the withering man, part 18
Our flesh lets us move in the world. But it is a prison. Mutilation will set you free.
–The Annals of the Shivering Stone
Everything is different, now. I’m different. I’ve always been different. But now I understand. Not everything. Of course not. I don’t know if I’ll ever understand everything. There’s so much, and I think a single glimpse of it in its raw form would drive you utterly insane. Joseph says it’s happened, so many times. But she says I’m stronger than they are. Or at least different. “Broken, in just the right way.”
I’m not sure exactly why I’m writing all of this down. But I need to. I think things are going to get crazier from here on out. On one level it’s over. On another it’s just beginning. If I’m not tough enough, and I do go mad, I want to be able to look back and see how it happened. And if something faster or nastier than I am finally catches me and takes me out, I want the people I love to know what happened. Even if they’ll never believe it.
Okay, enough with the drama. Where did I leave off? Right. I was about to meet Derrick.
The only decent coffee shop in Caldwell is the Sparrowhawk Cafe. I don’t know why it’s called that, except that there’s a stuffed sparrowhawk in it. During the time Sofia and I were friends we came here all the time. She taught me the difference between a Starbucks macchiato and a real macchiato. And there were a lot of little side alcoves where we could talk without anyone nosing in.
I hadn’t stepped foot in here since.
“Hi,” said the barista behind the counter as I walked in the door. The place was almost empty. “What can I get for you today?
“I’m here to meet someone, actually,” I said. “His name is Derrick Lee.”
“Are you Jessica?” she asked.
“He called to ask us to tell you he’d be a little late, and to wait for him at the red table. Just past those couches over there, and to the right.”
“Okay,” I said, slightly flustered.
“He also said for you to order anything you wanted. On him. He must not want to let you get away.” She winked at me. I didn’t wink back.
I sat at the red table – which was indeed very red – sipping my Americano for ten minutes before I heard footsteps coming around the corner. A second later a man’s face came into view.
“Oh hell no,” I said. I stood up.
“Jessica,” he said. “Wait. Let me explain.”
“Didn’t I already say hell no?” I said. “How about hell no you lying bastard?”
Because I recognized him. We’d met before, at Atherton college. Just before something tried to kill me. Only that time his name had been Jason.
“Just let me explain,” he said again. “I promise it’ll make sense.”
“Oh, I’m suppose to trust you?” I said. “Because of all this solid trust between us?”
“I apologize for the deception,” he said. “But I had to find out if you were the real deal.”
“What? The real deal? What the hell are you talking about?”
“Sit down,” he said. “I’ll explain everything.”
I sighed. “Fine. But you’re buying me a pastry.”
I came back a minute later with my dark chocolate raspberry scone and another Americano. A laptop and several stacks of paper now occupied the table.
“Research,” he said when he saw me eying it all.
I sat down, and sloshed some coffee on the papers. I didn’t do it on purpose. Probably.
“So what should I call you?” I asked. “Derrick, or Jason? Or just bastard? That sound easier.”
He smiled. “Derrick. Jason is just a mask I wear.”
“So it’s not your real name?”
“Derrick isn’t my real name, either.”
“So what is…”
“If I decide I can trust you, maybe.”
“If you decide to trust me?” I said. “Oh that is rich.”
“And where’s Ben?” I said. “I thought you said he’d be here. If there even is a Ben.”
“Ben is real,” said Derrick. “But he’s busy. And…”
“He said you make him uncomfortable.” He stared at me when he said this, as if looking for a reaction. I took a bite of scone.
“You said you’d explain,” I said, my mouth full. “So explain.”
“Where to begin?” he said. He tapped a few keys on his laptop, then looked up at me. “When Katim told me he met you at the flash mob, I was intrigued.”
“Wait…you set up the flash mob!” I said. “Katim told me. You were behind it!”
He shook his head. “I urged the Atherton improv group to get involved, yes. But I wasn’t behind it. You are right in surmising that I suspected it had mystical significance.”
