For J.U. Giesy, J. B Smith, H.P. Lovecraft, Norbert Sevestre, Algernon Blackwood, Frederick C. Davis, W. H. Hodgson, Edward Bulwer-Lytton, Roger Zelazny and all of the other Openers and Closers.
It was the 31st of October, 1921 and six men were discussing the end of the world.
“The stars are right,” Semi Dual said, softly, peering at the others gathered in the sitting room of No. 472 Cheyne Walk over the tips of his intertwined fingers. Dual was an astrologer and astronomer without peer and his tone was that of a man who spoke a harsh truth.
“The stars are always right,” Harley Warren drawled laconically, lighting a cigarette. Dual gave Warren an irritated glare. The Persian astrologer and the South Carolina mystic were old opponents, though they duelled with pen and ink rather than sword and pistols. Their most recent affray had concerned the super-nova which had appeared all too briefly near Algol in the Perseus constellation and had sent junior astronomers and would-be star-readers running for cover.
Appearance-wise, they were a study in contrasts. Dual was tall and handsome with a carefully barbered Vandyke beard, and dressed fashionably, while Warren was shorter and broader, with a strange cast to his oddly-coloured eyes that put a thrill of unease into those who met them.
“An over-generalization, but not incorrect,” John Silence said gently, trying to head off an old argument. The lean, aesthetic Englishman, clad in his slightly archaic black suit, flicked the air with a precise finger. “The point stands, however.” He looked at Dual and gestured solicitously. “Please go on, Dual.”
Dual cleared his throat and said, “As I was saying, there are certain patterns now writ large on the night sky; patterns whose meaning we all grasp.”
“Obviously, otherwise we wouldn’t all be here, sipping tea and eating cookies,” Warren said genially, punctuating his statement with a delicate sip of from the steaming cup he held.
“We call them biscuits, old bean,” Charles St. Cyprian said. The current resident of No. 472, he was a slim man of Mediterranean complexion and he was dressed in one of the finest sartorial creations to ever leave a Savile Row tailors’ and deign to live in man’s closet. He had been shocked to find the other five standing on his doorstep that morning, bringing with them tidings of doom and cosmic nightmare; not that he wasn’t used to the latter, being the current holder of the offices of the Royal Occultist.
Formed during the reign of Elizabeth the First, the office of Royal Occultist (or the Queen’s Conjurer, as it had been known) had started with the diligent amateur Dr. John Dee, and passed through a succession of hands since. The list was a long one, weaving in and out of the margins of British history, and culminating, for the moment, in Charles St. Cyprian, who was distinctly nervous, and trying to appear as if he were anything but.
He fiddled with the hang of his coat. Clothes made the man, and vanity was one of the few indulgences he allowed himself. He had been shriven by a Purgatory spent in uniform drab in the trenches of the Continent only a few scant years before, after all. Though among this assemblage, he felt distinctly underdressed and outclassed.
“This ain’t a biscuit,” Warren said.
“When in Rome, Harley,” Ravenwood interjected. Of an age with St. Cyprian, Ravenwood was equally well-dressed, albeit with more flash. There was a trace of the showman to him that set him apart, even in a gathering such as this. “Now, if we could cut out the socio-culinary digressions, gentlemen?”
“Agreed,” Sar Dubnotal said, his mellifluous voice carrying easily over Warren’s muttered retort. His sun-browned fingers smoothed the elegant Oriental sash wrapped about his waist, before rising to the white turban that crowned his head in an unconscious gesture. “We have wasted enough time waiting for the others. They are obviously not coming.”
“Disappointing as it is, I’m forced to agree,” Silence said, nodding in Dubnotal’s direction. “De Grandin is with Thunstone and Pursuivant in the Appalachians the last I heard, and Ms. Crerar is investigating ghostly swine at some unpleasant edifice or other in Ireland.”
“Kirowan is…wherever Kirowan is, the spooky son-of-a-bitch,” Warren said, eyeing his digestive biscuit with continued suspicion. “And Zarnak is off busy killing something that ought not to have been born, according to that manservant of his.”
St. Cyprian watched them, gauging the motley assemblage. Dubnotal and Silence he had known for some time. The Rosicrucian mystic was a neighbor of sorts, owning a flat on Cheyne Walk. And Silence had been friends with St. Cyprian’s predecessor, Thomas Carnacki, and had been instrumental in helping St. Cyprian shoulder the burdens of the Royal Occultist after Carnacki’s death at Ypres in 1918. But the others he’d only heard of in passing. His duties kept him confined to the borders of the Empire for the most part. What he knew could fill a note-card: Warren was an occultist with a bad reputation, Ravenwood was a playboy-detective and Dual was an enigmatic presence.
