I. The Darkling Ocean
October 18th, 1878
When people spoke of Nicodemus Whateley, they did so in hushed voices accompanied by furtive glances. "The devil himself" they would whisper, and even the impious crossed themselves to ward off evil. Nicodemus was understood to have mastered a hundred unholy magics, was rumored to be able to wrench a man’s soul from his body at fifty yards, or steal the very memories from his mind. Certain people, who claimed to have the information from sources now dead or mysteriously absent, hinted at repulsive and decidedly un-Christian rites the Whateleys performed on a regular basis.
Not that Nicodemus himself minded all the talk, so long as that was all the townsfolk did. With their tongues wagging, the drunken mongrel scum of Gomorra weren’t likely to act. Besides, most of it was true.
But on those rare occasions when he did get tired of the gossip, the innuendo, and the veiled stares, Nicodemus came to this deserted section of the Great Maze. Here, the only cries were those of the gulls, and the only roar was of the Pacific Ocean battering the steep, magnificent cliffs.
To say that the past year had been turbulent was like saying that the passage of a tornado was breezy. The townsfolk of Gomorra, upon finding out what he and his family had been up to, had assaulted the family’s mansion, killing half a dozen of Nicodemus’s cousins and burning the house while the manitou Knicknevin had roamed the streets of Gomorra. Four hundred years of Family history had led up to the moment his grandmother Wilhelmina had handed the Family Bible to a demented apostate who called himself Elijah. Lord Knicknevin had been incarnated, only to be undone by his own overeagerness. A Confederate called Stoker had encountered the Master at the battle of Gettysburg, and Knicknevin had unwisely tried to imbue some of his essence in the stubborn cavalryman. Nicodemus wasn’t awfully clear on the details—Stoker was gone, and Knicknevin wasn’t confiding much to his Earthly subordinates—but the resulting mess had decimated the Family. At the same time, the leader of a rabble of different Indian tribes, Joseph Eyes-Like-Rain, had turned out to be more competent than Nicodemus himself had ever imagined. Somehow, the Indian had managed to kill Wilhelmina, who had been Knicknevin’s most powerful and devoted servant.
Still, the Family hadn’t planned for hundreds of years simply to let their aspirations fall to ruin at the first setback. Lessons had been learned, and now the Family, under the less steady guidance of Nic’s uncle Jebediah, was preparing to summon their master once again.
Only Jebediah hadn’t learned the same things Nicodemus had. Nicodemus now understood that Knicknevin didn’t care about his faithful servants. When the Family had been attacked, Knicknevin had only been interested in rampaging through Gomorra like an eight year-old on a beach full of sand castles. If Knicknevin had told the Family exactly what Stoker was, they could have gotten rid of the Confederate easily. But He hadn’t.
Truth be told, Nicodemus didn’t think the manitou saw humans as anything but chattel to rule over, and he had the distinct impression this applied to the Master’s supposedly favored servants, as well. Nicodemus might be many things, but he was no man’s, and no thing’s lackey. The very thought of servitude to anyone burned him. The Family had sacrificed, worked, labored, fought, died, been persecuted, and the manitou was just going to throw that away? The ceremonies they had performed, the hardships they had endured, the sacrifices they had made, the knowledge they had collected, hadn’t meant a damn to Knicknevin once He had torn free of the Otherworld. Apparently, human gratitude wasn’t the only sort that was short lived.
All his life, Nicodemus had been raised to understand that Knicknevin was the Master, and that everything the Family did was for His aggrandizement. Nick remembered the first major ceremony he’d been permitted to be a part of—the conception of Astoreth. It had been yet another in the long line of the Family’s experiments, honing and perfecting the spell which would culminate in the conception of Lucifer. The corpse-wax candles glowing off the polished, silvery symbol painstakingly inlaid into the black granite floor by previous generations. Rituals had been harder before 1863. Even with Uncle Nathaniel leading, the chant had required some full twenty-four hours to summon a simple spirit, nothing with any power. These days, Nic summoned more powerful manitou just by turning a card in his deck.
But the resulting human-manitou hybrid had been a disappointment. Although Astoreth was healthy and human-looking, he lacked sorcerous aptitude, despite having Nathaniel for a father. Nicodemus remembered hearing Wilhelmina muttering darkly about the possibility of matrilineal conveyance of eldritch ability, but she had never openly discussed it with Nicodemus, otherwise her obvious favorite. Black tomes containing hundreds of years of Family notes had been forbidden to him. Perhaps she had seen, even then, the possibility of his rebellion.
Nick’s face twisted as he shut out dark memories involving a similar ceremony that had involved his own Dolores. He’d been kept in the dark about a lot of aspects about what that had entailed. Even now, Nicodemus didn’t know everything that the Family had wanted in Lucifer. Why did the manitou want his own half-human child? Did Knicknevin think that grafting of his own flesh to Whateley blood would make a more reliable servant?
Nicodemus let his mind drift back to the present, once again hearing the pounding of the waves against the sheer rocks of the Great Maze. Without Saul as a conduit to Knicknevin, and without Wilhelmina’s hundred plus years of experience, Jebediah was a poor replacement to lead the Family. Still, he was doggedly moving ahead with the plans Wilhelmina had put into motion. The man had tenacity, but lacked the imagination and flexibility necessary to create plans of his own.
And now, Nicodemus was engaged in a secret battle with his own family. He didn’t know if he could have challenged the cackling, rheumy-eyed Wilhelmina, but Jebediah’s weakness, both as a leader and as a sorcerer, made Nicodemus’s dissension possible. Although it went against everything he had been taught, Nicodemus was not going to follow Jebediah to help free Knicknevin again.
His thoughts finally, firmly ordered, Nic’s mind drifted back to the present. The sun had just dipped into the ocean, painting the cliffs an otherworldly golden hue. The crash of the waves on the cliffs was indescribably beautiful to someone who had grown up in Vermont and Deseret. The ever-changing sea was a constant source of wonder and pleasure to Nicodemus. He surveyed the abandoned coastline to the north and south of him—
—only to discover that he was not alone! Two figures, a man and a woman, stood on the cliffs, not fifteen yards from him. The shock that someone had crept up on him unaware was almost as much of a blow as the fact that someone had dared to violate his personal sanctuary.
"Gully," the first figure, the man, shouted so that he could be heard fifty feet away over the roar of the ocean. "Look at that rock! And there’s seagulls nesting on it!"
"Look at all them waves, too," his companion, a ridiculously plain woman in what was obviously her best gingham dress. "They’re bigger than the ones we gets in the Salt Lake. And they just keep comin’."
"You’re right, they just keep comin’ on in! Whoosh! Whoosh! Whooooooosh!" the man screamed happily, as if his pathetic imitations were an improvement on the sublime beauty of the eternal ocean.
Nicodemus’s mind turned over the possibilities. How best to kill these two? His hand was already on his pistol, but somehow that felt impersonal. And then he’d have to dispose of the bodies, and he didn’t want these trash cluttering up the pristine beauty that surrounded him. Bodies caught in the Maze’s riptides and currents could travel a hundred miles in a day—or simply get battered on the same rocks until they came apart. Nicodemus didn’t want little scraps of gingham to sully the untouched beauty of the jagged rocks below.
He approached the couple, trying not to drink in the pathetic details of their tiny lives. By the time he had reached the little group, the man was running around with his arms out, apparently in some asinine imitation of the gulls. The woman was laughing delightedly.
"Evening folks," Nicodemus said, rather abruptly, since the man seemed likely to fall off a cliff if he kept his idiotic behavior up.
The couple grinned widely at him.
"Howdy, stranger," the man said, doffing his hat politely. "We’re Jake and Emeline Fitzmilton, all the way from Salt Lake on out honeymoon." They glanced at each other and shared a cute private giggle. Nicodemus smiled while suppressing the urge to retch.
"My name’s Oswald Hardinger," Nicodemus lied as he held out his hand. "And I’m pleased to meet you." Jake took the proffered hand and gave it a firm pump.
"Jake’s a junior assistant accountant with Smith and Robards," Emeline volunteered helpfully. "We thought we’d come out to see where all the ghost rock comes from." The couple again exchanged glances and smiled at each other.
Nicodemus let a look of dismay steal across his face. "If you’re from Salt Lake, then..." Nicodemus checked himself. "But surely you know."
