The men started. I think they’d forgotten I was standing there. Warthrop looked stunned at my offer, Awaale horrified. I held out my hand for the gun. Unlike the monstrumologist’s, my hands did not shake.
“It’s the only way to save him,” I said.
“No. No, I won’t allow it, Will Henry.”
“Because to shoot someone in self-defense is one thing. This is something entirely different.”
“How?” I demanded. “We can’t let her live. We can’t let him die. I’m just a boy; she won’t suspect anything.”
“I can do it,” the monstrumologist said, sounding more firm than he looked. “It should be me.” He laid his hand upon my shoulder. “Stay here with Awaale, Will Henry.”
He ducked inside the wound in the mountainside. Awaale turned away. I turned to watch.
In the lamplight she looked very young, still in her teens, I guessed, and despite being covered head to toe in dirt, she was beautiful, in the first full flush of womanhood. She smiled trustingly at the doctor as he knelt beside her. He touched her cheek, the heel of his left hand dangerously close to her mouth, while dropping his right hand into his pocket. He spoke softly to her, using his eyes and his tone to lull her. And the gun came out. He held it against his leg outside her range of vision. Now, I thought. Do it now.
I could not see his face. I do not know what she saw there, but she continued to smile and he continued to talk softly, stroking her cheek, and I wondered what he was saying. He could have been saying anything, anything at all, because she couldn’t understand him. He could be saying, “For your child, I must do this. For our child…” Or: “My name is ha-Mashchit, and the Lord God created me on the first day…”
His hand fell from her cheek. The other did not rise. Then he fell away entirely, scooting backward until he hit the opposite wall, and there he stayed, his back pressed against the rock, head bowed, arms hanging uselessly by his sides. I started toward him, and he held up his empty hand. Stay.
“What is he doing?” whispered Awaale over his shoulder. He refused to turn and see.
“He can’t do it,” I murmured in reply.
Awaale grunted. “Maybe he’s wrong. Maybe she isn’t sick.”
“No. Her eyes—I saw it.”
“You saw what in her eyes?”
“Oculus Dei, the eyes of God.”
“I do not understand, walaalo.
What are the eyes of God?” Within the cleft the monstrumologist raised his head. His dark eyes shone wetly in the lamplight. What are the eyes of God?
“I know,” whispered Awaale. “He waits for her to sleep. And when she falls asleep…”
“I don’t know what he’s waiting for,” I said. His hesitation in the necessity of the hour troubled me deeply. He’d never hesitated before. He hadn’t in Gishub. He hadn’t in the kitchen at Harrington Lane when he’d raised the butcher knife high over his head. The monstrumologist had always followed the dictates of his discipline. Jacob Torrance may have worn the Society’s motto on his finger, but Pellinore Warthrop had it engraved upon his heart. He was, as Fadil had named him, Mihos, the lion, the guardian of the horizon. What stayed him? Was he clinging to something—or had he let something go?
“I do not understand this man you serve,” Awaale said. “He seems to revel in death and fear it all at once. He chases after it like a rabid hound and then runs from it like a frightened rabbit. Why does a man like this hunt monsters?”
He plopped down beside the mouth of the crevice, holding his rifle upright between his knees, and leaned his head back against the rock.
“I am tired, walaalo,” he sighed.
“You can sleep if you like,” I said. “I’ll stay awake.”
“Ah, but you forget my bargain. I am the one who must watch over you.”
“I don’t need you to watch over me.”
“It is not you I must answer to one day, walaalo,” he returned gently.
I eased myself to the ground, facing Awaale so I could keep the doctor within my peripheral vision. He hadn’t moved; neither had the mother and child. Maybe the doctor besidewas wrong, I thought. Not about the woman but about the child. How could the mother be infected and the child not be? Better to end their suffering now. I did not raise this possibility to either of my companions, though. I sat with it, and thought, and waited, while the night grew deep around me and my companions nodded off. I watched the woman’s eyes grow heavy, watched her head fall forward and then snap back as she fought her exhaustion. I was wide awake. I could have stayed awake for a thousand nights, so tightly wound was the thing inside me, das Ungeheuer, the me/not-me, the thing that whispered, I AM, and the thing that strove within me—and strives within you—to be free.
And while Mihos slept, Ophois rose.
There was the sigh of the wind and the crunch of the earth’s shattered bones and the cold steel of the gun and the sleeping woman. There was the baby pressed against her nak*d breast and the soles of her bloody, rock-chewed feet and the top of her head pointed toward me as if in offering. I raised the gun. Brought it to within an inch of her scalp.
The world is not round. The horizon is the summit of the abyss; there is no crossing back.
My eyes dropped to the baby as I started to squeeze the trigger. Its eyes looked back at me. He was awake, and he was suckling on his mother’s breast. My heart slammed against my ribs in panic. I dropped the gun and yanked him from her arms.
