December 1916. One week before Christmas.
London, in the vicinity of Wapping, an hour before dawn …
Mist-shrouded facades of warehouses formed square, stony faces, bleakly foreboding with their blind eyes of boarded windows; Dickensian still, the cobbled riverside streets rang to the frantic clatter of madly racing footsteps. Except for the figure of a man, flying, his coat flapping like broken wings, nothing stirred. Just him … and his pursuer: a second male figure, tall, utterly silent, flowing like a fog-spawned wraith not one hundred yards behind.
As to who these two were: their names do not matter. Suffice to say that they were of completely opposite poles, and that the one who feared and ran so noisily was a good man and entirely human, because of which he’d been foolish …
And so he fled, that merely human being, clamorously, with pounding heart, tearing the mist like cobwebs in a tunnel and leaving a yawning hole behind; and his inexorable pursuer flowing forward through that hole, with never the sound of a footfall, made more terrible because of his soundlessness.
London, and the fugitive had thought he would be safe here. Panting, he skidded to a halt where a shaft of light lanced smokily down from a high window and made the cobbles shiny bright. In a black doorway a broken derelict sprawled like a fallen scarecrow, moaned about the night’s chill and clutched his empty bottle. Coarse laughter came from above, the chink of glasses and a low-muttered, lewd suggestion. Again the laughter, a woman’s, thick with lust.
No refuge here, where the air itself seemed steeped in decay and ingrown vice—but at least there was the light, and humanity too, albeit dregs.
The fugitive hugged the wall, fused with it and became one with the shadows, gratefully gulped at the sodden, reeking river air and looked back the way he had come. And there at the other end of the street, silhouetted against a rolling bank of mist from the river, motionless now and yet full of an awesome kinetic energy, like the still waters of a dam before the gates are opened—
The guttural laughter came again from above, causing the fleeing man to start. Shadow figures moved ganglingly, apishly together in the beam of light falling on the street, began tearing at each other’s clothing. Abruptly the light was switched off, the window slammed shut, and the night and the mist closed in. And along the street the silent pursuer once more took up the chase.
With his strength renewed a little but knowing he was tiring. rapidly now, the fugitive pushed himself free of the wall and began to run again, forcing his legs to pump and his lungs to suck and his heart to pound as desperately as before. But he was almost home, almost safe. Sanctuary lay just around the next corner.
“London” … “Home” … “Sanctuary.” Words once full of meaning, but in his present situation almost meaningless. Could anywhere be safe ever again? Cairo should have been, but instead, with the European war spilling over into the Middle East, it had been fraught. Paris had been worse: a seething cauldron on the boil and about to explode shatteringly. And in Tunisia … In Tunisia the troubles had seemed endless, where the French fought a guerrilla war on all sides, not least with the Sahara’s Sanusi.
The Sanusi, yes—and it was from the secret desert temple of an ancient Sanusi sect that the fugitive had stolen the Elixir. That had been his folly—it was why he was a fugitive.
Halfway round the world and back their Priest of the Undying Dead had chased him, drawing ever closer, and here in London it seemed that at last the chase was at an end. He could run no further. It was finished. His only chance was the sanctuary, that secret place remembered from the penniless, friendless childhood of a waif. It had been more than thirty years ago, true, but still he remembered it clearly. And if a long-forsaken God had not turned from him entirely …
Wrapped in mist he rounded the corner, came out of the mazy streets and onto the river’s shoulder. The Thames with all its stenches, its poisons, its teeming rats and endless sewage—and its sanctuary. Nothing had changed, all was exactly as he remembered it. Even the mist was his friend now, for it cloaked him and turned him an anonymous gray, and he knew that from here on he could find his way blindfolded. Indeed he might as well be blind, the way the milky mist rolled up and swallowed him.
With hope renewed he plunged on across the last deserted street lying parallel to the river, found the high stone wall he knew would be there, followed it north for fifty yards to where spiked iron palings guarded its topmost tier against unwary climbers. For immediately beyond that wall at this spot the river flowed sluggish and deep and the wall was sheer, so that a man might easily drown if he should slip and fall. But the fugitive did not intend to fall; he was still as agile as the boy he’d once been, except that now he also had a grown man’s strength.