"Know what, Mr. Hardinger," Jake asked, his face not quite trusting.
"Well, the Pacific Ocean is to big and vast that once you’ve seen it, no other body of water can seem significant again. People who spend too much time looking at the Pacific don’t ever feel quite right if they ever get too far from it.
"You know, I didn’t believe it myself. People talk, and you hear about the tall tales people try to sell to Easterners. But I myself have a friend who made his fortune here and went back East after a year in Gomorra, swearing he’d never return. Sad to say, I saw him not six weeks later, saying that there wasn’t enough water anywhere but on the West Coast. The Mississippi River looked like a tiny trickle of water to him, and when he got to the Great Lakes, why they didn’t look any bigger than puddle in a road. He said he was afraid that if he got a good thirst on him, he’d just drink them right up.
"Them in the know say that’s why so many folks come to California and stay—they see the greatest ocean on Earth, and then everything else looks so small that they think they’ll just get more thirsty drinking from anything else. Well, not that it’s a problem for you nice people. I mean, you don’t intend to ever go back to Salt Lake, do you?"
Both Jake and Emeline were looking decidedly pale, and it was Emeline whose voice quavered out a small, "Well, we had intended to go back after two weeks...."
"Great elephants," Nicodemus spouted, hustling the two away from the coastline. "You’ve got to get back to town right away, and try not to think about all the vast amounts of water you’ve seen. You haven’t looked for long, so it might be that the Great Salt Lake will still look like more than a glass of water to you. But you have to go right now, or it surely will be too late! And no looking back, either of you. The spell of the Ocean might not have caught you yet, but one glance back could be the straw that breaks the camel’s back! Go now, and hurry!"
The couple moved away with nervous speed, trying not to look back but doing so anyway. Nicodemus watched them climb into a wagon, and vanish in a small cloud of dust. And when all was quiet again, Nicodemus looked back to see the last farewell beam of the sun as it vanished below the ocean. He shook his head in disbelief. Idiots. What kind of sane Creator wrought the sublime beauty of a place like the Great Maze, and then turned it over to the teeming, mongrel throngs of humans such as them?
Nicodemus sighed as he watched the peaceful and empty landscape grow dark, and listened to the unending roar of the waves.
II. Pawn for Pawn
October 20th, 1878
The barest sliver of the moon peered down on the desert, lending the prosaically scraggly brush the veneer of an unknown spirit realm. A horse stood unattended amid the scrub, whose bone-white color was more than the simple bleaching action of moonlight. It stood, unnaturally still and patient, waiting for its rider.
When given a drink or two, certain men of Gomorra would mumble that the Whateleys only bred with their own. Newcomers, who hadn’t been present for the horrible events of ‘77, usually ignored the comments as sour grapes from those what had failed to pay court the dangerously beautiful Tzipporah.
Tzipporah Whateley, arguably the most lethal, and possibly the most beautiful woman in all of Gomorra, had her own problems. Tonight, she sat on Gomorra’s sandy dirt, talking them out.
"What is it about men, Nana? They just get all sorts of funny ideas. Bones was interesting for a while, but he started talkin’ about these things I had to do."
Tzipporah let out an exasperated sigh and looked at the grey, monkey-like muzzle of the lizard-thing that had been Wilhelmina.
"And what do I do about Jack? I like him and all, but it’d be nice if he could tell blood magic from a hex. But he’s too busy doctorin’ people who come to him, whether they can pay or not." Tzipporah threw up her hands in frustration. "The boy just isn’t natural."
The chupakabra hissed, and Tzipporah was sure that there was a look of sympathy in those luminous, inhuman eyes. It slid a formidably clawed appendage across the rock, and placed it gently on Tzipporah’s hand.
Tzipporah smiled bleakly, and looked up at the brilliant stars of the California desert.
"I don’t know what it is about men—they just don’t seem to have any sense of fun. Can’t a woman have a tumble in the hay without someone talkin’ marriage as soon as his trousers are up again? It’s like they got to get all noble the instant after they get their—"
Tzipporah stopped, alarmed as the lizard-thing reared up. It sniffed the air for a moment, its misshapen head almost human in the light of the newborn moon. It let out a suspicious hiss, then vanished into the underbrush.
In a flash, Tzipporah’s gun was out and gleaming in the feeble moonlight. What could have spooked Nana? There was a movement in the scrub over to her left, and Tzipporah’s arm turned smoothly to cover it. Although she moonlight winked evilly off the polished barrel of her pistol, the wan light revealed nothing moving in the desert scrub. Frowning at herself, Tzipporah dismissed her suspicions as the products of her distraught mind, but did not holster her pistol. Likely the twisted thing that had been Grandmother Wilhelmina had scented a rabbit, or a prairie dog.
She whirled suddenly, gun training on nothing but the shadows of skeletal branches that twisted slightly in the breeze. Pursing her lips, she gave the withered scrub a hard stare, mentally daring anything concealed to show itself. When nothing appeared, she forcefully thrust the pistol back into its holster. She wasn’t afraid of things that lurked in the dark, she reprimanded herself. She was one. The thought brought a small smile to her lips.
It vanished as wordless scream of horror erupted nearby and she whirled toward it. Tzipporah’s pistol was in her hand again, but now the only sounds she heard were those of something bolting down gobbets of meat. Nana, it appeared, would be indisposed for a few minutes.
Tzipporah waited patiently, listening to noises like someone sucking on a juicy orange, and the occasional lapping. At least with Wilhelmina, you knew what you were getting. She might be a disgusting abomination, but at least she was rational.
Unexpectedly, the monkey-thing reappeared as silently as it had vanished, and resumed its squatting position, licking a black, sticky substance from the smooth skin of its forearms.
"Who was it, Nana?"
The creature looked up and made a sort of choking noise, then returned to its grooming.
"Why would Nicodemus send Gareth to spy on us?"
In a human, the drawn-out breath the thing emitted might have been a sigh, and what might have been disappointment flickered briefly in the depths of the inhuman eyes.
* * *
Jack Brash bent low over his horse’s neck, urging the animal to keep up its canter, fear gnawing at his mind, the leprous quarter-moon rendering the night landscape vague and spectral. A blind fool could see that all was not well in the unholy Whateley family, and Brash was terrified of being in the middle of it. He had once witnessed the baleful wrath of the abhorrent Nicodemus, and had no desire to do so again. So when Jebediah had told him to deliver a message to Cassandra Whateley in Ghost Creek, Jack had saddled his horse as quickly as his fevered, trembling hands had been able and rode out. After he dropped the message off at Ghost Creek, Jack would just keep on going. He certainly didn’t want to stay in California. Anywhere to the West of the Sierra Nevada Mountains was too close to Nicodemus and Jebediah for his comfort. Maybe Deadwood or even Dodge City—Jack was sure he’d be safer there.
Jack looked behind him and saw nothing moving, just the dead flatness of the desert and the eternal brilliance of the night stars. Cassandra, Jebediah had said, he was to contact Cassandra, or leave a message specifically for her at DuPont’s Curiosity Shoppe. If he got out of this alive, Jack swore, he was never going to borrow money again.
Not that there was much for him to fear right now. With nothing behind him, and certainly more than eight miles between him and Gomorra, Jack Brash began to relax, and let his tired horse ease back to a walk. He wished he’d brought more with him, but he didn’t want to alert Jebediah or anyone else of his intentions. Now, he was poorer than he’d ever been, with only the clothes on his back, a horse, and the bedroll in which he’d hidden ten dollars. Jack silently cursed the black soul of Stephen Curwen, the loan shark who’d gotten him mixed up with the Family in the first place.
Jack started as something whispered past him in the dark. A bat, he told himself. Only bats would be out this late at night. Jack felt some of the panic of his earlier flight returning. While he’d never seen any of the Whateleys control bats, it was certainly something they would do. They all, and Nicodemus in particular, seemed to have a fascination for anything that was disgusting or unholy. If it made your flesh crawl, you could bet one of the Whateleys would be poking into it. Jack shuddered.
Another bat flew past him, and wheeling, began to climb into the darkened night sky. Jack lost track of it immediately, its black melting larger black of the night sky.
