Charles St. Cyprian looked around the auction hall, his expression one of equal parts wonder and annoyance. Presentation tables seemed to groan beneath objects of the outré and occult. Crude statuary looted from Ponapean dynasties shared space with framed pages ripped from long banned grimoires, and curious oscillating devices were mounted above display cases of dreadful amulets and talismans of rare origin.
"Look at these items--that's an uncorrected proof of Ferguson's Devils of Xonira." He gestured. "And there, a chunk of the Screaming Skull of Tavistock, right beside a second edition of Meikle's Vampyricon ex Albi. And are those the etched finger-bones of Gough-Thomas? This is a ruddy black auction, isn't it?" He blinked. "I say...is that a human jawbone?"
"That particular remnant is afflicted with a potent curse," Peveril, a representative of the esteemed brokerage in charge of the auction, said. "When moonlight touches it, it becomes the lower jaw of a wolf. Found in the ruins of a monastery near Clontarf, I believe."
Peveril was a thin, sallow-faced sort, who seemed to vibrate on his own particular nervous wavelength. He’d met them at the front door of the Bond Street firm and escorted them down to the hall, where he now hovered like a mother hen over the gruesome array of items up for auction, his staff bustling about quietly in the background.
"What's a black auction?" Ebe Gallowglass asked. She was dark and feral looking, with black hair cut in a razor-edged bob and a battered flat cap resting high on her head. She wore a man’s clothes, hemmed for a woman of her small stature, and a man’s coat, dangling from her finger, over one shoulder. With the coat off, the heavy, unpleasant shape of the Webley-Fosbery revolver she habitually carried holstered under her arm was clearly visible.
In contrast, St. Cyprian was tall and rangy with an olive cast to his features and hair just a touch too long to be properly fashionable. He wore a well-tailored suit straight from Gieves and Hawkes, in Savile Row, and wore it well.
Clothes made the man, in his opinion, and he spared no expense in making sure that everyone knew just what sort of man he was. The sort of man who could announce himself as the Royal Occultist in the Year of Our Lord 1920, and keep a straight face. The sort of man who regarded the investigation, organization and occasional suppression of That Which Man Was Not Meant to Know—including vampires, ghosts, werewolves, ogres, fairies, boojums, boggarts, and barghests —by order of the King (or Queen) for the good of the British Empire, to be not just a profession, but a calling.
St. Cyprian was the latest in a long line of men to hold the post of the Queen’s Conjurer, since Dr. John Dee had been named Royal Occultist by Good Queen Bess. If she lived long enough, his assistant, Gallowglass, would have his job in her turn, and be welcome to it, given that he’d likely be dead. They had never really talked about it. They had never really talked about a lot of things. And he hoped that they would go on not having to talk about things for some years to come.
"An auction, obviously," St. Cyprian said, replying to Gallowglass’ query even as he peered at a framed, hand-drawn map of a region of the Congo. According to the tag, it was the work of one Sir Wade Jermyn. The name was familiar. He shook his head. Poor Arthur, he thought sadly. He and Carnacki had been present for the sad events at Jermyn House in 1913, alongside Professor Challenger and a few others, when Sir Arthur Jermyn had taken his own life and, in the doing, saved all of theirs. He turned to look at Gallowglass. "In this case, an auction of the outré. A sale of property from the demimonde, as it were."
"What's a demiwhateveritis?"
"Unpleasant," St. Cyprian said.
"So, like our place, then," Gallowglass said, lifting a bit of silk to examine the painting hidden beneath. She whistled. "Cor, he's a pretty one, ain't he?"
"Ah, yes, the Wotton bequest – from the collection of Lord Henry Wotton, believed to be the remains of the lost masterpiece of the painter, Basil Hallward." Peveril plucked the silk from Gallowglass' hand and shooing her back. He lowered the silk and smoothed it daintily. "Believed to be a portrait of the infamous libertine, Dorian Gray, who went missing a few years prior to the war."
"I heard about that," St. Cyprian said. "Carnacki was asked to investigate Gray's disappearance, but, well, with the war and all, it got lost in the shuffle. I remember meeting Wotton, briefly. Portly, older chap, liked his brandy a bit much."
