By the time Cameron Tate finally found the woman he was
seeking, the night was already bleeding into early morning. The sky above the
buildings wasn’t yet lightening, but it held that blue-gray, broken television
buzz that merely promised sunrise. It was out of this false light and into the
shadow of a narrow staircase that Tate followed the woman. The stairway led up
from a narrow doorway sitting unnoticed between two downtown businesses in one
of the old brick buildings that lined the block, with commercial space on the
ground floor and lines of windows up above that might be apartments or office
space or just storage. The kind of space that no one thought about, even when
they noticed the high windows. It was as if the doorway led Tate into a part of
the old town that hadn’t previously existed.
At the top of the long flight, the woman turned a switch,
lighting up a hallway with fixtures set in the walls behind curved amber glass.
The carpet was almost black with filth, the pattern only just visible at the
edges: a winding vine that might once have been gold against a red background.
The walls were dark wood, and the high ceiling was made of ornately decorated
tin panels that had been caked in a century’s worth of white paint, giving it
an almost stone-like facade.
The woman moved to the right along the hallway, passing
several doors set in dark wood frames with transom windows of green glass set
above them. None of them gave any indication of what might lie beyond.
The woman didn’t rush. She walked calmly down the long
hallway. Her age was hard to determine, in part because her hair was piled up
beneath a black kerchief and in part because her clothing didn’t quite
correspond to any particular generation. She wore a full skirt of dull black
fabric, a red satin blouse with billowing sleeves, and a tight-fitting vest
covered in tiny black-red beadwork. The face that peered out from beneath the
kerchief was dark and angular, full-browed, with a mouth that either smiled or
sneered, Tate couldn’t quite decide. She said little. Had said little since
he’d found her and pushed the coin into her hand. She’d simply looked at it,
looked at him, looking a question with her raised eyebrows.
“I want to see,” he’d told her, and she’d closed her long
fingers over the gold coin with its alien markings, tightened the knot of her
kerchief, and waved him to follow.
Now she was standing before the door at the end of the
hall. It looked like all the other doors. Tate looked up at the narrow transom
window above, at its dusty green glass, hoping to get some sense of what might
lie beyond, but the room on the other side of the door appeared dark.
The woman produced a key from somewhere and fit it into the
door, turned it, and Tate heard the lock shift open. It sounded heavy,
reverberant in the empty hallway, like the shifting of a heavy stone. The woman
“I’ll return in an hour,” she said, and Tate thought he
heard the faint hint of an accent in the last word, an extension of the word
into at least two syllables, still undefinable. She walked away, back down the
hall at her regular, unhurried pace.
Tate looked at the door, studied the unremarkable door
handle. Three months to reach this doorway. Three months of travel, of
investigation, of awkward conversations across dirty barroom tables. Three
months and great expense. He took a moment to gather himself, silently speaking
a reminder that the woman could have cheated him, led him to this doorway and
vanished with the strange coin he’d bartered for in the back room of a truck
stop bar off Interstate 80. But he didn’t believe that. He could sense
something on the other side of the door. It was waiting for him, perhaps
awakened by the hollow sound of the lock turning, but alert now, listening.
He turned the door handle and pushed it open.
The room was dark, but he could sense its size. A line of
six windows were just visible maybe twenty feet away, but they were either
papered over or maybe soaped, the light from the street below barely seeping
through. And shadowy shapes hulked between the doorway and those windows.
Tate reached his hand in, feeling along the wall for the
“Leave it,” a voice said. A woman’s voice, but deep, husky.
“There’s a candle just ahead. Light that and shut the door.”
Tate stepped in, his hands before him, feeling in the dark.
The light from the hall illuminated nothing beyond the first foot or so inside
the room. His foot bumped something, and there was a low note of furniture
sliding on the wood floor. He reached down, felt the small wooden table, the
candle in its holder, the box of matches.
He struck the match, and that was the first glimpse. She
stood near the center of the room, tall, imperious, haloed by the weak window
light. In the match flame he only caught the shape, the impression, and the
reflection of the flame in the two eyes, beneath the tangle of black hair. He
lit the candle and shook out the match, setting it on the table. He lifted the
candle, eager, but then the voice came again.
He turned, looking over his shoulder. The dim hallway
stretched seemingly forever, back toward the street, toward the past, toward
the life that had been his before this moment, when he was another man, a
lesser man. He smiled, and swung the door shut. It swung smoothly, latching
easily, sealing off the room.
Tate raised the candle up to shoulder height, stepping
around the little table, and entered the room.
