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Black Shuck

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The wilds of Dartmoor are a desolate place; under the pallor of the sky the trees shrivel and bend, queer noises rise from the mire at night, and the banks of fog that roll through leech all warmth from the air. That such a place should produce such a man as Sir Hugo Baskerville, then, is of little wonder. Sir Hugo was human, but his appetites were not, and his tenants lived in fear of them. He came to desire a young girl in town—poor, they say, but with a pale beauty so suited to her home.

Sir Hugo seized her in the dead of night, lashed her to his horse, and dragged her back to Baskerville Hall. She wept and pleaded for her return, but such entreaties excited him further. He locked her in his room and caroused downstairs with his friends; they toasted to the night's inevitable entertainment.

Ivy grew thick on the sides of Baskerville Hall, and when the girl found the window unlocked, she climbed through it, scaled down the side of the manor with the vines to ease her descent, and made her escape through the moor. When Sir Hugo discovered her absence, he threw down his cup and called on the Great Old Ones, gave himself and all of his descendants to their service if they would only let him overtake the girl. The revelers ceased their celebrations and stared mutely after the man, but he had already saddled his best horse and taken flight.

The party dispersed, each man going his separate way, yet only one reached his destination. The colour had fled from his hair and skin, and he died of starvation a month later, for he refused all food. Before he died, however, he told his story in fragments, punctuated by screams in a language that made his mouth bleed. He had passed the girl as she fled, he said, and shortly thereafter he had seen Sir Hugo whipping his horse into a frenzy. But Sir Hugo looked not ahead but behind, and a curious thunder rumbled from somewhere behind him. The thunder built, and a great black creature, shaped like a hound but larger than any mortal hound he had known, flung itself onto Sir Hugo and dragged him from his horse. His companion fled at the sight. The last image he would relate was of the two of them locked in a strange embrace, with fog streaming from Sir Hugo's eyes and mouth and rippling beneath his skin.

The girl was never seen again, and Sir Hugo retreated from all company after that night. His descendants followed his example, and the residents of Dartmoor shunned Baskerville Hall for the cursed place it was. No matter how far they kept from it, however, they could not ignore the cries rising from the hall, the clamor of a thousand hounds howling in concert. Nor could they ignore the black shape stalking through the mist, with eyes and mouth aflame.

This is Dartmoor, as it has stood for the past century and a half. We lock our doors at night, and never venture across the moor alone. We do not know what we fear. To know it, we think, would be to drive us mad. But we know it lurks somewhere still in the fog, waiting for the day it can emerge from the shadow of Baskerville Hall.

"I heard this story first from a man called Frankland, and what I have now read is as close as I can make it to what he told me." Doctor Mortimer tucked the paper into his breast-pocket with a trembling hand. My friend's cigarette was not yet half-smoked, but he ground it into his ashtray and leaned forward, saying nothing.

"Well?" the good doctor said. "What do you make of it?"

"A curious tale, though hardly an implausible one," my friend answered. "But you would do more wisely if, without further ado, you told me plainly the purpose of your visit. I am not accustomed to receiving social calls, and I am no more a folklorist than I need to be."

I remained silent. The wind whistled through the chinks in the walls of our rookery, and the guttering flames suggested shapes to me—the jaws of a mastiff, or of a creature even larger, sparks spitting from its teeth. Some of the dread chill of the moor must have touched me then, and I shivered.

"For the past several years, I have lived in a hamlet called Grimpen," said Mortimer. "Baskerville Hall sits at its periphery, and the lords of that place are as terrible a lot as the narrative describes. We glimpse them through the haze on the moor, or through the hedges bordering Yew Alley, and that is enough for all concerned."

"Until recently, I presume."

Mortimer nodded, the lines on his face drawing tighter. "The last of their line, Sir Charles Baskerville, died two months ago. I was summoned by one of his servants; he told me the old man's heart had given out during the night."

"And had it?"

