Later that evening, after having determined our course for the following day’s explore, we were all seated around the table in the dining pavilion enjoying an excellent roasted game bird of some sort our chef, a local chap we had picked up in Dwarka, had prepared with rice and vegetables. Calling the structure a pavilion was a generous description, you understand. It was little more than a tarpaulin of canvas, or perhaps sailcloth, raised upon poles over our table and chairs with insect netting for walls. In this way we were able to enjoy our meals without having to contend with the sundry vermin harassing us, yet still with an excellent view about the camp and leaving the cooling breeze unhindered.
In any case, there we were, as I said, partaking of a cleverly prepared repast. Fowler merely nibbled at his. He claimed this local fare was too rich for his stomach. The conversation about the table, naturally revolved around that day’s discoveries. Abercrombie had catalogued three new species of vinous plant thus far, and us only two weeks in country. Eventually the topic turned to Fowler’s latest incident. I could tell that Fowler still rankled under the admittedly rough treatment he had received from Mr. Fletcher.
“Why must he be so fanatical about it all?” asked the novice explorer. He looked over his shoulder to where Mr. Fletcher and the rest of the protection force had established their camp. Our expedition camps actually consisted of three partial camps arranged in a sort of triangular situation around the essential supplies and scientific equipment. From where we, the scientific contingent, sat in our pavilion we could see the other two groups, and they us. On one hand were the porters and workmen we had hired in Dwarka. On the other, and also here and there around the outer perimeter, were the protection forces Mr. Fletcher had hand picked and contracted for this expedition.
“Ahh, well now,” Hendricks put down his fork and wiped his mouth with a napkin. “Our good Mr. Fletcher has right good reason to be a little prickly in the matter of keeping his little chicks in the nest. A right Mother Hen he is. What he said about the Dean was true enough, but it is the least of what His Lordship might do to him should any one of us come to harm.” Hendricks was speaking, of course, about our generous benefactor, The Right Honorable Lord William Haraway, Fourth Earl of Plympton. Earl Plympton is a great supporter of the university and an exploration enthusiast. He is, unfortunately, unable to travel himself, being of advanced age and fragile health, and so he finances expeditions on the promise of detailed accounts afterward. Besides this, The Earl holds considerable interests in The City and has the means to bring considerable influence to bear. He is not a man to disappoint.
Hendricks took a sip of port and tapped his chin. “It was about three years back, I’d say. Does that sound right Morrison?” I nodded affirmation, knowing full well the tale Hendricks was about to lay before Fowler’s feet. “Right.” Hendricks continued. “About three years back we had come across a rather unusual artifact buried amongst other brick-a-brak in the cellar of the old Dornish Building.”
“I remember that,” Fowler interrupted, “That’s where the Linguistics Department used to reside.”
“Right-o!” Hendricks said. “In particular, this artifact was in a trunk which the catalogue said belonged to, a Professor specializing in the languages of the South-Eastern Asiatics. Well, naturally, once the Antiquities Department got hold of it, they had to discover its origin. It was quite unlike anything they had seen before. There was a notebook in the trunk as well. It detailed the fellow’s encounter with a remote tribe of aboriginals and mentioned a temple where he had picked up a piece that had fallen off one of the carved walls.
“Before you could say Tiddle-pop an expedition was arranged, financed by His Lordship, and with Mr. Fletcher in charge of the protection detail. Apparently, his tour with Infantry Corps of Guides included some business in Borneo. Morrison and myself, some lady from Archaeology whose name escapes me, the usual representation from Zoology and Botany as well as one of the Linguistics Fellows, name of Charlie Baxcombe, were part of the scholarly contingent.”
“Baxcombe?” Fowler made to interrupt again, but Collingswood shushed him. “Do continue,” she said.
