The Chalice of Kel
Richard Ransome? I know the man well. You probably heard us arrive at the inn. I hope we didn’t wake you. It was after midnight. Ransome prefers to travel at night and I’ve gotten used to it. Our horses are always unruly no matter where we get them. Animals can be strangely sensitive.
Are they still talking about us back in New York? I’m sure no one was surprised at Ransome’s sudden disappearance. He was known for them even back at school. But no one would have expected him to disappear with me.
When we were students at St. John’s I knew Ransome mostly by reputation. He was older, even more handsome, utterly glamorous. He had all those qualities to which we younger boys aspired. You should have seen him play football! Apart from my last name, which at the time still carried respect, I had never given him a reason to notice my existence. Strange how things change.
Touring the continent after graduation, are you? We St. John’s boys are always keen on adventure. I’d planned such a trip myself, before my father’s disgrace—no need to pretend you haven’t heard all about it. His ignominious death and overwhelming debt. My mother’s mind was completely broken by the shock. She has no understanding of how my father ruined her life. In her confusion she blamed me for the tragedy. That was one more reason for me to want to leave New York.
Done any hiking since you’ve been in Austria? There’s the remains of an old abbey about a mile up the mountain. It’s not in the guidebook. It’s not even on the map. I wanted to see it for personal reasons. You might say my ancestors lived there. I spent the afternoon exploring while Ransome slept…
On second thought, I don’t know if you’d like the abbey. There’s a certain…dread that hangs over the place. The locals avoid it. Yes, you ought to stay away as well.
What a coincidence, eh? Two St. John’s men meeting at the top of a mountain in Austria. The perfect chance to catch up. Shall we get a cocktail?
The truth is, I’m as surprised to find myself here with Ransome as everyone else is. I’d barely ever spoken to him at school, so what was he doing on my doorstep? That’s what I was thinking that day three years ago when he turned up. It was raining, I recall, and drops were falling off the brim of his hat one by one. Richard Ransome! I thought I had lost my mind as my mother had lost hers. But it was truly him. Richard Ransome—older, more sophisticated, more successful, but otherwise the same charming, popular footballer I remembered from school.
He had heard about my misfortunes, of course, but unlike the rest of my former classmates did not see this as a reason to avoid me. In fact, he said he’d been following my work in esoteric lore and was especially impressed with my treatise on Roman Mystery Cults published in The Shroud. In the years since St. John’s Ransome had developed an obsession with the subject. I never would have predicted it, but when had Ransome ever been predictable?
Ransome’s obsession was very specific: the Chalice of Kel.
“Pre-Sumerian, isn’t it?” I said when the two of us were deep in discussion about the artifact. “The Kels were a nomadic tribe—hated and feared wherever they went. The Chalice was their most notorious creation.”
“I thought you would know of them,” Ransome said with approval.
“I don’t know much,” I admitted. “There’s precious little record of the sect, beyond boogeyman tales mothers used to frighten their children.”
I knew a man like Ransome wouldn’t be put off by ancient horror stories. What I didn’t know was that he had spent the past five years hunting down every reference to the Chalice of Kel he could find. And Ransome’s interest was not simply academic. He believed the Chalice still existed somewhere, and he wanted it for himself.
“The Kels were wiped out to a man,” I felt a duty to warn him. “Their altars burned, their tablets smashed. They were treated more like a plague than a cult. Strange, really. So many ancient religions involved living sacrifice. What could Kel’s followers have done to make them so feared?”
“They were said to have dark powers,” Ransome said quietly. “Do you believe in witches, Linden?”
“Of course not,” I said quickly. I didn’t want Ransome to think I was a fool.
“Do you believe the Chalice exists?”
I chose my words carefully. “The Chalice was the unholiest of the cult’s artifacts. It would never have been allowed to survive the purge. Its very existence would be considered… infectious.”
“The Kels were known for their devotion, their ruthlessness and their cunning,” Ransome countered. “All of which would be employed to protect the Chalice. It does still exist, I assure you. And in a short time it will be mine.”
