The island is black as it rises toward you, a rip in the sky through which only darkness pours, and the wind wails, pushing you back upon your heels, while the tear in the endless vista draws you ever closer, as if the sea is draining into the abyss, bearing you down with it. The mass of darkness slips off to your left as your boat swings south and east. For a moment it seems like you are still and it is the island that moves, a massive black barge silently cutting through the sea.
This is the home of Tυφωεύς the magnificum, the Lord of the Abyss, the most terrifying monster of all, who lives in that space between spaces, in that spot one ten-thousandth of an inch outside your range of vision. I understand you may wish to turn away. And you can, if you wish. That is your blessing.
The monstrumologist and I do not have that luxury. We labor in the dark that you might live in the light.
Chapter Thirty-Six: “Is It Not Wondrous?”
At Warthrop’s insistence the Dagmar dropped anchor a half mile from the southern shore, the closest Russell dared bring his ship. The currents were treacherous this time of year, he told us; they swirled around Socotra with the fury of Charybdis; the beaches were littered with the rotting skeletons of ships that had ventured too close during the monsoon. In June the stratospheric winds from Africa are dragged down by the five-thousand-foot Hagghier Mountains and sent howling along the northern coastline. For three months without pause the winds rage at a nearly constant speed of sixty miles per hour, with gusts up to well over a hundred. June is also the month of the rains, torrential downpours that deluge the interior and the south, where we would attempt our landing.
The doctor and I followed Russell up to the forecastle, where he trained his spyglass north, looking for Gishub, a small fishing village that lay—or should have lain—due north and about a mile from our position. The captain was troubled. He knew we were in the right place, but no lights shone in the distance indicating Gishub’s existence.
“Completely dark,” he murmured. “That’s odd. It appears to be deserted.” He handed the spyglass to Warthrop, who swung it back and forth a few times before admitting he saw nothing but varying shades of gray rock.
“Look at twelve o’clock,” Russell advised. “Find the fishing boats on the beach, then straight back.… The natives fashion their buildings from stone—there’s precious little wood on the island—if they bother building anything at all. Quite a few, I hear, live in the caves at Moomi and Hoq.”
“I don’t… Yes, now I see them. You’correct, Captain. All the windows are dark, not a single candle lit or lamp burning.”
“There’s another little village called Steroh about ten miles to the east. I could bring the Dagmar down there.”
“No,” said Warthrop firmly. “This must be investigated, Captain. We shall go ashore here.”
“You’ll have an easier time of it in the morning, when the tide shifts,” Russell said as we descended to the main deck.
“I prefer to go now,” answered the monstrumologist. “Immediately.”
The knots that bound the dinghy to the ship were loosed. The ropes that bore it were paid out. We sat clutching the sides of the little boat as it fell, jerked, fell again, then plopped with a teeth-jarring splash into the water. Captain Russell’s face appeared over the quarter railing, his one eye shining in the glow of the lamp beside him.
“I’ll see you in three weeks, Warthrop! And I expect my first mate to be returned in good working order!”
“Don’t worry, Captain Julius,” Awaale called back. “I’ll keep them out of trouble!” He pushed against the Dagmar’s hull with the end of his oar and then set to with arms and shoulders bulging, swinging us round toward the looming, lightless shadow that was Socotra. The lights of the Dagmar receded into the night.
Warthrop leaned forward, every muscle tense, his eyes shining. Behind him the path lay strewn with bodies—the young sailor who had borne the nidus from the Isle of Blood and Bliss; Wymond Kendall, who had carried it to us; Thomas Arkwright, who had tasted its rot; Jacob Torrance, who had fed it to him; Pierre Lebroque and all the ones who had fallen in the quest for the Faceless One of a Thousand Faces. Before him the way was dark, the path unknown. I am the one! he had cried from the depths of his soul, the same fathomless well from which had risen, Look not into my eyes, for I am the basilisk! There was no difference, really. The monstrumologist’s desire was Pellinore Warthrop’s despair.
Beside me Awaale fought against the swift current that swept east to west, pushing us sideways as he labored to drive us forward. Our progress was nearly indiscernible. Warthrop slapped his hand upon the rail in frustration, and Awaale grunted, “I’m sorry, dhaktar. The current is very strong.”
“Then, you must be stronger!” snapped Warthrop.
Awaale gritted his teeth and strained against the insistent sea. It would keep us away, I thought. It doesn’t want us here. I imagined the behemoth ocean dragging us to the middle of its landless expanse where it would devour us. Socotra mocked us—drawing closer, pulling away again, while Warthrop cursed under his breath and Awaale prayed under his.
“Pull, damn you. Pull!” the monstrumologist shouted at him. He shoved Awaale aside, seized the oars, and strove against the tide, digging the oars furiously into the black, swirling water. With each thrust Warthrop roared, and Awaale gave me a look of grave concern. We’d not made landing, and already the doctor seemed on the edge of reason.
