“Ha!” Gallowglass barked, bringing the rifle to bear as she sat up. Both barrels gave a roar and the worm thrashed in agony as one of its bulbous eyes popped like a blister. It shrieked and the windows creaked in sympathy. Then, with a rumbling sigh, it flopped backwards, sinking into its quivering coils.
“Good show!” St. Cyprian said.
“The church bells thing was a good idea, I must admit.” Gallowglass watched the twitching form of the worm grow still. “Did for him though, right enough,” she said.
“Of course it did,” St. Cyprian said, straightening his tie. “I am the Royal Occultist, after all. It’s part of my job to know such things.”
Gallowglass snorted. “Our job, you mean.”
“Fine, our job,” St. Cyprian said, looking at his erstwhile assistant and apprentice. If she lived long enough, she’d have his job, and be welcome to it. Frankly however, St. Cyprian found the contemplation of his almost certain demise to be ghoulish at best and depressing at worst, so he was willing to avoid it as long as ethically possible. Gallowglass seemed only too happy to oblige. Idly, he wondered how his tenure would be remembered, after the fact. “Brief, but glorious in all likelihood,” he muttered.
“What?” Gallowglass said.
“Nothing,” he grunted as he looked down at the worm. Such creatures were thankfully rare these days. The whole of Albion had once been riddled with them, and it had taken a bevy of saints from George to Patrick to put an end to them. Lambton, Brinsop, Sockburn, lochs, bowers and ruined churches had all played host to worms of various sizes, and more than one Royal Occultist had ended his days in a snaky gullet. There’d never been one within the walls of Londinium though, to his knowledge.
“Bet Carnacki never forgot to include you in the hurrahs,” Gallowglass murmured.
“Seeing as I didn’t meet Carnacki until the War, there weren’t many hurrahs to be had in our time together,” St. Cyprian said, as thoughts of blood and mud and Ypres caressed the underside of his mind. Pushing the fog of bad memories aside, he said, “Worms aren’t too dangerous, if you catch them early and young. It’s when they get to be the size of barns that you start having to lock up virgins.” They both turned as the doors to the study were opened and a number of figures stepped hesitantly inside.
“Is-is it over?” the one in the lead said. He was a plump man, wearing an oriental dressing gown and a sweat-stained fez, and he carried an Enfield army revolver in one trembling hand.
“Take a look and tell us, guv,” Gallowglass said, eyeing the plump man with irritation.
“Be polite,” St. Cyprian murmured sotto voice as he stepped past her. More loudly, he said, “Safe as houses, Phillip, old thing.” Phillip Wendy-Smythe was an avowed orientalists and amateur occultist; he amassed dangerous things the way a child might gather sweets, and shuffled nervously at the edges of the secret set, joining and being expelled from secret societies at an impressive rate. He also had a tendency to spend his money unwisely on dangerous things, like worm eggs pillaged from some dark bower by unscrupulous sorts. “Of course, if you hadn’t noticed that there was something moving in there when you did, you’d be sliding down its gullet even now, like a fat little mouse.”
“What happened to polite?” Gallowglass murmured.
“I swear to you Chaz, it wasn’t supposed to hatch!” Wendy-Smythe said, pushing at the air with his free hand, as if to ward off unsaid accusations. “The gentleman I purchased it from said it was quite dead.”
“Yes, and we both know that what ain’t dead can quite happily eternal lie, Philip,” St. Cyprian said. “Or, in this case, hatch at midnight on the dot, first of November, 1923 Anno Domini.” He extracted a silver cigarette case from his coat and pulled one free. Tapping it on the case he stuffed it between his lips and held up a finger. A flicker of flame suddenly danced on his fingertip, causing Wendy-Smythe’s eyes to bulge. Even the most minor of magics tended to have that effect on the uninitiated.
“Toss-pot,” Gallowglass said, snagging the case and making to grab a cigarette of her own. St. Cyprian snatched it back before she could and stuffed the case back into his jacket.
“Language, Ms. Gallowglass,” he said. Puffing on his cigarette, he eyed Wendy-Smythe. “Who was it who sold you the egg, Phillip?”
“I-well, I didn’t catch his name,” Wendy-Smythe began, licking his lips.
Gallowglass clicked her rifle shut loudly, causing Wendy-Smythe to jump. St. Cyprian glanced at her and then back at Wendy-Smythe. He leaned forward, smoke curling from his lips and nose. “Are you sure, Phillip? Are you quite certain that you did not catch his nom? Because, where there’s one worm, there’s bound to be more, and it’s my duty to see to the culling of such things…as well as those who threaten our shores by setting them loose, what?”
“I-I didn’t know!” Wendy-Smythe squeaked.
“Just like you didn’t know about the cockatrice that time, or that business with the essential salts, or the incident with that Karnstein girl?” St. Cyprian said mildly.
Wendy-Smythe swallowed. “I-he said he got it from the ruins of Castra Regis, in Lesser Hill,” he said in a rush. “He said there were hundreds!” Then, almost as an afterthought, he said, “I say, are you certain it’s dead?”
“Quite certain,” St. Cyprian said impatiently. “Why?”
“A-are you sure?” Wendy-Smythe said. “Only its eye is open.”
St. Cyprian blinked and turned back to the worm. Its eye was indeed open, and filled with all the malice a wounded serpent could muster. The creature rose slowly, balancing on bloody coils as the gathered group could only watch, stunned…