“Come on, Jessica,” he chided. “Surely you understand what’s going on here isn’t normal. You of all people.”
I closed my eyes. “Fine. Go on.”
“Katim told me he met a girl at the Flash Mob of Faces and Eyes who wasn’t part of the group, but who showed up at the precise moment of the event. Her name was Jessica Kingsport. The same name as a girl who emailed me that very afternoon to tell me that she was a friend of the victim, and that identified an entity in one of my crime scene photographs both Ben and I had missed. Suffice to say I was intrigued.”
“So what, you told Katim to keep talking to me? To spy on me?”
“Yes,” Derrick admitted. “But he didn’t know that was my intent. I urged him to continue contact. It didn’t take much urging. He really likes you.”
A week ago, that would have made my stomach flutter.
“Meanwhile,” Derrick continued, “the correspondence between you and I continued, and I grew more intrigued. You insisted on calling your phantom ‘the withering man,’ even when the source called it ‘The Withered Lady.’ You wanted to investigate your friend even though it was dangerous. You found Withertongue616. The password to her website was your birthday, and she wrote mystical words on your bedroom ceiling. More and more, I suspected that you were special. That you were a very specific kind of vessel.”
“Someone receptive to the entities and influences of the places that lie under the skin of the world. The scarred and whispering place, as Withertongue calls it.”
“Do you have any idea how crazy this sounds?” I said.
“Tell me something. Did you ask that question because you believe it, or because you felt you were supposed to ask it?”
I didn’t answer.
“That’s what I thought,” he said.
“Derrick, who are you? What is your deal?”
“You already know that. You’ve read our website.”
“So you’re, what, some kind of monster hunter? Like the Winchesters?”
He laughed. “It involves less breaking into abandoned asylums and fake identities with rockstar names and more internet networking. But yes. That is essentially what we do.”
“He’s not as involved as you might think.”
“So…what? You hunt ghosts? You kill vampires?”
He laughed. “There’s not that much killing. These entities aren’t physical. Not in the normal way. They can’t be seen directly. They can’t be touched. At least, not by most of us. You, I’m not so sure.”
“You already know that,” he said. “You’re just pretending to be surprised. Does it feel safer, perhaps?”
“Wait, so if they can’t be seen, what’s with the videos? And the audio recordings, and all of that?”
He shrugged. “It’s what the readers want. The more you look like Ghost Hunters the more people show up to your website. And we need people to show up. That’s one of the ways we find them. The entities can’t be seen, but they leave traces. Distortion effects on photographs, phantom noises, neighbors acting out of the ordinary. ”
“So those audio clips are fake?”
“No. Not with this one. The entity behind the Thousand Cut Killings is different. More dangerous. The usual methods are inadequate. That’s why I had to see what you were capable of.”
Something struck me.
“You lured me to the tunnel! Me and Katim!”
“I did. I wish Katim hadn’t been involved. But if I hadn’t taken you down there, Jenna would be dead.”
“But if you weren’t involved, how did you know it was going to happen?”
“I would love to say ‘old fashioned detective work,’” he said. “But it would be a lie. I got an email.” He turned his laptop so I could see. It was from Withertongue.
“It’s just gibberish,” I said.
“It isn’t. The first part is the mathematical description of an astronomical alignment. A pretty basic one. It depicts an exact date and time of you know how to read it. The second part is the archive number of an old newspaper, with an article about a murder that occurred in those tunnels 67 years ago.”
“How the hell did you figure that out?”
“It’s what we do. I was already researching local murders. Sofia Anastos and Gabriella Sanchez were both killed in locations of previous murders. It must be part of this entity’s mandate. It can only kill where others have killed before.”
“The Man of Many Tongues,” I said. “That’s its name.”
“That was it in the tunnels, wasn’t it?”
“I believe so. Or its avatar. Something old and powerful and terrifying. And it was frightened of you.” I said nothing. “I see you don’t deny it.”
“I guess not.”
“Does that mean you’ve decided to trust me?” he asked.
