Annie Bolton’s future was bright – until she met the Eternal, an immortal cursed to wander the Earth bringing death and destruction. Only Annie and a mysterious drifter – a human who has pursued the Eternal across continents – hold the key to stopping the triumph of evil.
Published by Gollancz (1996) – Currently Out of Print.
The train rattled on through the night. Annie checked her watch once again. Only half an hour to go and she would see her father waiting at the back of the crowd in the station concourse, the thick, fraying scarf that her mother hated twirled twice around his neck. Then it would be a short drive through the countryside to Riddington and Blackstone Cottage, a log fire, masses of shiny decorations and a Christmas tree draped with so many beads and baubles it was in danger of toppling over. Her mother didn’t understand the meaning of the word overkill.
Safety. Security. Escape.
Annie closed her eyes and drifted…
In the darkness behind her eyelids, everything suddenly skewed. The night exploded with sound. She was torn from the warm cocoon by the terrifying rush of unfocussed kinetic energy. In her mind, what happened next was frozen in a thousand individual images and sensations. Rending metal, so loud it hurt her ears.
Shock snapped her eyes open. The air caught in her lungs.
The carriage magically lifting into the air and a feeling of weightlessness like stepping off the high board at the pool. A window exploding inwards, the glass glittering and spinning through the air in daggers, deadly and beautiful. The face of a man sitting next to it disintegrating into red. A shower of blood, mixing and contrasting with the sparkling glass, up, up, higher, then down. His hands rising. His head pitching forward.
A scream, high-pitched and reedy that wouldn’t stop. Another, low and hoarse. Another. And another. And another. The whole carriage screaming as one, and Annie suddenly and bizarrely realising she was screaming too. The weigthlessness disappearing and instead being pressed back into her seat by invisible, monstrous hands.
Metal, ripping and tearing. Noise, louder and louder and louder; the terrible, hoarse scream of disaster. Thrown to one side, then the other, then whiplashed forward.
The carriage turning slowly over on its side, and then faster, hurtling towards the ground. The screaming was all. An old woman freed from gravity, hurtling down the train, her face contorted by fear, her hands out in futile defence against the inevitable.
The jolt exploded through her body. The walls seemed to turn to paper as they smashed and crunched and the noise filled everywhere until she thought her ear-drums were going to burst. She was flung across the seat and up, a rag doll thrown from a car.
And the explosion of pain in her head, her hip, her arm.
And then the darkness.
And the thought: “This is it. I’m going to…”
LIGHT, dark. Light, dark. Light, dark. Light, dark.
Her first thought – if the vague awareness she felt as she crawled out of painful unconciousness could be called that – was that she was alive. It seemed to a miracle, but there was no jubilation; the agony that wrapped constricting bands around her body crushed that out of her.
Light, dark. Light, dark. She was floating in a black and white world.
Her sense came back in fitful starts, like the jumps of a movie freed from a jammed projector, and with it she realised it was far too early to celebrate her survival. There were worse things than death. A shattered spine, brain damage, her mind trapped in a body which would no longer do her bidding.
She whispered a prayer and attempted to wiggle her toes. There was movement. Her breath came out in a headlong rush of relief, followed by a burst of pain just below her left breast that made her yelp out loud.
In response, a moan echoed through the still air of the carriage. Annie ignored it, concentrating on her own small world of agony and shock. Probably a cracked rib, she thought. If that was the most she came out of this with, she would go to church on Sunday. She would go for the rest of her life.
Enough of her confidence returned to extend her consciousness out beyond her own body. The carriage was on its side. Annie lay crumpled against the window which had cracked but not shattered. Another slice of luck.
The lights had gone out in the carriage at the same time as they had gone out in her head; the disorientating flashing was coming through the windows which now lay above her. It was accompanied by a crackle each time the light flared which made her think it was electricity intermittently arcing on to the tracks. It revealed in brief glimpses a scene of utter chaos: luggage, empty Coke cans, half-eaten sandwiches, playing cards, magazines and papers scattered over piles of bodies. They were everywhere. Hanging from the seats above her, their limbs trapped under tables or on arm rests. Thrown over seats or perched precariously in the aisle. None of them seemed to be moving. Could they all be…
She didn’t want to think about that.