The candlelight didn’t offer much more than the match, but
it was enough. She was magnificent. Her head of black hair hung down, shadowing
her face and curling down over her shoulders. She was naked, her long torso
pale white in the candle’s glow, her breasts heavy. Her arms were long-boned,
elegant, moving in slow undulations like kelp waving beneath the surface of the
sea. The hands were wide, long-fingered, slightly webbed, ending in what
appeared to be less nails than slightly curving claws, greenish black and
This would have been enough, this glimpse of the dark and
beautiful creature, the acknowledgment that those months of searching were not
in vain, but what lay beneath her waist made him stop, catch his breath, hold
the candle slightly before him.
From the waist down, she was a twisting mass of limbs. Arms,
legs, writhing tentacles, hooked claws and segmented feelers. All of it made up
a roiling mass that stood some six feet above the floor, her torso and head
resting above it all, her dark hair nearly brushing the high ceiling. She was
monstrous and beautiful, a nightmare crawled up from the very bottom of the
sea, set before him here, in this upstairs room, swaying gently and casting
wild shadows on the ceiling.
“Give your name, traveler.” That voice. So human. So
resonant. He could feel it in the space just beneath his sternum.
“A name is a powerful talisman,” he said. “One not revealed
She chuckled, and the mass of limbs seemed to shift, a
sense of opening, of relaxation.
“Do you think I wish to imprison you here, traveler?”
“I wouldn’t begin to guess your intentions toward me,
madam. I should think myself mostly beneath your notice, but I have searched
you out over many thousand miles. One might say, I’ve been searching for you
all of my life. I’d not want to make a casual error now. You understand, I’m
The chuckle again, and her arms raised slightly at her
side, the wrists loose, the clawed fingers trailing lightly behind. He didn’t
know if the movements were for his benefit or hers, but he was mesmerized.
“What do you want, traveler?”
“A story,” he said.
The smooth swaying of her body ceased, and he felt her eyes
peering down at him from high atop her monstrous body.
“The price you paid got you inside my door, traveler.
Surely you don’t think it also entitles you to a story?”
“Of course not,” he said, bowing his head before her,
holding the candle up. “Name your price. I am prepared to pay it.”
“Mmmmmmm.” She seemed to consider. “You ought not offer to
pay before you hear the price.”
“I say again that I am willing to pay. A lifetime has
brought me to this place.”
“Are you a seeker of knowledge or a seeker of power,
“They are one and the same, madam. I have built an empire
on forbidden knowledge. My empire offers me nearly limitless power. But I have
marshaled all of that power only to bring me to you, seeking a story from your
“Very well. One story.” The writhing mass of her body
seemed to relax and settle, her arms resting at her sides, no longer waving.
“Set down the candle, traveler, and hear.”
Tate set the candle on the floor at his feet, and then he
sat down cross-legged. The floor was rough wood plank. Looking up, she towered
above him, a hulking silhouette at the top and a mass of feeling limbs that
undulated in the light of the candle. He waited, knowing that the deal had been
struck. She would begin soon.
“Once, some century ago now, there lived a wicked priest.
He lived here, on the very edges of civilization, far from the watchful eye of
his mother church, so he saw little reason to dissemble. He wore his wickedness
openly, masked and protected only by his vestments, which was enough for the
simple people of his congregation. He reveled in almost every kind of
wickedness: the sins of the flesh, sins of avarice, sins against his very God.
Very quickly he learned how wickedness begets wickedness, and the desire for
sin only breeds deeper desires. It didn’t take long before he became much as
you are, traveler, a seeker of forbidden knowledge. It was his way of striking
back against God. His public face was that of a priest, but his true face was
that of a sorcerer, a High Magus, wielder of great powers, and master of a
small army of lesser creatures.”
“One day, his parishioners brought a young woman to him.
They claimed that they had witnessed a miracle. The woman was pale, her gaze
distant, focusing on nothing seen, her hair a tangle around her narrow face.
She was wrapped in quilts, her bare feet white against the darkly polished
floor of the church. A fisherman told him the tale.”
“A group of them were out fishing, just outside the mouth
of the bay, when one saw something bobbing in the water. At first he thought it
was a dolphin, though the waters were usually too cold for such. Then the shape
sank below the water. Then it bobbed back up. The men all brought their boats
around, and soon they could see that it was plainly a human shape. A woman,
face down, hair wild around her. They pulled her up into a boat, lay her at the
bottom. She was cold and still: quite obviously dead. But she was beautiful,
her naked body unmarked by her time in the sea. She looked as if she might be
simply sleeping. Finally, they covered her with a tarp and came back to shore.”
