Laura stirred for the first time in hours. Ken watched her stretch fractionally in the darkness of the car and smiled. “Not long now,” he said softly.
The doctor had told him that getting away would do him good, help his injuries heal. He doubted this trip would be what she’d had in mind.
Laura murmured something he didn’t quite catch over the noise of the engine and the endless hammering of the rain and, eyes closed, shifted in her seat. It had been a long drive for both of them, although she’d spent the majority of it asleep.
Night had fallen since the last food and toilet stop, and the rain had intensified throughout the day into the near-monsoon that now hammered the Land Rover’s roof and windows. This last leg of the journey, up through the remote northern Highlands, had been almost entirely along winding single track lanes, exactly his favourite kind of driving.
He felt good to be getting out again after so long. He’d been laid up for nearly eight months while his shattered bones healed. Now, despite occasional twinges of pain from his left leg and up his spine he felt fine, probably for the first time in the months since it had happened. And now he was eager to get back to work.
The thought of getting back into the swing of things made Ken smile to himself in the darkness. He’d always loved driving through rain at night. There was something cosy and secure about being cocooned inside a warm car, untouchable by the elements, while you forged ahead to your destination. Even the torrential rain didn’t dampen his spirits.
They descended a winding pass, and he slowed the Land Rover as they approached a tight hairpin. As car turned, the headlights swept across hedgerows and fields and there, caught in the full beams for a brief second, was a small, pale figure. It looked eerily out of place in the grim night weather.
“The hell?” he muttered aloud. Laura didn’t stir. He slowed the car to a crawl as he passed the gate and glanced in his mirrors, but aside from a rude neon glow from his brake lights, everything behind them was shrouded in darkness.
He returned his attention to the front, and jumped in sudden shock.
The Land Rover’s headlights shone directly onto a little girl who stood in the road just a couple of metres in front of the car. Startled, he braked a little too hard, but Laura still didn’t show any sign of waking.
The girl looked about ten or eleven. She was dressed in pink pyjamas and stood motionless in the middle of the country lane. She looked at him with large eyes.
Ken stared back at the little girl while he considered what to do.
The girl didn’t move. She just stood, eyes open and staring, her arms hanging limp by her sides. Long dark hair was plastered against her face by the rain which had soaked through her pyjamas to the skin, by the looks of it, but she made no attempt to shield herself from the weather.
He clicked his seat belt unfastened and opened the door. In the time it took him to set one foot on the wet road, the girl had disappeared.
Ken froze. There was no trace of her at all now. The road continued uphill to a bend up ahead, but the glow from the headlights revealed nowhere she could have hidden. A stone wall bordered the left of the road, wooden fencing marked a field perimeter along the right. She couldn’t have climbed over either side in the two or three seconds he’d looked away.
A lance of pain crept along his left side, forcing him to shift position. In or out. He glanced behind the car but saw nothing. Rain began to soak into his sweater through his jacket, and the cold wetness crept down his back. Finally, he shifted his weight and carefully swung himself back into the driver’s seat. He slammed the door shut on the rain. Then, shivering, he thumbed the central locking switch.
Laura had turned away in the darkness, tucked sideways in the seat, the back of her head toward him. Her shoulders rose and fell steadily as she breathed.
He shifted the Land Rover back into Drive, and slowly pulled away, but with less confidence than before. He threw sidelong glances as they passed shadowy field entrances and dark gaps between hedgerows, wondering if anything was staring back at him from the darkness.
The rain didn’t ease off as Ken continued the journey. The roads became gradually narrower until they were almost dirt tracks. He found his gaze constantly drawn to the pitch blackness of the rear view mirror, seeing nothing in the darkness but unable to shake the uneasy sensation of being watched.
He continued to drive, following winding lanes that turned off into even narrower farm tracks. Despite the poor visibility, Ken felt at home. He remembered these roads, he knew where to slow down and where he could speed up a little. A few times he slowed almost to a crawl to navigate particularly tight turns, then accelerated slightly as the road forged ever upward to higher ground.
Laura stirred. Her head slowly angled toward him, and she began to speak. But before the words could register with him, the world exploded around them with a tremendous crash.
Ken reacted quickly, gripping the steering wheel and firmly pumping the brake, making the tyres scrabble for purchase in the rain.
Something had hit them dead-on, but that didn’t make sense. The road had been clear. They were on a short but relatively straight stretch. Despite the wet weather, Ken had a pretty good view of the road up ahead, and apart from the chest-high stone walls that lined both sides of the narrow road, nothing had been in sight. And yet something big and heavy had just impacted the front of the car. Glass rained in at them from the windscreen.
The car pulled heavily to the right, and despite his attempt to correct it, sideswiped the stone wall on Ken’s side with a metallic grinding as the Land Rover scraped the wall. He tried to compensate but the car felt twice as heavy. They finally came to a stop at an almost diagonal angle across the road.
