“Look at this sensibly, boy. You didn’t appreciate or value this youthful vessel. Whereas I do.”
Dylan flung the book across the room with as much strength as his feeble body could muster. The book flew like a bird and hit the gilt mirror, which crashed to the floor, scattering shards and splinters of glass across the carpet.
He felt scared, angry and helpless. There wasn’t anything useful in the books he’d been flicking through. The spell Wilfred had used to swap their bodies was from the Necromonicon, Dylan was sure of it, and of course Wilfred hadn’t left that book lying around.
With an effort, he shuffled across the room, bent over and picked up a triangle of shattered glass. The wrinkled face of Wilfred Waite peered back at him. The eyes – Wilfred’s sunken, black-rimmed eyes – his eyes – were shiny with terror. Dylan stared at the hated face. The more he stared, the greater became his fear that the change was irreversible, that he was fated to live the rest of his days as an octogenarian.
He dropped the glass to the floor and made his way to the day bed. He felt so weary, so like … an old man. It hurt to move, hurt to breathe, hurt to sit on the bed. He fell back with a sigh, his eyes closed, his head lolled to one side.
He was jerked awake by the sound of a key in the door.
Pushing himself up, Dylan stood on unsteady legs as the door opened. Like in a dream, he saw himself – his body – step into the room.
Wilfred looked down at the books strewn about the floor. “A fine way for a guest to act in his host’s home,” he admonished, waving a finger at him like an old school teacher.
Dylan hobbled menacingly towards him.
Wilfred folded his arms. “Now that wouldn’t be fair, would it? – a healthy young buck like me, against pathetic crippled old you.”
Dylan stopped at a safe distance. He saw cruelty in his eyes, those teenaged eyes that until recently were filled with little more than boredom. In fact, the whole aspect of his stolen body oozed menace. Wilfred’s mind had perverted it, turned it into something that looked sinister and nasty. He’d witnessed the sadistic things Wilfred did to his resurrected friend, the torture he seemed to revel in, and knew he wouldn’t hesitate to do the same to him if given an excuse.
“Soon as I get out of this body …” he warned.
“Please,” breathed Wilfred, raising his eyes to the ceiling. “No juvenile threats. Look at this sensibly, boy. You didn’t appreciate or value this youthful vessel, whereas I do. More than you could ever hope to understand. This body is everything to me: a joy and a pleasure beyond anything you ever felt. Accept the inevitable, and be heartened by the knowledge that this mortal frame is destined for greatness. As I told you from the beginning, your body was born to rule, to sit shoulder to shoulder with gods and command a new world order.” Wilfred sneered at him. “You don’t honestly believe that you – a lazy, obnoxious, ungrateful little whelpling – deserve this body more than me? You’re not that simpleminded, are you?”
“You’re a lying thief!”
Wilfred crouched and picked up the mirror’s gilt frame. He shook his head at it. “This was a gift from my third wife, bless her simple heart. I do miss her steak and kidney pudding. She had a special way with offal, did Mary.” He glanced at Dylan. “I never lied to you, boy. You just heard what you wanted to hear.”
“My brother will stop you.”
Dropping the frame, Wilfred sprang to his feet. “That log-headed ox? A match against me?” He squeezed hands into fists. “I’ll crush him like a beetle.”
Dylan shut his mouth. He knew his threats were getting him nowhere. If anything, he was putting thoughts in Wilfred’s head, thoughts that might place his brother in danger. He wasn’t sure if Kane believed his stories about Wilfred and the goings-on at the farm; but that wasn’t the point. If Wilfred perceived Kane as a threat – any kind of threat – all he needed was a few seconds when he was off guard to plunge a knife in his heart.
Wilfred softened his face. “Believe it or not, Master Dylan, I like you. You helped me at a time when I most needed it. Now it’s my turn to help you.”
Dylan eyed him warily. What was behind this sudden reversal of mood? Wilfred helped no one but himself.
“I am a valuable person to know. You’ve done me a great favour, at great personal cost, and I am not one to let a sacrifice like yours go unrewarded. Tell me: what would you like? I am at your disposal, your humble servant. Name your treasure.”
