Dr. Gordon Demaret was finding Al-Herat an unusually difficult and expensive place to dig. Superstition could play a role in archeology. Like any other breed of stupidity, it could attack and damage just about anything not properly clad in mail. Whether you dug for Native American ruins in West Virginia or older cultures in The Middle East, people would have some traditional taboos and stereotypes. In the mind of the common man, some things buried were better left deeply interred.
This had become pretty standard fare by now. It began with the politicos who would claim the people were worried and that they needed the additional funding (see baksheesh) for security around the site. This would always be greater than what was originally budgeted due to these heretofore unknown irrational fears (see desire for kickbacks) regarding the dig. The old ways die hard some places. So Demaret had already started parting with management reserve funds to pay off the local village elders and security forces.
When none of his advance party succeeded in recruiting local labor, he shrugged and figured he’d need to drive another “wedge” in his cost reporting on his grant. Then, he got a surprising piece of positive news. A local subculture, The Romitae; were analogous to gypsies in Europe. They had apparently gone broke, lost their vehicles somehow, and were in dire need of cash money to hork some new rides and continue their peregrenistic existence as a Romitae Band in good standing.
Dr. Demaret wasted no time in hiring the whole band and then firing all the corrupt locals who seemed determined to use the rock chisels ubiquitous at an archeology dig on his grant funding, rather than the rocks holding ancient remains. The mayor was livid, the police officers deeply disappointed, and the locals various and sundry were giving Dr. Demaret’s crew members the evil eye. It was the first mistake enabling Demaret’s ultimate demise.
Demaret had been told that the cliff villages near Al-Herat had been deliberately purged, first by The Muhamadens, and then by soldiers of The 2nd Crusade just to make sure they had been properly fumigated. The Crusaders had felt their trebuchet crews needed additional field training and had spent an extra week at the site demolishing everything they could throw a rock at. People avoided the site to the extent that the Syrian Government took a heavy financial loss just to reroute a big highway so that it would skip the place by a good 25 miles. This was atypical, given that Syria; in more rational times, would bend over backwards to bring tourists to these places and gladly accept big piles of their money.
Demaret had been amused and made more curious when his advanced team emailed him initial site condition reports showing pictures of signs declaring the Al-Herat site “Home of The Damning One” and “Dwelling of The Outlander.” Where some colleagues would skip a site like this due to the poor logistics involving the contemporary neighbors, Demaret saw that paper that would nail down his tenure and get him off the Post-Doc Hamster Wheel. He would shake hands with The Damning One and tell its side of the story to Nature, if that’s what it took to get stability and income to become part of his professional life.
The first month of the dig proceeded with far too much boredom for Gordon Demaret’s preference. The closest they came to damnation was a procession of days growing damn hot. The locals surprised him again by shunning the dig rather than showing up with coolers of bottled water for sale at gougers’ prices. Syria tended to start getting there in May and would stay that course until Late September/ Early October. The crew had gone through to where The Crusaders had called for fire on what had previously been poorly built structures that had abutted cliffs for partial support. The rocks did their jobs and rumbled the poorly built structures. Sadly, no ghosts of iniquity howled at the moon during the torpid, steamy nights.
The Romitae had been amazingly into doing tasks that most 2nd and 3rd World work crews would shirk at given the slightest slack. Digging through a site was hard, dirty work. There were multiple junctures where power tools would have to be banished. This would happen when the crew got anywhere near deep enough to reach artifacts where Demaret and his experts believed they should be. The Romitae seemed to get strangely more excited when this happened.
Then, there was the tendency of these people to not communicate with any of the people running the dig beyond a rudimentary, perfunctory level. The group had at least four members who had learned their English in The United States and seemed to have even picked up on idioms and colloquialisms. However, they kept their own counsel and nothing regarding their work performance seemed to give Demaret pause. Yet, he still had that nagging intuition something was up.
The band had been pooling any pay they received for the hard work, and were acquiring used vehicles that they bought in some city about seventy miles down the road. They were gradually maxing out a parking lot near where the band slept. This parking lot and the sleeping encampment were patrolled by a few group members with a mixed gallimaufry of long weapons. The ammo was probably non-standard to the point where each gunman was self-supplying. Demaret had no clue where they would find it should they run out.
As the 2nd month of operations came towards the conclusion, they reached a level where they hoped they would find out what happened when the expanding caliphate had come into contact with the cliff dwellers. Old writing on the topic were inconclusive and some evidence suggested that an attempt had been made by The Caliph to prevent word of what had been found there from going out. An Iman contemporary to that period had written the following.
