The Pnakotic Puzzle, by Josh Reynolds

pnakotic_puzzle_fnl---raven

Art by Raven Daegmorgan – http://www.daegmorgan.net – click to enlarge

“Well, this a bit of a rum do, and no mistake,” Charles St. Cyprian said. The cigarette he had just gotten lit burned forgotten between his fingers, and his hands were raised, his elbows planted on the armrests of his chair. In the chair opposite, a man with a gun sat, his waxy face betraying no expression.

“Rum do, yes,” the gunman said in his peculiar voice. To St. Cyprian, it sounded like a nest of wasps trapped in a wet gunny-sack. The pistol his guest held was an American automatic, a Colt. “An appropriate colloquialism, yes,” the man continued. “Where is it, Mr. St. Cyprian?”

“Where is what?” St. Cyprian said as he eyed the cherry tip of his cigarette. The line of char crawled towards his fingers. 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’ shop and deign to live in man’s closet. He had been preparing for an evening out, when his gun-toting guest had arrived and insisted on speaking, despite the lack of appointment or even basic civility. It wasn’t an unexpected visit, but that made it no less unpleasant.

“Where is the cipher, Mr. St. Cyprian?” The gunman’s pallid cheek twitched, and for a moment, St. Cyprian was inexplicably reminded of the evening he’d seen rats crawling in the belly of a dead horse in No Man’s Land not four years before.

“Oh that,” St. Cyprian said. “I have no idea, old boy. Not a clue what you’re prattling on about, I must confess.” He bent towards his cigarette and took an awkward drag. Expelling thin streams of smoke from his nostrils, he continued, “Are you quite certain you’ve broken into the right house? All these Cheyne Walk flats do like alike, I’m told.”

“We are in the sitting room of No. 427 Cheyne Walk, Victoria Embankment—residence of the Royal Occultist since 1874,” the gunman said. “You are Charles St. Cyprian, formerly assistant to Thomas Carnacki, himself formerly the assistant of Sir Edwin Drood, who was in turn the assistant to Aylmer Beamish; you are the current holder of the offices of Royal Occultist. Where is it, Mr. St. Cyprian?”

“Somebody has been peeking at my journal,” St. Cyprian said, sneaking another surreptitious puff from his cigarette. He expelled smoke from the corner of his mouth. 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 wishing that he were anyone else and someplace other than where he was at the moment.

“Where is the cipher?” the gunman said. St. Cyprian examined him through the haze of cigarette smoke. He was a thin man, almost brittle looking, like a scarecrow wearing out-of-fashion Savile Row. He wore leather gloves and a high collar of archaic cut. His face gleamed in the firelight, once again putting St. Cyprian in mind of wax. Spectacles with smoked lenses rested over his eyes, and his hair did not look natural and all at once, St. Cyprian felt a thrill of primitive fear as he realized for the first time what sat across from him, pointing a .45 automatic at his belly.

He licked his lips, and, feigning the blasé indifference he no longer felt, said, “There is no cipher. I have no idea what you’re talking about.”

“You are lying,” the gunman—the thing—said. It tilted its head, and the wax face squirmed.

“Who are you,” St. Cyprian countered.

“You know who I am.”

“I know what you are,” St. Cyprian said softly. “I would like a name to attach to the classification.”

“Cold,” the gunman said. “I am Indrid Cold.”

“The last I heard, there was a fellow by that name working for our American cousins across the sea,” St. Cyprian said. He lowered his hands, tapping ash from his cigarette into the tray balanced on his armrest. He let his eyes rove over the room, in order to give them some respite from the peculiar angles of Cold’s not-quite-right features.

No. 427 had been a perk of the office since 1874, when a spectral entity of one sort or another had spoken to Aylmer Beamish and convinced him that the house was a necessary addition to the tools of the trade. It had cellars that went deeper than any other in Chelsea and access to the Thames, if one were willing to get a bit mucky. It was from those cellars that Beamish had led the disastrous sortie of 1881 into the dark beneath London, where he’d met his death at the claws and fangs of the Very Old Folk.

Pictures of former bearers of the office lined the walls of the sitting room, jostling for space with fetish masks and lurid artworks by Goya, Blake and Pickman. Great bookshelves groaned beneath a library of occult works, as well as a century’s worth of accumulated bric-a-brac. The closest wall was occupied by the cavernous Restoration era fireplace and its heavy mantle, and the fire that burned in its belly. Over the fireplace hung a xiphos—a double-edged, single-handed sword with a leaf-shaped blade. It was a family heirloom, brought over with Brutus and his Trojans, and St. Cyprian had used it more than once. He looked at it longingly now, though he doubted that it would do much good.

