A Cautionary Tale from the Count von Überwaldburg.

“Welcome to my little soiree, my friends. Tonight I have a cautionary tale to tell, a story of pride, ambition — hubris if you prefer — which has dire consequences for the participants. It may even have consequences for you, my guests.” 

“Are you all comfortable? Perhaps you would like Igor to provide something to relax the tension of anticipation? A little light restraint perhaps, for the gentleman at the rear? No? Then let us begin. Our story takes us to an ancient, sun baked land. A land of mountains, jungle and open plains. A land of legend, myth and ancient civilisations. A land that has seen savagery, beauty, hatred and great love, invasions, conquerors, greatness and the desolation of the loss of all it stood for. And now we join a group bent upon the task of learning the secrets of the crumbling monuments that fill the valley.” 

Deep within the dark chamber a figure stirred. Centuries of dust cascaded from the idol as it unfolded, slowly flexing it’s great leather wings. A shudder ran through the sinuous body as it arched its back, rising to its hoofed feet, it settled its wings around it, draping them like an ancient cape. It tested the air gently through flared nostrils, the great horned head casting this way and that. What had awoken it? 

It sensed human thoughts, an unintelligible language — these humans, constantly changing. Such short lived creatures, so easily fooled. It licked its lips, the taste of its last victim lingering in memory. Its last victim before it was incarcerated here. Focussing on the minds it could sense, it licked its lips again in anticipation of a meal — and freedom once more to stalk its prey. The reptilian mouth might have smiled. 

“According to these glyphs, we seem to have found the burial place of a god of the Ba’Matutsi people.” Dr John Carter brushed aways more soil from beneath the first row of glyphs. “There’s more. Let me see. Ah. Standard warning about not releasing the god.” Clearing more of the inscription, he pulled the lamp into place. “Hmmm, seems it was a bit of a nasty. Oh well.” Worming his way back out of the opening, he rolled onto his back and accepted the hand of his assistant. “Julian, have the workmen clear the passage completely, but don’t let anyone attempt to open the sealed door until we’ve read the entire inscription.” 

“Do you think we’ve found a royal burial?” Julian Whitby, an expert in ancient civilisations, showed his excitement. “This ‘city’ has been searched for since Dr Livingstone first passed this way. Everything we know of it is from myth and legend.” He laughed. “And some of those are rather fanciful.” 

“Aren’t they always?” Carter lit a cigarette. Then scanned the buildings they’d cleared of vegetation so far. “Funny, we can’t get any local people to work for us, and even these fellows are pretty twitchy.” They watched the pair of workers — recruited from an agency located a thousand miles away — slowly and carefully removing soil from the sealed opening. “The Ba’Matutsi had some odd beliefs. Their chief ‘god’ was supposed to be able to change his — its — appearance. Bit of a nasty if I have it right.” 

“Oh definitely. He could change his appearance, take on any shape according to the myths. Strange thing though, he couldn’t change his eyes. That is how you identified him.” Julian took a long drink from his water flask. “Thoroughly nasty type all round. According to the stories they eventually trapped him and banished him forever.” 

“Just look at this place. Far older and grander than any of their later sites, and located in a good area for agriculture, well watered, plenty of other resources.” Carter blew a cloud of smoke. “So why the hell did they just abandon it? Look at what we found in the structure over there.” He indicated a building their team was still sifting through. “It looks like they just down tools and left — in a hurry.” 

Nodding, the younger man frowned. “Yes. My dating says around 1000 AD — or CE if you prefer,” he added, aware the expedition leader favoured the ‘inclusive’ dating label. “Personal possessions, valuable items, even cooking meals and food stores — just left.” Glancing at the inscription again, he frowned. "As if everything here was in some way contaminated and far too dangerous to keep.” 

“Perhaps it was. Look at the figures these chaps …” He broke off as the workmen exclaimed. The older of the pair pointing a trembling finger at the image on the stone door jamb as he babbled to his companion. “What the devil?” 

“Bad, sah. Very bad. This place is place of great evil. Must go, must go quickly. Must not open.” 

“What? Don’t be damned silly, Malanda. Good heavens, you’ve been on hundreds of digs. You know these old curses are just so much hokum.” 

“Not hokum, Sah. This is place of the One whose name must not be said.” The foreman of the excavators, normally very dark skinned, was almost white in the face now. “This is the place.” He swallowed, his Adam’s apple bobbing visibly. “He lies in wait … Must not open. Must go, and go now!” 

“I wondered about that. I’ve only ever seen the name written once — on a marker stone in the ruins of Batokoloshi. Every other inscription is just that, ‘The One who must not be named’ or simply a representation of a god.” 

