the withering man, part 21
Something tapped at my window. I leapt out of my computer chair and ran to look. Nothing. Then I Looked with my vision. Still nothing. I sat back down, marveling at how much easier it was to use the vision since my trip through the underworld. Or whatever it was.
The sound came again. I glanced over at the clock. It was midnight. Of course it was. I walked to the window and opened it. I leaned out and looked down at the street. Someone stood on the sidewalk in the scarred and whispering place, looking up at the window. A girl. A sick feeling roiled in my stomach, because I recognized her.
I put the X-acto knife in my pocket, grabbed the spider-filled water bottle, and crept down the stairs. I threw on my jacket and stuffed the water bottle into one of the over-sized pockets. Then, quietly, I opened the door and walked out into the night.
“I hoped it wouldn’t be you,” I said as I approached the girl in the street.
Sofia stared at me with glassy eyes. The thing in my chest stayed still, just like last time I saw her. Apparently it didn’t think of Sofia as a threat. No. I didn’t think of her as a threat. I prayed I wasn’t horribly wrong.
“Come with me,” she said. The words were a garble of Spanish, English, and at least one other language I didn’t recognize. But I understood it. I guess I could do that, even though He hadn’t torn off my ears.
“Where are we going?”
“Come with me,” she repeated in that same flat tongue. I saw that she now had a tongue. It was too large, and spilled out of her mouth. There were more of those wriggling red tentacles all over her body than there were last time I saw her. They were all connected inside of her, by some kind of mockery of a nervous system that ran throughout her body.
“Okay,” I said. “I’ll come with you.”
She turned and lurched away. Not the stuttering lurch of a blue ghost in a horror movie, but the gait of a person in an enormous amount of pain. It made me angry.
“I don’t know if you’re in there,” I said. “But I’m going to save you. I am going to kill that asshole and I am going to save you.”
She didn’t respond.
I followed her up Fayette Avenue. She moved so slowly it drove me crazy. I wanted to scream for the Man of Many Tongues to come out and fight me. But what good would it do?
Sofia turned into Mei’s driveway and my blood froze. She didn’t walk to the front door, but instead hobbled along the side of the house and into the backyard. A tall stone structure jutted up from the middle of the yard. It was smooth, and tapered to a point twenty feet up. It reminded me of the tower of teeth, but I didn’t quite know why until Sofia walked up to it. An opening formed in front of her, and she stepped through.
I walked over to it as the opening closed. I tried to walk through. The wall was solid. I knocked on it. Nothing happened. I waited for Sofia’s hand to reach out and pull me in, like Joseph’s had. Then I kept waiting.
I looked around. Was this a trap? Did she lure me here so the Many of Many Tongues could leap out and devour me? I didn’t think so. The thing in my chest was still. I knocked on the wall again. There was no response.
I took a deep breath, and tried to think about this logically. When Joseph pulled me in, she yanked me out of my skin and into my Alex body. So all I had to do to pass through was get turn into my other form. How the hell did I do that?
I tried to step out of my skin. Nothing happened. I tried to blur my vision so much that I slipped out of my body. I concentrated really, really hard.
It took me almost twenty minutes to figure it out. The fact that my dead best friend was on the other side in agony was almost enough to prevent me from feeling like an idiot. In the end, I felt the tiny cuts on my face left by the green wig creature, and was able to press through them and out of my flesh. The wall of the tower opened up and I passed through.
Sofia waited on the other side. She started to walk again. We were inside a narrow tunnel with open wounds for walls. It dripped onto my head and shoulders. I tried to ignore it.
We walked for a long time. I tried to talk to Sofia a few more times, but she ignored me. I told her I was going to save her, and free her from her pain. I didn’t know if any of it got through, or if she heard me at all. But the sound of my voice was better than the shuffling and the dripping and the silence.
It’s hard to tell time, in that place. I don’t think I realized how much I relied on the metronomes of my breathing and my heartbeat until they were gone. It was hard to tell one second from the next. Hours could have passed by the time we reached the gaping orifice at the end of the tunnel. Sofia stepped in, and I followed.
