To Fly On Pestilent Wings
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The glow of the computer was the only source of illumination in the hermit's room. Wrapped in a blanket and gorging on ice cream, she scrolled like a broken automaton through photo after photo. Every second of reminiscing was agony, and yet she couldn't bring herself to look away. It was almost comfortable, wallowing and sobbing like it was the end of the world. But she was stuck in this insidious comfort zone, unable to move an inch. Though the room was clean as always, it was an empty gesture. She couldn't make her own thoughts into a coherent and organized whole.

She hugged her teddy bear like a lifeline, as if objects might come to life just to reject her as well. The clock reached 1 AM, each movement of its hands seeming sluggish and stretched out. She checked her messages more times than anyone should. Nothing. Eyes red, throat hoarse and heart shriveling. She got up and walked around as if sleepwalking, going in circles without purpose. The bed sheets were tossed all about as she fought back her insomnia. Thumbing idly through a medical textbook, the tiredness made her drop it on her foot. There was pain, but it got drowned out among everything else. With great effort, she turned her head a bit to look at the clock again.

Ten minutes had passed.

Did she deserve this waking nightmare? Accelerated and burning loops of self-loathing told her that she deserved every second and so much more. Changing tabs on the screen, she stared at the comment section like a masochist. The few words about her were all some variation of bitch, cunt, stuck-up, crazy, bitch, and a dash of cunt for good measure. She opened the files of her thesis, words blurring together as her vision strained. What was the point of medical research if anything she wrote would be shot down because of her reputation? The cure she most wanted to discover right now was for herself, which felt like an unfunny joke. Her colleagues were most certainly having a chuckle at her expense. The inevitable loss of her career magnified her headache to an excruciating and unrelenting level. Her whole world was a cocktail of stress and anxiety, with no way to let it all out.

Some more time likely went by, but it didn't matter.

In truth, she was mostly doing this to herself. Those weren't the actual words used in the comments, for starters. Nobody was actively trying to punish her behind her back, either. And her thesis was, in all likelihood, very promising. But being a victim in her imagination was becoming addictive. Finding no catharsis or closure in her self-inflicted torment, she forced herself to try sleeping. She did not dream, nor did she feel rested in the morning.

If only someone understood her good intentions when she insisted that science requires sacrifice.

Those were some of the many issues that haunted the pale and jittery medical student called Nathalie Gaudin. Her whole life, she insisted on seeing impending catastrophe in the most banal setbacks and miscommunications. Both her parents were nationally acclaimed medical doctors, and expected no less of her own academic performance. Even as a child, they'd frequently show her their many credentials and awards, proudly on display inside a room so lavish that royalty would have found it ostentatious. She didn't understand why she had to be exactly like her parents back then, and didn't understand it now. All she really knew is that disappointing them had always been unthinkable to her, and that she would rather die than risk such a horrendous fate. But being a mere mortal, she could never live up to such standards, which only worsened her insecurities and neuroses.

When she graduated from a prestigious college known internationally for its medical curriculum and faculty, her parents were happy indeed, but there was this atmosphere of predetermination to the whole celebration. They offered to take Nathalie to whatever restaurant in Paris that she wanted, and though she accepted with a smile, letting them decide things in her place had damaged her capacity for independent thinking. So she just looked up a list of options that seemed fancy enough and picked a random one.

During the entire meal, they'd shower her with praise but also further chain her down with overblown expectations. There came a moment when their energetic voices and classy background music seemed to become gibberish and radio static in her mind. The hellish scream that had been stuck in her throat for many years almost came out, but she drowned it with wine. As the alcohol started to take effect, she smiled vacantly and she fiddled with her knife. Her parents noticed that she seemed to be ignoring them, and Nathalie preemptively apologized. For once in their lives, they didn't scold her for it, reasoning that so much studying for the final exams and the thesis left her exhausted.

