(Apologies to those reading this for the rampant cultural insensitivity that is often shown. The reason is the setting, and the characters within, which necessitated such an unpleasant tone.)
The year is 1878. In the wilds of Rhodesia, Lt. Sebastian Smythe and his men, Sgt. Cooper and Pvt. Stanley are sent to investigate the difficulties that Col. Alain Shropshire has been having creating a bridge across a gorge. Delays, missing people, attacks on the laborers; dreadful business, really. The intrepid crew has seen much worse in Calcutta (if you remember it, then you weren’t there) and other exotic locales, so they have no worries about rousting out the rapscallions that are delaying Mother England’s mighty progress. Col. Shropshire advises them on the situation, and grants them a native guide, an electric torch, and a pair of binoculars to assist in the adventure. He also indicates that this assignment would mean an end to their military service, and a princely sum of 3000 pounds sterling to a man for completing the assignment. By G_d, the train must run soon, and navigating the mile or so out of the way of the gorge is preposterous. It just is not the British Way!
Lt. Smythe’s men decide that it would probably be a good idea to use the native guide as bait, drawing out the attackers who mostly come at night (mostly) and give them a dashed good showing with Sgt. Cooper’s Gatling & Co. brand Machine-Gun. Lt. Smythe initially plans to use a child, but Sgt. Cooper’s goodly Christian upbringing convinces him to persuade Lt. Smythe to use an adult. Using a child in such a manner just wouldn’t be cricket, as they say, heathen child or no. Lt. Smythe reluctantly agrees, and they set off in the early evening to the work site to investigate and possibly draw the dastardly fiends out. The native guide is not entirely keen on going to the gorge, but his fear is somewhat alleviated by some fine British tobacco and a nip from Pvt. Stanley’s flask. They head along the arrow-straight tracks to the gorge. Stanley is instructed to take point.
Descending by rickety rope ladder to the bottom of the gorge, they see the work to build a structural support for the bridge partially completed. Lt. Smythe’s sharp eyes discover a spattering of blood behind a crate containing some work equipment (including a stick of dynamite that is promptly given to Pvt. Stanley) indicating a struggle. Further investigation reveals a spearhead that has broken off, though Lt. Smythe’s knowledge of heathen civilizations does not reveal much other than it looks to be Zulu. Pvt. Stanley notices a pair of tracks further up the gorge nearing a cave, and it looks like one of the poor fellows who worked down here must have been dragged off. They go to investigate. Stanley is instructed to take point.
The native guide is increasingly agitated by being in the gorge and when is instructed to lead them into the cave, cries out in terror about “Dead men, evil men, evil place.” He scrambles up the rope ladder, but Pvt. Stanley’s quick reaction makes sure he does not get far. A little more liquid courage bolsters the native guide, and a pair of manacles and the point of Stanley’s bayonet makes sure. Stanley prods the guide on ahead.
A sudden movement near the mouth of the cave halts the party, and the native guide is asked to greet the mysterious stranger in his native tongue. Hearing no response, Lt. Smythe orders the man to go closer to investigate, and Stanley prods him through the ravine. The guide nervously makes his way towards the cave when he is leapt upon with savage ferocity by a lion, which fells the poor man with one swat of his giant paw. Stanley, quickly acting in fear for his life, fires his rifle at the beast, to only moderate effect. Sgt. Cooper quickly begins unlimbering his Gatling, and Lt. Smythe dashes behind a boulder, firing at the giant cat. The lion charges at Stanley, though its attack is thwarted by a deft and fortunate parry. Sgt. Cooper’s infernal machine spits death at the mighty creature, but still it comes. Fortunately, Lt. Smythe’s steady pistol draws a bead and fells the beast, a scant few inches from mauling Pvt. Stanley. The three soldiers laugh at the fortune of slaying such a fine specimen, and decide that when the venture is complete and they go into business together, they will use the lion as a rug. The mystery is not solved yet, however, as they still must investigate the caves. The lure of great reward (and further trophies!) draws them into the cave. Stanley takes point.
Gnawed human remains indicates the den of the lion inside of the cave’s mouth. A further investigation reveals footprints that shows a deepening of the cave, and a deepening of the mystery. What nature of man would walk unmolested through the cave of a lion? The three intrepid adventurers press on to discover what the cave holds. As they progress further inward, the air gets colder and more damp, and it is clear that they are descending. The rough cave eventually gives way to manmade walls. The hallway leads out into a large underground opening, with pillars carved with bizarre pictograms. Lt. Smythe’s knowledge of ancient and heathen languages indicates that they are representations in both Zulu and in what appears to be ancient Egyptian, all depicting monstrous individuals and themes of blood and death. There are further scrawlings about the 4th age and the 6th age, though the true translation escapes Lt. Smythe. A large and disturbing altar is present in the back of this room, carved to represent some malicious devil. The possibilities are mind-boggling. Pvt. Stanley expresses in his Christian zeal a desire to destroy the idol with the dynamite, but Lt. Smythe considers the fact that this may be of great value to the archaeologists of the Empire, and that if the Queen desires, she could have this in her very bedroom. Besides, the relics would likely net them far greater more wealth than the 3000 pounds sterling. Regardless, the mystery is not yet solved, and the evildoers are not yet thwarted, so it would be wiser by far to continue until the deed is done. Of the two tunnels leading deeper down, Lt. Smythe sagely picks the one on his left. Stanley takes point.
