The Final Descent
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“I must confess I am torn. Keeping her alive only prolongs her suffering. Only pushes off for another hour the final agony. What do I choose? Is it even my choice to make? I am not God. I act the part at times. I place the mantle upon my shoulders and each time I pay. I pay! Your father loved me, and that love cost him his life, cost you yours in a way that is somehow more terrible. Unendurable pain, Will Henry, unrelieved and unredeemed. This poor girl upon this makeshift altar, this virginal sacrifice, and I the heretical priest who would spill her blood to appease a voracious god!
“I told you once you must become accustomed to such things, and in this I am a liar and a hypocrite: There are things to which you can never become accustomed—things to which I can never become accustomed. There are some things to which there is no human answer, and God himself is silent.
“You must tell me, you, what must be done. Tell me, and I will be your instrument. There is the poison, there, next to the empty needle; it will end it quickly and there will be no pain. If we wait, she will break open, she will split apart, the things inside her will pour forth from every fissure and cavity, and we’ll have to use the acid. We cannot wait until her poor heart stops. She will endure unimaginable pain.
“We have reached the crux of it this day, Will Henry. The bottom of the stairs, if you will. This is the choice my life has forced upon you. You are the spotless lamb, the bearer of my sin, the keeper of my secrets, the guardian of my shame. You are the guilty one and the blameless one, the blessed one and the cursed one, and there are no words—for words are human things.
“We have reached the bottom of it, you and I. The final descent—and this is the face of the beast that waits for us in the dark.”
The tall, lean man rises from his chair and crosses the stage to the rostrum. The only sound in the cavernous auditorium is the scuffing of his shoes upon the worn boards. Spectral thin, whittled down to his bones, black jacket hanging loosely upon his frame, a hollow scarecrow of a man, this is the interim president of the Society for the Advancement of the Science of Monstrumology, newly elevated to its head but long its soul. And I, the soul’s keeper, sitting high above in the private box, watching him like the buzzards that circle in the wilderness sky. There is no applause, no congratulatory cheer. This was to be his moment of triumph, the crowning achievement of his legendary career. Instead there is only sorrow and suspicion in the gathering of his brother scientists, his kindred spirits in the study of God’s cruelest jests. Hundreds have packed the old opera house to hear him—and to challenge him. There sits the chinless Hiram Walker, leaning forward in his front-row seat, little rat eyes narrowed, waiting for his chance to pounce: Why did we hire criminals and thugs to guard the greatest treasure to come to aberrant biology in a hundred years? And what did we learn from that mistake if we beg for them to find it for us? Why is our president and beloved Meister dead? Warthrop’s nemesis is clutching a piece of paper in one of his little rodent claws: a resolution for permanent expulsion, that’s the well-trod rumor. The monstrumologist will be banished from monstrumology, and then what will he be? What is Pellinore Warthrop if he isn’t purely and fundamentally that?
On the altar table down below, the sacrifice nears its final consummation, wholly innocent and wholly doomed, tended to by Samuel Isaacson. Isaacson, that crushing mediocrity who could not face the nameless, faceless thing any more than a whore could reclaim her virginity. The innocent perish. The stupid, the banal, the wicked—they go on and on.
“It is my duty,” the monstrumologist said from the podium, “and with heavy heart . . . to call this one hundred thirteenth congress to order.”
He raised the ceremonial gavel, and the hall abruptly plunged into darkness. A voice broke the shocked silence: “Greetings from Elizabeth Street, you bastards!” Dozens of flaming globes sailed from the back of the auditorium. Some smashed upon the stage, the fiery buds blossoming into fireballs, others fell into the crowd, and in the panicky uproar few heard the exit doors slamming and the metal rods ramming through the handles, sealing us inside. The fire spread quickly as men clogged the aisles like stampeding cattle, trampling one another to escape that which was inescapable. The old carpeting, the upholstered chairs, the thick damask curtains succumbed; thick, choking smoke rapidly filled the hall. Before I fled, I saw a figure engulfed in flames racing the opposite way, toward the stage, his high-pitched squeals not unlike a rat’s as the vermin realizes its doom.
Down the back stairway to the private entrance—a small door; perhaps they missed it. It would not yield. And the handle was hot to the touch. Like the conscientious farmer, the Camorra had not confined the sowing to a single fertile row: The entire building had been lit.
Tears streamed down my face. Smoke gripped my lungs. I rammed my shoulder into the door. It burns, it burns! I would not endure it, not a second time, not ever again. I kicked the center of the door as hard as I could. There was no light and no way I could see through my tears if there had been. Another kick. A third. The wood cracked. The superheated air on the other side snapped the barrier in two, split it neatly down the middle like an axman a fence rail. The blast hurled me backward; my head smacked against the steps behind me. A tide of black smoke barreled through the opening. I pressed my hand over my nose and mouth and shut my eyes: I did not need to see to know where I was going.
