18 Dec Ashen
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"Ashen"Written by Michael Whitehouse
Estimated reading time — 25 minutes
The river runs foul with the stench of death. It won’t be long now. For ten years I have fled, found each and every rock to hide beneath, a plethora of gutters soaked in the outcast remains of civilisation. No city, nor village, nor town has provided me with shelter. No home or friend to offer me sanctuary. I am untouchable, a rotten reminder that knowledge can be the bane of all who seek and thirst for it. Ten years of night have passed quickly since, and the dust does not shake easily from my feet, nor does the memory of what I uncovered simply dislodge from my mind. This recording will be my final testament, and this piece of rock by the river Nile my last resting place. Thank God for that, for I cannot continue in this wretched shell. To those who are listening, heed my story, forget the relics of the past, for they are surely cursed by things far fouler than the modern mind can ever comprehend. I must speak quickly, for the sun is low in the sky, and soon my pursuer will be upon me. My name is Dr Samuel Russell, and if you’re listening to this, let my tale be a warning to the curious.
When all this started I was an ambitious type. As an archaeologist I dreamt of the day that I would make an earth-shattering discovery, one which would lead to fame, a sentence in the history books, perhaps even a paragraph or a whole volume, a name not to be forgotten at the very least. This was my desire, my passion – to find a fragment of mankind’s past which would rewrite a chapter of our story as a civilisation. By the age of 32, I was convinced that I had found just such a thing.
The public does not realise that many archaeological breakthroughs have been made decades after their initial discovery. So many digs, so many ruins uncovered, so many bones unearthed – too many in fact. More often than not these relics lie packed away in crates and boxes in the bowels of academic institutes and museums, waiting to be categorised and understood by future generations. In some instances this can take years, and in the case of my discovery – the dusty old crate which held the tainted promise of fame and fortune – had been left to fester for over a century in the dark.
I had been searching through the archives at the Kelvingrove Museum in Glasgow, Scotland, after travelling there from New York to study the South Uist mummies. A colleague, Dr M. Grealy, was kind enough to allow me access to the Museum’s basement areas where vaults of crates, documents, and relics from digs over the past two centuries waited to be rediscovered.
It was purely by accident that I stumbled across the tablet. I was looking for an old text on ancient burial practises, to aid my study, when I noticed a strange entry in an archive book. It read: 1883, Predynastic Stone Tablet. Origin Unknown. How could I refuse such a mystery? Surely I could spare a few hours to investigate such a curious description? As I wandered between the crates and other boxed relics looking for the item, my excitement grew at the possibilities held within that description: ‘origin unknown’. How could its origin be uncertain? After all, it was a relatively easy task for an expert to identify such things, the language or hieroglyphs used, where the material was quarried from etc.
After much wandering around the labyrinth of dimly lit containers, cases, and bookshelves, I finally found it. The wooden crate had a number of old weathered travelling stamps on its side which read “Al Fayyum, Cairo, Boston, Vienna, London, Glasgow”. It certainly had done the rounds, no doubt being handed from expert to expert as they scratched their heads trying to identify it. The crate was nailed shut, and as I prepared to pry it open with a crowbar it was at that moment that I first noticed it. A sensation which would grow with time, becoming a constant unwanted companion through these past few years. I can only describe it as the feeling of someone walking over my grave. Dread, and foreboding, a coldness running up my spine, and the blood draining from my face. It was not unusual to feel uneasy in such a quiet isolated basement, but there was something uncanny about the experience – a momentary breathlessnesses, as if suffocated by the earth, with the taste of sand in my mouth.
The uncomfortable feeling passed, and my zeal for a new discovery soon quelled such thoughts. Plunging the sharpened end of the crowbar underneath the crate’s lid, and with some effort, it finally gave way, offering up its secrets to me. Wrapped in cloth the stone tablet lay there, cadaverous and solemn. Its appearance immediately surprised me. I had encountered other Egyptian tablets before, but this one was unique; older, cut in a peculiarly haphazard fashion, its greyed edges cracked and crumbled like ash. It was obvious why the archaeologists of 1883 had difficulty reading it. The face of the stone had been chiselled at, vandalised by some implement. It did indeed seem as though the tablet was barely legible. Someone had not wanted its message to be read.
