The Hollow Earth
As transcribed by Anthony Millington, Esq.
The woman might have been beautiful, once. It was impossible to tell because the flickering blue blush of the gaslight cast a pall of sickness across her face. The harsh light picked out the shadows of her pocked skin, flaunting her imperfections. Whatever might have been, she was not beautiful now.
She carried a basket of wilting flowers. The wet stems nestled against the pearly ruffles of her blouse leaving a grimy circle of damp beneath the swell of her left breast.
The man who called himself Nathaniel Seth smiled at her pantomime of propriety as she adjusted the lie of her bustle on her generous hips and teased the set of her porter’s knot. It was all a show, an elaborate charade to mask the fact that she was loitering on the corner of Is Square.
A flower girl.
A prostitute by any other name.
Where other girls made for the warmth of the palatial Alhambra down in Leicester Square or the dancing rooms of the East End where the music of desire fill the snuggaries and lust parted the amorous with their shillings, this one waited out the night on a dimly lit corner, clinging to the dark places she knew well.
She listened hungrily to the sounds of the night, the clatter of horses hooves sparking on distant cobbles, the cries of the street hawkers and below them, the soft feet of the young cadgers running back to their nests to share whatever spoils their light fingers had plucked.
He cursed his luck, willing her silently to move on, find another perch or slip into a Hansom Cab and disappear into the cloying smog.
He could smell her perfumes, wantonly applied to douse the reek of those other wanton fragrances that clung to her ample flesh. It was cloyingly sweet.
At that moment the world had such small horizons: it spanned from the mouth of the Square to the shadowy steps of the British Museum. He opened his hand, stretching the stiffness out of his fingers. His pocket-watch ticked against his breastbone. He counted the movements, inhaling and exhaling shallowly with every third one, twenty breaths in a full minute of watching the woman.
She showed no sign of leaving.
She was, he thought, looking for someone. An expected rendezvous, perhaps? A pre-arranged tryst? Or business? He listened intently for another set of footsteps, the slow measured confidence of a tallyman come to collect her bawd’s cut of the night’s take.
He cracked his knuckles one at a time and stepped out of the sheltering obscurity of the hanging gardens, pushing back the tears of a weeping willow. The melancholy leaves fell across his face, leaving smears of pollen on his lapel like poisonous kisses. The metal tip of his cane marked each step precisely as he crossed the cobbles toward the waiting woman, the harsh sound hanging in the air.
Halfway across the square he heard the first chime of midnight from St. Giles’ church. It was taken up a moment later by the great bells of St. Pancras and St. Luke’s, and before the first chime had stopped resonating, by The Holy Trinity out by Lincoln’s Fields. The chimes were like a ripple of sound spreading out across the city. He paused for a moment, to listen to them. They were not an unpleasant last thing to hear . . .
He smiled warmly, imagining himself in her eyes: tall, debonair, a dashing city gent both educated and cultured and a long way from his element, walking a lonely road at night, a fool in other words waiting to be parted from his money. The tails of his Churchill topcoat swirled around his ankles like a clutch of yapping terriers. The cut of his suit was expensive, the threads exquisite, imported from the Far East. Seeing her half-turn, half-smile, he inclined his head and tapped the silver wolf’s head of his cane to the brim of his silk plush Waverley and returned her smile.
He decided then that he would be merciful. It was curious how a simple thing like her smile could buy even that small relief from him. On another night, he knew, that same smile could just as easily have been reason enough for him to choke the life out of her with her own sex-stinking garter. But tonight it saved her pain.
She made to offer one of the rather dejected looking blooms from her basket but a wry smile and a slight shake of the head stayed her hand.
The light was indeed deceptive. Up close, stripped of the mask of shadows and the blush of youth betrayed itself. She could not have been more than eighteen or nineteen but already the curse of old London town had stripped away so much of her life. He could not give back her youth but he could bring an end to the relentless slide into decay her flesh was on. He had heard it said that eight years was the best a flower girl could hope to last on the streets. That was a sorry state of affairs. As the looks began to slide so the coin would dry up. Desperation would see to the rest. It was devil’s deal if ever there were one.
She curtseyed, lowering her eyes at his intent inspection, the blush in her cheeks was a lie painted on in-expertly with a thick cake of make-up.
