Below the thunders of the upper deep,
Far, far beneath in the abysmal sea,
His ancient, dreamless, uninvaded sleep,
The Kraken sleepeth...
-Alfred Lord Tennyson, "The Kraken"
"Well, this is a pretty mess and no mistake," Charles St. Cyprian said. In the hazy light of hand-cranked electric lanterns, he could see the remains of half a dozen young members of the smart set lying scattered about the chamber, amongst piles of bricks, heaps of tools and various unknown sundries. "I thought we had this blocked off, Mr. Stanhook."
"That we did, sir," Ian Stanhook said. A rank, musky smell wafted from somewhere, and a faint susurrus from the nearby Thames could be heard by those who stood beneath the newly opened archway of brick and crumbling mortar. They were close to the river. Close enough to taste it on the air, close enough to feel the weight of it on the stones.
"And yet now it is open."
"That it is, sir."
"Why would they do that?" St. Cyprian murmured.
"Wouldn't know, sir," Stanhook said.
"That was a rhetorical question, Mr. Stanhook."
"I know, sir," Stanhook said, mildly.
"He knows," Ebe Gallowglass said. She wouldn’t have looked out of place in a Soho dive or a smoke-filled betting shop. She was small, dark and dressed like a man, in waders and a flat cap, a long, narrow parcel stuffed under her arm.
In contrast, St. Cyprian was tall, dark and slim, and dressed in one of Savile Row’s finest sartorial creations made for the outdoors-inclined gentleman, despite the fact that he was standing in a formerly bricked off section of tunnel in the London Underground. Like Gallowglass, he wore waders, though he was less than pleased with that fact.
"Yes, well, what else do we know?" St. Cyprian said testily.
"They used chisels and hammers," Gallowglass said, helpfully.
"They're all dead," Stanhook added.
St. Cyprian threw up his hands in mock-despair. "I'm surrounded by comedians." He turned towards Stanhook's men. "Stevens, Forsythe...surely one of you stout fellows has something to add?"
"They're wearing robes--or they were," Forsythe said.
"Green ones," Stevens said. "Covered in fishes."
St. Cyprian hung his head. "Yes, cheers for that."
"You asked," Stanhook said. The night-manager for the Thames Section of the London Tunnel Authority was a short man and built spare, with a wilting grin and a long face, clad in a boiler suit, waders and a hard-hat with a lamp mounted on the brim. He had a Mauser pistol holstered on his hip and a Webley revolver hanging beneath his arm. Stevens and Forsythe were similarly armed and dressed. Both had the look of men who'd seen the elephant, and maybe shared a pint with it.
The London Tunnel Authority was old as such institutions went, having existed in one form or another since the street signs of London had been in Latin. They were the wardens of the secret places beneath the city, and had fought long wars in the dark and the quiet, beneath the streets and homes of unsuspecting Londoners in order to keep His Majesty's subjects safe. Sometimes, however, even the doughty men of the LTA ran up against something which even they could not put down. And that was when they requested the services of the Royal Occultist and his assistant.
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, in this, the Year of Our Lord 1923, in Charles St. Cyprian. In time, the office would pass to Gallowglass, though neither of them had discussed the inevitable as yet.
Regardless of who held the post, the purpose was the same; namely, to see to the investigation, organization and occasional suppression of That Which Man Was Not Meant to Know—including vampires, ghosts, werewolves, ogres, fairies, boojums, boggarts, barghests and the occasional worm of unusual size—by order of the King (or Queen), for the good of the British Empire.
Among the things man was not meant to know about, was this particular area of London below. There were many such areas--sour places in the roots of the city, where things that ought to crawl instead walked and held court. Most of them were sealed off, out of sight, out of mind. The way this one had been, until earlier today.