She didn’t want to think about that.
Annie twisted her head to look up and something warm, wet and sticky ran into her eye socket. She moved slightly and blinked it out. Blood. She guessed there was a hell of a gash on her head. That’s the modelling career out of the window, she thought sardonically in a futile attempt to lift her spirits. Above her she could see a rectangle of sky a shade lighter than the gloom of the carriage.
The full horror of what had happened suddenly hit her and she choked back a sob of shock. The crash. How many people must have died? An Intercity 125, British Rail’s fastest train, travelling at God knows what speed; the carnage would be unimaginable. It was only then she realised how lucky she had been. Other thoughts followed quickly: so close to Christmas; how the hell did it happen? And then: I’ve got to get out of here.
All the repressed anxiety went flooding through her system, and Annie wrenched herself up in a frantic effort to get out of the claustrophobic carriage into the night air. She collapsed back a second later, the pain in her right leg so great she felt as if an iron bar had been smashed across her shin. Broken. The tears finally came.
She only let herself be a slave to her emotions for a moment. Extricating herself from the wreckage was a priority. She guessed it would not be long before the emergency services arrived, but in the meantime any one of several things could happen. The crackling electricity she heard outside could find its way to the carriage. A fire could sweep through the train. Or another express could come hurtling along the line and wipe out the few lucky ones who had escaped the first disaster. There was no alternative. She had to get out.
Up and down the carriage she could hear a few signs of life, like prehistoric people emerging from the caves after a terrible storm. Grunts and scrapes, the crack of glass crushed beneath a shifting body. The moan she had heard earlier had died away; Annie didn’t want to consider what that meant. Somewhere in the darkness someone was sobbing weakly – it sounded like a child. When the electricity flooded the carriage with its burst of weak light, Annie had a better view of her fellow passengers. Some of them had terrible injuries and she could smell the meaty, abattoir scent of blood. In those brief instants of light, she also saw some of the living – a woman trying to drag herself up a seat, an elderly man leaning faintly against what had been the roof – and that gave her hope.
Steeling herself, she took a deep breath and moved.
The pain erupted again in a fiery web which ran straight to her groin, but this time she managed to minimise it by favouring her right leg. She found that if she rested her bad leg on her good one she could drag herself – like a slug, she thought with dark humour – until she could find a way to get into an upright position. Then she would be able to limp along until she found a way out. She couldn’t envisage how she would exit the carriage – the doors were now either below her or above – but she was optimistic enough to think some opportunity would present itself.
Her progress was laborious and agonising, but she was pushed along by the pitiful cries that echoed around her. In the darkness, she discovered an obstacle in her path and she knew instantly what it was. Light fizzed for an instant, like someone allowing the briefest peek through a doorway into nightmare. The face was almost white in the sudden flash, but pebble-dashed with dark flecks where the blood had sprayed. Annie could feel more of it leaking around her fingers as she froze, mid-crawl, only inches away from those dead eyes. It was a woman, late 40s, and Annie had a sudden image of her family waiting for her to return home for Christmas.
She considered going over the body, but when she brushed against the resiliant flesh with its bloom of life fading to a wintry chill, she knew she didn’t have it within her. She backed up and decided she would have to try to stand, even if it meant her journey would be more painful. How far could she hop, dragging her broken leg behind her?
When the light flashed again, she found the top of a seat and hauled herself into a standing position. There seemed to be pain everywhere in her body, especially beneath the cracked rib where the exertion made her breath burn in her lungs. She was thankful for the days she had spent in the university gym when she should have been studying. Her arms took the strain better than she could have expected and she was soon leaning against the top of the seats, wheezing and nauseous. She closed her eyes and rested for a moment.
