Estimated reading time — 34 minutes
I could barely keep from collapsing as I ran through what seemed to be the never-ending darkness of the godforsaken catacombs. When I’d first signed on to serve as Professor Nickel’s field assistant, I’d assumed that the shrunken old man and I would spend days standing over a blanket of dirt, sifting through broken vases and old bones in search of some lost relic that the old fart would be hunting for.
He was always ranting about the “lost civilizations” and “how they need to be better explored by those with vision!”
All I’d cared about was walking away with a passing grade.
Now all I cared about was living to tell the tale!
We’d gotten separated some time ago, the old loon hopping down from a leaning column to the top of what he claimed to be a Sumerian tomb, telling me to keep up. How the old man moved like he did, I had no idea, but the jump was easily a twenty-foot drop.
Yeah, not doing that. I’d thought with disdain, having thought of the horrors my knees would face from such a height had I made a similar jump.
Now I was running for my life from some ancient Sumerian creatures that had crawled from the cracked awning of some ionic pillars, great shark-like maws wide in anticipation for what I could only assume to be dinner.
It didn’t matter as the creatures chasing me through the utter darkness were outright terrifying. From what I’d seen, the creatures were essentially unwrapped mummies that had replaced their funerary wrappings in place of moving along the walls like spiders. Hissing in their ancient language innumerable insults at me as they chased me around the catacombs, howling with laughter like sadistic chimps as they swung from high above, their aged claws scraping away bits of ancient plaster as they hurried after me.
Running with the two satchels of archaeologist’s tools, I quickly roll under a fallen column and soldier-crawl my way beneath a toppled statue, doing my best not to hack and cough at the dust I was kicking up.
I almost hack when I feel one of them land on top of the toppled statue, the other landing on all fours some distance away, prowling just within the light of my dropped flashlight, giving me a decent look at them.
They were obviously once human, but centuries of decay had changed that, turning them into something far worse. What funerary bindings they still possessed seemed only to exist to hold the carrion beetles that crawled all about their yellowed bones held together by the lightest of pink tendrils, thin strands of decayed sinew perhaps. Their mouths were no longer even comparable to what I possessed, being cracked down the middle and held aloft by the same pink tendrils, giving them a wide, toothy maw that nevertheless looked as if it could break stone. Their arms were covered in faded tattoos, highly intricate looking dark ink work that had probably meant something at one time. Now all I could do was stare at the bare-boned hands, the sharpened finger bones…
The one on top gave a great leap, causing more dust to rain down on me, landing next to its compatriot. This one held an old sword awkwardly with its left hand, handling the cracked leather-hilt as if it were poison.
Whatever this Ghoul had been in life, it was obviously not a soldier. It held the sword awkwardly, offering it to the other with a shrug, the two speaking in their gibberish language.
Oh, good lord, they’re thinking…
I fish into my satchel, as quietly as possible, for something that I could actually use as a weapon for when I eventually bump into one of them and can’t run. One satchel is nothing but books and brushes, so I look into the other, finding my great savior!
A steel trowel.
Six inches of sharpened steel connected to a wooden handle. That was all I had to separate me from death.
I shuffle about beneath the collapsed statue, like a sleepy turtle trying to find a comfortable spot, crawling the way I came in, squatting behind several tons of rubble in hopes of keeping the creatures far enough away from me actually to make a break for it. I slink around the corner as best I can, trying to figure out where the hell I actually am in the damned ruins. Pulling a compass and a smaller flashlight, I frown as I notice North is in the exact opposite direction I wanted it to be.
The map of the supposed “Tomb of the Ubaid Princes” that Professor Nickel had traded his watch for was worth its weight in lead in my eyes, but Nickel had been hopping with joy over the idea of a set of Ubaid tombs as of yet untapped.
I’d merely rolled my eyes.
Now I could just wring his damn neck for getting me into this deathtrap.
A crumbling of mortar tumbles over my shoulder, a hissing cadaver perched atop a column just above me, wielding the ancient looking sword within its cracked leather casing, its eyeless sockets filled with an unholy green light as it opened its mouth to an unholy size. It howls at me in anger or hunger.
I have no idea, so I respond by ramming the trowel up into the creature’s chest, the steel cracking through the creatures sternum with the sound of dry timber snapping. It doesn’t seem to mind as it swings its sword at me with clumsy fumbling, falling off of the pillar as I yank the creature down with me into a wrestling match, stabbing at the creature madly as it howls in agony, its weak claws scratching at my shirt feebly as I vent my frustrations out on the unholy being.
Two more come bounding around the corner, caterwauling like a pair of mated tigers after the people who stole their cubs. The creature beneath me is barely grasping at my boots as I stand, feeling a little more empowered seeing as the damn things obviously can’t fight worth a damn. I scoop up the leather ensconced sword from the creatures twitching talons. The two creatures run at me, moving more like wolves than men, hissing their greeting as they leap over the rubble. I raise the sword more like a mallet, bringing it down to the crown of one of the mad beasts, hammering its skull more than cleaving it.
The leather cracks away more than any damage I did to the screeching corpse beneath me. This one is far stronger than the other, giving me a rather painful sense of anger at myself for being made to believe I could effectively fight these things. My leather-clad sword serves some healthy justice snapping the wrist of the second howling creature as it pounces onto my back, the thin pink veins doing little to keep the fractured bone connected to the body. The creature on my back encapsulates my head within its engorged mouth, the separated lower jaws forming a tight noose around my neck as the creature beneath me grabs hold of my wrists, their unholy shrieking becoming profane laughter as, rather than the intense pressure of a bite or the serrated edges of teeth, I feel a sudden pressure against the back of my head like I’d blocked off a water pipe. The one on my back pulls up slightly, allowing room for whatever its vomiting to move over me, and thousands of scarabs and carrion beetles begin scuttling over and under my clothes, their feathered legs leaving long shallow cuts wherever they fall.
