After Charlie had gone, I rose and walked slowly through the halls towards what I thought was reception, all the while mulling over Charlie’s words, his warning that I had been found and what it meant.
Go crazy or convert, he’d said.
He hadn’t given me a third option, but I decided then and there that I was going to make one myself, whether Charlie, Gorrorum, or anyone else, for that matter, liked it: I was going to find a way to burn down every bridge, no matter how small, that The Gathered had managed to build between Earth and Ibsilyth.
It felt like such a childish declaration even in my own head; the would-be hero’s promise of defeat to all the monsters under the bed right before ducking down under the covers at the tiniest gust of wind at the window. It also felt equally laughable. Aside from questioning my sanity when it came to how easily I was buying into all of this, I didn’t have the first clue as to how I might close doorways that may or may not even be there. I was relying on the research of an expert who thought it was a load of bull and the word of a mental patient.
Not exactly stellar sources.
In the middle of my musing, I realized that I’d been walking for quite some time, far longer than the trip to the rec room had taken. When I paused and looked around to get an idea of where I was, I found myself standing in the hallway outside of some activity rooms. Though they were currently unused and their windows dark, I could make out some instruments in one of them, a piano and stands for music sheets, and in the next, easels and painting supplies.
My gaze traveled absently over the paintings lined up along the far wall of the art room, mostly amateur landscapes features hills and woodlands and, in one instance, some kind of creature sitting beside a river. Even as I stared at it, its shape seemed to change, never quite defined, never quite decipherable. Perhaps it might have been someone’s take on an amphibian, but then it looked vaguely fishlike, and then like neither of those things at all.
I pressed my face against the window, my hands cupped around my eyes, and I watched with a prickling sense of disbelief mixed with slow growing fear as the creature moved across the painting. Its eyes, sometimes atop what I thought was its head, sometimes on the sides of it, sometimes elsewhere altogether, shined like tiny yellow beacons against the darkness.
As they turned towards the door, towards me, I instinctively ducked out of view, one hand pressed over my thudding heart, the other covering my mouth to hold back the scream that that almost escaped.
I’m going crazy, I thought, and I knew anyone who might see me crouched like that against the art room door would agree.
They might even mistake me for a patient.
They might not have been wrong. Sane people didn’t see things moving about in paintings, did they? Sane people didn’t worry about the Fingers of Ibsilyth reaching through time and space to get inside their head, either.
I was really starting to envy them.
I scuttled away from the door, staying low to the ground until I was far enough away that I couldn’t be seen from the window and then I was almost running down the hall, following signs to the nearest exit. I burst out a side door into a garden already half turned to orange and gold in the first breaths of autumn. The flower beds still had some color left, but the bushes were already dropping their leaves, giving them a bleak, skeletal appearance. There were a few residents and their carers walking along the pathways and I startled a few with my sudden exit from the building.
Sheepishly, I bobbed my head in apology towards them before continuing around the building towards the parking lot.
My car had just come into sight when my phone began to ring from my purse. I dug it out with a still shaking hand. The number wasn’t one I recognized, but I answered anyway in case it was Dr. Boltson or Janice calling.
“Faith?” A man said.
“Yes?” I replied slowly, suspiciously.
“Oh, good,” he replied cheerfully. “This is Marcus Shepard; I believe you’re looking for me.”
My breath hitched painfully in my chest when he introduced himself. “How did you get my number?”
“The Father provides,” he said with a chuckle. “There were whispers that you’d been speaking to Charlie.”
Of course they’d have people watching over him! I’d been an idiot to think that The Gathered wouldn’t monitor someone like Charlie, one of the few to have escaped them.
“That thing told you, didn’t it?” I demanded coldly.
“In the painting upstairs. I saw it looking for me.”
“Thing in the painting,” he murmured thoughtfully, and then I heard the “aha!” moment creep into his voice. “You must mean one of the shapeless.”
I had imagine that Marcus would be a dark robed, sinister individual, but he instead sounded like a pleasant middle aged man who probably wore sweater vests and drank tea on Sunday mornings with his pet cat in his lap. That didn’t stop me from being snippy with him.
