the withering man, part 22
Katim wrenched his arm back and tore my fingers from their sockets. Blood gushed out like a fountain. I screamed, and my vision swam with pain so intense it drowned out everything else inside of me. I started to black out. Then the thing in my chest did something it had never done before.
The sound reverberated throughout my body. My skin rippled, and my teeth vibrated with such intensity I thought they would shatter. Then the thing in my chest started to move. It rushed towards my shoulder, then scurried up my arm towards the newly made opening, leaving splinters of agony in its path.
I watched in horror and fascination as two huge, jet-black blades burst out of the mangled mess where my fingers used to be, and lodged there.
Above me, Katim let out a cry of rage and fear, and every tongue on his face recoiled. Then the two in his eyes shot out towards me. I swung my arms in front of me in a desperate attempt to block. The edge of the finger-blades connected with Katim’s outstretched tongues, and sliced through them like they weren’t even there. They fell to the floor, and kept wriggling.
Katim screamed and leapt backwards. I stared at the things jutting out of my hand. They were long, and jagged, and they glistened in the light with my blood. Then they started to hum.
I felt it in my skull, and in my blood. A terrible, glorious sound. The ten thousand screams at the edge of existence, just before sanity plunges into the bottomless, hungry madness below. It made every muscle in my body tense. But not with fear.
I leapt to my feet and stretched my arms. Every muscle in my body was lithe, and limber. Energy like I had never felt pumped through my veins. The pain in my head and my wounds was there, but distant. The faded memory of a weak person, long dead and long forgotten. The room stretched out in front of me like a jungle in the black of night, calling predators to the hunt. I narrowed my eyes, and stared at my prey.
“Let’s try this again,” I snarled. Then I struck.
I dashed forward and slashed at Katim’s face. He lifted his arm to block, and my claws phased right through his human skin, and severed the tongue-tentacles at his wrist. They slid out through his hand and plopped to the floor.
I knocked his hand out of the way and slammed my elbow into his stomach. He gasped and doubled over. My knee flew upwards and collided with his jaw with a sickening crunch. His face-tongues latched on to my leg, and burned. I heard laughter in my ears and realized it was my own. Balanced on one leg, I slammed my open palm into his forehead. Great gouges of skin tore from my leg as Katim flew backwards and collided with the wall behind him. The pain was intense. I didn’t care.
I stepped forward and raked my blades across my enemy’s face. The tongue in his mouth flew off in ragged strips. I bellowed with rage and triumph. Then I pulled my arm back, and shoved the claws into his throat, right at the center of the parasite’s mass. They slid in, and the tongues that stretched throughout Katim’s body writhed in pain. Then I ripped the thing out through the side of his throat, and slammed it to the floor. Katim whimpered and collapsed.
The creature on the ground try to crawl away on its wounded tendrils. I kneeled over it, and thrust my blades down. Then I did it again. And again. It gave one last, feeble shiver, and was still.
I looked back at Katim. His human tongue hung out of his mouth, and his eyes rolled into his head. I didn’t have time to worry about him, now. I looked down at the jagged shards of darkness that protruded from my wounded hand. Realization buzzed in my brain.
This thing in my chest wasn’t some kind of deterrent. It was a weapon. And together, the two of us would tear and rend and kill everything that could possibly threaten us. The Man of Many Tongues was first. Soon, he and his slaves would be quivering piles of agony at my feet.
I marched towards the door and grabbed the handle, ready to tear it off its hinges. It didn’t budge. I cried out in anger, and slashed at the door with my claws.
A scream of pain erupted from the other side of the wall. It hit me like a bucket of cold water in the face.
“Oh my god. Sofia!” I leaned against the door to listen. I heard a whimper. “Sofia, I’m coming for you. Don’t move.”
I stared down at the blades. “What the hell did you do to me?” I said.
They vibrated, and let out that insane hum once again. I could almost hear the words buried in the sound. Hunt. Ravage. Kill. No wonder all the monsters were afraid of it, even trapped inside of me like it had been. I felt energy surge through my body, and the intoxicating urge to sink my teeth into every weak and dangerous thing that crawled upon the earth. I shoved it down.
