Three pickup trucks, two Fords and a Chevy, rolled up the mudded path. As the drivers saw the red and blue lights of the police car, they pulled their pickups to a halt, headlights falling straight on Damien’s face.
Why did you come now, Mortensen? Why now, after five years of silence?
He should have known his nightmare would not stay buried. It was just like his old man used to say. ‘Make sure they’re dead before you bury ‘em.’ He was referring to problems in life, but Damien thought the saying fit perfectly.
“Cross,” Briggs said from the back. “Why did you stop? Cunnings’s bleeding out! He’s been stabbed!”
Damien pierced each pickup with his gaze, seeing if he could deduct in which one Mortensen is. The blood from his growing canines seemed to flow more whenever he was around. Or whenever he found himself thinking of that Nightborn.
The pickups started moving again. Damien slammed on the gas, the car wheels screeching and digging into the gravel.
I can’t face him now, he thought. Not like this. Not with the girl and Cunnings wounded.
He gripped the steering wheel tight, his knuckles whitening. Two pickups came up from behind the leading one and they drove off the road, forming a tree-pickup line that was speeding up towards Damien. Son of a bitch!
“Hold on, Briggs!” he shouted and kept his foot down. He glanced at the passenger seat where Rachel sat and made sure she was strapped in. The girl’s head wavered like she was on drugs.
Damien aimed for the center pickup. It was a Chevy and something told him that Mortensen was behind the wheel. It was like he could see him through all the rain and the reflective windshield. He could smell him.
“Why, you bastard?” Damien shouted. “Why did you come after all these years?”
“Cross, what are you doing?” Briggs leaned forward from the back, noticing the wall of trucks roaring towards them.
“WHY?” Damien bellowed, not caring if Briggs heard him. Sooner or later the others would have to find out about the Nightborn. And about his connection with their leader.
He turned the wheel at the last possible moment, his senses heightened. The car screeched towards the right, going off the road and onto a field of tall grass. The right-most pickup in the formation roared past Damien, so close that it snapped the rear-view mirror clean off.
Damien turned to regard the driver as he passed and realized he’d been wrong. Mortensen was not in the middle. He was to the right, looking down at Damien from behind the wheel.
For that split second as the two cars passed each other, time seemed to freeze. Damien locked eyes with Mortensen and the raindrops hung in the air, the police siren went silent.
Why did you return, Damien asked in his mind. And he could almost hear the reply.
Join me, Blaze.
The man’s eyes flashed yellow. Damien felt like fire erupted within him, like he was reminded of all the things he could once do. Like a retired athlete, being shown the footage of his prime, Damien saw the time he spent with the Nightborn flash before his eyes.
And just as fast as the moment came, it passed. The raindrops hammered the car again, the police siren continuing to sound. The pickups raced past and Damien saw their tail lights flash red with breaks in the overhead mirror.
They were turning around.
Damien cursed. He blinked to force away the torrent of memories and steered the car back on the road. But due to the wet grass and the car not being fit for off-road, it nearly spun and lost traction. If it were to stop in the middle of the wet grass, that would be the end of them.
“They’re coming around!” Briggs yelled from the back seat. “Shit, Cross, who are these guys?”
“How’s Cunnings?” There was no time to explain anything. They needed to get to a hospital.
“He’s losing blood,” Briggs said. “And he talks nonsense.”
He’s been bit, Damien thought. From his own experience, that was not a good sign.
“Don’t let him pass out,” he shouted and drifted over the grass with the car until the tires found purchase on the gravel. Now all he had to do was outrun three pickups on a muddy road.
He slammed on the steering wheel with anger for not taking the SUV. Looking at the overhead mirror, the pickups were gaining up behind.
“Where’s the nearest hospital in this area?”
“Back where we came from and take a left-”
A heavy force slammed in the air from behind, cutting Briggs’s words. It was one of the Fords.
“Who are these guys?” Briggs shouted again.
Damien focused on the road. The rain was pouring down and potholes and water streams dotted the road. But at least it was at a slight decline, so the car shouldn’t get stuck like it almost did when they drove up. Though stopping on the slippery mud would be difficult.
We don’t stop then.
Another hit from behind sent the car wobbling. Damien struggled to keep it straight and almost hit a tree to his right. The wheels were throwing up tons of mud and the wipers worked on full speed.
The back rear-window opened and the sounds of the rain entered the car. It was Briggs.
“I’ll try to fend off the bastards,” he said, leaning out the window and firing his gun.
Gunshots echoed but were drowned quickly by the rain. One bullet managed to hit the Ford’s headlight but did nothing to slow down the pursuers.
Damien’s hands worked frantically on the steering wheel, turning it left and right, trying to keep on the road. And then, just as the Ford closed in for a third hit, the car raced out of the woods and onto the asphalt.
