The north wind brought a sound down from the peaks, a high-pitched squeal I can only liken to that of a pig in the slaughterhouse, an ear-piercing shriek that did not strike me as human, and for a terrifying moment I was convinced it was not Typhoeus’s children, but Typhoeus himself who was coming for Kearns’s “bait.” I pictured the magnificum descending the mountainside, pale flesh glistening and covered in wickedly sharp spines, slathering maw agape and dripping shining globs of pwdre ser, a black behemoth with twice the reach of a man and three times the height, and a face that was utterly blank, a face that was not a face, the faceless face that caused Pierre Lebroque to cry in the agony of perfect recognition, “Nullité! That is all it is! Nothing, nothing, nothing!”
That first shrill call was answered by another, and then another, each from a different direction, and they were drawing closer, the calls coming quicker but in shorter duration, until they resembled the short, hysterical bursts of hyenas on the hunt. Then, abruptly, nothing but the wind. It was terrible sitting there, not knowing what was happening outside. For all I knew, they could have been just outside, waiting for some signal before they sprang. I dropped one hand to the ground and groped about for a rock, a stick, anything I might use as a weapon. In my mind’s eye I saw Mr. Kendall leaping down the stairs, his black eyes filling my vision.
And then I heard, very distinctly, a ripping sound and a loud crunch, the way the leg bone of a chicken sounds when you rip it from the carcass. Something—well, more than one thing—was sobbing, a horrible, snuffling, hiccupping kind of wail—the tears of damnation, the bitter despair of the pit, and I knew that they were eating her, tearing her to pieces and stuffing the dripping offal into their mouths, gnashing with fury, chomping with such desperate hunger that more than one had already chewed their own tongues in half. And from his mountain throne Typhoeus magnificum, the magnificent father, looked down upon his children, and smiled.
Kearns cried down from his post, giving the waited for signal. I heard only six shots, two from Kearns’s rifle, the rest from Warthrop’s revolver, but their echoes scampered and skittered along the pass, chasing one another down to the bottom. I cried out softly when a large shadow flitted across the opening, and then I realized it was Awaale, running toward the site of the slaughter. I stood up and went outside. I felt no fear now, only the familiar, sickening curiosity to see what should not be seen, what most would not want to see, but what I had to see.
There were four bodies where before there had been one, all of them draped over one another in a confusing jumble of limbs. I had to step over a rivulet of blood worming its way down the slope.
“Very nice work, Warthrop,” John Kearns was saying. “Four to my two. I’d no idea you were such a fine shot.”
“But how can this be?” Awaale said, his voice shaking with revulsion and wonder. “This woman is very old, yet she is heavy with child.”
“It isn’t a child she’s heavy with,” said Kearns with a smile. “Stand back, gentlemen, and I will show you.”
He pulled a bowie knife from his boot and bent over the old woman, who lay curled on her side, blood pooling beneath her mat of steel gray hair.Kearns did not stab her. He made a quick, shallow incision in her abdomen and then hopped back. The cut pulsed once, and then her stomach blew open with a loud pop! spewing a fine, clear mist and a foul-smelling soup of watery blood and atrophied entrails. Kearns laughed heartily and said, “You see? She isn’t pregnant. She’s just got a terrible case of the winds!”
Awaale turned away in disgust, but Warthrop seemed fascinated by the phenomenon, comparing it to the cases of beached whales whose decomposing bodies fill up with gases produced by certain bacteria in their guts, causing them to literally explode. It explained the blasted-open stomachs and bloody walls and ceiling of the death house in Gishub.
“Either some substance contained in the pwdre ser or the body’s reaction to the exposure…,” Warthrop mused.
“I thought you’d like it. Remember the Russian I told you about with the obsession with shiny shoes? Happened to him. Hosed down two men while Sidorov was examining him.”
The doctor nodded absently. “I don’t see your Minotaur.”
“No.” Kearns sighed. “He escapes my clutches once again. But I’m not finished with him yet. Before this is over, I shall have his head mounted on my study wall, I can assure you of that!”
There followed a lengthy debate between the monstrumolo-gist and Kearns about what we should do next. We were all exhausted and desperately in need of sleep, but Kearns insisted we should quit the scene immediately. He knew of at least one more troop of “rotters” in the general vicinity, and he worried our luck—or our ammunition—might run out. Warthrop reminded Kearns that he had called it “the perfect spot,” and the monstrumologist said it was better to lay a trap than risk an ambush.
“There is a cave higher up, about a mile from here,” Kearns allowed. “I suppose we could make for that. But it’s really best to keep their hours—sleep during the day and hunt at night.”
“I understand,” Warthrop said. “But we won’t make much of the latter if we don’t get some of the former! Here, Will Henry, I’ll take the child now. Fetch our pack and my instrument case. Kearns and I will take the lead; Will Henry and Awaale in the rear. Quietly now, and quickly.”
