From the author: I love collaborative writing--to me, it combines everything I love best about writing (creation, imagination, that indefinable spark) with everything I love best about editing (figuring out another creative person’s mind and working out how best to express it). Plus, it’s just fun to play together. This story was written for Gears and Levers Volume 1, from Sky Warrior, April 2012, and reprinted in my collection Eastlick and Other Stories, 2013.
NIGHT WITHOUT DARKNESS
By Shannon Page and Mark J. Ferrari
In which the lamentable Mr. Wendell Shrewsbury, Esq., proffers his astonishing recollections regarding the spectacular events which transpired on the evening of December 7, 1886, in the Cambridge manor laboratory of Sir Rupert Collin Frost.
… The laboratory in flames, generating ever-larger flashes of blinding light and searing heat. The terrible din of exploding bottles and jars assaulting his ears. Tinctures and potions combining as they were never meant to do, filling his lungs with noxious fumes. The high, choking screams of Lord Frost… suddenly silenced.
Shrewsbury stands, frozen as always, held within this horrifying scene by guilt and remorse—real or imagined, he no longer knows—unable to avert his eyes as Lord Frost bursts from the conflagration, a man aflame. The doctor’s nearly vanished lab coat is a shriveling, blackened wick, billowing up on gusts of heat as it is consumed. His sizzling skin sends a cloying stench into the air… “Shrewsbury!” With that anguished, accusing croak, Frost pitches forward, perishing for the thousandth time at the feet of his horrified protégé.
A dark, flitting presence begins to mock Shrewsbury from within the flames and smoke, from behind Frost’s ruined face—from inside Shrewsbury’s very mind. As it whispers sins—of commission, and omission—he is appalled to realize that it has been there all along, hiding in his thoughts, his dreams, slyly driving him… to this.
“Officious fools!” it hisses triumphantly, as if borrowing voice from the flames themselves. “What would England be without its dreams—and us to shepherd them?”
An insistent knocking brought Shrewsbury to what remained of his senses. He bolted up in bed, gasping for breath, pulling the covers up against the chill of the deep February night. Had he been shouting? Very likely... his throat felt dry and sore.
He looked around, blinking in the dimly lit room. It was not his own; he was abed in a well-appointed guestroom at the home of barrister Ian Rutherford, Esq.
An old friend and Cambridge classmate, Rutherford had made significantly better progress in the world than had Wendell Shrewsbury since their graduation together some twenty years before. Ian’s warm if unexpected letter inquiring into Wendell’s strange elusiveness these past few years, and inviting him to come rekindle their old friendship, had drawn Shrewsbury hesitantly out of hiding, hopeful that a change of scenery and some social interaction might relieve his... difficult condition.
“Wendell? Wendell! Are you quite all right in there?” The knocking grew a little gentler, if no less insistent.
It was the first night of Wendell’s visit—and, he feared, after this display, his last.
A quarter-hour later, the two men sat downstairs in Ian’s book-lined study. A coal fire had been laid and lit by Ian’s aged, live-in housekeeper, Mrs. Sapphira Lamblittle, and was now bestowing some begrudging warmth upon the room. This elusive comfort had been augmented by the half-drained snifter of brandy at Wendell’s elbow. He took another sip and adjusted the belt and lapels of his dressing-gown self-consciously. He could not meet his old friend’s eyes, choosing instead to watch the low flames, despite their dreadful evocation of his fiery dream.
“I am terribly sorry for waking you—and Mrs. Lamblittle,” Shrewsbury ventured at last.
“Not at all!” Rutherford cried, too cheerfully. “I am only glad that you happened to be here and not alone while suffering so terrible an episode.”
“Ah…” Wendell gazed into the fire. “Well... Yes. It can be quite troubling…”
“You’ve had such fits before?” his friend asked gently.
“I have.” Wendell took another sip, nearly finishing the snifter, and set it down on the mahogany table beside him, only to have Ian reach for the decanter and pour him another generous glass. “Almost… every night.”
