I raced across campus toward Dr. Norman's office. I'd started running the moment I hung up the phone. There was an urgency in Norman's voice I'd never heard before. "Come, as fast as you can!" he'd said, and I set off running.
Norman was the university's linguist. He was a stuffy man of ill humor and to hear him speak with such excitement filled me with wonder and terror.
Minutes later, I burst into the office and Norman shouted, "Come in and shut the door, Braun! Close it at once. Did you tell anyone you were coming?"
"No," I panted.
"Are you certain?"
"Who, exactly, would I have told?"
Norman pointed across his desk at Dr. Edward. "Well, this imbecile thought it a good idea to tell his wife."
Dr. Edward was our historian. He was a thin man with pale skin borne of a life in academia. Edward waved his hand dismissively and said, "You're being ridiculous. Penelope doesn't know anyone in our field."
"You fool," Norman said. "This goes so far beyond our field, you cannot grasp it. Once our discovery becomes known, the entire civilized world will come running to try and snatch it away!"
"All right, settle down, you both," I said. I sat down in a chair beside Edward. "Perhaps if we'd actually found something, we'd have reason to be nervous. As it stands now, I cannot fathom why anyone would be remotely interested in three university professors discussing ancient scrolls and meaningless texts. We don't even know of the site's correct location. Until then, all of this is a purely academic exercise."
I noticed Norman biting his lower lip as I spoke. He tapped his desk and looked ready to explode.
"Norman, what's got you so agitated today?" I asked.
"I've done it," he whispered. His voice was so quiet that I was unsure I'd heard him correctly.
Edward sniffed and said, "That isn't funny, Norman."
"I'm not joking," Norman said. "The key was right under our noses the whole time." He took a deep breath and said, "The site is located in the Galeno Jungle. Look."
"Galeno?" I asked. I smacked the chair's arm. "Of course. That makes perfect sense. How could I have missed that?"
"Because it was mistranslated," Norman explained. "Not by me, of course, but by the dolts who originally transcribed it. I kept seeing the word Shuibbe written as worm on their translation and realized it could not be accurate. I went back to the original scroll and translated it on my own."
"What is it supposed to say?" Edward asked.
"The proper translation for Shuibbe is god," Norman said.
"God?" Edward asked. "What god? Some jungle god of Galeno?"
"Any god!" Norman cried. "Who cares, you fool? Don't you understand? We've found him!"
I leaned back in my seat and stroked my chin in contemplation. "Interesting. Now that we have the correct translation, read it back to us properly, Norman. I'd like to hear it again if you don't mind."
Norman cleared his throat as he searched the book on his desk for the correct passage. He found it and said, "According to this, we must descend into the cavern and approach the Pool of Eternal Life, surrounded by the four pillars that guard it. We speak the words written on the pillars, and the incantation will awaken Shuibbe and summon him to our world."
"More than likely, all we'll find are some old stone carvings and a muddy underground spring," Edward said.
"Can you even hear how ridiculous you sound?" Norman snapped. "Even if it is just a muddy spring, it's a muddy spring of staggering significance. We'll be the most famous explorers on the planet. Newspapers from all over the world will throw themselves at us to hear our story! But if it's true," he said, "we'll be much more than that."
I chuckled at the idea. "Oh yes, eternal life," I said. "How grand. I think you've been spending too much time cooped up in here with your scrolls, Dr. Norman."
Norman slammed his book shut. "All legends are based on truth. Edward, even you must concede that."
"Well," Edward said. "It's possible, I suppose. Most legends derive from some sort of fact, however loosely. King Arthur certainly was never been a boy who pulled a sword from the stone to rule all of England, but there is evidence of a Roman leader named Arthur who fended off the invading Anglo-Saxons in the late Fifth Century. So any legends that grant the Pool of Eternal Life some kind of mystical properties may be based in fact."
"Exactly!" Norman said. "Perhaps it's a pond rich with rare minerals that fortify a man's constitution. Perhaps it's waters have healing properties due to undiscovered medicinal herbs that form its seabed. The important thing is, we are the ones who found it and once we stake our claim, the rest of the world will come racing to us on bended knee. Think of the possibilities! We could sell samples to universities and laboratories around the world for research. We could even give tours, where we charge the rich and desperate enormous fees for the chance to bathe in it. Don't you see the possibilities? We'll be rich as kings!"
