“I’m not sure,” murmured Warthrop in reply. “But I doubt anything that’s holy.”
To our astonishment the body jerked in a violent spasm, the legs kicked, the hands gathered mud and bits of grass into their fists. Kearns sat back to observe this phenomenon, and I heard the doctor breathe beside me, “Oh, no.” Kearns held his bowie knife casually in his right hand while he pressed the fingertips of his left against the woman’s neck.
“Warthrop,” Morgan growled. “War throp!”
With a single fluid motion of his arm Kearns reached across the thrashing captive’s torso and opened up her abdomen with the razor-sharp blade. The piercing screams of agony that greeted this act of heartless barbarity rent the twilight stillness with all the force of a thunderclap. They echoed among the trees and the silent sentinel tombstones. They filled the silence to overflowing, increasing in volume and intensity with each passing second, and each of those seconds seemed longer than an hour. She rolled in Kearns ’s direction, flinging out a supplicating arm to the man who had mutilated her, but he was already racing back to us, the bloody blade clutched in his hand. He jammed the knife between his teeth-he must have tasted it then, her blood on his tongue-to clamber up the makeshift ladder and then, once safely aloft, dropped it from his mouth onto the boards. We barely took note, however, for we were riveted by the scene below, frozen in horror, paralyzed with dread. She managed to roll onto her hands and knees and crawl toward us, yowling and squealing like a pig in a slaughterhouse as it chokes on its own blood. The rope played out; the chain attached to her neck grew taut. Kearns snatched up his rifle, tucked the butt against his shoulder, and squinted through the sight, swinging the barrel from north to south and back again, oblivious, it seemed, to our consternation at this unexpected-and horrifying-turn of events, incognizant, apparently, even of the cries of confusion, pain, and fear reverberating all around us.
The author of those cries struggled against her tether only a few feet away, having now raised up to her knees, both arms toward us outstretched, her face contorted in unspeakable agony, her once spotless gown caked in a mixture of earth and blood. The chain that yanked her back snapped and rang with each violent lunge.
“Curse your black heart, Cory!” shouted Morgan. “She’s alive.”
“I never said she wasn’t,” replied Kearns reasonably. “Spotters, what do you see? Look sharp! Mr. Henry, you too, look sharp now.”
I tore my eyes away from the awful offering and scanned the hunkered markers and rolling grounds for any sign of movement, but a shroud had fallen over the world, and I spied nothing but earth, tree, stone, and shadow. Then, out of the corner of my wandering eye, I saw a dark shape darting between the tombstones, crouched low to the ground, moving in a zigzag pattern toward us. I tugged on Kearns ’s sleeve and pointed.
“Where?” he whispered. “Ah, good boy! I see it. Easy now, gentlemen, easy; this shot is mine.” He stood ramrod straight, legs spread for balance, finger caressing the trigger. “Come, my pet,” he murmured. “Dinner is served.”
The lone Anthropophagi scout hesitated for a moment just outside the trench. The rain glistened on its milky skin, and, even from this distance, in the dying light, I could see its mouth opening and closing-and its teeth gleaming wickedly in its slathering maw. The massive arms were so long its knuckles almost brushed the ground as it stood, a bit bow-legged, at the edge of the trap.
If it was aware of our presence, the beast must have been overcome by bloodlust, or perhaps it simply did not care, for it bounded forward suddenly with a horrible roar, traversing the expanse between it and the wounded woman with stupendous speed. With at least thirty feet still separating them it launched itself into the air, claws outstretched, mouth agape, and at that moment Kearns fired.
The monster twisted in flight, struck by Kearns ’s bullet an inch below its bulbous eye. It dropped like a stone, its bellowing bawls drowning out the screams of its intended victim. Then it was back on its feet, spitting and snarling, gnashing its fangs as it stumbled stubbornly forward. The woman turned her head at the sound of its inhuman howls, and went stiff for an awful moment before hurling herself toward us. This time, when the chain broke her momentum, her head snapped back with such force I was sure she had broken her own neck. Kearns slammed another bullet into the chamber, rammed the bolt home, and fired a second time, striking the monster in the upper thigh. It stumbled, but came on. Fifteen feet now… Ten… Kearns reloaded and pulled the trigger. The third shot struck the other leg, and the Anthropophagus fell screeching to the ground, writhing in torment, kicking impotently in the dirt. Kearns lowered the Winchester.
Morgan shouted at him, “For God’s sake, what are you doing, man? Shoot it again! It’s not dead!”
“Fool,” snapped Kearns. “I don’t want it to be dead.”
Below us the woman had completely collapsed. Perhaps she had broken her neck, or fainted from fear or loss of blood. The doctor shoved past Kearns and scooped up the bowie knife dropped earlier.
“Will Henry!” he called. “Snap to!”
He swung his legs over the edge of the platform and heaved himself off. I took the longer route, down the improvised ladder, to join him at the woman’s side. I looked over his shoulder at the screaming, squirming beast, afraid that it would overcome its injuries long enough to rip our heads from our shoulders with a single swipe of its enormous claw. The doctor evidently did not share my concern; his entire focus was upon the woman. He rolled her onto her back and pressed his fingers below her lower jaw.
