By Craig Marx
HONG KONG, MAY 1887
“To what do I owe this pleasure, Monsieur Astrakhan?” Han Soo-Cheng asked from across the rickety restaurant table.
The Monsieur took a sip of the amber-colored liqueur from his snifter and looked out upon Hong Kong Harbor’s endless armada of ships both arriving and departing in the setting Oriental sun. The Occident was far away and the Monsieur found himself in the confines of a bustling Chinese restaurant, an open air cafe serving the typical local fare (rice and pork nibs) with a selection of brandies and calvados to make even the most cavalier Frenchman blush. Peter Astrakhan returned the glass from his lips and puckered them in satisfaction. “Lord Sansibury requested my presence here to discuss a possible acquisition.”
“And that being?” Soo-Cheng blinked rapidly before taking a hurried sip of his tea, spilling a dainty amount of the lukewarm liquid upon both his white robe and the tablecloth in front of him. “Pardon moi, Monsieur,” he interjected immediately, wiping the stain upon his breast with one of the establishment’s few napkins.
Astrakhan sighed and looked once more toward the harbor, then back again to the humble yet undignified older gentleman across from him, wiping his tea stains and humming to himself a delightful melody that sounded as if a delicate harmony somehow accompanied it despite resonating from only two vocal cords. A rush of guilt filled the Monsieur as he interrupted the emaciated octogenarian’s song, “No worries, good sir. I have come here to find out about the Pyramid of Zan’ai.”
Soo-Cheng discontinued his worry over the immediate cleanliness of his robe as he slowly turned his eyes towards Mister Astrakhan’s own charming disposition. “Zan’ai. It has been many years since a man has mentioned that name.” The man immediately placed the soiled napkin upon the table and breathed heavily for a moment, causing the Monsieur to grow increasingly more afraid of the geriatric gentleman’s feeble lung capacity.
“And what exactly does Zan’ai mean to you?”
The man’s murmured breathing and slight convulsing (his hands trembled with each breath and his legs tightened up as he exhaled) instantly ceased. He had been as far away as the most distant ship in the harbor that evening for nearly a minute, but his wandering mind had finally found its port and Soo-Cheng’s eyes widened as though he had been delivered to the Earth from Providence five minutes prior.
“Zan’ai,” he said, in an un-Earthly, raspy voice he had not spoken in earlier in the Monsieur’s sorted attempts at conversation, “was once a great kingdom on the infinite steppe surrounding the Caspian. It ceased to exist over 1,500 years ago. Some say the people died from a great plague, but these banes of academia are incorrect. A Greek adventurer, Doliphios, traveled about the Turkic lands around 300 AD and described the Kingdom of Zan’ai’s prosperity and knowledge in its entirety on his virgin expedition. The Great Sauntoki of Zan’ai was receptive yet abrasive, but possessed a knowledge of psyche unlike any other culture he was to encounter. He spoke of future wars and empires that had not yet existed. He spoke of a ‘Pyramid’ that had given him power. Terrible power. Upon leaving, the Sauntoki warned young Doliphios of a return to the underlight should the ‘Pyramid’ be fully understood. After leaving the Kingdom, he returned henceforth five years later from his first journey. The Greek adventurer described the Kingdom on that final voyage as appearing as though it had never existed at all. What remained was nothing more than a barren, seaside tide break. And thus the Pyramid was lost for centuries.”
Peter was perplexed. Central Asian history was, to most of those with Western intellect, a very remote and tertiary concern for him. Somehow he was cynically intrigued. “Why did this ‘great catastrophe’ come upon the kingdom?”
“A man dances with a lion and thinks himself a tamer. A man allows snow to fall upon him because he knows it will melt. A man trapped in the desert allows himself to see water, but at no point can a man see the power of the underlight.”
“Sir, excuse me, but what exactly is that supposed to mean?”
“The Pyramid attracts more than just the wanting and the lustful, Monsieur Astrakhan. It is a magnet of the dark inside man. The eclipse of the moon brings the underlight over the whole land for a short period of time, but even at the height of a total eclipse, the moon has the breaking of the darkness to long for and receive. The underlight of the Pyramid, Monsieur, cannot be broken by the rotation of the Earth or the reflection of the sun. The darkness of the Pyramid is eternal.”
The Monsieur sunk back into his chair, partly disoriented and greatly dumbfounded. “I’ve heard many a nightmare before, sir, but trying to scare me as if I were some Lancaster schoolboy is not quite the cordial approach. I am in a position to find the Pyramid of Zan’ai and you are in an even more advantageous situation to profit from giving me its location.”
“You are a shrewd one, Monsieur. You know not about the light but yet care not of the dark. You are not ready, my friend. The Pyramid would devour that last oil lamp’s worth of glimmer that hangs rotten beneath your breast.” The octogenarian’s pupils were crimson and the whites of his eyes were that color of split pine that typically graced those prone to jaundice. He sat in a minute of silence, by now appearing as if not to breathe at all, until suddenly he exclaimed. “I know something, Monsieur!”
He spoke with the most sadistic of grins, “There was once a young woman in your dreams who needed your help. You were at a palatial summer home, Somerset to be specific – something of that grand, English design. She was out in a field of heather and your lucidity was slowly coming to you, so much so that this girl’s shrieks and shivers echoed into your very soul. When we allowed you to view her, that character you perceived in our oneiromantic opera, she was but withered away. Yet this young woman continued to howl as if still alive and you stood and did nothing, tight lipped as you only watched until finally you collapsed from fear…”
The old man’s yellowed eyes then rolled into the back of his head. A percussive release of air from his windpipe was heard above the constant chatter of the bustling cafe and the old man fell to the floor, convulsing and tightening tenfold to his previous spell. He writhed around under the table as the restaurant’s onlookers began a noisy bustle of paranoid concerns and remarks of distaste. As Peter Astrakhan lunged from his seat to the side of the man, he grabbed the soiled napkin from the table and placed it between the man’s teeth so as to ensure he did not bite off his own tongue. When the Monsieur placed his left index and middle fingers to the temple and neck of Han Soo-Cheng, there was not even the faintest of pulses nor the most promising of explanations as to what had previously just occurred.