I myself have no way to be sure of what exactly happened thereafter. For the longest time, I have tried to attribute that experience to over-exposure to horrifying truths, hallucinations conjured by a mind on the brink of collapse. After all, there is no evidence to corroborate my experience, and there were no witnesses to what I have described. Some things, of course, were definitely real—like the cave’s environment and arrangement, and… that mural.
This chamber was far smaller than the other two caverns, about as big as a large hall; twenty feet at its highest point. Left of the entrance were several disorganized rows of ancient pottery covered in a thick layer of dust. The pots were about a foot high and decorated in a mosaic of scintillating patterns and adornments. Most of them were already broken, leaving only a pile of dust-covered shards, yet a few had survived in perfect condition, their openings sealed with muddy clay. I picked one up and shook it gently—it seemed to still hold some liquid. Another jar, apparently recently smashed, lay by the entrance—its internal surfaces lacked the thick layer of dust that blanketed the other relics, and its bottom still held the shallow dregs of a viscous black liquid. The peculiar stench that was smothering the entire chamber had billowed up from this black liquid. This was obviously the jar Zhang had accidentally broken during his inspection several months ago; its broken pieces had been carefully sorted into a small pile separate from the other pots. Next to the rows of pottery, another passageway led upwards, but it had already collapsed. Boulders had fallen into a high pile at the passageway’s exit, leaving only a narrow gap to mark the original aperture. To its right was an especially complex painting.
It was a narrative fresco like the ones we had seen elsewhere, though I dare not claim that I fully comprehended it. The mural depicted yet another ceremony, comprised of several ophidian priests and an ordinary person in gorgeous adornments. I had seen this figure before in the sacrificial murals within the shaft—he seemed to be the conductor of the sacrifice. During the ceremony, the priests would open the man’s chest with a weird stone dagger, then rub a black liquid into the wound. In the next scene, a reptilian creature burst forth from the man’s stomach and clawed its way out. The priests would then flay the corpse of its skin, creating from it a kind of scroll covered in strange symbols. Undoubtedly, this was the mysterious leather scroll from the Cabot Archeological Museum—the legendary Zi Suo Mo—and yet, this scene confounded me. Was this atrocious serpent a genuine prehistoric organism, or did the ancients of Nanyu merely rely on this method to breed their sacred totem? Or was this nothing more than another symbolic artistic expression of the rituals necessary to attain priesthood?
I did not study it too deeply. After some simple photography, I continued to the lower levels of the cavern, seeking still more discovery. My carbide lamp illuminated an object that was not out of the ordinary, but nevertheless completely exceeded my expectations—a bunch of dirty and tattered clothes stuffed behind a boulder. I advanced several steps and overturned the clothes, hoping for some information.
A torrent of fear and disgust washed over me. A mess of rotten hair and flesh lay swaddled in the rags, ripped and torn so severely it was impossible to distinguish the original face. I could merely determine that it had been a person—or something a person had left behind. There was not a single bone in the whole arrangement, only a thin layer of fetid flesh attached to the underskin, as though it had been brutally stripped from a human body. And yet there was no trace of blood on the ground, nor any other suspicious marks, almost as if it had been brought in from elsewhere. What thing had wrought this masterpiece? And more importantly—who had this been?
Suddenly, I heard the crushing sound of loose stones colliding nearby. I raised my carbide lamp and turned vigilantly to the source, and I froze in terror. The bright light revealed an appalling scene I will never be able to forget. The veil between reality and fantasy had lifted. The nightmares of my imagination appeared before me, snapping my tightened nerves; they drilled me into fright beyond my wildest fears, and condensed into the freakish, maddening dreams that have plagued me every night, ever since.
I beheld a towering serpentine beast, contorting its body as it slithered down from the mound of boulders. Its head was massive and flat, and speckled green-grey scales covered smooth, slender body—just like in the murals. It groped its way across the rock heap with thin, scaly foreclaws. Emerging from the crevice behind it were two identical creatures, all making their way towards me. The near snake insinuated its way to the ground and raised itself like a viper, exposing its milky white belly before twisting its tail and gliding closer. It raised a lean claw and, swallowing its forked purple tongue, pronounced a string of strange syllables in an empty, hollow voice. I wanted to flee, but I was fixed to the ground as though by some sorcery. Fear paralyzed my body, and I could not even close my eyes to escape the things I was seeing.
The ophidian creature came closer and closer; its claws nearly touched my body. Again I heard it repeat those unnatural syllables in that empty, hissing voice. Suddenly, I was aware of something, but my instincts were moving even faster. Before I could sort out the contents of my mind, unstoppable fear quenched my last thought, and I remembered nothing more. Fear broke the spell cast over me and I burst into screams. Holding my lamp aloft, I ran—almost rolled—to the door, tripped on a pebble, staggered and hit the ground, and plunged into a merciful coma.
When I regained consciousness, I found the other members of the exploration team gathered around me. The snake-creatures and the pile of vile rotten flesh had vanished. I stuttered and stumbled through the previous events, but they did not believe me. They thought I had suffered a spontaneous traumatic nervous breakdown. Hearing my screams, Zhou Ziyuan had rushed into the cavern first. He thought he saw something crawl into the crevice above the boulders, but he dismissed it as the shifting torchlight shadows. Moreover, both he and Li Guohao had checked the crack—the collapsed stones had almost completely obstructed the ascending passage, leaving only enough space for a man to crawl through. It was hard to imagine that any large creature could pass in or out. They had, however, discovered a worn book not far from where they found me. It was a dirty green notebook, about the size of a hand, with many things scribbled inside.
And just like that, we concluded our frightening adventure and returned to the surface as planned.
That evening in Xiayan Village, we carefully studied the notebook we had retrieved. According to our study, it was undoubtedly an artifact left by Zhang Cunmeng. Though the others found this surprising, I was extremely calm… calmer than I expected, when I heard the news. Yet the notebook—it contained eccentric sketches of indecipherable intent: giant twisted buildings, convoluted patterns, and sculptures whose style we could not trace. This convinced us that Zhang Cunmeng had suffered complete and utter mental collapse. His ultimate whereabouts, and how this notebook appeared in that horrifying cave, were still a mystery—one I fear will never be solved. On the last page of the notebook, we found the following mess of text, written unsteadily as though by someone without fine control of their hand:
This is the end. Again I dreamt of that city. I know it lies beneath, but the cave has no way in. I think I’ve broken several bones, but I am not in pain. I have no fear; it told me not to worry. I can finally enter; I am already a child of Ba-Hui. I believe it. I believe in Ba-Hui and all of his other names… the Great Dragon… Yig… Kukulkan… Father of Serpents. I will shed my body and enter that great glorious city. If anyone is reading this notebook—don’t come looking for me. Don’t.
Reading these words, I began to shudder uncontrollably. They were so focused on the inexplicable text that they failed to notice, but I knew. These words revealed to me an unnameable horror.
Because I remember the purple forked tongue of that ophidian monster, issuing forth weird syllables in a voice hollow and hissing. I remember, because it was no brutal hiss. It was not even a mysterious and intricate alien language. It was my name.