The Curse of the Wendigo
Page 48

 Rick Yancey

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He gathered me into his arms and whispered my name fiercely. I tried to warn him. I tried. I knew the words. I heard them in my head. It’s coming. But the ability to speak was lost.
“Where is he, Will Henry? Where is John?”
When I didn’t answer, he raised his head and called out, “Here! I have found him! Over here!”
He turned back to me. “Is he here, Will Henry? Is John here?”
I looked over his shoulder and saw, through the face of his beloved, the yellow eye looking back down at me. The beast towered behind the doctor; the top of its head brushed the ceiling. Like an angry child flinging a broken toy, it reached down with its enormous claw, seized my master by the nape of the neck, and hurled him down the corridor.
Warthrop landed on his back with a startled grunt. He brought up his revolver, but did not fire. As to why he didn’t, I can only conjecture. Out of the wilderness he had borne his friend; through unimaginable suffering and sacrifice he had carried John Chanler home. How could he now end that life he had given so much to save? Would not pulling that trigger negate everything the doctor believed in? Indeed, would it not prove von Helrung correct in the most fundamental sense—prove that love itself is the beast that devours all mankind?
The blackened wreckage that was John Chanler smacked the gun from the doctor’s hand with such velocity that the act painted an afterimage upon my eyes. It yanked him close so that he might see clearly what both Muriel and John had given him and what he had given them in return. This is the face of love.
Then it pressed their mouths to his.
In the next second I was upon it, the silver-plated knife in my hand. I thrust the blade to the hilt into the thin neck. The beast shrugged me off its back as easily as a man flicks off a bit of lint from his coat. The doctor thrashed beneath it; one ebony claw was clamped over the doctor’s nose and eyes while it pressed its mouth tightly against the doctor’s mouth. The beast was smothering him with its kiss.
I leapt again onto the thing’s back, von Helrung’s words echoing in my ears: Silver—by bullet or knife—to the heart. Only the heart!
I swung my arms around in a ludicrous parody of its earlier embrace of me, and plunged the silver blade again and again into its heaving chest.
Its skeletal form jerked; behind Muriel’s lips the bloody mouth came open in an animal squeal of pain. The beast rose, throwing me free, and then fell away. It rose again, collapsed, and curled into a mewling fetal ball.
Welling with pain and yearning, the yellow eyes sought out mine. I brought the blade high over my head, and beneath the human mask something inside the beast remembered, and John Chanler smiled. His heart rose up to meet the orgasmic thrust.
“God damn it!” The doctor’s voice thundered in my ears. “God damn it, why?”
He shoved me aside and gathered his attacker into his lap, and now the thing appeared pitifully small and frail, nothing like the giant wraith of just a moment before. With one hand the monstrumologist compressed the wound; the blood, as black as tar in the weak light, pulsed between his fingers with each beat of the dying man’s heart. Then Warthrop gently peeled off the overlaid face of the one they both had loved, and stared into the unseeing eyes of the one he thought he had brought out of the desolation. But he hadn’t brought him out. The desolation was within him.
“No, no, no,” Pellinore Warthrop protested, the impotent human cry.
“The Gift Was Mine to Give”
On the last Friday of the colloquium, my master rose from his chair, the chamber became still, and a hundred of his colleagues leaned forward in their seats, waiting with bated breath to hear his reply to von Helrung, upon which the future of their discipline hung in the balance. If he should fail, monstrumology would be doomed. It would never be accepted as a legitimate line of inquiry; its practitioners would henceforward and forever be perceived as laughingstocks, eccentric pseudoscientists on the fringes of “real” science.
Von Helrung had presented a compelling case, reworking his original paper to incorporate his star witness, the “indispensable proof,” as he called it—one William James Henry, special assistant to the chief spokesman for the opposing side!
I had expected the doctor’s presentation to be as awkward as his practice of it had been, tortured in its logic, inconsistent in its arguments—and I was not disappointed. It was painful to listen to, but everyone listened politely. The real show was to follow, the question and answer period, during which Warthrop would have to yield the floor.
Von Helrung posed the first question immediately upon the conclusion of Warthrop’s reply.
“I thank my dear friend and former pupil, the honorable Dr. Warthrop, for his cogent and entirely earnest response. I am flattered—indeed, I am humbled—to be the recipient of such an impassioned—may I say, even passionate—reply. I have taught him well, have I not?”
He joined in their nervous laughter.
“But I do have one or two questions before I yield the floor, if that suits the honorable doctor? Thank you. I know the hour grows late; we have trains to catch; we long for our homes and families and, of course, our work . . . and we have friends to bury. Alas! Such is our lot. Such is the price we pay for the advancement of human knowledge. Dr. Gravois understood this, and accepted it. We all accept it. Even John . . .” His voice broke. “Even John accepted it.
