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Under the Mound

By Robert M. Price

 

He looked at the ancient cylinder and was not surprised. Not even at the unusual caste of the metal, which was an indefinable hue of blue-gray. There was nothing like verdigris or tarnish on it, though, for all he knew, those who had unearthed it might have scraped away such encrustation before delivering it to him. Without having to spend time puzzling over how the tube was meant to be opened, as he had many times with other artifacts, he found the catch piece at once and unscrewed the top. Sure enough, there was a rolled set of sheets inside. These he reclined to peruse. This is what he read.

 I was saddened, not particularly surprised, at the news of the death of the ancient Indian shaman Gray Eagle. I had expected it, dreaded it, for some time, for the medicine man was both ancient and dear to me. My connection with him is perhaps not unknown to you, my reader, whoever you may be, since my books sold well a dozen or so years ago. In Gray Eagle Speaks, I had simply interviewed the old man, as I wished to preserve the intriguing bits of myth and tall tales of the frontier days Gray Eagle had to share. Here was a genuine treasure trove of Native American lore with few parallels to anything previous ethnologists had been able to gather. In Soaring with the Eagle, I had recounted, with initial reluctance, some of the remarkable initiatory visions I had undertaken under the tutelage of the wizened sage. Though popular response was gratifying enough to justify a series of four more volumes on the same theme, the book destroyed any academic standing I had enjoyed among my colleagues. Most dismissed it as fiction. I cannot blame them. I knew the risk I was taking, but I believed that knowledge is gained to be shared. Not to publish my findings would have seemed almost a betrayal of some Hippocratic oath that all researchers implicitly take. And I suppose that is why I am taking the trouble to write this account, and not exactly under optimum conditions.

On receipt of the news of my old mentor's death, I arranged at once to fly out to Oklahoma, even though I knew there would be no funeral, at least none that a white man would be allowed to attend. Nonetheless, I had duties to perform. Gray Eagle had told me that one day he would disappear into the wilderness to die among the spirits of his people. I assumed this had at last happened, though my informants had not known, or at least not said, whether his body had been recovered. In any case, the old shaman had instructed me in no uncertain terms what I should do. I was to undertake one last vision quest amid the silent and ageless buttes and mesas in the merciless sunlight and the impassive searchlight of the moon. And this I prepared to do. Few provisions were necessary, even by way of maps, for I knew the Oklahoma wastes well from my previous meditative sojourns there.

Once I had arrived in Oklahoma, I hired a car to make my way to the small settlement of Binger, a hamlet which seemed never to have experienced the expansion common to the towns of the region during the great days of the oil boom. Maybe it was better that way; its fate was to have started as a hamlet and, from the looks of it, to finish as one, somehow declining despite never having reached a higher point. No one there, though open and friendly, seemed to have any information to share with me. The Indians kept to themselves, even more than in the old days. At least I knew no corpse had been discovered. So I struck out into the desert, fully expecting to lay the old man to his final rest, though I did not relish discovering him in the state of decomposition he must by now have assumed. Unless, as I hoped, my informant had seen to the task.

I had thought I knew the full extent of the local terrain very well, having covered a great deal of it on foot and in the flight-visions into which Gray Eagle had initiated me. But now, looming above me, was the mute silhouette of an ancient Indian burial mound. I knew at once that it must be the place about which several local legends and rumors circulated, the haunted mound where a headless giant was sometimes observed standing guard, where Father Yig, the Rattler King, held court. With a shudder I got out of the car and approached it. What I felt was by no means fear, but a strange intuition of uncertainty. One never knows what to expect in a vision quest, else there would be no point to undertaking it. But I began to sense that what awaited me was something fundamentally more important, more powerful, if that makes any sense, than the already singular mission on which I had thought to embark. Would there be something atop the mound to justify my forebodings? Perhaps the wasted body of my friend? There was but one way to find out.