“No! The threat is over. Go away.” They quivered again. “I said go away!” I clamped down on them, like I did when I wanted the thing in my chest to stop scratching. They vibrated one more time, then went still. Then they pulled into my hand, and settled once more in my chest.
In an instant all of my pain flooded back to me at once. I collapsed to the floor. Shards stabbed into my muscles, and the burns all over my body screamed.
“Okay,” I said out loud. “Maybe ‘go away’ was a bit strong.” I relaxed my grip, and the jagged mass stretched out inside of me. My senses intensified, and the pain faded. The urge to hunt and kill rose up inside of me, but it didn’t swallow me up like it had before. I could control it. I hoped. I stood up. And saw the body on the other side of the room.
“Holy shit, Katim!” I rushed over where he lay on the ground. He was still breathing, thank God, and his pulse was strong. My claws had passed right through his human flesh, but his left eye where I stabbed him with the X-acto knife was a mangled mess. At least it wasn’t bleeding. The tongue-creature must have kept the damage to a minimum. “Katim, are you okay?” I snapped my fingers in front of his still-functional eye. Then I slapped him lightly on the face. He didn’t respond.
“I’m going to get help,” I said. “The hospital isn’t far. I’m going to get help, as soon as I rescue everyone else. Just…just be okay that long, okay? Okay?” I had no idea if he heard me.
The X-acto knife lay on the floor next to him. I pocketed it.
I took a breath, and walked back towards the door. I had to get through, and there was only one way to do it. I closed my eyes, and tried to step out of my skin and into my other body. It didn’t work. No no no. This couldn’t take twenty minutes again. I didn’t have that kind of time. It had to work. I was covered in wounds. This should be easy. I tried again. Nothing.
A pale arm reached through the door. I grasped Sofia’s dead hand. It felt cold. She clasped her fingers around mine, and pulled me out of my skin.
I noticed instantly that in my Alex form, the thing in my chest lay still. It was still there. I could feel it. But it wouldn’t move. Apparently I could travel through the scarred and whispering place in my boy-body, but it wasn’t armed. Right now, I did not want to be unarmed. I slipped back into my normal form the moment I passed through the wall.
“Sofia, I’m so sorry. Are you okay?”
She shook her head.
“Hurt,” she said, her voice a distant, pained whisper. “Chains.”
She dug her fingernails into the tongue-tentacle that protruded from just above her left eye.
“You want me to…get rid of those? Rip them off?”
“Sofia, we don’t have time for that! We have to get the others, and…”
“Please,” she moaned.
I closed my eyes and nodded. I remembered how I tried and failed to rip these things off of her with my fingers at her funeral. I pulled the knife out of my pocket, and cut into the tongue. It sliced clean off. I got to work on the rest of them.
When it was done, she reached out and stroked my face.
“You can thank me later,” I said. “Now we have to go after the others. Do you know how to get back to the operating theater?”
She tilted her head, then turned and sped off down the corridor. I followed close behind. She was much faster than earlier, and I had to run to keep up.
She stopped in front of a door I didn’t recognize.
“Wait, where are we?” I said. “This isn’t the…”
She walked in through the wall. I shrugged and opened the door. A sickening sound assaulted my ears, like a million squelching maggots crawling over each other. I swallowed the bile that rose in my throat and stepped inside.
It was a small room, with large pit in the center that seemed to be the source of the sound. Two figures stood at the far edge. I recognized one of them as the tongue-covered thing I’d seen in the operating theater. But now I could see her face.
It was Ms. Sanchez. The second victim. Tiny, writhing things still covered the rest of her body. The other figure had her back to me, but I saw what she was doing. She had Ms. Sanchez against the wall. One by one she cut the tongues off of her with a rusty scalpel, and tossed them over her back into the pit.
Neither of them noticed me. I stepped forward and looked into the hole. It was filled to the brim with squirming tongues. I cringed, and something in the back of my mind screamed. I’d seen a lot of horrifying things these last few weeks, but creatures in this pit were somehow offensive. Alien. Evil. Sofia was right to bring me here. These things needed to die.