Cold inclined his head. “We are all Indrid Cold, when we must be,” he said in reply.

“That’s not an answer,” St. Cyprian said, frowning.

“You did not ask a question.”

“It doesn’t matter, I suppose,” St. Cyprian said. His eyes flickered to a point just over Cold’s shoulder, where something moved in the shadows. He brought his gaze back to the intruder quickly. “You’re not here on behalf of the Americans are you?”

“No,” Cold said. “I am here at the request of…an older firm.”

St. Cyprian grunted and sucked meditatively on his cigarette. “Could I convince you to put your weapon down, so that we might discuss this as gentlemen?”

“Where is it?” Cold said again, and this time the buzzing intonation held a threatening note. The barrel of the automatic tilted and St. Cyprian found himself staring down the black muzzle.

He swallowed and said, “Well…I did try.”

Cold stiffened as a feminine arm slithered around the back of the chair he occupied and caught his throat. A second hand, clutching a diminutive pepperbox derringer slid around the other side and the barrel of the tiny pistol jabbed Cold in one cheek. ‘Move and you’ll be singing out the side of your mouth,’ a young woman’s voice said.

Cold stiffened. “What?” he hissed. He sounded less surprised than offended.

“My assistant, what,” St. Cyprian said. He reached out and carefully prised the automatic from Cold’s unresisting hand. “Indrid Cold, meet Ebe Gallowglass, Ms. Gallowglass to you. You took your sweet time, Ms. Gallowglass.”

“Thought you had it handled, didn’t I?” Gallowglass said, peering over the top of the chair, “Should have known better.” She was dressed like some hybrid of a cinematic street urchin and a Parisian street-apache, with a battered newsboy cap on her head.

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 far too ghoulishly enthralling, so he was happy to avoid it when possible. Gallowglass seemed content to oblige.

“Cheers for that,” St. Cyprian said. He sat back in his chair, Cold’s pistol pointing at its owner. Cold’s face rippled unpleasantly, and his gloved fingers bit like talons into the chair’s armrests. “Now, let’s see if we can’t find out what’s what here, shall we?”

“Give me the cipher, Mr. St. Cyprian and you will not be harmed,” Cold said.

“Oh I think not, Mr. Cold. No, I think that the ‘cipher’ as you call it, will be staying with me. You see, I’ve rather been expecting a visit like this any day now.” St. Cyprian smiled genially. “Good of you to let me know that I was on the right track, what?”

“You do have it,” Cold said.

“What—you mean the journals of Sir Edwin Drood? Of course I do, old boy. I am the Royal Occultist, as you yourself said.” St. Cyprian took a last drag from his cigarette and then stubbed it out. “I wonder if you’re the same Indrid Cold that Carnacki had a run in with during that affair with Professor Challenger and John Silence some years before the War. You were working for the same firm at the time I believe.”

“Then you know what danger you are in. Give me the cipher,” Snow said.

“What’s he going on about?” Gallowglass said, looking at St. Cyprian.

“A diary,” St. Cyprian said, “Edwin Drood’s diary, written in a code known only to three men, two of whom are dead.”

“And the third,” Gallowglass asked.

“Indisposed,” St. Cyprian said.

Cold laughed. It was a horrible sound, like bones rattling. “He is running, and the hounds are on his trail. Give me the cipher.”

“Awful demanding for a fellow on the wrong end of a peppy,” Gallowglass said.

Cold’s face twitched unpleasantly. St. Cyprian fancied he saw something bulge briefly against the front of Cold’s buttoned coat. “Why do you want it?”

“You know why,” Cold said.

“Well there’s the rub, Mr. Cold…I don’t. I’ve managed to translate less than a third of it, and that only because I’m passing fluent in Polari and the ancient Naacal alphabet. Which is why I’m glad to see you—or one of your sort at least; I think you might be able to fill me in on what I’m missing.”

“I did not come to answer your questions,” Cold said.

“Of all the cheek,” Gallowglass murmured, digging the pepperbox into Cold’s cheek for emphasis. Cold didn’t flinch.

“No, you came to get the journals—why?” St. Cyprian said, leaning forward. “What do they contain that you need? And why now; they’ve been here for almost twenty years. Twenty years of opportunity, and not once, not even once has one of your lot set foot inside this house. Granted, it’s an intimidating edifice I’ll give you that, but why not make the attempt during the War, when it was unoccupied?”

“We did not require the cipher,” Cold said, with the verbal equivalent of a shrug.

“But now you do. Why?”

Cold smiled. It was a ghastly expression, equal parts idiot and rictus, and it revealed an impressive Hadrian’s Wall of too-white teeth. “Old debts,” he breathed.

