There was a small motel just off of Main Street, the only one in the entire town of Conroy. It was old, just a single, long building with the rooms all in a row and a sun-bleached facade of brick and wood that someone had attempted to paint a pale blue. It looked like they gave up halfway through.
Every room faced east, towards the mountain.
I parked my rental outside the office and paid upfront for the week. I didn’t know if I’d even need to stay that long, I hoped not, but it didn’t seem unreasonable to be prepared. The room itself was dated, but tidy and cared for, and I tossed my suitcase onto the quilt covered bed and set up my laptop on the small table tucked into one corner. After opening my email program to let it download anything new, I headed to the bathroom for a much needed shower.
The drive over had seemed far longer than it had any right to be. I’d put off leaving my previous hotel until the early evening, waiting for both the storm to pass and Bernice’s email to arrive. When neither happened, I’d sucked it up and ran through the downpour to my car, my belongings hugged close to my chest.
After standing beneath the warm, but weak spray of the shower long enough to rinse some of my tension away, I dried off, changed into my pajamas, and checked my emails again.
One new one from Beatrice Nova was waiting in my inbox with five attachments.
I skipped the no doubt generic message she’d included and went straight to the list of attachments. They were all short excerpts from larger work, but did a decent job at giving me a better idea of what The Gathered was.
Formed around the belief in a realm known as Ibsilyth, or “The Lightless Place”, and its inhabitants, The Gathered is a destructionist cult who worship a being they call Gorrorum.
By freeing Gorrorum, The Gathered hoped to usher in The Rot, a time during which their god would consume all life and then rebirth his loyal followers so that they could follow him between the countless realms, repeating the process.
A lot of the known rituals involved blood sacrifice of both believers and nonbelievers and centered around opening a doorway between dimensions. It seemed that they considered earth a “linear realm”, one that fell in a straight line with many others and that could access and be accessed by its neighbors with the right knowledge and tools.
Ibsilyth, on the other hand, was a “crooked realm”.
Once part of the linear lineup, ancient forces from across a number of dimensions had come together and cast Gorrorum and his ilk, the ungodly ones, out of their worlds and into Ibsilyth, a desolate wasteland of darkness and terror, before pushing it out of alignment with the others. It became a realm between, one that exists on the fringe of the linear ones, but that supposedly has no direct doorways to enter or exit.
The Gathered, however, believed that there were certain times when our world and Ibsilyth still brushed one another and, for short periods, there would be an opening just big enough to allow The Festering Father to pass through. Through blood and worship, they strived to control that timing and call to Gorrorum.
The final article listed a few incidents involving the cult, mostly group suicides and animal sacrifices, but there was only one publicly acknowledged case of kidnapping and murder: that of the White Crow Mountain sect just outside of Conroy, Pennsylvania.
I stopped reading and sat back, rubbing my tired eyes with the heels of my hands. I felt more like I’d been delving into some serious science fiction than peer reviewed academia. Realms and gods and doorways; if I hadn’t seen that creature on the mountain, I would have dismissed it as being a whole lot of playing pretend that got out of hand.
Now, while still hard to swallow, I could at least entertain the idea that there was some fact within so much fiction.
I shot a quick thank you email back to Beatrice and shut the laptop before climbing into bed. It was hard to know if I was doing the right thing in falling down the very rabbit hole that was The Gathered and the ungodly that my mother had tried to keep me out of, but now that I’d started, I felt like I had to see it through to whatever end. Even if it was as unsatisfying as the Greers had experienced.
Sleep came easy that night, but taking any rest in it was hard.
From the moment I closed my eyes, nightmares plagued me. Voices surrounded me like a whirlwind, speaking in every tongue I’d ever heard and more that I hadn’t, but I couldn’t understand any of them. A giant loomed in the distance, outlined against a crimson and purpled sky, and even though I was too far to see it clearly, I knew that it was him that I was hearing. I turned away, tried to run, but found I was knee-deep in the dark ground, barren save for skeletal and alien trees that were twisted and bent.
