The Forgotten Pharaoh
Transcribed from the papers of the late Jerome Montserrat, Archaeologist
As I write these words, which will form my last confession, I cannot help but be struck by a delicious sense of irony. That I, who had devoted my whole life to uncovering secrets and mysteries forgotten by time and bring them to the light of day, should have kept the darkest secret of all to myself all my life, only now to reveal the true horror of what transpired that day so long ago. The icy shadow of Death is now upon me, and it wears a familiar face. It is my intention, and indeed hope, that none will ever read this statement, that age and posterity will forget me as it forgot that thrice-accursed Pharaoh untold millennia ago.
My occupation, indeed one could say calling, has been archaeology. The dreams of exploring ancient and long dead civilisations, of standing where they stood, of seeing what they saw, fascinated me even as a young boy, and when the opportunity came to study Ancient History at one of the most prestigious universities of the United States of America I eagerly jumped at the chance. Fairly soon, my sights were set upon Egypt. Stories of the Great Belzoni and the discovery of the lost temple of Rameses fired my imagination and my fervour, and I dreamed of a day when my name would stand alongside such giants of discovery.
The early years of the twentieth century saw something akin to a gold rush as distinguished academics, wealthy patrons and anybody who fancied themselves able to hold a shovel rushed to the land of Egypt, each hoping to uncover the tomb of an ancient Pharaoh or some other similarly important figure. The exploits of Howard Carter and Lord Carnarvon in unearthing the tomb of the great king Tutankhamun are, quite rightly, world famous, despite the so-called curse that seemed to follow the members of that expedition. My intention, however, was to uncover something truly unique, something unimaginable, let alone unknown.
During my studies at the notable Miskatonic University, Arkham, Massachusetts, I had found a singular reference to a character seemingly unheard of in the more widely accepted records of Egyptian history. A name, Nephren-Ka, appeared on a crumbling fragment of papyrus found by chance at the Historical Society partnered with the University. This name instantly piqued my interest, as I had never come across it in the course of my research. Investigation of publicly available records, along with those yet to be published, turned up no further mentions of the mysterious Nephren-Ka, and eventually I was forced to turn to more esoteric and occult sources. Thus it was in the restricted section of the university’s Orne Library, after long and lonely nights spent poring over blasphemous volumes such as the Necronomicon, the Book of Eibon and the enigmatic Pnakotic Manuscripts, that I finally found unequivocal evidence of Nephren-Ka’s existence. I determined then and there that I would make it my life’s work to restore this figure to his rightful place in history.
Following my graduation from Miskatonic University I applied and was accepted to join several small archaeological expeditions to the Valley of the Kings. These served the purpose of providing me with the experience I would require to undertake my own search, however the results were not overly significant. As I entered my fourth decade I felt that I could wait no longer and looked for a patron who would be willing to fund my activities. Eventually, after much ridicule and rejection, I obtained a grant from the Historical Society of Arkham, the same place I had first learned the name of the almost-mythical Nephren-Ka. It seemed fitting to me that the Society would play a significant role in my great undertaking. And so it was that arrangements were finalised and an expedition, of which I was the head researcher, was assembled. There were seven of us who formed the research team. I still see their faces when I close my eyes. Harris, expert in antiquities; Burroughs, linguist and well versed in ancient hieroglyphs; Williamson, chief engineer; Colbert, my deputy, Gregory, second engineer; and Osborne, representative of the Historical Society. I pray they can forgive me. I surely have not forgiven myself.
I had determined early on that our search would not be within the Valley of the Kings. Other archaeologists had done a thorough job of excavating everything of value from that area and I felt that someone as well hidden as Nephren-Ka would not be found there. Instead I planned for us to work in an area some miles from Dahshur. Just as the omission of Nephren-Ka had left a void in history, so there seemed to be a void in the geographical landscape of the desert. The steps of the pharaohs and their subjects could be reliably traced throughout the country apart from this one place, which had apparently remained untouched for an unusual length of time. It seemed logical to me that such a shunned stretch of desert would be the place where we should begin our dig.
The work was arduous, more so than I had experienced during my previous expeditions. The locals were extremely reluctant to set foot in the area we had decided upon, and it was only with the promise of large amounts of money that we could get any sort of workforce at all. The sun seemed to beat down with more intense heat than normal and we found ourselves having to jealously guard and ration our water and food supplies. It took us many years to thoroughly survey the area and excavate through the sand and rubble of time. Gregory and Harris threatened on more than one occasion to leave and seek employment with other archaeological parties however I was able to persuade them with talk of riches and fame unlike any other.
