St. Cyprian sucked meditatively on the cigarette protruding from his lips. He expelled smoke through his nostrils and then sucked some more, his eyes never leaving the floating box. “Yes, definitely a cursed puzzle box,” he reiterated.
“I know it’s cursed, Charles! My question is how do we stop the blasted thing from inhuming my immortal soul within its dashed facets?” Wendy-Smythe said. The plump man wrung his hands in growing panic. He mopped at his florid features with the sleeve of his oriental dressing gown, nearly dislodging the stained fez which topped his round head. “I can feel it clawing at my very spirit. Like hooks in my brain, flaying my ectenic self from its earthly vessel,” he wailed.
“Right, yes, but my question is—why did you solve the dratted thing in the first place, Phillip?” In contrast to Wendy-Smythe, St. Cyprian was tall, dark and slim, and dressed in one of Savile Row’s finest sartorial creations. “That is a genuine d’Erlette Configuration after all. I can tell by the filigree…it’s not some child’s plaything. Unless I’m wrong about my cursed puzzle boxes, which I’m not,” St. Cyprian continued, with the surety of a professional.
That surety was born of often painful experience gained in the investigation, organisation and occasional suppression of That Which Man Was Not Meant to Know—including vampires, ghosts, werewolves, ogres, fairies, boggarts and the occasional worm of unusual size—by order of the King (or Queen), for the good of the British Empire. Formed during the reign of Elizabeth the First, the office of Royal Occultist had started with the diligent amateur Dr. John Dee, and passed through a succession of hands, culminating, for the moment, in the Year of Our Lord 1922, with one Charles St. Cyprian and his erstwhile assistant, Ebe Gallowglass.
“Like you weren’t wrong about that ghost last week?” the latter said, from her perch on the arm of the chair on the other side of the study. She gently spun the cylinder of the Webley-Fosbery revolver she had cracked open on her knee. St. Cyprian’s assistant wouldn’t have looked out of place in a Soho dive or a smoke-filled betting shop.
“Ghosts are tricky,” St. Cyprian said, not looking at her. The facets of the box were beginning to shift and spread into something rather unpleasantly non-Euclidean.
“What about that thing in the basement of Great Ormond Street the week before that,” Gallowglass asked.
“What about it?”
“You said it were a rat. Only it weren’t. It had too many teeth and too few legs,” Gallowglass said, giving the Webley’s cylinder a spin.
“Yes, thank you Ms. Gallowglass. Your observations, while correct, are not pertinent at this juncture,” St. Cyprian said, glaring at her. She stuck her tongue out at him and went back to inspecting her pistol. St. Cyprian straightened his necktie and sniffed. “Besides which, this is neither a ghost nor a hairy whatsit. This is a unique artefact of eldritch origin, and one which we are lucky to see in full—ah—flower, as it were.” He glanced at Wendy-Smythe and said, “No offense meant, old thing.” Wendy-Smythe made a noise somewhere between a wail and a whimper in reply.
St. Cyprian ignored him and clapped his hands together. “Right, yes, well, first things first, we’ll need a pentacle for Phillip here. And then something to deal with whatever decides to crawl out of that box in…” He fished a pocket watch out of his waist coat and opened it. He glanced at Wendy-Smythe. “When did you finish fiddling with the cursed artefact of infernal facets and eldritch design, Phillip? Two-ish or thereabouts, wasn’t it?” He snapped the watch closed without waiting for a reply. “Approximately twenty minutes, then. Give or take.”
“Give or take,” Wendy-Smythe said in a strangled voice.
“This ain’t an exact science, Phillip,” St. Cyprian said, looking back at the box.
“And if it were, you still wouldn’t know,” Gallowglass said. She snapped the revolver closed and slid it into the shoulder holster beneath her coat. St. Cyprian whirled, mouth open to protest. Before he could, Gallowglass hopped off of her perch and said, “One pentacle coming right up. I’ll go get the kit out of the Crossley.”
St. Cyprian studied the box with the air of a billiards player lining up a shot. “I did warn you about playing with this grisly little device,” he said.
“I couldn’t help it,” Wendy-Smythe moaned. “It called to me, whispered sweet nothings about the hidden knowledge that would be revealed unto me should I but solve a child’s puzzle. I just wanted to know—to see!”
“I hate to point this out, old thing, but this is really just the powdered werewolf teeth all over again, ain’t it?” St. Cyprian gave Wendy-Smythe a stern look. “And that dratted business with those canopic jars two months ago—you remember that?”
“Yes,” Wendy-Smythe said weakly.
“Do you? Because I don’t think you do. A man who remembered unleashing a phantom clowder of angry Egyptian cat spirits might not be so eager to play with an obviously demonic puzzle-box.”
“I did write a dashed swell letter of apology about the cat-thing,” Wendy-Smythe muttered. “And those werewolf teeth weren’t real anyway.”
St. Cyprian patted the other man on the shoulder and turned back to the box. The hum had grown louder and more piercing. It sounded as if there were a nest of hornets trapped in the box. The light which emanated from the box had grown stronger, shrouding the room with a sickly haze, and strange shadows squirmed just out of his eye-line.