Damien turned a hard left and drove onto the road from which they came from earlier, leading towards the city. The pickups had too much momentum to turn fast enough, so they turned to the right, which was an easier turn to make. Damien checked the overhead mirror, expecting to see them turn around again to follow, but instead, he noticed them drive off in the other direction.
“They wouldn’t dare attack the police in the open,” Brigs said, closing up the window. The sounds of rain got muffled.
“Where does that road go?” Damien asked. He had a feeling that this wasn’t over yet. It was still dark from the clouds and the hour was still early.
Is he even afraid of the light anymore?
“Hell if I know!” Briggs said.
“Hospital,” Damien said. “Where?”
The tires threw off chunks of mud as they drove on smooth asphalt.
“Same as we came, only take a left at the gas station.”
That was ten minutes away. Hold on, both of you.
A humming noise, distant.
Pain. Sharp and hot, piercing through.
The scent of blood, sweat, and mud.
Rachel opened her eyes. Her mind was drifting in and out of consciousness and she felt like she was in a dream she couldn’t wake up from. She wanted to wake up, wanted to shout and thrash around, throwing out all her frustration, but couldn’t.
She knew her eyes were opened, though her vision was fuzzy. Where was she? Was she still locked away in that dark room? No, there was light.
Her hearing was sharper and she thought she recognized a police siren. Some voices were talking, sounding concerned. Was that an engine revving? Was she in a car? She hoped she wasn’t the one driving it.
I should probably call Dave, she thought. He’ll be wondering where I am.
She blinked, her vision swimming. The police came to save me. Dave knows I’m missing. Her thoughts were all confused and drifting, it was hard to focus. What was that pain in her belly? Did someone stab her?
Her heart fluttered.
No, she wasn’t stabbed. She was pregnant.
As if the growing monster within her could feel her thoughts, Rachel felt another sharp stab of pain. She wanted to scream, but couldn’t send the signal to her mouth. So instead, she screamed on the inside.
What was happening to her? Why all that pain?
“Rachel, are you hurt?”
Was someone calling her name?
“Stay with us.”
She tried following the sound of the voice, but the best she could see was a blur of grey. Instead, she closed her eyes and focused all her effort on that voice. She latched onto it, it was a harbor of hope in the darkness.
Rachel, is it?
She shivered. That wasn’t the voice of hope.
I’m pleased to meet you, mother.
A tear fell from her eye. She hoped she was imagining it all, that this was some sort of nightmare or delusions from exhaustion. But some deep gut feeling told her that wasn’t the case. Somehow, she knew it was the thing inside her womb, that talked to her. She knew as only a mother could.
I’ll be coming out soon, the voice told her. It sounded horrible, too deep for a child, too intelligent for an infant.
Please, she said in her mind. Please stop hurting me.
I’m not hurting you, mother, the voice said. You’re hurting yourself, by resisting. Join us, mom. Then it will hurt no more.
She managed to let out a soft sob.
The voice of hope was back. She was so grateful to hear it and all she wanted was for it to keep talking to her. To drown that other voice from within.
“Rachel, hold on. The hospital is not far.”
She couldn’t form words. What was wrong with her? It felt like the thing inside her was robbing her of her strength, sight, and speech.
It’s taking control, she realized with shock.
It’s easier that way, the voice said. Less painful for you, mother.
“I’m not your mother!”
A sudden burst of raging strength burst from her and she found the breath to shout. In her outburst, she opened her eyes and saw windscreen wipers sweeping through a heavy downpour. Her unexpected shout must have startled the driver as she felt her body sway from left to right in a quick motion, as the seat under her shifted.
“Rachel, what’s wrong?”
She turned to her left and noticed the face of a man, glancing at her with concern. It was the same man that caught her when she fell into the light from her dark prison.
And in that swirling vortex of painful emotion, for the first time in days, Rachel felt hope. This man will take her to safety. She can trust him. She can-
“Look out!” she screamed, as she noticed a single headlight from a pickup approach rapidly from the side. Her scream came too late and the last thing she saw was the man’s face turning towards her in concern and the front grill of a Ford pickup right behind his head.
Then came a horrifying crash of steel and glass, and fresh pain.
With it, darkness.
And then, that voice.
Don’t die, mother. I need you to birth me.
Damien’s ears were ringing. His forehead throbbed like a sledgehammer would fall on it, and he saw flashes of white, tasting blood in his mouth. Then he smelled gasoline.
He blinked, struggling not to lose consciousness. We crashed. Hospital. Mortensen.