The walls of the hallways are painted in frescoes depicting in more graphic detail monstrous creatures that are sitting on piles of skulls, with corpses all about and men and women bowing down before them. It is disturbing, to say the least, and Lt. Smythe is slightly shaken by the experience. Pressing onwards, the adventuresome trio discover a truly massive room with tents and cookfires actively roaring, roasting what appears to be human flesh. Four Zulu warriors stand by, wielding spears and shields, wearing fearsome warpaint. The men press the attack! Stanley flings a grenade behind three of them, killing one, though two still stand injured. Sgt. Cooper begins to set up his machine gun, while Lt. Smythe kills one with his pistol. The Zulu warriors throw their spears, gravely injuring Pvt. Stanley, who falls unconscious, whil Lt. Smythe and Sgt. Cooper are injured, too. A fusillade from Cooper’s Gatling makes short work of two of the warriors, and Lt. Smythe quickly dispatches the other. They are victorious!
A brief period of recuperation and some first aid revives the fallen Stanley, and the three set about destroying the heathen’s encampment. They discover some freshly-painted frescoes by the cookfires, depicting a giant dragon on what appears to be railroad tracks, and the warriors taking and killing some of the workers. Clearly these were the fiends that attacked Col. Shropshire’s encampment, and it is of great import that there are no more left. Cannibals and heathens are to be shown no mercy, and given no quarter. They finish destroying what was left of the warrior’s equipment, and decide to further examine the other tunnel before returning to the Colonel, assured of their victory.
The other tunnel reveals more frescoes, of a similarly macabre motif, and Pvt. Stanley is too shaken to take point. Sgt. Cooper decides that it would be best for him to set up his Gatling and then create some sort of diversion to draw any further opponents out, laying into them with a devastating volley from his weapon and those of his compatriots. He sneaks up to get a closer look at the next room, and frantically signals for Stanley to come up with another grenade. There is a congregation of evil in this room, with no warriors per se, but a large gathering of vile heathens praying in front of a priestess in shamanic garb. Stanley remains, once again, on point with the grenade, and Sgt. Cooper runs back to man his gun. As the bomb goes off, Cooper opens fire into the confused throng and Stanley dives out of the way. The bullets rip apart many of the worshipers, but an invisible barrier seems to be keeping out the majority of the attack! The heathens that are still alive laugh at the confused men, and Stanley heads back to rejoin his brothers in arms. As he is returning, a gaunt figure materializes out of the mist behind the lieutenant, and attacks! Stanley shoots the figure, but to little effect. He is fended off once and again, but a series of parries and dodges by the vile creature means he gets away with little damage, and savagely latches onto the lieutenant, biting into his neck. The beast’s bloody feast seems to revive him, and Cooper and Stanley enter the fray. Some blows are dealt, but now Stanley is bitten, too. The sergeant swivels his Gatling back around and calling out an oath to his beloved Jenny at home, tells his brothers to duck as he opens up with machine gun fire. The vile creature is dispatched, and rises no more.
Behind the barrier, the priestess and the surviving members of the heathen band are opening their wrists and feeding another one of the evil creatures that withstood so much damage. The rage that boils through the blood of the two bitten members of the party inspires a vicious attack, and Stanley runs up and thrusts his hand through the barrier, throwing the stick of dynamite into the crowd. It annihilates the heathens, as well as the creature. The day is saved!
The men are severely shaken by the attack, though their injuries seem superficial. Lt. Smythe and Stanley feel an odd tingling spreading from their bite marks throughout their bodies, and voices seem to be calling out to them. It is calling this place, this unholy cave…home. It is wholly unchristian, though they no longer care. Stanley discovers an ancient pictogram, suddenly readable to him, that state that there are two who dwell, but then there would be three. Those three would go on to terrorize the world at the time of The Awakening, when the 6th age comes into being. Smythe’s animal instincts view Cooper as food, and he tells the good sergeant that he has something to tell him. When Cooper leans in, Smythe viciously bites his neck!
Sgt. Cooper runs from the cave, wishing to tell the Colonel about this dreadful turn of events, but as he enters out into the night air, his desires turn from informing the Colonel and gathering a hunting party to slaying him and taking the workers to be their vassals.
The three Englishmen go back to the sleeping room in the caves, their vassals watching over them and feeding them blood until the time comes to awaken and terrorize the world.
Scholars of the British Empire note that there is an unusual section of railroad that is routed around a gorge in what was once Rhodesia, but there is no explanation as to why they simply did not build a bridge, like they had so many times before. It is a mystery that will perhaps never be solved.