“Trust the talisman.”

Claude and Lila Barry only ever left Jacob’s End when they needed to shop for supplies, or when Lila borrowed books from Quorn Public Library. There was nothing else of interest to them in town. They had no family or friends there, and in truth, most people in town thought them rather queer and weren’t shy at gossiping about them in loud whispers as they went about their business. It had been almost two years since that episode at the garage (when Claude was arrested for waving a tyre iron at the incompetent mechanic) and the manager and workers at Quorn Service Station had all changed since then, but towns like Quorn have a long memory.

The Barrys were one of the oldest families in the county, having lived at Jacob’s End for as long as records had been kept. They were here when the blight came a century ago, and after the creeping death had finished its work, the surviving family members had drifted back, their entire wealth and history being tied to this tiny village. These days, the Barry clan survived mostly on welfare and lived an isolated life where their only relationships were with each other.

Today, Claude and Lila had been away from home for almost six hours. They were in Quorn for an hour or so, buying groceries and exchanging library books, and left for home at the usual time. But as their old Ford Cortina chugged up the second of the Six Hills, steam began shooting from the bonnet and the car sputtered and died. It was almost an hour before another car appeared on the road, and then another hour passed before a tow truck arrived from Quorn. Then there was the long wait at the service station while the car was being fixed.

It was now past sunset and they were on the road and anxious to get home. Claude glanced at his wife, who was staring straight ahead, her face glowing in the light of the dashboard. Her face had weathered well over the years, he was thinking. She looked great for sixty-something. Then again, when there was little to smile or frown about, and when you spent most of every day reading in bed, leaving your put-upon husband to do all the cleaning and cooking and caring for your son, there wasn’t much exertion or wrinkling of the skin to crease a person’s face.

“Don’t fret, Mother,” Claude said, scratching the stubble under his chin. “Ormy will be asleep. He won’t even know we’re not there.”

Lila turned her head stiffly on her neck. She didn’t say a word, but Claude knew that look. She kept her eyes fixed on him long enough to make sure he really did know it.

Ormond Barry recently turned forty-four, but his family had never stopped treating him like a baby. From an early age he’d had a fascination with the ocean, claiming invisible friends lived out beyond the reef, where the sea bed fell away and the water ran deep and black. Most days he could be found at the water’s edge, talking to himself in a strange language or listening with his head cocked. His mother took to calling him ‘Seachild’, and the name persisted to this day, as had Ormy’s fascination with the waves and whatever dwelt beneath them.

Until recently, Ormy had accompanied his folks on their visits to Quorn. He didn’t like people or noise or change, but there were two things about Quorn he did like. He’d begin the day by enjoying a double chocolate sundae at Daisy’s Milk Bar (no nuts or sprinkles if you wanted to have a peaceful drive home), and then, while Lila chose her books and Claude bought supplies from the grocery store and hardware store, Ormy would visit the animal shelter to pet the cats. But a few weeks back, something happened to change all that. A little way out of Jacob’s End, on a blank stretch of road in the middle of nowhere, Ormy started whining. By the time they reached the Six Hills he was wailing and writhing in fear. He wasn’t able to say what had terrified him, but from that moment on nothing – no promise of ice cream or the soft fur or gentle purring of cats – would convince him to leave the safety and comfort of Jacob’s End. Lately he’d grown increasingly fond of pottering around the abandoned sheds, mumbling to himself and making friends with the dead birds, so his parents comforted themselves with the knowledge he’d found another interest to occupy his time.

“Don’t worry, Ormy,” Claude said, as if his son could hear him from here. “We’ll be back soon.”

To fill the silence, he switched on the radio. A soft rock-country Christian song accompanied them as the car drove on, motoring through the barren landscape. Figuring the song might soothe his wife’s nerves, he turned up the volume.

Lila mumbled something.

“Wha?” grunted Claude.

“… on the road,” said Lila, leaning forward.

He switched off the radio. His eyes weren’t what they used to be, but when he squinted he saw something black blocking the road ahead. He squinted harder. Whatever it was, it was the size of a car. But it wasn’t a car. It was moving like it was alive.

