And when the light struck him, his body jerked violently, his mouth came open in a gargled scream, and he heaved up a mass of clotted blood mixed with a clear, viscous fluid. The boy lunged toward the light, but he was very weak; he collapsed upon his belly, clawing at the hard stone. His back arched, and the skin pulled taut over the protuberances growing from his spine and then split apart, from the base of his neck to his lower back, like a zipper coming open.
Awaale heard my cry of revulsion and rushed into the house in time to see the monstrumologist step up to the writhing body, level the revolver at the small head, and, with a quick squeeze of his finger, launch a saving bullet into what was left of the child’s brain.
The former pirate (who had lost count of the number he had killed; Awaale the Devil, they had called him) stared at Warthrop uncomprehendingly for a long moment. Then he looked at the dead child by the doctor’s feet. One of the tiny hands had fallen upon Warthrop’s shoe and was clutching it tightly, as if it had been his favorite toy, and the blood from the wound spread out slowly beneath his small, round head, creating a half-moon shape that reminded me of a Byzantine painting of the Christ child.
Awaale backed out the open doorway without saying a word. The doctor’s shoulders relaxed—Awaale’s appearance had unnerved him more than shooting the child—and he asked for his instrument case.
“Just a sample or two—the first fresh one we’ve found. I won’t need you for this, Will Henry. Perhaps you should keep watch with Awaale.”
“Oh, you had better take this.” He dropped the revolver into my hands. “You aren’t afraid to use it, are you?”
“I didn’t think so.”
Awaale was sitting in the dirt just to the left of the doorway, pressing his back against the wall of the house, facing toward the sea. I sat beside him. We were only a mile from the ocean, but there was no breeze. The air was still and heavy with dust, and towering behind us, like a great gray battlement, the gray cliffs of the Diksam Plateau.
“Who is this man?” he asked me. “Who is this dhaktar you serve?”
“He is a monstrumologist.”
“A strange name, walaalo.
What does it mean?”
“Someone who studies monsters.”
“The ones worth studying, I suppose.”
“The one in there—who looked so very much like a child, a little boy—he was a monster?”
“He was sick, Awaale—very sick. The doctor did the only thing he could. He was… he was helping him.”
“Helping him? What a very strange kind of medicine this monstrumology is!” He looked at me. “And you have been with him how long?”
“Two years now.” I could not meet his appraising stare. I kept my face toward the unseen sea.
“And such things”—he meant what had happened inside the little stone house—“they are not new to you?”
“No, Awaale,” I said. “They are not new to me.”
“Oh,” he said. “Oh, walaalo.” His huge hand engulfed mine. “I am sorry; I did not know. You have seen the face of the faceless one, haven’t you?”
He closed his eyes and his lips moved, but he spoke no word. It took me an absurdly long time to realize that he was praying.
Chapter Thirty-Seven: “We Are Not Too Late”
The doctor stepped outside, and Awaale and I scrambled to our feet. We both were anxious to quit Gishub. The village was nasu. The monstrumologist had a different idea.
“We will stay here for the night,” he announced quietly. “By all accounts magnificum is a nocturnal hunter, and as his hunters, we should keep his hours, but there is great risk in that. Exposure to pwdre ser leads to extreme sensitivity to light as well as a ravenous appetite for human flesh. A brilliant adaptation, really, for by so infecting his prey he forces them to keep his hours. The survivors act as his scouts. Oculus Dei indeed!”
We chose one of the clean abandoned houses in which to spend the rest of the night. Awaale volunteered to take the first watch, but the doctor demurred; he was not tired. He would wake Awaale in four hours.
“I shall take the rifle. Will Henry, give the revolver to Awaale, and try to get some sleep! We have a long march ahead of us.”
There were no beds, just sleeping mats that we rolled out onto the floor of hard-packed dirt. I saw the monstrumologist sit down in the open doorway. Anything that might want to get to us must first get past him.
“Walaalo,” Awaale whispered. “What happened to your hand?”
I kept my voice very low, lest the doctor hear me. “It makes a nest, and it uses its spit—the pwdre ser—to hold it together, and if you touch it, you change into… into what you saw tonight.”
“And that is what happened? Y hoched the nest?”
“No, I… Indirectly, yes, I touched it.”
He was silent for a time. “He cut it off, didn’t he? The dhaktar.”
“Yes. To save me.”
“Like he saved the child.”
“It wasn’t too late for me.”
He was silent for a long time. “What is this thing, this magnificum?”
“No one knows. No one has seen it. That’s why we’ve come.”
“To see it?”
“Or kill one. Or capture it. I think the doctor would like a living one, if he can manage it.”
“For what reason?”
“Because he’s a monstrumologist. That’s what he does.”
We could see the doctor’s still silhouette framed in the doorway. “This is very strange to me, walaalo,” Awaale said. “Like a dream. As if before you came I was awake and now I am dreaming.”