On consulting with the museum’s archivists, they could only tell me that a letter sent with the tablet was the last known mention of the archaeologist who had discovered it. His name was Dr Fitzsimmons, apparently a well-respected academic of his time. Accounts were blurry, incomplete, but it appeared as though Dr Fitzsimmons had discovered the tablet somewhere in the Saharan desert in Egypt, before falling gravely ill with a sickness. In his letter, a feverish nonsensical mess, he repeated the bizarre phrase “a thing of ash” several times, a description which for some reason made me shudder. It was clear that Dr Fitzsimmons had been struck down by a terrible illness shortly after his discovery, one which had left him delirious, and his disappearance was probably the result of his premature death in a foreign country.
With a little persuasion, my friend at the museum was able to procure the tablet for me so that I could study it more closely. Indeed, most of the museum’s other academics seemed relatively uninterested in an illegible inscription from the past. For them, the message was lost to eternity. But it was not lost for me. It fascinated me, occupying my every thought, almost to the point of obsession. I was continually fixated on the message which had been erased from the tablet, what could it have told us about the past? And why was it deemed offensive enough to be deliberately removed, something which would have clearly taken some time and effort? From then on my days were filled with studying the tablet as best I could, and at night I thought of nothing else; I dreamt of the sands of the Sahara desert, and what secrets lay covered by the grains of time.
It was then that I stumbled upon an idea. I knew that several recent scanning methods had been used to decipher messages, inscriptions, and details from old texts and pottery; words and pictures which to the naked eye seemed unreadable, and yet could be enhanced through modern imaging techniques. I wondered if a similar approach could be taken with the tablet. Perhaps enough information still remained within the stone, subtle depreciations and marks which would reveal the hidden message beneath. In 1883 archaeologists could not have conceived of the investigative tools available to their 21rst century counterparts. It was a long shot, but after a few months, and a not inconsiderable amount of money, I was able to glean new data from the tablet. Thankfully, I had been working alone with the equipment I had procured, and you’ll forgive me for not mentioning the methods I used, or the exact details I uncovered. I simply cannot take the risk that some other unfortunate soul will use this information to seek out the truth, and find themselves in the same horrid predicament as I.
What I can tell you is that the inscription spoke of a tomb which dated back to before the founding of the great Egyptian dynasties. I was enthused. There was the very real possibility that the images I stared upon were the oldest known examples of Egyptian writing. Furthermore, it was clear to me that they depicted an event which to my knowledge had never been seen in all of archaeology, along with a unique location; one which I knew of almost immediately due to a distinct geographic feature which exists to this day. At the foot of a mountain range in the Egyptian part of the Saharan desert, the tomb lay nearby, in line with the rising and falling of the sun, and a constellation above. Whoever had carved the tablet was reaching out from the past and telling me where something important could be found. As for the depicted event, much of its story remained too damaged to tell. It seemed to depict a celebration, of a group of people visiting the tomb, their arms raised praising the sun. And yet one part of its broken facade bothered me – a stone carving of a malformed withered figure, standing amongst those who had celebrated now lying still and dead. I was certain that this was a metaphor for a plague of some sorts, which must have killed many people to have been recorded in a tablet.
Not wanting to share my discovery with the wider academic community quite yet, for I feared that someone with more influence would seek to claim whatever lay inside the tomb for themselves, I returned the tablet to the museum and kept the recorded images for myself, informing those at the museum, even my friend, that I had failed to uncover anything of interest. Ego was indeed my first sin, but it most certainly would not be my last.
It was not long before I was headed for the Egyptian desert; to the place where the tomb lay – the source of all that has befallen me since. Of course finding it was difficult, indeed it took me over nine months of geophysical surveys and failed digs, but by God I found it eventually. At the foot of the mountainside, covered in its shadow, I quickly saw the proof I needed. I had hired four Egyptian archaeology students keen to make a name for themselves, and, under the suggestion that after such a discovery they could work anywhere in the world, they were more than happy to keep the expedition a secret. Indeed, we did not officially have permission to dig there in the first place, but I wagered that the uncovering of an ancient part of Egyptian history would outweigh any punishment, and my name would already be heading for the history books by then, which was all that mattered.