I smiled as Norman spoke. "I could grow very comfortable with the life of a king."
Norman leaned back in his chair and pressed the tips of his fingers together. "We now have everything we need, gentlemen. We stand on the verge of discovering the legendary Pool of Eternal Life. I think a drink is in order."
Norman walked toward a cabinet behind his desk. "I've been saving a bottle for just such an occasion."
While Norman set the bottle and three glasses on his desk, Edward cleared his throat. He sat up in his seat to speak. "I just want you both to know, I'm bringing Penelope."
I laughed, thinking he was making a joke. "Very amusing," I said.
"Julian, I'm not being amusing," Edward said. "I swore she'd never be without me on the day we married and I cannot leave unless she comes along."
Norman shook his head. "Absolutely not. You can't bring her, it's too dangerous. End of discussion."
"If I don't bring her, I'm not going," Edward said.
"Be rational, man," I said. "You don't want to bring a woman into the jungle, are you mad? There are headhunters there who will want to boil us alive. And if they don't, there are a thousand predators who will be glad to accomplish the task for them. I apologize, old friend, but she belongs at home."
"Either she comes with us, or I do not go," Edward said. "And good luck finding the pool without me."
"Well then," Norman said. He poured until all three glasses were full and slid ours across the desk. He picked up his glass. "To the jungle god of Galeno. May he surrender all of his gifts and treasures to us whether he likes it or not."
"Here, here," Edward and I both said, and all of us drank.
The Galeno jungle was an emerald world of lush foliage and all manner of slithering beasts. It was filled with carnivorous plants that spat millions of toxic spores into the air if anyone approached too close. The trees hummed with insect life all around us. I could not tell which was worse, the fanged insects the size of birds, or the swarms of flies that moved in massive black clouds.
On our third day of searching for the cavern entrance, Edward swatted himself in the neck and groaned. "I can't take any more of these damned bugs! Penelope, my darling, have you been bitten?"
"A few times," she said. "It's nothing I cannot endure."
"I'm not surprised they bit you," Edward said. "All bugs prefer the taste of something sweet."
Penelope laughed and I glanced at Norman, who usually twisted up his face in disgust at any display of affection between Edward and his wife. Instead, this time Norman grabbed me by the shoulder to stop me from moving. He waved his hand for all of us to get down.
I saw nothing except for trees and dense brush in front of us.
"What is it?" Edward whispered.
We stayed perfectly still and listened but there was nothing except the insects and birds. Norman's grip loosened on my shoulder and finally, he nodded that we could continue on.
Behind us, I could hear Edward say, "I think our friend Norman is getting a little spooked by the jungle, my love. He's hearing things."
I leaned close to Norman. "Is it the natives, do you think?"
Norman's eyes narrowed on the path ahead. "Possibly," he said.
"Damn," I said. I adjusted the pistol holstered on my belt. "I'm glad we are all armed. I'd hate very much to be eaten alive."
"Our three pistols will be of little use against a hundred men armed with bows and spears," Norman said.
"Then what are we supposed to do? Let them tie us up like hogs and roast us with apples in our mouths?" I asked.
"Of course not," Norman said. "Natives are like any other men in any other part of the world. They have wants and needs. The trick is knowing how to give them what they desire."
He glanced over his shoulder and his eyes fell on Penelope. She was smiling at Edward, so radiant in the jungle sun. "Perhaps even they'd prefer the taste of something sweet."
The fire crackled in the jungle night, casting shadows against the trees and filling the spaces between them with utter blackness. Norman had left to get more firewood but he'd been gone a long while.
Penelope shifted against Edward and told him she was cold.
He put his arm around her. "Stay close to me and I will keep you warm, darling. Norman will be back with more wood for the fire any moment."
"What's taking him so long?" she asked.
I heard something approaching from beyond the trees and was relieved to see it was only Norman. He was carrying a few thin branches and his face looked pale and stiff. He would not make eye contact with any of us and did not greet us back when we hailed his return.
Norman tossed his meager collection of branches into the fire but they were small and burnt too quickly to produce much heat.
"Is that all the wood you brought?" Edward asked.
"That was all I could find," Norman said.
"In all that time? We suspected you'd gone off looking for the cave yourself," Edward said, with a laugh.
"Is that so?"
