The Bells of Northam, by Joshua Reynolds

Bells of NorthamArt by Nick Gucker: http://www.nickthehat.com – click to enlarge

“Lord Northam is dead,” Harley Warren said, before taking a sip of his cider.

“I’m well aware of that, yes,” Charles St. Cyprian said. “I saw the body – or what was left of it, at any rate. My question is: what did you have to do with it? And why are you here?”

“Here” was the tidy, North Yorkshire village of Northam, in general, and Northam Manor, in particular, on October 31st, 1926. The village hugged the coast, and the Hull to Scarborough Line only stopped once a day, if the weather permitted. The manor was “up the hill” from the village, and it rose from a smooth spur of cliff that projected out over the sea. It wasn’t large as manors went, being more a box of stone, set down onto a much larger foundation, like the topper to a cake.

At the moment, its halls echoed with the sounds of a harvest celebration. Children ran screaming in pursuit of one another through the manor’s well-lit courtyard, and the atmosphere was one of jovial entertainment. Somewhere a band was enthusiastically, if not very skilfully playing a medley of the newest and loosest, and alcohol flowed freely as folk danced, laughed and shouted in celebration. The party stretched from the courtyard to the kitchens, and the old pile was packed to the rafters with celebrants in costumes of all types. Masked figures lurched and capered through the halls. Voices were raised in song and mummery, and stalls doling out cider, candies and pastries had been set up in every room. Makeshift stages had been set up in out-of-the-way corners, and mummers’ plays took place amidst curtains of crepe paper and canvas backdrops.

“That’s two questions,” Warren drawled. He and St. Cyprian stood in the library of the manor. It had long since been emptied of books, and the ancient shelves were buried beneath musty drop-cloths. It was the only quiet room in the manor, and thus perfect for a quiet conversation.

“One leads to the other, I rather fancy,” St. Cyprian said. “Answer them in any order you wish.” He glanced out the window. Outside, the sun was sinking below the dark horizon in a burst of autumn hues, and dead leaves scraped against the panes as they whirled and danced in the evening breeze. Chinese lanterns marked the stubby walls of the forecourt below and strings of battery-fed boat lights clung to the few, scabrous trees in the courtyard like cobwebs. Lanterns and candles lit up the other windows, making the house appear to have a dozen burning eyes. The crash of waves permeated the noise of the celebration, making for a constant pulse underneath the joyful celebration. In different circumstances, it might have been picturesque, even charming.

Warren smiled. “That’s why I like you, Charley. No small talk.” He sniffed. “Old Northam used to claim that the cellars of this place opened out onto a cliff, over the sea,” he continued, taking a sip of his cider as he gazed out the window. “He used to mention some old wife’s tale about the waves sounding like bells, if you were in the right spot.” His eyes shone eerily in the dim light of the library. “He said that the ‘bells of Northam’ would only sound to mark a special occasion. I always wondered if that was what he was thinking of, when he had one of his little fits.” He drained his glass and set it on the sill. “How much you know about Old Northam?”

“Other than that he spoiled that dreadful moggy of his? Not much,” St. Cyprian said. “I know he screamed, when he heard bells, though he never said why. Not to me at any rate. Nineteenth whatsit of ridiculously long line of barons, though I daresay he didn’t act it.”

“You know why he was roosting in Gray’s Inn, though?”

“He was busted, what?” St. Cyprian leaned back against the window frame. “Not a guinea or ha’penny to his name. Sold this old family pile of his for a stipend to eke out his twilight, is what I heard.” He pulled a silver cigarette case from his coat and flipped it open. He proffered it to Warren, who selected one of the hand-rolled cigarettes within, tapped in on the sill and shoved it between his lips. Warren bent as St. Cyprian lit a match for him. The latter took the opportunity to study the other man.

They were a study in contrasts—the tall, slim Englishman and the short, stocky American; the former dressed in the finest sartorial splendour available from the shops of Savile Row, and the latter clad more like an anarchist than a scholar. Both were occultists, but only the former could be said to be gainfully employed in that field.

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 one Charles St. Cyprian, whose responsibilities included the investigation, organization and occasional suppression of that which man was not meant to know.

Warren, on the other hand, had made a career knowing that which was not meant to be known, for his own reasons, which he shared with no one. There were rumours, of course, but St. Cyprian knew better than to put much stock in those.

“All of old Northam’s money went to getting his hands on the sort of library a man with too much interest in certain things goes about assembling,” Warren said. He puffed happily. “You got good taste in coffin nails, Charley.”