In the distance came a sad wailing strand of music, whisper-thin on the chill air. It reminded him of the life all around, and the countless eyes that could by chance glance the wrong way as he did for the flower girl.
“It’s a cold night to be out alone, my dear,” he said, sketching a slight bow.
She had bad teeth, he saw, as she smiled. They had been whitened with some kind of paste but the underlying decay was barely hidden.
“Good fortune that I am not alone then, is it not?” Her smile was playful, but the cracked and broken teeth rendered it charmless. He could not imagine lying with the woman. “Can I interest you in a flower for your lady?”
He leaned in close, as though drinking in the juniper, anise, and other more potent scents that prickled his sinuses, and inclined his head meeting her gaze at eye level.
“Alas, I have no lady,” he said.
“A shame, for sure, handsome fellow like yourself.”
Her eyes were empty of anything approaching emotion. This was all theatre, the flower girl a player and he her hapless foil.
“I have pledged my life to a higher purpose, my dear. The seven sins of this great city are of no interest to me,” he reached around, almost affectionately resting a hand on her shoulder and leaned in conspiratorially. The flickering dance of the gaslight and its shadows took his broad smile and leavened it, widened it, stretching it across the entirety of his face until it was both artificial and gruesome. “I cannot stand the stench, the ceaseless grunting and groaning, and worse, come close my dear, for this confession I dare only whisper.”
She leaned in, pressing her ear to his lips.
He wondered for the silence between heartbeats if she could feel his false smile, so close was her skin to his, and then with a tenderness approaching sadness he whispered, “It didn’t have to be like this,” as he tangled his fingers in her hair, working them deep beneath the knot. With a single savage motion he twisted the bones of her neck until they cracked.
She convulsed against him, a scream stillborn on her lips. It was a pitiful sound. It didn’t matter, there was no one to hear.
He forced her neck back further, until it snapped. Her legs kicked out weakly, the heel of her laced boot breaking off on the edge of a cobblestone. And in that long moment he watched her eyes, looking for the instant when, the nerves shorn, spine broken, the light that was the flower girl was snuffed out. She sagged against him, her eyes like glass. There was genuine regret in his voice as he said, “All you had to do was walk away.”
He stepped back, letting her fall. The basket tumbled out of her arms and rolled across the cobbles leaving her flowers strewn across the street.
He walked on toward the museum steps, crushing the petals beneath his heels.
A shadow, like black wings, gathered shape and form within the darkening smog around him. For a moment they hung behind him, remaking him as a dark angel before they ghosted across Charlotte Street, weaving through the black iron gates and into the grounds of the British Museum.
Less than two minutes had passed since he emerged from beneath the weeping willow. He looked left and right down the length of Charlotte Street, but there wasn’t a soul in sight. This time his smile was genuine as he loped easily across the six remaining paces to the iron railings and boosted himself up and over them. They weren’t a serious defence – but then the museum was arrogant enough to believe no one would dare rob it. It was that insufferable smugness, along with the curator’s stubborn refusal to move into the next century that he was counting on as he moved quickly to the west wall. He moved along in the gathered shades. There was a small door set midway down the long wall. He didn’t bother with trying to pick his way through the lock, knowing that it was weighted with a complex clockwork counter-balance mechanism and three thick dead-bolts. There was no need. He moved fast, running low, to the imposing portico. There were unprotected windows aplenty along the galleries, including rusted shutters and pitted locks that would take less than a second to work open with a thin blade. He took one of six smile spikes from his pocket and wedged it into the crevice formed where the huge fluted stone column touched the wall. He forced a second and a third spike into place, creating footholds for himself. Using the stone column to brace himself, he climbed nimbly up to the second story and hauled himself over the balcony rail, face to face with a leering stone gargoyle as he collapsed onto his back. He waited a full three minutes, counting them out with his slowing heart to regulate the rhythm, and then rolled over onto his stomach. He pressed his hands against the stone and arched his back, rising in a single swift movement. Without pausing, he moved off down the western wall, counting off the lead-lined windows until he reached the one he was looking for.