And then, with inhuman speed, he moved. A shoulder rotated at an impossible angle, catching Gallowglass in the face. She stumbled back, the derringer going off. The shot plucked the glasses from Cold’s face even as he lunged to his feet, hands reaching for St. Cyprian. Cold crashed into him and the chair toppled backwards even as St. Cyprian’s finger tightened on the Colt’s trigger. The automatic bucked again and again and Cold twitched. Nonetheless, his fingers fastened on St. Cyprian’s throat with crushing force.

Things moved beneath the flesh of Cold’s face, small things. His eyes were empty pits, and he chuckled as the automatic punctured him again. “S-sword,” St. Cyprian gurgled, flailing at Cold’s hands.

“No, cipher,” Cold said.

“No, sword,” Gallowglass snarled. Cold whirled up and around, releasing St. Cyprian, but not quick enough as the sword that had been hanging over the mantle sank into the side of his neck with a sound like a cleaver chopping into a side of beef. Cold rolled away, making a noise like a cat run over in the street, his thin fingers clawing at the blade. Gallowglass was jerked after him and she planted a foot on his chest. With a grunt, she jerked the sword free. No blood coated it. Instead, a clear, foul smelling liquid dripped from the edge of the leaf-shaped blade. Cold croaked and grabbed her ankle.

St. Cyprian grabbed his wrist. Cold’s face writhed horribly in the fire-light. “Get the Zanthu Box,” St. Cyprian barked, trying to hold the flopping, croaking man on the floor, “Third shelf, past the canopic jars!”

Gallowglass backed away, still holding the sword. St. Cyprian settled his weight on Cold, trying to hold him down, pinning his wrists. The black eyes glared hatefully up at him as white squirming things dropped from the wound in Cold’s neck. More of the things crawled from the bullet holes in Cold’s torso, wriggling across the black suit.

Cold’s strength was incredible. Even flat on his back as he was, he made it hard for St. Cyprian to hold him down. Each limb seemed to jerk and thrash independent of the whole, and things moved beneath his coat, thrashing in agitation. It was like fighting a bag full of snakes. “The Zanthu Box, Ms. Gallowglass! In your own time, please,” St. Cyprian shouted desperately.

The sword came down point first, pinning one of Cold’s scrabbling hands to the floor. Gallowglass held an ornate and odd-looking box under one arm and she shoved it towards St. Cyprian, who took it gratefully and flipped it open. Without a moment’s hesitation, he turned the box upside down and emptied out its contents onto Cold’s chest.

Cold stiffened, and emitted a shrill, steam-whistle sound as the chunks of raw stone thumped onto his chest. Then he flopped back, unmoving. St. Cyprian rose to his feet, still clutching the box. “Bullets don’t work; blades don’t work; but hit him with a rock…” Gallowglass said.

“I’d hardly call the Mnar fragments ‘rocks’, but yes. There’s a tool for every occasion, Ms. Gallowglass. You’d do well to remember that.”

“And you’d do well to remember to lock the door so people can’t walk in with guns,” Gallowglass said sourly.

“I’m certain I locked the door,” St. Cyprian said.

“That’s what you said last time.”

“I’m certain that I locked it then as well.” St. Cyprian shook himself and handed the box to Gallowglass. “Put this back, and then get some tea, eh? We’re in for the night, I think.”

He looked down at Cold. The creature was as close to dead as it was going to come, but some vitality yet remained. A flicker of hatred and frustration passed through the staring eyes. For a moment, St. Cyprian was tempted to pull the wax mask from its face, and look beneath. “The soul of the devil-bought hastens not from his charnel clay but fats and instructs the very worm that gnaws,” he murmured and made the third sign of Hloh Ritual.

Leaving his guest where he lay, he went to the bookshelves and traced the spines with his finger until he found a collected copy of Dickens’ The Mystery of Edwin Drood. Drood had been a man for the public, allowing various penny-a-word writers adapt his adventures for a small sum. Dickens and Stoker had availed themselves of his anecdotes, as had Marsh and Boothby. Stoker had replaced Drood with a Dutchman, and Boothby had added an unfortunate glamour to an otherwise monstrous individual in his, as well as excising Drood completely.

It was ironic, then, that the one book where Drood’s name was prominent was the one that had the least to do with any of his actual experiences. He flipped open the book to reveal a hollowed out section containing a small, battered moleskin notebook. It was an obvious hiding place, but that was the point.

The moleskin was a puzzle of a hundred pages. He had flipped through it often; Carnacki had left it alone. Drood’s disappearance had hit him hard. St. Cyprian knew how his mentor had felt. He closed his eyes, trying not to think of Ypres and the sound of a body falling and voice forever stilled, mid-sentence. He took a deep breath and opened the notebook.

