And thus having gazed upon it, Aelius corrected many abuses and constructed a wall three hundred miles in length so that the people might live in safety. After arranging this matter, he returned across the sea, for he was disturbed at the news that the god Horaps had been discovered again after a space of many years.
—Anonymous Imperial History, BG, Aen. Ms.Hl. 17714
Robert Wenstock stared out the window as his train approached Stridcaster station. It was an unusually bright day for early September, and with the sun beginning to sink toward the horizon, the arches of Mr. Stephenson’s new High Level Bridge cast grim shadows over the otherwise glistening Durmber. It wasn’t cold yet, but it soon would be, and this thought struck a chord of resentment in Wenstock. He hated the cold and the wet and the dark. He hadn’t asked for this assignment, and when he’d taken up a post at the Museum it was on the understanding that he would be able to return to the excavation in the desert. But the sudden death of Prof. Heyworth meant that the Museum risked losing control of the project at the Wall, so here was Wenstock, exiled to Cowanshire. Keeper Duncan had explained that, really, it was a great honor to be asked to take over an entire excavation so soon after finishing his studies and that he should look on this as an opportunity, not as a punishment. She was right, of course, and at any rate Wenstock hadn’t the courage to explain that there was a woman in Elissar, that he loved her, and that he was afraid of losing her.
Stridcaster was probably a fine city, but Wenstock was too tired from his long journey to take a night on the town. That’s what he told himself, at least, but if he’d been honest he’d have admitted that he was simply determined to have a bad time for the next six months. So instead, he stayed in his room and wrote a letter to Isabel, even though he still hadn’t received a reply to his first letter explaining that he wouldn’t be able to see her for nearly a year. Had he already lost her? Probably. But this wasn’t a thought he wanted lingering in his mind, so Wenstock shuffled downstairs to the pub for a meal and looked over Prof. Heywroth’s reports on the temple for the dozenth time. It was a sleepless night.
In the morning, Wenstock boarded a train to Hesbury. It was another clear day, and despite his weariness, he watched the warehouses and tenements give way to the gradually unfurling countryside with some level of contentment. As the train drove further inland, the Durmber grew darker and lazier, and the wood along its south bank thickened until the river became visible only sparingly, a pane of black water glimpsed between the gaps of ancient oaks. When the train stopped briefly in Prodhorn, Wenstock took in the ruins of the old castle situated on a ridge above the Durmber and he found his mind straying from Isabel, wondering that the Ancients had built the Wall miles to the north of the river instead of taking advantage of its defensive potential as successive waves of invaders had done. Perhaps the river towns were larger then, were real urban centers and not just overgrown army camps as the scholarly consensus had it.
The sky began to grey as the train continued toward Hesbury, and by the time Wenstock disembarked, the cold North of his imagination had arrived, driving away any memory of the pleasant, sunny morning. Waiting for him at the station with a wagon was one of the site workers, a coalman with an impenetrable accent. He’d expected the foreman to meet him here so they could discuss the site while they made the thirty-mile journey northward to Barrashough, but now that would have to wait. Wenstock realized, then, that without having articulated it to himself, he had been hoping to complete the excavation well ahead of schedule and return to the desert as quickly as possible. Now, every moment wasted was another moment away from Isabel, another moment closer to her forgetting him entirely, another moment for vulturous suitors to gather.
Once they had crossed over the river and left behind the wood, the landscape became dull and uninspiring, nothing more than flat fields of sheep pasture stretching ever onward to meet the sky at the horizon, shades of green against shades of grey. It had begun to rain a little by the time they reached Barrashough, a village of about twenty buildings, all constructed from ancient stones that had once been the Wall. Perhaps a half-mile further north was the workers’ camp, a collection of three wooden structures: a barracks for the men, a latrine, and a galley. Over a thousand years ago, when Osric Elling was bretwalda, the Wall would have run between the village and the camp, a long stretch of grey, moss-covered stones. A thousand years before that, when the legions were still here, when Barrashough was a fortress of hundreds rather than a village of dozens, a layer of white plaster would have covered it, visible for miles on either side, shimmering on the horizon, a proclamation of power and a ward against the forces of barbarism. Now it was gone.
The driver slowed the wagon to stop at the pub, the Gardener’s Gate. “No,” Wenstock barked. “Take me to the site. You can bring my bags after.” They drove on, dipping down into the first ditch before crossing the old military road and then the course of the Wall itself, now not even noticeable, before coming to a stop at the camp. The workers had come out of the barracks to observe Wenstock’s arrival, and for a moment he fancied himself an emperor come to inspect his soldiers. A squat man with a thick mustache stepped forward from the others and approached the wagon. “Thompson, sir,” he spat out. “Foreman, sir.”
Mounds of dark earth that resembled the barrows of the New Kings obstructed Wenstock’s view of the excavation until he was nearly on top of it. He’d had a vague idea of what to expect from Prof. Heyworth’s reports, but was wholly unprepared for what he saw. Two years ago a railroad surveyor had noticed that one of the rocks in this field was oddly symmetrical, and in carrying out the due diligence of his profession discovered that it was the base of an ancient column. Now several feet of earth had been removed over an area of almost thirty-thousand square feet to reveal the contours of the structure, a sixty-foot circle contained within a rectangle roughly two-hundred feet by one-hundred-fifty feet. It was massive, almost certainly a temple, as Prof. Heyworth had indicated. What he’d left out of his reports, however, was that three months of digging had revealed that the surveyor had not, in fact, discovered the base of a column, but rather the capital of one. Underneath all of this dirt was a perfectly preserved Ancient temple, an unprecedented and, frankly, impossible find. How had this happened?, Wenstock wondered excitedly when he realized what he was seeing. But then his heart sank. This wasn’t a six-month job. He would never get back to Elissar, he would never marry Isabel, and the whole future he’d planned for himself crumbled into ruins.
“Do you want to see where it happened, sir?” Thompson asked, almost apologetically.
“Where what happened?”
“Prof. Heyworth, sir. Where he died, sir.”
“Here?” Wenstock exclaimed. “He died at the site?” Keeper Duncan hadn’t told him that.
“Aye, over here, where we’ve done more digging, sir.”
Thompson took him to the southwest corner of the site, where, indeed, they had done much more digging, in complete violation of the principles of stratification that had governed the profession for almost a decade. This wasn’t in any of the reports, either. “Prof. Heyworth, sir. He wanted to see how far down. How much work.” The intense digging in this corner had revealed three columns of grey granite extending about forty-five feet down, arriving at what appeared to be a limestone floor, though now several inches of muddy rainwater had pooled over it. Eagle feathers were elaborately carved into the capitals, nothing surprising there, but he’d never actually seen one so well preserved – there even looked to be remains of the ancient paint.
“What happened?,” asked Wentstock.
“I don’t rightly know, sir,” Thompson explained. “We found him here in the morning, sir,” Thompson continued. “Right where you’re standing. There was a lantern down in the hole, sir, so I believe that he knew what he was up to when he came out here. The doctor came up from Hesbury, but he said only that it must have been his heart.”
