The Final Descent
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I KNOW THE TRACES OF THE ANCIENT FLAME.
I cannot say to you, This is where it began.
A circle has no starting point.
There are the secrets I have kept.
He encircles me. There is no beginning or end, and time is the lie the mirror tells us.
These are the secrets.
The child in the tattered hat and the boy in the labyrinth and the man beside the ash barrel circle without beginning, without end.
It is hard, he told me once, hard to think about those things we do not think about.
Deep in the bowels of the Beastie Bin, the man stiffened in my arms. His back arched, his head fell back. Bright red arterial blood boiled from his mouth, blended with stringy globs of black, dead tissue—the remnants of his esophagus, I think—and then he died.
I lowered his body to the floor. Dropped the blade into my pocket. Ran a bloody hand through my hair, still gelled, though no longer so stylishly.
Bring me to it!
I already have.
I knew what he meant, knew where the creature lay hidden: I’d transcribed Warthrop’s notes on the creature. Disaster had been averted—all was not lost—but I would need something to put it in. I returned to the Locked Room and grabbed the burlap sack. The monster wasn’t going anywhere soon. There might be more thieves scurrying about the Beastie Bin, well-armed, desperate thieves at that, but I felt no anxiety, no sense of urgency. I didn’t even bother to pick up the revolver before I went to fetch the sack.
I strolled back to the corridor where I’d left him, turned the corner, and pulled up short: A man was kneeling beside the body. A few feet beyond, an indistinct figure hovered in the shadows. Now, what was the reason I hadn’t picked up that damned revolver?
The man rose. The gun I had abandoned came up. I raised my hands and said, “It’s me, Warthrop.”
The figure standing behind him rushed out of the shadows. Lilly. She drew up suddenly, seeing my blood-spattered face. “Will! Are you hurt?”
Warthrop brushed her aside and yanked the empty sack from my hand.
“Where is it?” he growled.
“Right here,” I answered. I pulled the switchblade from my pocket and offered it to him. “I’ll trade you,” I said.
He understood at once. With a curt nod he took the knife, handed me the bag, and returned to the body. I squatted down beside him. Lilly watched us, puzzled, arms folded over her chest.
“Adolphus is dead,” I told the monstrumologist as he ripped open the man’s shirt to expose his torso.
“So I understand,” Warthrop grunted. He flicked open the knife. Pressed the tip just beneath the sternum. Squared his shoulders. “Are you ready?”
I edged closer, pulling wide the mouth of the sack. “Ready.”
Lilly gasped—couldn’t help herself, I guessed; though she had always bragged she would be the first female monstrumologist, she’d never been this close to actual practice of the craft. The doctor rammed the knife in and drew the blade down, the muscles in his neck bulging from the effort. When he reached the navel, he tossed the knife to the floor and slid his hands, palms pressed together, into the body. “Careful,” I murmured, and he nodded sharply, muttering, “Slippery . . .” He was sweating in the cool air, brows knotted in concentration, eyes closed, because he didn’t need them for this: just quick, sure hands and the iron-hard will to guide them. “Hold steady now,” he murmured to me, to the thing curled up inside the man’s chest cavity. “Now, Will Henry!”
He opened his eyes and rose up on his knees, and his hands came out of the man’s middle with a soft plop!, and the thing in his grip twisted and coiled sensuously around his arms, dripping with gore and oddly beautiful in the smoky yellow light, shimmering like the midnight surface of a river. With one smooth motion the monstrumologist swung the prize into the sack. “Now the truly tricky part,” he muttered. He did not rush. He forced himself to go slowly. First one hand, then the hand that held the base of its head. The critical moment in which he was at the greatest danger of being bitten. Then he was free and I twisted the mouth of the bag closed. We were a bit out of breath.
“Well, Will Henry,” he panted. “I suppose we should have posted a watch after all.”
After examining the two victims and inspecting the scene of the crime—or crimes, since both murder and burglary were involved—the monstrumologist concurred with my assessment of the sequence of events.
“They were not rivals or enemies,” he said. “They were companions. Too much risk for one man to take on alone—one was to act as lookout while the other transferred the treasure from crate to sack. But one carried the seed of perfidy in his heart—the lookout, I think, since he also carried the gun, which he used once the Locked Room was open.” We had found the weapon in the eviscerated thief’s coat pocket. Warthrop sniffed the barrel; it had been recently fired. “He goes into the room. It fools him, the apparent lassitude of his quarry. Perhaps he even assumes that it sleeps. Bag in one hand, he pops open the cage door, and it strikes.” Warthrop smacked a fist into his open palm. “The fangs sink deep. In his panic, he flings aside the bag to use that hand to pull off the mouth, though the jaws are locked in a grip too tight for three strong men to break. He stumbles backward out of the room, stepping into his victim’s blood as he goes, hits the far wall, upending the crates. By this point it is too late—well, it was too late the moment he was struck. His instinct is to run, and so he does, but he doesn’t get far—the poison has already reached his brain. He is disoriented, dizzy; the world spins; the center will not hold. He careens into this storage room, where he collapses, and his pounding heart speeds the toxin into every muscle and organ.”