I throw my weight back, slamming my insect-filled foe into a column behind me, a disgusting squelching noise similar to the sound of rotting pumpkins being thrown from an overpass rising from its chest, along with a series of audible snaps as I cave in its torso. It falls to the ground in a heap, wheezing out a steady stream of insects that seem to have decided to turn on him rather than me.
Thank God, because I can feel a few dozen finding spots all over my body and beginning to claw through my epidermis, seeking the warmth of the womb that my body would provide. The leering undead still grasping my wrists expands his mouth out, his hollow throat beginning to bulge as it seems he feels like sharing his personal wealth of flesh-eating insects.
Two shots fired from Professor Nickel’s personal hunting rifle tag the creature, once in the temple and again in the right shoulder, effectively blowing it to pieces in my very hands. While old, senile and eccentric, Professor Nickels always carries two guns with him at all times, something he’d suggested I do as well, once I actually earn some money to buy something. Slinging his Sharps Buffalo Rifle back over his back, you can just barely make out the holster to his M1911 pistol, something he tells me “one should always keep loaded when on an expedition, just in case.”
I’d assumed he’d meant bandits!
“Joshua!” He calls out from half way across the rubble-strewn room, hopping to and fro like a bullfrog after a fat firefly. “Did they get any on you?”
“Yes!” I all but screech as I feel three particularly large beetles begin wriggling their way into my skin, pushing a hole through my flesh. Three red blotches begin to form over my clothes, two over my stomach and one over my right thigh.
“Quickly, drink this!” He says, shoving a glass bottle into my hand that I happily begin fumbling with the cap. After several seconds of nervous fumbling, I growl and slam the top end of the bottle across an old mosaic next to me, breaking the bottle open wide enough for me to begin guzzling the foul smelling liquor held within.
“The larvae will die quickly enough if you’re sauced to the gills,” Nickels explains, his wrinkled face crinkling further as he smiles at me as I continue to drain the bottle, a faded paper label bearing the words “Ever” before being too rubbed out to see. With my throat on fire and my insides wriggling with parasites that were continually burrowing into me, I drop to the ground gasping for air, dropping the empty bottle into the sand.
“It will hurt like hell in the morning, let me tell you,” Nickels says with a smile, patting me on the shoulder with a gnarled hand. “The alcohol will drive them out of your body, or kill them. You’ll have to pay a nice doctor to drain your infected wounds once we get back to Baghdad in a few weeks.”
I sputter at the thought, my head spinning. “A few weeks? Did you not just see what we had to deal with?”
The old man waves his hand in the air at me as if a foul odor was passing. “Merely temple guardians, looters that fell prey to the traps around here and found themselves as guards for tombs and the like. But I have a good feeling on this one lad, a good feeling!”
“However so?” I ask, moving to my feet rather shakily, leaning heavily on my newest acquisition, the sword reaching an easy four feet in length.
“Well, that sword for one thing!” Nickels says with a wide, toothless grin. “The Ubaid weren’t known for their iron-working abilities, merely their domestic advancements; I’ve long since held belief that there was a civilization here before the Ubaid, based on their legends of metal men and the like, and that sword is quite a piece of history if I do say so myself.”
“Well at the moment it’s my cane because I can feel a goddamned roach burrowing deeper into my gut!” I hiss at him, but he pays it no mind.
“The tomb I found, the one that you wandered away from, well it is just what I was hoping for when I saw it and the great seal over it!” He crows, dancing about me like a mad little leprechaun. “The seal predates the Ubaid by at least five hundred years, and it has markings similar to the ones the Sumer used to mark royalty. I think I found myself the crypt of a King of an Empire not yet recorded!”
“Bully for you…” I grumble, limping alongside him.
He looks up at me with a discouraging glare. “Don’t tell me you’re going to be this much of a whiner the whole expedition, are you? Because if you think those petty guardians were anything worth talking about than you don’t even want to know what is probably lurking down in that tomb we’re going to be breaching in the morning.”
I could barely keep from collapsing as I felt the first of my burrowing playmates begin to spasm from the strong grain alcohol I’d ingested. My head swimming with drunken vigor and mild blood loss, all I could do was glare at the old man as we settled into our campsite, twin pair of tents and several large chests scattered about the sandy cavern we’d climbed down into, our camels left at a small oasis some two miles East of here with a tribe of nomads that Nickels seemed to be on good terms with.
Drunkenly leaning back, I decide to take a solid look at my walking blade, brushing away the flaking leather to take a better gander at the iron beneath it. It was in near pristine condition, a few touches of age here and there, but no actual structural damage to the frame of the blade. I knew for a fact that the museum back in London would pay me an easy ten thousand quid for the thing more than enough to pay off any outstanding loans I have hovering about my head at the local gambling houses.
Despite the crazed dead and demented midget, this dig might not is so bad at all.
I awake to the sounds of scraping stone and the grinding of dried mortar, giving my sleep-addled mind a sharp spike of adrenaline, considering all that has happened to me so far. I push my way up, wincing at the numerous bruises and scratches that are littered over my thin frame. The fire we’d assembled atop the tomb still burned bright, shining slivers of starlight peering through the narrow crevice we’d climbed through to get to this hellish dig.
I find Professor Nickels crouched over the tomb’s seal, hammer and chisel in hand as he is lightly tapping away at the edges of the four-foot circular disk of stone. Hunched over in the darkness, the old man makes me think of the stories of gremlins, incomprehensible creatures that would come into your home at night and hide your shoes, or take your socks. The old man is goofy looking not because of his wild mane of hair sprouting from the side and back of his head instead of the top, nor because he wore glasses that had adjustable nobs on them to move lenses in and out of the frame, allowing him to examine things “in better detail”, while essentially looking like the King of the Insane Beetles.