And that is how we proceeded deeper into the heart of the mountains. The way was not easy, littered with rocks—some as large as a brougham carriage—riven with deep fissures, at times so narrow we were forced to turn sideways and shuffle with our backs against the sheer cliff face while our toes dangled over the crumbly edge a thousand feet above the jagged ground. The air grew thin and cold. The wind pressed down from above and bit harshly at our cheeks. I felt my face grow numb.
“There is an old saying in my country, walaalo,” Awaale said at one point. “‘Do not walk into the snake pit with your eyes open.’ I used to puzzle over that proverb. No more!” He laughed softly. “Do you think this viper Kearns may have been sent by God?”
The notion was so absurd, I laughed in spite of myself. “What are you talking about?” I asked.
“The child! Kearns chases him down to where we are, and now I am to bring him safely back to his people.”
“Except he said those people would kill him.”
Awaale cursed softly, but he was smiling. “I am only saying God might have sent me for the little one—not for you.”
“That makes more sense,” I replied. “I was going to kill her, Awaale. The gun was an inch from her head and I was pulling the trigger…”
“But you did not.”
“No. I saw he was feeding, and I panicked.”
“Ah. You mean you were meant to save him.”
“I’m not meant to save anyone!” I snapped. I was suddenly very angry. “I’m here to serve the doctor, who’s here to serve… to serve science, and that’s all. That’s all.”
“Oh, walaalo.” He sighed. “You are more a pirate than I ever was.”
Kearns’s cave was actually a warren of small chambers connected by tunnels bored into the rock by a million years of monsoon rains eating their way through tiny cracks in the rocks. Nature is anything but impatient. The deepest chamber was also the largest and probably the safest, but Kearns warned us against bunking there, for it was home to thousands of bats, and their guano was a foot deep on the chamber floor.
It was the bats that woke me the next morning, fluttering over our heads in a dizzying ballet of black and brown, squealing excitedly as they made for their roosts. I was the last to rise, finding the doctor and Awaale sitting outside the cave, the foundling squirming listlessly in Warthrop’s lap.
“Where is Dr. Kearns?” I asked.
“Scouting the trail, or at least that’s what he said he was going off to do.”
“How is the baby?” I asked.
“Hungry,” he answered. “And very weak.” The child was gnawing on the monstrumologist’s knuckle. “But he has no symptoms, and certainly he was exposed through his mother’s milk. It suggests he may have some kind of natural immunity.” He nodded toward the instrument case beside him. “I have taken samples of his blood. If nothing else comes of this, we may be able to find a cure for the rot of stars, Will Henry.”
Kearns returned a few minutes later, carrying his rifle and a small leather satchel. He dug through his small stash of supplies inside the cave and returned with a bundle of rags, which he arranged carefully into a conical pile before setting it on fire. The rags burned hot and bright at first, and then settled into a smoldering mound.
“There’s no decent wood in these mountains for a proper fire,” he said. He dug into his satchel and removed three dead spiders—the largest I had ever seen, bigger than Awaale’s enormous hand—and dropped them into the middle of the smoking ashes. “Solifugae—camel spiders. You must try one, Pelliore. I’ve developed somewhat of a taste for them.”
“How far is it to the nesting grounds?” asked my master, ignoring Kearns’s suggestion.
“Not far. Half a day if we don’t stop to rest and the mountain is in a good mood. It has moods, you know. Yesterday it was very angry, stomping and puffing its stony cheeks. He is very prideful, and quick to anger. Not unlike a certain scientist I know.”
“The child is starving,” Awaale said, his patience with Kearns wilting. “I must leave at once for Hoq. Do you know the way?”
“I do.” Kearns stabbed one of the spiders with the tip of his knife and crammed the entire blackened wad into his mouth. A bit of greenish-yellow juice rolled down his chin. He wiped it away with the back of his hand, chewing thoughtfully. “But I wish you’d reconsider. Your services would be much more valuable to us, and as I’ve said, the villagers’ first duty is to protect themselves from potential carriers. They will kill the child… and probably anyone who bears it.”
Awaale stiffened and stuck out his huge chest. “Do you think I am afraid?”
“No, I think you’re stupid.”
“Hope is not stupid. Faith is not stupid.”
“You left out charity,” Kearns said with a wicked smile.
“That is enough, Kearns,” said the monstrumologist wearily. “I am in agreement with Awaale. It is true; the child may be doomed. It is also true that without Awaale we may be doomed. But the alternative is worse. It is no alternative, really.”
Warthrop rose to his feet. He seemed to tower over us, as tall and impregnable as the soaring peaks encircling the camp, a colossus hewn from flesh and blood, against which the mighty bones of the earth seemed puny.
“You may have fallen long ago over the edge of the world, John, but I have not. Not yet anyway. To show mercy is not naïve. To hold out against the end of hope is not stupidity or madness. It is fundamentally human. Of course the child is doomed. We are all doomed; we are all poisoned from our birth by the rot of stars. That does not mean we should succumb like you to the seductive fallacy of despair, the dark tide that would drown us. You may think I’m stupid, you may call me a madman and a fool, but at least I stand upright in a fallen world. At least I have yet, like you, to fall off the edge into the abyss.