He hesitated. "There were no marks upon the body, but I confess it was not a body I wanted to examine closely. He had more hair than I expected, all over his palms and face and back, and his teeth and nails were long and yellowed—from what use I could not say, or did not care to guess. But his eyes were queerest of all. He died with them open, and in the light I thought—"

Holmes looked at him sharply. "What did you think?"

"I thought they glowed."

He made a noise at that, low and satisfied. "Continue."

"Until recently," said the doctor, "we kept to ourselves as well as they. In another life I was a Londoner, but most of us have never left the moor, nor did we wish to. And yet—" Shadows closed around his throat, and for some time he seemed at quite a loss for words. I gripped my cane, though what I intended to fend off I still cannot say. "And yet we have left the moor, Mr. Holmes. All of us save myself."

"But you have left," I said, "or else you would not be here now."

"Left," said he, "but not gone. And all of them are gone, all of them for miles 'round—vanished from their beds as though they never slept in them, with nothing to mark where they went."

Mortimer, I saw then in the wan light, looked half-vanished himself: graying skin stretched tight over his bones, hollowed cheeks and sunken eyes. I wondered if I looked the same to him. My friend, I knew, had mourned the wardrobe we abandoned when we fled the Strand Players. He salvaged some of his disguises and rebuilt others, but not all, and I saw him practise with several ingenious compounds before our little mirror to replicate the makeups he used onstage, but none had quite the same effect.

"Nothing to mark where they went?" my friend repeated.

"Nothing."

The flame in our grate guttered, but my friend's eyes seemed to pick up the light lost. "Nothing moved out of its usual place? No marks on the floors or in the dirt outside? Nothing lingering in the air?" He stood from his chair, began to pace. "No sights that your mind shrinks from even now, because you cannot comprehend them?"

"Can you, Mr. Holmes?"

He smiled. "There are laws, Doctor Mortimer, that even the most arcane among us must obey—most minds cannot understand them, will not, but my mind is not most minds."

Mortimer nodded once, absorbing this. "The fog," he said at last, and at his words I could almost see it streaming through our floorboards. "It seemed to cling to me as I moved, and I thought I saw shapes stir within it."

"Shapes, you say."

"Yes. Several I dare not name—forgive me, gentlemen, but I do not have your courage—and one—" Here he broke off again. "And one I wish I had never seen."

"What shape, doctor?"

Mortimer closed his eyes, but I knew too well how futile it was. Such sights, I have found, burn themselves on your soul, and the marks they leave only fester with time. "The shape of a giant hound."

***

"What do you make of it?" I asked my friend when Mortimer had departed, slipped down the hidden flight of steps leading to our rookery.

"I?" He tapped his pipe on the mantelpiece, or what little of the ledge remained. "Many things, Watson, most of which dare not name themselves. The thing takes shape, but a dreadful one."

"Then you think his story is true? The curse of the Baskervilles, the spectral hound, the disappearances?"

"I believe he told us what he knew. But there are many things he does not." Holmes finished packing his pipe and drew on it for some time; the smoke wreathed us, some comfort against the cold. "And the truth of those makes ghost stories such as this seem positively benign."

"Surely he cannot tell you what he doesn't know."

"Of course he can, my dear Watson. In fact, what he has omitted has told me a great deal. Consider the colour of the mud on his shoes—or better yet, its smell." Holmes stooped, gathered a pinch of the dirt with his handkerchief, and peered at it. "The earth of Dartmoor has a particular loamy scent, recognisable to any trained nose, but there are less familiar notes beneath that. Unless I am mistaken—and I rarely am in these matters—the smell of scorched ozone lingers, the kind characteristic of the air after a lightning-strike. And observe," he said, shoving the handkerchief under my nose, "how, though I plucked this dirt inches from the fireplace, where it has sat for half an hour, it remains cold."

I held my hand over the sample, and yanked it back with a cry; it seemed as though something in the earth reached out to steal the warmth from my flesh.

"You see," he said. "Notice, also, the wisps of grey mist rising from it."