“I don’t know,” I said. “But how did you figure it out? That the creature was frightened of me? I mean, it’s not the only explanation.”
“I already suspected,” said Derrick. “Or else I never would have brought you down there. I brought you there to see it for myself.”
“That was pretty god damn dangerous,” I snapped. “You could have gotten us all killed.”
“But I didn’t.” He smiled. I wanted to punch him in the face. “I was right,” he said. “You were fantastic.”
“It’s this thing inside of me,” I said, my voice strained. “It’s not me. It’s this creature. That’s what they’re scared of. I’m not special, Derrick. The withering man infected me. Or maybe I was just born wrong. I’m not special. I’m just a host.”
“No,” he said, and he took a sip of his latte. “I don’t think so.”
I blinked. “What?”
“I don’t think there’s something inside of you. I think it’s just you. Part of you.”
“No. No, that’s not possible. It doesn’t make any sense.”
“It does, though. The lore on this is thin. Even thinner than usual. But there is some. Read this.” He fished a piece of paper out of the stack and handed it to me.
The friars believe the rite of purification has failed. But I do not believe they are correct. I have come to believe with my mind what I have long felt in my heart. That which inhabits me and wards the demons away is itself no demon. It is an organ, like my liver or my pancreas. It was placed there by God. I have seen him. His face is pale, and he cannot wear mortal flesh for long.
–From the journal of Jean-Baptiste-Marie Vianney, circa 1810
“And this,” Derrick handed me another paper.
I do the Devil’s own work, for the purification of the Race. And he has blessed me with an instrument. A weapon. It scratches inside my head, but it’s mine as sure as my arm is mine. I’m sure of that.
…does he look like? Rotted, like a corpse in the early stages of active decay. And he wears a dress. Go figure that. The Devil dresses like a woman. Explains something about women, doesn’t it?
–From Interview with Mennonite Davies
“Mennonite Davies the serial killer?” I said.
“We can’t pick our sources,” he said. “But it all jives with my reading of the Annals. This thing, this weapon, is part of you. Even if He put it there.”
I should have felt relieved. I didn’t know if it was true, but even the chance that I didn’t have a hellbeast living inside of me something. I should have felt better, but…
“What does it matter?” I said. “So there’s this thing inside of my that scares monsters. Maybe it’s me, maybe it isn’t. I still can’t do anything. I want to kill the thing that murdered Sofia, but how? I’m useless.”
“You don’t know how to harness it. But maybe someone does.”
He nodded. “You have to do what she suggested. It’s the next logical step.”
“You mean the part where she said I should expose myself to the withering man? Is that the suggestion you’re talking about?”
“Jessy, I know it’s scary, but…”
“Do you? Do you have insects with eyeballs screaming into your brain during your morning bus ride? Did the tormented ghost of your best friend try to kill you yesterday?”
“What? You didn’t tell me about that.”
“I got Sofia’s diary. She was there. In the house where she kept it. Waiting for me.”
“And she tried to kill you?”
“I…I don’t know. Maybe. It was like she was trying to resist, but then she couldn’t.”
“This is all the more reason to move forward with this.”
“Move forward,” I scoffed. “That makes it sound so easy.”
But he was right. I knew he was. Maybe the withering man would kill me. Or worse. But I was dead either way.
We continued to talk. He bought me another coffee, and another pastry. We both got hungry so we got sandwiches. The Sparrowhawk has awesome sandwiches. Hours went by; I barely noticed. I showed him the printout of what I had written. Everything that happened to me since Sofia died. He showed me his research.
“Where do you get all of this stuff?” I asked.
“It’s the most important part of the job. We’ve been collecting it forever. From many different sources. First hand interviews done by field operatives. Scholars with a lot of time on their hands, or access to old, worm-riddled tomes. Mediums.”
“Mediums? Like…people who speak to ghosts?”
“A lot of it is bullshit, of course.” he said. “It comes with the territory. A single fact buried in every mountain of myth. But sometimes a single fact is all you need. You learn to pick out the gold from the lead.”