Drood had been something of an experimental scientist by all accounts. He had devised a number of apparatuses for use in occult research, and had been fond of tinkering. That had gotten Drood into trouble more than once, and it was what had brought him to the attentions of his predecessor, Aylmer Beamish. He flipped a page, and studied the rough sketch of a crystal egg that Drood had purchased in a grimy little shop near Seven Dials. The egg was gone now, vanished at the same time that Drood himself had disappeared from a locked garret room in Soho, leaving behind only walls covered in chalk-scrawled mathematics and a primordial stink more suited to a steamy jungle than a rented flat.

And, of course, the notebook; Carnacki had referred to it as the ‘Pnakotic Puzzle’, when he spoke of it, which wasn’t often. Carnacki thought that Drood had been punching above his weight, and St. Cyprian agreed.

It was all conjecture on Drood’s part—a vast, shadowy conspiracy; a determined effort to infiltrate the human race at every stage of its evolution by alien minds from the deep past. Carnacki had encountered the watchdogs of the conspiracy only once, but that had been enough to put him off. Men—beings—like Cold had made a concentrated effort to wipe out any hard evidence. They had missed the Hoccleve translations and the Sigsand Manuscripts, among others, but it was like trying to piece together a puzzle while missing more than half of the whole. Even the Book of Eibon wasn’t much help.

“When was it you made your deal, I wonder?” he said, looking at Cold. “At what point did your interests and theirs coincide? Why help them, knowing what you must know about them, about their plans…professional sympathies, perhaps?”

None of that mattered. Not really, though the urge to know was hard to shake. The notebook had been dropped through the letter box several months after Drood’s disappearance, and in subsequent months, envelopes carrying additional pages followed. The envelopes were of a standard type, but were dry, brittle things, as if they had been stored someplace dry and cool for decades before being sent. No postmarks or other identifying features, save for a faint tropical miasma and Drood’s spidery handwriting. Then, all at once, they had stopped coming. Carnacki, perhaps thinking better of it, had never sought to find out where they’d been coming from. He simply filed them away and pretended that they didn’t exist. As strategies went, it wasn’t a bad one. A lot of trouble could be avoided if one simply ignored unpleasant mysteries. But now it seemed to have grown teeth and sunk them into St. Cyprian’s rear.

Gallowglass came back into the sitting room. “I’ve seen to the locks on the door and the windows. Figured out what he was after yet?” she said, stepping unconcernedly over Cold’s limp form.

“No,” St. Cyprian said. “But I have my suspicions.”

“Have anything to do with the third man?” Gallowglass said, righting the chair Cold had vacated and flopping down into it. She had replaced the derringer with a heavy Webley-Fosberry. The big revolver had a Seal of Solomon carved into the butt, and she cracked it open with practiced ease, examining the ammunition cylinder. St. Cyprian glanced at her. “Drood,” she said, for clarification. “He’s the one who vanished right? I figure it was him, because only Beamish and Carnacki might have known how to crack the cipher, the one being Drood’s boss and the other being his assistant.”

“And both of them are dead, yes,” St. Cyprian said, frowning. “Thank you for the reminder.”

“Just doing my part,” Gallowglass said. “How long are we going to leave him there?”

“Not long,” St. Cyprian said, sinking to his haunches beside Cold. Carefully, he plucked aside most of the Mnar fragments, laying them close to hand. Cold began to stir immediately. The stones could disrupt certain sorts of magic, the way lead could block out radiation. Cold, for all that he looked human, was anything but. An ancient thing, steeped in a centuries-deep stew of sorcery, the stones could cripple him as easily as any other eldritch predator.

St. Cyprian held up the moleskin as Cold blinked. “Why do you want this?”

“Gggive…” Cold gurgled.

“He’s a persistent bugger, I’ll say that for him,” Gallowglass said, snapping the Webley shut.

“Quiet,” St. Cyprian said, not looking at her. “You’re not getting this. At least not until I know why you want it. The quicker you tell me, the quicker we can come to a mutually satisfactory arrangement.”

“Let’s just bury him in Highgate with a few of those stones to keep him quiet. Let the grave-worms have at it,” Gallowglass said.

“Bit late for that,” St. Cyprian said. He looked down at Cold. “Besides which, he’s not alone. If he vanishes, the others will come calling. Between the Tcho-Tchos, the Brotherhood of the Golden Chrysanthemum and all the rest, we already have too many people after our scalps as it is, without adding Cold’s bunch. No, we are going to reach a compromise.”