He had files on all of them, of course. That was one of his many duties, keeping up with the who’s who of the darker sort, and knowing where they were and what they might be up to, just in case it stood to give old Blighty the business. “Will the six of us be enough?” St. Cyprian said, hoping none of the others noted his nervousness. As he spoke, five pairs of eyes found his, and he resisted the urge to shrink back into his seat.
“Are you kidding?” Ravenwood said.
Silence smiled reassuringly and said, “It wasn’t so long ago that you were asking the same question, young Ravenwood.”
“And Charley here ain’t got him a nameless Tibetan mystic par excellence whispering helpful hints in his ear,” Warren said, grinning nastily.
“Charley,” St. Cyprian repeated, slightly insulted.
“Fair point,” Ravenwood said, raising his hands in a placatory gesture. “Though I wouldn’t call what the Nameless One does ‘whispering’ exactly.”
“Gentlemen, the apocalypse waits for no man,” Dual said harshly. He stood abruptly, sending his cup clattering to the floor and spilling his tea. “The end of the world is coming!”
“It’s always the end of world somewhere, sometime, Dual,” Warren said, puffing on his cigarette, his eyes glinting oddly. “I’ve been to four of these barn-dances now, and the clock never quite strikes midnight.”
“Familiarity is no reason not to take a thing seriously,” Dubnotal said. “One misstep, one mistake in what you call a dance and the world will drown in madness.”
“How is that any different from the way it is now?” St. Cyprian murmured. Silence met his gaze sadly. The older Englishman was very much a man out of time in some ways. The War had driven him into seclusion; Silence had faced fallen angels without flinching, but the blood that had been shed on the Continent had threatened to drown him. And this new world didn’t treat him much better.
“It is different, because that madness is human, and this is anything but,” Silence said softly. He waved a hand to the splatter of tea spreading across the hardwood floor, his fingers crooking in a strange gesture. “Look…”
St. Cyprian did. In the spreading tea, he saw monsters. Men capered before nightmare idols, acting as beasts and worse than beasts as the world shuddered beneath the tread of things not seen since before the first ancestor of mankind had slithered out of the surf and taken its first breath of oxygen. His mouth went dry and he closed his eyes. Pain pulsed across the invisible, lidless surface of his third eye. The spirit-eye, Carnacki had called it. St. Cyprian had learned how to open it from a Tibetan lama of his acquaintance. Aside from having what St. Cyprian considered an unhealthy fascination for the color green, the lama had been a good teacher. He traced a sacred shape from the Third Ritual of Hloh in the air with two fingers and the pressure faded, leaving a taste like burnt chilies in his mouth.
“Don’t look too close or move too fast, Charley,” Warren said. “That kind of thing attracts the big, hungry fish.” Dual stretched out a foot and scraped the tea into distinct blobs. He seemed to have calmed down, though his features were pinched with strain. St. Cyprian wondered if they had all seen the same thing he had. Then he wondered how many times they had seen it…would you, could you ever grow used to that?
“You see?” Silence said. “Somewhere, in London, right now, someone is attempting to open a door which ought to remain shut. They always attempt to open it, when the stars come right, and we must stand to keep it closed. Such is the way of it.”
“It’s a ritual pre-dating recorded history,” Ravenwood said. “It has to do with the seasons and the equinoxes and all that ishkabibble.” He shrugged as Dubnotal and Dual frowned at him. “What? That’s what the Nameless One calls it, not me.” He grinned. “He’s got quite the handle on modern vernacular for an ageless and inscrutable old mystic.”
“Carnacki never told me of any of this,” St. Cyprian said quietly, rubbing his temples. Then, Carnacki hadn’t had time to teach him much of anything, had he?
“Once you learn the steps, it becomes second nature,” Warren said. “It’s just a dance like any other, as old as time and tide. We ain’t the first to dance it neither.”
“Tserpchikopf,” Dubnotal murmured, shaking his head sadly. “The modern century broke him.”
Warren nodded. “But old Jack and the rest of last century’s men are gone now, except maybe the Great Detective, who’s turned bee-keeper last I heard, and this weren’t ever his sort of party anyway.”
“What sort of party is that, then?”
St. Cyprian felt a surge of relief as his assistant strode into the sitting room, bearing a tray with a fresh pot of tea and fresh cups. Ebe Gallowglass was, as usual, dressed like some hybrid of a cinematic street urchin and a Parisian street-apache, with dashes of color in unusual places, and a battered newsboy cap on her head. The whole ensemble contrasted sharply with her quite evident Egyptian heritage.
As St. Cyprian had served Carnacki, so Gallowglass served him. And in time, the office would pass to Gallowglass, though neither of them had discussed the inevitable as yet. Frankly, St. Cyprian found the contemplation of his almost certain demise to be ghoulish at best and depressing at worst, so he was willing to avoid it as long as ethically possible. Gallowglass seemed only too happy to oblige.