Some of what I read about the Man of Many Tongues fit with what I already knew. An ancient demon who gifted mankind with speech. An obscure Greek text the said tower of Babel was built to reach his kingdom, and it was he that struck it down. Another said he was the tower of Babel, that it was built from his bones. One account from 12th century France said he tore the tongue from the mouth of God to give to mankind. Like a sick version of the Prometheus tale. Now he returned periodically to harvest words and souls from the chosen sacrifices.
“The debt is due,” I said.
“Hmm?” Derrick looked up from his drink.
“He wrote that, in Sofia’s diary,” I said. “The debt is due. Like he gave us tongues, and now he wants them back.”
“Interesting,” said Derrick. “Did you read about the spiders?”
“Yeah.” There were numerous references to spiders, or “the many legged.” As a way to ward him off, or as his enemies. There was one text that was, I kid you not, an actual book of spells. It had a ritual for summoning the Man of Many Tongues to rid yourself of a spider infestation.
“That sounds like a bad idea,” I said to Derrick.
“People are, and always have been, very very stupid.”
“Do these spells work?” I asked. “I mean, are they real?”
“It’s not that simple,” said Derrick. “Thaumaturgy is complicated. It’s highly conditional, and unreliable in the physical realm. And it’s always horrifically dangerous. But there are techniques with actual effects. Some of the entities and domains can be tapped or commanded through their symbology and correspondences. Like what you did with Jagged Darkness, although I don’t claim to understand that. Or the wards Ben and I put on the hospital.”
“To keep Jenna safe,” he said. “They harness the power of a being called the Black Priest. I’ve used them before. I have no doubt Jenna would be dead right now if I hadn’t done it. But they won’t last.
I boggled at all of this. Why was magic harder to believe in than monsters? I don’t know. It just was.
“What do you make of the spiders?” he said.
“What about them?”
“It could be a weakness,” said Derrick. “Something to use against him.”
“What, like, we can throw spiders at him?”
This was all so weird. Even when I’d spent the last week beset by horrors, this was weird. I was sitting in a coffee shop with a man I barely knew trying to figure out how to kill a demon. But it felt good to be doing something. It’s what Buffy would do.
As the time went on I had to admit to myself that I did trust Derrick. Not that I wasn’t pissed that he lied. But he believed me. He was part of the same messed up shadow world that I was, and he’d been there a lot longer than me. He knew some of what was going on.
“Oh shit,” I said when I looked at my phone.
“What is it?”
“It’s seven o’clock! How the hell did that happen? My mom’s going to be pissed.”
I had two missed calls from her, and three texts. I texted her back and said I’d be home soon.
“Let’s go, then,” said Derrick. “I’ll give you a ride home.”
A ride home turned out to be on the back of his Vespa. In the rain. I tried to give him directions, but he didn’t need them. He knew where I lived. When we got to near my street I told him to let me off.
“Why? It’s almost a mile away. There’s no need for you to walk in this weather.”
“Just let me off, okay?”
He pulled over. “We’re at Oaklawn Park,” he said.
“You’re going to do it, aren’t you? You’re going to find the withering man.”
“I have to. You said it yourself.”
He nodded. “I would say to be careful, but that wouldn’t make much sense. Do you want me to come with you?”
“No. I don’t think that will work.”
“You’re probably right.”
“Thanks, Derrick,” I said. “I’m beginning to forget I’m still mad at you.”
“If I’m still alive later, I’ll email you.”
“Make sure you do.”
I walked into the darkness of the park. It was raining so hard I could barely hear the Vespa pull away. There were no sounds in the world except the rain. And nothing in the world except me and the darkness. And them. They were here. Behind the trees. Underneath the shadows. Watching.
I headed towards the bushes, where nine years ago I saw the withering man. The ground was so muddy it ripped one of my shoes off. I kept walking. If I stopped, even for a second, I was going to run away and never come back. Rain pounded against my head and shoulders. It plastered my hair to the clammy skin of my face. My fingers and toes were freezing, and cold, slimy mud seeped into my exposed right sock.
