“We met, many years ago,” said the Black Man, “in the Burning City at the World’s End. I gave you a charge. Do you remember?”
I nodded. I said, “I carried your package in my dreams and passed it to an ancient queen.”
“Yes,” he said. “I have a favor to ask of you. If you agree to perform it, I will be in your debt. If you decline … well, I make no threats. I will seek another champion but the chances of success will be lessened in the hands of another.”
I frowned. “That still sounds like a threat.”
He smiled, bluish white teeth standing out between black lips. He said, “It is no threat. Your chances of success are slight. But you have spoken with dragons and walked away unburned. It gives you a meager advantage.”
The road stretched out into the late night blackness. The automobile’s headlights illuminated so little. Above us the star filled sky contrasted sharply with the blank emptiness of the surrounding landscape.
Rosa stirred and lifted her head. I heard her taste the inside of her mouth and find the experience unpleasant. “Where are we?” she asked.
“About two hours farther into the middle of nowhere,” I replied.
She reached for the radio knob and began to seek a broadcast. Mostly static rewarded her efforts. Occasional echoes of a voice were caught and quickly lost. And then she found the music.
The monstrosity heaved itself into view. It was even more horrible looking than Osgoode’s description. Worse, Osgoode had failed to mention the hideous piping sound that emanated from and around the thing. I wanted to cover my ears but I needed my arms for climbing.
Day did not really arrive. The starless darkness of night merely lightened into a lighter grey fog that we designated as dawn more because we needed a morning than because it felt as if the day had come.
Ginnie brought the airship low enough that we could make out details of the risen city. It was clotted with mud and the corpses of sea creatures that had not survived the transition from the unknown depths. The air was thick with the stench of rotting, the rotting of the freshly dead and the rotting of things that had lain undisturbed for centuries.
Quint brought out the snowshoe-like foot wear that he and Barth and Len Wei had been crafting. The wide webbed soles would, ideally, keep us from sinking in the putrid mud. Cyrus had not had such help but he had the guidance of his dreams. Hopefully they would keep him safe until we caught up.
The man the white suit made an expression that was similar to a smile. He said, “My parents christened me Courage. Courage Llewellyn. Perhaps by such naming me, I no longer had need of the virtue. I have seen fear in many men, and quite a few women, over the last three centuries, but I have never felt it myself. I understand caution. I would not have lived as long as I have if I were as fool hardy as many of the brave men I’ve known. Yet, that trepidation that so many must overcome in order to act? It has never been part of my nature.”
I struggled to hold up my head. My body fought the drugs but the drugs were winning the battle. I could force out only a simplified query, “So?”
He turned his unblinking eyes to me. He said, “I have need of a guide into places where men would be foolish to walk. I would like to engage your services as such as guide.”
Uncle Boris lit first my cigar and then his own. We stood silently, watching the auroras, simply smoking. At last he turned and favored me with one of his hideous grins. I still remembered how funny I had found them when I was a girl. He said, “You’re put together a fine troop, Rose. Your father would be proud.”
“You’re welcome to travel with us,” I said.
He nodded his head in acknowledgement. “I think your people favor daylight far more than would give me pleasure. But I will consider it.” He looked toward the house and narrowed his black eyes. “Now, tell me about this nonexistent tome that has so captivated young Cyrus.”
Doctor Saloman attempted to bring his cup of coffee to his mouth but, lacking control over his nerves, he succeed more in decorating his shirt front than in wetting his tongue. I gently took the cup and set it with in reach on a side table. The doctor blinked quickly and tried to focus on my face. “Do you believe me?” he asked.
Jack produced one of his warm and disarming smiles. He said, “We do, sir. There have been five other incidents that we know of. We intend to locate this fiend and end its reign of terror.”
The air above the platform shimmered. I half expected to see lightning bolts and bright colored lights but, no, the difference was subtler than that. There was a thickening and discoloration to the atmosphere that made me think of disease and putrefaction. I began to notice a sound, a low continuous moan that seemed to come from no definite direction. As the minutes passed the sound grew more noticeable yet did not seem to grow louder. I found myself breathing more rapidly. With each breath a smell, not of rot as my eyes expected, but of slightly burnt sugar, filtered into my nostrils.
Something moved above the platform. I could not define its shape. It was a thicker discoloration in the polluted looking air. It seemed to be swimming.
Cyrus stood, as if listening, just beyond the reach of the tide. He did not seem to have heard me approach. I waited as the sun cleared the horizon.
Cyrus turned to look at me. His eyes were focused on something I could not see. He said, “I hear him calling. Every night. Ever since that bad night in the bayou. He’s out there, under waves. Sleeping. But some day he’s going to wake up. And then I’ll have to go.”