He was goofy because he didn’t care what everyone else thought of him, and despite his low social standing amidst the Historical community, he churned out peer-reviewed research like clockwork every six months that furthered our knowledge of ancient cultures. So the eccentric midget was tolerated, and asked only to teach two classes a year, when the icy chill of winter would spread over England and him would remain cloistered within his quarters, writing and compiling notes in between classes.
“Professor, what are you going?” I ask tiredly, leaning heavily on my shining sword, which had taken quite a bit of work to get to this poor level of shine let me tell you. The Professor, after looking it over, had declared it to be from the same time period of the Ubaid people, but not of their make (metallurgy was beyond them), theorizing it came from a group that “displaced” the Ubaid through warfare, eventually creating the Sumerian culture some five to seven hundred years later, depending on who you were talking to.
“Joshua, my boy, come down and help me move the seal!” He calls to me, still squatting impossibly low for a man of his advanced age. “The mind is willing, but the flesh is withered and old; I need a young strong back to move the seal so that we can continue our explorations!”
I sigh and walk over next to him, dropping to my knees and taking as firm a grip as I could at this awkward angle and begin to shove with all my might, slowly moving the three to four hundred pound slab inch by inch. After moving it halfway open, he orders me to halt, giddy at the smell of the musty old air rising from the crypt below us.
“Why didn’t you just break the damn seal so we could just go down? Now my back feels like it’s been run through a sausage grinder.”
“Call it vanity on my part, but once we’ve cataloged what’s in the primitive tomb, I’ll want to bring that seal with me, as a souvenir.” He said with a grin. “Don’t worry; you won’t have to be my porter for that one. Plus, if we discover something down there that could be called ‘The Mother of All Evil,’ I’ll be wanting that seal intact to cover it back up.”
“The Mother of All Evil?” I repeat, looking at the spry little dwarf of a man as he flipped between lenses on his glasses, peering into the darkness beneath the seal.
“Oh my, it looks like we’ll need some rope… perhaps a hundred or so feet of it.”
“What’s down there that’s so important that we need to go deeper into this crypt Professor?” I ask, curious to what he can see with his steam-powered headgear. He looks up at me, all of his additional lenses flipping back at once, rolling back into their separate compartments.
“What I’ve been looking for my boy, what I’ve been looking for.” He says with a grin, hopping from foot to foot gleefully at the discovery. Rolling my eyes, I climb back up to our campsite to retrieve the rope and the climbers gear. Hammering in three pitons (safety first!) I loop the knotted silk rope around them and tie as harness about myself, as well as a smaller backpack rigging that I planned on tucking the good Professor into, the twisted little bastard. He happily tucks himself into the makeshift backpack, jabbering on about how important this find was, and other such nonsense.
I just wanted to live through this now, like I said.
“Professor, mind if I take your Pistol, for the time being? I feel a little… unsafe walking around with just a sword.” I ask, trying not to sound too desperate in my plea.
“You’re a young strapping buck, Joshua,” He said from his safety harness on my back, patting my kidneys to reassure me. “A sword should be fine enough for you. I never lend anything, my boy, anything at all! That’s how you lose your favorite books or good pens, you know.”
I ignore the urge to just throw the little man down the hole and just make my final adjustments with the rope and the pitons, ensuring their driven deep into a solid section of stone and not just some piece of loose tile. Strange, there are several other holes in the stone similar to the ones I’m hammering in, almost a ring of them surrounding this pit. I pay them no mind as Professor Nickels urges me to move forward.
“The ropes seem fine Joshua, just fine! Now let’s get a move on!” Professor Nickels whined from my back.
“Hey, I’m just making sure this will work alright? Whatever’s been down there had been down there since before the pyramids, according to you, it can wait another five minutes.” I snap at him, still trying to figure out how to carry my sword (which is essentially the same size and weight as the good Professor) while shimmying down a rope into a darkened tomb. I reach in my side satchel and pull out a flare, cracking it against the stone floor to ignite the magnesium and sawdust held within it, the foot long rod now glowing as brightly as the sun.
“What’s that?” Professor Nickels asks, sounding somewhat worried. “Are we being attacked?”
I can feel him pulling his rifle closer to his chest and quickly snag the butt of it with my armpit. “No, I’m just throwing a flare down in the hole, relax.”
“What? Why on earth are you wasting a flare when I already told you it was perfectly safe?” He demands hotly, struggling to break my ironclad grip on his rifle.
“Because I can’t see in the dark as you can you old loon.” I curse and, before he can reply, tuck the flare into the rope about my waist (the fiery bright end up against a boiled strip of leather I used to protect my kidneys whenever I practice boxing in between classes) before jumping down into the hole, feeling the roughened silk rope slide through my leather clad glove as the two of us scream at our rapid descent.
I ditch my sword when I see the ground is coming too quickly and grab the rope with all my might, turning us into a swinging pendulum a good ten feet from the dusty ground. My hands sting from the sudden friction, and I thank God for the fact I’d brought along all of my fighters gear, just in case.
The palms of my gloves are forever ruined, but at least I had hands.
Professor Nickels undoes his rigging, dropping to the floor lightly with a fit of giggles. “Good God, what a rush! It’s a shame we can’t do it again, eh?”
I give him a sour look that I know he ignores and pull the flare from my belt, holding it up high to take a look at what this chamber held. It was built in the shape of a bell, the base much wide than the top, with flaring buttresses and smooth stone sloping up the walls. A surprising lack of murals for such a wide chamber, but as I approach one of the walls I can tell why: hundreds of slats running along the walls, perhaps a foot deep and a foot wide, are filled to the brim with human bones.
Professor Nickels wasn’t joking when he called this a tomb.