“That’s grim,” Wenstock said, not sure of what else to say. He’d never met Prof. Heyworth, and he couldn’t help but think of the man’s death as something that had, essentially, taken Wenstock’s future with it. “Did you know that he hadn’t been sending accurate reports back to the University? Was something … wrong with him?”
“I don’t know what you mean, sir.” Thompson pointed back toward the village. “That’ll be the vicar, sir.” Wenstock followed Thompson’s gaze and saw a tall man striding calmly toward them, paying no attention to the drizzle or the cold.
“Hullo!” the vicar called as he approached, cheerfully announcing his presence.
Wenstock extended his hand. “Robert Wenstock. You must be the vicar.”
“Only on Sundays.” The vicar smiled and shook Wenstock’s hand. Wenstock guessed that he was about forty-five until he looked into his eyes, and then he knew that the vicar was closer to sixty. The disparity between eyes and face was momentarily unsettling. “Peter Ballard. I’ve come to invite you to supper. A man shouldn’t eat alone on his first night in a new place.”
“That’s a kind offer, and I’ll look forward to taking you up on it some other time, but I was just about to return to Hesbury to send a telegram back to the City to ask for more workers. Otherwise I might end up moving in with you.”
The vicar laughed. “I always took care of the telegrams and post for Prof. Heyworth, whenever I went to meet with the Curate. Surely it can wait until then? We’ve already planned to have you tonight.”
Wenstock realized that he was being terribly rude, and that like it or not, this was going to be his home for half a year. Longer, if he couldn’t get Keeper Duncan to authorize the hiring of more diggers. “Of course. I’m sorry, it’s just that I’m anxious to get to work.” He forced a smile. “I’d be delighted.”
The Ballards lived in a cottage next to the church, and it was exactly as Wenstock would have imagined a country house in the North: warm, crowded with an accumulation of objects going back many generations, and seemingly timeless. Out of time, perhaps, or, as he would have said to his colleagues, anachronic – a house where time didn’t exist. Mrs. Ballard handed him a pint of bitter and sat down on a couch opposite his while the vicar finished preparing the meal. Suddenly, Wenstock felt very awkward. When was the last time he’d had to make conversation with a stranger who wasn’t a scholar? “So,” he started, fumbling for a question, “your children have all moved away?”
“No.” Mrs. Ballard looked weary, but managed a smile anyway. “We never had any.”
“Oh,” Wenstock blurted, “I’m sorry, that was a rude question. I’m afraid I’m not very good at conversation.”
Mrs. Ballard smiled more easily this time. “Oh dear, don’t look so mortified. Truth be told, it’s never bothered me – Peter’s the one who always wanted children. It is a bit sad, I guess, that the line of Rev. Ballards will stop with him.”
This interested Wenstock, and he leaned forward, resting his arms on his knees, comfortable now that the conversation had turned to the past. “How long have the Ballards been vicars here, then?”
“Centuries.” It was Rev. Ballard, standing in the doorway to the kitchen. “Since shortly after the Putrefaction. But much more importantly,” he paused dramatically, “supper is ready.”
They shuffled to the small dining room, just an alcove off the kitchen, really, but rustically charming to Wenstock. “That seems highly unlikely,” Wenstock commented as he helped himself to a bowl of beans. “Even in a safe, established community, there would have been several changes in five hundred years. And here, on the border, in a small community… I’m sure you’re very proud of your family’s lineage, but surely that must be just a bit of local lore.”
“Not at all,” Mrs. Ballard answered. “We have excellent records going all the way back to the founding of the church, when Osric was king. You know the battle wasn’t far from here? There’s another church at the site. You’ll want to visit, no doubt.”
“Don’t pressure the boy, Mary. He’s just being polite.”
“Oh, well, Prof. Heyworth was very interested, bless his soul. He even had a look at some of the books. No one here can read any of the really old writing, of course, but he was very excited about it.”
“I’m sure Prof. Wenstock isn’t interested in church history, Mary. Anyway, he’ll have plenty of time to discover just how dull our little village is for a cosmopolitan young man.” He looked at Wenstock now. “We were sad about Prof. Heyworth’s passing. He dined with us quite often, in fact. But that’s no topic for table. Tell me, what do you make of the temple?”
“Well,” Wenstock began, leaning forward again, “even calling it a temple isn’t quite right. We won’t know for sure what we’re dealing with until we’ve fully excavated the site. Honestly, I don’t have any idea what to make of it. The Museum sent me here because I’m an expert on fortifications contemporary to the Wall, but if it turns out to be a temple, I’ll be on very shaky footing. Really,” he added, as if thinking of it for the first time, “I’m just here to manage the excavation so that other experts can analyze the site when we’re done.” He laughed at himself. “Just a digger with delusions of grandeur.”
The next morning, Thompson had the wagon ready early so they could make the trip to Hesbury and back in one very long day. When they had left the village well behind, Thompson pointed to a wooden toolbox at their feet. “In there, sir. Prof. Heyworth’s reports.” Wenstock gave him a questioning look, and the foreman continued. “To check, sir. That it was all sent to the Museum, sir.”
It took Wenstock an hour to look through the paperwork thoroughly enough to ascertain that Prof. Heyworth had, in fact, recorded everything he had done, including the violation of stratigraphic procedure and the true nature of the site. Moreover, and more importantly, he had clearly intended for Keeper Duncan to read them, as they contained comments and requests addressed directly to her. The final report in the stack was a request for additional workers, the same request he was about to make. Wenstock worked through the possibilities. There were several reasons why these documents may not have made it into the paperwork that the Keeper had given him, some of them perfectly reasonable. What worried him most was the possibility that the Keeper had withheld information from him, though he couldn’t imagine why she would, and in any case that was far less likely than a simple failure of the postal service. Yet, Wenstock could not fail to recognize that the reports that hadn’t reached the Museum were the three most significant that Prof. Heyworth had written during his months at the site.
“Prof. Wenstock! Hullo!”
Wenstock was in the temple sanctum, attempting to be very gentle about scraping dirt from the side of the altar without damaging the layer of paint. Sunset was only a few hours away, but he had hoped to finish the front before then. Any distraction, no matter how brief, would make that impossible, and he was annoyed to hear Rev. Ballard summoning him. He stepped out of the sanctum and out of the temple to see the vicar and another man standing at the top of the excavation forty feet above him.
“Prof. Wenstock, this is Rev. Grey. He’s the vicar in Whitley, and we were hoping for a few minutes of your time.”
Wenstock debated the merits of expressing his irritation by taking his time walking up the ramp, but in the end decided that he simply had too much to do. He extended his hand.
“Robert Wenstock. What can I do for you, Vicar?”
“Elias Grey. It’s a pleasure to meet you, son.” This vicar appeared ten or fifteen years older than Ballard, with kind eyes, a trimmed white beard, and deep wrinkles across his forehead. His accent was decidedly Southern, and Wenstock realized that he had almost forgotten what that sounded like. To him, in this moment, it was like music. “Is there someplace private we can speak?”
“Oh. I had thought you were here for a tour of the site.”
Elias smiled, but only a little, as if his lips were too heavy to lift all the way. “Some other time, perhaps. I’m afraid I’m here about a rather distressing matter.”
“Sure. We can get a coffee in the galley. My hands were getting cold, anyway.”