Even as they were leaving, Nathalie stared with a tired and longing gaze at the big and enticingly sharp knives of the waiters as they served steak to the other clients. No, she could wait for that after she certainly failed and brought shame to everyone. When they brought her back home and left to run some errands, the sheer disgust at her lack of freedom and love made her shove her finger into her throat and get rid of that five star meal. She slumped down against the bathroom wall and cried.

Her thesis was not exactly what she wanted to write. It was all about novel ways to treat Alzheimer's and similar diseases, and while her mentors had unanimously agreed it was one of the best in the decade, she felt like it just wasn't enough. The many limitations imposed by medical ethics were necessary, obviously, but Nathalie was always fascinated by scientists who dared to spit on the face of society and God for the sake of knowledge and progress. What if one could be more flexible about such limitations without fear of becoming a pariah? So much could be discovered, so many people saved from death and suffering. Nobody really knew the extent of her admiration for less than saintly historical figures who made such sacrifices. But try as she might, the more she advanced in her career, the more imprisoned she felt. Combined with her mental state and distant parents, such morbid fascination took a dark turn.

While researching the many intricate workings of the nervous system, Nathalie went through constant pangs of curiosity about the predecessors of her profession. Surely there had to be research done on the subject which had been lost or burned due to unethical practices. If she could recover these findings and present them in a more palatable way for the squeamish, then maybe she could leave her mark on history as one of the greatest medical doctors of all time. She might not earn such recognition within her lifetime, and if her plagiarism was ever discovered… no, she couldn't think of that. Shoving her paranoia aside with tremendous effort, Nathalie set up countless redundant digital precautions and entered the deep web in search of forbidden knowledge.

Well over twelve hours passed as she slouched in front of her computer, her bloodstream overflowing with caffeine and the night turning to morning. Her brain was just about to short-circuit from the abuse, when she came across a site apparently dedicated to unknown stories of atrocities committed in the pursuit of science. Nathalie expected visuals out of a snuff film, but the site was minimalist and neatly organized. She perked up and smiled in an exceedingly disconcerting manner when she found a thread supposedly started by someone who performed illegal procedures on the nervous system. Far too sleep deprived and high to consider it might all be fake, she looked through the original post and its replies.

The files that the original poster uploaded of their procedures and results could only be described as miracles from the Devil. The user was obviously not present in any of them. Not only that, the backgrounds were all covered in tarp-like materials and there were no windows. Every image had harsh and sterile lighting showing rows of people in some half-living state with the upper half of their skulls removed. Their brains were linked via electrodes and other cables to machines that were out of sight. Their vital signals were displayed on screens whose words had been blacked out, and their faces were covered in bandages. Those were the mild images. The more Nathalie saw, the more she had to fight back the urge to close all of that and never look back. But then she found a message from the original poster, which was the final one in the thread.

I'm going back to the catacombs to talk to my mentor one last time. We are close to a breakthrough, I just know it, but he won't let me speak of him or our research to anyone else. If he doesn't listen to me, I'm going to steal his equipment and notes. Hopefully I can replicate the results in a more controlled environment. If any of you are still reading this thread, don't follow me. If he catches me and sees you there, he will assume you are an accomplice. Stay out of this.

Cross-referencing previous files and posts, Nathalie discovered that this person was referring to the catacombs of Paris. She even identified the trajectory they took, but it led to an apparent dead end and strange instructions. Her curiosity reaching a crescendo, she started looking absolutely everywhere for whoever this mentor could be. Her maniacal and single-minded investigation only revealed vague medieval tales about a nameless doctor seen during times of unexplained plagues.

The desperate researcher stopped for a moment and questioned her own sanity. Was she really so frustrated and disappointed with her lot in life that she was chasing literal fairy tales? It finally dawned on her that she needed psychological therapy, lots of it. Not only that, graduating from a prestigious institution was useless if she did this instead of looking for a job. Setting aside her madness for the moment, she turned off the computer and went to fitful sleep.