"Oh, don't listen to my husband, he thinks he's being funny," Penelope said. "We were only worried something had happened to you, dear Norman."
Something else moved beyond where I'd seen Norman emerge from the darkness. Norman had not returned to camp alone, I realized. I could see the silhouettes of a dozen others, approaching in the darkness.
Penelope giggled as Edward leaned in and kissed her on the neck. Neither of them had noticed the others yet. I tapped Norman on the arm but he only stared at the fire and said nothing.
Edward kissed Penelope again and she laughed and pushed him away and said, "Not in front your friends, Edward." As she spoke, her eyes glanced sideways and she saw the first of the tribesmen, coming toward her.
Penelope screamed in horror and Edward leapt to his feet. He scrambled to unholster his pistol and cried out, "Get back! Get back, all of you!"
I leapt forward to grab his arm. "Hold! Do not draw your weapon, man!"
"Are you mad? They're everywhere!"
It was true. I counted fifty of them or more, all armed with spears and knives and bows and arrows. Our pistols held just five bullets each. They'd be on top of us as soon as we fired the first shot.
One of tribesmen reached to touch Penelope's hair and she screamed.
Edward raised his pistol and cocked it in the tribesman's face. "Do not think of it, bastard," he snarled.
I put my hand over Edward's gun and lowered it. The natives had not moved and did not seem concerned at the appearance of Edward's weapon. "Every one, just calm down," I said. I glanced at Norman. "Dr. Norman, please open my case so that I may show our new friends the presents I have brought for them."
"It will do us no good," Norman said.
"Open it, I say. I did not come unprepared for such an event."
Norman grabbed my case and raised the lid. A few of the tribesmen leaned forward to see what was contained within. I clapped my hands with a showman's enthusiasm and pranced around the fire.
I bent to the case and came up holding handfuls of jewelry and coins. "Riches!" I exclaimed. "Rare coins and necklaces garnished with gems and jewels from the New World!"
In truth, these items were nothing more than costume jewelry and colored glass, but each of their eyes widened at how my trinkets sparkled in the firelight.
"This won't work, Braun," Norman said.
"Be silent, Norman! It appears to be well-enough. Penelope, come here and assist me if you do not mind," I said.
Edward released her arm and Penelope came to my side.
"There you are. Please reach into the case so we may show these gentlemen the other fine gifts I have brought," I said.
She reached down with trembling hands and said, "These, you mean?"
"Correct!" I said. "Observe, my friends, these dresses made of the most exquisite fabrics. Penelope, hold that one against yourself so they can see how it will look on their own wives and daughters. There you go. Now turn around. Do you see, my friends?"
They did see. They grinned and murmured to themselves in their native tongue as they looked at her.
"Braun," Norman said.
Their murmuring grew so loud I could not hear what Norman said next, but several of the tribesmen came forward and seized Penelope by the arms.
"No!" she screamed.
I did my best to fend them off but it was useless. Edward ran at them with his gun raised, but the tribesmen behind him grabbed him as well. They threw him to the ground and beat him mercilessly.
"Leave her alone!" I shouted. I tried to fight but Norman held me back.
"Listen to me!" Norman said. "They found me in the woods and would have skinned us all alive if I hadn't made this arrangement. I offered them the girl! That is the price for us to walk unmolested through their lands."
Penelope screamed as they dragged her into the darkness. The rest of them followed behind. The one who'd been thrashing Edward left in a crumpled, bloodied mass on the ground.
I stood frozen in utter shock. When I finally found the strength to speak, I whispered, "How can we allow this, Norman?"
"We'll allow that and more, Dr. Braun. Go after them and they'll wear your flesh as a coat instead of whatever nonsense you brought for them in that satchel."
Penelope's screams faded into the jungle night, leaving us with nothing but the sound of insects and Edward's low groans.
"Please," Edward whimpered. "Don't let them take her."
Norman let go of me. "Here, help me get him to his feet. Stop blubbering, Edward. You'll get another damned wife. A hundred wives, all of them better than her, if we find what we're looking for."
Edward's head and nose were bleeding. "Go stop them, you cowards," Edward muttered through broken lips.
I peered between the trees where Penelope had vanished. There was nothing but darkness. The woods had gone quiet again. I thought, for a moment, that I might dash into the jungle in search of fair Penelope. That I might be brave, like I'd always imagined myself to be.
