The Isle of Blood

Page 58

The stranger seized Kearns by the collar and said, “Where is it? Where is the magnificum?”

“Have you not eyes? Open them, and see.”

I heard a sharp click—the hammer drawing back. I saw a flash of black—the barrel coming round.

Kearns barely flinched. “Pull that trigger, and you’ll never get out of these mountains alive.”

e is it?” Finger quivering on the trigger.

“Ask Will Henry. He’s just a boy, and he sees it. You’re the monstrumologist; how is it that you cannot? Look at it, Pellinore. Turn and see! The Faceless One. The Faceless One. You have been pursuing something that has been right in front of you since the beginning. There is no monster. There are only men.”

He might have killed John Kearns then. He had come to that place—the same place, here at the top of the world, where, at its center, I had stood. I will tell you honestly that it is not very hard to kill a man in that place. It takes hardly any thought at all. It is the place of the unwinding, the place where hunter meets monster and sees in its face his own reflected. It is the place where desire meets despair.

I had to stop him. I said, “He’s right, sir. We need him.”

He did not look at me. Though I stood right next to him, he was alone in that place. I pulled on his arm; it felt like iron beneath my fingers.

“Dr. Warthrop, please, listen. You can’t. You can’t.”

“You’re lying,” he shouted into Kearns’s face. “This is another of your damnable tricks. You think it’s funny to make a fool of me—”

“Oh, you don’t need my help for that,” Kearns responded, laughing. “Of course I would love to take the credit for our penchant to put a monster’s face on all things monstrous. It’s comforting, in a way, to think a big dragon drags us up into the sky and rips us to shreds or that some gigantic spider weaves her nest from our leavings. If we’re going to be put in our place in the grand scheme of things, why, it had better damn well be from something impressive.”

The doctor’s hand had begun to shake. I was afraid he might pull the trigger accidently.

“There is… nothing,” Warthrop said hesitantly, echoing the anguished Nullité! of Pierre Lebroque.

“Nothing!” cried Kearns in mock astonishment. “Tell that to poor Sidorov, or to that shredded-up piece of clay beside him. Tell it to those poor buggers in Gishub or the mother who lost her child or the child who lost his mother! Tell it to the czar and those of his ilk who would tame the magnificum to subdue the world! Really, Pellinore, what sort of monstrumologist are you? A contagion with the potential to wipe out the entire human species—and you call it nothing!”

Warthrop’s hand fell away. He sank to the ground, overwhelmed by the enormity of his folly. The dark tide swept over him and bore him down to its crushing, lightless depths. Kearns was right. The signs had been all around the doctor since the beginning—from the jelly-filled sacks in Mr. Kendall’s stomach to the blasted-open corpses in Gishub—but he had turned away. He had not forced himself to look upon the true face of the magnificum, and now the blood of those who had sacrificed their lives upon the altar of his ambition cried to heaven against him.

I knelt beside him. “Dr. Warthrop? Dr. Warthrop, sir, we can’t stay here.”

“Why not?” he cried. “It’s good enough for them.” He swept his arm across the blasted mountaintop. He looked up at me, and I saw nothing but ashes in his eyes; the cold fire had gone out. “You said it yourself at Harrington Lane. What they are I am inside. I am their brother, Will Henry. I am their brother, and I will not leave them.”

Chapter Forty-Two: “Fundamentally Human”

There was no moving him. I begged, I coaxed, I appealed to his reason, the one thing to which he always clung, no matter how strongly the dark tide pulled him down. He would not budge—or, I should say, the dark unwinding thing in his heart would not loosen its grip. He did not seem to hear me, or perhaps my words sounded to him like mere gibberish, incoherent ranting that made no more sense than the cackling of a chimpanzee. I looked around for Kearns, thinking our situation must be desperate that I would turn to him for help, but Kearns had vanished into the mist. Gently, so as not to startle the doctor, I eased the gun from his trembling hand; I was afraid he might discharge it and blow off his foot.

The swirling white cloud had grown thick around us. I could see no more than a few feet in any direction, and I heard no sound but the wind whistling between the mountain’s broken teeth, and my own ragged breath. I stood up, unnerved and disoriented, turning in a slow circle, a panicky voice whispering inside my head, Where is Kearns? Where did he go? Why did he go? as my finger caressed the trigger. What was that in the mist? Was it a stalagmite or the shape of a once-human child of Typhoeus, looming out of the blurring white? I pointed the gun at it and called out Kearns’s name.

Something a ten-thousandth of an inch outside my range of vision rocketed toward me, slamming into the middle of my back and hurling me head over heels toward the shallow bowl in the center of Typhoeus’s ruined throne. The impact knocked the wind out of my lungs, and the doctor’s gun out of my hand. I landed on my back and rolled over, coming up to face the leering, desiccated remains of a living corpse, a human sack of poison, its gut filled with star rot, its explosion of thorny teeth glistening in the anemic light of a suffocated sun. I scrambled backward as it lunged forward, my cries of terror and its cries of rage warring with the high-pitched grinding of the wind against the ageless stone. I jammed my hand into my jacket pocket for Awaale’s knife. The cold steel sliced open my palm as I fumbled for the handle. The monster’s mouth yawned wide when it smelled my blood; I could see my reflection captured in its black, unblinking eyes.

