Home > Darklands (Deadtown #4)(17)

Darklands (Deadtown #4)(17)
Author: Nancy Holzner

Do you know how hard it is to kill a creature who looks you in the eye and says, “Please don’t”? In movies, the bad guys do it all the time. So do the very toughest of the super-tough good guys, but only when the pleading villain is way too evil to live. In my life, I was used to blowing away the nasties that jumped out at me, intent on harm, in kill-or-be-killed situations. I wasn’t used to “please.”

I knew how to deal with guilt-demons. Even if you kill one, sooner or later another will take its place. The only way to really get rid of an Eidolon is to cut off its food supply. If I didn’t wallow in guilt and worry, the demon would leave me alone. Besides, maybe it could bring me more information about what Pryce was up to. It might be useful to have a spy in the demon plane.

The Eidolon watched me, its eyes hopeful in its hideous face.

“I cast you back into Uffern,” I said, knowing already I’d regret this. “And I bind you not to return to me unless I summon you. If you try to infest me, I’ll kill you without hesitation.”

“Yippie!” Immediately the pressure on my chest eased. “Er, I mean, as you command.” The Eidolon shimmered and grew transparent. It shrunk in size as it sank back into my body. There was no gnawing in my guts. The Eidolon passed through me and back to where it came from.

I lay in my still, silent bedroom, trying to shake the feeling that I’d just become the biggest sucker in the history of demon fighting.

9

THERE’S NOTHING LIKE A LONG CONVERSATION WITH AN Eidolon to make sleep impossible. Residual guilt slithered through me, searching for thoughts to attach itself to. Free-floating guilt is a horrible feeling. It’s different from the gnawing of a feeding Eidolon, more like a tide of poisonous sludge that seeps through you, stinging and burning body and mind. To push it away, I distracted myself by thinking about what the guilt-demon had told me.

I knew it had told me the truth. One thing about Eidolons: They don’t lie. They can twist and distort and exaggerate, but everything they say is true at its core. Has to be. Otherwise, it would be easy to ignore them. The more an Eidolon victim recognizes the essential truth of what the demon insinuates, the more firmly the Eidolon attaches to that person’s conscience. Damn parasites. So maybe I had punched Timmy Kinicki a little harder and a little longer than was necessary to teach him a lesson, that didn’t mean—

Was that me or the demon, stirring up those old feelings? Just in case, I spoke out loud. “If that’s you, demon, cut it out. I warned you: I’ll conjure your ass back into the human plane and pop you like a slimy soap bubble.”

A different feeling flared up—doubt. I should’ve killed that demon while I had the chance. Yet banishing it had felt like the better choice. The ethical choice. Maybe my ethics weren’t as black-and-white as I thought. It was confusing. But the guilt-nausea settled down, and I left both ethical debate and the second-grade playground behind.

So Pryce was terrorizing the denizens of the demon plane by grabbing demons and imprisoning them in a cauldron. He was hiding the demon-packed cauldron near a door to the Darklands that would open at the full of the moon. What could he gain by smuggling demons into the realm of the dead? Had he decided to shift his quest for power from the world of people to the world of shades? Did he want to become the new lord of the dead? I wanted to call Mab on the dream phone and discuss these questions with her, but I couldn’t. Every time I tried to relax enough to place the call, that tide of leftover guilt rose again.

Try sleeping when guilt keeps poking you in the ribs. Especially when you know an Eidolon might construe each poke as an invitation for a midnight snack.

I got up. Can’t push away guilt? Distraction is the next best thing. Something nagged at the back of my mind, something I thought I’d seen when I sat at the kitchen table, paging through the newspaper while Juliet fed. I padded down the hall to the kitchen.

The Book of Utter Darkness sat on the table, but I didn’t have the energy or the patience to deal with it now. If it told me anything at all, it would be to confuse me further.

I found News of the Dead in the recycling bin. I checked to make sure it was the right issue, then sat down with it and flipped through, scanning each page.

There it was. The headline read, “Museum Theft Stumps Police.” Under the headline was a photograph of a cauldron. I remembered glancing at the photo before. Now, I read the story.

CAMBRIDGE—Police have not been able to determine how a large, heavy cauldron was removed from an exhibition of Bronze Age artifacts at Harvard’s Peabody Museum. The cauldron, on loan from the National Museum of Wales, disappeared overnight between April 13 and April 14, while the museum was closed. No alarm sounded during the break-in, and there was no sign of forced entry. The cauldron’s size—three feet high, nearly two feet in diameter, and weighing approximately two hundred pounds—would make it difficult to transport.

Traces of magic were found at the site, police said, but the fragmentary magical signatures were inconclusive. Police are appealing for witnesses who may have seen unusual activity, whether natural or supernatural, near the museum on the night in question.