“And if we don’t?”

“Then we bury him in Highgate,” St. Cyprian said harshly. “Do you understand me, chum? Tell me why Drood’s journal is so important.”

Cold’s face twitched and bulged as if he were trying to spit the words out. “D-date,” he croaked finally, “T-time, location an-and date.”

St. Cyprian blinked in confusion for a moment before the meaning behind Cold’s words dawned on him. He looked in wonder at the moleskin. “Well, how about that?” he said softly.

“What?” Gallowglass said, alert.

“It never made any sense before. I couldn’t figure out what the numbers meant, or why they were listed, but he’s right. Of course he’s right.” He shook his head and slapped the notebook into his palm. He looked at Gallowglass. “Edwin Drood is coming back, and these pages tell us where and when.”

“It must be soon, if they came looking for it now,” Gallowglass said.

“Yes, I’d wager they had some idea as to the when, but they need the where.” He flipped open the moleskin, flipping through the pages. “Drood wanted proof of the conspiracy, hard evidence; who he planned to show it to, I can’t say, but he was determined. The parts of this I’ve translated implied that he’d figured out how to reverse engineer whatever process was involved in the requisite chronological mental juxtaposition.”

“The chrono-mental what-now,” Gallowglass asked.

“Did I not mention that? They switch brains with us,” St. Cyprian said idly. “Similar to demonic possession; in fact Carnacki had a theory that it—never mind; Drood is coming back and I have a feeling that he’s bringing some form of hell with him.” He looked down at Cold, and a sudden, unpleasant thought occurred to him. “Your…partners could have handled him easily enough if he reached their time, their place of power. So why send you? Why even come here? They could have easily handled Drood on their end. Unless…”

Cold chuckled weakly. “Not…Drood.”

St. Cyprian dropped to his haunches. “What is it? What else is coming?” He batted aside the remaining Mnar fragments and jerked Cold up by his lapels. Cold, freed from the binding power of the stones, grabbed St. Cyprian’s wrists tightly. Gallowglass cursed and levelled her revolver, but Cold made no move to harm the other man.

“My pistol, please,” Cold said.

“What’s coming?” St. Cyprian said again, almost pleadingly.

“As you said, hell,” Cold said, rising to his feet. St. Cyprian followed him. Cold straightened his tie. “They are not as malevolent as you imagine. Otherwise, you—we—would have been driven into the audient void centuries ago, to be replaced by purer minds. But they recognized our intelligence and chose to spare us, in their way. Drood found that out, almost too late.”

“Is it Drood who’s coming back?”

“Yes. Better to ask, why is he coming back now?” Cold said, reclaiming his automatic from St. Cyprian.

“You said the hounds were on his trail…” St. Cyprian said.

“I am and we are. He did not tell them where he was going. He knew that they feared it. They feared what he had found. But he would not be dissuaded.”

“So they contacted you to—what?—help him? Kill him?” St. Cyprian said.

“To do what is necessary,” Cold said. He held out a hand. “The cipher, please,” he said.

St. Cyprian hesitated. He looked at Gallowglass, who shrugged. With a sigh, St. Cyprian passed the moleskin to Cold. He had no reason to trust the creature, save instinct. It had always nagged at him that the group that Cold represented had never sought to strike back at Carnacki, after their initial encounter. Perhaps ‘live and let live’ worked both ways.

Cold scanned the notebook, his eyes moving oddly. Then, abruptly, he snapped the book shut and grunted. “Here,” he said, in an almost offended tone.

“Here what,” St. Cyprian said.

Cold tossed him the notebook. “Here,” he said. “He is coming here.”

“What—when?”

“Now,” Cold said, checking the clip on his automatic. He seemed to experience no difficulty from his wounded hand, or the holes in his belly. “The cellars…where,” he asked.

“Through the kitchen,” St. Cyprian said. He strode to the fireplace and took down the ancient sword. The air had changed while they spoke. There was strange electricity in the air now, like that which heralded a storm. He drew the sword with a flourish and gestured with it. “Lady and gentleman, shall we?”

“We trust him?” Gallowglass said.

“No, but do you feel that?” St. Cyprian said as he led the way towards the kitchens. “There’s a pressure in the air.”

“That’s just the flat! There are always weird humours and strange noises,” Gallowglass said, as they entered the kitchen. “This place makes more noise than Soho on a Saturday. I just thought it was haunted,” she added.

“It is, but this is different,” St. Cyprian said. He looked at Cold. “Isn’t it?”

Before Cold could reply, the house trembled. As one, all three of them looked towards the door to the cellar. “Ladies first,” St. Cyprian said.