Cursing, he kicked his tired horse up to a trot. He hadn’t seen anything move for the past two hours, and now two bats had passed him. Probably it was nothing, but Jack wasn’t about to take any chances. The more distance he put between himself and that cursed family, the better. After five minutes and no further flying mammals, Jack mastered his fear enough to take a snort from his whiskey bottle. The stuff burned comfortingly on the way down, keeping him warm in the chill of the night. He’s be over the Sierra Nevadas before the snows fell, and if he made good time, he might even cross the Rockies before—
Jack’s train of thought was interrupted by a flurry of wings and a light touch on his shoulder. Looking, he saw that something had landed on him. Only it wasn’t a bat—it was a crow. Jack looked in amazement at the bird, which cocked its head in a very human gesture. Fascinated but unable to move, Jack watched as the crow shifted around on the leather of his vest, as if finding good footing. Then it jabbed it’s sharp beak straight into Jack’s right eye.
Pain exploded in Brash’s skull, and he howled and dropped his whiskey bottle, clutching at his ruined eye, feeling blood and fluid run down his face. His mind howled—he was mutilated, and he’d never be a whole man again. He felt a sharp jab at the back of his hands, and he backhanded the filthy thing off his shoulder. The pain was excruciating, he could feel the socket throbbing to the beat of his heart.
Again he heard the flutter of wings, and looked up with his one good eye just in time to see a dozen or more black birds descend from the inky darkness of the sky.
Jack Brash’s agonized screams rolled over the flat, featureless desert that separated Gomorra from Ghost Creek, but only the Harrowed birds that made up Gabriel Whateley’s murder heard him.
October 25th, 1878
The turgid half-moon looked down balefully on Tzipporah as she gathered her hair into a thick braid and tied it off with a leather thong. That would keep it away from her lantern, and perhaps keep it from getting completely disgusting. Even so, crawling around in the warren of tunnels beneath Gomorra was going to utterly ruin her dress.
She struck a match, and lit the wick of her lamp. The warm glow seemed at odds with the brighter, paler glow of the moon. She sighed and wished for the last time that she didn’t have to do this. But Jebediah had told her they needed every Family member possible for the ceremony. Saul had been away from the Family too long, and needed to be returned to the fold. Of course, Jebediah himself wouldn’t lower himself to scuttling around in ghoul warrens, so Tzipporah had gotten the job. Nicodemus was catting about town in all but open rebellion. She bet he wouldn’t have to go creeping around ghoul tunnels. Sometimes, she sighed to herself, the Family took an awful lot of obedience for granted.
She considered going in ghoul-fashion, but dismissed the idea immediately. Naked, her holster would rub her hip and thigh raw, and she wouldn’t have anywhere to keep reloads. Sighing, she wished again that she’d worn a dress she cared less about. Self-consciously checking to see if anyone was around, Tzipporah squatted, then wriggled headfirst into the hole.
She crawled awkwardly, holding the lamp in one hand, the other one supporting her, the crumbling dirt walls and utter blackness outside her feeble lamplight oppressed her. She spat out dirt some of the dirt that had filtered down from the unstable ceiling, and only succeeded on getting more grit in her mouth.
In she crawled, agonizingly slow, not knowing where the tunnel lead; darkness ahead of her, blackness behind. The only sounds were her shuffling passage and breathing, and of small stones that fell at her passing. More than fifteen agonizingly slow minutes passed before the crawl way intersected with another tunnel, and she could finally come to a crouch. Hunching against the low ceiling, she wondered if the ghoul slouch was a product of the low ceilings they were too lazy to excavate to full height, or if the tunnels were short because of a ghoul’s congenital bad posture. Either way, she wished they’d make the effort to accommodate visitors. Her dress was going to be a total loss, and if she didn’t find a taller tunnel soon, she was going to have a permanent kink in her back, like Cousin Uriah.
Hunched over in the cramped passage, Tzipporah chose a direction at random. The tunnel twisted, intersected with other tunnels, ascended, descended, grew more narrow, then wider, but never comfortably taller. She never encountered a taller or broader passage that might have indicated heavy use. Feeling the muscles knot up in her back, she cursed Jebediah for sending her. What was she going to do if her lamp ran out of oil, scream and wait for the ghouls to come for her? Even worse, what if the ever-unstable roof chose tonight to cave in, burying her, suffocating her? Tzipporah frowned at the thought. Her only way of marking time was watching her supply of oil dwindle, and even that was hard to see in the ridiculously small glow of the lamp itself. This was not what she had had in mind when she pictured her last moments—lost, alone, flailing and starving in the dark. Jebediah should have sent Tabitha.
And suddenly, after a dark and lost eternity alone with her thoughts, she heard something coming. She glanced around her, but there wasn’t a side-passage to be seen. The scuttling noise bore down on her with fearful speed, only to draw up suddenly as it entered the tiny pool of light, coming up short just before it slammed into Tzipporah’s drawn pistol. The thing was enormous—probably outweighing her by at least a hundred pounds, and had a miner’s broad build across the shoulders. The warm light of the lamp was not kind to its flesh, which was leprously mottled, and reeked of the abattoir.
"What freshmeat doing here," the ghoul asked in guttural, barely-understandable English, more to itself than to her. "Freshmean answer quick, or I no longer hungry."
"Take me to Saul, you pus-filled piece of filth," she snapped.
The ghoul scowled, at least that’s how Tzipporah interpreted the grotesque action of its mouth. Its teeth were as rotten as a century-old graveyard in the wet hollows of Tennessee, and its breath reminded her of the rot at the bottom of a slow-moving stream. Good times, she thought incongruously, good times.
"Freshmeat awful bold—" it started, only to stop when Tzipporah touched the muzzle of her revolver to the thing’s eye before it could even blink. The creature started back involuntarily, but Tzipporah’s practiced hand followed the movement, maintaining the pressure on its iris.
"Saul," was her only word, finger tight on the trigger.
Gibbering in fear or some other undefinable emotion, the ghoul managed an almost sinuous turnaround, began to lope back down the dirt tunnel. Tzipporah raised her pistol and prepared to fire, but it bellowed "Fffffolllow," back at her. Resigned, Tzipporah did just that.
Having a ghoul for a guide did not make the time go any faster, even if she was theoretically no longer lost. Either in deference to her surface-dwelling sensibilities, or because the route to Saul’s location were more heavily traveled, they soon arrived at what appeared to be a main artery in the warren, and she could finally stand up straight, stretching her aching back. More than anything, Tzipporah was going to need a long, hot bath at the end of this—or maybe a hot bath with Jack for company. But even such pleasant thoughts couldn’t dispel her claustrophobic tension. Time had ceased to have meaning, as she slogging interminably down the endless, twisting tunnel. Tzipporah fell into a sort of trance, alone in the dark, with only a small lamp, among ghouls, rats, and who knew what else waiting in the blackness.
Abruptly, the creature stopped at an intersection of four or five tunnels, and performed what might have been a degenerate bow. "Thedrick, Whateley-meat," it snarled, pointing down towards a dark passageway, then vanished down a hole.
Tzipporah’s patience was thin, so she strode boldly in the direction the ghoul had indicated., Even if it were a trap, that would be better than the monotonous worming she’d been doing for what seemed like all night.
Quickly, she came to a dug-out grotto with a ceiling that was nearly a half a foot above her head—the lap of luxury in a warren. As she advanced, she caught tiny gleams reflecting from something ahead of her, and a dark burbling mutter that might have been a semi-human voice.
She raised her lamp, and saw Thedrick squatting detestably on a mound of bones, the hunched and discolored king of a miserable empire of dirt. His green and blue mottled skin was covered with sores that oozed a blackish pus. Without even getting close, Tzipporah could see lice and other vermin crawling through his hair, and on the tattered remains of his clothing. She shuddered, and wished again for a bath. This was no place for a Whateley, even one such as Thedrick. Both he and Saul deserved better.
"Dool, dool dool," the creature muttered, drawing in the dirt with a finger bone held between his claws.
"Thedrick," Tzipporah said, and the ghoul’s head snapped up. It took a moment for recognition to dawn in the barely-human eyes. His mouth worked, as if struggling to remember how to use words.
"What doess our preccciouuss coussin want with usss," Thedrick finally asked, his long sibilants hissing in the enclosed space.
Tzipporah took a moment to wipe some of the dirt that caked her face. "Family business, Thedrick. I’m here to see Saul, too—where is he?"