Ballard put a hand on Elias’s shoulder. “Elias, do you mind if I leave you with Prof. Wenstock? These midwinter days make it hard to get anything done, but I’d like to shorten Mary’s list of complaints tonight.”
This time Elias attempted a laugh. “Of course.”
In the galley, Wenstock poured a cup of coffee for each of them, and they sat down at one of the tables. “I hadn’t realized how cold I had gotten. Now, why don’t you tell me how I can help?”
Elias settled back in his seat and held his coffee close to his chest, the steam rising up and clinging to his bearded chin. “Three nights ago, a girl went missing from my village. Annie Armstrong. She’s fourteen. A police sergeant came out from Hesbury, and he concluded that she had run away, probably to Stridcaster, but that’s not right. The Armstrongs are a good family, and Annie wouldn’t have any need to do a thing like that.”
Wenstock leaned on the table. “As you say, Vicar, this is a distressing matter, but I don’t understand why you are telling me about it.”
“Well, it’s not very likely …” Elias put down his cup and clasped his hands together. “This isn’t very kind or very charitable of me, but you have more men working here than I have families in my village. And these men aren’t local, and.… Well, to be frank, rough coalmen sometimes have rough ways of getting what they want.”
“So you think that one of my diggers went to Whitley and abducted this girl?”
“Annie. And, no, I don’t think so, not really. But I think that it’s possible, and I know that it’s the only thing I can think of that I haven’t already looked into. It’s unpleasant, I know, and I don’t like suggesting it any more than you like hearing it. But I owe it to Annie to look in every corner and behind every door.”
Wenstock nodded. “Alright. I’ll get my foreman in here, but I should tell you right now that we only have ten workers on the site. I released the rest two weeks ago, and we’ve only kept on the skilled men who’ve demonstrated a patient demeanor because the work ahead is extremely delicate. These aren’t the rough coalmen of your imagination, I’m afraid.”
Thompson vouched for the whereabouts of all of his men on the night in question, and satisfied Rev. Grey that, given the living conditions in the barracks, it was impossible for a man to leave in the middle of the night without waking the others. Wenstock noted that this was the first time he’d detected a hint of anything other than innocent deference to one of his betters, and made a note to apologize to Thompson later. While he was still mostly annoyed at the thought of having to stop the excavation for a month because of the winter and because of the holy days, he had to admit that everyone could use a break.
Wenstock opened the door for the old man. “I hope you find the girl, Vicar. And I hope that she’s alright. Will you head back to Whitley now?”
Elias looked around while he fastened his coat. “The clouds are breaking a little. We might actually get to see the comet tonight.” He took a few steps toward the excavation site. “When I return to Whitely, I will have to admit that we’ve lost her for good. And I will have to tell her parents. I’m not looking forward to doing either.”
“Are you sure you don’t want that tour?”
“You know, when I was at the University, I did two seminars on Ancient art. For a while there I even thought about becoming an archeologist.” He took a few more steps toward the site, and looked over the perfectly preserved temple. “I had no idea you’d found anything like this.”
Wenstock beamed. “There are even some paintings inside the sanctum.”
“Well…. I’ll have to take a look at those. But not today. I think I’ll walk over to the church and pray a little before I start home. It’s already too dark for a proper tour, anyway.”
“And I feel like I just had breakfast.” Wenstock lingered for a moment, watching the vicar trudge toward the church, his head hung low, his shoulders slumped. He glanced at the darkening sky and decided to get back to work. With the aid of some lamps and a cup of coffee to wrap his fingers around, he could probably continue scraping dirt from the altar for another two hours. He’d been back at it for only a little while when he heard Rev. Grey call his name.
Wenstock walked up the ramp to meet him. “Did you lose a glove, Vicar?” When he reached the old man, Wenstock saw a panicked look in his eyes that was more than just the reflection from the lantern.
“Come quick. Bring one of your men. And a hammer. A big hammer.”
“Yes. Exactly. Meet me in the church.” The vicar turned back to the village, moving hastily now, his head high and full of purpose.
Wenstock and Thompson found Elias in the apse, standing over a stone trapdoor. On closer inspection, Wenstock saw that it was fastened shut with a heavy padlock, less a trapdoor than a hatch.
“We need to get this open. Mr. Thompson, will you please put that hammer to use?”
Wenstock put up his hand to stop Thompson. “Hold on a minute, Vicar. I don’t think we can just go around smashing up Rev. Ballard’s church without asking him. And surely he has a key? Just what are we doing here?”
Elias rubbed a hand over his eyes and took a deep breath. “Annie is down there. I was in here praying, when I heard chains beneath the floor. If there is a girl locked up underneath Peter Ballard’s church, I’d much rather get her out before we talk to him about it.”
“Look, the Ballards have been very kind – ”
“Stand back, sirs.” Thompson stepped in between them and raised the sledgehammer, bringing it down on the padlock. The sound echoed around the church like a thunderclap. “Don’t think I got it, sirs.” After two more blows, the locking mechanism broke, and the shackle came apart, almost crumbling in Elias’s hands. The door itself was heavy, and Elias got out of the way so Thompson could lift it.
Chains rattled down below. “You’re almost safe, Annie! I’m coming to get you.” A wooden set of narrow, spiraling stairs stretched into the darkness. The old vicar lowered himself into the black hole, and was just reaching up to take the lantern from Wenstock when Rev. Ballard tore open the church door and took several hurried steps toward them. Thompson lifted the sledgehammer to his shoulder, and Ballard halted, still a few paces from them. “Don’t go down there, Elias. It isn’t safe.”
“I think we’re a little late for that, Peter. But you’d best come down with us.”
“I can explain everything,” Ballard said wearily when they reached the chamber below. It was a small, square room, with a stone floor and stone walls, save for the one furthest from the stairs, which was a single slab of concrete. Annie Armstrong was slumped at the base of it, gagged, and bound in chains that connected to the wall behind her. Elias hurried to her, crouching down to remove her gag. He embraced her and gently, almost imperceptibly, rocked back and forth with her. “You are safe now, child.” Annie cried in his arms, and he looked back at the other three men. “Is there a key?”
Ballard had it ready, and he handed it to the other vicar without comment.
“Do you remember what happened, child?” Elias went about unlocking Annie’s shackles. “Do you know where you are?”
“No, Vicar,” Annie sniffled, wiping the tears from her face with her freed hand. “It’s just been dark.”
“Alright, alright, you are safe now. We’re in Barrashough, but we’ll get you home soon. This man over here with the nice moustache is Mr. Thompson, and he’s going to take you upstairs and over to see Mrs. Ballard, who will get you cleaned and fed. I’ll be over before too long.” When Thompson came over to get her, Elias gave him one instruction: “Do not leave her for anything.”
“Well, Peter, I think you know you’re in a lot of trouble.” The compassion Elias had shown to Mary was gone now, even if his fundamental kindness remained. “But out of respect for your office and for the thirty years we have known each other, I will let you explain yourself before we take you to Hesbury.”
“We shouldn’t do this here, Elias. It isn’t safe.”
“You don’t get to pretend that this didn’t happen.” Wenstock could hear the anger seething in Elias’s voice. “I think here, right here where you’ve imprisoned a child, is the best place for you to try to justify your actions.”