The green robes with their ichthyic symbols identified the dead men easily enough. The Fisher Brotherhood...amateur demonologists with a mad-on for aquatic deviltry. Until now, they'd kept themselves busy summoning water elementals in public fountains or conjuring ghostly sea-beasts using fossils pilfered from the British Museum. But they appeared to have at last bitten off more than they could chew. There was a good reason the well-like aperture at the center of the small chamber had been sealed off and forgotten. Too bad they didn't pay attention to the stories, he thought. Then, their sort rarely did.
Something dark and wet glistened on the flagstones, leading away from the circular mouth of the hole at their feet. Oily water burped and bubbled within the hole. St. Cyprian thought he could just about get his arm into it, if he were so tempted. Which he wasn't, not in the least. The water was too dark, and it didn't smell like the Thames.
"Sounds like a stopped up loo," Gallowglass said. She waved a hand in front of her face. "Smells a bit like one as well."
"It's a cistern, of sorts," St. Cyprian said. "Roman, once upon a time, though I doubt they built it. It was here when they laid the foundations for the first London Bridge and Watling Street, and likely long before Londinium itself. It was said to have been capped when something nasty crawled up out of it, or so one of my predecessors claimed."
St. Cyprian traced the sigils carved in the time-worn stones with a finger. There was blood on them, as he'd known there would be. It always came down to blood in the end. "The sigils aren't Roman, nor Arabic, nor even Scythian. Lemurian, perhaps. There are reports from an explorer of my acquaintance that similar sigils have been found in an underwater cavern somewhere in the Amazon. Those date back to the Devonian period, as do comparable ones found, appropriately enough, in Devon."
"What do they mean?" Stanhook said.
"Haven't the foggiest, old thing," St. Cyprian said. "A bunch of bright young boffins tried to translate it back in Victoria's day. Came down here, to where the forgotten rivers flow, did the old song and dance and...well. No more boffins."
"They sealed up this access tunnel then," Stanhook said, softly. "It went on the List, like the other bad spots down here." He shook his head and looked down at the dead men. "I wonder how they knew it was here? And how they slipped past the patrols..."
"Oh, I'd guess there are a few scraps of paper floating about that detail that information. There always are, no matter how much we try and hide them away. It's the way of such things," St. Cyprian said. He glanced at Stanhook. "Otherwise, you'd be out of the job, what?"
"We'd be out of the job," Gallowglass said. She shifted the parcel she carried to her other arm and tugged idly at the cord that bound it.
"Yes, well, we're on the job now, so let's hop to it, shall we?" He stood. "Something came out of there, and whatever it is, it's likely to be unpleasant. We need to get it back in the drink, quick as possible. It doesn't belong here."
"Killing it's simpler," Gallowglass said. "Why'd we bring this otherwise?" she continued, patting the parcel.
"If it can be killed," St. Cyprian said. Visitors from the Outside were impossibly hard to dispatch, even with the proper tools. At best, one might contain them--trap them, even. At worst, they could only be endured, like an ill-tempered storm. "Regardless, we have to find it first." He looked past the archway, towards the tunnels beyond.
"Easier said than done," Stanhook said. "It could be anywhere now. There's a whole world for it to hide in down here."
"No. It's close," St. Cyprian said. He scuffed the floor with his shoe. "These marks are still wet. I'm surprised we didn't run across it getting down here. Your men heard sounds, you said? Before you found this and called us?"
Stanhook nodded. "Like a leopard being put through a ringer, isn't that what you said, Forsythe?"
"Might have just been the echoes, but it put me right off," Forsythe said. "Hedges and the other lads are still hearing it, bouncing off the buttresses." He looked around nervously. "It's still down here, whatever it is."
"Stands to reason it'll be heading for the Thames," Gallowglass said. "If we can cut it off, herd it back..." St. Cyprian nodded.
Out in the dark, somewhere in the maze of stone and shadow, something roared. The sound bounced from brick to stone, stretching and fraying until it faded into nothing. It was strange sort of noise, a high, squealing, gobbling sound. A sound unlike any St. Cyprian had ever heard. He looked at Forsythe. "Leopard in a ringer, what?"
Forsythe swallowed. "Something like that, yeah."
