The body of Warwick Figgins lay half off of the blood-soaked bed, arms and legs askew, as if its death throes had been particularly violent. The top of the skull was peeled back like a flower, bone and all, exposing the pink and gray cavity which the dead man’s brain had once occupied. Said brain, however, was not in evidence. Nor was there any sign that it had ruptured, or otherwise succumbed to whatever explosive force had done for Figgins. Instead, it was simply...missing.
“Someone procure a bucket. We shall need a bucket, when we find it,” St. Cyprian went on, turning about in a circle. One among the bevy of uniformed constables currently occupying the flat headed for the door, a look of queasy relief on his face.
The police had responded with admirable speed to the reports of strange lights, weird smells and blood-curdling screams which had precipitated their arrival to the garret in Seven Dials. The moment the eagle-eyed among them had spotted the unnatural paraphernalia that occupied the flat, and the strange designs which had been chalked on its floor and walls, they had rung round for someone better qualified. Now, however, the lot of them clumped about nervously, waiting either for some explanation, or for someone higher in rank to show up and take over.
“If we find the brain,” Ebe Gallowglass, St. Cyprian’s assistant, said. She gently spun the cylinder of the Webley-Fosbery revolver she had cracked open on her knee as she perched on the flat’s only other piece of furniture, a dingy writing desk. She wouldn’t have looked out of place in a Soho dive or a smoke-filled betting shop. In contrast, St. Cyprian looked as if he had been about to step out for a late dinner at the Savoy. Which, in fact, he had been, until a breathless looking constable had caught him leaving his Cheyne Walk flat.
“Well, it’s not like it ran off, now is it?” St. Cyprian shot back, as he tried to ignore the hollow feeling in his stomach. He hadn’t even had time to snaffle a humbug before he and Gallowglass had been whisked to the scene of the crime.
“Rats, innit?” Gallowglass said, with a shrug. She snapped the revolver shut.
“Yes, but...a whole brain?” St. Cyprian gestured. “They’re quite big, your average brain.” He looked around. “And I don’t see any rat holes,” St. Cyprian continued, with the surety of a professional. That surety was born of often painful experience gained in the investigation, organization 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 1921, with one Charles St. Cyprian and his erstwhile assistant, Ebe Gallowglass.
“What could have done it, sir?” one of the constables—Annandale, he thought the man’s name was—spoke up. “What could have done that to a man? Just peeled him open like a tin?” St. Cyprian looked at him. The gathered policemen looked nervous, as well they might. Annandale was in charge, by dint of being the most experienced of the lot. The constable was no stranger to eldritch occurrences. St. Cyprian had seen him at other, similarly outré crime scenes more than once, including the nasty business with the Slug-House of Shaftsbury Avenue, the year before.
“I have no idea, Constable. But I intend to find out, post haste.” St. Cyprian scratched his chin and peered about, examining the small flat and the odd paraphernalia which cluttered it. Besides the bed and the desk which Gallowglass occupied, there was a small fireplace, its stone facing smeared with ash.
Strange machinery, full of diodes and dials, littered the floor and corners in half-finished states. Incense plates sat on every available surface, filled with sludgy char. He couldn’t tell what the dead man had been burning. The smell was strong, for all that it had faded. There were books and loose papers everywhere, the latter covered in illegible scrawl. He recognised some of the books—treatises on spiritualism, psychokinesis and telekinesis, Theosophy, as well as outré mathematics and, inexplicably, carpentry.
The latter began to make more sense, the longer he studied the proportions of the garret. The walls, the floor, even the ceiling, had had extra boards added, giving the whole room a distinctly rugose appearance. Figgins had papered over the corners, crafting a continuous curve. It put him in mind of an alembic, though he couldn’t say why. The whole garret felt...wrong, somehow, as if the air were tainted. "By their smell can men sometimes know them near," he muttered. He glanced at Gallowglass. "Can you smell that?"
"Foul, innit?" she said, waving a hand in front of her face. "Like rotten cabbage."
"It's rather more than that, I should say." St. Cyprian frowned. "Did I, or did I not, give you Harzan's monograph on the detection of ab-human manifestations?"
"Was that what that was?"
He sighed and shook his head. "Sometimes I despair of you, Ms. Gallowglass." He closed his eyes, concentrating, and traced the sacred shape of the Voorish Sign in the air with a finger and let his inner eye flicker open. The spirit-eye, some called it, though his acquaintances in the Society for Psychical Research insisted that it was merely a very focused form of extrasensory perception.
