The storm whipped violently through the trees, lightning crackling purple veins across the sky, illuminating the field below in quick flashes of unnatural blue. Anna Myers was twelve years old again running through the thick grass as sheets of rain poured down on her. Fire was licking up from the field in her wake, a wet flame that moved as if it were possessed by the devil himself, chasing her with every step she made. Burning fingers groped desperately for her even as the rain fought them back. She ran with hell nipping at her heels.
Suddenly there were no flames, no lightning or rain to drench her. The grass was dry, brown and dying in a wide arc around her. The trees were gnarled, black and leafless bending down in a skeleton’s grip that threatened to crush her. The familiar woods had become a forest of burnt match sticks clawing up at an alien sky. From the darkness ahead a faint red light began to glow under the horizon. A tiny body stepped uneasily through the haze. Denise Myers was still wearing the same pigtails and pleated skirt she’d worn when she left for school that morning. Her eyes were milky, glassed over and her skin had a sick pallor that seemed unnatural on her freckled face. Her mouth made wordless shapes as if she were chewing on something.
A torrent of crimson and black parted her lips and erupted from her mouth followed by a charred black hand. The first was joined by the second until the innocent face masking the beast was ripped open and peeled away. Blood dripped from chitinous black skin as something less than human took the little girl’s place. With frail, skeletal features and a mouth filled in a spiral of shark teeth, Anna Myers knew that death had come for her. Her legs weighed a thousand pounds and rooted her like a tree to the spot. Her arms were limp and useless. She tried to scream but her voice had been stolen, her open mouth pleading from a desperate shriek that wouldn’t come.
Dark hands gripped her throat. The buzz saw grin beginning its fatal spiral before her eyes.
Anna sat straight up in her bed and screamed. No longer a little girl but a grown woman, she was alone in her apartment. Drenched in sweat she clutched her chest to keep her heart from beating out of her ribs into the floor. Outside the sun was blazing and the sky was blue. On shaking legs she walked into the living room of her apartment and stripped naked. Placing a blank canvas on the easel, she began to paint her latest nightmare.
Danny Oldham stared at his reflection in the cup of black coffee getting cold on the table in front of him. Each line and scar on his face seemed more pronounced in the steaming darkness inside the cup. He hated the way he looked, the thing he had become over the ages. He could still vaguely remember pieces of his childhood, of a guitar he’d strummed lazily under a willow tree with a gentle breeze blowing the branches against his face. He was unrecognizable now, even to himself. With each death his body had changed. Not just the adding of scars but the geography of his physique had gradually warped. His nose was broader than it had been a decade ago and his ears were just a bit smaller. His hair had been red, black, brown and now blonde. He wondered what he’d look like in another hundred years.
“You okay?” It was a gentle question from Novak who’d been sipping his coffee across from Danny for several minutes. The silence had been too much for him.
“Just been a rough morning.” Danny said solemnly. “Never expected a piece of me would ever be used for something like this.”
“So what do you think he was doing out there?”
“Priming the pump.” Danny said. “Psychic turbulence makes it easier to pull through into our world. He’d have leveled that place and flooded it, made it the perfect conduit for them to crawl through in droves. Twelve souls and a medium to pass through; it would have been hell on earth.”
“Like Denise Myers?” Novak asked.
“So what now?”
“Now? We wait for your guys to find Anna and then we hide her in the most secluded place we can find. That thing can’t exist in our world forever but, if it brings friends they could take a place like that house and make it a sanctuary. Those woods would be uninhabitable and they’d work on spreading into the rest of the town.”
“Talking from experience?”
They returned to their silence, Novak sipping his coffee while Danny searched for the meaning of life in his.
“You see the mural they had her paint in the break room?” Danny heard the little girl working behind the counter ask.
“Yeah, Melissa’s husband is going to come paint over it this weekend,” the other girl said. “Looks like something out of a horror movie with those eyes and the spider legs. What did she call it again?”
“Bedlam I think.”
Danny knocked over his coffee as he stood up and raced to the counter.
“What’s the matter?” Novak called after him.
“I need to see that mural.” Danny said frantically.
“I’m sorry, sir, but everything in the back is employees only.”