"Lovely. I'd say it's past time to unwrap the thing, wouldn't you?" St. Cyprian said, motioning to Gallowglass.
"The thing! The thing," he said, snapping his fingers.
"The harpoon?" she said, smacking the parcel she carried.
"That's the biscuit," he said, tapping his nose.
"A harpoon?" Stanhook asked, doubtfully. He had his Mauser in his hand, and was shining his lantern into the dark beyond the archway
"Well...yes. What would you use to fight a watery horror, Mr. Stanhook? A gun?"
"Preferably several, sir," Stanhook said.
"I knew there was a reason I liked you," Gallowglass said as she unwrapped the harpoon. Its haft was the color of dried mud, and the blade was silvery in the light of the lanterns. Runes had been crudely etched into the flat of the blade.
"This harpoon is a special harpoon, I'll have you know," St. Cyprian said, as he took it. "Bought it from a collector of my acquaintance in Denmark. Used to hunt sea-serpents and water-trolls and the like, or so I was assured." He gave the tip a flick, and the metal hummed briefly. "Can't have too many magic harpoons on an island, what?"
"No sir," Stanhook said dubiously.
"And it'll help us find the beastie." St. Cyprian sank to his haunches beside the cistern and carefully dipped the tip of the harpoon into the dark waters. Almost immediately, he felt the cold of the water, radiating up through the harpoon. Not a normal cold, but the cold of absence. Of a place without light or heat, a black ocean's worth of cold. His breath frosted on the air and he rose unsteadily to his feet, pulling the harpoon out of the water as he did. It resisted him, but just for a moment.
The blade of the harpoon glistened with an ugly radiance. There was a shine to that water, but it was not a healthy thing, and he felt ill just looking at it. The others seemed to feel the same way, even Gallowglass. She swallowed audibly and said, "That ain't water."
"Close enough for our purposes," St. Cyprian said, with forced cheerfulness. "There's a wizard's finger-bone sealed in the haft. A bit of water that our prey has passed through, and a bit of noise..." He tapped the blade against the side of the archway, causing it to thrum softly. His palms began to tingle where the touched the harpoon. The tingling grew in intensity as he swung the harpoon about. "And Bob's your proverbial. Let's go."
"So, it'll just..." Stanhook began.
"Indeed," St. Cyprian said. "Old magic, this. For hunting monsters from the deepest depths. Beasts from the Abysmal Sea, to mangle Tennyson." He made a face. "Never was one for hunting, before I got into this job. Still don't care for it all that much."
"I've got men stationed at the closest junctions. Whichever, wherever its gone, someone will be there to greet it. We've got trench-phones set up all along the London Bridge route, after that business back in '19, and there's not a man in my section who can't bang out a bit of code on the bricks if need be," Stanhook said, as they started away from the bubbling cistern and back out into the wild dark of subterranean London.
It was a strange sort of place St. Cyprian reflected, as he followed the harpoon's pull and the others followed him. A twilight city, caught between noisome dark, and the bustling light. Pillars and buttresses, arches and crypts, surrounded them as they moved slowly in the harpoon's wake. Being below always put St. Cyprian in mind of a subterranean monastery.
The vaulted roof of the tunnel was almost ten feet overhead, with cool water lapping at the knees of their waders. Sediment shifted beneath his feet, like the Brighton shore at low tide. Great iron doors loomed out of the dark at seemingly random intervals, sometimes guarded by watchful tunnel-men, who gave lazy salutes to Stanhook when they saw him. Valves, Stanhook called them. Occasionally there came the grumble of a distant pumping station.
And over it all, the sound of water. Not just the river, but the crash of cataracts and waterfalls from deeper within the urban labyrinth, rising up to meet the distorted echoes of the busy streets above, filtered through uncounted kilometres of grates and flues. The underworld was nothing but shadows, noise and damp, pierced only by the harsh light of the headlamps and lanterns carried by Stanhook and his men.