Whatever it was, it had taken him several years to learn how to utilize it safely. Humans were, by and large, as sensitive to the paranormal as animals were to earthquakes. They simply couldn't process it as well. Humans needed reasons for things which animals took on instinct. The inability of the human mind to correlate all of its perceptions was one of humanity’s built-in defences against the many, many predatory malignancies that swam through the outer void.
But sometimes, you were forced to shuck those evolutionary blinders first thing, otherwise you risked being snapped up unawares. As the unfortunate Figgins had discovered, to his cost. He’d attracted the attention of something, and paid the price.
The smell grew worse as he let his senses expand. The formula on the walls and floor seemed to glow with a pale violet light, as did the terrible wounds on Figgins’ skull. He let his inner-eye close, and his senses recede as he opened his physical eyes. “Has anyone spoken to his landlady?” he asked, looking at Annandale. He’d taken note of the woman as he was ushered up the stairs. She hadn’t looked happy. “Did Mr. Figgins have an interest in home repairs? Carpentry, perhaps?”
“She did allow as he was prone to hammering all hours of the night, when he wasn’t praying,” one of the constables said, hesitantly, when Annandale nudged him. “He paid his rent on time, and she never had no other trouble with him, so she let him be.”
St. Cyprian looked at him. “Praying, or chanting?”
The constable shrugged. “She said praying.” He shifted nervously. “Lots of praying.”
“The question is, to what?” St. Cyprian looked at Gallowglass. “You see it, of course.”
Gallowglass nodded without hesitation. St. Cyprian waited. Finally, she shook her head. He sighed, and gestured to the walls. “He’s made the garret into a Faraday Cage. Of sorts, at least. But not for electricity.” He ran a finger along one of the walls. “Subtle alterations to the space, likely devised according to some formula we’ll find on these loose pages, in order to conduct and channel...what?”
St. Cyprian looked around. The walls, where they weren’t plastered with paper, were marked by chalk. He tore some of the papers down, and squinted at the markings. Gallowglass perked up. “Oi, anyone hear that?” she asked. St. Cyprian noticed the sound a moment later. A somewhat muffled harsh, wet grinding noise.
“Whoever is chewing so loudly, please take it elsewhere. I’m trying to ratiocinate,” St. Cyprian said, flapping a hand at the constables. Gallowglass stood up and paced in a slow circuit, her keen eyes scanning the garret. St. Cyprian traced the markings on the wall, trying to understand. The formula which were scrawled there like magical sigils were mathematical in nature, but it was of a type he’d never before seen, outside of theoretical texts on hyperspace and Non-Euclidian space. He glanced at the body. “What were you trying to do?” he murmured. Of course, a better question was, had their unfortunate mathematician succeeded?
St. Cyprian hesitated, as a thought occurred to him. Chewing, he thought. “Oh bugger,” he said, softly. The noise grew louder. St. Cyprian turned, a warning on his lips. Something blurred in the air above the head of the closest constable. Before St. Cyprian could call out, the man was jerked from his feet and hoisted into the air, as if snagged by a lariat. The policeman clawed at his neck, and his legs flailed, scattering the others. His helmet was knocked from his head by an unseen force and clattered across the floor.
Men reached out to grab him, and he spun in a circle, gagging, his face changing colours. The noise swelled in volume, as the unfortunate constable began to scream. The air about the man’s head blazed violet for a moment, before it swirled like a kaleidoscope. Then, abruptly, the policeman went limp.
His body tumbled to the floor. His skull had been cracked like an egg, and pried open. Blood and brain matter oozed down the back of his neck, and puddle on the floor. Before panic could set in, St. Cyprian snarled, “Everyone out!” He stepped over the body, one eye cocked towards the ceiling, and hustled the surviving policemen out of the garret. “You as well, Ms. Gallowglass, at the quick, if you please,” he called out, waving for Gallowglass, who had her pistol trained on the ceiling, to follow him.
As she hurried past him, she hissed, “What was that?”
“Something wholly unpleasant,” St. Cyprian said, as he closed the door. He stepped back warily, as if expecting whatever it had been to attempt to follow them through. When it didn’t, he looked around at the others. The policemen were out of their depth, and to a man, looked frightened and close to panic. That they hadn’t yet, was a testament to the courage of London’s finest. But courage was no defense in a situation like this.
“What was that thing? What happened to Jenkins?” Annandale demanded. Then, in a more hushed tone, “It’s not like that thing in Shaftsbury Avenue last year, is it? Only I haven’t rung the fire brigade yet.”
“I don’t think fire will be necessary this time,” St. Cyprian said, making a calming gesture. He looked at the door. “At least, not a big one.”
“What are you thinking?” Gallowglass said.
