By Erik McHatton
From the May 2021 issue of CHM
Steadily dripping onto the front porch of White Manor, Dr. Jonah Wexley Abbott was strongly regretting many life choices. Squinting impatiently into the soaked darkness past the porch’s railing, he attempted to scan the length of the house, searching for movement within. Finding he could see nothing past the pustulant glob of gaslight cast by the lantern overhead, Jonah rubbed his temples and let out a frustrated sigh. He had a head full of cotton and his throat was still soaked with the sour tang of old mash and while the October rain had done much to sober him, he could still feel the velvet pull of the whiskey behind his eyes. Shaking his head in an effort to beat back unconsciousness, he quietly recited a familiar affirmation of future clean living and lifted his hand to knock again on the large front door.
Normally not considered an ungodly hour by most devout drinkers, this particular three-in-the-morning had found Jonah snoring away the effects of an early afternoon bout with the bottle. As always, Jonah had thrown the fight early and collapsed in a dingy heap on his office sofa hoping not to be disturbed until tomorrow. When tomorrow came, however, heralded by the splitting sound of his ringing phone, he was completely unprepared for its arrival. As if ashamed of its intrusiveness, tomorrow had brought with it several presents for him to open, and if his throbbing head, soggy clothes and tired eyes were examples of its generosity, Jonah doubted he would enjoy any further unwrapping. He’d often found that tomorrows gave lousy gifts.
Shifting back and forth in his wet loafers he took some pleasure in the disgusting sound they made, like churning squashed bugs. Smiling in spite of himself, Jonah decided to focus on just what he was going to say to Gretchen when he saw her. Her audacity had been a problem before, but this latest stunt was unheard of. Having not received word in nearly half a year, Jonah had expected that when the occasion finally did come it would have at least been at a more reasonable time of day.
Before once again working himself up, however, he resolved to err on the side of professionalism and remain calm in the face of his grievances. After all, it was possible this early morning summons amounted to an actual emergency, and if it was of the type that required his expertise then he would assuredly need a cool head, no matter how much it was pounding. He did allow himself one final buffet on the door to vent any lingering hostility.
As if recoiling from his blows, the door flew open and a rush of torrid air hit Jonah squarely in the face. Inside, the foyer was distorted, like a reflection on the surface of a soap bubble. The wavy heat watered Jonah’s eyes instantly causing him to flinch, and blink furiously. Once his senses acclimated he was met by the stark form of White Manor’s butler, Wilfred Holmes. Tall and lithe, Holmes was a serious man that reminded Jonah of a mortician or possibly a fallen priest. Now, however, his sallow, sagging skin and sunken eyes gave him more the look of a grizzled old dog.
“Good evening Dr. Abbott. I apologize again for the dreadful conditions and, of course, for your wait at the door,” said Holmes, beckoning Jonah inside. “Come in, and please allow me to take your wet garments. I’ll see to them and fetch you something warm and dry from the late Mr. White’s bureau. I believe he was about your size.”
The thought of wearing a dead man’s clothes gave Jonah slight pause, but he was too tired and miserable to argue the point and forcefully sloughed off his sodden outer layer with a grunt. Favoring Holmes with a half-hearted “thank you,” he watched the butler hurry away before adjourning to the adjacent den.
Plopping down into one of the dusty, overstuffed armchairs in front of the fire, Jonah closed his eyes and leaned into the radiating heat. Flooding his nose with singed air, he gave a comfortable sigh. It didn’t take long for his eyelids to turn to lead as the echo of sleep’s delicate dirge began reverberating in the back of his mind. Snapping his eyes open he searched the room for distraction. Above the fireplace he found it.
Striving to appear every bit the variety of New England upper crust expected of his family, Alastor White had been a collector of high society’s most obvious and clichéd relics. Never feeling like he had the respect of his peers he opted instead to let the comforts of wealth abide his ego. The den was littered with evidence of his monetary vanity but nothing captured the repulsiveness of his ostentation more than the painting that crested the mantel.
Most likely originating from the estate of some long forgotten European lord, the piece was ill-sized for the small space in which it had been placed. Gangling past the edges of the mantelpiece, the monstrosity seemed to hover over the room like a floating portal into a bizarre dreamscape.
Traditionally a more benign scene, this tableau of men and dogs hunting had always filled Jonah with dread. The men and their charges loomed like spectres across a dark hill in the background, their eyes flashing like drawn steel, while the foreground was littered with terrified foxes tearing through the rushes. The sheer panic captured in the creatures’ faces never failed to catch Jonah’s breath in his throat. It was the wild-eyed look of the damned.
