INTERLUDE: THE ACCOUNT OF THOMAS CARNACKI
It’s morning and I open the windows to exchange the smell of stale cigar smoke for the crisp morning breeze and a hint of the Thames.
I sit amongst the detritus of the night before, the brandy glasses and empty decanter, the full ashtrays and the scent of a mutton stew prepared in the Moroccan style. The smell of spice and smoke is not the only ghost to still linger. Last night I told Dodgson and the others of the bizarre affair of Mocata Grange, of a world glimpsed beyond this one.
As always the story aided their digestion even as it complicated mine.
They love my stories of course, even those of them who suspect me of embellishment. For me the act of reliving my cases is not simply an after-dinner entertainment, that is what they will never quite understand. For me it’s about fixing the impossible, taking the unearthly and the horrific and pinning it down like a gassed butterfly. As I tell my story and Dodgson notes it down it becomes a thing shared, a thing diluted by the echo of nervous laughter, something crystallised in the ink of Dodgson’s pen. In short it is something taken out of my head and laid down where one must hope it can no more harm me. Or keep me from sleep.
I need air. Leaving the tidying up for later I put on my coat and scarf and leave my flat for the crisp winter air of Cheyne Walk.
I walk by the river. The early sun throws its light on the water but sheds none of its warmth. My breath clouds in front of my face as I look across the narrow mud flats at the feeding gulls. I am reminded of my current investigation. I am reminded of the Breath of God.
It is not something I have discussed with Dodgson and friends, they only get to hear of the adventures I have concluded. The works in progress are too dangerous to share, they are snakes as yet loose from their basket. I will capture them, close the lid and then take away their poison by speaking of them out loud. Until then...
After my walk I return to my flat and wash the dishes. I could employ someone to do this, my inheritance is such that money need never be a significant concern, but about the only thing I like more than privacy is self-sufficiency.
Once the flat is cleared, I turn my attentions to the future: I begin the preparations for my planned journey.
The first step is simple, I gather my notebooks, a map of the local area and a suitable change of clothes. Next comes the equipment, and that is a more careful business, the electric Pentacle is carefully checked and then replaced in its padded case. I also run through my Gladstone bag filled with a selection of useful tools, such basic equipment as holy water and communion wafers, a selection of silver charms and a handful of crystals. There is also my revolver, with a choice of cartridges: silver, rock salt or standard rounds (it is saddening how often the threats I face are only too earthly). Then there are the sections of the Sigsand Manuscript that I have gathered over the years, a scroll so potent that it is not only the words that hold power – words I have long since memorised – but the very fabric of the parchment itself.
Finally comes mental preparation and this is not something that can be achieved so quickly. First, purification: bathing then oiling, then shaving and finally bathing again. By the time I sit, cross-legged, in my meditation space I am pink skinned and icy cold. After a few moments of chanting, however, the flesh is left behind and the mental preparation begins. I compartmentalise, visualising my mind as a massive storeroom, all that I know is unpacked, regarded and then filed away again, perfectly neatly. By the time I open my eyes the morning has gone and I need to get moving.
I dress and quickly eat a little left over curried turkey (I do so love to cook, good food is like successful magic, it’s all in the ingredients and the willingness to be brave). Then I gather my bags and take the car to St Pancras. I am tempted to drive all the way – that need for selfsuffi ciency again, I do so hate to rely on others – but the train journey will give me time to catch up on my reading and leave me refreshed when I arrive in Scotland, rather than grimy from the road.
I join the queue at the ticket office, almost giving up entirely when stuck behind a lady so ancient I can recall battling spirits more youthful. Her companion is scant help, though I feel sure I recognise him. Glancing at my watch – a truly lovely piece that I’ve had engraved with the mark of the Kronos Lineage so that it is not only a fine example of Swiss timekeeping but also a formidable weapon against Succubi – I realise I am now in a very real danger of missing my train. Given the hours of preparation I’ve put into planning my trip I can’t say I’m favourable to the idea of it being scuppered by a lunatic octogenarian and her companion. I hurry them along and finally manage to buy my ticket and reach the platform with only minutes to spare.
