Annie sensed his fear. Its musky, acidic smell surrounded him like an aura. They were alone in the dark and the next move was down to her.
“Do you know who I am,” she asked. “Or why I am here?”
“I know you’re trespassing,” his voice was hoarse, as he brought the back of his hand up to wipe the moisture from his face.
“Then we are alike. You have no claim to this house either.”
“Oh, I get it,” his laugh sounded hollow in the stillness. “You’re one of those bleeding hearts. On some sort of quest, are you?” He jabbed the statue at Annie, pushing her back towards the curtain-less window. “Did the old woman put you up to this?”
“Stop,” Annie pleaded, as for a moment, her fear of the O Brien’s returned.
Liam dropped the statue and grabbed her by the throat. Her back was pressed against the window frame as he moved ever closer. The hand encircling her pressed harder, and she moved up on her toes to try and escape the pressure.
“Let me go,” she croaked. “You are hurting me.”
“This is nothing to what I’m going to do to you. I’ll show you pain that up to now you could only imagine,” Liam’s spittle flew against her face. “You won’t look quite as pretty when I’m done with you.”
His words took her back to that room. She saw once more the gleam of the nails in the chair. Smelt the leather on the restraints and looked on the blood-soaked body of her sister, lit by the light of the brazier. The heat threatened to overwhelm her, but this time the fire was inside her. Liam felt the flesh beneath his hand ripple and ebb, the movement unnatural. He tried to draw back, but terror held him prisoner.
“Fiend,” the voice was no longer that of a young girl. “Betrayer of women; destroyer of the innocent.”
“No,” Liam sobbed, as the flesh he held crackled like dead leaves.
“You bring destruction and death to all and care nothing for the suffering,” Annie continued. “Very well, let us see if you welcome death as freely as you embrace its power.”
The clouds parted and allowed the moon to light the room. Liam screamed into the face pressed against his. The hollow, cobwebby eyes, the jutting bones covered in places by blackened skin, and the putrid breath was toxic.
“So,” Annie smiled at his bulging eyes. “You see me now as I really am. So, tell me, do you still think I am pretty?”
His only answer came from the small trickle of urine that flowed down his legs and dripped onto the floor. He gagged on the stench, and the muscles in his stomach clenched until he thought he would embarrass himself even further. Still, his legs remained like lead.
“And what about my hair?” Annie asked. “Is it not beautiful? Do you not want to touch it?” Reaching up, she ripped some of the matted tendrils from her skull and waved them under his nose. “Go on, run your fingers through it.”
Though the sound of Liam’s screams were as soothing as music, The Dark One grew impatient. He flew towards the attic window and placed his hands on either side of it. All pretence of normality gone; he showed his true features as he roared.
“Kill him. Do it now.”
The demonic face at the window startled the figures silhouetted inside, but it was enough to break the spell and before Annie could regain control, Liam ran screaming down the stairs. Dora, despite her promise, came running to see what the noise was all about. So, the first thing Liam encountered, as he ran along the landing, was the little girl. In his terror and heightened state of awareness, he saw her as she really was. To her he was the monster who’d beaten her to death, and she started to scream. Behind him he heard the slow, shuffling steps on the wooden attic stairs. The thing holding the doll was blocking the stairway, but that didn’t deter him in his flight, and he launched himself over the rail landing awkwardly on the stairs below.
“Go back in there, now,” Annie ordered, and the child scuttled back into the bedroom.
Liam limped down the stairs aware of the footsteps following. The front door loomed in the distance and he gritted his teeth against the pain, as he moved towards it. Twice his sweat-soaked fingers slipped on the latch until finally, with the aid of the storm, it flew open. He had forgotten in his terror, the demon outside. The steps were carpeted with leaves, and he struggled to keep his balance as he climbed down. His injured foot gave way when he reached the rough gravel, and he was forced to grab on to one of the stone sculptures. There were footsteps on the driveway, and he cried with relief. This was short lived when he saw who it was, he screamed again and brought a hand up to protect his face.
“Bastard,” Cora raised the fallen branch. “You killed my child.”
“No,” the voice from the doorway cried.
Cora looked towards the sound and her eyes grew wide with fear. Something was making its way down the steps. Something so horrible, that for a moment time ceased and she remained frozen, the arm holding the branch raised above her head.
“This is mine to deal with,” the thing said. “I am beyond hope. All is lost to me, but you have a chance. As yet, you remain unblemished by this monster, this thief of time.”
Cora realised, despite the creature’s fearsome appearance, the voice was that of a young woman. Liam reached out and caught hold of Cora’s skirt.
“Help me,” he sobbed.