I struggled and pulled and fought, but it was like wading through thick mud. Beside me, a slimy, slug-like being stirred. It unwound its bulbous body and rose with its face, at once so human and unfamiliar, turned upright as it sniffed the air with the remnants of a nose half lost to decay.
When its protruding eyes fell upon me, I started to scream.
I woke to a pounding on my door.
“Ma’am? Is everything alright?” Someone was shouting. “If you don’t answer, I’m going to call the police!”
I staggered out of bed, my head fuzzy and throbbing, and I yanked open the door. A hotel maid was on the other side, her face drawn with concern.
“Are you ok?” She asked, peering over my shoulder as if to check that I was alone.
“Yeah, sorry. I guess I was having a nightmare.”
“Must have been a bad one,” she said, not entirely convinced. “I heard you yelling two rooms down.”
“Sorry,” I repeated. “I’m fine, though. Thanks for checking.”
She hovered in the door for a moment longer before I pointedly stepped back and closed it.
It was just after ten, already visiting hours at the hospital, and I dressed quickly. I spent the half hour drive dividing my time between rubbing one of my temples to ease the lingering headache and trying to figure out exactly what I was even going to say to the lumberjack. Somehow, following up my introduction with, “Let’s trade stories about the trapdoor lady taking our loved ones, you go first” didn’t seem all that appropriate, especially since I didn’t know what his mental state might be.
The Ashville Home Mental Health and Rehab Center was a sprawling, manor like facility set back on well manicured grounds. I might have thought I was in the wrong place had the interior not been painted that awful caught-between-pea-and-puke-green color that was so popular in medical settings and lit harshly by fluorescent lights that washed everything in a ghostly pallor.
“Good morning,” the front desk nurse, Amy according to her name tag, said when I walked in. “Can I help you?”
“Yeah, I’m here to see Charlie Papovitch? I’m his, uh-”
“Niece, yes! Isla left a note saying you’d be by. We’re all so excited that he finally has a visitor, it’s been so long. He is just the nicest man, you’re going to love him.”
I nodded along with a forced smile, but if she noticed, it didn’t give her any pause. I signed in as Faith Smith, stuck on the visitor’s tag she gave me, and waited for an orderly to come walk me up to one of the rec rooms on the the second floor.
Charlie was a middle aged man, turned much older by his time at Ashville. His bushy beard and neatly trimmed hair had already grayed and deep lines were carved into his face. He regarded me with an intense, expressionless stare when I sat down in the plastic chair across the table from him.
“Hi,” I said awkwardly. “I’m Faith…”
“My niece,” his voice was like gravel.
I dipped my head in a gesture that was half nod, half shrug.
“Funny thing is, I don’t have any nieces. Nephews, sure, four of them last I heard, but no girls.”
“But…you didn’t tell them that?” I glanced at the staff members standing by the double doors, watching over the room and all of its residents.
“Nope. I figured if someone’s lying to come see me, they’ve gotta have a good reason, so why don’t we cut the bullshit and get to it.”
I was a bit taken back by his straightforwardness, but relieved at the same time. “I read about you in an article, about what you saw on the mountain.”
He stared at me in stony silence.
“You saw the spider-armed woman,” I pressed.
“Is that what you call her?” He finally asked.
“Every day since I saw her take my dad.”
“Then they haven’t found you yet.”
“What?” I leaned in. “Who?”
I frowned and straightened, unsure of what, exactly, he meant. He quirked a bushy brow in the face of my scrutiny and folded his thinned, but still defined, arms over his chest.
“You really don’t know very much, do you?” He said. “Ok, we’ll start simple, then. Have you had any weird dreams lately, anything unusual?”
Slowly, I nodded. “Last night.”
“That’s how it starts,” he replied. “That’s how you know they’ve found you.”
Before he would explain what he meant, Charlie asked me to recount what I knew about The Gathered. I told him about the excerpts Dr. Boltson had provided and and what my mom had found and he listened with a slight head tilt until I was done.
“So you know what everyone knows; all the stuff that The Gathered allowed out into the general public,” he said.
