Yes, he had gobbled the stuff with the heedless greed of a child turned loose in a chocolate shop, one who has not yet learned that his forbidden treats will up-end his belly and make his face turn green and waxy as unripened gooseberries. Except instead of sugary smears of fruit crèmes, it was the fungal gravy of the leathery, desiccated things steeped in the best port to be found in Obadiah’s cabinet that had stained Edward’s gluttonous face. Marinating those scabrous chunks in costly fortified wine had been a necessity rather than a nicety: they were noisome things indeed, and even the unctuous beverage could not mask their overpowering taste, which was ancient earth and indescribable putrescence in equal measure. And chewing was vital, the Interlocutor had said; they were to be masticated until they were the consistency of gruel. So he had knocked back that reeking draft, and he had chewed, and he had gagged, and retching he had swallowed the gritty paste all down, and the guinea’s worth of port had been the very least of the prices paid that night. And still, even now as then, was it yet too much to hope that that most precarious of gambles might indeed pay off?
Dreams, Edward had discovered to his dismay, were not the preserve of Scientists.
Dreams were the preserve of shamans, of warlocks, of cunning-women, of soothsayers, thaumaturges and most of all the witch-folk. These were the ones who had walked the shifting paths between here and the Beyond, and had set down their experiences in sculpture and in song long before the Mission had decimated their wisdom and sneered at its remains, had eviscerated once-noble beasts and stuffed their empty hides with crumpled journal pages. And so in the absence of the voices themselves it was to their echoes that Edward had turned. He had done so covertly, of course, for he knew from experience that the Masters would never have admitted the seepage of the arcane into Science. In the minutes and hours shaved deftly from his time amongst the buzzing generators and belching vats of the University laboratories, Edward became a frequenter of museums, a peruser of anthropological collections, and a lingerer in the less-trodden aisles of libraries. Secreted amongst those shelves and cabinets, he had read that which he was permitted to read, yet was forbidden from understanding – and soon enough Edward had become an incognito esotericist.
an unfamiliar discipline
Obadiah grinned broadly, exposing his array of large teeth. It was not a friendly grin. ‘The field of our study is broad and eclectic, Minister Dirth, and I doubt that its substance could comfortably or accurately be likened to any discipline with which a fellow such as yourself would be familiar – our interests encompass both the empirical and the esoteric, you see. Suffice it to say that that the ignorant might refer to the business as occult. Myself, I see this as a crude and ill-fitting term. I far prefer arcane. Hence Arcanology, of course.’
Naught’s queer chuckles were subsiding. ‘But we have grown out of such things, Doctor Carnaby,’ he said. ‘More’s the pity. Why, we are enlightened!’
At this, Obadiah wheeled on their host. ‘We have forgotten, Lord Naught. Oh, we may believe ourselves enlightened. What progress we have made, we say! We have civilised the world, caused manufactories to be built in every city! The miracle of elyctricity is set to transform our very civilisation from its roots to its most distant branches. And for how long has the Empire ruled this globe? Five hundred years? So much achieved, in so short a span of time! And yet there are any number of cultures – I need not list them to a knowledgeable man such as your good self, I am sure – who owned this globe before us. And some for ten, twenty times the length of our own short reign. The Imperial Archæological Mission has proved it. Beyond doubt. And if the finest minds of a culture ten thousand years wise believed in an incorporeal realm – believed that they could understand it, interact with it, then who are you or I to say otherwise?’
‘A lovely idea, Carnaby, sighed Naught, ‘but would you then care to explain to me exactly why every one of our learned men carry the exact opposite opinion to your own?’
‘Good evening, gentlemen!’
It was Naught, of course. He stood at the door, dressed in a voluminous jacket of fine orang-utan hide and twirling a black cheroot. He was carrying a large hamper.
‘Good eve– ’ began Edward, but Naught flounced past him in a fug of cheroot smoke and trailing wisps of auburn hair and made straight for the place where Obadiah stood.