“What’s in it, Charles? What have I awoken?” Wendy-Smythe whispered. He shuddered where he stood. “I can hear it whispering even now, in a voice like the rustle of leaves in a growing wind. It is a voice of doom—insidious and triumphant!”
“Really...what’s it saying?” St. Cyprian said. He watched the shadows hump and congeal about the box like a gauzy halo of smoke. There were shapes in the shadows, like contorted human figures, writhing and spinning. It was almost hypnotic, in the way a serpent’s gaze was said to be. More than that, it was exceedingly disquieting, even for him. The air was charged with a foul anticipation, as if some great beast were crouched, waiting, just out of sight. Part of him wanted nothing more than to turn around and walk out, leaving Wendy-Smythe to his fate. Unfortunately, he had a job to do. Besides which, for all his faults, Wendy-Smythe was a friend, of sorts.
“It’s telling me what awaits me—it’s saying that I’ll have all of the answers I desire. Every mystery will be solved, ever crumb of secret knowledge mine to devour after I have been transfigured by He Who Comes,” Wendy-Smythe mumbled.
“Yes, it would say something like that wouldn’t it. Tearing the whatsit off the face of the world and all that rot,” St. Cyprian said. Before Wendy-Smythe could reply, Gallowglass kicked open the door of the study and staggered in, swinging an obviously overburdened Gladstone bag. She dropped it on the floor and gave it a kick.
“Brought the kit,” she said.
“And in one piece, if only just,” St. Cyprian said. “Whatever would I do without you, Ms. Gallowglass?”
“Die,” she said simply. She sank to her haunches and opened the bag. She extracted a mouldering satchel, on which strange sigils were sewn, and plucked a piece of chalk from it. “You want to do the honours, or you want me to do it?”
“You’re the one with the artist’s touch. Don’t get too close to the box though. Remember what happened in Myrdstone, what?”
“That wasn’t my fault,” Gallowglass said sourly. She extracted several short sections of polished wood and began to assemble them into something resembling a snooker cue. Once it was complete, she attached the chalk to the tip and began to scratch out a circle around the hovering box. She gave no notice to the shadows that clustered about her, and they in return, shied away. There was something about Gallowglass which put off the more ethereal types, St. Cyprian had noticed. In the same way dockside roughs would cross to the other side of the street when they saw her coming towards them, ghosts, spooks and spectres would waft out of her path with unseemly haste.
As Gallowglass drew the protective pentacle, St. Cyprian went to the bag and withdrew several more objects. Wendy-Smythe hovered over his shoulder and darted nervous glances at the floating puzzle box. “As to your earlier question, it’s like this, Phillip,” St. Cyprian said, as he removed a pair of thick, metal gauntlets, with bunched sleeves of chainmail. Strange, jagged symbols had been scratched into the metal of the gauntlets, and they were dark with age. “That’s less a puzzle box than a door, of sorts. And what you’ve done is unlocked that door, at the behest of a glib-tongued prowler on the other side. Now, said prowler is scratching at the door with his various and sundry limbs, and nudging it open. So what we need to do is wedge the door shut, get the key back in the lock and bob’s your uncle.”
He held up a small vial containing an oily liquid and gave a swirl. “Not very quick on the draw, your average threshold lurker. Takes them time to slough off one dimension and enter another, rather like a snake shedding its skin. Normally, you’d have been bally hypnotised or otherwise indisposed, only able to watch in mounting horror as your doom approached with all the alacrity of a moderately lazy garden slug. Lucky for you, you’ve had a bit of experience with the secret rhythms of the world and all that, and you managed to shake it off and call me.”
He anointed the gauntlets and the sleeves with the oil. “Old Comte d’Erlette—he of the aforementioned d’Erlette Configuration—was a rum fellow. Wrote that ghastly Cultes des Goules grimoire back in 1702, and came to bad end soon after, as those fellows often do. Before he joined the Choir Invisible, however, he paid for the construction of a number of these nasty little toys—word has it a French toymaker of dubious reputation was involved, but that’s neither here nor there, one supposes. I say, how are we coming, Ms. Gallowglass?” St. Cyprian called out, over his shoulder.
“It’s trying the eat the chalk,” came the reply.
“Well don’t bloody let it; that stuff expensive,” St. Cyprian said, without turning around. The chalk was made from the powdered bones of martyrs, and there weren’t as many of those as one might think. Wendy-Smythe gibbered tinnily, his eyes bulging in horror as he watched Gallowglass at her work. St. Cyprian reached up and gently slapped the other man. “Pay attention, Phillip, this is for your benefit, not mine.”
“What—what—what...” Wendy-Smythe babbled, looking down at him.
“It’s just a bit of ectenic distortion, nothing to fear. Think of it as the warning growl of a predator on the hunt,” St. Cyprian said. He finished anointing the gauntlets and set the vial back in the bag. “Now, where was I—oh yes, puzzle boxes. At any rate, d’Erlette had a number of these little booby-traps devised, for some insane reason. He was French, so there’s really no telling. Maybe something spoke to him in the dark, or maybe he swore an oath, or maybe he was just a nihilistic prankster. Regardless, the boxes are bad ju-ju. There’s no telling what sort of horror is lurking in there—a pandimensional sadist perhaps, or some form of tentacle-waving feaster from the stars. It’s a bit like Christmas...you never really know what you’re going to get. Help me get these on, would you Phillip?” He gestured to the gauntlets.