Wow, that was one big cauldron. Not exactly something you could stick in your pocket and sneak out past the guards. If Pryce had tapped into Myrddin’s magic to break into the museum and spirit the cauldron away, it wasn’t surprising police didn’t recognize the magical signature. Myrddin had spent centuries imprisoned in a yew tree, so of course the Boston PD wouldn’t have his magical signature on file.

I scrutinized the photo of the stolen bronze cauldron. It wasn’t a work of art or a thing of beauty. The cauldron balanced on three legs, leaning drunkenly to the right as though one of the legs had been damaged. Two thick bronze rings served as handles. The surface was pockmarked with dents. It looked like what it was: a big, old, beat-up pot that had been buried in the mud for a couple of thousand years.

But Pryce didn’t need something pretty. He needed something that would hold trapped, struggling demons. A big bronze cauldron, dented or not, was the perfect vessel.

The article said that the cauldron was from Wales. I searched my mind for what I knew about cauldrons from Welsh mythology. There was the cauldron of Ceridwen, which had granted shapeshifting abilities to her descendents, but that cauldron had shattered. I knew there were other magic cauldrons—one, I seemed to recall, was associated with the Darklands. Maybe that would provide a clue to what Pryce was doing.

I dropped News of the Dead back into the recycling bin and went to the living room, to the corner desk where Juliet keeps her computer. I started the machine and, when it came to life, opened a search engine. I typed cauldron into the search field. Great. Twelve million results—hopefully I wouldn’t have to scroll through them all to find what I was looking for. The first couple of pages were packed with places to buy cauldrons: ritual cauldrons for witches, cast-iron cauldrons for cooking, plastic cauldrons for Halloween parties, cauldron planters for the garden…Somehow I didn’t see Pryce cramming demons into a cauldron in the hope they’d emerge as petunias.

I looked at a few websites discussing the mythology and symbolism of cauldrons, quickly finding the one associated with the Darklands. In the medieval poem “The Spoils of Annwn,” King Arthur leads a raiding party into the Darklands to steal a magnificent cauldron. The poem, obscure and hard to understand even in translation, seemed to discuss two different cauldrons. One cauldron—Ceridwen’s shattered one?—gave the poem’s author literary skill. The other cauldron belonged to the lord of Annwn. Presumably this was the cauldron stolen from the Darklands by Arthur’s men. It had a dark ridge around its rim, it was encrusted with pearls, and it wouldn’t cook the food of a coward.

I went to the News of the Dead website and found the story I’d read. The stolen cauldron may have had a dark ridge around the rim; it was hard to tell from the photo. But there were no decorative gems of any kind. No word either about how a coward would have to find a different cooking pot.

I suppose the ability to tell a brave man from a coward came in handy in King Arthur’s day, but I didn’t think Pryce was getting ready to cook up a big batch of demon stew. He wanted to rule demons, not eat them.

I found several other references to magical cauldrons in Welsh folklore. The most interesting was the cauldron of rebirth, which could restore dead warriors to life. But that didn’t seem to fit Pryce’s activities, either. He wasn’t killing demons, just imprisoning them. Nothing I could find online gave me any hints about why.

I was feeling better, and almost sleepy enough to place my dream-phone call. But before I called Mab, I wanted to check one more thing. I typed “Devil’s Coffin” in the search field. I considered. The place couldn’t be too far from Boston, not if Pryce was collecting his demons here. I added “Boston” to my keywords and hit Enter.

At the top of the results was a link to a page about a state park called Purgatory Chasm—promising name. I clicked the link and read. The park, about fifty miles west of Boston in a town called Sutton, centers around a granite chasm formed by glaciers thousands of years ago. The chasm is noted for its caves, tunnels, and rock formations, with names like Lovers’ Leap, Fat Man’s Misery—and the Devil’s Coffin. Bingo.

I squinted at some photos of the Devil’s Coffin rock formation. It looked like a large slab of rock lying on the floor of a shallow cave. Could there be a doorway to the Darklands here? A place to hide a stolen cauldron? Impossible to tell from looking at photos on a computer screen. I’d have to check out the place in person. I printed directions to get to Purgatory Chasm from Boston.

Doing some research had banished the last, lingering traces of guilty feelings after my encounter with the Eidolon. I could fall sleep now, I thought, without inviting the Eidolon back for more munchies. And sleeping meant I could contact Mab.

IN SLEEP, I LET MYSELF DRIFT FOR A WHILE. I WANTED TO LET the information I’d gathered spend some time in my subconscious, that part of the mind that holds all of the memories, thoughts, and emotions that we accumulate over a lifetime. The subconscious can discern patterns and make connections that the conscious mind misses. It could take days, weeks, or even longer for the subconscious to process everything I’d seen and learned recently. But I knew a way to speed things up.

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