I retreated; it came on. The knife was in my hand now, and its wooden handle was slippery with my blood. I could feel the blood weeping from the wound to the rhythm of my galloping heart. Time itself began to jiggle and come apart, and we slipped into the space between spaces, the child of Typhoeus and I, skittering together upon the precipice while on either side was the depthless divide, the pit without bottom, das Ungeheuer. Its mouth stretched so wide, the hinges of its jaws tore apart. The tendons ripped with a wet pop!, and then the entire lower half of its face fell off and was trammeled beneath its shuffling feet. It reached for me, flexing its fingers, its sharp yellow nails clicking. I swung wildly at what was left of its face; the knife, slick with blood, flew from my grip; and then the thing was upon me.

I reacted without thinking. For more than two years I had stood by the monstrumologist’s side at the necropsy table. Human anatomy was as familiar to me as the lines on my master’s face. I knew precisely where to find the organ that powered the mortal engine. I could see it now, pounding furiously against the thin covering of decaying skin, and it beat in time with my own, in that space between spaces, upon that dizzying precipice above the abyss.

I punched my hand into its torso with all the force I could muster, just below the rib cage, and forced my fist deep into the center of the beast, my four outspread fingers digging up past the liver and between the laboring lungs until I was elbow-deep in its guts and my clawing hand found its heart.

And I crushed it with my bare hand. My fingers burst through the chambers of its heart. The beast’s weight came down upon me. We sank to our knees together, its black eyes boring into mine as its blood poured out the cavity I had made. I yanked my arm free with a disgusted sob and rolled away from it. Its hand slapped at the earth, once, twice, and was still.

I was crying hysterically, scrambling about for the knife, my right hand coated in my blood, my left in its, thinking, Done, done, done, you’ve done it now. You’ve poisoned yourself with it; the pwdre ser, it’s all over you. Done, done, done.

I found the knife, stood up, and called the doctor’s name, but the words were caught in my throat, and what little sound I made was snatched by the wind and whipped away like the blasted remains of the magnificum’s victims scattered all around me. I had lost all sense of direction in the fog. It seemed the ancient lake bed spread out to infinity; there was no horizon for Mihos to guard.

And then I turned and saw them shambling toward me, dozens of them, black shadows against the spinning white, their screeches of pain and rage akin to those of animals in the slaughterhouse. The blood draws them, Kearns had said. They can smell it for miles. If I stood my ground, I would be overrun. If I ran, the blood would lead them right to me.

For an eternity I stood in indecisive torment. There was no fighting it; there was no running from it. It was already in me; I was already one of them. Better to let them take me here, from without, than to allow it to devour me from within.

I stood upon the shore of a dead sea, and there were two doors before me. Behind one, a savage beast that would rip me to shreds. Behind the other, a monster of a thousand faces that would make my face one of his. That is the magnificum. Ours is the face of the beast.

Nil timendum est. “Fear nothing.” The motto of my master could be interpreted two ways. There was Jcob Torrance’s interpretation, and then there was Pierre Lebroque’s. But we are more than the sum of our fears. We are greater than the gravity of the abyss. I had come to that terrible place for one reason and only one reason:

Why the devil are you going again?

To save the doctor.

Save him from what?

Whatever he needs saving from. I’m his apprentice.

I tore through the roiling mist, screaming his name, and the teeth sprung up from the ground, and the broken bones crunched beneath my feet, and the mist spat them out, the once-human hands and teeth of the magnificum, their arms opened wide to receive me, their new brother. I thought I heard gunfire off to my right and stumbled toward the sound, thrashing my arms as if I could wave away the fog. And then I stepped into empty air; I had come back to the ledge, the eight-foot-high wall at the end of the path leading to the magnificum’s roost. For an awful instant I teetered upon the edge, flailing my arms uselessly to regain my balance, before gravity took me down.

I tucked my shoulder instinctively and hit the ground below in a roll. I rose with a cry of frustrated rage and leapt at the wall, but it was too high. I heard my pursuers then, their screams a deeper, throatier echo of my own, and I backed away, holding the knife with both hands in front of me and slicing it back and forth. Oh, what a ridiculous and pitiful sight I must have been!

And this voice, agreeing: What are you doing, Will Henry? You can’t go back for him. You are nasu. You will give the infection to him—or hand him over to the beasts chasing you. It is too late for you. But not for him.

I cried out his name once more before I fled down the path, taking the contagion with me, away from him.

I emerged from the clouds and beheld the world laid out before me, brown and black and shades of gray, and I prayed that the living corpses would follow the blood-smell that rose from my skin. I prayed that they would follow me down, their unclean brother, to their fate. The path diverged; I choose the steepest, thinking it would bring me down quicker to the plain. I had a vague idea I would lead them to Gishub, the city of the dead by the sea. It was not the way we had ascended, and at spots the path was nearly impassable, littered with huge boulders that left barely enough room for me to squeeze past. The wound in my right hand throbbed horribly, the bleeding would not stop, and my left hand was growing numb. That’s how it starts, I thought, remembering the doctor’s lecture to Mr. Kendall. First the numbness, then the aches in the joints, then the eyes, then…

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