For long moments, silence hung in the air, punctuated with the sound of glass dropping onto the dashboard. Almost the entire windscreen was obscured by something huge and bulky that seemed to be wedged halfway through.
More pebbles of windscreen came loose and fell into Ken’s lap. He turned the engine off and the interior light came on, much lower than it should be. The roof of the car had buckled and was almost touching the top of his head.
“What the…” he began, hands shaking. He pawed at his seatbelt until it released him, opened the door and stepped out, heedless of the instant drenching. And took a step back, speechless.
A cow lay upside-down, buckling the roof of the Land Rover, shoulders wedged into the windscreen. Astonishingly, despite the injuries it had sustained, it was still alive, or just about. Its head slumped across the bonnet, eyes crazed as its front legs kicked weakly at the sky. The creature’s back legs splayed open motionless over the rear windows of the car.
“I don’t believe it.” announced Ken, in blatant contradiction to the evidence before his eyes. He looked up and then down the road he stood on, shaking water from his rain-soaked hair.
The cow had killed one of the Land Rover’s headlights, but the other still cast a wide beam of light along the road. Nothing was in sight. They hadn’t passed a bridge or any form of building, nor indeed were there any around for several miles. And yet, it looked as if someone had just dropped the cow neatly on top of them.
Anger and panic rose up in him. He had been so close to the end. It was happening again. Although this was an altogether new experience, it could only mean one thing.
The sudden noise of a car door slamming caught his attention. He looked up and saw movement.
Laura was out of the car. And running.
Head pounding from the drug that still swept through her bloodstream, Laura fought an almost overwhelming urge to sleep. She’d regained consciousness at least an hour ago, and carefully tried to hide that fact from Ken. She’d slowly been gathering her wits, waiting for an opportunity.
Now she seized the chance. The passenger door wouldn’t open on her first try, the weight of the cow had buckled the roof above her and must have crushed the doorframe. Throwing a silent prayer to whatever gods might be watching over her, she mustered as much dizzy strength as remained in her body and rammed her shoulder sideways against the door while holding open the door handle. With a protesting crunch, the door popped open.
She’d managed to loosen the thin rope binding her ankles while he’d thought she had been sleeping. Gradually she’d edged them looser still, until she’d been able to slip them off in the darkness without Ken noticing. With them had come her shoes, but nothing could have helped that.
The paracord around her wrists had been another matter, she hadn’t been able to escape it without attracting his attention, but at least with her legs free she had a chance. She flung herself out of the car and ran down the road, ignoring the instant agony as jagged gravel shredded the soles of her bare feet as if she were running over broken glass.
“GET FUCKING BACK HERE!”
Ken’s roar was far too close behind her. She didn’t risk turning. It took all her concentration to avoid breaking her ankle on rocks, or slipping and smashing her face into the shallow river that the road had become. Rainwater flooded downhill in rivulets and got into her eyes, blurring her vision, but still she didn’t slow down. Willing strength and speed back into her body, her feet slapped the hard ground again and again, each step puncturing her heel, or slicing into a toe. At least the freezing cold had started to numb the pain.
Desperately, she tried to use her talent again, to weave more help from the Beyond, but whatever Ken had drugged her with had screwed up that idea. Her attempts to bind him and free herself had only succeeded in conjuring weak, powerless illusions – most of which he’d missed entirely anyway – and her last-ditch attempt had cost almost all of her strength and had apparently almost killed them both along with the car.
She was sure she could hear heavy footsteps behind her. But to look back would guarantee a trip or fall and he’d be upon her before she could carry on. She sidestepped quickly to avoid a pothole, and kept running, convinced she felt his hot breath on her neck.
A few more seconds and she was far enough away from the car that dim, raincloud-refracted moonlight was her only source of illumination. She knew the only chance of survival would be to hide. There was no cover as long as she remained on the road, and running in a straight line made her an easy target.
Laura veered to her right and felt the ground beneath her feet become soft and springy. She launched herself up from the grass verge, jumping as hard as she could, heedless to whatever dangers that lay on the other side of the wall. Whatever it was couldn’t be as bad as what pursued her.
She miscalculated the jump in the darkness. Colliding with the top of the wall, she fell short and landed upon it, bent double. Loose stonework crumbled beneath her but the wall stood firm. Winded, she rolled herself across and spun to the ground on the other side. She felt a dull warm pain and realised the side of her head had struck something on the way down.
She became vaguely aware that time must have passed, because the next thing she was aware of was a pressure on her chest.
Ken pinned her down with his full weight, his knees pressed into her chest, crushing her down into the wet earth. “You’re gonna get what’s fucking coming to you tonight, you bitch!” he almost screamed into her face, his eyes wild and frenzied.
