From the author: The Royal Occultist faces the fangs of a phantasmal bear in the sewers of London.
The hole gaped like an open mouth in the centuries-old brickwork of the cellar. A rank, musky smell wafted from the dark opening, and a faint murmur from the nearby Thames could be heard by those who examined the mouldy facade of brick and crumbling mortar. Something dark and wet glistened on the flagstones that led up to the wall, illuminated in the flickering glow of an electric lantern hanging from the ceiling.
Charles St. Cyprian puffed on his cigarette and eyed the hole from a safe distance away. "What does that smell remind you of, apprentice-mine?" he asked. Dressed in one of the finest sartorial creations to ever leave a Savile Row tailors’, he looked out of place in the dank confines of the cellar. He fiddled with the hang of his coat as he observed the hole. Clothes made the man, and vanity was one of the few indulgences he allowed himself.
Ebe Gallowglass sniffed the air and sneezed. Pawing at her nose, she said, "Smells like a zoo, don't it?" Dark and thin, Gallowglass was dressed like some hybrid of a street urchin and a longshoreman, with dashes of colour in unusual places, and a battered flat cap on her head.
"I don't know, does it?" St. Cyprian said. He flicked ash from his cigarette, and looked at the other man in the cellar. "We really must get you elocution lessons. Can't have the apprentice to His Majesty's Royal Occultist wandering about miming about like a stock character from Dickens, now can we?"
Formed during the reign of Elizabeth the First, the office of Royal Occultist had started with the diligent amateur Dr. John Dee, and its responsibilities now rested on St. Cyprian’s shoulders. Regardless of who held the post, the purpose was the same; the investigation, organisation and occasional suppression of That Which Man Was Not Meant to Know, by order of the King (or Queen), for the good of the British Empire. In time, those duties would pass to Gallowglass. If she survived.
"I don't know, can we?" Gallowglass said, mimicking his tone. "And I'm your assistant," she added. She took a step towards the hole. What sounded like the clink of old chains sounded from the hole, and she froze, one hand beneath her coat, her fingers wrapped around the grip of the Webley-Fosbery revolver holstered beneath her arm. It was an innocuous sound. It could have been anything – water on a pipe, settling pavement, falling mortar. But it wasn't.
It was the sound of something stirring.
St. Cyprian reached out and grabbed the back of her coat. "Back up, slowly," he murmured. "It's agitated enough, what?"
"What is it?" Gallowglass asked.
"We were rather hoping you could tell us, ma'am," said a new voice. A thin figure stooped and entered the cellar through the opening opposite the hole. He was a short man and built spare, with a wilting grin and a long face, clad in a boiler suit 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.
Ian Stanhook, night-manager for the Thames Section of the London Tunnel Authority, took off his helmet and ran a hand through his sweaty mop of hair. He lit a foul-smelling cheroot with a match and sucked in a lungful of smoke. He proffered the pack to Gallowglass, who eagerly snatched one.
The London Tunnel Authority was older even than the offices of the Royal Occultist, 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.
Such was the case now. The house above was under reconstruction. The cellars below extended further than they ought, and that had pricked the curiosity of the men of the Thames Section. As had strange noises and odours the workmen had reported. A dislodged brick had revealed a false wall, and a further chamber, catty-corner to the cellar.
When Stanhook and his men had investigated, they had found the hole, likely created by the reverberations of the work going on above. And when one poor young man had squeezed into the hole, something had found him. And when it had, it hadn't been gentle, going by the blood drying on the stones.
"Hello Stanhook. How's your fellow, then? Not too badly hurt, I hope," St. Cyprian said. He extended his hand. Stanhook hesitated, but took it.
"He'll live. Nearly had his foot off, though. Whatever it is." He shook his head. "We didn't even see the blasted thing. One moment there's nothing, then that smell, and poor Wilbur screaming..." Stanhook trailed off. "Thought it was one of them, at first." He shivered slightly. St. Cyprian couldn't blame him.