He hobbles up next to me, studying the architecture with glee as he jots down note after note in his small moleskin journal. “Very nice, very nice indeed!” He said happily. Looking around at the vast collection of bones. “This must be a room where those sacrificed were to be placed.”
“Wait, how do you know that?” I ask, looking around for any sign of writing or any indication that this was a religious room.
“Well the only entrance is nearly a hundred foot drop, and while you may not have noticed, the center stone directly beneath the hole is made of much more durable granite, polished to a fine shine.” He said with a carefree smile. “The bones were placed into the walls after the victim had been thrown down here. I would also like to note, just to keep you alert, that none of these skeletons, no matter how incomplete, seem to have suffered any major broken bones.”
“That means something was down here to, what, sort the dead?” I ask hesitantly, looking down at Professor Nickels.
“No, I believe this is just a hobby for whatever it is they trapped down here some few thousand years ago.” Professor Nickels replied while eyeing the varying states of decomposition between the bones. “Grab your sword Joshua… we might still have need of it.”
The entire room was indeed built like a bell, tapered at the top, with curving walls flowing downward in a wavy pattern that suggested the site was originally a naturally existing cavern that some primitive culture had chosen to alter. The entire room is roughly two hundred feet in diameter, with four pillars acting as support for the structure forming a square some fifty feet apart from each other, and seventy-five feet or so from the Charnel-lined walls. Everything was carved from smooth granite, with few actual etchings marring in the stone, indicating the tools used to fashion the tile, and the columns were metal, not stone.
Professor Nickels was ecstatic, having pulled an oil lantern from his prodigious satchel, creating a wreath of comforting light around us. He did this not for comfort, but to study the pillars, and the drawings ever so carefully carved into them. I chose to shoulder merely my sword and stay by the old man, watching for whatever could be down here that enjoyed sorting bones.
Scribbling furiously in his journal, Professor Nickels was blathering on about how this was supposed to be the antechamber to the “River of Continued Life,” which would either represent a belief in reincarnation or a belief in an underworld reachable only by waterway. Both of these beliefs existed in this area at a later date, the rocky hills and mountains of Iraq having played host to Roman and Hindu alike. But from what little Sanskrit and hieroglyphs I knew, damned if I could say they were similar to the writings on the pillars.
My flare, slowly dying out, left a large black mark on my leather bodice, and so I chose to use it as an exploratory tool, mostly by throwing it as far as I could.
Bouncing off the wall (and narrowly flying into a slot full of femurs), the flare drops down with a clatter and rolls for a few moments, illuminating a passage by just the barest shred of shadow. I immediately break out another flare, cracking it to life with a sizzling twist and hurl it into the gaping maw of the passage, its landing kicking up a small cloud of dust and grim as it rolls about, hissing and spitting sparks. For the briefest of moments, I thought I saw the flicker of movement within the flares fluorescent glow, but thankfully it was just a cloud of detritus that had been stirred up.
“Well now this is strange,” Professor Nickels says aloud, a phrase that I can safely say is never safe to hear when you are hundreds of feet beneath the ground. “It keeps referring to a symbol that could either mean ‘Keeper Of’ or ‘Keeper from’.”
“Those are two big distinctions Professor, and I’d rather not die fighting whatever the hell acts as a Keeper to this place, only to find your supposed ‘Mother of all Evils; down here.” I reply, eyeing the passage and the two sets of light keeping it illuminated. “Check another Pillar, see if they have a different reference, a different story.”
“That might be best, as now all I am finding are references to something that I shouldn’t be reading here of all places,” Professor Nickels said with a grunt, walking over to the next pillar, the one furthest from the passage. “The symbol… it can’t be what I think it means, as that would prove this to be a very dangerous place.”
“What symbol? Maybe I’ve seen it somewhere.” I offer, thinking it worth a shot. After all, I am an archaeologist in training.
He looks at me oddly as if not looking at the man he knew me to be but with a sudden, distrusting glint. “You’ve never studied at Miskatonic University, have you?”
“Miskatonic? No, I tried to get in but my application was rejected. Their standards are too high for me to attain for now. Why?” I ask, confused. What did the infamous Arkham University have to do with knowing an ancient symbol?
“Then thank whatever God you believe in that you can’t confirm that symbol for me.” Professor Nickels utters as he pushes past me and to the next column, dropping his bag to serve as a seat as he begins scribbling notes from the pillar, his translations slow and steady.
I chose to crack open another flare and follow along the walls to make certain I wasn’t missing any other passages, slowly running my hand along the centuries old stone as I go. Cool to the touch, yet oddly bereft of any dust, or soot. The passage has been full of such debris, but it seemed as if a maid had come through just before us, tidying everything up.
I make a discovery that nearly kills me as I stumble upon a sudden drop-off, just opposite of the passage. The wall opens and goes back about twenty feet, for about thirty feet of wall space. A small stone bridge, barely three feet in width, crosses over to an alcove on the other side, where the most bizarre statue I’ve ever seen sits atop a fountain.
A creature that looks aquatic by nature, with fins and frills sprouting from its three tentacle appendages that it is using to rise from the fountain, with carved from what I could only guess to be marble. The tentacles themselves reared up, showing off what any normal squid would have but instead revealing a row of carved eyes, each set with a small faded emerald. The tentacles connected with the main body, a bulbous center followed by a long serpentine tail that it was resting upon, like a cobra raised up.
The head of the beast was lowered and shaped like a bell, with a three-foot wide lamprey mouth slowly spewing water into the fountain beneath it. One great eye, shut for reasons I could never guess, sat atop the head, but from where I stood I could see spacing for the eyelids to move, probably if a lever were turned or something.
The rest of the fountain was nothing but a great piece of art depicting a city, embossed figures running away from the great beast while smaller versions of the creature seemed to be chasing them.
“I’d say early ninth century BC,” Professor Nickels says from my elbow, eyeing the disturbing piece as well.
