I came to a sharp bend in the path. I turned the corner and stopped, for the way was blocked by a large pool of the clearest water I’d ever seen. Protected from the wind by the soaring peaks surrounding it, the water’s surface was unperturbed by the slightest ripple, reflecting back to the brooding clouds their own gray faces.
I was exhausted. I was at the end of it, the end of all of it, and I t by the water’s edge.
And the clouds raced across the sky above the undefiled water.
And I raised up my head and peered into the mirror, and there was my face looking back at me.
Without thinking I stood up and tore off my jacket. I stripped off my shirt. I strode into the water.
I walked until the water lapped against my chest, and then I kept walking until it kissed the underside of my jaw. I was surprised how cold it was. I closed my eyes and ducked beneath the surface. There was the wind and the clouds and the pure pool and the boy beneath its unsettled surface, and the blood, the boy’s and the monster’s, defiling the pool.
I am nasu now.
I came out of the water and threw myself back upon the ground. I was shivering uncontrollably; I had no feeling in my left arm. My neck was stiff and my eyes felt very dry. The hour was late.
The day was dying, and so was I.
To hold out against the end of hope is not stupidity or madness, the monstrumologist had said. It is fundamentally human.
I sat with my back against the mountain, Awaale’s knife cradled in my lap.
The knife was very sharp. Its edge was stained with my blood.
I will not tell you that it will bring you luck—it is the knife I used to sacrifice the one I loved—but who knows? You may redeem its blade with the blood of the wicked.
Two doors: I might wait for death to come in its own time—or I could choose the time. I could perish a monster or I could die as a human being.
We are the sons of Adam. It is in our nature to turn and face the faceless thing.
The day was dying, and yet the world seemed dazzlingly bright, and my eyes gathered in the smallest detail with astounding clarity.
It is called Oculus Dei… the eyes of God.
It had found me out at last, Typhoeus, the Faceless One of a Thousand Faces.
I was the nest.
I was the hatchling.
I was the rot that falls from stars.
Now you understand what I mean.
Night fell upon the Isle of Blood, but no darkness crowded my eyes. Mine were the eyes of God now, and nothing was hidden from me, not the smallest speck of matter. I could see through the mountains. I could see clear through to the burning heart of the earth. The wind drove the clouds away, and the stars were an arm’s length away; if I wanted, I could reach up and pluck them from the sky. I was numb; there was nothing I did not feel. I felt the contagion worming innt>
I still held the knife. I would not wait for the moment that the doctor had said would come—When everyone else is dead or has run off, he turns upon himself and feeds from his own body.…
“I’m sorry, Dr. Warthrop,” I whimpered. “I’m sorry, sir.”
I had failed him and I had saved him. I had gone down to the darkness that he might live in the light.
I think you are lonely a great deal of the time.
I set down the knife and dug into my pocket for her photograph.
It’s for luck, she had said, and for when you get lonely.
I eased it out of my pocket; it had gotten wet, and the paper was soft. The last time I had seen Lilly, I’d had the urge to kiss her. Some of us never learn the difference between urge and inspiration.
I picked up the knife again. In one hand Awaale’s gift, and Lilly’s in the other.
I think you are lonely a great deal of the time.
I heard them coming long before I saw them. I heard the bones of the earth snap and crunch beneath their feet, and I heard their labored breath and I heard their anxious hearts in the spaces between their ribs. I turned my head and saw Kearns first, and his voice was the width of a fingernail from my ear, “Here, Pellinore; I found him!” He slung his rifle over his shoulder and hurried over, and then I saw the doctor racing past the water’s edge, and his hand shot out and shoved Kearns out of the way.
“Don’t touch me!” I cried. “It’s too late, Doctor, too late, don’t touch me, too late!”
“I told you one of the buggers got him,” Kearns said, and the monstrumologist cursed him and told him to be quiet.
He opened his instrument case, donned a pair of gloves, murmuring to me all the while, telling me to relax, to stay calm, he was here now, and he had not forgotten his promise, and I wondered what promise he was talking about as he felt my pulse and shined a light into my eyes. My lips drew back in a snarl of pain and anger when the light struck. With shaking hands Warthrop carefully withdrew a vial of blood from his case. It was one of the samples he had extracted from the baby. The yellowish-white serum had separated out from the coagulated blood and now floated on top, suspended above the deep crimson. The doctor pressed the vial into Kearns’s hand and instructed him to hold it very still while he loaded the syringe.
“What the devil are you doing?” Kearns asked.
“I am attempting to slay a dragon,” answered the monstrumologist, and then he plunged the needle into my arm.