“Every night?” Ian blanched and took a healthy draught of his own brandy, then shook his handsome head. “What devilish torment! Is there no one of sufficient expertise in such matters to offer you hope of relief?”
“There was,” Wendell lamented. “There was…” The liquor was beginning to affect him... that, and the terrible paucity of sleep. Despair crept ever closer. “But he is lost forever now—and... I fear this torment I endure is all too richly deserved.”
“The devil, you say!”
“The devil, indeed.” Wendell teetered on the brink of indecision. He could make his excuses and leave tonight—or on the morrow, more politely—to continue bearing this burden alone. Or…
A sudden resolve prodded him to speak before he quite knew he’d decided to. “Oh, Ian, dear friend, I cannot contain it any longer. I must tell someone, though it leave me in as much need of your legal assistance as of any medical counsel. Yet, confess I must, if only in the desperate hope that guilt acknowledged and justice satisfied may rid me at last of this endless nocturnal scourge. May I burden you, old friend, with a dreadful tale—from which I dare hope our long friendship might emerge intact?”
His friend stared back, blue eyes glinting in the firelight. “After such an introduction, how am I to sleep now without hearing it?”
“I fear you’d best not count on sleeping either way,” said Wendell. “Does the name Sir Rupert Collin Frost mean anything to you?”
“I’ve heard of him, of course. Who hasn’t? Such a titillating catastrophe!” Ian leaned forward, keen interest on his ruddy face. “Did you know him?”
“More than that,” said Wendell. “I was his research assistant for some years.”
“You jest! How can I have failed to hear of this before?”
“I have taken pains to see the fact unadvertised.” Wendell did not entirely succeed in keeping his voice steady.
“Surely…” Ian said, “you weren’t there when…”
“Oh yes,” Wendell whispered, lost in painful memory. “I was there. I am not sure I have ever truly left that night behind. It has not left me. That much is certain.”
Wendell accepted another refill of his brandy, cleared his throat, and set out to confide at last the lurid truth of Lord Frost Collin Frost’s spectacularly fatal attempt to rid England forever of nightmares.
“You know, of course, that Lord Frost was a brilliant man of science.”
“Of course,” Ian murmured. “Sleep research, was it?”
Wendell nodded. “And not merely sleep—he was also enquiring into the anatomy, and possible uses of dreams.”
“Yes,” said Ian. “I read his Systems and Practices of the Nocturnal Mind with great interest. A seminal tract. Quite revolutionary.”
“You cannot begin to know... the half of it,” said Wendell.
“Do tell.” Ian settled more comfortably into his chair. “I am awash with curiosity.”
Wendell knew that he was stalling for time, considering his approach, as though just the right combination of words might somehow sanitize the awful truth.
He took another swallow of brandy, then stared again into the fire as he spoke. “Though it’s been scarcely more than whispered beyond certain inner circles since his... horrific demise, Lord Frost believed that nightmares might not be merely dreams at all, but invasive psychonomic parasites—an entirely new and utterly uncatalogued form of life which preys upon, or engenders some malevolent symbiosis with, the dreaming human mind.” He kept his eyes firmly upon the low flames, anxiously awaiting his friend’s response to this outlandish assertion.
“Please, go on.” Ian’s voice was low and calm.
Wendell risked a glance at the barrister, finding him apparently at ease. “During my employment with him, Lord Frost did, in fact, invent, and was perfecting, a series of ingenious devices capable of extracting these parasites from the minds of numerous tormented subjects. In fact,” he ventured timidly, “we had managed to imprison a fair collection of these... creatures... in hermetically sealed glass vacuum bells for study and extermination.”
Wendell sighed. “It’s likely treason to be telling you all this. But I don’t care... Not anymore. What can they do to me that could be worse than what I suffer now?”
“Treason! Good God, man! Why?”