There were things in the earth, things that walked that ought to crawl, things that even the Royal Occultist had little power over, and when they climbed out of the depths, it meant trouble for everyone. "Thought we'd stumbled into another nest, like that one in Deptford last year," Stanhook went on.
"Thankfully, we're too close to Blackfriars for that," St. Cyprian said. "Something about the bridge puts quite the fright in our-ah-'downstairs neighbours'. No, this is something else." He scratched his chin. If he squinted, he could almost see movement in the dark. Not human, or even anything living. It was more like dust stirred by a strong wind. But there was no wind down here. Not even a breeze. "That's old stonework. Fairly unsophisticated as well. Several centuries old, wouldn't you say, old chap?" He glanced at Stanhook.
Stanhook sniffed. "Older than that, sir. That mortar's fair turned to powder, and those bricks...well. Roman that is, or not long after." He peered up at the ceiling. "We're in Bankside. Might be a well," he said.
"It almost certainly is," St. Cyprian said. The longer he stared at the hole, the stronger the impression of movement became. "I took the liberty of doing a bit of research before coming here..."
"Spent a bloody hour pouring over old books," Gallowglass said.
"Knowledge is a weapon as surely as that artillery piece you wear under your coat," he said. "And what I learned was very interesting indeed." He gestured airily. "Bankside was outside of the city of London's authority, once upon a time. As such, it was the home of London's violent delights. Cockfights, bull-baiting and...bear-baiting."
"So it was a shit-hole, then," Gallowglass said. She lit the cheroot Stanhook had given her, and puffed on it fiercely.
St. Cyprian was about to reprimand her, but then fell silent. In truth, he agreed with her. Whatever its reputation now, Dockside had once been home to great tragedy and senseless pain. Then, the same could be said for much of London, or, indeed, all of the British Empire. He smiled thinly. In fact, the very word 'empire' conjured phantoms of murder and sadness. Empires were built on the bones of the slain.
"Whatever it was," he said, after a moment, "It had its share of legends. One of which took place in this area, and featured an old Roman well as its setting." He smiled. "I do believe we've found the tomb of old Hairy Shanks, chums."
"Hairy whatsit?" Gallowglass said. The sound of chains came again, louder this time. Metal rasped across stone, and a rough noise, like a bellows, sounded just below it. It was as if something were responding to the name.
"Hairy Shanks," Stanhook whispered. He stared at the hole wide-eyed, and ran a hand over his head. "It can't be. Can it?" St. Cyprian wasn't surprised he recognised the name. It was the sort of story a man of Stanhook's profession would know.
"Oh, I'd bet my last shilling," St. Cyprian said.
"What's a hairy shank? Besides something a lady shouldn't hear about?" Gallowglass asked impatiently.
St. Cyprian snorted. "Well, good thing there are no ladies here then." He raised his hands defensively as Gallowglass cocked a fist, and spoke quickly. "To answer your question, Hairy Shanks was a bear. A foul-tempered one, at that." He frowned. "Though how anyone could tell the difference, I have no idea."
Another sound. Chain links clashed and rustled. The bricks around the hole seemed to bulge, and dry mortar powdered the floor. He gestured, tracing a sacred shape from the Third Ritual of Hloh in the air with two fingers. He was tempted to open his third eye, but he knew that that was simply inviting trouble. The spirit-eye, his old mentor Carnacki had called it. It could show one what lurked behind the veil of reality. Often, that was not pleasant, or conducive to continued sanity. Both Stanhook and Gallowglass had weapons out. He waved them back.
"They left Shanks in an old Roman well, when they weren't baiting him. Then, one day, some bright spark decided that seeing the poor beast savage dogs wasn't unpleasant enough. They blinded him, and whipped him, five or six men, standing around him, whipping him. And he couldn't escape, because of his chain, so he was forced to defend himself, in ways only a bear can." He couldn't keep the anger out of his voice as he spoke.
