The monolith rose from the jungle floor, a single stone column, blackened by time, its summit obscured by a heavy fog that floated not far overhead.
Remarkable, Brookstone thought, simply remarkable.
A large clearing extended from the column on all sides. It formed a barren circle, devoid of all vegetation, a singular occurrence in the jungle. Brookstone hadn’t seen two square feet of clear ground in months, and here was a half acre or more of nothing but dirt, almost as black as the column itself, yet covered by a fine ashen dust, utterly without life.
While taking in the unusual lack of vegetation, Brookstone caught himself listening. What am I listening for? It occurred to him then that the jungle was silent. He had not heard a bird or monkey in quite some time, or even been pestered by so much as a single fly. Odd under normal circumstances, but downright strange in the
Brookstone reached into his satchel to produce a leather bound sketch book and pencils. As he proceeded into the clearing, he noted that the heat, the stillness, was unusually oppressive. His feet made no sound in the dust.
The column was even larger than it first appeared, square and a full fifteen feet wide at the base. Standing at the rock, he slowly reached out, his fingers trembling slightly. They grazed the surface of the rock, and an electric sensation coursed through his body, much like the sensations he had experienced in some of the finer Moroccan brothels.
The stone itself was peculiar. He’d originally thought it to be jet black, but upon closer inspection, it was shot through with thin red streaks, weaving this way and that through the black. Much like arteries, he thought, or capillaries. He did not know of such a stone, and had not encountered the type anywhere in Africa.
The entire column seemed to be one piece, a remarkable achievement if true. He had no idea how old it was, and he wondered briefly how the natives could build such a thing. Pencil in hand, he stepped back to survey the ancient rock. The polished black gleamed despite the fact that the fog blocked much of the sun, and it exuded the passage of eons.
A light breeze passed over, rustling the fog, clearing its smoky fingers from the black stone, allowing sun to gleam on the dark monolith, and Brookstone’s mouth dropped open. The pencil fell to the ground, making no noise when it landed in the dust.
Embossed on the black surface was some sort of monstrous deity. It sat, crouched on muscular arms and legs, wings spread wide. Its head bore the large horns of a bull and its chest was a mass of curling tentacles, and in the seething chaos he could see faces. Human faces. Some of the faces were distinctly African, and some appeared to be vaguely European. One could have been Asian.
Bloody savages. The carving repulsed him on some subconscious level, and yet he was drawn to it. Brookstone had spent the past twenty years traversing Africa, and had never heard of the stone or the monstrous deity. Of course, he’d never been this far into the Congo either.
Wiping a line of drool from the corner of his mouth, he turned from the great stone, hoping he could make it back to camp before dark. It was at least an hour back through the jungle, and if he lost the path he’d cut earlier, it would be much longer.
Talbotton sat by a fire, trying to finish a sketch of a new beetle in the dim light. The camp had been pitched only the day before, and the tribesmen they’d acquired in Leopoldville had not yet gotten all the affairs fully in order. A few bustled about, unpacking crates and stocking tents with various supplies.
“Chop, chop!” he barked, “or it’s back to the rubber farms with you. Leopold will have your arms off for this sort of slackery.”
He returned to his beetle, briefly looking around for Brookstone. They had long traveled together, cataloguing the various flora and fauna of the Dark Continent.
“Where on earth could he be?” Talbotton clicked his tongue. “Always was an excitable chap.”
There was a rustling in the leaves and then Brookstone entered the camp, breathing heavily.
“Back so late Brookstone?” Talbotton said. “You simply must have some news.”
Brookstone nodded and took a moment to catch his breath.“I believe I may have found a … new species of … fern,” he lied. “My light ran out though. I shall have to examine it further tomorrow.”
Talbotton wondered at his friend. All day and more for one fern? But then, Brookstone still managed to come up with new ways to befuddle him, even after twenty years of exploration together. They had met at a lecture at Oxford, or was it Cambridge? It had been so long ago. The lecture had been something about a newly discovered species of dinosaur in Ethiopia.