Every so often, a new noise would insert itself--the harsh jangle of a modified trench-phone. The steel boxes were mounted on archways and pillars, providing an unbroken line of communication in the dark and quiet. Stanhook, or one of the others would answer the ringing phones. Sometimes, the distant crack of gunfire would precede the call. And then, of course, the roaring of their quarry.
It was a lonely sound. The cry of a thing lost and alone in a world it did not recognize. He found himself wondering what had crawled up out of that cistern, called from one world into another by the Fisher Brotherhood. Had it come, following the scent of blood? Or was there some other reason, unfathomable to the human mind? The harpoon quivered in his grip, like a hound straining at its leash, following the stink of the Outside. Whatever it was, it was steadily moving towards the river.
"We're nearing a thin spot--the Thames is close," Stanhook said, as he hung up the trench-phone. The latest alert had come as they'd entered a wide junction, with vaulted ceilings and rounded pillars. The Victorian aesthetic was somewhat ruined by the thick clusters of mushrooms which occupied the corners of the walls and the reeking mist which hung over the turbid liquid running alongside their pathway. "You can smell it, can't you?"
St. Cyprian could. The Thames was the life's blood of London, and it smelled of life, death and everything in between. The smell was stronger here than it had been in the cistern chamber, and the dark was warm and steamy. In the dark, something splashed. "Rather like a Turkish bath, what?" he said. His attempt at humor fell flat. "Where does this junction lead?"
Stanhook looked up, his eyes narrowed. "Southwark," he said, after a moment. "River's to our north. Timbs and Muirhead said it tried to get past them somewhere up ahead, so it's close." He hiked a thumb at the trench-phone. "We should--" Whatever he'd been about to say was interrupted by a sudden splash as something large erupted out of the steaming water. It landed on the slick stones with a grunt, and surged towards them with a querulous roar. Stanhook and his men whirled towards it, pinning it with their headlamps. Startled, the creature halted its charge and raised its paws, as if to ward off the light.
The creature was taller than a man, though not much broader. Its greyish-green hide was oddly segmented, with ridges of stiff scales covering its limbs and a dull coloured armoured torso, like the chest-plate of a turtle. A thick crest of webbed spines ran from the top of its skull and down its back. It's head was a thing out of a diver's nightmare, with bulging eyes adapted for void-black depths and wide, gaping jaws studded with needle fangs. Flanged gill flaps wobbled unpleasantly to either side of its blunt snout as it raised wide, webbed talons in what might have been a defensive gesture. It shrieked and turned away from the light, cowering back like a frightened animal.
"The light," St. Cyprian said. "Keep it in the light!" He lifted the harpoon, but hesitated. "Can you understand me?" he called out.
"Are you trying to talk to it?" Gallowglass said, in disgust. She'd drawn her heavy Webley-Fosbery revolver from the holster beneath her arm, and cocked it. "You forgetting what it did to the last lot who wanted to be chums?"
"No, but you'd be snappish too if you were wrenched out of your reality by a bunch of fifth-form amateur demonologists, I expect," he said, not taking his eyes off of the creature. It stank of strange things, and its muscles moved in odd ways beneath its scales. But there was an alien intelligence in its black gaze, an awareness of its surroundings that no animal possessed. Had it been waiting on the threshold of that cistern? Or had it just been unlucky? "Well?" he said again, catching its gaze. "What's it to be? Do we parley, or...?"
The words hung on the air for a moment. Then, talons scraped against stone, and he cursed. As the creature swept out an arm, he lunged. The tip of the harpoon flared as it scraped across the brute's chest. The monster screamed again, and twisted away, flinging itself back into the water.
"Did you get it?" Stanhook said.
"No. It was just startled," St. Cyprian said. He heard a splash. "Quick--the water." Their lights played across the water and he saw a trail of froth leading away. He looked at Stanhook."You said there was a thin spot near here. If we can smell the Thames, it's a good bet that thing can as well. If it gets to the river, we'll never catch the bloody thing," St. Cyprian said. "Stanhook, can you--?"