She reached into my pocket and pulled out the X-acto knife. Then she leapt inside. The tongues swarmed over her. For a terrible second I thought she would be devoured, but then she brushed them off her face and began to hack them up with her blade.
I let the blades slip out of my fingers, and leapt. The tongues felt like slimy insects crawling all over my skin, and I almost threw up. But they didn’t hurt. I slashed at them. Tiny sparks of light burst into my eyes to form words as I cut the creatures to pieces.
no no no no don’t no no
The girl working on Ms. Sanchez spun around to face us. It was Juanita. I saw that she still wore a “Stand with Clarkson” t-shirt, full of blood and saliva covered holes where the Man of Many Tongues had gouged into her.
“Jessy?” she said. “I thought you were dead.”
“Not quite,” I said. “Listen, Juanita, you have to get out of here.”
“N…no,” she said. She sounded confused. There was a wild look in her eyes. “No, I have work to do.”
I grimaced. “It’s okay, Juanita. You’re not yourself. But I’m going to help you. I’m going to kill the thing that did this to you. It’ll all be okay.”
“Kill…It?” Her eyes went wide. “No!” She screamed, and ran around the pit towards the door.
“Shit,” I said to Sofia. “She’s going to warn them. I have to go after her.”
Sofia nodded, and continued her work. I leapt out of the pit and ran out of the room. I saw Juanita at the end of the long hallway and bolted after her. She weaved through the tunnels, and I kept close behind. Panic pumped through my veins. Every time she turned I thought I would lose her, and be unable to find my way back. Finally I saw her burst through the familiar double-doors. I sprinted forward, and into the operating theater.
Something heavy smashed into my side and knocked me to the ground. I looked up as the lukra’s syringe-teeth sank into my shoulder, and I screamed. Another lukra growled, a harsh metallic sound, and leapt onto my chest. Its rusted-claws sank into my skin.
“It’s Jessica.” I looked past the lukra on top of me and saw Mr. Clarkson walking towards me. “Katim failed to incapacitate her.”
“She killed the spawnlings,” Juanita said somewhere in the distance. “Her and Sofia. I came to warn you.”
“Sofia?” said Mr. Clarkson. “How did she…”
“Jessy!” I heard Mei shriek. “Jessy, get out of here!”
“It’s too late for that,” said Mr. Clarkson. “The infected one failed to kill you, but we won’t make that mistake again.” He looked at the lukra. “End her.”
“Like hell,” I said. My claws hummed, and adrenaline surged through me. I thrust them into the lukra on top of me, then raked the claws down to tear it in half. I shoved it off of me and sprang to my feet. Then I ran towards the seating area to regroup. The other lukra gave chase.
I turned to face it as it pounced. I slashed, and severed its extended front leg. The blow took it off balance as it leapt. Its saw-teeth raked across my face as it sailed past, and it crashed into a seat behind me. It scrambled to its feet. But I was faster. I lunged forward, and jabbed my claws into its neck. It quivered, then went still.
“That’s not all of them!” Mr. Clarkson called out. “There are more. Dozens more. You won’t escape.”
“Bring them,” I said. “I’ll cut them down.”
A blinding light seared my retinas.
I turned and saw the Man of Many Tongues, standing on the stage. Its head split open, then its great tongue shot towards me like a harpoon. It split apart into a dozen tiny forks, and latched onto my skull. Then it wrenched back and yanked me across the room to the stage.
The tongue dropped me right in front of the huge creature, but held fast. The Man of Many Tongues looked at me. This close, I felt waves of force emanating from it, like an opposing magnetic field. The force pushed against every inch of my body. Then every one of the thousands of mouths on its form opened up. Tongues burst out of them, ejecting a thick white liquid and a stench like rotting meat. Some of the tongues had sharp edges. Some of them ended in pincers, like the mouth of a centipede. Some of them had teeth. I tasted vomit in my mouth.
Another light flashed.
THIS IS NOT THE MERE SCURRYING OF FLESH. WHAT ENTITY DO YOU SERVE?