"Dead," the creature croaked hollowly. "The Confederatessss trapped and killed him like an animal."
The news hit Tzipporah like a fist. Nicodemus’s little brother, the Family’s conduit to Knicknevin, murdered? The Family was definitely going to have to do something about the Confederate presence in Gomorra. Any Whateley was a loss, but they were going to need every bit of eldritch power they could get if they were going to tear the veil asunder and bring Knicknevin’s Last Kingdom to Gomorra. Even Thedrick’s runt of a talent would be welcome. After that—well, Tzipporah had a new entry in her post-Last Kingdom ‘to do’ list.
"Thedrick. You should come back and live with the Family," she coaxed. "It’s not right that we live apart. We’re family, and we’re vulnerable when we’re isolated from each other."
"Sssseremmony, isn’t it." Thedrick muttered. "Jebediah wantsss the Lasst Kingdom, bring him back."
"Yes," Tzipporah said, feeling her patience draining. If the ghouls were so well-informed, why hadn’t they come back earlier? "Five hundred years in the making, Thedrick. And we’re going to reap the rewards..."
"Nicodemusss thinks not," the creature hissed venomously. "Sssaul thought not. Sssaul ssaid there would be death and bitter ashhesss in Jebediah’s Lassst Kingdom."
"It’s a Family duty, Thedrick. We don’t get to say yes or no to this sort of thing."
"I refusssse," the filthy creature snarled, growing more vehement and agitated. "Do you know what Heee hass planned? Sssaul knew, and he told it to usss."
"I know," Tzipporah said, her eyes glinting dangerously in the dark. "Nana told me."
"Monstroussss," Thedrick hissed. "An obssscenity. It musst not happen."
"Five hundred years of planning and preparation, and you’re worrying about one little half-Whateley brat? The rot’s gotten to your brain, Thedrick."
"Detessstable!" The creature screamed, rising from its bony pile. "Ffoul betrayal!"
With a frenzied, thunderous roar of "OBSSSCENE!" Thedrick rushed at Tzipporah, who only just had time to bring her pistol up. Two gunshots were hammerblows to Tzipporah’s ears, the burrow raining dirt down with each shot, the muzzle-flashes unbearably bright. The ghoul went down, clutching at freshly-torn holes in its abdomen.
Tzipporah, horrified by her own actions, stared at the twitching body of Thedrick as black, half-coagulated blood oozed sickeningly from his wounds. Tzipporah’s pistol dropped from her nerveless hand, and used the freed hand to cover her mouth to keep from screaming.
She’d killed him. Whateleys did not kill Whateleys. Virtually any other crime was forgivable, but not the murder of a fellow Whateley. What had she done? What was she going to do? Jebediah had sent her to bring Saul and Thedrick back to help with the ceremony. The old patriarch would flay her when he found out that she’d killed Thedrick. And he’d never believe she hadn’t killed Saul, either. And then Nicodemus—Knicknevin’s horns—if Nicodemus thought she’d killed his little brother, she’d wish she’d thrown herself on Jebediah’s nonexistent mercy. She shuddered at the memory of the intruding hunter who’d shot Nic’s older brother Derek. She’d thought the crucifixion had been amusing at he time—it had taken the unfortunate man two weeks to die under Nicodemus’s care. And he’d only been ten at the time. Who knew what new refinements he’d developed since then?
She heard a scrabbling in the darkness of one of the tunnels. She’d forgotten about the other ghouls in the warren. Discovering her holster was empty, she remembered that she’d dropped her pistol. As she picked it up, a cold resolve formed in her. No one would ever know. She would say Thedrick had been killed by Patterson, too.
The first ghoul exploded loudly into the chamber, charging her on all fours like a bull. Tzipporah’s bullet shattered the bones in its shoulder, and it collapsed. The second, following hard on its associate’s heels, received a bullet to the head, and it tumbled in the dust.
In the wake of the two thunderclaps, Tzipporah heard nothing. Down to her last bullet, she whirled, anticipating another attack. She was faced with only the dirt of the cavern, the darkness beyond her lamplight, and the enormity of her own guilt.
"Why’d you have to make me do that?" she screamed at the unmoving corpse of her cousin. It was his fault—he’d charged at her, and it had been kill or be killed. She jumped when Thedrick stirred.
At first, Tzipporah’s heart leapt—her cousin wasn’t dead! But if he told anyone—and he undoubtedly would—her attempted murder would be just as bad as if she had killed him. Th\is wasn’t better—it was far worse! What was she going to do? Angry and confused, she began to pace. She’d just put a pair bullets into a Whateley. Thedrick was Harrowed—already dead. What could she do to keep him from talking? Even as she paced, shook out the spent cartridges from her revolver and loaded fresh ones.
Some years ago, she’d read Dr. H.A. Whateley’s monograph on degenerative reanimatants, which recommended not just decapitation, but destroying the skull of anything that had come back from the dead. Why the Hell couldn’t Jack be more like him, Tzipporah wondered uselessly.
She approached Thedrick, who mewled piteously, but seemed unable to direct his own motions, his limbs flopping bonelessly. His lips moved, and it took her a moment to realize he was forming words.
"Currrssed," the distorted lips said, barely above a whisper. "Kinssslayer, currrssed."
The words chilled her, even in the hot, stuffy air of the warren.
"If you had stayed faithful to Knicknevin, this never would have happened," she accused the ghoul, her voice raw with desperation. Then, placing the revolver’s muzzle on her cousin’s forehead, she pulled the trigger three times.
IV. Family Relations
October 29th, 1878
The gibbous moon tried to peek into the windows of the Whateley family manor. If it was looking for a harmonious domestic scene, it should have looked elsewhere.
Nicodemus and Jebediah were facing off in the dining room, and the rest of the family had left them to their differences. Afraid of being in the middle of the rapidly-escalating argument, the family retainers had also fled, with the exception of Silas Peacock.
"You don’t damnwell understand what’s going on!" Nicodemus shouted and slammed his fist down on the table, rattling the dirty dishes Nebuchadnezzar had abandoned in his haste to be out of the line of fire. "The Last Kingdom is no place for anyone, let alone us. Have you even been to Gomorra since August, Uncle?"
"You know that you and Tzipporah are the only Family members who still go to that dunghill of a town," Jebediah returned with heat. "You say that the dead are rising and killing, but I wouldn’t put it past you to say so simply to foment your useless rebellion."
"The Last Kingdom is no place for us to be. There are angry creatures and dead folks all over Gomorra, and I don’t see ‘our lord’ stepping in to keep the order," Nicodemus returned with a dangerous growl. "I seem to remember that his promise was that our service would be rewarded with power. Where is the useless bastard?"
"You forget yourself," Jebediah returned, as angry as Nicodemus had ever seen him. "We serve Knicknevin, and we will make sure his Last Kingdom comes to pass. What you see now is but the chaos that presages his coming."
"And what if it isn’t?" Nicodemus demanded. "What if this is all we get; tempests, deadlands, and hungry things howling in the dark? Do you want to be lord of all that"
Silas tried to act as moderator. "If we still had the Family Bible, we’d know if this was true or not." He looked from Jebediah to Nicodemus.
Nicodemus stared briefly and incredulously at the undertaker, but said nothing. Jebediah let out a brief huff of impatience. The loss of the Family Bible was still a sore spot for both men.
"Saul saw what was coming with the Last Kingdom, and he told me about it," Nicodemus tried and failed to keep the fury out of his voice as he spoke of his dead little brother. But Patterson would have to pay later. "And it’s come to pass-even worse than he foresaw. Do you even know Saul was dead, Jebediah?"
"Tzipporah told me," Jebediah said, the grimness of the statement allowing him to regain some of his composure. "Nicodemus, what happened to Saul and Thedrick is what will happen to all of us if we don’t stay together. The Family’s unity has always been its strength. They," Jebediah indicated the rest of the world with a sweeping gesture. "They fight against each other and die failures because they aren’t connected to anything, and they don’t have family to watch their backs. We do. And remember what happened to Mother Leeds," Jebediah said, invoking an old Whateley nursery tale. "Although powerful, she went against the rest of the Family. Now the Leeds are all but extinct."
