An insurgent group had taken control of Enjil and we were tasked with clearing the ancient city. As we drove our Humvee through the massive city gates, I could not help but think that we were only the latest in a long line of empires to do so. The colorfully stained mud buildings were scorched by fire, the decadent and ancient murals on the walls left abused by modern weaponry. In between works of art, the bodies of slain civilians were stashed in decrepit and decaying alleyways. We stopped at an intersection in the claustrophobic road. The sergeant tapped my helmet and gestured for me to hop out. Dansforth got the signal as well and joined me.
“You boys got lucky, this sector’s already been cleared.” The sergeant grimaced, and proceeded in a grave tone. “We need a count on the bodies. Initial estimates put the numbers around 160 civilian casualties.”
My heart sunk. I had known men who were assigned to counting bodies after one of these insurgent gangs ran through town. They were changed afterwards.
“Yessir” I replied.
Dansforth and I shot a quick salute to the Humvee before advancing into the shadows of the twisting alleyways.
I thank God that the bodies were fresh and in the shade. Bloating and bulging had barely set in, and it made the counting easier. Though each new face burned into my corneas like a hot iron. The smell seemed to have gotten to Dansforth, as he bent over and vomited severely. I maintained my constitution, and boldly pressed on.
About an hour in, we were still treading down that same body littered alley. Dansforth and I frequently exchanged nervous glances. There was something unnatural about our situation. We had counted significantly more than 160 dead in this place alone. And there seemed to be no end in sight. With the sky overhead darkening, we quickly became more and more unsettled.
That is until we spied a glowing purple rectangle ahead. I felt relief come over me like a crashing wave. There was something soothing about its perfect, sterile, geometric shape. I broke into a jog, followed close behind by Dansforth. It was but a few minutes till we reached the rectangle in its splendor.
It was a doorway. Some kind of iridescent paint bordered a solid stone door. I instinctively pushed on the slab, and with little effort it swung open. Stale air rushed outside. The scent of rotting wood wafted past my nostrils. It was a welcome change.
As we stepped inside, our eyes adjusted to the dim lighting. There was a skylight letting in pale light in a wide beam. It shone onto a grey stone slab with a single book sitting atop. The cover was leather and adorned with precious stones along the edges and spine. I looked greedily at the glimmering rocks and swiftly moved to the book. Trying to claim it in a primitive manner.
Though when I looked back at Dansforth he did not seem enticed by the jewels. Where I felt the burning pangs of greed, I could tell by the sparkle in his eyes that a different, more innocent emotion seared inside. Curiosity. I felt ashamed so I stood to the side and let him pass.
He walked to the pedestal and promptly dusted off the cover. His fingers carelessly caressed over the precious stones, as if he only desired the knowledge it contained. I scoffed under my breath.
Dansforth shuddered as he creaked open to the first page. I peered over his shoulder at the intricate illustrations. They depicted monstrous and disturbing beings, clinging to a tortured life. The pictures seemed to reach out of the page in agony. I couldn’t shake the feeling that what we were experiencing was wrong. The images in these ancient tomes were not meant for human eyes.
Suddenly Dansforth began convulsing. His feet were planted to the floor but he seemed to lose all control. His eyes rolled over and saliva foamed at the corners of his mouth. I gripped onto his shoulder and he instantly regained control of his functions. He clawed at his scalp and wailed.
“I CAN’T FORGET! GOD PLEASE LET ME FORGET!! AKVAA! AKVAA!!”
I eyed him, writhing, pulling out hair and babbling uncontrollably. And then back at the dusty pages we had been reading. My own curiosity bounced off the walls of my skull.
What did Dansforth uncover that I did not? What was Aeki Leyvem? We had been reading the same pages, why was I not reaching the same realization?
I wanted it. I lusted for it. My eyes squinted in jealousy. He was still incomprehensibly flailing about, taunting me with his knowledge. I reached for the rifle slung on my back and shouldered it.
“TELL ME!! FUCKING TELL ME WHAT YOU SAW!!”
Dansforth froze. An eerie silence filled the room. He spun around slowly to reveal a smiling face. He began laughing uncontrollably, an exploding face painted onto a still body.
I didn’t hesitate to pull the trigger. The laughter stopped, and released a throbbing pressure in my head. His body slunk lifelessly to the ground.
I shuffled over to the book once more and flipped through the pages frantically. More pictures, and text in a language lost to the ages. I did not face any realizations.
I slammed the tome shut. Dust flew forcefully from the pages. The gems adorning the cover no longer interested me. I wanted to KNOW what Dansforth had found.
Why did the book choose him??
I scrambled out the purple doorway and back into the body strewn alleyway. The corpses whizzed by me as I ran past them. The sky had disappeared altogether and I found myself surrounded by darkness the more distance I made between me and that accursed book.
A decaying body must have had its arm outstretched because my foot caught on something and I smashed my face on the ground. I spat the dirt from my mouth and laid there for a while. That’s when a feeling overcame me, I cannot in my right mind say for certain but I swear I felt arms creeping over my body as I laid there immobile. I began convulsing, and an icy caress moved up my spine.
I don’t remember what else happened, but when my squad found me they said that I was laughing uncontrollably. Muttering strange words to myself.
I did have my realization. Akvaa is not a thing, it is a place. A place where all those who take a life are doomed to remain. I laughed. I laughed because Dansforth had bested me. I laughed because Akvaa awaits me.