Nathalie forgot about her macabre obsessions for the most part and got into a well-paying job. She started meeting new people, establishing structure for her routine and aiming for greater achievements at her own pace. She imposed reasonable limits on her parents and her mental health improved considerably as a result. The future looked brighter than ever.

Like all good things, this would not last.

Death came to Mr. Gaudin in the form of an incredibly rare and incurable neurological disease. His wife soon followed in an unrelated vehicular accident. With no siblings, husband or children to comfort Nathalie and help with the grief, she became sullen and bitter in the extreme. This led her to make comments on medical ethics that got her fired and removed from the circles of her so-called friends. Alone and hopeless, she became a true hermit. The few relatives who tried reaching out to her arrived to a grim and worrying scene. The kitchen was littered with empty beer bottles, some large knives were missing and the one portrait she had of her parents was smashed to pieces. They tried calling her to no avail, and the police could not find her. She had erased all her digital footprints and left in the dead of night to enter the catacombs.

Shrieking, sorrow-stricken laughter filled the sprawling underground pathways. Nathalie held a flashlight in one hand and a knife in the other, shambling in the dark like a restless shade. Psychotic as her actions were, she had made sure to bring survival equipment inside a backpack in case an accident happened. But it wouldn't, she repeated out loud to herself between all the shaking and sobbing. This had to work.

Following the trajectory she had identified from that website, she illuminated countless bones that occupied the crypts and crevices of that massive graveyard. The only sounds were her hesitant steps and uneven breathing, which seemed far louder than they should be in that utter silence. Recklessly desecrating those mortal remains in search of the missing instructions, she lost track of the passage of time and the path she had taken. The descent culminated inside a chamber which she vaguely remembered from those messages. It was only distinct from the rest of the catacombs by the presence of a forgotten gate. The chains and the padlock were extremely rusty, and beyond it one could not see very far. As she approached, Nathalie thought she heard some kind of steady vibration coming from the other side.

No longer caring about decency or sanity, she removed a femur from its resting place and smacked it against the padlock until it shattered. The chains fell to the ground with a leaden and echoing noise. In her carelessness, she tossed the femur aside, which landed on her flashlight and shattered it. Cursing and fuming, she had to rely on the much weaker light of her cellphone. As she went deeper, the passage became more and more claustrophobic and labyrinthine, until she came across a wide hole on the ground which reeked of putrefaction. Tossing a pebble into it, she could not hear it striking the bottom. And even with the light, she didn't see the bottom either. Without access to the complete instructions that would reveal the entrance, she howled in frustration. Her face contorted by suffering, she turned around to return to the surface.

Before she could take five steps, something wrapped itself around her ankle, brought her violently to the ground and dragged her into the hole. She screamed in abject panic as she slid through long and horrifically filthy tunnels, never seeing whatever her body was scraping against and unable to hold onto anything. After a minute that felt like an hour, she landed. Covered in rot and bruises, she got up with immense difficulty and looked upward. There was no way to return. Her panic would have taken total control of her, but she noticed that the noise from before was much clearer now, and resembled music. She went in its direction with a limp in hopes of finding someone to save her, crying from the pain all the while. Her phone had shattered during the landing, and so she was forced to guide herself through touch. Terror gripped her heart without mercy, and her hands constantly touched something that was viscous and smelled vaguely like blood.

Time stood still as she wandered in the fetid darkness like an eyeless insect, the sound of wall-scratching and nightmarish moans following her.

Her knife covered in blood from the things she could not see, she finally reached the music. In front of her was a spiral staircase illuminated by torches that glowed an eerie and sickly green. The frigid and damp air cut straight through her clothes and made her shiver painfully. Her cries for help came out in desperate chunks, and she was retching still from the horrible smell covering her. When she got to the bottom and came across a wooden door, she immediately knocked on it with all the strength she had. The music stopped, and she heard steps coming her way. The door opened, and a man wearing a black cloak and bird-like mask appeared. The green light reflected against his eyes made it seem like they had their own glow, giving him an otherworldly aura. Before Nathalie could frantically beg for salvation, the man gestured for her to be silent.