"Dolores’s mirror shows things as they are in the Last Kingdom," Nicodemus said, attempting to rub the tension away from his temples. "And it doesn’t look like anything I want to rule over.."
Jebediah narrowed his eyes. "What do you mean?"
"I want to rule over Gomorra, not some baked scrub land. If we control the ghost rock—" Nicodemus began.
"No, about the mirror," Jebediah interrupted.
"Dolores’s mirror shows the other side of the veil we’re trying to tear down. At least I think it is. What I see is an awful lot like what’s going on in Gomorra."
Jebediah and Silas exchanged glances, and Silas’s face was crafty for an instant. But when Nicodemus turned to him, the look was already gone.
"Why haven’t you brought this up before?"
"What and interrupt one of your interminable, self-serving tirades?" Nicodemus snapped. "You haven’t listened to me since the Family Estate burned down. You’ve been too busy with that Devlin woman’s business, and catching up with everything Wilhelmina left you." From the way Jebediah’s lips whitened, Nicodemus knew he’d pay for that dig.
"You’ve had a doorway to the Last Kingdom, and you didn’t bother to tell us?" Jebediah said, his growing fury incompletely under control. "Nicodemus, I’ve let a lot slide in the past because you are Wilhelmina’s favorite, and maybe I’ve let you get away with too much. But if you can provide us with a way into the Last Kingdom before it completely manifests, I will see my way to overlooking the majority of your indiscretions when we take power."
Nicodemus thought briefly about the offer. "The Last Kingdom in the mirror is nowhere that I want to rule over. But if you want it, Jebediah, it’s yours. I—I won’t stand in the way of you and the Family’s ambition. But I want your guarantee that I will be able to come and go as I please, when Knicknevin takes power. I want to be able to leave if I want."
"Granted," Jebediah said too quickly, not looking Nicodemus in the eye as he said it.
Dolores’s full-length mirror had been miraculously pulled undamaged from the ruins of the Family Estate, but Nicodemus suspected that there was some sort of protection enchantment on it. It had been a wedding gift from their mother, and Nicodemus wondered if she had confided more to Dolores than she had to him about it. Dolores often spoke in her roundabout fashion, of seeing things in it. And while the rest of the Family tended to ignore his wife’s rather obscure mode of speech, Nicodemus had realized that when his wife chose to speak, it was best if she was not ignored.
Nicodemus and Dolores’s bedroom didn’t have all the room they had had in the Gomorra Estate, but they had found space for a new four-poster bed, a wardrobe for each of them. The mirror stood in a corner, shielded from casual view by Dolores’s armoire. Nicodemus herded Silas and Jebediah into the corner, letting them see for themselves the tattered glories that awaited them in Knicknevin’s Last Kingdom.
Silently, a wind scoured a barren landscape, that might have been similar to the area surrounding Gomorra, and it might have been virtually any other desolate stretch of uninhabited desert. Currently, nothing appeared to be wandering around the desolate land, which was going to make Nicodemus’s plan just that much easier. If the images in the mirror were what his brother Saul had seen all his life, Nicodemus pitied him. Knicknevin’s kingdom was nowhere for anyone to be, nor were its inhabitants pleasant to look at.
Nicodemus briefly shuffled his cards and made a pull, beating the manitou handily. Carefully, he touched the surface of the mirror, which rippled gently like the surface of a still pool.
With an ironic bow, Nicodemus gestured towards Jebediah and Silas, silently inviting them to enter first.
"Why don’t you follow me through, Nicodemus, and Silas will bring up the rear," Jebediah said, then passed through the mirror.
"See you on the other side," Nicodemus said with a grin to Silas, and followed suit.
A scorching sirocco, searing like the heat off a blast furnace, whipped his coat tails and shirt into frenzied life, and snatched the bowler from his head. Around him, billowing eddies of airborne sand smothered the landscape like a stinging blizzard, the wind howling unendingly like the cries of a legion of the damned. The Hell-wind had scoured the bleak landscape until there was little but sand and rock left to resist it. Nicodemus shielded his eyes with his arm, and peered around. He could make the dim outlines of some stunted, scrubby vegetation some yards away, but it was almost completely obscured by the blowing sand. There were voices on the wind, the whispers and screams of things that had never been human, but if they spoke any words, he couldn’t make any out.
The two of them stood by the portal, surveying the devastated landscape, the wind lashing at them, and Nicodemus began to feel the focus of attention on him. He couldn’t nail it down to anything specific, but something was gathering about them. When the sand was momentarily thin, Nicodemus thought he saw something humped and bulky scuttling across the landscape, but the sand once again obscured the sight. But he could still feel the gathering attention of something. He didn’t dare take out his deck—what could he offer to demons while on their own turf?
There was a flash of something with claws and a mouthful of teeth skittering by Jebediah’s knee, but it was gone before he could even snatch his leg back, vanished into blowing sand.
"Are you sure this is the Last Kingdom," Jebediah shouted above the unending howl of the wind.
"I might have confused it with some other world that’s about to spill into ours," Nicodemus shouted back.
Nic looked back at the hanging portal that was the other side of Dolores’s mirror. Silas had hesitated, unsure about actually walking through the mirror. With a small sigh, Nicodemus reached through the portal, and dragged the undertaker through.
"Nicodemus! You’ve saved us the trouble of breaking through the veil ourselves!" Silas cackled. "Glorious times are ahead!"
A long, drawn-out bellow, deeper and more powerful than that of any crocodile Nicodemus had ever heard, washed over them, cutting off Silas’s next remark. Even Jebadiah looked alarmed by the noise.
"Yes well, good luck to the both of you," Nic said, and quickly stepped back through the mirror-portal.
He re-emerging safely back in the solid reality of the bedroom, the house cool and deafeningly quiet after the constant howl of the Last Kingdom’s wind. Nicodemus looked towards the mirror, which still held the images of Silas and Jebediah. They were arguing—Jebediah apparently ordering Silas to go through the mirror after Nicodemus. Nic sighed, and hefted a heavy lamp from Dolores’s side of the bed.
As Silas stared towards the portal, Nicodemus threw the lamp with all the force he had.
"There you go old man," he said when the shards of the mirror that scattered on the floor finally lay still. "Lie your way out of that."
V. Blood Will Have Blood
November 1st, 1878
The impossibly swollen moon had just heaved itself over the mountainous California horizon, and leered down at a mismatched pair on a lonely, dusty road far from Gomorra. The stick-thin Widow Withers clamped the smaller figure’s hand tightly in her withered claw.
"Lucifer Whateley," she hissed, her pinched face white with fury in the cold moonlight. "Stop squirming this instant! There is work for you to do for your uncle Jebediah, and we must arrive on Urocca Mesa before midnight."
"Don’t wanta! Wanta go to bed," the child wailed loudly, tugging frantically at the cadaverous hand that held him with surprising strength. "Let me go!"
The boy continued to squirm. "Where’s Clovis?" he demanded. "I want Clovis!"
The Widow Withers held onto his wiggling hand like the cold grip of death. "It’s time for you to grow up and leave childhood things behind you," she said, disapproval thick in her voice, as she dragged him along the lonely pathway. "It’s time you stopped acting like a baby and grew up a little."
"Clovis is my friend! He protects me!" Lucifer screamed. "I hate you!"
For that, the lean cadaverous figure fetched him a quick box on the ear, which send the boy sprawling in the dust.
"You see what you made me do?" She asked the boy accusingly. "If you would behave like a good boy, I wouldn’t have to do such things." She again latched onto the now-subdued boy’s hand, and pulled him back to the path, only to be brought up short by the figure of a woman in her way.
Dolores Whateley stood in the center of the path, arms folded across her breasts.
"Jebediah said I was to bring—" a single disapproving glance from Dolores was all it took for Withers to reconsider the words.
"Lucifer? Lucifer my boy?"
The child looked at her, his demon-eyes clouding over with what might have been his first purely human emotion.
"Mommy? Mommy, is that really you?"
Tearing himself lose from the shocked Withers’s hand, he ran to Dolores. Tears glistened in his mother’s eyes as she picked him and held him like she would never let him go.
"My sweet, sweet, darling boy. How you’ve grown!" The tears coursed down her face now, and his mother was weeping unashamedly in the moonlight, holding her precious boy close. "Lucifer, Lucifer my baby boy," she whispered in his ear, smoothing his blond hair with her free hand. She held him silently for a minute, then opened her eyes, and focused on the bony figure that was the Widow Withers once again.