“What the hell is that?” I ask, waving my flare at it. “I’ve never heard of any tales of giant sea beasts that resemble that.”
To say its name is said to garner its attention, but to ease this conversation, we shall call it by the title it earned: Darkness Given Hunger.” The Professor said with a sigh, staring at the statue with the look of a man lost in a terrible, terrible memory. “If this is this far south… what this is isn’t what I was looking for.”
“Well, you were looking for evidence of older civilizations Professor.”
“Not this kind, and certainly not here of all places.” Professor Nickels grouses, moving over to his pack in a sudden hurry.
From deep below our feet the entire complex quaked with the churning of some unwholesome howl, along with the groaning of the very stone around us. Whatever Nickels feared could be down here, it sounded as if it just now took note of us.
How that would play out, I couldn’t say.
Professor Nickels had decided to drop finally his mammoth backpack to the temple floor, a sudden cloud of dust bursting up from the floor in a choking miasma that left both of us coughing. Flipping over the seal of his bag, he rooted within its cavernous interior until he yanked free two cartridges of ammunition for his M1911, pulling back the safety and checking over the heavy pistol before tossing it to me.
“While the sword’s a nice touch, I’ve got a feeling that we’ll need a bit more arms than that to deal with what we’re going to find down here.” Professor Nickels says with a wry chuckle, carefully loading his Sharp’s rifle with the inch long bullets as he spoke. “A good deal of trouble should be heading our way if my guess is right.”
“Guess? What guess? And shouldn’t we be leaving if you think we’re going to be in trouble?” I ask, fumbling with the heavy pistol before getting a good feel for it, sheathing my sword in the crumbling scabbard as I watch him pull out small green orbs, a metallic sheen glinting from the flare’s bright glow.
Grenades? “What are we going to need those for? To cover our escape?”
“We stood in front of the statue lad, shed blood over the top soil of the creature’s tomb,” Professor Nickels calmly explains. “If I’d but known this was a sight where one of these blasted things dwelt, I’d never have of brought you here. For that, I’m deeply sorry.”
“What things? This Darkness Given Hunger thing?” I ask, growing slightly annoyed at how little the dear professor was sharing. I snap my head to the side, looking down the tunnel opposite of the statue leading down, down deeper into the cold womb of the earth. A distant echo was coming from the tunnel, a wet noise… like the sound of mud dropping from the hide of an elephant, plopping to the ground in great sickly splats.
“The Darkness Given Hunger is something put to sleep thousands of years ago by ancient man, and kept in a tomb under lock and key.” The Professor begins to explain, moving away from his pack with a surprising amount of speed, back straight for the first time that I’d ever seen. “Legend’s tell of creatures made from the blood and dreams of the slumbering beast, creatures that act as both its wardens and its servants.”
“Servants? What the hell are you talking about?”
“The creature and its ilk are as close to damned gods as mankind have ever seen! They ruled over the ancient civilizations as monstrous tyrants while others merely reveled in slaughtering entire empires, feasting on our flesh and drinking our blood!” Professor Nickels all but shouts, sliding the bolt of his rifle into place. “We’re going to need to do something about this… an unholy site like this must be sealed up, locked away from people who would stumble blindly into it.”
“So the grenades?” I ask, watching as he slings a smaller pack (pulled from his larger one) over his shoulder, filling it with the small cylindrical grenades and sticks of dynamite. “And the dynamite?”
“We’re going deeper, deep enough to where the tunnel is narrow and beneath several tons of earth.” The good professor replied, shouldering his rifle. “And then we’re going to coax out some of these creatures out and kill them so I can have a look at them before blowing this place back to the bowels of Hell where it belongs.”
A horrid, gurgling screech echoes from the depths of the tunnel before us, a scrabbling of steel upon stone as… something is coming up from the unknown. “Here comes the first wave… this should tell us what we’re dealing with.”
I look at him like he’s a madman (which isn’t unusual) before moving behind a pillar, putting my back to the cool stone as I pull a new flare from my satchel, cracking it to life before spinning around the pillar and throwing it into the dimly lit tunnel, my previous flare having begun to peter out.
The thrown flare collides solidly with a wet slap against the chest if you could call it that, of unholy terror torn from the brainchild of Dr. Seuss and Escher. Two legs rising from the top of the creature’s body, multiple joints visible beneath the gelatinous skin moving in tandem as the creature shuffles awkwardly towards us, my flare seemingly stuck to its hide by viscous ooze seeping from its pores.
The main torso is nothing but a lone, unblinking eye and a series of snake-like tentacles, all ending in three pronged mouths that writhe and hiss. Its feet are boneless, shapeless blobs of protoplasm that it used to balance upon, merely sliding along the ground with its leg movements rather than lifting its feet like any other creature would. The crackling flare stuck just above its eye created a corona of light that illuminated the rest of the hall, revealing another three such creatures shambling up the hall towards us.
Professor Nickels breaks me from my horrified stupor with the loud crack of his rifle, echoing across the chamber as the high caliber round lances through the gelatinous hide of the first creature, passing through it and through another still, all without slowing them down. Cursing, he fires two more shots, blasting away large globs of their green flesh, spattering it against the walls around them as he begins firing at their legs.
But still they push on, onward into the chamber, their tentacles stretched out towards us hissing, hissing in a language that seemed too alien for me to understand, yet I understood all too well. Words of pain and suffering, of my eternal agony and of their eternal suffering flitted through my mind, images of men being torn asunder by armies of these creatures, of how the oceans would grow dark with their passing, consuming anything and everything in their path.
And of how they dreamed of doing it again.
“Focus damn it!” Professor Nickels shouts at me, reloading his Sharps as quickly as his arthritic hands can. “They get in your mind unless you focus!”