“Fuck you,” I said. I swung my claws at the creature’s torso. They sliced through the tongues that protruded from its arm, then smacked into something rock-hard. A jolt pulsed up my arm. The Man of Many Tongues flung me aside like a rag-doll. I collided with the wall, and the wind rushed out of me. Then i’s mouth-tongue snaked forward again and coiled around my neck. It yanked me back to the center of the room.
“Jessy!” I heard Mei’s voice call out.
WHAT DO YOU SERVE?
I could hardly breathe with the tongue squeezed around my throat.
“Your nightmare,” I choked out. “The withering man sent me to kill you.”
Light burned my eyes.
YOU LIE. HE CANNOT TOUCH ME. I AM PROTECTED. AND HE IS FORBIDDEN BY CONTRACTS.
The force pressed against me more strongly. I looked wildly around, hoping to see something, anything that could help me. That’s when I saw the spiders. I had forgotten about them. They teemed all over the barrier. If what Derrick and Joseph told me was right, they might be able to hurt this thing. If I could just cut an opening…
“I can prove it,” I said. “He gave me a message to give to you. Let me loose, and I’ll show you.”
“Don’t trust her,” Mr. Clarkson said from behind me.
IT IS NO THREAT.
The grip around my neck loosened, and I dropped to the floor. Then I ran to the edge of the stage, and swung my claws as hard as I could at the barrier with a cry of triumph.
They bounced off like it was made of steel. There wasn’t even a scratch. Mr. Clarkson laughed. I reached into my pocket. My claws didn’t work, but maybe… My heart sank. Sofia still had the X-acto knife.
Pain blossomed in my torso as a giant tongue tore through my back and burst out through my shoulder. Its tips latched into me like hooks, and lifted me into the air. It slammed me against the unused operating table. I struggled, but it held me fast.
ENOUGH. I WILL RIP OUT THE ANSWERS I REQUIRE. BIND HER.
Juanita walked up to me, and put her hand on my other shoulder.
“You shouldn’t fight it,” she said. “It’s better if you don’t fight.”
She fastened leather straps to my legs, torso, and arms. I struggled, but the tongue pressed me down and dragged its hooks across my flesh. I looked to my left, where Mei was strapped to another table.
“I’m sorry, Mei,” I said.
“No,” she said. “This isn’t your fault. This thing, it’s just too…”
The Man of Many Tongues strode up to me on its huge, wriggling legs. It towered overhead and glared down at my bound body.
YOU CANNOT BE USED FOR THE HARVEST. BUT YOU HAVE KNOWLEDGE I REQUIRE. AND YOUR OFFENCES CANNOT STAND UNACKNOWLEDGED, OR UNPUNISHED.
Then it leaned down, and its tongues sank into my skin. It didn’t hurt, not nearly as much as I expected. What it did was much, much worse.
The tongues spread through the soft parts of my mind, like a stranger’s rough fingers probing between my legs. Memories blossomed into my senses. Playing in the park with Brianna. My mom, squeezing a rubber bat in the bathtub until it squeaked out The Rain in Spain, and I giggled. The sweet, moist sensation of my first kiss, pressed up against the smooth felt of a pool table. And the creature’s slimy tongues licked over each memory, and left them wet and greasy and violated. Wherever it went, it left seeds of infestation. They ripped and devoured and shit in the deepest corners of my soul.
I tried to fight it, but not for long. It lasted forever. Nothing existed, except me and those horrible, probing tongues. I wasn’t a person. I was a foul, infected, slime filled thing. This was where I belonged.
Then the tongues pulled away, and light and air and humanity flooded back into my me.
I am Jessica, my mind screamed.
“Look what we found, My Lord.” It was Mr. Clarkson’s voice, from far away. I craned my neck to look around my tormentor. Clarkson stood at the top of the stairs, and a lukra stood behind it, clutching someone by the neck with its teeth.
THE BETRAYER. BRING IT HERE.
Mr. Clarkson and the lukra moved forward. I couldn’t see what was happening, but a moment later they reached the stage, and I saw who the lukra dragged with it. Sofia.
