Fordyce went missing in the autumn of 1909, and it was a full year until we next met.We’d met some years ago in the university faculty, and while our differing fields of study took us far from each other, we maintained monthly contact for years after our first encounter. While we were both fascinated by the mythologies of the world, he had far more esoteric tastes than mine. While I researched pre-Christian Greek and Roman lore, he studied the voodoo communities of Africa, the fevered ceremonies of the far East, and what remained of Babylonian tales of the Anu that had twisted and evolved over time. He was an academic polymath in that respect, his interest never wavering more to one ancient deity than to another. That was, at least, until I met him in Cairo, and he appeared to me as a man obsessed.
It was pure coincidence that we happened to be in the country together. I was studying the spread of Isis worship, touring the classical world to visit the ruins in the Roman forum, the excavations underway at the foot of Vesuvius and, of course, the grand temples of the Pharaohs. He’d been enchanted by tales of Irem, the city of pillars, said to be lost in the sands of Arabia. I gathered that some Bedouin had only been too glad to take his money and guide him across the hostile desert. Of course, he had failed in his search for lost Irem, but nonetheless something had invigorated him. At great personal expense he had someone deliver a simple letter to me that read:
“My dear Ault;
Irem remains lost, but I have found something more important. Meet me as soon as possible at the Cairo embassy. I cannot explain in writing lest you think me a madman, but I promise you that I am wholly of sound mind. Come quickly, for we have much work to do.
I was skeptical that he had found something dramatically important, yet Fordyce was not one prone to flights of fancy. Within a day I had written to the embassy, and the next I met him there.
He was a rather ruddy-faced man at the best of time, especially when contrasted with his shock of white hair that reached down around his jaw. In his later life, he’d become rather accustomed to port and other such finery, and developed the customary figure for men like that. His mind was far from dulled, though, and when I met him that day, his painfully sunburned face glowed with frenzied scientific excitement. He pumped my hand vigorously before leading me across the road and into a small hotel bar.
He ordered us drinks, welcome in the midday heat, then started to tell me what he’d found. He’d had trouble sleeping all week, nightmares plaguing him each night. On the twelfth night of the expedition, drawn by some strange force, he found a set of ruins that, although far too recent to be the biblical City of Pillars, matched no known archaeological precedent.
“We could only stay a few days, so I worked fast. I used up all of my film within a few hours, and excavated down to the floor of the largest, central building. It was there that I found this.”
I put my glasses on as he tentatively produced a small package wrapped in a silk handkerchief. Inside was a small bronze tablet, carved with pious accuracy. Around its edges was writing, inscribed in a mixture of Arabic and something still older and stranger. Traces of filigree adorned some of the words of this mysterious language, though most of it had flaked away. The most striking aspect, though, was the creature in the middle. Its obscene pyramidal torso, showing perspective undeveloped at the time it was created, sat on a tripod of muscular legs, two claws hanging from slack arms at its shoulders. The horrifying entity had no neck or head, but instead a sinuous tentacle writhed forth from where the head should have been. I noticed at last a set of hieroglyphs branded across the abomination’s chest and, trembling, I set the item down again.
“It’s spectacular, isn’t it?” Fordyce said at last, breaking my stunned silence. It was not the adjective I would have chosen.
“The craftsmanship is amazing, I must admit. How old were the ruins?”
“I’d say it dates from maybe 400 BC, based on the masonry. Did you notice the per-”
“I saw the perspective. The age doesn’t make sense.”
If he was offended by my interjection , he didn’t show it. Every time my eyes fell upon the tablet, my heart quickened with primate fear. I felt as if I was something that should not have been.
“Can you read the hieroglyphics?”
I nodded, reluctant. This thing, I feared, should not have its name uttered.
“This character here,” I said, indicating a zig-zagged line, “means the letter N, and when joined with this lion symbol, creates the syllable ‘Nyarl’. If I take this and join it with this one here,” a line with a symbol atop it, “that symbol is hotep, or ‘offering’.”
“What does Nyarl mean?”
I paused briefly. “It usually turns up on carvings about tribute between tribes and nations. It can be translated as ‘demands’.”