Edward continued to stare at me. He silently entreated me to save his wife. On the other side of the campfire, Norman also stared at me. Norman was daring me to stay. Daring me to join him on his mad quest in search of eternal life and glory and wealth.
"Damn you to hell, Norman," I muttered. I grabbed a bandage and a syringe from the medical supplies hidden in my case and carried them over to Edward. "You're bleeding, old chap," I said.
"I don't care!" he cried. "Go after her!"
"There, there," I said soothingly. I jabbed the syringe into side of his neck and injected him before he could resist any further. His eyes went hazy and I said, "Rest now, Edward, and in the morning, everything will be all right."
At dawn, Norman and I roused Edward and told him we were continuing on our journey. Edward refused to leave the campfire. He clung to the idea that Penelope might somehow escape her captors and come running back to us.
I managed to convince him that we had a better chance of finding her if we searched along the way. The poor fool believed me.
As Norman and I walked, Edward lagged behind, weeping into his hands. "Why did I bring her?" he moaned. "Why?"
"I can't believe he's still carrying on like that," Norman muttered. "It's been hours."
"You really are an unfeeling bastard, you know that?" I said.
"Perhaps. I know what will cheer him up though." Norman stopped and unscrewed the top of his canteen to take a drink. He pointed ahead. "I believe that's the entrance to the cavern."
Once I realized Norman was right, I raced back for Edward. He was staggering between the trees, calling out for Penelope. I grabbed him and shook him. "Come look! We've found it!"
"What are they doing to her, Julian? What are they doing to my poor wife?"
"Your wife is fine," I told him. "Listen, I've read about this tribe. They're perfectly harmless. Right now, she's probably sitting with the women and children, regaling them with stories of our home. You have nothing to fear."
His lower lip trembled. "You think?"
"Edward," I said, pressing my hand against my chest with as much earnestness as I could summon. "Do you honestly believe I would have let the wife of my oldest friend be taken if I believed she was in any danger?"
Edward sniffled and said, "I hope not."
"I'm certain she's fine! Listen, Penelope would not want you to quit now, would she? She'd want you to make one of the rarest finds in history. After that, we'll go find the tribe and get her back and you'll see that everything I say is true."
Edward wiped his nose on his sleeve. "Do you promise?"
"Of course I do," I said. "In the few times I've been around Penelope, it was obvious how incredibly brave and smart and resilient she is. Most importantly, she believes in you, Edward. Does she not?"
"Yes," he said, and his throat choked with a sob. "But I didn't think—God, I didn't—"
"If you cannot believe in me, then the least you can do is believe in her," I said. "I think she's a woman worth believing in, don't you?"
I could see his mind working, trying to untangle the web of deceit I'd cast over him. Before he could stumble onto some form of resistance, I clapped him on the shoulder and pulled him with me toward the cavern's entrance.
"It's what she would want you do to," I said.
Edward followed me through the cave's dark entrance. I raised my torch and peered down at a series of sloping trails that were nothing more than narrow ledges carved from the rock wall. He stayed close behind as I groped for handholds along the wall's rocky crags to make our descent.
The cavern stunk of stale air and damp moss. Foul water dripped from the tips of stalactites high above our heads.
Far below, Norman shouted, "Come look! This is no muddy spring! It's extraordinary!"
I glanced over the edge and saw Norman. Behind him were four obelisks. They were towering structures made from what looked like polished stone.
Set between the obelisks was something so astonishing I felt my knees buckle and my foot slipped off the ledge and sent rocks and dirt cascading over the side.
It was The Pool of Eternal Life.
A round pond of glowing green water, as bright and pure as an emerald sparkling in the sunlight.
"Do you see this, Edward?" I whispered.
I felt his hand tremble against me. "My God, Julian. It's exactly the way it was described."
Norman walked to one of the obelisks to inspect it. "There is something engraved on their surface. Come see."
Edward and I made our way to the bottom of the cavern as fast as we could. We were too in awe of the glowing pool to worry about falling any longer.
Norman waved for us to hurry. Once we reached him, I raised my torch so that we all could make out the series of bizarre symbols etched there.
Edward leaned past my shoulder. "These are unlike any runes I've ever seen."
