The Sore Points cover that song, she forgets the title, but cranks it up anyway:
On a map of the world
He stands alone
With his dreams and his demons
hic sunt dracones
hic sunt dracones. They don’t teach Latin at her school, but thank you, internet. It means, “here be dragons”, a warning on the maps of ancient mariners for uncharted territories.
The music pulses, dust flies past the windows of their jeep as the sun beats down on its cherry red paint. She climbs higher and higher into the peaks of the Mackenzie Mountains in Canada, but the true destination is between the twisting hills: The Valley of Headless Men.
“What do you think we’re going to find up here?” her travelling companion asks in his comforting baritone. They’ve been travelling for days. She contemplates her answer before a wicked grin creases her lips.
“Dragons.” She whispers ominously. The pair break out into a bout of laughter. They’ve been doing this for ages now. Philippe and Melisande, French anthropology students from Paris. Or as the community likes to call them, Le Chasseurs de Monstres, backpacking around the globe in search of the profound and extraordinary.
“Peut être” (maybe) Philippe replies, scanning the sprawling hills of the mountainside. The expanse arrests her heart. The car rumbles as she pulls the Jeep onto an outcropping of the peak. Legend tells of evil spirits that claim these lands as home. Another speaks of the mysterious Naha tribe that once resided here, with their brutal custom that gave the valley its name.
Clambering out of the car, the pair make there way to the trunk. Flinging it open they sit on the ledge and stare at the scenery for a moment. The air is heavy with the scent of rain but there are no clouds in sight. Just stillness.
“Do you find anything odd about this place?” Melisande breaks the silence, grabbing her mountain pack from the car. She secures it onto her back and swings her leg up to tie her hiking boot. The wind whips past her ear and she could have sworn she heard a weep.
“Everything about this place is odd. Where is everything? There are no sheep, no goats, deer, squirrels, not even crickets. Nothing.”
“According to the two tribes we interviewed, apparently ‘supernatural creatures’ prowl the hills at night. Maybe they ate all the woodland creatures.”
“Supernatural. We both know that there’s no such thing, just the unexplained and uninformed.” She nods in agreement and the two of them start their descent into the valley. Rocks slip and slide past, but they are sure footed and never falter.
The grass at the bottom of the peak is so green it appears iridescent in the midday sun. Philippe picks up a nearby stone. Turning it this way and that, the stone glitters like a jewel.
“What do you think it is?” He asks handing it to Melisande. She takes it gently into her palm.
“I don’t know.” She replies looking out at the empty grove. Another light catches her eye. Handing off the rock she trudges off towards the direction of the shimmer. Philippe catches up quickly and together they stop at the sight of the unusual glittering.
A cave marked by six giant blocks of the same mysterious rock as the one Philippe found, two appear to have been broken and toppled. They shimmer and glow like shells on a beach. The blocks are all stacked into the wall of the mountain like a doorway. Archaic runes are etched into the columns. Melisande traces the pattern with her hand feeling a hum coming from the stone.
“Burial ground?” She inquires.
“Have you seen these markings before?” He asks moving his hand over the stone. “Pre-Latin. What do you think? Are we talking Norse Gods here or — ?
A shudder vibrates through his arm and he jumps away.
“Did you feel that?” he breathes.
“Feel what?” she asks, removing her hand from the doorway. He wrings his hands trying to escape the feeling and re-composes himself. “Nothing.”
“Should we go inside?”
“Ladies first.” Philippe smiles with a dip from the waist.
“Then after you.”
He chuckles, grabbing her hand so that they enter the unknown together. It doesn’t take long for the darkness to consume the light. Philippe takes a flashlight attached to his belt and the cave is bathed in light. The team stares in awe at the tunnel. They wander on, each step echoing off the walls of the tunnel, until they come to a fork in the path.
“Left or right?” asks Philippe. Melisande stands before the right tunnel as a tendril of dust swirls at her feet, beckoning her forward.
“Right.” She states, already moving deeper into the unknown. Her hands drag against the walls of the cave, taking in the curves and edges. It’s cool and she fends off a shiver. Turning a corner the walls of the cave expand out into a massive room. The light from the flashlight refracts off of the stone in blinding streams.
“Shut it off.” Melisande says moving towards the centre of the room. Her partner quickly extinguishes the light and shoves it back into his belt. The stones’ luminous glow lights the cave, revealing floor to ceiling runes, and on one wall, a mural.
Painted on the wall in gruesome streaks of red so dark it could be black is an image of… a creature. Multi-limbed and arms spread wide, its hands the size of dinner plates, while its finger-claws splayed wide, beckoning. The head is forward, eyes trained on the viewer, its hackles raised. Protruding from its mouth row upon row of razor sharp teeth, as its lips are peeled back in a snarl.
Finally, Phillippe speaks. “Tell me you know what we’re looking at?”
“The runes could be an old tribe language. And that,” Mel explains pointing to the creature. “I have never seen anything like that, but looking at this room it appears that they might have worshipped it.” She moves away from the mural in hope that a larger viewing range might shed some light on the mystery.
In one swift move… crunch. She falls to her knees, they vibrate with the impact as her hand comes away red. Pain explodes from her ankle as a stream of French expletives pour from her mouth.
“Mel, are you okay!?” Philippe worries. Dropping to his knees, he pulls the flashlight out again, illuminating his friend. A gash the size of an industrial nail blooms across her hand but when he catches sight of the thing that made her fall, his blood freezes.