Danny groaned and climbed over the counter, pushing past the handful of gangly college freshmen who made up the staff and into the small office break room. There, in hellish reds, oranges and golds the wall was an inferno. The woman stood bare breasted on a black heap with arachnid appendages piercing through her milk white skin. Her eyes were the color of fresh blood pooling inside the sockets as she screamed in the flames. Danny fell weakly onto his knees.
Novak came around the corner into the room, saw the mural and then Danny.
“Who painted this?” Novak asked.
“One of our regulars, Anna something.” a girl in a green apron answered. “She lives over in the apartments behind the shop.”
Danny struggled to his feet, wiped his eyes on his shirt, and walked to the door.
“Let’s get her before they do, Van.”
For the second time in two days Novak and Danny were standing in the parking lot of the Imperial Inn Apartments staring at the dilapidated facade of the Z building. It was the smallest of all the tenements with only two units. The bottom belonged to the maintenance man and was more of a workshop than a home. The one above it belonged to Anna Myers. The stairs were on the side of the little building and ended on a small porch looking off into the woods. The rail had been painted in a rainbow of colors that snaked around and up to the door. Each step was its own tiny mural depicting a scene from her imagination.
Danny stood at the bottom of the stairs looking up at the door.
“I have a feeling,” Danny said solemnly. “I’ve had it once before and it ended badly.”
“Let’s work in the now, Dan.” Novak said as he started up towards the door. “Past is just going to slow us down.”
Anna Myers met them at the door wearing a bathrobe that was almost as paint stained as the naked skin it covered.
“You’ve been out there for ten minutes,” she said. She was very direct, matter of fact as she stared down Novak. “He looks like a stalker and you’re dressed like a car salesman so I know y’all aren’t here to buy any paintings or sell anything I need so what do you want?”
Novak showed her his badge.
“We need to talk to you about your sister.” Danny said.
Anna looked up at Danny and her face suddenly softened. She reached up and stroked his cheek gently.
“I dreamed about you.” she said quietly. “When I was a little girl. I dreamed about you in the fires, fighting with the monster inside that pretty woman. What other nightmares are going to come true now?”
He took her hand in his and smiled.
“None, if we can help it.”
She sat the pair down on the futon in her paint stained living room and pulled a stool from her kitchen to sit on as they spoke. They explained to her about the murders, about the strange rituals carried out in her abandoned childhood home and explained to her that a woman was hunting her down as they spoke to complete some ghoulish rite. They omitted everything about the supernatural essence of the hunter, though the look in her eyes suggested she knew more about it than she wanted to believe was possible.
“But why is she looking for me?” Anna asked.
“We were sort of hoping you could help us out with that one.” Novak answered. “I mean, we believe she abducted your sister, killed at least two men, and may have been involved in several other deaths over the last ten years. Can you think of anything at all that could have happened with your parents or this woman that would’ve ended in some sort of vendetta?”
She shook her head. “Mom was a pagan when dad met her. She used to have friends over during the solstice and equinox and they’d usually get naked and dance around outside but nothing too crazy. After Denise vanished, well, mom started getting into weirder stuff and dad took me and left. When he died, I ended up spending senior year of high school with her before she went nuts and joined some commune up in Wyoming or somewhere. I haven’t spoken to her since she sold the house. I got the first check from the trust they set up for me a few months ago. I just assumed she was dead.”
“Anna,” Novak said gently. “We’re concerned that she’s getting close to finding you and, quite frankly, this isn’t an ideal place to protect you. Not if we want to catch her.”
“So where can I go?”
“There’s a little motel on the edge of town,” Danny said. “Nothing fancy but it’s out of the way. We can set up surveillance and have people in adjoining rooms. We’ll have someone waiting here too. When she comes looking for you, we’ll catch her and this will all be over.”
She thought for a few minutes, looked at the window looking out into the parking lot and back at the men on her futon. She bit her lip and nodded.
“Okay. Give me a few minutes to shower and pack and we’ll go.”
“Just like that?” Novak asked.
“I trust him.” she said, looking at Danny.
She walked off to her bedroom and shut the door.
“Okay, explain to me where I’m going to get the manpower to watch her at the motel and keep an eye on this place?” Novak asked. “I mean, I can’t call the chief and say, ‘Hey, we’ve got a demon stalking a college dropout, I need every man you’ve got.’”
