- Part Five -
Everything was white. The creature had released William, but he couldn't move. He couldn't feel himself taking in air.
...Are you okay...
His hand hurt, and his neck, but he couldn't look to see his injuries. He couldn't even try.
...Who are you...
... nerick Payne, sir. My son... Oh God, my little boy!
Yes. The child the creature had abducted was Frederick Payne's young son, Daniel. He had trouble saying William's name correctly. He remembered the alley now. There was a door to Frederick's lodging within. It was no wonder he couldn't make it out at first, being cloaked in darkness and buried in snow.
...have to come with us. Help me get William onto the...
The voices only occasionally came into clarity, as though he was struggling to get his head above water.
...take the reins. I have to find it...
... in God's name was that thing? Where did it take...
...like he's coming around. Help him sit up...
William felt hands on his shoulders, and the whiteness gave way to a swirling gray blur.
“Mr. Holliday! Are you okay?”
The voice was much clearer now. It was Frederick's. What is going on? What the hell happened? He could make out other sounds as well. He heard the wagon wheels and hoof beats in the snow, and felt the motion. A sharp pain stabbed at his right hand and he grasped it with his left.
“Daniel.& rdquo; He wasn't even sure why he said the boy's name. His head was swimming in a confused blur of things from both the past and present.
“My boy?” Frederick said. His voice was filled with an odd mix of despair and hope. “Is he okay?”
“Alive.” William's head was clearing. He could see the faint shape of buildings passing by. Sensations were becoming easier to identify, the hard wood of the back of his wagon under his posterior, the soreness in his neck and chest, and the warmth and wetness in his right glove. He pulled the glove from his hand, though he still could not see quite well enough to gauge the severity of the wound on his hand. “Alaster.” He slid the glove back on and tried to squint his vision into focus.
“Who?” Frederick said.
“Me,” said Alaster. “I need you both to be quiet. Frederick, we need to move east now, toward the wharves.”
William looked to Alaster, and although he could not see him clearly, he could tell he was sitting with his head lowered forward. He was back to trying to find the Demon with his compass.
Before long, the cold salt air filled William's nostrils, and actually seemed to help dispel some of the grogginess. “Where are we, Frederick?” He whispered.
“Head of Clark's Wharf,” Frederick replied with equal quiet. “ Well, Hancock's Wharf as it's called lately. I don't see the creature, but the Captain's here, and he looks affright.”
The Captain... George?
Frederick pulled the wagon to a stop and practically leapt to the ground.
“How are you feeling William?” Alaster's words kept William from hearing the conversation that began between Frederick and George. “Can you walk?”
“I believe so... What happened back there?”
“You have a cat's luck.” Alaster, now on the ground himself, grabbed William's arm and helped him down. “The thing was a hair's breadth away from making a meal of your face when one of your panicked horses stomped on your flash torch. Kissed by an angel lad.”
“He apparently had his own fight with the creature. He limped out of the alley in tears as I was trying to calm down the horses.”
William tried to take a step but his legs threatened to give out beneath him.
Alaster collected him in an awkward hug before he fell, and settled him against the wagon. “Gather your wits about you first. I need to secure a boat.”
& ldquo;The black devil is in the water, but I doubt it has gone far. I should have guessed it before.”
“Guessed what?” William was unsure if it was his current condition or Alaster's general tendency to be mysterious that kept him from even picking up a hint of what he was talking about.
“Why we couldn't find it all this time.” Alaster spoke while taking swift steps away from William towards the dock. “The bastard made his lair on one of the harbor islands.”
“It headed straight out there,” George said, “ towards Bird Island.& rdquo;
William had finally gained some composure and joined Alaster, Frederick, and George in the middle of their conversation.
“Do we have a way to cross?” said William.
Alaster nodded. “George has agreed to let us borrow his rowboat.”
“Lets be off then,” said Frederick. His eyes were locked in a fierce, determined stare out into the water. “My boy's out there.”
“I'll be joining ye,” George said. He pulled a poker from it's resting spot on the side of the wheeled stove William had made for him.
