The Wither Goer
A short story inspired by countless works before it, with regards to Lovecraft, C. A. Smith, Machen, et al. A “wither goer” is a calque of the German word “Wiedergänger” which means “again walker”. “Wither” is from the Old English word meaning “again”.
The Wither Goer
You took me out in to the moonlit desert, my love. So enamoured was I of you that I did not see that dim fire in your eyes, that purposeful evil that smouldered there. An hour’s walk beyond the city, you led me up the slope of the highest dune, the giant that overlooked all other lesser dunes and you showed me the trailing moonlight upon the endless sands. My life had reached the zenith of bliss, my love; and I doubt a woman in this world or any other could be happier. You held my hand and I saw a glint out of the corner of my eye. It was a ring! How the moonlight caught the clear edges of the gem, sparkling and alluring! On your palm, you presented me this ring, and I thought you would take me as your wife that night. My heart raced and hope soared through the heavens.
No! What were you doing to me? I felt the deep sting at my back and I collapsed to my knees. This was not betrayal, surely not! Clutching and grasping at life, I tumbled sideways but you held me fast with a foot. Kneeling, you peered into my face as my lips begged to know why. My dress, my shift, the necklace of my mother’s – you tore them all from me! As I struggled to breathe and hold on to a life that was slowly draining from me, I was ravished. By you, my love. Ravished, where I would’ve given myself freely had you asked, had you gently stroked my hand. But I had not seen that glimmer in your eyes, that cruel intent you bore silently as we crossed the sighing sands. Oh, I had been so struck by the love we shared, by everything that was shared while we stood together.
Now I felt only fire in my loins, and my heart beat became softer, waning as I bled. My feeble fingers reached for your beautiful, cold face and I asked why. How have I failed you, my love. What have I done to you?
You showed me a bag of coins, and you spilled them on to the sand, where they tinkled pale gold in the moonlight. Now I understood. There was another whom you loved. Another whom you’ve plighted yourself to. As I drifted into death, I was appalled at the profound sorrow I felt. You never truly loved me. Your heart was always kept by another and I was led here to die, the unwanted intruder in love. You betrayed me, turned on me! Me, the most faithful and devoted of loves.
But I had one last effort in me. I seized your hand, and as Anubis was my witness, I cursed you, my love. I swore vengeance against you and all you would ever hold dear. I prayed to Anubis to grant me life after death so there could be an exaction, so I could come upon you as night’s dark terror.
When I was somewhere between dead and dying, you spat on my poor bloodied and naked body, and left my side, leaving me to the harsh desert who claims all. I died then, and my death was a piteous thing, unwitnessed by none but the stars and the silvery wisps of cloud. Into blackness I fell but before my mind winked out, my consciousness began to flit through brown layers of smoke and haze, while hateful yellow eyes stared from the edge of perception, watching my slow fall through the afterlife. It seemed like an instant, but I knew time made no sense in that darkling realm.
Then I was taken by mighty unseen hands, and all I could smell was death. The fetor of decay lay upon me like an abominable blanket, and it sucked the youth and beauty from my body, leaving me a dry husk, my nails talons, my teeth fangs and my eyes two points of cold grey light. My skin hung to my bones like old parchment. I was a creature of the night now, birthed from rot and darkness, and I was granted the purpose of nemesis.
There was an upheaval and I found myself standing on that very dune where I had died, the moon now sinking into the far west. How long had I been there? Again, time meant nothing. My blood no longer stained the yellow sands, and my rent clothes were gone. Even my mother’s necklace, an heirloom of a dozen generations, was not where it had fell. I took a breath but found I could not. There was no need for such a thing as I was no longer among those who needed the air the gods of sky and wind had provided. My sustenance came from a fell place that few spoke of and even fewer had seen.
But my eyes were new things and I saw far into the distance, despite the wan light. I could see scorpions half a mile away, emerging from the cool sand. I saw the asp slither down the dunes, forked tongue seeking prey in the blurred pre-dawn. Miles and leagues I saw, and my new eyes, gifts of the underworld turned thither to the city. There I could sense warm life abed, dreaming the dreams of the hopeful, of green things, rushing water, kisses in starlight or furtively holding hands behind red curtains.
My love was not to be seen. He was gone. I felt then such a rage as no living woman ever has. It coursed through my dead, shrivelled veins like white fire, nourishing me with hate, then I sensed a thirst like none other, a deep want no water could ever slake. The desert was sole witness to the hideous scream I gave vent to, more fierce and dire than any howling wolf or jackal. Suffused with the ire and bloodlust of the dead, I flew like an ill wind toward the city, the sands rushing under my withered feet.
There was but one guard at the city gates and I and the dawn came. He saw me and threw down his spear in fright, hurling himself to his knees, crying to sweet Nephthys for mercy. I cared for him not, him being a pitiful man and his death would not sate my hunger. With the sun at my wizened back, I flew through the old streets of the city, to the house of my love. With a wave of my hand, I hurled the door down, blasting its old wood to pieces. There was no-one home, not a soul living or dead but myself. I roared in anger, and the folk of the neighbouring homes cried out in fear. Seething with red fury, I tore through my love’s house, destroying all I could see, every cupboard, bed and pallet. Not a thing I left whole.