We soon found our first relic deep under the sand and earth of the Sahara. But it was not an ancient piece of stone or pottery as expected, but rather a digging tool, one no doubt from the 19th century. As we dug further we found more, shovels, trowels, and then bags, old supplies – all manner of provisions. While the desert was quite capable of covering anything in vast amounts of sand, as we continued digging, that horrid sense of dread which I had experienced the first time I set eyes on the tablet, welled up inside when I thought of what it might mean. I suspected that the area had been deliberately filled in by someone, covering whatever lay below; both relics from 19th century archaeology, and objects from the dawn of history. There was little doubt in my mind that the belongings were from Dr Fitzsimmons’ excavation, as we uncovered an old empty box with the date 1883 on it. It seemed likely that he had found the tablet elsewhere, and like me followed its directions to the unknown tomb. But why had he left his equipment to be reclaimed by the sand? Worse still, why would he have buried such a discovery, what was there to fear beneath the desert surface?
Unperturbed by such ruminations, we continued. For three days we dug deeper, and at night, as the cold and dry desert wind blew through our camp, I slept little. There was a palpable sense of urgency amongst the group, and while the student archaeologists I had hired were grateful to be given the opportunity, they began to complain about the situation, accusing one another of rummaging around in their belongings. One of the students, a man by the name of Harking, even claimed to have awoken just as the figure of an intruder left his tent, scampering off into the night.
As the most experienced member of the team, I had to calm their nerves, and told them to focus on the dig and the incredible discoveries of which we would all be part. But this seemed to only act as a catalyst to the tensions, and by the fourth day as we dug, each member remained silent, eyeing one another suspiciously.
The silence was finally broken later in the day by a celebratory yell from Harking. Clawing at the sand, each of us worked furiously, digging, shifting buckets of golden grains away from the focus of our efforts. And there, finally, it stood. The sealed stone entrance to a tomb of unknown origin, a completely new discovery in the realm of archaeology, well, except for poor Fitzsimmons, but I was sure that I would honour his memory in any papers I published on the subject.
It quickly became apparent that the tomb had indeed been previously opened, as several blocks at its mouth lay discarded in front, square holes wide enough to fit the body of an archaeologist, a tomb robber, or perhaps something from inside. A peculiar thought, but nonetheless one which gripped me for a moment before passing.
As the sun dimmed in the sky, I packed my haversack with a voice recorder, dynamo flashlight, and camera to document any immediate findings, and gave orders that the others should set up battery powered lamps and remain outside within radio contact; partly to make sure that as little of the inside would be disturbed as possible, and partly because I wished to be the first of our group to lay eyes on what the tomb contained. I did, however, allow Harking to follow me, as he had been the one to first recognise that we had found what we were looking for, and it felt only right to include him. As we slid through the open wounds in the tomb’s exterior, disappearing into its embrace, I could feel the blood drain from my face, sharply, and the dried taste of sand return to my mouth. I will not lie, this did make me apprehensive, but I did not wish to share those misgivings with the other archaeologists, as they were already nervous of the dig.
I had feared that the tomb’s ceilings could have given in at some point to countless eons of sand and wind, and it appeared that those concerns were justified. A long stone corridor led off into the darkness, with broken rubble and sand from above obscuring most of the way. Thankfully, one slab from the ceiling had landed at an angle, holding back the unknown tons of material on top. This gave us a tight gap through which to continue towards whatever secrets the tomb contained. As we crawled along small openings and across ancient sands, which had festered for an age within that silent place, we whispered quietly and treaded carefully for fear of causing a dangerous cave-in.