Without pause he jumped, easily caught the top of the wall, at once transferred his grip to the ironwork. He drew himself up, in a moment straddled the treacherous spikes, swung over and slid down the palings on the other side. And now—now, dear God—only keep the pursuer at bay; only let him stay back there in the mist, out of sight, and not come surging forward with his rotten eyes aglow and his crumbling nose sniffing like that of some great dead nightmare hound!
And now too let memory stay sharp and serve the fugitive well, let it not fail him for a single moment, and let everything continue to be as it had been. For if anything had changed beyond that ancient, slimy wall …
… But it had not!
For here, remembered of old, was his marker—the base of a lone paling, bent to one side, like a single idle soldier in a perfect rank—where if he swung his feet a little to the left, in empty space above the darkly gurgling river—
—His left foot made contact with a stone sill, at which he couldn’t suppress the smallest cry of relief. Then, clinging to the railings with one hand, he tremblingly reached down the other to find and grip an arch of stone; and releasing his grip on the railings entirely, he drew himself down and into the hidden embrasure in the river’s wall. For this was the entrance to his sanctuary.
But no time to pause and thank whichever lucky stars still shone on him; no, for back there in the roiling mist the pursuer was following still, unerringly tracking him, he was sure. Or tracking the Elixir?
Today, for the first time, that idea had dawned on him. It had come as he walked the chill December streets, when patting his overcoat’s inside pocket, for a moment he had thought the vial lost. Oh, and how he’d panicked then! But in a shop doorway where his hands trembled violently, finally he’d found the tiny glass bottle where it had fallen through a hole into the lining of his coat, and then in the gray light of wintry, wardepleted London streets, he had gazed at it—and at its contents.
The Elixir—which might as well be water! A few drops of crystal-clear water, yes, that was how it appeared. But if you held it up to the light in a certain way …
The fugitive started, held his breath, stilled his thoughts and brought his fleeting mind back to the present, the Now. Was that a sound from the street above? The faintest echo of a footfall on the cobbles three or four feet overhead?
He crouched there in the dark embrasure, waited, listened with terrorsensitized ears—heard only the pounding of his own heart, his own blood singing in his ears. He had paused here too long, had ignored the Doom hanging over his immortal soul to favor the entirely mortal fatigue of bone and muscle. But now, once more, he forced himself to move. Some rubble blocked the way—blocks of stone, fallen from the low ceiling, perhaps—but he crawled over it, his back brushing the damp stonework overhead. Small furry rodents squealed and fled past him toward the faint light of the entrance, tumbling into the river with tiny splashes. The ceiling dripped with moisture, where nitre stained the walls in faintly luminous patches.
And when at last the fugitive had groped his way well back along the throat of the passage, only then dared he fumble out a match and strike it to flame.
The shadows fled at once; he crouched and peered all about, then sighed and breathed easier; all was unchanged, the years flown between then and now had altered nothing. This was “his” place, his secret place, where he’d come as a boy to escape the drunken wrath of a brutish stepfather. Well, that old swine was dead now, pickled in cheap liquor and undeservingly buried in the grounds of a nearby church. Good luck to him! But the sanctuary remained.
The match burned down, its flame touching the fugitive’s fingers. He dropped it, swiftly struck another, pushed on along the subterranean passage.
Under a ceiling less than five feet high and arched with ancient stone, he must keep his back bowed; at his elbows the walls gave him six inches to spare on both sides. But while he could go faster now, still he must go quietly for a while yet. The follower had tracked him halfway round the world, tracked him supernaturally. And who could say but that he might track him here too?
Again he paused, scratched at the stubble on his chin, wondered about the Elixir. Oh, that was what his pursuer wanted, sure enough—but it was not all he wanted. No, for his chief objective was the life of the thief! A thief, yes, which was what he had been all of his miserable life. At first a petty thief, then a burglar of some skill and daring (and eventually of some renown, which in the end had forced him abroad), finally a looter of foreign tombs and temples.
