“Where is the magnificum? It is right above you. It is right beside you. It is behind you and before you. It is in that space one ten-thousandth of an inch outside your range of vision. Look no farther than the length of your nose and you’ll find it, Pellinore.”
Beside me the doctor huffed in frustration. I could feel his body tense, as if at any moment he might launch himself at Kearns and choke the life out of him. The whimpering child cradled in his arms probably saved Kearns.
“I don’t have the stomach for this, Jack. I have suffered too much to suffer your riddles, too.”
“And not just you, I’d guess! I saw little Willy’s hand. Curiosity got the better of him, hmmm?”
Warthrop ignored the jibe and snarled, “Where is the magnificum?”
“You really want to see it? All right, I’ll take you to it. Not now, though. His children are about at night, and they are very protective of him, as my Russian friends discovered and you probably already know.”
He asked for some water, and then emptied Warthrop’s canteen. He announced he was ravenously hungry, and then tore into our provisions, cramming food into his mouth as fast as he could pluck it from the bag.
“Been hunting that one for days,” he said around a mouthful of hardtack. “All the way from Moomi. They exile the infected ones, you know—throw them out of the caves to fend for themselves, but I was waiting for the beast to take full hold of her—much better sport that way. The females are much harder than the males. The males come at you head-on, no stealth or subtlety about them, but the females are very clever. They’ll lure you into dead-end traps, lead you round in circles, sit statue-still for hours to ambush you. I’ll take a male as big and strong as Awaale here over a rotter like her any day.”
“You knew we were here,” Warthrop said. It was not a question.
“Saw your light. Knew you took her in. Didn’t know quite what to do; thought you’d take care of her yourself, Warthrop. Why didn’t you?”
The doctor looked down at the infant against his chest. The child had fallen asleep, its fat lips wrapped around its tiny thumb.
“You’ll have to do it, you know,” Kearns said.
The monstrumologist looked up. “What?”
“It has not been infected.”
“I’ve examined it.”
“It’s been sucking on its mother’s teat. How could it not be infected?”
Warthrop chewed on his bottom lip for a moment. “It has no symptoms,” he argued stubbornly. I wondered who he was trying to convince, Kearns or himself.
“Well, do what you like, then. Let it starve out here.”
“We’ll bring it with us.”
“I thought we were going to see the magnificum.”
The doctor was rocking the child gently as it slept. “Awaale will remain here to watch him,” he decided.
“I will?” asked Awaale.
“And when the tyke gets hungry, he’ll stick its little mouth on his big black nipple?”
“Where is the nearest settlement?”
“With living people in it? Probably the caves over in Hoq.”
“He will deliver the child to Hoq, then.”
“For what? It’s been exposed; they’ll just kill it. Should do it now and save you and them all the time and trouble.”
“I can’t kill it,” the doctor said. “I won’t kill it.”
Warthrop instinctively pulled the child closer to his chest and changed the subject. “What happened to your Russian friends?”
“The same thing that happened to the girl out there—that happens to anyone who touches the rot of stars. It started out well enough. Mating season had just begun, and the casualties were limited; the sultan had it quite under control, contained to a couple remote villages. They isolate the plague, you see, rather like a smallpox outbreak, and let it burn itself out. Sidorov and company traced the nexus to the birthing grounds, deep in the belly of the mountains, and then one of the fools got strung up by his vanity. He literally put his foot in it—stepped in a fresh puddle of the pwdre ser—and then insisted on cleaning his boots! The rot burned through the entire company after that. I barely escaped. Been hunted—and hunting—ever since.”
“Oh, it got him, too. What day is this? Tuesday? Isn’t it funny how unimportant the days of the week become? Anyway, I think it was Thursday last that it took him.”
Kearns nodded. “To the nesting grounds, where I’m taking you. If you still want to go.”
“What does it look like?” Warthrop asked. He did not wish to ask John Kearns that question—he wasn’t confident he’d get a straight answer—but he couldn’t help himself. The dead in his wake compelled him. He’d sacrificed them to know the face of the Faceless One.
“Well, it’s quite large,” Kearns replied in a serious tone. “Huge, actually. Been around as long as us, hopping from island to island to roost before going back into hiding for a generation or two. The males aren’t very bright, rather indolent, I would say, like a lion, sitting back and letting the females bring home the spoils.”
“But what is their appearance? Are they reptilian? Avian? Or are they more closely related to the flying mammals, like bats?”
“Well, their brains are quite small, like a lizard’s or a bird’s, but they don’t have wings. They’re covered in thorns—like a rose!—and their hides are very pale and thin, their claws sharp, and their digits are quite dexterous. Well, we all know the intricacy of their nests.”
“So they lay eggs, like a bird or reptile.”
Kearns shrugged, smiled. “Haven’t seen an egg—wouldn’t want to. Can’t imagine how that might happen.”
“How many are there?”
“Here on Socotra? Hundreds, I would guess.”