"They're older than any rune known to mankind," Norman said. "They may predate all other written languages. How on earth did these get here?"
"Can you read them?" I asked.
"There were similar symbols in one of the scrolls I translated. Bring your torch closer," Norman said. He traced the first rune with the tip of his finger. His tongue curled around the syllables as he tried to pronounce them and form them into words. "Tay—no, that's not right," he said.
"Tahk…bar," Norman said.
I looked at the pool and saw a slight ripple on its surface.
"Rahk-may. Kahm…bol? Rahk-may. That's it!," he cried. "Tahkbar, Rahkmay, Kahmbol, Rahkmay."
A bubble of green water swelled within the center of the pool and popped.
"Keep going," I told him.
"Tahkbar, Rahkmay, Kahmbol, Rahkmay!"
"Tahkbar, Rahkmay, Kahmbol, Rahkmay!" Norman shouted. Before he finished the last word, the runes ignited with bright green flames. Norman's hand was engulfed in the eruption and he shrieked.
The flames consumed his flesh as he ran past us, flapping his arm like a bird. The flames consumed the sleeve of his shirt. He ran, crazed, and filled the cavern with trails of fire and smoke.
I tried to chase after him but instead, Norman spun back around and ran for the pool. He thrust his arm down into its green waters and thrashed until the flames were put out.
He moaned as he scooped handfuls of water across his arm and shoulder and chest and the sides of his neck. What remained of his clothing had been blackened and melted into his flesh. His skin was now knotted and ruined by the flames, but the water seemed to soothe him and before long, he collapsed against the pool's edge and closed his eyes.
"Norman," I said. I shook his shoulder gently. "We need to remove your shirt."
"No," he muttered. "Don't touch me!"
"We can't let that fabric seep into your wounds. We need to dress them and get you to a hospital."
He shoved me back with his good arm. "Get away from me you fool! Don't you see? All I need is water from the pool! It's healing me! I can feel it!"
I watched him thrust his arm back into the water. He winced but his lips drew back into a tight grin. "God, it stings. But look, can't you see? It's seeping into the wound. It's healing me."
"Norman, you need medical attention. Not superstition."
"The legends are true, Braun! It's taking away my pain! It's going to give me eternal life! I can feel it."
I grabbed him around the waist and tried to pull him away but he would not be moved. He kicked at me until I was forced to retreat.
"We have to leave this place, Julian," Edward said. "Look!"
The pool was bubbling more forcefully than it has before. Its water rose until it sloshed over the sides. In the pool's center formed a kind of whirlpool that gathered in speed and force until I could feel it rippling my hair and clothes.
"We've done it!" Norman cried out. "Rise, great Shuibbe! I summon thee!"
Pressure formed inside my head until I was forced to clamp my hands over my ears and open my jaw as wide as I could. The cavern floor jumbled beneath my boots and seemed to slide me forward, as if I were standing in the ocean and the current was trying to pull me in deeper.
Something inside the pool latched onto Norman's arm and yanked him forward. He struggled against it and tried to escape, but whatever had fastened onto his arm would not let go.
I grabbed his leg, but just as I did, he screamed and was torn from my hands. He vanished beneath the water and the pool's glowing green light suddenly went dark.
Behind me, Edward looked up and gasped. He could see something in the darkness that I could not. "It's a worm," he whispered. "It's a worm!"
Two glowing green lights appeared below the cavern's ceiling. Merciful God in heaven, I thought. They were eyes. The thing was standing in the center of the pool, looking down at me.
I grabbed Edward by the arm and tried to pull him. Terror had planted his feet to the floor and locked his limbs. I tried to move him and he latched onto my forearm with fingers as strong as iron. "Edward!" I shouted. "Let go! We have to run!"
The creature came forward. Water cascaded off its towering form. In a few steps it would be on top of us.
I tried pulling my arm free but Edward held me fast. Finally, I struck him across the face with an open hand, and still he would not release me. I balled up my fist and clubbed him viciously across the side of his head.
The blow knocked him aside and I bolted for the ledge. I shouted for him to follow, but did not stop to look to see if he did. I raced up the ledge as fast as I could and when I finally reached the top, I dove through the cave's entrance and was sent sprawling into the jungle sunlight.
As I lie on my back, trying to catch my breath, I heard Edward release a horrific scream from far below. I did not go back for him. Instead, I got up and ran.