Wendell considered his impeccably educated, worldly friend, wondering how he of all people could fail to grasp the implications. “Imagine our advantage over other nations, were the sleep of all English citizens—and theirs alone—never troubled by such anxieties and terrors; if every head in England woke well rested each morning; if England’s children grew up free of the subconscious fears that so distort and disable young minds elsewhere in the world. How many fewer criminals might we have to cope with? How much more fearless confidence might this country’s future generations take for granted in the course of their endeavors?”
“You don’t mean that he intended to keep such a boon secret from the wider world?”
“Indeed. He was commanded to do so by none less than the prime minister.”
“What of Scotland?” Ian asked, a slight resentment creeping into his heretofore encouraging tone. “And Ireland? Would all of Her Majesty’s subjects have so benefitted, or only those closest to the throne, if you take my meaning?”
“I do not know, old friend,” Wendell said, shaking his head. A lump of sorrow—or anger—settled in his chest. “Nor shall we ever know. Not now…”
Ian soon proved so engrossed, that, against all expectation, Wendell found himself warming to the task of describing Frost’s ingenious devices. Chief among them, he explained, was a massive piece of sealed headgear rather like the helmets worn for deep sea diving. This ‘extraction bell,’ as Frost had called it, was encrusted with smaller mechanisms cleverly contrived to produce, through the highly pressurized release of steam from tiny pinholes, ultra-sonic frequencies inaudible to human subjects but extremely unpleasant to the fiendish parasites. Upon penetrating the subject’s brain, these frequencies had compelled the ethereal creatures to flee through various orifices in the victim’s head. From there, sonic devices had moved along tracks attached to the vacuum hoses, generating a moving pulse which forced the fleeing beasties through a network of complexly valved and insulated vacuum hoses sealed to the headgear. In this way, the parasites had been conveyed into large glass bell jars, instantly vacuum-sealed by pumping out their atmospheric contents through a sonic barrier which the creatures themselves would or could not pass. The gaseous parasites alone were left inside to be observed through various filters and lenses, and experimented upon by numerous other means and mechanisms of Frost’s invention.
Describing these marvels gradually transported Wendell back to the happier days of his mentorship under Lord Frost. As a man of science himself, Wendell could not help but admire the genius behind such a truly elegant system. He even began to recall some of the pride he’d once taken in his own contributions to their work. “We were going to change the world!” he declared, waving his empty brandy glass expansively. “Top government ministers—I mean top ministers—” he fixed Rutherford with a knowing gaze “—visited our laboratory every week, eager for our latest reports and demonstrations. And rather ready with support, if you take my meaning... Lord Frost’s fortune, though vast, was not inexhaustible, and groundbreaking scientific research is not for the financially faint of heart.”
“I can well imagine,” his host said, replenishing Wendell’s beverage once again.
Shrewsbury took another fortifying swallow. Confessing himself had clearly been the right decision. He already felt his awful burden dissipating. How much torment might have been avoided had he found the courage to try facing all this sooner? In fact, he wondered what had kept him hiding all this time. Could even that be laid to the pernicious influence of... but no. Those were the musings of a madman, alone in the dark with his thoughts. He was not that madman, and not alone tonight.
The thought returned him to his surroundings. The coal fire was burning low; Mrs. Lamblittle must have retired once more.
“A truly fascinating tale, Wendell,” Ian said, pouring a bit more brandy into each of their glasses. “But... I find no evidence within it to explain your earlier assertion.”
“What assertion do you mean?”
“That this nightly torment you endure is well deserved?”
“Ah yes, of course,” Shrewsbury muttered, gazing downward. His prideful reminiscences collapsed and fell away. “I shall hasten to the point, then, so that we may both have hope of at least a few hours slumber before dawn.”
“Do not rush on my account!” Ian leaned back in his overstuffed chair. “But tell me: did you not undergo the experiment yourself? Or was Lord Frost unable to perform this extraction of your own nightmares?”