Seeing what little effect his bullets seemed to have on these gelatinous horrors before us, I move from behind the pillar, focusing on the creature with the smoldering flare charring it’s quivering mass. I fire three rounds as I calmly walk up to it, one going wide and striking the floor a few yards behind it, but the other two piercing deep into the creatures eye, a spray of writhing maggots erupting from the two holes made over the sensitive flesh. The snake-like tentacles screech in agony, growing louder in pitch as I lunge forward with my blade, hacking into the writhing mass with vigor I never knew I possessed.
The multiple maws all shriek with fury untold as I hack and tear them away from the creature’s bobbing form, firing bullets into the center of its bulbous, now deflated, eye as I slash and jab away at its tentacles as if they were mere weeds. Prof. Nickels, watching the effect of shooting them in the eye, unloads a single round into the remaining threes’ large eyes, the floor now smeared with trampled maggots and green blood.
It takes me but a moment to realize, as I’m rending into the beast, that I’m slowly growing taller than it. Looking down, I see several of the severed tendrils, now mawless but still quite flexible, wrapped around my legs and waist, lifting me high into the air above it. Confused, I drop my gun and grip my sword tightly with both hands, swinging in wide arcs to tear away the strands holding me aloft.
With mounting horror and a moment of realization, I saw the bones within the gelatinous beast, the ones that seemed to be there to grant the beast legs and a torso, begin to realign within the central mass of the blob.
Realigning into a humanoid shape.
The creature let loose a horrid squelching noise as the skeletal remains of what was once a living, breathing man burst from the gelatinous walking tomb, sharpened fingers curled into talons as it lashes out, tearing four wide strips in my jerkin with its razor sharp talons. A wet, hollow laughter fills the corridor as the maggots still spewing from the central eye began to swarm back into the creature’s feet, swimming through their host to slowly writhe and contort over the skeletal torso sticking out of the top of the stoop creature.
“Fleshlings… for the master…” The skeleton rasps with a dark voice, the maggots swarming over him, flattening out until they were bursting from the pressure to form a semi-solid paste over the skeletons body. The other three were doing the same, skeletons climbing out of the gelatinous beasts as the writhing streams of maggots fueled a horrid transformation granting them a taut skin coat as pale as the moon. “All will kneel… within his shadow…”
“Kneel to this!” I shout swinging my blade in a heavy-handed arc down into the fragile looking frame as it was climbing from its roost.
I stare in shock as the skeleton, now more of a pasty-colored emaciated monster, writhing maggots peeking out from its empty eye sockets, stands there with both hands held high, a thin staff of green slime having jutted out from the quivering mass to block my strike, it’s hardness now equal to that of my ancient blade. As the laughing dead takes a firm grip of the staff, a wicked curved blade grows from the end of it, turning the staff into a scythe. A sickening noise akin to vomit hitting the floor echoes across the chamber as my foe tears his new weapon from his former host, his comrades creating the same weapons from their symbiotic graves.
“The Darkness… feeds… needs to awaken…” The skeletal creature rasps, limping forward towards me, dragging its heavy ended weapon along the stone floor beside it, the scratching of iron on stone grating in my ears. “Bleed… bleed for Qas!”
Professor Nickels quickly begins to reload his rifle as his three shots blast away great chunks of my foes body, rending off an arm at the shoulder socket and blowing away its left lower leg from the knee down.
Undaunted, two of the other undead warriors (the third stumbling from the Professors second shot, which blew away a good portion of its upper body), scythes raised high in the air with screams on their lipless mouths’. I pull my ancient saber back, stepping to the side as a heavy ended scythe came crashing down into the stone with a heavy cracking noise. Before the creature could pull back, I swing my blade in imitation of the abominations maneuver, severing its arms at their elbows, the skeletal forearms still wriggling on the shaft of the scythe wedged into the stone floor.
“Qas… hungers for yo-urk!” The creature hisses at me before I ram the full length of my blade into its skull, the hilt shattering its aged teeth with a sickening crunch. Putting a boot to the creatures face, I hop to the left to put the wriggling undead between me and his last dangerous friend and kick him free from my blade, sending the armless body tumbling into its colleague, who mercilessly twirls its weapon and bisects its allies broken form.
“Flesh… blood… spirit…” The creature hisses as it advances on me, holding the deadly curved blade high before it, a guard flawless against anything I can do.
… but not anything Professor Nickels can do. His rifle shot blasts the last skeletons head into disjointed fragments, a rancid green slime exploding outward from the sudden implosion caused by the .50 caliber round. The body stumbles for a moment before the eldritch energies holding it together collapse, the skeletal being falling to pieces as its composite bones are reduced to ash and grit.
The various scythes that the undead abominations had been wielding, as well as their pasty flesh that was drawn taut over their emaciated frames, began to bubble and dissolve as their evil spirits finally lose the battle to remain coherent.
“Good work,” Nickels says as he walks up behind me, reloading his rifle. He scoops up his pistol from the ground and holsters it again, giving me a wary eye. “That sword of yours better pack a wallop, because they confirmed what I feared was down here.”
“Darkness Given Hunger,” He interrupts, looking at me pointedly. “Never say his name, or his eye will be cast upon you. Even now he sleeps… hopefully.”
“Than what were those?” I ask, pointing my sword at the bubbling green muck at my feet.
“I’m no expert on the Elder Gods, but those were clearly fractured pieces of the Darkness that serve as guardians for him.” Professor Nickels says as he kneels by one of the steaming puddles, pulling a flask and a spoon from his satchel and ladling in a fair amount of the muck. “Each God has beings that serve them, which are a part of them. The followers of the Christian God call them Angels, the followers of the Yellow King have the Byakhee. If I recall, Darkness Given Hunger has the Dreamless Nightmares, or Quan-gao.”