The Man of Many Tongues walked up to her. She looked past it. Straight into my eyes. She glanced down at her hand. I looked at it, and saw the tiniest glint of metal.
YOU DISAPPOINT ME, TINY THING. AFTER YOU WERE CHOSEN TO BE THE FIRST AMONG THE HARVESTED. AFTER ALL THE GIFTS I GAVE YOU.
“No gifts,” croaked Sofia. “I…reject you.”
The creature’s tongue shot forward and smashed into her face. Then it lifted her up, and tossed her behind its back. She crashed into the table that held Mei, and crumpled to the ground.
IT IS TAINTED. IT MUST BE REANNOINTED, BEFORE ITS HARVEST CAN BEGIN AGAIN.
“Yes,” said Juanita. “Of course.” She walked over to stand in front of us.
Sofia struggled to her feet, and then pressed her hand to mine. I felt the cold blade of the X-acto knife, and closed my fingers around it. The movement caught Mr. Clarkson’s eye, but he said nothing. Now I just needed to figure out how to get out of these straps.
The Man of Many Tongues stepped over towards Jenna. I felt a horrible pang of guilt at my own sigh of relief. That meant it was done with me. For now.
“No,” Jenna wailed. “Not again. Please.” It ignored her, and pressed its tongue-strewn body against hers.
I needed to get free. Then I could end this..
Mr. Clarkson walked over to me.
No! Go away!
“I know you think what you’re trying to do is right,” he said. “But you don’t understand. How could you? It was naïve of me to think that you would see the beauty. You haven’t be taught, yet. But you will be. You don’t deserve this, but I will give you a gift. I will teach you.”
“All I know is that I’m going to kill that thing,” I said.
Mr. Clarkson smirked.
“You still believe that? Look at you. It’s over. You can barely stand up. Your entire body is a mess of injuries and cuts. What can you do?”
Covered in cuts. The thought lit up the inside of my brain. Of course, Jessica, you idiot.
I took a deep breath. I struggled to do this before. But this was important. This was vital. This had to work.
“What are you doing?” asked Mr. Clarkson. “Those straps are reinforced leather, designed to hold bucking surgery patients. There’s no way a teenage girl can get loose. Don’t waste your time.”
That’s right. Keep talking. Don’t pay attention to what I’m really doing.
Mr. Clarkson droned on.
“We’re all so tiny, Jessica. That’s what people don’t understand. Oh, they claim to. But they don’t really grasp the magnitude of the cosmos, and the beauty of our own insignificance.”
Then I got it. I saw what I had been doing wrong, before. It was so simple. How had I missed it? I turned myself sideways, and slipped through the cuts in my skin. Into my other body.
“What…what happened to your face?” said Mr. Clarkson.
I leaned forward, out of the straps and onto my feet.
“She’s free!” Mr. Clarkson cried. He grabbed at me, but his human hands passed right through my scarred and whispering form.
I turned and ran for the edge of the stage. I heard a sound behind me. Then the Man of Many Tongues landed in front of me, with a sickening thwock that burst the stage into a cloud of splinters and knocked me off my feet.
YOU ARE TOO DANGEROUS TO EXIST. PERHAPS YOU SPOKE TRUE OF YOUR ALLEGIENCE. MY BRETHREN WILL BE THANKFUL FOR YOUR ANNIHILATION.
It reached down and grabbed my shoulders with its massive, tongue covered arms, and lifted me above its head. There was a sickening crack as The Man of Many Tongues started to tear my arms from their sockets. Its face looked into mine, then its huge tongue lashed out and shot down my throat. I choked and tried to scream.
Through the pain and suffocation, I saw a cloud of spiders just a few inches from my eyes. I was right near the barrier. I gripped the knife with the tips of my fingers and swiped at it, but it was too far away. A hair’s breadth too far away. The world swam before my eyes. Dark spots appeared in front of me. Desperately, with what little strength I had left, I flung the knife at the barrier.
It spun through the air. The blade passed right through the barrier and clanged against the far wall. With my fading vision, I saw the tiniest of holes in the spherical discoloration.
