© 1991 C. Raymond Lewis
[This short story and the accompanying article were written by my then-roommate and friend Charlie Lewis. A second tale of the redoubtable Dr. Hale appeared in TUO10 (1994), although it was written not long after this one. Incidentally, this piece served as a major jumping-off point for TUO writer and Pagan staff member John Crowe in his WALKER IN THE WASTES campaign. — John Scott Tynes, 1994]
April 15, 1933
We were almost there. I could feel it. Soon we would make the greatest archaeological discovery of the decade, perhaps even of the last hundred years. Soon, we would find the Tablets of Destiny, the icons of Babylonian kingship.
With me at this historic moment were Dr. Daniel Leiber, a noted Assyriologist from Cambridge, and Dr. Nathaniel Polson, an anthropologist from Miskatonic University, where I also taught.
We were digging in an isolated area of Iraq, approximately 55 miles south-southeast of Baghdad. The countryside was deserted for a couple of miles around us in all directions. No signs, even, of farmers or shepherds, which was fine by me. The fewer people that knew about our true goal, the better.
I had heard a rumor from a colleague of mine at the university in Munich that the new Chancellor of Germany, Adolph Hitler, was secretly looking for ancient religious artifacts. I thought it was nothing more than a rumor, but it never hurt to be cautious. Something about the ideology of Hitler’s Nazi party just did not sit well with me.
Our two laborers/guides that we had hired in Baghdad were resting, as were Drs. Polson and Leiber. We had dug out a hole roughly three meters square. If our notes were correct, we would hit stone at any time.
Chunk! One of our guides’ shovels had hit something solid. We began to get excited as we all joined in clearing away the dirt and sand. Soon we had an area cleaned off; the outlines of a stone square one meter across could be readily seen.
It was getting late. Normally, by this time, we would stop for dinner, and then bed…but tonight was different. No one was hungry for food, much less tired. Dr. Polson was hurriedly making sketches in the quickly fading daylight, while Dr. Leiber began making preparations to pry the stone off. I was busy writing down notes so that the exact course of events during this historic moment would not be lost. I then retrieved my notebook that contained translations of cuneiform. Dr. Leiber knew cuneiform like the back of his hand, but it never hurt to have a back-up.
As twilight settled on the plains of Iraq, so did we settle into the task of lifting the stone that lay between us and destiny.
Fifteen minutes later, I was being lowered down on a rope into a chamber that had lain undisturbed for thousands of years. I shined my flashlight around the chamber and felt the weight of history. There were carvings and statues beyond description, and I stood there in a spellbound reverie until Dr. Leiber almost landed on top of me.
Identifying the artifacts in this room alone would keep experts busy for some time. The room itself was exquisite. The chamber was approximately 15 meters by 18 meters, with many nooks and crannies around the walls. There were statues depicting at least half of the known Sumerian/Babylonian pantheon, many of which were gilded or silver-plated.
Excited as we were, we were still professionals. I began making a map of the chamber we had entered while Dr. Leiber started to translate the carvings. Dr. Polson came down soon after and began to catalogue the items in the chamber.
Two hours later, the task was done. We accepted the inevitable and went back up to the surface for a few hours of sleep. We had the guides replace the stone while we rested; the plan was to begin searching for a way into the next chamber at dawn.
We were up before dawn the next morning. Over coffee and reheated stew from last night’s dinner, we discussed our next steps. Obviously, there had to be something more. Our individual researches had indicated many chambers. Finding the way into those chambers was logically the next step.
With the help of our guides, we reopened the chamber and climbed down. After bringing down some supplies and setting up lanterns, we began the slow process of pushing, pulling, and poking anything that might conceal the catch for a secret door or entryway.
Three and a half hours later, Dr. Polson sat down with a sigh and leaned against a statue. Naturally, since we had already checked that statue, it moved with a groan. We pushed on it further, and it slowly moved back with a horrid grinding sound. Our efforts revealed a cramped circular stone stairway leading down.
I elected to go down the stairs first (actually, I lost at Rock, Paper, Scissors three times in a row). Gathering up a lantern and my courage, I went down.
The stairs only went down about 15 feet, though it felt much further. I began to grow cautious when I looked back up and could barely see the others. When I called up to them, my voice felt far away, and I had to strain to hear their answer.
I looked around me. I was in a small room that looked to be about two meters across on a side. The side across from the stairs opened up on a passageway. Dr. Leiber came down next, followed soon after by Dr. Polson.
Dr. Polson thought he ought to stay at the bottom of the stairs, ‘Just in case.’ Dr. Leiber and I started down the hallway. Once we entered the hallway, I no longer felt swallowed up by the darkness like I had on the stairs.
We moved cautiously, noting the artwork and writings along the way. I was also keeping a close eye out for traps. Between the two of us, several were found, but were left to be disarmed later. The desire to find what we had come for was driving us on.