“I don' t think that's wise Ol 39; Pop,” said Alaster. “We're going to need to move quickly and—”
“At no age can any of us sprint across water, boy. I can lend my arm to the rowing; been doing it for twice and more years than you've been alive.”
“Very well.” Alaster turned his attention to William. “How about you? Are you reunited with your senses?”
William steeled his resolve. He had faced the Ra'akzu himself, and lived through the encounter. Now he wanted a second chance to fight, only this time... “I'm ready.”
“Four of us then.” Alaster dropped his pack between them and opened it. “Let 39;s prepare.”
It didn't take long for the four men to adopt a rowing rhythm. George was true to his words, he kept up with his younger companions and then some. Even at the strenuous pace, he was the last to show any signs of being winded.
Before they left the dock, Alaster had given them each a flash torch and a flask of oil, and kept one of both for himself. Alaster then reloaded his pistol, and William checked his to make sure it would still fire.
He felt strangely at peace with what they were inevitably going to face, and he felt as though the others were as well. He looked at each man in turn, admiring them as they all lent their strength to the small boat that was carrying them to certain death in a Demon's lair. Not as much as a hint of fear in any of their eyes.
Each man has his own reasons for being ready for this fate...
Alaster has his experience, and his need for redemption.
Frederick would jump into the pits of Hell itself after his son. A single Demon won't make him waver.
I imagine George has little left to fear of this world, even something this otherworldly.
And I... I have been on this monster's trail the longest, and in one year have seen more evil and suffering than should be seen in ten lifetimes. I am ready for this nightmare to be over, to whatever end.
About a mile out to sea, they came upon the small, snow covered, grassy islet that was Bird Island. Alaster and William, being at the bow, were over the side first. William couldn't stifle a gasp when the icy cold water splashed onto his leggings above his boots. They pulled the boat onto shore and then Frederick and George came over behind them. Alaster crouched and motioned for the others to follow suit. He held his crystal compass before him for a few moments before speaking. “It is below ground. A small cave.”
As though being pulled by something unseen, Alaster rose and took bold steps over the twilit ground. William fell in behind, less sure of foot, but ready for anything. George and Frederick seemed similarly steadfast. p>
William stole glances around Alaster when he could, and he noticed a small dot of blackness in the otherwise perfect field of white, growing as they neared the center of the islet.
A hole? William tightened his grip on the pistol, doing his best to ignore the pain in his hand.
Alaster slowed his pace and stopped mere inches from it, and William's guess proved to be true.
They stood for some moments, looking at the opening to the Demon's lair. William allowed some long quelled feelings to resurface, letting a piece of the calm, collected man he was to fade. Alaster would soon need more soldier than scholar from him, and frustration and anger would provide fuel for the battle to come. “Right then. How shall we proceed?”
When Alaster didn't reply, William checked his expression, despite rarely gaining any insight from it in the past. This time however, Alaster's face was easy to read. His mouth was open as if about to speak. His brow was furrowed, and his eyes were darting back and forth. It was as close to a look of confusion as William had ever seen from him.
“What is it?” George said from the rear. William realized he probably had not yet even seen the hole. He motioned for George to stay quiet.
“So many dead...” Alaster was speaking as though out of breath. “How can it have killed so many without anyone noticing before this year?”
William was stunned into silence. It was here before?
“Oh, we're well aware of the death present on this island.” George said.
Alaster spun about and leveled a cold gaze on the old man.
William suddenly remembered a tidbit of local history, and put a hand on Alaster's shoulder. “I didn't think it was of any import to the troubles at hand, or I'd have spoken of it before, I assure you!”
“What are you talking about?” Alaster snapped.
“Bird Island is one of them where rests the bones of pirates.” Frederick's voice sounded distant, but unafraid.
“I was there when they gibbeted William Fly over on Nix's Mate,& rdquo; George added.
Alaster punched one hand into the other. “Such a clever place to hide. That's why I couldn't track them, the old death masked the new.”
“I'm sorry,” said William. “I didn't even think to tell you of such things.”