“I know. And my predecessor acquired most of that aforementioned library after Northam got out of the game.” St. Cyprian lit his own cigarette. ‘Some of it Northam kept, though, despite his protestations to the contrary. Every damn bibliophile in London with a penchant for the esoteric had the old man’s place staked out.”

Warren smiled. It wasn’t a pleasant expression. “Not all of them were from London.”

“He had something you wanted.”

“There is a certain book I’m looking to acquire,” Warren said. “The book relates to certain—ah—obscure burial practices I’m looking to learn more about.” He leaned forward. “That’s why I and Carter made the trip over the pond. Northam was finally willing to part with it. But he’s dead, and the remnants of his library are in the hands of the man who killed him.” He gestured with his cigarette. “The fellow who now, coincidentally, owns this house, and is throwing this fine shindig which we both seem to have invited ourselves to.

“I assume that you and I might be on parallel courses, otherwise—well, why would we happen to run across one another in this little slice of heaven?” Warren smiled and spread his hands. “It’s fate, I’d say.”

“I wouldn’t go that far,” St. Cyprian said. “But given the events of our first meeting, I’m willing to give you the benefit of the doubt. Besides which, John Silence speaks for you, and that’s as good as a recommendation from the Archbishop of Canterbury.” He glanced towards the other side of the room, where two figures stood near the door. “Unclench apprentice-mine. I’m sure Mr. Carter would like to take a breath without worrying about getting a bullet in his unmentionables.”

Ebe Gallowglass uncocked the Webley-Fosbery revolver she’d been holding on the library’s fourth occupant. She was dark and petite and dressed like a man, with a flat cap balanced high on her head and a brick-layer’s shoes. “Assistant,” she said.

St. Cyprian looked at her, one eyebrow raised.

“I’m your assistant,” she said as she holstered the revolver.

“My apologies,” St. Cyprian said. “To you as well, Mr. Carter,” he continued, nodding to the thin, lantern-jawed young man that Gallowglass had been holding at gunpoint throughout the conversation.

Randolph Carter deflated and took a shaky breath. He mopped his angular face with a handkerchief. He looked at Gallowglass. “Would you have really shot me?”

“Yeah,” Gallowglass said, with a shrug.

Carter made a face. He had served as Warren’s assistant for some time, or so Silence said. Carter had been published once or twice. He had a talent for Dunsany-like romances, and there was just enough hard fact mixed in with his fancies to make St. Cyprian suspect that Carter was a man for whom dreams were more than simply what happened between the closing of the eyes and the jangling of the alarm clock.

“Cheer up, Carter,” Warren said, “Williams would have done worse, if he’d caught us.” He smiled, seemingly unperturbed by the prospect. He looked at St. Cyprian. “You know the little shit we’re talking about, right?”

St. Cyprian nodded. “Williams is a rum one and no mistake. I’ve run across his trail more than once, and he’s got more bodies on his conscience than just poor Northam. He’s obsessive and determined.”

“He is quite the rotten apple,” Carter said, hesitantly. He glanced at Warren, as if for permission. “Warren tried to warn poor Northam about him, but the old fellow wouldn’t listen. Williams is a fairly persuasive rascal, and something of an amateur mesmerist.”

“He’s a bloody loon,” Gallowglass interjected.

“That too,” Warren said. “He collects gods like another man might collect butterflies. And that’s what he wanted from Northam, I’d wager.”

“A god,” St. Cyprian said.

“Or something close,” Warren said. “Northam knew a lot of things, most of ‘em fairly unpleasant. And now Williams knows ‘em too. God alone knows what he’ll do with that sort of information.” He tapped the window. “That’s why Carter and I came up to crash this little party of his. Only when we got here, it was less a party than a goddamn carnival.” Warren frowned. “Lot more folks than I was expecting, if I’m being honest.”

Carter spoke up. “I can’t believe—surely all of these people aren’t involved in whatever Williams is planning?” He fiddled with his tie nervously. “It’s—I rather hope, I mean, that this won’t be like Innsmouth. I-I don’t think I could stand that.”

“Probably not,” St. Cyprian said. “This celebration is a local tradition, according to my research into the local customs, and has been since Caesar was clashing with blue-arsed chappies north of the border. It’d cause some uproar if it was cancelled, or otherwise impeded.” He reached into his coat and extracted two gilt-edged squares of paper. “He sent out invitations to a private celebration he’s holding this evening, and on the same day he took a letter opener to Northam and his cat, the cheeky bastard. A number of individuals of—ah—an esoteric bent, you might say, were invited to attend.”

