THE WALL OF ESSHUR-SIN
Donald Tyson is the author of Alhazred (Llewellyn, 2006), a novel about the mad poet who wrote the Necronomicon, and also the collection of occult mystery stories The Ravener and Others (Avalonia, 2011), which concerns the investigations of strange and uncanny occurrences by the Elizabethan sage Dr. John Dee and his friend, the alchemist Edward Kelley. The Dream World of H. P. Lovecraft (Llewellyn, 2011) is a biography of Lovecraft. Tyson has also written numerous nonfiction books on the history and practice of Western occultism.
A FITFUL GUST OF WIND CAST A WRAITH OF SAND through the open window of the Land Rover. Fine grains salted the sweating neck of Eric Tenisan. By turns the wind obscured and revealed the horizon, playing with his expectation like a mischievous child. The Bedouins called this remote part of Yemen the Land of Lost Souls. It was a fanciful way to describe so bleak and empty a waste, yet strangely evocative.
He glanced at the profile of his beautiful young wife, Sheila. No matter how hot the sun, she never perspired. Her gaze was fixed on a tiny red spider that clung for life at the lower corner of the windscreen. The spider had been with them since they turned off the paved highway. She had said little for the past hundred miles. With an habitual gesture, he fingered the irregular edge of the gold medallion that hung around his neck on a chain through the hole at its center. The medallion had been with him for so many years, he was barely aware of doing it.
“Most of the dust is being stirred up from the road. We’ll leave it behind soon.”
The spider flew away. Released from her meditation, she smiled acknowledgment and turned to watch the Cyclopean stones flash past her window. The desert was piled with massive rounded boulders that projected up through the sands like the bald skulls of buried giants. Long black hair at the side of her face veiled her features. As he so often had over the brief months of their courtship, he wondered what might be on her mind.
The steering wheel lurched and he caught it in time to guide the car across the surface of a huge rock. It was white and gently domed, like the shell of some vast lunar egg. He remembered it as though he had seen it yesterday, even though it had been over fifty years—but who is so empty of romance that he ever forgets the road that leads to Asshur-sin?
The last time he crossed this dome of rock, he had been a wide-eyed seventeen-year-old mounted awkwardly on the back of a camel, doing his best to pretend he knew how to ride so that his father’s Arab diggers would not laugh at him behind their hands. The road had not existed. It was his first experience as the paid member of a field expedition, and he could barely contain his excitement. Through the shimmering heat of memory he saw the sweat-stained white shirt and gray hair of his father, the great Norwegian archaeologist Olaf Tenisan, who rode his white Arabian horse with familiar ease across the treacherous dome of stone.
The sand from the open roadway hissed annoyance at the escaping vehicle, and then they were lost among the flowing boulders and sensuous rills where the wind wept in dizzy eddies. He leaned forward to gaze up through the tinted edge of the windscreen at the sun. It was just past noon.
“Darling, are you absolutely sure you want to walk the Wall?” he had asked her a week ago in the darkness of their Cairo hotel room.
They had just finished making love and lay in the bed side by side with a single crisp cotton sheet drawn up to their hips, surrounded by a gauzy veil of mosquito netting. The ancient air conditioner beneath the window was unequal to the task of countering the night heat. Rather than listen to it banging away in futility, he had turned it off and opened the window wide to the breeze from the Nile.
When she said nothing, he spoke again.
“The climb alone is almost a kilometer, and it’s more than three across the top in the hot sun, to say nothing of the descent down the ramps and the hike back to the truck.”
“Of course I want to climb the Wall, Eric. I’m looking forward to it.”
Her tone was subdued, almost indifferent, a curious contrast to the enthusiasm with which she had begged him to make this irrational trek back into his past as part of their honeymoon adventure. He should be accustomed to her moods, he told himself. She changed like the sea. It was her unpredictable nature that had first attracted him—that, and her strikingly original beauty.
“Who was that man who spoke to you at dinner?”
“I didn’t speak to anyone.”
“That dark man with the odd symbol tattooed on the back of his hand.”
“I don’t remember. Let me sleep, darling, I’m completely exhausted.”
The tip of her cigarette glowed once, then she ground it out in the ashtray on her bedside table and turned her back to him in darkness. He lay on his left shoulder and vainly sought to distinguish her outline while he listened to the slow beat of his own heart.
What business had a man in his late sixties to take a young bride less than half his age? Months ago, when he first saw Sheila staring up at him with rapt attention during one of his public lectures at Cambridge, his routine had been comfortable and predictable. He had long since reconciled himself to a solitary and sexless life. An elderly housekeeper fed his tropical fish and took in his mail while he was away from his residence at the university on lecture tours. What more did an aging professor of archaeology need?
If asked at that time, he could have confidently stated where he would be and what he would be doing on any day in the coming year. Yet here he was, only a few months later, lying in a hotel room in Egypt with this strange and beautiful woman at his side.
Even today, he had no idea what it was about his manner or interests that had attracted her. True, he was a respected authority in his field, though not nearly so renowned as his father. No one could hope to fill Olaf Tenisan’s boots. But his father was dead, and that made him arguably the world’s leading authority on Asshur-sin and its artifacts. Yet these were scarcely qualities to attract the love or stir the desires of a worldly woman such as Sheila Marsh. She had her own more than adequate source of income, so it was not his money she was after. He had eventually convinced himself that she must truly love him, and he had begun to love her in return.
The mammoth rocks of the Land of Lost Souls formed a natural road that declined at a slight but noticeable angle. He downshifted, and the Rover’s engine whined as it slowed the vehicle on a steeper than normal slope. For a dozen kilometers the way twisted like a dying snake, the weaving stone buttresses that rose abruptly on either side concealing the path to come and the path behind. He attempted no more conversation, but forced himself to be aware of the landscape around him—of the bit of green high in a stony fissure on his left; of the gray lizard atop a boulder that ate the withered corpse of one of its cousins with quick motions of its almost human-like hands. In the midst of life there is death, but here there was far more death than life.