“Ahhh…” All unknowing, and from entirely the wrong way ’round, his host had hit upon the dark heart of it. “No, more’s the pity; I never did. Had I experienced anything resembling an overt nightmare during those last fateful months, I’d doubtless have been bolted into Lord Frost’s collection device as fast as you could say Wee Willy Winkie, and that would have been the end of it.”
“The end of what?” his old friend asked with visibly rekindled interest.
“If only I had seen the truth in time,” Wendell lamented, “I’d likely enjoy a station far loftier than yours by now.” Ian’s smile dimmed somewhat, but Shrewsbury gave it no thought as he fell deeper into reverie. “Alas. No such happy fortune is accorded me.” He took a larger draught of brandy than good manners might have countenanced, and heaved a sigh of resignation. “Here’s the awful truth of it, then.”
Ian set his brandy down, and leaned forward in his chair to listen.
“I must assume,” Wendell said, “that one of these fiendish creatures somehow glimpsed the nature of our activities while sorting through the contents of my own mind at nights. Not only that, but it apparently then had the cunning to conduct itself in ways not recognizable to me as nightmare... Not then. No...”
“I am... not sure I take your meaning,” Ian said, in a stiff voice. Wendell glanced up at him. The shadows of the dying fire played upon his old friend’s face unpleasantly, though Ian smiled as if anticipating some reassuring explanation.
In for a penny, in for a pound, Wendell thought, gripped now by the determination to unburden himself completely of this dreadful secret. “I believe it infects me still.”
“What? ... One of these parasites you speak of?”
“The very creature whose tender ministrations you so mercifully interrupted earlier this evening,” Shrewsbury acknowledged.
Ian withdrew into the shadows of his plush chair, and raised the snifter to his lips, obscuring his expression.
“Once they are housed in the skull,” Shrewsbury explained, “such creatures can live and grow, apparently, watching and waiting, biding their time…”
“You speak of these... parasites... as if they had intelligence and agency,” Ian observed.
Wendell leaned forward, gazing at his friend. “But they do—it does! These are no mere automatons, mindlessly feeding and breeding and dying like so many other members of the animal kingdom. They think. They plan, and scheme,” he whispered, half forgetful of his friend, “but subtly, oh so subtly.”
“So... this nightmare you’ve been suffering... is not just a living organism lodged within your mind, but actively contriving some enduring plan to harm you?” Ian asked.
Shrewsbury nodded miserably, aware that he had finally outpaced his host’s credulity.
“But why?” Ian pressed. “I too have nightmares from time to time. Who does not? They do not remain after waking to keep waging some campaign against me. Even if you are correct, and these dreams really are the work of some elusive organism, what purpose could a parasite have in persecuting the host from whom it presumably benefits?”
“Revenge, I assume,” Shrewsbury replied with a desolate shrug. “We persecuted others of its kind, and would certainly have done as much to it if we had guessed in time that it was there. Having used me to defeat my mentor, it now seems to derive more pleasure from my extended torment than from just dispatching me as it contrived to do to poor Lord Frost.”
Ian set his snifter down abruptly and lurched forward in his chair. “Surely you’re not claiming that this insubstantial... insect is somehow responsible for Lord Frost’s death!”
“It... and I,” Shrewsbury murmured, once again unable to look anywhere but into Ian’s dying fire.
“I do not believe it,” Ian said. “I would sooner think you mad, old friend, than a murderer of any kind. I will help in any way I can, financially if necessary, and, of course, you may count on my absolute discretion, but I think you must seek help immediately in regard to this delusion that you suffer.”
“That is very generous,” Shrewsbury said in disappointment, “but I am quite certain that this is no delusion. Would that it were! I am well aware of how incredible these claims must sound, but the entity of which I speak is, sadly, all too real. You have not seen its cousins in the laboratory as I have. You... were not there... that night…”
Elsewhere in the house, Wendell heard footsteps and the muffled thump of a closing door. Mrs. Lamblittle, no doubt, up again for something. He hoped she might consider coming in to tend the waning fire.
