The Host (Chapter 40: Horrified)

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I slowed when I heard the sound of voices. I was not close enough to the hospital for it to be Doc. Others were on their way back. I pressed myself against the rock wall and crept forward as quietly as I could. My breathing was ragged from running. I covered my mouth with my hand to stifle the sound.

"… why we keep doing this," someone complained.

I wasn't sure whose voice it was. Someone I didn't know well. Maybe Violetta? It held that same depressed tone that I recognized from before. It erased any notion that I'd been imagining things.

"Doc didn't want to. It was Jared's idea this time."

I was sure that it was Geoffrey who spoke now, though his voice was a little changed by the subdued revulsion in it. Geoffrey had been with Trudy on the raid, of course. They did everything together.

"I thought he was the biggest opponent to this business."

That was Travis, I guessed.

"He's more… motivated now," Geoffrey answered. His voice was quiet, but I could tell he was angry about something.

They passed just half a foot from where I cringed into the rocks. I froze, holding my breath.

"I think it's sick," Violetta muttered. "Disgusting. It's never going to work."

They walked slowly, their steps weighted with despair.

No one answered her. No one spoke again in my hearing. I stayed motionless until their footsteps had faded a little, but I couldn't wait until the sound disappeared completely. Ian might be following me already.

I crept forward as quickly as I could and then started jogging again when I decided it was safe.

I saw the first faint hints of daylight streaming around the curving tunnel ahead, and I shifted into a quieter lope that still kept me moving swiftly. I knew that once I was around the gradual arc, I would be able to see the doorway into Doc's realm. I followed the bend, and the light grew brighter.

I moved cautiously now, putting each foot down with silent care. It was very quiet. For a moment, I wondered if I was wrong and there was no one here at all. Then, as the uneven entrance came into view, throwing a block of white sunlight against the opposite wall, I could hear the sound of quiet sobbing.

I tiptoed right to the edge of the gap and paused, listening.

The sobbing continued. Another sound, a soft, rhythmic thudding, kept time with it.

"There, there." It was Jeb's voice, thick with some emotion. "'S okay. 'S okay, Doc. Don't take it so hard."

Hushed footsteps, more than one set, were moving around the room. Fabric rustling. A brushing sound. It reminded me of the sounds of cleaning.

There was a smell that didn't belong here. Strange… not quite metallic, but not quite anything else, either. The smell was not familiar-I was sure I had never smelled it before-and yet I had an odd feeling that it should be familiar to me.

I was afraid to move around the corner.

What's the worst they will do to us? Mel pointed out. Make us leave?

You're right.

Things had definitely changed if that was the worst I could fear from the humans now.

I took a deep breath-noticing again that strange, wrong smell-and eased around the rocky edge into the hospital.

No one noticed me.

Doc was kneeling on the floor, his face buried in his hands, his shoulders heaving. Jeb leaned over him, patting his back.

Jared and Kyle were laying a crude stretcher beside one of the cots in the middle of the room. Jared's face was hard-the mask had come back while he was away.

The cots were not empty, as they usually were. Something, hidden under dark green blankets, filled the length of both of them. Long and irregular, with familiar curves and angles…

Doc's homemade table was arranged at the head of these cots, in the brightest spot of sunlight. The table glittered with silver-shiny scalpels and an assortment of antiquated medical tools that I couldn't put a name to.

Brighter than these were other silver things. Shimmering segments of silver stretched in twisted, tortured pieces across the table… tiny silver strands plucked and naked and scattered… splatters of silver liquid smeared on the table, the blankets, the walls…

The quiet in the room was shattered by my scream. The whole room was shattered. It spun and shook to the sound, whirled around me so that I couldn't find the way out. The walls, the silver-stained walls, rose up to block my escape no matter which way I turned.

Someone shouted my name, but I couldn't hear whose voice it was. The screaming was too loud. It hurt my head. The stone wall, oozing silver, slammed into me, and I fell to the floor. Heavy hands held me there.

"Doc, help!"

"What's wrong with her?"

"Is it having a fit?"

"What did she see?"

"Nothing-nothing. The bodies were covered!"

That was a lie! The bodies were hideously uncovered, strewn in obscene contortions across the glittering table. Mutilated, dismembered, tortured bodies, ripped into grotesque shreds…

I had clearly seen the vestigial feelers still attached to the truncated anterior section of a child. Just a child! A baby! A baby thrown haphazardly in maimed pieces across the table smeared with its own blood…

My stomach rolled like the walls were rolling, and acid clawed its way up my throat.

"Wanda? Can you hear me?"

"Is she conscious?"

"I think she's going to throw up."