It was enough.
The spiders rushed towards the opening. The tore at it with their mandibles. Small cracks spread out from the hole. Then it burst open, and they flooded through. Like a single mind, the spiders raced down the inside of the barrier and towards the Man of Many Tongues. It hadn’t seen them. No one had, except me. Not until it was too late.
They crawled up the creature and started to chew their way down its extended tongues. It dropped me, and I bounced off of its body and fell to the floor. I watched as the torrent of spiders swarmed over my tormentor. Its head flipped entirely open, like a fleshy, dying pac-man.
Then it screamed. A deep, guttural sound that shook the walls and the ceiling and resonated through my bones.
Jenna and Mei both screamed.
“No!” Mr. Clarkson cried, while Juanita called out “What’s happening?”
Desperate bolts of light streaked words across the air.
KILL THEM KILL THEM KILL THEM KILL THEM KILL THEM
Mr. Clarkson ran forward and started to stamp at the spiders. But there were too many. Far too many. The creature’s great mouth-tongue detached itself from its body and leapt to the floor. It started to crawl away.
“Oh no you don’t,” I said. I lunged forward and sliced it in half with my claws.
Mr. Clarkson whistled, and yelled, “Come defend your creator!”
Four lukra rushed down from the top of the stairs towards us. I sliced one cleanly in half as in ran past me. Another lunged at my throat. I held out my arm to block, and its scalpel teeth sank in. I slammed it to the floor, and thrust my claws into its head. I turned around to see the remaining two lukra snapping and raking their claws at the spiders. I charged them.
The arachnids coated the Man of Many Tongues, now. I saw that once they devoured a tongue, they followed it down into the mouth it came out of. Gobs of white liquid gushed from wounds all over the creature’s jerking body. I felt the force coming off of it getting weaker and weaker as the spiders consumed their prey.
YOU CANNOT DESTROY ME. THE SEED OF MY SPAWNING WILL BURROW, AND FESTER. I WILL RETURN.
“Yeah, well I’ll kill that one, too,” I cried as I severed a lukra’s head.
THEN I WILL CLAIM WHAT IS MINE.
Suddenly, Sofia started screaming. The pure, anguished scream of someone having bamboo splinters jammed under their fingernails. She fell to the floor and began to convulse. A moment later Jenna joined in, thrashing at her straps as agony tore through her. Then Juanita fell to the ground. Then Mei.
“Let them go!” I cried.
THEY JOIN ME IN MY CHAMBER, DEEP BENEATH THE SKIN OF THE WORLD. AS I FALL, SO THEY FALL.
I ran towards Sofia. She jerked violently across the floor. I looked down at her, helpless. I looked over at the others. I bit my lower lip so hard it bled. Then I threw head back and screamed.
“I killed you!!” I wailed. “It’s over! Let them go!”
I WILL NOT.
That’s when I saw the ceiling. No one else noticed it shivering. No one else noticed when it split open, and a figure drifted down like a feather on an uncaring breeze. The Man of Many Tongues did not even notice when the thing from its alien nightmares stood right behind it. It was not until the last spider crawled away from the Man’s mangled form, and the force it gave off was entirely gone, that the withering man made His presence known.
The girls’ collective screams ceased. Mr. Clarkson gasped.
A light so bright I thought it would burn my eyes out of my face exploded in the air.
NO. YOU CANNOT TOUCH ME. THE SACRAMENT OF THE BLACK HALCYON FORBIDS IT. THERE ARE LAWS. AGREEMENTS OLDER THAN THE FIRST OF THE UNSPOKEN WHISPERS. THERE ARE CONTRACTS.
I did not hear His words. I didn’t see them. But I felt them, like a child feels the hungry creature under its bed.
consider them broken
The withering man’s dress unfolded outward like a cloud of darkness. My vision went black, and I knew what I saw inside was so brain-shatteringly horrible that my eyes refused to see it. The Man of Many Tongues screamed. The world snapped back into focus. The withering man stood, his face a withered smile. A single, scarred arm jutted out of the folds of His gown. Then it was sucked inside, and He was gone.