The journey was long and dark, the destination a dreary point of gaslight lost in the deepening fog. But we had seen it, if only for a moment, and the remainder of the descent into the valley was calmer for it. No longer did we plunge, carriage and all, into the abyssal unknown; a corner threw us sideways, and from my new perch I peered down into the wispy gloom. Soon, I beckoned my companion.
"Those lights, there... you see them?"
His eyes, as far as I could make them, were heavy with sleep. Leaning over me, he followed my finger with his squinting gaze. "No," he decided. "Perhaps you're seeing things."
I scoffed. "You've missed it, is all. The angle's thrown off the light."
"The whole bleeding fog's thrown off the light, my friend," and my companion settled back in his seat. "Has been for the last hour. Get some sleep, Richard - our business will not wait for the sun."
It was good advice, but I found myself unable to follow it. Somewhere above, the roiling clouds hid the moon, while below the fog still curled like drifting fingers of the Devil. Like two palms they pressed upon our carriage in the valley, a world within a world within a darkly spinning eternity.
I do not intend to defend the profession in which the two of us were engaged. It was a dubious business, and our fate perhaps deserved. Our currency was fear, our tools blasphemous, based on forces we scarcely understood. If God indeed watched over us, our souls had long been banished from his sight.
The fog deepened, but the clouds had begun to disperse, their celestial coven concluded. The moon blinked blearily, grabbing wistfully at the departing coattails of its consorts, before turning its crescent dolefully downwards. It unsettled me with its cratered eyes, and as we, too, slowly descended into the mists I could not bear to look upon the silvery glow. Like the face of a beloved it saw us off into the blind realm of fog.
"Fine crescent. A full 60, by my measure, but I suppose that's wishful thinking."
I nodded slightly. "My compass is in my bag, but it's certainly close. We'll have to be fast."
There was no further conversation, and soon we were rolling into the exaggerated decay of Tulain, its half-timbered houses sagging under bad clay and the weight of years, lit grotesquely by the light of kerosene gas and our own dim lanterns.
The people of Tulain had long lost the pride of their artistic past, and the once majestic church at the corner of the main town had long since become a musty tomb. Two of the great arches had decayed to piles of forgotten rubble, and what remained of the stained glass windows was said to glint like bloody rubies in the weak sun. Tonight they were hidden by the fog, along with the central bell tower and spires, but as even this was not our destination we paid it little heed.
I have mentioned it only in tangential relation to our true objective, for without that grand context the small graveyard was of very little importance. The men of Tulain had long since left it to its fate, preferring to bury their dead some distance away, at the base of the hills that composed the beginning of the valley slope.
Thus, the church-yard was a place only dimly considered, and even that very rarely. Its tombstones had lost their names long ago, and stood in their places like the blasted ruins of Rome after Nero. Moss grew with abandon. Creatures of night and shadow flitted here and there between them, waging bestial war in streets where mourners' feet had once tread.
The center of this odd necropolis was a vast mausoleum, once humbled by the grandeur of the church, now a monolith noteworthy for its uncanny longevity. As we approached, the fog released its captive, allowing the faint, hulking figure to resolve itself into a building of white marble, constructed in the traditional style. I pointed, to the silent, nodding agreement of my companion. Slowly, dramatically, the shrinking distance divulged hitherto invisible dimensions: a door, sunk beneath a heady transom; faded gold Latin phrases inscribed upon pillars only half withstanding time's burdens; two figures standing before the cold stone doors, apparently impervious to the feeling of cold dread now assailing my bones. They held canes in their hands, and one held a heavy rucksack at his side.
They looked up at our approach, for we made no attempt to hide it, and even in the muffling fog our steps were loud upon the gravel. A greeting carried softly across the distance, and my companion lifted his light in solemn response.
Soon we were upon them, and hands were shook and pleasantries exchanged as our employers made ready to depart.
"Everything is as you requested, Herr Genfry," said one of the men, a lean, blond study in tense poise, his face hidden by a weeping ivory mask. "I hope you truly can deliver what you have promised... the fortunes of my family are vast, but its spenders have no patience for fools."
"I assure you," my companion said, his startling features strategically placed in shadow, his glib voice almost shimmering in the ethereal air of the night, "Victor Genfry has never reneged on a deal, nor delivered any less than is expected of him. It is a habit in which I take great pride, and not one I now intend to break."
The silence seemed longer than it was. Finally, the masked man spoke. "Let us all hope that you speak true. Come then, Tresling, let us leave the good men to their work."
