Jill realised, when they drew nearer the village, the cottages she imagined lying sleeping within the fog were deserted. She made no effort to hide the panic in her voice, as Tom steered the car along the empty street.
“It’s one of those abandoned villages from famine times,” her eyes searched the gloom for any sign of life. “I’ve read about such places. We’re not going to find a phone here. What are we going to do?”
The interior of the car felt cloying and it was harder to breathe.
“Let’s get out,” Tom suggested. “We can stretch our legs and get some fresh air.”
She followed his lead and got out of the car. Tom, phone in hand, walked up and down the street, hoping to find a signal. She lost sight of him as he moved farther and farther away.
“Don’t go too far,” she called to the shadowy figure in the distance.
“There’s a hill up ahead,” his voice echoed back. “I’ll climb to the top and see if I can get a signal.”
Pulling the lapels of her coat around her neck, she started to walk along the street, hoping the exercise would help the heat return to her frozen limbs. The old, abandoned cottages glistened with frost under the light of the full moon. Patches of fog swept by her like ghosts that had not assumed their proper shape and her fingers found nothing but air when she reached out to brush them aside. Despite the shrouding fog, there was something else in the air, a penetrating sadness that made her heart ache. Her senses were heightened by lack of sleep and the worry of finding her son, but she felt the terror of the villages’ lost occupants as they fled to avoid approaching death.
“Christ.” A clatter of sound from inside one of the cottages startled her.
She walked towards the door and investigated the inky darkness, but there was nothing to see. She brushed the noise aside as just the foraging of some night creature. A slight breeze stirred and sent the remaining fog scattering in its wake and it was easier to see down the road. At the top of the village a weather-beaten steeple marked the spot where the church once stood, and she walked towards it. By today’s standards the church was tiny, but then there would have been few parishioners to fill its pews, other than the inhabitants from the cottages. A group of trees circled the old graveyard. Though stripped bare now, they would brighten the grey landscape in summer. Small crosses served as grave markers. Some were made of steel, but for the most part they were crudely made wood. There was no inscription on any of them. Perhaps time eroded the names away, Jill thought, as she picked her way along the overgrown path. The church door was closed, and she turned the handle not expecting it to open, but it did. Inside the roof was rotted clear away, but many pews were still standing. Small scurrying sounds made her realise she had disturbed its only occupants, the things that belonged to the woods and the night.
“You can feel the sadness.”
She screamed when the voice sounded from the front of the church. In her determination to find her son, she’d forgotten the Wraith and had no idea it travelled with her through the cold and dark.
“Yes,” she walked towards the place where the altar once stood.
The Wraith was seated in the front pew.
“We lost the phone signal.” Jill stood as far away from it as possible. “Tom is outside trying to contact Paul.”
“It doesn’t matter,” the Wraith’s sigh echoed through the air. “I know where we have to go.”
The Wraith stood and drifted by her. Their eyes met and Jill was shocked at the hatred she saw reflected there.
“I understand your reason for not liking me,” she called after the retreating figure. “But put yourself in my position. You would have done the same.”
The Wraith stopped and turned back.
“Once I find my child I am assured of peace, but what about you? What will you have other than the stain on your soul?”
“I’ll have my child too,” Jill said. “I don’t care about anything else.”
“You’ll care when I’m finished,” it sneered. “Do you not realise I will decide your faith?” It laughed at Jill’s horror. “You should have studied your books a little better. There is a price to be paid. You didn’t think you could disturb the dead and get away with it?”
“No,” Jill wiped her eyes. “I knew I’d have to pay something, but I didn’t really think about it.”
“Pity,” it said, before it glided out of the church.
Jill sat in one of the pews and waited for the pounding of her heart to subside. Of course, she realised she could not walk away untouched from what she’d done, but she never imagined her fate would be decided by a creature whose eyes blazed with madness.
“Jill,” Tom walked down the aisle. “Did you see…?”
“Yes, I saw her,” she said, before he finished. “She’s followed us the whole time and knows where we need to go.”
“Let’s get going then,” he helped her up from her seat.
It was as if the life was drained out of her, he thought, as he led her out of the church and back along the village street.
“Ah, there you are.” Paul waited for them by the car.
“We had no coverage,” Tom held up the useless phone.
“I know, mine’s the same.”
Jill noticed he avoided looking at her and she felt familiar cold fingers clutch at her heart.
“What’s wrong?” She asked.
“I had to turn back; I’m afraid I lost him,” he shook his head. “The roads are so narrow and winding I must have lost him on one of the curves. He probably slipped down a laneway or something.”