“Yeah, I can see where they’d get that name.” I say, toeing one of the puddles with my boot. “That sounds somewhat Asiatic in nature.”
“That’s because it is,” Professor Nickels replied from his place on the goo slathered ground. “The Darkness Given Hunger was originally sealed by the Uruk, the Sumerians. How do you think they overcame the vast Ubaid empire history claims they toppled?
“I’ve never thought about it.” I admit, wincing as the Professor pulls a slicked shard of bone from the quivering mass.
“Nobody ever does. Every time a great empire fell, it was because one of these… these things awoke or arrived from beyond time and space, and undid all that man had labored so many years to create. The Sumerians buried this creature after it gorged itself upon their civilization, merely renaming themselves afterward to the Sumerians thanks to the hero who led the battles against the Quan-gao.”
“So why didn’t the Sumerians deal with all of the Quan-gao when they had the chance?” I ask, looking at the bubbling remains of the foul beasts.
“Each man slain in the Darkness’s name, or under his gaze, are pulled into his dreams and made into one of the beasts we just fought.” Professor Nickels says with a distinct shudder. “What you just did was release the souls of three men or women that had spoken his name and died by the hand of one of his agents.”
“Oh… that’s disheartening. And we’re going to go deeper into the tunnels where these things came from?” I ask a tad incredulously, pulling a pit of cloth free from my ruined shirt and wiping away the gunk from my blade.
“Just to blow the narrowest point of the tunnel closed, so that none of this can ever surface. If the Darkness awakens, the world as we know it could fade into a living nightmare.”
“Well if the world is at stake,” I say with a sigh, looking around the tunnel in search of something to plunder. “I’m going to need a shield. I can’t use a gun to save my life.”
“I know,” Professor Nickels said with a smile as he cracked his rifle into the ready position, “I saw. You do well with a blade, and if my eyes don’t deceive me, there’s a round shield just under that debris over there.”
Looking to where he was pointing, I indeed see a battered iron round shield, one that would have been used by virtually a dozen civilizations that had ruled over this area in the last thousand years, pinned beneath a large slab from the mosaic. Moving over, I wedge my blade into a crack in the detritus and heave my weight forward, breaking away the crumbling remains pinning my new prize to the ground.
Covered in verdigris and dents, the leather arm straps within the shield are surprisingly sound, with very little rot to them that I can see. The dented shields surface bears a wolf’s head symbol, perhaps linking it to one of the numerous barbarian tribes that had ravaged the lands above over the past thousand years.
How it got down here when it took the Professor and me over three days of spelunking is beyond me, but I’m thankful for it. I quickly tie the shield off on my left arm, freeing the hand to hold a flare.
While I busy myself with that, the Professor has been busy studying the remaining sections of mosaic with intense scrutiny, jotting down notes in his ever-present journal. “A group of people native to this land dedicated their entire civilization to worshiping the Darkness,” he says aloud as I’m adjusting the straps, “according to this for over five hundred years they lived in the caverns above, building this great complex to house the ancient horror while it lay dormant. Of course, they revered it as a God… and according to this it gave them blessings in return.”
“How? It’s asleep, right?”
The Professor snorts and shoots me a derisive glare. “A being like this is never fully asleep, nor fully awake. It neither lives nor is dead, it just is. Those ghouls up top we encountered were the caretakers of these sacred grounds, blessed with eternal life to serve better their God.”
“Oh…” And we’d killed them. “Then we better hurry, or the rest of them will notice those guards are missing and come looking for us.”
The Professor remains silent as he finished the mosaic, clearing his throat every few moments as he had to stoop to the pieces I had broken away to get a clearer view of what the pictographs read. From his face, they weren’t anything pleasant.
“Anything else I should know about?” I ask as I tighten the last arm brace over my bicep.
“Just that the Darkness slumbers so long as it is regularly fed warriors. If it goes too long without eating, it sends out the Quan-gao. If it goes even longer than it wakes up.”
“Lovely,” I grumble, adjusting my satchel along my hip to have a better sense of balance in the inevitable case of having another fight, “Well then let’s hurry and blow the tunnel closed so that it can’t get out.”
I move deeper down the dank tunnel, trying to ignore the saccharine scent of the dead that seems to pervade through the porous stone tunnel we’d begun descending about half an hour ago. The Professor has been unusually quiet as I move ahead of him, my tarnished shield and gleaming sword glinting softly in the light of the flare the good professor has dangled from an extended wooden rod from his satchel, held in place by the straps of his backpack and creating a peaceful glow that chased away the overwhelming gloom of the strange tunnels design.
“It’s like the stone wasn’t carved,” I muse as I slowly make my way down the smooth slope, the tunnel walls, and floor slick with the same green slime the Quan-gao had been comprised of.
“It wasn’t,” Professor Nickels said with authority, pulling a scroll from his side satchel as he spoke. “The Quan-gao are formed primarily of a weak mineral acid, something akin to Boric acid I believe, which allows the slumbering Darkness to guide his guardians in creating new tunnels for it to travel should it ever awaken.”
“Lovely,” I deadpan; slowly learning that the more I heard of this forgotten Elder God, the more I wished it remained forgotten.
“Look! Just up ahead, it looks like an opening!” The Professor says, a gnarled hand grasping my shoulder, shaking me excitedly. “Let’s go, we have much to do!”
“Shouldn’t we just set the charges here and blow the cavern closed?” I ask somewhat hesitantly as the good professor shuffles ahead of me. He shakes his head, sputtering on excitedly.
“No no no, that just won’t do! What if there are other tunnels?” He asked without looking back. “We need to ensure that we’re sealing the Darkness away for good, not just closing one of its many doors.”