“Yours?” I whispered. For years I had believed Richard Ransome capable of anything he set his mind to, but no schoolboy feats of football, girls, or mischief could compare to what he was telling me now. Also it seemed unfair. I’d spent years studying artifacts like the Chalice without any hope of ever acquiring one. I almost wanted the whole thing to be a hoax just to see how Ransome would deal with disappointment. But men like Ransome are made for success. It’s in the bone structure. If I could not have such an exquisite artifact for myself I would be glad that a man like Ransome could.
So why did he need me, I wondered? And that was when Ransome revealed the true reason for his visit.
“I have learned everything I could about the whereabouts of the chalice,” he said. “I have not learned to read that ancient language in which the Kels kept records of their worship. But you have.”
“I am offering you a job,” he said. “I want you to travel with me to pick up the Chalice and certain scrolls from the same time period, and eventually translate them for me. You’ll be paid well for the effort.”
Can you believe that for the first time since my father’s death I had forgotten all about money? Ransome has that effect on people.
You’ll see once you meet him. I thought we would have dinner together, perhaps in Ransome’s room. He’ll want to hear about what’s going on in New York. We’ve been so busy since leaving the country.
Despite my faith in Ransome as a man, when we set sail for Europe I still didn’t believe I would ever actually see the Chalice of Kel. No one had seen it for centuries as far as I knew. Millennia.
According to Ransome, the Chalice and was now in the hands of a collector in Egypt, a fellow called Fitzroy. I looked forward to the journey. I had nothing to keep me in the United States. My former friends had no use for me. My mother preferred not to look at me. Elizabeth had broken off our engagement. She claimed it was at her father’s insistence but I think she was happy to see me go.
We set sail on the Lady Margaret from New York to London. It had been some time since I had been able to enjoy the finest food and accommodations. Ransome could have put me in a smaller room, but he reserved me a first-class cabin right next to his own.
One night after dinner Ransome shared some of the history he had uncovered. “Nothing as powerful and feared as the Chalice of Kel could simply disappear,” he said. “Rumors of its existence started almost immediately. The first written record came from a monastery in the Alps in the eleventh century. That same monastery was hit by a mysterious plague twelve years after the chalice is mentioned. The place was abandoned and to this day the locals in the area avoid it. They say the devil lives there.”
“A wise way to keep people away from an area that might yet be infected,” I suggested.
“It certainly did keep people away. The place is a ruin,” said Ransome. “The Chalice next appeared in France over three hundred years later in the hands of a nobleman called Comte de l’Enfer. He’d brought it home from the crusades. The family was regarded with a certain terror—not unusual for French nobles at that time. I could find no record of any official crimes, just a local legend that the Compte was a werewolf preying on the local population and he was soon joined by his son and grandson. It was said they’d sold their souls to the devil to remain eternally young.”
“Are werewolves eternally young?” I asked, surprised.
Ransome regarded me calmly. “The l’Enfers apparently were. Interesting, isn’t it?”
I gazed out the porthole. It seemed fitting a full moon would be floating over the water, but whatever moon there was, it was nowhere in sight. “What happened to the l’Enfers?”
“The peasants set upon the house one night with torches and murdered them all. The priest sprinkled holy water over the site, but no one goes near it. They say one of the grandsons—Antoine, I believe—escaped the massacre along with the family retainer. He’s supposed to still be living in the woods around the former house. And they say he’s still hunting.”
“More boogeyman stories,” I said. I had studied esoteric lore too long to dismiss tales like this as mere superstition but I thought Ransome might be testing me.
“Seventy-five years later, in another part of France,” he continued, “villagers began to talk about a stranger on a country road. The devil, according to legend, of course. The wanderer became a local legend, though the road changed from village to village. At some point after the revolution the Chalice made its way to a London gambling den where it was won in a game of dice by a fellow known as Bad Bill. It was entered into evidence at Bad Bill’s trial for the particularly nasty murder of a prostitute, but went missing just before Bill was hung at Tyburn. That was over a century ago.”
“And now it’s in Egypt,” I said. My body was by now in a fever. It prickled under my clothes and buzzed behind my eyes. To be so close to an artifact of such power, for a student of the dark arts like myself, was almost unbearable.