The thickset manservant (for what else could his broad shoulders and swarthy, uncovered features signify?) let loose the rucksack with a grunt. His gentleman's cane, I now saw, was notched in a way that indicated much abuse, and its only relevancy was revealed in the intricate lettering around the simple silver head. It was Latin, that much I knew, and knowing also the meaning of the cold words I felt a shiver run through my bones, despite the heavy protection I wore for the damp chill of the night. I stared at the man Tresling, now lumbering after his master.
They were still talking, in low voices before the grand mausoleum, and despite my better senses I lent an ear to their hushed conversation.
"You are doing a great service to this land, Herr Genfry. Let not my anxiety disturb you - I know you are a man of great quality and reputation. I would not have troubled you, but these are... troubled times."
Was that a chuckle, now, or a hacking cough? "I quite understand. You are perhaps wise for your doubt, friend, but in the morning you shall be a man full of wonder, I assure you."
"A good thing, too. May-hap wonder will take the place, of coffers made much lighter for my troubles."
They shook hands again, and the man was off, and through the fog, through the mask he wore, I sensed his unsettled worries and incredulity like a storm above his head. Was he right to worry? In my own bag the Thing pulsed like a second heart, an alarm bell ringing ringing ringing a terrible reminder, that we had piled so many debts upon ourselves, that one day would need to be paid. How such a thing could possibly be done, I had not the faintest idea.
When at last the tomb was opened (by dint of crowbar and sweat), Victor turned to me, expressions of loathing weariness and excitement warring across the deep grooves of his face. "The jewel now, Richard. Quickly, before I change my mind." The comment was only have made in lightness. Indeed, his hand trembled where it beckoned in the air, and for a while I considered withholding the blasted thing from him, imagined volunteering, just this once, to take on the burden which he had so far shouldered alone. I considered it, and well, but as soon as my gloved hand grasped the pulsating filth in my bag, well insulated by wad upon wad of heavy cloth, all such sentiments vanished utterly. I wished nothing more than to be rid of it, rid of the dark glory which had caused my companion's infatuation in its fell powers. I felt a momentary guilt at the flash of agony on his face as he touched it, but this soon passed into shameful relief.
He turned now, shaking, to the pool of dusty blackness within. The air smelled of death turned stale and quiet, exactly as I suspect a library would have smelled, were one to have survived the devastation of Pompeii. Damp filigrees of mold trailed here and there, tickling the sinuses, yet where I touched the wall all was dry and suspiciously smooth, the light of my lantern playing slickly against the marble and dusty brass plaques.
Victor held no light. Both hands were needed to support the jewel, which though small held the weight of continents when a man was forced to hold it for any period of time. He was, as I have mentioned, curiously old and frail for his youth, and it was not rare for him to be mistaken as a sage master in the craft of dark magic, rather than a tyro of the most titanic ill fortune. His back hunched, his wispy arms trailing jiggling flesh that rebelled against the agony, he shuffled into the tomb behind me.
"This was a noble family indeed," I whispered, for such trivial talk was my way of relieving fear. "For their names are well and clearly marked, preserved even after all these many long years..."
Victor wheezed darkly. "How ridiculous you can be, friend Richard! Of course they are well preserved. Pshaw! Were not the Blauchets the preeminent family in their time? Were they not to these folk as the railroad barons are to us, were they not Lincoln and Vanderbilt and Edison? This was their idea of humility, friend, of giving up their wealth before the ultimate shame of death." The smile was crooked and forced. "How ironic, that today our blasphemy shall reverse the great regret of this old house..."
"That they should die. That, unlike Heracles or Orion, they should wither like all mortal men, never to ascend to the stars, never to sit at the side of their God. How bitterly such a truth must have galled!"
I knew better than to ask the questions that still burned within me. The jewel, Victor had often said, showed him things which he scarcely understood. Things he perhaps did not want to understand, for their implications could break a mind like so many twigs. Instead, I began searching the plaques, all written in old Latin, for the name which we sought tonight.
But suddenly, here was this other consideration, far enough removed from that other subject, that I could safely raise it, and such was my curiosity that I had no real choice in the matter. I raised my head from the final resting place of Sarabella Blauchet, loving wife and mother, baroness of the ninth estate, and asked, "Why?"
In my lamp, I saw one hooked gray eyebrow rise. "Why?" asked Victor. "Because those men are paying good money. Because they have already payed good money, and I am a man of my word."
"But surely we do not need money!"
This time, I had managed to win a pause. "No..." began Victor, his knees cracking as he squatted in front of a plaque. "No, but... I gave that man my word. I did. I told him I would do this, so he could resurrect the glory of his house, and his home."
"He was a Blauchet, then?"
"The very last."
"You have not always been so scrupulous, Victor."