"Please don't scream, it disturbs my performance. I need to be in the right mindset to enjoy it at all. Who are you and why did you come here?" The masked man said, very calmly.

For some reason, Nathalie complied instead of freaking out. She feared that she might be told to go away if she was rude to this man. "I'm…I'm lost. A-a-a-and I think I hurt myself. Please help me, I just want to go home. I promise I won't get in your way."

The masked man motioned for her to come in. Nathalie was taken aback by the sight of a strange piano mainly composed of polished bones. Around the piano was a collection of archaic medical equipment like something out of a Victorian museum, organized in irregularly angled shelves that almost reached the stone ceiling. Many leather-bound encyclopedias in a language unfamiliar to Nathalie were scattered about, small insects crawling over them. The large room was illuminated by the same green light, which came from oil lamps that gathered layers of rust.

"I can treat your wounds if you answer my questions."

"My… my name is Nathalie. I heard you are a doctor who teaches medical knowledge that others can't."

"You are right, after a fashion. You are likely wondering why I am doing my research in a place like this. Let's just say that the world is not ready for my methods," He remarked with a touch of bitterness.

"What… what methods?" Nathalie asked, not sure if she still wanted to know.

There was an unnerving silence as the masked doctor seemed to thoroughly dissect her with his gaze. "Science requires sacrifice. You must understand that to some degree if you sought me out. You want to learn what I know, yes?"

Nathalie nodded, all trembling and with tears forming in her eyes. "Yes. My work is all that I have left. May I ask what your name is?"

"I am not invested in names. Call me whatever you want, but don't disrupt my research. Follow me, if you please. I would like to know more about you. Only very unusual people ever come here."

Nathalie hesitated. She had no idea who this man was, but she knew for certain he was involved in highly illegal activities and she could be sent to jail if she helped him. But then again, did she really have anything to lose? Her life was in shambles and she had no idea how to return home. There was no choice.

"Don't waste my precious time by standing there. I'm certain you have quite the sad story to tell, if you really have nothing left. I'm all ears, despite what you may think. I rarely get visitors, and the isolation can sometimes get to me. So, I ask again. Please follow me and tell me more. I won't hurt you."

"… Alright. Lead the way."

The masked doctor picked up one of the oil lamps and went down a dark corridor. As Nathalie followed him, she noticed that there were many paintings of a Medieval appearance on the walls, somehow kept in pristine condition. There were no names or dates, and all of them looked very solemn, like they had been witness to some unspeakable tragedy.

"Who are these people?" She asked, growing more uneasy with each passing second.

"The sacrifices," he answered in an eerily nonchalant manner without turning to look at her. "My research must continue at all costs, lest it all be in vain."

"I understand," She said, her voice not quite as shaky as before. "You must be very determined, Doctor…" She tried to find a name for him that wasn't disrespectful. She thought of how silent and stern he was, and how much rigor his research must take. That in turn reminded her of the rigidity of a cadaver, which was also known as rigor mortis.

"Doctor Rigor. May I call you that?"

"If you want. I don't care."

Nathalie lowered her head in shame. Her mind was overwhelmed with all too common neuroses and anxieties, and she tried to cope by promising herself that she would make the most of this horrible situation. There had to be a light at the end of this tunnel. Holding onto that thought like an orphan shivering around a dying fire, she accepted her fate.

"I see… you have been through a lot. I can relate," Said Rigor as he finished stitching Nathalie's wounds.

"You can? What happened to you?" She didn't exactly feel sorry for him, but certainly felt curious about what could possibly lead someone to turn out like him.