Utterly engrossed, he nearly leapt from his seat when Holmes’ baritone sounded out, breaking his ensorcellment.
“Here you are, Dr. Abbott,” said Holmes handing him a plush robe and slippers, “I’ve brought fresh coffee as well.”
Gracing the butler with a wan smile Jonah slipped into the dry clothes and dutifully took the proffered cup and saucer. He waited for Holmes to sit down in the chair opposite before speaking.
“As much as I appreciate the hospitality, Holmes, I’d really like to know why I’m here, if you don’t mind,” said Jonah, sitting back down and taking a long pull of the rich coffee.
Easing himself onto the edge of his chair and leaning forward, Holmes fixed Jonah with a grave look.
“I can’t really say sir. After your students left, she instructed me to…”
“Wait,” Jonah interrupted. “My students were here? Tonight?”
“Yes sir,” replied Holmes, his frown deepening. “I take it you didn’t know.”
“No, I didn’t, but go on,” snorted Jonah.
“As I was saying, she waited until they took their leave and then asked that I call you. I was to tell you only that the business was both urgent and work related and nothing more. Not even that…” Holmes trailed off and his face became uncharacteristically distressed, turning a light shade of crimson.
“Not even what, Holmes?” said Jonah, straightening in his chair, his displeasure dissolving into curious anxiety. He’d known Holmes for over a decade and had never seen his stern decorum shaken so thoroughly. Even when he’d sat in on meetings between Jonah and Gretchen that had devolved to screaming matches, or worse still, the ones that didn’t. Even at those meetings, they spoke plainly of things others might only voice through whisper or not even mention at all. The man’s resolve had never wavered, yet now he seemed jolted to his core. It was enough to make Jonah shiver, despite the thick robe.
“Not even…that she is dying, Dr. Abbott. Not even that terrible fact,” blurted Holmes, reaching into his breast pocket for a handkerchief.
“Dying?” said Jonah, mystified. “Of what?”
“Cancer, I’m afraid. She was first diagnosed about six months ago. It was shortly after that your students began coming to the house. I had assumed that you knew about her health and had sent them to assist her, that your lengthy absence was due to your search for a mystical cure of some kind. I didn’t know until this evening that the widow had not informed you of her ailment. She didn’t tell me. She said you didn’t need to know before now. That you would only have ‘gotten in the way,’ whatever that means,” said Holmes, dabbing his eyes.
“What has she been up to, I wonder,” thought Jonah aloud, before standing and clapping the butler on the back. “Why don’t we just go ask her ourselves? Shall we?”
Standing as well, Holmes replaced the handkerchief, cleared his throat and straightened his waistcoat.
“Of course, sir. If you’re ready, sir.”
“Lead the way,” said Jonah, waving his hand dramatically toward the doorway.
Following Holmes through the foyer and up the stairs, Jonah couldn’t help but notice the state of disrepair the house had come under. Having crowned Whitecroft Hill since the time of the nation’s independence, the house was certainly old, but had always been well maintained. Being one of the first American dynasties to wrest great wealth from the untamed woodlands of the north, the White family had always made sure to keep their grand estate in top form. They saw themselves as Massachusetts royalty and anything short of stately simply would not do for their manor.
Royalty, however, requires a bloodline and this was something that Alastor and Gretchen found tragically unattainable. Being too proud to adopt, no heir existed to see to things and with Alastor in his late eighties at the time of his death, and Gretchen being nearly there herself, the upkeep of the estate had long ago fallen on Holmes and the rest of the help.
When most of the money dried up due to a combination of Alastor’s bad investments and Gretchen’s obsession with supernatural research, the help dried up as well. Wilfred, even at a solid sixty-five, proved no match for the many daunting needs of the palatial beast.
He’d tried his best, at first, but eventually Holmes gave up the ghost and began focusing on making Gretchen as comfortable as he could in a small section of the house. The rest he surrendered to dilapidation. Jonah almost felt sorry for the willowy old hound before remembering that upon Gretchen’s death the estate was to be liquidated with everything split evenly between Holmes and an endowment for the university. Even in its current state the house and the land it sat upon would be worth millions and would provide Holmes with more than enough reward for his dogged dedication.
Reaching the third floor, Jonah stared down the long hallway at the two enormous doors that led to the widow’s chambers. As he moved toward them, his stomach tightened. His head swam and he imagined the doors as a giant maw, waiting to swallow anyone foolhardy enough to approach them. A faint feeling of doom washed over him and being mixed with considerable weariness, caused him to lean heavily on the oak wainscoting just outside the bedroom.
“Are you all right, Dr. Abbott?” inquired Holmes, reaching out to him.