“What did happen... that night?” Ian pressed, if less enthusiastically than before.
That night... Wendell thought despondently.
“It started well before then,” he said at last. “Having discerned the threat we posed to it before we discerned its threat to us, the pernicious demon refrained from inflicting any overt nocturnal terror. Rather, it simply hid within my mind, subtly manipulating both my thoughts and dreams to induce within me a growing urge, first to prove, and later to aggrandize myself before Lord Frost. It exploited my propensity for pride, my vanity and weakness for conceit. No gentler description is merited, I fear. I found myself increasingly compelled to pretentious displays of zeal for meticulous detail and obsessive perfection in my work, not that I found anything strange in such behavior. What young man does not seek the attention and approval of his employer in hope of advancement? Unfortunately, this new proclivity soon proved so insatiable that I began inventing opportunities to demonstrate my usefulness by fixing things that were not broken—first between myself and the lesser members of Lord Frost’s staff and household, then between myself and Lord Frost, himself, and eventually presuming to improve upon the lab’s equipment and devices themselves…”
“What sorts of improvement?” Ian asked.
“Small things. Trivial, in fact... at first.” Shrewsbury sighed. “Needless attention to parts I thought wanted lubrication or polishing to remedy some rough edge or improper motion. Things meant to have no real impact beyond that of impressing upon Lord Frost what a careful, knowledgeable, important resource I was. Indeed, Lord Frost was initially delighted by my industrious attention to detail—which just encouraged my evolving mania.” Wendell gazed bleakly at his host, who stared back in silence. “How is one to know he builds a weapon, Ian, if he never sees more than the one small piece he’s given to contribute at a time?”
“I... could not say,” his friend answered carefully.
“They are diabolic creatures, these nightmares,” Wendell said. “This one, anyway. By this excessive maintenance, it learned at least as much as I did about our equipment’s every part and function. I saw nothing then save my own good works, and cannot say, even now, exactly when I shifted from inconsequential meddlings to more significant attempts to usurp both the direction and implementation of Lord Frost’s research. No longer content merely to magnify myself as his assistant, I now hoped to engineer recognition and reward as a peer and co-author of the breakthroughs we pursued.”
“Had you even any medical degree yet?” Ian asked.
“I... still have nothing but the degree in general sciences I took at Cambridge,” Shrewsbury admitted with chagrin. It was as if the tale were telling him now, rather than the other way ’round, but Wendell felt compelled to make Ian see this was no mere madness to be coddled and contained at some gentle sanatorium. If even his old friend could not be made to see the truth, then what purpose had there been to this whole exercise?
“Under the devious influence of my invasive parasite, I had become convinced that practical experience trumped any mere certificate bestowed by tired, old, wine-soaked dons. I imagined myself Lord Frost’s right hand man, and merely sought to help others, including himself, recognize the fact.” He shook his head in self-disgust.
“On the fateful night in question, I arrived at the laboratory hours earlier than necessary—as had been my overeager practice for so many months by then—and, predictably, found myself alone there. I lit the lamps, reviewed Lord Frost’s most recent notes, and set about preparing the materials and devices for that evening’s procedure. It was to be a challenging extraction. The subject was a deeply troubled young woman.” Wendell shook his head sadly. “She had sought us out on the advice of Lord Frost’s cousin in Dorset where they both resided. Her dreadful and relentless nightmares had brought her to fear sleep itself. Much like…” He trailed off with a small shudder. “We were, of course, earnestly determined to free her of this affliction.