Finally, the passageway opened up into a small room, and as my flashlight illuminated the cold interior, at first I was disappointed – the tomb seemed to contain only one chamber. But quickly this disappointment bled into utter excitement. While the room was in bad condition, an entire section of the roof having fallen with age allowing piles of sand and earth to reclaim that world beneath, something wondrous lay at the heart of the ruin. There, entombed for thousands of years was a relic unlike any I had seen before. Rising up above me was a statue at least 5,000 years old, if not even more ancient than that. I rushed over to it, utterly enthralled. Reaching my hand out, I touched its cold and jagged blackened surface without thinking. Two aspects of its appearance were immediately captivating, it was entirely made from Onyx – jet black volcanic glass – and it was of a style and form I had never seen or heard of before. It was shaped something like a man, with arms and legs, but its appendages were misshapen, as if twisted by a genetic malformity. One arm was longer than the other, and its legs gave way to a curved stoop, as it contorted at the hips. Stranger still, the statue was faceless, no eyes, mouth, or nose to speak of, and yet its head bowed down towards me in frozen pose, its surface crumbled and uneven. Yes there were no eyes, but in every way it felt as though I was being looked at.
I took out my voice recorder to document my thoughts, when it occurred to me that in all of my excitement I hadn’t heard Harking’s reaction to the statue itself. Turning round to face my colleague, I was greeted with an emptiness I cannot describe as my heart thumped what felt like frozen blood through my veins. Harking screamed and stumbled backwards falling to the ground. Quickly he scrambled to his feet and ran off into the tunnel back towards the entrance. At first I thought he was merely spooked by the strange statue, but no, the horrific truth was much worse than that – we were not alone in that room. Nor had we ever been. Something ancient had been watching. From behind me I heard nothing but the sound of sand, powdered, grained, shifting – moving with purpose. Spinning around I caught only a glimpse of what was there, uncertain but definite in its existence, almost human, a thing which lacked substance. I’m not sure how it appeared at first, for terror had taken me, but its face turned towards me from the corner of the room, and in that instant I recognised that it bore a startling resemblance to the statue at the centre of the tomb, charcoaled misshapen limbs and all, looking yet not looking, seeing with eyes which were not there.
The madness which then took me was all encompassing. No longer did I care about a cave-in or the fear of being buried alive. I had to escape. I rushed from the room into the precarious corridor, and scrambled over fallen blocks and through layers of festering sand. And yet as I reached the entrance I heard the thing in the tomb; an utterance of some unknown origin, a language which I did not recognise or comprehend. Yet some sounds are universal, transcending all epochs and cultures, and in that moment I was certain that the indefinite figure in the darkness, laughed.
By the time I neared the outside, I found the rest of the group attempting to console Harking from his delirium. As I slid back through the opening into the now nighttime desert landscape, the air seemed strange, colder somehow, almost burning my lungs with each breath. I opened my mouth to speak, and as I did so one of the archaeologists looked up. His reaction took me by surprise, for he screamed in abject terror. All four of my colleagues jumped frantically to their feet and panicked as they scratched and clawed their way out of the excavated hole. I chased quickly after them, asking what was wrong, but they only continued their escape.
I then found Harking cowering in his tent, and as I entered, he pleaded with me to spare him. I spoke nothing but calming words, but it seemed as though recognising my voice sent him into a more pronounced madness. He screamed with such despair that I stumbled backward in shock, falling to the ground outside.
A searing pain suddenly etched across my face, as one, then two of my colleagues began to attack me, kicking at my face and hands as I lay helpless on the ground, each kick showering me with the grit of the desert. As blood poured from my nose and mouth, I realised there and then that my team was going to kill me, they were going to beat me to death. That realisation gave me a life-saving surge of energy, and as they continued their attacks, I was able to crawl onto my knees, then to my feet, before running away as fast as I could. I fled our camp, confused, bloodied, and afraid.
The desert did not want me. My insides were frozen, and while I had no water, no provisions to speak of other than the haversack I took into the tomb with me, I welcomed the unrelenting Saharan sun, as it finally rose above the sand dunes, baking the landscape below. Yet I felt no warmth, no comfort. I felt only ice, as if my insides had been steeped in snow. The pain spread to my bones, and while I could bear the sensation, before long I could think of little else. Utterly lost, I knew that whether I could feel the heat or not, it would soon kill me. And so I had to search for our camp, hoping to reason with my team, who it seemed had been devoured by some form of hysteria; or if they could not be reasoned with, perhaps I could at least have taken some provisions. Just what had happened to them? But to no avail, I was lost, and the thirst, utter thirst which could not be quenched, had grown so strong that my mouth felt like sand, removed of any moisture; a torturous feeling which continued unabated and unrelenting as if springing forth from some infinite source of horror. I staggered through the desert, shivering to the bone, yet suffering from the fatal symptoms of severe dehydration, while the sun shone bright and unforgiving in the sky.