Swatting the butler’s hand away wordlessly, Jonah took a moment to collect his frayed wits. He took a deep breath and steadied himself then turned to face the old man.
“Sorry. I just got a little overwhelmed. I’m all right now,” he said, turning back to face the doors.
“Of course,” said Holmes as he opened them, giving Jonah his first look at the dying Widow White.
She looked old. Not the type of old one earns at the end of a long and fruitful life, but old like rusted metal, blighted by rot. Her wasted arms, folded across her stomach with funereal grace, were sporadically stained by deep purple bruises. Propped up by two plush pillows, her shriveled head nestled in a shock of white straw hair. Under dark lids, her closed eyes floated in pools of shadow; fleshy orbs twitching at pained dreaming. Thin lips rattled her equally thin chest with struggled wheezes, filling the aseptic air with desperate gasps. It was almost more than Jonah could take.
Standing dumbstruck in the doorway, it took him several moments to find the legs beneath him. Upon finding them he attempted to move as quietly as possible to the bedside while dragging a chair over from the nearby vanity.
Sitting down, he leaned forward and stared at the widow for several moments, attempting to attune himself to this new reality. Absentmindedly, he began stroking his mustache, a nervous habit he’d picked up in college stressing over exams.
“I know you’re sitting there stroking your whiskers at me. I could smell the liquor on your breath before you got to the top of the stairs,” said the widow, startling Jonah upright and sending his hand quickly away from his face.
“I didn’t want to wake you,” said Jonah, turning away as Gretchen opened her eyes and tried to sit up in the bed. Holmes rushed to her side but she smacked him away.
“Nonsense. I brought you here to talk about something important. I’d imagine I’d have to be awake for such a conversation, wouldn’t you, Professor?” sneered the widow, condescension dripping from the corners of her mouth. Bristling, Jonah was reminded of who he was dealing with, illness or not. He proceeded accordingly.
“Okay then Gretchen. What am I here to talk about?”
“That’s the spirit my boy! Now that we have that out of the way, a question, have you ever heard the name Augustus Rayburn?” The widow’s milky eyes gleamed.
“As a matter of fact, yes I have. An acquaintance of mine mentioned this case to me a few months back, thought I might be interested in looking into it. Rayburn was a ship’s captain, brought back by his crew from an arctic voyage raving like a lunatic. They swore he’d made some kind of pact with a demon or some such nonsense after their ship had become lodged in ice. Claimed it had given him the knowledge to free the ship but had also driven him insane. That sound about right?” said Jonah, sitting back and steepling his fingers arrogantly.
“Was that acquaintance Hunter Foley?”
“Yes… You haven’t been dealing with that charlatan have you? I turned him away for a reason. He’s a useless toad who does reckless, slipshod research and you should know better than to—” Jonah exclaimed, his face turning pink. The widow interrupted.
“Calm down, you blowhard. I sought him out myself, not the other way ‘round. I was the one who told him about Rayburn in the first place. If he’d brought the story to you, I suspect he was merely trying to get you to do his work for him. I stumbled upon Rayburn’s journal in one of the curiosity auctions I take part in. I only hired Hunter to authenticate it. What he found in the process is what I brought you here to discuss.”
Jonah calmed himself, duly rebuked and intrigued. “What did he find, then?”
“Rayburn,” said the widow, smiling. “Alive!”
“Ridiculous. Rayburn’s been dead for over a century. I checked into it. He died in the fire that burned down the old nut house in Kingsport where his family lived.”
“Wrong. Rayburn was reported dead following the fire, but his body was never recovered. His family buried an empty coffin. I instructed Hunter to look to other asylums in the area, thinking that he might have wandered away during the confusion and gotten picked up by another hospital. I was only looking for records since none survived in Kingsport. At the state hospital in Danvers, however, we found more than I ever could have hoped for.
“A janitor who overheard the Danvers director give Hunter the run-around pulled him aside as he was leaving the hospital. After considerable compensation he told him about a patient that was kept in isolation that none of the staff would talk about. The rumor was that the patient had been in the hospital for decades with no family, not even a name. With a few well-placed phone calls to some of the hospital’s most generous donors and several severe promises of discretion, I was able to get Hunter access.
“He took photos and made copies of the hospital’s records. Suffice it to say, based on the evidence, we both believe that the madman he spoke to that day is indeed Augustus Rayburn, former captain of the Mary Margaret,” said the widow, reaching under her nightstand and dragging out a cardboard box. “And this should be all the proof you need.”
Picking up the box, Jonah carefully removed the lid and looked inside. There was the journal, photos both new and seemingly ancient, and a stack of administrative folders full of yellowed, typewritten pages. Jonah laid it all out on the bed in front of him.