“What—what are you going to do?” Wendy-Smythe whispered. The hum from the box had grown painfully loud now. There was grinding, screeching quality to it, as if massive gears were turning somewhere. The box had lost all shape, and become a jumbled mess of facets which moved and slid about seemingly at random. Eerie squamous shapes flitted between the facets, and a sound like teeth chattering filled the room. Gallowglass looked as if she were caught in a hell-born wind, her coat flapping as she finished the last sigil of the pentacle and stepped back, chalk-stick extended like a spear.
“You sure about this?” Gallowglass muttered as St. Cyprian stripped off his coat and stretched like a runner preparing for a marathon.
“Not in the least,” St. Cyprian said, as Wendy-Smythe helped him pull on the gauntlets. The chainmail sleeves stretched to his shoulders and were connected behind his neck by a leather strap. He flexed the fingers of the gauntlets. “Wish me luck!”
Then, without further hesitation, he stepped towards the outer edge of the pentacle. A wave of heat caressed his face, and he smelled a foul odour, like an open crypt on a summer day. Things moved out of the corner of his eye, shapes which were at once vast and minuscule, but always incomprehensible. They swam about him as the light from the puzzle box became a harsh, eye-searing violet in hue.
The floating box seemed to recede as he reached for it, shrinking from his touch. Steam rose from the gauntlets as the holy oils did their work. Sweat rolled down his face, and the smell grew worse as he reached for the jumble of facets that made up the d’Erlette Configuration.
It was like pushing his arms into hot treacle, but he succeeded and grabbing hold of something solid. Whatever it was squirmed and thrashed in his grip as he began to bend and twist the shimmering facets back into the shape they’d once held. They fought against him, and soon, his arms were trembling with effort.
He caught glimpses of what lay within the facets, an impossible space full of abominable architecture which folded in on itself again and again, and a-glow with a violet radiance that caused his stomach to churn. There was a shape there, far away, but striding closer with every second. He could feel the floorboards beneath his feet tremble with the phantom tread of the figure. It seemed to fill the audient void, blotting out the light as it moved, loped, squeezed itself through the grotesque encrustations which blotted the world beyond.
It spoke as it moved, blighting the air with its voice. It roared and whispered all at once, and St. Cyprian squinted against the resultant waves of pain that threatened to eclipse his senses. He fought against the unwilling facets, shuffling them back into place. It was as much an effort of faith as it was any skill at puzzle solving.
Steam billowed from his gauntlets now, obscuring his vision. The heat pressed against him in invisible coils. His clothes began to char and smoke in places. The shape had almost reached him. It stretched out towards him, and a writhing mass of dark things exploded into the world, slithering about his arms and lashing at him with stinging force.
“I say, a bit of help wouldn’t go amiss,” he yelped. The tendrils gripped him, and his feet began to slide towards the pentacle edge as he was drawn towards horror that lurked within the facets. They were strong, and he knew that if he resisted, the Configuration would spring open once more, releasing the thing that now pressed against the other side. “Any time now, chaps!”
Gallowglass was suddenly behind him, her revolver balanced on his shoulder. “Hold still,” she shouted as she took aim at the thing within the facets. The Webley-Fosbery roared, and St. Cyprian went momentarily deaf. Gallowglass emptied the cylinder and the tendrils retreated in confusion.
Something that might have been a shriek of frustration reverberated through the room, and the pressure on the facets lessened. Panic lent him speed, and he worked quickly, heaving the box back into shape. As it shrank, the violet light faded, and the throbbing hum grew weaker and weaker. The grinding noises faded, and the monstrous tread began to retreat.
As the light became merely a flicker, the box again resembled the simple child’s toy it pretended to be. It spun slowly between his palms, grudgingly shrinking back to its former proportions.
Finally, the d’Erlette Configuration grudgingly settled in his hands. An unpleasant smoke rose from it, and his gauntlets had been charred black. Ash flaked away from his arms as he set the box down carefully in the centre of the pentacle and backed away. The leather strap that held the gauntlets on had burnt to a cinder and he removed them with an exhausted shrug. They crashed to the floor, and lay smouldering.
“Thank you, Ms. Gallowglass,” St. Cyprian said, plucking at his ruined shirt. “Your intervention was most timely.”
Gallowglass holstered her pistol. “I don’t think I hurt it.”
“Probably not. Gave it a shock though, I daresay. Enough to make it retreat.” He sniffed and looked at Wendy-Smythe, who had collapsed into a chair, his expression that of a man who had taken a flight over hell.
Wendy-Smythe looked at him, and then past him at the box. As they watched, the d’Erlette Configuration settled into its old shape with a final despondent ‘click’, and sat silently smoking on the floor.
“You’re welcome, by the way,” St. Cyprian said, after a moment.