By contrast Ransome was relaxed, almost unconcerned. “Now it’s with a private owner in Egypt. My dealer tells me the scoundrel’s finally ready to give it up.” He glanced with annoyance around the ship’s lounge. “If we ever get there. They say these new ships are fast but they don’t feel that way.”
I sympathized with Ransome’s impatience. The history—fantastic as it was—made the idea of finding the Chalice seem possible. The luxury of the ship, the fine wines and diversions, were now only irritating distractions from our true goal.
Ransome had become a figure of fascination on the ship. I was often stopped in the dining room or on deck to answer questions about my traveling companion and receive invitations for dinner. It wasn’t so different from my days at school. Ransome was invited to be a member of everything—unusual for a boy of no background or family.
I couldn’t help but think, as Ransome and I sat down to the dinner on the night before we docked, that my fine ancestors were worth little compared to Ransome’s personality and charm. Ransome encouraged me to forget my history and my name. “Once we find the Chalice,” he said, “we’ll define our own lives and leave our families behind.”
“I’m not sure what you mean.”
Ransome cocked an eyebrow. “I’m talking about immortality, Stephen,” he said. “Why else would the Kels be so feared, if not for conquering death?”
“That, Stephen,” he said, “we won’t know until we have the Chalice for ourselves.”
He shared a smile with me, a smile full of promise, like those I used to see him share with his friends across the dining hall at school.
“From now on you will be defined by nothing and no one but your own actions,” Ransome said. “We will go anywhere and do anything. Like the gods themselves.”
He raised his glass and I touched it to mine. “Like the gods themselves.”
At this point you would be forgiven for thinking Ransome mad, and I a fool for listening to him. You’ll feel differently when you actually meet him. He’ll be waking up soon. I thought we’d have dinner together.
Fitzroy—or Fitz, as Ransome called him—was the youngest son of an English earl who left home to join the army and developed a liking for warmer climates. He was currently settled in a small village by the Nile which Ransome and I reached by riverboat. We were greeted by a girl I first took to be Fitzroy’s daughter, but was apparently his wife.
He wasn’t much of a scholar. I could tell that by the way he handled his books—and by the content of said books, which all appeared to be erotic.
“Why are you selling the artifact?” I asked after he’d sent his wife away. “It must be worth more than anything we could pay.”
Fitz tipped his head in a condescending manner, as one might look at a small dog and said, “Even if I sell it, it will always be with me. It gets in the skin. In the blood, you might say. You’ll see,” he told Ransome. Then he turned back to me. “I wasn’t even going to ask money for it at first. But a high price insures a certain type of buyer at least. One more used to handling…”
“Fine art?” I said, a little bitterly. My father claimed to be a collector. All lies.
“Power,” Fitzroy corrected me. “Accustomed to handling power. God help them. Us.”
He tossed back a glass of ouzo. “Want to see it?” he asked Ransome.
Fitzroy didn’t invite me into his study, but I followed regardless. Who knew what the man was really about? A dissipated rake—one who, I suspected, was far older than his manner, face and fashion would suggest—claiming to have found the Chalice of Kel and asking a small fortune for it? I was surprised that Ransome wasn’t more suspicious.
There was another man there waiting for us, white-haired, short and stocky with a strange, elfish face, boyish and ancient at the same time. He, unlike Fitzroy, seemed to take an interest in me, even extending his hand to me before Ransome.
“Herbert’s been with us for years,” Fitzroy said carelessly. “Don’t let him frighten you. He doesn’t approve.”
He did not specify of what Herbert didn’t approve. Perhaps he meant everything.
Herbert didn’t seem offended, merely weary. I wondered how long he had been caring for him. Since Fitzroy was a child? Herbert looked old enough to be his grandfather.
He sat close to me on the brightly patterned settee as Fitzroy brought out the Chalice.
It wasn’t a Chalice at all, but a bowl. A crude, wooden bowl, pitted and scratched and stained. It looked nothing as I had imagined it in my mind, yet I knew I was looking at the Chalice of Kel. Despite its plain appearance, it seemed to hold an unholy threat, soaked into the wood with the evil-looking stains.