“Awaale is stronger, Dr. Warthrop,” I said gently. “You should let him—”
“And you should keep your mouth shut,” he growled. “I did not come all this way… I did not sacrifice what I have sacrificed… I did not endure that which I’ve endured…”
Awaale leapt from the boat a dozen yards from the beach, wrapped the rope around his powerful forearm, and pulled us the rest of the way, until the hull of the dinghy bumped against the bottom.
There was no rest upon our landing. There was no celebratory moment. Awaale hauled the boat out of the surf, and we quickly unloaded our supplies—the large rucksack containing the provisions and ammunition (Captain Russell had generously loaned Awaale his rifle), a lamp to light our way in the dark, and the doctor’s field case, the latter two entrusted to me. We set off at once toward Gishub, a small collection of stone buildings clustered at the foot of the towering cliffs that marked the edge of the Diksam Plateau.
“Will Henry, walk a little in front and keep the light low,” the doctor instructed. “Awaale, step carefully. If you see something that looks like a jellyfish, it probably isn’t. When we reach the village, touch nothing—nothing—without putting on a pair of gloves first.”
“Gishub has either been abandoned or overcome. I see no other possibility.”
Awaale whispered to me, “Gloves, walaalo?”
“To protect you from the pwdre ser,” I said.
“The rot of stars,” I answered.
“Death,” the monstrumologist clarified.
The way became steep, the ground hard. Before we’d come within a hundred yards of the first building, I smelled it—Awaale did too. He covered his mouth and nose, shuddering with revulsion: Gishub had not been abandoned; it had been overcome.
“Xumaato!” came his muffled voice from behind his large hand. With the other he quickly crossed himself.
Warthrop suddenly rushed forward, toward a building on the western end of the little village, commanding me to follow closely with the light. Stones had been piled against the doorway, blocking the entrance. The smell of rotting flesh permeated the atmosphere around the barrier; it seeped through the cracks between the hastily stacked rocks. The monstrumologist donned a pair of gloves and tore into the rocks. When the makeshift wall was halfway down, Warthrop seized the lamp from my hand and swung it through the opening. ="0em" width="1em">It had been a curing house for fish. The last catch still hung in rows from the low ceiling; the blank, dead eyes of the fish glowed ghastly yellow in the lamplight. Scattered about the floor were several corpses—I counted fourteen in all—in various stages of decomposition. No more a curing house, now it was a charnel house.
The doctor ordered me to put on gloves and bade me to follow him with the light.
“Stay out here,” he ordered Awaale before we stepped inside. “Shoot anything that moves.”
There was no question what had delivered these corpses to the makeshift tomb. While I held the light, the monstrumologist examined their eyes—those that still had eyes—and they stared sightlessly back at him with irises the size of dimes—Oculus Dei, the eyes of God inanimate. The same sharp-tipped bony growths that had erupted over the entirety of Mr. Kendall’s body protruded through their pale papery skin. The same exposed, swollen muscles and yellowish rock-hard claws for nails. The doctor puzzled over several corpses whose bodies appeared to have blown apart, spraying the walls and ceiling with their pulverized innards. A woman who’d already given up her face to the progeny of the flies that swarmed around our heads, whose skull grinned wetly at the doctor as he bent to examine her—brushing the maggots away with his little finger—gave away her particular causa mortis. Her cheekbones had been shattered, her skull crushed, her chin broken in half. She had not perished from the pwdre ser; she had been beaten to death.
Beside her a man lay on his side holding a child to his chest. It was a touching tableau, until I saw the claws imbedded to their roots in the child’s back and the stringy bits of its dried flesh hanging from the man’s elongated incisors. The child exhibited no signs of exposure; she had been healthy when the man had pulled her into his arms.
“It is wondrous, Will Henry,” breathed the monstrumologist over the maddening hum of the flies. “I feared we might be wrong—that Socotra was not the locus ex magnificum. But we have found it, haven’t we? And is it not wondrous?”
I agreed with him. It was wondrous.
He insisted on inspecting the rest of the village, so house by house we went, with Awaale standing guard at the door of each. Some we found relatively undisturbed, as if the inhabitants had simply stepped out for a few moments and were expecting to return. Other houses displayed evidence of violent struggle—tables overturned, cookware shattered, clothing strewn across the floor, blood splashed upon the walls and splattered in cone-shaped patterns across the ceilings.
We came to one house that appeared abandoned, but as we turned to leave, a pile of rags in the corner quivered and a small hand emerged, clawing impotently in the direction of the lamp.
The doctor drew out his revolver. He motioned for me to stay back and eased toward the squirming pile. The little fingers undulated, fell to the floor, and commenced to scrape across the hard stone with a horrid, dry scratching sound. Standing as far back as possible, Warthrop leaned down and carefully unpacked the makeshift cocoon, until he revealed a child, a boy no more than five, I guessed, in the final stages of exposure, with huge black eyes, more marsupial than human, and a suppurating face split apart by dozens of thornlike growths. He was naked from the waist up; his trousers hung about him in tatters. Long lacerations ran down his chest, like the mauling marks of a tiger; the wounds wept with fresh blood, and his lips shone with it and his nails dripped with it, and I remembered what the doctor had told me and realized that the boy was the last of the living and he had turned upon himself; he was eating himself alive.