He started with the pictures. The oldest of them, dated some hundred years prior, was a studio style portrait depicting a gruff, but dapper man alongside a young, ethereal woman in white. A wedding photo to be sure. Written on the back in rough strokes were the names “A. Rayburn” and “J. Rayburn.” Second oldest was an intake photo from Danvers. Rayburn’s face was slack, held still by a coarse hand erupting from hospital whites. He bore an unsettling, glassy stare that appeared fixated upon something well past the camera. Neither of these struck him as particularly remarkable, but the most recent photos, taken only weeks ago, raised every hair on the back of Jonah’s neck. It showed a man lying in repose inside a filthy padded room. Mired in the same grime that covered the walls, his face was difficult to decipher, but the eyes were exact. As if the intervening century did not exist, all the photos appeared to contain the same man, the same unchanged face. Remarkable.
The folders were next. The tale they told was one of greed, apathy and horror.
After being processed into the facility under the placeholder Richard Roe, Rayburn’s initial few months were uneventful. His demeanor was peaceful and his behavior, while typical for a raving lunatic, was nothing too difficult to handle. He followed instructions, was never violent and kept mostly to himself. His only vice seemed to be answering inquiries from staff and other patients in unsettling, riddlesome phrases. This all changed, however, following his first, and only, experience with a unique form of hydrotherapy.
The administrator of the procedure, a Dr. Ernst Melville, believed that exposing patients to near freezing temperatures would shock their systems into a curative state, purging them of their toxic insanity. Melville had taken a particular interest in Rayburn and became convinced that curing him was the key to validating his experimental treatment.
Wearing rubber diving suits lined with seal fat (of the doctor’s own design), Melville and two nurses transported Rayburn to a remote bank of the Ipswich River at the peak of winter, and carried the near nude man into the icy runnel, dunking him under. His reaction to this was both swift and savage. Bellowing incoherently, Rayburn burst from beneath the water, clawing and biting at the nurses that held him, and when they let go in surprise, he turned his attention to the doctor. Melville lost an eye and most of his right hand before they could subdue the madman. A clean bite and prompt spit into the frozen froth were all that saved the physician’s fingers.
Following this event Rayburn was confined to a solitary room and labeled a “malcontent.” He now ravened habitually, throwing himself against the walls of his cell day and night, repeating words and phrases that belonged to no known language. He attempted to attack anyone that interacted with him and during one particularly violent exchange, fell awkwardly on his head and wrenched his neck grotesquely to one side. Hence, the discovery of his apparent immortality.
What followed was year upon year of ruthless experimentation done under abiding secrecy. At that time, as a ward of the state, Rayburn was at the mercy of his attendant professional and Melville maintained a ghoulish grip upon him. Over the next two decades he was subjected to the terrible depths of the doctor’s ever more depraved imaginings. Flayings, breakings, burnings, starvation, dehydration; in the name of science Melville twisted and tortured the former captain ceaselessly and recorded it all in chillingly clinical language. Rayburn survived everything.
Eventually this period of inhumanity ended, abruptly. An internal report alluded to an unfortunate incident during one of Rayburn’s “intensive therapy sessions” with Dr. Melville. While no details were given as to the nature of this event, Rayburn was recategorized as “unstable” and moved to a remote wing of the hospital. At the recommendation of staff members, he was placed under constant restraint and only sparsely monitored. His records were sealed and classified as “Administration Only.”
Hunter had affixed to the report a photocopy of an obituary whose headline read “Local Physician Laid to Rest.” A picture with the caption “Dr. E. Melville” was accompanied by a short, boilerplate article. The funeral was family only and closed casket.
Then, there was nearly nothing. Since it was known that Rayburn needed neither food nor drink, none was provided. Since he took no sustenance, he produced no waste so there was no need for him or his cell to be cleaned. From then on, his presence in the facility was only mentioned in the yearly audit where, for the purposes of state funding, he was counted, though few of the appropriated funds ever made their way into his care. He was left alone for the better part of a century in a padded tomb, a living monument to man’s capacity for cruel indifference.
Disgusted, Jonah thrust the last folder into the box with a grunt and reached for the journal. An ornate compass had been burned into the cracked cover and the book was wrapped with a brittle, leather thong that held it loosely together. An ornamental anchor hung from the end of the binding, pendulous and vaguely foreboding. Delicately unwrapping the thing, Jonah was assailed by the acrid, musty scent of red rot. The rifled pages spewed the smell directly into his face and he sneezed loudly, much to Holmes’ chagrin. The butler favored him with a grimace and terse movement of the head toward the widow, Jonah shrugged in response before bringing his attention back to the dusty tome.
