Fire and Brimstone

The story so far…

Julian Thrupp, a country solicitor from England, had come to Hopeless with a travelling companion, Dorian Bowbridge. The purpose of Julian’s visit was to try and find what had become of a long lost relative, Tobias, who had disappeared some twenty two years earlier. While conversing late into the night with Reverend Crackstone, Julian had been visited by the wraith of Tobias, who then abducted him, aided and abetted by an army of Spoonwalkers. A search party, comprising of  Dorian Bowbridge; Joseph Dreaming-By-The-River-Where-The-Shining-Salmon-Springs; Betty Butterow; Sebastian and Isaac Lypiatt; Bill Ebley and Reverend Crackstone, set out rescue the solicitor. After the party split up, Ebley and Bowbridge found themselves in the Night-Stalker infested caverns that honeycombed the island. Normally such creatures would sleep during daylight hours but because they responded to the sun, or more correctly, its absence, today was different. This particular day happened to be the twenty-ninth of June 1927 and North America was enjoying the spectacle of a total eclipse of the sun…

 

In the darkness of the eclipse Betty Butterow and Isaac Lypiatt were frantically trying to dislodge the suckered tendrils that had wrapped themselves around Joseph. The Indian was completely hog-tied and unable to resist as he was drawn inexorably toward the narrow slit in the rocks which was obviously the creature’s lair.

Sebastian had his own problems as the remaining tentacle had wound itself around his leg and was squeezing with a ferocity that would have made a boa constrictor proud.

“It will only be dark for five minutes or so, once the light returns this thing will slither back into its hole” Sebastian shouted, adding, under his breath, “I hope!”

He was hitting the offending tentacle with a rock but this only resulted in making the creature tighten its grip.

 

Ebley and Bowbridge had found a pale and terrified Julian Thrupp cowering in a corner, luckily no more than a few hundred yards inside the caverns. He was slightly delirious and it took no little effort to get him to his feet and begin the climb out. They had not walked for more than thirty seconds, however, when a restless, metallic rustling filled the air and the deep darkness behind them lessened as the cavern became unpleasantly illuminated with the dull and greenish glow of a hundred pairs of hostile eyes.

The three men froze.

“Spoonwalkers!” Ebley hissed. “Whatever you do, don’t look into their eyes. They’ll drive you mad.”

“But what’s that behind them…?” Bowbridge asked, anxiously, as his torchlight caught some other shapes in its beam.

Ebley groaned. This could not be good news. He pulled off his jacket.

“Give me your shotgun” he said to Bowbridge.

“What for? I’m perfectly capable of shooting anything hostile myself,” the young man replied, indignantly.

“For God’s sake, man, give me the gun.”

This time Bowbridge didn’t argue but handed it over. To his surprise Ebley did not fire it but wrapped his jacket around the barrel, tied by the arms to secure it in place.

“What the…?”

To Bowbridge’s horror Ebley struck a match and set fire to the jacket.

“That’s a Purdey shotgun. You can’t do that. Do you have any idea how much I paid…”

“More than your life’s worth?” interrupted  Ebley, angrily. “Look!”

The cavern danced with shadows as the flames from the burning jacket grew stronger. The pale, almost fishlike forms of the Spoonwalker army, mounted on their cutlery stilts were almost comical but the malevolence that flowed from them was tangible. They were anything but funny. Even less amusing were the horrors now crowding in their wake: grey faced ghouls with red, sunken eyes and slavering mouths, smelling the sweetness of the new flesh that trespassed so wantonly in their caves.

“Move” shouted Ebley to the other two, who hurried as best they could towards the entrance. Suddenly plain Bill Ebley was once more Corporal Ebley of The King’s Own Regiment, saving his comrades from certain death. He followed the others but walked backwards, waving the flaming jacket like a standard and keeping the enemy at bay. The improvised torch burned brightly for a few minutes but all too soon there was little of it left; it was touch and go that they would get out in time. To make matters worse the ornate stock of the shotgun was becoming uncomfortably hot to the touch, almost too much to bear. All seemed lost. The entrance should have been visible by now and the Spoonwalkers and ghouls were showing no sign of giving up. They were clearly frightened of the fire but seemed determined to destroy the three trespassers.

The last tatters of Ebley’s jacket spluttered some feeble flames then died. He caught the glint of the Spoonwalkers eyes and knew the game was up.

“This is it,” he thought. He wished that he had said goodbye to his wife and daughter properly that morning. Why hadn’t he told them how much he loved them… but who was he thinking about? He could not remember. His mind was wavering in and out of consciousness, not caring anymore about anything. All that mattered was the faint green glow that was filling his head….

“Come on, Ebley, we’re almost there.” It was Bowbridge’s voice that dragged him back from these thoughts and the very edge of reason.

Looking about him Ebley could see that they were close to the cave entrance and daylight. With the reappearance of the sun the grey figures ceased to be a threat and silently receded once more into the shadows. The Spoonwalkers, however, were a different matter. They, seemingly, had no fear of daylight and advanced upon him menacingly.