In spite of his resolve, his mind slipped into memory.
“Are you happy?” he had asked her on the train platform the day of their arrival in Yemen.
She had brushed strands of wind-blown hair away from her large, ice-blue eyes and gazed up at him with the serious yet enigmatic expression that had becoming so familiar.
“Deliriously so. From the window of the train I watched a little girl with a great clay water pot balanced on her head. At each step it swayed back and forth, threatening to fall, and the girl kept raising her hand as if to steady it, but never once did her fingers actually touch the pot. She was walking east, so I knew it was a good omen.”
It was the kind of thing she said from time to time. He had come to expect such cryptic remarks and no longer tired his brain trying to decipher their meaning.
She turned from him to handle their baggage. With mingled feelings of love and possessiveness in his heart, he watched her stride across the train platform to argue with the almost somnambulant porter. Once again he found himself marveling at her indifference to the heat. Her conservative gray travel suit retained its crease from the morning. He had never seen her perspire, even though her pallid skin, so white that it was almost blue beneath the blazing Arabian sun, always looked slightly moist. This was just an illusion, but at times it disturbed him. Her complexion reminded him of the ivory underbelly of a frog, and the impression was not lessened by her large and oddly prominent eyes.
She had confided early in their relationship that her entire family was cold-blooded by nature.
“I’m descended from a long line of Yankee traders who made their living upon the southern oceans of the world. There is more salt water than blood in my veins.”
Once, in a teasing way, he had called her his undine lover. She had stared into his eyes for so many moments he was certain he must have offended her, but then she smiled and kissed his cheek.
“My Nordic troll, so big and clumsy and awkward,” she had murmured seductively into his ear.
His pulse quickened with expectation. The stony ground became more level and the shrouding cliffs on either side of the road parted like a theater curtain. Alive to Sheila’s reaction to her first glimpse of the Wall, he drove onto the crest of the lookout and turned off the Rover’s engine.
The Wall towered on the far side of the valley, its sheer size making it seem nearer than it was. This was the first time he had viewed it stripped clean of its ancient veil of rubble, and it was even more impressive than he remembered. Surely she must feel a similar emotion, gazing at the greatest wonder of the world, from the vantage where he had first seen it, seated on the back of a camel in his awkward youth. But she remained silent.
He cast his wide gray eyes across five decades of time, and still further back, across untold millennia to the very childhood of man. The same potent blend of humility and wonder he had felt as a teenager returned into his heart. He had not felt it for many years.
The Wall of Asshur-sin, wall of walls that rendered China’s defense less than a hedgerow. Fifty years ago it was deemed a miracle. A local Bedouin detected something unnaturally precise in a range of coastal mountains and informed his mullah. After monumental excavations supervised by the elder Tenisan, the wall at last had revealed itself to the admiring eyes of the worshipful. Poets, mystics, and scientists made pilgrimages from the far corners of the world to stand at its base and marvel. But that was half a century ago, and the world, ever preoccupied with the concerns and novelties of the present moment, had turned its gaze elsewhere.
It spanned the gap between the western mountains of the valley like a stone Samson, twisting perspective with its impossible bulk. Eric stretched his mind, yet still could not contain its edges— nearly a kilometer tall and three kilometers across, what meaning had such dimensions? For untold ages the Wall had stood, defending the lost civilization of this desert valley against that most jealous mistress of the world, the sea.
“Magnificent,” he said from the depths of his heart. “I wanted you to see it first as I saw it. We’ll continue down now.” He re-started the engine and released the parking brake.
He wondered if she was thinking of Johnny Azotha, the man with the dark eyes and shining black hair they had met in Egypt. Surely it was no more than his morbid fancy that the man had followed them from Cairo? A coincidence that he should arrive in Yemen at the same time, nothing more. While dining at the English Club in Sana’a, it had been natural that she should seek out his table, since his was the sole familiar face.
“Your wife tells me you go to see Asshur-sin,” the dark man greeted him when he returned to the table with her package of cigarettes. He spoke English well, with a trace of the British accent he had acquired as a student at Oxford.
Eric frowned, thinking they sat too close.
“Most tourists are not keen enough to endure the journey now that the Wall has lost its newness,” the man continued. “But I suppose it has a special significance for you, Doctor Tenisan. You were one of the first, weren’t you?”
“I was part of the initial exploratory dig. My father headed the expedition.”
“Ah, yes, the great Olaf Tenisan. You must be so proud to be his son.”
She had been unusually expansive that night, doing her best to draw him out of himself in spite of his bad mood.
“I had to plead with him to bring me, Johnny, he was like a mule.” She mimicked his Norwegian accent. “You won’t like it, Sheila. All that horrible dust.”
They both laughed. Eric found himself toying with the medallion at his throat. He inched the chain that suspended it around his neck through its central hole. It was an habitual response to frustration. The Arab pointed at it.
“That is a curious trinket. Where did you buy it?”
Eric resisted the irrational urge to hide the spiral design behind his hand. The medallion was shaped like a wheel with curved spokes and an open hub.
“I found it, actually, when I was seventeen. At the Wall.”
It was a subject he did not like to talk about. Sheila would not relent, and for her sake he told the dark man the story.
“The second night of the dig I was restless with excitement. I couldn’t sleep. There was a full moon that night, bright as day, so I got up and walked from where the tents were pitched in the plaza of the ancient city ruins. I climbed—that is, I must have climbed the ramps to the top. The diggers found me there the next morning at the middle of the causeway. I was clutching this medallion in my fist.”