“I am not evil, Elias. I received no pleasure, no satisfaction from taking Annie and chaining her to that wall. I did it because I am the vicar here, and it is my responsibility to do it.”
“Seminary was a long – ”
“Please, Elias, you said I could explain. What is happening here has been happening for over a millennium. Every forty-seven years, for twelve centuries, the vicar of Barrashough has chained a girl to this wall. This would have been the twenty-sixth time, the second in my own lifetime.”
“Isn’t the period of tonight’s comet forty-seven years?” Wenstock asked.
“Yes. And when the comet comes, so do the demons.”
“That’s preposterous, Ballard.”
“Behind this wall is a tunnel. A natural tunnel, part of a cave system, I think. The demons come from there. I don’t know why they only come when the comet is in the sky, but it has always been that way. Every forty-seven years, we put a girl here on the first night that the comet appears, and sometimes that very night, but usually a few nights later, a demon comes, breaks through the wall, and takes her into the caves and she never comes back and we don’t see a demon again until the next time. If we don’t do this, it will get out and terrorize the village, and maybe even the whole district, and before too long there will be more of them.”
“That’s not just preposterous, that’s insane, Peter.”
Wenstock stepped closer to the two priests. “It may not be either. We should let him explain.”
Elias ignored Wenstock. “So you do this to protect your flock?” He did not bother to contain either his contempt or his skepticism. “Why not chain yourself to the wall, if this is truly a selfless act done out of love?”
“We’ve tried that, but it will only take a girl. During the Border Wars, we tried to give it a boy, but the demon rejected him and ravaged the community and stalked the countryside for nearly a week. We’ve also tried killing them, but that just makes them angry. The best thing for everyone is to follow the procedure.”
Wenstock stopped pacing. “And you know all of this because there are records dating back to Osric?”
“Yes. There is a special record that the Vicars Ballard have kept just for this matter.”
Wenstock resumed his pacing again. “But before that, before your family took on this burden, when accounts would have been kept in a language that only priests could read, there was no need for a special record. But you can’t read Ancient, so you don’t keep those accounts hidden. And Mrs. Ballard didn’t know what she was doing when she gave them to Prof. Heyworth.”
Ballard began to look even less comfortable. “That’s correct.”
Now Wenstock came to a halt face-to-face with Ballard. “Rev. Ballard, did you kill Prof. Heyworth in order to keep this a secret?”
“What? No, absolutely not. He did become aware of this horrible business, not just from the records, but because I am a bad liar. I didn’t kill him. I gave him my grandfather’s books, and I asked for his help. There is so much progress in the world today; I thought he might be able to think of something. At the very least, I wanted him to help me prevent the excavation from bringing scrutiny to the village until the New Year. You have no idea how relieved I was when you started dismissing diggers.” Ballard looked at the cement wall. “We should really get upstairs.”
“Robert,” Elias began, and then cut himself short before starting over. “Prof. Wenstock, you can’t seriously give any credence to this. He’s a madman. He’s insane. He abducted Annie for some grotesque purpose, and he probably murdered your colleague. I’ve heard enough, and I think it’s time to bring this to an end. We can’t get him to Hesbury tonight, and I don’t want him to escape, so I think we should put this dungeon to a beneficial purpose tonight.”
“Rev. Grey, I know this will be hard for you to hear – and I certainly do not believe in demons – but what he’s describing matches perfectly with all the iconography in the temple,” said Wenstock. “What he’s saying might not be true, but I don’t think it’s his invention.” He paused and swallowed hard before continuing. “And it might be true. Strange creatures dwell all over this planet, and while we’ve grown accustomed to thinking of our land as a bastion of dull and predictable normality where even wolves and snakes no longer live, it is not impossible that some bizarre and powerful type of carnivorous animal still lives in caves beneath us. This land was uninhabited for many years when the New Kings first came, but if what Ballard is saying is true, when our faith was first planted here the new community came up against these animals, and this dungeon is how they dealt with them. The same story is very likely true for my Ancient soldiers. But instead of a dungeon, they built a magnificent temple and they worshipped these things as gods. Well, not the animals actually, but the comet that brings them. There must surely be some scientific means of dealing with these things, and if we are in danger now, then we should consider setting aside the legal matters until the immediate problem is resolved.”
Rev. Grey’s face was almost purple with anger. “Ballard does not get to murder people and call it pastoral care. Whether there is any truth to this at all does not excuse his behavior, and we should lock him up and take him to Hesbury in the morning.”
“You are wrong, Elias.” Rev. Ballard’s kept his voice low, as if he were afraid of the sound carrying too far. “This is pastoral care, and it isn’t just my obligation, it is yours. I’m sorry to bring you into this, but if you don’t help me return Annie to these chains, then you will be culpable for all of the death that follows, and for failing to carry out our first duty. Ours is a benevolent religion, rooted in kindness and concerned with salvation above all else. What could be more benevolent than giving up one person to save thousands? Ancient commandments aside, it is the greatest value to the greatest number that is the measure of right and wrong.”
Rev. Grey shook his head. “Your moral calculus disgusts me, Peter. It wouldn’t matter if Annie’s life would save a million. Murder is wrong, absolutely and in every instance. We don’t get to use others for our own purposes and hold it up as a virtue, even if it does equate to greater happiness for more people. Annie is a person, not a means to an end. She is a sacred being, not a tool. Then there is the matter of what the act does to the actor. Even if your intentions are good, the act – murder – is evil. The willful destruction of human life is the highest form of evil, no matter the goal. It infects your soul, it makes you inhuman, it takes you from the light and casts you into the darkness, forever. Not for a human lifetime, Peter. Forever. For eons and eons, for years far beyond our comprehension, and then further still.”
Ballard held up his hands in frustration. “I’ve already lost my soul, Elias. I lost it before I was even a man, when I huddled in that corner with my grandfather and watched the demon take my sister. You don’t need to worry about me. But that isn’t the point, anyway. Your argument is sound, Elias, it really is. But better men than us have had this debate, a thousand years ago, and then again every few centuries. My grandfather raised these very points with Curate Fleming, and not merely because he didn’t want to be responsible for the death of his own granddaughter – ”
“Hold on right there.” Elias snapped. He was angry, and now he raised his voice. “The Curate knows about all of this?”
“Of course. That’s the only reason there is still a permanent vicar in a village of only five families.”
Elias stumbled backwards until he bumped into the staircase and collapsed to the floor. “Then you are not even a real priest. Almost no one here has ever been, not since the beginning. There has never been a real ordination, never a real baptism, never a real consecration, not even a real marriage. Thousands and thousands of people have been damned through no fault of their own, betrayed by the very people entrusted with the care of their souls.”
“I think you are overstating it, Elias. We aren’t the vicars of the Curate. Holiness does not come through some line of succession – that’s all just an administrative structure. It’s the faith that matters, and our own goodness. The goodness of some man who said some words to us once is irrelevant. Let’s return – ”
“We’re out of time,” Wenstock interrupted. The vicars fell silent. Behind the concrete slab, a creature was chirping, not like a bird, but like an insect. The sound grew louder, and thin white lines began to radiate from the top of the wall.