The ascent was easy enough, despite the unusual height of the mound, since such climbs are common in the work of the field anthropologist. Hunches, too, are the stock in trade of my profession, and I soon found that I had been half right, anyway. There was indeed a supine body at the top. I cannot say that it rested in death, for its contorted posture announced that death had come at the end of a fierce struggle. What manner of wilderness predator had attacked the man I could not readily guess. The wounds had been horrific. There was no longer any head attached to the tattooed torso. After a few moments' careful scrutiny I concluded that the man had not been of Indian stock, nor had he been so hideously dismembered in the final struggle. Incredibly, the tissue at the end of the neck-stump looked for all the world like old scar tissue. This was a forensic puzzle like none I had ever encountered. How could the manifest death wounds on limbs and chest have looked so much more recent?

I looked over the edge of the mound to where my car was parked below and considered how best to load the carcass onto the vehicle. In order to avoid damaging the remarkable specimen further, I should have to arrange a makeshift harness and hauling line, though with the materials in hand, I could not see how this might be accomplished. So I left the problem for later and calculated what to do next. My directions to the place had been given me by Gray Eagle some years before, so it could not have been this strange corpse to which he had meant to direct me. There must be something else. And to that I must now turn. Archaeology would have to wait.

It was finally the shifting of the evening shadows, as the sun relented and began to sink, that revealed the open shaft leading downward. By a trick of optical illusion, the opening had been hidden in plain sight up till now. I unclipped my flashlight from my belt and did not hesitate to rush in where angels might fear to tread.

Given the aridity of the area, it was no surprise that the uneven walls of the descending shaft were free of nitre. At first I imagined that I was making my way gingerly through a natural crevasse in age-old rock--until I came to my senses and realized the obvious: that burial mounds are artificial structures. I had noticed details that might imply human craftsmanship, but these I had subconsciously dismissed. Now I realized they must indeed denote the hand of a designer, unless they denoted something quite fantastic. Could this possibly be a natural structure which happened to look like the work of the ancient Mound Builder cultures? Or, the crazy inspiration occurred to me, might this stony heap have served as the prototype for all the other mounds? Was it, like Moses' Mount Horeb, a natural edifice revered as sacred space because of its singular structural regularity, or because of some great event that had taken place here so long ago that even ancient Indian lore retained no trace of it?á I could be sure of nothing except that at this point, in this odd place, no possible explanation, no matter how far-fetched, could yet be ruled out.

Down and down I went, never finding the going particularly rough (again, possibly implying human artifice), until I began to perceive that my flashlight no longer cut so stark a swath through the surrounding darkness. Could my high-power batteries be failing already? No, for I immediately realized, switching off the light, that the darkness about me had itself lightened considerably. From whence could this misty vapor of radiance be emanating? Were there unseen fissures to the surface that functioned as ventilators? This could not be, however, as I noticed the light had a queer bluish tinge to it. It was not natural sunlight, then. As my eyes adjusted to the vague half-light, I found I could see the ceiling above me in closer detail. It seemed to be carpeted with a coat of luminescent fungus or moss. That added up to one mystery solved, but only by another. I knew of no such species. Not a professional botanist, I was nonetheless fairly certain that no such organism was known. This was a day of strange and unsettling discoveries, and this was by no means to be the last of them.

The colors of the illumination seemed to shift toward the purplish end of the spectrum and to brighten, the further down I went. My watch had stopped somewhere along the line, and I had unaccustomed difficulty in estimating how many hours had passed in my descent. My feet and back had commenced to ache, and this surprised me, implying I had spent a great deal more time here than I consciously marked. I began seeing great tree-trunk-like pillars, which, to my relief, did not actually block my progress. At first I thought I had found definitive evidence of human artifice--until I noticed that the structures seemed to have been formed by the slow growing together of stalagmite and stalactite over many centuries.

The pillars, as I could not help regarding them, did manage to limit my field of vision until, suddenly emerging from between two of them, I stopped in my tracks, gazing slack-jawed at an astonishing panorama before me. Only a few feet away, the shaft widened drastically into the surface of a vast inner cavern. Traveling any faster along the rocky tunnel, I should certainly have plunged out unwittingly to fall to my death below, like water reaching the end of a drainage pipe and rushing with futile momentum in an arc to the surface below. As it was, it looked like I would have to use the greatest care to negotiate a sliding path down the precipitous, nearly vertical, wall of rock slanting down and away from the tunnel-hole.