“If that’s what you call them.”
“It would seem you’re quite open to the Father’s call, Faith, you’re already seeing the cracks.”
“What?” I asked irritably, my free hand raking through my purse for my car keys.
“Reality isn’t quite so solid as most would believe; you’re learning that quickly. Usually it takes a little more time in Ibsilyth before you start really seeing it, but you’re very…accepting. The shapeless ones exist in ideas of reality, like the painting you mentioned. They’re everywhere and nowhere, unable to truly enter any realm, and harmless, like flies. The fact that you’ve already seen one means the Father already has a foothold within you. Wonderful!”
He said it like I should be happy about it, but all I could think of was one of those Fingers dripping putrid pieces of itself into my ear, infecting me, and it made my skin crawl.
“Why are you calling?” I snapped, irritated with his friendly demeanor, as if we were just two old pals playing catch up.
“You were going to call me, weren’t you? Charlie did give you my name, after all. I though I’d just beat you to it.”
“How did you know that?”
“Poor Charlie,” Marcus sighed, “he thinks that because he doesn’t dream, The Father doesn’t speak to him anymore. It must be such a lonely feeling. I’ve wanted to reassure him that he is not forgotten, that he simply doesn’t consciously remember the messages given to him, but that is not for me to tell. The Father does work in mysterious ways.”
“So…you’re saying he was meant to tell me about you?”
I slid into my car and slammed the door shut, hoping to ward off some of the chill that had snuck up on me. It didn’t help much.
“Oh yes, just like he told your mother. She was such a strong woman; I’m sorry to hear of her passing.”
“How did you know my mom?” And why hadn’t she mentioned him in her notes? Why hadn’t she mentioned meeting Charlie?
“We all did, and we had such high hopes that she would eventually change her mind and join us. She held out though, twenty years! Longer than anyone. I was truly saddened when I heard she was gone; especially with how it happened. That she felt that was the better alternative…”
“She didn’t choose to have cancer, asshole.”
“Oh…oh dear…” Marcus trailed off into a troubled silence.
“Cancer didn’t kill your mother, Faith; she took her own life.”
“No,” I said sharply, “she had breast cancer.”
Marcus inhaled deeply, the sound of someone about to deliver Bad News, and I cut him off with more arguments and denial that gradually became more pleading, like I was waiting for him to tell me I was right after all. He let me rant for a time, patient and quiet, and when I was finally done, he cleared his throat.
“She’d come looking for answers and Gorrorum tried to provide them, the same he does for any who enter into his realm. She fought him for so long, even after seeing all of his glory and truth, but in the end, I’m afraid it overwhelmed her.”
“Y-you people killed my mother,” I whispered.
“No, Faith, she killed herself. Razor blades down the wrist. Nasty way to go.”
I tried to recall if I’d seen my mother’s arms the day of her funeral, but all I had been able to focus on was her face, so thin and drawn. I had thought it was from the cancer. Tears stung my eyes and I blinked them angrily away.
“You people killed my parents.”
“Change of plans, Marcus; I don’t need to speak to you anymore.”
I ended the call without another word.
I’d been chasing leads and going down the same paths Mom had, trying to use her research to figure out what she’d known. Apparently she hadn’t been quite as meticulous as I had thought, and what she hadn’t written down, she’d taken with her to the grave. There was one place, though, she had never talked directly about, either in person or in her research, and now I was beginning to think it was the only place where I would truly find answers.
If I wanted to know why The Gathered were so drawn to the mountain, why those monsters, the Woken Daughters, were up there, why both of my parents had died, I knew where I needed to go.
My car kicked into life with the turn of my key and I sped from the hospital’s parking lot in a kick-up of dirt and gravel.
I don’t want to go, I don’t want to go, I don’t want to go, nine year old me cried over and over again in my head, but I forced her away, back into silence behind a wall, however flimsy, of determination.
I didn’t know what I was going to find up on White Crow, but I knew that the time had come. There was no more running away. There was no more hiding from the past. Gorrorum knew I was looking and he was going to keep sending his Fingers until I went crazy or converted. I had to try and end things before that happened.
It was time.
I had to return to the mountain.