Ballard took a step toward the wall. “Get to the vicarage, and stay quiet and out of sight.”
Wenstock made Elias take the lantern and head up the stairs first. When it looked as if Ballard intended to stay down here, Wenstock grabbed his shoulder. At that moment the concrete shattered, filling the dungeon with dust. Up above, Elias shouted at them to hurry, suspending the lantern through the hole. Just before he turned to run up the stairs, Wenstock saw that the concrete slab was still mostly intact, but through a gap near the top the light of the lantern glinted in a pair of dark, beady eyes.
Outside, night had fallen, but the day’s clouds had all vanished, and the pale light of the comet bathed the village in an eerie glow. Wenstock, who had not been alive the last time the comet was visible, stopped and gazed upward, forgetting the urgency of the situation. “Come on,” Ballard tugged at him. When they burst into the vicarage, Mrs. Ballard demanded to know what was happening. Rev. Ballard tried to tell her something about a wild animal while he looked for and then loaded his fowling piece. Rev. Grey rushed over to Annie, leaving Wenstock and Thompson to stand around anxiously. When Mrs. Ballard decided it was expedient to leave her questions for later, Rev. Ballard attempted to gather everyone into the dining room. Elias was aggravated by Ballard’s panicked fervor. “Are we just going to wait in here?”
Elias never received an answer to that question, for right then the chirping resumed, echoing inside the church, louder and more eager than it had been in the basement. From the sitting room they watched as a dark figure burst through the church window and landed in the yard with a heavy thud, appearing to Wenstock as if it were on its knees praying. The creature had two sets of wings, the one set on its back from which the chirping came, clear save for bits of skeletal structure; the other set were large flaps of leather on its sides, connected to long stick-like arms that had a single sharp talon at the end. With these talons, the creature pushed itself up into a crouch as if it could not stand properly, and Wenstock saw that it had only very short, thick legs that were incapable of ambulation. By the time he lifted his gaze to the creature’s head, it had caught sight of Wenstock and now it gazed back at him, snarling through a round, toothless mouth. It threw back its head and howled, a high-pitched sound more like a boiling kettle than any animal noise Wenstock had ever heard.
It seemed about to pounce on him when the door of the neighboring house burst open and the farmer emerged to see what all the noise was. When he saw the creature, he screamed and caught its attention, and the attention of his wife and son who stepped outside, unable to take command of their own curiosity.
“Oh no,” Ballard said to no one in particular. He grabbed his gun and stomped toward the door, where he turned to pause. “It will have trouble getting in, so stay inside until it is light, no matter what. Elias, everything you’ll need is inside the altar. They’ll only come at night, but you should send everyone to Hesbury. I’m sorry. Mary, I love you.” With that, Ballard shoved open the front door, strode outside, and lifted the gun to his shoulder. The creature was too quick, and before Ballard had a chance to fire, it leaped at the farmer and his family, spreading its leathery wings and soaring some of the distance. Wenstock could not see what happened when the creature reached them, but the screams were the most terrible sound he had ever heard.
Ballard closed some of the distance to the creature, shouting at it, trying to get its attention. The screaming ceased, and the creature turned to Ballard and lifted itself into its pouncing position. Ballard did not hesitate, and fired his single spray of shot directly at its chest. It let out a high-pitched shriek as the metal fragments ripped through it, but it was unfazed, and in an instant it was airborne and coming down on Ballard before the man could turn to run. Wenstock watched in horror as the creature pinned down the vicar with its talons and lowered its toothless maw to his stomach. Ballard screamed and writhed in pain, twisting his head back toward the house, locking eyes with Wenstock for a second.
Wenstock had never felt so alone. He had never been so alone. Elias had evacuated Barrashough earlier in the morning, and now had started for Whitley to send his own parishioners to seek refuge in Hesbury, leaving Wenstock standing by himself in an empty village. He’d been surprised when Elias told him he had to stay, and he had even protested, but the vicar had reminded him that he was the only person who could read Ancient well enough to work through the early church records. Even this argument would have met with a rejoinder if Elias hadn’t said all of this in front of Mrs. Ballard, triggering some primordial anxiety about appearing cowardly in front of a woman. Now Wenstock stood beneath a dreary sky, breathing in cold air that smelled faintly of copper, staring at the little country church with a deep sense of foreboding.
The black streaks of human blood leading into the church did not help Wenstock summon his resolve. Elias had assured him that the bodies of Rev. Ballard and the Carter family were not in the church, since the creature had dragged them all the way down into his lair, but this knowledge was not helpful. Yet, all he had to do was go in, open the altar to retrieve the records, and then he could return to the comfort of the pub to work. The whole task would probably only take two minutes, but Wenstock could not seem to muster the courage to step any closer to the creature’s tunnel.
Finally, Wenstock stopped thinking long enough to take action. He kept his eyes up so as to avoid looking at the bloodstains, concentrating first on the empty doorframe, and then on the altar. It took him longer than two minutes to determine how to open the lid of the altar, though it was not especially complicated. Inside were dozens of large volumes of varying antiquity, and several smaller, modern books, looking more utilitarian than dignified. This was much more than Wenstock had expected, and his heart sank, at first because he was going to have to make multiple trips to get all of the volumes to the Gardener’s Gate, and then because this was going to be a lot of work. There was no way that he could work through these texts in a month, let alone in time to discover any secrets for destroying the creature before the comet had run its course and returned to the black vastness far beyond the earth. In the end, Wenstock decided to move the books to the vicarage, and then to get his own materials from the pub. This saved him nearly half an hour, he calculated, and then, seated comfortably at the Ballards’ dining-room table, he organized the early records in chronological order. Once he had identified the first appearance of the comet, Wenstock jumped ahead forty-seven years to the next relevant entries. Save for too many moments lost wondering why these priests had employed a convoluted dating scheme revolving around a rotating holy day, he made quick work of the next five occurrences.
Wenstock had forgotten how eerily quiet the village was until he was startled from his task by the sounds of creaking wood and marching horses. Outside, he found Elias driving a small wagon pulled by two horses. A young woman sat next to the vicar, bundled up against the winter, with long chestnut-brown hair extending from a faded and unfashionable blue knit cap. She grinned cheerfully and waved at Wenstock as if they were old friends, which sent him into a silent panic as he worried that he knew her or that he should know her but did not remember her at all. He hated these awkward situations, and he chastised himself for being so terrible at paying attention to the faces and names of people.
As the wagon came to a halt, she jumped down and patted one of the horses on the neck and thanked him for his hard work. When she came around to the front, she extended a mittened hand to Wenstock. “Robert,” the old vicar sighed as he climbed from the wagon, “this is my daughter, Hilda. She’s home from the University, and she doesn’t like to do as she’s told.”
Hilda’s grin widened. “Just call me Grey. Or anything besides Hilda. ‘You’ is fine, or even ‘Oi.’”
“Hilda was your grandmother’s name,” sighed Elias.
“And she can have it back, Dad. I’m done using it. Come on, let’s get this equipment into the vicarage.” Grey went around to the back of the wagon and picked up a pair of old muskets and a lantern.
Wenstock was still dealing with his confusionwhen Grey walked by him on her way to the vicarage. “You should carry something,” she told him.