Tombs and temples …
Again he thought of the Elixir, that tiny vial in his pocket. If only he had known then … but he had not known. He had thought those damned black Sanusi wizards kept treasure in that dune-hidden place, the tribal treasures of their ancestors; or at least, so he’d been informed by Erik Kuphnas in Tunis. Kuphnas, the dog, himself one of the world’s foremost experts in the occult. “Ah!” he had said, “but they also keep the Elixir there—which is all that interests me. Go there, enter, steal! Keep what you will, but only bring me the Elixir. And never work again, my friend, for that’s how well I’ll pay you …”
And he had done it! All of his skill went into it, and a deal of luck, too—and for what? No treasure at all, and only the tiny vial in his pocket to show for his trouble. And what trouble! Even now he shuddered, thinking back on those corpse-laden catacombs under the desert.
Straight back to Tunis he’d taken the vial, to Erik Kuphnas where he waited. And: “Do you have it?” The black magician had been frantically eager.
“I might have it.” The fugitive had been tantalizingly noncommittal. “I might even sell it—if only I knew what it was. But the truth this time, Erik, for I’ve had it with lies and tales of priceless treasure.”
And Kuphnas had at once answered:
“No use, that vial, to you. No use to anyone who is not utterly pure and completely innocent.”
“Oh? And are you those things?”
How Kuphnas had glared at him then. “No,” he had answered slowly. “I am not—but neither am I a fool. I would use it carefully, sparingly, and so dilute as to be almost totally leached of its power. At first, anyway—until I knew what I was dealing with. As to what it is: no man knows that, except perhaps a certain Sanusi wizard. The legends have it that he was a chief three hundred years ago—and that now he’s high priest of the cult of the Undying Dead!”
“What?” the fugitive had snorted and laughed. “What? And you believe such mumbo-jumbo, such utter rubbish?” Then his voice had hardened. “Now for the last time, tell me: What is it?”
At that Kuphnas had jumped up, strode to and fro across the fine rugs of his study. “Fool!” he’d snarled, glaring as before. “How may any mere man of the twentieth century ‘know’ what it is? It’s the essence of mandrake, the sweat on the upper lip of a three-day corpse, six gray grains of Ibn Ghazi’s powder. It’s the humor of a zombie’s iris, the mist rising up from the Pool of All Knowledge, the pollen-laden breath of a black lotus. Man, I don’t ‘know’ what it is! But I know something of what it can do …”
“I’m still listening,” the fugitive had pressed.
“To one who is pure, innocent, unblemished, the Elixir is a crystal ball, a shewstone, an oracle. A single drop will make such a man—how shall we say?—AWARE!”
“Yes, but when you say it, say and think it in capitals—AWARE!”
“Ah! It’s a drug—it will heighten a man’s senses.”
“Rather, his perceptions—if you will admit the difference. And it is not a drug. It is the Elixir.”
“Would you recognize it?”
“And what will you pay for it?”
“If it’s the real thing—fifty thousand of your pounds!”
“Cash?” (Suddenly the fugitive’s throat had become very dry.)
“Ten thousand now, the rest tomorrow morning.”
And then the fugitive had held out his hand and opened it. There in his palm had lain the vial, a tiny stopper firmly in its neck.
Kuphnas had taken it from him into hands that shook, held it up eagerly to the light from his window. And the vial had lit up at once in a golden glow, as if the occultist had captured a small part of the sun itself! And: “Yes!” he had hissed then. “Yes, this is the Elixir!”
At that the fugitive had snatched it back, held out his hand again. “My ten thousand—on account,” he’d said. “Also, we’ll need an eyedropper.”
Kuphnas had fetched the money, asked: “And what is this about an eyedropper?”
“But isn’t it obvious? You have given me one-fifth of my money, and I will give you one-fifth of the Elixir. Three drops, as I reckon it. And the rest tomorrow, when I’m paid.”
Kuphnas had protested, but the fugitive would not be swayed. He gave him three drops, no more. And five minutes later when he left him, already the occultist had been calculating the degree of dilution required for his first experiment. His first, and very likely only, experiment. Certainly his last.
For when, with the dawn the fugitive had returned and passed into Kuphnas’ high-walled courtyard and up the fig-shaded marble steps to his apartments, he had found the exterior louvre doors open; likewise the Moorishly ornate iron lattice beyond them; and in Kuphnas’ study itself—
There on the table, effulgent in the first bright beams of day, a bowl of what appeared to be simple water—and the empty eyedropper beside it. But of Erik Kuphnas and the fugitive’s forty thousand pounds, no sign at all. And then, in the corner of the occultist’s study, tossed down there and crumpled in upon itself, he had spied what seemed to be a piece of old leather or perhaps a large canvas sack; except it was the general shape of the thing that attracted the fugitive’s attention. That and the question of what it was doing here in these sumptuous apartments. Only when he moved closer had he seen what it really was: that it had hair and dead, glassy, staring orblike eyes—Kuphnas’ eyes—still glaring a strange composite glare of shock, horror, and permanently frozen malignance!