Unconsciously he closed his fingers around it until his knuckles grew white.
“He was completely traumatized,” Sheila finished for him. “Couldn’t even speak for three weeks. No one could pry that medallion from his hand. They say he screamed like a banshee whenever anyone tried to take it away, so finally his father strung a chain through that hole in its center and hung it around his neck just to get him to go to sleep. He has no memory of picking it up. He was flown to a hospital in Cairo and has never once returned to the Wall.”
While his wife talked, Eric found himself staring at the tattoo on the back of the dark man’s left hand. It stirred something buried deep under the layers of his psyche. The blue design depicted a creature that vaguely resembled an octopus. A shudder of revulsion swept through his body. He forced his gaze away.
“I have been there, you know, several times.” The dark man shrugged. “I don’t think so much of it. Only stones piled on stones, after all.”
“And the ocean behind—does that impress you?” Eric asked coolly.
“Ah, the ocean. I have a theory. When this Asshur-sin, whoever he was, built his wall, there was no ocean. And then later the waters rose up until”—he spread his tanned hands—“there you are.”
He remembered disputing this falsehood under the other’s mocking stare. Sheila had smiled the shadow of a smile, catching the flavor of the dark man’s irreverence.
The drive across the valley floor took on a nightmare quality for Eric. Always it seemed the Wall could get no larger, yet always it grew upward until at last its black face blocked half the sky. The effect was strange, a pressing on the chest and a shortness of breath, as if the Wall itself were squeezing out the stuff of life. He climbed dizzily from the Land Rover onto the packed brown sand, holding its roof for balance, his eyes irresistibly drawn to the summit.
The Wall was not perfectly vertical, though it appeared so when standing near its base. The blocks that formed it were made of black rock not indigenous to this part of Yemen, but the quarry for the Wall had never been located. The general presumption was that the stones had been brought from some distant land across the sea by barge. Each regular block was forty meters long and twelve meters high, but the foundation blocks at the base were even larger. Eric had never seen most of these stones with his own eyes. Half a century ago they had been obscured by a titanic slope of sand and rubble that ascended nearly to the top of the Wall. Yet nothing in his life was more familiar. He had studied thousands of photographs and films of the stones over the course of his archaeological researches.
Stepless ramps ascended either side of the Wall in diminishing zigzag diagonals to the top. In keeping with its monstrous proportions, each ramp was four meters wide, as though designed for a race of giants. When uncovered from beneath the debris fifty years ago, a debate had raged as to their purpose. They were unsuited for dragging large objects to the top due to the tight bends where the ramps met, and were in any case too narrow to accommodate the stones of the Wall itself, yet their architecture was wastefully extravagant, when narrow and steeper flights of steps would have served to provide ascent.
The waves a thousand meters above me, he thought, his mind numb. And through the stones where I stand, black ooze and things that have never seen the sun. This nameless hidden valley was the lowest land elevation in the world—more than twice as far beneath sea level as the previous record holder, the Dead Sea. If the Wall were ever to collapse….
He shuddered and took his wife’s arm, guiding her to the very foot of the edifice where the inscription had been unearthed from beneath uncounted of tons of till. Cut into the side of one of the massive foundation blocks was an unpretentious recess not more than two meters deep. It appeared to be a later addition to the architecture, added long after the building of the Wall itself, although its date remained unresolved. An open sarcophagus of the same native white stone they had driven across on their approach to the valley rested within the recess. Neither the lid of the sarcophagus nor any trace of its contents had ever been found. It lay upon an oblong dais of black Wall-stone, part of the great foundation block itself, that raised it to within arm’s length of the ceiling of the recess. Steps were cut into the sides of this dais as though to allow access to the open stone vessel, or from it.
Eric entered the recess and led his wife behind the elevated sarcophagus. The glare of the desert sun, reflected from the distant white mountains, shone into the cavity and highlighted the shadows of cuneiform characters that were deeply carved into the ceiling above the sarcophagus. Although he had studied reproductions of these letters on countless occasions, this was the first time he had seen them with his naked eyes. He felt a sense of awe tighten his throat.
“What does it say?” his wife asked in a casual tone, yet he detected suppressed interest in her words. Her large ice-blue eyes shone as she stared upward at the letters with an expression almost of reverence.
“It’s written in an ancient Sumerian proto-dialect,” he said, unconsciously adopting his professorial lecturing voice. “This is the only example that has ever been found, so all translations are conjectural. But I believe it to be some kind of warning.”
“A warning? How exciting!”
She took his hand into hers, and he felt the coolness of her palm. Her slender fingers were never warm. He pointed to each character in turn as he read the primary inscription aloud.
“Asshur-sin, king—or perhaps high-priest, or herald, it’s not clear which—keeps this Wall for—or perhaps against—the awakening of the Deep One. Beware his Emissaries.”
He pointed at one of the characters that had been damaged and was largely obscured.
“I take that to stand for the Wall itself, from the context of the text, although it is obviously illegible.”
“It has been chiseled away,” she said.
The confident tone in her voice caused Eric to glance at her. She stared at the damaged symbol almost with resentment.
“Possibly. Or it may have been chipped when the sarcophagus was placed on its dais.”
“Come on.” She pulled him by the hand back into the open. “Let’s climb it.”
He followed with his eyes the set of ramps that ran up the left side.
“It’s too far.”
The words caught in his throat. Suddenly he was a boy, running through the moonlit darkness from something that trilled and rustled over the sand behind his pounding heels. How many times had he awakened in his bed, drenched in sweat, with the memory of the same nightmare? He could almost see his pursuers in the corner of his vision when he turned his mind toward them, but at the last instant they always faded back into the darkness and left him shivering.