“But when they went to lift her out of the boat, she
grasped a man by the hand, sat up, breathed a raspy breath. She appeared to be
fine, though she would not respond, and it wasn’t clear if she was aware of her
surroundings. All of the men swore that she had been dead. They had checked her
pulse and breathing, had felt the cold skin. Was it not a miracle? The priest
agreed that it sounded very much like a miracle, but said that he must question
the girl before any pronouncement could be made. She was handed over to the
sisters, who washed and dressed her and tried to feed her, though she would take
“She showed all the signs of life, but no awareness. No
consciousness. One of the sisters, a wicked woman herself, and one who had
often accompanied the priest on his exploits, believed that the cold water had
kept her alive, but that her brain had suffered from lack of oxygen for too
long. She was just a puppet now. A shell.”
“But the priest was less sure. He sensed something else
about the girl. He had heard the men whisper about silkies and merfolk, and
while their talk was mostly wives’ tales, he knew enough of the occult lore
surrounding the sea, and surrounding that very bay, to know that there were
strange things beneath the surface. He questioned the girl. He offered her food
and wine. He stripped her bare, thinking to shame her into some response. But
she only stared into the middle distance, as if studying something no one else
“The priest ordered the sisters to care for her, and he
retreated to his library of unholy books. He read, searching every scrap of
parchment, for eight days. During that time the girl did not eat or drink, and
she did not sleep. She simply sat in a chair before a window, looking at
nothing. On the eighth night, he found the key. The translations were rough,
but he was able to discern enough to know what she was, and to know what he
“He had two of the sisters bring the girl to his rooms, and
as they had done many times before, they set about performing their dark
rituals. The wicked priest was impatient, bored of the black candles and the
tired parading of the nuns’ naked bodies. This wasn’t theater. This was a
doorway to true power. They laid the girl out on the floor, and the priest took
a long piece of obsidian, half bound in leather straps, and he sliced open the
girl’s belly. She still didn't react at all, and her breathing remained steady,
regular, her eyes looking up through the ceiling at nothing. Even as he heaved
her guts out onto the floor where they steamed and reeked, she breathed on.
Using the stone knife, he cut away the organs, hollowing her out, and then
finally he pushed his hand up under the ribs, reaching up to where her heart
ought to have been, and he felt it. A stone, the size of his fist, warm and
smooth. He pulled, and he could feel the tissue pull away from it, hear the snapping
of gristle. It came out of her chest like a pulled tooth.”
“Outside of her, the stone was gray-green, glowing
yellowish in the candlelight, and the sisters poured clean water over it,
washing it clean. The priest stood above the now inert body of the girl, her
eyes still staring as blankly as ever, but her breath stilled, and he held the
stone in his two hands, lifted it up above his head. There was no doubt that it
was an object of great power, and he was its master.”
“The girl was hastily buried in the churchyard, and soon
the people ceased talking about the miracle. But the priest was changed. He
withdrew from his daily duties, and he was seen at night, wandering along the
jetty or creeping around the docks. His expression was strange, distant, and he
carried a small bundle: something wrapped in black velvet, which he clutched to
his chest. Some of his parishioners expressed concern, but the sisters assured
them that the priest was on a spiritual journey. And so he was, though not of
the type they claimed. The priest had been unable to find any way to wield the
power of the stone, though its power was absolutely obvious. When he held it in
his hands, it hummed, a song just below speech. He spent his days and nights
listening to that hum, hoping to discern some word, some direction from the
voice within the stone. When people met him in the street, they thought he was
staring off into the distance, but in fact, his eyes were not focused at all.
His full concentration was on the sound resonating between his hands.”
“Then one night in early December, as the priest was
walking along the rocky beach, there was a sudden display of the Northern
Lights, clearly visible. An unusual but certainly not unheard of event at that
latitude, it nevertheless had a profound effect on the priest, who went
suddenly still, his vision all but blank. The stone resonated strongly in the
presence of the display, the voices clearer, more distinct, directing him. He
walked blindly toward the lights, and the voice became images flashing across
the insides of his eyes: a whole subterranean world mapped out beneath his
feet, with carven passages and towering chambers lit with strange green light.
As he stood on the beach, his limbs stiff and shaking, his eyes rolled back in
his head, his mouth foaming, he saw other stones like the one he clutched in
his hands. They rested on stone altars deep beneath the ground, and they hummed
a low note, calling to him.”
“When the fit had ended, the priest returned to the church,
and gathering his wicked sisters around him, he performed a new rite. He made
an incision just below his sternum, using the obsidian knife. Two inches
across, the cut was clean, and when the blood was wiped away, it was almost
invisible. He then made another cut, perpendicular to the first, making a
cross. The sisters wiped away the blood and washed the wound in fresh water.