“The great and the good,” Warren said.

“More like the mad, bad and dangerous to know. Ms. Gallowglass convinced two of them to relinquish their invitations, for the common good.” St. Cyprian gestured to his assistant, who smiled toothily and patted the pistol holstered under her coat. “It’s being held down in the cellars. We were about to head down, when I caught sight of you snooping about.”

“Warren insisted on looking for that blasted book,” Carter said. He looked at Warren. “Warren, maybe we should go back to London. These…people are obviously quite capable of handling that rascal Williams.”

“Go if you like, Carter. But I came all the way out here for that book, and I don’t intend to leave without it.” Warren’s eyes flashed weirdly. St. Cyprian could sense the steel beneath the jovial expression. He recalled that while Silence had said that Warren wasn’t on the wrong side, he’d never specified just whose side the South Carolina mystic was on.

Carter flinched and looked away. He ran a visibly shaking hand through his hair. “It’s just—I can feel…something, something foul, on the air. I can taste it.” He looked around nervously. “Like a—a sourness.”

St. Cyprian looked at Warren. The latter’s eyes had narrowed to slits, and he had a considering look on his face. From what little he knew of Warren’s activities, he knew it wouldn’t be out of bounds to assume that he used Carter like a canary in a coal mine, if the latter was half as psychically sensitive as he appeared to be. Warren looked at St. Cyprian. “Are you planning on seeing what’s what, Charley?”

“We didn’t drive out for the cider,” Gallowglass said.

“I’d wager you wouldn’t turn down two extra bodies,” Warren said.

“I won’t give you the boot, if you’re willing. Many hands make swift work,” St. Cyprian said warily. There was a glint in Warren’s eye he didn’t like. The mystic wasn’t offering to help out of the kindness of his heart, he knew. It wasn’t like the last time they’d met, when reality itself had been under threat. Warren had his own goals tonight.

“We ain’t much, but I’ve been told we’re good in a fight,” Warren said. He looked at Carter, who made as if to reply, but then simply sighed and nodded. Warren grinned. “Best get them invitations ready then, Charley. Let’s get downstairs.”

They made their way quickly through the crowd that choked the corridors and rooms of the manor. Gallowglass led the way, employing elbows and knees with enthusiasm. The cellar was easy enough to find. The manor had been built around a central core of Roman stone, and in the centre of that core was the circular aperture that housed the flat, roughly hewn stone steps that descended into the depths. They joined a small crowd heading down into the cellar, and when they reached the bottom step, there were two robed and cowled figures waiting. Both wore masks—one, of a sheep, and the other, of a bird. The sheep held out a hand and said, “Invitations, please.”

St. Cyprian handed the two cards over. The sheep looked at the cards, and then at St. Cyprian and the others. St. Cyprian gestured to Warren and Carter and said, “Our plus-ones.” He smiled genially. “We were told costumes would be provided.”

With a grunt, the sheep gestured and the bird handed over robes and masks. They each took a robe and a mask and stepped past the doormen, and into the cellar.

Warren chuckled as he slid on his cat mask. “You’re a cool customer, Charley,” he said, twitching his robes into position. Carter eyed his mask—a zebra’s face—disdainfully, but pulled it on. He’d fallen silent as they entered the cellar, and he was sweating, despite the chill in the air. It was obvious to St. Cyprian that his nerves were stretched to breaking point, and he felt a moment of pity for the other man.

St. Cyprian settled his own mask, a hound’s mournful face, over his head and said, “This isn’t my first esoteric soiree, I’ll have you know.”

Warren chuckled.

Gallowglass’ mask looked like a falcon, and she poked at the beak. “Why the masks? Think they’re ashamed to be seen here?”

“It’s likely to keep everything civil. Williams has invited members from half a dozen esoteric societies, brotherhoods, cabals and conspiracies, most of whom get along like cats and dogs, don’chaknow,” St. Cyprian said. “If everyone’s anonymous, old grudges are less likely to interrupt the proceedings.”

“Must be a bit like a murderer’s row for you, Charley,” Warren said, as they followed the sounds of voices through the cellar.

“Hardly,” St. Cyprian said. “Who’s here matters less than what they are here to see.” Unlike the structure above, the cellar was a vast multi-room labyrinth. Walls of brick and quarried rock were punctuated by archways crafted from ancient wood and chiseled stone. The smell of the sea was stronger down here, and the air was cold and damp. They could hear the crash of waves, though only distantly.