“I’m sure it looks worse than it really is,” she said lightly, pulling on his hand.
“You go—I’ll stay in the Rover.”
“Eric, I need you to come with me.”
He looked into her face, saw the determination there. The terror that had visited him five decades ago while he lay on top of the wall in the moonlight with his eyes squeezed tightly shut, hugging his knees to his chest, returned. With more violence than he intended, he tore his hand away. She stalked across the sand toward the lowermost ramp without a backward glance, leaving him to follow or not.
As they climbed, the floor of the valley widened beneath them. He caught up with her and kept her to the inside of the inclines, supporting her alternately with his left and then his right arm as the direction of the ramps reversed at each landing. They stopped often to rest, when the ache in their legs became too demanding to ignore. The shadows of afternoon lengthened across the valley. Many years ago he had climbed the Great Pyramid. This was harder.
Imperceptibly, the nature of the valley altered as they mounted ever higher. Details merged and larger shapes defined themselves. What appeared from the ground to be chaotic piles of stones revealed themselves as the decayed foundations of the nameless city, tucked into the eastern end of the valley between looming mountains. Excavations had revealed roads wider than normal, and a curious lack of steps. Eric had done his doctoral thesis on the city. Gazing down upon it like some god on Olympus, he knew every structure, every alleyway. But of the inhabitants, no trace had ever been unearthed, not even their place of burial. The prevailing theory was that they had burned their dead, though where they had found fuel for these funeral pyres in the barren desert remained unclear.
“We’re almost there,” he puffed, badly out of breath. “Two more ramps to the top.”
“I can smell the ocean.”
The resonance in her deep voice startled him. He stole a glance at her face—it was radiant. Her prominent eyes shone with that curious icy-blue glow that made her so different from other women. Though his linen shirt was drenched with sweat, her pale cheeks were cool and she seemed unwearied.
He heard the muted rumble of the sea as it rhythmically broke itself against the immovable stones. It had done so without pause for uncounted thousands of years. Each rolling wave made the ramp tremble beneath his feet, as if from distant thunder.
“Now you must see,” he said somewhat incoherently as they mounted the last incline and the sea breeze touched their faces. “It’s the oddest feeling, standing with a vast empty space on one side and the horizonless ocean on the other. As if the world were flat and you stood balanced on its edge.”
He had no conscious memory of the view, yet somewhere deep within him he saw it lit with moonlight. They walked like insects across the twelve-meter-wide span known as the causeway to the edge of the ocean and gazed down on moving blue water that was so close, its broken spray caught in their hair and salted their lips. The rumble, as each successive wave struck the flat stones, made speech difficult.
Sheila approached the seaward side and stood with the toes of her hiking boots extended off its edge. She spread her arms wide and stared at the western horizon in exultation.
“Kthulhu p’tang ma’zathu agulu’ka,” she intoned in voice that rose above the thunder of the breakers.
Eric drew her gently back from the edge.
“What was that you recited?”
She shook her head, still staring out to sea.
“A line from a song my mother used to sing to me. Just nonsense words.”
They turned north and began to walk the Wall. It curved toward the ocean like the bow of the early moon, defying the pressure of the waves. He experienced a few moments of vertigo. The floor of the valley was so far away. Suddenly he seemed to be striding along the razor’s edge of the infinite, with the great ocean on one side poised to overwhelm the world on the other. Nothing held back the cataclysm save this tissue-thin structure of black stone.
“Show me where you found your medallion,” she suddenly demanded as they approached the midpoint of the wall.
Eric looked in front and behind him, trying to reawaken the long-buried memory of that night. Nothing appeared familiar. He did not even remember finding the golden disk, only running with it clutched in his hand through the moonlight, with those sliding menacing things following close behind. But that might be no more than a bad dream.
“I don’t remember—”
She took his arms in her hands and turned him roughly toward her, then stared into his face with solemn intensity.
“It’s important, Eric. Think. Where did you find the medallion?”
He realized he was sweating profusely, so much so that drops of perspiration ran down his face and fell from his nose and chin. An image flashed in his mind of something disgusting and horrible. It had a cluster of writhing tentacles at its top. Then it was gone, taking even the memory of the image with it. He grasped at the medallion and held it tight in his fist.
A shout made them turn to the north end of the Wall. A man in a red shirt and white canvas pants approached along the causeway with rapid steps. He waved, and even at that distance Eric recognized the toothy smile of Johnny Azotha. His confusion turned to annoyance. His wife grabbed his hand and pulled him along. Fifteen minutes later the three met breathlessly.
“Johnny, what are you doing here?” Sheila demanded with delight.
“I felt like some exercise, and I knew you two were coming today, so I decided to join you.”
Was it his imagination, or did a glance pass between his wife and the dark man? Eric felt the irrational urge to hurl Azotha over the nearest edge. Instead he forced a polite smile.
The Arab took out a white silk handkerchief and mopped his face.
“Quite a climb. At least there’s a breeze from the ocean.”
The three turned and stared out to sea at the unbroken horizon through intermittent curtains of white foam cast up by the rhythmic breaking of the waves.
“I was trying to persuade Eric to tell me where he found the medallion around his neck.”
“Where did you find it, Doctor Tenisan?” Azotha asked. “I would be interested to hear the story.”
Eric shook his head and turned away from the sea to gaze at the distant mountains across the valley.
“Did you find it on the top? Was it near the center?”
“I don’t remember.”
Sheila hugged his arm possessively between hers.
“You must remember something, darling.”
“Perhaps if we retraced your steps,” Azotha mused. “Where were you before you climbed the Wall?”
“Enough!” Eric jerked his arm free from his wife’s grasp and glared at the dark man.