Innocence and purity, indeed!
That had been enough for the fugitive: he had fled at once, with nightmares gibbering on his heels, and with something else there, too. For to his knowledge that was when he had first become the fugitive, since then he had always been on the move, always running.
Nor could he scoff any longer at the idea of an undead guardian of that Sanusi temple he’d robbed; for indeed the thing which had followed him, drawing closer every day, and certainly closer with each passing night, was not alive as men understood that word. Oh, he’d seen it often enough—its burning eyes and crumbling features—in various corners of the world, and now here in London finally it had tracked him down, forced him to earth …
His eyes had grown accustomed to the tunnel’s darkness now, where the nitrous walls with their foxfire luminosity sufficed however faintly to light his way, so that matches were no longer required. A good thing, too, for his box was severely depleted. But he had come perhaps, oh, 150 yards along this ancient passage from the river, and knew that it would soon open out into a series of high-vaulted cellars. There would be stone steps leading up, and at their top a dark oak door standing open. Beyond that a high-walled, echoing room-five-sided, containing round its walls five wooden benches, and at its center a pedestal bearing a stone bowl—would wait within a greater hall which, for all that it remained unseen, the fugitive had always known must be vast. And here a second oaken door would be locked, permitting no further exploration. Or at least, the door had always been locked when he was a boy.
As to what the place was: he had never known for sure, but had often guessed. A library, perhaps, long disused; or some forgotten factory once powered by the river? And the tunnel would have served as an exit route for refuse, with the tidal Thames as the agent of dispersal. Whichever, to him it had always been a refuge, a sanctuary. And now it must play that role again, at least until the dawn. His pursuer was least active in daylight, so that with luck he should make a clean getaway for parts further afield. Meanwhile—
He was into the vaults now, where ribbed stone ceilings rose to massy keystone centers; and there, beyond this junction of bare subterrene rooms, he recognized at once the old stone steps rising into gloom. Crossing echoing flags to climb those steps, at last he arrived at the door and shouldered it open on hinges which had not known oil for many a year. And as the squealing reverberations died away, so he gazed again into that dusty, cobwebbed pentagon of carved stonework, whose walls partitioned it off from the unseen, but definitely sensed, far greater hall of which it must be the merest niche.
The light was better here, still faint and confused by dust and ropes of gray cobwebs, but oh so gradually gathering strength as night crept toward day. And there were the benches where often the fugitive had lain through long, lonely nights; and there, too, central in the room, the pedestal and its bowl, but draped now with a white cloth; and over there, set in the farthest of the five walls, the second oaken door … ajar!
Hands shaking so badly he could scarce control them, the fugitive struck another match and held it high, driving back the shadows. And there on the stone flags of the floor—footprints other than his own! Fresh prints in the dust of—how many years? The clean sheet, too, draped across the stone basin … what did these things mean?
The fugitive crossed to the basin, turned back a corner of the sheet. Fresh water in the bowl, its surface softly gleaming. He scooped up a little in his hand, sniffed at it, finally drank and slaked his burning thirst.
And as he turned from the pedestal, he almost collided with a slender, polished wooden pole set in a circular base, whose top branched over the basin. Shaped like a narrow gallows, still the thing was in no way sinister; depending from its bar on a chain of bronze, a burnished hook hung overhead.
The fugitive began to understand where he was, and knew now how to prove his location beyond any further doubt. Quickly he went to the door where it stood ajar, eased it open and stepped through. And then he knew that he was right, knew what this place was and wondered if he really had any right being here. Probably not.
But in any case he could not stay; the dawn would soon be breaking, when once more he would be safe; he had far, far to go before night fell again. He reentered the five-sided room, crossed its floor, paused at the pedestal and bowl to adjust the sheet where he’d disturbed it. And that was when the idea came to him and fixed itself in his mind.