A scrambling and banging at the end of the carriage behind her jolted her out of her daze. It sounded like someone was trying to force open the electronic door separating the carriages. She felt a surge of relief as a grind of metal told her it had been a success.
“Over here,” she yelled. She waited for the flash of light to reveal someone from the emergency services.
When the light did come, limning the rescuer against the open doorway, her breath caught in her throat.
It was him.
She couldn’t tell how much of her relief came from the fact that he was going to save her and how much was simply due to seeing him again. She wanted to call out to him, wave, draw him over so she could touch him and celebrate living, but she contained the urge. He hadn’t seen her. His attention had been focussed on those suffering near to him and however much she was in pain Annie knew they needed his help more.
He had reached the old man who had slumped against the roof and was in danger of collapsing. Morrison was reaching out a friendly, supporting hand, brushing the old man’s shoulder. There was tenderness there, certainly, a sensitivity that made Annie feel warm with humanity.
In that briefest instant, the focus of the scene had changed. Morrison’s hand had moved past the old man’s shoulder and was heading towards his face. Annie watched in puzzlement. It looked like Morrison was trying to caress the old man’s cheek.
Darkness. There were strange scuffling noises; a gasp, then choking sounds. Annie held her breath.
The old man was pinned against the roof. Morrison stood in front of him, one hand on each cheek holding the old man’s head rigid with powerful, unshaking muscles. The victim’s feet were kicking like a puppy held in the air as his pallid protests filtered weakly down the carriage. Morrison’s thumbs were poised over the old man’s staring, frightened eyes. The old man whimpered. The thumbs jerked forward.
Annie felt a coldness drain through her body; she couldn’t believe what she had seen. The image flashed on and off like a stroboscope in her mind. Untrue. Lies. Deception. A trick of the pain and the flashing light.
The old man had gone, lost in the shadows behind a seat like discarded luggage. Morrison was loping like a wolf across the carriage, oblivious to the disorientating layout of the furniture, moving towards the woman who had half-pulled herself up a seat.
Darkness. Annie wanted to call out a warning, but it was caught in disbelief in her throat.
Morrison had the woman’s head in his hands. She wore an expression of surprise and sudden fear, that increased as Morrison grinned. He was enjoying it. Annie was gripped with a hideous fascination. Morrison held the woman’s head even tighter and then gave a sudden twist. There was a sickening crack. All the conflicting emotions that had been churning away inside Annie suddenly erupted in a short, sharp scream that cleaved through the sea of tension between them. Morrison looked up suddenly, saw her.
Her paralysing incomprehension was blown apart by one inflammable thought of self-preservation. Don’t wait for him! Move! Acting purely on instinct, she lurched forward, propelling herself from seat top to seat top, trying to drag her broken leg behind her but failing, taking her weight on it too many times. Her body was a starburst of pain – her leg, her ribs, her arm – until she thought it would be easier to collapse and wait for him to come along and do to her what he had done to the others.
Murder. Christ, murder!
Annie glanced behind her. Morrison had stumbled over a couple of bodies crumpled in his path. He righted himself with a curse and then noticed that one of his obstacles was still alive. That low moan that Annie had heard earlier rolled out when Morrison’s foot struck the man’s gut. Morrison saw the wincing, awkward way Annie was moving, the tears of pain on her cheeks, and then he looked back at the prostrate form. Annie knew what he was thinking as if he had spoken his thoughts aloud: There’s still time. He dropped to his knees and rolled the man over. Then he flexed his fingers.
Annie almost cried out in triumph when she reached the end of the carriage. She dragged herself up into the waist-high doorway, almost blacking out when her shin cracked against the wall. Fumbling in the dark, she realised the electronic door had jammed partly open. It was only a few inches, but she thought she might be able to squeeze through. There was no way Morrison would be able to squeeze through the tiny gap; she would be home free. She dived forward, head and shoulders first.
Thank God for the gym, she thought. Thank God I never ate too much chocolate.
Her breasts caught on the doorway as she eased through. It was difficult to force them past the obstruction, and for the briefest moment she almost wished she was a man.