“Not even if you paid me,” Gallowglass said.

St. Cyprian grunted and yanked the door open. A stink like a burst sewer pipe wafted out. He gagged and grabbed Gallowglass’ hand before she could pull the light cord. “Don’t; the gas main might have ruptured. Grab a torch,” he said. Gallowglass nodded and grabbed an electric torch off of the shelf just behind the cellar door. She clicked it on.

The stone steps that spiralled down were slick with damp. That was natural, given their proximity to the river. The house trembled again, nearly pitching him down the stairs. St. Cyprian took the torch and started down as the trembling faded. “London is built over the bones of at least four other cities. Beamish’s notes imply that there’s an ancient temple somewhere below us, though whether it was Roman or Briton or from some older culture, he didn’t know. Drood and Carnacki investigated once, but didn’t go too deep. Understandable, given what happened to Beamish.”

“The roots of this place go deeper even than the warrens of the corpse-eaters,” Cold said, his voice echoing hollowly in the darkness.

“Ta for that, you creepy bastard,” Gallowglass said.

“Be polite,” St. Cyprian said. The cellar proper was small, being little more than a stone landing. Beamish had had it excavated soon after he’d purchased the place, revealing the ancient wells and apertures down below at the bottom of a second set of crude steps that wound down towards the river. Ever since Beamish’s last expedition, the wells had been capped off, but the other apertures were open. The smell was stronger here and wafting up from the river. The ancient paving stones that marked the floors around the wells were now cracked and bulging, as if something had pushed them up from below. Too, strange chalk markings, freshly made, were revealed in the play of the light.

The smell clung to everything; it was in every particle of water and every metre of oxygen. St. Cyprian let the light play across the chalk markings, trying to discern their purpose. They had been made recently enough that he could smell them, despite the stronger, nastier odour. “That way leads to the Thames. It’s an old jetty, used for-”

“Smuggling, once upon a time,” a hoarse voice said. St. Cyprian and the others snapped around, pinning a dark, hunched figure with the light. A hand, clad in a stiff, cracked leather glove that was covered in chalk dust, rose to protect the speaker’s eyes. The light of the torch caught and was reflected in the facets of a strange crystal held in the man’s other hand.

The house trembled again, and dust and mould sifted down in thin curtains. The slick floor creaked and rasped and the waters of the river splashed loudly as the effect of the disturbance rippled outwards. A tarnished and battered pocket-watch was pulled from a ragged waistcoat pocket and flipped open. “Not much time now,” Sir Edwin Drood said. He coughed, and something red speckled his thin, blistered lips. In the light of the torch, he looked malnourished and sickly. Sores dotted his aesthetic features, and the handsome moustache and raven hair displayed in his portrait upstairs had gone the colour of dirty ice. His eyes were red-rimmed and blotchy and he held himself as if he were exhausted. He looked at St. Cyprian. “Thomas?” he said.

St. Cyprian swallowed. “Carnacki’s dead,” he said.

Drood’s eyelids sagged. “Oh.” They sprang open a moment later. “You’ll have to do then. Is that you, Cold?”

“Yes,” Cold said, stepping forward. “Earthly matter is not meant to travel along the Dho Curve.”

“Forgive me if I didn’t fancy jettisoning my mind into time’s screaming abysses,” Drood said.

“We tried to stop you. If you had listened…”

“If I had listened, we would not be here and this would still occur. This way, at least, we have a chance to stop it!” Drood said. He broke off into a coughing fit.

“Stop what,” St. Cyprian said. More dust sifted down. He heard a sound, like a distant train whistle, getting closer.

“I almost didn’t make it,” Drood said. “I had to time it just right, to visit Aylmer in 1874, and then the shop in Seven Dials in 1882, to give myself this,” he hefted the crystal, “and then here, now, just in time.” His eyes found St. Cyprian’s and he gave a ghastly smile. “I only left a week ago,” he said, and there were tears in his eyes. He looked at Cold. “Are they waiting? Are they ready?”

“They are,” Cold said.

“Good. Then at least it will not have been in vain,” Drood said with bone-deep weariness. He looked at St. Cyprian and Gallowglass. His eyes widened slightly as he noticed the latter. “Good heavens, a bluestocking.”

“What did he call me?” Gallowglass said.

“Perhaps not the most important question right now,” St. Cyprian said. “What’s coming?”