Elias put a hand on his shoulder. “It’s easier if you just do what she says.”
Inside the vicarage, they organized the equipment the Greys had brought with them. There were two old muskets, fowlers, really; several lanterns and torches, and a large jar of oil; an assortment of axes, hammers, and knives; and a box of various medical paraphernalia. In the kitchen, Grey removed a bundle of clothes from a backpack, and then carefully unwrapped the clothing to reveal a microscope. “What are we going to do with that?” Wenstock asked.
“I’m a biologist. Or I want to be. A botanist. Plant ecology.”
Wenstock gave her a puzzled look.
“While you and Dad are looking through the records, I want to see if I can find some pieces of the animal, from when Rev. Ballard shot it. That should be more useful than reading about a bunch of monks complaining that they don’t know how to kill an animal like this. No offense. And if I don’t find anything, I can try to help you with the Ancient. It hasn’t been that long since I took my entrance exams.”
“Are you at Queen’s?”
“Lady Edwards Hall.” Grey retrieved her cap from the counter and pulled it over her head. “We have work to do.”
Wenstock showed Elias what he had started to do with the early records, and the two of them set to work, reading and taking notes. After about an hour, Grey came back inside and began working in the kitchen. Wenstock thought she was preparing slides for the microscope, but a few minutes later she came into the dining room with a pot of coffee. “Did you find what you were looking for?” the vicar asked.
“Yes. But I don’t work without coffee.”
Wenstock poured a cup for Elias and then one for himself. “I’ve just reached the Putrefaction, and I haven’t found much of interest. When the priests record the arrival of the comet, most of the time they just provide the name of the girl and how many nights it took before the demon came. Sometimes there is a note about the family receiving compensation.”
Elias took a deep drink of his coffee. “I’ve been working backwards, so right now I’m dealing with detailed accounts. Some of the modern vicars have tried to come to a scientific understanding of the creatures, and I’ve encountered two instances when the vicar deliberately ignored the tradition of leaving a girl in that dungeon. In both cases the results were devastating, not so much for Barrashaugh, but for Whitley, and many of the farms between here and Hesbury.”
“Is any of that useful?”
“After one of the incidents, the vicar and some others went into the tunnels to hunt the creatures, but they couldn’t find them, and I suppose that’s positive. The next summer the crops were all infected with some blight, and the sheep died. The villagers blamed the vicar for this, and as far as I can tell this is when the Curate decided to keep the whole business a secret. When the comet returned, there were dozens of the creatures, even though the vicar had left a girl, but everything has been quiet since then. That was nearly three centuries ago.”
Grey came in to pour herself another cup of coffee, and frowned when she discovered the pot was empty. “That was enough for five people!”
Elias just raised his eyebrows at his daughter. Wenstock tried to offer an explanation, but could only manage an ineffectual “It’s cold.”
Grey sat down. “We should make supper soon, anyway. I didn’t find anything. What I thought was flesh from the creature was actually just some fungus. I can look again in the morning, but it doesn’t seem like that’s going to be much help. The shot must not have done much damage at all.”
Together, they cooked up a simple meal of lamb and beans. Wenstock would have really enjoyed a pie and a pint, but Elias seemed genuinely grateful for a meal that didn’t come from a pub. It was still only afternoon when the sun went down, and Elias suggested that they relocate to the bedroom, which had only one small window. Wenstock tried to mask the return of his nervousness, but it was obvious to both of the Greys. Elias kindly pretended to explain the situation to his daughter, but Wenstock knew the information was addressed to him as much as to her. “According to the vicars’ records, the creatures have never entered a house in Barrashough, so we really ought to be safe here.”
“That doesn’t seem always to have been the case, though,” Wenstock added, letting his scholarly instinct for precision get in the way of the larger point. “One of the early priests made a study to determine which houses the creatures entered and which they left alone, and then he had the village demolish the buildings that had been tainted. But, yes, since then, they don’t seem to go into the houses.”
“I’m really more interested in the definition of ‘girl’ in this context,” Grey added lightly.
“Well,” Wenstock went on, missing the joke, “the good news is that they don’t seem to kill the girls, but to take them into the tunnel while they are still alive.”
“Okay.” Grey laughed. “We might have to address the definition of ‘good news,’ as well.”
“But you’re as safe as we are, Hilda. They really mean ‘small child.’”
“That’s very disturbing.”
Wenstock awoke in the middle of the night, unaware that he had even drifted off to sleep and wondering why he was on the floor, having momentarily forgotten the situation. When he had shaken the confusion of slumber, he lay very still and listened. The Greys were sleeping, Hilda quite peacefully, the old vicar snoring a little. For a short while, there were no other sounds, but then a low chirping began to fill the void, distant at first, but quickly much closer, and Wenstock became aware that there were two sources of the noise. One of the creatures shrieked, and the other responded. Both Greys woke at the sound, and Hilda sat up in the bed, muttering something unintelligible. From his chair, Elias softly reminded them to stay calm and to stay quiet, but his daughter got up and stepped over Wenstock to look out the window. With the heavy clouds, there was not enough light to see much of anything. The creatures chirped and chattered at each other for an hour or more, at least once coming very close to the cottage. But eventually the sound faded away, as if, finding the village empty, they had gone elsewhere in search of prey.
None of them were rested when dawn finally broke, and Wenstock suspected that Elias hadn’t even tried to sleep once the creatures had come out. The vicar started to put on some coffee, but Grey stopped him and took over the task. “I want my coffee to taste like coffee, Dad.” Over breakfast, she asked Wenstock to take her to the excavation site. “You’re looking at the temple as an expert, as a scholar with narrow questions, focused on the trees rather than the forest. But I won’t have that problem, and, anyway, there isn’t much else for me to do otherwise.”
Cold rain seeped from the slate sky, and a biting wind blew from the north that was difficult for the pair of them to walk into or talk over. When they had descended into the excavation, the wind vanished and the sudden absence of noise was almost painful to Wenstock. He took Grey around to the north entrance, where they had been able to clear out a broad space that provided a full view of the temple. It had been a long time since Wenstock himself had stepped back and taken in the majesty of the structure. Ten granite columns, eight feet in diameter, rose into the sky, some of them still faintly stained with red paint. The bases were still mostly covered with dirt, as was the entire porch and the floor of the temple. They would remain that way until late spring, if the winter ever ended.
Behind the columns, a wall blocked the view of the sanctum, the bottom still mostly covered in plaster, though Wenstock was yet to remove the layer of dirt that clung to it – a task that would require special care to avoid damaging the mural paintings he hoped had been preserved, however faded. About halfway up the wall, the plaster had crumbled to reveal the rough stone beneath, and atop this was a long block of granite covered in relief sculptures. Wenstock pointed at them. “It took us nearly a month to uncover these and their counterparts on the south façade. We haven’t done the east or western sides yet, but now I wish we had. These sculptures should tell some mythological story, usually relevant to the god or hero to whom the temple is dedicated, but that isn’t what we found here. You can use one of the ladders to get up there, but let me show you the sanctum before I go back to the house.”