I continued on, with each and every icy breath, looking for hope, some way to survive my cursed situation, but I knew that the thirst would soon kill me; and before that the searing pain and confusion of sunstroke would arrive. I’ve never considered myself a particularly lucky person, but it was at that moment that luck perhaps tried to shine on me. For as I descended a steep sand dune, I saw before me a long thin crack in the desert floor. A ravine of some sort, and thirty or forty metres below, a small subterranean pool of clear water sat like an oasis in shadow.
In my weakened state I knew that I risked falling to my death, but I had to try the descent or otherwise the thirst would kill me. With each movement of my leg, and tight grip of my hands I squeezed down through the slit of rock towards the water below. But despite my caution, a shard of stone which I was grasping onto gave way, and I fell to what should have been my death. All I remember is clipping my elbow and dragging my face off the opposing rock wall, before smashing abruptly against the stone floor.
I do not know how long I was unconscious, but the sun was no longer high in the sky, and night was approaching. The thirst continued, as did the coldness within, and my throat felt as dry as the sand which surrounded everything. Nearby, I could see the pool which could save me, and eventually managed to get to my feet in anticipation of a soothing gulp of clear water. But no sooner did I step towards the pool that I saw the liquid begin to change, turning from its healthy transparency to a blackened ooze. By the time I stood over it, nothing faced me other than an oily sludge, foul smelling and curdled. I could not understand such a hideous transformation.
Collapsing once more to the ground, I admitted defeat, and the thirst which so painfully engulfed me, persuaded me that death would be a sweet release. There I lay, waiting for my demise; and yet I did not die, I only festered. Hours turned to days, and my torture continued without mercy, with no end in sight. Then, on the third night, as I lay beside the poisoned water, I heard the footsteps of someone nearby. I looked up, and in the moonlight I could see out of the crevasse to the world outside. The stars shining bright in the night sky. My heart began to falter as I saw the shape of someone peering down at me from above.
With all the energy I could muster, I yelled upward for help. Hoping beyond hope that whoever was staring down at me could get me out and back to civilisation. But there was no answer. Instead, the shape just glared at me and then, without making a sound, slowly started climbing down towards me. There I lay, and as I watched the figure scramble across and down the rock-face, I began to dread its every movement. How I wished I had remained silent, and allowed the nighttime passer-by to have moved beyond the ravine, and continued on its journey.
But no, I had yelled; playing dead was useless to me. The figure’s back arched and convulsed in the moonlight, and as it drew closer to the bottom of the pit, I could see that its arms were of different lengths, and its movements malformed. Almost human, almost, but not quite. Finally it had reached the foot of its descent, and then moved quickly towards me, on two legs cumbersomely at first, then on all fours, faster, quicker, its shoulder-blades contorting and skewing with every movement.
I let out a scream, not for help, for no one could save me from whatever evil I had disturbed in that tomb, rather, my cry was of dread, gripping and complete. As it approached I could feel the coldness within me growing, an icy chill deep within my bones, painful at first, and then agony. Just a few meters away, the thing from the tomb rose back up to its feet, and for some reason, of everything which disturbed me, one aspect of its being provoked the most terror – for all its movements, its climbing of the rock face, its crawling and stooped advances, there was no hint of breath from its form, and without breath, surely there can be no life.
A shard of moonlight caught the side of its head, charcoal, crumbled, no features, a darkness of the earth, something older and more putrid than even the heart of humankind. ‘Something of Ash’ as Dr Fitzsimmons had put in his letter. A warning which could not protect me in that cavernous gorge of the Saharan desert, but how I wished I had listened to it.
