“Now bring me to it, so I might confess with my lips what I have seen with my eyes. The time has come to redeem the time, so bring me to it, damn you. Bring me to the magnificum.”
Chapter Forty-One: “The Angel of Death”
Awaale and the child parted our company not long thereafter, with nothing more than one day’s rations and ammunition for the rifle. “If you hurry, you might make it to the caves before nightfall,” Kearns told him. He sketched out a crude map on a slip of paper and handed it to the Somali. “But if night catches you and you run across my Minotaur, remember that I am Theseus in this little drama and you are… Well, I?m not sure who you are.”
“Shut up,” Awaale said.
“You’re a dead man,” Kearns returned cheerfully. “On a fool’s errand.”
“And you are a fool with a dead man’s heart,” Awaale retorted. He drew me aside and said, “I have something for you, walaalo.” He pulled out his long knife and pressed it into my hand. “I will not tell you that it will bring you luck—it is the knife I used to sacrifice the one I loved—but who knows? You may redeem its blade with the blood of the wicked.” He glowered at Kearns. “No, no, you must keep it. I cannot leave without giving you a present, walaalo. I will see you in Gishub before long, so I will not say good-bye!”
He turned to Warthrop, who said simply, “Don’t fail.”
“You are hard man, dhaktar Pellinore Warthrop. Hard to understand and harder still to like. I will not fail.”
He shouldered his rifle, accepted Warthrop’s burden—the baby looked impossibly small in his massive arms—and headed up the trail. We watched him until he stepped around the bend and was gone.
To the top John Kearns led us now, to the very summit of the abyss, over deep drops and shadow-stuffed ravines, up craggy edifices where every handhold was precarious and every step fraught with peril, around heaps of shattered stone and deep pools of crystalline water reflecting back the empty sky, along terraced ledges thrust out like balconies overlooking the Diksam Plateau, an empty, featureless landscape two thousand feet beneath us. It was cold, and the air plunged into our lungs like the sharp blade of Awaale’s knife.
The clouds arrived at midmorning, swallowing the mountaintops, sliding swiftly and silently a hundred feet over our heads like a great white door slamming closed. And still higher we climbed, until I could reach up with my hand and touch the misty belly of the clouds. We came to a level spot in the trail, and there Kearns abruptly stopped, hands on his hips, head bowed, pulling hard for air.
“What is it?” Warthrop demanded. “Are you lost?”
Kearns shook his head. “Tired. I have to rest.”
He sank to the ground and fished about in his sack for a canteen. Warthrop could hardly contain himself. He paced the area, at times coming dangerously close to stepping over the edge and tumbling into the empty air.
“How much farther?” he asked.
“Five hundred feet… six?” Kearns shook his head. “Still haven’t figured out how the poor bastards do it, much less why.”
“Who? How they do what?”
“The rotters. Some protohuman instinct, I suppose. Get to the highest point before you pop…” He shrugged.
Warthrop was shaking his head. “I don’t understand.”
Kearns looked up at him ad said in a voice drained of all playfulness, “You will.”
We entered the clouds, and the world dissolved into a spinning white nothingness, the complete abnegation of color, and we but wraithlike shades, shapes without substance, forms without dimensions. I walked very close to the doctor; another foot or two between us and I would have lost him in the void. The wind whipped around the mountain and slammed into our backs. I was terrified it would push me right off the edge. I lost all sense of time. Time did not exist here at the summit of the abyss. A million years was the same as a minute.
An eight-foot-high rock wall rose out of the mist directly in front of us. We had come to the end, the doorstep of the Magnificent Father’s abode, the nesting grounds of the magnificum.
The moment my master had longed for and dreaded had come. The monstrumologist rushed forward. I’ve no doubt that if Kearns—or even I—had tried to stop him, he would have flung him over the side of the mountain. He paused only long enough to don a fresh pair of gloves before slapping his hands over the top of the wall and heaving himself up with a kick against the side. He disappeared into the fog.
“Well?” Kearns said softly to me. “Aren’t you going up?”
“Dr. Kearns,” I whispered. “What is the magnificum?”
“You’re a very sharp lad, Will. Surely you’ve discerned his face by now.”
I flinched when he touched me lightly on the cheek. His gray eyes sparkled.
“They may be a different color, but we’ve the same eyes, Master William Henry, you and I. Oculus Dei—the eyes that are not afraid to look, that see where others are blind.”
I pulled away. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Do you not? In the beginning man made God in his image, and God saw that it was good. You agreed with me about the child. Don’t deny it; I saw it in your eyes. Your eyes have come open, haven’t they? It’s why he keeps you with him, because you see in the dark places where he is afraid to look. So don’t ask me what is the magnificum. The question insults my intelligence.”
He knelt before me and held out his cupped hands.
“Come on, then; I’ll give you a boost. He is in a dark place and he needs you to be his eyes.”
I stepped into Kearns’s hands and he lifted me up and over the wall.