It was when we had reached the edge of despair, when we had nearly covered the whole of the area and found nothing, that by chance Burroughs made a discovery. He had been seeking a sheltered spot to perform some translation work he had been forwarded and had selected a likely space. To use his words, it was as though the wind shifted at that precise moment and a small piece of regularly carved stone was uncovered. One glance was all it took for him to recognise a symbol as “Ka”. To this day I wish to heaven he had chosen somewhere else to sit! We set upon the new site with renewed vigour and, mere weeks later, had uncovered the first and only promising sign that our search was not in vain. A roughly-hewn stairway, leading down to a featureless slab of rock. Williamson and Gregory were able to use some of the expedition’s supply of dynamite to create an entryway large enough for a person to crawl through and myself, Harris, Williamson and Osborne decided that we would make the first entry into the opening.
My first impression of the interior beyond the opening was not favourable. The walls around us were smooth and featureless, with no form of inscription or decoration. The floor around us was bare, quite unlike other tombs that had been found that were laden with treasure. I was about to give up and leave when I saw the light from my lantern reflected in the walls. I stepped closer and held up the lantern. The wall was perfectly smooth, almost like glass. I called Williamson over. He rapped his fingers against it and turned to me with an excited grin on his face.
“Montserrat, I think this is obsidian!” he said in an excited whisper.
I grinned back. No other tomb or chamber that had been so far discovered had contained obsidian. It was quite simply unheard of. The cost to make this place must have been astronomical. My thoughts were interrupted by a shot from Harris. He had discovered an opening in the black wall. The light from his lantern disappeared into darkness so intense it was almost indistinguishable from the obsidian surrounding it. I shared a look with the others. There were strict rules on involving the authorities and inspectors when uncovering artifacts that might be culturally and historically significant, however we felt that what we had here was important enough to forgo those rules. Thus, with myself in the lead, we made our way down the newly discovered passage.
After seemingly hours of turning left and right and one dead end after another, guided only by the light from our lanterns, we finally came to what was obviously the central chamber. Again, there were no trinkets or scrolls to be found here. Instead in the centre stood a statue, fashioned from the same obsidian as the walls around us. Here also was the first hint of another we had seen, as the statue had embellishments of gold giving it a humanoid appearance. There was no sarcophagus to be found, however I felt that this statue would be more than enough to justify our labours. Was this Nephren-Ka? I held my lantern up to the statue’s face. The light shifted and reflected from the eyes and for a moment I felt like Nephren-Ka was looking back at me through the ages. The form of the statue had been highly stylised, with the legs longer and thinner than a normal man’s and the mouth fixed in a cruel sneer that stretched too far around the face. I turned to my companions. “We need to get this out of here and back home,” I said, my voice no louder than a whisper but still sounding loud in the chamber.
Osborne agreed. “This will make a fine addition to the Historical Society’s collection.” he said, his eyes lit up with greed.
It took the four of us to carry the statue back through the labyrinth, and even then we had to stop every few feet to catch our breath. There was no way of telling how much time had passed by the time we eventually reached the entrance, where Burroughs and Gregory waited with the workforce. As the statue was lifted onto one of the transport vehicles, Gregory had dire news.
“One of the workers says there’s a sandstorm coming. It’ll be here in a couple of hours.” he said.
This was the worst thing that could happen. To finally uncover what could be the last resting place of Nephren-Ka, only to have it snatched away from us? I turned to look at Osborne, Harris and Williamson and saw my thoughts reflected in their eyes. We came to a silent agreement. I turned back to Gregory.
“We will stay here until the sandstorm passes.” My voice was firm without a hint of fear or trepidation.
Gregory was nonplussed. “Are you sure sir? If the entry is buried it may be days or weeks before we can uncover it!”
I nodded. “Leave behind some bedrolls and food. What is here is well worth the risk.”
Gregory reluctantly acquiesced and before long the four of us were left with enough supplies to last us a couple of days at least, although I felt sure we would be rescued before then. We decided to set up our small camp in the main central chamber where we had found the statue. We spent some time exploring more passageways, sometimes in pairs, sometimes alone. Once or twice I thought, or rather felt, someone behind me, but no one was there and my calls were answered by one of my companions. Disappointingly, we found no further artifacts other than the statue and we eventually regrouped at our makeshift campsite to wait out the night.