Some time and many twists and turns later, we came to a door. It was larger than man-sized and appeared to be made of something similar to marble. The door frame was covered with symbols unlike anything I had seen before, and we paused as Dr. Leiber copied them down. Soon, he began to translate the symbols, muttering excitedly under his breath.
What seemed to be an eternity later, Dr. Leiber looked up and said, “This is it. According to these symbols, beyond this door lie the Tablets of Destiny.” But how to open the door? As if reading my mind, Dr. Leiber pulled a notebook out of his pack. “I remember finding some phrases on a tablet unearthed at Ninevah some years back,” he said. “One in particular looked to be some phrase of power. Perhaps the door is voice-activated.”
Now I found it very unlikely that a civilization based on bronze and stone would be capable of voice-activated doors. It wasn’t possible here in the twentieth century A.D. Why would it have been possible millenia B.C.? The only way would have involved magic, and frankly, I have no use for that charlatan’s trade. On the other hand, nothing else we tried had worked, so why not?
To this day, I cannot remember the phrase that Dr. Leiber used. It seemed at the time like the sound was sucked out of my ears. I do remember quite clearly, though, that the door began to move as soon as Dr. Leiber finished. Dumbfounded, I crossed myself as I crossed the threshhold.
Inside was a rather plain room. There were no statues, no gold or silver treasures. There were pictures of men and gods on the walls, along with more symbols similar to those around the door. On the right hand wall, there was a section of the wall that looked to be made out of white stone in the shape of a portal or window. In the center of the room on a raised dais was a stone box, presumably the container of the Tablets. Dr. Leiber came up beside me with a look of wonder on his face.
I went over to that section of the wall that was different from the rest. The figures around it were different also. Instead of the images of kings and gods, this area depicted humanoid creatures with tentacles and more. Underneath the images seemed to be another image, an image of something large and shapeless; but it was discernible nonetheless.
The air around the wall was significantly cooler than the rest of the room. I rubbed my arms as I reached out and touched the portal. It was cold! I jerked my hand back in fear that it would freeze with any more contact. As I pulled my hand back it seemed as though the surface shifted into something more vague. Before, it had been like white obsidian, but now its complexion had become more milky. At least, it looked that way. I returned my attention back to the stone box on the dais.
With a hesitancy that was almost fear, Dr. Leiber motioned me over to help him open the box. We struggled with the lid for a while, but soon it was off. Inside were two tablets. Dr. Leiber began to study them, then gasped. “What is it?” I asked.
“These tablets…one describes my life, the other describes yours,” he said, visibly shaking.
“Lucky coincidence?” I refused to let myself contemplate the implications of our names being on these tablets that were supposed to be millenia-old.
“Legend tells of the god Enlil, who was one of the three great divinities of the Babylonians. Among other things, he was the guardian of the Tablets of Destiny. Enlil had power over the destiny of all things.”
“But he is a dead god.” He was bent over them, reading near the bottom.
“I am destined to die, but you are destined to live.” All of the color had run out of his face.
“Well, that takes a lot of power to figure out. You’re twenty years older than I. It would be very surprising if I didn’t outlive you.” I still refused to think about how our names and histories had appeared on these tablets. “I think we are dealing with a very elaborate hoax.”
“Who would be able to do this?”
“I don’t know. Grab them. We can study them in detail later. This place gives me a bad feeling.” Dr. Leiber slowly picked each tablet up and put them in his pack.
I turned around as I reached the door for a last look at the room; something told me that I would not be coming back to it. It was then I noticed the change in temperature. The whole room was getting much colder, and there was a visible swirling pattern on the portal in the right wall. I grabbed at Dr. Leiber, but he stood there, transfixed by the swirling portal. I grew more worried when a vapor began to issue from it.
The tips of grasping tentacles appeared in the portal. I panicked, and grabbed Dr. Leiber’s pack and pulled. He shrugged it off. Whatever was coming out of the portal was almost out.
“Come on! Snap out of it! We must flee!”
“No! I will delay it. Now go.”
“Not without you.”
“It is my destiny to die. I will not… no, I cannot run from my destiny.”
By now, It was out, large and absolutely hideous. It looked like some horrid manifestation of a squid, with eyes all over the transparent amoebic body. A long tentacle reached out, wrapped itself around Dr. Leiber, and pulled him toward it. I broke and ran.
The creature began sliding after me, but I ran like I wore Hermes’ winged boots. I ran, pell-mell through the hall, towards the upper chambers and the surface, tripping traps left and right.
I thought I was going to make it when I tripped over a loose stone and fell flat on my face. The creature was moving rather slow, so I was sure
“But he is a dead god.” He was bent over them, readiI would have plenty of time to get up and out. That was when the section of floor I was on sank about a foot. I scrambled up and hurried to the stairway, then flew up the stairs. A deep rumble could be heard from the bowels of the earth.