I was a moment gaining my bearings. First I made sure of my footing and, before descending, I scanned the scene before me. It was good that I had troubled to secure firm footing, since what I next beheld would have been sufficient to bowl me over. I now saw not merely a cavern outstretched below and beyond me, but a virtual world. The actual extent of it could not even be guessed, but it seemed to extend for ever and ever. The tunnel mouth from which I had only just emerged was but one of many, as I could discern at least two others at irregular distances and varying heights along the gently curving cavern wall before it faded into the misty distance. The sky above seemed filled with an atmospheric nebula of the same bluish light-vapor that had illumined my way in the tunnel. It masked the cave ceiling far above, but the latter was probably too high to be seen anyway.

Turning to the level plain below me, I was relieved to see a winding road which eventually led to the tunnel mouth where I stood. In the other direction, I was shocked to see the outcropping clusters of villages and towns. Most of these lined the banks of a serpentine river, crossed and recrossed far more often than seemed necessary by a thousand basalt bridges of elaborate design. These I must examine more closely.

As I made my way carefully down the rubble-choked path, my eyes found it easier to focus. It immediately became evident that the place was populated--or had been. I did not at first see the bodies (numerous though they were) because, upon examination, they seemed to be somehow translucent, suggesting the ghostly likeness of certain deep-sea creatures. Some seemed oddly unstable, as if their tissues had begun to sublimate directly into the air. Needless to say, I had never seen anything like it. Who had?

I examined the clothing of several. The garments were marvelously well-preserved--but then I had no firm reason to believe them ancient, or even old. Most wore tunics or robes which seemed strikingly reminiscent of both Aztec and Greek designs. I shook my head, knowing that here I had found such evidence as every scholar half-dreads: that which threatens to reshuffle the whole deck of cards, to destroy the conventional picture of cultural evolution. But a more immediately puzzling question presented itself. What had happened to these people? I saw nothing living in all the miles I walked, tireless with wonder and dread. I made for a large city in the distance. I guessed it must be this place to which Gray Eagle had sought to direct me, since the specifiedá way of ingress had probably brought me closer to the city than any of the other tunnels would have. Perhaps my answers, about the fallen race as well as the deceased Gray Eagle, lay there.

I passed a great number of the supine, translucent forms, so many that I soon lost count. All of them seemed to be fleeing from some menace, though the positions of some suggested desperate confusion, as if the poor wretches sensed the futility of their flight. As if there were no safety to be had in the whole of their underground world.

As the walls of the city, the name of which I would soon learn to be "Tsath," loomed up before me, my eyes were drawn by the huge sculpted bas reliefs flanking the great city gates, one of which had fallen forward onto the ground, as if from some terrible impact from within.

The two great images faced one another, whether in menace or in friendly embrace, I could not tell, since the aspect of both was so alien as to be unreadable. On the left was an octopus-headed titan which seemed to lumber slowly forward to meet its neighbor. The image on the right was that of a vast serpent, coiled in an elaborate, almost Celtic-looking basket interweave. Mighty fangs, more like tusks, curved like sabers from the wide mouth, and scales shaded into feathers in a ridge or fringe along the creature's spine. I hesitated before passing through the portals into the city, half-fancying that the two carven behemoths might be alive, poised to rush together and crush me to pulp as I passed.

But enter I did, finding none but the dead and disintegrating to keep me company. Building after building had been carved or painted with murals mutely charading an ancient and horrific mythology. I could find evidence of no gods anywhere. All the figures depicted, when not plainly representing the perished underground race, were devils and leviathans, each more hideous than the last. Were any of these terrible figures supposed to be the gods of the subterranean race? Or had they worshipped nothing but devils? It was not a pleasant thing to contemplate--but then neither was the prospect of what it must have taken to send these monster-worshippers bolting in panic!