The last voice was right. Hard hands held my head while the acid in my stomach violently overflowed.

"What do we do, Doc?"

"Hold on to her-don't let her hurt herself."

I coughed and squirmed, trying to escape. My throat cleared.

"Let me go!" I was finally able to choke out. The words were garbled. "Get away from me! Get away; you're monsters! Torturers!"

I shrieked wordlessly again, twisting against the restraining arms.

"Calm down, Wanda! Shh! It's okay!" That was Jared's voice. For once, it didn't matter that it was Jared.

"Monster!" I screamed at him.

"She's hysterical," Doc told him. "Hold on."

A sharp, stinging blow whipped across my face.

There was a gasp, far away from the immediate chaos.

"What are you doing?" Ian roared.

"It's having a seizure or something, Ian. Doc's trying to bring it around."

My ears were ringing, but not from the slap. It was the smell-the smell of the silver blood dripping down the walls-the smell of the blood of souls. The room writhed around me as though it were alive. The light twisted into strange patterns, curved into the shapes of monsters from my past. A Vulture unfurled its wings… a claw beast swung its heavy pincers toward my face… Doc smiled and reached for me with silver trickling from his fingertips…

The room spun once more, slowly, and then went black.

Unconsciousness didn't claim me for long. It must have been only seconds later when my head cleared. I was all too lucid; I wished I could stay oblivious longer.

I was moving, rocking back and forth, and it was too black to see. Mercifully, the horrible smell had faded. The musty, humid air of the caves was like perfume.

The feeling of being carried, being cradled, was familiar. That first week after Kyle had injured me, I'd traveled many places in Ian's arms.

"… thought she'd have guessed what we were up to. Looks like I was wrong," Jared was murmuring.

"You think that's what happened?" Ian's voice cut hard in the quiet tunnel. "That she was scared because Doc was trying to take the other souls out? That she was afraid for herself?"

Jared didn't answer for a minute. "You don't?"

Ian made a sound in the back of his throat. "No. I don't. As disgusted as I am that you would bring back more… victims for Doc, bring them back now!-as much as that turns my stomach, that's not what upset her. How can you be so blind? Can't you imagine what that must have looked like to her in there?"

"I know we had the bodies covered before -"

"The wrong bodies, Jared. Oh, I'm sure Wanda would be upset by a human corpse-she's so gentle; violence and death aren't a part of her normal world. But think what the things on that table must have meant to her."

It took him another moment. "Oh."

"Yes. If you or I had walked in on a human vivisection, with torn body parts, with blood splattered on everything, it wouldn't have been as bad for us as it was for her. We'd have seen it all before-even before the invasion, in horror movies, at least. I'd bet she's never been exposed to anything like that in all her lives."

I was getting sick again. His words were bringing it back. The sight. The smell.

"Let me go," I whispered. "Put me down."

"I didn't mean to wake you. I'm sorry." The last words were fervent, apologizing for more than waking me.

"Let me go."

"You're not well. I'll take you to your room."

"No. Put me down now."

"Wanda -"

"Now!" I shouted. I shoved against Ian's chest, kicking my legs free at the same time. The ferocity of my struggle surprised him. He lost his hold on me, and I half fell into a crouch on the floor.

I sprang up from the crouch running.


"Let her go."

"Don't touch me! Wanda, come back!"

It sounded like they were wrestling behind me, but I didn't slow. Of course they were fighting. They were humans. Violence was pleasure to them.

I didn't pause when I was back in the light. I sprinted through the big cavern without looking at any of the monsters there. I could feel their eyes on me, and I didn't care.

I didn't care where I was going, either. Just somewhere I could be alone. I avoided the tunnels that had people near them, running down the first empty one I could find.

It was the eastern tunnel. This was the second time I'd sprinted through this corridor today. Last time in joy, this time in horror. It was hard to remember how I'd felt this afternoon, knowing the raiders were home. Everything was dark and gruesome now, including their return. The very stones seemed evil.

This way was the right choice for me, though. No one had any reason to come here, and it was empty.

I ran to the farthest end of the tunnel, into the deep night of the empty game room. Could I really have played games with them such a short time ago? Believed the smiles on their faces, not seeing the beasts underneath…

I moved forward until I stumbled ankle deep into the oily waters of the dark spring. I backed away, my hand outstretched, searching for a wall. When I found a rough ridge of stone-sharp-edged beneath my fingers-I turned into the depression behind the protrusion and curled myself into a tight ball on the ground there.

It wasn't what we thought. Doc wasn't hurting anyone on purpose; he was just trying to save –

GET OUT OF MY HEAD! I shrieked.