"I imagined I saw something of the sort earlier tonight," I said.

"Trust your eyes, Watson. They see more than you realise. Though," he added, "it takes a different set of skills entirely to make meaning of what is seen. Or unseen, as is so often the case."

"My dear Holmes—"

"You noticed the curious pallor of the doctor's skin, yes?"

"I understand that light is even rarer in Dartmoor than it is here."

"Rarer, yes," he said, waving his hand dismissively, "but not rare enough to account for that particular discolouration. Fright alone cannot account for it, either. No, it is something in the air itself, something in the earth."

"What manner of creature—"

He held up his hand. "It begins to take shape, I have said. I have a theory, and this, my friend, is where I despair that my theories are so often correct. Fetch a map of Dartmoor, Watson, and by all you hold dear, be discreet."

"You needn't tell me as much."

"Caution, my dear Watson, is our chiefest byword." He sat in his chair, brushed some of the loose batting from its arm. "The only consolation I can offer is that we will have need of your knives soon enough."

I ground my cane into the floor and pulled myself straighter. The wound plagues me most in winter; there is nothing then to ease the dead chill in my flesh, the muscle and skin that will never again awaken. "So it can be killed."

"Yes," he said, and closed his eyes. "But not easily."

***

I suggested we hide in the cargo compartment for our train voyage, but Holmes repudiated it. "A pair of gentlemen sitting quietly on a train will draw little enough attention," he said. "A pair of gentlemen smuggling themselves aboard with the cargo will." He had, of course, retained much of his virtuosity with disguise since abandoning his old profession, and I saw flashes of the man I knew once as he fashioned our costumes. The deftness of his fingers with his brushes, the murmurs of delight at some particularly cunning trick with his hair, the flair with which he snapped his cufflinks into place: they spoke of other times to me, the evenings when I would craft my plays and he would practise his violin.

It is a strange thing. Our past is behind us, something that in a real sense is lost to us forever, and yet so much of our work rests on reclaiming it. It is a neat paradox, and one I have not yet resolved. I wonder if I ever shall.

The train squeaked to a halt at a small wayside station. We had not expected a reception, but neither had we expected the silence. The train rattled away, and when the last echoes of that faded, we were left with nothing. A chill wind at last cut through the fog enveloping us, and I saw the moor stretched out across the horizon, tors covered in ancient rotting grasses and heath crawling down their slopes. We walked, and avoided the places where the road split to reveal seams of rock beneath until we no longer could.

"Best keep moving," Holmes said, and his words echoed strangely off the hills. "I place a good deal of trust in your revolver, but all the same, I would rather we were not trapped on the moor at night."

I agreed, though night hardly seemed a concept that applied here. Daylight itself seemed indistinct from what I saw, a time when the reddish-grey above us seemed less heavy than it otherwise might.

We straggled into the hamlet as the sky began to darken, and no doubt would have made a sight had anyone been there to see us, both of us sweating through our disguises and me favoring my stick for support. But the hamlet was silent, and once again I heard Mortimer's testimony: but we have left the moor, Mr. Holmes.

"What could have done this?" I asked, but Holmes was ahead of me, charming open the door closest to us.

"Come in, Watson," he called.

The cottage was small but tidy, and I was immediately struck by the line of shoes arranged by the front door, patiently waiting to be worn again. Holmes surveyed the kitchen and parlour and dining-room, tutting at some things and bending to examine others or hold them to the light. I stroked the corner of the tablecloth. It was a beautiful thing, fine linen and white lace, and I wondered why its owner had cause to lay it out. Who she had hoped to dine with that evening, what other preparations she had made—no wonder the house was so neat.

The simplest things stick with us. I have seen creatures suck away a man's wits and leave only a shell behind, seen my hands soaked in blood and green ichor and other things I will not name, seen shapes leer at me in the darkness with a hundred horrible mouths. But it is these nightmares I dread most: a line of empty shoes, a dinner never served, a silence thicker than any sound.