“Don’t sound much like bells to me,” Gallowglass said.

“That’s undoubtedly a good thing, don’t you think?” Carter said.

They stepped into a vaulted, spacious chamber which appeared to have been constructed from the rock of the cliff on which the manor sat. The shaped walls gave way to living rock. Torches had been lit and mounted in stone stanchions that lined the chamber, and the breeze that hissed through the numerous natural boreholes that marred the surface of the rock wall caused the flames to flicker and snap.

“The sea must be right on the other side of the far wall,” Warren murmured. At the base of the rock wall was a crudely chiseled semi-circular aperture, in which flat steps, worn smooth by centuries of use, were visible.

The centre of the room was occupied by a flat, knee-high loaf of stone. St. Cyprian immediately recognized it for what it was—an altar stone. In and of itself, the altar wasn’t a shocking addition to the cellar. More than one fine old English manor had one, stained black with the blood of sacrifices in its cellar somewhere back behind the wine-rack. It was like the requisite Norman long-sword over the mantle or a skull in the servant’s pantry. But St. Cyprian thought it’d be fair to say that most of them didn’t have a blocky lead coffin sitting on them.

“The scallop shell motif is definitely Romano-Celtic, if I know my funerary box decorations,” he said. “Not familiar with those other signs, though. They could be druidic.”

“The Sign of Koth,” Carter breathed. “The sigil which dreamers see fixed above the archway of the black tower which stands alone in twilight.”

“It’s used in magics of binding in certain Arabic and Egyptian manuscripts,” Warren muttered, “mostly when you got something you want to keep out…or in.”

“So, not druidic then,” St. Cyprian said. He looked around. They stood amongst a crowd of similarly masked and robed revellers. There were close to two dozen people spread out through the chamber. “I wonder how many familiar faces we’d see, if we started ripping off masks,” he whispered to Gallowglass.

“What I wouldn’t give for a Vickers gun,” Gallowglass muttered. St. Cyprian snorted. Before he could reply, a murmur ran through the crowd, which shifted, allowing a single figure to move towards the altar and the coffin upon it. Warren grabbed his arm.

“It’s Williams,” Warren hissed.

Williams looked much as St. Cyprian had the last time he’d seen him. He had slicked-back hair and an entitled smirk on his pouting face, was thin as a weasel and his robes looked as if he’d fallen in a hedge and been rescued by a stiff breeze. He glad-handed for a moment, speaking to several of the crowd before ambling towards the coffin, a thin, square book in one hand. He seemed in no hurry. As he reached the altar and the coffin, he reached down and gave the latter a fond pat. “Hallo old boy, how’s tricks, what?” he said loudly. A wave of chuckles greeted him and he beamed at his guests. “I must say, I’m quite surprised at the turn out; not as many as I hoped, but more than I expected.”

He circled behind the coffin, hefting his burden. “You might be wondering what this is I’m carrying. Some of you have probably already guessed, given our surroundings and the date and—well—this whole scene. Without further ado, I present to you Taqi al-Din’s unexpurgated Incorruptibles, or rather the best version available to a man of my limited means.” He held up the book. “I had it from a certain old gentleman, of whom, I’m sure, most of you are—or were—familiar.” More laughter followed this. Williams chuckled and stroked the book as if it were a cat. He gestured to the coffin. “This, however, took a bit more digging to scrounge up.”

He paused and let his bland, pale gaze sweep across the crowd. St. Cyprian was suddenly very aware of the weight of the Webley Bulldog that rested in his coat pocket. He’d been forced to clean up after Williams more than once. The man was a menace, not to mention a Svengali, a forger, a thief and a Cambridge graduate.

Williams continued. “In this coffin is something as precious and as ill-used as this battered little book I hold in my hand.” He smiled widely, showing his teeth. “His name is Lunaeus Gabinius Capito.”

He paused, waiting for the crowd to settle before he continued. “In his time, Lunaeus Gabinius Capito was the greatest sorcerer to ever walk this misty isle. To his banner, he bound the tribes of the dark, and the worms of the earth. Wherever strange folk met together and made the Elder Sign in the dark, the Sorcerer-Tribune of Lindum would hold court. He bound the souls of giants to the Guildhall in London, and drove out the charnel-hounds from their burrows on the banks of the Thames. It was he who founded this fine house we find ourselves in today, and laid the foundations for the Northam. He was a power, old Lunaeus.” Williams paused. “It was said that the sea—the bells of Northam—signaled his rise.”