He shook his head and sucked in a lungful of smoke. "The story says men died. More men than ought, because Shanks was a powerful brute. He broke his chain and slammed into the crowd, tearing and biting..."
"Good for him," Gallowglass muttered.
"No, not as it turned out." St. Cyprian flicked away the dog-end of his cigarette. "Hairy Shanks was uncontrollable after that. Blinded and driven mad, it was all that his keepers could do to get him back in his kennel. He seemed possessed of the devil's fury, or so the accounts said. Arrows could not bring him down. So they entombed him. Blind and mad, the poor brute was left to starve in the dark," St. Cyprian said softly. "Or so the story goes." He stared at the hole, considering. Then, he stepped towards it.
"Sir, are you sure you should..." Stanhook began. He still had his pistol out.
"Not in the least. But we won't know what we're dealing with until we see." He glanced at them. "You remember that affair in Bank Station last year? That unruly manifestation we sealed up?" Gallowglass nodded grimly, and Stanhook paled. "That was a thing made out of pain and horror and fear, and left to ferment in the darkness, until it endangered the living. A darkness just like this..." He gestured to the hole. "But, it might also be something else. So, we must do due diligence, and investigate."
"Maybe I should do it," Gallowglass said doubtfully. She eyed the hole warily. "What happens if it eats you?"
"Then you'll be Royal Occultist, and free to do as you like. Wall it up, toss a stick of dynamite in, keep it as a pet...whatever takes your fancy," he said, smiling with a confidence he didn't quite feel. "Now…Stanhook, if you would, keep that light of yours shining into the chamber there. Wish me luck!" And with that, he straightened his tie, smiled blandly, and stepped into the darkness.
Almost immediately, he was enveloped in an animal stink. He could smell blood as well, and the sickly-sweet rot of death. Something rolled beneath his feet, and he looked down to see an ancient chain, laying in thick dust. He froze. His eyes followed the chain, tracing its serpentine length deeper into the dark. It was broken, mid-link, and had not been moved for some time, to judge by the build-up of filth on it. There was water dripping somewhere, trickling down the bricks, and he could almost smell the Thames.
"Keep that light steady, chaps," he called out, over his shoulder. Bending low, he followed the chain back, to a rusty manacle and a great, shaggy mass that lurked deep in the dark, huddled against the far wall of the well. The chamber wasn't very large, and the image of a great bear, hunched and crouched in a space far too small for it, was suddenly, sadly, all too vivid. The mass was mostly dust and dirt, packed down like a grimy shroud over a mouldering heap of what he knew, even without looking closely, to be bones. One got a certain sense for such things, in this line.
This was no longer a well, but an oubliette, and these bones were all that remained of its inhabitant. At least, as far as the physical was concerned. They had fallen askew when the workmen had cracked the wall open. Tch. Disturbing the last resting place of an angry ghost. Never ends well, he thought. It hadn't been their fault, obviously. But ghosts tended not to wait for explanations.
As he knelt, the air stirred and the pile shifted again, loose bones rattling across stone. And in the dark, something growled. He heard the clatter of chains, though the one connected to the bones hadn't moved. Ghosts wear ghost-chains, he thought, as the animal stink grew stronger, and the growl sounded again, turning his blood to ice. The sound came from everywhere and nowhere, echoing from every brick and stone, growing louder the more he tried and failed to pinpoint its source of origin.
The first blow caught him across the back. For a moment, he thought the wall had caved in. He heard cloth tear, and felt as if someone had hit him between the shoulders with a hammer. He was knocked from his feet. As he tried to roll onto his back, something sharp, but unseen, caught his trouser-leg, and dragged him across the floor. There was a roaring in his ears, and he could only just barely make out Gallowglass and Stanhook shouting. He lifted his arm and the sleeve of his coat grew damp before it tore, and pain flared through his forearm. With his free hand, he desperately made the Hloh gestures, and the pressure on his arm faded, as whatever it was released him.