“Yes, quite. Now then, things progressed pretty much as one would expect. We arrived in country and made contact with the local officials, we hired porters and local guides. Then we set off. It took us three weeks to locate the temple mentioned in the notebook. It took less than three hours for our Archaeologist to find the section of wall from which the artifact had fallen. Naturally, what the notebook had failed to mention was that our piece was a part of a rather amazing bas-relief. It covered a large wall. It had to be 10 yards long at least and about 10 feet in height. The remarkable thing about it was that so much of the wall, and the sculpted piece was intact. It had somehow managed to survive the vicissitudes of gods only know how many centuries in a sometimes volatile climate. The rest of the temple structure was in a more or less ruinous condition, but this one wall remained.
“We established our camp within the temple itself, naturally. Even Mr. Fletcher agreed that it would be ‘the most defensible position.’” We grinned and chuckled at Hendricks’ impersonation of our Guide’s clipped speech. “While the porters set up the tents and what not, the lady Archaeologist and Baxcombe, walked up and down the wall attempting to decipher the meaning of the scene depicted thereon. It was a most horrific scene, truth be told. There were fantastical tentacled monstrosities and what appeared to be natives arranged in most indecent postures. I busied myself with surveying the temple grounds themselves, getting the measurements and attempting to piece together the layout of the place.”
“I had just about made a full circuit of the grounds, so far as I could determine them when I discovered a raised platform under the brush, and another section of intact wall covered by tree limbs and vines. We had the laborers clear away the brush and branches and beheld a most curious sight indeed. The new section of wall was at right angles to the larger one and sat at about where I had reckoned the apse of the temple would lie. Rather than being festooned with craven images, however, this new wall was all but bare. Its chief feature was a circular recess of about 10 feet in diameter with a raised border.
“The recess and border were of an altogether different substance than the rest of the temple so far as we had been able to determine. Whereas the few remaining columns and fallen walls were made of limestone the recess and ring were shaped of what appeared to be a single massive piece of some unknown mineral. It was of deepest black veined with vermilion and ochre. The surface of the depression appeared perfectly smooth and parabolic. The pattern, or non=pattern, of the veining drew the eye, seeming to pull one towards an uncomfortable direction. When I touched the rim it felt colder than the surrounding stone by several degrees. It was slick and oily feeling, yet left no residue on my fingers. Moreover, the rim was carved about with curious glyphs.
“Baxcombe identified the glyphs as bearing strong resemblance to the Khmer language, but more primitive, and began to read it aloud. No sooner had he pronounced the first few syllables than the temperature of the whole region dropped noticeably and we were aurally assaulted by a low thrumming. What’s more, the recess was now truly black. It was not just the black of basalt-like stone, it was the complete absence of color, or light, as if the very void were encompassed within that ring.”
“Come now,” Fletcher could contain himself no longer. “That hardly seems cricket. Putting one over on the new fellow, eh?”
“God’s truth,” Hendricks replied, raising his right hand as he did. “Its all in the expedition logs. You can read the account for yourself when we get back. Now, as quick as that Mr. Fletcher took command of the situation. He called Baxcombe down off the platform. Baxcombe never stopped his recitation, however. His voice took on a cadence and inflection almost as if he were chanting. His higher pitch contrasted with the deep thrumming beat with mesmerizing effect. We all stood enraptured and unable to either look away or move. Poor Baxcombe. Mr. Fletcher did warn him to step away. When he reached the last of the inscription there was a rush of air, a loud boom as if we were inside an enormous kettle drum, and the most hideous odor assaulted our senses. Baxcombe turned to face us and started to speak. Just then a trio of tentacles, black as night with vermilion and ochre veining, erupted from the recess and grabbed him. He barely had time to scream, poor chap. The tentacles drug him back into the recess. His screams faded once he crossed the threshold and disappeared from sight.
“It was some few moments before we recovered ourselves enough to react to what we had just witnessed. Mr. Fletcher was the first. He rushed forward to the platform, called out Baxcombe’s name a few times then hung his head. The recess had reverted to its earlier state. It was merely dead stone once again. He turned and ordered us away from the place. He would hear no argument, and truthfully we offered none. We packed up our gear and made all haste from the place. Mr. Fletcher has never forgiven himself for allowing Baxcombe to slip away.”
Word Count: 1660