When the priest probed the wound with his fingers, it seemed unreal, this new
passage into his body, this seeping orifice at his middle. He gave directions
to the sisters, who unwrapped the stone, washed it, and handed it over to the
priest. The opening was almost perfectly sized, but it still took a great deal
of pressure to push the stone through, the edges of the cuts pulling painfully
as he forced the stone in. When it passed through, it made a wet sucking sound,
and then dark blood welled up.”
“The sisters worked quickly to clean and sew up the wound,
and then the priest lay there for two days and nights, sweating and shaking,
eyes unfocused, the edges of the wound white and puffy turning an angry red in
the surrounding tissue. It was put out to his parishioners that the priest was
“On the third night, the priest got up from his bed,
shambled out of the church like a sleepwalker, and wandered down to the docks.
Several people saw him standing at the end of the pier, hands hanging loosely
at his sides, staring out over the water, looking northward. And then he was
gone. The fishermen pulled him out of the water the next morning, cold and
lifeless. The sisters tended to his body, moving the funeral along quickly, and
by the next day, he was buried in the churchyard.”
“Some claim that the sisters removed the stone from the
priest’s body, that it was carried away, perhaps to be joined with others like it,
but some say that the stone still rests in the priest’s ribcage, deep in the
churchyard, humming, waiting for the next person who might hear its call.
Whatever the fate of the stone, it was well-noted that the priest who arrived
as replacement, a devout and holy man, sickened and died, as did the next, and
the next. The following decade, a new church was built, further up into the
town, and the old building was left to rot.”
There was a long pause, and the woman shifted, the many
limbs of her body bristling and waving. Tate looked up to where the piercing
eyes looked down from above.
“Thank you, madam. You honor me with your story.” He
climbed to his feet.
“It is your story now, traveler. Use it well.”
“And are you now ready to pay my price, traveler?”
“Good. Come closer.” The mass of appendages beckoned him
in: hands reaching, hooked claws waving him forward.
Tate stepped forward, felt the hands clutching at his
sleeves, unseen things hooked into his pants legs, felt himself pulled inexorably
in, toward the towering mass of the mother of stories. He closed his eyes and
felt himself lifted, drawn closer. A broad hand fell across his eyes, and
another across his mouth. He didn’t struggle, but simply gave himself over to
it. She was ancient and cruel, but she was fair, he knew. When the claws began
to work through his shoulder joint, he screamed into the covering hand, but he
didn’t fight. The sound of popping sinew
and snapping tendon seemed far away, muffled. He fell into the darkness,
grateful and fulfilled.
Six months later, Tate received the call. They’d found
something. He should come down.
He hurried down to the parking garage and into his car.
Backing out of his space still took more concentration than he liked to admit.
The prosthetic arm hung uselessly in his lap, and he had to crank the wheel
around hard with his one good hand. But it was getting easier all the time. He
put the car into gear and drove up to street level.
The site was a full city block, ringed in chain link,
bulldozed and cleared, and the crews had been digging from corner to corner,
following a strict grid and refilling the portions they’d excavated before
moving on. There was a crowd gathered around the backhoe, near the northeastern
side of the lot, and Tate hurried across the cleared ground to meet them.
Stugaard, the foreman, met him, led him to the site.
“We thought you’d want to see before we called anyone
Tate stood at the edge of the pit and looked down. The
coffin hadn’t so much been opened as it had simply disintegrated. One hundred
and seventeen years in the damp ground. But the body was whole and intact, pale
white like a grub, but the priest looked like he might be sleeping.
“Who else has been told?” Tate said, kneeling down at the
“No one. I called you first thing.”
“Good. Good. Help me down?” Tate raised his one arm, and
Stugaard took it with both hands, and soon Tate was down in the pit, straddling
the pale body. The hands were folded neatly across the priest's chest, and Tate
pulled them aside. The joints gave an audible creak, but they moved easily
And there it was. The stitches had long since rotted away,
but the wound was clear enough: a perfect cross, no more than two inches in
either direction, just beneath the breastbone. The skin was smooth, dark earth
settled down in the lines of the cuts.
Tate found that he had been
holding his breath. So long he’d searched,
and here it was. He reached out his fingers, brushed the wounds, hoping to feel
some sign of the stone within, and that was when the priest gasped, seeming to
startle, his eyelids clicking open. Tate looked down at the priest’s face. The
lips parted slightly, and it appeared as if the man were enraptured, staring
out through and beyond Tate, who hunched above him, out at some glorious
vision, or perhaps as if he were listening to some far away music that no one
else but he could hear.