"I remember Harry," someone said. "Bit of an ass, and something of a rakehell himself, before he went bust. In his silver years now, and broke as beezer, the old fool." St. Cyprian turned to see a woman closing the hall doors behind her. He smiled.
“Ta, Molly,” he said. She held out her hands, and he took them, smiling. She gave him a quick peck on either cheek. “We’re here, as requested.”
Lady Molly Robertson-Kirk, formerly of Scotland Yard, now seconded to Special Branch, was closing in on the autumn of middle age, and was perhaps twenty years his senior, with hair that was still mostly a lustrous chestnut save for several prominent streaks of silver. She was dressed well, as if for afternoon tea at the Savoy, and carefully arranged her skirts as she took the seat Peveril held out for her.
“As I knew you would be, Charles. You have many failings, but tardiness is not one of them.” She smiled. “Curiosity, on the other hand...”
He rolled his eyes. “It wasn’t curiosity that compelled my attendance, Molly. As you oh so subtly pointed out last time we spoke, I owe you a favour.” He spread his hands. “And thus, here I am. Do your worst.”
“Oh Charles, do hush. Melodrama is not required at this juncture.” Molly picked up a bell jar off of the table beside her, containing a tribal fetish doll. The doll was all eyes and teeth, and as Molly peered at it, it lunged at her, slamming its wooden face against the glass.
Startled, she dropped the jar. Peveril made a sound like a dying cat as it tumbled towards the floor. St. Cyprian lunged and caught it before it shattered. The doll flung itself savagely at the glass, biting and clawing. St. Cyprian grimaced and set it back on the display table. "Nasty little bugger. Zuni?"
"Y-yes," Peveril said, mopping at his brow with a handkerchief. "O-often erroneously identified as African in origin, it is in actuality North American. A-ah-a representation of a spirit of the hunt." He swallowed. "Please don't agitate him. If he gets loose, we'll never get him back in the jar in time for the auction."
"Yes, lawks, wouldn't want anyone to lose out on the opportunity to own a feral bit of statuary, what?" St. Cyprian wiped his hands on his trousers and stepped away from the table. "Molly, are you telling me that you approve of this sort of thing?"
"Not in the least, Charles. But dealing in devil dolls isn't illegal these days," Molly said. She reached out and poked him in the arm. "As you are perfectly aware, one does not need to approve to do one's duty." She gestured at the collection. "Besides which, none of this is our concern."
"The evil doll isn't our concern?"
"No," Molly said, bluntly. She pointed. "That is the object of our quest today, young Galahad. And the reason I asked you to come."
St. Cyprian followed her gesture, and saw a small, black box. It was open, revealing an interior inlaid with velvet, on which rested a single black pearl. It seemed to shimmer wetly in the light, and his psychic senses gave a twitch. "Is that...?"
"The Sforza Pearl, yes," Molly said. "Plucked from the skull of the Devil himself by Muzio Attendolo Sforza, the founder of the line, or so the stories say."
"They also said it helped him in battle. He could turn defeat into victory with a single word, and his family prospered for as long as the pearl was in their possession." He scratched his chin as he examined the pearl. "Which was a century, give or take." He peered at Molly. "If the pearl is here, I assume that means our...mutual friend has returned."
Molly nodded grimly. "The gentleman who put the pearl up for auction turned up with a broken back and his head on backwards, a few days ago.”
“And the pearl itself was almost stolen from our representatives en route to London,” Peveril said. “Luckily, they were armed, and possessed of a fast automobile.” He licked his lips. “The—ah—the thief wrung the neck of one of them, regardless.” He took a breath. “In all my years of organizing black auctions, I have never seen such violence.” He hesitated. “Not until after the bidding is done, at any rate.”
St. Cyprian was about to reply, when Molly interjected, “It's definitely the Creeping Man, Charles. He’s been sighted in the city, and he’s likely already on his way here."
"The whosits?" Gallowglass said. She had the jar containing the Zuni doll in her hands and was shaking it repeatedly, further aggravating the tiny monstrosity. She chuckled as the doll snapped helplessly at her. St. Cyprian couldn't say which was more unpleasant – the hideous noises coming from the doll, or the sound of Gallowglass giggling.