“You won’t need to.” Danny said. “You’ll need one to keep an eye on her at the motel while we wait for it in my room.”
“She’s known where the girl’s been the whole time.” Danny said. “She’s got her sister’s blood in her. She can sense her kin. She’ll come to us when she’s ready.”
Bêtes Noire stood in the tall grass and kudzu choked foliage staring through the growth as the men escorted her prize out into the parking lot and into the waiting car. A wicked smirk curled her ruby lips as black eyes watched the car drive off into the distance. Without a word, her arm dislocated and reached down to the pit-bull sitting patiently at her feet. Long, slender fingers caressed the dog’s head as it obediently waited for her.
“It’s time to begin the chase, Brutus.”
For three days dead animals began to appear in front of room nine of the Dixie Motor Lodge. Birds, rats, squirrels, all the little vermin in nature seemed to be dropping dead and having their corpses delivered right to Danny Oldham’s front door. Danny had been at his wits end ever since finding Anna Myers who insisted on sleeping in the empty bed beside his. Novak and one of his partners, a lanky, young cop named Reedus, had been sharing the room next door, taking turns monitoring the parking lot and the sidewalk leading up to the motel. They had set up a series of cameras along the side of the building and, despite the constant level of coverage, they were still at a loss to figure out what was leaving the macabre gifts.
Anna had been up all night sketching in a book she had brought with her, drawing all the horrors of an otherworldly nightmare when Danny woke up. Without a word, he looked out the window to see if there were any new corpses waiting for him outside and gave a sigh of relief when he saw nothing.
“You hungry?” Danny asked hoarsely.
Anna shook her head. “No, Jake brought me something to eat a little while ago.”
“Reedus,” she said, giggling. “You’re really bad with people’s names, aren’t you?”
“Nah, just the one’s I don’t care about remembering.”
“You remember my name.”
“You’re different.” Danny told her. “What you drawing there?”
She pulled the sketchbook to her chest and looked down at her lap. “I had another nightmare. You were there.”
She nodded. “You were in a room and it was covered in plastic and some woman in a bird mask was stabbing you.”
“Yep, around sixty-five or sixty-six if I remember correct. That was a hell of a weekend.”
“So, that really happened?”
She shook her head and put the sketchbook down.
“Why do I know this? How can I see this?”
Danny put his hand on her shoulder and gave a gentle squeeze.
“There are things in this universe that are beyond our understanding.” he told her. “Sometimes we get little glimpses of time that don’t belong to us. It’s nothing to worry about.”
“Wouldn’t that make you a bit older, though? Like, a lot older?”
“Time’s a funny thing, especially when you don’t care about it.”
And with that, Danny stepped outside to have his first cigarette of the morning. He cringed as he felt the crunch of bird bones under his bare feet.
“Son of a bitch.” he muttered, scraping the nightingale on the edge of the sidewalk before lighting his cigarette.
“Another one?” Novak asked, stepping out of his room. “I’d give good money to know where they’re coming from.”
“You and me both.”
“Any thoughts on what our next move should be?”
Danny shook his head.
“Short of lighting candles and prayer, I’m fresh out of ideas.” Danny confessed. “I didn’t think we’d make it through the first night without her making a move. Three days later… I’m out of my element. I’ve never known one of these things to take this much time coming after someone. Patience just isn’t their strong suit.”
“Anna have any thoughts on what happened to her sister?”
“Aside from a list of mommy issues that sound like a sequel for Rosemary’s Baby, no, not as such.”
Danny tossed his cigarette butt into the parking lot and cocked his head towards a black and white splotched dog sitting behind Novak’s car. He was wagging his tail proudly as he stood over a package on the ground. There were maroon stains on the side of the plain brown paper.
“Don’t suppose he’s our delivery man, do you?” Van said with a chuckle.
“Guess you’ll have to find out.” Danny said. “I’m not much of a dog person.”
Novak rolled his eyes and walked up to the back of his car. He knelt down and offered a hand for the overfed bull-dog to sniff. It snorted at him and trotted off across the street into a clearing. He shook his head, reached down and opened the package. The smell was almost overwhelming when it hit his nostrils. Inside were the decaying remains of the missing testicles from the second murder victim they had come across.