“It's no fault of yours,” Alaster said. He pulled a candle from his pack and struck a flint a few times until it caught flame. “We didn't have time for you to recite the entire history of Boston to me. We're here now. Let's be done with it.” He lowered the candle to the entrance and everyone could see that it was a shallow depression, with a small tunnel set in its side that descended into the unknown. It was large enough for them to travel crouched and single file. He took three more candles from his pack, and lit them with his own. “Last chance to remove yourself from this madness,” he said to the group as a whole, “I'll go it alone if I must, and won't think ill of anyone. Even you, William.”
William gave him a wry smirk, and took the first candle.
“I've a good bit of family here in Boston,” said George, grabbing the next candle. “My sons have sons of their own, and if these old bones can do something to keep them safe, I'll not be turning back here.”
Frederick's eyes made it plain to see that he had crossed into another world, but some small part of him was present enough to grab the third candle.
Alaster pulled his pistol with his other hand, then reached a foot down to test the bottom of the depression. Apparently satisfied, he lowered the rest of himself down, and ducked into the tunnel.
For all of William's preparedness, a knot nevertheless formed in his throat when it was time to follow Alaster into the lair of their enemy. For the sake of the others, even more raw to the presence of Demons than himself, he tried to compose himself with an air of confidence.
His mind was becoming so full of blackness and blood that he lost all track of time. It could have been hours or mere minutes walking hunched over behind Alaster's candle lit silhouette. In whatever span of time actually passed as the four silent demon hunters navigated the winding and spiraling trail to the Ra'akzu, William had surely envisioned his own death over a hundred times, and with each time, he became more at peace with it.
Alaster wasn't questioned once as he came to forks in the tunnel, even as he chose his path as though well known to him. He paused just once, and only for a moment, when they came to the first signs of evil in the depths of Bird Island.
Alaster stepped over some skeletal remains, and William was pulled from the bedlam of death in his mind, as death presented itself beneath his feet.
Pirate. William paused for a moment himself to glance at the skeleton's grinning, dark gray skull, which had eerily come to rest it's stare so that it would gaze up at any who passed over it. You're lucky you met your end in a better day, sir. I almost envy you. p>
It was not the last corpse they would come to pass, and William found himself morbidly relieved to have something else to occupy his thoughts. Instead of visualizing his own demise, he could now ponder theirs.
The diversion was short lived unfortunately, as the smell of more recent carnage creeped into his nostrils. The tunnel widened to a point where they could stand side by side and rose to well above double their height. Soon thereafter they came upon the remains of the first of the children, its flesh hewn almost completely from gnawed upon bones. Dried blood caked the earth and nearby walls, telling of the voracious nature of the feeding that must have taken place. Half of the child's face was left untouched and locked in a final expression of terror. It was something William remembered Alaster saying the Demons liked to do to despair survivors, and unnerve pursuers.
Frederick gasped aloud and one of his legs trembled. George grabbed him by the pit of his arm for fear of him losing his legs altogether. A flood of emotions assaulted William like a tide churning in his innards, and he doubled over, retching. He recognized the face, though he had never seen it. Somehow he was just aware that these were the remains of Charlie Doak, the boy whose abduction he had so vividly experienced through Alaster's first Soul Walk. He felt like he was vomiting his own soul upon the ground of the cave. His humanity slipping away into the shadows. How can such evil exist?
“This is it,” Alaster shoved his pistol into his belt, took a vial of oil from his pack and cast it a few yards before them where it shattered upon the damp granite floor. “These are the gates to this Demon's little Hades.” He tossed his candle underhand to the small puddle of oil and a plume of fire raced out to fill a flower-like pattern where the oil had settled. He stood before Frederick and George and grasped each man by the shoulder. “I am very disheartened to be burdening you with a most terrible task.” The flickering shadows created by the oil fire behind Alaster gave him a grim aspect. “There is no other way into this chamber, and you must be the guardians of the entrance.”
“I'll not just stay here!” Frederick twisted from both Alaster's and George's grasp. “I'll pull that thing apart with my bare hands if I must, but I have to save my son!”