“The usual, I’m afraid, Ms. Gallowglass,” St. Cyprian said.
“Oh, only the end of the world again, is it Mr. St. Cyprian?” she said setting the tea-tray down and eyeing Dual crossly. “Pick it up, chum. Those cups cost a bitter bob,” she said, snapping a finger at his fallen cup.
Abashed, Dual ducked his head and snatched up the cup. Warren sniggered until Gallowglass’ eyes caught him and made him choke. “What’re you laughing at then?”
“Nothing,” Warren said, spreading his hands. “Swear to God, nothing.” He looked at Ravenwood. “Tell them about the house.”
“It’s in London, for a start,” Ravenwood said. “Dual and I triangulated the position with the Nameless One’s help, once Harley put together the signs.”
Warren grinned and lit another cigarette. “The sinking of the Santa Isabel off Villa Garcia; the coup in Iran and the Bolshevik invasion of Georgia; the race riot in Tulsa and the more mundane kind in Munich; and, of course, the Lisbon massacre a week or so back. Signs and portents of the nastier kind,” he said. “Too, we’re not due for another full moon until the fifteenth of November, but Dual says she’ll be as full and as pretty as she’s ever been, bouncing along up there tonight.”
“None of that sounds like it has anything to do with a house in London,” Gallowglass said, pouring a cup of tea. Warren reached for it, but she drank it herself.
“Like I said, it’s not my first dance,” Warren chuckled bitterly, pouring his own cup.
“What Warren means is that the most innocuous signs can herald the most abominable moments,” Dual said. “The flights of a flock of birds or the shapes taken by wind-blown leaves are warnings for those who know what to see.” Warren shuddered slightly, nodding.
“I will show you horror in a single grain of sand,” Silence murmured.
“I have some experience in that regard, yes,” St. Cyprian said, frowning.
“We all have,” Dubnotal said. “We are all men-” he shot a look at Gallowglass, “-and women who have seen the world’s black rim. That is why we must place ourselves in the path of abomination and see that it progresses no further.”
“And which abomination is this, exactly?” St. Cyprian said. “What are we facing that requires the attentions of six men such as ourselves?”
“I thought he was supposed to be smart,” Ravenwood complained.
“Quiet Ravenwood,” Silence said. He looked at St. Cyprian. “Surely you’ve guessed, Charles…it is not one abomination. It is all of them.”
St. Cyprian choked on his tea.
“That was my reaction,” Ravenwood said.
“You also got nervous and threw up,” Warren said.
“He might yet, the night is young,” Dual said, showing a rare flash of humor.
“All of them!” St. Cyprian rasped, coughing.
“The Hog, the Shambler, the Whistler, the Walker, the Dreamer, the Lurker…the whole zoo, Charles,” Silence said. “A veritable murderers’ row of outer-dimensional horrors, one might say.”
St. Cyprian bounded to his feet. “Ms. Gallowglass, pull the Crossley around! Where the devil is this house?”
“Finally,” Dual said, clapping his hands. “Someone is showing the proper urgency.”
“Haste makes waste,” Warren said piously, lounging in his chair. Dual kicked him, prompting the occultist to leap out of his chair with a yelp.
“You’re being remarkably blasé about the end of the world, Mr. Warren,” St. Cyprian said, retrieving his Webley from the mantel over the Restoration era fireplace that occupied one wall of the study. The Bulldog was a small, tough little pistol and it was a comforting weight in his coat pocket. He glanced at the sword hung on the wall, its ancient, crumbling sheath designed in the fashion of an ancient city-state that no longer existed save in myth, then discounted it. He rather thought that if it came down to blades, the game was likely as good as done.
“Guns won’t be of any use, Charles,” Silence said, rising from his seat.
“Says you,” Gallowglass said, checking her own weapon. The Webley-Fosberry was larger than St. Cyprian’s pistol and it hung beneath her arm with awkward menace, the Seal of Solomon engraved on the bottom of the grip clearly visible. “Car’s out front, Mr. St. Cyprian.”
“Excellent,” St. Cyprian said. “I’ll drive.”
The six men and one woman hurried towards the black Crossley HP sitting on the street in front of No. 472. Across the street, the orange light of the setting sun played across the surface of the Thames. Dubnotal licked a finger and held it up. “An ill wind is building in the Four Kingdoms,” he said. “Those of the Air gather their strength.” All up and down the Embankment, the trees suddenly rattled their limbs, as if something heavy were moving through them, scattering red and gold and brown leaves to mark its passage.
“Our enemies move against us,” Silence said, raising a hand. He crooked two fingers in the Yimghaz Sign and suddenly there were things moving silently through the thin crowd of afternoon strollers walking alongside the river. St. Cyprian could only make them out dimly. They looked like ambulatory heat distortions, ripples of temperature that were only manlike in the abstract.