At length I began to associate most of the recurring images with aspects of the remarkable lore once taught me by Gray Eagle. He had spoken of certain matters only in evocative hints, but the clues were clear enough in view of what I now saw. I concluded that the octopus titan must be none other than the fantastic Tulu, who had first shepherded primordial humanity to the earth where they reigned in the Kingdom called Kuen-Yian. The other being, the snake-creature, must be Yig, the Rattler King, prototype of Quetzalcoatl and the Hydra. Others were probably to be identified with the deities Nug, Yeb, and Nigguratl. Often these figures were shown mounted upon the rampant forms of lean and rangy beasts I knew must represent the dreaded Yith-Hounds. The names and their frightful tales were familiar from the arcane teachings of Gray Eagle, but even their forms were known to me, first-hand, from the visionary journeys upon which I had embarked into the intermediary realms between this world and the next. There I had beheld the frightful forms of the Wrathful Deities. I had never thought to see their effigies in this world.

ááááááááááá And then, as I traversed a shadowy avenue of the great mausoleum-city, my eyes fell upon something else whose image I had never expected to behold again on earth: the wizened form of Gray Eagle. There he sat in the shadows, whispering so softly that I must have been only subliminally aware of the sound when I turned at no apparent provocation to spy the form of my teacher. He sat, cross-legged, in the drifting shadow, as if the darkness were only a greater thickness of the ubiquitous blue vapor.á I hastened to bow to the pavement before the figure, scarcely able to believe what I was seeing. Like the dumbfounded disciples in the gospel accounts, I was speechless before my restored Master. I knew no words from me were required. I waited for him to speak.

When it came, the voice shook with the weight of unnumbered decades. It wavered more than I was accustomed to. There was also a strange tone as of buzzing or hissing in the otherwise familiar voice. But who could calculate the effects of such acoustics as prevailed here? At any rate, I gave little thought to the matter as I strained to catch every revelatory syllable. I will not reproduce verbatim what he said to me, though I believe I could, because some secrets are not good for mankind to know. What I will vouchsafe, though it will sound outlandish enough, was, believe me, merely the outermost fringes of the terrible secrets I heard that day.

The old shaman had a tale to tell surpassing the most extravagant legends he had ever regaled me with in years past. And it concerned the devastation of this, the underground world of Kuen-Yian, where scented gardens no longer bloomed, where the echoes of silver bells on the wind was no longer to be heard.

The cavern-world's history receded back into remote antiquity and unto far-flung worlds of madness. The myths of Tulu bringing the race's progenitors to the new-formed earth were true enough, though the intergalactic journey was not made in physical form. The adepts of Kuen-Yian had long ago mastered the art of mind-projection. It was in this incorporeal form that a group of them had joined Great Tulu on his slow, winging pilgrimage to this world. Upon their advent they displaced the minds of a primitive hominid race which, from what I gathered from Gray Eagle's sketchy description, must have been rather below the level of Neanderthal. The humanoid form took a bit of getting used to, but no doubt it was easier than the adjustment required of the poor primitive earthmen who now found themselves possessed of the original bodies of their usurpers: great, segmented millipedes. Ironically, the poor devils were doubtless as confused by the advanced technology of which they could make no use as by the primitive-seeming bodies they wore.

Once ensconced in their new domain, the dwellers in Kuen-Yian eventually grew uneasy with the confines of the underground world. They feared the surface world, always expecting a new wave of extraterrestrial colonizers like themselves, some variety of intelligent crustaceans (I realize my narrative only grows more implausible, and that I may well have lost any reader before now!). At an earlier stage, barely mentionedá by Gray Eagle in his urgency, the men of Kuen-Yian must have suffered terrible losses in conflict with these "space devils." So when the lust for conquest struck them, they turned their attentions downward, to other, deeper cavern worlds of which they had become aware. Below the blue-lit world, it seemed, there lay another, filled with red radiance, this one called "Yoth." And below this there yawned a lightless abyss called N'kai, the ancient lair of the polar deity Tsathoggua. My mind was by now spinning with the knowledge of worlds within worlds and unknown universes beyond.