His smile faded. “And when he was laid low, and trapped by his enemies in this coffin, sealed away by sigils of power, the bells fell silent. His servants found him and brought him down into these caves, which had ever been his bastion, to slumber until he could be released. It has taken me a decade to find him, and to find the spot of his renewal, but I have done so.” Williams hefted the book. “And now, on this night, when the veil between worlds is thin, and the bells sound once again, I shall call forth his wandering soul and he shall walk among us again. He shall lead us in the forbidden rites, and show us new ways to shout and revel and kill!” He smiled. “Won’t that be grand? It’s dashed lucky I found this book, frankly, before anyone else got to it.” He let loose a horsey laugh. The crowd murmured appreciatively. Warren made a strangled sound beneath his mask, and St. Cyprian saw his hands clench into fists.

Williams smirked and gestured for silence. “So, to reiterate—ancient sorcerer, founding of a new kingdom, and you, my fine friends, can get in on the ground floor. It’s a once in a lifetime opportunity, and one that won’t be repeated. The stars are right and if you’re not with the Tribune, well…” Williams shrugged. “Best not to think about that.” His pale gaze swept across the crowd of masked faces.

“Is—is he extorting them?” Carter whispered, in shock. “Is that what this is about?”

“It’s Williams. What were you expecting?” Gallowglass muttered. She glanced at St. Cyprian and tapped her holstered pistol meaningfully. He shook his head. There was no telling how the crowd would react if Williams were killed.

“I know, I know, this isn’t what you were expecting,” Williams said, waving aside the rising mutters of the crowd. “You all know me. We move in the same circles, sometimes side by side, sometimes at cross-purposes. We scrabble over bits of lost wisdom, and in service to sleeping gods and—well—honestly chaps, we get in each other’s way more often than not. What I’m offering you is a chance to do away with all of that. Think of it as a bit of a union.”

“Like the Bolsheviks?” someone shouted.

“Not like the Bolshies, no,” Williams said. “Something efficient.” Laughter greeted this, and Williams motioned for silence again. “Think of it lads, we all want the same thing, don’t we? We all want secret wisdom, the return of the old gods, a bit of dosh on the side. And under the Tribune, here, we can do it. And all we have to do is wake the old boy up, bring him up to speed, and swear to serve him. It’ll be spiffing.”

Masked heads nodded in agreement. St. Cyprian gestured to Gallowglass and she nodded, moving off through the crowd. If they timed it right, they might be able to bring things to an end well before it became dangerous. He looked around. Despite the masks, the crowd looked attentive. That was troubling. Williams wasn’t the first to try such a trick, but he had something that egotistical would-be power-brokers like Crowley and Karswell hadn’t—namely, a figurehead. “And a dashed unpleasant one, at that,” he muttered to himself. He’d heard of Lunaeus; few British occultists hadn’t. And what he’d heard hadn’t been pleasant.

He looked for Warren, and saw him conferring tersely with Carter. He had the thin man’s arm in a tight grip, and was speaking to him in low, urgent tones. St. Cyprian wondered what they were discussing. Whatever it was, he could tell that Carter was plainly agitated, even if he couldn’t see his face. The sound of Williams’ voice caught his attention.

“But, before we get to the festivities, I feel it only right to warn you that I have it on good authority that our little shindig has been infiltrated,” Williams said. St. Cyprian tensed. “Yes, I’m afraid that there is an interloper amongst us, my friends.” Williams flung out a hand in Carter’s direction, and the thin man froze in the act of jerking his arm out of Warren’s grip. “Grab him chaps, and on the hop, if you please!”

Hands reached for him, clawing at him, and Carter gave a yelp of fright as he was unceremoniously hoisted into the air by a half-dozen masked and robed revelers and passed hand over hand towards Williams, who was grinning widely. Warren did nothing to help as Carter was dropped to the ground before Williams. Williams drove a swift kick into his belly. Carter wheezed and rolled over. Williams’ hand darted out to snatch aside the zebra mask.

“Well, is that Randy Carter I see before me? That means the King of the Cats is here somewhere, I’ll bet. Isn’t that so, Harley? Are you slinking through the faithful somewhere, intent on pissing in the punch the way you seem to do?” Williams drew an automatic from within his costume and aimed it at Carter, who glared up at him, whey-faced. “Come out, come out wherever you are, or I’ll shoot your friend.”