Not that Fitzroy would allow me a closer look. He was showing it only to Ransome, their heads bent together like new parents cooing over a baby. I turned away from the sight and found Herbert watching me with unnerving interest. I moved closer to Ransome.
“Where did you get it?” I asked.
Fitzroy looked at me as if he’d forgotten I was there. To my dismay, so did Ransome. “That’s the last thing you should ever ask a collector, young man,” said Fitzroy. “Where’d you find him, Ransome?”
“He’s a scholar,” Ransome said, laughing, as if this explained my lack of sophistication.
I might have knocked Fitzroy down if I wasn’t sure it would have upset Ransome, and possibly cost me my job—and probably cause me injury. Instead I stood by quietly while Ransome and Fitzroy talked and made jokes. Eventually I was “invited” to relax on the settee and have some brandy while the two of them spoke in private.
I was left behnd with Herbert, who offered me some kind of hookah leaking smoke that tasted of ashes and coffee and jasmine.
“How long have you known Ransome, Mr. Linden?” Herbert asked me after I’d smoked for a bit.
“We were at school together,” I said.
“And he was your hero.”
“Oh, I wouldn’t say…well, I suppose he was to all of us younger boys. You couldn’t believe my shock when he sought me out for a job.”
“Mmm,” said Herbert in a way I didn’t like. “A word of advice, Mr. Linden. Heroes are sometimes best worshipped from afar. I speak from experience.”
I frowned at the old man through the smoke. “What experience?”
He looked as if he was going to tell me, then shook his head. In that moment he didn’t look boyish at all, just very very old. “You wouldn’t believe me if I told you,” he said.
Looking back he was right. I would not have believed him.
Look at the time. We ought to get upstairs. Ransome always has orders as soon as he wakes up. I’ll have our meal sent up to the suite. Ransome will want to have his dinner waiting.
You feel sorry for me, arranging my life around a demanding and capricious man. I would feel the same if I were you. But I’ve accepted my fate. That’s a skill they never taught us at St. John’s.
Come up to the room. Ransome’s paid for dinner in advance.
We left Egypt soon after that night with Fitzroy which ended—I hope I don’t offend by saying—only after a tour of some rather disreputable establishments where we took part in the most disturbing local customs. I should say Fitzroy and Ransome partook. I was feeling ill after the hookah and the cocktails Fitzroy insisted I drink. I spent the night in a cold sweat vomiting over a bucket, which Fitzroy found amusing. When we returned to his apartment I could only watch while he and Ransome drank from the Chalice itself. They passed the bowl back and forth in a ceremonial toast of what I thought at the time was port.
I still felt a bit queasy as we boarded the boat back to London. Yet after a few days it was Ransome who seemed to be feeling unwell. I took his reluctance to leave his cabin to be nervousness about leaving the Chalice unguarded. Each time I entered his rooms I found him holding the thing, or gazing at the unintelligible scrolls.
I supposed he couldn’t be blamed for wanting to protect the artifact he’d worked so long to get. I myself was eager to get started on translating the scrolls, and finally persuaded Ransome to let me take them to my cabin.
The work was slow. The Kels had their own vernacular and writing style. Some phrases I’d never come across in my studies, such as kut. This word came up several times the first day I went to work. I thought it might have been related to kutunine, a word meaning witch, or chut, a type of rice. It was unclear how either would relate to the Chalice.
Still, it was fascinating study, which was why I didn’t immediately notice the change the Ransome until one of the other passengers brought it to my attention. Mrs. Baxter was a nasal-voiced widow from the Midwest, traveling with two daughters so she had good reason to take an interest in Ransome.
Halfway through our journey Ransome reemerged from his self-imposed isolation and threw himself into life on the ship, dancing, playing cards, or just walking the deck and breathing in the sea air. So I was surprised when Mrs. Baxter approached me on deck with her concerns.