"Halloa, Watson," Holmes said from the top of the steps. "What do you make of this?"

He beckoned me to the doorway, and I saw a pair of scorch-marks stripe the lintel. "Something has been burned into the wood," I said. "Perhaps someone leaned too close with a candle."

"Have you looked at all?" My friend shook his head, trailed the tip of his finger over a mark. "These lines are too clean and deep for candle-fire. Notice the narrow width of the burn-mark itself, the lack of wax, the uniformity of colour and depth. Lightning passed through these doors, not fire."

"Lightning? But how?"

"Lightning and fog," Holmes murmured, stepping back. "And the old legend, and the timing of the mass disappearance—yes, it falls into place. Do not ask me more," he said when I tried to interject, "at this juncture it is all too delicate. But even you will guess at the shape of it soon enough. I think it is high time we called on on Baskerville Hall."

***

Baskerville Hall anticipated our entrance. The gate creaked open at the lightest touch, and though we elected to use the servant's entrance rather than the main door, I suspected the latter would admit us as easily. Holmes studied the portraits in the dining room without a word. They were a sinister enough lot, I saw as we approached them, and the flickering candlelight brought out even worse in them, sharpened the shadows on their faces and gave an unnatural sheen to their eyes.

"A bad lot, no doubt," Holmes said, and lifted his candle higher. "Look closely at the bulges beneath the lips, the pattern of hair on the jaw, the yellow in the whites of their eyes. Markers of bad blood, all of them, and bad blood of a particular strain."

"What strain?"

I feared Holmes would again refuse to answer me, but he did not. "Some scholars would call it lycanthropy, and while some of the signs overlap—hair on the palms, unnaturally long nails and teeth—this infection is of a different sort. You have heard, I presume, of the barghest, or black shuck, or yeth hound?"

"Only rumours."

We left the portraits at last and walked down the hall, mist trailing in our footsteps. "The barghest," he said, "came from beyond the stars, as they all did, and in its cunning took the shape of a dog, black and monstrous. Its eyes glow with an unearthly flame, it rides on clouds of mist, and lightning trails in its wake—or summons it, some say."

"Our hound."

"Our hound indeed." We passed through the kitchen, and Holmes plucked a cobweb from the plates stacked near the sink, frowning. I held my handkerchief to my nose; if the kitchen had not seen use in months, what smell wormed its way into my throat and made me cough? "It answered when Sir Hugo called on it, and after it had taken its fill, attached itself to his line so it might continue to feast."

The mist around my feet thickened, and I kicked at it to disperse it, but it reformed. "I thought the man was the beast."

"No, Watson. But one cannot associate with such creatures without acquiring some of their taint." Holmes shouldered open the door to the larder, and the stench of rotting flesh rose from it, so great that my knee nearly gave out under me. The candle shed little enough light on the room, but I wanted it to reveal no more, and turned away from the sight. Trails of congealed blood stuck to the floor, trails even flies had not touched, and I was glad enough I could not see the colour.

"These are not our villagers, I fear," Holmes said softly, his cap pulled low before his eyes. I did not need to see them to guess their expression; Holmes has always been better than I at fixing on details, of disassembling a painting into its brushstrokes. He knows no other way to do it, he has told me, for too many other meanings attach themselves to the whole. "These men were unlucky enough to be caught on the moor at night, no doubt. Sir Charles's portrait tells me he was a man of prodigious strength. Look at the set of his shoulders when we next pass it. This would have been easy enough for him."

"Never," I said, "will I again dream of the day when I can retire to practise in a small town in the country."

He smiled, if the twist of his mouth could be called that.

"So the man and the creature were bound, while he lived," I said.

"And with the last of the Baskervilles dead, it is quite unbound." Holmes slammed the door to the larder shut, and even the cobwebs hummed at the sound before silence took hold again. "Free to drag men shrieking into the mist so that no trace of them remains."

"So the mystery is solved," I said, but felt no satisfaction from it.