After a meagre dinner of salt and crackers Osborne announced that he wished to relieve himself. The thought of soiling this magnificent construction with our bodily waste was initially abhorrent to me, however I saw that such things would be necessary during our time here and so I nodded my agreement. Osborne withdrew down a side passage, taking his lantern with him. Fifteen minutes passed and Osborne did not return. I was just debating whether or not to look for him when we heard something that sounded like a thud, as though a heavy object had hit the floor. Myself and Williamson stood up and went to investigate the noise, leaving Harris behind in case Osborne returned while we were gone.
What we found still chills my blood. Osborne’s face had been twisted into a mask of sheer terror, his blood drained from his face and his hair white. That wasn’t the worst of it though. We found Osborne’s body several feet distant. His head had been messily torn off in a fit of unearthly brutality. I looked at Williamson’s face and saw the same horror there that I was feeling. An unearthly scream snapped us back to our senses. We rushed back to the central chamber to find Harris rocking back and forth on the ground, sobbing and making mewling noises. I called his name but there was no response. Williamson put his hand on Harris’s shoulder but quickly pulled it back as Harris screamed again. I felt very distinctly that there was another presence with us but I could not see anyone else. We spent a harrowing night keeping watch as none of us were able to sleep, jumping at every flickering shadow and imagined movement. The only sound was Harris moaning and mumbling to himself.
“He’s here… he’s here… heaven help me…”
Time became meaningless to us. I could not say whether it was two hours or twelve hours before Williamson gave a shout. He had seen a small light flickering down the main passageway, a light not coming from our lamps. We braced ourselves to face whatever was to come. Eventually we heard a voice call out to us.
“Montserrat? Harris? Are you there? Williamson? Osborne?” It was Colbert’s voice. Relief washed over us as Colbert and Gregory entered the chamber. One look at Harris told them that things had not gone well for us and we broke the news to them about Osborne. Gregory explained that the sandstorm had lasted shorter than anticipated, and the damage to the tomb’s entrance had not been too severe. We wasted no time in gathering what few things remained to us and making our exit, with Gregory and Colbert leading poor Harris and myself and Williamson carrying Osborne’s grisly remains wrapped in a thick blanket. On leaving the tomb I had to shield my eyes against the blinding sun, grateful that I was alive to see it.
We very quickly decided to bring an end to our expedition. Over the next few days we struck our camp, paid off the few workers that remained and began the long journey back to Cairo, from there to return to America. Even then we were not to be spared tragedy, as Gregory contracted malaria from a mosquito bite, dying shortly after our arrival in Cairo. Harris too met with an unfortunate end, literally screaming himself to death one night. And so it was with diminished spirits that the rest of us returned to Arkham with our single prize – the statue of Nephren-Ka – which I was very happy to hand off to the Historical Society. They were saddened by the loss of Osborne and agreed to give the statue a place of honour in their exhibits.
As for the rest of us, by unspoken agreement we never talked of what transpired in Egypt. Indeed, I had intended to take the knowledge to my grave, however something has compelled me to put down in writing those terrible events that occurred. Over the years that followed it seemed as though we were under some sort of curse, as Williamson lost his life in a construction accident. The subsequent inquiry put the cause down to negligence, however I knew Williamson to be a thorough and meticulous man. Burroughs, our linguist, was the victim of an attempted burglary at his home while he was present. The thieves panicked and one of them drew a pistol, shooting Burroughs and killing him instantly. Colbert suffered a sudden heart attack, perfectly fine one moment, walking home from his office at the University, dead on the ground the next. The somewhat mundane nature of his death afforded me a sense of morbid amusement.
I am the last, and I know that I too will soon follow them. The doctors have been very clear. I have only months left. Is it a curse? Or merely diabolical coincidence? I cannot say. I have come to the end of my story and I will leave instructions that this document is to be sealed away. It is possible that curiosity may overcome my wishes but that is beyond my control. As I look up to the window of my study I see the night sky through the glass window, just as black as the obsidian walls of the tomb of Nephren-Ka and I see my own reflection staring back at me.
There is a figure in black and gold standing over me.