Wenstock led Grey through a doorway and into the open space between the wall and the circular group of columns that marked the boundary of the sanctuary. “The sanctum was the holy place of the temple, where only priests were allowed to enter, which is why it’s screened from the public.” He resumed walking, taking Grey on a circuit of the columns so as to enter from the south. “Inside there is typically a statue of the god or gods or the hero. In Ancient theology these statues actually were the god. Even if there were a thousand temples to any particular deity, she was thought to reside in each of them. We have that here, though I didn’t realize it until this business began. There is also an altar, where priests would make offerings to the god – to the statue – and perform other types of rituals. Until yesterday, I’d been ignoring the implications, but there are the rusted remnants of chains attached to the altar.”
Perfectly centered at the south entrance now, Wenstock stopped so Grey could observe these features first from the outside. Visible through the doorway was the broad rectangular altar, still caked with dirt, and behind that, atop a short, elaborately carved granite pedestal, a massive ball of polished white marble nearly thirty feet high.
“That’s the god?” Grey asked with all the skepticism of a modern scientist.
“Yes,” Wenstock felt defensive. “It’s the comet. At least, I think so now. But you should look around on your own, like you suggested. Start with the sculptures beneath the god. That’s what convinced me that Rev. Ballard wasn’t just a madman.” He turned to go, but Grey stopped him.
“How is this even here? The temple. How did it survive like this?”
Wenstock stiffened as he put on his academic posture. “It was intentionally buried, I think. Initially, I thought it had something to do with the construction of the Wall, which would have post-dated the construction of the temple by about sixty years. You can tell from the – well, that doesn’t matter. Once we had cleared out enough dirt to really start looking at the iconography, it became clear that this was not a typical Ancient temple, not even one of those traditional hybrids when local religions took on the trappings of the state religion of the Ancient empire. Sometimes the temples include stag imagery; sometimes it’s a bull. In the desert where I’ve worked, it’s snakes and fire, but it varies around the empire. We call this syncretism. Anyway, except for the design of the temple itself, there is nothing here that has anything to do with the imperial religion, so I’ve been assuming that this temple was the result of soldiers at the nearby fort adopting wholesale the religion of the conquered natives. This would have been offensive to Aelius when he visited on his grand tour, blasphemous even, and so he ordered it buried.”
“Why not tear it down?”
“Oh, that’s not strange at all. That’s the normal practice in the ancient world. You see, it wouldn’t be that Aelius or anyone else thought that the native gods weren’t real, just that his gods were better. Destroying the temple would be too offensive to the local gods, whereas burying the temple was seen as respectful and would avoid their wrath.” Wenstock read the expression on Grey’s face. “It’s silly, I know, but that’s what they thought.”
“When did this happen? What year?”
“Well, we don’t always have precise dates for these things, but in this case we know – ”
Grey cut him off. “That’s great. Was the emperor here when the comet was visible? It’s a simple question.”
Wenstock stopped. Safely within the domain of his expertise, he’d been feeling confident again, but Grey’s impatient disregard for the rigors of his profession robbed him of that, and his self-doubt and anxiety returned with a wave of nausea.
“Are you with me?” Grey raised her eyebrows. “It would have been quicker just to let you make your epistemological qualifications.”
“Sorry.” Wenstock blushed while he calculated in his head. “Yes. I mean, maybe not here precisely, but nearby, maybe at Stridcaster.”
“So let’s assume that you are right, and that thousands of years ago people here were worshipping these animals. Let’s also assume that they arrived at a similar strategy for dealing with them as the vicars in Barrashaugh, and that they were making offerings of little girls. The emperor comes here and learns of it, and then he puts a stop to it. He also builds the Wall. And then what? What happens the next time the comet comes? Do the animals appear and massacre the soldiers here?”
“I don’t think so,” Wenstock shook his head. “That is the sort of thing that usually gets written down, and we do actually have a fairly detailed narrative history of events from shortly after the construction of the Wall and for about sixty years after that because of an important – ”
Grey cut him off again. “So they found some way of pacifying or eradicating the animals. We can, too.” She gestured at the temple. “But these people didn’t. Still, there might be something here. I’ll look around, you should go back to reading church records.” She let out a heavy sigh. “I wish there was coffee.”
Wenstock laughed. “You can make some in the galley. But don’t blame me for how awful it tastes.”
It had only been two days since the creature had broken through the concrete wall in the church cellar, but since then the room had grown hot and fetid, like a moldy steam room. Wenstock thought that Grey’s plan to investigate the animals in their lair was foolish, as, indeed, he was beginning to consider the whole enterprise. But Elias felt responsible, and he had managed to convince Wenstock not to give up, or, really, he had positioned Wenstock such that he would feel embarrassed in front of Grey if he left.
Grey was eagerly inspecting the lanterns that Wenstock would carry and deposit on the cave floor at regular intervals so they could see and, more importantly, so they would not get lost. “Come on, we don’t have much time,” she said when she was done, and stepped into the tunnel.
At the opening, the tunnel was large enough for two adults to walk beside each other, but with every step it narrowed and shrank until they had to crouch and proceed single-file. As the tunnel narrowed, it also sloped downward, and the air grew hotter and more rancid. Wenstock gradually became aware that the dirt and rock were covered with a cold, clammy, dark moss. After a while, Grey stopped. “There’s a fork,” she whispered, before continuing straight ahead. Wenstock examined the opening to the right where the moss was much thicker before doubling back a bit to leave a lantern so they would not get turned around later. When he was finished, the light from Grey’s lantern was only barely visible, and he had to hurry to catch up, crawling on his hands and knees. The yellow light disappeared completely, and Wenstock began to panic, but just then his left hand plunged into nothingness and he gasped.
“Shhh,” Grey hissed at him. She was standing a few feet to the left in what seemed to be an expansive tunnel. Now that she had stepped closer, Wenstock could see that he was half hanging out of an opening in a wall, and that the floor of this next tunnel was three feet lower. After a bit of awkward maneuvering, Wenstock managed to get himself into the next tunnel. It was cooler here, and less rank, and it felt good to stand upright again. “We need more light.”
Wenstock retrieved two more of the small lanterns from his pack and, when these were lit, he and Grey inspected their surroundings. Perfectly rectangular, perfectly smooth slabs of white stone lined the walls and floor of the tunnel, save for where one of the slabs had cracked and fallen to pieces, revealing the tunnel through which they had just crawled. Wenstock lifted a lantern toward the ceiling and found the same material there, ten feet above him. In either direction the whole tunnel stretched further than their light, and Wenstock felt that it must go on for miles and miles. Grey turned to him with an expression of wondrous disbelief on her face. “What is this?”
Wenstock smiled, excited to have figured it out before her. “It’s the Wall. We’re underneath the Wall.” He rubbed his hand over one of the stone slabs. It was cold, and it felt wet even though it was completely dry. In the middle were several thin lines that he thought were fractures, but when he held the light up he saw that the marks had been carved by human tools. They formed a complex geometric pattern he’d never seen before. Closer inspection revealed that all of the stones possessed this mark, even those on the ceiling.