Azotha smiled apologetically and spread his hands, then tucked his handkerchief into his vest pocket. Sheila folded her arms and walked toward the sea-edge of the Wall, her back stiff. There was an awkward silence.
Eric turned back to the mountains. His heart raced and the blood thundered in his ears, but not from anger. Suddenly he did remember. As clearly as though reflected in a mirror, he saw himself amid the ruins of the nameless city that sprawled across the eastern elevation of the valley. He stood in its oddly shaped plaza, gazing down the valley at the moonlit Wall. Before him, at the center of the plaza, rose an octagonal block of black Wallstone two meters across and a meter in height. As he examined it with the eye of memory, he realized that it had served as some sort of pedestal for a statue—the center of the block was worn by the removal and replacement of some heavy stone object over a span of many centuries. It was curious that in the five decades he had studied Asshur-sin and the nameless city he had never before considered the true function of this stone block.
The moonlight shone strangely on the black stone. It cast into stark relief a circular ring of eight protrusions on its surface. Eric had examined images of the stone a number of times over the years and was sure these bumps were not visible in the photographs. Yet under the light of the full moon they were undeniable. He watched his younger self walk around the block counterclockwise as though moving in a trance, pressing each knob of stone as he passed it. As the final knob descended into the body of the stone, it rumbled softly. A square panel grew out from its eastern side. Eric recognized it as a drawer. He watched himself reach into it and take out the gold medallion, then place the medallion in the center of the octagonal pedestal and orient it in some way to the moon.
A feeling of awful dread clutched his heart. He closed his eyes and wiped his hand down his face. His sweat felt cold on his palm.
“It really is too bad you won’t tell me where you found the talisman, Doctor Tenisan,” Azotha was saying behind him. “It would have been so much easier.”
Eric turned and saw the dark man with his arm around Sheila’s throat. A black automatic pistol rested loosely in his other hand, pointed at his wife’s temple.
“Johnny, what are you doing?” Sheila began to struggle, her look of shock giving way to one of terror.
He cursed her in Arabic and tightened his grip on her throat.
“Be still, unless you want your brain splattered at his feet.”
“What are you doing?” Eric repeated with incomprehension. He took a step toward them. The warning in the Arab’s dark eyes made him hesitate.
“Listen to me, Doctor Tenisan. Unless you tell me where you found the talisman that hangs around your neck, I will shoot your lovely wife through the head. Do you understand?”
Eric could do nothing but stare.
Azotha pressed the barrel of the automatic into Sheila’s hair just above her ear and put his finger gently on the trigger.
In a numb voice Eric began to describe his childhood memory. Azotha questioned him on the details and made him describe the knobs on the octagonal pedestal several times.
“I know this black stone,” he said. “You have done the right thing, Dr. Tenisan. Now give me the talisman. Throw it to me.”
“Yes, of course, only don’t injure my wife.”
He undid the chain around his neck and slid the medallion off it, then let the chain fall to the stone beside his shoe. He threw the gold disk in a careful underhand motion to Azotha, who caught it without loosening his grip on the woman.
“If you wanted to steal the medallion, why didn’t you just tell me? It’s not worth the safety of my wife.”
An expression of anger clouded Azotha’s features.
“Do you think me a common thief? I could have taken the talisman from you in Cairo. The talisman is useless without a knowledge of where you got it. My family searched for its hiding place for centuries, and you, a foolish child, stumble across it one night by some wild stroke of luck and use it for jewelry.”
The contempt in Azotha voice was palpable. As he talked, he relaxed his grip on Sheila’s throat. She straightened, her face no longer afraid, but strangely calm.
“You cannot begin to comprehend the power I hold in my hand,” Azotha continued. “My family is descended from the race that built that city below us. They worshipped a god of the ocean deeps that came from a distant star. They built their city at the base of this great thing we are standing on, what you call a wall. But it is not a wall, it is a portal, and this is its key.”
“You expect me to believe that you are descended from the people of Asshur-sin?”
“Asshur-sin was not of my people. He was the king who conquered this valley, overthrew its city, and had thousands of tons of stone and sand piled up against this portal to prevent it ever being opened again. He thought he had slain all my race, but a few survived. They managed to drug his food, and after he was laid to rest in his white sepulcher they came in the night and carried off his still-living body and committed abominable rites over it to insure that he would walk the pathways of hell for eternity. And so he walks in hell to this day.”
Eric paid little attention to the fantasy of this insane Arab. He watched his wife. Her eyes smoldered with a suppressed excitement that was almost exultation.
“Sheila, come over here,” he murmured. “Stand behind me.”
She laughed, her voice pitiless.
“I told you my New England ancestors were sea traders. They had many dealings with barbarous tribes in foreign lands. In the South Pacific they made a bargain with a race of islanders who worshipped a god of the sea, and in return the sea yielded up its treasures to them, making them wealthy and powerful.”
“Sheila, what are you saying?”
She slid her arm around Azotha’s waist.
“Isn’t that obvious, you old fool? Johnny and I worship the same gods.”
Azotha raised the automatic and shot Eric in the head.
When Eric regained consciousness, it was night. He lay with his left cheek in a pool of his own dried blood. It looked black under the silvery rays of the full moon. He pushed himself into a sitting posture and gingerly felt his scalp with his fingers. The bullet had entered the skin above his left eye at the hairline and had run around the surface of his skull to exit from the back of his head. His entire head throbbed with pain.
Faintly, above the rhythmic thunder of the waves, he caught the sound of voices chanting in an unknown language. It was a man and a woman—Azotha and Sheila. The walls of the valley acted as a natural amphitheater, and the desert air was incredibly still, enabling the sounds to travel to the top of the Wall. Or was it a portal, as Azotha had so confidently claimed? Could a true history be conveyed through the generations of a single family for so many centuries? Eric dismissed the notion. Azotha was mad, and so apparently was his own wife. Yet something stirred in his subconscious, impelling him to stand and stumble toward the nearer of the two ramps, the one in the north by which Azotha had ascended.
