The Reckless Expedition
©2015 Les L. Garner
The smell of old death clung to the air as Moira lifted her lantern high to illuminate the cracked, rocky path before her. In the warm glow, the dust lay as a blanket of age over the stone walkway she believed would lead her toward her goal: a small chamber rumored to be deep in the catacomb that held a rare, ancient talisman of the dark entity Nyogtha.
Along the way, strange chittering sounds intermittently caught her attention, their faint echoes traveling off the stone. Hair stood at the back of Moira’s neck as she wondered what could be making those sounds, but still she pressed on, determined not to reach her goal. Passing through small openings, nearly stepping into fetid, ancient human remains, she trudged on, until at last the dim glow of her lantern was overtaken by gust of foul air that hissed through a large crack in the wall. Stepping quickly forward, her vision blinded by the fast change from light to darkness, she let her memory of what little she could see before her guide her as she knelt down to rekindle the lamp. With her small light restored, she continued on.
The path seemed to travel further and further, through stone, through twisting, winding turns, first up a set of cracked and crumbling steps, then back down along a long grade, twisting through passages that seemed to double back on themselves. There, again, came the chittering, this time with a scrape, perhaps a thud, and what sounded like the movement of metal upon metal somewhere ahead. Moira knew from her research how confusing the catacombs could be, and that her best bet for not getting lost was to continue traveling forward, find the chamber of Nyogtha, then exit from it’s rear passage, a straight path to the surface reserved only for priests of that foul being who served the dark god in their secret lives, but posed as Christian monks in the monastery above ground.
Posing as a lost mountain climber, Moira had played to the sympathy of the monks to gain entrance and lodging, all the while using her time there to study the monastery, to wander about where she could and compare it to notes from her research at the Chicago branch campus of Miskatonic University. Three weeks stay had revealed virtually nothing to her except the dottering old monks and withering state of the monastery, until one particular evening, when she spied a small group of them breaking off, supposedly for prayer and sacrament. Following the three of them covertly from a distance, Moira saw them enter one of the few sets of doors she had yet to reconnoiter on her own.
As the monks reach the doors, the clacking of large tumblers reverberated down the hallway. Moira ducked behind an old stone pillar, held her breath and cautiously dared inch her head back around the side to gain the slightest of views. The cold winter wind whipped through a nearby window, carrying the steam of her breath out into the air, and she prayed momentarily that it would go unnoticed. Another moment of bated breath and the doors creaked open. The monks, each elderly in his own right, were met by a burlap clad man, bald and hunched over, who must have held decades over them all. Where others may occasionally have worn simple wooden crosses on cord about their neck, what stood out to Moira was the sigil this man bore about his: black stone, polished to an unearthly sheen and carved in the shape of six appendages, each reaching out equally in all directions, and emblem of embodied chaos. She squinted. Tongues. The appendages looked to be the curling shapes of tongues. Black. Shining. Tongues. Moira, for a moment, forgot all her fear as her lips pursed into a satisfied smile. This was the place she was searching for after all.
Once the doors had closed, she shimmied her way up between two pillars and into the rafters of the arched hallway attached to the room where they had disappeared. Moira knew that patience was key. She would lie in wait here as long as it took, steal away into the room where the monks had converged, and in there, she would find the entrance in the underground passageways that housed this cult of Nyogtha.
After some hours had passed, the monks emerged from the room, each with his head lowered and murmuring some kind of unintelligible speech. The old monastery had no glass windows in these connective hallways, and the wind through the openings had chilled Moira to the bone as she waited, perched in the ceiling above. As the group of monks passed below her, she saw at the doors, the elder emerge, no longer stooped in stance, his face having become visibly more youthful and vibrant. From Moira’s vantage point, she could see that the hallway, right at the elder’s doors, took a full ninety degree turn, and she watched as he strolled away down that corridor. With his now spry steps, she noticed that, with the wind blowing back part of his monastic garb, beneath he was clothed in a rich, well tailored, modern looking suit. Again, she waited, giving him time get far enough from the room for her to make her move.
