He was panting; I could see the tip of his gray tongue. Spittle ran over the enflamed lower lip and dripped into the sparse whiskers on his chin. By a trick of the insubstantial light, his teeth seemed exceptionally large.
Steady, steady, steady, I told myself. He isn’t a monster. He’s a man. He’s the doctor’s friend.
I gave him what I hoped was a reassuring smile.
His reaction was instantaneous. With an explosive leap—too fast for the eye to follow—he rocketed into me, his bony shoulder slamming into my chin with the force of a battering ram. I fell back, black stars blooming before my eyes. A hand clamped over my nose and mouth. The other hand ripped my shirtfront, shredding the material with its splintered nails, slicing open the tender skin beneath. The hot breath reeking of decay first, then the scaly, pustulant lips pressing against the flesh directly over my throbbing heart.
Then the teeth.
It is called Atcen . . . Djenu . . . Outiko . . . Vindiko, the monstrumologist had said. It has a dozen names in a dozen lands, and it is older than the hills, Will Henry.
I kicked my legs, and sucked uselessly upon the palm pressed hard against my open mouth. My head lay outside the tent, and my vision was clouded with the numberless stars sparking cold fire, shimmering like the crystalline ice inside the desecrated temple of Jonathan Hawk’s remains. Orion, the hunter. My favorite.
Blood roared in my ears. My chest ached. My heart leapt; it pushed against my ribs, as if anxious for Chanler to ravish it. His mouth worked upon my burning chest; I felt the teeth scouring my corruption, desperate for the pure center.
It feeds, and the more it feeds, the hungrier it becomes. It starves even as it gorges. It is the hunger that cannot be satisfied.
In the ruined sanctuary, the bleating of the sacrificial goat. In the sepulchral silence, the calling of my name.
In its icy grip there is no hope of rescue.
Someone was sobbing; it could not have been me. Chanler wept into the wounds he’ d created. He consumed flesh and tears.
In the deepest of pits, my mother combs out her hair. The light is golden. Her wrists are delicate. I remember the way she smelled.
One by one the stars begin to loose from heaven’s grip; they fall into the golden light where my mother sits.
How could one so frail be so strong? My hands flailed uselessly at my sides. My heels dug feebly in the earth. I could feel myself flowing into him.
I am almost there, Mother. Through him I come to you, borne by the ark of his kiss.
In the blasted wasteland we hold our heads, confounded. We lift our eyeless sockets to the incurious moon. On the high wind rides the voice that calls our name.
The golden light is warm. It rushes into my eyes and fills me, and I am no longer afraid.
The butt of the Winchester smashed into the base of Chanler’s skull. The spindly neck snapped back. Warthrop hit him again with all his force. He dropped the rifle, grabbed him by the shoulders, and hurled him off. Chanler leapt; the doctor met the lunge with his fist, slamming it into the side of his friend’s head. Chanler collapsed across my jerking legs, his face wearing an obscenely painted mask of mucus and blood.
The doctor knelt beside me; his dark eyes replaced the stars in my sight.
“Will Henry?” he murmured.
He bent to examine the wound. I heard him hiss sharply through his teeth.
“Deep, but not too deep,” he muttered. “The real danger is infection.”
“The real danger . . . ,” I echoed weakly.
With a thunderous wallop and a riot of riven canvas and shattered wood entangled with skeins of frozen rope, the tent blew apart, its remains hurtling into the trees, as if driven by a gale. The doctor fell over me—and a shadow fell over us. It blotted out the stars. Its stench engulfed the cosmos. Pale yellow shone its malevolent eye. I looked into that eye, and that eye looked back at me.
I have no memory of the next few moments. There was the yellow eye . . . and then trees, brambles, rotting logs, the perplexities of knotted vine and shallow half-frozen streams, the crackle of breaking snow, the dervish of the maddened stars, as we ran through the forest, I in my weakened state following in the footsteps stamped into the snow by the weight of two men—the doctor and the unconscious John Chanler, whom Warthrop had slung over his shoulder. We abandoned everything—rucksacks, canteens, medical kit—even the rifles. They were useless against the thing that pursued us.
Outiko is not hunted; Outiko hunts, the ogimaa had said. You do not call Outiko. Outiko calls you.
The wind no longer sang high in the trees. It screeched. It keened. It wailed. The ground shook beneath our feet. The forest echoed with a rhythmic pulse, an ear-shattering pounding, the primal beat of Gaia’s heart.
I fell farther and farther behind. I couldn’t see them anymore, just their footprints zigzagging through the primeval morass. Behind me, uprooted trees toppled with snow-muffled thunderclaps, the high-pitched snapping of their boughs pitiful accompaniment to the bawling wind and the teeth-rattling cannonade of the thing’s pursuit. My stride became the stumbling semi-falling of a drunk; I went to my knees. Then up for a few yards, only to fall again. Let it take me, I thought. You can’t outrun it. You can’t hide from it. Kneeling, I covered my head with my hands and waited for the Old One to take me.
“Get up! Get up, Will Henry, get up!”
The monstrumologist hauled me to my feet and shoved me forward.
“You fall again and I’ll kick you there,” he shouted. “Do you understand?”