“It doesn’t matter,” Jill nodded up at the roof of one of the cottages, where the Wraith sat waiting. “She knows where to go.”
“Jesus,” Paul looked up and staggered back against the car. “I forgot about her.”
“Surprise,” the Wraith laughed.
“She’s not right,” Paul muttered, before walking back to his own car.
The Wraith flew in front of them as they drove back to the main road. At times, she was a blur blacker than night. Jill was reminded of a painting she had once seen of the Angels of Mons, but this was no angel, this thing that flew before them. This was something from a far darker place.
Though Toby still had the sniffles, the fever had passed, and he was able to sit up in the bed. His throat was sore, but the last of the drinking water ran out hours ago. The children sat on the bed beside him and tried to cheer him with stories and jokes.
“That was just stupid,” Toby laughed at Raymond’s last joke.
“Made you laugh, though,” he smiled.
“Yeah, but it was still stupid,” Rachael said, giggling.
They were all having a fun time, when footsteps sounded on the floor overhead. As men’s voices drifted down, Toby felt the others grow tense.
“The bad men,” Paul whispered.
Toby whimpered with terror and clutched his superman doll closer to his chest. When the door above his head opened, Rachael dragged him out of the bed. They ran into a corner of the room and crouched in the shadows.
“Christ, it stinks down there,” he heard one of the men say, as a ladder was lowered into the cellar.
“Leave the door open a while,” someone else replied.
Once the foul-smelling air escaped, the monsters would be ready to begin their work. None of them checked to see if he was still alive.
Toby’s stomach hurt and the pain got worse when he realised the children were no longer beside him. He felt along the wall, hoping to find a way out, but there was none.
“They left us,” he whispered to the superman doll. “They left us.”
He was too tired and too sick to cry, so he stayed huddled in the shadows.
Freddy was first to climb down the ladder. He carried an old-fashioned oil lamp as they never bothered to have electricity installed and didn’t want the trouble of housing a generator. He held up the lamp and his eyes searched the gloom until he found the crouched shape in the corner.
“Come out.” He lifted the boy up with one hand and carried him across the room, before dumping him onto the bed. “Bring some water down here,” he called up to those overhead. “We have to wash him.”
“My throat hurts,” Toby said, expecting that this man, this grownup would help him.
Instead the man ignored him and went to the big cupboard in the wall and opened it. Toby scooted down the bed to get a better look at what was inside. There were strange, shiny things. Someone else was coming down the ladder. This man carried a bucket and Toby heard the water sloshing about.
“Here,” Christy pushed a bottle of water into Toby’s hands, but the child was rigid with fear.
He never felt the bottle leave his hands and was only vaguely aware of the lip being held to his mouth. The pain in his throat eased a little.
“Up you get,” strong hands lifted him and made no attempt to stop the man who peeled the sodden clothes from his body.
The water was icy, and he shivered as the cloth rubbed over his fevered skin. If he closed his eyes, he could have been home, with his mother washing him, but the water would not have been so cold there and he would not have been so frightened. A big towel wrapped around his body and he automatically started to rub his skin dry.
“Can I have my clothes back?” He asked the man gathering them into a bundle.
“No, you won’t need them,” the man smiled, as Toby looked up at him for the first time.
In that instant, he understood what was happening.
The other man, the one who was busy sorting thing in the big cupboard, walked to the foot of the ladder.
“We’re ready when you are,” he called.
The sound of heavy footsteps on the bare boards pounded overhead and a shadow appeared at the mouth of the trap door. Toby watched the legs appeared and another man climbed the ladder backwards down to the cellar. Toby eased back down onto the bed and picked up his doll.
“Help me, Superman,” he whispered, as the latest arrival turned around to look at him.
With a cry of delight, he jumped up and ran to put his arms around the familiar figure.
“I knew Superman would save me,” he smiled up at the man. “Oh, Sir, I was so frightened before you came. Can we go home now?”
“No, Toby,” the man ruffled his hair. “I’m afraid we can’t.”
“But, Sir,” he looked up at his teacher. “Why not?”
It came again, that terrible understanding and Toby started to back away. He held the towel closer as he crawled up onto the bed and huddled down in the corner farthest from the men.
“You’re supposed to mind me, Mr Jackson,” his eyes were filled with accusation. “You’re not supposed to be a bad man.”
“But I am, Toby,” he took a proffered strap from Freddy’s outstretched hand. “I’m a very, very bad man.”