He took the jar from her and set it back down. "The Creeping Man. We don't know his name, or even if he has one. All we know is that he wants the pearl and he'll rather messily kill anyone who gets between him and it. Also, he's roughly the size of an elephant, with arms like an orang-utan and the disposition of a fairly upset badger."
"Is he bullet-proof?"
"Then why do I care what his disposition is?" Gallowglass said.
"Because, while bullets do not bounce off of him, they also don't bother him overly much. Nor do blades, garrottes, drowning, fire or collapsing buildings. I have a list somewhere." He patted his coat, as if looking for said list. "I keep a running tally of failed methods of dispatch. Eventually, we'll run into one that puts him down for good."
Gallowglass blinked. "Silver?" she assayed.
"Tried it, dear," Molly said. "And gold, and blessed iron. He was even run through with a sword belonging to St. George, I'm told. That would have been..." she trailed off.
"1887," St. Cyprian said. "Carnacki's predecessor, Edwin Drood. Some mad fool had gifted the Sforza Pearl to Her Majesty, likely hoping the brute would wring her neck. Drood managed to open the Creeping Man's guts and drop him into the Thames."
Gallowglass shook her head. "If you'd mentioned this sooner, I'd have brought something bigger," she said, dolefully patting the pistol holstered beneath her arm.
"Heavy artillery isn't the answer," St. Cyprian said. "I've suspected for some time that the Creeping Man isn't a living thing as such, but instead some form of elemental. Perhaps even an ifrit, bound to the pearl. Which means we must use a more effective methodology to win the day." He smiled and cracked his knuckles.
"Don't say magic," Gallowglass said.
"Magic!" St. Cyprian said. "The subtle arts."
"We don't do subtle," Gallowglass admonished.
"We do tonight," St. Cyprian said. He hesitated and looked at Molly. “With, ah, with your permission of course, Molly. Wouldn’t want to step on any toes, what?” He looked at Peveril. “And you as well, Mr. Peveril.”
Peveril smiled thinly. “The brokerage has seen fit to follow Special Branch’s lead in this matter. I was tasked with getting you whatever you might require to see to our little…problem.”
Molly laughed. “And why do you think I asked you to come, Charles? After last time, I’m not wasting any manpower trying to bring that brute to heel. Special Branch lost any number of good men that night, and I thought a different strategy might be in order.”
“I might have just such a strategy in mind,” St. Cyprian said.
“Which is?” Gallowglass asked, looking at him doubtfully.
"Simple. I intend to trap him. And not in a simple prison, like that time in 1913, but someplace a good deal harder to break out of." He smiled. "If it works, we won't have to worry about the murderous fiend ever again."
"And if it doesn't?"
"Then we'll most likely be dead."
“Steady on, Charles,” Molly said. “If it comes to it, just give him the blasted pearl.” She ignored Peveril’s squawk of outrage and continued, “Better to let him win one, than lose your life.”
"What does he even want the pearl for?" Gallowglass asked, glancing at it.
"No one knows," St. Cyprian said. "But many men have given their lives to see that he doesn't get it, including an entire order of Franciscan monks, and the last true knight of Malta. The Creeping Man is a simple enough brute, but he's as dangerous as any devil for all that – he's destruction made manifest. I'd fancy he could give even the legions of Hell a run for their money." He shook his head. “No, there’s too much red in that fellow’s ledger to leave him running loose.” He looked at Molly. “And as I said, I have a theory, and I think it’ll work, but I’ll need a few things.”
“Ask, and ye shall receive, Charles,” Molly said.
“I need men,” he said.
She frowned. “Charles, I thought I made it clear…?”
He made a placatory gesture. “I know, dear heart, but that brute is possessed of a certain amount of cunning. If he sees men, he’ll know there’s no trick or trap waiting for him. Else why would you put a guard?” He snapped his fingers. “As soon as they see him coming, they can scatter like quail, the quicker the better.” He looked at Peveril. “I’m given to understand that your brokerage occasionally has use for...realistic fabrications?”
Peveril made a face. “It is necessary, on rare occasions, to provide the lower classes and criminally inclined with something that they may steal, yes, in order to protect our investment.” He frowned. Then, “The pearl?”