Cora looked into her husband’s eyes and saw reflected in them the cold, white body of her child. She reached down and gently pried away his fingers. All the while the thing stood silent, waiting.
“Poor Liam,” Cora stroked her husband’s cheek, and he grabbed at her hand and kissed it. “You know,” she smiled at him. “I never realised until now what a truly, pathetic little man you are.”
“What are you saying?” He asked, as she raised the branch again.
“I’m saying, I hope you rot in hell,” she swung as hard as she could.
Annie leaped forward and caught her hand in mid air. Cora struggled with her screaming above the noise of the storm, she had to do this. But the fingers encircling her wrist burned like boiling water on her skin and she dropped to her knees moaning in pain. The branch slipped from her grasp.
“Listen to me,” the thing knelt beside her.
Cora’s tried to turn away. Tried to sink into the blackness she saw in the eyeless hollows of the face before her, but instead she clutched at her empty stomach and sobbed.
“I need you to heed my words,” it continued. “You have young ones to care for. They will need you in the days ahead. Do not desert them as I did to all I held most dear.”
Liam watched the scene before him and took advantage of his wife’s distress. His car keys were inside the house, and with his injured ankle, he would never make it inside and back to the car without them noticing. His only option was to make for the trees and out onto the road beyond them. The gravel crunched like glass beneath his feet, but the crying of the wind masked its sound. He inched his way towards the back of the house and moved as fast as he possibly could through the jungle-like garden and into the shelter of the trees.
Annie’s heart ached for the woman and for her terrible loss.
“I know something of your suffering,” she whispered.
“How can you?” Cora sobbed. “No one knows what I feel.”
She looked up at the long-dead thing and gasped. Between the intermittent lightning flashes, she caught a glimpse of the young girl. A stunningly, beautiful girl with flowing auburn hair that floated around her in the wind.
“What are you?” Cora asked.
“I am a wraith. I bring death to the evil in this place. For centuries I have wandered the earth in search of peace. Now it is within my grasp. Your man is the last in his line, and his time has come.”
The roar of thunder overhead was so loud Cora covered her ears. But Annie heard reflected in the sound the voice of The Dark One.
“He is getting away,” he roared, and in an instant, she was on her feet and running.
Liam stopped to rest against a tree. Despite the cold night air, he was sweating. Not far to go, he thought, as the white of the road showed clear between the trees. Pain shot along his leg and he reached down and rubbed at his swollen ankle. There was no time to waste. That thing could come after him at any time. He swore aloud, as he snagged his foot on a root and fell hard onto the forest’s branch-strewn floor.
“Christ,” he gritted his teeth and tried to stand.
This is that bitch Cora’s fault. His anger so intense, he forgot for a moment he was being hunted and it was not until he felt the fingers in his hair hauling him up, his terror returned. He was propelled face first into the nearest tree trunk. The force, with which he made contact, shattered his nose and the crunch of bone echoed in his pain-filled howls.
Annie spun him around. Blood matted his face, dripped down his chin and coated her fingers.
“You cannot escape me,” she snarled.
Her putrid breath mingled with the taste of his blood and made him retch. The grip of the skeleton fingers was so tight he knew if he vomited, he would choke. All around him the night filled with sound. There were urgent whisperings, hundreds of voices chanted prayers he remembered from long ago, when he still believed in a power greater than himself.
“You will not stop me,” Annie drew back a little, but still retained her death grip on the quivering man. She looked towards the shadows in the trees and roared “This is how it must be, if I am to rest.”
“No, Annie, no,” the cries encircled them.
“They will not stop me,” the thing moved closer, until it was pressing against him.
Annie brought her free hand up to his face and then slowly almost dreamlike, she allowed her fingers to slide down his shirt and rip away each button.
Liam sobbed, as the bony fingers pulled aside the fabric and exposed his flesh. The cool night air made his skin tingle, but it was not this that made the goose pimples rise. It was the feel of the claw as it moved towards his chest.
“Please,” he sobbed. “Let me go.”
“You expect mercy; but you have never shown any?”
“Just tell me what you want. I’ll do whatever you say, pay any price.”
“Your riches mean nothing to me, but you will pay, and the price is what lies beneath.”
Liam screamed, as the dirty razor-sharp nails stabbed at his chest, then traced downwards opening the incision wider.
Cora heard him and staggered to her feet. She made no move towards the sound and it wasn’t until she felt the small hand slip into hers, she looked down. A little girl, no older than six or seven and clutching a doll was looking up at her.
“We have to help Annie,” the child nodded towards the forest. “Or else The Dark One will have her forever.”
Cora dropped the child’s hand and started to run around the house.