Reaching out its powdered fingers, the creature placed its hand on my chest. Ice ran through my heart, searing through my body. I convulsed, and with one last ounce of strength I instinctively turned to my side, and fell into the rotten pool of liquid which had once been water. I sank deep into the unknown. The thick soup of viscous, rancid sludge pulled me down into the abyss. I flailed, I kicked my legs and threw my arms as hard as I could, vainly attempting to swim. Yet each panicked movement only pulled me deeper into the dark. The sludge touched and stuck to my open eyes, covering my vision in an absence of light. I held my breath and continued to fight against my descent into the filthy tar-like substance, but it was too much. I could hold on for no longer. Finally, I involuntarily took a deep breath inward. The thick goo, oozed down my throat, filling my lungs and choking me. My eyes felt bulging, and the accompanying pain in my chest made me feel as though I was being crushed from inside. As the pain continued I gave up, exhausted. I stopped fighting, and waited for death, indeed I welcomed it by then.
And yet I did not die. I did not drown. I merely stayed. Remained in this world, and lingered at the bottom of that pit of rotten liquid. For the next few hours I experienced an agony which words cannot fully convey. I was drowning, continually drowning, but I would not die. If I could have killed myself I would have, such was the anguish I experienced, but I soon realised that, for whatever reason, the world would not let me go. To escape the pain I moved around from side to side, and eventually found the wall of the pool with my hand. Fighting against the weight of the thickened liquid on top of me, I pulled myself up inch-by-inch. All along with no breath; perpetual suffocation. Even in the throes of such pain, I knew that I was merely climbing towards my death and that ashen figure above, but any alternative to drowning, but not dying, was a far more desirable situation to the one I currently faced.
Finally, after many hours, I felt the air with my hand, and with one draining effort, I pulled myself out and onto the floor of the ravine. The black liquid stayed in my lungs at first, but as I wretched, coughed, and vomited, the rancid gunk was slowly expelled through my mouth. Scraping the sludge from my eyes, I looked around, and was surprised to see that I was alone, the sun beaming down through the slit above. I assumed that the thing from the tomb had believed me dead, and let me be, hopefully forever.
The thirst was still resolute, and all I could think of was finding another place, another source of cool, clear water, to quench the urge, and remove the barren, arid sensation from my mouth and throat, which had quickly returned. There in that stone prison, I knew, I had to escape and find water. Or perhaps even find my team, who I hoped had survived the madness which seemed to have taken them. It was clear to me that we had all been affected by our discovery, and that while it seemed outlandish, there was only one word to describe my situation – cursed.
Though it took a monumental effort, nearly falling to my death several times, I managed to climb up the rock-face, taking a similar route as the creature from the tomb had but in reverse, and found my freedom. The sun beat down upon me, and yet the icy chill in my bones remained. At the time I hypothesised that it was a disease, an illness or poison of some form, contained within the tomb which perhaps invoked severe hallucinations.
For weeks I searched the Saharan desert, looked for a sign of civilisation, hoping above all else to find water, to quench my horrendous thirst, and a fire to take away the perpetual coldness. On two separate occasions, I did locate a small pool of liquid, but as I approached, both turned to the same blackened, horrid sludge as before; an undrinkable festering ooze. And yet, again, no matter how dehydrated, I did not die. While I experienced all of the agonising realities of thirst, the world would not relinquish its grip on me.
And then, there were the nights. While others would prepare for a comfortable sleep after the sun had set, each time that swollen globe of light dipped beneath the horizon, I knew it would not be long before the thing from the tomb, that ‘something of ash’, would find me. Relentless, climbing along the sand dunes, no matter where I was in the desert, it would appear with the dark. Chasing, stooped and malformed, lifeless, and yet of intent. Its charcoal appearance, crumbled and powdered, sought nothing else but to reach me. For what purpose I did not know, but I was certain that its reasons were steeped in an ancient and inhumane mind.