Where are you? I screamed, my voice the cry of the netherworld, bringing with it the promise of hell and horror. Set and Osiris give me power! My love, where are you? You cannot escape me! I will hunt you beyond the Cataracts, beyond the Great Green, beyond the Libyan Desert, beyond the known extents of our world! If you dwell in the Hyperborea of legend, then by Anubis, I will hunt you there! Death did not stop me, my love. No power lesser than the divine can. Nothing of this brown earth!
The sun peeked above the horizon, bringing the heat of the day. The Black Land stirred, but I stood musing in the house of my love, a dread shape of undeath, a bane of out of the old stories. But I also stood in futility, for my love was not there and I knew not where to go. I understood now. Though it seemed an instant between my death and my raising as a dark shadow, there was a measure of years that had passed. My love had moved away to parts unknown and was lost to me. I wanted to weep but I had no capacity for such human emotions. Tears were for the living and though I felt the same pain, there was no release from it.
Now soldiers came with bright swords of bronze and drove me from my love’s house. Priests too, with their censers and spells to destroy me. Shrieking, I fled into the eastern desert, impotent rage and frustration consuming my wasted stilled heart. Eastward I flew, across the hot sands and rocks where no living man went. I cursed and I screamed, putting vultures to the flight and scorpions scattering to their burrows. I was a black shape of the hells moving across the cream and gold of the desert and nothing dared to come near me.
After unnumbered days and nights, I reached a hot green sea and I could go no further. There on a beach of sand and pebble, I watched the waves as they came in. This endless cycle of wind and water gave me no comfort and dark thoughts entered my mind. Anubis had cheated me! I had made an ill bargain and there I was to stay on the fringes of existence, a wretched spirit in the realm of life and light. My love had escaped me, gone with the one I had been slain for. My aspirations had come to this dejected conclusion, to linger like one damned, while the sea moved in and out in its remorseless and eternal way.
Damned is what I was, and I drifted along the beach, all faith and fire gone from my blackened soul. Not even the wheeling of the gulls and the sidling of thousands of crabs brought me respite or solace. The water’s touch was like poison to me and I recoiled away from its churn, cursing where fate had brought me. If I could drown myself in the sea, I would’ve been content I think, but no, I could not even lay a shrivelled toe in the water. No gods were listening to me and there not a living soul about.
I screeched in anger again, my stark and bitter voice echoing over the foredunes and swales above the beach. There was no answer to my rage and nothing gave me any kind of comfort. The sun set behind me and a silvery darkness spread over the water. As I watched, a boat sailed northward with the breeze and I could hear laughter floating over the water. I edged down to the lapping water and stared at the passing vessel, not a thousand paces away. Soft lanterns illuminated a small host of people, making merry in the twilight. My frozen heart yearned to be on board, and I felt such a deep despair, I thought I would crumble and be swept away on the wind.
I turned to the north and paralleled the boat, my eyes fixed on it as it glided through the calm dusk sea. Well into the night I travelled, and the boat’s lanterns lit up the water like glad beacons. There was a village to the north and this was where the boat was making for. It came to a pier and the revellers alighted, singing and dancing. But who was that in the lead? The tallest of them all? It was my love.
My heart raged with an infernal fire and my sight turned to red. My love was leading a family as I saw it to be. Two younger ones and a woman. This was she who I was murdered for. I thought wrathful thoughts of envy and hate as I followed them, trailing their steps like the vengeful wraith of the underworld I was. But my ferocity was for my love, not his woman. My whole purpose in this accursed undeath was to avenge myself against his treacherous deed, and I floated silently behind them as they went through the sleeping village, a blacker shade against the black.
Into a house they went, but my love tarried at the door. His face was as I remembered it; dear and lovely but my only desire now was to rend it, tear his flesh from bone and spill his heart’s blood at his feet. He was standing at the threshold still when I came up to him unaware. Silently, I put out a taloned finger and stroked his cheek. He froze and his eyes darted my way. In the light from within the house, I could see his flesh had paled.
My fingers closed about his neck and I flew away from the house and village, back down the foreshore of the beach, my love in hand. His pulse felt vital under my dead fingers and my thoughts darkly relished what would come next. There, a mile from the village, I threw him to the sand. He cowered before me, gibbering and pleading. Gold coins spilled from his clothes and I picked one up. Was this the price of my death? Had my love kept this evil exchange this whole time? I wanted to ask him, but I knew I would not receive a reply that would warm my chilled heart.
My time in the world of the living was now short and I could feel Anubis coming to claim me. I lifted my love’s face and looked deep into his eyes. Tears ran down his cheeks and he told me of his sorrow, how he had lived with his betrayal through the years, and he begged for my pardon.
My love, you will have it. I took his hand and led him into the water, its touch like acid to my shrunken skin. Deeper we went, and I held my love to my breast, his heart thudding. Into the depths we sunk and my love drowned, but I kept my embrace. As he died, he kissed my mouth, and I was spent. Anubis came and I could feel my love no more.
I was restored to my flesh as if I was a living woman, and I was clothed in the softest cotton. But I was still dead, and there I drifted, fulfilled in intent and at peace. Anubis claimed my soul and as I fell into his domain, I witnessed myself, a dark thing, floating in the clean waters of the sea.
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