To conquer the reptilian denizens of the Yoth-world was a simple matter for beings with the psychic talents of Kuen-Yian. After the use of clairvoyant powers for reconnaissance, they would first assign the appropriate number of their own men to enter a fortified retention zone, then have them concentrate on those below, exchanging minds with the Yothians for long enough to place the latter's minds in their own incarcerated bodies. Then, wearing the scaly bodies of their captives, they would make their way to their own level and perform the soul-projection in reverse. It was a bloodless, yet entirely effective, maneuver. And yet perhaps the victory was not so definitive as it first seemed. One of the elder sages of Yoth had silently vowed revenge.

I had it in mind to interrupt to ask how on earth Gray Eagle could possibly have known such details as the inner thoughts of a member of a vanished alien species. Despite my years of confidence in the old man, my own faith in him was beginning to slip. I had accepted a great many outrageous assertions up to now, but I found myself listening as to a fictional tale (just as you, reader, must feel perusing my own).

The shaman, as he always had, knew my thoughts before I could voice them. And his answer to my implicit query was even more fantastic. Nonetheless, certain things began to fall into place, his astounding longevity, for instance. I had attributed his remarkable span in some vague manner to his occult disciplines, his knowledge of obscure herbs and medicaments. But this hypothesis I had never dared examine too closely. I suppose I had feared to hear something like this. Gray Eagle was no Indian. Instead he was none other than the captive Yothian elder himself. And his moment of vengeance finally came.

Signs of the religious preoccupation of the men of Kuen-Yian were everywhere, especially of the cults of Tulu and Yig, as I have said. Over the centuries, Gray Eagle recounted, the people had progressed from a literal belief in these deities (which Gray Eagle himself seemed to share) to a more philosophical creed in which Great Tulu and Father Yig had become allegories for various natural forces and ideal principles, much in the manner of the Stoic abstraction of lusty Zeus into the pantheistic Logos. This was followed in turn by a period of decadent ennui in which the more venturesome of Kuen-Yian experimented in a playful way with the old rites of Tulu and Tsathoggua. Gray Eagle saw all these developments, since he had been one of the elite among the Yoth-prisoners eventually to be received freely into the Kuen-Yian society, as occasional venturers from above or below had been for several centuries. And he knew well what the people of Kuen-Yian had forgotten. These were no games they were playing. Consulting the ancient Yoth manuscripts plundered from below only served to confirm his fears, for he knew that the time was nearing when the constellations would assume once again their ancient configurations heralding the glorious return of sleeping Tulu. He more than half-suspected that it was the subtle influence of the stirring god that had awakened in the frivolous worshippers the peculiar desire to adopt the mummery of the old faith. And if Tulu should arise, the world would fall, both the world above and that below.

Though Gray Eagle had no love for those whom he still regarded as his captors, he resolved to turn them from this disastrous course. He was willing to share the world with even those of Kuen-Yian as long as there remained a world to share. He wasted no time in trying to convince any of the rulers; he knew he could expect naught but rude incredulity. So he returned to the study of the old Yothian scrolls, at last concluding that his only hope to stop the blasphemous consummation lay in an equally perilous move. He would summon the entity, N'Yog-tha, the dweller in the deep fissures of the earth. He was the last and the mightiest of the vanished race of N'kai who had in ancient days retreated below to unguessed chasms. He might be summoned to wreak havoc among one's enemies, as the dubious myths of Yoth related. Gray Eagle would invoke him secretly while feigning participation in the Tulu rites. The ensuing chaos should end the dangerous liturgies. And if somehow Tulu made his appearance anyway, if things had already gone too far to be stopped, why then, it might be that the two titans would meet in battle and annihilate one another.