“That’s the wicket. We’ll keep the real pearl in here, of course. The Creeping Man has some sort of psychical link to it, and he’d spot a fake—even a good one—right off. But I’m hoping, in the heat of the moment, his attentiveness might slip, just a smidge.” St. Cyprian rubbed his hands together. “And then we’ll have him bang to rights.”
He looked about. “I’ll need a few other things besides...braziers, some chalk—the latter is in my Gladstone in the boot of my motor-car outside, we’ll need to send someone for it—we’ll need to move these chairs...” He reeled off a list of necessities, and soon, both Molly and Peveril had people scurrying back and forth fulfilling his requests.
As they did so, St. Cyprian and Gallowglass prepared the area. He stripped off his coat and rolled up his sleeves as Gallowglass took a small hyssop broom from the Gladstone bag that one of Peveril’s underlings had retrieved from the motor-car, and began to carefully sweep the floor. When she’d finished, he took up a piece of chalk, made from the compressed powder of a saint’s bones, and began to draw out a wide circle on the floor. That done, he tossed the chalk to Gallowglass. “Signs of protection, warding and containment, if you please, apprentice-mine,” he said. He went to the Gladstone and began to rummage through its contents.
“How do we know he’s even coming tonight?” Gallowglass asked, as she began to scrawl the requested progression of Enochian and Atlantean sigils within the circle’s circumference. “Don’t sound like the sort to post a schedule, does he?”
“The Creeping Man has never failed to head straight for the pearl, in all his misbegotten existence,” St. Cyprian said. “He’s rather like a steam engine, running along a track only he can see. Ah, here we are! The Vathek Incantations.” He pulled out a tiny black book, stamped with gold lettering. “Recorded for posterity by William Beckford, who used them in the writing of his masterpiece, and nearly paid the price.”
Gallowglass grunted. She’d finished the sigils, and began setting up the braziers that Peveril had brought them. St. Cyprian didn’t bother to ask where he’d found them. Given that they were holding black auctions, it only stood to reason they’d have such paraphernalia, for better or worse. The shallow pan which topped each brazier was filled with a melange of hyssop blossoms, arbutus and powdered herbs, filling the air with a crisp stink when they were set alight. The mixture wouldn’t do much to deter the Creeping Man, but it would guard against those other forces which might try and take advantage of the situation.
Besides the braziers, Peveril had procured a facsimile of the Sforza Pearl for them. It was impossible to tell them apart with the naked eye, and St. Cyprian carefully placed the fake in the pocket of his waistcoat. He took out his pocket watch and checked the time. It was just after dusk. He closed the watch and put it away. “Not long now, I think. Molly, I’d feel better if both you and Peveril were elsewhere. Put your men on the doors outside, and Gallowglass and I will handle things in here.”
“If you’re certain, Charles,” Molly said. She’d been watching his preparations with a mixture of fascination and distaste. Despite all she’d seen in her years as an investigator, first for the Yard, and then for Special Branch, he knew that she was still uncertain around the occult. He smiled.
“Quite so. Less moving parts, what? Besides, we might need you to pull our fat out of the fire before the night’s over, eh?” He glanced at his assistant, who shrugged. “Or not,” he added. He looked at Molly. “Your men know what to do?”
“They do,” she said, as she hustled Peveril towards the doors. She stopped, just before she exited and looked back at him. “Do be careful, Charles. I’d hate to think I got you killed. It’d simply ruin my evening.”
“For the sake of your evening, I shall strive to my utmost to survive,” he said, bowing floridly. She laughed and shut the door behind her, leaving him and Gallowglass alone in the auction-hall. He clapped his hands together. “Well. Now all we have to do is wait.”
“You still haven’t said what you’re planning to do,” Gallowglass said, as she drifted towards the tables with the items. She lifted the pearl, in its black box and eyed it. “Doesn’t look magical,” she muttered.
“It’s not, as far as I can tell,” he said, joining her. “It’s just a pearl. Which makes it a mystery.” He took the pearl from her and closed the box with a snap. He dropped it into his trouser pocket. “And one best investigated some other time.” He looked at his pocket watch again. He felt an itch, deep in his brain; a niggling at his psychical senses, like the stirring of curtains in the breeze that precedes the storm. He put the pocket watch away. “He’s here.”