Chapter Forty-Three: “Lessons of the Unintended Kind”
Throughout the night he remained by my side, the man I kept human, battling to keep me human. He did not sleep that night or for the two that followed. Occasionally I would fall into a fitful, feverish doze, and when I woke, there he would be, watching over me. My dreams were terrible, filled with shadows and blood, and he would literally pull me out of them, shaking me roughly and saying, “Snap to, Will Henry. It was a dream. Only a dream.”
My symptoms did not immediately disappear. For two days the light scorched my eyes, and he would prepare compresses soaked in the cold lake water to lay over them. While the numbness in my other extremities slowly faded, my left arm had lost all sensitivity. He forced me to drink copiously, though the tiniest morsels made my stomach heave in protest.
Once I gave in to despair. It was too late. The serum was not working. I had seen the face of the Faceless One, and it was my face.
To which the monstrumologist replied fiercely, “Do you remember what I told you in Aden, Will Henry? Not by numbers or force of arms.” He seized my hand and squeezed it. “By this… by this.”
On the morning of the third day I was able to open my eyes a little, though tears of protest streaked down my cheeks, and I actually had an appetite. While my delighted caretaker dug into our bag of provisions, I looked about for Kearns. I could not remember seeing much of him.
“Where is Dr. Kearns?” I asked.
The doctor waved his hand toward the mountaintop. “Playing Theseus, looking for his Minotaur. He’s become quite obsessed with it. It offends his estimation of himself as a tracker par excellence.”
“Are we… Is it safe here, Dr. Warthrop?”
“Safe?” He was frowning. “Well, that is always a matter of degree, Will Henry. Is it as safe as Meister Abram’s brownstone? Probably not. But the worst is over, I would say. There may be a few of the infected still wandering about up here, though I doubt any are left in the plains or coastal regions. The natives are well acquainted with Typhoeus, and when an outbreak occurs, they isolate the infected villages and take to the caves until it burns itself out. Pwdre ser loses its potency over time, as I think I’ve told you, and the monsoon rains wash the remnants to the sea. I suspect the contagion emerged in Gishub and spread from there. Kearns informed me it was a fisherman—a boy around your age, actually—who was first exposed, probably on one of the smaller islands, and he gave—or, mostly likely, sold—his gruesome discovery to Yeoman Stowe.”
“So there is no monster,” I said. “There never was.”
“Really, Will Henry? What do you want in a monster, anyway?” he asked. “Size? The magnificum was the size of Socotra with the potential to grow as large as the world. An insatiable appetite for human flesh? You have experienced firsthand how ravenous it is. A grotesque appearance? Name something—anything!—more grotesque than what we have seen on this island. No, the magnificum is worthy of the name—a dragon by functionh, not—as we’d supposed—by design.” He patted his instrument case, where he had carefully packed the remaining samples of the baby’s blood. “And I have it in my power to slay it.”
He rose and walked the few steps to the water’s edge, and the man in the glassy surface gazed upward into the monstrumologist’s eyes.
“It nearly undid me,” he said pensively. It struck me as an exceedingly odd thing to say to the one recuperating from its terrible bite. I did not realize he was referring to an entirely different monster.
“My ambition bore me up like the wings of Icarus,” he said. “And when the truth of the magnificum burned those wings away, I fell. I fell very far. And I did not fall alone.”
He turned to me. “When you were attacked and I lost you in the melee, it… broke something in me. As if I’d been rudely shaken from a deep sleep. In short…” He noisily cleared his throat and looked away. “It reminded me of why I became a monstrumologist in the first place.”
“Why did you?” I asked.
“Why do you think?” he returned testily. “To save the world, of course. And then, at some point, as with most self-appointed saviors, it became about saving myself. Neither goal is entirely realistic. I cannot save the world, and I don’t care much anymore about saving me… but I do care very much about…”
He returned to sit beside me. I saw something in his hand. It was Lilly’s photograph.
“And now I must ask you about this,” he said. His tone was grave.
“It’s nothing,” I said, reaching for it. He held it just beyond my grasp.
“Nullité?” he asked. “Nothing?”
“Yes. It’s… She gave it to me…”
“Who gave it to you? When?”
“Lilly. Lilly Bates, Dr. von Helrung’s great-niece. Before I left for London.”
“And why did she give it to you?”
“I don’t know.”
“You don’t know?”
“She said it would bring me luck.”
“Ah. Luck. Then, you did know why she gave it to you.”
“I don’t like her very much.”
“Oh, no. Of course not.”
“Can I have it back now?” I asked.
“You mean ‘May I have it back now.’”
“Have you fallen in love, Will Henry?”
“What is? Love or my question?”
“I don’t know.”
“You don’t know? You’ve tried that trick once. Why do you suppose it will work better the second time?”
“I don’t love her. She bothers me.”
“You have just defined the very thing you denied.”
He stared at her face in the photograph with a curious expression, the naturalist stumbling upon a strange new species.