“That poor Mr. Ransome,” she shouted to me as we stood on the starboard side. Mrs. Baxter spoke at all times as if she were yelling across a prairie. “I hope you know I don’t like to pry. I don’t stick my nose in business that isn’t mine. But I hate to see a man so troubled. Whatever ails him, Mr. Linden?”
“Ails him?” I said. I was a bit insulted at the suggestion that this woman should notice something wrong with Ransome before I did. “Nothing ails him at all. In fact he recently had a great success.”
“That may be,” said Mrs. Baxter, “but I tell you the man’s been troubled. He danced with Elsie only once last night and ran out before the evening was half over.”
A man hardly needed to be troubled to not want to dance with Elsie Baxter. I myself had spent a tedious two-step learning all about Elsie’s younger brother’s views on the future of dairy farming. “Perhaps he was tired.”
“And it wasn’t just Elsie,” Mrs. Baxter continued. “All the girls have mentioned it. He left Sylvia Woodward standing on deck on a chilly night. Amanda Blunt was sure he was going to confess to being in love with her when he turned green and ran. Geraldine Talbot wouldn’t say what he said to her, but according to her mother she returned to her cabin in tears.”
I stared at her in disbelief. I had no idea Ransome had been seeing any girls on the ship, much less that he was behaving like some sort of cad. It wasn’t like him at all and I told her so.
“He’s troubled,” said Mrs. Baxter with satisfaction. “Mark my words. Disappointment in love, perhaps. That and lack of good food. He’s touched almost nothing since he’s been on the ship. I scolded him about it after dinner last night. ‘You didn’t eat a bite. Mr. Ransome,’ I said. ‘When an animal goes off his feed, there’s always something wrong.’”
As much as I hated the metaphor, the woman had a point and I resolved to speak with Ransome about it at the first opportunity.
“It’s this damn boat, Stephen,” he said when I went to his cabin. “It’s not half as smooth sailing as the Lady Margaret. It’s unsettled me—and my stomach.” He glanced at the trunk in which was hidden the Chalice, as if afraid that it had unsettled that too.
He did look a little sea sick. The skin under his eyes was discolored and puffy—not enough to make him any less than a handsome man, but noticeable to someone who knew his face well. The angles of his cheeks stood out in sharp relief, as if cast in shadow, and a feverish shine covered his brow. Yet his face was cool to the touch.
“You ought to have some soup,” I suggested. “The rich food in the dining room probably isn’t helping. Is there anything I can do?”
Ransome hesitated. “How are you coming with the scrolls?”
I blinked at the change in subject. “I’ll do better when we get to London and I’ll have access to a library.”
“London, yes,” said Ransome. He peered out his cabin window, but there was only blackness there. “We’ll know what to do when we get to London.”
I don’t think he ever did order the soup.
You see I was right about the quality of the food here. The cook enjoys making a special meal or two. He’s made you Öpfelküachle since I mentioned that you liked it. I’ve never cared for the taste of apples myself. But I hope you enjoy it!
When we got to London I threw myself into my research, becoming a regular at the British Museum. I barely went into society those first few weeks, but certain gossip reached me through the acquaintances I had in the city. Ransome seemed to have returned to his normal self. He’d been seen around town with several eligible young ladies, daughters of the best families. One in particular, Margaret Hollingswood, appeared to hold his particular interest.
My own interest was becoming more and more absorbed in the translations of those ancient scrolls. When I began translating I expected to find out the identities of whatever deities these people worshipped. Instead they seemed to be a sort of guide to living. Central to living was that strange word again—kut. Kut was a force that had to be channeled and controlled through disciplined living. The Kels were obsessed with self-control and kut.
I stepped away from my books one afternoon to meet the famous Miss Hollingswood under the greedy, watchful eye of her mother. Miss Hollingswood—Catherine—was perfect as a China doll. Ransome was clearly taken with her.
“Mr. Ransome tells us you’re a scholar,” said Mrs. Hollingsworth in the tone with which my own mother would have made such a comment, as if I hadn’t offended her by studying, but I would have to do something else if I hoped to get her approval.
Catherine herself was more genuinely courteous. “I’ve tried to get Richard to tell me about your archeological work in Egypt, but he’s very secretive,” she said.