“But I digress. To my question, then, Dr. Warthrop, mein Freund. If your hypothesis is correct in this most strange and pathetic episode, how do you explain the testimony of your own apprentice regarding the nature of the beast?”
“I have explained it already,” replied the doctor tightly. Though the swelling of his jaw had receded somewhat, it still pained him to speak. “The evidence is as plain as the wound on his neck.”
“Ah, by that you mean the bite of the Allghoi khorkhoi, which he suffered prior to the events to which he has this day testified?”
“I mean precisely that. The effects of the creature’s venom have been well documented, by some of the very people who now sit in this room.”
“But it is my understanding that the good Adolphus Ainsworth administered to him the anti-venom within minutes of the exposure.”
“Equally supported in the literature,” said the doctor through gritted teeth, “is the tendency of the victim to suffer lingering, intermittent aftereffects, even after the administration of the antidote.”
“So your explanation for Herr William Henry’s testimony is that it was all a dream?” He was chuckling warmly.
“A hallucination would be more accurate.”
“He did not hear the Outiko calling him upon the wind?”
“Of course not.”
“And the Outiko did not remove him to the Monstrumarium by riding with him upon that wind?”
“I would ask you, and all members present, to close your eyes and imagine such a scenario.”
There was a smattering of applause. A point scored by Warthrop.
“Then, how do you propose he brought him there from that tenement cellar? Did he hail a taxi?”
Now laughter, much louder than the tepid applause. A point for von Helrung.
“I propose he carried him there.”
“On foot.”
“Yes, of course. Under the cover of darkness.”
“I see.” Von Helrung was nodding with mock gravity. “Now turning your attention to the first incident, Dr. Warthrop. It is your contention that the creature—”
“John. His name was John.”
“Yes, it did used to be John.”
“It was always John.”
“It is your contention that he jumped through a fourth-story hospital window—”
“It is my contention that he escaped through that window. Whether he went up a drainpipe or down it, he escaped. He did not ‘take to the high wind’ as you suggest, unless he sprouted wings, which I suppose you will say he did.”
“And as to the other eyewitness accounts—what do you say to them?” The old Austrian held up the stack of sworn affidavits. “Are they also unfortunate victims of the Death Worm?”
Warthrop grimaced through the attendant laughter, waiting for it to die away before saying, “I can’t say what they suffer from except perhaps a form of mass hysteria exacerbated by an overzealous press eager to sell newspapers.”
“So you would have this august assembly reject the sworn testimony of seventy-three eyewitnesses based upon . . . what? What, Dr. Warthrop? Based upon the fact that since you say it can’t be so, it can’t be so? Is this not the very thing of which you accuse me? Assuming facts not in evidence?”
“I don’t accuse you of assuming facts not in evidence. I accuse you of making them up out of whole cloth.”
“Very well, then!” von Helrung cried, throwing the papers down with a dramatic flourish. “Tell me—enlighten all of us, good doctor—what killed Pierre Larose? What stripped him of his skin and fed upon his heart and impaled him upon a pole? What dragged Sergeant Jonathan Hawk forty feet into the sky and crucified him upon the highest tree? What did our beloved colleague find in the desolation that did this to him?” He flung his hand toward the autopsy table, where the body lay exposed under the harsh glare of the stage lights.
“I don’t think,” said the doctor deliberately, “that he found anything at all.” He rose from his chair. I fought the instinct to rush to his side. He looked on the verge of collapse.
“I don’t know who killed Pierre Larose. It may have been the natives in an act of superstitious dread. It may have been a disgruntled creditor or someone to whom he owed a gambling debt. Perhaps John himself did it after he had succumbed to whatever demon possessed him. I doubt anyone will ever know. As for Hawk . . . clearly a case of bush fever. I ask what is a better explanation—that something dropped him from above or that he climbed that tree? A boy half his size climbed it. Why couldn’t he?”
He turned his head toward the body of his friend, and then turned away again.
“And John . . . I suppose that is the crux of it, isn’t it? What happened to John Chanler? You would make a monster of him, and I suppose one could call him that. I do not deny his crimes. I do not say he suffered horribly from something I little understand. The key being . . . Well, I suppose I am the sole gardener on earth who is ignorant of the seeds he plants. But I will say”—and here the monstrumologist’s voice became hard—“I will say he did his best to meet all our expectations. You wanted him to be a monster, and he obliged you, didn’t he, Meister Abram? He exceeded your wildest dreams. We do strive to become what others see in us, don’t we?
“I tried to save him. From the beginning I was willing to lay down my life for him, for there is no love greater than this . . .”
He stopped, overwhelmed. I rose to go to him. He waved me back.
“He asked me ‘What have we given?’ I do not pretend to know all that he meant by that, but I know this much: It shall not stand. I will not allow it to stand. You will not desecrate his body as you desecrated his memory. That is what I can give him. That is all I can give him. I will bury my friend, and I swear I will kill the man who tries to stop me.”