I nodded—and collapsed anyway. With a howl of rage the doctor yanked me back up, wrapped his free arm around my waist, and pushed forward, Chanler dangling over one shoulder, his recalcitrant ward hanging beneath the other. Thus borne down on one side with the burden he’d chosen and on the other with the one he’d inherited, Pellinore Warthrop carried on through the desolation.
“MEN ARE PROBABLY NEARER THE ESSENTIAL TRUTH IN THEIR SUPERSTITIONS THAN IN THEIR SCIENCE.”
—HENRY DAVID THOREAU
“The One Who Brought You Out ”
At first I thought I was dreaming. The room was at once foreign and familiar, as in a dream—the chipped bowl upon the washstand, the rickety dresser, the narrow window with the dingy white curtains, the lumpy mattress on which I lay. Either I’m dreaming or I’m dead, I thought, though I’d never pictured heaven as so depressingly shoddy. Still, it was the first bed I’d lain in for . . . how long? It seemed longer than a lifetime.
“Well, finally you’re up.” The old floorboards creaked; a tall shadow approached. Then the meager light fell upon his face. Gone were the grit and grime of the forest, the whiskers, the old duster and filthy breeches. His hair was freshly trimmed. I detected a hint of talcum.
“Dr. Warthrop,” I croaked. “Where am I?”
“Our old digs at the Russell House. I’m surprise you do not recognize the rustic charm.”
“How long have I . . .”
“This is the morning of the third day,” he said.
“Dr. Chanler . . . ?”
“He departs this afternoon for New York.”
“I will forgive that question, Will Henry, as you’ve been out of sorts. But really.”
He was smiling. He dropped his hand casually upon my forehead, and quickly removed it.
“You’ve been running a bit of a fever, but it’s gone now.”
My hand went up to my chest. I felt the gauze of the bandage.
“You’ll have some scarring—something to impress the ladies when you’re older. Nothing more serious than that.”
I nodded, still unable to absorb all of it. It still felt dreamlike to me.
“We got out,” I said hesitantly, seeking reassurance.
He nodded. “Yes, Will Henry. We got out.”
The subject was dropped for the moment; he laid out my clothes and stood at the bedside impatiently while I struggled to dress. Every joint ached, every muscle quivered with fatigue, and my chest burned horribly with the slightest movement. When I sat up, the room spun around, and I gathered the sheets into my fists to ballast myself against the waves of nausea smashing against the brow of my enfeebled constitution. The shirt I managed to put on without aid, but when I lowered my head to slip on the pants, I toppled over—the doctor stepping forward to catch me before I smacked face-first onto the floor.
“Here, Will Henry,” he said gruffly. “Come now. Lean against me.”
He pulled up my pants, cinched the belt tight.
“There. Now, I trust you’ve too much pride to suffer the indignity of me carrying you downstairs. Here, hold on to my arm.”
Thus we proceeded to the lobby restaurant, where the doctor ordered a pot of tea and instructed our waiter (who also happened to be the bartender and the cook) to “unload the larder.” In good time I was stuffing my mouth with biscuits and venison gravy, pancakes glistening in maple syrup, fresh sausages and bacon, eggs, fried potatoes, hominy, and breaded trout filets. Warthrop cautioned me to slow down, but his warning went unheeded in the hurly-burly of my frontier bacchanal. It was as if I had never tasted food before, and the more I ate, the more exquisite became my appetite.
“You’re going to make yourself sick,” the monstrumologist said.
“Yes, sir,” I muttered around a mouthful of biscuit.
He rolled his eyes, sipped his tea, and looked out the window to Main Street, drumming his fingers on the tabletop.
“Did you get a good look at it, sir?” I asked.
“A good look at what?”
“The . . . thing that was chasing us.”
He turned back to me. His expression was unreadable.
“There was no ‘thing’ chasing us, Will Henry.”
“But the eyes . . . you saw them.”
“With the eyes of one suffering from dehydration, sleep deprivation, hunger, physical trauma, exhaustion, exposure, and extreme fear—not unlike my eyes at the time.”
“What about the tent? Something tore it right out of—”
He smiled condescendingly at my baffled expression. “A freak meteorological phenomenon. Rare, but not unheard of.”
“But I heard it, sir. Coming after us . . . It was huge.”
“You heard nothing of the sort. As I’ve told you before, fear murders our reason. I should never have panicked, but I was, like you, in a state of heightened emotional distress. In my right mind I would have realized the best course of action would have been to stay where we were, as far from the trees as possible.”
“Far from the trees?”
“The preferable place to be in an earthquake.”
“An earthquake,” I echoed disbelievingly. He was nodding. “It was an earthquake?”
“Well, what else could it have been?” he asked crossly. “Really, Will Henry, the alternative you’re suggesting is absurd, and you know it.”
I set down my fork. Suddenly I wasn’t hungry anymore. Indeed, I felt full to my ears, bloated and slightly nauseated. I looked down at my plate. The dead eye of the trout stared blankly back at me. Shards of white flesh clung to the delicate translucent bone. I would strip her bare. I would see her as she is. I thought of Pierre Larose. And then of Sergeant Hawk, his arms flung wide as if to embrace the limitless sky, his eyeless sockets regarding something we who retained our eyes could not see.