Inside the front cover, in faded ink, was the inscription “From Josephine” accompanied by a simple, delicate drawing of a flower. Jonah lingered on the words for a moment, running his thumb across them slowly before moving on.
The journal was nearly illegible. Age, improper care, and poor penmanship had conspired to ensure the record held onto its secrets. Luckily for Jonah, he’d spent a postgraduate year cataloging the antiquarian texts of Professor Karl Unkirch, whose poor pencraft was legendary, therefore an ancient seafarer’s chicken scratch would prove no challenge at all.
The book was primarily made up of entries from Rayburn’s last journey, a foray into the frozen waters of the Northwest Passage, near Baffin Island. It was here that his ship was swallowed by the greedy ice that ruled the region. He and his men, hearty sea-dogs to the last, tried valiantly for over a week to free the craft, but freezing gales abutted the pack ice to create an insurmountable hyperborean blockade. When food supplies ran low and morale followed close behind, Rayburn became desperate. The ghosts of both the Erebus and the Terror haunted his dreams. The dread of joining with those ill-fated warships pushed him near to mania.
Serendipitously, at this critical time, the group was visited by a small delegation from an inuit tribe who hailed from a nearby island. Speaking remarkably good English, they seemed eager to please and traded fairly with the men, so when they offered to help with their plight, Rayburn readily accepted. They claimed the ability to grant him the knowledge necessary to free his ship, but at great cost. When he assured them he would pay any price in exchange for the lives of his crew, the tribesmen agreed to take him, and him alone, to their village, insisting that the secrets they would reveal were for his eyes alone. Leaving his first mate in charge, Rayburn took all the gold he’d received in payment for the voyage and set out with the inuit across the frozen sea.
Here, the journal was missing several pages. The torn, uneven remnants of those missing leaves were marred by dark, erratic marks left not by ink, but grease pencil, the use of which was sometimes favored by cartographers working under saturate conditions. Following this curiosity was a final log entry, left by First Mate Atticus Fields on the day before the Mary Margaret’s homecoming, wherein he describes the events following Rayburn’s return from his inuit expedition.
Wrapped in thick fur, under which he was nude, their captain was spied in the early morning, some three days after venturing forth, alone and shuffling in the algid terrain some distance from the ship. Upon retrieval, he was found clutching his journal to his chest, which now contained several hastily drawn sketches intricately delineating the manner with which the ship could be extracted from the sea’s wintry clutch. Although finely detailed, Fields noted how the alien schematics, along with their captain’s near catatonic state, inflamed the crew’s standard, but substantial superstitions. Strange symbols of arcana supplemented the pictographic instructions along with one word scrawled again and again in the empty spaces. Xoathathum. The same and singular word Rayburn repeated ad nauseum throughout their excursion back to sane civilization.
After gaining their freedom, the crew burned the sinister scrawlings. Rayburn was locked in his cabin and Atticus assumed command.
A glitter of recognition flashed annoyingly in Jonah’s mind. Xoathathum. The word scratched at a cold, fearful place inside him. He placed the journal back into the box, his face the picture of perplexation. He then reached for his mustache again before catching himself. He opted instead to run a hand awkwardly through his unkempt hair. Looking up, he found Gretchen holding another old book in her hands. A wry smile scampered across her weathered features.
“Recognized that name too, didn’t you? Well, I already took care of it. Here,” she said, thrusting the folio at him. “Don’t say I never gave you anything.”
He was stunned. One of the few times in his life he’d been truly at a loss for words. She held in her hands the most seminal work of the warlock Ludwig Prinn. Carefully taking the volume from her, Jonah ran his hands over the shining black cover. With his finger he traced the raised, gothic filigree and bold lettering emblazoned on its skin before reverently caressing the decorative, serpentine figure surmounting it all. Shuddering, he involuntarily breathed the name of the grimoire out loud.
“De Vermis Mysteriis.” he said throatily. “Where did you get this?”
“I bought it, obviously. I’m rich, remember?” The widow chuckled, her wormy lips split by tiny, discolored teeth.
“This is the university’s copy! These are Peaslee’s notes in the margins. I can’t believe they would sell it to you,” said Jonah, thumbing quickly through the book.
“Well, they didn’t exactly want to lose the endowment upon my imminent death so when I threatened to leave it to another university, they gave in. It’s valuable but, as it turns out, not quite valuable enough to throw away millions.”
“I bet,” said Jonah drolly, recovering from his shock. Closing the book, he began unconsciously cradling it like a newborn baby. “Why would you go to such great lengths to acquire this?”