Standing, he hauled her upright, gripping her by the upper arms so tightly she could feel her flesh bruise beneath his fingers. He hauled her back across the wall onto the road, and violently frogmarched her back towards the car.
“Please…” she managed. He hit her lower back, hard, in response. Breath exploded from her and flares erupted behind her eyes. She fell to her knees and felt herself being dragged.
Ken squeezed his eyes and temples with his thumb and forefinger as if he could rub away the red fog of anger that clouded his eyes. He cursed his own stupidity. How many times had he done this before? How many near misses? When would he learn!
Don’t take your eyes off the prize. Don’t get cocky. And above all, don’t be fucking stupid!
He’d forgotten his own rules and she’d almost got away. Christ, he’d stowed her in the passenger seat instead of just tossing her in the boot so he could keep an eye on her, make sure the sedative didn’t wear off too soon. Which, of course, it had.
Well, there’d be time for self-recrimination later. He’d caught up with her alright. And she was in no condition to escape again, he’d made sure of that.
Laura lay at his feet in the road, battered by the unending rainfall, illuminated by the single working Land Rover headlight. Half-curled in the foetal position, she panted rapid, small breaths but made no move to escape again. Her feet and hands were covered with filth and blood, and the rest of her body was streaked and sliced with cuts and bruises. She looked half dead, but Ken knew better than to trust her again.
The rain showed no sign of relenting. It was beginning to wash her body clean, revealing more injuries hidden beneath the dirt. Several deep lacerations on her feet and legs seemed to ooze blood that turned the rainwater crimson and washed away.
He’d planned to do it up in the old farmhouse, where he’d taken most of the others. Quiet, isolated, remote. No amount of screaming would be heard up there, although some of the previous ones had certainly put that to the test!
But with the car now out of action and several miles still to travel, there was no choice. He’d have to finish her here, now. Quickly, before anybody came – although the chance of anybody else driving along this late were virtually nonexistant, he didn’t like taking chances. But he’d come too far now, and there was nothing else for it.
Planting a mud-encrusted boot on her stomach, he flipped her onto her back as if she were a writhing beetle. She lay there, limbs twitching, eyes lolling but making no motion to get away.
He didn’t dare take his eyes away from her as he went to the car to retrieve his tools.
Laura blinked grit and tears out of her eyes. A world of pain throbbed from her feet and knees and blossomed throughout her body. She became dully aware that rain still pounded at her, and the cold helped her gather her senses.
She tried to muster what remained of her strength and stand, but she had nothing left. She pulled herself weakly to her hands and knees, but the pain of a hundred injuries became too much. It felt as if her limbs had shattered like glass. She dropped, sprawling down onto the flooded gravel.
As consciousness taunted her, she realised Ken loomed in front of her, illuminated by a single light beside him which she realised was the remaining Land Rover headlight. His face was contorted in a rictus of anger, his eyes wide and fixed on hers. He was talking – although she only knew this because his lips were moving. Over the ringing in her ears and the perpetual drumming of the rain, Laura couldn’t make out the words until he moved closer.
“…God arises! His enemies are scattered and those tho hate him flee before him…” She realised he held aloft a large wooden crucifix in one hand, thrusting it toward her as if aiming a gun at her head.
Weakly, she tried to speak, to plead with him, beg him to let her go, although she knew it would be futile. Besides, trying to speak only resulted in an agonising coughing fit. She tasted blood in the back of her throat.
Ken stepped closer still towards her without ceasing his recitation. Just a few metres away now. He spouted the words quickly as if in a rush to get through them.
“…as smoke is driven away so are they driven, as wax melts before the fire so the wicked perish in the presence of God…”
She cried, tears mixed with the rainwater. The words flowed out of him like an avalanche. As he spoke, on and on, he edged closer until he was directly in front of her.
“…In the name and by the power of Our Lord Jesus Christ may you be snatched away and driven from the Church of God and from the souls made to the image and likeness of God and redeemed by the precious blood of the Divine Lamb…”
Whatever nonsense he was reciting seemed to be reaching its climax. His voice grew louder and louder. “Begone, Satan! Inventor and master of all deceit, enemy of man’s salvation!”
On the last word, he tossed the crucifix aside without looking away, and to Laura’s horror, now raised his other hand which she saw clutched a long, thin knife. The weapon’s edge shone cruelly in the semidarkness.
Utterly trapped, Laura knew she was about to die. His eyes showed no hint of mercy, just a relentless fury.
Something stirred and…
Rose up inside her.
With a cold resignation, she felt the sickening feeling of being dragged away from herself. The deepest part of her consciousness, the final kernel of self that nestled at the core of her being was torn away by something vast and immeasurably more powerful.