“What the hell are those,” Gallowglass whispered, her hand dipping for her pistol. Ravenwood grabbed her hand. Her foot lashed out, catching him on the ankle and he yelped.
“Ah-the-ow-the gun won’t be of any help, I’m afraid,” he said in a rush, reaching down to rub his ankle. “That really hurt.”
“You shouldn’t grab a lady when she isn’t expecting it,” Gallowglass said primly. “The question stands.”
“Fthaggua,” Warren spat, stuffing his hands in the pockets of his coat. “Get to the damn car, lady and gentlemen.”
“I think they’ve seen us,” St. Cyprian said. And indeed, that appeared to be the case. The heat distortions were flickering and rippling with what he’d have called agitation in a physical being, and they were drawing closer in a skittering, eye-watering fashion.
“Warren’s right, everybody in the car,” Ravenwood said, pushing Dual and Silence towards the Crossley. St. Cyprian hesitated. Warren had stepped between the distortions and the car and he withdrew his hands from his pockets. Without a word, he flung out his hands and St. Cyprian had the impression of sand or dust arcing through the air. The distortions rippled and he clutched his head as a sound-without-sound thrummed through his head. He saw hint of what lurked behind the distortions, vast, inhuman shapes that bore no relation to any earthly beast, and they screamed as whatever Warren had flung at them burned them.
“In the car Charley,” Warren shouted, grabbing his arm. “They aren’t alone!”
“What-what-” St. Cyprian began.
“Fire-vampires, star-shamblers, parasites by any other name,” Warren said, glancing over his shoulder. “The dust of Ibn Gazi won’t keep them back for long! Get in the damn car!”
A hissing sound filled the air, and St. Cyprian smelled burning rock and sediment. The distortions had resumed their march, and they burned the street as they came. A wind whipped along the Embankment now, scattering hats and blowing open coats. A woman screamed as something lean and a-thirst brushed by her, invisible save for the phosphorescent saliva that dripped from its maw.
St. Cyprian released the brake and twisted the wheel, sending the Crossley into motion. Warren, not wasting any time, clung to the running board. Something struck the canvas roof, and the smelling of burnt material clogged the noses of all in the auto. Silence, in the backseat, thrust up a hand and released a shout of Latin. The sounds and smell of burning faded, but only for a moment.
“They seek to stop us from reaching the place of ritual,” Dubnotal said, adjusting his turban. “That is astonishingly bad form, I must say.”
“Can’t count on the rival firm to play fair, I’ve found,” Ravenwood said. He was squeezed tight between Dubnotal and Silence. “Can we outrun them?”
“I’d wager we’ve outrun worse,” St. Cyprian said. The Crossley followed the serpentine length of the Thames. “But that won’t matter unless someone tells me where we’re going.”
“It is a house that is not a house,” Dual said, pressed tight against the passenger door, his hands against Gallowglass’ shoulder.
“Very helpful, this chap,” Gallowglass said.
Something scraped against the back fender, and the car momentarily fishtailed. Warren shouted in fear as he clung to the door, and St. Cyprian fought with the wheel. Things followed them, moving between the blinks of their eyes, ragged hungry shapes that resembled leaves caught in an updraft.
“Left, go left,” Dual yelled.
St. Cyprian turned left. Something was yanking on the roof, tearing at it like an enraged simian. Gallowglass drew her pistol and leaned over the seat, twisting and firing upwards even as the back of her head connected with Ravenwood’s lap. The American mystic made a strangled sound. “Sorry,” Gallowglass said, popping open the Webley and ejecting the spent brass.
The roof ripped away a moment later and cartwheeled down the street as if caught in a strong wind. A smell like a wolf-den in summer washed over the Crossley’s passengers. Silence, Ravenwood and Sar Dubnotal all shouted at once, Latin, Naacal and Etruscan syllables tripping over one another and tangling together in a concerto of occult significance. There was a snap, as of leathery wings and the car trembled as if a great weight had suddenly left it.
“Right, Mr. St. Cyprian!” Dual said, flinging out a hand. St. Cyprian fought the wheel, trying to follow the astrologer’s shouted directions. They took a narrow by-street and the brick walls to either side gave twin groans as sudden canyons were carved across their heights, showering the Crossley with bits of brick and dust.
“They’re still on us,” Warren said, hunched on the running board.
“We’re close,” Dual said.
“So are they,” Warren snapped. Bricks thumped into the Crossley’s hood and cracked the windshield. The hood buckled, causing the front tires to squeal. The windshield burst, spattering St. Cyprian with glass. Something invisible, but strong, burst through and what felt like a hairy, scaly talon fastened about his throat, shoving him back into his seat.