“Must not say name, Sah! Not here! Not here!” The digger’s face showed his fear. “Never say name, Sah. Give opening for return!” 

An exclamation signalled the hasty retreat of the second man from the task, jabbering excitedly in his own language. Before Carter could ask for an explanation both workers turned and took to their heels. “What the devil? What the blazes has put the wind up them that completely?” 

“Possibly this.” Julian Whitby was on his knees staring at the exquisitely carved image of the god surmounted by a cartouche holding a series of strange glyphs. 

“Let me see.” Joining his companion, the archaeologist studied the carving. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen all those glyphs in one inscription before.” Tracing the glyphs with his finger, he read, “Hmm, let me see. He who disturbs this place will take upon himself the monster. Will become the destroyer, the murderer of souls, the eater of the spirit, the destroyer of the world.” 

“Impressive curse.” Julian Whitby frowned. “Ah. I recognise the image now.” He backed away. “We should leave. We should go now. The workmen are right, John, opening that door will release the most evil monster this world has ever seen. The legends speak of its ‘destroying’ entire tribes, annihilating entire peoples. According to the legend, it took the combined efforts of every holy man and every shaman to confine the entity in the idol this place encloses.” Shaking now, and white with fear, he backed away. “It wasn’t legend — it was a real account. Look at that image — it’s changed while we’re looking at it.” 

“It’s just a bloody legend, man. Don’t be a damned fool. We’re standing on the threshold of the greatest discovery in years, and you’re saying we should pack up and leave?” He paused as the sound of the truck they used to transport the workers to the ‘dig’ starting and revving furiously roared through the ruined city. “Where the hell do they think …” 

“Damn. They’re making a run for it. Listen, John. Please. We can write this up. We can examine everything else here, but we must leave this tomb alone.” 

“Be damned if I will. Don’t you understand? This holds the key to why this civilisation collapsed. I’ll be damned if I leave here without solving that.” 

Shaking his head, Julian said, a note of desperation in his voice, “It holds the key alright. And It’s right there in the inscription. Don’t you see? If you open that you will become the latest manifestation of the monster imprisoned there. That is what the legend says. Please, leave it, John. Take photographs, let’s copy the glyphs — but don’t open that tomb.” 

The waiting creature studied the minds it could sense without. Anger and fear. It understood both emotions. Fear emanated from prey, anger it could use. Anger gave it strength. Anger helped it form a bond. It focussed on the angry mind. Ambition. Ambition and anger, yes, that made it better. The angry, ambitious one would provide the perfect vehicle to escape this prison. It stirred gently, raising dust as it considered, feeding the anger, enhancing the ambition. 

“Hubris and ambition, my friends! A deadly combination, but your species often combines it with a wilful disregard of sense. Some might call it stupidity, against which there are few barriers — not even when in combination with great intelligence.” 

John Carter used the pick to break the seals. He’d show the damned fools. Scared of legends, bogeymen and bogus hocus-pocus stories created to frighten off primitives. He tested the door slab. It gave easily. Picking up the lamp, he aimed it into the chamber, illuminating the hideous figure inside. “Oh. Oh sh …” 

The eyes glowed briefly, and the archaeologist collapsed. “Greetings Carter. You will serve me well. Let us commence our work. I am hungry.” 

 

“John. Thank God. You didn’t open that chamber?” 

John Carter smiled, adjusting his dark glasses. “Of course not, Julian. I think we’ve done everything we can here this season. I need a bit of civilisation again. We’ll pack up in the morning. I’ve a yen to see New York, perhaps London. Yes, tell the workers to pack, we’ll leave in the morning.” 

“Something troubling your eyes, John?” 

“My eyes? Oh — yes, I seem to have something in them. Nothing major. I’ll put some drops in. Tell the workers to get cracking will you?” 

Julian stood, struggling to keep his feelings from showing. “Right. We leave in the morning.” He backed out of the tent, his legs jelly. John Carter never wore dark glasses. Why would he wear them now? And at night? The legend said the monster could take any form and shape — but it could not change its eyes. It was already too late to run … 

Alone among the ruins, a stone figure huddled within the resealed tomb. The idol with the face of Dr John Carter, now twisted in a silent scream, waited. It had all eternity to wait. 

“Now you may ask yourselves, is this a true tale? Or is it mere fantasy? The fantasy of an ancient creature such as myself who finds your species fascinating. Full of contradictions, full of pride, capable of great sacrifice — and of evil.” The Count paused, a sardonic smile playing on the handsome face. “Sleep well, my friends. Igor will show you to your chambers and how to operate the anti-bat screens. Pleasant dreams.”

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