Through the darkened glass he saw the silhouette of the Harpy Tomb from Xanthus and the seated figures from Branchidae, a sepulchral monument pillaged from an Etruscan tomb. Reaching into the deep pockets of his Churchill, he withdrew a thin stiletto knife. The blade was coated with an oily residue. He worked the blade patiently between the leading and the glass, gently teasing the leading loose. Strip by strip he pared it away and then chivvied the tip of the blade beneath the edge of the glass and pried it up. There was a soft popping sound as the glass came free. It slid. He caught it before it could hit the floor, and set it down gently. Reaching inside, he undid the very basic locking mechanism and eased the window open and slipped inside.
The air inside the museum was stale, musty and, to his nostrils, reeked of antiquity.
He moved with the surety of a man who belonged, moving through the room without disturbing a thing despite the fact that there was no artificial light within the Ancient Greek gallery. It was yet another of those antiquated notions of the curator’s, the fool actually believed electric lighting would damage the integrity of the treasures under his care. Still, the reliance upon the sun offered him a wealth of shadows now. Indeed, the only electric lighting within the entire museum was in the Reading Room, allowing the scholars to pour over the wealth of words well into the dark hours without the risk of a clumsy candle or drips of wax marring irreplaceable texts.
The huge door opened with a sigh; in the darkness it sounded like the last breath expelled by a dying man.
He stepped through the crack and eased the door closed behind him. It was thirty-nine steps to the mausoleum room and the colossal chariot-tomb erected to Mausolos by his sister-wife Artemisia, forty-two more to the Elgin room, overflowing with the grandest remains of Greek sculpture, the Parthenon marbles and procession-frieze. He footsteps echoed hollowly up and down the long galleries, the only sounds in the otherwise silent museum. Five rough and ready bruisers were employed as night-watchers, but with the building itself being an enormous square with four huge wings and the central Reading Room being a completely different construction, they were nothing more than a token. They did their rounds together, sharing a dram and lying about the various delights of the bordellos, bawds and hussies they had conquered with liberal coin. They paid scant attention to the task at hand, after all, who would dare rob the Empire’s treasures and risk the wrath of a surly Victoria?
He lurked in the shadows of a standing sarcophagus, waited patiently for them to pass and be on their way. Not one of the five so much as glanced in his direction. When their laughter and ribaldry faded he moved on.
Wall upon wall was dominated by bound manuscripts, rare editions and exquisite typographies. None of these interested him. He walked the length of the corridor, past marble busts, zoological specimens, mammals, birds, rare Arctic dwellers and curious sand worms, past rooms of rare coins and fossilized plants, pygmy elephants and splendid meteorites fallen from the sky. He moved deeper into the museum, looking for the Kruptos Door, which itself was masked from idle discovery. The door opened on to the true secret treasures of the museum, the Arcanum, the stolen artefacts that between them promised the power to transmute, alter, and restore the flesh and spirit. Beyond the door lay the treasures of the One-Mind, as the alchemists called them, the evidence that linked heaven and earth.
He followed the clues laid down in the stones of the floor, alchemical cyphers for spirit, which looked oddly like a cross from the Holy See, and earth, an inverted triangle with the lowest angle marked out. The cyphers were laid in the stone with tin, silver and copper wires and scuffed down by the weary procession of tired feet for the best part of eighty years. They led through the lower galleries, the manuscript salon and the exhibition of fine line drawings, down a twisting stair to the Roman gallery and beyond, to the bronze room with its clutter of hulking deities, heroes, mirrors, candelabra, lamps, and urns hiding the door itself. He moved carefully through the detritus of civilizations past, guided by the cyphers on the floor.
Twin black crows marked either corner of the door, symbols of the black processes, calcination and putrefaction, and a golden knocker was set in its centre. The knocker was expertly wrought, a dog being consumed by the jaws of a wolf. Visitors to the gallery heard tales of Romulus and Remus, the twins of Rome, and the She-Wolf, but it was nothing more than spurious supposition on behalf of the docents. There was more symbolism hidden within this peculiar image, readily apparent to the knowing eye – the purification of gold using antimony.
There was no doubting what lay behind the door, the clues were there for anyone with the vision to see them.