Gray Eagle went ahead with his plans, and the results were still manifest. It was in flight from the rampaging N'Yog-tha that the doomed dwellers of Kuen-Yian met their terrible deaths, as I myself had seen. All this had happened generations ago.á At that time Gray Eagle had taken the opportunity to escape the ruins of Kuen-Yian and gain his first look at the surface world. There he had experienced little difficulty in taking a place among one of the Oklahoma Indian tribes. Changing his appearance, whether in reality or by hypnotic illusion, he took the name Gray Eagle and became a shaman and hierophant of the cult of Yig. He achieved great fame among his adopted people in the nineteenth century during the last stages of the U.S. government's take-over of Indian territories. Determined not to see the White man treat his adopted countrymen as the men of Kuen-Yian had dealt with his own people of Yoth, Gray Eagle became the leader of one of the smaller Ghost Dance movements who sought to turn back the invaders by magical means. Of course these efforts failed, at least the ones chronicled in the history books. But there was one unaccounted clash in which an entire detachment of U.S. Cavalry had simply vanished as far as anyone knew.

He lived thus in self-imposed exile for many years, an object of curiosity among frontier villagers and of tremendous veneration among Indians. All was well, if uneventful, as he rested content in the assumption that he had prevented the impending advent of monstrous Tulu.

But only months ago the old man's tranquillity had been shattered by some arcane intimation that the appearance of Great Tulu had only been delayed, not stymied.á The glacial progress of the turning stars allowed plenty of time, and now the time was near. Gray Eagle had returned to Kuen-Yian to wait and see what would transpire. His occult powers had grown much since his escape from Kuen-Yian, but he doubted they would be of any real use in preventing Tulu's return. What he planned, if anything, he would not tell me. I wondered if he planned again to summon N'Yog-tha, but he would say nothing either to confirm or deny the suggestion. Why then had he called me here?

The old man was silent, as if not sure how much to explain to me. Finally he spoke. His intention was that, in the event that Great Tulu were to be freed to ravage the earth, someone should escape the general dissolution to carry the knowledge of past ages into whatever future might someday evolve. I should be that messenger. But how?

Gray Eagle had managed to learn something of the astral time-voyaging practiced to such great effect by the men of Kuen-Yian. It was by these techniques, combined with his own Yothian clairvoyant and hypnotic abilities, that he had eventually discovered that the Kuen-Yian inhabitants had not really perished but managed to project their minds forward into the bodies of a far-future race.á But they had found their new physical forms and environment (much more like those of their own ancient home across the galaxy) so amenable that they quickly settled into the familiar existence and actually came to forget their unearthly origins, claiming the heritage of the future race as their own history. And Gray Eagle, who had both seen and made so much history, could not bear that a whole planet should sink into lazy amnesia. He knew me for a scholar and a teacher who could not deny such an opportunity as he now offered me. He knew me well.

My old mentor began to emerge from the murk of the shadow-mists, revealing a heavily beaded and mottled reptilian hide where before his powers of mesmerism had caused the image of a lined Indian face to appear. I had ceased to doubt his story, even though it had only become more extravagant as it lengthened. But now there was proof positive of his wild tales. I gazed upon the sole surviving visage of a reptile-man of hidden Yoth.

His hand reached for me with serpentine ease and rested with an icy touch upon my forehead. He continued to speak, but not in audible sounds. His thoughts appeared directly in my mind, in my memory, as if he were reawakening dormant recollections, something like deja vu. At any rate, I shortly knew what I had to do to make the jump. Like Lot, I took no time to consider what I was leaving behind, of what might be destroyed by an impending cataclysm. Gray Eagle allowed me no more time than was necessary to pen the narrative you are now reading. It was, I supposed, another attempt at preserving knowledge of the past in case my mission should fail, or perhaps to corroborate it should that be needful. From here on in I can only look toward the future--and try to enter into it.á

Here the inscribed sheets ended their peculiar story. It was not easy for him to roll them up and insert them back into the cylinder. So he left that for the archivists. Zkafka was one of the scholar gentry of the great insectoid civilization thriving on a strange earth with all her continents rejoined. Now he turned his eight facet-eyes away to survey his own chitinous form, as if suddenly seeing it in a new light. He had somehow known that one day the manuscript would surface. It had, and he had read it. Now he was certain, terribly certain, that the peculiar dreams of a past existence in the form of a hairy biped called "man" were no mere dreams, but memories. It was all true; that he could no longer doubt, since one of the most disturbing dreams had been that of writingá this very manuscript.

         

Copyrightę2004 by Robert M Price
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