“Now, now, Williams, you should know by now, I ain’t got no friends,” Warren said. The crowd parted to reveal Warren, examining his fingernails. He’d removed his mask, and smiled genially at Williams as the latter raised his weapon. “Not a blessed one. Even so, I’d rather you not shoot Carter. He’s got some use left in him.”

“Ha!” Williams barked. “You used to say that about me, I’d wager.” He licked his lips and glanced down at Carter, whose expression betrayed his shock. “Oh, didn’t he tell you? Me and Harley, we were fair chums, back in our University days. He had that same breath of cosmic wind as old Northam. He’d seen things—things I wanted to see! And then he went to Tibet, and I went to Exham, and well, our roads diverged, as they say.”

“I’d say you’ve done well enough for yourself,” Warren said. “How’d you know we’d be here?” As he spoke, St. Cyprian silently signaled Gallowglass. She nodded tersely and began to thread her way through the crowd of celebrants towards the front. St. Cyprian did the same. If they could get close, they could prevent any harm from coming to Carter. And if Warren kept Williams distracted, they might be able to thwart whatever plan he had for that obscene casket.

“I knew you were in London, sniffing around Northam,” Williams said. “And I knew you’d have a hard time keeping yourself from crashing my party, once you found about it. So I had eyes on the look-out for you.”

“I’d say I was flattered, but that big head of yours might get even more swollen and just burst,” Warren said.

“Ah, Harley, I have missed your snide tone and veiled insults, I truly have.” Williams gestured with his pistol. He looked down at Carter. “Harley once insulted me seven times in a single sentence. Didn’t even stop to draw breath.”

“It’s not my fault you’re a bit of a twit,” Warren said. He took a step towards them. The pistol bobbed up, and Williams shook his head. St. Cyprian froze, though he knew he hadn’t been seen. He had no idea what he could do, if Williams decided to just shoot Warren out of hand. He slowly pulled his Webley from his coat pocket. At the very least, he’d send Williams to join Warren.

“Not another shuffle or skip, old pal,” he hissed. “I want you to see this with those damn cat-eyes of yours, since you went to the trouble to invite yourself to this shindig.” Williams’ smile was a stretched parody of human expression, and in the flickering torchlight, it looked sickly. “I want you to see me accomplish what you were never able to, Harley. I convinced Northam to tell me what he always refused to tell you. I’m going to wake the dead, and you’re going to watch me. Get up,” he snarled, shoving the pistol towards Carter. “Up, Carter. Stop gaping like a fish and get over here.”

“Williams,” Warren said warningly.

“Shut up, Harley,” Williams said cheerfully. “You always were an ass, and I’m going to enjoy this.” He prodded Carter in the kidney with the barrel of his revolver. “Go on, over to the casket, please. The bells have almost reached their crescendo, and the time draws near. I was going to use old Northam’s blood, for the ceremony of the thing, but yours will do just as well, Carter.”

Carter stumbled towards the lead coffin, and his face was waxy in the torchlight. Williams continued to chatter. “Have you ever wondered why old Northam had his little fits? It was because he too searched for old Lunaeus, as a young man, after returning from the desert. And he found him, by Godfrey. That’s why I had to make friends with him, and visit him in his nasty little flat, smelling of cat-piss and tinned meat. He wanted to forget—to die and in dying, take the secret with him to the grave.”

“And what secret was that, Williams?” Warren said.

Williams licked his lips. “You know damn well what it was, Harley old sausage. Lunaeus still lives.” He laughed. “He’s just been resting, lo these several centuries, taking a bit of a snooze, away from the hurly-burly.” He jabbed Carter with the automatic. “But now, with Carter’s help, we’ll wake him up. Jimmy, Oswald, get his hands, please.”

The sheep and bird-masked men that had been checking invitations shoved their way forward and grabbed Carter. The sheep pulled a Stanley knife from within his robes and sliced it swiftly across Carter’s palm. Warren lunged forward, and Williams swung the gun towards him.

“I told you not to move, Harley!” he snapped.

“So you did. Silly me, I must not have been listening,” Warren said.

“You never did,” Williams said acidly. He gestured to the book. “According to al-Din, it takes the right sort of blood to quicken the sleeper who dies not, and I’ll bet you’ve got the right red stuff, eh Carter?” He cut a glance at Warren. “Otherwise, Harley wouldn’t have brought you, would he?”

“What—what are you saying?” Carter said. He looked at Warren. “Warren?”

