here a little harder to bear than usual.
While Rand began harvesting the decorative pieces from the first coffin, Chandra conducted a cursory sweep of the adjacent santungs. Most no longer stood upright. Odd. Recalling the photos she had taken two weeks ago, she knew some had toppled. But this one, with the yellow trimming, had still been standing at the time.
She knelt down beside it to assess the damage. Pale bones had tumbled out, but Chandra ignored the skeletal remains in favour of inspecting the delicate figures on the woodwork of the coffin and its lid. The client hadn’t been willing to pay for the equipment and manpower needed to collect entire hardwood caskets, but he had selected particular figurines from their photos. From what she could see, most of those were unharmed. Too bad several others had sustained scuff marks, and at one end, the figurines had broken off their fixtures entirely. A grunt from Rand told her he had encountered similar damage in his row. That did nothing for the harvest’s value, but she removed the ornaments and put them in her satchel all the same.
Satisfied that she had retrieved all she needed from this casket, she moved on to its neighbour, one of the few still on its stilts. The yield should be considerably better here.
As she stepped over the lid she had just raided, a horrible crunch ripped the silence as her boot shattered a stray bone. The sharp sound reverberated through her body and into the night. She winced; Rand snapped to attention. They both remained utterly still, waiting for the jungle to stir.
Silence returned as the upheaval rolled away into the trees, but it was no longer a calm silence. A faint scuff came from the bushes up ahead, a grating that might be close by but was nigh on imperceptible. Cold sweat trickled down Chandra’s neck. She fought the urge to turn off her light and hide in the darkness. Pointless. The predators in these woods didn’t rely on sight to spot their prey.
Yet the jungle held its tentative peace. No more noises, and nothing had sprung from the bushes. Behind her, Rand resumed collecting items for the client’s wish list. He worked with increased urgency, but Chandra’s stomach roiled, and she feared she would vomit if she took her eyes off the bushes. The apparent tranquillity of the forest felt like a ruse, as if every animal and even the trees held their breath in anticipation. In the flimsy circle that her torch painted on the vegetation, leaves rustled.
There! Near that tree trunk! Something moved, she was certain of it. Across from the dull glimmer peeking between the green stalks, where her light reflected off the tree’s smooth, sloping bark. Which looked smoother than any tree trunk should be.
The trunk shivered. Like muscles tensing beneath a sheen of finely-layered scales…
Unable to breathe, Chandra staggered back. Another bone fragment snapped under her heel, and at once the world changed.
She didn’t see them coming, but she felt them, those sharp knives plunging into the front and back of her right shoulder. Clammy, living leather rubbed against the side of her face. She wanted to scream, but something heavy collided with her head and her breath escaped with a sigh. A cable as thick as a barrel, coiled around her and squeezed. Squeezed! She struggled to break free, but in vain. A dry snap, like the bones under her feet. Only closer, muffled. The writhing muscle wrapped around her body, slow and languid like a malicious lover. The fine scales scraped across her skin like blunt razor blades, tearing cloth and drawing blood. Another snap. She gulped, desperate for air, but her lungs refused to draw in as little as a mouthful. Against her will, her body began to go limp.
A guttural howl shredded the air, countered by a deafening hiss in her ear. As her senses surged back, she felt the knives slicing her flesh as they released her. The muscle cable loosened its grip and she sagged. With ragged gasps she fought for each breath that stung and rattled in her chest.
‘Run!’ Rand shouted over the hissing. By the light of their torches, now on the ground, the blade of his machete glinted as he stabbed ferociously into the giant, rippling shape. ‘Chandra, run!’
Though dazed, her instinct kicked in. She had collapsed against the living cable and it had dragged her off her feet. Fighting that unnatural tide, she willed her uncooperative body to climb over the cold, slippery skin to get to Rand. But her right arm was useless and every bit of air she managed to draw through the pain only made her feel more breathless. She tasted blood in her mouth. Overhead in the trees, monkeys screamed.
Angered by Rand’s blade, the giant reptile reared. Chandra caught a glimpse of its head before it disappeared into the darkness of the canopies. Panic washed away any awareness of pain and she flung herself across the snake’s coiled body before it closed in on her again. She slid down the other side, among the remains of a destroyed santung. Before she knew which way was up, Rand had grabbed her outstretched hand and pulled her to her feet.
‘Don’t stop! Run!’ Rand yelled at her, but before her broken body could muster the strength to obey, a mouth full of dagger-like teeth clamped down onto her left shoulder and the whole of her arm.
She heard Rand scream her name, but her mind was focused on the faintest glint of light stealing across the snake’s fist-sized eye, mere inches from her face. It regarded her with cold determination. Out of sight, Rand held on to her hand, trying to pull her loose. Or she hoped it was him. Teeth and sheer muscle crushed her arm, her wrist, until she didn’t feel the pain. She didn’t feel anything anymore.
Funny how her only thought was of her bracelet. It had been a gift from Rand. What a shame it would be if it got damaged…
The snake had curled its immense body around her once again, wrapping and squeezing as it tightened its hold. In a spell of absurd clarity, she felt how the thick muscle crunched the rest of her ribs, then her spine. A bloody pulp dropped from the snake’s jowl; a cry, then darkness. Complete darkness. All sensation had gone from her limbs. Nothing existed but for the blood rushing in her ears, and the cold, forked tongue flicking against her face.
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