“Archeological work?” I said.
“Weren’t you on the trail of some priceless artifact?”
I glanced at Ransome. “I told you I’m merely a collector, dear,” he said. “You flatter me too much.”
“Hmmph,” said Mrs. Hollingsworth.
I could see that Ransome would have no trouble at all being accepted into the family or the society of which that family was part. As usual, everyone wanted to know him. Catherine saw in him a dashing archeologist, Mrs. Hollingsworth saw a man whose lack of family connections would not be reason enough to keep her daughter from marrying him. My own family name, as tainted as it now was, was good enough to quiet her most pressing worries on that front.
“What did you think of Miss Hollingsworth?” Ransome asked as he let me out of the carriage at the hotel.
“I thought she was lovely,” I said. But as the carriage rode off with Ransome inside I wondered if I ought to have mentioned that he himself had grown paler since we’d been in England, his cheeks had grown more hollow, the shadows under his eyes deeper. He hadn’t touched a bite of the Hollingsworth’s luncheon. Mrs. Baxter was right. He was off his feed.
A week or so later I was at home in my study in the early evening when Ransome arrived unexpectedly at my door. He was in high spirits and flushed. “Leave your books alone for a night, Stephen!” he announced. “We’ve both of us been spending too much at home these days. What is it Fitzroy said when we were in Egypt? No one on his deathbed has ever wished he spent more time in the office?”
I hadn’t noticed Ransome ever spending much time in an office, but agreed to go with him. “I have something to celebrate tonight,” I told him in the carriage. “I’ve made a real breakthrough in the translation. I’d told you about the trouble I was having with…”
“Excellent news, Stephen. But we won’t speak of it tonight. Tonight is about the present, not the ancient past.”
It was the first time I’d ever known Ransome to be uninterested in talk of the Kels, but I followed his wishes. We drove to a dark, forbidding-looking house near the river. It reminded me of the houses Fitzroy had taken us to in Egypt and as it turns out, it was exactly that type of house. I won’t bore you with excuses for my behavior or claim I did nothing shameful while I was there.
We quickly became separated, Ransome and I. Last I saw him he’d followed a tall, dark-haired woman up a narrow staircase. I’d just heard some church bells ring the time as 2AM when Ransome rushed up to the couch where I was dozing and shook me hard.
“Linden, we must go!”
For a moment I thought I had fallen into a nightmare: the dim room with its smoked-stained walls and evil-looking inhabitants seemed the perfect backdrop to Ransome’s face, no longer pale but a purplish red. Even his eyes seemed to be filled with blood. I pressed myself against the creaking arm of the sofa and stuffed a hand to my mouth to keep from crying out.
“Come on, man!” Ransome cried. “We’re in danger!”
I wasn’t about to start questioning Ransome now. I hurried with him to the street where we found our carriage. “How long will it take you to be ready to go?” he shouted as we turned the corner.
“Go where?” I asked, glancing back through the window. I half-expected to see a crowd pursuing us with pitchforks and torches.
“Away from England,” said Ransome. “France, perhaps. Or Italy. Yes, Italy. That’s where we’ll go. No one will follow us there.”
I shivered, wondering just who might want to follow us. “And Miss Hollingsworth?” I whispered.
Ransome flashed me a look full of fury. “Don’t talk about Miss Hollingsworth,” he said.
He sunk back into the darkness of the carriage. It was then I remembered my reasons for celebration that evening, the breakthrough I’d made in my translation. I’d discovered the meaning of the strange word, kut.
It was derived from unkutam.
The word meant hunger.
How is the Öpfelküachle? You see, you’ve nearly forgotten your food listening to my strange story. But the chef would be hurt if you didn’t eat it after he took such care to prepare it. If you think I’m fascinating, just wait until you meet Ransome. That’s him you’ve heard moving in the next room. Oh no, he won’t be offended we didn’t wait for him to eat. If the man’s going to keep hours such as his he can’t expect anyone but me to conform to his schedule.
