My colleague Charles had been acting strangely ever since our trip to the Congo. We’d been there for a week, trekking out to explore previously unexplored ruins of lost African tribes, when he suddenly fell deathly ill. We were in a group of five in the depths of the jungle, camping in a small village of indigenous people, with no one that understood English but the guide. In the morning before we were meant to set out and explore the ruins, he complained of a slight headache. He took some ibuprofen, but within the hour it had turned into a blinding migraine, and while our medic Danielle was looking him over he suddenly lost consciousness. We took him into his tent and laid him down, and even though he soon began to sweat he wasn’t running a fever. Danielle opened his eyes to check his pupils and they were in a state of incredibly rapid movement, appearing to be two ivory spheres within their sockets. His breathing was labored, and nothing we did would wake him. Desperate, we asked our guide, a young native man, if he’d ever seen anything like this before. He said that once, over a decade ago, his father had told him of a man that had come in the mid-eighties to explore these same ruins. He and his team had been about to head into the ruins when suddenly he fell ill and lost consciousness, the same as our friend had. Nothing could wake him, and despite the villagers' offers and attempts to help, the man's security detail wouldn’t let anyone but the doctor anywhere near him, and he passed away by nightfall.
Suddenly we heard shouting outside the tent, but before I could get up to investigate, Jackson fell backward through the entrance at spearpoint. I could now see the people of the village gathered outside the tent, many of them holding spears or knives, and a few of them with the village's only guns. They’d taken us hostage. Some of them were shouting things at us, and our guide told us that they were telling us that they would not lose another chosen one. Before I could ask him what they meant by “chosen one” the villagers began to part. From between them emerged the village nganga, dressed in his most mystical livery, bones adorning every inch of his neck and waist, with pouches of what were presumably magical powders hanging across his chest. He held such presence as he walked towards us. When he got into the tent he looked at Charles and smiled, and began lowly chanting something in a language that it seemed even our guide didn’t understand. As he grew closer to Charles his chanting grew louder, and suddenly Charles’ eyes opened, still just ivory orbs. The nganga continued chanting, took one of his pouches, and began throwing a white powder over Charles’ body. Charles started to convulse, and Danielle began crying out to the nganga to stop, but a villager cracked her across the face with the butt of a rifle. She fell to the ground, bleeding from where she had been struck. I rushed to her and helped her up, trying my best to stop the bleeding. The strange thing was, though, that I didn’t think the nganga should stop. Everywhere that the powder touched seemed to be held down, as though it was weighted. The more powder that was spread across him the less he seemed to move, and once the nganga ran out he pulled a waterskin from his hip and poured its contents over Charles’s face, and Charles’ pupils returned to his eyes and he began to scream. The nganga screamed back at him in the strange language as Charles’ chest heaved and his limbs tightly flailed about, and the nganga began pelting him with more powders. Charles’s back arched, and his hands were balled into white-knuckled fists as he strained against the magic of the nganga's powders, his muscles barely contained beneath his skin, his vascularity simply astonishing. Suddenly he went silent, eyes closing as he fell to the cot and his head slumped to the side. The nganga lowered his volume back to a whisper, still throwing his powders over Charles until he ran out of those, too. Once he was spent and satisfied, he walked out of the tent, and he was followed closely by the villagers, their guns pointed at us as they backed out of the entrance.
We immediately checked on Charles. His breathing was returning to normal, and after a few moments, he woke up. He was delirious, but he seemed to be mostly alright. Once he regained his senses we told him what had happened, and he agreed that we needed to leave as soon as possible. After we cleaned him off and patched up Danielle’s wound we hurriedly packed up everything in the tent, and once we felt an appropriate amount of time had passed we peeked from between the flaps of the tent's entrance. We weren't prepared for the stillness that awaited us. The village was completely deserted, devoid of even its admittedly small animal population. The silence was deafening compared to how lively it had been earlier. We packed up the other two tents as quickly as possible and left the village with as much haste as we could muster.
I wish I had stayed.