"My men are up ahead," Stanhook said, hurrying to the trench-phone. "If it tries to get out, they'll stop it." He wrenched the phone from its steel box and began to speak rapidly. "All units to Southwark Junction, north-side, at the double!"
Gunfire sounded from somewhere up ahead, even as Stanhook spoke. St. Cyprian traded glances with Gallowglass and started forward. They hurried along the grimy stone walkway, the bobbing lights from the headlamps guiding them like will-o-wisps. The gunfire was silenced abruptly, but was replaced by the crack of breaking bricks.
Rounding a turn, St. Cyprian saw that they'd come to another junction in the sewer. Water poured out of pipe mouths and the air was thick with rancid fog. Broken bodies lay half-in, half-out of the water, and red streams of blood mingled with the greys and browns. The creature stood at the northernmost wall of the junction, waist-deep in the swirling waters, pounding on the moss-covered surface with its talons.
Thin trickles ran from between the bricks, and the smell of the Thames was stronger here, almost subsuming the stink of waste. The creature was tearing at the ancient mortar and stone, as if attempting to burrow itself a path to the river it could likely sense just out of sight. It thumped and slashed at the wall in a frenzy, flinging shattered bricks and dust everywhere. More water spewed through the holes, and the junction began to rapidly fill. Water slopped over the walkways. "If we don't stop it, we'll lose this whole section," Stanhook said. He drew his pistols.
"That's all I needed to hear," Gallowglass said. She took careful aim and fired, the Webley-Fosbery bucking in her hand. The creature spun about, its scales shimmering strangely in the light of the lanterns. Stanhook, Forsythe and Stevens followed suit. The junction echoed with gunfire. The creature slumped back against the wall, momentarily lost to sight within the spewing water and fog. Then, with a bellow, it surged towards them. St. Cyprian stepped to meet it, thrusting the harpoon out like a spear.
The creature reared back, avoiding the glowing blade of the harpoon with sinuous ease. It retreated, gurgling in frustration, head swinging from side to side. It reminded him of a fox in a trap. He felt a twinge of pity--something told him it hadn't asked to be here, that it was merely reacting like any frightened animal would. But it didn't belong here. It was from somewhere else, somewhere Outside, and that meant it was dangerous. It was anathema to this world, and it had to be stopped, however much he might sympathize with it.
"I'm afraid bullets won't do more than slow it down," St. Cyprian said, as Gallowglass emptied her revolver into it with no evident effect. The creature took a hesitant step towards them, and he raised the harpoon warily. The ancient weapon was trembling in his hands, the blade glowing with an ugly light. It was a dark thing, a tool of death. The creature seemed to know that, and instinctively shied away from any contact with the blade. But he had no doubt that its frustration would eventually overwhelm its reluctance.
The momentary standoff was broken by the arrival of the rest of Stanhook's men. Before St. Cyprian could caution them to stay back, the creature flung itself eagerly in their direction. Bullets caromed off of its oval skull and armoured limbs, but it was on them in moments. It gave a warbling roar and caught up one of the men in its webbed paws. Bone cracked and the monster flung the twitching body aside.
It turned, gill flaps flexing, jaws working. Its eyes gleamed in the light of the lanterns as it surged towards the rest of Stanhook's men. Shots thumped into its glistening, scaly flesh. It staggered, wheezing. A moment later it recovered and went for them again. Hooked claws tore through a boiler suit, and a man screamed in pain. The creature roared again and turned. Everywhere it looked, enemies awaited it.
Forsythe and Stevens levered their rifles at Stanhook's order and fired with practised speed. The beast whirled towards them, black eyes shining. "Keep the lights on it," St. Cyprian shouted. "Keep its attention on us." The monster spun as the surviving men turned up their lanterns, filling the junction with light. Roaring, it splashed blindly towards the weakened wall, long arms outstretched.