“You aren’t that dimwitted doctor, even when you’ve been awakened from a drunken stupor. Xoathathum is the reason, of course. I’ve already marked the page for you.”
It then dawned on Jonah why the widow had summoned him. He threw the book onto the bed instinctively, shaking his head from side to side.
“Absolutely not, Gretchen. I will not do that. I understand what you’re going through but this is not the way!” he exclaimed, a sharp flush coloring his cheeks.
“YOU UNDERSTAND NOTHING,” cried the widow, before breaking down into a caustic fit of coughing. Holmes, his face ugly with concern, hurried over and held a clean towel under her chin to catch the red, caliginous effluvia that rolled from her mouth. After regaining her composure, she continued. “Rayburn is still alive today. You’ve seen the proof. That doctor did everything he could to break that man and he survived it all. He doesn’t age, for god’s sake! I believe that those savages somehow knew how to conjure the creature for him. I believe it showed him how to free his ship. I also believe it gave him eternity, something I need if I’m to continue on at all. Yet you would deny me life, after everything I’ve done for you? Are you that ungrateful?”
“It isn’t a matter of gratitude, Gretchen. The man might have an eternity but his mind is broken. You would trade your sanity for life? What do you gain by becoming an immortal madwoman? These things are not to be trifled with. You don’t know what you are asking,” implored Jonah, flustered but firm in his resolve.
“Yes. Yes, it broke his mind, but he was an ignoramus. A simple ship’s captain from over a century ago. Uneducated, unrefined. He and I are nothing alike,” she said, tossing her head haughtily to one side.
“Regardless, I won’t do it. I will not help you conjure your doom,” said Jonah, rising from the chair and turning to address Holmes.
Now, if you would kindly retrieve my belongings I would very much like to return to my office and find whatever sleep I can before morning. Tomorrow, I will look for a more reasonable answer to your problem. Had you consulted me sooner, I might have been of more help than the students or that snake-oil salesman. I’ll come by in the afternoon and we’ll—”
Turning back to Gretchen, Jonah’s words caught in his throat as he found himself staring down the barrel of a shining pearl handled revolver.
“Sit. Down,” said the widow sharply, thrusting the gun at him with each word. “Now!”
Jonah sat, obediently.
“I thought you might give me a problem so I had Wilfred pull this old number out of mothballs in order to “persuade” you, should you refuse. I don’t have the time or stomach to massage your ego or shout you down about this. I am standing at death’s door and now, if you don’t do exactly what I ask, so are you,” she said, waving the pistol dramatically before him.
“You’re gonna kill me?” he asked sarcastically, fear trickling down his spine.
“I’d encourage you to think very hard about what you know of me. Then, consider the situation I am in. I’m out of time. You can help me find more. You can help me find it all. I’ve spent most of my life and nearly all of my husband’s family fortune seeking the type of gift that simpleton Rayburn was given. You’ve caroused your way across half the world to try to find it for me. Do you think I would give up now because you are a coward? I told you when we started this endeavor of ours that I wouldn’t stop until I got what I wanted. Well, here it is, sitting in front of you, so pick up that book and get to work, and ask yourself one last thing before you do. How serious do you think I am about not being dead?” said the widow, vehemently.
“Fine,” said Jonah, reaching for the manual while shooting Holmes a quick, pleading look. The servant’s face was stony and grey and his baleful eyes betrayed no conflict. He clearly stood with his mistress on the issue. A thin frown paired with a clenched jaw were the only signs he held any guilt regarding his subterfuge. Jonah tried not to blame him.
The notated page was marked by a folded sheet of paper upon which was written Hunter Foley’s signature sloppy script. He had made a poor attempt to translate the ritual’s invocation from an excerpt that he had blasphemously highlighted in yellow. Jonah gritted his teeth. The man’s manners appeared as uncouth as his Latin for there were several key errors in his translation that stood out immediately. Jonah flipped the paper over and began his own transcription with a pen Holmes was quick to provide for him.
“You know this idiot didn’t go to school, right?” he asked, never taking his eyes from the task.
“Different dogs for different work. That’s what my father used to say. Hunter has a nose for the unseemly and a willingness to roll around in it. He might not be the bloodhound you are, but he is a useful little mongrel who works for scraps. I only let him do that translation to placate him. He was so eager to please, it seemed wrong not to give him a pat on the head. Trust me, I knew which dog to call tonight. I know for what you were bred.”
“Charming,” said Jonah, favoring the widow with a withering glance. She responded with only a click of the tongue and a tap of the gun’s barrel to her palm.