As he made his way down the reticulated ramp, his mind began to clear, and his steps became more sure. The cool night air revived him. The chanting continued, rising and falling in intensity. Eric became aware of a change in the stones beneath his shoes. They began to ripple as though under the influence of a small earthquake. A faint humming, so deep that it was almost below the level of human hearing, raised the hairs along the back of his neck. It was as if the stones were responding to the chant with a song of their own. And beneath all this there was a lower vibration, a series of booms with long intervals of silence between, like the slow, deliberate footfalls of a giant.
He left the bottom of the ramp and ran across the desert sand to where the Rover was parked. Not far from it sat Azotha’s rented car, partially concealed behind a decaying wall of one of the outlying city ruins. Eric stopped, an internal battle of wills raging within him. He knew that the wise course would be to jump into the Rover and drive away from the valley before Azotha or Sheila could move to stop him. They had tried to murder him once and would not hesitate to try again. He started slowly toward the Rover. An invisible force descended on his limbs and held him still. An intelligence of great power spoke within him below the level of words, but intuitively he understood. He must stop the Arab and his wife from finishing the ritual.
He remembered this silent voice. It had spoken to him five decades ago, when he had run from the city and climbed the Wall with the medallion clutched in his fist. He had been powerless to disobey. He felt the same acquiescence within his soul he had experienced then. It was not a surrender but an acknowledgment of a higher wisdom and a superior will.
As he began to jog across the uneven sands and loose stones of the desert, his eyes downcast to guard against a stumble, the chanting abruptly ceased. There was silence except for his gasping breath and the dull, slow booms that seemed to emanate from the depths of the earth. Then the voices of Azotha and Sheila began to cry out in unison a single repeated barbarous word of evocation. Eric recognized it as one of the words his wife had uttered earlier.
“Kthulhu, Kthulhu, Kthulhu … ”
He stopped and stood bent in half with his elbows resting on his knees as he struggled to regain his breath. At sixty-seven, he was too old for moonlit sprints across the desert. He spat the taste of blood from his mouth and straightened. An instinct caused him to turn around, and the sight that met his gaze made him quail inwardly.
The lower two-thirds of the Wall had become transparent. In the center of this glassy expanse turned a vast spiral wheel of radiating energy that was a sickly green in color. It was not the spiral wheel of force that horrified him, but what lay beyond. By the penetrating light of the moon he could see through the stones of the Wall and into the dark waters on the other side. Shadow-shapes moved through that water, large shapes. Their outlines did not resemble anything Eric had ever seen. Deeper still, beyond these restless shadows, something vast and hideous approached on slow serpentine limbs. As it dragged itself forward, it emitted a dull boom each time its bulk settled to the sea floor.
How Eric could see such things in the darkness, how he could distinguish the shape of the approaching horror through countless meters of water, he made no attempt to understand. In some way he knew that what he saw was true, that his eyes were being assisted to penetrate the distance and gloom of the ocean depths, and more than this, that what he saw was not merely present in the deeps of the sea but also existed on some plane of reality that had been merged with the earthly plane by the chanted words. Azotha and his wife truly were insane, for they intended to open the Wall wide enough to allow that lumbering thing to enter this world.
The shouted evocation abruptly ceased. For a few seconds there was silence, then screams split the night. They came from human throats, but so great was the terror of those who made them that they sounded like the cries of pain-maddened beasts. The screams multiplied on the night breeze and ascended in pitch.
Eric began to run toward the nameless city, careless of where he put his feet. It was impossible to believe that such cries could continue for more than moments, but they went on and on. He thought of the face of his wife and felt sick. One of the voices was hers. The other sounded like that of Azotha, but was so shrill it might have been the screams of a young girl.
Long before he reached the outskirts of the ruins the screaming stopped. He approached the stones with cautious steps, struggling to catch his breath. The walls of the ruined structures came no higher than his waist in this portion of the city. He was able to look across the irregular rectangles of foundation stones that had once defined the houses of the ancient race of the valley. The ruins were utterly deserted. Conscious that Azotha might be crouching behind any corner waiting to put a bullet in his heart, Eric made his way down the broad central street toward the plaza of the black stone.
The plaza stood empty. He swept his gaze past two low shadows near the base of the pedestal stone, seeking any sign of his wife. As he crept toward the stone, alert for the lurking Azotha, the shadows defined themselves, and he recognized the bodies of human beings. Each naked corpse was completely covered in blood. No, he corrected himself, they were not covered in blood, but made of blood, along with glistening organs and exposed bones. Both bodies had been stripped of their skins. The wet blood appeared black in the moonlight.
Eric put one hand on the octagonal stone to steady himself as he stared down at the female body. Just in time he turned his head and vomited sour liquid over the plaza. The booms from behind the gate continued to increase in force. His mind numb, he allowed the sounds to draw his gaze. The green spiral had not diminished with the cessation of the chant. If anything, it was larger and revolved with greater urgency. Through its translucent rays he saw the shadow outline of the vast thing more clearly. It was closer to the Wall. Not the Wall, he corrected himself, the portal. The opened portal.
A gleam of gold caught his eye. The wheel of his medallion rested in the center of the pedestal stone, exactly as he remembered seeing it in his boyhood memory. It was even oriented to the moon in the same way. He fumbled to pick it up. It adhered to the stone as though magnetized. When at last he pried it loose with his fingernails, a blue spark crackled between the medallion and the pedestal. At the same moment a trilling cry arose from deeper in the ruins of the city on the eastern side of the plaza. The walls were higher there, blocking his view, but the cry had not been human.