“Grab the wheel!” St. Cyprian gurgled as he fumbled in his coat, his vision going black at the edges. The Crossley slewed as both Warren and Dual grabbed for the wheel. Gallowglass sat up, her Webley snarling at the windshield. Whatever had St. Cyprian gave a thunderous swine-grunt and a smell like spoilt eggs and milk washed over the car’s passengers. St. Cyprian’s fingers found a glass vial, one of several, in his pockets and he pulled it free and shattered it against whatever inhuman limb held his throat. Immediately a foul-smelling smoke boiled forth, choking him even as the pressure on his neck released and his attacker retreated with a thin scream; whatever it was rolled off of the hood, leaving only a large indentation in the metal to mark its passing.
“Oil of hyssop,” St. Cyprian rasped, rubbing his throat. “Handy as engraver’s acid, in a pinch.” He grabbed the wheel, and Dual motioned sharply.
“There! The emanations are centered…there!” the astrologer said. St. Cyprian turned the wheel and the Crossley bumped and skidded up onto the pavement as it turned down into a narrow, one-way mews. The cul-de-sac was quiet and only a single street-light burned, casting striations of weak light across the shadowy street. No lights glowed in any window and as the seven climbed out of the battered and sagging Crossley, a hush settled over the cul-de-sac. Even the omnipresent seething a humming of London-by-night was dulled here, as if the rest of the city were on another world. Strange shapes seemed to writhe through the darkness across the rooftops like prowling cats, blotting out the stars from moment to moment.
The house itself was a dull thing, square and damp with the rain that had caressed the borough earlier in the day. The door was open.
“We are expected,” Sar Dubnotal said, checking his cuff links. He looked up at the rooftops and sniffed. The half-visible shapes that lurked above seemed to be unable-or unwilling-to descend into the mews, for which St. Cyprian felt a sharp relief.
Ravenwood paused, two fingers on the Crossley’s hood. “He’s alone,” he said, head cocked.
“His kind is always alone,” Silence said, stepping towards the door but St. Cyprian got there first and Webley in hand, stepped in front of the older man.
“I say, fools before fellows, what?” St. Cyprian said, peering through the doorway.
He stepped inside, flanked by Gallowglass. The foyer was quiet, and the carpets were oddly damp, as if the door had been left open all day and the rain had blown in, saturating the floor. There was a wet chill sliding off of the unpleasantly brown wallpaper and St. Cyprian didn’t think that the chill was due to the weather. There was also a noisome odor on the air, a thick stench that seemed to drape across the inner doorway like spider-webs. Behind him, Sar Dubnotal raised a hand and murmured softly. A soft, warm glow spread outwards from his fingers, enveloping them all and pressing back the gloom of the house, though not the smell.
“The air stinks of aetheric disturbance,” Dual murmured.
“By their smell can men know them near,” Warren said, his odd eyes glittering.
“This house is obviously the locus bellum,” Sar Dubnotal said, glancing at Silence. The latter held up a hand and hissed, gesturing with his other hand towards the floor. In the wet carpet, a foot-print had appeared. It was small, almost like a child’s print. It squished softly, though there was no sign of what had made the print. Another appeared ahead of it, as if the unseen child was fleeing from them at speed.
“At least we won’t have to search the house,” Ravenwood said grimly. “He’s waiting for us.”
“Who’s he?” St. Cyprian said as they followed the foot-prints. “You fellows seemed to know who it is who is behind this.”
“If it’s who we suspect, he’s had many names, down the long red path of history,” Silence said softly. “Melmoth is the one he has used the most. I first encountered him on the Continent, in the ruins of a Heaven-crippled monastery where he tried to claim the life and soul of an innocent man.”
“I met him in New York, a few years ago. He was working with a bad bit of business named Thorne and they nearly had Thunstone and me on the ropes,” Ravenwood said, dabbing at the sheen of sweat gathering on his face. Despite the chill, they were all sweating. The smell had become riper the deeper they moved into the house, almost like some miasma of tropical rot.
“Melmoth…Melmoth,” St. Cyprian murmured. He’d heard that name before, back when Carnacki had still been running the show, in connection to the Cleopatra’s Needle Affair. ‘Melmoth of abominable memory’ was how Carnacki had referred to him. Carnacki and the Great Detective had only just managed to avert whatever catastrophe Melmoth had been set to unleash. He wondered whether it had been a similar situation to the one he and Gallowglass now found themselves in. Was Melmoth a cosmic gamesman, gambling with the stuff of reality over and over again?
Before he could ask one of the others, Sar Dubnotal’s light suddenly went out. The mystic cursed as if the sudden snuffing of his witch-light had pained him and the cold rushed in all at once, cloying and harsh. St. Cyprian sucked in a freezing breath and winced as his lungs burned with cold. In the darkness, things seemed to move and press close to them, and a force suddenly beat down on them.
St. Cyprian had matched wills with other occultists, sorcerers and worse things, but what he felt then was far stronger than any of those. It was raw and wild and hateful, and animalistic in the intensity of that hate.