I felt the hidden things nearby, as I walked. A prickle on the back of my neck. I slogged through the sucking mud for what felt like an hour. The creatures kept their distance. Finally I reached the bush. I took a deep breath. I felt the scratching in my chest, like I always did these days. Frightening and reassuring.
“I’m here,” I said. I could barely hear my own voice over the thwack of the raindrops. “I’m ready for you. I’m ready to let you in. Even though it’s a stupid idea. Can you hear me, you bastard? I’m ready for you.”
I concentrated on the scratching in my chest. I pushed it down, forced it into my gut. It fought back. It thrashed at me and tore up my insides. I doubled over in agony. In my mind’s eye I grabbed it, and shoved it back against my spinal cord, and tied it around my vertebrae. It struggled. My vision swam. Tiny splinters of pain shot through my torso. It struggled again. I clamped down. It gave a final lurch, then went still. For the first time in almost a week, I couldn’t feel it.
The air went hazy. I heard scurrying sounds, intermingled with the rain. One second there was nothing but the water pounding against the mud, and the next it was like I was in the middle of a rainforest. Full of tiny, hungry things, scuttling and croaking and screaming to each other. A drop of rain cut down the side of my arm and drew blood. I winced. Something flew past my head, and its orange eyes burned through the darkness.
Whispers filled the air.
hello, little morsel
the pricking, then the bleeding, then the harvest
you are looking delicious, today, without your claws
They were all around me. I could almost see them. A single, dripping talon. Half of a twisted smile. I heard a squelching footstep in the mud. My stomach felt sick. Light flashed in front of me. When I closed my eyes I saw the words.
YOUR SURRENDER WAS TO BE. WE GRANTED YOU YOUR FLESH, MOLDED FROM THE SCRAPS OF OUR KILLS, AND FROM OUR EXCREMENT. IT HAS ALWAYS BEEN OURS TO RECLAIM.
“No!” I screamed. “Not you! I don’t surrender to you!”
Something sharped sliced along my back. I lurched forward. Intense heat seared my face, and I smelled singed hair and burnt flesh. A warm wet feeling, like a tongue, ran along my neck. This was wrong. This wasn’t supposed to happen.
I reached in to my chest for the scratching thing. My protector. I grabbed at it, trying to start it up. It stayed still. I had pushed it too far down. Sharp claws sank into my left shoulder. They shoved me roughly to the ground, and my knees sank into the mud.
I’m dead. This is it. I’m going to die.
The claws twisted. Rough fingers closed around my neck. I felt hot breath in my ear, and heard sick, desperate panting. A tongue licked along my earlobe.
Darkness burst in front of me. I don’t know how else to describe it. Fifteen feet straight forward a spot of blackness I could not see through appeared, then spread out quickly. It bathed over me, and I saw nothing. A second later my sight returned and they were gone. There were no whispers, no sounds, no talons sunk into my flesh, no tongue in my ear.
The folds of his black and crimson dress swayed, indifferent to the wind. His withered face stared at me with that terrible dessicated grin.
“Take me,” I sobbed. I could barely recognize my voice, or believe my own words. “Take me. I’m ready. I let you in.”
He glided towards me. I had never seen him move before. It was elegant. Effortless. Like the rain and the air and the world stepped aside to let him pass. I saw his face more clearly than ever before. No eyelids. The facial structure was all wrong. Perfectly wrong. The face of the god that nests at the base of the uncanny valley to which the insane pay homage. Things buzzed around him I couldn’t quite see. Like appendages that weren’t attached.
He came closer. He leaned over me. I stared into his hollow eyes. I wasn’t afraid. As crazy as that sounds, in the place where I was now, fear could not enter. Only cold, jagged purpose.
“I let you in,” I said again. My voice was calm.
Then I blinked.
And he was gone.
The walk home was hell. I never found my shoe. Aches covered my body. I was freezing, and exhausted, and hopeless.