Rigor pointedly ignored her question. "Do avoid any sudden movements and physical exertion for some days. I can show you a shortcut to the surface when you have recovered enough. In the meantime, you better dedicate yourself to your new studies. I expect results. But if you feel like it's too much to handle at any point, you are free to leave and try to rebuild your life."

"No, no, not at all. I'm ready for my lessons. And to make sacrifices."

Rigor smiled under his mask, and rubbed his hands together in anticipation. "That is the spirit of a true scientist. I'm sure you won't disappoint me. Can you get up and move around without too much difficulty?"

"Yes. Where do we begin?"

"Go to my personal library located in the east wing, and read these books thoroughly," He handed her a list of titles that were mostly esoteric and unorthodox in their content, and penned by authors she never heard about. "When you are ready for your first practical exams, do tell me."

Nathalie nodded and went to the library. Her shadow loomed against the moss-covered wall from the light of the oil lamp, and she once more denied herself proper sleep for the sake of achievement. More than once she fainted due to refusing the meals provided by her mentor, which were all harvested from flora and fauna that only lived deep underground. Eventually the starvation defeated her revulsion, and she managed to focus better. Rigor would regularly check up on his apprentice, though he didn't pressure for results like her parents always did.

Occasionally, Rigor would offer to play the piano for Nathalie. Her mentor even cracked a joke about how her musical taste was awful, and showed her many wonderful pieces from classical composers. Rigor even gave her a cat to keep her company while he was busy elsewhere, so she wouldn't be lonely. She found herself enjoying the relative peace she had found, and a strange sort of tranquility became the norm. One morning, Rigor requested that she enjoy some sunlight before returning underground because the lack of vitamins could make her sick.

She almost told him no. The world above had caused her nothing but suffering, and thinking of going back there gave her flashbacks that she immediately repressed. But the conditioning from her entire life made it all but impossible for her to actually do as she desired. Much to Nathalie's dismay, Rigor said that he needed Nathalie to bring some items that he couldn't get on his own for the practical exams. As she entered the ramshackle elevator-like mechanism to return to the surface, a small part of her wondered distantly about where everything had gone so wrong. But as she looked for a way to cope, a macabre smile crept up on her pale face. She didn't owe satisfaction to her tormentors anymore, and was going to succeed without them. The past was dead, and within its rotten carcass she would find her cure.

The two pariahs gathered around a fresh human corpse inside a cage, sharing eager looks with each other. The corpse had been drained of blood and hooked up to a machine that pumped a vile black liquid into its arteries and veins. The sounds of electric arcs filled the air as a generator glowed and rumbled. The subject of the experiment was suspended on wiring like a puppet. An automated crossbow was ready to fire at the pull of a lever.

With the press of a button, they started working their diabolical miracle.

The electricity coursed through the subject and reacted with the black liquid, making it twitch and spasm.

Its eyes opened and air rushed into its lungs, a gasp ripping out of its throat as consciousness returned.

The mockery of life that had been given to it was painful and unnatural. But it could not scream, for its vocal chords were fused together and bloated. A ball of black liquid was showing through an increasingly transparent skin, a pathetic gurgle being the only sound the subject could make.

Nathalie knew she should be running away in pure horror at what she was doing of her own volition. But she no longer cared.

The experiment progressed, Rigor pacing around with arms crossed behind his back and humming calmly. Nathalie observed with a grim detachment as the transparency of the skin crawled over the rest of the body and the blood vessels became swollen. She turned off the pumps and the generator, and turned on a recorder.

She made observations as the hours passed, documenting the properties of every mutation. She would periodically remove chunks of the subject's flesh when it passed out after thrashing violently on the wiring. Gathering those chunks onto a nearby operating table, she began stitching them together.

Try as she might to replicate her mentor's techniques, she failed and broke down crying. As they threw the misshapen mass of contorted flesh down a shaft, Rigor patted her on the shoulder and offered her a handkerchief to dry her tears.