I sigh at his usual impeccable logic, moving onward past his shuffling form to look to the edge of the darkened chamber, a sense of vertigo overcoming me as I stare into the vacuous void before me. A few moments later the dangling flare hanging above my diminutive professor allow me a greater chance to peer into the cavernous hollow, great pillars of stone lining the walls to hold the ceiling too high to see aloft. The floor of the cavern, a mere thirty feet from the tunnel they stood in, bubbled with darkened slime, the ooze shifting and swirling, moving like the slimy fried eggs, pushing and pulling against one another in an endless struggle for dominance.
“Well… this sure slows things down.” I say with a sigh, looking at my crazy Professor for an answer, one that he seems to have already ready as he is rooting through his satchel. The toothless man gives a cry of glee as he pulls a tightly wound orange rectangle from his bag, shoving it into my hands as he fishes out a pair of collapsible oars.
“You can’t be serious… we came to a dig in the desert, and you have an inflatable raft?” I nearly shout before he shushes me, looking across the cavern with concern. “What?”
“Nothing… I… I just don’t want to alert anything to our position.” Professor Nickels says, scratching at his neck idly as he set to extending the oars. “Roll out some rope and some pitons so we can have a safe drop down onto those waters, I want to make sure we don’t have anything else to worry about.”
“Are you serious?” I cry, pointing my sword out into the darkness, a low groan echoing through the cavern, waves of slime splashing against the rocks beneath us as if something titanic had just breached the surface of the small sea. “This right here is a big thing to worry about!”
“Now my young warrior, you have no reason to worry. Between your blade and shield and my gun, we’ll be fine.” Professor Nickels says with a smile as he slides the last piece of the oar into position. “I know you’re worried, but you must ask yourself: are you prepared to defend humanity from the otherworldly evil that lurks here, even if it may cost you your life?”
Taken aback by the strange question, I stare at my Professor with a measure of caution. “Well… of course, I mean… who wouldn’t be willing to save humanity?”
Professor Nickels serious demeanor melts away to his normally cheerful expression. “Well then, get to it! We need to be down there seeing what we need to do, not standing about like a couple of bumps on a log!”
After we’d scaled the slick wall to the crashing waves of darkened slime beneath us, the good Professor had pulled the ripcord on the raft, unfurling the great orange life raft in an awkward moment of sheer panic as the great boat almost overtook us and comedy as we fell from our tenuous grip on sanity and into the raft, the waves rocking us back and forth as Professor Nickels fastened the collapsible oars to the raft, moving to the helm of our teetering vessel and adjusting his glasses, peering off into the darkness.
“Full steam ahead my boy!” He says with a hearty chuckle, nodding to the oars as he moved past me towards the rudder. “It’ll take more than these withered old bones are capable of to battle these raging waters.”
“That is not water…” I grumble as a jellied glob splashes over the side, seemingly trying to stretch out in search of open skin. Taking the oars, I begin rowing as best I can against the swirling currents of the underground sea as Professor Nickels steers us along. Several times my oars slide between greasy ovoid’s, pushing them apart.
We drift for what feels like hours as my arms go numb from the strain of battling the turbulent currents, sweat pouring from my lean frame in buckets as I desperately tried to keep us on the Professors desired course. The entire time he praises me, telling me we were almost there, that we were only a few dozen yards from it.
Gasping for breath, I never thought to ask what it was.
Just as I felt my arms giving out from exhaustion, I was lucky enough to see the wicked grin the cracked across my scholarly advisers face as he lunges across the raft with his rifle held firmly between his white-knuckled hands, the butt of the gun making a shuddering snap as he beat me across my brow with the butt of the gun, dropping me back from the force of the blow, my vision swimming as I struggle to understand what had just happened.
I struggle even further when he brings the butt of the rifle down onto my face, breaking my nose and shattering my front teeth in a sickening crunch, tears streaming from my eyes as I watched him slowly pull the weapon from my face, a fractured piece of one of my front incisors sticking to the butt by a thin coating of my blood. He steps over me, shucking off his heavy satchel onto my chest, I suppose to pin me in case I had any fight left within me, as he moves to stand at the bow of our miniature raft, hands held high overhead.
“Qas!” He intones, a low moan akin to the call of a whale rising up from beneath us as he lowers his arms once more, jumping from the raft and landing on something hard just out of my sight… something made of stone? “I’ve brought you the blood of a tested warrior, one who will allow you to slumber still. Come to your servant and grant me my boon and I will render unto you the supple flesh of the young and the brave!”
This can’t be good. I struggle to move the massive pack off of me, but with between my swimming vision and my numb arms I can only flail uselessly as he hops back onto the raft with the dexterity of a man a tenth his age, rolling the bag off of me and hoisting me up onto his shoulder.
Coughing up blood and a few teeth, I look at him through the one eye that can see. “No expert, eh?” I laugh, hacking up a lungful of blood onto the back of his khaki jacket. He merely pats my aching back with a gnarled hand as he jumps from the raft, landing on a large stained stone, rounded along the edges, before dumping me onto the ground with the care of a man dropping a bag of gravel.
“What can I say boy,” He says with a smile and a genial shrug, “I’m a man who figured out a way to stay young forever while keeping mankind safe from the things that go bump in the night. I’m a bloody hero!”
As he’s saying these rivulets of blackened slime are trailing up along ridges carved into the stone, seeping and searching for my spilled blood. I wince as I feel, and hear, the caustic hiss of the ooze lashing to my leg, and then my arm, pulling me taut along the rock. I let out a wail of agony as the slime begins to suffuse over my body, eating away at my clothes and skin with a sound akin to the sizzling of a slab of meat on a grill. Just as my head begins to submerge beneath the malevolent muck, I see Professor Nickels leap back to the raft, my sword in his hand, calling out to me over his shoulder.
“Don’t worry m’ boy!” He shouts cheerfully as he begins to row away, leaving me to my horrid demise. “You’ll see me again in another fifty years!”
Credit To – Nicholas Paschall
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