Pressing his foot on the brake, turning the steering wheel, he pulled over.

“What is it?” whispered Lila, her eyes like spotlights.

Claude took his glasses from the glove compartment, put them on, moved his face close to the windscreen. The moon was obscured by cloud and the headlights didn’t quite reach the thing, but from here it looked like a pile of rocks and branches. “I don’t –” he began, and then the clouds dispersed and moonlight fell upon the road. The thing raised its head.

Lila screamed the way she’d done through the worst parts of her son’s birth. Claude was mesmerised by the writhing red tentacles and it took a massive effort of will to pull his eyes away and slam the car into gear. Without another thought, he did the quickest three-point turn of his life.

Speeding away, he glanced in the rear-view mirror. The monster was standing up to its full height, its body a long black silhouette against the charcoal-grey of the evening sky. When it spread out huge leathery wings, his heartrate doubled and a sudden tightening in his chest made him grunt in pain.

Lila dug her fingernails into his arm. “What’s happening?” she shrieked in his face. “What’s it doing? What’s it doing?”

The thing’s head reminded Claude of a sea anemone. A gooey, shiny liquid was dripping from its tentacles to the road, and all he could think about was blood: blood on its mouth; blood on the road; blood on whatever it was eating.

“Don’t worry,” he assured Lila, prying her fingers from her arm, trying to keep his voice steady. “We’re safe. Just have to make it round this corner.”

But the monster would prove him a liar. As Claude watched in horror, it began hopping along the road towards them, using its folded wings like crutches. After hopping for a few metres, it stopped.

As the monster receded in his rear-view mirror, Claude stared at it in disbelief. He shook the steering wheel in triumph. “It’s stopped!” he yelled. “We made it! We damn-well made it!”

Lila, who had been staring at him in terror, turned her stare to the road behind them. She gave out a strangled cry.

Claude glanced at the mirror in time to see the thing leaping into the air. Flapping its wings, it rose heavily, fighting against gravity, following the line of the road. Its tail curled beneath its body and Claude gasped when he saw the tail ended in what appeared to be a giant stinger.

Lila was now leaning into the back seat, unable to pull her eyes away from the thing. “It’s flying!” she cried. “Oh my God, it’s flying! What is it? It’s flying! It’s chasing us! What is it?”

Claude’s eyes were locked on the rear-view mirror.

“It’s flying! What is it? What is it? What is it?”

“Shut up! You’re not helping things!”

She dug her nails in his arm again. “What in hell is it?”

“It’s …” It suddenly became clear to him. “… a dragon.”

She turned her head. “I can’t see it! Where is it? Where is it? I can’t see it!”

“Good. It’s gone.”

Lila pressed her cheek against the window.

“It’s gone,” Claude repeated, nodding to confirm it to himself.

Her body went rigid. “No, it’s not! It’s coming up behind us! It’s catching up! – catching up!”

He looked in the mirror. There was nothing there.

“It’s too fast for this old bomb!”

“You’re being hysterical. Sit back and shut up.”

As usual, she ignored him. “Go faster! Go faster! Go faster!”

“I can’t go any faster.”

“Put your stupid foot down!”

“What do you think I’m doing?”

“Not enough, as usual.” She gasped. “Oh no! I told you to go faster! You’re too slow! We’re not going to make it!”

Their eyes met. Everything froze. With an almighty bang, the roof caved in.

Stopping the car, Dylan rested his forearms on the steering wheel. He had no idea where the Messenger was. It could be anywhere by now.

He dug in his pocket and pulled out the talisman Wilfred had given him. It looked like a shiny beetle, with a round body and five asymmetrical legs. The thing was hollow and had some kind of herb or fungus in it that smelt like a swamp. He turned it over, smelt it again, wrinkled his nose. What was he supposed to do with it?

He replayed the conversation with Wilfred in his head.

“This will show you the way,” the wizard told him, placing the talisman in his hand.

“How does it work?”

“It shows you the way.”