Talbotton remembered the portly, heavily bearded professor who had given the lecture. Charger, was that his name? No, probably not, but close. Challenger perhaps. Some member of the audience had loudly challenged the professor’s claims concerning the nature and importance of the new sauropod, and the debate exploded into a round of fisticuffs between the two men, spilling into the street and making it all the way to the next day’s front page.
In the confusion, Brookstone crashed into Talbotton, and they’d been largely inseparable since. Both had been awestruck by the professor’s descriptions of wild Africa before the fracas broke out, and seeing those two men, educated men, boxing each other in the street over the untamed wilds sealed their convictions. They would go to Africa.That was twenty years ago. 1873. They usually made it back to England every three or four years to keep abreast of new developments and give the occasional lecture, but they always returned to Africa as quickly as possible. England, what they had once called home, changed. Changed so often it seemed a new land each time they returned. Electric lights, carriages without horses, and now people talked of flying not as a dream, but as something that would happen. That was guaranteed to happen. Soon. And yet Africa stayed the same. The desert was the desert and the jungle was the jungle. Just a matter of cataloging it all.
Brookstone lay awake in his tent. He couldn’t get the dreams out of his head. He’d seen many fantastic sights … Angkor Wat, the lost city of Mu’a, the squalid temples of the Tcho-Tchos, the terrible butcher shops of the pale Anzique cannibals, and yet none compared to his dreams.
Dreaming. The ancient metropolis stretched to the horizon, as far on either side as the eye could see. The sky festered like an old wound refusing to heal, threatening to rain infection. A putrid light fell on buildings whose very appearance filled him with an unnamable dread.
They were black, as black as that dreadful stone column, but without the red streaking. A greenish, stinking ichor ran down their sides, over strange characters carved into the black rock. It was a language he did not know, remotely Egyptian but indecipherable.
The buildings were monstrous in proportion, defying any architectural style known on earth. Despite their size, he could not detect any doors; the only apertures were hundreds of feet off the ground. It seemed you needed wings to come and go in the archaic city.
A shadow fell over the unearthly scene. High above the buildings soared the horned and tentacle god, blotting out what sickly light the sun provided.
The … thing … emitted a series of ear-bursting shrieks and the city filled with the roar of a million wings.
Brookstone woke in a cold sweat. Just a dream. Only a dream. But what did it all mean? I will have to consult … examine, have to examine the column tomorrow. That’s all.
Talbotton was percolating coffee by an early fire. Brookstone didn’t look well. His skin seemed drawn tight over his bones
“Sleep well, chap?” Talbotton asked.
“Fine I guess. Mosquitoes had at me.” He didn’t mention demon shrieks or Cyclopean cities.
“Didn’t you say something about a fern yesterday?”
“A fern? … uh … ah … yes, yes, the fern. Must see to that today.”
He packed his bag with the deliberate movements of an automaton and left camp without further words. Talbotton looked after him.
Brookstone picked his way along yesterday’s trail. He was consumed by anticipation, though he did not know why. He wished Talbotton would leave him alone. He didn’t want him to find the column. It belongs to me.
Standing at the end of the blighted clearing, he looked at the monolith. Morning light gleamed on the red streaks. They almost seemed to flow, to pump, as if fueled by a beating heart. The horrid god shone in the orange sun. As the high cirrus clouds drifted across the sun, it seemed as though the tentacles danced in the rock, twisting around the agonized faces, grasping them with foul suction cups, pulling them into creature’s chest.
Brookstone walked through the clearing and approached the rock. There was his pencil, still lying in the dust. He stood at the base and looked up at the hideous carving. Visions of the dream necropolis came back … the demon wailing over the oozing buildings. It occurred to him that he had only seen the front of the column, and he walked around to the side, still thinking of the dream.
Taking a moment, as if bracing for a blow, he stood alongside the gargantuan pillar for a moment before he looked at it, though he knew what he would see. When he finally moved his eyes to the rock he stood frozen, staring for a moment, and then he turned and ran headlong into the jungle, screaming.
