This fearful worm would often feed, on calves and lambs and sheep, and swallow little children alive, when they lay down to sleep…
–The Lambton Worm, Folk song, County Durham
The egg hatched at midnight.
The worm emerged, its still-soft scales rasping against the leathery edges of the egg, and dropped off of the display table to the floor of the study with a dull thump. It was the color of dried blood and already as long as a man’s arm. Eyes the color of rotting pears fastened first on the window, which looked out at the quiet Chelsea evening. Then, hunger prodding it, its eyes fixed on the softly snoring shape of the man in the chair near the crackling fire place and with an eager hiss the worm began to slither across the floor, its scales leaving gouges in the wood.
As it undulated, its body began to stretch, growing longer and longer, until it was big enough to rear up behind the chair and curl around it. It opened its jaws, preparing to swallow the man’s head whole. The soft click of a pistol being cocked caused it to pause, however.
The man in the chair opened his eyes and smiled. “Well, aren’t you the lovely beast?” Charles St. Cyprian was a lean man with striking olive features and hair the color of spilled ink. Dressed in an expensively tailored suit, he was the very model of the society set. He locked eyes with the worm and, almost gently, he brought together the strangely inscribed steel rings that encircled three fingers of his left hand in a quiet clink! “And big as well,” he said softly. “Bigger than I hoped, at least. Still, all part of the job, I suppose.”
Said ‘job’ being the investigation, organization and occasional suppression of That Which Man Was Not Meant to Know, including vampires, ghosts, werewolves, ogres, goblins, hobgoblins, bogles, barguests, boojums and other assorted unclassifiable entities, including worms of unusual size. All such creatures were the purview of the Royal Occultist, as were sorcerers, both foreign and domestic, and the occasional dragon.
Formed during the reign of Elizabeth the First, the office of Royal Occultist (or the Queen’s Conjurer, as it had then been known) had started with the diligent amateur Dr. John Dee, and the holders of the office had ranged from the heroic to the villainous, with a number of stops at marginal and ineffective along the way, culminating, for the moment, in one Charles St. Cyprian.
The worm lunged. St. Cyprian dove out of the chair a moment before it struck and the Webley Bulldog revolver in his hand banged as he slid across the floor. The chair toppled backwards, and the worm with it, its coils squirming. It righted itself instantly and struck again, swifter than the snake it resembled. Fangs like knives sank into the floorboards as he rolled desperately aside.
“Quick as well!” he said hurriedly. Scrambling to his feet, he fired his pistol again and again, neither shot having any more effect than the first, the bullets flattening themselves against the beast’s scales. The worm bunched and lunged, making a horrid whistling hiss that threatened his eardrums. He stumbled aside and then it was coiling around him in one sinuous motion, its eyes wide with animal hunger. “Oh bugger,” its prey grunted as the coils tightened. Then, more loudly, “The bullets aren’t working!”
“I told you so! Bullets cast from church bells or not, a revolver isn’t going to bloody well cut it!” a woman’s voice replied. A figure which had before now been crouched atop one of the large bookcases which occupied the study, rose and hefted a Moore & Harris double-barreled rifle. Dark and slim, Ebe Gallowglass was, as usual, dressed like some hybrid of a cinematic street urchin and a Parisian street-apache, with dashes of color in unusual places, and a battered newsboy cap on her head.
The young woman sighted down the barrel, the tip of her tongue poking slightly out of one corner of her mouth. “This beauty, on the other hand…” she said, her finger brushing the trigger.
Still trapped in the coils of the newly-hatched worm, St. Cyprian’s eyes widened. “Don’t shoot! Don’t shoot!”
The worm struck, releasing its prey in the process. It arrowed across the room, smashing into the bookshelf hard enough to cause the ancient wood to crack and causing an avalanche of books to tumbled down, momentarily trapping the aggravated serpent. As it struggled to free itself, the bookcase shuddered and wobbled. Gallowglass jumped even as it fell on top of the worm. She hit the floor, the rifle going off with a thunderous roar.
“Whoops,” she said, looking up, and then back at the bookcase. It wobbled, then, with a crack of splitting wood, the worm tore through the back of the bookshelf and reared up, twice as long now as it had been. Its eyes blazed with bestial fury as it pulled more and more of itself out from within the fallen bookcase.
She crawled backwards, reaching for the rifle where it had fallen. St. Cyprian fired his useless revolver at the creature, trying to grab its attention. “On your feet, Ms. Gallowglass,” he said. “And be sharpish about it!”
“No need to tell me twice, Mr. St. Cyprian,” she said, snatching up the rifle and cracking it open. She fumbled in the pockets of her trousers for new shells. “I can’t help but notice that the bastard is still growing, however.”
“Worms grow,” St. Cyprian said, backing towards her as he emptied the spent shells out of his revolver. “That’s what they do.”
“I see your knowledge of the occult is as helpful as ever,” Gallowglass said.
“Folklore, actually,” St. Cyprian said, slapping the Webley shut. “You’re only an assistant, so I’ll forgive you not knowing the difference.”
“Ta for that,” Gallowglass said, snapping the shotgun shut.
The creature eyed them warily for a moment, a pinkish bifurcated tongue flickering out to taste the air and then, with a kettle-whistle shriek, darted towards them, jaws gaping…