I was standing upon the rim of a vast cave whose roof and walls had given way after a millennium of rain and wind and earthquakes. Gigantic slabs of the collapsed chamber littered the ground. Interspersed among the boulders were the remains of stalagmites, polished to a glimmering finish by the monsoons, some worn down by the relentless wind to foot-high nubs, others rising to twice my height, their tips as sharp as their bases were wide. They reminded me of the bony spikes erupting from Mr. Kendall’s face.
I did not see the doctor. He was hidden in the swirling white. I saw the mountain’s glittering teeth and its broken bones, and then a few feet farther in I came across the first body, badly decayed and picked over by scavengers, its gut blown apart, the cavity like a great black yawning mouth. Half of its face had been stripped away, and in one empty eye socket a scorpion snuggly nestled. A gust of wind tugged at the remnants of the papery flesh that still clung to its bones, and a few pieces tore away, rocketing aloft, like hot ash in the superheated air of a fire.
Behind me I heard Kearns say, “This is his mouth. When Typhoeus’s children sense the end has come, they drag their rotting, bloated bodies to this spot at the top of the world, where they explode—some after they’ve died, some before. I have seen the breathing corpses of his children blow apart with the force of a grenade.… And the winds come down. They scoop up the bloody viscera and carry it for miles until it falls as red rain from a clear, blue sky.”
He drew me forward, the curtain of mist pulled back, and I saw hundreds of bodies frozen in the agony of death, crumpled between the rocks, strewn around the shining, sharp columns, growing more numerous as we went, until it was nearly impossible not to step on them. We picked our way carefully through the magnificum’s bountiful harvest, and the thin air was heavy with the rich smell of rot rising from the threshing floor.
We came to a shallow indention in the earth, the remains of an ancient cavernous pond. Kearns pointed out the kneeling, bent-backed shapes of the still living scattered throughout the dry lake bed, each sitting beside a dead brethren, all worrying with something cradled in their laps. Kearns pressed a finger against his lips to signal for silence. He crouched down, motioned for me to follow suit, and proceeded to lead me along the shore of the sterile pit. He brought me close—but not too close—to a kneeling man whose face had been smashed apart by the horns of bone growing from his skull, whose black eyes lacked any white in them, whose mouth hung open to reveal a bewildering profusion of thornlike growths, and whose suppurating fingers picked and plucked with exquisite delicacy at the exquisitely delicate object resting between his legs. I did not know it then, but this human wreckage had once been a man named Anton Sidorov.
“These are his hands,” Kearns murmured into my ear. “The hands of the magnificum. It’s very curious to me; I don’t understand what compels them to build the nidus, but they’ll work for days without rest, until the moment they succumb.”
The maker of the nidus was crying. From deep in his throat there issued a whimpering, an inarticulate, protesting whine, as if the irresistible force that drove him also repulsed him, and the tension between them—the him and not-him—could break a world in half.
“Do you hear it, Will?” whispered Kearns excitedly. “That is the voice of the magnificum, the last sound at the end of the world.”
The once-Sidorov reached down to the desecrated body curled at his side and pulled its lifeless left hand to his chest. With an anguished sob the un-Sidorov snapped off the index finger. It pulled free from the corpse’s hand with a soft crunch. He bent down again to incorporate the digit into the “nest.”
The kneeling child of Typhoeus grunted sharply, his back arched, his mouth yawned open, and a viscous stream of clear fluid erupted from his mouth and poured onto his work. Not the rot of stars. Not the spit of monsters. Not pwdre ser but pwdre ddynoliaeth—the rot of humanity.
And John Kearns whispered into my ear: “Do you see it now? You are the nest. You are the hatchling. You are the chrysalis. You are the progeny. You are the rot that falls from stars. All of us—you and I and poor, dear Pellinore. Behold the face of the magnificum, child. And despair.”
Though I was sickened by the sight, I looked. In the bower of the beast at the top of the world, I beheld the face of the magnificum, and I did not turn away.
Behind us a gunshot rang out, the retort no louder than a popgun’s in the thin air. We whirled around. In the drifting mist I made out the shape of a tall man striding across the lake bed. He walked up to one of the kneeling figures and shot it point-blank in the back of the head. Then he walked on, stepping over the fallen as he went, till he reached the next one, whom he executed in the same manner. The monstrumologist paused only once in his rounds—to reload the revolver. He worked his way around the entire cavity, his actions methodical and eerily unhesitant—walk over to the kneeling victim, stop, blast apart his head, move on to the next.
You have given yourself in service to ha-Mashchit, the destroyer, the angel of death.
I stood up when Sidorov’s turn came, but Warthrop said nothing as he passed. He walked straight to the mindless artisan, raised the gun, and put a bullet into what was left of his brain.
He walked back to us, and the fog melted before him, burned away by the cold fire that roared in his eyes. I did not recognize him, this man with the tangled beard and long, wind-teased hair and eyes whose icy flame could freeze the sun. I do not know how to refer to the man who now strode toward us. I cannot call him Pellinore Warthrop or “the monstrumologist” or “the doctor,” for he was not the same man who had attained the summit of the abyss, the locus ex magnificum, the beating heart of the nameless unwinding thing one ten-thousandth of an inch outside our range of vision.