Gallowglass looked at him. “What? How can you tell?”
From upstairs there came the sound of glass shattering and wood splintering. St. Cyprian sniffed and hefted the little black book of the Vathek Incantations. “Because unless I misheard, someone just threw something ungodly heavy through the front of the shop.” He smiled at her expression. “What—did you think he was going to sneak in?”
Even as the echoes of falling glass faded, it was replaced by the crack of service revolvers, and the shouts of men. The fear in those voices wasn’t feigned. No copper worth his salt could walk the streets without hearing at least one story about the Creeping Man. He’d been Scotland Yard’s nemesis for decades, an unstoppable juggernaut that no gaol could hold, and no gallows could put an end to. The Creeping Man always broke free, or came back, to haunt the streets of London.
The sound of gunshots faded, as Molly’s officers fell back, retreating from the two-legged blitzkrieg that had invaded the auction house. Soon, the only sound was the thud of a heavy tread, which caused the floorboards to shift. In its jar, the chattering Zuni doll fell silent. Gallowglass looked at it, and then at St. Cyprian.
Silence. St. Cyprian opened the book. “Showtime,” he murmured. A moment later, the doors to the auction hall burst inwards, torn from their hinges by a blow of explosive force. The Creeping Man ducked under the frame and stepped into the hall.
He was bigger than St. Cyprian remembered, a giant clad in a filthy black Mackintosh coat and a wide-brimmed, shapeless hat. He had a chest like an artillery-piece and legs as wide as tree-trunks, with long arms topped by spade-like paws and blunt meat-hook fingers.
But his face was the worst. Beneath the brim of his hat was a face akin to that of a wax dummy exposed to the heat. All of his features were too big, too long, and looking to flee his skull. Eyes like twin black pearls gleamed in the shadow of his hat brim, and his lips pulled back in a grimace to reveal teeth reminiscent of chips of obsidian.
“Well big, isn’t he?” Gallowglass said.
“Don’t let him get his hands on you, whatever you do. He’ll rip you apart like a Christmas goose if he gets the chance.”
The Creeping Man took a ponderous step forward. St. Cyprian extended his hand and spoke a single deplorable word. Flames rose and spread about the circle. They leapt and crackled without burning the floor, and the Creeping Man reared back, his face a mask of confusion. He pawed at the flames. He screamed and tore his smoking hand back to cradle it against his chest. “Neat trick,” Gallowglass said. “How long will it hold him back?”
“Not long, and that’s not the point anyway. We want him in the circle, we just can’t make it too easy for him.” He pulled the pearl in its box out of his pocket and held it up. “Tally-ho! I say, is this what you’re after?” he shouted, shaking the box in order to catch the Creeping Man’s attention. “Well, come and get it, my brutish chum!”
The Creeping Man bellowed and lunged forward, plunging his arms into the fire. The flames roared up, as if marshalling their strength against the invader, and the Creeping Man staggered. For a moment, the brute shape was wreathed in flame and smoke, and then he stumbled free, arms raised to shield his face. His clothing was charred and smoke trailed from the brim of his hat, but he was otherwise unmarked.
Gallowglass whistled. “What do we do now?” she asked, as the Creeping Man swatted out the flames that clung to his arms and shoulders.
“I need to concentrate. Keep him distracted.” St. Cyprian stuffed the pearl back into his pocket and held up the book. He took a breath and began to intone the words written on the yellowed pages before him. The Vathek Incantations were deadly things. One wrong pronunciation and…well. Best not to think about it.
As he spoke, the ink on the pages flared and burned away. The rites of Vathek were not meant to be used more than once by one whose soul was still anchored to the light.
“Distract him? How? Teach him to play whist?” Gallowglass snarled. St. Cyprian didn’t answer, but instead continued to chant.
The Creeping Man roared as St. Cyprian’s voice grew in volume. The brute lurched forward, only to stagger back as Gallowglass snatched up one of the braziers and jabbed it at him. She drove him back, scattering flaming embers across the floor in the process. The Creeping Man snarled and swiped at her with his big hands.