As I passed through, I felt myself slip out of my Alex body and back into my normal one. But I kept my Vision up. We emerged into a parking lot at the back of a large, six story building. It was still night. I hoped to God it was the same night. I didn’t want to think what Mom would do if I disappeared for a entire day. It took me a second to recognize the building.
“Shallow Wells hospital,” I said. “Jenna.”
Sofia turned away from the building and led me towards the patch of trees next to the lot. Mud seeped into my shoes as I slogged through the wet ground. A minute later, we reached a concrete structure with two large metal doors. Like one of those outside entrances into a basement. It was rusted and filthy, and covered in vines.
“Hello, Jessica,” said a voice behind me. I turned around.
“Hello, Mr. Clarkson.”
“You don’t sound surprised to see me,” he said. There was a wild fascination in his voice, like when he told stories about his travels around the world. He looked normal, to my Vision, except there was something weird about his face.
“I’m not,” I said. “I know what you are.”
“Do you?” He sounded genuinely confused, for just a second. He shook his head. “You may believe that. But you don’t know anything. Not yet.”
“What do you want from me, Mr. Clarkson?”
“You always did ask stupid questions,” he said. “What I want doesn’t matter. The Baron wants to destroy you.” He looked into my eyes. “You don’t sound surprised at that, either.”
“No,” I said. “Of course it wants to destroy me. I’m here to kill it.”
Mr. Clarkson laughed. “If only it was that simple. You might as well try to kill the tides, or the mountains. It is older than flesh, or the dust that spawned the galaxies. It taught us to speak, just so it could return and rip our our lying tongues.”
This was starting to piss me off.
“My grandpa’s pretty old,” I said. “I could probably kick his ass, too.”
“You do have a tongue on you,” he said, and smiled. “It’s a shame you’re so terrible at Spanish. If you were more fluent I could have included you from the beginning, and saved us all of this mess. You would have gotten to know Sofia here a whole lot better. Oh well.”
He shook his head. “Not today. Now come with me.” He walked towards the rusted doors.
“Come with you?” I scoffed. “Now why the hell would I want to do that?”
“Don’t make this difficult. Come with me or I’ll kill your friend.”
I laughed. “I’m not sure if you’ve looked, but she’s already dead.”
“No. Not that friend.”
I heard snarling behind me. I turned to see two things dragging a struggling person. To my normal eyes, the things looked like pieces of old medical equipment that floated in the air. A syringe, some scalpels, tweezers, part of a bone saw. All rusted and in ill repair. With my Vision I saw that all of it was bound together, with strips of dried muscle, into the rough shape of two beasts. Two monstrosities of beef jerky and sharp edges.
The thing in my chest began to scratch frantically.
“Please,” said Mr. Clarkson. “That little toy of yours might frighten the blemiyeh, and the lesser cravelings, and the whispers. But it won’t scare the lukra.”
The creatures, apparently called lukra, dragged the struggling form and dropped her next to Mr. Clarkson. She was bound tightly with thin rope, and her mouth was gagged. She was close enough, now that I could see who it was. My eyes widened.
“Oh my God, ” I called to her. “Mei!”
I clenched my jaw shut.
“Let. Her. Go.”
“The Baron warned you,” said Mr. Clarkson. “It gave you every chance. It told you the consequences would be yours. Your interference has put us off schedule and tainted the supply. Luckily Mei here is obliging enough to speak Chinese.” He bent down over her and stroked her cheek. “Aren’t you, Mei? That makes her viable for the harvest, as well as being a way to force your obedience. Very convenient.”
Mei’s eyes caught mine, and I saw the depth of her terror.
“Mr. Clarkson,” I said, pleading. “Mr. Clarkson. This isn’t you. You don’t want to do this.”
“Jessy?” His face softened and grew desperate. “Jessy, what am I doing? I…” He squeezed his eyes shut. When he opened them, they twinkled like winter stars. “But it is me. Or it soon will be. The Baron sees to my needs.” He continued to stroke Mei’s cheek.
He stood up. “I’m a man. It came because I needed It, and It needed me. Do you know what that’s like? To feel needed by something to something so primal? So real?”
“Listen to yourself, Mr. Clarkson,” I said. “You’re not making any goddamn sense. You don’t want to do this. Now let her go.”