The shotgun barrel was blackened and the stock still hot in his hands. Ebley had no idea if it was still in working order or even likely to blow up in his face. There was no time to worry about such things.  Instinctively he raised the gun and aimed at the advancing creatures.

The report of the rifle was deafening in the confines of the cave. The cartridge ripped through the tide of Spoonwalkers and created pandemonium. This was something new. They squealed and fell back, unsure of what had occurred. Cutlery lay scattered on the floor of the cave. Bowbridge tossed Ebley his cartridge belt.

“Give ‘em another round,” he shouted.

Ebley loaded up and fired again. The horde retreated further into the depths of the cavern.

“One more for luck” he said and sent a shot echoing into the darkness. The result was unexpected. A torrent of stones began to rain from the roof of the far cavern, sealing off all means of immediate escape for the Spoonwalkers. Doubtless there were other ways out but for now, at least, the party was safe.

They emerged, blinking, into the daylight, now fully restored following the eclipse. Sebastian Lypiatt was massaging a sore leg while Isaac and Betty were struggling to help Joseph, bruised and shaken but otherwise unharmed, to his feet.

Ebley made to hand the shotgun back to Dorian Bowbridge but the young man shook his head.

“Keep it,” he said. “You’ve earned it. Besides…” he added with a rueful grin, “I’d be embarrassed to use any gun in public that looked like that.”

It was true. It would take no small amount of renovation to return the weapon to its former glory.

Ebley thanked him but knew it was never likely to be fired again. He would hang it over the fireplace as a reminder of his adventures in the caverns. The colonel would, doubtless, have approved.

 

A few days later Joseph ferried the two Englishmen back to the mainland, chastened, and not a little humbled, by their adventures on the island.

Betty Butterow, in her Selkie guise, had swum alongside the canoe, much to Joseph’s great delight. He felt quietly privileged that he alone was party to his lover’s secret.

As always, upon her return the Selkie retreated to her favourite rock where she basked awhile until she was able to shed her sealskin and become Betty once more.

The girl did not see the figure hiding among the rocks, watching as she transformed into her human form. Betty was quite naked and folding the sloughed off seal skin when a harsh, screeching voice startled her.

“Shapeshifter! Witch! You will not leave this place alive.”

She turned to see Reverend Crackstone, apoplectic with rage, brandishing his bible at her.

“How blind I have been,” he ranted. “I suspected on the day you were born that there was evil blood in your veins. I should have strangled you at birth, but no, I was weak and hoped I was wrong. Then last week, on the day of the eclipse, I didn’t go straight back to the Squid as I said I would. I followed you and saw you with the indian. Oh yes, I saw everything. He might not mind having a shapeshifter as his whore but you, witch, are an abomination in the sight of the Lord.”

Betty said nothing, listening patiently as the elderly parson continued his diatribe, his anger, by now, making him almost incoherent. She was well aware that he had never liked her. It was if twenty two long years of scarcely concealed hatred was boiling within him, like a volcano waiting to erupt.

He started throwing stones at her, wildly at first. She shied to get away from the onslaught but he was relentless, getting ever nearer and becoming totally insane with self-righteous fury.

Standing on a vantage point that was just above her, Crackstone picked up a large rock and hefted it above his head, intending to crush Betty’s skull.

Dimly, in her mind, she marvelled that he had the strength to do this.

“Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live..” he roared, resisting the temptation to follow it with ‘Exodus 22:18’ which, under other circumstances, he would have helpfully added.

It was then that the air seemed to hum as a huge shadow was cast across them. It was as though a second eclipse was about to take place.

The reverend’s stare became wide and fearful; Betty thought at first that the parson was smiling, then realised that what she saw was not a smile but a rictus of horror that transformed his face into a mask of sheer terror.

Two massive tentacles, grey-green and stippled with barnacles, rose from behind her and slipped themselves around Crackstone’s body, his arms still held aloft, holding the rock. Betty watched with horrified fascination as more suckered, tendril-like, appendages appeared, wrapping around the parson until he was completely enveloped by them. They writhed and slithered, twisting flesh and crushing bone, eventually rending and breaking the man into little more than so much jelly. Betty could not look and dared to turn her face towards whatever it was that had saved her.

Rising from the boiling waters, high as any hill, a huge cephalopod met her gaze with a sentient, mournful eye. She knew it meant her no harm.

A sonorous voice, deep and wild as the ocean, spoke softly in her head.

“The sea protects her own, Selkie. The sea protects her own”

Then it was gone, taking whatever was left of Reverend Crackstone with it. The waters churned as the mighty creature retreated. Only the harmless splash of the rock that was meant to kill her marked where it had been.

 

People disappear on Hopeless all of the time. It was assumed that Reverend Crackstone had been hastened on his journey to meet his maker by something unpleasant; either that or he fell into the sea, as no trace of him was ever found.

He was mourned by his wife and two sons but few others. Only Betty Butterow knew the truth. She wondered if she had encountered the mighty kraken itself. If this was so, she had no intention of telling anyone. After all, the sea protects her own.

Art by Clifford Cumber

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