Breathing heavily, he heard something large circle him in the dark. A blow caught him in the belly, sending him rolling into the wall. The darkness seemed to lunge forward, as he tried to stand. It had no shape, no weight, but he felt every blow, and gagged as its rank breath rolled across his face. No matter which way he ducked, it was there, ready to swat him down. And through it all, the roaring and the rattle of unseen chains.
He made the Hloh gestures again and again, but the pain did not cease and the sound did not diminish. The protective gestures were all that were keeping him from being masticated as Stanhook's man had been, but he'd underestimated the strength of the thing. It was strong, far stronger than any elemental of poltergeist, fully capable of battering him to death, if he let it. The Hloh signs only served to make it hesitate. They could not stop it. He had to escape, get clear of the chamber, out of reach.
St. Cyprian shoved himself away from the wall, and heard what sounded like claws scrape the brick where his head had been. He lunged towards the light, his hands seeking the edges of the aperture. He caught it, even as something caught him by the leg, and he yelped. Hands grabbed his wrists, and he found himself caught in a tug of war. But only for a moment. The cuff of his trousers tore away, and he tumbled forward, into the arms of his assistant. Gallowglass fell back beneath his weight, landing on her rear. He followed her down, winding up in her lap.
"Are you in one piece?" she said, glaring down at him.
"I – ah – I believe so," he rasped, looking up at her.
"Good. Idiot." She shoved him off of her lap. "I told you it was going to try and eat you," she snapped, as she got her feet under her.
"Yes, well, such is life. Stanhook," St. Cyprian coughed. He shrugged out of his torn coat, as Gallowglass knelt to inspect the slashes in his back and arms. "Be a pal and send one of your men out, we need some things – supplies. A choice cut of meat...still bloody if possible, and something to cut a chain with."
"What are you planning?" Stanhook asked, bewildered. "We should just wall it back up, like you did the Bank Station bogey."
"That thing was not a ghost," St. Cyprian grunted. "It was something much worse." He looked at the aperture, and his face became sad. The sound of its roars still echoed in his head, and he recognised them for what they were, even as it had done its level best to kill him. They had been the cries of a frightened animal, trapped and starving.
"But that, in there, is the soul of an animal in torment. It's dangerous, and it will become more dangerous so long as it's held here. " He smiled weakly. "Think of it like pus in an infected wound." He pointed a shaking hand. "That is such a wound, and it needs to be drained, the sooner the better." He glanced over his shoulder. "How bad?"
"You're lucky," Gallowglass said bluntly. "Your coat and shirt, however..."
"Bugger. I just bought it," he sighed. He looked at Stanhook. "Ghosts are funny things. Some of them are just...imprints on the world. Footsteps in the sand, to borrow a phrase. But others, well, they don't even know they're dead."
He looked back at the aperture, and began to roll up what was left of his sleeves. "Hairy Shanks is still trapped in there, still chained, even though he's dead. And I'll be damned if I'm going to leave the poor brute in there."
It didn't take long for Stanhook's men to procure the meat, and a set of heavy duty bolt-cutters. The LTA were nothing if not efficient, even when it came to the unusual or esoteric. As St. Cyprian hefted the latter and gave them an experimental snap, Gallowglass held the cut of cheap beef and eyed it curiously. "The bolt-cutters I get," she said. "But this?" She held up the meat.
"I should have thought it'd be obvious," St. Cyprian said. "He's been walled up in there for more than a century. Poor blighter is probably hungry, what?" He looked at her. "Toss it in. While he's distracted--"
"If he's distracted," she said.
"While he's distracted," he continued, "I shall cut the chain."
"And then?" Stanhook asked.
St. Cyprian made a face. "Well...obviously, he'll be free."
"What if he's still angry?"
St. Cyprian laid the bolt-cutters across his shoulder. "We'll cross the bridge when we come to it. Now, would one of you be so kind as to give that slab of beef the old heave-ho, so I can jolly well go free the hungry bear-ghost from his eternal torment? Ta," he said, turning towards the aperture.