Across the hall inundated with flame. Through the door direly marked that opened to the stairs, serpentine and narrow, and below the friendly yellow glow of the jets, the rush of cooler air against my face, and now my eyes are open and I am sprinting along the tortuous path to her chamber and I will not suffer you, I will not let it stand, and there is Isaacson running toward me as above us the edifice groans and cries, saying It burns, it burns! as it’s eaten alive.
“Too late! Too late!” he cries, coming straight at me. He snatches at my sleeve; I reward him with a roundhouse punch to the side of his head that drops him. I step over his writhing body and race on.
I skitter to a stop in the doorway. The fumes are chokingly thick—the hellish stench of rotten eggs sears my mouth, scorches my lungs. Too late: In his panic, he must have doused her with the entire bucketful. I can see what’s left of her sizzling away; her blood bubbles and steams; she has no face; her skull leers at me, the mouth open in a frozen scream. She was alive when he did it.
I stumble straight back until the wall behind me halts my retreat.
Do you know how it kills you, Isaacson? You are fully aware of what’s happening as its jaw unhinges to accommodate you whole.
Back the way I came, careening from wall to wall while over my head the world is consumed.
Horrendous pressure that crushes your bones . . . and every inch of your body burns as if you’ve been dropped into a vat of acid.
There he lies; he has not moved. My hand drops into my pocket, for I still have the Camorrista’s switchblade knife. I will gut him. I will feed him his own stinking entrails. I will take his eyes first, then his tongue. I will force him to eat his own stupid, banal, wicked self.
But wait. He is not alone. Another bends over him, older, dark-haired, bearing a bulging burlap sack. This one looks up at my approach, startled, eyes wide with terror.
“William!” Acosta-Rojas cries. “We must escape, but how? Not above—we must find another way. Is there a sewage drain somewhere down here? That, I think, is our best—”
I ram my fist into his Adam’s apple. He topples backward, dropping the sack. The thing within it twists and rolls.
“Who was it?” I demand. “Was it you or was it Warthrop or was it both of you?”
He cannot answer. I may have shattered his windpipe. Tears of pain and terror stream down his face.
“It was his idea, wasn’t it?” I ask. “When you told him you’d captured it in Cerrejón. He wanted all credit—what did he offer you in return?”
He chokes out the answer, barely audible: “My life.”
I rock back on my heels as if he struck me. Flat, not round! Not a ball but a plate! And Mihos, the guardian of the horizon, has fallen over the edge.
Something in my expression makes him raise his hands defensively, like an obedient child lifting his arms for his nightshirt to be put on. So I oblige him: Enraged, I heave the writhing sack from the floor, upend it, and stuff it over his head. The twisting, rolling thing within strikes.
Acosta-Rojas screams; his exposed lower half jerks and immediately goes stiff. His cries are choked off as the beast coils itself nooselike around his neck. It will hold there until its prey is dead, for it has not reached its full maturity; it cannot swallow a man whole—yet.
I am not done. Dear God, what am I but man in microcosm? I flick open the switchblade—snick!—and return to Isaacson.
He is awake. His eyes widen at my approach. “Will . . . ?”
“Shh, don’t ask, Samuel,” I whisper. “There are some things to which there is no human answer.”
“I had no choice,” he whimpers. He raises his hands to me in supplication. “Please, Will. I only did as I was told!”
A terrific explosion above shakes the walls. The floor heaves. The ceiling cracks, sags; chunks of it rain down: The fire has found the gas lines. The jets wink out, plunging the Monstrumarium into utter darkness. Isaacson wails as if the world itself is ending. I thrust out my hand, the empty one, and seize him by the collar. I haul him upright. He squeals, expecting the coup de grâce.
“To hell with all of you,” I snarl into his ear. “To hell with monsters and to hell with men. There is no difference to me.”
The building over us is collapsing; the ceiling gives; we’ll be crushed beneath a thousand tons of concrete and marble. There is no way out but down—through the drain in the dissection room. Acosta-Rojas’s instinct was right, though his timing was bad. I fling Isaacson away and stumble over the broken floor, one arm draped protectively over my head, the other extended before me into darkness absolute. Fingers clutch at the back of my jacket: Isaacson, that mediocrity like all mediocrities, always finding a way to come out on top. It is not the meek who will inherit the earth.
Blind leading the blind, in the belly of the dying beast, its bones splitting and cracking and raining down upon our heads. And of all to whom I might have shown mercy, it is Samuel Isaacson whom I save that day.
The rest, monstrumologists all, perished upon that day.
The earth spins round nearly seven thousand times, and now crumbs cling to blubbery lips and damp stringy hair hangs over pale forehead.
And the cold that grips and the hand that holds the knife scraping across dirt-encrusted nails, the monster-hunter, the teacher and the lesson, the cause and the effect, the ending of the circle that has no beginning.
And the locked door and the thing behind the locked door and the bones that steam in ash barrels and the lie we tell ourselves because the truth is too much for any human heart to bear.
There are no beginnings or endings or anything in between. Time the lie and we the circle and the infinite contained in the amber eye.