“You have no idea what you’re talking about, Williams. You never did,” Warren said. “And you have no idea what you’re doing now, either.”

“I beg to differ. I’m doing exactly what you’d be doing, if I hadn’t got there first—pick up the pace, gentlemen,” Williams said as sheep and bird forced Carter’s bloody hand onto the lid of the coffin, over the signs of Koth.

Carter struggled in their grip. “Warren, help me!” he shouted.

“Calm yourself, Carter,” Warren said.

St. Cyprian reached the edge of the crowd. He’d lost sight of Gallowglass. He wasn’t worried—she knew what to do. The sound of the sea had grown almost intolerably loud. He glanced at Warren, who didn’t look so much worried as he did interested. His eyes were almost glowing in the dim torchlight, and St. Cyprian felt a momentary chill.

“Yes, calm yourself, Carter. Listen, listen! The bells of Northam are sounding! Do you hear the bells, Harley? He’s waking up.” The sounds of the sea thrummed through the floors and walls, no longer simply a tuneless roaring but now filled with terrible purpose, like the echo of distant church bells.

On the altar, the coffin began to shudder and tremble, as if something within was waking up. Smoke rose from the sigils carved into the lid. The bells of Northam continued to peal, and the chamber seemed to shudder in sympathy.

“He awakens!” Williams howled, spreading his arms. “Let the bells sound to signal the birth of the new age!” The pealing of the watery bells grew louder and louder, as the coffin’s shudders became more violent.

St. Cyprian knew that they could wait no longer. “And that’s my cue, I think. Ms. Gallowglass, two rounds rapid, if you please,” he shouted, startling Williams and causing him to turn around. Gallowglass stepped out of the crowd, tore off her mask, and shot both of Williams’ bully-boys. As sheep and bird dropped, releasing Carter in the process, Williams spun with a curse. His automatic snarled and Gallowglass jerked out of the way. St. Cyprian seized his chance and fired. Williams flinched, and looked down at the red stain growing on his chest. “Oh…bugger,” he breathed. Then he toppled backwards, as the bells continued to sound, echoing thunderously through the cellar.

Warren lunged forward towards Williams’ body as the crowd broke apart in a cacophony of shouts and screams, and robed shapes began to hurry back towards the stairs. Most of the attendees had enough experience to know that when the barker dropped dead, it was best to get out of the tent as quickly as possible.

Book in hand, Warren grabbed Carter and jerked him back from the coffin. “Carter, are you—ah hell.” He grabbed Carter and flung him aside. “Look out!” The coffin shook and, with a sound like tearing silk the lid was ripped off by an unseen force and sent flying, right into Gallowglass, who looked up just in time for it to crash into her and knock her flat.

“Gallowglass!” St. Cyprian shouted, hurrying towards his fallen assistant. He froze, as the sound of bone rubbing against cloth suddenly slithered through the cellar. He turned, his heart turning to ice in his chest.

The thing in the casket sat up with a creak of ancient bone and dried flesh, as the bells of Northam rang loud, long and triumphant. It was wrapped in a shroud heavy with the filth of ages and its fleshless jaw sagged, expelling dust and maggots. The head rotated and fiery sparks blazed to hideous life in the black holes of its eye sockets. There was something wrong with the shape of the skull. In life, beneath a mask of flesh and fat and muscle, it would have perhaps not been noticeable. But now, for the most part shorn of such coverings, its malformation was all too horribly apparent.

A too-long jaw snapped, and a sloping brow slid from the hood of the shroud as dead fingers clutched the edge of the lead casket. It pushed itself upright, tearing the shroud as it did so.

In life, Lunaeus had been a large man, a soldier and a master of men. In death, he was something both more and less. All his magic had gone into keeping himself alive for all those centuries, trapped in his lead prison. Now that he was awake, it and the blood he had ingested was all that was keeping him on his feet. But the longer he was free, the stronger he would grow.

“Damnation,” St. Cyprian hissed as he stared in horror at the dead thing. “I thought that was all rather too anticlimactic to be the end of it.”

“Unpleasant is that which nestles in a sorcerer’s grave,” Warren muttered, clutching the book to himself like a talisman. St. Cyprian didn’t reply. He levelled the Bulldog and fired without hesitation. The twisted skull snapped back as the bullet struck home. The dead thing reared back, and made a sound like sand scraping metal. Then, impossibly quick, it bent forward and sprang from its casket, bony talons spread.

St. Cyprian yelped in pain as the talons sank into his forearms. He was whipped up and sent sailing, as if he weighed no more than a feather. He crashed to the ground hard, all the air knocked from his lungs.

