“Really?” I said, trying to sound as casual as I could. “Because if you’re planning to turn yourself into a ghoul, I’d advise against it. It may be immortality of a sort, but it’s a pretty nasty one.”
“Nothing so crude.”
My eyes flicked to the horrible book on his lab bench. For some reason my gaze kept being drawn to it. Dr. Choate noticed and smiled thinly.
“Ah, I see you admire my Necronomicon. It is a vanishingly rare English edition translated by John Dee. Only a handful of them still exist. My ancestor brought it with him from England on the Speedwell. But you are no stranger to forbidden knowledge, are you Jack?”
“And you are no stranger to the sword of Jack the Giant-Killer,” I replied. Ah, so this was the witty repartee I’d heard so much about.
Just then, the Reverend’s disembodied head appeared in thin air behind and unnoticed by Dr. Choate. A finger appeared over the Reverend’s lips and he winked. Then he pulled a hood over his head and disappeared once more. He must have been wearing the cloak of invisibility, which I recalled was one of Jack the Giant-Killer’s magic gifts.
“Quite so,” Dr. Choate riposted. “Once this experiment is completed, I shall enjoy studying it more closely. The blade appears to be made of adamantine, which by all the known physical laws should not exist. But that is why my discoveries have superseded those of other scientists, for I delve into the mystical and the occult as well as the rational.”
He certainly liked the sound of his own voice. I realized it would be a piece of cake getting him to talk about his plans.
“So what do you want with Gretchen?”
“Gretchen? Ah yes, the girl. I should have known you had a romantic attachment to her. Your pupils dilate when you look at her. Alas, she is a sacrificial lamb to my quest for immortality. She will achieve a form of immortality herself, albeit a less desirable one.”
“You’re turning her into a ghoul?” I renewed trying to dislodge the bars of my prison cell, but they held fast. I had to get out of this thing. I had to stop him. Was it already too late?
“I have been studying the process of transformation. I am very close to isolating exactly what causes a ghoul to lose his humanity. Once I do, I will be able to halt it, and create an immortal being as intelligent and cultivated as you or I. Well, I anyway. I shall be the final experiment.”
“But you’ll still be a ghoul, intelligent or not. You’ll still need to feed on human remains.”
“That is a small price to pay for immortality.”
“Pay this price! Tantivy!” Harriet appeared out of nowhere, brandishing the sword.
“How dare you—” began Dr. Choate. Those were the last words he ever spoke. The impossibly sharp blade of the sword sliced through his neck as if it were made of warm butter. Snickt. His head dropped off his body like a rose blossom snipped by shears, and rolled across the stone floor. For a few seconds, his mouth moved silently and his eyes widened with terror. Then Dr. Archimedes Cabot Choate fell into the endless sleep of death that he had worked so hard to avoid. I wish I could say I felt sorry for him, but I didn’t.
Harriet sliced through the lock on my prison door with the sword. Without stopping to thank her, I rushed to Gretchen’s side. The Reverend removed his cloak and materialized next to me.
“I would have come sooner, but the twists and turns of this underground labyrinth are most perplexing.”
“Do something,” I pleaded. “Help her.”
The Reverend yanked the IV out of her arm, and opened her eyelid. A cold lifeless stare lay beneath. I turned to Harriet.
“Can you...do what did you for me? Make her drink your blood?”
“She’s too far gone, Jack,” she said, putting her hand on my shoulder. “That only works before the transformation gets to a certain point.”
“She belongs to me now.”
We all turned. A woman had entered the vault and behind her stood half a dozen ghouls. She herself had the emaciated body and canine features of a ghoul, but she was different somehow. More alert. More intelligent. Piercingly intelligent, in fact. Then I recognized her. The illustration in the book was of her.
“Queen Syraxsya,” Harriet said, completing my thought.
“Stand aside, vampire,” Syraxsya said haughtily. “And allow my subject to join me.”
Gretchen’s eyes shot open. The Reverend had already undone her restraints, and she climbed off the table without looking at us, shuffling toward her Queen.
“Wait, Gretchen!” I cried, trying to reach for her. But the Reverend and Harriet held me back.
“There’s nothing we can do,” the Reverend said. “The transformation is irreversible. Gretchen is one of them now. She will never be as she was.”
Gretchen joined the mass of ghouls behind Syraxsya, and stared forward without a flicker of acknowledgment of me in her eyes.
“I offer a truce,” Syraxsya said. “Now that the blasphemer has been dispatched, I shall take my new subjects with me to the realm of shadow and leave your city undisturbed. But you must go back to the waking world and not return to my domain.”
“That is a most equitable arrangement, Your Majesty,” the Reverend replied, bowing courteously.
Harriet sheathed her sword. It was decided. Syraxya’s ghouls descended upon Dr. Choate’s fresh corpse like a pack of wolves. Gretchen was among them. I looked away. Harriet and the Reverend each took an arm, and firmly guided me out of the chamber. The last thing I heard was the sound of Dr. Choate’s skull being cracked open like a walnut, and then a cry of delight. Was that Gretchen’s voice? I couldn’t be sure...didn’t want to know. As soon as we were out of the vault, I vomited green bile onto the grey stone floor.
We emerged from the door of a tomb into the upper world. I never knew air could smell so sweet. Copp’s Hill commanded an excellent view of Boston Harbor, and I knew that any minute the first blushes of dawn would be appearing over the sea. Harriet knew it too, and was anxious to find shelter.
“Can I crash at your house, Jack?” she asked.
“You can have it,” I said. “I’m not going back.”
“I beg your pardon?”
“You heard me. I’m done. Finito. I don’t care about the Thursbane, or serving Mother Goose. I quit.”
I took the feather out of my hat and dropped it on the ground. I turned my back on them and started walking away.
“Wait,” the Reverend said. I stopped in my tracks, hesitating. He pressed the feather back into my hand.
“Keep this. No matter what happens, you’re still Jack. Farewell, my friend. May the blessings of Fríg be on your brow, and the wind of the Weird at your back.”
Harriet gave me a long hug, which made me shiver with cold, but I didn’t care. She gave me a frosty kiss on the cheek. “Take care, my love.”
I put the feather back in my hat and made my way down to the highway, where I stuck out my thumb.
Travelling Jack never looked back.
~ the end ~