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The Deadly Light

Chapter Text

Giza, 1922

 

The interior is dark. A brazier stands on the central table in the old man's tent, something in it burning with a pale, unhealthy flame. It emits no heat -- a mercy, since it's mid-afternoon and stifling -- and only a feeble, flickering glow. The small space is thick with smoke, heavy with the absence of light.

A surface gleams in the shadows, some fascinating construct in metal and glass momentarily illuminated, and for all the pride he takes in his self-control, Adrian can't stop himself from peering at it. Then the old man steps into his field of vision, his heavy mess of robes dragging behind him, a ragged curtain drawn across the view.

Adrian masks his disappointment with a pleasant smile, and turns his attention to the center of the room, studying the brazier as he waits for the old man to speak. This, too, is an unusual piece of workmanship, adorned with a sinuous tangle of wrought metal that is not iron or copper or brass, or anything else that he can immediately identify. After a moment's contemplation, Adrian finds himself frowning. There seems to be something wrong with the geometry of the thing. Its strands draw the eye along curves that twist at vicious and unnerving angles, that seem to end where they ought to continue, and to begin where they... shouldn't.

He blinks, inclines his head in question, and the wrinkled mass that is the old man's face forms itself into something like a smile. A slow, creeping smile, the kind of smile that rocks or bark might smile, were they capable of expressing sentiment.

Now, that is a ridiculous notion, and the realization seems enough to break the spell. He pushes the thought from his mind, chiding himself for allowing his head to be turned by the mystical affectations of the place. It's clearly designed to impress rich Western visitors into parting with their cash; he should know better than to be taken in.

He does know better. The air is thick with incense. The smoke must be getting in his eyes.

Still, the old man's repulsiveness is impressive. There is no immediately apparent reason for the shiver of disgust Adrian feels as the old man leans closer, or the fact that it costs him an effort of will not to flinch, but it's there. Just below the level of consciousness, an instinctive revulsion from the flat, reptilian glint of the old man's eyes, the papery hands, the way his deeply-lined face is mostly shadowed by a fraying hood.

He's seven years old, plucking a garden spider off the lawn to study the sharp, alien angles of its limbs, puzzled by his mother's grimace and the way she shrinks back as he holds it up.

(It's missing a leg. Later, he'll try fixing on various substitutes -- a blade of grass, a whisker from the family cat -- and feel a faint indignation when the spider finally just stops moving.)

"They don't look as though they should be alive," his mother shudders, and he nods, politely, without interest. Sometimes he can't tell whether adults really are as stupid as they sound, or whether they're just pretending not to know that the most frightening thing in the world is people.

Looking at the old man, however, Adrian thinks that at last he understands what she was talking about. There is something inhuman about him. Somehow, Adrian is sure that he's as much a stranger here in the shadow of the Pyramids as he would be in New York.

From somewhere in the darkness or the voluminous folds of his garment, the old man produces a tray of amulets. Stone and polished metal, gleaming dully in the half-light -- but Adrian can tell that they're only crudely carved. Modern reproductions; the same kind that he's seen being hawked by innumerable roadside sellers up in the Valley of the Kings, where Tutankhamun-mad tourists are easy prey. Adrian sighs, not even managing to care that it's audible. He's been on edge since he arrived here: an unfamiliar feeling, and an irritating one, particularly if he isn't even going to learn anything new. His patience is quickly wearing thin.

The old man's hands dart bird-quick among the trinkets, and he plucks first one, then another, from the tray. He's muttering, low and near-incomprehensible (certainly part of the act; his English was fluent enough when he was persuading Adrian into his little setup). "Powerful objects," he says. "The ancients called it heka--"

"I have no need for a layman's introduction to the local mythology, thank you. And if I were here for trinkets, I'd visit the market. My guide told me you were knowledgeable. He was clearly mistaken."

Adrian makes to stand up, and the withered hand that grips his arm is stronger than it has any right to be. He starts, then flushes and glares at the old man, finding that he has no choice but to remain seated.

Amusement seeps out through the mass of wrinkles. "Perhaps I have judged you unfairly, hmm?" The old man chuckles, sharp-eyed. "The Americans -- most of you are only interested in a few stories, a few souvenirs. Some local color to add to your dinner-party stories. The Europeans are even worse. But you -- you are different, perhaps."

It's all manipulation, of course. A layer of flattery; another tactic for another type of tourist. But even as he sighs inwardly, Adrian decides he has nothing to lose by playing along. He has already wasted his afternoon; he may as well pretend to be taken in. He half-smiles, ducks his head, makes a show of looking modestly down at his folded hands.

"Perhaps," he says. "I'd like to think so, anyway."

"Of course." The old man turns away, and when he faces Adrian again he is holding something.

It's a soapstone puzzle-box, or something similar, its glaze long since worn off, its edges smooth with age. The crude glyphs that mark its surface are as good as illegible. But the old man caresses the box's underside, twists and presses (Adrian, out of habit, watching him narrowly, following each movement and tucking it away in his mental store), and first one compartment, then another, slides open. Gold and polished stone gleam within them, but these aren't reproductions. Adrian has only visited two excavation sites, so far, but he's picked up enough to identify these pieces as genuine right away. A finely-worked scarab-beetle, an amulet inscribed with a plea for protection from Khepri. They must be thousands of years old.

This is certainly more than he's been expecting. He's meant to be impressed and, for once, he has to admit that he is.

But the old man isn't showing him everything: the shape of the box means that there has to be another compartment, probably right in the center. Well, now that the old man has succeeded in capturing his interest, he isn't going to leave without finding out what's inside it.