“That whatever it is, is likely confined to that room. But it may not stay that way.” He looked around. “I have a theory—not a good one, mind, but until I think of something better, it’ll have to do. Figgins created a sort of...psychic pressure cooker in his garret. Between the additions to his domicile, the incense, the chanting, I can only guess that he was trying to focus his mental energies in a specific way. Maybe it was a harmless experiment, or maybe he got exactly what he wanted...either way, something was born. Something hungry.”
“What do we do?” Annandale said.
“You do nothing, Constable. Taking you and your men back in there would be tantamount to tossing lambs to a hungry wolf. Ms. Gallowglass and I, however, are going back in there. We’ll seal the door from the inside, so that our faceless fiend in there can’t escape,” St. Cyprian said. “We’ll come out when it’s seen to.”
Several of the constables sagged in obvious relief. Annandale shook his head. “And what if you don’t come out, sir?”
“Then remember Shaftsbury Avenue and ring the fire brigade,” St. Cyprian said, as he clapped the constable on the arm. He turned to Gallowglass. “Apres vous, apprentice-mine,” he said, as he gestured to the door.
“Assistant,” she corrected, as she booted it open. When nothing leapt out at them, she stepped through, revolver extended. St. Cyprian followed quickly, and kicked the door shut behind them.
“Keep an eye out, while I lock the cage,” he said, rooting through the debris on the floor for a piece of chalk. “Wouldn’t want our tiger slipping out while our backs were turned, what?” When he found one, he turned back to the door and quickly scrawled out a particular symbol. The Sign of Koth, as it was called, was used to seal doorways and apertures, to prevent the entrance or escape of evil spirits. While what they faced in this room wasn’t likely an evil spirit, in the traditional sense of the term, it never hurt to be careful.
When he’d finished, he tossed the chalk to Gallowglass. “Get the window,” he said. He went to the body of the policeman and checked it over, suddenly glad he hadn’t had time to eat. The man had died in much the same way as Figgins—his skull had been pried apart, and what was within scooped out. He heard a faint chuff of noise, and looked up.
Gallowglass whipped around from the window, her pistol raised. “You hear that?” she demanded, tossing the chalk aside. “That’s the same sound as before.”
“Yes, I hear it. Like hundreds of teeth grinding together, or bone rubbing against bone,” St. Cyprian murmured. He rose slowly to his feet as he scanned the ceiling. He recalled the brief flare of violet light which had preceded the attack. “Whatever Figgins conjured up is still in here. He opened the door for it, but not all the way, thankfully. This garret is a threshold, and our brain-eating friend is crouched on it, half in and half out.”
“That why we can’t see it?” Gallowglass asked, backing towards him. The sound was growing louder and louder, as if whatever it was were becoming agitated.
“Yes,” St. Cyprian said. “I may have something that’ll help with that, however.” He gestured to the fireplace. “Get that fire going. No sense in letting the bugger escape up the flue, if we can help it.”
“You really think fire will hurt it?” Gallowglass said, as she hastened to do as he’d asked.
“We won’t know until we try,” St. Cyprian said. He reached into his coat pocket, feeling through the various amulets and charms which he carried with him at all times. One never knew when one might need an Assyrian demon-whistle, or a silver coin blessed by the Anti-Pope of Avignon, and it was best to have them close to hand, just in case. Unfortunately, none of them seemed to be the tool required here.
He looked around the floor again, trying to make some sense out of that scattered notes of the late Figgins. He sank to his haunches, trying to ignore the slow rustle-scrape of their unseen visitor, as he looked through the papers. “Hesselius encountered something like this, I think, towards the end of the last century. A certain vicar overindulged in exotic teas and accidentally forged a psychic conduit between himself and a rather nasty entity from elsewhere.”
“What happened to him?” Gallowglass asked, as she lit a match and touched it to a twist of paper. She stuffed it into the fireplace and scooted back as the fire took hold. “We need more fuel,” she added.
“Who, the vicar? Oh, he—ah—well, he came to a nasty end, I’m afraid. Rather like our Mr. Figgins, there.” He stood. The sound was becoming too loud to ignore now, and he stared up at the ceiling, trying to pinpoint its source. “And use the books.”
Gallowglass hesitated. “Burn the books?”
“Oh yes, can’t have whatever Figgins was working on fall into the wrong hands. He’s made notes in all of these books. They might as well be the blackest of grimoires,” St. Cyprian said. “And what do we do with grimoires?”
“Well yes, but after that?”
“Try and find a place for them on the shelves in the study?”
“We burn them,” St. Cyprian said firmly. “We are not at home to Mr. Evil Grimoire.” He hesitated. “Unless we don’t already own a copy, in which case we are, but very reluctantly.” He made a tossing gesture. “So burn them, and get that fire going.” He stretched his arms out and flexed his fingers.