Liam felt the warm blood as it dripped down his chilled skin. The wound in his chest burned and his eyes widened as the fingers of the thing arched ready for attack.
“Don’t,” he begged.
“It is too late to beg for mercy. I asked for it once and my cries went unheard, and the cries of your son will never sound because of you. I believed men such as you were heartless; I now know I was wrong. I can feel it beating as any other, but it is not like any other. It is rotten to the core.”
Liam’s screams echoed through the trees, as Annie thrust her fingers deep into the wound. She felt the flesh part and the softness of muscles, as she moved towards her target. Her skeleton fingers scraped bone against bone on his ribs.
Despite her revulsion Cora managed to grab hold of her. Annie caught off guard, was thrown back. The suction sound as her fingers were torn from Liam’s flesh was nauseating.
“Annie, no,” Cora gasped, winded from the run and her recent ordeal.
Liam slumped to the ground and was clutching at his torn chest trying to stem the flow of blood. Annie, stunned by the surprise attack, sat against a tree trunk.
“He’s not worth it,” Cora said. “It’s bad enough I’ve had to suffer up to now at his hands, but think of it Annie, yours will be eternal.”
“That is a price I am willing to pay.”
Liam tried to back away as she crawled towards him, ready to renew her assault.
“Please, no,” Cora begged, caring only for the memory of the young girl she had glimpsed moments before and nothing for the man she had once called husband.
“No,” the cries of the spirits joined with hers, and Cora hugged herself as the ground beneath her shook.
The roots of long dead trees sprang from the earth and wrapped themselves around Annie’s ankles, pulling her back. She roared in frustration and beat at the earth-brown sinews holding her against the trunk. Some were so brittle with age they crumbled to dust beneath her rapacious tearing. But as soon as she managed to pull one away another replaced it. Cora sobbed, as she watched the battle before her. Nature itself loved this young woman enough to fight for her. The wind died completely, and the night grew still, except for the snapping of the roots and the howls of their prisoner. The moonlight returned and small shafts of its light made their way through the trees. From far above her head, Cora heard an urgent rustling as every bird awoke from slumbering and took to the air. Crows, sparrows, starlings, and magpies flew as one towards the sky, their wings beating a tattoo and their voices calling out to him who created them for help. Still, the heavens remained silent.
Dora sat on the steps of the house crying and hugging her doll. The noises from the forest frightened her, and even though she wanted to help her sister, fear held her in its grip. She was so frightened she did not even move when the big lights came towards her.
The taxi deposited its passengers and drove away. The darkness returned and Laura, Shelly and Emily were left standing staring at the little girl who sat with her eyes covered, sobbing.
“What’s that noise? Laura looked at Emily.
“I don’t know, but it’s coming from behind the house.”
“Shelly, stay there,” Laura ordered, as she followed the old woman.
Shelly walked to the steps and sat down. Dora peeped between her fingers and realising it was another child took her hands down.
“You have to help Annie,” she whispered.
“I can’t,” Shelly said. “My head is broken.” And she rubbed at the offending lump.
“My stupid sister did it.”
“Cause I called her names.”
“Hugh beat me with a stick.”
“A horrid man and very big like this,” she stretched her arms above her head.
“What did he beat you for?”
“I would not tell a lie about Annie.”
“Did it hurt a lot?”
“Yes, I was all cut and my new dress got blood on it, look.”
Shelly bent to look at the dark stain on the faded garment and wrinkled her nose.
“That’s gross. What did you do then?”
“I fell asleep.”
“Hey,” Shelly noticed the doll, reached across, and grabbed it. “That’s mine.”
“I did not break it or anything. I just played with it.”
Shelly looked at the strange little girl with the big sad eyes and gave the doll back.
“Here, you can keep it. I have loads more.”
“Oh, thank you,” Dora clasped the wonderful gift and, while the earth and all of its forces fought against the threatening darkness two little girls sat and talked about dolls and sisters and things that remained the same throughout the centuries.
Laura caught up with Emily and they walked hand in hand into the turmoil. Annie still fought against her bonds; Liam managed to get to his feet but was unable to walk. A tree took his weight, as he leant against it. He needed both hands to keep his flesh together.
“Mam,” Cora did not hear Laura call her name as above her the birds circled faster, their cries growing more urgent. It was not until her daughter touched her, she realised she was there. She knew the old woman with her had to be Emily.
“Laura, don’t look,” She pulled the child against her, trying to shield her eyes.
“It’s all right, Mam. I know Annie and I know why she is angry. He hurt you, didn’t he?” She cast a disdainful look at her blood-soaked father.