"Miss Withers, I would like to thank you for taking care of my boy while he’s been away," Dolores said softly, certainly the most rational that the orphanage woman had ever heard her. "And now that he’s back with me, I’d like to give you some advice."
Withers didn’t trust this, and started to edge away, ready to run.
Suddenly blazing with fury, Dolores’s power reached out and seized control of the scarecrowish Withers’s body.
"DON’T" Dolores screamed as Withers frogmarched over to a rock outcropping.
"YOU" With all her surprising strength, the emaciated figure slammed her own head down on the sharp outcropping. Inside, her mind howled at the pain, then in fright as she saw the fresh bloodstains on the rock.
"EVER" With a sickening crack, Withers slammed her head down again.
"MY" Another nauseous crack, and blood coursed down the pinched face.
After a few more blows, Dolores let the inert body slump to the ground, and she returned her attention to her boy.
Nicodemus, hidden in shadow a few yards off the path, watched the reunion with mixed feelings. He would be back for this little domestic scene he’d arranged, but he had other things he had to do now. Spurring his horse directly towards a large shadow, he pulled some cards, and both he and the horse vanished into darkness.
On top of Urocca Mesa, Tzipporah looked up at the bloated moon, which stared back at her like a baleful, accusing eye. The time for the opening ceremony was rapidly approaching, and none of the family’s talented individuals had arrived. Where the hell were Jebediah and Nicodemus, Basil and Lucifer, the Whateley family’s mystical pride and joy? Admittedly, Nicodemus had been in all-but-open rebellion in the past month, but Tzipporah had hoped that the death of Thedrick and the ghouls had at least sent him a message. Basil had mysteriously overdosed himself this very afternoon, which Tzipporah considered very suspicious. Was she supposed to do this herself, with only Ezra and Noah for support? The majority of the family and their retainers, including the recently-arrived Gabriel, had dutifully assembled, but Jebediah’s absence she simply couldn’t understand. Where was he? Then again, wasn’t it just like a man to do all that preparation and then not stick around long enough to see the main even through.
Astoreth shifted uncomfortably behind her. Of course she knew that he was firmly in Nicodemus’s camp, he’d always been bitter about not being the chosen one of the Family, especially now that Knickenvin had produced his own proper heir. Pity he was absolutely useless with hexes.
The sound of hoofbeats reached her, and Tzipporah turned to see Nicodemus riding up on his stallion. As he approached, she could feel the swirl of arcane energies surrounding the saddlebags—they must contain Family copies of Pembroke and Hoyle’s. Apparently, Nic thought he was going to do something big tonight. Tzipporah clucked her tongue critically. This was going to be interesting.
"We aren’t going through with the ceremony, Cousin," the redhead declared, haughty as ever.
Tzipporah was at least entertained enough to feign surprise. "Really? I hope you aren’t waiting for Saul and Thedrick to back you up, ‘cause you’d look awful foolish standing all alone. Your wife hasn’t even bothered to show."
Nicodemus actually smirked at that, but otherwise remained as infuriatingly self-assured as ever.
"I think, dear Cousin, that it may be you who ends up looking foolish." With calm confidence, Nic dismounted, and looked at the motley little assembly behind Tzipporah. "If you’re with me, get over here."
A murmur grew in the small crowd, and people began detaching themselves and gathering behind Nicodemus. Gabriel was first, which did not surprise Tzipporah at all. But when Ruth, and Requiem joined also, nearly half the assembled were behind the rebellious Nicodemus. Tzipporah shook her head in sadness and exasperation. She wasn’t sure what Nicodemus thought he was going to gain with this little display, but Nana and Jebediah had been very clear that the ceremony had to go forward. She gestured to the hooded figure that stood stone-still just to her left.
Instantly, the undead thing started forward, murderously intent.
"Take it down," Nicodemus snarled, drawing his own gun.
The quiet mesa erupted with the sound of gunfire, and Tzipporah’s party dove for cover, except for the Figure. Heedless of the hail of bullets it was heading into, it strode forth. Nic retreated and dropped his obviously-useless gun. In the time it took him to pull a deck of cards from his vest-pocket, the Figure had swung its fell scythe, cleaving through the ghostly Requiem, which screamed and writhed weirdly in the gritty dirt. Nic drew a hand, and a trio of misshapen goblins materialized and rushed for the figure, only to be cut in half by another, almost casual, sweep of the deadly blade. The Figure hadn’t even broken stride. Within seconds, it was nearly on top of Nicodemus, raising its scythe for a death blow.
The gleaming blade swept downwards toward Nocodemus, who ducked under, rolled, and pulled a handful of cards as he did so. He didn’t have time to look at the hand, but he felt a manitou add its mystic energy to his own. He scrambled sideways, avoiding a vertical slice that would have taken his head off. Rolling backwards, he came up on his knees with a new fistful of cards. The scythe clattered to the ground, and the robe fluttered slowly after.
Slowly, Nicodemus stood and dusted himself off with a rather self-satisfied air about him. He was just turning back to where Tzipporah had been last when he heard the rush of great wings coming for him. He turned, preparing to face this new challenge, when great steel claws grasped him and swept him into the air. Nic was so surprised that he didn’t even feel his infernal deck drop from his stunned fingers. He watched as his little placards scattered over the rapidly-receding ground, useless to him.
Tzipporah laughed in the stunned faces of Gabriel, Ruth, and Astoreth. "Alright, who’s next?" Behind her stood Tabitha, the Reverend Noah, Ezra, and Jack. Three on five.
Ruth stood forward, taking her time to look squarely in the eyes of Jack, Ezra, and the Reverend Noah, all of whom looked away.
"Well, little cousin Ruthie. Trying to prove that you aren’t second best anymore?"
Ruth’s hand tightened on her pistol.
"I’m not second-best. I proved our good faith to Miss Mina after you walked away. I’ve already done more for the Family than you ever will." Ruth said defiantly.
"And I understand you took up with Cousin Dexter," Tzipporah countered poisonously. "Didn’t think there’d be much left of him after I was done."
"And I’m surprised you haven’t done the deed with that scraggly Elijah. You seem to be friendly with every other piece of common trash in this town. We all know you’re fast, Tzipporah, but are you quick?"
Tzipporah bristled, but the memory of Thedrick’s pronouncement stayed her hand. Was she cursed?
Ruth twitched, and Tzipporah’s hand drew her gun in a flash.
The two women stood, ten feet from each other, guns held steady, hammers cocked. A light breeze ruffled through the skirts of each, but nothing else moved.
In Nicodemus’s ear, Armitage’s chuckle was as metallic as a revolver. "I gave your fat cousin a big dose. He’s flying higher than I ever got with Squish-Eye Samantha. But not as high as you’re going to go."
Nic struggled, but the armored abomination’s strength was far too great. Nic’s arms were pinned to his sides, the steel talons still embedded in his side, and the ground was already so far below them that he wasn’t sure he could make it out in the moonlight.
With a ripping sound, four tentacles tore their way free of Nicodemus’s shirt. Armitage was so surprised he nearly dropped the huckster.
"Enoch was my twin brother, you low-down, traitorous piece of filth from Hell’s outhouse!" Nicodemus screamed against the wind. "Guess you don’t know everything, do you Armitage?"
Nic’s tentacles softly caressed Armitage’s articulated armor, trying to find a way to the abomination’s flesh. Armitage snarled, and snapped at the questing tentacles, but they stayed away from its head. It caught a brief glimpse of a round, rasp-like mouth like a lamprey’s, but encircled by tiny yellow eyes.
They nuzzled at Armitage’s gleaming armor plates, seeking entrance, but there was no bare skin that they could reach.
Armitage soared higher. Tentacles or not, it wanted to watch Nicodemus fall for a long, long time.
Its confidence faltered as something managed to force an opening between two of his rib plates. There was a sharp pain as the rasp-mouth wormed its way into his guts, and then a curious draining sensation. The abomination tried to hold Nicodemus at arm’s length, but that severely unbalanced them, and almost caused the two of them to fall.
"You think so, Nic-boy? Are you going to suck me dry, and learn to fly by yourself?" Armitage laughed long and loud at its own joke.