“I don’t want anything from you.”
“Come, now, surely you do. Everyone desires something.”
“Give me my body back.”
“I have riches squirreled away all over the world. What’s your poison? Wine? Women? Gold?”
“I want my body!”
“I would very much like to continue our collaboration, doing the gods’ work. Wouldn’t you like that too? In fact, I can help you find your own body, a new vessel to go forth in. You have many more options than I. It will be a breeze. And then perhaps you might join me in my grand adventure, become an immortal, like me: one with the gods.”
Dylan was baffled. Despite his fury, he felt himself starting to warm to Wilfred, in the same way he’d read about hostages being drawn towards their captors. Here was Wilfred offering him immortality. How often does that kind of offer come along?
“Perhaps you might choose your log-headed brother. How often have you gazed on his firm musculature in envy and thought how nice it would be to be that strong? He must be a hit with the ladies.”
Dylan stared at him, hardly listening. Then the truth hit him. A blast of hope surged through his weak, aching body.
“Do you think I’m an old fool?” he asked, taking a step towards his enemy. “Just cos I look like one?”
Wilfred picked up one of the books, brushed off some dust and placed it on the lamp table. “I know these are probably not your cup of tea. I can have some of your own brought in … a TV, video player. I don’t care for television myself –”
“You won’t kill me cos you’re scared you’d be killing yourself.”
Wilfred shot an evil glance at him. He bent to pick up another book. “In time,” he said, flicking over the pages, “I do believe we will grow to become friends again, helpmates as we continue our journey towards enlightenment.”
“Kill me and you might find yourself back in a dead body.”
“Stranger things have happened between former associates.”
Dylan was growing bolder. He could tell by Wilfred’s reaction that he’d hit the nail on the head. “You’re losing hold. I can feel it. You’re scared. You can’t hold on.”
The book dropped to the floor. In a flash, Wilfred had him by the throat.
“Shut that fool mouth! You dare test my patience? I will rip your throat open with my bare hands! I will reach into your lungs and suffocate you while you gasp for every pathetic breath. Pain will visit you as you have never imagined in the worst of your nightmares!”
Shoving him against the wall, Wilfred strengthened his grip on his windpipe. Dylan wheezed as he fought to draw breath. His pale face, the dark soul of Wilfred twisting it with anger, bore down on him. He could taste the sweet breath of youth, feel the strands of his own black hair tickling his face. I’ve miscalculated, he thought. He’s killing me right here and now. His eyes watered, blood pounded in his ears like a hammer, the room began to dim.
Drawing back, Wilfred relaxed his hold. Dylan staggered as his arthritic knees gave way. As he fell, Wilfred caught him under the arms and helped him to the day bed.
“Forgive me,” he said gently. “I have the foulest temper.”
Stepping away from the bed, he gazed down as Dylan, panting and coughing, massaged his bruised throat.
“I appreciate this is an unnerving time for you. You’re confused and you feel the need to strike out at someone. But it’s pointless trying to second guess a man who has lived three lifetimes.” Spinning on his heel, he walked away. “I’ve enjoyed our little chat, but it’s time to go see a man about a spell.”
Wilfred paused at the door and glanced again at the books and glass scattered across the floor. “In my absence, I suggest you clean up this damn mess.”
And then he was gone.
Dylan leaned forward, hoping for a chance to escape. But the key turned in the lock and he fell back, weak and broken.
Rubbing his throat, he stared at the window opposite. When he first came to the farmhouse, he assumed the boarded-up windows were to keep intruders out. Now he knew better: they were here to keep things in.
He closed his eyes. His arthritis was playing up, his gastric reflux was worse and it hurt to swallow, but before long he was asleep and dreaming he was in a city. It was night and the buildings were all in ruins. There were no lights, only the pale glow of the moon behind a thick blanket of cloud. Dylan wandered through the litter-strewn streets, looking about in wonder. Nothing stirred. He entered a plaza, piled high with broken chunks of concrete from the ruined skyscrapers, and paused to take in the destruction. Around him was life obliterated: broken office furniture, smashed computers, glass, paper and dust.
