Her latest possession? Elizabeth Peirce, a nineteen-year-old girl, as lovely as she was poor.
When the deacon met the dismembered corpse of one of his brethren, he gave a panicked cry, glancing away from her. In a flash, Saroya leapt upon him, swinging the cleaver, plunging the metal into his thick neck.
Blood sprayed as she yanked the blade free for another hit. Then another. Then a last.
She swiped the back of her arm over her spattered face as her demeanor turned contemplative. Mortals believed themselves so special and elevated, but decapitating one sounded exactly like a fishmonger beheading a fat catch.
Finished with the last of the five deacons, Saroya turned to the only survivor left in the trailer: Ruth, Elizabeth's mother. She huddled in a corner, mumbling prayers as she brandished a fire poker.
"I have vanquished your daughter's spirit, woman. She will never return," Saroya lied, knowing that Elizabeth would soon find a way to rise from unconsciousness to the fore, regaining control of her body.
Of all the mortals Saroya had possessed, Elizabeth was the prettiest, the youngest-and the strongest. Saroya had difficulty rising to take control unless the girl was asleep or weakened in some way.
A first. Saroya gave a sigh. Elizabeth should consider it an honor to be the form to Saroya's essence, the flesh and blood temple housing her godly vampiric spirit.
Saroya peered down at her stolen body. Instead, she'd had to fight Elizabeth for possession, was still fighting her.
No matter. After centuries of being shuffled into stooped, elderly men or horse-faced women, she'd found her ideal fit in Elizabeth. In the end, Saroya would defeat her. She had wisdom from times past and present, hallowed gifts-and an ally.
Lothaire the Enemy of Old.
He was a notoriously evil vampire, millennia in age, and the son of a king. A year ago, his oracle had directed him to her. Though Saroya and Lothaire had spent only one night together in the nearby woods, he'd pledged himself to save her from her wretched existence.
He might not have the ability to return Saroya to her goddess state. But somehow he would extinguish Elizabeth's soul from her body, then transform Saroya into an immortal vampire-circumventing the curse.
Saroya knew Lothaire would be hunting ceaselessly for answers.
Because I'm his Bride.
She gazed past Elizabeth's mother out a small window, finding the wintry landscape empty. Had she hoped that a massacre like this might have brought Lothaire to her?
How much longer am I to wait for him in this godsforsaken wasteland? With no word?
He'd talked of the legion of adversaries out to destroy him, of
ancient vendettas: "If a vampire can be measured by the caliber of his foes, goddess, then consider me fearsome. If by the number? Then I've no equal."
Perhaps his enemies had prevailed?
No longer would she remain here. The Peirce family had begun chaining Elizabeth to the bed at night, preventing Saroya from killing, the only thing she lived for.
Reminded of her treatment, she turned to the mother. "Yes, your
daughter is mine forever. And after I've slain you, I'll eviscerate your young son, then sweep through your family like a disease." She raised the cleaver above her, took a step forward-
Suddenly, black spots dotted her vision. Dizziness?
No, no! Elizabeth was rising to consciousness with all the finesse of a freight train. Every single time, she surfaced like a drowning woman held underwater, overwhelming Saroya.
The little bitch might reclaim control of her body, but, as usual, she'd wake to a fresh nightmare. "Enjoy, Elizabeth. . . ."
Her legs buckled, her back meeting the carpet. Blackness.
Heartbeat heartbeat heartbeat heartbeat-
Ellie Peirce woke to a mad drumming in her ears. She lay on the floor of her family's trailer, eyes squeezed shut, her body coated with something warm and sticky.
No words were spoken around her. The only sounds were the living room's crackling fire, her shallow breaths, and the howling dogs outside. She had no memory of how she'd come to be like this, no idea of how long she'd blacked out.
"Mama, did it work?" she whispered as she peeked open her eyes. Maybe the deacons had been successful?
Please, God, let the exorcism have worked . . . my last hope.