Behind her she could hear Morrison’s breathing as he stumbled through the gloom, lumbering into bodies and seats and walls. He was getting closer. He was going to catch her.
That thought did the trick. She propelled herself through the door with a clattering of all her cracked bones and fell into the area between the carriages where she finally did black out for an instant.
When she came around scant seconds later, Morrison was at the electronic door. His face was pressed against the glass, the deformed features demonic in a flare of light like some medieval painting. Annie stifled a yell, but the shock of the sight cut through the muffling pain that was wrapping swathes of cotton wool around her body and mind. She levered herself up, supporting herself on her good leg, and scrambled backwards before starting to climb up towards the open toilet door above her.
Morrison’s arm shot through the gap as she climbed, brushing the well-worn leather of her jacket. His scraping fingers jolted her like a cattle prod and she heaved herself away from them.
“Annie.” The voice that had seemed so seductively warm before was now cold and hard. “With her perfect village and her perfect life. What do you think of this carnage, eh?” He was mocking, daring her to face him. More games. When she continued to pull herself into the open toilet door, he added venomously. “The poor fool who cannot face up to death. Look around you, little girl. It exists. You cannot lock it away. It is a part of life. Of your life. Embrace it.”
“Why did you do it?” She didn’t want to talk, she wanted to escape, but she had to know. Her breath came out in short gasps, masking her fear and anger. She hung half in and half out of the toilet, her ribs feeling like they had been splashed with acid.
“I killed them because I could.” His statement was emotionless, but then the honey crept back into his voice. “I find you very attractive, Annie. Hanging there like that…with those kicking legs…mmm, I could eat you up.”
Before she could express her loathing, there was a crash as the glass of the electronic door frosted. Then another, and another. He was hammering it with his fist or his head, or both, but the security glass held. She pulled herself into the toilet, the nausea so powerful she could barely stop herself vomiting. Her vision blurred and she knew if she lost concentration she would fall out and down. Dizzily, she glanced up at the carriage door. The window was halfway down; she could see the cold night sky through it, blurred every now and then by a flurry of snow. It was close enough to reach.
The snorts and grunts from below were growing louder, more ferocious, like a rottweiler trying to tear itself free from a chain. Morrison had given up trying to smash the glass and now he was attempting to prise the door open. There was a grind as it moved an inch.
It was now or never.
Annie leant out and grabbed the edge through the open window. The outside of the door was freezing, but her hands were on fire and she could feel the snowflakes alighting and then melting on her skin.
There was a grating sound and a yell of triumph from Morrison as the door came free.
Annie swung out over the drop and managed to get her other elbow through the window so she could find leverage. The strain tore at her arm and chest muscles, but her fear gave her strength and the surging adrenalin cleared her mind. She got her head through, then her shoulder. Tears of exertion streamed from the corners of her eyes as the icy wind stung her face and stole the breath from her mouth. She dragged herself up another few inches, finally finding purchase on the door to heave herself up and out.
There was a sudden burning pressure on her ankle. Morrison’s fingers had snapped around it, his nails biting into the flesh.
“Come here, Annie,” he said in a sing-song voice.
He started to drag her down slowly like he was reeling in a fish, a practised tormentor toying with her fears. His strength was unbelievable and although Annie tried to grip on to the outside of the door, her fingers slid over the cold, slick metal, an inch at a time, gaining speed. As she was on the verge of plunging through, she stretched out and anchored herself on the door handle.
In that instant, Annie’s mind flashed back to the death of her brother. If she let go and was killed as Morrison surely intended, would she see Robert once more? That floppy fringe that always reminded her of Oscar Wilde? That strange, screwed-up smile that he could turn into a mock-sneer at a moment’s thought? Would he be there? It was a seductive thought, powerful enough almost to release her fingers.
Give in, the voice in her head said. Embrace death.
She kicked out with the heel of her broken leg and caught something pulpy yet hard.
