A secret lurks in the depths of the jungle. A secret-hunter is determined to find it, even though he doesn’t know quite what it is.
The jungle was tense, humidity weighing down on his shoulders and filling his lungs until he felt that he might drown under the pressure. Lost beneath the softly rustling leaves, like waves lapping on the shores of the sky. Vanished without a trace.
A fate that had befallen many before him.
Saveriu was following their lost tracks, the forgotten trails that beckoned through time and dreams to seep into the present day. He was uncertain what lay at the end, but as the jungle swallowed him and the days became hazy and indistinguishable from the nights he found he didn’t much care. He would find the end, or it would find him. The journey was what was important. The summons.
Somewhere in the stifling greenery, a bird called.
Stones began to peek through the leaf litter, rising like the bones of ancient ships buried by the crushing weight of the ocean of time. Once, shaped by human hands, but now they bore the marks of a subtler hand. Slowly time and the forest had eaten away at them, nibbling at the edges and prying into cracks until the careful artifice of humans was no more than shattered stone on the dirt. But they marked out a trail still. Savieru bent to pick up a fragment. Pale stone stained by moss and water - but definitely not natural.
The trees seemed to whisper as he followed the breadcrumb trail through the undergrowth. He wondered if their secret words mimicked the ones the locals had whispered, when he could convince them to speak at all. Sacred. Forbidden. Death. Ancient.
And then without fail they had averted their eyes from him and scurried away.
Savieru had expected a much more vociferous response to his setting out into the forbidden woods. But the loudest sound had been his breathing and, almost lost beneath the whisper of the leaves, the rustle of clothes as the locals turned away from him. They had shuffled away, down streets and through doorways, leaving him alone with only the trees and the sunlight for company. He thought he had caught the sounds of muttered words just on the edge of hearing, but no-one had spoken out. Just looked away.
If he had thought about it, Savieru would have expected to stand once again in sunlight when he came upon the ruins, but the jungle swallowed even that in its silent embrace. He could just make out where the humans who had lived here had cleared away the trees. It was a boundary line almost too faint to see - but he made a living finding what eluded others. Younger trees, more underbrush clinging to his trousers with grasping green fingers. A parrot, sunning its brilliant feathers in a half-dead sunbeam. It watched him curiously, unafraid. It had probably never seen a human before.
He stepped across the border, and found himself in a world worn at the edges. The buildings were soft-edged and crumbling, fraying at the seams as vines and flowers unpicked mortar and dislodged bricks. Savieru’s footsteps were the loudest thing in that strange bubble-world. A human sound, where all human things had ceased to be and merely sat, decaying in the shadows.
Another human sound - the crunch of bone.
The last vestiges of cloth clung to the skeleton as Savieru lifted a heavily booted foot from the shattered bone. Probably a leg bone; thin and long, so likely from the lower leg. Old, to have cracked so easily.
Savieru shrugged and continued onwards.
What the locals hadn’t mentioned, even in hushed voices crouched in shadowed doorways as they hid from the oppressive heat of the sun, was the treasures these ruins held. Those whispers had come to him from further afield, quietly. Slipping into his mind with barely a ripple to show their passing, he assimilated the information. Planned. Something hidden lay here, in the tumbled stone and the sweet scent of decaying wood. It called to him. A secret too huge to ignore.
Savieru was a connoisseur of secrets. He lived them, breathed them... rattled and shook them until they lay uncovered before the sight of the world. Once he had delved into society’s secrets, made a living off the suffering of others and their desperate need to hide in the darkness, but it had made his soul sick. Too many lies and half-truths known but unshared, pressing like a weight on his mind, and he had turned to older secrets. More stable because they were buried deeper, solidified like diamonds by the pressures of time and cultural memory.
His footsteps echoed on stone as he entered what remained of the temple.
A parrot, a splash of vibrancy against the cool dampness of the overgrown stones, eyed him as he approached. It was perched on a cornice carefully etched with glyphs Savieru couldn’t read. His camera flash startled the bird and it squawked as it launched into the air in a flurry of feathers.
More glyphs covered the walls inside, and Savieru’s digital camera clicked and whirred with manic urgency as he sought to capture their vast array. Curling along columns, carved into the tabletops. The altar was more sigil than stone. The flash cast the runes in sharp contrast, black and white with knife edges, as they would have been back when the ancients carved them into the stone. It was as though the camera captured the present but, in doing so, drew the past into the fore. He could almost smell the incense curling smoky tendrils through the cavernous room.
The stairs leading down were dark. The beam of his electric torch barely illuminated the darkness, instead lending it texture and stretching shadowy fingers down into the depths. Tendrils of darkness curved around him.
Eyes glittered in the light. Savieru flinched, foot slipping on the last stair and sending him slipping down in a crackling tumble of stone and torn fabric. The eyes watched him impassively; the beam of his torch lit crimson feathers red like fire, like blood. A parrot, perched on a rock.
No, not a rock. A skull.
The parrot watched him with glassy eyes as Savieru pushed himself to his feet, wiping a bloody lip on his sleeve. It faced the door, not even turning its head to observe him as he bent to pick up the torch. Its beam shook, hands betraying his still racing heart, the adrenaline pouring through his veins, and he reached out to touch the parrot. Waxy feathers met his fingers and he realised it was taxidermied. Dead, preserved for all eternity with beaded eyes fixed on the crumbling doorway. Those glass eyes had probably seen more than he could imagine.