Seeing all sights is not necessarily the best of all goods. Perhaps only The Prophet would know what was good to see and what, once observed; could never be unseen again to the detriment of the believer having seen it.
A contemporary had been more forthcoming as to what had happened.
The savages found at these cliffs affronted all goodness and decency. The Prophet would condemn them all as unclean and partakers in the vilest of filth and defilement. Their altar to some evil being was of solid obsidian and seemed to emit a sense of foreboding and unease. The bravest of our warriors shirked at the tough of the thing even when commanded to enact its destruction.
We finally found a deep crevice into the Earth. A place perhaps Abyssal enough to dispose of the uncleanness. We pulled this abomination down with ropes and using poles to avoid any contact with it, levered it free to fall down to the fires of all evil. It was well to be done with it. May The Prophet never show me anything so vile again in what is left of my life!
That shaft. That deep, abyssal shaft had been what Gordon Demaret had fought to get a team into this site for. He would see what was down there and bring it forth for all to know about. He would know what things were so bad that they could never again be unseen. He would know what it felt like to be in the presence of an inanimate religious object that could emanate unease. And he would cash in on it until his contemporaries viewed him as a real-world Indiana Jones.
Demaret felt the climax to his adventure arriving. The Romitae were similarly animated. They dug with almost a fury when called upon and carefully removed dirt from all things that they found with the seeming caress of a mother for her child. The catalog of goods and ornaments you would expect to find within the ranks of an Early, Islamic military formation dominated the collections being cleaned and preserved. Yet no level of Syria’s government wanted any part of these antiquities. It was an unusual thing. A going dig that unearthed relics would generally attract the locals who would find more urbane ways to demand a cut.
It was towards the end of a hard, sweaty, and productive day when all of the Romitae stopped. They began to wordlessly walk towards a water cistern that had been partially excavated in one corner of the dig. With word, or other signs of accord, they began to kneel. A low chant began to echo through their ranks. Two men who perhaps weren’t part of this ceremony edged towards the back of the group. They were slowly backing away as if they hoped they would gone unnoticed by using stealth.
When one of the two recalcitrants thought he had created ample distance, he turned tail and ran for egress. The other stood still with a terrified expression on his face. Demaret’s skill with numerous languages allowed him to make out the phrase. “A God that allows this loves no human.”
The curiosity that had propelled Dr. Gordon Demaret to dust off unread tomes and learn all that others had beheld swelled in his breast. He would learn this lore for good or for downfall. He edged closer to the cistern until he felt a strong hand grab his shoulder.
He then heard the word “uninitiated” spoken to him accusingly in a foreign tongue. The Romitae crewmen took up the chant. “Uninitiated, unworthy! Uninitiated, unworthy!” Several pairs of angry hands now grabbed Demaret. “He must be made to see!” Yelled an older, more respected crew member.
“The one who sleeps again will feast. He will awaken and see we have kept the commitment.” The older man continued.
“You seek forbidden knowledge to trade for your worthless money and fame?” He asked Dr. Demaret. “The Deep One knows of you and awaits you with contempt at your hollow and selfish schemes. Your will and ambition will be made his as you fail!” He sneered.
A profound sense of unquiet overtook Gordon Demaret. It was not even the fear of what his rational mind told him was a hideous and impending death. He now knew at a level that no preacher man had ever convinced him before that the universe would not be finished with him upon his demise. What would follow would be far more loathsome and conducive to despair. He heard a high, keening whine in his ears that he somehow knew was the remorseless war cry of a hideous and timeless evil.
The mob carried Demaret to the railing demarking the edge of the cistern. They ululated savagely as they lifted him so his feet were above his head and he saw the crevice stretch before him to a far greater depth than you would ever need to lower a bucket to recover fresh water. The surging mob impelled him over the brink with two or three of their own who were overtaken by the mass insanity of the group.
It was three days later that worried Archeologists at Fordham University turned on their televisions one chipper summer morning. The CNN Chiron read “Air Strikes over Al-Herat.” They had not heard from one of their Post-Docs Dr. Gordon Demaret for over three days. Now the city he had been digging near was getting thoroughly pulverized by The Russian Air Force. The bombing had been occurring for the last eleven hours.
Claims had been made that ISIS had stockpiled chemical weapons and technical vehicles at a nearby encampment and that Russia had decided to hasten their demise. Various “Foreign Policy Experts” debated the veracity of these claims. Humanitarian organizations beseeched for an end to what they described as an unusually brutal level of overkill. The amount of ordnance being expended on such a seemingly insignificant target struck them as beyond any decent level of proportionality. It would be a long, long time before anyone would commission a dig near Al-Herat again.