‘Lord Naught, please!’ The cry was as close to panicked as Edward ever hoped to hear from the Doctor’s throat. He was prising Naught away from the canister, which had come very close to assuming a second role as an ashtray thanks to their host’s incautious curiosity.
Naught shooed Obadiah off and planted his hands on his hips, surveying the basement. ‘Heavens!’ he cooed, taking in the spectacle of the outlandish machinery. ‘Never have I seen such a contraption as this!’ He began to strut around the floor, peering intently at the unfamiliar devices. ‘So this is it, then? Your necromancing machine?’
Edward slipped his hand into his waistcoat and drew out the phial. He held it up before Naught’s face. The sticky, yellowish crystals inside glinted dully in the lamplight.
‘A drug?’ asked Naught.
‘A substance,’ Edward said. ‘One might call it a drug. That very much depends upon how it is used.’
Naught stood up and began patting his pockets. ‘I have a pipe here somewhere...’
Edward took a step backwards. ‘Lord Naught, no!’
‘Eh? A syringe, then?’
‘This substance is incredibly precious,’ Edward was clutching the dote closely to his chest. ‘If another granule of this substance exists anywhere in the Empire then I would be – well, let us just say that another granule of this substance does not exist. I... I went to some lengths to procure it.’
‘Think now, gentlemen, of your great good fortune. Think now of the blessing that is yours – the blessing which you cannot understand. For it is a blessing, though you know it not. Gods, how I have prayed for ignorance as peaceful, as sublime as your own! But once it is gone, it cannot be reclaimed. And yet you seek its annihilation.
‘For is that not why you have summoned me here – because you wish to know? You cannot possibly conceive what a gift, what a liberty it is to not know of such things as I saw then. Such frightful things! Oh, that their image could only be erased from my poisoned memory – what a mercy that would be! But it is indelible. It is a stain that cannot ever be wiped from the soul. And you – you desire to befoul your own, tranquil minds with the unclean image of galactic blasphemy that I witnessed then? Ha! Think yourselves lucky that it is beyond my power to speak of them – that it is beyond the means of mere language to convey even the vaguest impression of those things! Gods, I pray that human speech shall never be required to engender such words as would define their vile and repellent form! There should not be words for such awful violations of the sanctity of life. For never in the whole of eternity could an earthly crucible forge such abominations as them.'
Obadiah wore an expression of supreme absorption upon his face. He walked slowly around his machine, here pausing to give a brass key a half-turn, here testing the tension of a wire, and there sliding a switch to its alternate position – then back again after a moment’s reflexion. Power was already flowing through the intricate latticework of wires that composed the machine’s inner matrix, and it resonated with a sound that was somewhere between the singing of a wineglass and the sighing of the wind.
Edward moved away from the window. The moonlight slanting through the opening lit his pale face a ghostly shade of blue.
‘I believe it is time,’ he said as he set down the telescope-like device through which he had just been peering. ‘According to this,’ – he nudged the implement – ‘we have just less than fifteen minutes.’
‘Good,’ nodded Obadiah, pulling at his moustache in an agitated manner. ‘Very good. Very good indeed.’
‘Shall I?’ asked Edward.
‘By all means, my boy. Let us begin!’
a familiar place
A dream. Yes, that was it. He was having one of his special dreams.
The all-pervading whine of his arrival had fallen to a throbbing hum, and as the vibration in his being slowed the haze was beginning to clear from his eyes. The redness remained, resolving itself molecule by molecule into the familiar frigid wasteland of rust. Now he was fully here, and he remembered all. There would be no waking until it was over, no matter how many eternities it took for Them to teach him. As this realisation dawned upon him, something comprised of fear and anticipation and infinity fluttered and bubbled inside his core, sending its blackened silver tendrils snaking through his guts and bones. He noticed that he was crying, and he did not know why – like so many other things it simply happened when he was here – but he hoped that They would not hurt him too badly when They did the beautiful things to him this time.