“You’re wasting our time,” he said. “And we’re already behind schedule. A demonstration, to show you we’re serious.”
He signaled behind him, and one of the lukra clamped down on Mei’s arm with its saw-blade teeth. She screamed into her gag. Blood welled out of the wound and darkened her shirt. Mr. Clarkson looked into my eyes. “Do you understand?”
I fought the numbness that spread through my body and forced myself to nod.
“Now follow me.”
He opened the doors of the concrete structure and walked down. I went after him, along with Sofia. The lukra dragged Mei close behind us. I heard her muffled groans as her head smacked the stone steps. Every one made my insides ache. I thought about attacking the lukra, grabbing Mei, and running. But attack them with what? The knife in my pocket felt very small, right now.
“Mei,” I said softly to her. “Mei, don’t worry. I’m going to get us out of this.” I didn’t know if she heard me, or believed me. I didn’t know if I believed it myself.
“This sub-basement used to be part of the hospital,” said Mr. Clarkson as we walked through its dusty halls. “It hasn’t been used in decades. A lot of people died down here. That parking lot back there is paved over a graveyard. That’s why it’s called Shallow Wells, actually. A little joke, although no one alive remembers it. But It was there. It has shown me so much.”
He laughed. “Listen to me. I’m bringing one student to be tormented and another to be harvested and I still can’t stop teaching. I guess I went into the right profession, huh?” He smiled at me. I wanted to jab my knife into his eye.
Mr. Clarkson led us down one dusty-caked tunnel and the next. Goddamn tunnels. If I got out of this, I didn’t ever want to see a tunnel for the rest of my life.
“Where are you taking me?” I said.
“It wants to see you,” said Mr. Clarkson. “To taste you with Its own eyes. And to show you what It is doing.”
“I’m going to kill it,” I said, trying to keep my voice from shaking. “I don’t know if you’re in there, Mr. Clarkson. But I want you to know that. And if I have to, I’m going to kill you.”
“Brave words,” said Mr. Clarkson. “Does it make you feel better, to say them, I wonder?” He turned down another corridor. It ended in a large set of double doors. “We’re here. After you.”
I hesitated. Mr. Clarkson gestured with his fingers. There was a muffled scream, and I looked back to see one of the lukra with its filthy syringe-tooth plunged into Mei’s cheek. I clasped my hand to my mouth to stifle a cry.
Mr. Clarkson put his hand on my shoulder.
“I said after you.”
I pushed on one of the doors. It swung open to reveal a large room that sloped downward. It had rows of wooden stadium seating that overlooked an oval shaped area at the bottom. I saw a room like this at the medical museum in Willemstad. An operating theater, built so people could watch surgeries back in the days when the amount of blood and viscera on your shirt was a sign of your skill as a doctor. Several oil lamps hung on the walls cast flickering yellow light onto the grisly scene below.
There were three operating tables on the stage, set at nearly upright angles. Two of them had girls strapped to them; the third was empty. Next to the empty table stood a figure, covered from head to toe with writhing tentacles.
There was also a man, if you could call it a man. It was tall, and naked, and covered in scars. On top of its neck was something that only vaguely resembled a head. A lump of flesh, round and misshapen. The creature had its body pressed up against one of the girls, so I couldn’t see her face. The other girl I recognized.
“Jenna!” I called.
“Jessica?” she whimpered. “Jessica is that you?”
“Yes,” I said. “I’m here. Just hold on. I’m going to save you.”
Light flashed in front of me, and left the imprint of words in my eyes.
NO. YOU WON’T.
The Man of Many Tongues pulled away from its victim with a slurping sound. Its chest was covered in tentacles, and they had gouged into the girl where its flesh touched hers. No, they weren’t tentacles. They had never been tentacles. I glanced back at Sofia, and saw them jutting out of her body as well. They were tongues.
The creature turned to face me. The tongues pulled into its body, into the scars on its chest. Not scars. Mouths. Thousands of cracked, thin-lipped mouths. A large gash bisected its entire face, and a long tongue hung between its legs. When it stepped away from its prey, I saw that it was Juanita. She whimpered in pain. Which meant she was still alive.
“Here she is, Your Lordship,” said Mr. Clarkson. “This is the one.”