“Not too late, Will Henry,” he said, raising his voice to be heard over the yowls of the wounded Anthropophagus behind him. He cut the rope with one mighty blow, slapped the knife into my hand, and gathered her into his arms. “Follow me!” he called, and we ran, slipping and sliding in the mud, hopping over the oily trench, to the shelter of the platform, directly beneath Kearns and the others. He propped her against a tree trunk and leaned close to examine the wound in her stomach.
Above us I heard Kearns call down, “I wouldn’t tarry there too long, Pellinore.”
The doctor ignored him. He threw off his jacket, ripped off his shirt-buttons flew in every direction-and then wadded it up, covering the incision with the makeshift dressing. He grabbed my hand and placed it over the shirt.
“A steady pressure, Will Henry. Not too hard.”
At the moment he said this I heard Morgan cry out in a loud, panicky voice: “There! See it? What is that over there?”
The doctor grabbed my shoulder and brought his face close to mine, looking deeply into my eyes. “Can you, Will Henry? Can you?”
I nodded. “Yes, sir.”
“Here.” He pressed his revolver into my free hand and turned to go. He froze, and for a moment I thought we were done for, that one of the Anthropophagi had snuck around through the trees and now was upon us. I followed the doctor’s gaze and made out a tall, thin form holding a rifle, its bright blue eyes glittering as if in defiance of the gloom.
“I will stay with Will Henry,” said Malachi.
Malachi stayed-and the Anthropophagi came, answering the cries of pain and outrage of their fallen sister. The earth disgorged them; the graves themselves vomited them up. For months they had been tunneling, expanding their underground warrens to accommodate their growing brood, creating a network of passageways of labyrinthine complexity in the hard New England soil, beneath the sleeping dead. Now, enraged by this encroachment upon their domain, maddened by the howls of their wounded comrade, they came. To the circle’s eastern boundary they rushed, crowding into a single hissing and grunting, snapping and snarling milky white mass. They came right to the edge of the circle… and stopped.
Perhaps they smelled something they didn’t like, or another, deeper sense warned them, an instinct inbred by thousands of years of conflict with their prey, these ambitious bipedal mammals who had had the audacity to evolve from a thick-headed, easygoing primate into hunters themselves, capable of not only defending the human species but of wiping the Anthropophagi from the face of the earth. What terrible irony was this: that they needed us to thrive in order to thrive themselves, but at the cost of their own extinction!
I heard Kearns call from above, “Steady, lads, steady. Only on my signal! Brock, are you ready?”
Brock grunted something in reply. Beside me Malachi went to one knee and raised his rifle. I was close enough to hear his ragged breath and smell the damp wool of his jacket. On my other side Kearns ’s anonymous victim clung to life, grasping my wrist in both her hands as she stared uncomprehendingly at my face.
“Who are you?” she croaked. “Are you an angel?”
“No,” I answered. “I’m Will Henry.”
I started, for suddenly Kearns ’s voice rang out. He was shouting at the top of his lungs, “Hullo, hullo, my pretties! Olly olly oxen free! The party’s over here!”
The effect upon the milling monsters was immediate: With leaps and bounds, over the trench and into the slaughter ring, they swarmed, two dozen strong, fanning out as they rushed the platform, with black eyes shining and mouths agape, the taunting of Kearns overcoming all cautionary instinct. When the last headless horror had crossed the eastern boundary, Kearns shouted the order to “drop the fire,” and Brock hurled a flaming oil-soaked rag into the trench. Five feet high the flame erupted; I felt its heat on my cheeks as it raced around the trench, fed by the fuel of oil and kerosene, sending roiling plumes of acrid black smoke boiling into the atmosphere. The monsters skittered and slid to a panicky halt within the circle of fire, screeching with shock and fear primordial: When man had first tamed fire, it had foreshadowed their doom.
Like the closing of hell’s fiery gates, the two lines of flame met on the far side of the trench, sealing the beasts-as well as their fate-inside.
“Fire at will, gentlemen,” shouted Kearns over the crackle of the fire, the spitting hiss of the rain, the terrified shrieks of the Anthropophagi. Gunfire exploded above us; the boards over our heads rattled and shook violently, to the point where I was certain the entire improvised structure would come crashing down upon our heads. Night had fully fallen, but now the grounds were alight in a smoky orange glow, crowded with spasmodic shadows, choked with the cannon-ade above and the death cries below. Through the awful din I heard Kearns ’s delighted cry: “Like shooting bloody fish in a barrel!” An object twice the size of a baseball sailed into the circle, and an instant later the ground shook with the concussion of the grenade’s blast, a great blooming ball of flame blossoming where it burst, hurling searing-hot shrapnel in a flesh-rending radius of destruction.
“Can’t see, can’t see!” Malachi muttered in frustration, swinging his rifle to and fro. He scooted forward, as if he actually intended to rush the flames, hop the trench, and take the fight directly to the things that had slaughtered his family. “Just one. Please, God, just one!”
At which point his wish was granted.