“And you will save him.” Alaster caught one of Frederick's hands before he was able to charge off deeper into the lair, and twisted his arm behind him. Frederick tried to pull away but, judging from the flinch of pain that crossed his face, thought better of putting too much effort into it. “By helping me trap the beast, you will be giving your son the best possible chance for survival. If you and George were not here, I would be forced to leave William, and go in to lure it out alone. If I can take William with me, then in all likelihood we will be successful in scaring it out, and you and George will be the last barrier between it's world and ours. In any other circumstance I would have no right to ask of you the strength you will need to face this creature, not only for the sake of your son, but for all the sons and daughters whose lives hinge upon your resolve. Trust me Frederick, I am not removing you from the fight, but giving you a pivotal role that I wish I could take upon myself if I were more than but one man.”
Frederick visually struggled with the idea, both physically and mentally, but in the end, the strength of Alaster's words as well as his hands convinced him to accept his place.
“Please save my boy.” Frederick seemed on the verge of falling to his knees. “Please save my Daniel!”
“I will. Or I will die trying.” Alaster took Frederick's hands and held them up so that they clutched the flash torch in a ready position. “Then it will come to you.”
“Don't worry, lad,” said George. “Not a damn thing's leaving this pit that isn't human.”
Alaster gave them both an apologetic look before once again bringing his pistol to bear, along with a flash torch. William mirrored the actions. The two then set off at a cautious pace around the oil fire and deeper into the long chamber.
“How close is it?” William whispered.
“Close enough that the crystal is no longer of any use.” Alaster struck his flash torch to the ground when they had begun to leave the illumination of the oil flame, and the chamber came alight with its brilliant white glow. It was larger than William had thought, easily reaching the height of a three story building at its tallest point, and as wide as any large meeting hall. The length however, was beyond the reach of even the fierce radiance of the flash torch.
Though William was expecting it, he was still sickened to see further remains of savaged children strewn about the chamber like so much discarded offal. He tried to focus on the dark patch of unlit chamber before them, but his eyes were drawn to a faint shimmer amidst a small pile of bones. A familiar shape.
“What is it?” Alaster halted a few feet in front of William.
William bent low to retrieve something metallic from the grisly remnants of one of the Ra'akzu's victims. It was a brass key.
The first boy. Alaster's Soul Walk had been real enough, but to actually hold the key in his hands brought another level of tangibility to the evil he experienced in Charlie Doak's mind. “It's the ghost child's key. This is Simon.”
“So it is.” Alaster resumed his march. & ldquo;Come along.”
The leather strap that Simon had worn around his neck had been torn but still hung from one of the key's decorative loops. William bunched it up and tucked it and the key into his coat pocket, then scrambled to catch up with Alaster.
Finally the end of the chamber could be seen, and there, amidst a pile of fallen rubble leftover from an old cave-in, the entrance to another tunnel was visible.
“Another way out?” William said.
“I don't believe so.” Alaster held his arm out straight, leveling the pistol towards the hole. “I think the Ra'akzu would have used it by now if it were. No, I believe that is where the beast has chosen to make its nest.” p>
William held out his own pistol and readied his flash torch to strike. Despite his rising acceptance of death, and firm resolve in vengeance, all his limbs were shaking visibly. Thankfully, if Alaster had noticed, he made no mention.
Alaster's flash torch began to flicker, and they both hastened their steps. They came to a halt before the tunnel, and Alaster thrust the dying flash torch out in front of him. Inside, some screeching noises and sounds like a stack of wooden bowls being tipped over could be heard. When his eyes adjusted to the brightness in the small confines, William's stomach lurched yet again, the death rattle of his innocence. He discovered the wooden bowls to be the hollowed skulls of the very youngest of the children, being disturbed by a dozen or so small, black, snake- like creatures. Each began hissing and baring its small needle-sharp array of fangs, while trying to conceal itself as wholly as possible beneath the pile of remains.
“Shyte. It's not in there.” Alaster spun and put his back to the tunnel. “Alright William, strike your torch and they'll be blinded. Use your knife. I'll guard and wait for the beast to come to their aid.”
William holstered his pistol, and drew his blade.
Alaster's torch finally failed, and an explosion of rubble burst toward him, launching him into the air. As he came flying overhead, one of his boots caught William in the temple.