As though in response, from beyond the swirling portal issued a subsonic rumble that Eric felt in his chest rather than heard with his ears. The sheer fury of the sound compelled his attention, and he saw the spiral eye on the transparent stones begin to close. In the dozen seconds he stood mesmerized by the sight, it dimmed and shrank.
Behind him the trilling he had heard earlier was repeated. A second trilling arose from another part of the ruins, followed by a strange sifting and grinding noise, as though heavy cables were being dragged along a beach.
Eric became aware of his danger. He bent his head and ranged back and forth across the plaza, searching for Azotha’s automatic. Eventually he found it, some dozen meters from the corpse of the Arab. The hammer was cocked, with a round in the chamber and the safety catch off. Why had Azotha not fired to defend himself and Sheila from their attacker? The image of the terror of his nightmares returned to him with photographic clarity. At the last the dark man’s courage had failed him. Or maybe he refused to fire upon the emissaries of his god. The sandy grinding did not cease, but drew relentlessly closer. It came from two places in the depths of the ancient city. He peered into the ruins and saw a shadow pass over the stones of a crumbling house wall, but the thing that made it was still obscured.
Eric did not wait to have his terror confirmed. With the gun in his right hand and the medallion clutched in his left, he ran wildly down the valley toward the Rover. The full moon hung in the west above the Wall and lit his way, but in spite of this advantage Eric was soon forced to slow his pace to little more than a fast walk. The race up the incline of the valley floor to the city had left him utterly exhausted. His head throbbed and his eyes blurred, so that he found it difficult to keep his balance. The trilling sounded behind his left shoulder and was answered from somewhere further back to the right. The sifting noise did not get nearer, but neither did it fall behind. In the still night air it was impossible to tell the distance that separated him from his closest pursuer.
He risked a glance over his shoulder. The strength drained from his legs and caused him to collapse to his hands and knees on the hard stones. It was not just the horror of the following things, but their familiarity. They were the nightmares of his youth, returned to haunt him, as they had haunted his sleep all the days of his adult life. Every night he ran from them, and every morning he blocked them from his memory.
A ring of short, thick tentacles around its base provided the creature with locomotion across the desert. It was from these that the grinding and sifting emanated. From its apex writhed longer and more slender members that reminded Eric of a cluster of vipers with their tails tied together. Some of the snake-like appendages had black barbs on their ends resembling the curved, black legs of insects. These dripped with fluid that was flung off from them as they writhed, so that it scattered through the moonlight like milky pearls. Along the lengths of these upper tentacles were reddish-black hooks that resembled curved thorns. It was not difficult to imagine what had stripped the clothing and skin from the living bodies of his wife and the dark man.
Just beneath the serpentine crown of the creature were three black eyes, equally spaced around the circumference of its body. As it rocked from side to side over the loose stones, the trailing eyes came alternately into view for an instant, but it was the central orb that held Eric’s attention. It glared at the fallen man with an unmistakable malice. The second monster was like the first. It had remained further back and ranged to the right, as though seeking to block his escape should he choose to flee along the road and up the pass between the mountains.
He pushed himself to his feet without realizing that he had fallen. The gun was gone, lost amid the shadows, but the medallion remained in his closed fist. In the seconds it took him to get up, the nearest of the creatures closed almost half the distance that separated it from its prey. He turned and ran on. The nightmare repeated itself. Simultaneously, he was a terrified seventeen-year-old and an old man grieving for his lost innocence. With some part of his mind he realized the spiral vortex of the dimensional portal had vanished. The transparency of the black stones also began to fade. The bright circle of the moon kissed the top of the great barrier and slipped into the waters beyond as he ran beneath the black shadow of the Wall.
He rounded the rear bumper of the Rover and jerked the driver-side door open. Even as he reached for the key in the lock, some instinct warned him that it would not be there. He fumbled over the steering column and then across the floor mats. He remembered leaving the key inserted. It had to be there. In the moonless shadow, the noise of the approaching horror was deafening. He could not see it, but he could feel its nearness. The truth struck him at the same instant he rolled from the driver’s seat and ran toward the dark bulk of the other vehicle. Azotha had removed the key, probably at the time of his arrival, to insure that he would not drive away while Azotha was still climbing the ramps.
The car was unlocked, but no key rested in its steering column. He felt along the dashboard and over the passenger seat, then turned down the sun visors, praying that a spare might be tucked behind them. He cursed. The keys for both vehicles must be in the plaza of the ruined city, lying amid the fragments of clothing that surrounded the skinless bodies of his wife and her accomplice. As he spun out of the car, a metallic rasp indicated that the thing following so close behind had slid one of its barbed tentacles over the metal of the Rover’s body. It sounded remarkably similar to fingernails dragged across a blackboard by a malicious child.
For an instant Eric considered trying to slip past the monster in the darkness of the lunar shadow and making his way back toward the pass that was the only egress from the valley. But the trilling of the second creature came from directly between where he stood and the way to safety. He did not even consider that this might be an accident. These things could not have known about the keys, but they had no intention of allowing their human prey to outflank them. In any case, he had little reason to suppose that the nearer of the beings was blinded by the darkness.
A barbed tentacle lashed out and struck the opened door of Azotha’s car with a harsh clang, not more than three paces from where Eric stood. The immediacy of his danger galvanized him. He ran in the opposite direction, toward the base of the northern ramp. His eyes had become accustomed to the almost total darkness in the Wall’s shadow, so he was able to keep his feet and stay ahead of the pursuing nightmare. He thought of casting the medallion onto the ground behind him, but some guiding awareness not his own made him keep it tightly pressed in his left fist. Again came the uncanny feeling of déjà vu, the certainty that he had experienced an identical impulse to cast the medallion aside, and received the same directive not to do so, on the night of its discovery five decades ago.
