In the empire of Abyssinia, within the kingdom of Gojjam, there lies a range of mountains near the shore of Lake Tana at the source of the Blue Nile. The mountains have long been ravaged by man, so much that many of them lack forests entirely, with cultivated land rising nearly a mile above the mud. So tamed were these mountains by man that the regal black lion, mightiest and most vicious animal in all of East Africa, was almost entirely extinct.

     I was sent to station there as an emissary of the Crown shortly after the signing of the Hewett Treaty. Despite the rising tensions over the port of Massawa between Emperor Johannes and the Kingdom of Italy, I was more or less free to travel as I pleased. Even when the Crown supported the Italian occupation, I was able to continue visiting the more remote part of the mountains, where I began to hear whispers of a most formidable threat lurking in the darkest valleys of the mountains, one that would have cowed even the most fearless of men.

     The stories told of a pride of lions, ones as savage in appearance as they were in appetite. The males were said to be a full foot taller than a man from wither to claw, and about half again as long as the average lion. The lionesses, I was told, were nearly five-feet tall at the withers, and both them and the kings of the pride were said to be too hardy for a rifle to down. Furthermore, these lions were feared for their most disturbing trait: their appetite, which was said to be sated only by the still-living flesh and blood of a man.

     Their territory, it seemed, was a single uncultivated valley bordering Ch’ok’e Tecarra itself; though small, the path that led to it was difficult to ascend, turning outright treacherous once one reached the slopes. So and once inside the valley, climbing the slopes in either way was treacherous and difficult. So notorious was the path that it inspired nearly the same fear in the locals as the valley itself, and even the few who did not believe the in the lions refused to traverse that trail.

     Even until that day, I held doubts about these tales. I had spent enough time around lions to know their habits and behaviors, including their reluctance to hunt man; many of the man-eaters I had examined were lame or sick, and they were all too often easily dispatched by the express gun. But despite my experience, the idea that an entire pride might be inclined to prey on man still intrigued me, and while I did not wish to see such savagery firsthand, I found myself drawn to the lore nonetheless.

     I began my search for a safari guide in the trade town of Dembecha. I’d hoped to meet up with the caravans that often stopped there to by supplies for their journeys, but they’d already passed when I’d arrived. Instead, I entered one of the local eateries, where I made announced my intent to explore the valley. During the silence that followed, I made an offer of five pounds sterling for a guide, but I found no takers; even after tripling my offer, there were none.

     None, it seemed, until I met Ábal.

     A muscled, bearded man, Ábal had came to live in the region as a young child, and had spent his youth exploring the mountain whenever he got the chance. In his adolescent years, he’d stumbled upon a well-concealed cranny on the northern edge of the mountain, one he claimed led–through treacherous terrain–to the valley itself. Unlike the other guides I’d approached, Ábal seemed more proud and jovial. He bragged about his past expeditions for hours–his ascent of Kilimanjaro in ’65, his taking of buffalo in the Serengeti the year after, and the many times he had traveled into the Congo. When I offered my request, he responded with great eagerness, and his only condition was that I by a new rifle for him and myself each.

     It wasn’t that he feared these animals. He told me that they were as fierce as the stories said, that they were relentless in the chase and fearless when cornered. However, he denied that the pride was any more inclined toward the taste of man than any other, and he scoffed at the suggestion that they may be immortal. They were, he said, merely animals–wild and dangerous animals, but under the dominion of man just the same.

     We spent the next week planning our route through the mountains. The trail we were to follow would begin as a simple path that cut through a ragged outcropping. While it seemed straightforward, the path would begin to meander a few hours in, nearly falling back upon itself at several times before finally becoming a maze. While this baffling portion of the trail could be navigated with trial and error, Ábal had warned that it was convoluted enough to take several days to do so. He suggested that we use a nearby ridge to map our way through before we set foot on the trail. After several days of study, we had our route planned, and we stepped into town to shop for supplies.

     We searched several shops for suitable arms, focusing on express rifles and customized doubles. We found none to our liking until a chance visit to a shop near our starting village, where we procured a pair of .45-70 government carbines. The purchase, which was made with a box of bullets, only brought us down by about twenty-three pounds. We each fired about a few shots to familiarize ourselves with their action and recoil, and when the morning came, we began our journey.

     The route we took from the village was fairly steep, full of loose soil and sheering cliffs. Ábal assured me that the terrain would lighten as we reached the valley path, though he warned that it would still be narrow and difficult. I didn’t mind, having climbed several mountains during past journeys, although as the ascent continued I began to tire.

     The heat of the sun was harsh, and it was only made bearable on occasion by the mountain’s shadow. We went through most of our water reserves through the first half of the trip, when the sun’s gaze had been at its most intense. I was glad to see that Ábal’s assurances were becoming true–the steepness and difficulty did indeed lessen, though they didn’t disappear–but when we reached the descending path to the valley, I felt my heart sink.