Cora did not have time to reply.
“Annie,” Emily walked towards the struggling figure. “Annie, dearest, don’t you know me?”
Annie stopped and looked at the old woman.
“I’m family, Annie. I am descendent of Rose. Look deep child and remember.”
The skies grew quiet as the birds flew down and lined the branches of the trees. Nothing stirred; even the moon stood still and waited.
“You are Rose’s child?”
“Yes,” Emily walked closer. “And I know all about you and what you’ve suffered.”
“Then she lived?”
“Yes, child. They all lived. Meg, Pat, Lily and Paul. They’ve kept watch over you throughout time.”
With this Annie started to cry. She bowed her head and sobbed, and when she finally looked up, she was a young girl again.
“Then I was not alone?”
“You were never alone. Their love was hidden from you by The Dark One’s curse.”
Who’s The Dark One?” Laura asked.
A shadow slipped from between the trees.
“I am,” he bowed mockingly and walked over to the child.
Cora pushed her daughter behind her, but she was no match for his superhuman strength, and he threw her aside. Bending down, he took Laura’s chin in his hand.
“Don’t touch me,” she tried to pull away. “You’re a bad man.”
“Oh, you have no idea how bad I am, little girl.”
The smack she gave him resounded in the stillness.
“I hate you.”
“The feeling is mutual I assure you.”
“Take your hands off her” the roots released Annie; she pushed him aside and became a barrier between him and the child. “I will not allow you to hurt her.”
“You cannot stop me,” he sneered.
“Oh, I can stop you, Lucifer. Like you I have learned much, and I will cast you down as Michael did before me.”
His eyes blazed and his mouth drew back in a feral grin, as he lunged at her. The force with which she hit him sent him flying and he landed so hard, the earth beneath him cracked. He sat for a moment watching her, undecided. Then got to his feet and brushed the dirt from his clothes. The three women and the child moved closer together. Finally, he spoke.
“Very well; you have made your choice,” he waved at Liam. “He is still alive and my curse cannot be lifted and believe me Annie, he will sire more sons. Your search for peace will be endless.”
“But I know I am no longer alone. Dora is with me, I have seen her, and Rose survived. I will take this knowledge with me always, and I have learned so much I can no longer be of use to you. I will always hold true to the Most High. Go now.”
He moved back into the shadows until they could no longer see him.
“Where did he go?” Laura asked.
“Back to where he belongs,” Annie said. “And I pray he stays there for a long time.”
The lights in the house came on as the power supply was restored and lit the garden.
“Dora is waiting for you, child,” Emily took Annie’s hand and led her out from the trees. Cora and Laura walked behind them.
Liam’s laughter followed them, its sound hollow in the night air. All fear left him, and he considered himself immortal after hearing The Dark One’s words. Already his wound was starting to heal.
“You’re fucked,” he called after them. “All of you are fucked, understand? You,” he jabbed his finger at Cora. “You’re out, and you old woman,” He glared at Emily. “you’ll rot in that home.”
Annie started to walk back to him, but Emily stopped her.
“Leave him be, child. There’s a greater power will deal with him.”
“That’s right,” he sneered. “Listen to the old woman. Because one way or another you are really fucked. Kill me and you know what will happen. I heard him back there. I’m not stupid.”
“Come, child,” Emily pulled the reluctant Annie away.
“I’ll knock the house and dig every inch of the land until I find you. I will grind your bones to dust and there is nothing you can do. You’re useless,” he was shaking with temper. “Just like every woman ever born, you’re worthless.”
The watching birds screeched into flight, as Annie ran back towards him.
“I will kill you,” she screamed, but before she could touch him…
The clouds parted and a ray of light brighter than the sun cut through the night sky forcing them to cover their eyes. The lightening bolt, thrown by one who had remained silent for too long, found its target and cut Liam’s heart in two. The shocked women looked in wonder at his fallen body and the small plume of smoke rising from it.
“Don’t cry, Mam,” Laura said. “Dad was a bad man and he’d have hurt us and Annie.”
“I know,” Cora could not tell her young daughter her tears were ones of relief.
“The power of God is still strong,” Emily said. “And as he says there’s a time for everything under heaven,” she pointed to the opposite side of the garden and the figure of the blond child skipping along beside the young woman.
After the rain, the warm air started to rise, and a mist floated above the grass. Annie and Dora stopped when they reached their resting place and waved.
“God grant you peace,” Emily called to them, before the mist rose and they were lost to her forever.
And deep below the earth, wrapped in its velvet folds, a small child cuddled closer to her sister, stuck her thumb in her mouth and with her free hand holding tightly to her doll drifted away.