I spot a couple of familiar faces as I board and am momentarily undecided whether their presence will present a complication or a benefit. First there is John Silence, a man who works roughly in the same field as myself (though in a considerably less active manner; from what I gather he is a man who likes to listen rather than act). The second could also be classed as competition, though I believe he restricts his detective work to the earthly, Sherlock Holmes, the renowned consulting detective. Of course, I now realise where I recognised the elderly lady’s companion, he was John Watson, Holmes’ biographer. What he was doing escorting those on the cusp of death cannot be imagined.
Can it be possible that their presence is coincidence? Or are they perhaps following the same trail as I?
Settling into my carriage with a small pile of research material beside me, I decide that time alone will tell.
Once my eyes are too tired to decipher further dusty apocrypha, I pack the books away and see about food. There is a dining carriage onboard and, while experience has taught me not to set one’s hopes too high when eating on the move, I am glad enough of the opportunity to stretch my legs.
I take a table and a gamble on the menu. The food is actually better than I had expected, a goose pat'e in particular being almost worthy of the wine I choose to wash it down with.
The doctors, Silence and Watson, enter and I consider making conversation in order to determine the reason for their visit. Then I decide I really can’t tear myself away from the wine and dessert course. Small talk has never been something that I relish.
It is as I am finally resolving to return to my carriage, with a plan to meditate for a couple of hours before we arrive, that the incursion occurs. First the temperature drops, I seem to be one of the few that notice, the rest no doubt caught up in their oh-so-fascinating conversations. A small patch of ice forms in the corner of my window, like a spider’s web. I hold out my finger to touch it: it’s on the outside, so whatever is affecting us is sizeable and likely enveloping this entire carriage. The degree of psionic energy needed to achieve such a manifestation is daunting. Of course, I have left all of my equipment in my carriage, only a paranoid dines with his weaponry.
I am considering a sprint to retrieve my Gladstone bag when roughly half of the passengers are struck by a spiritual attack. They fall silent, heads lolling back while an ectoplasmic bridge begins to form, its gooey threads providing a conduit between the life force of the affected passengers and whatever creature this is that wishes to manifest. That solves the question of power, I realise, we are victims and power source both.
I notice Watson making to break one of the ectoplasm strings with his cake knife. Save me from amateurs.
“Don’t touch it,” I tell him, getting to my feet and hoping I can alert the whole carriage to the same need for caution. “None of you touch it,” I shout. “Do as I say and stay calm and we might yet get out of this.”
“And you are?” Watson asks, clearly irritated.
“An expert,” I reply, truthfully and succinctly. “The name’s Thomas Carnacki.”
Out of the corner of my eye I spot the same irritating old lady I was stuck behind in the ticket queue, the woman I assumed to be Watson’s companion. She is reaching out to touch one of the ectoplasmic strands hanging from the corner of her dinner companion’s mouth. “I said don’t touch it!” I cry, but it’s too late, her fingers are already breaking the fragile connection.
The man in front of her begins to shake as the force outside the carriage seeks to regain its lost connection. The ectoplasm pulses and whips back around his face, obscuring his startled moment of wakefulness and choking a brief scream as it yanks him upwards. The man collides with the roof of the carriage, spinning as the ectoplasm curls around him. There is a faint cracking noise as his soul is yanked from the flesh that houses it. The body falls, utterly empty, back to the dining table where it overturns a pot of coffee. The soul is swallowed by the ectoplasm, which bulges as the vaguely luminescent morsel passes along it, like a rabbit in the throat of a python.
The old lady is quite beside herself, wailing with fear. Then she faints. A mercy for us all.
“I trust I don’t have to repeat myself?” I say. “If you touch it, you will kill the person it is attached to. Do not even move, you do not want to attract its attention in case it decides to attach itself to you. Do not speak because I am trying to concentrate and, as I am certainly your best chance at getting off this train alive, you want to give me your greatest consideration.”
“Insufferable man,” I hear Watson mutter. And I can’t help but smile. He is, after all, quite right. Still, he will be forgiving enough in the end I imagine, should I deal with whatever it is that has set its sights on us.