All I could do was run, and so it was that I found myself a fugitive of my previous life, running from an ancient horror after sunset, and getting any rest I could during the day. Finally, one night, as a small sandstorm cast its grains across the landscape, and I moved quickly through the desert to ensure the ashen figure did not catch me, I did indeed find civilisation – a small Egyptian town. Its name meaningless to me, but at the sight of it, I cried, sure that it and its people would prove my salvation.
Several of the houses still had light beaming through their windows, and unable to contain my joy at the possibility of seeing another human being, I walked into the nearest open doorway I could find, yelling for help. The first person to see me was a young man in his teens, who screamed both in fear and rage at the sight of me. Quickly, others from the town appeared, and their reaction to me was violent and brutal. I was hit across the back of the head with a stone, and then I staggered through the town’s streets, unable to comprehend why they hated me so. A mob soon formed, and it became clear that my life was in danger, as it had been before with the archaeology team. The same madness, the same terror, the same violent anger. They chased me, throwing rocks, and beating me with sticks and other accursed objects. Luckily I was able to make it to the town’s outskirts, weaving and dashing along lanes and through small gaps between houses. Soon, the sandstorm obscured me, and the townspeople did not follow, cheering that they had driven me out.
I rested for a moment, unsure if the taste of grit in my mouth was due to the storm or my constant, agonising thirst. I sat in the shelter of a dune, utterly heartbroken, and as the wind howled bringing forth the sands, I looked out to the night, and saw the malformed figure of my ashen pursuer, wandering through the elements towards me.
Each night I would walk, and each time I stopped to rest, or ceased moving in the hope that the thing of ash would not follow, it soon appeared out of the night. Clambering, shifting, decrepit and yet unstoppable, roaming over the sand dunes in search of its prey. With no town or village willing to take me – for there had been many – and nothing in front of me but an endless escape, I knew the only recourse left to me: I had to return to the tomb. Perhaps there I would find an answer, a hint of why this had occurred, reaching out from the darkness of time, and therein a solution. Something to end my suffering.
For years I walked through the nightly sands of the Sahara, in search of the place where it had all began. But I had no means to chart my progress, no compass or map to follow. And yet, finally one day, I saw the mountain range on the horizon. I headed straight for it, and before long I stumbled into our abandoned camp, which at one time had promised so much – a career defining archaeological find, a name in the history books at least, to have achieved something worthy of being remembered.
One of the tents still stood, having weathered the Saharan climate remarkably well, but the others had been lost to the sands. It was clear that none of the archaeologists in my team had returned to the site. Had they not thought to search for me? Was Dr Samuel Russell such an unknown that he could simply disappear without anyone ever caring for him, or wondering where he had gone?
The sentiment made me angry – furious at the way I had been treated, and enraged at the world for producing such an evil thing, which surely was not far behind. In a rage I pulled at the tent’s canvas, tearing it from its pegs, only to see my belongings sitting there underneath, soon to be covered by the sand. My things, forgotten and obscured, just as Fitzsimmons had been. In my search for fame, I was to be disremembered.
I climbed down towards the tomb entrance still ardent that I would have some answers, and scooped enough deposited sand away allowing me to slip inside. Removing the old dynamo flashlight from my now worn haversack, I was delighted that it still worked. And so I moved through that familiar passageway, cluttered with rubble, and squeezed my way into the tomb, that place which haunted my dreams.
The room sat as it had done before, silent and grave. The statue which remained in the centre sent shivers up my spine, looking every bit as terrifying as the ashen monstrosity which had pursued me for years across the desert. And yet I had to be brave, I had to know why this had happened to me. I had to have answers. It was then that I noticed something at the feet of the statue. A block of granite under the sand which the foul thing stood upon, warped limbs and all.
I began digging wildly with my hands, and recognised the inscription immediately – it was the same as the tablet which had led me there, only in this case, the scene was complete unlike the damaged version sitting in the basement of the museum. How I wished I had left it there, undisturbed. How I wished I could go home.