"No," he said, and pulled a tin from his bag. "I knew it was a barghest as soon as I saw the mist rise from Mortimer's shoes. The mystery is how we rid ourselves of it."

"How, Holmes?" I asked him.

He did not answer at first, but continued to empty his rucksack. "We bait it," he said, "and drag it into the light." After that, he would say no more, and directed me to build a fire while he searched the rest of the house.

We broke apart one of the chairs and used it for tinder. With the fire in the hearth and the tins of food we brought from London and the plates and silverware we took from the cupboards, we almost made a proper meal of it. Holmes finished early and left without a word; I stretched my leg out before the fire and waited for some of the chill to leave my bones, measuring time by the height of the flames. They had almost burned out by the time he returned, and again he would say nothing to me about his preparations. "Time will tell," he said, "and unless I am quite mistaken, it will tell soon."

"I wish it would hurry, then," I said, and checked to make sure my revolver was close at hand.

"Soon enough, Watson. Soon enough."

The fire exhausted itself, and we sat in the dark, our breath scant wisps in the faint light thrown off by the embers. We waited, alone in the thickening night.

***

I must have slept, but I do not remember it. I remember jerking awake at a sound, something like the braying of a hound but higher and lower all at once, cacophonous and clashing. I clawed at my ears, but the echo of that howl remained, tearing through my thoughts and reducing them to tatters.

"Watson!" Holmes hissed beside me. "Watson, pull yourself together. Our courage must not falter now."

"No," I said, and struck my cane against the floor as the sound rang out again, drawing closer and closer. Tendrils of mist crept higher up my legs, and I prayed their cold would not paralyze me.

"On my word," Holmes said low in my ear, "run upstairs, as quickly as you can. Count three doors to your left and run inside the room, then duck through the door leading to the room beside it and lock it behind you. Promise me you will do this."

"I shall."

That howl split the air and shook my very bones, and I smelled the charred air preceding it, the small thunderclaps of each step it took. I readied my revolver; pale flashes of light filtered through the hallway and made the clouds of mist seem to glow from within.

"Now!" Holmes cried, and we flung ourselves into the hallway as the floorboards quaked. I did not look behind me, and blocked out the creature's cry with Holmes's words. I must get to the stairs, I knew. I must not stop running. I blessed the numbness in my leg in that moment, for no pain dogged me as I fled down the corridor, the portraits of Baskervilles past looming over me with hungry eyes.

I fled up the steps, searing coldness nipping at my heels. I climbed faster and faster until no other thought in me remained, save that I must reach the top of the stairs, that I must lead the creature into the third room and lock it in. The mist curled around my shoulders and I swept at it with my cane, knocking aside all I could. At last, I stood before the third door, and flung myself inside.

I barely had time to wonder at the sight: mirrors, thin and broad, cracked and whole, gilded and unadorned, lined the walls, and Holmes stood in the centre of them, a torch held aloft. "Run!" he said again, and threw the torch to the ground.

The brilliance of that light, reflected and magnified until the brightness seared more than the heat, nearly knocked me senseless, and I was only saved because the creature recoiled from it as well. I had only the barest glimpse of it before Holmes shoved me into the next room and rushed me down the stairs, ahead of the tongues of flame even now licking through the floors and walls. The thing shrieked again, and though I could not hope to comprehend its howl I hoped I heard pain in it this time.

Holmes was shouting, too, and I did not hear until we were clear of the stairs. "Light is its enemy," he said, "nothing spectral can withstand it, but we must hurry; it is weakened but not dead."

"Then how do we finish it?" I shouted back, but before he could answer, the flames roared as they had not before. Wood splintered and cracked, and somehow we found it in us to run further, to flee the fires spilling into the great hall of a once-proud house. A fiery shape shot past us, howling its rage, and I knew my course.

"After him!" I said, and burst through the doors, my cane tucked under my arm.

As I write this now, I think again of how extraordinary the mind is, how we can when pressed push past all other distractions and animate ourselves with one thought alone. I forgot the cold, then, forgot the fog crawling over me and the lingering smell of blood and even the stiffness in my leg, and gave chase.