"And you expect me to just stand out here, while it gets a second chance to eat you, then, you daft monger?" Gallowglass said. She shoved the meat into Stanhook's hands and drew her pistol. "Not bloody likely." She cracked the revolver open and checked its cylinder swiftly, as she followed him towards the aperture.
"That cannon won't be of much use," he said, as she shoved past him.
"Yeah, but it makes me feel better," she snapped. "Toss the meat, Stanhook."
Stanhook looked at St. Cyprian, who nodded and swept out a hand. "If you please, old thing," he said. Stanhook shook his head and sent the meat sailing through the aperture with a grunt. St. Cyprian heard it hit the ground with a wet sound. In the dark, something snuffled. Then, a long, low, groan, followed by the sound of teeth ripping into the meat.
St. Cyprian gestured. "Après vous," he murmured. Gallowglass lifted her pistol and slid through the aperture, stepping quietly into the chamber. St. Cyprian followed her, moving as quickly as he dared.
The meat lay where Stanhook had thrown it. It flopped and bent oddly, as if something tore at it, and St. Cyprian shivered. I guess he was hungry, after all, he thought. He moved to the chain and lifted the bolt-cutters, setting them to the link closest to the manacle. As he made to cut the link, however, the chain shifted and clattered.
Something grunted softly. The meat fell to the floor. The hairs on the back of his neck stood up as he felt the presence turn its attentions towards them. "Get ready to run," he murmured, glancing up at Gallowglass.
"Bugger that for a game of soldiers," she hissed, aiming her pistol.
"Yes, quite," he muttered. Her weapon wouldn't harm the thing, but that wouldn't stop her from trying, and perhaps getting killed in the process. Gallowglass was rather like a bull terrier; once she'd set her teeth in something, it was impossible to make her let go. He set his foot on the chain. He would have to be quick.
The shadow-shape of the thing rose and spread, filling the chamber with the heat and smell of it. His head echoed with the grunting, snuffling sound, and things that might have been teeth or claws or even eyes shined in the dark.
And then the link burst in a spray of rust, and he and Gallowglass were bowled over by a strong wind. The bricks burst outward, as if struck with concussive force, and the whole cellar seemed to shake with the passing of whatever force had been trapped there.
Gallowglass looked around wildly. "What happened? Where did it go?"
St. Cyprian laughed. "He's free!"
"Yeah, but where did it go?"
He flapped a hand as he rose to his feet. "Who knows? Out there, somewhere." He reached down and made to help her up, but she batted his hand away. They made their way out of the now silent chamber, and saw Stanhook picking himself up. He was covered in dust and grime, and his face was pale. "Did it work then?" he asked.
"Just as I suspected," St. Cyprian said. "He was still bound by the chain, and the stones. When the latter was broken, he woke up, but the chain still held him." He tapped the side of his head. "But once it was cut, old Hairy Shanks did what any animal would do." He smiled. "He made a run for freedom, even as he did all those many years ago. And this time, there was no stopping him."
"Yeah, just luverly innit?" Gallowglass muttered, beating the dust off of her cap. She looked at Stanhook and rolled her eyes. He stifled a laugh, and St. Cyprian pretended not to notice. He looked back at the well, and the scattered remains of its former inhabitant.
"We'll need to gather those up," he said, plucking at his soiled vest. "Get them up out of the dank and into the light."
"You can gather them up. I'm for a pint," Gallowglass said, holstering her pistol.
"What will you do with them?" Stanhook asked, glancing at the bones.
"Oh, we'll bury them, I think. The poor creature deserves that much. But someplace far from London...the Peak District, perhaps," St. Cyprian said.
He smiled faintly. "Just in case."
This story originally appeared in Weird Heroes.
Jazz Age Britain is rife with the impossible. Fashionable unwrapping parties awaken the dead. Ghouls stalk the Underground. Krampus steals the sinful. Famous magicians are kidnapped by shadows. Only the Royal Occultist can set these right.
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