As the flashes retreated enough for him to see, he noticed he was pressed against the girl on the passenger’s seat. Strange, there should be space between the two seats, right? His whole left-hand side of the body ached like…
Like a truck would slam into me.
His voice was coarse, like sandpaper. He felt a sharp pain in his lungs as he spoke. Cunnings. The girl. Hospital.
Damien reached to unbuckle his seatbelt and winced. His left arm was broken. His leg too, probably in more places than one. His lung punctured, making it hard to breathe. His head…
It all ached so much that the pain became decentralized, burning all over. And it burned like he was on fire.
I smell gasoline.
But he was not on fire, not yet. What was that sensation then, the pain? How did he know he had a punctured lung?
“Oh, Blaze,” a voice said.
Damien froze. Through the twisted metal of what used to be the front of the car, he could see leather boots crunching over broken glass.
“Look what you’ve made me do.” It was him. Damien tried reaching for his gun, but the seatbelt obstructed him. “Why do you have to make it so hard on everyone? If you’d simply accept my first invitation, we could spare all this drama. You know you’ll join eventually. Once a Nightborn-”
“You can burn in hell, Caspian!”
The boots paused, raindrops ricocheting off the black leather.
“Caspian?” the voice asked, amused. “I haven’t heard you call me that in a while, Blaze. I’m glad you still remember it.”
Damien clenched his teeth and tried reaching his gun again, but the pain of his broken arm was too much. He grunted.
“Does it hurt?” Mortensen asked.
Damien forced nausea off with deep breaths. “Why?”
“Why did you come back? After all this time?”
Mortensen laughed softly. “Oh, Blaze… But I never left! I’ve watched you from afar while I’ve been busy preparing for the big event. You know, for the vision I’ve shared with you once. It’s finally becoming a reality, Blaze. And you can be a part of it again.”
Damien could hardly believe what he was hearing. The Apocalypse… He couldn’t think of that now, the pain was already too much to deal with. I need to break free from this belt.
“You know, you can end the pain any time you want to,” Mortensen said, continuing to pace around the car. Briggs, Cunnings. Are they alive?
“And you know what you need to do to end it.”
No. Never. Not again.
But his teeth were growing back, has it not begun already? Was there any use in resisting it at all?
The fire. It burned within, blazing…
“Yes, Blaze,” Mortensen said, his voice grinning. “Yes, I can feel your rage. Feed it. Return to your natural state. Once a Nightborn, always a Nightborn.”
The fire pulled on him. The memories resurfaced, old instincts becoming familiar. He could just slip right back into it, be one with the night again…
If I go back, I’ll never break away again.
He paused. He could hear Briggs groaning somewhere behind him.
But if I don’t, they’ll all die.
He pondered as the pain pounded on him. Curse you, Caspian.
Damien surrendered to the fire within. He put his mind aside and let the seed of night take over. It was like a rushing of cool water that soothes an exhausted body, like a purifying fire that burns away the impurities.
He felt strength returning to his body, the pain subsiding. It didn’t go away completely, but it did lessen in severity. His left arm didn’t throb anymore and neither did his leg, the bones feeling firm. And he heard a disturbing grinding sound as the two fangs that were protruding, came out fully, scraping against his human canines.
It was done. He was back.
He tore off the seatbelt and bent the twisted metal of the car frame, stepping out from the wreckage. For the first time, he noticed how smashed the car was. There was blood seeping from the metal, Briggs was trying to climb out. One other Nightborn stood nearby, but Damien’s eyes were fixed on Mortensen.
“Welcome back, Blaze.”
Damien squeezed his fists, feeling the surge of strength. It was like he never parted with it. With a mix of thrill and horror, he found himself enjoying it, like finding your favorite sweater in the closet, thinking you lost it and putting it on. It still fit, perfectly.
He grinned. This time, he will use the power maturely.
“I’ll make you regret pulling me back, asshole.”
Rachel emerged to the surface of consciousness. She could feel every inch of her body hurting, with the center of agony in her womb.
It took a few moments to realize her eyes were open and she was staring out into the rain. The car was a wreck encasing her and someone was moaning behind.
But her attention was fixated on the scene before her. Out in the rain, two men were locked in a fight, throwing fists at each other, rolling on the broken glass and trading blow after blow. Rachel thought she saw fangs on one of them and long claws on the other. Both of their eyes appeared to be glowing yellow. The two men possessed unnatural strength, throwing their opponent in the air and jumping ten feet up from a standpoint.
She was clearly hallucinating. It was another deluded dream.
She tried to move, but a seatbelt kept her in place, slicing into her soft neck. Her knees and elbows were bruised, but she could hardly feel them. All she could feel was that goddamn stabbing in her belly.
It won’t be long now, mother, a voice said in her mind. I’m coming soon.
And then her water broke.