“Come on.” Grey marched in the other direction, while Wenstock paused to arrange the lanterns so they wouldn’t miss the exit. When he caught up to Grey, she was standing in the middle of the tunnel pointing to an area ahead where the stones on the right wall were gone and the ceiling had collapsed. She motioned to Wenstock that she wanted him to light some lanterns before they continued. Grey moved slowly, placing each foot carefully on the floor, rolling from heel to toe to avoid kicking the rubble and thereby alerting anyone or anything to their presence. After several paces she came to a stop and held two lanterns aloft, looking at the wall to her right. One of these she set down and then motioned for Wenstock to join her. The wall there had completely collapsed and where once there had been stone, now there was a deep hole that ballooned outward and grew into a cavern. The rotten stench here was so thick that for a moment Wenstock thought he was going to be sick, and probably would have been if not for Grey.
Grey reached into the hole and felt around before removing her pack to retrieve her tools. She scraped some samples of the black moss into a small jar, and, when she’d gathered her gear, stepped fully into the cavern. Fighting every instinct he had, Wenstock followed her, stepping carefully on the soft, spongy floor. Tall pillars reached toward the cavern ceiling, where a pair of similar formations pointed toward the floor. A few steps in, Wenstock realized that these formations were not stone, but part of the blanket of moss that covered everything, and suddenly he had the feeling of being inside of a living organism, and it seemed that it was breathing.
Grey stopped and lifted her lanterns upward to better illuminate the ceiling, and finally Wenstock realized that the hanging formations were neither rock nor moss, but the two creatures they had encountered the night before, suspended upside down, wrapped up in their leathery wings. Nearby were several similar formations, smaller, but otherwise identical, babies perhaps. He wanted to leave, he wanted to flee and never return, but in front of him, Grey was still moving forward, aiming for one of the moss pillars, either unaware of the creatures or foolishly fearless.
When she reached the pillar, she set down one of her lanterns and was just about to remove her pack when one of the creatures began to stir. Wenstock watched its head move and then saw the light reflecting from its beady eyes. Grey began to step backwards, slowly at first, and then more quickly as the creature’s wings began to chirp. For Wenstock, everything suddenly became thin and blurry and he was paralyzed. He could hear Grey shouting for him to run, but he couldn’t do anything about it.
Just as suddenly he found himself on the stone floor in the tunnel beneath the Wall, wild howling and frantic chirping echoing all around him. Grey was leaning over him, but behind her, crouching at the edge of the cavern, were three of the creatures, eyeing them with a ravenous menace. “You fainted. But we have to get out of here.”
“Why aren’t we dead?”
“I don’t know. They won’t come into this tunnel. But we can’t stay here. Can you run for it, or will you faint again?”
Now fully aware of his surroundings again, Wenstock was simultaneously terrified and ashamed. If they died here, it would be his fault. “I can run for it.”
“I want you to crawl toward the tunnel where we came in. Don’t actually run unless I tell you to. When you get there, crawl back as quickly as you can and don’t look back no matter what. They’re a lot bigger than we are, and I think we’re faster. If we can get into the exit tunnel ahead of them, we’ll make it out; but we also have to get to the vicarage as fast as we can. Go.”
Wenstock did as he was told, and was about halfway to the other opening before Grey shouted at him to get up and run. He could hear her behind him, gaining on him even, but he didn’t look back. Inside the other tunnel his panic returned, and he started mumbling to himself but he didn’t faint. Grey yelled at him to move faster, and when he went past the intersection he could hear the creatures crawling toward them. Behind him, Grey stopped moving, but shouted for him to continue, and then just seconds later a pained howl echoed through the tunnels. When the tunnel broadened, he began to run, blindly, until he nearly fell into the church cellar. Wenstock looked around at the equipment they had brought with them, and became frantic when he couldn’t recall if the gun was already loaded. “Run, Robert!” Grey yelled at him, not far from the opening. “Warn my dad and get inside!”
Wenstock dropped the gun and hurried up the stairs. He was just about out of the church when he heard the gun go off in the cellar. It was still light out, which confused him at first, but he shook it off and ran toward the Ballards’ cottage. Elias saw him and came out, shouting his daughter’s name, less aware of Wenstock than he was of Grey’s absence. “Get inside!” Grey shouted, running up behind him.
The three of them rushed to their hiding place in the bedroom. Wenstock was panting and his heart sounded like a train engine and he thought he was going to pass out again. “I stopped one of them,” Grey said flatly. “They don’t like fire, and their heads will explode if you shoot them at close range. I don’t think it’s actually dead, but it is definitely incapacitated.”
Outside, two creatures began to howl and shriek. Grey got to her feet and marched toward the dining room. Elias tried to stop her, but she was determined. “I want to look at them.” Wenstock and Elias sat together in silence until clanging sounds began to emerge from the kitchen. “I need coffee,” Grey explained when they came in. Through the window, Wenstock saw that the creatures had drifted apart and were further away now. They were no less terrifying, and, now that his breathing was under control, Wenstock’s shame returned, and it felt like part of his heart was missing.
Grey placed her coffee on the counter next to her microscope. “When I shot the creature, I grabbed a piece of its head.”
Wenstock and Elias sat at the dining room table watching steam rise from their cups and hover around the stacks of books. Neither of them said anything. After a while, Grey emerged from the kitchen with a fresh pot of coffee and offered a wry smile when she saw that the men had simply let theirs grow cold. “Dad, tell me about the blight again. I heard you yesterday, but I wasn’t really listening.”
Elias repeated the account he’d given to Wenstock the day before while Grey rapidly consumed several cups of coffee. When he was finished, she set down an empty cup, and then picked it up again, and stared into it. “Tomorrow we can kill them all, and when spring comes we can put an end to this whole affair.”
Elias looked skeptical and confused. “How?”
“They aren’t animals.” Grey emptied the coffee pot into her cup. “They’re mushrooms.”
Neither of the men said anything for a second, and then Wenstock began to laugh.
Grey pouted at him. “They aren’t actually mushrooms, Robert. But what we found in that cavern was a gigantic fungal system, a mycelium. I don’t know how, but instead of flowering into some sort of mushroom, this organism sprouts something that can act as an autonomous, predatory creature.”
Elias shook his head. “That sounds far-fetched.”
“I saw it with my own eyes, Dad. And in the morning, I’m going to put the one I killed into jars so I can take it back to the University and study it. But then we have to destroy it. Well, destroy the spore creatures. There’s no way to destroy the whole organism, not with any certainty. But if we can get enough lamp oil through the tunnels, we can burn it sufficiently to put an end to their hunting.”
Wenstock took a drink of his cold coffee. He was starting to feel better now. “And when winter ends?”
“When winter ends,” Grey explained, “you will have to repair the Ancient tunnel. We’ll look in the morning, but I expect to find that the stones of these houses have those marks on them. I don’t know why, but the fungus won’t grow on those stones, and the spore creatures don’t like them. If you collapse that cavern and then fill it in with the stones, it should confine whatever is left of the mycelium. I don’t know why it works, but I think that’s what your emperor did, and that seems to have sufficed until people removed the stones to build houses.” Grey drained her coffee cup. “Oh, and we’ll have to burn the whole village before we leave.”
The two men stared at her in disbelief, Wenstock’s mouth half open.
“Come on.” Grey stood up. “We have work to do.”
Image: Apollo by Sofia Dimitriadoy ’20