William saw a flash, and thought he heard a pistol shot. The next thing he saw was the ceiling of the cave cast in the brilliant white light of his flash torch. He had fallen onto his back. Whether he had accidentally struck the torch as he fell, or Alaster had picked it up and used it, he wasn't certain, but Alaster was holding it now as well as one of his long daggers. He and the demon were squared off and unmoving. When William got his legs under him and rose to his feet, he could see why. The creature had Frederick's boy, Daniel, by the throat with one of its tentacles. In the bright light, the creature looked gray, and sickly. It's skin was pocked, and cracked, and it appeared to be having trouble breathing.
“William, take this.” Alaster handed him the torch, then drew his other dagger. He took a step towards the creature, but it started to constrict and Daniel started to choke. “Do you still have your knife?”
William found the blade nearby, and scooped it up. “I do now.& rdquo;
“Do what I told you. Whatever happens to me, none of those things can be allowed to mature. Go NOW!”
William's shaking had ceased, and his stomach was an empty pit, devoid of feeling. He ducked into the nest, keeping his torch before him, and began to stab into the pile of bones and skulls. A craze came over him, something deep and archaic. He began to scream and stab wildly. Have I summoned this? Or is it instinct? Whatever its source, it was only that primitive part of himself that could manage this grim work without risk to his sanity. William didn't stop until he could see no more movement, and no longer heard the anguished screeches of the dying demonlings, which withered and smoked as they perished. More than once, one of the Ra'akzu's young bit into his hand in a futile attempt to defend itself, but William was no longer a man of this time, he had become a feral warrior from a darker age where man and demon were a common enemy. And pain was as much a part of warriors of this age as their blood and bones. When his task was complete, William backed out of the nest to join his fellow warrior against their greater enemy.
He found Alaster and the demon locked and rolling upon the ground in a deadly embrace. The creature had pierced Alaster's side with one of its tentacles and was thrashing it about violently within him. Alaster as well, had his arm thrust into the Ra'akzu's maw up to his elbow, and it was making a gurgling sound as smoke and black, sticky blood spurted out between its yellow teeth.
A cry issued forth from William that felt like fire from his lungs. He took a running leap onto the creature' s back and brought knife and torch raining down upon it in a flurry of blows. It felt as though he could batter down walls of stone if they kept him from destroying this monster. Each strike from the torch sizzled the demon's skin, and each stab from his knife released a stream of its dark blood.
He felt the creature gain some footing and lift itself up, and Alaster fell back in a heap. William could only assume that his friend had finally succumbed to his wounds and released his grip on his knife, still lodged in the beast's throat.
The Ra'akzu turned all of its tentacles on William, pulled him off its back, then slammed him to the ground. William screamed at the demon, cursing it in a stream of unintelligible words. Its tongue shot from its mouth into William's, but the action appeared to cause it incredible pain and it couldn't force it further into him.
Alaster's dagger. William remembered his pistol, and took the opportunity to draw it, placed the barrel against the creature's tongue, and fired. The bullet and light severed the tongue, shooting a spurt of the demon's rotten tasting blood into William's throat. He pulled the severed piece of flesh from his mouth and choked.
He heard the cries of George and Frederick, and saw the light from their torches adding their brilliance to his.
The Ra'akzu had had enough, and it hobbled its bleeding form awkwardly to the nest. It moved as though blinded and dazed, but once inside, it thrust its tentacles into the low ceiling and pulled the entrance down. More than just the entrance to the nest came crashing down and then men had to scramble to get out of the way of some potentially life crushing rock. George helped William pull a moaning Alaster to safety, while Frederick grabbed up his son, who was either dead or unconscious, William couldn't tell.
An ear-numbing scream came from within the nest, and William knew the beast had just become aware of his handiwork. The cave ceiling began to creak and groan, and the men began to move to the other side of the cave as fast as they could manage. All dropped their torches so they could more easily carry their burdens, but the going was painfully slow and they were only halfway when the last of the flash torches began to flicker. They finally reached the dying oil flame when they heard the cave come rumbling down behind them.