He was able to climb the first in the series of ramps only by putting his hands against his knees and pressing down with each step. His legs trembled and burned. Each weighed as much as the stones he climbed. At one point he managed to laugh bitterly when he realized why the Wall was ascended by inclines rather than stairs. It had not been constructed for human feet, but for the stubby, ambulatory tentacles of the monsters. Had he come to this realization in the security of his university flat, surrounded by his books and papers, it would have been the crowning achievement of his career; but now it merely mocked his ignorance.
He had researched the valley of Asshur-sin for five decades and had learned nothing of importance. All the while he had kept some of the answers suppressed just beyond his reach in his own memories. His young wife had known more about the Wall than he had learned in all his years of research. So had Johnny Azotha. With agonizing clarity he realized what a fool he had been.
The trilling only two ramps below him was answered by an identical trill that echoed from the rocky slope on the opposite side of the Wall. The other creature had moved quickly to cut off his escape. There would be no chance to cross the causeway and descend by the southern ramps. It was exactly as it had been on that night, so long ago, when he had fled similar beings. How had he escaped that night? Eric racked his memory as he fought his way up the endless reticulated incline, but the final part of that night of terror remained as hidden as the face of the moon.
Three deaths awaited him at the top, should he retain enough strength in his legs to reach it. One lay on the hard stones at the base of the Wall so far below. The other was wrapped in the chill, choking waves of the ocean. The third hung on the barbs and hooks of the tentacles of the dread guardians of this passage to the underworld. Three ways of death, and perhaps a single way of salvation, if only he could remember.
After what seemed more than a lifetime, he crawled on his hands and knees from the final ramp to the level stones of the causeway. It was almost more than he could bear to force his bruised and bloody knees to straighten and hold him erect. How long he had crawled, he did not remember, but it could not have been more than a few of the ramps or the creature would have caught him. It was close behind. The moon had just set below the horizon of the ocean in the west. An eerie phosphorescence illuminated the waves as they struck the side of the Wall. The stars had begun to pale overhead, indicating that morning was not far away. He wasted a moment to glance at the eastern mountains and saw the rose-gray tint of approaching dawn.
Hope surged in his heart. At last he remembered the final minutes of that night, so long ago. Swaying, he staggered on stiff legs from the horror that tipped itself upright onto the top of the causeway, so close behind. If only he could stay in front of it, he had a chance of survival. But the thing moved faster on a level surface than it had on the sloping ramps, and faster still across the smooth stones than on the rocky valley floor. It seemed to sense his thoughts, for it increased its speed. Had he stumbled, he would never have risen again. The smooth stones that speeded the hellish thing behind were his own blessing. He was able to drag his nerveless feet across their surface without catching his toes or heels. Somehow he managed to keep his balance.
As he neared the center he heard an exultant trilling in front of him. The other creature has finished its ascent and now barred his path. He continued to shuffle toward it. There was nowhere else to go. As it approached, he had more opportunity than he wished to examine its writhing, hooked appendages and leathery body. He dared not look away for fear of losing his balance and sprawling on his face. The thing behind was very close. He heard the barbs of its tentacles click against the stone just behind his heels.
Finally, there was nowhere else to run. Eric turned and stared defiance into the lidless black central eye of the monster that followed. A strange peace descended into his body, as though a cooling cloak of silk had been draped across his skin. Fear left him. He felt a sense of recognition for the horror that closed swiftly upon him with its barbed ropes lashing the air. He saw it, not with his own eyes, but with the eyes of an older and wiser soul that had in some inexplicable way merged with his own. The monster abruptly stopped and appeared indecisive. Eric knew that by some psychic faculty it had perceived the same presence within him.
It was this possessing presence, not Eric, that passed the medallion into his right hand and threw it far out over the waves. It vanished from view against the paling stars while in the air, but as it struck the water it cast up a small splash of luminous white.
Eric experienced a rush of liberation. A debt had been paid. An obligation had been fulfilled. Calmly he turned to face the nearer of the tentacled things and awaited his own death.
Even as the creature glared malignancy and thrust itself forward for the killing lash, a ray of the rising sun struck its tortuous crown. At once its leathery body became transparent, just as the stones of the gate had become transparent under the moonlight. It writhed in a frenzy of frustration and threw itself forward on its stubby, squamous legs. Eric closed his eyes. He felt a tingling on his skin. He opened his eyelids with surprise, then turned. The monster has passed completely through his body, as though it were no more than a projection of light.
The two creatures came together and stopped. They seemed to converse. Eric heard their trilling voices, which sounded strangely remote, as though they came from many miles away. Under the strengthening rays of the sun their bodies faded and became as clear as glass, and within a few moments more, they vanished.
Eric blinked at the sun. He was too numb to feel emotion, but he knew the ordeal had ended. The things had disappeared into whatever dimension of reality had spawned them, the same way they had faded into nothingness on the morning of that night so many decades ago. The destiny of his life, so long postponed, was at last fulfilled. Later there would be time to reflect on the meaning of what had taken place, time to grieve for the death of his wife and to ponder her hidden purposes, time to piece together the bits of information he had gleaned from his own memories and from Azotha’s words, but for the present he merely enjoyed the sunrise.
Behind him, a sinuous rope of gray flesh as thick as his waist rose silently from the waves. It wrapped around him in a gentle coil, as though embracing a lover, and with a smooth arc slipped beneath the surface of the sea. Where it passed, the stones were empty. Ripples spread from the place of its descent, but soon the waves erased this brief memorial.