“Hundreds?” The monstrumologist seemed shocked.
“In the world, I would say thousands. Hundreds of thousands. Millions. As many as there are grains of sand on this blessed island’s beach. Look up, Pellinore. How many stars are there in the sky? That’s how many magnificum there are, and that’s the number of faces they’#8221;
My master realized that he was wasting his time. He fell silent, and Kearns fell silent, and then there was the sound of the wind and no other sound for some time.
“If this is one of your tricks, I will kill you. Do you understand?” the doctor said at last.
“Oh, really, Pellinore. I want you to find it. Why do you think I sent the nidus to you in the first place?”
He asked for his rifle back. Warthrop refused.
“They’ll be here soon, and I’d rather be armed,” Kearns argued. “You would rather I’d be armed.”
“Who?” demanded Awaale. “Who will be here soon?”
“The rotters,” Kearns answered. “The children of Typhoeus. The blood draws them. They can smell it for miles, especially in this wind. May I please have my gun back?”
“I do not trust this man,” Awaale said. “His name is true. He is Khasiis, the evil one.”
“If I wanted to kill you, I had my chance hours ago,” returned Kearns reasonably.
“Will Henry,” the doctor said. “Return Dr. Kearns’s gun to him.”
Awaale muttered something under his breath. Kearns laughed softly. Warthrop rocked the baby in his arms, his expression as troubled as the baby’s was serene.
And thus we waited for the children of Typhoeus to come.
Chapter Forty: “I Stand Upright”
Warthrop decided to entrust the child to me.
“If the worst should happen, take him back the way we came,” he instructed me. “Down the path and out of the mountains. Make your way south, back to the sea. Gishub should be relatively safe until the Dagmar returns.”
“Let Awaale take it,” I protested. “I want to stay with you.”
“You are fierce, Will Henry,” he acknowledged. “More Torrance-fierce than Kearns-fierce, I hope, but…”
“It is all right,” Awaale put in. “Walaalo has his own bargains to keep. But your master is right, at least in this. Do not worry. I will protect him with my life.”
Kearns was loitering near the opening of the cleft, staring into the dark where the body of the woman lay crumpled upon the stone.
“It’s a perfect spot. Perfect!” he breathed. “We could not have arranged it better, Pellinore. I shall take my old roost there, on that ledge on the eastern face. You can take the northern approach, and Awaale the other end, at those boulders marking the trailhead. Oh, that devil Minotaur. I shall have his head ye#8221;
“Minotaur?” echoed the doctor.
“My name for him. A big brute, almost as big as our pirate here. Been after that one for days. He’s not a mindless animal like the others. He’s very clever, probably was a leader in his village, and he’s very, very strong. You can’t miss him—has a long spike growing right out the middle of his forehead—the stag of the herd, as it were. Travels in a pack of them, four or five the last time I counted, but they fall fast from the pwdre ser, as you know, Pellinore. So they may be down one or two unless a straggler’s joined the cause. A single bullet won’t take him down. He’s carrying around three of mine and still shows no sign of slowing. The last time I shot him—now, that was quite interesting. The wound bled a good deal, and usually it’s the blood that sets off the frenzy, but with the Minotaur the rest gathered around the spot and one by one gave it this kind of sycophantic lick, a rotter pledge of fealty. It was poignant, really, given that their lifetimes can now be measured in weeks.”
He raised his head, and we listened with him—but I heard nothing but the wind rubbing on stone.
“Something is coming,” he whispered. “I suggest we take our positions, gentlemen. Don’t fire until my signal or unless you have no choice. Best to wait till they’re distracted with the bait; then it’s rather like shooting fish in a barrel. Watch out for my friend the Minotaur!”
He scrambled up the trail; Warthrop followed a few steps behind. Awaale patted my shoulder, picked up his rifle, and took off in the opposite direction. I eased to the very back of the cut and hunkered down, holding the child awkwardly in my lap and thinking how stupid I was to be pressed into a corner like this with no means of escape and no way to defend myself. My fate—and that of the child—was completely in the hands of a psychopathic killer who liked to go by the Somali name for “the evil one.”
The baby whimpered in its sleep. I ran my fingertips lightly over his face, brushing across closed eyelids, his stubby little nose, his soft cheeks. There was another child, not so long ago, whom I had stepped over in a filthy tenement hallway, whom I had abandoned, when it had been in my power to save him, whom I later found floating in pieces in a basement flooded in raw sewage. You are my redemption, the key to the prison of my sin, Awaale had said. By saving you, I will save myself from judgment. At the time, I will confess, I had a distinctly Warthropian reaction to those words. An illogical leap, I thought, from a chance meeting to divine intervention. But are not all leaps of faith by their nature illogical? Redeem the time, the stars had sung down to me. I thought of their song while I caressed the child’s face. Redeem the time. If it came to it, I decided, I would leave him here and try to draw them away—an abandonment that this time would not doom but deliver, that would not damn but redeem.