When I reached the surface, the sun was shining. I blinked against the glare. Dr. Polson looked worried; the guides looked terrified. “What happened? Did you find them? Where’s Dr. Leiber?” I was about to answer when all chaos broke loose.
Sand erupted everywhere and then holes began to form. The halls were collapsing beneath us! First to go were the pack animals, and supplies. The guides, who were near the animals at the time, fell soon after. Dr. Polson and I started to run, but he slipped in some shifting sand and started sinking. I reached for his outstretched hand as he screamed for help. Our fingertips touched, and then he was gone. A short while later, the sand was calm and the rumbling had ceased. There was no trace of our work, or my companions.
I reached into Dr. Leiber’s pack. The Tablets were still there, along with his notebooks. With a feeling of despair, I gathered what little remained of our camp and started walking to Baghdad.
I was picked up by a camel herder, and from there made it to Baghdad, and ultimately back to the United States.
At the museum, the curator and several of my colleagues welcomed me back, but were saddened at the loss of Dr. Polson and Dr. Leiber. I told them we were separated in a sandstorm, and no trace of them could be found.
That night, a close friend of mine came to visit. He had experienced many things that were simply inexplicable. After hanging up his leather jacket and felt fedora, I told him the real story over a bottle of bourbon. I’ve told no one else since, until now.
The Tablets no longer contain the histories of Leiber and myself. Instead, they are covered in a curious script no one recognizes. Perhaps it’s better that way. A little knowledge can be a deadly thing.
The Tablets of Destiny for use in Call of Cthulhu
The tablets appear in Sumerian myths when the god Enlil is mentioned. Enlil was one triad of greater gods as the god of the land (Anu was god of the heavens and Ea was god of the waters). Enlil was the guardian of the tablets, which gave him power over the destiny of all things, living or not. Ancient Babylonian beliefs held that having power to assign anything its place in the order of creation gave the power to fix its destiny. In the Bible, Adam is similiar to Enlil in that he fixed the destiny of all creatures by naming them and assigning them their place.
In the Mythos, Clark Ashton Smith’s creation Ubbo-Sathla is said to reside in a vast bubbling pool, around which are scattered the Elder Keys. The contents of these inscribed stones are unknown, but it is not difficult to postulate a connection between the Elder Keys and the Tablets of Destiny of Sumerian myth. If any of the Keys/Tablets are in the hands of mortals, it is likely to only be a very few. More likely is that such items would be hidden away in tombs, guarded by one of Ubbo-Sathla’s Spawn [see "Dark Denizens of Dreams and Beyond," in this issue].
For those keepers wishing to weave subtle clues into a scenario involving the tablets, here is some additional info specific to Enlil: The sacred number of Enlil was 50; his astrological sign was the star group of Pleiades (which was usually represented with seven small circles); and the ‘Way of Enlil’ is the part of the heavens 12 degrees north of the equator.
It should be noted that when references are made to Sumerian ways, for the most part, they will hold true for Babylonia and Assyria, as each was a successive culture that grew on what came before.
In a scenario, there would probably be as many tablets as there are Investigators who find them. The language of the inscriptions is fluid and subject to change. The Tablets of Destiny, for instance, would be in Sumerian/Babylonian/Assyrian cuneiform. Elder Keys in the possession of other cultures would, of course, be different. The stones will initially tell the life history of each Investigator as well as references to their future. There is a 1d10 SAN loss for reading one’s own tablet.
Shortly, however, the contents of the stones will change. Most likely they will revert to a script unknown to humanity, though this could well change again if they change hands. To prevent a continuing game of pass-the-stones among the investigators, it is safe to assume that the life-history feature of the Elder Keys requires magical rituals to unlock. It may well be that the Elder Keys, rather than being the curious but simple stones they appear, are actually some sort of cosmic database or library, containing virtually anything one might wish. But without the proper method of unlocking them, they will remain a frustrating mystery.
Hooke, S.H. and Oxford, Basil Blackwell. Babylonian and Assyrian Religion. (1962)
The following are sources that could be consulted either by Keepers for additional information on Sumerian culture, or Investigators wishing to do the same. Note the publication dates.
Garnier, Colonel J. The worship of the dead, or, the Origin and Nature of pagan idolatry, and its bearing upon the early history of Egypt and Babylonia Chapman & Hall, LTD. (London: 1904).
Jastrow, Jr., Morris. The Civilization of Babylonia and Assyria. J.B. Lippincott Co. (Philadelphia: 1915).
Layard, Austen Henry. Nineveh and its Remains. George P. Putnam (New York: 1852).
Pinches, Theophilus G. The Religion of Babylonia and Assyria. Constable (London: 1906).
Sayce, The Reverand A.H. Babylonians & Assyrians — Life and Customs. Charles Scribner’s Sons (New York: 1900).
There are many more sources of information that have been published since, but these were contemporary with 1920s (and 1890s) CoC gaming. Additionally, there are many more of the same period in foreign languages, especially German.