Before we parted, he touched my shoulder and looked deeply into my eyes. I saw a question in his. I repeated what I’d said to him at Dover: “I am not afraid, sir.”
“I know that,” he said gravely. “And that makes me afraid.”
There is no monster, John Kearns had said. There are only men.
He heard my approach long before I reached his hiding place, and he whirled to face me as he brought the rifle round. I drew up at once and called to him softly, “Dr. Kearns! Dr. Kearns!”
“What is it?” he called back softly. “Where is Warthrop?”
“We heard something… back there.” I pointed down the path. “He went to see what it was.”
“He went… Why did he do that, Will?”
I stepped closer. He did not lower the rifle. That gave it away. If he had lowered the rifle, I might have thought the doctor and I were indulging in a paranoid delusion. But he did not lower the rifle; he kept it trained at the exact center of my chest.
“To see what it might be,” I answered.
“Then he has lost his mind. All he had to do was join me here and wait for it to come to us.”
“It was very close to the cave,” I said in a quivery voice. “Just on the other side of the boulders. He didn’t want to chance it. It was very close, sir, and he’s been gone too long. I’m afraid…”
“Are you?” he asked. “Are you?”
He stepped down from his perch and walked slowly over to stand before e.
“Are you?” he asked again. His gray eyes shone hard in the firelight. His expression was uncharacteristically serious.
“Can we go find him, please?” I whimpered. There was the familiar tightening in my chest, the compacting force that could break the world in half, and the doctor’s voice in Aden, saying, We must be indispensable to each other.
“Well, of course. We’ll go together, Will. Strength in numbers, yes?”
He broke out his Kearns-ish grin, shifted the rifle into the crook of his arm, and patted me kindly on the head, the way an uncle might a beloved nephew.
“There is no need to be afraid,” he said.
I lifted up my eyes—Oculus Dei, Kearns had called them—and looked directly into his, and he recognized in them his own, but too late, too late, and before he could raise the gun or pull away, Awaale’s long knife came whistling around and buried itself in his neck.
He sank to his knees, his eyes wide in astonishment. He started to raise the rifle. I kicked it out of his hands. He brought them up toward the gushing wound in his neck—the blood pulsed with the rhythm of his dying heart—while he looked up at me with wonder. And then he toppled over, reaching for me with bloody hands, but I was too far. I was beyond his grasp.
I went over to the rifle, picked it up, brought it back to where his body lay. I shoved it under him. Then I lifted his right hand and forced his finger through the trigger guard. I stepped back to examine my handiwork.
There are no monsters. There are only men.
I scooped up the knife and ran to fetch the doctor.
Chapter Forty-Four: “A Fallen Star”
“Tell me again,” the doctor said.
I did without hesitation, my gaze, like my story, unwavering. Kearns had indeed smelled a rat and had given me no choice but to defend myself.
“He was going to shoot you point-blank,” the monstrumologist said dubiously. “With a Winchester rifle.”
“Yes, Doctor. He pointed it right at my chest and told me he was sorry but he didn’t have a choice.”
“Like you. No choice.”
“So you stabbed him in the neck. While he held a rifle to your chest.”
“How did you manage it? To get close enough with the barrel of a Winchester between you?” He was having a hard time picturing it.
“I knocked it away with my left hand and swung with my right.”
“You knocked it away?”
“I mean I shoved it away. He never let go of it.”
“And he didn’t notice you were holding a knife the whole time?”
“I was hiding it behind my back.”
“So when he brought the rifle up to shoot you,” he said slowly, “you whipped your right hand behind your back, knocked the gun away with your left, and at the same instant pulled out the knife with the other and swung it around to stab him in the neck?”
He scratched the underside of his chin thoughtfully. “That was quick thinking.”
“Yes, sir. I mean, thank you, sir.”
“And even quicker reflexes. You must demonstrate it to me sometime.”
“I had to kill him, Dr. Warthrop.”
“Hmm. Yes. I suppose you did, Will Henry. Self-preservation is your inalienable right.”
“I had to,” I insisted. “For both of us.”
“I liked the plan better when it entailed luring him down the path so I could bop him over the head.”
“I didn’t plan it. It just… happened.”
“Did I say that you planned it, Will Henry? Now, that would be a different animal altogether. It wasn’t like what happened in Aden. There was no need to kill John Kearns.”
“It’s better that he’s dead, though.”
He frowned. His eyes sought out mine, and still I did not look away.
“How so, Will Henry?”
“If we had just left him here, he might have found a way off the island. I think he would have somehow, because he’s… he’s John Kearns.”
“So? What does that matter as long as we escape?”
“It matters, sir, because you’d still be a threat to him. You know too much. You’ve seen too much.”
A silence came between us. He looked at me, and I looked back at him, as the last stars faded gently from the sky.
“I think we both have, Will,” he said, breaking the silence between us but not the thing that lay in silence between us.
On the tenth hour of our last day on the Isle of Blood, the great arms of the mountains opened before us, and we saw the plain stretching toward the sea. The day was bright and hot and nearly windless, and I saw several brilliantly colored lizards sunning themselves on the rocks. A butterfly fluttered by upon wings of iridescent blue. The monstrumologist pointed it out and said, “Look at him. Not a flower for miles. He must be lost.”