I thought of the woman standing in the kitchen and the tall glass of milk and the smell of warm apples.
“I know,” I said.
They swapped places at some point during the night; I slept through that. I was dreaming I was the boy who had died of cholera and the Nassesalars had borne my swaddled body to the innermost wall of the circle, placing it with my exposed face to the cloud-barren sky. My soul was trapped inside the unclean flesh; it did not circle round like it should. It was trapped, and I could see the crows and white vultures land on the ledge beside me, their small eyes clever and shiny black, and I watched as their sharp beaks filled my frozen vision, when they lowered their heads to peck out my eyes.
Sometime before dawn a startled cry jolted me awake. A shadow raced past me toward the open doorway. It was the monstrumologist. Alarmed, I leapt up and ran after him. Awaale was several feet away from the building, standing beside a small fire he had made with no small effort from bits of driftwood that had littered the beach. He swung the rifle around at the doctor’s approach and then shuffled backward as the monstrumologist attacked the fire, stomping on the glowing embers and grinding them into the sand.
“No light, do you understand?” he snarled into the larger man’s startled face. “You’ll draw every last stinking one of them down upon us.”
“I understand, dhaktar,” Awaale answered, holding up his hand. Perhaps he had begun to think he’d joined company with a madman.
“You have only seen the final stages of an exposure,” the monstrumologist said. “They are very strong and very quick and mad with hunger before they succumb. Ask Will Henry if you doubt me.”
thamped on the lingering coals until the last red speck was black. He ordered me back into the house.
“I’ll stay out here with Awaale,” he said. “In case he is tempted to do some other foolish thing.”
Like accompanying a monstrumologist on the hunt for the Father of Monsters, thought I.
We set out at first light, heading straight toward the rising sun, and our shadows stretched long and thin behind us on the rocky soil. To our right the land sloped gently to the sea. On our left were the cliffs, soaring more than a thousand feet straight up, their craggy faces inscrutable in the early morning sunlight. The wind hissed and whistled sharply high over our heads as it rushed across the highland plains and over the jagged lip of the plateau. Below there was no wind, just the sound of the wind, and that sound was incessant. It hovered in the background like the voice of an unseen chorus.
Around ten o’clock we came upon a great gash in the rock face, carved out over the centuries by the flash floods of the monsoons. The rocks shone wetly in the defile, and water still trickled along the course that cut directly across our path as it made its way toward its birthplace, the sea. Along either side of the riverbed, strange pale-skinned plants clung to the rock, with bulbous trunks and skinny branches festooned with dark green waxy leaves. The monstrumologist pointed these out to me and said, “They grow nowhere else on earth, Will Henry, like so many species on Socotra. This is why the island is called the Galápagos of the East.”
“Is that what you call it?” muttered Awaale under his breath.
The monstrumologist did not hear him, or chose to ignore him. He pointed to the winding path into the cliffs. “What do you think, gentlemen? Shall we break our fast here before we attempt the ascent?”
During our breakfast of cured beef and hardtack, Warthrop took a stick and drew a map of the island in the sand. “We are here, midway between Gishub and Steroh. Up here is Hadibu, about thirty miles to our north and west.”
“Thirty miles?” said Awaale. “That isn’t so bad.”
“Thirty miles as the crow flies,” the doctor said. “Between us and Hadibu lies the Hagghier Mountains, nearly impassible this time of year—flash floods, high winds, rock slides.… No, we must head north first, past the mountains, and then turn west for Hadibu.”
“That is where your monster is, then, in Hadibu?” asked Awaale.
The doctor shook his head. “I’ve no idea. It’s the most logical place to start, though. Hadibu is the largest settlement on the island. If you would find the tiger, find first the antelope.”
We hiked up to the plateau. The ground was steep and wet, and I slipped several times. Each time, Awaale grabbed whatever piece of me was closest at hand—a wrist, the back of my shirt—chuckling at my clumsiness.
“Perhaps I should carry you across my shoulders like a shepherd his lamb, walaalo,” he teased me.
“Perhaps if you and Will Henry would talk less and focus more on the task at hand, we might make better time,” the monstrumologist snapped. With each minute the unnerving fire in his eyes grew brighter and colder. He paused only once about halfway up, when a gust of wind came rushing down the defile. He lifted his head and allowed the wind to bathe his face, eyes closed, arms spread wide for balance. The wind died to a gentle trickle, and he resumed the climb at a quicker pace, as if he had smelled something promising in the wind.
At the top, with the vast heart of Socotra spread out before me, I saw little that I would deem promising. The central plateau was a flat, nearly featureless landscape, crisscrossed with lines of scrub and clusters of green-crowned trees that looked like giant umbrellas turned inside out. Their exposed, interwoven branches reminded me of wicker baskets at first, and then I decided, No, they are more like the intricate weave of a nidus ex magnificum. Two were clinging to the rocks above the riverbed, and we rested for a moment in their meager shade. The day had grown hot, though the dry wind still blew.