Utter silence. I had found our quarry, but raised no comment, moving so as to block the view of the coffin from Victor's position. I saw the emotions play across his face, watched them mix with fear and pain which I knew were reflected in my own expression, and though I wished not to bring up the matter some devil within me required it. So I pressed on.
"We were not honest men in Africa, now were we? Where was our honor in the jungles, when we needed it more than ever? You hold the jewel, friend, and for that I am grateful... but why? Why do we do this? After a year of this I feel I've the right to know. You have never truly explained it."
"I..." he sounded frail. The jewel shook in his hand, for a moment I thought it would fall, but it did not. "I... I suppose..." he coughed, and seemed to forget my point. "We killed so many, Richard... so, so many."
"Somehow... oh, how we have sinned!" Surely those were not tears, running down his weathered cheek? "But this does not make it better, you are right. Oh, you are right."
I placed a hand upon his shoulder, suddenly overcome with pity, for the both of us. "I think nothing ill of you, or of myself," I lied, "and it is true: we are men of honor. This job. Let us complete this job, and we shall be done. We will give it all up! But we cannot, as you say, abandon this man and our promise. Here - give me the jewel."
"I could not. Besides," and his attempt at cheer fell flat and dull, in this chamber of malaise and death, "I fear it would kill you of fright."
In the silence we pulled the coffin from its rack, retrieved our crowbars, placed them in the cracks to either side, and paused.
"Frigus peccatum est anima mea," I read.
Victor nodded, but the motion seemed to pain him. "'Cold is the sinful soul.' The Blauchet clan was a religious one - if I remember correctly, one of their lot became an archbishop in the late middle ages." He smiled, but grimly. "How very ironic it all is."
With a quick succession of heavy exertions, it was over. The heavy stone tumbled aside, and below, where all logic demanded a molding corpse, a staircase, leading down.
The jewel darkled and shook.
"Come back alive."
"I always have."
And now his boots touched the first of the stairs. Now the blue light rippled underneath his boots, and he shivered and I held my breath as he disappeared into the gloom, his lantern barely remembered and held so loosely in his hand. I waited, in chilly silence, surrounded by the long-ago dead, and tried to think of the good.
But something was happening now. The swirling dark of the portal, opened by means I dared not try to comprehend, had turned a shade darker, and my pounding heart and electric nerves heard a faint rustle like a scream from very far away.
Victor had not divulged much of the place beneath the stairs, simply because such things could easily drive a man mad.
Even so, my previous blissful ignorance here became a dreadful liability. In the new silence I held my breath, waiting.
The temperature dropped like apocalyptic fire. Was that a shadow, coming around the bend? Yet it was tall, far taller than my companion, and moved with jerking, impossible grace. My blood ran into grains of immobile sand, weighing down my feet and making my heart beat fast and breathless.
And the sound - how it burned! This figure, monstrosity, thing of worlds unknown by sane men, its eyes many and arms seven-fold, burning with the light of dead worlds... Victor was gone. Death came. It rolled silently, arms jointed and halting and angled oddly in proportion, into the weak beacon of my own lamp. In one of them, a heavy package swung gently. Victor.
To look away... to flee! Such temptations were doomed from their conceptions. And yet my arms were wooden, useless, and to seize the jewel was equally unthinkable. Slowly do the thoughts of a man freeze, but when they do we stand alone and suddenly empty of hope. It came.
My death thus sealed, the moss of the walls withering with the first entrance of this thing into the world, the stones themselves cracking noiselessly under its imagined weight... a voice. A voice, in the endless silence, where even a man's own mind is made mute!
"Come back alive..."
How to do it? Impossible. Now one arm was out, and reaching for some support. The coffin trembled.
"What greater comfort to a man... for life will be better for our transgressions."
This thing was death. My lips and fragile skin all broke as its hand approached, spilling loose blood onto the old blocks of marble below. Time slowed.
"Frigus peccatum est anima mea."
An eyelash twitched upon my forehead, flicking a droplet of blood away. Slowly, leaden arms reached for the crowbar, now abandoned.
"A full sixty degrees of the moon..."
A horrible scream; mine. The metal slashed through the insubstance of the thing, burning blue, then black as it faded to ash. But it subsided, disappeared, and now I was scrabbling for something large, something impossible to lift with the strength of one man.
"Though I suppose that's just wishful thinking?"
The coffin lid shifted, moved under my arms, flung with a yell upon the horrible portal, that impossibility opened in a godless plane, disappearing with the same dreadful not-sound of its opening. Tears splashed across the stone, dreadful coughs and screams given substance again in the world, and I fell so slowly to the ground, my own blood burning and dripping about me, the dust swirling like devils above my head.
The crickets sang sweetly away. The soul of a sinner is cold.