“Danny,” Novak called, drawing his pistol. “She’s here.”
Barefoot, Danny ran across the parking lot to the back of Novak’s car.
“The dog left this. Looks like Pinocchio’s missing balls.”
Wordless, Danny took off into the woods after the bull-dog. His feet were sliced by thorns, briars, and a broken piece of beer bottle but he ignored it all as he ran. There were no paw prints, not that he’d need them. A trail of decomposing animal caracasses had been left for him, terrible little bread crumbs ending in a patch of scorched earth. Standing there, her arms out stretched over her head, Bêtes Noire was waiting for him. With ruby lips and glistening, shark teeth she offered her sardonic smile. Her bare skin was pale, bruised and ruptured in places where long, gangly appendages had ripped open to expose her true self. Black arms, spider’s arms reached out from under her breasts and between her shoulder blades. Her eyes were black and formless, the abyss ready to swallow the universe whole.
“I’ve been waiting for you, Danny.” she said, her voice warbling unnaturally. “I’ve been waiting a very long time.”
“What do you want, filth?”
“Is that how you’d greet an old friend?” she asked. The flesh of her face was rotting now into a putrescent gray-black mess. “How long has it been since you and Bedlam fought for the souls of that damned little town?”
“What do you want with the girl?”
“I want what is mine.” Bêtes growled. “We did what was asked and now we’ll have what is ours.”
“You murdered a little girl,” Danny argued. “Not to mention at least a dozen more over the last few years. You’ve had your fun. Now it’s time to leave.”
She laughed. It was a strange, echoing noise that made Danny’s blood run cold.
“The mother thought she could protect them both.” she said. “The father tried to stop us and failed. The butcher set the stage and, you, Danny, you unlocked the door. The energy that surrounds this place, the energy of every last soul to die tonight will open the gates and allow us into your world forever.”
“Not if I stop you first.”
Danny charged the Black Beast, his arms out wide as he ploughed into her. The two flew backwards onto the scorched black grass and rolled away from each other. He stood up clutching a burnt piece of wood from the ground beside him. He was alone. The sun was starting to go down over his shoulder as he dropped his club and began to limp back to the motel. To his dismay, the same displacement that had been used to delay the Bêtes Noire crossing into the world had been used by her to deliver her message. What had taken minutes to him had been hours. In the parking lot, three patrol cars were cordoning off the area in front of his room. Novak looked up and saw the ancient man trudging towards him.
“Danny.” he shouted, racing up to him. “Where the hell have you been?”
“I was with her.” he said. “She got away but she’ll be coming for us tonight.”
“She came and went.” Van said. There was a note of pride in his voice. “We killed her. Wasn’t all that hard, either.”
Danny looked at him quizzically.
“How did you kill her?”
“Between me and Reedus we put about fifty rounds into her head and chest. Looked like someone exploded a bag of meat by the time we got done; a whole bucket of blood just pouring out into the floor, nothing mystical or other worldly about it.”
“I need to see her.”
“Coroner’s about to load her up.”
They walked to the stretcher behind the black van belonging to the coroner’s office. A pudgy man with wire rimmed glasses and a mustard stain on his tie unzipped the body bag and took a step back as the putrid smell of rot and blood wafted up into the air. Danny shook his head and walked back to the room. Blood was still pooling on the pavement in front of his door. He knelt down, closed his eyes, and dangled his open hand over the mess. Within seconds he was out in the parking lot heaving onto the asphalt.
“What’s the matter?” Novak asked. “We got her.”
“You got Colleen Myers,” Danny choked. “Anna’s mother. Well, her corpse, at least. From what I saw, our first victim apparently butchered her after she sold the house on Steele road. She’s been lying in a patch of dirt where they used to have a garden.”
“That’s not possible.” Danny argued. “She walked up to the door and tried to break it down. Corpses can’t do that.”
“I don’t have time to argue, Van.” Danny said, staggering to his feet. “We need to set up a perimeter and get this place shut down now.”
Tires squealed. Horns blared. In the distance, a devastated school bus came screaming through the parking lot and crashed into the office beside the small pool. The handful of officers, officials and bystanders raced to see what had happened.
Softly, from inside the wreckage, Brenda Lee sang It’s the End of the World.
“Too late.” Danny whispered.