“As I ignited the device’s engines, and adjusted output levels, it suddenly seemed to me that stronger frequencies than normally applied were surely called for in a case of this severity.” As the dreadful reminiscence grew more vivid, Shrewsbury became all but unaware of his rapt audience. “I can still recall how the machine hummed to life under my fingers, as if eager for my commands... I turned the knobs higher, strangely convinced that the apparent strength of that night’s quarry demanded strength in return, and that my employer’s usual practices were overly cautious, perhaps to the point of endangering our subject.” The recollection filled Wendell with an urge to sob, which he manfully suppressed. “I assured myself that Lord Frost would examine the machine himself, once he arrived, and override my decisions if he chose to.
“My preparations were barely concluded, however, when I heard a tentative knock at the laboratory’s inner door. I went to see who it could be and found Miss Ingleside, our unfortunate client, arrived at least an hour early. The housekeeper, it seemed, had simply escorted her up and left her at the laboratory door. I remember thinking she should be reprimanded for such conduct. In retrospect, Miss Ingleside’s premature arrival seems uncannily well timed to facilitate what was about to happen. I have sometimes wondered since if these creatures may be capable of some communication over distance with others of their kind. Could her parasite have conspired with mine?” Wendell bowed his head. “This is yet another question we will likely never answer, now.” He sighed deeply.
“I recall that Miss Ingleside was dreadfully pale. There were dark, greenish patches below her sallow eyes. Her dress hung off her thin, brittle frame as if off a broomstick. She asked timidly if I were Lord Frost, and I told her, no, that I was his associate. Flooded with compassion for the poor creature, I invited her to sit down in the room’s only chair, to which she would be later strapped for the procedure.” Wendell reached once more for his brandy glass, which Ian had quietly topped up. “She sat there shivering, though the laboratory was quite comfortable. Only when she declined the offer of a blanket did I realize that she was trembling with fright, if not exhaustion too, rather than from cold.
“My heart filled with the tender, urgent desire to assist her at once. I felt bizarrely certain that Lord Frost would heartily approve of my decision not to make her wait a moment longer for relief. I had performed this sort of procedure countless times by then, or, at any rate, assisted Frost in doing so, which seemed much the same thing to me at that ill-fated moment.”
Ian made a small, apprehensive noise, and rose to set a few more coals onto the fire himself, nudging them into place with a long, wrought-iron poker.
“Have I been wrong to tell you this?” Shrewsbury asked.
“Of course not,” his host replied, settling back into his chair. “It is just... not the kind of tale to be listened to in darkness.”
“Of course. Quite right,” said Shrewsbury, so thoroughly engrossed in his own account by then that he’d not even noticed the fire had finally died. “It was foolishness,” he went on. “Utter madness. Lord Frost was a meticulous researcher, always careful to maintain precise records and complete control of each experiment. Though I’d been permitted to maintain and calibrate the engines and delivery systems, and pump out the collection jars upon capture of an organism, there was never to be any hand but his on that final switch... He had made that very clear.” Shrewsbury gripped his glass, fairly quivering with outrage at his own disastrous arrogance. “Yet, after months, I now surmise, of my nightmarish handler’s grooming, I somehow felt myself perfectly qualified to help this poor girl without waiting for Lord Frost, whom I did not expect for some time yet.”
Ian sat in silence, his face blank of any readable reaction to such hubris.
“I bade Miss Ingleside make herself as comfortable as possible, and adjusted the chair’s restraining belts to her small frame, then fastened her delicate arms into the leather straps upon its own. Lord Frost and I had quickly discovered how forcefully the distressed parasites could cause our subjects to thrash about in pursuit of escape once the procedure began.
“She quavered a bit, as I finished my work, but I had explained the treatment to her very carefully before strapping her in, so she did not complain. I placed the extraction bell over her head, and sealed it around her neck, made sure her breathing-tube was functioning properly, and, after giving her a final, reassuring pat, stepped to the controls.”
Shrewsbury put his head into his hands in abject misery. “I wish I could claim to have hesitated before placing my hand upon that lever... but I did not. All was ready and checked two or three times over. I was fully confident of all my calculations.