I nodded tersely.
“And it’s pronounced how exactly?”
I didn’t want to answer, and answered the question with a question.
“So, this carving changes our timeline of near-eastern art. That can’t be all you’ve called me here for, can it?”
He shook his head, saying forcefully,
“Ault, I don’t think you realise. These ruins were big now, let alone when whoever built them were around. This could be a whole city without any work done on it, a whole civilisation even, lost to the sands! Think of the opportunity, the-”
“You didn’t call me here for that. There’s something more here, something you aren’t telling me, and if you don’t open up, you’re on your own. I am losing all patience with you Fordyce.”
“I will tell you if you tell me the name of this thing here,” he replied without anger, tapping the figure with an outstretched finger. For the first time, I noticed the strange sheen the metal had as I looked at it again.
“Nyarlathotep,” I intoned eventually. “Demanding of Gifts.”
He smiled and produced a manila envelope from his jacket pocket, pouring out the contents onto the table.
“Back in 1890, I was researching a cult from Prussia, who worshiped the corpse of something at the bottom of the Baltic. I got in regular contact with one of the younger members, and before they were shut down, he managed to send me some quotes from their religious text, and even these photographs.”
He showed me some photographs of ornate script. Most of it was in German, but some wounds stood out. ‘Tsathoggua’, ‘Leng’, ‘R’lyeh’, ‘Yha-nthlei’, and, tucked away in a corner, ‘Nyarlathotep’.
“There’s more than just that. These photos were taken on Park’s second expedition into sub-Saharan Africa. Half of his men were executed and cannibalised by a local tribe who called themselves the ‘Bloody Tongues’. This was found carved onto a tree the day after they were taken. Nailed into the bark above it was the tongues of his men.”
Daubed with blood was a devotional carving. A crude figure was on the tree. Three legs, two arms, one snake-like limb up top.
“This statue is currently in the University museum, you’ve probably glanced at it before. The letters ‘N-Y-T-P’ are written on its back.”
The black and white photograph was poor quality. Nonetheless, it showed enough detail to scare me.
“Where’d that artifact come from?”
“It was found in the woods outside Arkham. Where it’s from, though, who can say?”
I placed the photograph back into reach of Fordyce, who quickly sequestered the photo back into the envelope. I removed my spectacles and looked him in the eye. He started speaking again, ready to defend his theories.
“You can see the resemblance I hope? Three legs, two arms, muscular torso, tentacle on its neck? These samples come from Europe, Africa, America, and now here, in the sands of Arabia! Cultures, scattered and separated by time and language, and even geography, who share a god! You must see how this is so significant?”
I could see, but I was scared to accept what he implied. I looked down at my hands, fiddling with a coaster as I spoke.
“I concede that this is a bizarre coincidence, but coincidence it must be. In cultures around the world, there are common themes. The natives of Hawaii had their own biblical flood, and were surprised to meet the white man. They thought they were as chosen as the Israelites, and that they were the only humans.”
“And, perhaps, in some ancestral memory, there was such a flood. Can you deny the possibility?”
“I cannot, I admit. There’s a huge difference between the plausibility of a flood and a tripod giant!”
“So let’s say it doesn’t stem from fact. Let’s say that this is an old legend, a tiny fragment of the first religion, birthed in some small tribe that, over the years, split and dispersed across the world. We could be looking here at the dawn of belief in this thing! Think of it!”
I shook my head. “No, Fordyce, no. Why would it have lasted like this? Why just this part, and in such small communities? Surely it must be just convergent evolution, individual but similar faiths?”
“If that’s so, then riddle me this. A Christian God, a Hindu god, even the gods of ancient Egypt, they’re all humanoid. I know that you’ve never studied a god that departs this far from human form. I need your help in studying this thing, Ault. The future of modern anthropology hangs in the balance, depending on whether you agree to be involved.”
“What is it you’re asking of me here?”
“What I need from you,” he enthused, his excitement reaching fever pitch, “is for you, Edward Patrick Ault, to be my scribe and my contact, for I intend to do what no man of science has done before. I intend to worship Nyarlathotep, the taker of gifts!”