After finishing the transcription, he spent the next half hour preparing the room with numerous candles, pungent incense, and profane, antediluvian markings. The butler and the pistol, spurred by the widow’s barking orders, scrutinized his every move. Foley might have botched the translation of the ritual itself, but he was adept enough that Gretchen had a reasonable understanding of what was required for the preparation. She had also, apparently, had one of Jonah’s brighter students check and correct Hunter’s translated list of ingredients. He’d recognized the loopy, innocent longhand immediately.
He hated that they were involved. He had tried to keep them from his mistakes, to ensure that their curiosity remained strictly academic and never dipped into the practical. The practical was dangerous and coiling, lying in wait for fools to find it. Now they were as stricken as he, the promise of forbidden knowledge coursing through their minds. He hoped he lived through this night if only to undo that harm, to walk them back from the brink he knew so well and prevent them from taking the same plunge.
After laying the groundwork, Jonah gave his translation a final once over. Upon this reflection, something significant occurred to him. Something that could bring the entire insane enterprise to a halt. He moved slowly to the widow’s side to show her. Holmes moved to the other, anticipating.
“Okay Gretchen, I don’t want you to think I’m trying to trick you but if you look here, you’ll see that Foley mistranslated this term. This is important because he told you that a “gift” was required but what it actually says is…”
He was silenced by two thunderous reports from the gun. Staggering back, he grabbed at the sides of his head, grasping for his ringing ears. Looking across the bed to Holmes he saw the butler’s eyes roll back as his hands spasmed wildly in front of him. Sagging forward, the wretched servant’s head slopped gore out onto the coverlet before his body collapsed to the floor, all its strings cut.
“Sacrifice. You need a sacrifice. My Latin is better than Hunter’s as well,” said Gretchen coldly, pointing the pistol at him once again.
Jonah stared at the widow, blinking in disbelief before vomiting. Wiping his mouth, he moved to the end of the bed and immediately began the incantation, carefully avoiding a glance at Holmes’ ruined visage.
It was a call to summon Xoathathum, the Worm of Midnight and Keeper of the Key. Spawn of Havissik’Kri, the dreaded Serpent of Infinite Sands, Xoathathum and his progenitor were among several obscure beings worshiped by the various nomadic peoples who lent their knowledge to Prinn during his travels in Arabia. The two were considered creatures of great and powerful secrets, archivists of all the knowledge in creation. The ritual purported to summon the fiend, who, upon being shown proper supplication, would bestow the gift of its vast wisdom upon the supplicant.
For several moments the recitation, rotely repeated, bore no fruit. The widow’s displeasure was palpable though she was mindful not to disturb the recital. Slowly, the air in the room changed and the candles sputtered gravely. Jonah’s own voice dimmed in his ears as he was overcome by a rising cacophony of impossible sound. It thrummed and pressed from all sides. This phenomena emanated from the bedroom ceiling which had begun warping in on itself, forming a growing hole of profane darkness. As it widened, a frigid blast erupted from the opening sending him into a fit of involuntary shaking. Still, he pressed on. The widow was shouting something upward, a look of manic bliss splayed across her face. Jonah’s ears were filled and he could not hear a thing above the eerie din that had suffused the air around him, but he could see the joyous tears sliding down her face, pooling beneath her quivering chin. Finally, the hole reached a breadth that spanned half the ceiling. Then, all at once, the bedlam stopped. Then the beast came through.
It unfurled itself from the portal like a post pupate insect and piled into a tremendous mass to the right of the bed. Resembling a giant segmented worm several dozen feet in length, Xoathathum’s corpse white flesh was pitted with small openings that gulped for air like drowning fish. The noise was odious and sickening. It’s head was covered by two sightless, opalesque eyes that convulsed weirdly in their sockets. Maggot like tendrils dripped from beneath the creature’s open jaws and many rows of keen edged teeth filled it’s great maw seeping with a greenish ichor. It’s underbelly was translucent and lined with hundreds of spindly, arthropodal legs that twitched and kicked and pawed. Just below this diaphanous membrane thousands of smaller snaking figures swam about, slithering amongst one another furiously just inside the beast. The creature swayed in the air hypnotically and Jonah stared, dumbly silent until stirred by the crazed voice of Gretchen White.
“Oh mighty Xoathathum, Keeper of the Key, hear my plea,” she screeched, beseeching the monster with outstretched hands, palms up in rogation. “Grant me the boon of your everlasting wisdom so that I may see the world through thine eyes, for all the years to come.”
She then pointed at the corpse of her faithful former servant.