“Malignancy-human malignancy-like a fine wine, grows ever more potent as it ages, I find,” a voice said, out of the darkness. “The last true owner of this house left quite an impression here, I’m given to understand. A bit of himself trapped behind the walls and under the floorboards. A vicious brain for a vicious house, though I’ve cowed the feral soul-stuff for the nonce.”
“Reveal yourself!” Sar Dubnotal thundered.
“If you insist…Good evening, my fine merry crew, gentles all, welcome to the spoke of the world. Well, for this night, at least.” The voice was as cold as the waves that rolled across the Channel, and for all its mildness there was an undercurrent of savage hatred to it. A Crookes tube sparked and hummed to life, held in one gloved hand. It was raised up, bathing the room in waves of sharp, harsh light, revealing strange serpentine chalk marks on the walls and floor and, impossibly, on the ceiling as well. A pocket watch was extracted from an archaic waistcoat and flipped open. “And on time, despite alarums and excretions of the outer membrane,” the man mused. He sighed. “Such is my lot.” Dark eyes flickered up, meeting theirs. “Melmoth, Sebastian Melmoth, late of Albion and the Court of Gloriana, returned now to put shoulder to the wheel and set the Heavens turning.” White teeth flashed within a carefully clipped black beard. “My, my, such a crew it is too. Worthies all, or I’m a merry ass. Why, there’s old Master Silence, stiff and disapproving and lost to aetheric humors, and there’s the mock-Moor, Sar Dubnotal and his bully-rook cross-biter, Semi Dual. Ah, there’s the cony-catch dummerer Ravenwood, with his heathen familiar whispering in his ear, and behind him, oh yes, I see you, Harley, caitiff and catamite and cur. Don’t flash your alley-cat’s eyes at me sir, I’ve strangled my fair share of pusses. And two new faces…” Melmoth’s eyes narrowed. “Is that the tang of alchemy I smell, of the modern sciences and that old hen, Dee? Where’s Carnacki then? Where did that fine Jack Tar get to?”
“Dead,” St. Cyprian said hoarsely, “at Ypres.” For a moment, as he said it, the house seemed to sigh and St. Cyprian could smell the mud and the blood again, and hear the whistle of German shells. Something slobbered in the darkness beyond the shell of light cast by the Crookes tube.
“Oh,” Melmoth said, and his dark eyes flickered. He frowned. “Then you’d be the Roi Occulum now then, eh, the high cony in the garden? And this cranmoisie doxy is yours, I assume?” He gestured with the Crookes tube towards Gallowglass, whose lips skinned back from her teeth in a quiet snarl. “Well then, who’s the courtesy-man here, then?”
St. Cyprian waited for one of the others to speak, but none of them did. He didn’t know whether they were cowed by Melmoth or whether there was simply some tradition he was unaware of, but nonetheless, he cleared his throat. “I suppose it falls to me then, as Royal Occultist.”
Melmoth nodded briskly. “As it happens, yes,” he said, his antique drawl replaced by clipped school-boy precision. “That’s the way this goes, generally.”
“First one to speak gets the purple,” Warren said, frowning at Melmoth. “And since you’ve got the divine mandate, it’s yours by rank.”
“Ah,” St. Cyprian said. His mouth was suddenly as dry as the Sahara. “What’s mine, out of curiosity?”
“Starting post, old salt,” Silence said, putting a hand on St. Cyprian’s shoulder. The older man looked past him at Melmoth. “You are the only one come to act as Opener of the Way?”
Melmoth shrugged. “I’ve never been much for fraternity.” He smiled. “As the world ages, she gets set in her ways and there’re fewer and fewer of us who look forward to new ways of shouting, killing and reveling, more’s the pity. More of you lot every year, though, acid-stained alchemists, looking to box and catalogue and categorize the wild dark.”
“Same old Sebastian, same old song,” Warren said.
“It’s a good song,” Melmoth said, setting down the Crookes tube. “It’s the oldest song and the best song and this is the annual performance. That’s why we’re here, after all. The stars are right, the beasts are at the gates and the birds fall quiet.”
“That didn’t stop you from trying to kill us before the contest had begun,” Sar Dubnotal rumbled disapprovingly.
“What of it, mock-moor? It’s not like there’s a judges’ committee to complain to,” Melmoth said, gesturing irritably. He straightened the hang of his coat and said, formally, “I am come to Open the Way and Set Wide the Threshold and Invite in That Which is Out. Who here comes to prevent me?”
“That’s your cue,” Ravenwood said. St. Cyprian looked at him, and then at Melmoth, who was waiting patiently. St. Cyprian dropped his pistol into his pocket and stepped forward. He’d seen enough rituals before, both benign and otherwise, to recognize the particulars, though he still barely understood this one. What was he being asked to do?