When we got back to civilization we all breathed a sigh of relief. It had taken us days, but thankfully we hadn’t run into any trouble with any militia or even animals. It was far quieter than our journey out to the ruins had been; almost as if everything was avoiding us. During our return Charles had seemed unusually chipper, and overly energetic; like a child playing in the forest. He was interested in every, single, little, thing. His curiosity kept us out there for at least an extra day, much to the annoyance of the rest of us. We all just wanted to get home. I also noticed while we were out there that he didn’t seem to sleep. I caught him lying awake, talking to himself in the middle of the night - every night. He spoke in a language I couldn’t understand, but it sounded like the language that the nganga had been speaking. When I asked him about it he acted as if he had no idea what I was talking about, but seemed visibly distressed. I decided not to press him any further about it but continued to wonder where he’d learned it. He was a linguist by profession, and he did pick up languages with ease compared to most of the people I’d met, but he had been unconscious for the whole event - hadn’t he?
We all had separate rooms for our short stay in Kinshasa, and I was finally able to sleep through the night. When we boarded the plane home Charles was looking rather pale. I asked him if he felt alright, and with a strained smile on his face, he told me that he’d never felt better. I expressed concern that he was behaving rather strangely, but he wouldn’t listen. He brushed me off and told me I was being ridiculous. He said that he’d had a near-death experience and that it had given him a new view of life; a more curious and appreciative one. I accepted his explanation, being that it was sound and reasonable, and we spent the rest of the flight discussing our findings from the trip. Aside from his appearance, he did seem to be alright.
After we landed in the states we said our goodbyes and went our separate ways - Charles and I were the only ones that worked at the same university. So we boarded yet another plane and made our way home, trekking across the air with a furious speed so that we might get home in time to start compiling the data we’d accumulated on our trip. Unfortunately by the time we got to the university, it was in the vein of evening and I was tired as all get out. I said goodnight to my colleague and drove myself home. I slept with a slight unease, waking up several times unable to recall what I had been dreaming of moments prior. Each time I awoke, I had a feeling of dread. When I arrived the next morning Charles was already - or, rather, still - there, nose to the grindstone. He seemed perfectly fine, the only thing giving him away was his bloodshot eyes. I asked him how his work was going, and he didn’t respond. So I asked him again, this time a little louder, fearing he hadn’t heard me over the furious clacking of his typing, but to no avail. I escalated the volume with which I said his name several times, but I got no response until I reached him and put my hand on his shoulder. Though I hadn’t snuck up on him in the slightest he jolted in his seat and looked at me with terror in his eyes. I asked him if he was alright, and told him that I’d called his name several times. He just gave me a blank stare, and then suddenly something clicked behind his eyes. He began animatedly telling me about our work, about everything he’d gotten done last night. I asked him if he wanted to rest, but he declined - he said he had to get back to his work, that it was too important to stop. I asked to see what he’d accomplished. Delighted, he backed away from his screen and motioned me down to look. The screen was full of strange characters and patterns I didn’t understand. I think they were words; they were written in a strange alphabet that I wasn’t familiar with in the slightest. I asked him what it all meant, and he began spewing all sorts of linguistic terms and phrases, from promising diacritics to phonemes and allophones. From what I could understand it was the language that the nganga had been speaking. I asked him how he could know their alphabet and spellings and such; again I was met with a linguistics wall that was simply too tall for me to scale.
Though confused, I was satisfied. Charles had always been one to throw himself into his work, even if this time it seemed a bit excessive. I told him that I was going to my office and that I would see him later. And I did. In the same spot. Wearing the same clothes. Day after day. Staring at his computer screen, seemingly taking no breaks for food or even to use the restroom. I tried to get him to leave, to go do anything else, but all of my efforts were met with hostility. He was upset that I would even suggest leaving his work. A week went past, and he was getting thinner, his nails growing faster than they should, his hair losing its volume. I wasn’t the only one who noticed, but anyone who expressed concern was brushed off for his precious work. He would tell them that he was getting close, that he’d almost figured it out, but he wouldn’t tell anyone what “it” was.
One night I was leaving my office when I heard a scream from down the hall. It was unlike anything I’d ever heard; it was the sound of pain blended with pure terror. I rushed to see what it was - it seemed to have come from Charles’ office - and when I arrived I was met with a sight so horrific that I froze in disbelief, unable to process what I was seeing. Terry, one of the lab assistants, was on the floor, her torso torn open and her entrails strewn about. Something had ripped out her throat and gouged out her eyes - blood was everywhere, crimson pools surrounding her body. I stood, rooted in place like a statue, in a complete state of shock for what felt like hours, when I suddenly heard a voice.