“But how did it get inside him?” Lilly blurted out. She was visibly shaken by this, her first real exposure to aberrant biology. You may study it in a thousand books and hear about it in a thousand lectures and discuss it with a thousand learned philosophers, but you can never know it until you have seen it—and what she had seen was but a glimpse.
Warthrop seemed perplexed by her question. “Well, the number of available orifices is quite small. I think it is safe to assume it entered through the largest one.”
“But why did it crawl inside him?”
The monstrumologist blinked several times. The answer was obvious—to him and, to his mind, anyone who had one. But his tone was patient with her, more so than it ever had been with me. “To eat, Miss Bates. And to hide from anything that might eat him.”
He clapped his hands softly. “Well! I must have a look at Adolphus now, I suppose. Hang on to that revolver, Mr. Henry; I shall help myself to this fellow’s Colt and meet you back here. Stay in this room and do not venture out until I return or unless your life depends upon it. Miss Bates, after you.”
Lilly slipped her arm through mine. “I’ll stay here, if you don’t mind.”
“It may be a little much to ask of him,” Warthrop replied. He nodded to the bag in my hand. “I wouldn’t want for him to find himself in the unfortunate position of having to choose between you.”
I laughed. Lilly failed to see the humor, though. She said, “I can manage myself.”
The doctor started to say something, shook his head, shrugged his shoulders, and then without a word darted out the door. We were alone, Lilly and the monster and me.
I sank to the floor and rested my back against a shipping crate emblazoned with the Society’s coat of arms. Nil timendum est. With the squirming sack between my legs, I looked up at Lilly, who seemed very tall and nearly goddesslike from my inferior position, haughtily regal in her purple dress, though it suffered now from a smudge or two.
“May I say how striking you look right now?” I asked. “I can’t decide if it’s the angle or the lighting. Perhaps both. I am very tired. I think the alcohol has worn off.”
“You used to be so serious,” she observed after a studied silence. “Even when you were trying to joke, you were serious.”
“The work gives one perspective.”
“What kind of perspective would that be?”
I pursed my lips, thinking about it. “The loftiest humanly possible. Or just possible, period.”
She shook her head. “Where is the gun?”
“In my pocket. Why?”
She squatted beside me and fished into my pocket. “Don’t take my firearm, Miss Bates,” I cautioned her.
“Your hands are full.”
“If you take my firearm, I shall be forced to shoot you.”
“The more you try to be funny, the less funny you become.”
She held the gun with both hands against her stomach. She with the gun, I with the bag.
“It isn’t my fault you don’t have a sense of humor,” I said. “Please don’t worry it; you’re making me nervous.”
She sat down beside me, her eyes upon the lump beneath the burlap.
“I thought they grew to five times that size.”
“More like ten. It’s just a baby, Lilly.”
“What are you going to do with it?”
“Well, I wasn’t thinking about taking it out for a cuddle. . . .”
She let go of the gun with one hand long enough to punch me in the arm. “I mean after this is done.”
“He’s going to present it to a group of like-minded men, who will nod with admiration and approval and pat him on the back and vote him a medal or perhaps commission a statue in his honor. . . .”
“Some boys grow up,” she observed. “And some grow backward.”
“I shall have to ponder that awhile before I can offer an opinion on it.”
“What will he do with it after the congress has adjourned? That’s what I meant.”
“Ah, I see. The cat, as it were, is out of the bag now, so it can’t stay here. I assume that was his original plan. Perhaps he’ll bring it back to New Jerusalem, build a special pit for it, and feed it goats. I don’t think he has any plans to release it back into the wild.”
“Wouldn’t that be the best thing to do?”
“Not for the wild. And not for Warthrop. One is much more important than the other, you know.”
“I would set it free.”
“It’s the last of its kind, Lilly. Doomed either way you go.”
“Then why not just kill it?” Looking at the undulating burlap. “He could stuff it like a trophy.”
“Well, that’s an idea,” I said curtly. The topic had become tiresome. “Tell me something: Have you kissed him?”
“Kissed . . . Dr. Warthrop?”
I smiled, picturing that. “Warthrop hasn’t kissed anyone since 1876. I was referring to the mediocrity.”
“Samuel?” She lowered her eyes; she would not look at me. “Is that any business of yours?”
“I suppose not.”
“I know not.”
“Really? Then he must be mediocre, for you not to know!”