     It was a sloping, narrow crevice that curved down and westward, with many jagged rocks heaving into the sky. Ábal told me that this formation prevented the lions from leaving the valley, and while it was barely wide enough for a human to squeeze through, he insisted that it was the safest way down. The final stretch of our descent was slow and tedious; it was easy to dash one’s self across the jagged rocks if one were to lose their footing, a threat that seemed to rear its head every few minutes. But after a little more than an hour, we managed to break free of the crevice, and found ourselves on a sprawling, dried bed of an ancient salt lake that seemed devoid of anything living.

     Almost immediately, Ábal reached for his rifle, and held it ready to fire. I could see fear and terror on his face, a look that anticipated not an animal but a monster. I was baffled at first, but as the sun began to fall behind the mountain, I realized what had frightened him. I was not prepared for the horror that would follow.

      In the dimming light, I saw them approach–three large lionesses, well beyond the limits of what I had seen before. Their fur was matted and dirty, and their cloudy eyes were turned back toward their jowls. Their tongues were split straight back from the tip along almost their entire lengths, and they dangled lifelessly from the corners of their mouths–mouths that themselves had been torn into ragged and dry Cheshire cat grins.

     It was those guts that held my gaze. For several long moments I pondered why their stomachs bulged so unevenly from their sunken chests, but after the nearest lioness turned flank to me, the reason became clear. Each lioness’ gut held several writhing figures, their exaggerated features misshapen and folded in improbably ways, but nonetheless human-like as they clawed and twisted at the walls of their fleshy prison. It was this very sight that instilled in me the urgent desire to flee, but I stood transfixed in terror and–perhaps–a bit of morbid fascination.

     Then one of them lay down on its side. Emerging from the growing shadows next to her were four cubs, each seemingly starving and covered in filth. They began to suckle, their mouths and throats quivering with each swallow as if they were made of jelly. There was inherent wrongness to their faces, something uncannily human, a trait neither subtle enough to elude notice at a distance nor overt enough to draw attention from the rest of their forms.

     As we watched the cubs feed from the mountain’s edge, a terrible cry rang out across the valley. From the depths of the shadows emerged what I knew to be the dominant male, a monstrously large abomination whose tattered lips were pulled into a dreaded rictal grin, revealing a mouth full of hideously yellowed fangs. So massive was this beast that it towered over his tallest lioness; though his gut seemed only a little more bloated than the others’, it was crammed with many more of those terrible figures, all compacted so tightly within that they tore not only at their confinements, but each other as well. He approached the rest of his pride seemingly unaware of this nightmare wrestling inside him, his milky, twisted gaze transfixed on his queens. e watched in disgust as he surveyed his more filled lionesses, before violently grabbing the tallest of them by the nape of the neck and pulling himself atop her.

     What we saw was dreadful beyond words. As the lioness screamed, one of the figures inside the male began to thrash violently before apparently being broken down into something less defined. As it faded into the contours of his belly, another within the female began to grow still, until its gripping hand seemed to only casually tremor against her side and its featureless face held itself firmly in place. At this, the male broke away, and I fell to my knees and vomited in the dirt.

     It was at that point I heard the crack of Ábal’s rifle. I looked up, staring at the putrid black blood oozing from the chest of the male lion. The creature fell to one knee, his chest hitting the dry earth with a heavy thud. But as Ábal racked the lever on his gun, I saw the lion rise unfazed from the shot, and as the lionesses turned their gazes toward us, I grabbed Ábal and bolted for the crevice.

     I dared not to look back, even as I could hear Ábal screaming in Faroese, begging to be let go and hitting my arm with the butt of his gun. I could hear the pride, not far from us, panting as they pursued their new prey. Although we were only ten meters from the crevice, the short run seemed to last for an eternity; my arm ached from the blows inflicted by the stock, and my legs and lungs burned from my extended dash.

     No sooner than we reached the crevice than I felt a sharp pain in the back of my head. My grip on Ábal’s wrist fell loose, and I dropped forward onto the rocks. I heard three shots in rapid succession, followed by the sound of my guide screaming. As quickly as I could, I pulled myself into the crevice and took one last look back into the valley.

     The male had begun eating him, although from the sounds of Ábal’s screams I knew my guide was still alive. I pulled myself just a little further up the path, hoping to get a better view of the terrible scene, and when I did I saw Ábal’s face filled with pain and terror. When his eyes met mine, he raised a single finger to the center of his head, a silent plea to end it all. The message was clear–my guide was to die no matter what I did. I raised my gun and fired.

     As if the thought of eating a corpse disgusted him, the lion dropped Ábal’s lifeless body. The lionesses began to converge on the gap, their lifeless eyes staring into mine. For a moment, I raised my rifle, intent on killing as many of them as I could, but when I saw the many healed wounds across their bodies, I knew nine shells wouldn’t be enough. I lowered my gun and began my journey back to the village.

     I have not been to Africa in many years. I have given up the life of the diplomat, and I have retired from journeying even in London’s backyard. If one should ask, I tell them I that I no longer care for such things, although I do admit that I once enjoyed them very much. But I will tell people, if they wish to follow in my footsteps, do not visit the valleys of Gojjam. It will not be lions that you will find there.

The Night Sea     Inheritance