Suddenly the clouds parted and the light of the moon fell upon the ruined city. Dylan’s eye was immediately caught by a colossal pillar of black stone in the distance. As he stared, something grey and gelatinous dragged its obscene bulk up the side of the pillar, positioned itself at the top and sat there surveying the city. It turned its head and fixed its red eyes on him.
Dylan leapt out of sleep. He sat up, his head like lead. How much time had passed? There were no clocks in the room, but his bladder was full and his stomach was crying out for food, so he guessed some time must have passed since Wilfred came to see him.
Pushing himself to his feet, he hobbled to the door and banged on it with his fist.
“Let me out!” he yelped. “I need to piss!” He listened at the door. The house was silent. He stepped back and raised his voice. “I said I need to use the bathroom!”
Banging the door with the palm of one hand, he rattled the handle with the other. No one came. He was looking around for a vase to use as a chamber pot when a wave of nausea hit him. He squeezed his eyes shut, bent over, pressed his hands against his stomach and dry retched.
As quickly as it came, the nausea receded.
Dylan straightened, glanced around, and to his astonishment saw he was standing beneath turbulent clouds on a grassy knoll. Before him was a flat rock that had been sheared at an odd angle and etched deeply with what appeared to be a pentagram. Around the perimeter of the rock face, symbols and geometric shapes had been chiselled into the stone. A small metal dish sat at the highest end of the altar, and from this dish a red liquid had flowed into the grooves of the pentagram.
His head in a whirl, Dylan held up his hands. They were his own, thin and white. Like the altar, they were stained with blood. Dropping to his knees, he began scrubbing his hands on the grass, then noticed a towel inside a black leather bag to his left. The bag also contained handwash and a bottle of water, which he used to clean his hands properly. Then he got to his feet and looked around. In the distance was Jacob’s End. He could tell from the dead land and the glimpses of Deep Ocean Road that he wasn’t far from the farmhouse.
He was certain this wasn’t another dream. He could hear the birds, smell the blood on the altar, feel the cool breeze on his face. It was all real. He was back in his own body.
His excitement rose. He’d been right: Wilfred wasn’t strong enough to hold onto his body for more than a few hours at a time. Drunk with relief, he stretched out his arms and leapt around in a circle, feeling as if for the first time the joy and strength of being young.
Now to get as far away from this place as possible. He looked around for any sign of his car. Where would Wilfred have parked it? The hill curved downwards, but there was no sign of a trail.
As Dylan watched, a head appeared and a man with a bony face and rounded shoulders came strolling up the hill. It was Kenny Snyder, Wilfred’s acolyte, bodyguard, grave-robber and general fixer. Peering up, Kenny gave him a brown-toothed smile. He was carrying something baby-sized wrapped in a dirty blue jacket. To Dylan’s horror, the shape squirmed and a tiny hand poked out.
Kenny stopped suddenly and regarded him with narrowed eyes. Dylan held his breath. Had the shocked look on his face given him away? He couldn’t keep his eyes off the jacket and whatever was squirming inside it – which wasn’t something Wilfred would be doing right now. Wilfred would be holding out his arms, eager to get on with whatever it was he was planning to do with the bundle.
Before Dylan could make a move, he was distracted by the sound of a voice – a chant, if he wasn’t mistaken. It seemed to be coming from inside his head, then from the air around him. The world quivered with each sound.
Pain slammed into his forehead like a brick.
He dropped to his knees, banged his chin on his chest and knelt on all fours with eyes closed while he waited for the pain to fade. The breeze died; the smells dissipated; all went quiet. The light behind his eyelids dimmed.
When Dylan lifted his head, his worst fear was realised: he was back in the sitting room, on his knees on the musty green carpet.
He raised his hands, already knowing what he would find. They were brown and scabby and wrinkled.
“Yaaahhh!” he cried, shaking them violently as if that would make them go away.
Grabbing a brass lamp from the side table next to him, he ripped the cord from the wall, raised the lamp over his head and lobbed it at the door. Ignoring the arthritis and gout, he pushed himself to his feet, hobbled to the bookcase and with an effort tugged on it till it crashed to the floor. Then, with an invigorating feeling of release, he set about destroying the rest of the room.