And yet Edward could not drive away the thought that had begun to harry at his mind – what if the Doctor intended to turn informer on him – to report his actions to the authorities? Dire consequences would surely ensue. The Medical School was teeming with an abundance of cold flesh, but the contents of the morgue were reserved for medical research only, and categorically not available to further the unwholesome dabbling of two eccentrics, even should one of them happen to be the esteemed Doctor Obadiah Carnaby. Thus their cerebral tinkerings were unlicensed, and what’s more they had hardly come upon their specimens by conventional means. Edward, his back, and his long-suffering nostrils had all been hugely relieved when Obadiah had happened upon his new source of cadaverous materials and they had been able to put aside the lantern and shovel. But what if the Doctor’s feet had become permeated with the chill of the grave? Could it truly be possible that he intended to sell out his friend and thenceforth warm those frozen appendages before conventional academia’s cosy fires? Edward watched the tall, black-suited figure of Obadiah striding along with an almost military gait, his cane cracking a beat upon the cobbles, and told himself for the moment that such treachery seemed unlikely. Such a man would surely not betray both his own principles and his loyal friend.
Agetta had a black eye. In fact it was less black than livid purple with whorls of yellowish-green, but that was still what you called it anyway. Master Flintwick would probably have given her two if it hadn’t been for the Dæmon Missus – but then, she would have deserved both of them twice over after what she’d done. And if Lord Naught and the Dæmon Missus hadn’t turned up right at that moment then she probably would have got them, too. But Lord Naught had burst into the dining room and told Master Flintwick to forget about the whelp because there were more important things to attend to now, and he had, which was lucky. So Agetta had decided that she would like the Dæmon Missus, even if nobody else did.
The people of the House were familiar (if perhaps not entirely comfortable) with the grotesque countenance of its master, and they were of course quite accustomed to the outlandish assortment of visitors that passed through its gloomy halls trailing robes and jewels and the mottled furs of nameless animals. The butlers and the serving-girls had even grown to tolerate the ways of the men from Hingham and the tang of mystery that surrounded them, that fog of weirdness that had spread its creeping tendrils through the winding corridors and the vaulted chambers of the House. But it was when the Dæmon Missus began to walk among them that they became afraid.
‘There they are, ma’am.’
‘Yes, Silas, I can see them. Take me closer.’
Silas advanced the Viscountess’s chair along the veranda, and before them the crowd parted apprehensively. Surprised exclamations behind the pair were swiftly hushed. They reached the balcony at the end of the walkway and Silas loomed behind the Viscountess with his hands upon her shoulders. The crowd did not close in again around them, apparently deciding that this was not such a delightful spot after all.
In the courtyard below, a group of people were gathered around Lord Naught and what appeared, from the veranda, to be a violet-haired lady.
‘Pass me the glasses, Silas,’ ordered Viscountess Aspic.
Silas passed her the glasses.
The Viscountess peered through the eyepieces for a long time. Had anyone been close enough to see, they might have noticed that her mouth was agape. After several minutes she dropped the glasses into her lap and sat wringing her hands and breathing heavily.
Silas cleared his throat, a rumbling sound of the kind that might be made by a large, predatory beast. ‘Are you alright, ma’am?’ he asked.
‘Oh, yes,’ she replied breathlessly. ‘I had not realised quite how beautiful they were, that is all. I had not imagined… Oh, such beauty! Now I realise why they are the favoured ones! Such a divine thing! If ever something existed to convince me of the worthiness of our calling then she is it! All doubt is gone. It is burned in her flame!’
‘I’ll show you!’ the Doctor bellowed, fumbling with the pistol.
Edward flung his arms around the motionless Eele and dragged her down out of the line of fire. With bleeding fingers, he brushed splinters of glass from her shoulders. Miraculously, she seemed unharmed. Above the cacophony of pounding hooves and grinding wheels he heard the screaming of the horses and the furious roar of the motor-car’s engine. His heart hammering against his ribs, he raised his head once more. Surreally, a black-clad figure hovered feet from the window, teeth bared in the moonlight and cape snapping in the wind like some vampiric fiend from a penny dreadful. He loomed closer and drifted away again as the charging vehicles jostled for position.
Obadiah levelled his weapon.