Nicodemus said nothing that the abomination could hear. Armitage tried to shift the huckster to one arm, in order to claw at the leech-like tentacles, as more of them found soft spots in his armor. But no use—Nicodemus was too bulky for him to carry in one arm and still fly.
"To the Pits with you," Armitage snarled, and spread his wings wider to catch a better thermal. There was no way Nicodemus was going to draw enough fluid out of him to hurt.
All eyes were on the two women, everyone too afraid to move. Any shift could distract one or the other, and while Astoreth and Ezra had guns, none of them were fast enough to even try to challenge either of the Whateley women.
Tzipporah’s gun began to shake, but the wild-eyed Ruth’s remained steady as a rock. Apparently sensing a sort of victory in that, Ruth slowly began lowering her gun, and Tzipporah did the same, easing her trembling hand, her face contorted with unspoken emotion.
Faster than it takes to tell, Ruth reversed her direction, and gut-shot her rival.
Pain exploded through Tzipporah’s frame, and she sank to her knees. Dimly she heard Jack scream her name as she slowly sagged to her knees, then fell limply to the ground.
Ruth giggled. "Got her. I got her!" She looked around, apparently for accolades, but found none. Shrugging to herself, she gleefully opened fire again, pumping two bullets into the little abomination in the pink gingham dress, giggling as she did so.
Ezra had almost cleared his holster when Ruth’s bullet caught him in the neck, a spray of blood bursting across the dry desert. He went down without uttering a word, kicked for a second, and then was still. The Reverend Noah was already running away, which merely allowed Ruth the luxury of lining up a good shot into the back of his head. Jack was on the ground, sobbing over Tzipporah, no challenge at all. Still, she had to be thorough about these things, and she swung her pistol towards him.
The bullet that tore into Ruth’s back was wholly unexpected, and screaming in rage, she turned to see Astoreth holding a smoking pistol. His knuckle tightened on the trigger again, but Ruth’s last two bullets knocked him back into a crumpled heap, his grey blood quickly sinking into the sand.
Ruth’s hands shook as she reloaded, furious at Astoreth’s betrayal. They had been on the same side—how could he have done that to her? The wound in her torso was a dull throb, the way bullet wounds always were. She never did understand what all the fuss about hurtin’ was—a little pain never bothered her much.
She never heard Jack as he crept up behind her, and barely felt his scalpel as it opened her throat. She staggered for a bit, then let out a sort of burbling hiss from her bloody throat, and fell. But Jack wasn’t done with her yet.
He was so intent on his work on Ruth’s corpse that he didn’t even see the two tiny specks plummet from the sky somewhere north of the blood-soaked mesa, one gleaming in the bright moonlight, the other dark. Nor did he notice when the dark dot miraculously slowed its descent, while the reflective one continued unchecked, slamming into the ground hard enough to leave a crater like a meteorite. But by that time, he was in it up to his elbows.
Nicodemus didn’t question the miracle that slowed his descent, once he reached the ground. All he could do was heave up pints and then quarts of Arimtage’s foul, black ichor, a black puddle that was slowly absorbed by the dry California dirt. Regurgitating the acidic demon bile was agonizing, but not so bad as having the filthy stuff burning in his gut.
Once his heaving had subsided, Nicodemus tried to stand, but again doubled over and retched more black ichor onto the ground. He remained at a crouch for a minute, regaining his breath. Summoning his strength, he got unsteadily to his feet in time to see Jebediah approaching. One look at his normally-reserved uncle’s face told him that he’d never seen Jebediah so angry before—cold fury streamed off the old man like heat from a ghost-rock boiler.
"You saved me," Nicodemus said, partially in awe, his voice gravelly. He wiped a line of black, ropy liquid from his chin, streaking his remaining kid glove. In this condition, he didn’t know if he could take on Jebediah. He’d lost his deck of cards, blood ran down his sides where Armitage had seized him, and he’d thrown away his gun. But Jebediah wasn’t looking his best, either. There were strange rents and burns in his normally-neat attire, as if he had fought his way out of the Hunting Grounds. No mean trick that, one that Nicodemus hadn’t thought Jebediah capable of accomplishing.
"Please, Nicodemus," Jebediah said. "Don’t make me fight you. I don’t want to spill my own family’s blood, but I will... if you force my hand."
"I—" Nicodemus’s voice was thick with things he didn’t want to think about. "I will not bring him back. I will not live in your Last Kingdom."
Jebediah’s frown deepened. "Will you try to stop me?"
Nicodemus hawked and spat something foul. He had no cards. He was drained, ready to collapse. If he opposed Jebediah, he would have to do so with blood magic, while Jebediah plainly had a deck of cards on him.
Instantly, Jebediah’s hand was full of cards, and Nicodemus felt the gut-wrenching, immaterial burn of a soul blast go through him. Every instinct Nicodemus had screamed that he should curl up into a ball and wait for the pain to stop — to welcome the darkness that closed in on the edges of his vision. From somewhere, Nicodemus summoned strength, and put everything he had into a single spell.
The mystic energy, one of the oldest manipulations known to the Whateley family, struck the old man like a fist, and blood began to seep from Jebediah’s ears. Then it started to course from his nose and eyes, and even from the very skin of his hands and face. The old man’s face and beard ran crimson on a flooding current of blood, and he screamed in agony. Nicodemus kept fueling the spell, feeling his own life drain away, powering the magic with Whateley blood to make Whateley blood flow. Another, weaker eldritch blast tore through Nicodemus, and feeble though it was, it almost made his concentration slip enough to interrupt the spell. But he hung on grimly, squeezing every drop of anger and hatred he could into determination to kill Jebediah focusing on making the old man die.
In less than two minutes, it was over. Jebediah’s desiccated husk lay in a pool of blood that seeped quickly into the parched desert ground. Nicodemus lay on his back, every bone and muscle aching, staring up at the distended moon. He’d won. He was free. Now he and Dolores could take charge of the Family, and do things properly. No more Knicknevin, no more Wilhelmina. The taste of victory nearly drowned out his body’s distress. Almost.
He took his time walking back to the Mesa, from which Armitage had swept him so long ago. It was less than two miles, but with the dark, and Nicodemus’s need to sit down every five minutes so he wouldn’t black out, it took him more than an hour.
The place was an abattoir. The corpses of Family members were strewn across the top like a child’s discarded dolls, the sandy dirt black with leached blood. The stench of death was overwhelming. The only movement was that of Jack rocking himself, murmuring comfort to a dead Tzipporah. Near them lay Ruth, who was in a terrible state, nearly hacked to pieces. Of Gabriel there was no sign. Ezra, Noah, and Astoreth all had been shot, and it was obviously far to late for them.
What had gone on here? Nicodemus tried, but was just too exhausted to care. Seeing a card, he turned it over. It was a face card—the Jack of clubs. Nic summoned the creature, which came forth as a hunched, albino monkey. He set it to gathering all the remaining cards of his deck.
All that was left to do now was to pick up Dolores and Lucifer, and clear out of this place. He’d send people to watch over the Family’s investments in Gomorra, certainly. Hezekiah from Ghost Creek would be a good choice, once the whole Last Kingdom mess was over. It wouldn’t do to let the Whateley presence near the ghost rock mines diminish too much.
Nic found his horse and mounted up, much to the relief of his aching legs. He started back down the trail at a walk, and it wasn’t long before the monkey-thing placed his deck of cards in his hand. He was almost too tired to shuffle them, but the familiar feel of the cards under his hands somehow gave him strength. He sent the monkey-creature out for a couple other things he suspected were out on the flat tableland. Then, trying not to fall out of the saddle, Nic clicked his tongue, setting the stallion towards the place he’d left Dolores and Lucifer.
He wasn’t feeling any better after an half an hour’s worth of riding. What he really wanted was a big, juicy steak, and a couple of beers. Instead, he swallowed a canteen of water, and chewed on some jerky he found in his saddlebag, which only helped a little. He was bone-weary, and needed a good, long sleep.