Warren shoved Carter aside as the dead thing turned its attentions to them. Its eyes blazed with greed as it reached for Carter, obviously intent on finishing the meal it had started. But Warren interposed himself, spitting torturous syllables and making the oddly fluid gesture of the Voorish Sign. The creature twitched back, as if it had struck a wall. Then, as the bells continued to sound, it bulled forward. Warren was smashed to the ground and stepped over, as it made for Carter.

Gallowglass struggled out from under the casket lid. “Oi!” she shouted. “Turn around, you leathery shit!” As the creature turned, she forced herself to her feet and fired the Webley-Fosberry. The dead thing cowered as the bullets punched into it. Then, with something that might have been a laugh, it bounded towards her. It scooped her up, grabbing hold of her wrist and throat.

St. Cyprian got to his feet as the creature hefted Gallowglass and dragged her, kicking and cursing, towards its open jaws. Spells and mystic gestures ran through his mind, but he suspected none of them would be effective.

Carter, clutching his bleeding hand, was crouched over Warren. He gestured towards the lid of the casket. “There: the lid! The markings on the lid!” he shouted.

St. Cyprian looked blearily at the casket lid, and saw what Carter had meant—the sigils on the lid were ones designed to keep the dead safe in their caskets. Immortal he might have been, but Lunaeus had still required help to escape that prison. Despite Williams’ desecration, they might yet have the power to put down that which had been awakened.

He raced towards the lid and heaved it up. His muscles quivered with effort as he rammed the lid into the dead thing’s back. Lunaeus dropped Gallowglass and gave out a rattling, raspy shriek. It turned and St. Cyprian smashed the lid into it, trying to drive it back. The creature’s strength seemed to melt away, as it tried to hold him back, but it was strong enough to bring him to a standstill. They stood for a moment, man and monster, the lid trapped between them. Then, inexorably, the dead thing began to push him back. A moment later, Warren and Carter joined him, throwing their combined weight against his side of the lid.

Lunaeus groaned and staggered back, but only a few steps. Gallowglass scrambled up and threw herself beneath the dead thing’s feet, tripping it up. The creature tumbled backwards, back into its casket. St. Cyprian and the others slammed the lid down. The coffin shuddered and shook, as the Tribune pounded at the underside of the lid and wailed like a dying cat. Gallowglass, Carter and St. Cyprian sprawled across or sat on the coffin, trying to hold it shut. Warren produced the Stanley knife that had been used on Carter and, with barely a trace of hesitation, sliced it across his palm. Speaking quickly in a language that St. Cyprian only vaguely recognized, he used the blood dripping down his fingers to draw strange sigils on the flat surface of the lid. The dead thing grew quiet, and the coffin stopped shaking.

Warren staggered back, clutching his bloody hand. “Well,” he said, “wasn’t that exciting?” He reached over and plucked a handkerchief from Carter’s coat pocket and wrapped it around his hand. “But, it all worked out for the best, didn’t it? Just like I said, Carter.”

Carter said nothing. He stared at Warren as if seeing him for the first time.

“Think he’s dead?” Gallowglass asked, knocking on the coffin lid.

“Close enough to call it a night, at least,” St. Cyprian said. He leaned back on his elbows and closed his eyes. The sounds of the sea, so loud before, had faded to their normal dull crash and roar. The bells of Northam had fallen silent once more. “And hopefully forever more,” he murmured.

But as he watched Warren page through the blood-stained book he’d wrenched from Williams’ dead hand, he feared the sentiment was in vain.

Joshua ReynoldsJoshua Reynolds has been published previously in Innsmouth Free Press, as well as the anthology Historical Lovecraft, and he has a novel, Knight of the Blazing Sun, coming out from the Black Library in 2012. Visit Joshua’s website at joshuamreynolds.blogspot.com.

If you enjoyed this story, let Joshua know know by commenting — and please use the Facebook, Twitter, and Google Plus buttons below to spread the word.

Story illustration by Nick Gucker.

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3 responses to “The Bells of Northam, by Joshua Reynolds

  1. I really enjoyed this story, the art at the top of the page really piqued my curiosity. This is a great period piece of occult investigation. After doing a Google search of some of the characters appearing and mentioned in this story, I am anxious to read the original tales by Lovecraft and Blackwood as well. A fine job.

  2. This was an excellent story. Now I want more stories about the same characters in your voice. 🙂 Well done, sir!

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