"You did well for now. I am proud of you. Keep working hard and you will make a breakthrough in due time."

She looked up at him with unbridled joy and hope. "Thank you… so much."

"Think nothing of it," Rigor dismissed as he activated the crossbow and disposed of the main subject.

Nathalie saw the mockery of life fading away from those horrible, horrible eyes. Deep inside the recesses of her mind, alarms blared.

This was wrong. This was evil.

She excused herself and left. Rigor didn't chase after her, for he had more important matters to take care of than babysit the squeamish. She would be back soon enough, without a doubt.

Nathalie reached the surface and wandered around aimlessly in the middle of nowhere, without any means to contact someone she trusted. But…there was nobody left that would care, was there?

She thought back on her childhood and wondered what her parents would think of her now. Would they comfort her and say that everything would be alright? Or would they too be horrified and finally disown her for the atrocity she committed? Unable to imagine any reaction other than more abuse, and unwilling to decide a new path on her own, she hurried back to the only source of approval she had left. Her despair reached its climax when she found her mentor totally absent from the catacombs without explanation.

Looking around in a frenzy for him, she tripped and dropped the oil lamp on the ground. The initial flame came into contact with a pile of old books, which ignited in the blink of an eye. The fire soon spread toward other bookshelves and flammable furniture, growing in intensity at a terrifying rate. There was nothing she could use as a fire extinguisher nearby, but there were was a well and buckets in another room.

Panicking, she reached for her keys with fumbling hands. They slipped between her fingers and fell into a spot beneath a bookcase. Her heart beating like mad and adrenaline flooding her body, she tried to push the bookcase just enough to reach the keys. A glass vial on top of the bookcase she couldn't see fell on her head, covered her in glass shards and released a viscous liquid glued her to the ground. Unable to escape or call for help, she screamed as the flames rapidly approached.

When Nathalie regained consciousness, half her body was wrapped in bandages and numb.

Her mind drifted in and out of reality, and she sometimes caught glimpses of her mentor tending to her extensive injuries.

In her imagination, his touch seemed harder, more callous than before. Not once did she catch him looking her in the eyes.

Ever so slowly, she fully came to her senses. She immediately saw Rigor staring at her silently with the most absolute hatred.

"I'm… I'm so sorry… I thought you abandoned me…" She managed to say, tears already forming.

Rigor loomed over her, his voice frigid and devoid of any compassion. "Do you have any idea of what you cost me? I will take a hundred years to restore the research you destroyed because of your stupidity. You are the worst apprentice I have ever had the displeasure of teaching. You make me sick."

"Is there no way you can… forgive me?" Her very soul felt like it was about to break.

"Not within your lifetime. The instant you can walk again, you will leave and never come back."

"Wait, NO! Don't do this to me, I'm BEGGING YOU!" She tried rising to grab his cloak, only for him to shove a wet rag onto her face. She struggled and begged some more, but eventually fell asleep from the chloroform. As her consciousness faded, she continued to mumble apologies and reach out with her burnt hand for him.

An eternity crawled by, madness finally taking complete hold of her. One day, she sneaked out of her chamber and made one last attempt at replicating her mentor's techniques while he was absent, using herself as the test subject. Injecting herself with a serum produced by an abomination that God would refuse to look at, she fell to the ground in yet more agony as a pair of fully formed wings sprouted from her back.

She showed her results to her mentor, who mocked her and told her that she had wasted resources on a pointless experiment. He went further and said that she was completely worthless, and that without his guidance, she would never amount to anything. Nathalie did not cry as he forced her to take the elevator to the surface.

As her mutations continued, the very sunlight flayed off her skin. Her musculature exposed and burning as if trapped inside a microwave, she flew away and threw herself into the ocean to try and stop the indescribable pain. Unable to coordinate her flight and with no hope, she gave up. Falling to the jagged rocks at the bottom, the tidal waves dragged her corpse away.

No painting of her was ever put on that corridor.

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