I do not know how long I ran, nor for how long Holmes ran beside me. The creature fled down a path lined with blackened trees and we followed. The trees reached out to claw us with their branches, or so it seemed in that dismal light, and rocks sprang up under our feet, trying to hobble us. At last the path ended, but the creature did not stop its flight. Too dazed to dissolve into mist, or so I hoped, it streaked up the side of the nearest tor.

I am not a Devonshire man, but even then I knew the dangers of wandering without a path through a moor such as this. My chest burned, further cautioning me. I ignored both warnings, and forged ahead. Dimly, I heard Holmes shouting at me—instructions, perhaps, or cursing me for a fool—but I was fixed on that spectral figure, and shut out all else.

My blood pounded in my ears; the mist crept into my eyes. Flashes of light caught in the corners of my eye and I chased after them, stumbled through heath and peat and stone until all three blended together. I stood for a moment to get my bearings, and the ground under me lurched and opened. The mire crept up my ankles and held tight, and no weapon I carried could cut me loose.

Why, the hound will not need to kill me at all, I thought.

"Watson!"

A hand seized mine, and wrenched me free. I stumbled onto more solid ground, gasping, and Holmes hauled me back up. I knew, of course, of my companion's strength, but I had never been its subject like this, and for a while I panted, seizing any air I could gather.

"You are the damndest of fools," he said, and I was glad I could not see his face. "I told you I had no wish to get caught on the moor at night, and here we are."

"I am sorry," I said when I regained the ability to speak. "Some sort of madness came over me."

"Hardly surprising, given the nature of our quarry," he said dryly. "Well, if we are here we may as well track it, though this ground makes tracking difficult."

"But not impossible."

He snorted, traces of his old humour returning. "You know how I hate that word."

I did, and let him set our course through the moor, winding through the mist and mire. Several times we passed queer stone structures, monuments to long-forgotten gods. I nearly asked Holmes about them, but he held his finger to his lips each time. We trudged on, the darkness swallowing all sounds of our passing. Our little candle could hold almost nothing at bay.

"I have made a botch of it," I said at last. "Holmes—"

He held up his hand. "I may never again say something as crucial to you as this," he said, his voice barely carrying over the high thin sounds of the earth itself. "At my signal, turn to your left, run three paces, and strike. You must not let go, you understand. You must not stop, and you must not let go."

"I understand."

"Good. Now!"

I turned. I ran. I struck, and seized what writhed beneath me, and did not let go.

Sometimes I wish I remembered more of that struggle. Sometimes I think it is merciful I do not. I remember my leg screaming in pain as it had not since I was first wounded. I remember the feel of its pelt under my hands, the wrong texture for fur. No fur has ever twitched at my touch like that. I remember light searing across my jaw, carving a scar I bear to this day. I remember blood pouring from its mouth, soaking the earth beneath. I remember a light brighter than any I have known. I remember silence.

I have struggled to give as a complete account as I can of my journeys with Sherlock Holmes, omitting nothing, but here I must let the record lie incomplete. I could ask Holmes, I suppose, but there are unspoken agreements between us, contracts made in silence, and one is that we do not speak of this night.

There are some things I will never know. I am not him, and I can write as much.

I remember taking shelter in a stone hut before I collapsed at last in sleep. I remember the weight of the revolver in my hand, of my cane beside me. I remember Holmes sitting with his back to me, staring deep into the wilds of the moor. I do not remember what I dreamed.

***

We returned to Grimpen in the morning. We saw it earlier than we expected to, for some of the mist had drawn away from the town in our absence, uncovering the small cluster of buildings at the hamlet's centre. We walked to a different train station than the one we used previously; Holmes found clothes for us in the town, and they fit well enough to pass notice.

Baskerville Hall burned behind us. I have not gone back since that day, but I suspect it burns still, burns like the eyes of the mad hound who still runs through my mind.

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