“They don’t have a name,” Drood said, clutching the crystal more tightly as the shaking of the floor started up again. “The Great Race drove them underground, into hibernation, but this one awoke—will awake—has awoken too soon, or maybe too late. Their basalt tombs dot the world, even after Pangaea tore itself asunder, and I mapped them all, one abominable site after another; breathing in the stinking gases of those awful jungles and smouldering lakes. What better way to root out the rot, than before it sets in? But this one—God help me, below London!—I had to make sure, my oath to Queen and God and country you see, I had to make sure!” Drood’s voice rose almost to a shriek, and with a chill, St. Cyprian realized that his predecessor’s predecessor was as broken in mind as he was in body. A week, he had said. He had only been gone a week, and yet he had aged a decade or more. He was as much a walking corpse as Cold. Drood’s eyes held his. “If it gets out, there’d be no way to stop it. I knew that and I knew I had to make sure it never escaped, never got above ground. It’d eat the world, if I let it.”

The whistle had been growing steadily louder and a foul breeze crept up insistently through the cracks in the floor and walls. As if there were hurricane building deep below and it were rising steadily towards them.

“How do we stop it?” St. Cyprian said. His grip on the sword’s hilt was painfully tight.

“We can’t,” Drood said. “We can distract it, and I can take it back—the crystal you see, it takes physical matter through the fourth dimension—I’ll take it back there, back to them and they’ll kill it, as only they can. I have prepared this place, making it a mathematical trap from which it will not escape.” He flung out a hand, indicating the chalk marks. “The hyperspatial formulas will hold it here long enough,” Drood went on. “I just need a few minutes, just a few…”

“Sounds like our sort of soiree, I think,” Gallowglass said.

“Rather, but I do think I might have preferred a Webley,” St. Cyprian said, looking down the length of the sword. “Still, needs must and all that.” He looked at Cold. “I assume this is why you’re here then?”

Cold’s smile was ghastly. “Old debts, as I said. Drood helped us—and our associates—once.” The creature looked at his gloved hand and flexed it. “We have so little left; we cannot afford to discard tradition and conduct as easily as…other things.”

It was an odd moment. A brief burst of humanity from something that had, in St. Cyprian’s opinion, long ago given up any right to call itself such. Then the moment passed and the ground bucked and shuddered that for a moment, it seemed as if No. 427 were going to collapse down upon them like a house of cards. The whistle had become piercing, and the sound was a spike of agony driven into their brains. The noise was not simply loud, but wrong. It was a noise not meant to be heard by anything living on the earth then and there. The rumbling from below had taken on the thunderous regularity of a giant’s tread, where before it had been the battering of some vast beast at a door.

“I saw it, back in the past, a great well of stone and beneath it, a cosmic nightmare,” Drood said, his voice dull. “I saw it and calculated and knew that it was here, where the Thames would soon run, where the Embankment would be built, all of that resting on the back of an abomination. It took eons for it to awaken again, but I knew, I watched through the crystal as it awoke and ravened through London, invisible and unstoppable, and I knew that there was nothing for it but to go back, to find where it came from and then see that that deep well was never unguarded, at any point in time. Brunel almost awoke it, with his digging in the deep dark; others as well. But I stopped them all, striding through time, defending the Empire at every point in its life from this moment, and now here I am again and this time—this time!—it will end. They will kill it, and they will seal its hole with their signs and ancient mathematics and it will be dead and forever asleep!” His voice rose in pitch as more dust showered down and then, there was no time for any further words as something vast and loathsome squeezed into the world all at once, from a thousand directions.

It was only partly material and exhibited a monstrous plasticity. It exuded from every corner and crack all at once, as if the solid matter of the world was as mist, and it bulled through it with inexorable surety. Even illuminated by their torches, it was only partially visible, becoming by turns wispy and horribly thick, like a paste being squeezed through a tube of varying width. As its tendrils brushed the chalked walls, it became horribly solid and it shrieked in frustration.

The whistle had spread with its arrival, becoming a series of sounds—curses, perhaps—that battered at them. Half-visible eyes, alight with monstrous intelligence and cruel cunning, glared at them even as it groped for them. It had been trapped for millennia, and though it was as far from a beast as it was from a man, St. Cyprian recognized its hunger easily enough.

In the striated lights of the torches, they fought. Gallowglass’ Webley boomed, and Cold’s automatic provided accompaniment. St. Cyprian stood close to Drood, who had lifted the crystal and was chanting, his ragged voice spitting strange formulas. Glistening tendrils stretched towards the latter like spilled oil and St. Cyprian set himself and swept his sword out. The impact of blade on alien flesh nearly shook his arm from the socket but he did it again and again, hacking at the unceasing tide of half-seen psuedopods as they sought to snuff the light growing from the crystal.