“I threw the master switch.
“Steam billowed from exhaust portals just outside the laboratory windows, as usual. Miss Ingleside gave a small shriek, muffled by the diving bell and breathing tube, which, as I’ve mentioned, was not unusual either. I cautioned her to be still, but she responded by writhing even more aggressively against her constraints. Seeing how mercilessly the beast within drove her, I surmised it must be very powerful indeed. Motivated by this speculation, I increased the frequencies yet another notch—hoping to drive her tormentor out the faster.”
“I do not think I like where this tale seems to lead,” Ian murmured.
“Nor should you,” Wendell answered sadly. “As you’ve clearly guessed, guided by my own still undiscovered passenger, I kept finding reasons to turn the dials further up, just the merest nudge. Miss Ingleside began to thrash about so wildly, that she actually managed to free one of her wrists from its strap, and, a second later, her upper arm. So much strength in such a tiny frame! I thought, rushing to stop her as she began to rip the other straps away with her freed hand. I grappled with her, but her strength proved truly superhuman, and I found no way of gaining ground against her efforts without risking harm to her myself. I had no idea what to do.
“Even more unfortunately, the panel of controls was close enough to the chair that as we struggled with each other, she was able to reach out and slap frantically at its knobs and dials, apparently attempting to stop the procedure. All she succeeded at was boosting half the frequencies to levels I would never have employed in any state of mind. Worse yet, as they were knocked completely out of calibration, the sonic instruments began to generate dissonant vibrations that rattled half the objects in the room, including my own teeth.
“I still see that moment, with such dreadful clarity, as the bell jars began to shatter from the sound.”
“The nightmares!” Ian gasped. “Did they escape?”
“Oh yes. But not just to flee, I soon discovered. Abandoning the struggling woman, I leapt for the collection of vibrating jars, attempting to contain the damage, but had hardly started before the air seemed filled with terrifying sounds.” Wendell brought his hands up to the sides of his head. “I barely heard Miss Ingleside begin to scream anew as the room filled suddenly with monstrous forms. I felt pressed about with filthy, sweating, stinking bodies. I cried out, trying to push them back, but they simply pressed in harder.
“Panic turned to terror in my head and chest. The air became rank, entering my lungs like viscous, septic syrup. I no longer saw the laboratory at all—but the interior of a crowded passenger-coach, loaded with convulsing corpses. It careened down a narrow, winding street, rocking wildly as all of us inside it cried in panic, gouging, scratching, kicking to get out. I tasted blood, felt it coat and clog my throat!
“Gasping, I groped desperately around me for a pull-cord to alert the driver—but everywhere I reached, I just felt more putrescent flesh, more rotting, blood-drenched clothing, matted hair, ragged fingernails... When my hand at last found what I was sure must be the cord, I yanked upon it with all my strength, and was rewarded with a flash of light and heat, as if the very coach around me had exploded.
“Amidst this maelstrom, I heard the shouts of my employer. As if punctured by his voice, the illusory coach vanished, and I found myself lying on the floor as Lord Frost struggled nearby to free the now unconscious Miss Ingleside from her remaining restraints. The laboratory was engulfed in flames! Hoses had been torn away, spewing the highly combustible experimental fuels we used to heat our boilers all about. These had somehow ignited. Gazing about in horror, I saw that all of the laboratory’s accoutrements had been scattered and demolished! Had I caused all this damage flailing at imagined corpses?
“Lord Frost bellowed something at me, seeming angry and confused. I drew breath to explain myself, but my lungs were stung by smoke and searing heat, and I was merely wracked with coughing.
“‘Get up, man! Help me get her out of here!’ he cried, trying to drag me to my feet.