As I thrust her away from me-gagged her so that I wouldn't have to bear her justifications-I realized how weak she'd grown in all these months of friendliness. How much I'd been allowing. Encouraging.

It was almost too easy to silence her. As easy as it should have been from the beginning.

It was only me now. Just me, and the pain and the horror that I would never escape. I would never not have that image in my head again. I would never be free of it. It was forever a part of me.

I didn't know how to mourn here. I could not mourn in human ways for these lost souls whose names I would never know. For the broken child on the table.

I had never had to mourn on the Origin. I didn't know how it was done there, in the truest home of my kind. So I settled for the way of the Bats. It seemed appropriate, here where it was as black as being blind. The Bats mourned with silence-not singing for weeks on end until the pain of the nothingness left behind by the lack of music was worse than the pain of losing a soul. I'd known loss there. A friend, killed in a freak accident, a falling tree in the night, found too late to save him from the crushed body of his host. Spiraling… Upward… Harmony; those were the words that would have held his name in this language. Not exact, but close enough. There had been no horror in his death, only grief. An accident.

The bubbling stream was too discordant to remind me of our songs. I could grieve beside its harmony-free clatter.

I wrapped my arms tightly around my shoulders and mourned for the child and the other soul who had died with it. My siblings. My family. If I had found a way free of this place, if I had warned the Seekers, their remains would not be so casually mangled and mixed together in that blood-steeped room.

I wanted to cry, to keen in misery. But that was the human way. So I locked my lips and hunched in the darkness, holding the pain inside.

My silence, my mourning, was stolen from me.

It took them a few hours. I heard them looking, heard their voices echo and warp in the long tubes of air. They were calling for me, expecting an answer. When they received no answer, they brought lights. Not the dim blue lanterns that might never have revealed my hiding place here, buried under all this blackness, but the sharp yellow lances of flashlights. They swept back and forth, pendulums of light. Even with the flashlights, they didn't find me until the third search of the room. Why couldn't they leave me alone?

When the flashlight's beam finally disinterred me, there was a gasp of relief.

"I found her! Tell the others to get back inside! She's in here after all!"

I knew the voice, but I didn't put a name to it. Just another monster.

"Wanda? Wanda? Are you all right?"

I didn't raise my head or open my eyes. I was in mourning.

"Where's Ian?"

"Should we get Jamie, do you think?"

"He shouldn't be on that leg."

Jamie. I shuddered at his name. My Jamie. He was a monster, too. He was just like the rest of them. My Jamie. It was a physical pain to think of him.

"Where is she?"

"Over here, Jared. She's not… responding."

"We didn't touch her."

"Here, give me the light," Jared said. "Now, the rest of you, get out of here. Emergency over. Give her some air, okay?"

There was a shuffling noise that didn't travel far.

"Seriously, people. You're not helping. Leave. All the way out."

The shuffling was slow at first, but then became more productive. I could hear many footsteps fading away in the room and then disappearing out of it.

Jared waited until it was silent again.

"Okay, Wanda, it's just you and me."

He waited for some kind of answer.

"Look, I guess that must have been pretty… bad. We never wanted you to see that. I'm sorry."

Sorry? Geoffrey'd said it was Jared's idea. He wanted to cut me out, slice me into little pieces, fling my blood on the wall. He'd slowly mangle a million of me if he could find a way to keep his favorite monster alive with him. Slash us all to slivers.

He was quiet for a long time, still waiting for me to react.

"You look like you want to be alone. That's okay. I can keep them away, if that's what you want."

I didn't move.

Something touched my shoulder. I cringed away from it, into the sharp stones.

"Sorry," he muttered.

I heard him stand, and the light-red behind my closed eyes-began to fade as he walked away.

He met someone in the mouth of the cave.

"Where is she?"

"She wants to be alone. Let her be."

"Don't get in my way again, Howe."

"Do you think she wants comfort from you? From a human?"

"I wasn't party to this -"

Jared answered in a lower voice, but I could still hear the echoes. "Not this time. You're one of us, Ian. Her enemy. Did you hear what she said in there? She was screaming monsters. That's how she sees us now. She doesn't want your comfort."

"Give me the light."

They didn't speak again. A minute passed, and I heard one set of slow footsteps moving around the edge of the room. Eventually, the light swept across me, turning my lids red again.

I huddled myself more tightly together, expecting him to touch me.

There was a quiet sigh, and then the sound of him sitting on the stone, not as close beside me as I would have expected.

With a click, the light disappeared.

I waited in the silence for a long time for him to speak, but he was just as silent as I was.

Finally, I stopped waiting and returned to my mourning. Ian did not interrupt. I sat in the blackness of the big hole in the ground and grieved for lost souls with a human at my side.

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