In the Tomb of the Red King
A tip-off from a local stranger sends Francis, a keen archaeologist, to an ancient tomb in Cornwall. Fiction by Hank Belbin.
The sarcophagus screeched open. Wafts of ancient dust spewed from the yawning blackness within. Something else came rushing out too. Francis Aberdeen felt its dark presence as soon as he’d pried the lid from the thing. He had felt it as clear as he felt the ripping winds battering the Cornish coastline above the cave. He felt it like he felt the salty spray of the sea as he descended the cliffs to the entrance of the tomb itself. Something evil and old. Something dark.
So bizarre to find such a coffin in Cornwall. Such practices were seldom discovered this far north of the equator. But there it was, just like the stranger had said it would be. After hours of crawling on his hands and knees through narrow tunnels by candlelight, Francis finally came into a vast domed chamber with a single white light beaming down onto a stone tableau ahead. The tableau was a huge scalene triangle of ebony stone that raised up in the centre of the cavernous gloomy crypt. The triangle was surmounted with graphite plumbago shards that all pointed northward like rows of serrated teeth on a great dragon. Along the rim were esoteric carvings, hieroglyphics, and other depictions of demonic entities upward reaching to the coffin’s lid – none of which Francis could understand. It was beyond being prehistoric. Judging by the stratum of rock, Francis put the crypt’s age at somehow being of the late Cretaceous period. The walls of the tomb sloped down and back, headlong into pitch-black nothingness. Around the sarcophagus itself were dusty old black jars containing a fetid red liquid that smelt like rotten meat. Everything in the chamber pointed towards mummification. But there was no body in the sarcophagus. The room was far too old for that. Francis paused as he considered what to do next, his heart beating hard in his chest. Thick grey mud from the climb down into the tomb clung to his clothing like a cold blanket. His hands shook, and he felt the chill in his bones.
Although he was positive he was alone, he distinctly felt the air grow tighter the instant he had unwittingly opened the coffin. A gnawing tingling sensation that rose from the base of his spine and up into his neck, and it whispered to him softly that he had made a grave error. He knew it too. Reckless pride and the desire to discover something unknown had blinded his pragmatism. And now the casket in the dark was open. What have I done? Francis cautiously leaned over the edge and gazed down into it. As he did, he felt the lingering thought that there was something alive in there. Its aura impossibly glaring back at him from the abyss somehow. He didn’t know he to describe it with mortal words, but he was steadfast that he felt this lean and hungry stare of a spectre looking back at him from down there, in the pit of the coffin that seemed to stretch inward for eternity. Something had been waiting for this.
As he stood over the open chest, the damp air descended languidly all around him, laden with primal particles of disease and unknown threats that had seldom felt any other air for aeons. The darkness drew nearer, clutching up from the corners of the forlorn tomb with wide-open talons of shadows. All that was old and mystical was awake once more. All that once was would now be. In a flash, his mistakes came tumbling down to him. How could I have been so foolish?
Days of hiking, hours of precarious scrabbling down the cliffs, even more indeterminate time going lower into the caves had bought him to this moment, and in one nauseating instant, he regretted all of it. Some things are better left unknown, he thought to himself. How could he have been so careless? Why had he come into this tenebrous little hole in the earth? In the pit of his stomach, he already knew why.
A tip-off from a dark-eyed stranger in the local tavern had sent him on this quest, brought him here; that was what started it. His shadow had crawled across the table as he approached. The hooded stranger had sat himself down opposite Francis in the meagre tavern, offered to buy him an ale, asked him if he was an archaeologist; then proceeded to tell the most vivid tale of a seldom-talked-about tomb near the tavern that supposedly held one of the last old spirits of the world. A spirit of great decadence. Beside the twinkle of the candle on the table, Francis could’ve sworn deeply that the stranger’s eyes were glowing faintly red – like the blood-thirsty anticipation of some starved hyena.
But that wasn’t what brought him down into the cave. The real reason why he’d brought himself to the tomb was he had to see for himself if the fable was indeed true. He wanted to discover it for himself, to brand his own mark upon its finding. And with all the deathly stillness of the tomb around him, he had discovered it. Some unexplainable presence was there in the tomb, next to him, over him, in him. Something unseen. But something that reared up and climbed inside his mind. It clung to him like cold tar. Whispers of all things primordial and malevolent swam through his thoughts — ancient days of death and blood.
It wanted to be found, the force murmured to him. Of course it did. It was all so clear now. The expedition was far too easy, the navigation of the unknown tunnels leading down to the stygian crypt even more so. The map was precise, the weather conditions favourable. All that was needed was for him to undertake the route. All it needed was a vessel. All of it made sense to Francis. He felt strangely heavy at the revelation. As if cast-iron weights had been suddenly tied around his shoulders.
The hooded stranger from the tavern whispered one name to him before he departed. Izuzu. The King in Red. Francis only knew of the title in passing. The King in Red was an old mystic fable that had been passed down through subdued whisperings and superstitions in various isolated Cornish villages such as Boscastle. In the tales, it was always associated with death and disease. A great horned figure who loped between the shadows and spaces. He who controlled life. Something betwixt all things that are and all things that never will be. Wherever it would roam, decaying slow death would follow. Its cape soaked in the crimson from the blood of the fallen wherever it had trodden. Legend had it that he was entombed in an impenetrable block of ice by the Old One for his amoral acts upon all things living. If he were to be released once more, he would bring with him
the black clouds of death to all things.
In one sickening realisation, Francis knew why the stranger in the tavern had told him about it. He knew Francis was a greenhorn archaeologist. He knew the young clear-skinned boy could not resist the opportunity to make a name for himself. He knew Francis, the naive 20-year-old, would take the bait. He wanted Francis to open it for him. And Francis did. Without hesitation, Francis Aberdeen of Leicester University had unwittingly unleashed all the eternal gloom of Izuzu, the King in Red, unto the world. What would become of the earth next he would never see. Because in the Red King’s stead, Francis would be trapped in the crypt forever. The darkness closed in. The candle flickered nervously then went out. The crypt sealed once more. He tried to scream, but it was cut short.