“I guess? But Dr. Boltson is a professional, this is what she does for a living.”
“Dr. Boltson doesn’t know shit except what people have been willing to tell her, which isn’t half of what goes on. Gorrorum doesn’t like outsiders to know what he’s up to, and he always knows a true believer from a false prophet.”
His Fingers made sure of that.
While it was true that Ibsilyth fell outside of the linear realms, Charlie said, there were still tiny cracks and crevices that certain beings could squeeze through in order to get into our world. The Fingers were one of those beings. Created from torn off bits of Gorrorum’s own flesh and molded into his image, the tiny avatars were able to seek out those holes that their master couldn’t get through and enter our realm.
“Gorrorum is a beast of decay; he’s constantly rotting away from the inside out and absorbs other creatures to make up for it. His Fingers experience it, too, but they can’t rebuild themselves. By the time they get to us here on earth, they tend to look…kind of mushy, like a half burned candle. You seen anything like that?”
I thought of the fleshy lump I’d noticed outside my hotel window a couple nights before. “Maybe.”
“I bet you have,” he chuckled darkly. “They’re the little dreamweavers. When you start sniffing around and looking for answers, that gets his attention and he’ll send a couple your way. While you sleep, they get into your room and drip bits of their body into your ear, causing you to see things, to gain knowledge you never wanted. They carry his message with them into our world and slowly turn to sludge that ends up in your head. The longer it goes on, the more you know, until you either go crazy or convert. Either way, there’s no getting rid of it once it starts.”
“What about you?” I asked quietly, suppressing a shiver. “Are you part of The Gathered?”
“Look where I am and you tell me,” Charlie bared his teeth in a grin. “The Fingers can’t get me anymore. The meds I’m on make dreaming a thing of the past. Lucky me, huh?”
“But before you were here…were you going to become one of them?”
His grin faded into a softer expression, something just shy of a smile. “I was. I’d been dreaming for a long time, hearing Gorrorum whispering to me at night. I was gonna be like Lyman Victors, except I was gonna succeed where he failed.”
“What did you do?”
“I killed my son,” he stared over my shoulder with haunted, pained eyes. “He was four. Innocent. Perfect. I slit his throat. His mama found us, but she wasn’t the type that Gorrorum craves, so I just let her go. Cops came, and here I am.”
A deep chill had settled over the table and I rubbed my arms unconsciously while staring at the tabletop. I didn’t know what else to ask him, especially not after he’d told me about his son.
“They’re called the Woken Daughters,” he said, breaking the silence after a few minutes.
I looked up again. “Sorry?”
“The spider-armed woman you mentioned. There’s three of them up there; the Woken Daughters.”
“You’ll learn soon enough, I suppose,” Charlie pushed his chair back and started to stand. “I’m sorry, niece, but I think I’ve had enough family time for one day.”
“Can I ask you one more thing?” I stood as well and he paused. “Is there anyone else? Like us.”
“Of course. We’re everywhere, especially in this town. The White Crow Mountain Gathered didn’t die out that day, the chosen survivors just scattered. How else would Gorrorum make sure that there are still people out there spreading his word so close to where he wants to make his grand entrance?”
“Do you know any of them? Can you give me their names?”
Charlie pursed his lips into a thin line and inhaled slowly through his nose. “Sorry, kid, I’m not going to do that to you. Whatever you think you’re gonna find, it’s not worth it.”
“Please,” I reached across the table and grabbed his wrist as he turned to go. One of the orderlies by the door turned towards us and was keeping a close eye on the interaction, so I released Charlie almost immediately. “If what you’re saying is true, then I’m already on their list or whatever, I’m already having the dreams. I can’t go back now.”
He sighed and kept his back to me. “Marcus Shepard. He still writes to me from time to time. I think he’s a librarian at the middle school. He’s a member, keeps records or something for them. Nice guy, if you ignore the fact that he worships Gorrorum.”
“Thank you,” I called after him as he started to cross the room.
He stiffened, half turned without stopping, and said, “Trust me, there’s nothing to thank me for.”