She cursed loudly as he caught hold of the brazier and tore it easily from her grip. She ducked as he sent it sailing towards her like a javelin, and scampered between his legs. The Creeping Man turned, and made to grab her. Gallowglass scuttled across the floor, narrowly avoiding his grasp. She snatched the Webley-Fosbery from its holster and rolled onto her back, even as the brute loomed over her.
The pistol bucked, the cylinder emptying with a thunderous staccato roar. The Creeping Man staggered back with a low rumble his misshapen face twisted into a grimace of consternation. Gallowglass bobbed to her feet and danced back, out of reach. She began to reload. "Hurry it up," she shouted.
St. Cyprian didn't bother to reply. Indeed, he couldn't, not if he wanted to finish the chant. The sigils chalked on the floor were glowing with a soft radiance now, and he could hear a murmur of many voices. He tried to ignore them. It wouldn't do to listen to those voices; they were as dangerous in their own way as the Creeping Man was in his. As the last syllable of Arabic tripped over his lips, he swept his hands out in the Sixth Gesture of Solomon, and the air burned in their wake.
There was a sound like wood splintering and then a smokeless fire grew from nothing, roiling and forming in the centre of the room above the floor. There were faces of a sort in the fire, and the sound of voices grew louder and harder to ignore. They were awful, quiet voices, murmuring abominable things and the brief snatches he caught were enough to chill his blood. A hot wind, like that which might blow across the Sahara, swept out into the room, carrying the voices with it.
It was requiring every iota of his will to keep it in check, to keep it from filling the room and spilling out into the wider world. Sweat beaded on his face, stinging his eyes, and his body ached from the awful pressure beating down on him.
The Creeping Man whirled, his face twisting into a snarl. His heavy body was starkly outlined by the weird light of the conjured flame. St. Cyprian took a breath, reached into his waistcoat pocket, and held the facsimile of the pearl up so that the Creeping Man could see it.
"You want this?" he said, his voice harsh with growing fatigue. He had to shout to be heard over the wind. His clothes flapped, and the wind pushed against him, threatening to scoop him up and pull him into the roiling aleph of flame. Fingers of flame left sooty streaks on his clothes and skin. Hell was hungry, and any morsel would do.
The Creeping Man lurched forward, one long arm stretching out. "I'll take that as a yes," St. Cyprian said. "Come and get it, then." The brute stumbled forward, the infernal wind whipping his hat off. The hat vanished into the cloud of fire. The Creeping Man reached out and stomped towards St. Cyprian, fighting the pull of the wind with every step. St. Cyprian ducked the brute's first groping blow, and flung the fake pearl into the fire.
The Creeping Man shrieked like a steam engine and swatted St. Cyprian aside with bone-rattling force as he lumbered after his prize. The cloud was little larger than the Creeping Man's head, but somehow, the brute dove into it as smoothly as an otter sliding into the water. His massive frame twisted, wriggled and then vanished into the coruscating sphere of fire. The wind stilled at the same instant as the brute disappeared, and the voices fell silent. The fire grew dull, and the sphere began to shrink.
St. Cyprian pulled himself to his feet and spat a single word. The word reverberated through the air, echoing strangely for a moment, before it faded, and took the last glimmer of fire with it. Breathing heavily, his clothes damp with sweat, he staggered towards a chair and sat down heavily. He ran a hand through his hair and said, "Well. That worked better than I hoped." Everything hurt. He flipped through the little black book. Half of it was now empty. Hopefully he wouldn’t ever have to use the other half. Each time he did, the pull of Hell grew a little stronger, a little harder to ignore. He shuddered and stuffed the book in his pocket.
"Where did he go?" Gallowglass asked.
"Somewhere considerably harder to escape from than a prison cell," he said. He pressed a hand to his side and winced. It felt as if the brute had left him a set of cracked ribs as a souvenir. Then, that was a small price to pay. "An oasis of Jahannam, where the rivers boil and the air is filled with smokeless fire."
Gallowglass looked at him blankly.
"I sent him to Hell," he said. "Or a suburb thereof." He rubbed his face and smiled tiredly. "Let's see him get out of that one."
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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