More and more of the thing forced itself into the deep cellar, its deep croaking rumble of a voice tearing at their ears. Through the nest of writhing tendrils, St. Cyprian saw Gallowglass turn sharply, avoiding a thrusting tentacle as she cracked the Webley open, ejected the spent shells and re-loaded as quickly as she could. He shouted a warning as a flurry of questing tendrils bristled towards her and she left the Webley open to draw the derringer from her pocket. The little pistol spat and then the Webley was twitched shut and she slid back, firing.

An empty clip dropped from Cold’s automatic and he stepped back as tendrils undulated towards him. Even as he slapped a new one in, the tendrils pierced the waxy skin of his face and punched through his chest and leg. Cold jerked, not in pain, but simply in an effort to pull loose. The skin of his face ripped and tore and St. Cyprian saw what lay beneath, just for a moment, and a thrill of nausea pulsed through him. Then Cold was free, the automatic was reloaded, and he was firing.

The gunfire did nothing to harm the entity as far as St. Cyprian could see. Tendrils burst and reformed like water. But it was keeping it occupied. And that was all they needed to do. A tendril skidded across his arm and a burst of red-hot pain shivered through him. His torch fell, the light spinning, catching writhing tendrils with every turn. He staggered, flailing at the tendrils awkwardly. More homed in on him, drawn like sharks to the blood. His legs were yanked out from under him and then he was being dragged across the smooth stone towards the ever-shifting bulk of the thing where it massed in one corner of the cellar, growing and spreading like mould. He lost hold of his sword as teeth without mouths gnawed on his arms and legs.

A hand fastened on his collar and halted him. He looked up to see Gallowglass, who dropped the Webley on his chest. “Shoot the bloody thing,” she yelled. St. Cyprian struggled to raise the pistol with his bloody hands. Gallowglass looked equally bad, and her jacket was in rags and she’d lost her cap somewhere. A tendril left a red weal on her cheek as she fought to drag St. Cyprian back. He fumbled the revolver up and fired blindly into the suddenly visible anemone-maw of threshing teeth.

Suddenly, there was light. And not just light, but heat and a smell, like a garbage scow in summer or a humid jungle. The tendrils retreated and the whole polypus mass began to shudder and thrash like an animal caught in a trap. Its whistling voice rose in pitch. Drood stepped after the retreating tendrils, holding the crystal up in one hand, and his other held a battered, corroded looking stone. Gallowglass helped St. Cyprian to his feet. The world had gone soft around them, and now the cellar was like a thin muslin curtain and another world—another time, pressed close about it. Alien shapes moved dimly through Cambrian fog, clutching bulky tools. A foul-smelling mist clutched at their feet and it burned their flesh and lungs.

“Out we go,” Drood said. He glanced back at St. Cyprian and said, “I’m sorry about Thomas.” There was an ache in his eyes. An eternity of horror was contained in his frail frame. Edwin Drood had lived a dozen lifetimes on the Dho Curve, running through time in a week that never ended. He was dying, his death played out across untold millennia, but in dying, determined to do his duty.

And then, in one moment of thunderous silence, the crystal flashed once more. When the light faded, Drood was gone, and the thing with him, leaving behind only the faintest odour of ancient eons to mark the memory of them. The cellar had settled; perhaps even rearranged itself somehow. Even the chalk marks were gone, scoured from the walls by whatever force had ripped Drood and the nightmare polyp out of the present and sent them hurtling into the past.

“What happened?” Gallowglass said quietly, one arm wrapped around her ribs. She was hollow-eyed and pale and snatched her Webley when St. Cyprian handed it back. She clutched the revolver like a talisman.

St. Cyprian didn’t reply. He limped towards the far wall. It had been covered in spider-webbed cracks before, when the thing had emerged. Now it was solid again. Everything was solid.

“It sleeps,” Cold said, holding his torn cheek shut. “It is dead and sleeping. As it should be.” He looked none the worse for wear, despite his many wounds.

“What does that mean?” Gallowglass demanded.

“It means that Sir Edwin Drood has done his duty,” St. Cyprian said, bloody hand pressed to the wall. “Even as he has always done it, and always will do it, for God, Queen and Country.”

JReynoldsJosh Reynolds is a professional freelance writer whose work has appeared in such anthologies as Historical Lovecraft, Steampunk Cthulhu and World War Cthulhu. He has also contributed to a number of media tie-in fiction lines, including Games Workshop’s Warhammer and Warhammer 40,000 lines, as well as Gold Eagle’s Executioner line.

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

Story illustration by Raven Daegmorgan.

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2 responses to “The Pnakotic Puzzle, by Josh Reynolds

  1. Another piece to the puzzle that is St. Cyprian’s world, and with every piece comes more questions and the potential for more stories. Keep writing them Josh, we’re always going to want more.

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