He took out the vial and held it up in the gloom, and feeble though the light was, still the Elixir gathered to itself a faintly roseate glow. Was this really what the follower sought? Was this truly the purpose of the pursuit? Yes, it must be so. And which was that worm-ravaged ghoul compelled to track: flesh-and-blood thief, or the object of his thievery? Could the creature be thrown off the trail? And in any case, what good to anyone was the Elixir now?
A good many questions, and the fugitive knew the answers to none of them, not for certain. But there might be a way to find out.
Again, quickly, he turned back the corner of the sheet, unstoppered the tiny bottle, held his face well away and poured the contents out into the stone bowl. Glancing from the corner of his eye, he saw a faint glimmer of gold passing like a stray beam of sunlight over the surface of the water, watched it fade as those smallest of ripples grew still.
There, it was done. He sighed, stoppered the vial, replaced it in his pocket and moved on.
Back through the door at the top of the steps he went, and down those steps to the vault, and so once more to the claustrophobic passage under the earth. Dawn must be mere minutes away; surely by now the pursuer had given up the chase, hidden himself away for the day to come. With his footsteps ringing in his ears, so the fugitive retraced his steps, clambered over the fallen debris close to the entrance, finally stuck his head out of the embrasure in the wall and gazed out over the river.
Not quite dawn yet, no, but there on a distant horizon, on gray roofs, a pinkish stain which heralded the rising sun; and already the mist settling back to the river, where it curled like a thick topping of ethereal cream. There was a riming of frost on the stonework now, perhaps the first of winter, but the fugitive ignored the cold as he put up a groping hand to blindly discover and clutch an iron paling. Then, without pause, he swung himself out of the embrasure and began to climb—
—Only to freeze in that position as irresistible fingers grasped his wrists and drew him effortlessly up!
The pursuer! There beyond the palings, clinging like a great black leech to the wall! And when their faces were level, when only the iron palings separated them—how the fugitive would have screamed then. But he could not; for transferring both of his trapped wrists to one black and leathery and impossibly powerful claw, the pursuer had shoved his free hand between the bars and into his forehead!
The fugitive knew what was happening. He could feel this monstrous undead creature’s fingers groping in his brain, fumbling among all his secrets. Also, he knew he was a dead man. The black zombie’s fingers had gone into his head effortlessly, flowing into flesh and bone and painlessly mingling—but they need not necessarily come out the same way. And it could be just as slow as the monster wished it. What was that for a way to die?
Hope does not always spring eternal—not when you gaze into eyes like coals under a bellows, worn by a creature spawned in hell.
The fugitive filled his mouth and spat straight into those blazing eyes.
The fingers at once shifted their position in his head, solidified, were withdrawn through his eyes, taking the eyeballs with them. Blood and brains spouted in twin jets. Still clinging to the palings like a leech, the thing jerked the fugitive’s head up and quickly back down, impaling it on one of the spikes. His arms and legs flew outward, jerked spastically, fell back loosely. And he twitched. Not life but death.
The cursed thing sniffed his corpse with tattered nostrils, found nothing. It plucked him from the palings and tossed him down. The mist parted for a moment as he struck the water, then rolled back and eddied as before …
Dawn was only a minute or two away and the dead thing knew it. He also knew where the fugitive had been, or at least where he had come from. Like treacle his body dissolved and flowed through the bars on top of the wall, and down into the embrasure where he quickly reassembled. And following the fugitive’s old route, the monster flowed forward in darkness, along the passage to the vaults, through them to the upwardleading steps.
Here the thing paused as it felt the first waves of some unknown force, the presence of a Power. But dawn was coming, and the Elixir remained to be found. It flowed forward up the steps, flowed like smoke through the open door and into the five-sided room—and paused again.
Yes, the Elixir was here. Somewhere. Here! But something else was here too. The Power was stronger, unbearably strong …
Moora Dunda Sanusi crossed the floor to the second door, leaving no footprints. But at the door he paused a third time before something which angered him to a frenzy of hate, something he could not see, something in the air and in the stone and filling the very ether. And in that same instant the sun’s first rays struck on high dusty windows and penetrated them, falling in splintered beams within—beams with all the colors of the rainbow!