How long he ran, he did not know. He only wished to get back to camp, to be in the company of someone, anyone, even the natives, who might take his mind off what he had seen. For the side of the column was covered in writing, writing he had seen only the night before, etched in the nightmare city of his dreams.
The natives gave Brookstone a wide berth when he reentered camp. He was haggard in appearance and had a wild look in his eyes. These whites were a strange group anyway, spending all their time collecting bugs and leaves and such, and not even to eat, but Brookstone was acting strange even for a white man. At least he was no rubber farmer, though. Still, they thought it best to avoid him.
He sat on the ground, mumbling to himself. “tentacles … the faces … those buildings … winged demon …” he would say, and then cry out. After such an outburst, he would sit still for fifteen or twenty minutes, and then start mumbling again, and his hair was perceptibly whiter than when he had left. “monolith… shrieking … that writing … dead city …” Brookstone continued with a glassy stare, and eventually he sank into a sort of trance and sat motionless, drool running down his chin.
Talbotton returned from his beetle colony to find his friend in dire shape and the natives in a complete uproar. They had become convinced that he was in fact the victim of some sorcerer, and wanted badly to leave until Talbotton fired his pistol into the air.
“Dr. Brookstone simply has a fever,” he said, waiting for the translator. “I am quite sure he will be better in the morning.” In fact, I am not so sure, he thought. Brookstone had been acting downright queer the past couple of days. And that nonsense about the fern, what was behind that? If he wakes tomorrow, I shall follow him and see this ‘fern’ myself.
Brookstone slept. Dreamed. The lurching buildings sprawled around him. He could feel their foul emanations, watch the stinking slime dripping over the unknown letters carved in the rock. Their summits pointed at the gangrenous sky, the infected sun.
He felt drawn somewhere, and so picked his way through the black metropolis. There were no streets, only slight gaps here and there where the buildings met at odd angles that he clambered through and over. Every so often he would catch a glimpse of the high windows, wondering what sort of beings needed no roads or doors.
On and on he trudged through the surrounding black. There was no sound, except that of his footsteps picking their way over filth encrusted rock. The putrid sky churned as if a massive storm were about to break, but none came. Roiling infectious clouds filled him with a dreadful foreboding, put he pressed onward.
He did not know how long his journey took, but he picked his way around yet another black edifice and there it was. A flat clearing, a circle, perhaps fifty feet on each side, and in its center rose a massive black column, towering toward the sky. He could see its peak, and on it crouched the demon of his dreams, perched above the city, arms raised, membranous wings spread, tentacles flowing, whipping the foul air and curling around the column at its feet. He stumbled into the all too familiar circle and fell to his knees. The demon shrieked, a series of indescribable howls. The air filled with a deafening roar, and he felt himself born away on a tide of huge, leathery wings.
Talbotton woke early, brushing leaves from his face. He vaguely remembered hearing strange sounds in the night, as though a great wind had passed. The camp was utterly destroyed, and most of the neighboring trees were splintered or crushed to the ground. He walked to the remainder of Brookstone’s tent to check on his friend, but the man was already gone. The natives were already leaving, and nothing he could say would stop them. He fired his revolver in the air but they walked into the jungle as if he were not there.
After some searching in the destroyed vegetation, Talbotton found what he believed to be Brookstone’s trail. He examined it as he went, but saw no recent footprints other than his own in the morning dew. How curious. Where could he be? The fern, the fever, and now no sign of him. He pondered the mystery of his friend and then it happened. He walked into the clearing and stood before the black column.
For a moment he was frozen. So this is your fern, old chap. And as he walked forward, he could see a great beast emblazoned on the rock. Simply remarkable, but were those faces, there in the beast’s tentacles? Talbotton leaned closer, propping himself up on the rock. An electric sensation flowed through him. He shook his head. Just look at the detail in the faces. Why, that one right there, it looks just like … Brookstone.