We did go to Italy and we headed for Florence. We didn’t speak of whatever had happened in England. After a week or so Ransome stopped constantly looking over his shoulder. He slept through the night once, then twice, without waking himself—and me—with his screams. It was unsettling, I will say, to see Ransome in such a state. He had always been a model of easy assurance. If Ransome could be flustered, how could a man like me ever survive? Perhaps Herbert was right about keeping heroes at a distance.
I was learning even a man like Ransome sometimes needs reassurance. As we crossed the border into Italy he was almost back to normal. Unfortunately, he had also stopped eating. Perhaps he’d never started and I just hadn’t noticed. It had been several weeks since we left London. Surely he had eaten since then? I just hadn’t seen it.
One evening we passed through a little town by a forest. I never knew its name. It’s probably better that I don’t. There was some sort of festival in progress when we passed through, with lanterns and dancing and paper boats on a stream. The locals were in a welcoming mood and Ransome and I were soon part of the celebration.
I’d been so nervous on the journey I was grateful to find something else to think about other than Ransome. I’ve always enjoyed dancing—Elizabeth and I loved to dance in New York—and it didn’t take long for me to pick up the steps of the country reels.
I saw Ransome standing by a well with another beautiful young girl. When next I looked for him he had disappeared. I suspected they had both wandered off into the woods and hoped she didn’t have one of those barbaric country fathers who would chase Ransome and I out of the town for insulting his daughter.
I suppose I must have gotten nervous, having not seen Ransome for a long time. Strange, really, that I’d already developed a sort of sixth sense for when he needed me. I wasn’t even aware of it, you understand. I still thought of Ransome as invincible, the senior boy who always found his way out of trouble, never dropped the football. But something inside me already knew things were different now, because of the Chalice. It was the Chalice—you’d probably deduced that by now yourself. What else could it be, that was giving him nightmares, putting him off his feed and making him do…whatever he’d done in London.
That’s why I went into the woods that night.
It was very dark under the trees, away from the lanterns and torches. The music grew fainter the farther I went, and the snaps and rustles of the trees got louder. Then there was another sound. I don’t know if I can describe it to you if you haven’t heard it yet. The sound is so familiar to me now but that night it was soft, strange, repulsive. It put me in mind of some pale, swollen maggot squeezing itself through mud.
They were in a clearing. Without the tree cover the moonlight lit up everything, but even with plenty of light I couldn’t immediately make sense of what I was seeing. The girl, you see, was no longer pretty. At first I didn’t even recognize her as a girl. She might have been a white calf there on the grass, with Ransome curled over her and…feeding with those strange, wet, sucking noises.
I’m sorry. I ought not to tell you this part before you finish your Öpfelküachle. Well, I supposed you’ve had enough anyway. No harm done.
I was transfixed, just watching. Then Ransome looked up with his eyes full of blood.
I ran. I’m sure he could have caught me if he’d chosen to follow. He’s unnaturally fast after he’s just fed. Luckily he didn’t follow. I made it back to our carriage and out of the village. I fled Italy and settled—some might say hid—in Heidelberg, taking a room in a boarding house near the university run by a broad-shouldered widow. I spent my days in the university library, translating the scrolls.
Yes, I’d taken the scrolls—and the Chalice as well. It was in the trunks in the carriage when I left Italy and there it remained. I didn’t go anywhere near it. After reading more of the scrolls I realized Ransome was doomed the moment he drank from it that first night with Fitzroy. I don’t blame Fitzroy. He must have longed for the company, another creature like himself. He had Herbert, of course, but Herbert wasn’t like him. He’s going to die one day. I still wonder how long they’ve been together. Perhaps since Herbert, not Fitzroy, was a child.
It was strange to think I had the secret of eternal life in my possession. Despite the horror I had glimpsed in that wood, like any man I was tempted by the awesome power it held. You may think I was too tempted to not take that power for myself. But the truth is eternity holds no appeal for me. My life so far has never held enough happiness to want to stretch it out over the centuries. The years I’ve already spent on earth have brought me no one who truly cares about me, no accomplishments that made a real difference to anyone, no purpose besides my day to day survival. If I were Richard Ransome I could see a reason for wanting to live forever. But not as Stephen Linden.