“Still influenced by my internal foe, I heard only blame and outrage in my mentor’s voice. After all my efforts to win his admiration, he clearly now felt nothing but contempt for me. I found his censure quite unfair. He had no idea of the trials that had befallen me. With his help, I pulled myself upright at last, still intent upon explaining. But before I could, his face became that of the Devil itself—twisted, red and leering. I shrieked and scrambled back, shoving him away... quite forcefully…” Shrewsbury’s restraint failed at last, and the anguished sob that had been building in his chest—for years—erupted. “I pushed him... straight into the conflagration!”
“Wendell!” Ian exclaimed. “Calm yourself!”
“Oh, dear God!” Shrewsbury wailed, rising from his chair. “Dear God, I killed him, Ian!”
“It is but a memory!” Ian shouted, rising now as well to grab Wendell’s arms as if to keep him from destroying the study as Wendell knew he’d ruined Frost’s laboratory in his panic. “No one seeks to hurt you here! Be calm, old friend!... be calm.”
“I could have saved him, Ian,” Wendell sobbed, collapsing into his friend’s bewildered embrace. “I could have saved them both, but I just stood there, frozen, immobilized by the sudden understanding of what I had done—not just then, but all along.” He wrenched himself from Ian’s arms, and staggered back to fall into his chair. “That is when the demon within me finally made its presence known. It started whispering accusations, audibly gloating at how easily I had allowed myself to be manipulated—as it still does... to this very night.”
“How could you have known?” his friend insisted, trying feebly to comfort him.
“How should I have not?” moaned Wendell. “In all the world, I was one of just a handful who could have known... Who should have known…”
“Ian, dear friend,” his host insisted, “what is gained by such self-torment?”
“I saw him die,” Shrewsbury whimpered. “It was too terrible... I ran, Ian.” He buried his face in his hands again. “I left them both, and ran to save myself... It is only right that each night now I am required to return... Unable to run... Forced to watch…”
“There are doctors who can help you,” Ian pled. “There is no demon in your brain, my friend. Only guilt and horror, for which no one, least of all myself, could blame you after such an ordeal.”
“They are free!” Shrewsbury rasped. “Do you not understand? With cause to fear us no—to hate us even—and the only man who might have stopped them dead! By my hand!”
Ian seemed about to speak again, but they were interrupted by a loud banging at the front door of his residence. Startled, Ian looked at Wendell, as if wondering whether it were safe to leave him there, then headed for the study door. Before he reached it, however, Mrs. Lamblittle burst in, followed by two burly constables.
“There he is!” the housekeeper cried, pointing at Shrewsbury. Wendell made no effort to resist as the men hurried past her to seize him. Well-drunk on brandy, and quite depleted from so many months of such badly interrupted sleep, he just collapsed into their grasp.
“What is the meaning of this?” Ian demanded. “Unhand him! He is my guest here.”
“He’s no proper guest, Mr. Rutherford, no he ain’t!” Mrs. Lamblittle broke in shrilly. “It was treason he were talking! Said so himself. Treason and murder. I heard him, I did! I were listening in the hall the whole time, and glad of it.” At the scowl this brought to her employer’s face, she added, “I’m saving us all, and you’ll thank me for it later, I’ve no doubt.”
Wendell watched his host struggle to frame some response, and lose that struggle. Quite wise, old friend, he thought. An up and coming barrister might not want to be heard defending a murderer caught in the act of treason. And just as well. If I am lucky, they will hang me now. Then again, to sleep, perchance to dream... Aye, there’s the rub…
As the constables carted Wendell toward the door, he felt the thing within him seize his body, and a shrill, unnatural laughter burst involuntarily from his mouth. Wendell screwed his eyes shut, trying to suppress this violation of his sovereign self, but to no avail. The thing inside him pried his lips apart once more, and a voice that he had never heard before outside of dreams screeched, “Self-destructive fools!!! You think yourselves so wise, your science so indomitable, but without us there can be no dreams! And what will England be without its dreams?” it cackled. “What will England be?”
This story originally appeared in Eastlick and Other Stories.