“And what are you going to do?” she asked, shovelling papers into the fireplace.
“I’m going to try and cleanse the aetheric vibrations,” he said, bringing his palms together, as if preparing to pray. “Maybe I can convince whatever it is to go back where it came from.” Even as he said it, however, he saw a flash of light, out of the corner of his eye, and knew he would have no time to do so. He spun on his heel, but too slowly. The sound reached a crescendo, drowning out his warning to Gallowglass.
Something slithered about his throat, and tightened like a noose. St. Cyprian was yanked up, loose papers and books skidding beneath his feet as they left the floor. He clawed helplessly at the invisible noose, as it inexorably tightened. Now dangling several feet above the floor, he fumbled in his coat pocket, trying to find something—anything—which might be help. His fingers found a tiny copper vial, stoppered with wax. He recognized it instantly by the feel of the Arabic characters engraved on the surface of the vial.
Seizing it desperately, he flicked his thumbnail across the wax and opened the vial, releasing a small amount of powder into his hand. He withdrew his hand from his pocket and flung the powder out about him in a wild fashion, and the air took on a shimmery haze reminiscent of the open desert at midday. The powder of Ibn Ghazi had the power to make visible the invisible.
“Bleedin’ nora, “ Gallowglass said, as the powder revealed his phantom throttler. He twisted about, trying to see, and immediately wished he hadn’t. The thing resembled a human brain, large and bloated, lobes pulsing with a searing violet light. Strange, feathery cilia rose from its surface like hairs, and a circular, lamprey-like mouth, studded with hundreds of tiny fangs, flexed wetly. A spinal column of rough bone hung down from it like the tail of a serpent, and it was that which had snared him. Its grip on his throat tightened, and it dragged him towards that hideous mouth.
Gallowglass raised her Webley, and he waved a hand in panic. “Don’ shoo’,” he gurgled.
“Stop wriggling,” she snapped, trying to get a bead on his attacker. He spun in mid-air, twisting and thrashing, trying to free himself. She lunged towards him, and grabbed at his shirt, hauling him down. As she did so, she pressed the barrel of her pistol to the bony tail, and pulled the trigger, emptying the weapon. The bone burst, and St. Cyprian fell to the floor, gasping. A strange, viscous fluid gushed from the wounded limb, and a sound like vibrating glass filled the room. The brain hurtled towards Gallowglass, knocking her off of her feet. Her pistol slid from her grip as she wrestled with the thing.
Their struggles carried them across the floor. St. Cyprian pried the twitching segments of bone from around his throat and hurled them aside, where they instantly began to dissolve, like sugar in the rain. Gasping, he rose to his feet and snatched up a poker from beside the fireplace. Moving quickly, he stepped over to where Gallowglass struggled with the entity, and cocked the poker for a swing. Gallowglass’ eyes widened. “Oi!” she yelped, in protest.
“Like you said--stop wriggling,” he shouted. He swung the poker, and felt a satisfying shiver up his arms as it connected. The vibrating glass sound echoed again, as the brain reared up on its wounded tail like an angry cobra, circular jaws working. St. Cyprian stumbled back as the bleeding stump of the tail slashed out and tore the poker from his hands.
Hands raised, he backed away, towards the fireplace. The brain shot towards him, and he flung himself aside desperately. He caught hold of the bony tail as it whipsawed out past him. The sharp growth of bone cut his palms, but he held on. The brain was stronger than it looked—impossibly strong—but it hadn’t been expecting him to grab it. Feet planted, he heaved it out and around, as if it were a cricket bat, and let it go. The brain’s own momentum carried it forward, as straight and as swift as a crossbow bolt, into the fireplace. It struck the back of the fireplace with a wet thwack, and tumbled into the fire.
St. Cyprian fell back as the flames surged up, and the brain screamed. The garret window burst as Gallowglass clapped her hands to her ears. St. Cyprian felt as if his teeth would rattle loose from his jaw as the sound spiralled up higher and higher. Its bony tail lashed out, scattering ash and chunks of burning books, but it couldn’t orient itself to escape. Instead it writhed and flopped grotesquely, bloated lobes throbbing in obvious agony.
“Catch,” Gallowglass said, tossing him the poker. He caught it and rammed it into the brain, pinning it in the fire. The brain fought against him, and he pressed down on the end of the poker, thrusting all of his weight against it. The brain’s struggles grew weaker and weaker as the flames consumed it. Soon, it was nothing more than a charred husk. He stepped back, poker in hand, breathing heavily. He rubbed his bruised throat.
“Well,” he said, looking at Gallowglass, “I guess we can safely say that fire hurts it.”