“You already said that. How does it work?”

“You’ll see.”

“Does it glow or … get hot when I get close?”

“Not to my knowledge.”

“What does it do then?”

“How should I know?”

“Because … er … you gave it to me.”

“So you assume that means I know how it works? Do I know everything? Now be off. You’re wasting precious time.”

“You said it would lead me to it.”

“It will.”

“But how?”

Wilfred was getting frustrated with him. “Trust the talisman.”

“Trust the talisman?”

“Trust the talisman.”

“How can I trust it when I don’t know how it works?”

“Just go. Then you can tell me how it works.”

So off he went.

He shook it. “Lead me to your master,” he ordered in Bela Lugosi’s voice. The beetle was no more responsive than a piece of costume jewellery. Sighing, he fastened the chain around his neck. Maybe the thing worked better that way.

After waiting a few seconds for any clues to the beast’s whereabouts, Dylan shook his head in frustration and put the car in gear.

A little further down the road, his attention was drawn to the field on his right. He slowed to a stop. Lowering the window, he leaned into the night and glanced around. There was nothing out there. He hadn’t seen or heard anything, and there was nothing to see or hear now. It was an unremarkable tract of land, flat and featureless, no animals or movement of any kind. But Dylan felt an irresistible urge to turn the car off the road and drive towards the distant rise. The feeling was hard to explain – it was like the craving a starving man might feel on spotting a table laid with plates of hot meat.

His mouth curled into a smile. We’re connected, he thought. That’s what the talisman does. With a feeling of pleasure greater than anything he could ever remember feeling, he turned the car in that direction.

Having surrendered to the craving, Dylan was on a high. He leaned over the steering wheel and pressed hard on the accelerator, and the Honda sped up and jumped and banged as it flew over the uneven ground. Normally this would have terrified him, but right now he had the urge to go even faster, to leave the ground and shoot into the air like a supersonic missile. I’ll explode if I don’t get to that thing soon, he thought as he egged the car on.

Approaching a fence, he held firmly onto the steering wheel and braced himself for the impact. As the car crashed through, he spied white shapes dotted across the land, and guessed from the crunches as he drove over them that the shapes were bones. Bouncing over bumps and hollows, a sudden vision rose in his mind of the Messenger devouring terrified sheep on the way through. It pinned them down with its razor-sharp talons, spat out corrosive saliva, then sucked up the soup of meat and guts with its tentacled mouth. He could see the image as clear as day, as if it were a memory of something he’d actually witnessed.

To his right, near a broken fence, was a large pile of bones. Dylan jerked the steering wheel in that direction, but the car kept on going, sliding across the damp grass, unresponsive to his efforts to correct its motion. He pressed his foot on the brake, spun the wheel, regained control, sped up, and the Honda flew through the opening in the fence, scattering bones and landing with a squeal of metal against the bitumen road. The car bounced on its tyres, bounced again, and came to a stop in the ditch opposite.

He was back on Deep Ocean Road. He looked over his left shoulder, then his right. There, in the middle of the road, was a pile of blood and guts, melted over wool and bones. The Messenger was disturbed, Dylan thought as he backed up the car. Someone came along and it gave chase. I’m close.

He was right. Further along, around a bend in the road, was the Barrys’ car.

Inside the crushed Cortina, Lila was cringing under the glove compartment, screeching in terror as the monster banged and tore at the metal above her head. Beside her, Claude was frantically trying to start the stalled car.

“Shut up, shut up, shut up, shut up,” he chanted as he turned the key in the ignition. “You’re making it madder.”

“Don’t tell me to shut up,” shot back his wife, slapping his knee.

Claude frowned at her. Then a razor-sharp talon broke through the roof and she started screeching all over again.

“Run!” he yelled, pulling on the handle and pushing his shoulder against the door. But the Messenger had bent the frame of the car. The doors were jammed. They were trapped like kippers in a can.

In a last-ditch effort, Claude tried the ignition again. To his amazement and relief, the engine burst into life. For a moment he was stunned. He grinned dumbly at his wife.