It sounded like Charles, but with some sort of harsh sound wall behind it; a steady and monotone shrieking in the underlying tones of every word. I slowly turned my head and there he was. His complexion was positively pallid, drained of all blood, and devoid of melanin. His limbs were long and slender, and his fingers were elongated and sharp, his nails seeming to have disappeared into their tips entirely. Bare and barren was his body, holding no defining sexual characteristics. His mouth was wide, far too wide, and full of sharp, needle-like teeth. He was covered in fresh blood, his mouth and hands especially scarlet. He was horrifying, but before I could say or do anything he spoke again.
“I’ve done it, John. I’ve figured it all out.”
It took me a moment to process his words, but when I had I asked him what he was talking about; what had he figured out.
“The secrets, John. I’ve discovered the secrets. I know how the world was made, and I know how it ends. I know my part in it all - and I know your part too, John. Come here and let me show it to you.”
He began moving towards me slowly, dragging his feet in a death march, and finally, my fight-or-flight instincts kicked in. I broke my statuesque form and ran. He didn’t move any faster, and I could hear his feet slowly dragging across the floor. As I ran the sounds of his feet got quieter and quieter until they disappeared completely. Suddenly the lights above me started to flicker, and as I dashed to the exit they began popping and bursting, raining down sparks and covering me in glass and progressing darkness. I slammed my body into the double doors leading outside, but they didn’t budge. The impact jarred my senses, and it took me a moment to recollect them. Once I had, I tried furiously to open the doors, but to no avail. As I wondered what to do I heard him - distant, but distinct. His voice wafted to my ears carried by a breeze that didn’t disturb the now stale air.
“There’s no escaping your fate, John. This is the beginning of the end, and your time is now. Just give in John; accept it. There is more waiting for you on the other side. Let me show it to you.”
Terrified, I dove into the nearest lecture hall. My eyes darted back and forth, looking for a hiding space. Eventually, they settled on the AV room in the back. Running to it as quickly as possible, I locked myself inside and hid beneath the desk in the back of the room. I was damn near hyperventilating, terrified beyond all imaginings. Then I heard it, the dragging. Softly at first, muffled by the walls between us, but somehow still clear in its sound. It grew louder, and the louder it grew the slower my breathing became, until without warning the dragging stopped.
“You cannot hide from me, John. I can see where you’ve been, and I can see where you’re going to be. You cannot escape.”
Suddenly there was a great crashing sound. I couldn’t see anything, but it sounded like an ax being slammed into the door; then it came again, and again.
“Here I am John. I’ve found you.”
This time his words were perfectly clear as if he’d put his head through the door. I heard a click of the door unlocking and in desperation, I shoved the desk against the door. It was useless though; he simply cut the door down the rest of the way and tore into the wooden desk. His fingers stabbing and ripping through the wood with ease - it was the sound I had heard before, how he’d gotten in in the first place. He made quick work of both the door and the desk as I cowered in the corner, pissing myself in fear. I’d never felt this way before, never felt so completely and utterly hopeless and helpless to my fate. Slowly did he make his way into the room, climbing over the remains of the desk like some sort of animal. He swiveled his head towards me and smiled, his overly wide mouth full of its carnivorous serrated teeth.
“There you are, John. Get ready, I have so much to show you.”
With that, I screamed, and with a quickness he’d not shown previously he raced toward me. Within seconds he was upon me, towering over me with his bloody, lanky form. He thrust his hands to either side of my head and gripped it tightly before slowly shoving the tips of his thumbs into the corners of my eyes. I screamed and squirmed and thrashed, but no matter how I moved I could not break his grip. The pain was unbearable as he slowly popped my eyes from their sockets, the room spinning in multiple directions before he cut the chords that attached them to me and they fell from my face. Suddenly he dropped me, blind and bloody to the floor, and before I could try to clamber away I felt the knives of his hands pierce my stomach. It hurt, all of it hurt so badly. I could feel him twisting his fingers about, moving his hand further up into my torso. I began to feel cold - numb even. The pain was excruciating, but as his fingers crept between my lungs and around my heart it began to fade, the numbness creeping in, taking its place. I could no longer scream; I simply gurgled as his grip on my heart became tighter and my body became colder. As his grip became vice-like around my organ, my ruined and empty sockets saw something - something in the distance; it looked like fire.
Unfortunately for me, it was not the last thing I would ever see.