"Fascinating," he murmurs. "May I?"

With a shrewd look, and a caution against rough handling that sounds too practiced to stem from serious concern, the old man places the box in Adrian's outstretched hand. It's cool to the touch, making his palm tingle -- and, sure enough, it's too heavy to be empty. There has to be something else in there. He runs his fingers over the sides of the box, as though he might be able to read the near-obliterated carvings by touch, feels the underside for clues.

There, in the center. There's a tiny protrusion. Adrian copies the old man's pressing-motion, widening his eyes as the ancient mechanism pops the box open right along the middle.

"Oh," he says, with a smile of feigned embarrassment. "I'm so sorry. I suppose I must have--"

That's when the figure falls out. It clatters onto the table, spins, skitters to a halt right in front of him. The light from the brazier slides across its surfaces like oil.

Both the brazier and the figure, Adrian realizes, are fashioned from the same unfamiliar metal; both play tricks on the eye, are subtly unsettling to look at.

The figure is a strange compound. It contains elements that might be human -- but there is something in the workmanship that suggests otherwise, something unplaceable that makes Adrian pause for an uncertain moment before touching. There are animal features to it, too, and others that seem to come from some entirely different order of evolution, to belong to some deep-sea monster or extraterrestrial fantasy.

Taken as a whole, it's hideous. For a moment, Adrian wonders whether he would even want it in his collection, undoubtedly immense historical importance or not.

But only for a moment. His instinctive revulsion subsides as he catches sight of the inscription on the figure's base. The alphabet, he's sure, is the same as that on the outside of the puzzle-box. And he recognizes it, now. It isn't the writing of any language Adrian has ever heard spoken -- and he has studied plenty. But he has seen it before.

Only a few letters, in the illustrative plates of a centuries-old book, and apparently archaic even at the time of writing. He pored over them a number of times, in the Curwen Library at Miskatonic, back before the place burned to the ground. He'd never expected to see it again; he hasn't come across a copy since, if any even remain in existence. At the time, he'd been immensely disappointed. He'd just begun to feel as though he was making some progress.

"So, you are different."

Adrian blinks. He's sure he hasn't been thinking out loud, and he has to force down his growing unease.

Perhaps he has spoken without thinking. Perhaps the heat is getting to him.

The old man looks gleeful. "Abdul Alhazred is not for tourists," he says. "You know more than you admit, I think." He leans over the table, tipping something onto the brazier (though who knows why it needs to be topped up -- it's of little use as a light, and in any case, they've been in the dark long enough for their eyes to have adjusted) and waving a hand dismissively when Adrian tries to give back the carving. "Hold on to it. It's yours, if you wish."

"And if I can meet your price, of course," Adrian begins, raising an eyebrow. And then--

The flame gutters, and the light in the place begins to fail. In the flickering shadows, Adrian's eyes play tricks on him.

The old man's features appear to rearrange themselves, to take on a crawling aspect, to give the impression of endless movement, instability-- chaos--

Later (from the relative safety of a train bound for Cairo) Adrian will recall the sensation as something akin to being ripped open -- as though someone has taken hold of the outer layers of his mind and pulled hard until it tears right down the center, leaving what's inside naked and exposed to the elements, to the howling of the universe and the thousands upon thousands of voices all screaming to make themselves heard. Right now, though, it just hurts, more than anything he's ever felt in his life, and when that fades away the light has changed and he knows he's not in Egypt any more.

 

We wait, and no-one will save us.

The shadows gather, and the continents grow ripe with blood, and the horizon flickers with a light neither natural nor earthly, and we wait, and no-one will save us.

And in the end mankind will be as they once were, casting off conscience and compassion and learning to find beauty in killing, and we will wait, and no-one will save us.

And after the final chaos, when the last human being scratches his last word in the sand of the last desert, he will stop, and he will look again at what he has written. And he will obliterate it; will scratch it out -- no matter that human eyes would never see it. Better that it not remain. The history of the human race, now, can be only one of shame.

Because we waited, and no-one came to save us.

 

Adrian comes to his senses shuddering, not quite able to control his start at the old man's dried-leaf hand on his shoulder. The old man just blinks, all innocent surprise, no longer a figure composed of madly crawling forms -- just a singularly ugly person.

"What was that?" Adrian asks, shaking his head. His voice sounds thick and unclear. He swallows.

A shrug. "We all see different things. Our dreams, our nightmares. The past, the future."

"The future?"

"Perhaps. Perhaps it is up to you, Mr. Veidt."

He certainly hasn't mentioned his name. How-- ?

He shakes himself. He's losing his senses. The guide. The guide must have told him.

The old man frowns. "But you look unwell. Would you like some water?"

"No. Thank you. I -- no."

Adrian stands to leave, as carefully as he can in his haste, and the dusty air of the side-street feels like sweet relief. It's hours later, in the cool shade of his first-class carriage on the train, that he realizes the figure is still in his hand.

On returning to New York, Adrian places the carved figure on the top left-hand shelf in his study, where it catches the light and gleams too brightly for its age when the sun comes in. He spends a few days in the library, attempting to find out what it represents, but finds nothing, resources in the field being sadly depleted after the Miskatonic fire.

It can be no more than a minor idol, he decides eventually, perhaps not even a deity. It's probably valuable enough, and certainly a fascinating curio, but he never shows it to a dealer, and he somehow doubts that any of his acquaintances would care to see it.

Two years after Adrian returns to New York and places the figurine on his bookshelf, a man is released from prison in Bavaria.

Nobody in his right mind would connect the two occurrences. But when Adrian's newspaper has stopped trembling in his grip, he glances up into the top left corner of his study.