The creature’s head split open like a pez dispenser, and an enormous tongue shot towards me. It stretched the twenty feet between us, and stopped inches from my face. I gasped. The tip of the tongue split in two with a ripping sound, and each of the forks flicked the air. Like a snake tasting for prey.
Then it pulled back into the creature’s head.
There was another flash of light.
YES. IT IS THE ONE.
“Let my friends go,” I said. “Or I will fucking annihilate you.”
Mr. Clarkson laughed.
YOU SHOULD HAVE SURRENDERED. IT BRINGS ME NO PLEASURE TO MAKE YOU SUFFER. BUT YOU WILL SUFFER. YOUR FLESH WILL BE DISSOLVED INTO LIQUID AGONY, AND YOUR AGONY WILL BE SPREAD OUT AMONG THE REALMS, DISPLAYED FOR THE ACOLYTES AND THE PRETENDERS TO SEE, AND TO UNDERSTAND.
“Like hell it will,” I said. I pulled the water bottle out of my pocket, unscrewed the lid, and hurled it at the beast.
“Please work,” I whispered.
It arced through the air, and then crashed into…nothing. When it reached the edge of the operating area, it smashed into what appeared to be an invisible wall.
When I squinted, I could just barely see what the bottle smacked into. Like a filthy discoloration in the air that covered the stage in a half-dome. The spiders rushed out of the bottle and swarmed up the barrier. They chittered and bit at it, but they couldn’t get in. Bile rose from my stomach and stung my throat.
“Nice try,” said Mr. Clarkson. “But the Baron knew the instant the foul prophet was freed. It knew someone would try to use the spiders against It. It took precautions.”
IT HAS BEEN WITNESSED. ITS PUNISHMENT AWAITS IT. TAKE IT AWAY, said the Man of Many Tongues in a flash of light.
Mr. Clarkson grabbed me by the arm. “Come with me.”
“Where are we going?”
“How many times do I have to do this before you understand?” He lifted his fingers to gesture at the lukra.
“No!” I cried. “No. Please. I’ll come.”
He smiled at me and walked through the doors. I followed, as did Sofia.
“I wish you could see how beautiful this is,” said Mr. Clarkson. “The five of us shared a moment of transcendent bliss, during that festival all those weeks ago. Didn’t we, Sofia?”
He looked at her. The glazed look in her eyes faded, and she stared at him in fear.
“No,” she said.
He looked puzzled. “You are a stubborn one. Always fighting. I see why the two of you were friends.” He chuckled. “But Jessica, I assure you it was a beautiful moment. All of this is merely its culmination. Once their bodies have been prepared, and allowed to ferment, they will grow new tongues for him to harvest. Thus completing the circle of existence. Don’t you think that’s beautiful?”
“No,” I said. “I think it’s bullshit. You killed them. You made them suffer. They’re still suffering.”
“Is there ever majesty, without suffering?” said Mr. Clarkson. “A fascinating topic of discussion. But one for another time, I’m afraid.”
We fell into silence. I was glad not to hear that gratingly calm voice anymore. But it left me alone inside my brain. Hopelessness pumped through me like blood. I’d tried and failed. I’d wasted my only weapon like an idiot. Nice job, withering man. You made a pretty shitty choice in Jessica Kingsport. Better luck next time, I guess.
“Here we are,” said Mr. Clarkson after a few minutes. He pointed to a metal door, rusted like everything in this place. “Open it. Good. Now step inside.”
With a sick feeling in my stomach, I did as he said. The room was empty except for some chairs piled haphazardly on one side of the room and a pile of rags in the corner. Mr. Clarkson slammed the door shut, and locked it from the other side.
“You are very stupid,” he said through the door. “How many movies have you seen like this? You know Mei has to die, and yet you still let me lock you in a room with something terrible.”
I jerked my head around to look. The pile of rags in the corner began to move.
“He won’t kill you,” said Mr. Clarkson. “Just tear you up so you can’t move or talk, or do anything but feel pain. I suppose that’s cold comfort.”
“I’m going to get out of here!” I shouted.
“That’s doubtful. I’m going to leave Sofia here to watch. Maybe that’ll break the stubbornness out of her. Goodbye, Jessica.” I heard him walk away.