“I’m fine.” She replies. Rising on one leg she cradles her mutilated hand and yanks the bandana around her neck to stanch the bleeding. Drip, Drip, Drip. She follows the blood to where she had fallen. Right next to her foot print lays an ivory white skull so clean it could have been fake. A hole the size of a fist is embedded in its temple. She follows Phillippe’s gaze. Spiralling from the broken skull are hundreds of others, embedded in the ground swirling to the edges of the cave room.
“Well, now we know where all the heads went.”
“I’m all for exploring this place, but maybe we should take a look at that ankle first.” Philippe says taking her arm and supporting her weight. She nods taking his hand. Hobbling back towards the entrance, they both take their first lung full of clean air. The sun has dipped below the horizon leaving a haze of reds and violets.
“We can’t make it back up that mountain.” Philippe states, helping to set Mel down in the grass.
“I guess we’ll have to set up camp here then.”
The night is silent except for the crackle of flames. Melisande sits in the grass, sketch book in hand as she tries to recall the cave room with the mural. Her ankle is wrapped in gauze along with her hand. Thankfully it isn’t broken and tomorrow they should be able to explore more.
“So what can we deduce about this… creature?” She asks pointing at her sketch. Philippe circles the fire with a bowl of soup. He flips open a small field notebook from his pocket and begins to read.
“Other tribes thought something cursed and resided over the land. There are accounts from indigenous people saying that the devil lives in the valley, killing those who dare to enter it.”
“Like a carnivorous animal, not the literal devil.”
“Obviously there was something, because that skull shrine exists.”
“Is that what it is?”
“Well I have no other way to describe it and it has all of the general markers.” He explains, handing her a bowl of soup. It’s warmth eases the muscles in her shoulders.
The pair turn towards the sound. Emerging from the bushes, a tall man with a large brimmed hat and overcoat stalks towards them.
“Hullo there,” he rasps. “I don’t get many visitors around these parts.”
“We’re on business.” Phillippe answers lightly. The Tall Man smiles back.
“Business. What kind of business?”
“We’re… budding anthropologists. We were told that there could be some interesting cultural landmarks nearby.”
“Anthropologists,” he repeats. “What a fascinating field of study. You know I came across some palaeontologists last spring. Lovely people.” Mel notices the long scar from his eye to his throat.
“How long have you lived here?” Phillippe asks.
“A very long time. My family has been on this land for centuries.” He replies, taking a seat on the other side of the fire.
“Part of the Naha tribe, then?”
He laughs. “No, that tribe disappeared a long time ago. Just me.”
“What happened to them?”
“The tribe? They just disappeared. One day there and gone the next. See, they thought they could control it.” He explains.
“Control what?” Mel asks intrigued.
“The beast. They revered the devil of the valley as a god. They worshipped it.”
“You mean the creature in the cave?” She asks for clarification.
“Ghouli, some called it. Shadow of the night.”
“But it’s a myth, right?” Philippe puzzles.
A grin crimps the sides of his cheeks at the idea. “Of course Ghouli is real. The Naha tribe thought that by giving it travellers, it would be enough. But it’s never enough.”
The fire now stripped to its embers and all that’s left for light is its glow, and the stars. A shiver shakes Mel’s body. She tries to rise on her bad ankle but slips on the rock.
“You said it’s never enough,” she pauses. “Present tense.” Mel says on her feet. The Tall Man rises as well.
“Smart girl. I knew it the first time I smelled you in that cave.” His nostrils flare as if he’s trying to remember the scent.
“We need to go.” She whispers to Philippe, slowly backing away.
“Ghouli cannot be tamed.” he starts, licking his lips. Gradually, the whites of his eyes turn to black. “Ghouli is hungry. Always hungry. Sheep are too wool-laden for Ghouli! Squirrels are too small. Ghouli misses the tribe, how delicious they were.”
Grabbing Mel, Philippe yanks her towards the direction of the jeep but before the second step, The Tall Man is in front of them. Before their eyes, his teeth once blunt and human explode from his mouth to become jagged peaks designed to rip flesh from bone. The sound of their racing hearts is deafening. Ghouli savours it. The rip of clothes echo through the night as The Tall Man disappears and in his place, the beast from the mural.
“I can see into your mind. How scared you are.” Ghouli circles. “Le Chasseurs de Monstres.” The equivalent of a laugh rocks Ghouli’s body as saliva flings in every direction. The acrid stench of Ghouli’s breath would knock out anyone but the fear has already paralyzed the pair.
“Real monsters have no hunters.” Ghouli whispers as two slimy appendages burst from its back like wings and wrap around the neck of Philippe. Philippe gasps, grasping at the “arms” only for a split second before it throws him to the ground with a thud and crack of a broken neck. Melisande can only gape in utter shock from the sight of her fallen friend.
Ghouli bends to examine his first meal. He takes a bite. Blood spurts showering the grass. Ghouli turns, a head tilt and red toothy grin. Like a path of breadcrumbs the dripping blood marks the path Ghouli makes towards her as she tries to make her escape, slipping over rocks, cutting her legs and hands. The iron scent in the air is now as strong as Ghouli’s stench.
“You should have read the sign before entering my home.” Ghouli snarls, lips receding to show its many rows of teeth.
“What sign?!” Mel cries in hysterics. She glances at the entrance to the cave, reminded of the swirling patterns of the runes. Ghouli leans into her savouring the hunt, its face centimetres from her nose, its eyes tearing through her mind. A claw clasps around her neck and she chokes.
“You know what it says — ” Ghouli starts, taking her injured hand to it’s tongue for a taste.
She does know. “Here be Monsters.”
And the valley was plunged into silence once more.