She snapped awake with a sharp cry and lunged forward, but I’d already backed out and turned up the path. There was no light to speak of to guide my way, and I didn’t get very far before I tripped over a rock and pitched forward, spinning at the last second to protect the child. Her wraithlike shadow loomed over me for a long, awful instant, frozen in time, and in that space between the one second and the next, a shot rang out from above, and the mother fell dead at the feet of the one who had stolen all that mattered to her. I looked up, expecting to see the doctor or Awaale, and seeing neither, but the smiling face of the one who’d begun it, the reason I was in this place of blood and rock and shadow, holding a bawling infant in my arms, the face of John Kearns.
Chapter Thirty-Nine: “What Does It Look Like?”
With a little laugh he jumped down from his perch, dropping his rifle immediately when he saw Awaale and the doctor running toward us with the light. He raised his hands into the air.
“Don’t shoot; I’m clean!” he called in that distinctive leonine purr of a voice. “My!” he said, sizing up Awaale. “You’re a tall African!”
“Cover him, Awaale,” said my master. “If he moves, kill him.”
He knelt before Kearns’s victim. She had been shot cleanly through the back of the head.
“Are you hurt?” Warthrop asked me anxiously. I shook my head. He quickly examined the baby, and then pulled it from my arms.
“I saved your life once again, Master Will Henry!” Kearns said teasingly. “Not that I’m keeping score. Warthrop, I thought you were dead—or mad, or both—soam halfway right—or wrong. Like everything else, it’s all in how you look at it. Is this very tall African going to shoot me for saving your assistant’s life?”
“Who is this man?” demanded Awaale.
“Jack Kearns, that name will do, or you may call me by my African name, Khasiis. And you are Awaale, which means ‘lucky,’ I believe.”
Awaale nodded. “And I know what your name means, Khasiis Jack Kearns.”
“Good. And now that we’ve been properly introduced, I suggest we extinguish that light and find cover as quickly as possible. The light draws them like moths to the flame; you must know that, Pellinore.”
The doctor did know. He directed me to pick up the surrendered rifle and ordered Kearns forward, followed closely by Awaale, back to our little hideout. Warthrop and I followed, the child twisting and whimpering in his arms. His little face was streaked with dirt and tears, and his mouth was glimmering with his dead mother’s milk. When we reached the cleft in the stone, the monstrumologist extinguished the lamp.
“I can still see you,” Awaale warned the Englishman.
“Really? Then, you have the eyes of a cat—or of a rotter.”
“Where are your friends, Kearns?” demanded the doctor.
“What friends? Oh, you mean the Russians. Dead. Except Sidorov. He might not be dead… yet. Not the eyes of a cat, but certainly the lives!”
“So it was to Sidorov that you offered the magnificum.”
“The magnificum? Well, I suppose. I offered to take him to its nesting grounds—but the beast itself, that was up to him and his friend the czar.”
“And?” Warthrop barked softly. “Did he find it?”
“Well, yes—or it found him.”
The doctor hissed through his teeth. He had been beaten to the prize, and by the worst possible rival, a disgraced and disbarred monstrumologist, a scientific charlatan who would take all the glory of being the first to lay eyes upon the Father of Monsters.
Kearns read the doctor’s reaction, and said, “Now, don’t be angry with me, Pellinore. I did send you the nidus, after all.”
“Why did you send it to me, Kearns? Wouldn’t you need that to convince Sidorov you were telling the truth?”
“Oh, the truth,” Kearns said dismissively.
“You knew I would come looking for you.”
“Well, it did occur to me that you might. And to Sidorov. He wasn’t too happy when I told him I had sent it to you for safekeeping. ‘Not him,’ he said. ‘Not Warthrop.’” Kearns’s Russian accent was ipeccable. “And I said, ‘Oh, Warthrop’s a good enough bloke, a fine fellow for a scientist and bloody moralist.’”
“That explains Rurick and Plešec.”
Kearns laughed. “Oh, good. Those two fairly scream for an explanation.”
“But not Arkwright.”
“Who is Arkwright?”
“You don’t know Arkwright?”
“Should I know Arkwright?”
“You offered the locus ex magnificum to the British.”
“I don’t think I should comment on that, except to say I am a loyal servant of Her Majesty the queen.” He raised his voice: “God save the queen!”
“When you are finished with him,” Awaale said to Warthrop, “I would like to kill him.”
“Well, aren’t you a bloodthirsty African! Wherever did you find him, Pellinore? Did you kidnap him from a pirate ship?”
“How did you know I was a pirate?” demanded Awaale.
“Enough, Awaale,” Warthrop said. “It’s best not to parlay with the devil, if you can avoid it.”
“That’s the trick, yes,” agreed Kearns cheerfully. “Avoiding it.”
“Where is it, Kearns?” growled the monstrumologist. “Where is the magnificum?”
John Kearns took his time in answering. My eyes had adjusted to the dark; still, I could see only the barest outline of the man, a shade of lighter gray against the black backdrop of the mountain. The voice issuing from that shadow was a low thrum, like the sound of a fly’s wings beating the air.