“Go!” she yelled, slapping him again.

When he slammed his foot on the accelerator, the car took off so fast it felt like there were only two tyres touching the road.

As the vehicle pulled out from beneath it, the Messenger overbalanced, lost its grip on the roof and rolled onto the road. In a flash, it was on its feet, flapping its wings, lifting its bloated body into the air, speeding after them.

Claude watched in the rear-view mirror as it flew low towards them. “Damn thing! … Give up! … Eat sheep!” he muttered. “Leave us the hell alone!”

The monster ignored him. It seemed to have acquired a taste for humans and was no longer interested in the sheep that stood like ghosts in the fields to their left and right.

It didn’t take long to catch up to them.

“Hold on,” Claude warned his screaming wife, and hugged the steering wheel.

The Messenger slammed into the boot, forcing the front wheels into the air. Sparks flew as the car spun in a half circle and came to a stop.

Smashing through the rear window, it began dragging itself into the car.

Dylan sped after them, watched as the Messenger caught the Cortina, slammed on his brakes. The Honda skidded and came to a stop in the middle of the road.

He gaped in horror at the scene ahead. The monster had grown to three times its original size. Wilfred had warned him the thing was ravenous, but he hadn’t said it would grow this fast. How much larger would it get if given the chance? And what level of destruction would it cause once it grew so vast nothing could stand in its way? It was called a Messenger, but what kind of message was it carrying besides death and destruction?

Grabbing the flask of red powder from the seat beside him, Dylan pushed open the door, clambered out and ran towards the Barrys.

He stopped a safe distance away and watched as the Messenger fought to drag its body into the battered car. He couldn’t see through the darkened windows, couldn’t see how many people were inside the Cortina, but it was obvious the killer was intent on consuming whoever was there. He had to act quickly.

With a trembling hand, he pulled from his pocket a crumpled page of note paper.

“Reyh’a-Yog-Sothoth-groh’mi-ulh’ka-ai’na – Yah! Reyh’a-Yog-Sothoth-groh’mi –” he read in a throaty voice.

The Messenger froze. Responding to Dylan’s chant, it began pushing and pulling its hairy body and bony legs out of the car. Once free and standing on the road, it turned towards him and started advancing. As Dylan watched in awe, it spat out a long stream of saliva.

“Yipes!” he cried, sidestepping the corrosive liquid. Oh shit, he thought, backing away; this damn spell better work or I’m soup.

The Messenger was getting closer.

“Reyh’a-Yog-Sothoth-groh’mi-ulh’ka-ai’na – Yah!” he cried, walking backwards. “Reyh’a-Yog-Sothoth-groh’mi-ulh’ka-ai’na – Yah!”

The spell seemed to be working. The Messenger was faltering, its wings drooping, its legs struggling to pull its fat, hairy abdomen along the bitumen. A succession of long screeches attested to its rage and frustration.

Dylan raised the flask. “Reyh’a-Yog-Sothoth-groh’mi-ulh’ka-ai’na – Yah! Reyh’a-Yog-Sothoth-groh’mi-ulh’ka-ai’na – Yah!”

In a last-ditch effort, the giant wings flapped, the eight legs bent and sprang, the long red body rose in the air. At the same time, Dylan reached back and threw the flask with all his might. Dropping to the road, covering his head with his arms, he waited for the talons to sink into his back.

He heard the glass smash – a devilish shriek – a sloshing sound as something thick and wet hit the road. Then silence. The smell of fresh meat and offal washed over him.

Slowly he moved his arms away from his eyes. He peered under his armpit. Spread across the road, from where the Messenger had taken off to the heels of Dylan’s shoes, were gobs of blood and chunks of guts and bones: the remains of the dead itinerant and all the animals the Messenger had dissolved and devoured. The stench of it made him gag.

Climbing to his feet, he turned his eyes to the squashed and broken car. Two white faces were pressed against the driver’s-side window. Their eyes rolled over the mess on the road, before coming to rest on Dylan.

He shrugged and gave them an awkward wave.

Read Chapter 14: Aftermath

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