She felt it slowly slide into the place of control, where her consciousness alone should reside.
Laura watched, paralysed and impotent as something foul and blasphemous took possession of her body with a will like cold iron. She bent away and hid somewhere dark and cold and concentrated hard on continuing to exist. Somehow she knew with a grim certainty that if she relaxed her will, if she let go even once in the presence of this creature, even just for a second, she’d utterly cease to exist and its vast power would be all that remained of Laura, wearing her body like a flesh shell.
The thing that was not Laura smiled at the chaos that had been orchestrated in its name. It relished in the peculiar kind of worship that was being lavished upon it, perhaps not a direct kind, nor even a conscious worship, but worship nonetheless, and it took succour from that and grew ever stronger.
Not-Laura stood and smiled. She seemed to stand taller than before, and blinked in the flickering torchlight that played on her face. But the face had changed somehow…
No, only the eyes had changed, outwardly at least, Ken realised. Fractured, pale yellow irises now surrounded dilated pupils in the shape of inverted crucifixes.
Fully in control now, it regarded its surroundings and smiled with Laura’s mouth. Its previous hosts had been just as warm and pliable as this, but this one had… abilities none of the others had. And such power! Laura had concealed her abilities well, guarding them from the world as well as herself. She could have used them to dominate half the world. Could have been a goddess among mortals. But instead she’d wasted her opportunity. It felt nothing but loathing and disdain for her.
It would use this shell far better than its previous owner ever had. First though, it craved vengeance.
Despite the punishment and damage that had been incurred, Laura’s body stood easily, drawing itself to full height before Ken.
“Exorcist,” it said, in a voice that came from somewhere deep and old.
Ken stood his ground. The temptation to run was almost overwhelming, but the creature was loose, and much further than before. He’d failed too many times. He had to end it now.
Too many innocent lives had been taken by this bastard. Each of them tortured and killed, and by the time he’d driven it from their bodies, every one of them had lain dead and broken before it had fled.
Despite every instinct that told him he’d already lost this fight, and to run – run! – now, with grim determination he raised his knife arm and aimed a fast backhand slash across the Laura-creature’s throat.
The motion was fluid, and his aim was good. He gritted his teeth, prepared to feel the knife scythe through flesh and sinew.
It connected with nothing but air, slashing a streak through the falling rain. Momentum carried Ken into a half-turn. His feet skidded in the rain, and he froze.
Laura – and the creature inside her – were nowhere in sight. Ken spun, aiming the knife like a rifle. He was alone.
“I’m going to break you worse than I did before.”
Not-Laura’s voice came from inside his head. The voice was like a bass speaker on maximum volume, it hurt his head just to hear it. Spasms of pain contracted up and down Ken’s back and leg, worse than before, as if in response to the voice inside his head.
All the old injuries it had inflicted over the years felt like they were ripping themselves open again.
“There’s going to be so much more pain than before. I’m going to make you beg me to let you die.”
The pain was everywhere, incomprehensible, all-encompassing. It felt as if he was being ripped apart. Every muscle, every ligament strained. Even his bones felt as if they were being bent from within. As pain overloaded his nervous system he felt himself spiralling into darkness, but before he could pass out something caught him and held him, dragged him back up into the pain.
“No, Exorcist. No escape for you.”
It held him inside the pain, not letting him sink into unconsciousness until it was done ripping him apart. Pieces of his flesh started to force their way apart, opening wet gashes across his body. Slowly, his skeleton unpicked itself into tiny shards of bone which sliced their way through muscle and skin. His teeth popped, shattering to dust one by one in his mouth.
Ken’s last spit of defiance was distorted by his own face ripping itself to shreds. The last sounds he ever made were the wet, gargling strains of agony.
He screamed until he had no throat or lungs left to scream with.
With endless satisfaction, the creature forced his mind to stay awake, to experience every nuance of the final torture. His eyeballs, skull and brain were left until last, then these too shredded themselves into wet pulp.
By the end, nothing larger than a pebble remained of the exorcist. The rain washed the worst of the gore away into the grass verge.
The creature smiled with Laura’s face as it felt the curious fusion of her rare power meld with its own ancient majesty.
Healing Laura’s body and repairing the Land Rover took no more work than a blink of an eye.
It tingled with anticipation of what it could do with this new vessel. A new age of suffering was dawning for humankind. There were so many possibilities.
The rain stopped as the first cold light of dawn began to brighten the horizon.
And from somewhere quiet, a place very deep and cold, a fragment of what used to be Laura watched helplessly as her body’s new owner started the car and drove away, leaving nothing behind it but small fragments of bone and gore, and a useless, bloodstained wooden crucifix that lay in the road.
Laura let go, and submitted to despair.
And knew nothing more.