I ran as fast as I could through the jungle and I left them all behind. I told no one of what had happened, and by the time I returned to America, I never told anyone I'd left the country at all.
Several weeks later, I received a visit from a special agent of the FBI, who informed me that one of my colleagues, Dr. Edward, had been found staggering naked, delirious, and dehydrated in some distant jungle called Galeno.
"Do you have any idea what Dr. Edward was doing there, Dr. Braun?" the agent asked.
"Not in the slightest," I said. "Why would anyone in their right mind want to go to Galeno?"
"Well, he's not in his right mind anymore," the agent replied. "He's gone barking mad. We're flying him home to be put in an institution."
That night, my dreams were haunted by what I'd seen in the jungle. The god Shuibbe revealed himself to me in the dream and I understood that he'd spared me alone. Perhaps it had all been some kind of test, I reasoned. Perhaps, the gift of eternal life was only granted to the worthy.
When I awoke, I was certain that I needed was to visit Galeno again. I quietly began to plan.
On the day of enrollment for the next semester, I posted a sign in the student lounge offering private tutoring for my upcoming class.
It was not long before a pretty young coed named Claire knocked on my office door and told me she was excited to take my class. Claire had bright blonde hair, exactly like Penelope's.
"Welcome, come in and sit down," I told her. "Let's get to know one another."
She was a research scientist who dreamed of finding cures for rare diseases, she told me. Cures that could be found in the natural world where mankind has not yet explored.
I told her we had much to discuss.
I held out my hand and said, "Claire, watch your step. This jungle is treacherous. There are a thousand things here that would like the taste of you. Maybe even more than I do, if that's possible."
She smiled at me and sunlight blazed within the blue of her eyes. It danced there and found a thousand new combinations of colors for me to become lost in. I had to pull myself away. It had been six months since Claire accepted my advances, and while I had always intended to bring her to Galena, I confess, I had fallen quite hard for her.
The path grew firm under our feet as we moved away from the river.
"Treacherous the jungle may be," she said, "but the medicines we discover might save countless people. I would risk my life a hundred times if it meant discovering just one cure for some terrible affliction."
"I'll remind you of that when we encounter the first man-eating crocodile or hundred-foot snake," I said.
Claire laughed. "And to think, I could have vacationed in New York City instead. Remind me why I agreed to come to Galeno?"
"Because you love me. Because you'd rather face death at my side than bear to live one second without me. Is that not so?"
She fit her hand inside mine and squeezed it. "Yes. Very much so."
Eventually, my patience was rewarded. I had taken Claire far from where the cavern's entrance lay, in hopes of encountering the jungle's natives.
I'd known the tribesmen would be camped near a clean water source. We had walked along side the river for miles until finally, I spotted footprints on the damp ground.
I stopped Clair from walking and showed her the trees. They were the same as all of the other trees, but I balled up my face in confusion and said, "Blast it, we are going in the wrong direction."
"Oh no," Claire said.
I unslung my backpack. "I need you to wait here while I scout ahead. Be sure not to move. If I get lost, I will call out to you and be able to follow your voice back to you."
"Please be careful, Julian," she said.
I kissed her. "You promise not to move?"
She promised she wouldn't and told me to be careful.
I raced into the jungle and once I found where the tracks picked up, I ran toward them as fast as I could.
The tribesmen were gathered along a riverbank and had not noticed me when I thrust my hands into the air and called out, "Hello again, friends!"
They leapt to their feet and scrambled for their weapons, but I kept my hands raised and did not move. "Easy," I said. "Easy, friends. I found you. You can see I'm unarmed. I mean you no harm."
They looked at one another in confusion. A few of them spoke in their native tongue and I saw one of the men, an elder, nod and point at me.
"Yes, that's it," I said. "You remember me, don't you? I was with the group before. We made a trade. We gave you a gift and you allowed us to pass. Well, I've brought you another."
Branches cracked in the distance and the tribesmen grew nervous again. I heard Claire call out, "Julian? Are you all right?"
I lowered my head and closed my eyes in frustration. "Stay where you are, love!" I shouted. "Don't come any closer, it's dangerous. I'll come to you."
"I heard something," she said.
"It's fine," I said. "Just stay where you are!"