A glint of gold revealed a fine chain tangled around the scaled feet, but Savieru left it. Trinkets didn’t interest him.
As he padded further into the depths, gleaming eyes met his gaze from every conceivable angle. Hundreds upon hundreds of parrots watched him from the shadows, feathers flashing colours for a moment under the light of his torch before the darkness swallowed them once again. Every one of them faced his approach, as if watching him. He wondered what religion had been housed here in the vast jungle. What rituals called for stuffed parrots chained to skulls of the dead.
Burial rites, perhaps?
The musty smell of rotting cloth pervaded the corridor as he walked. The stones beneath his fingers were cool now, almost icy against his skin, and he could make out the faint fog of his breath in the golden light of the torch even as sweat trickled down his spine. Savieru’s skin felt hot, feverish. His split lip burned and filled his mouth with a hot metallic taste.
Two parrots guarded the doorway to the next room, standing sentinel with with their eyes fixed forevermore towards the outside world. As he stepped over the threshold, he wondered if they were supposed to keep something out. He wondered who could tell him - no-one living had been to these ruins for centuries.
The room, he guessed, was the central ritual chamber. Collapsed columns crawling with carved sigils formed a ring around a central altar upon which perched another parrot. Unlike the others, this one was white as bone, a pale smudge in the darkness even when his light was elsewhere. It gave it the look of a ghost, something drained of colour by time until only a vague recollection remained, tethered to this world by a frail, forgotten connection. But it was the only thing in the room worth looking at - it dragged at his attention. Tugged at his mind. Savieru stepped forwards, torch beam dipping and weaving in time to his footsteps.
As he approached, Savieru became aware of two things. There was another boundary here, pressing close up against the columns. Not very surprising at all, and more obvious than the lurking trees outside. The air crackled with barely suppressed electricity as he approached the altar, raising the hairs on his arms and prickling the back of his neck.
The second was a faint niggling sensation at the back of his mind. There was something watching him, the ancient senses warned. A predator hiding in the undergrowth, waiting.
The sound of his footsteps faded away.
Light played around the room as Savieru flicked the torch over the walls, the pillars, the creeping lichen carpeting the stained floor. No eyes winked back at him from the shadows.
Atop the altar, the solitary parrot stared at him. Its eyes were black glass, casting no reflections.
This was the great hidden thing that the jungle had kept close all these centuries. Swallowed by nature, secreted away in the depths of the temple.
Savieru stepped closer. His foot crossed the boundary.
As he leaned over, brushing his fingers across the soft white feathers of the parrot, the electric energy sparking over his skin fell away, leaving only a vague dampness and the sound of his breath. His sleeve rubbed against the bird, leaving a smear of blood on the age-bleached plumage.
The glass eyes drew his gaze, as black and fathomless as a void, the deepest ocean trench, the furthest reaches of memory. The way his light hit them, it seemed as if he could see something in their depths. Something alive. Moving.
Creeping, like the crimson stain spreading across the bone-white feathers.
Savieru stumbled back, tripping over loose stones and his own feet as the gaping black eyes blinked. Bloody feathers dripping, bleeding like candle wax to puddle on the floor, the parrot turned its head to face him.
The beam of light ricocheted around the room as the torch bounced off the stone pavers.
The soft rustle of feathers, the smell of mildew and dust filling the air after centuries lying undisturbed.
The comforting darkness of the corridor. Eyes glittering in the shadows, watching him.
Feet pounding on the uneven floor, Savieru stumbled and skidded, heading for the outside world as the shadows pressed in around him. Behind him, he could hear a dull shuffling noise. Something dragging against old, worn stone.
He exploded out into the too-bright light of day, arms outstretched, feeling the cool breath of the grave on the back of his neck. Eyes streaming, he stumbled. Pain flared across his shin and he fell over the altar, sending stinging agony lancing across his palms as he broke his fall. Blood welled from grazes on his palms, thick and oily - grey, like clouds gathering at the edge of a storm.
The parrot he had startled earlier, or maybe a different one, hopped towards him. Its head tilted to one side.
Its beak opened wide, and though his feverish brain tried to convince him it was speaking, any sound it made was drowned out by the thunder of thousands of wings slicing through the humid air. Brilliant feathers swirled around him as parrots erupted from the stairwell, colour streaming out from the deepest darkness in a whirl of feathers and glittering glassy eyes. Fine gold chains dangled from clawed feet, snapped and broken.
Savieru pulled himself towards the doorway with hands that felt stiff and clumsy. His legs were tingling, feet already going numb. The taste of metal burned in his mouth. Blood, spat onto the ground, was as grey and lifeless as the stone it landed on.
As something ancient rose behind him with a crack that made the earth shake, Savieru’s body gave out. The last remnants of the temple began to tumble down around him as the great secret that had been trapped in the ruins rose up into the air, his blood giving a shimmering tinge to immaterial feathers. Power coalesced in the sky above him, forming swirling wings that cupped the clouds before tearing them to shreds. Colour drained from the jungle into the vortex, mixing with the shades of his lifeblood to form emerald and crimson feathers. Wings, claws, a beak - the brilliant void took on life even as it absorbed the last dregs of colour from the trees. The only things that remained the same were the yawning black voids of the eyes.
Pale as death, Savieru collapsed as the green and red bird spread its incandescent wings above him and began to feed.