It might have been the green glow that brought him out of his exhausted stupor, Nicodemus was never quite sure afterwards. But as he approached the spot where he’d set the ambush for Withers, he stopped. Something was wrong. Silently, Nic dismounted. Tired he was, tired to death — well, not yet. Nic checked his deck, making sure that he still had control over the manitou contained. He did. Hedging his bets, he went through the saddlebags and brought out two books — the Family first edition of Hoyle’s Games, and Pembroke’s Analysis, and tucked them into the pockets of his duster; he’d need every bit of help he could get, and manitou swarmed thick around both books. He remembered losing his gun, and took up the Hooded Figure’s scythe instead. Nic didn’t know what had gone into the forging of the weapon, but he’s seen it go through Requiem like a hot knife through applesauce. Althouigh it was heavy and unwieldy, he could carry it one-handed. Thus armed, he carefully, quietly walked to where his wife and her child waited.
The scene was one he could not have expected. A green glow suffused the scene, emanating from thick, viscous ooze that was running from the body of a one-armed nun into Lucifer’s inert form. To the side, gesticulating, was a small, hunched, monkey-like form, which stood over the body of Dolores.
Dolores was dead.
The realization struck him harder than any of Jebediah’s spells. Dolores, how could she be dead? He’d just left her less than three hours ago, safely here.... It was all too much, and tears came unbidden, unwanted to Nicodemus’s eyes. Hadn’t he suffered enough? He felt the earth shift beneath him, and everything he had done lost its meaning. What use to have spilled Family blood, to have planned and set up a new order for the Family without Dolores to reign as queen beside him? Nic buried his head in his arms, muffling his weeping. What use was it — let Knicknevin have them all. Let them all burn in a Hell they had so stupidly conjured forth. He didn’t care anymore — the was no point without her.
So deep was his despair that Nicodemus almost didn’t notice the soft touch of a hand on his shoulder. Hoping it was one of Knicknevin’s cohorts come to kill him, he took his time looking up.
Dolores floated above him, translucent, an ethereal wind blowing her hair and filmy skirts. He was about to shout her name in amazement, but she shushed him with the touch of a ghostly finger to his lips, then whispered a rhyme.
"Taffy was a Welshman,
Taffy was a thief;
Taffy came to my house
And stole a piece of beef.
Taffy came to my house
Taffy played it coy;
Taffy snuck up on me
And stole my little boy
I will go to Taffy’s house,
While Taffy is in bed;
I’ll take up Taffy’s poker
And break it on his head."
She placed a spectral hand over his heart, then dissipated like smoke, leaving him alone. Nicodemus placed his own hand where hers had been, and discovered that the place she had touched was the breast-pocket where he kept his cards.
He immediately dug his deck out, and frantically began to shuffle through them. He passed them all through his hands, and was working through them again when he saw, or thought he saw, the queen of spades wink at him. He pulled the card out, and pondered it a while. Had it always looked so much like Dolores?
He held the cards to his heart, taking whatever scrap of comfort he could. With a sigh, barely caring whether he lived or died in the attempt, he stood, and walked towards the gathering.
Lucifer’s body was convulsing now, and the nun’s body was still, only traces of the putrid green glow now remained, but the moon laid the whole scene out clearly.
The monkey thing saw him first, and stopped its hissing when Nicodemus got close. Large, almost-human eyes looked at him from the gray monkey-thing’s head. It hissed and crouched, but made no move towards him. Nicodemus watched it carefully, wondering what it was. And then—only then did he recognize what he was facing.
"You." Nic said, the last piece of the puzzle coming together. Wilhelmina kept on coming, even after death. And she was giving Knicknevin what he wanted—the boy’s body, just as Saul had told him. Not content to have ruined Dolores’s mind with the conception of the hell-child, the Whateley matriarch had remained with the family even after her death, manipulating them, even stooping to murdering members of the Family—Dolores!—so that the ungrateful Knicknevin—who’d botched his first chance at his kingdom on Earth—could screw up again. Nicodemus’s anger coursed through him, lending him strength.
Quickly shifting the scythe to his left hand, Nicodemus pulled a flush, and a bolt of shifting green witchfire, augmented by the two books he carried, coursed through Wilhelmina’s twisted body, burning out the evil matriarch’s soul. With a tiny whine, the creature slumped to the ground, and the light slowly drained from its eyes. Nicodemus thought he would feel more. Wilhelmina had been his Mentor and guide for all his life, but she’d also been his worst tormentor.
There was just one more thing to do, Nicodemus thought, looking at the bodies that lay on the ground. The green glow had vanished, and everything was bleached and still in the silvery moonlight. Nicodemus peered at Lucifer’s corpse for a moment. Dolores’s child, but not by him. He had very mixed feelings about the boy. The ceremony that had conceived him had destroyed Dolores’s already fragile mind. Wilhelmina hadn’t paid nearly enough for that, but Nicodemus would have time and leisure to track her damned spirit down later. He took a few steps towards the body of Lucifer.
Abruptly, the boy rose straight into the air, his eyes open and full of malice. Even before the thing opened his mouth, Nicodemus knew what was speaking out of it.
"TOO LATE, NICODEMUS, TOO LATE!" Lucifer’s body howled with a voice far too large for it. "WITH THIS BODY, I SHALL RULE OVER THE LAST KINGDOM. BOW DOWN BEFORE ME AND BE MY FIRST SERVANT!" Lucifer’s body hung unnaturally in the air. "THE MERGING IS COMPLETE, AND MY ESSENCE IS TRANSFERRED TO THE BOY."
"Hope this one lasts a longer than the last one," Nicodemus sneered.
"STOKER IS NO LONGER HERE TO FOIL ME!" Knicknevin shouted, as Lucifer’s body threatened to come apart at the seams with the violence of its voice. "I SHALL REIGN FOR A THOUSAND YEARS AND MORE!"
Nicodemus pulled a straight, but the soul-destroying energy was simply absorbed into Knicknevin’s aura. The thing laughed as Nicodemus pulled two pair attempting to make a puppet out of the boy. This, the manitou also shrugged off. Desperate, and walking slowly towards the hovering child, Nic pulled four queens, desperately trying to affect the monster. He’d once killed a Salt Rattler in one shot with four of a kind, and that had been without the augmentation he had from Pembroke’s and his deck. But the powerful, glowing thing that hung in the air and laughed might not have even noticed. A thin wail came from Nic’s hand, but he quickly put the deck away, still moving slowly towards Lucifer.
"MANITOU CAN NOT HARM ME!" Knicknevin bellowed gleefully at the stars. "ALL SHALL BOW BEFORE ME! MEN, MANITOU, ALL SHALL WORSHIP THE MIGHT—"
With a rush, Nicodemus lashed out with the scythe, cutting the floating boy through the waist. The two separate halves of Knicknevin floated separately, linked by a floating river of green goo that pulsed and flowed between the two halves, and started to draw them back together.
"YOU WILL PAY FOR THIS!" Knicknevin’s outraged scream rolled off the nearby mountains like thunder. "FOR A THOUSAND YEARS YOU WILL BEG FOR DEATH—"
Nicodemus pressed his advantage with a follow-up cut that took the boy’s bead from his shoulders. Now the goo held onto three parts, but Nic could see that material was being drawn from the lower gap to help reattach the head more swiftly. He swung again, this time giving Knicknevin’s head a good, hard knock with the haft of the scythe. Desperately resisting, the slime that connected head to neck stretched more and more thinly. And then, like taffy pulled too far, it broke.
Trunk and legs immediately body dropped heavily to the ground, and the head came to rest some distance away. Inexorable, Nick walked to the head, which mouthed soundless curses at him as he approached.
"How the hell could something as stupid
as you have founded the Whateley family," he asked the head, and then
brought the scythe down in a vicious arc that clove not only the head, but also
the stones beneath it.
November 2nd, 1878
Dawn found Nicodemus back at his favorite stretch of shoreline, watching the sun rise. It had been a long night, but he wanted to see the place one more time before he left. There was nothing for him here, now. Gomorra was nothing but a graveyard of broken dreams and tortured memories. Knicknevin was gone, and now the Family would have to put its extensive knowledge and resources to other goals. And Nicodemus wasn’t sure what those were yet.
But the taste of victory did not sustain him against his sense of loss. Bickering among themselves, the Family had managed to kill more of each other than the Agency and the damn Rangers ever had. Well, he was going to put a stop to that. It was a new dawn, both for him and for the Family. There were things to be done.
"I know the truth now, Jebediah," he said to the eternal roar of the waves. "The only thing we have—had—in common was fear."