Unaccompanied by guards or even the security of a doting entourage, the self-styled prince of the Dunsany led Petharic deep into the caverns beneath the streets of Clockhaven. To Petharic’s eye the caverns seemed too regular in size and shape to be of natural origin, though he could not fathom how such an engineering feat had been possible or for what purpose they had served.
Though the tunnels and caverns were dark, it was still possible to see without torchlight due to a silvery luminescence that emanated from the walls, ceiling and floor, lending the impression of walking through moonlight.
The two men carried on, the silence punctuated only by the click of their boots, until the sound of a distant howling cut through the tenebrous passageways. No wind could account for those horrific wails, this was something much more fierce. With each step the inhuman screeching intensified, dozens upon dozens of voices singing out in discordant harmony. The sound was impossible to localize; it seemed to fly at him from all directions. The unholy chorus continued its frenzied crescendo, not peaking until Thomas stopped at the centre of a large cavern, before a circular pit, at least fifty feet diameter.
A malodorous combination of human waste and morbid decay, rose with the hideous cries from the depths of the pit. Petharic stepped to the edge to better peer into the gloom. No more than twenty-five feet below was the most captivating sight he had ever beheld. At once it became clear to him, in a way it never had before, how something so hideous could simultaneously be so intensely attractive. The sisters, as Thomas had referred to them, numbered around a seventy in total. Their skin was as white as alabaster with raised, red scars tracking across various points about their faces and bodies, the result of repetitively scratching themselves. They were garishly adorned in the tattered remnants of robes that would have been fitting for a renaissance fair.
Though there were at least four passages at the base of the pit by which the creatures might come and go, they seemed to aggregate together at the centre, all screaming and shrieking and laughing and crying at once.
“What are they?” Petharic’s asked, fighting an inexplicable desire to jump into the pit despite his utter revulsion.
“They are the first of Father’s blessed; created shortly after his split with the church and Brother Pizzaro. They were the original patients—all female—committed to the Dunsany Institute. Troubled teenagers they had been, perfection they became,” Thomas softened his voice, taking on a sombre tone. “But the gift was too much for their fragile minds to endure. For those of us who came later the gift was attenuated; at the beginning we are as the sisters but alas, only for a few glorious days, until the curse of language and self-regulation become ours to command.”
As Thomas spoke, Petharic took note of how littered the floor of the pit was with piles upon piles of human skulls and bones. A sudden and uncharacteristic chill swept down his spine. “Those are my bones,” he said in a whisper that almost caught in his throat due to his lingering cough.
Thomas in a display of compassion placed his hand gently upon on the back of Petharic’s shoulders. “Much of what you see down there are indeed the remains of the bodies you deposited in the catacombs over these many, many months.” Thomas’s smile seemed to say so much more than his words. “So yes, in that sense they are yours.”
It was then, Petharic saw something he should have noticed much earlier. In that instant when the brain processed what his eye had seen, his world forever changed. There was little Johnny Dawkins, as white as a marble, nearly lost amidst the shrieking maidens. In his hands he clutched a bloodstained bone upon which he gnawed with savage glee. “You bastard! You fed him the last Petharic!”
“No, my friend,” the prince replied. “You are the last Petharic.”
Petharic stepped back and drew his Colt, a move that seemed of little concern to the prince.
“Every day we face choices,” Thomas began, taking a step closer. “Most are minor—like whether to go for the amontillado or the manzanilla. But such small and largely inconsequential choices are nothing but practice for when we reach those rare and pivotal moments that change the course of our lives. You are at one of those moments, with three potential choices before you. Since you seem troubled and perhaps are not seeing the world as clearly as you might—understandable, given your obvious love for the child—let me spell out the consequences of each choice you face before you act on emotional impulse.
“First, you could jump into the pit in a heroic show force, but I assure you, the sisters would prevail. They will eat you. They will tear your beating heart from your chest and share it with the child. His future, in this scenario, remains with us while your story ends today.
“Second, you could shoot young Dawkins, and put him out of whatever misery you imagine he will have to endure. But in that case I will personally throw you into the pit where both you and the body of the boy would be consumed. The story of you both comes to a needlessly tragic and unhappy ending.
“Finally, you could turn and walk away, leaving him with those of his kind, those who understand him, those who can guide him towards the best possible future he has available to him. The two of you both continue to your next respective chapters, albeit not together.”
Petharic took two steps back and pointed the Colt point blank at the tall imposing creature.
The prince smirked. “Come now, Mr. Petharic, that is not really a reasonable option now is it?”
Petharic hesitated, then lowered the Colt.
Petharic reached into his jacket pocket—a tricky maneuver with his right arm splinted—and retrieved his to-do list. Blank. He stared at the page for a moment, as though perplexed, then relaxed his grasp, allowing the paper to slip through his fingers. He watched it flutter away in the breeze, dancing along the station platform until a particularly turbulent eddy carried it under the train.
“Mr. Petharic?” a woman called, pulling him from his self-absorbed solitude. “Mr. Petharic, it is you! I’m so relieved to have found you before we departed.” He looked up to see Sister Lilly, in the company of a half dozen of her comrades from the Order of Saint Jimothy. “How are you and what of the boy? I’ve been worried sick with grief as you never returned with word. It has been over a week since the morning of the attacks. What of the child?”
“The child is where the child needs to be,” was all Petharic was willing to say on the matter.
Sister Lilly studied Petharic in silence before speaking, “And what of you?”
“What of me?” Petharic looked directly at Lilly.
“You have nowhere to go, do you,” the sister of St. Jimothy observed; Petharic merely shrugged by way of a reply. “Come with us,” she continued. “We have lost three brothers, all adept with the sword but none with a firearm. A gunman is what we need. We travel by train because the northern roadways are too dangerous—overridden by the highwaymen. Curdle’s Way, our main road, is plagued by vicious bandits who show no mercy to man, woman, or child. We are a poor order, barely recognized by the church, serving the northern farmlands. There would be no monetary compensation—but you could join us, Mr. Petharic. You would be valued. Join us.”
“I’ll need a robe,” Petharic replied.