St. Cyprian said, “I come to prevent you.” Then, on instinct, he added, “The Way will remain closed, the Threshold shut and the Invitation undelivered.”
Melmoth smiled thinly. “A fine bit of ad-libbing there,” he murmured.
“Better than mine,” Ravenwood said.
“A tense silence would have been better than yours,” Warren said. He fell silent at a gesture from Silence.
“The weight of night-black worlds press close upon us, and the impressions of a savage cosmos seek to imprint themselves on our placid globe. Stand firm and hold fast,” he said, and for a moment he was the John Silence of old, a man of quiet dignity and mighty power.
The moment was punctured by the sudden, swift rap of knuckles on wood, heavy knuckles on unseen wood, pounding hard and requesting entrance to the house and to the world. “Behold, I stand at the door and knock,” Melmoth said, his arms spread wide. Another knock, more thunderous than the first, followed a moment later. The house gave a groan and St. Cyprian felt as if the blows were coming from below as well as outside.
“What do I do?” he hissed, at a loss. Silence’s hand was still on his shoulder.
“Deny it entrance. Take his hand from the door,” he said.
“How do I do that?” St. Cyprian said, glancing back at the older man.
“It is different each time, for each of us,” Sar Dubnotal said. His eyes narrowed as he looked around. “They are coming, my friends, seeking to scuttle through the cracks. Ready yourselves!”
Melmoth lunged, gloved fingers spread like the talons of a hunting hawk. Silence fell back as Melmoth jerked St. Cyprian forward with one impossibly long arm. “How do you deny me? You don’t, boy,” Melmoth said, snapping too-long teeth. “Jack Tar gave me a better fight, with his vials and formulas and Edisonade trickery. If this is what the Empire has come to, they’ll thank me for seating something flabby and squamous on the throne.”
His fingers were like iron hooks digging into St. Cyprian’s skull and jaw and scalp and thin trickles of blood slid free of the abused flesh. “Come, we’ll dance a gentleman’s gavotte as the sky rips wide and the Outer Gulfs spill their burdens into this pale world, hey?” Melmoth hissed, pulling him close. Out of the corner of his eye, St. Cyprian saw shapes climb through the shadowed corners of the room, issuing from the angles like dough squeezed through a tube. Dust motes shifted like curtains in the light as shapes pressed against them from outside. He saw Gallowglass raise her pistol towards Melmoth, but Ravenwood stopped her, gesturing to something St. Cyprian couldn’t see.
Sounds seemed to reverberate through Melmoth’s fingers, dull hums like wasp-wings vibrating slowly in a hollow can. St. Cyprian fumbled for his Webley; Silence had said it would do no good, but it was the only thing-
He jerked the trigger, not even bothering to remove it from his pocket. The Webley yapped and Melmoth shook and his grip slackened. He staggered back and St. Cyprian fired again and again until the cylinder spun empty. Melmoth jittered and spun, but did not fall. He swayed on his feet and then his head swung up and his dark eyes were wide as he grinned through the bloody froth on his lips. “That’s the way!” he yowled.
Around St. Cyprian, the others were speaking or shouting, sending words into the cold dark that seemed to press against the sputtering Crookes tube. Mammoth shapes, formless and vast, crouched over them, backs pressed tight to the walls and the ceiling. He heard wood cracking and the floorboards beneath his feet sagged and buckled. Things grabbed at his ankles. He saw a strange light around Ravenwood and an elderly Asian face superimpose itself wraith-like over the young American’s, and he shouted in two voices. Gallowglass was firing her Webley and Dual was beside her, his fingers writhing into the Sixty-Seven Gestures of the Primal Hloo Ritual. Warren was spitting incantations like a machine gun, his voice going hoarse as the alien syllables slid greasily from his lips. He stood back-to-back with Dubnotal as the bigger man, swept his hands out in the sign of the Rosy Cross. And finally, Silence, a nimbus of calm around him as he stood, head bowed, hands clasped, shadowy talons scraping and shattering to wisps of nothing as the predatory entities lunged for him and were turned aside.
Everything was moving in slow motion. The fierce shapes which lunged from corners and angles had all the substance of shadows on a screen, and the movements of his companions had the semblance of ritual. All sound faded and the walls of the house rose and spread suddenly like the sloping curves of some ancient Roman arena. His third eye sprang open as if pulled wide by hooks and suddenly there was an ochre sky beyond the gaping roof and strange, molten stars and the impressions of titan faces, perhaps belonging to gods, though whether elder or outer he could not say, loomed, alien and impersonal, looking down at the performance occurring within the squalid little house in the cul-de-sac. He saw the cringing fire-fly light of the brain in the house, a crouching goblin of malignant thought that was terrified by the battle taking place in what it had once considered its inviolate territory, and the will-o-wisp lights of the abominations which scurried towards the thinning veils, drawn by the scent of the world and all its minds.