I lowered my hands as the tribesmen stared in the direction of Claire's voice. I turned and pointed at the jungle behind me. When I waved for them to follow, they did.
By the time I ran back to Claire, I was out of breath.
"Why did you wander so far away?" she asked. "I was worried something had happened to you."
"I'm sorry, my darling," I said. I pulled her close to me and kissed her tenderly on the lips. It was our last kiss, though she did not know it.
She closed her eyes and her lips opened against mine. I looked past her at the tribesmen creeping toward her through the trees.
One of them spoke and Claire's eyes shot open and she spun around. "Who are they?" she cried.
"These are the indigenous people of this place, my dear. This is their jungle."
She backed against me and grabbed for my hands. Panic made her voice tremble. "Are they peaceful?"
"Perfectly," I said.
"Why are they staring at me so?" she asked. One of them reached for her hair and she swatted at him. "Stay away! Don't touch me! Julian, what are they doing?"
"Don't struggle, Claire. They won't injure you so long as you don't struggle."
One of them snatched Claire's wrist to drag her away from me. She beat him on the chest and struggled to get back to me, but it was useless. "Help, Julian! Why aren't you helping me?"
She screamed while I stood there and watched them drag her away.
The sound of her terrified voice faded into the jungle. I stood alone amidst the lush foliage of the natural world.
Animals slithered and birds cawed and insects swarmed all throughout. I felt as if I caught within the entrails of some living thing. The stench of wet, rotting vegetation and decaying carcasses mixed with fragrant flowers and fruit felt like the jungle's humid breath against my face.
I mourned for Claire a moment longer, then turned to go back toward the cavern's entrance.
Once inside, I made my way down the narrow ledge. The glowing green water of the pool below was placid and still. Its light reflected off of the obelisks' smooth surfaces.
On the cavern's floor, I used my torch light to inspect the runes inscribed on the obelisks, but made sure to keep well back from them in case they burst to life again.
I went to the pool and looked in. My reflection was bathed in the shimmering green water, and I suddenly felt ill with anticipation. My insides were twisted into knots. I raised my torch and steeled myself. I'd come that far and would not turn away.
"Tahkbar, Rahkmay, Kahmbol, Rahkmay," I called out, pronouncing them exactly as Norman had.
My voice echoed off the cavern's walls but nothing happened.
"Tahkbar, Rahkmay, Kahmbol, Rahkmay!"
Tiny bubbles popped across the surface of the pool.
"Tahkbar! Rahkmay! Kahmbol! Rahkmay!" I shouted again.
Flames burst from the runes of the obelisks, lighting the cavern so that I could finally see how truly vast it was.
"Come forth, great Shuibbe!" I cried. "I summon thee!"
Wind swept through the cavern and put out the flame of my torch. I tossed it aside and bared my fists. I would not be denied! I would force this being to appear before me and grant whatever I asked of it. It would yield to me the power and eternal life that had been promised.
The glowing light of the pool went out and I heard the sound of water rushing upward.
Two shining eyes opened in the darkness, high above.
This time, I was close enough to see the creature in full. It had brown speckled flesh and a face born of some horrible congress between worm and devil.
A wet, creaking sound came from the creature's back like the mast of a sea vessel snapped in half by a raging storm. It bent forward in pain and suddenly, two massive wings sprung from its shoulder blades and slapped against the cavern's walls.
It looked down at me and it's face twisted into some monstrous semblance of a grin.
I cannot describe the terror of knowing that something from another world has laid eyes upon you and marked you.
I raised up my hands and dropped to my knees in astonished horror. My mind snapped with reality. The sight of the creature was too much to endure. It was too far beyond my mortal mind's ability to comprehend.
I found myself crawling to the edge of the pool so that I was close enough to see droplets of green water dripping down its segmented flesh.
Without realizing what I was doing, I lowered my hands and scooped up as much glowing green water as I could hold in my palms and I drank.
The creature watched me do it and its smile remained. I drank and drank and when I could not get enough into my mouth with my bare hands, I lowered my face to the pool itself and frantically slurped up as much as I could hold.
Something had taken possession of my mind. I drank until my stomach could contain no more and then I collapsed on the ground, unconscious.
When I awoke, the cavern was empty and everything was as it had been before. The pool was calm aging. Its glowing green light was calm.