It shocked the breath from her lungs, but the resultant yell from Morrison overrode it. His grip on her ankle loosened enough to yank her leg free and then she was wriggling like a worm through the tiny window, cracking her rib, ignoring it, cracking her shin, ignoring it, until she was out on top of the train in the freezing night air.
As she pulled herself up into a sitting position, she was suddenly transfixed by the eeriness of the scene. The only sound was the howl of the winter wind as it blasted between the cutting, hauling flurries of snow in its wake. Everywhere was white, an image of crisp Christmas innocence perverted by the horror of the train wreck, twisted metal and carriages scattered across the tracks like some giant dragon had crawled there to die. She realised then the extent of the disaster. The train was thrown at such an angle, smashed and distorted out of all shape in some areas, Annie found it hard to believe more than a handful had survived. One carriage was half buried in the bank. Bodies were scattered across the tracks, in bushes, against trees, where they had been thrown from the broken windows and the carriages that had burst open like rotten fruit. Snow was dusting a veil over them.
The sound of Morrison scrabbling to climb up to the window dragged her from her moment of clarity, and with a sudden push she launched herself forward, sliding down what had been the roof of the carriage to land in a crumpled heap in the snow below. She blacked out again when her leg smashed into the ground, but the sensation of her face hitting an icy drift shocked her instantly back to consciousness.
Frantically, she looked around. In a chase across open ground, Morrison would catch her in an instant. There was no one to help her. Nowhere to hide.
From behind and above her, she heard a howl, caught in the wind and dragged away. Morrison was climbing out.
She set off down the tracks, barely able to see ahead of her as the wind whipped snow into her eyes. The fire that erupted each time she put her broken leg down, the agony that burst each time she breathed, had pulled her within herself to her own hazy world where the pain was everything and the real world did not exist. Her pace was so slow anyone walking briskly could have passed her. She was blind and injured and lost in a nightmare.
Feverishly, she looked from side-to-side, trying to see some sign of life, but she might as well have been walking across the Antarctic wastes. Scott heading into the snow to die.
I might be some time.
A laugh borne in hysteria that might have been in her head or on her lips. Everyone inside the train was dead, dying, injured. She had been lucky. Through the mesh of agony she almost laughed at the blackness of the irony. Her head whirled, thoughts and pain tied up in a knot. Where was Morrison? Annie tried to look round, but the exertion was too much. He might only be a few feet away, dragging the game out longer than she could ever have anticipated. No escape from death, she thought.
The impact was slight, but it was enough to knock her feeble body off-balance and she tumbled into the snow. The shock released a cry and then the tears that had threatened to come for so long.
Pass out. Give up. There’s too much pain.
She sobbed once, twice, and then heaved a huge lungful of freezing air like a slap to the face. Shielding her eyes against the swirling snow, Annie slowly looked up at the obstacle that had prevented her escape. She already knew it was him; he had circled around her sightless staggering and had waited for her to fall into his arms.
Through snow-stung tears she saw the dark shape towering above her, a pool of black in the surrounding white. She tried to recall a prayer she had been taught as a child, but all that would come was a line from a favourite film.
Wake up. Time to die.
She closed her eyes.
The expected blow never came. She opened them again and there was a hand in front of her face, offering help. Suddenly thrown off-balance, her mind scrambled for an explanation, but in the end all she had the strength to do was take it. The fingers were rough, calloused; they were not Morrison’s. She was hauled on to her good leg where she teetered for a moment, before pitching forward into the dark pool which enveloped her, filling her senses with the smell of oil and dirt and the road. Arms folded around her back, and she allowed herself to give up the fight as her head found a secure place on a shoulder. He allowed it to rest there for only an instant, before he pulled her up into his line of vision.
His face was a locked door, but his dark eyes reflected a cold world of negative images: despair, anger, hatred, fear; Annie almost caught her breath at what she saw there. He was in his late thirties, slightly unshaven as if he had been travelling without rest. His long brown hair and square jaw reminded Annie of some rock star a few years down the line.
“Where is he?” An American.
She was lost to the pain for a moment and when she came back, he was still staring into her face. “What?”