“Where the hell have you been?” said my mom as I staggered through the front door. “Oh Jesus, Jessy, look at you. You’re covered in mud.”
“I’m sorry, Mom,” I whimpered.
“Oh my God, are you bleeding?” she ran up and put her hand gently on my face.
“I’m sorry. I was walking home, and I fell, and…”
“Shh, shh,” she put her arms around me and squeezed. “It’s okay. We were just worried sick. Your brother’s out driving, looking for you.”
“I’m so sorry. I lost track of time, and then I rushed to get home, and…”
She pulled away. I saw she was covered in mud, but she didn’t seem to notice. She looked into my eyes.
“Are you alright?”
“I guess so,” I said. “I’m scraped up. And freezing.”
“Sit down. I’ll get some bacitracin for those cuts, and then we’ll run you a hot bath. It’ll ease your bones. How does that sound?”
I nodded, and walked towards the chair.
As she head into the kitchen, my mom turned at looked at me.
“What happened to your shoe?”
The bath felt nice. There’s nothing like a soak in hot water to pull you back into normality. As I warmed up, my head started to clear.
I puzzled over what had happened. If something about me was different, I couldn’t tell. I thought this was supposed to help me “see,” whatever that meant. Was Withertongue lying? Did I screw up, or fail some kind of test? The withering man hadn’t killed me. That was something. In fact, hadn’t he saved me from those creatures? That was another mind screw. I couldn’t handle all of this, right now.
“Sis, are you in there?” I heard Adam’s voice through the door.
“Can I come in?”
“Cool,” he said, and opened the door.
“Adam!” I crossed my hands over my chest.
“What?” he said. “It’s nothing I haven’t seen before. I helped change your diapers, you know.”
“You were three years old.”
“What can I say? I peaked early.”
“What do you want?”
“I just wanted to make sure you were okay,” he said. “I wasn’t going to believe it until I saw it with my own two eyes.”
“I’m fine. Better.”
“Mom said you took a nasty fall.” He reached out to touch my forehead.
“Yeah. But it was only a flesh wound.”
He grinned. “Why were you out so late, anyway?”
“I was at Sparrowhawk. Studying. I just had to get out of the house, you know? I lost track of time.”
“I get that,” he said. “But next time call and tell us where you are, alright?”
“Yeah,” I said. “I’m really sorry.”
“Don’t make me beat your ass,” he said. But he smiled.
He closed the door, and left.
After the bath I stumbled over to my room and flopped into my computer chair. I had an email from Mei with the homework I missed from the day. I didn’t have the energy to even read it. I’d get in trouble tomorrow, but oh well. I sent a quick one to Derrick.
I tried it. I saw Him. I don’t think it worked.
Then I crawled into bed and fell asleep.
I woke up, and I knew something was very, very wrong. It was too dark. It was too quiet. I couldn’t see light from the streetlights through my window, or hear the hum of the computer fan. I felt the bed underneath my skin, but I felt it through a layer of foam. It felt distant. Not real. I closed my eyes.
Then I heard something. A faint buzzing sound. My eyes snapped open.
He was above me. Horizontal. Floating three feet above me. His face unwithered. His lidless gaze bored into my skull.
“You,” I said softly. “What do you…”
Snakes shot out from the folds of his clothing. Two of them. Instead of faces, their bodies ended in long, ragged fingernails. They dug into the sides of my head, along my jawline and up my temples. Pain like nothing I’ve ever felt cut into me. They pulled away, and with a sound like ripping fabric tore the skin of my face clean off.
I tried to scream at the agony, but the snakes stuffed the flesh into my open mouth. I tasted blood and raw meat. I choked as it cut off my oxygen. Then two more snakes darted out of the withering man’s dress. They hissed, and their mouths opened into four. Like the Predator’s, only worse. So much worse.
They flew towards me, and clamped around my eyeballs. Fangs tore through my eyelids and penetrated the membranes. The pain intensified, and time slowed down as I felt my eyes being ripped out of their sockets. I screamed into my flesh-gag. Everything went red.
And then black.