The stone carvings showed the people praising the sun outside the tomb, and I saw the thing of ash in the end revelling in their deaths. But this tablet had not been worn by the sands of time, nor broken by the chisel of the archaeologist who had found it, no, this tablet told the entire story. It appeared that the statue had been dug out of a cave in the mountains nearby. This would suggest it to be much more ancient than even the Egyptian civilisation itself. Of an unknown origin, indeed. The statue was then taken to a town or city, where strange creatures seemed to emanate from it at night. After much death, the statue was placed in a tomb at the foot of the mountains where it had been found. Those praising the sun were brought there to die, sacrifices which perhaps would sate the relic. That place wasn’t a tomb at all, it was a home, a shrine, for something wretched and evil, and the ancient people of Egypt hoped to keep it there by offering themselves to it. And I, someone who had escaped its clutches, was cursed to walk the earth indefinitely, no water to sustain me, and feeling only the chill of death, until that thing would find me, and end it all.
Then I heard a sound. Shuffling, clawing, crawling – the creature had returned home, and I was in its lair. As its powdered body skewed and hobbled into the room, it stared at me without eyes or mouth, without humanity, far older than legends and myth, something foul of the earth. It kicked through the sands as it came towards me dislodging what lay underneath – revealing something more terrifying than any creeping evil in the night. I knew then why I was always cold, for it was the iciness of that horrid place which I felt. And I knew from that moment onward, why I always tasted sand, my mouth dry as the desert outside. For my body had never left that tomb. Eyes wide, mouth filled with sand, cold to the touch – the rotting corpse of Dr Samuel Russell lay stricken on the tomb floor. I screamed at the sight of my own dead body, and yet rushing past the statue, somehow made it to the passageway, and back out into the desert. A place I would never escape from.
Ten years have now passed since I first entered that cursed place. I have been unable to be near another soul without terror being their response, nor have I had one sip of water, not one cool life-giving drink, for when I am near, all that gives life is soon corrupted into a black festering sludge. And the coldness, an ever-present chill from the tomb in which it lies, remains potent. My mouth dry with sand, as it is filled in its resting place, as it always shall be. How many towns have I entered at night? How many times have I been chased and beaten by those no doubt fearing for their lives? How many people have I terrified with my crumbling, ashen appearance? That of a walking abomination, a man not allowed to die, that is, until that ancient evil is done with me. Sometimes I question if I even am Samuel Russell anymore.
I have rested during the day in the sands of the Sahara, the sun beating down, yet my bones as cold as a frozen winter. Each night, that ashen figure from the tomb comes for me, and somehow I have been able to continue on. To keep moving. To stay alive, if you can call it that. I do not claim to understand it, how can my body be lying dead in that ancient place, and yet here I am walking the earth? I suspect that whatever purpose the statue has, was not completed when I fled. Was I too to become one of those things, cursing those who happen to enter my home? To hound and hunt those who leave, as I too have been hunted? I do not know what remains for me, but I refuse to be like that thing out there in the desert. I refuse to be taken by it. To be made its slave, or worse. At night, when I see it nearby, I often wonder: is that all that’s left of Dr Fitzsimmons? Chasing me, his successor. All conjecture, but that is all I am left with.
And now here I sit. I’ve made it to the Nile river, and as it passes me the waters turn rancid and thick. A black flowing mass of corruption. The sun has now set, my story has been told, but I will try and record as long as I can. One way or the other this ends now.
There it is. I can see it now. In the darkness, shambling nearby. I will sit by this river on this rock, I will sit and wait for my moment. For in all the years, only when I fell into that pool of sludge did the creature refuse to follow. Perhaps if it can be killed, I can be freed from this torment.
A decade of thirst and ice has worn away at my soul. A decade of terror from the bleakness of lost history has chipped away at my humanity, and I refuse to give up any more of it. What other curses lie beneath the Egyptian sands? I often wonder, and I know you wonder too. If you’re listening, heed my warning, and leave whatever foulness haunts the tombs of old, leave them to the desert, and to the sands of obscurity.
This is the last testament of Dr Samuel Russell. And here comes the thing of ash, clawing up the rock towards me. I am not afraid, my suffering has extinguished my fears. If no one ever hears from me again, know this, I did something worth being remembered, worth being written about and recorded for all time. I pulled that ashen monstrosity into the river, and we both now sleep in its depths.
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🔔 More stories from author: Michael Whitehouse
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