Melmoth came for him again, his loping strides setting the dry dust of the arena billowing. This time St. Cyprian met him and they locked fingers, arms extended. Melmoth had been correct and Warren as well, earlier; it was nothing more than a gavotte, a dance of cosmic proportion. It was a ritual, a joust of opposing forces, openers and closers, one hand pulling and the other pushing. There was no hurry in the outer minds and no urgency, simply malevolent patience.
In the weird light, he saw Melmoth’s face shift, young to old, his features grimacing their way through history, and his clothing changed and rustled, Edwardian to Victorian to Georgian to Regency to Restoration to Puritan-black and finally to Elizabethan, with fraying ruffles and patches on the elbows.
Stars spun and dust rose and fell as the sun sank and bobbed. St. Cyprian’s muscles burned with fatigue and sweat inundated his clothes and dripped from his face, stinging his eyes. His arms trembled and his knees felt close to giving out. Melmoth grinned wildly as St. Cyprian’s foot began to slide and there seemed to be an enormous weight shoving against the latter, as if he were back in the Drones Club, holding the billiards’ room door closed against a particularly large crowd of raucous sportsmen.
An ache thrummed through his palms, crawling along his wrists and elbows into his shoulders, burning them. His breath whistled in and out of his clenched teeth. Melmoth’s shoulders rolled and his elbows bent straight as he slowly, but inexorably pushed St. Cyprian back.
He was losing. The thought shuddered through him and he knew that only a moment more and he was done. Melmoth was simply too strong, even without the legions of Hell at his back. He cast his mind back desperately, looking for something, anything that Carnacki might have taught him before Ypres, before a Hunnish bullet had plucked him from one world to the next. It came to him in a moment of clarity.
St. Cyprian lifted his foot and brought it down on Melmoth’s instep. Fragile bones popped and the sorcerer jerked back with a surprised howl. His fingers slid from St. Cyprian’s and the pressure retreated with them. St. Cyprian moved forward smoothly, like Captain Drummond, DSO, MC had taught him that night in Marseille, his fist moving like a piston across Melmoth’s jaw.
Melmoth staggered back and then, slowly, toppled backwards. Dust blossomed around him and then the scene wavered and broke like a reflection in a basin of water. St. Cyprian crouched over him, rubbing his aching hand. He had the impression of a vast sigh and then, nothing.
He looked around. The others looked back at him, bedraggled and hollow-eyed. Outside the filthy windows, the sun was rising. “What-” he began. His voice was a hoarse rasp. “What happened?”
“You bloody cheated is what happened,” Melmoth grated, struggling up into a sitting position. He spat blood and looked around, squint-eyed. “It seems to have done the trick, though.”
“We’ve won,” Silence said as Gallowglass hauled St. Cyprian to his feet.
“You cheated,” Melmoth said again, petulantly.
“Complain to the judges’ committee,” St. Cyprian said.
Melmoth grunted and pulled his legs under him and stood. “You’ve won,” he said grudgingly, looking at the ring of hard faces around him as he eeled past them and into the hall beyond. “My staff is broken and my spells undone, to misquote Prospero. Until next time, gentles all,” he said, as he turned and hurried towards the door. Gallowglass made to stop him, but St. Cyprian stopped her.
“Let him go,” he said. He looked at Silence. “That’s part of the tradition as well, isn’t it?”
“When the play is done, the actors depart the stage, no matter their part,” Silence said, smiling slightly. He looked around. “That includes us, my friends. The veils are still thin here, and there are lurking things which none of us are in any shape to confront.”
They left the house, stepping out into the cool morning air. The Crossley was waiting for them, looking the worse for wear in the full light of day. St. Cyprian looked up as the others filed out ahead of him, where the stars faded with the growing light of the new day. He thought again of those immense faces, and of the crushing, brooding patience, like the inexorable weight of stones and he shivered slightly.
The Door would open one day.
“But not today,” St. Cyprian murmured and closed the door firmly behind him.
Josh says: Zelazny’s A Night in the Lonesome October is a murderer’s row of horror staples–all the Big Names and most of the little ones (the mad monk, the diabolical druid, the vicious vicar…) in what might as well be a never-to-be-filmed monster rally movie; I think that’s what most appealed to me and what I most wanted to capture in my own story…with famous and not-so-famous faces gathering for a ‘High Noon’-style showdown on the most sinister night of the year…
Josh Reynolds is a professional freelance writer of understated wit and cherubic good looks. His short fiction has appeared in such anthologies as Horror for the Holidays and Specters in Coal Dust. You can find out more about him at joshuamreynolds.wordpress.com and, if you enjoyed The Gotterdammerung Gavotte and would like to read more about the adventures of the Royal Occultist, why not check out royaloccultist.wordpress.com .
Story illustration by Stjepan Lukac.