Chittering. There it was again. The noise brought Moira back to the moment, back to the path and task at hand. That thin sound, like screeches cut very short coupled with a kind of clicking, echoing out over the sound of… rumbling? No. Some kind of growl, just below the clinking of metal. She pressed herself against the wall, breath held still, and waited for the noises to stop.
On the fringes of her peripheral vision was a shape in the distance, out beyond where the tunnel she now stood in opened up onto a path through a massive, vaulted chamber, it’s ceiling an ancient cave lined with stalactites. Large and dark in the dimness, it’s details were lost to her, but she could make out a hulking bipedal form, heaving below what might have been a stone arch. And the metal sound? Were those chains?
Skittering around the arch shape, Moira could see smaller forms and finally tell that these were the sources of the chittering, clicking sounds. Smaller forms, smaller than a man really, moved about the stone arch. She hunkered down, low to the ground and began daring to inch closer toward the vaulted chamber, curiosity winning out over her better judgement. The hulking figure stood, it’s pained groaning now plainly audible to Moira, as she pressed herself as flat to the floor as possible, holding deathly still, but still watching, her eyes wide in both wonder and fear. The smaller shapes seemed to be doing something, their hands fidgeting and tinkering with… chains? Yes! They were loosing chains that held the larger creature prisoner beneath the stone arch! Upon that realization, she inched her way back into the tunnel, pressed back into her original hiding spot, and waited, hoping the smaller creatures had yet to notice her, and that, should her presence have been detected by the hulking brute they were unleashing, the tunnel entrance would prove too small for him to reach through, should that become his course of action.
Minutes passed like hours as she waited. In time, the brute was freed and stomped off, fortunately for her, in the opposite direction. Nothing in her research had prepared her for things like this being real. Most everything she had read or heard was believed to be fiction, hoaxes, or the delusional ramblings of some addle brained madmen. But there she was. There it was. There they were. Secretive, archaic monks… spidering catacombs opening to reveal creatures carrying out whatever bizarre existence they lived. Suddenly, she became fully, functionally and completely aware and convinced that the goal of her expedition might truly be attained. With careful, quiet steps, she ventured out into the open chamber, able to make out only basic shapes form the path before her through the tiny amount of ambient light that came from somewhere in the distant cavern, toward where the brute had been chained. No longer hearing the chittering sounds and convinced she was finally alone, Moira sat down her lantern, ignited it, and began to survey the scene she had happened upon.
On the ground lie massive chains, like what one would find holding a ship to it’s moorings, pinned at one end to what she now could see to be a broken stone arch. At the other end were attached enormous manacles which had been on the brute who she had watched set free. Moira knelt to get a closer look at the chains and saw something strange in the stone, a kind of faint glimmer, almost as if it were embedded with bits of silver. She then loosened her pick ax and shovel from her pack, and prepared to collect samples of the alien looking stone to take back to the university, rather enjoying the idea that her mentor might not be the only one to profit from this expedition.
As she lifted open the flap of her satchel, Moira was met with a sudden hissing sound from her right, just beyond the broken archway. Reflexively, she leaped to her feet, pick ax in hand, the nearest weapon available.
In the lamplight, she saw them, their pink and brown mottled skin moist in the dusty air. Two of the smaller creatures there were, one moving closer to her now, it’s long, gangly, oddly shaped legs collapsed tight, ready to spring at a moment’s notice, while it’s hands clenched into fists, knuckles to the ground like some kind of thin, Stygian, nightmare ape. The creature’s head bobbed side to side, it’s mouth a morass of jagged teeth with no visible lips to hide them, it’s eyes sunken deep below angular, severe brows. Down it’s back, neck, head and arms ran massive, deadly looking quills that clicked together as it moved, scraping and clacking as the creature’s breath was revealed as the source of the chittering noises she had heard throughout the catacombs.
In that moment she realized, she had been followed. Someone or something had intended her to see this, meant for her to experience the otherworldly fear and illumination that comes from seeing things that otherwise simply could not be believed.