I’d been several weeks in Heidelberg and was beginning to wonder what I would do with my life without Ransome. I would not be able to support myself for long, and I had long ago realized that none of the things I had learned about the Chalice could be shared with anyone. It was as Herbert had said. No one would believe me. One afternoon I left the library at the university. It was afternoon in late fall and the world felt very cold and dark. I found myself thinking about that night in the woods.
I took my usual path home, past faces that had already become familiar to me in Heidelberg: the flower seller in her booth, constantly fussing with her plants, the young boot black on the corner with the mulberry birthmark, that strange old man who walked the streets from dusk to midnight muttering to himself. By the time I reached my rooms the sun was setting fast, casting the room in shadow.
Ransome was waiting for me.
“Don’t light the lamp,” he ordered hoarsely when I’d closed the door behind me.
But I couldn’t obey. If I was going to die I wanted to see it coming.
He was pale and hollow-eyed, crouched in the corner. I stepped further into the room and he raised a hand in warning. “Don’t come any closer,” he said.
There were stains on his hands that looked like blood, no doubt from an animal given how his hands were shaking. Animal blood would not feed his hunger. Not enough.
He paced back and forth in front of the window, like a tiger in a cage.
“What happened to the girl in Italy?” I asked.
He sunk down into a chair that creaked beneath him. “Nothing. She was hurt. I was…I found her.”
“You killed her.”
Distantly, it occurred to me I ought to be frightened. Ransome had tracked me across two countries. Perhaps he had come to kill me. Yet of all the emotions roiling inside me, the one of which I was most aware was, I fear, disgust. Richard Ransome, a man I had looked up to since boyhood, haunted, sweating and afraid. He had foolishly drunk from the cursed cup in search of eternal life, and only now was confronting the reality of what he’d become. Despite what I had seen in the woods it was difficult to fear someone who seemed so…weak.
I sat down on the bed and looked Ransome in the eye. “You killed the girl. Were you discovered?”
“They thought an animal killed her.”
“An animal did,” I said.
Ransome shuddered and dropped his head into his hands. “I’m hungry,” he said simply.
What could I say? The man had already killed once. He would kill again. He couldn’t stop himself now. If only he had waited until I translated the scrolls…but Ransome had always been impulsive.
With proper planning, though, we could manage it. No more frenzied murder of local girls with families, but rather victims—meals—chosen carefully. I could study Ransome’s cycle, learn just how often he had to feed. We might spend months in one place without moving on if Ransome confined himself to outcasts, loners, people passing through. Who would really miss an old man muttering to himself in the street? You see, I’d spotted the perfect victim already, without even consciously being aware of it, and the perfect spot, what with the river being close by, waiting to swallow up whatever remains Ransome might leave. Though he wouldn’t leave much, I later saw.
You wonder why I tell you this—if you are still capable of wondering. The Öpfelküachle will have made you quite fuzzy by now. You mustn’t blame the cook. I told him the bottle I gave to pour into the batter was medicine. The truth is, I feel guilty. What right have I to keep a monster like Ransome roaming free in the world? The least I can do is look you in the eye and confess, you being a St. John man. You were too keen on adventure in the end, weren’t you? Coming here all by yourself and planning hikes alone where you could so easily fall of a cliff or get lost on a path or succumb to the elements. So many disappear in these mountains, especially around that ruined monastery.
I see you do still understand me. Perhaps I should have let you eat more of that dessert, but I wasn’t sure how long Ransome could wait. That’s him you hear, finally coming to join us. I promised to have a meal waiting for him this evening. I don’t know what he’ll do without me when I’m gone, but that’s still years away.
I do hope you’ll get a chance to meet him, even for a minute, before the hunger takes him. He is still handsome, glamorous and charming.
And you should see him play football.
Meg Belviso is a New York writer and editor who has produced a staggering number of books for children and young adults. The tattered fragments of her spare time are divided between her love of dance, her fascination with complicated fictional jerks, and her detailed knowledge of the interpersonal dynamics of the adoptive Batman family.