Had it all been some mad dream? Was all of this nothing more than a hallucination? Cavern gasses that drove men's minds mad, or some sort of poisonous fumes coming out of the pool?
I staggered up the cavern's steps, back into the sunlight of the Galeno jungle.
When I returned to the university, I went to Norman's office. I had not felt right ever since that day in the cavern. At first I thought it was a fever brought on by drinking water from some cave pond in the jungle, rife will all manner of filth. But no. This was different.
I could not stop sweating. My skin soaked through the fabric of my shirt and dripped off my forehead like rain.
I rummaged through Norman's papers and books in search of an answer. I thumbed through the pages until I found the passage Norman had translated when last we'd all stood together in his office.
I squinted and found that I could barely make out Norman's handwriting. The very letters on the page seemed to be wiggling and moving.
"Thou shalt behold," I struggled to read, "the palace of Shuibbe. There, at the cavern's mouth sit four stones with the sacred words inscribed upon them. Speak the words and be granted eternal life."
I searched for the next passage. The page was becoming too blurry.
I wiped my face and forced myself to focus. I found the part I was looking for and continued. "Upon summoning Shuibbe—" but that was all I could make out.
I had sweated onto the page so much that it had washed away the words written there, except, as I looked closer, I found something else splattered on the surface of the page. Something red and wet.
I peered closer. Another crimson droplet spilled out of my eye and splashed across the page.
The spillage continued until I realized my eyes were bleeding. Worse, the wiggling continued. Something was inside of my very eyes.
I could hear it boring through the meat of my eyeball and when I reached up, I touched the tip of its tail with my finger.
I managed to pinch the tail enough to pull its reticulated body free of my eyeball and drop it onto the page. I blinked through the blood and sweat until I saw it.
A black worm, thin and writhing, and I balled up my fist and tried to smash it.
Instead, the worm leapt aside and raced across the desk and fell onto the floor. I ran after it, but it escaped under the office door before I could open it.
I could hear people in the hallway outside. One of the secretary's walked past as I opened Norman's door and looked out. The worm leapt through the air and attached itself to the side of her neck.
Her coffee mug shattered on the tile floor and an armful of papers flew from her hands. The worm began feeding on her. Its body pulsated as it drank from her carotid artery and swelled with her blood until I thought it would burst.
The worm grew larger. It gorged on her until its slimy body was the size of a child and she collapsed beneath its weight.
I tried to wrench the thing off of her, but the worm hissed at me and revealed its wide-open mouth and rows of sharp teeth that dripped with fresh blood.
The worm struggled to open its eyes, like a newborn adjusting to the light of its new world. When they finally opened, I saw they were green. Not yet glowing, but green. I knew then that this cursed creature would continue to feed and that each time it fed it would grow, until finally, it would be the size of the thing in the cavern.
The worm slithered away from the woman's body and went further down the hall. I heard a man's terrified scream just as it turned the corner.
I made up my mind to go after it. I would kill it, before it was too late.
I ran back into Norman's office and searched for whatever weapon I could find. An iron poker. A sharp letter opener. Anything. I would chase that thing down and cut it to pieces, by God!
Except, as I searched, I felt something wriggling inside my other eye. Something sharp stabbed me through the center of my cornea. I cried out and dropped to my knees.
I pulled two worms from my left eye that time. I tried to crush them in my fingers but they were too slippery to hold onto.
I chased after them on my knees but they had already fled. Soon, screams filled the hallways all around me, and every time I tried to help, more worms came.
That was four hours ago.
There are at least fifty worms loose now and half of them have grown to the size of buildings.
The first ones I pulled from my eyes have now developed wings. I can hear them flying in the sky above. They cast great shadows over the world below as they soar overhead.
I realize now what has happened. That thing we sought in the jungle, that thing the ancient texts called Shuibbe, needed a human host for its offspring.
The hour of the worm god is at hand.
In no time at all, his offspring will sweep humanity from this map like chess pieces from a board. His children writhe within my very being, desperate to emerge. I can feel them yearning to spawn and grow and consume all that is living. Soon, this entire world will be laid to waste and I will be surrounded by nothing but the dead.
You see, the promise of the old prophecies came true.
For as long as I continue to spawn the worm god's children I will not be allowed to die. In the jungles of Galeno, down deep in the cavern, I received Shuibbe's gift of eternal life.
What a wretched thing that is.