He placed his hand flat against the wood, whispered his name, and pushed. It gave with a gentle snick, opening onto a dank passage that coiled down another fifty feet beneath the lowest galleries into the very foundations of London herself. The floor sloped gently downwards. Every sixth step the short stairs accelerated the descent. The door closed behind him, plunging the passage into darkness. He didn’t so much as break his stride, taking a small sulphurous bezoar from his pocket and sparking it against the rough wall. The compacted stone caught light immediately and burned with a small yellow flame that gave off no heat. The bezoar conjured a chiaroscuro of light and dark; within it he saw all that he needed to see. He walked on, his footsteps amplified by the peculiar acoustics of the tunnel.
There was a second door, deep below the city streets, forged of iron and braced with lead, tin and silver. Rather than a key, the lock mechanism was a combination of pattern recognition and forgotten black alchemy, with over sixty symbols to choose from and any number of possible combinations. He knew the combination, just as any true adept would. He didn’t even have to think about it. With four confident depressions he squared the circle: the fiery golden sphere of the sun, the triangle of the fire itself, the smaller circle of gold, and finally the all-encompassing square. And then a fifth depression, the quincunx, encompassing it all, man, his empire of dirt, and sky above. The final piece of the puzzle nestled into place with a delicate snick. The lock mechanism was protected by a quicksilver tilt; the wrong combination would tilt the switch, leaking quicksilver into the mechanism and fusing the lock closed forever.
He grasped the golden handle and turned it.
The pin pressed up against the glass the clockwork mechanism ratcheted into place, but not hard enough to crack it.
He opened the Kruptos Door and stepped into the al kimia, the hidden chamber as the words translated directly from the Arabic root. The wordplay amused him, as it no doubt amused the brothers of the rosy cross when they sealed the room up so many years ago. Even the most cursory inspect proved the place was every bit the treasure trove he had hoped. Skin-bound grimmoires rested on lecterns, open on long forgotten wisdom. A glass cabinet contained the shards of a humble cup, a grail of sorts, though not the one so precious to the Christian stories. A black grail. It was, if the small note beside it was to be believed, the vessel used to collect the sacrificial blood of Iscariot after he had been cut down from his hanging tree. He pressed his face against the glass, his fingertips less than six inches away from the black chalice. He could feel the malice emanating from each fragment of the simple cup.
He smiled and turned his back on it.
Numerous other treasures caught his eye: statuary claimed from Tibet, a jade jaguar with the ghostly essence of the great beast bound to its stone, the stone tip of the spear of destiny that wounded the Nazarene, the corpse of a clockwork man fashioned by Kepler long before he obsessed upon his astronomical clock, an ethereal figurine of unbeing, a Vodoun effigy of Baka and a statuette of Baron Samedi, the sketches of Hausenhofer’s blueprint for the uberman and more marvels inked on roll upon roll of vellum. On a small mahogany table sat a seemingly empty phial. He picked it up, turning it around and around in his hand until the essence began to solidify; a soul trapped in a bottle, bound to the vessel in death. There was so much more in the room, so many clue to the mechanisms of heaven and hell. He ignored them all, fixating on a stone cross braced upon the furthest wall. It was almost half his height, and engraved in a lost tongue.
He knelt before the cross, his fingers feeling out every tongue and grove within the carving. He closed his eyes, committing them to memory. There were seventeen shapes, four engraved on each arm of the cross, four on the head and four at the feet, and one at the apex, a crucified man with a bestial face set in a snarl of seventeen teeth. It was a homunculus, a false human, twelve inches in height and rendered in perfect detail. A serpent was wrapped around the homunculus’ length. The cross itself was a key. The outside markings on each limb corresponded to an element: earth, air, fire and water, but it was the others that were interesting. Images of Shango, father of storms, and Mawu Lisa, the mother spirit of creation, side by side with more obscure Judo-Christian symbolism, and other markings that made no earthly sense whatsoever. Together they formed a complex cypher around the body of the homunculus that when deciphered unlocked a treasure map.
The Brethren already had possession of the map, procured from a nameless tomb in the Afghan wilds. They had protected it for over two centuries, seeking the location of the key without realizing it lay under their noses in the very heart of Holborn.
With the cross in to decode the map, he felt sure they would unearth the whereabouts of the fabled Catamine Stair, and with that knowledge would come the power to unleash the horrors buried deep since the dawn of time.
“There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in our philosophy. And isn’t that just the truth of it,” he said to himself reverently as he lifted down the huge stone cross.
In doing so the man who wore the name Nathaniel Seth as effectively as any mask assured that all hell would break loose.
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