I turned back to the pile of rags. It stood up, and revealed itself to be a man in tattered clothing. Or at least, it used to be a man. With my Vision I saw a creature of tongues and teeth lodged in his throat. Tendrils protruded from it, and poked out through his body. They came out of his eyes, and his mouth, and one of his nostrils. And the three severed stumps of fingers on his right hand.
“Oh my God,” I gasped. “Oh my God. Katim.”
An image flashed through my mind, of the tunnels under Atherton college. I saw Katim, suspended in the air by the Man of Many Tongues, with something thrust into his throat. I thought I saved him. I thought I scared the thing off. But it left something behind. Something infectious.
At the sound of his name, Katim straightened up and looked at me. Then his body went limber, and he began to sway. Like a snake about to strike.
“Katim,” I said, “I’m so sorry. Oh God, this is my fault. I’m so sorry.”
He lunged. I shrieked and dove out of the way. The tongues protruding from his hand caught my outstretched arm and stuck. An intense burn seared my flesh, and my skin sizzled in my ears. I screamed and wrenched the arm away from the tongues. I leapt back.
Katim stared at me. He held up his hand, and the tongue-fingers writhed, strips of my skin clinging to their undersides. I reached into my pocket and slid my X-acto knife out of it’s gauze-sleeve. Then he charged.
I jabbed the blade at his face as he raced towards me. A jolt ran up my arm as the blade plunged with a sickening squish into his eye. He let out a too-human cry of pain jerked his head away, wrenching the knife from my grasp. He staggered backwards. Then he looked up at me, the knife protruding from his eye-socket, and a thick yellow fluid leaking down his face. The tongue in Katim’s other eye reached out and ripped the blade out of his face by the handle and flung it across the room. It crashed against the wall with a clang.
I sprinted past him towards my lost weapon. The tentacle in his mouth shot out and struck me in the shoulder with what felt like the force of a wrecking ball. I flew across the room, and the side of my head smashed into the jutting leg of a folding chair. Intense pain flooded my senses, and I crumpled to the floor. Katim walked towards me. I struggled to move my limbs, but they wouldn’t respond. I was too hurt, and too disoriented.
Katim leaned over me, and the tongues in his face writhed in triumph. With my regular vision, I saw that his human eyes were laced with fear. Was he still in there? It didn’t matter. I couldn’t save him. I couldn’t save anyone.
“I’m sorry,” I said. My voice was weak. “I’m sorry I did this to you. To all of you. I’m sorry I was so useless.”
I couldn’t think. Everything appeared hazy from the pain. It looked like the whole world was shivering.
No. Not everything was shivering. The Katim-beast above me looked normal. It was only the concrete ceiling above him that shivered. He didn’t seem to notice. The quiver of the stone intensified. A droning buzz filled the air. Katim didn’t react. Couldn’t he hear it? It was so loud. The ceiling quaked so violently I thought it would break apart. What the hell was going on here?
Then He emerged, like a worm crawling out of the dirt after a rainstorm. His uncanny face and terrible black dress were the most beautiful things I’d ever seen. The withering man floated down from the ceiling. His lidless eyes bored into my skull. The same unidentifiable things from before buzzed all around him. I expected the Katim-beast to flee, like the creatures in Oaklawn Park had done. But he didn’t react at all.
If you see Him, it is because He has chosen you to see Him.
“Help me,” I croaked. But the withering man just stared.
Katim lifted his hand to strike. I threw my arms out in front of me. One of the buzzing things dislodged from the withering man and flew towards me. The thing in my chest started to scratch more violently than before.
Memory swam in front of my eyes. “He tried to arm you,” Joseph had told me. “But you resisted.”
In the tunnels under Atherton, something flew at me, and the thing in my chest deflected it. So it struck Katim.
It was meant for me. It was always meant for me.
I squeezed the thing in my chest, and it went still. I took a deep breath. Maybe my last. The buzzing thing crashed into my hand, at the same time Katim-beast’s tongues wrapped around three of my outstretched fingers. The fingers vibrated violently, and they burned. Behind Katim, the withering man’s skin shrunk into that terrible smile. The worst pain I had ever felt washed over every nerve I possessed.
I gritted my teeth, and waited.
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