Without warning, it leaped straight at her another of it’s kind climbed onto a stone outcropping nearby, awaiting it’s turn. She spun, sidestepping the attack by only a hairs breadth, becoming painfully aware of the sharpness of it’s jagged claws. Continuing her motion back around, Moira sunk the pick ax deep into the creature’s side, feeling bones break, organs puncture, as blood sprayed from the wound and her senses were overcome with the horrific stench that was let loose from the wound. The creature screamed, and skittered away, hopefully, she thought, to die. Moira then turned to the second, who’s eyes glinted in the flickering lantern light as it sulked back over the stone and away into the shadows. Immediately, she gathered her things, abandoned all stealth and made her way as fast as she could down the path, across the huge chamber and into the hall that waited on the other side.
This was it. Before her were the doors to the chamber that was her goal, emblazoned with the same six tongued emblem she saw on the elder monk. One hard shove and the doors creaked open, at least twice Moira’s height and built of thick, heavy lacquered wood bound by thick metal bands. As her lantern’s light pierced the darkness of the room, she could see the black, polished stone that made up both the floor and walls, lightly glisten with a hint of silver, just as the ground did back in the outer chamber. The shine and cleanliness here spoke of care, that the place was well kept, cleaned and polished frequently. Moving further into the room, she could see at it’s center a small dais atop which sat an ancient black stone amulet in the shape of the six tongued emblem. Moira pulled a small, velvet bag from her satchel, placing it gently over the amulet. Her nerves were alight with anticipation and fear when she slipped, ever so slightly, her hand momentarily brushing the amulet.
In that moment, she reeled, her vision filling with swirls of darkness, inky black clouds blotting out the light. Somewhere in the infinite moment of darkness, a cacophony of whispers called out to her, their din coalescing into a reiterating intonement of “Nyogtha! Nyogtha!” followed by other sounds and syllables too alien and dizzying for the human mind to grasp. Memories turned to crystal clear visions, then perverted and set askew. Scenes shot through her consciousness from her past, her childhood, but warped by grotesquery, people twisted into monstrous versions of themselves, places twisted upon themselves in self intersecting non-Euclidean geometrical impossibilities. Falling. Ever falling. The only thing she could hear over the chanting alien choir of “Nyogtha!” was the sound of her own scream as, at last, she fell into unconsciousness. Darkness. Nothingness. And in the void, she knew despair.
A familiar voice. Light. So much light streaming in. And the smell of tea.
“Moira, I can’t tell you how pleased I was that you found the Tongues of Nyogtha! When my assistant told me you had taken the expedition upon yourself, I was afraid for your safety. These sorts of things must be handled delicately, and a novice as yourself, going after a relic of this magnitude and power, well… it usually does not end well.”
“How did I get here?” she asked, sitting up now as she looked to see the familiar old professor sitting beside her.
“When I learned what you were up to, I simply couldn’t sit by and let you attempt this alone. I assembled a party and followed you straight away. Perhaps when you are feeling a bit more together I’ll regail you with the details. Until then, rest here. We’ve had a long flight and what you experiences was… exceptional, to say to the least. What you did was reckless.” The old man looked as though he wanted to scold her, but couldn’t.
“I’m sorry, “she said. “I only wanted to impress you.”
“Well, reckless as it was, and though I did have to come rescue you from those insufferable monks and their subterranean friends, “he smiled, “what you achieved is truly impressive. You will make a fine protege… in time.”
Moira smiled at the old man and let herself sink back into the comfort of the leather couch in this, a very familiar office, it’s walls packed tight with bookcases upon which sat countless leather bound tomes of history, esotericism and lost, ancient lore. Across the room it rested, seeming to almost breathe, under a glass dome, the black, six tongued amulet that had transported her into some kind of insanity. On the desk by the tall windows looking out into into the morning light sat stacks of papers, some books, and a placard that read, “Dr. Horace Van Meter”.