Dawn and the light it brought increased the unseen Power tenfold. Moora Dunda Sanusi’s magic began to fail him. Unwanted solidity returned and gave him weight, and faint prints began to show in the dust where he staggered backward, driven back into the five-sided room and across its stone paving. He reeled against the pedestal and displaced the bowl’s sheet, and a flailing hand fell for a moment into the gleaming water.
Agony! Impossible agony! The thing which Dunda was should feel no pain for it had no life as such—and yet there was pain. And Moora Dunda Sanusi knew that pain at once, and knew its source—the Elixir. The Elixir, yes, but no longer contained, no longer safe.
The thing snatched its mummied claw from the water, reeled toward the steps which led down into darkness and safety. But the place was sanctuary no longer. Not for such as Moora Dunda Sanusi, dead for more than 270 years. Striking from above through many high-arched, stained-glass windows, the sun’s rays formed a fiery lattice of lances, stabbing down into the five-sided room and converging on the undead thing, consuming it even as the Elixir consumed its arm.
Clutching that melting member to him, the zombie crumpled in reeking silence to the flags, foul smoke billowing outward and bearing his substance away. In a moment the fires in his eyes flickered low, and in the next blinked out, extinguished. The final, solitary sound he made was a sigh of great peace long overdue, and then he was gone.
A breeze, blowing in under the doors of the ancient church, scattered what was left and blended it with the dust of decades.
THE SUN CAME UP and London’s mists dispersed. Dawn grew into a bright December day.
A local vicar, hurrying along the riverside streets, paused to glance at his watch: 10:00 A.M.—they would be waiting. He made his legs go faster, clucked his tongue against his teeth in annoyance. It was all so irregular. Very irregular, but hardly improper. And of course the family were well-known church benefactors. And maybe it wasn’t so irregular after all; for all of the line’s children had been christened in the old church for several centuries now. A matter of tradition, really …
Turning a corner away from the river, the vicar came in view of the church, saw its steeple rising against the sky, where many slates were loose or missing altogether; its beautiful windows, some broken, but all doomed now to demolition, along with the rest of the fine old structure. And they called this progress! But it was still consecrated, still holy, still a proper house of God. For a few weeks more, anyway.
He saw, too, his verger, sneaking along the street with his collar up, coming away from the church, and the vicar nodded grimly to himself. Oh, yes? But he’d told him to see to the old place a full week ago, and not leave it until the last minute.
Approaching, finally the verger saw him, saw too that he was identified. His frown turned to a smile in a moment; he came directly forward, beaming at the vicar. “Ah, Vicar! All’s prepared; I’ve spent the better part of two whole hours in there! But the dust and cobwebs—incredible! I did come round earlier in the week, but such a lot to do that—”
“All is understood.” The vicar nodded, holding up his hand. And: “Are they waiting?”
“Indeed they are—just arrived. I told them you’d be along directly.”
“I’m sure you did.” The vicar nodded again. “Well, I’d best be seeing to it, then.”
A moment later the churchyard was in view, and there up the path between old headstones, just inside the arched, impressive entrance, where the massive doors stood open, the couple themselves and a handful of friends. They saw the vicar hurrying, came to greet him; the normal pleasantries were exchanged; the party entered the towering old building. The vicar had brought the books with him and all preliminaries and signatures and countersignatures were quickly completed; the little ceremony commenced without a hitch.
Finally the vicar took the crucifix from around his neck and hung it from the hook over the font, held out his arms for the child. He’d done it all a thousand times before, so that it was difficult these days to get any real meaning into the words; but of course they had meaning anyway, and in any case he tried.
And at last all was done. The vicar dipped his hand into the water, sprinkled droplets, made the sign—and the church seemed to hold its breath …
But only for an instant.
Then the five-sided room came alive in a glow like burnished gold (the sun, of course, moving out from behind a cloud, burning on the old windows), and smiling, the vicar passed the child in his christening gown to his father.
“So there we have you,” said the proud, handsome man, his voice deep and strong; and he showed the child to his mother.
A rose of a woman, she gazed with love on the infant, kissed his brow. “Those eyes,” she said, “with so much still to see. And that little mind, with so much still to fill it. Look at his face—see how it glows!”
“It’s the light in here,” said the vicar. “It turns the skin to roses! Ah, but indeed a beautiful child.”
“Oh, he is!” said the mother, taking him and holding him up. “He is! So pure, so innocent. Our little Titus. Our little Titus Crow …”