St. Cyprian moved forward into the water, harpoon held low. He had to act quickly, before it recovered from its disorientation. God alone knew what would happen if it escaped--such creatures could cause the world around them to go sour, as if their wrongness infected the very flesh of reality.
He ducked around the beast and under its grasping claws. He carved a gouge in its side with the harpoon. It stank of deep places and wet stone and worse things besides, and its scales creaked like armor as it bent over him and drove him to his knees with a blow across his back. The force of it knocked the harpoon from his hands and it skidded away, out of reach. Water stung his eyes as it wrenched him up.
"Find the harpoon," he shouted. Gallowglass splashed towards him, a determined look on her face. He heard Stanhook shouting for the others to hold their fire. St. Cyprian yelped as the beast lifted him up higher and slammed him back against the wall. Water spurted past his shoulders, as old mortar cracked and crumbled. It stared into his eyes, as if seeking some explanation for its current circumstances.
"I can help you," he said, hoping it would understand his intent, if not his words. "I can send you home. That's what you want, isn't it?" He caught its thick wrists, the rough scales scraping his palms raw. "It doesn't have to be this way!"
For a moment, he thought he'd gotten through to it. Then, with a hiss, the creature dragged him around and thrust him beneath the water. He clawed at its forearms, trying to free himself. His lungs began to burn as he kicked desperately at its legs and midsection. It was like kicking cement. It forced him down deeper, until his back struck the bottom. Black spots danced across the surface of his vision.
Then, he felt a shudder run through it, and heard a harrowing scream. The creature released him and reared back. St. Cyprian surfaced with a gasp. Gallowglass was backing away as the creature clawed at the harpoon jutting from between its shoulder blades.
The creature twisted wildly, but was unable to reach the haft of the harpoon. A phosphorescent ichor spattered from the wound into the water. It groaned and sank to one knee, its head almost parallel to the surface of the water. St. Cyprian rose and stretched his hand towards the harpoon. One twist would finish it. But even as he reached for the weapon, the air was filled with the sound of splintering bricks. He heard Stanhook shout and turned. The junction wall, weakened by the creature's attack, was at last giving way.
He heard a grunt, and looked down at the creature. It looked up at him in what might have been understanding, or perhaps simply resignation. The look of a wounded animal, brought to bay at last. I'm sorry, he thought. It had left him no choice. Hadn't it?
Water thundered out through the spreading cracks with bone-crushing force. Plumes of liquid slammed into the opposite walls and support pillars. Debris sifted down from above as the floor trembled. The sudden rush of water nearly took St. Cyprian from his feet. The creature toppled forward with a splash, only the haft of the harpoon sticking out of the water. He made to lunge for it, but Gallowglass caught his arm. "We've got to go--this whole place will be flooded in minutes," she shouted, her free hand holding her cap on her head. Both of them were drenched and the water was rising fast.
He hesitated, looking back. But the harpoon was gone. Only a faint stirring of phosphorescent murk remained to mark where the creature had vanished. Stanhook was shouting for them to get out of the water. Reluctantly, he allowed Gallowglass to drag him to safer ground. In minutes the junction was sealed off by iron doors. Stanhook's men were professional tunnel-men, and knew what to do when the Thames invaded.
"In a few days, we can drain off the excess water," Stanhook said. He removed his helmet and ran an unsteady hand through his hair. "Repair the breach--put it back like it was." He hesitated. "Maybe...recover the bodies. If they can be recovered," he said. He looked at St. Cyprian. "What about that thing?"
"It'll go wherever the water takes it, I expect," St. Cyprian said, as he gazed mournfully at the state of his suit. It was ruined, and his hands ached from where they'd been rubbed raw. Beyond the iron door, the water roared on.
"Think it's dead?" Gallowglass asked.
St. Cyprian shook his head. He thought of what he'd seen in the creature's gaze in those final moments, of the sight of its blood swirling in the water. It hadn't belonged in their world, he knew. But the thought wasn't a reassuring one.
"Dead? God, I hope so. Both for its sake and our own," he said, softly.