“You’re injured, you’re frightened, and you’re running from someone. In my book, that only adds up to one thing.” She started to fade back into the haze, and he shook her with a little more roughness than she would have expected.
“Black hair, beard, swarthy skin, gold earring. You know who I’m talking about.”
“Yeah, if that’s who he told you he was.”
Annie turned and pointed behind her. She was shocked to see Morrison standing exactly in her line, still grinning. His arms were folded and he stood casually, seemingly oblivious to the howling snowstorm.
“Hello, Severin. We really cannot go on meeting like this. People will talk. Your sweaty, testosterone-fuelled image could be thrown into question.”
Annie could feel Severin’s body tense beneath her hands, but he did not speak, and when her good leg suddenly grew weak and she fell to her knee, he did nothing to pull her back up. To her irritation, she could only stay there like some weak, simpering princess clutching at the iron thigh of a barbarian preparing to slay her dragon-tormentor. She held on to some of her dignity when she realised Severin was unaware of her presence; his attention was focused through his cold, hating stare.
“Oh, come now. Cat got your tongue? After all the miles we have travelled since our last meeting, you should have something to say. No tales from the road? No aphorisms? No brief discourses about the weather? Or are you simply wracking your brain for a way to do me in? Oh really, Severin. Sometimes you remind me of a little dog that has its teeth in the trouser leg of a stranger and will not let go even though it knows it can cause no harm. Is that how you want to go through your exceedingly short life? Keep following me, by all means – I do love our brief encounters. But do not waste any of your precious mental energy trying to kill me.” Morrison licked at his sneering words like they were sweets. He had the expression of a man who had no doubts about his superiority.
Severin’s long, black coat billowed out voluminously in the wind. “But I can hurt you, can’t I, Wilde? I can make you feel pain. And sooner or later I’m going to find a way to kill you, and I can see that you know that too. You get scared when I get too close. Pretty soon I’m going to find out why. Then we’ll see how sarcastic you can be.”
Morrison, or Wilde, laughed, but Severin was already moving. He dipped his hand into a deep pocket in his overcoat and pulled out a sawn-off shotgun. Annie stared at it in disbelief, but when she saw Severin’s face she covered her ears and ducked low.
Wilde’s mocking humour turned to anger when he saw the weapon, but as he prepared to unleash another acid comment, Severin fired. The blast caught Wilde full in the chest, lifting him off his feet like he was a feather, and hurling him backwards into the snow.
Annie’s jaw sagged, the horror of the moment slicing through her pain like a razor. “You’ve killed him, you mad, fucking bastard.” She looked up at Severin and wondered if the whole world had gone crazy.
“Oh Annie, you really do care.”
Wilde was sitting up and grinning at her, although once or twice his expression slipped into a grimace. His chest was a mess of flesh and blood and bone, leaking out on to the clean snow. The wounds were so deep it was obvious he should have been dead. Annie shook her head, not believing, suddenly frightened. The world was crazy. As he continued to grin at her, Wilde absent-mindedly tried to press back into place a chunk of flesh that hung down his chest.
He turned his attention to Severin. “Guns now, Mr Severin. How vulgar. You really are mixing in the wrong circles. Of course, you realise it is a penis substitute?”
Severin smiled triumphantly. “It hurt, didn’t it?”
Wilde ignored his question and clambered awkwardly to his feet, clutching his chest with red-stained hands. “Do not try to use the other barrel. My temper does have limits.”
“What are you going to do? Come over here and hit me? You may mock and sneer, Wilde, but you’ve never let me get within ten feet of you since this whole thing began.” Severin raised the gun once more.
Wilde looked at Annie and gave a slight, formal bow. “You were very charming company, my dear. I hope you will believe me when I say our conversation was the most stimulating I have enjoyed in many years. Do not be too sad at our parting. I am sure we will meet again when you least expect it.”
“Go to hell.” Severin’s growl was accompanied by the retort of the gun, but the pellets found only empty air. Wilde seemed to have melted into the sweeping snow.