The carriage begins to shake slightly, though whether the effect of the creature outside or a simple matter of irregular track I can’t as yet guess. The windows are dark, no great surprise given the hour. However, the longer I look at them, the more I realise that it isn’t simply a case of night having fallen. They are totally dark, no lights from towns, no stars. I begin to wonder if the world is still to be found outside these four thin walls.
“I’m going to move slowly along the carriage,” I announce, feeling I need to keep my fellow passengers informed in case they suddenly panic, run and doom us all.
The ectoplasmic web begins to move slightly, the whole, gelatinous construction swaying with a movement that again puts me in mind of a snake: that slow dance of a cobra’s head as it follows the bell of his charmer’s pipe.
When I speak again it is only in a whisper. “It is aware of me,” I say, “but if I move slowly it shouldn’t strike. At the moment it is fed, it sustains without me, if I become too obvious, however, it may become greedy. Please, the rest of you, don’t agitate it further.”
I slide my feet along the carpet, shuffling slowly forward like an ice skater, determined to make as little overt movement as possible. Soon I am near the connecting door.
“You’re not leaving us?” comes a frail voice from behind me, a woman sat next to her ectoplasm-strewn husband.
“I need to see what’s on the other side of that door,” I reply. “Just stay calm and wait.”
“You are!” she says. “You’re running away!”
She begins to get to her feet and the web moves, a thick tentacle forming that grasps at her hands and feet. She wails as it pulls her out of her seat and towards the roof.
“Carnacki, man!” shouts Watson, ever the heroic type, he cannot watch a woman in peril. “Do something!”
He also rises and, in a moment I realise the control I have over these people will be gone. I run the last couple of feet to the door and yank it open, aware that the web has now turned its attention to me. I see it move in the reflection of the window, I sense its attention on the back of my neck. Any moment now it will reach for me and then we’ll all be doomed.
Beyond the door there is just as I feared: nothing, a great, interminable blackness. Knowing I can hardly retreat I do the only thing I can: I step out of the door.
I grasp the small ladder to the left of me and pull myself up and onto the roof of the carriage. This small part of the train, though now removed from its fellow carriages, still rattles along what it can remember of the track and it takes not inconsiderable skill on my part to retain my balance. I am fortunate in that there is no wind to drag me off, though certainly something is out here with me and, as I stand in the centre of the roof and look up, I can sense its terrible eye gazing down on me. I can’t quite discern its shape, which is not unusual for an incursion of this nature. The creatures that move beyond our reality are bound to none of our physical laws, they have forms and dimensions that are so beyond our frame of reference that the brain struggles to cope. There is a shimmer of colour, like a reflection in the surface of crude oil, a shifting of matter that creaks, swelling to the limit of its mantels and joists. Something sinks down towards me, a long proboscis that glistens like off al.
I begin to recite the opening lines of the Sigsand Manuscript. Without the parchment itself the effect is drastically reduced, though it buys me the time to loosen my bow-tie and undo my collar. I can sense it creeping closer, brushing away the ancient words of power as nothing more than an irritation. I fling my dinner jacket upwards and feel a peppering of dust on my face as it is destroyed by a touch of this infernal creature’s tongue. I palm my cufflinks (they were a gift from my mother, inlaid with the bone fragments of St Benedict and far too precious to just hurl into the void) then tear off my shirt. My skin burns in the rarified atmosphere of the abyss, this fragile barrier between realities, and my chest – or rather the sigils tattooed into it – begin to glow.
Only an idiot doesn’t prepare himself for anything in my line of work and I have spent a painful six months building the most extensive and elaborate system of protective tattoos. Using ink blessed by a Catholic priest of my frequent acquaintance I am wearing a combination of runes and Chinese protection sigils that, thanks to the gift of transubstantiation, are effectively drawn in the blood of Christ. If that’s not a potent bit of protective magic, I don’t know what is.
The air above me quivers and the shift in pressure makes my eardrums pop and ache as the massive body of whatever it was that loomed over me slips back to where it came from, withdrawing its ectoplasmic net and its presence in our world. Of course, the moment it does so, our train is fully back in the “real” world and the wall of air that hits me, the slipstream caused by the train’s speed as it races along the track, knocks me off my feet.