“I offer this sacrifice as payment, a pittance offered in humility,” she said, finishing her mottled version of the ritual’s final plea, making sure Jonah didn’t steal her treasure. Crafty old girl. Then, head bowed properly, she waited.
As crafty as she may have been, however, her Latin wasn’t nearly as refined as she’d thought. Jonah grimaced as the beast’s protuberate head slunk across the body of poor, unfortunate Holmes. It examined its gift closely. The slight sound of a thousand buggy leg parts scratching at the butler’s remains gave Jonah a jellied feeling all over. A sharp, reedy howl rumbled out of each of its thousand tiny mouths as it pulled quickly up and away from the body, pupal whiskers buzzing. Unfortunately for her, Gretchen’s gift was as bad as any tomorrow had ever given. Jonah knew that if there was one thing to know about this line of work it was this: Nothing can get you killed easier than arrogance coupled with inartful Latin. That, and offering a corpse to a god when live payment is due.
In less than a blink it was on her, biting, grinding and swallowing. Burbled screams poured out and over its lower jaw along with gobs of bloody, ichorous sludge. Even after the screams died out, the sound of crunching and bubbling persisted. Jonah watched as the widow’s gnarled feet twitched reflexively hanging from the monster’s mouth. He stupidly thought of a duckling kicking furiously below the surface of a pond. A ghastly slurping sound rounded out the gruesome spectacle as the creature gave a final gulp and turned its attention to the good doctor.
Unable to move, Jonah watched as the thing squirmed across the floor with ropey spasms, closing the distance between them quickly. Rising up, its innumerable breathy apertures hummed an otherworldly tune. Beneath the surface of its gauzy belly the nematodes were vibrating. They passed bright, colorful electrical pulses between them and a rainbow of carnival lights sparkled his eyes. The worm’s chitinous appendages swam in concert with one another, swooping up and down like the paws of a begging terrier. Its tail became distended and grew into a swollen bulb before the internal mass moved swiftly through the length of the beast, shimmering the prismatic grubs as it passed, shooting toward the toothy end. Heaving, the creature regurgitated, covering Jonah with gory slime speckled with the remnants of his late employer. Clawing at his nose and mouth in an effort to breathe, he spat bits of bone and hair and bloody ooze onto the carpet. He could feel the substance soaking into his pores as his body alternated between sizzling and freezing. Trembling, he watched as Xoathathum appeared to give him one final consideration before burrowing back into the hole from whence it came, which closed behind it with a deafening thunderclap.
Falling to his knees, Jonah reached for the upended box on the floor beside the bed. He searched for and found the pen he used for his earlier transcribing and attempted to scratch out as much as he could before the looming madness now growing in his mind consumed him. He could feel everything crackling in his head, gorging, pressing at the walls of his skull. He blinked against hallucinations begat by his senses being opened to the infinite. Believing himself creating a hasty account of his fated evening, he fluttered his eyes once more in the face of his mounting hysteria and looked upon the pages between his white knuckles to see only thick depictions of it drawn in the manner of cavemen. These demented doodlings were surrounded by hoary, alien designs with the name of the god worm lain repeatedly between them. Jonah flopped over onto the floor and cackled as he was pulled under and submitted to the thrall.
His mind etherealized and he found himself awash in a sea of memories, each recalled with a clarity that made him mournful. Every familiar mistake pierced him as he traveled down thousands of previously covered roads, his newfound understanding only intensifying his remorse at all the terrible choices. He felt himself a mockery, an insignificant, crawling fruitlessly in cancerous muck. He could see the absurdity of human existence, the absolute joke his life had been. Then he moved beyond his birth and tumbled on a wave of time. Aimless and bobbing along, he eventually came to a nexus and gained purchase on vaguely familiar metaphysical ground.
An ending lay there, a precipice at the brink of a vast chasm of darkness that twinkled with an untold number of steely eyes and warbled with the voice of eternity. Standing at this precipice, looking out into that rolling forever, impossibly, was Rayburn. Jonah joined him. Brought together by interpolated destiny they each looked into the stygian depths and perceived their inescapable futures for the first time, dissimilar but the same.
They saw their bleeding hands scrawling gibberish on the walls of the madhouse rooms to which they both would be committed. They saw the forlorn look in their loved ones’ eyes as they thrashed and raved before them. They saw the barbarous experimentation they would endure, understanding that the immortal can still feel. They heard the discordant sounds of their endless keening, cries against pain and indelible psychopathy. Finally, they saw the stricken faces of the ageless prisons that would carry their broken minds for eternity. Standing momentarily entwined in inexorable fate they marveled as one at the immensity of their dooms.
Then the ground gave way beneath them and they both fell screaming into the Void.
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