A hulking figure appeared below us, between the two boulders marking the trailhead. At first my heart rose. It must be Awaale, I thought. I quickened my pace; the mo eyes soogist grabbed my shoulder and pulled me back. We stood and watched the huge figure shuffle painfully toward us. Rags hung from its massive frame. Its feet were bare and lacerated by the sharp stones, and left bloody footprints in its wake. Its mouth hung open; its eyes were black and unblinking; its hands were large and caked in blood. A large horn protruded from its wide forehead. We had found the Minotaur.
I raised Kearns’s rifle. Beside me the monstrumologist made a soft, protesting sound, and he reached over and forced the barrel down.
The child of Typhoeus lifted its ponderous head, and its mouth curled into a snarl of agonized rage, the blood-flecked drool of pwdre ser glimmering in the midmorning sun. It stumbled toward us, too weak to run, and lost its footing. It fell. With a shudder of its huge shoulders, it pushed against the rocky ground, tears of pwdre ser streaming down its wasted face, and the light penetrated the translucent flesh and I could see clear down to its bones. It rose, swayed, fell again. The head reared back; the black eyes regarded the unalloyed sky and wept.
“‘Seek a fallen star,’” said the monstrumologist, “‘and thou shalt only light on some foul jelly, which, in shooting through the horizon, has assumed for a moment an appearance of splendour.’”
Tears of pity shone in his eyes. They both were crying, the monster and the man, the fallen star and the seeker of it.
And when I step upon the shore of the Isle of Blood to plant the conqueror’s flag, when I attain the summit of the abyss, when I find the thing that all of us fear and all of us seek, when I turn to face the Faceless One, whose face will I see?
The man lifted his gun to the level of the monster’s eyes.
We found Gishub as we’d left it, abandoned, a city of the dead. Years would pass before life returned. The fallen would be burned, their ashes returned to the earth from whence they’d come, the houses cleared and cleaned, and another generation would take to the sea for the harvest. Life would return. It always does.
We waited for Awaale. I had no doubt he would come. All names mean something, he had told me. We sat in the lengthening shade of a Dragon’s Blood tree, and the sun fattened toward the horizon and the air was suffused with golden light. The light danced upon the leaves singing softly over my head. I looked down the slope to the sea and saw balanced upon the edge of the world a ship of a thousand sails. My father had found a way to keep his promise, through the unlikeliest of men.
That man’s arm slid around my shoulders. His voice spoke into my ear.
“I will never leave you again, Will Henry. I will never abandon you. As long as I live, I will watch over you. As you brought me out of the darkness, I will keep the darkness from you. And if the tide should overwhelm me, I will raise you upon my shoulders; I will not suffer you to drown.”
It was his moment of triumph. The moment when he’d turned to face the thing that all of us fear and all of us seek.
I could almost hear it, the conqueror’s flag, snapping in the breeze.
At dusk we walked down to the shore. The Dagmar lay anchored between the wet sand and the horizon, and between us and the Dagmar a dinghy rode the incoming current to take us home.
“Awaale?” I said.
“He may not come, Will,” said the doctor. “Kearns may have been right.”
I thought of a man standing like the colossus in a fallen world, cradling a child in his arms, saying with a voice like the thunder’s, To show mercy is not naïve. To hold out against the end of hope is not stupidity or madness. It is fundamentally human.
“No,” I said. “You were right, Doctor.”
I pointed to the east, where a man walked barefoot in the crash of the surf, a giant of a man whose dark skin shone in the last rays of a dying sun. Even from a distance I could see his wide smile. I knew what that smile meant. And he, the murderous pirate, his heart no longer burdened, raised his hand and waved with childlike joy.
From Socotra to Aden, then from Aden to Port Said, where Fadil kept his promise, providing a feast of fasieekh and kofta and introducing me to his twin daughters, Astarte and Dendera. He told them they could do worse than marrying Ophois, the ward of Mihos, guardian of the horizon. I may have left Port Said engaged to one of them; I am not certain.
Warthrop sent a cable to New York before we boarded the steamer for Brindisi:
THE MAGNIFICUM IS OURS.
“‘The magnificum is ours’?” I echoed. I was afraid my master had lost hold of his reason.
“Well, it certainly doesn’t belong to the Russians!” he said with a smile. “We have ‘defanged’ the terrible beast.” He patted his instrument case. “I hope you can appreciate the irony of it, Will Henry. A healthy sense of the ironic is the best way to remain sane in a world that often isn’t; I highly recommend it. But there will be no hero’s welcome, no rewards or parades in our honor. Our victory over Typhoeus will go unheralded and unsung. A defeat for Pellinore Warthrop. A triumph for monstrumology.” Then he corrected himself. “No. For humanity.” Across the Mediterranean to Brindisi, where we boarded the train for Venice. The doctor sent me on a special errand, one that proved quite challenging for a thirteen-year-old boy. “Don’t bother with the first-class passengers. Go straight to the third-class. Money has a way of curdling the milk of human kindness, Will Henry.” I finally managed to borrow the sought for item from an Indian emigrating from Bombay.