Her eyes adjusting to the dim, firelit room, she raised her head to peer down at her body. Her worn jeans, T-shirt, and secondhand boots were sopping wet.
With blood. She swallowed. Not my own.
Oh, God. Her fingers were curled around the hilt of a dripping cleaver. I told them not to unchain me until my uncle and cousins got here!
But Reverend Slocumb and his fellow members of their church's "emergency ministry" had smugly thought they could handle her-
Movement drew her gaze up. A fire poker?
Clenched in her mother's hands.
"Wait!" Ellie flung herself to her side just as the poker came slamming down on the floor where her head had been. Blood splashed from the carpet like a stepped-in puddle.
"You foul thing, begone!" Mama shrieked, raising the iron again. "You got my girl, but you won't have my boy!"
"Just wait!" Ellie scrambled to her feet, dropping the cleaver. "It's me!" She raised her hands, palms outward.
Mama didn't lower the poker. Her long auburn hair was loose, tangled all around her unlined face. She used one shoulder to shove tendrils from her eyes. "That's what you said afore you started snarlin' that demon language and slashin' about!" Her mascara ran down her cheeks, her peach lipstick smeared across her chin. "Afore you killed all them deacons!"
"Killed?" Ellie whirled around, dumbfounded by the grisly sight.
Five hacked-up bodies lay strewn across the living room.
These men had been lured all the way out here by her mother's imploring letters and by evidence of Ellie's possession: recordings of her speaking dead languages she had no way of knowing and photographs of messages in blood that she had no memory of writing.
Apparently, Ellie had once written in Sumerian, Surrender to me.
Now Slocumb's head lay apart from his other remains. His eyes were glassy in death, his tongue lolling between parted lips. One arm was missing from his corpse. She dimly realized it must be the one under the dining room table. The one lying beside the hank of scalp and a pile of severed fingers.
Ellie covered her mouth, fighting not to retch. The five had vowed to exorcise the demon. Instead, it'd butchered them all. "Th-this was done by . . . me?"
"As if you don't know, demon!" Mama wagged her poker at Ellie. "Play your games with somebody else."
Ellie scratched at her chest, her skin seeming to crawl from the being within. Hate it so much, hate it, hate it, HATE it. Though she never knew its thoughts, right now she could nearly feel it gloating.
Sirens sounded in the distance, setting the dogs outside to baying even louder. "Oh, God, Mama, you didn't call that good-for-nothing sheriff?" Ellie and her family were mountain folk through and through. Any Law was suspect.
At that, her mother dropped the poker. "You really are Ellie. The demon told me you wasn't coming back this time! Told me you'd never return to us."
No wonder Mama had attacked.
"It's me," Ellie said over her shoulder as she hastened to the window, her boots squishing across the carpet. She pulled aside the cigarette-stained curtains to gaze out into the night.
Down the snowy mountainside, the sheriff's blue lights glared, his car snaking up the winding road. Another cruiser sped behind it.
"I had to call them, Ellie! Had to stop the demon. And then the nine-one-one dispatcher heard the deacons just a-screamin'. . . ."
What should I do . . . what can I do? Nineteen was too young to go to jail! Ellie would rather die, had already considered suicide if the exorcism didn't work.
Because these five ministers weren't the demon's first victims.
There'd been at least two other men since the creature had possessed Ellie's body a year ago. Early on, she'd woken to find a middle-aged man in her bed, his skin cooling against hers, his slashed throat gaping like a smile.
None among her extended Peirce family had known what to think. Had a rival clan planted the body? Why single out Ellie? Why had there been blood on her hands?
Her close-lipped cousins had buried the man out behind the barn, telling themselves he must've had it coming.
The family hadn't begun to suspect she was possessed until more recently, when the demon had posed a mutilated coal company rep among Ellie's old stuffed animals, then "blasphemed" for her kinfolk in ways a girl like Ellie "could never imagine."
After that, her mother and Uncle Ephraim had started chaining her at night, like Ellie was one of the hounds outside. Though she hated the chains and could easily have picked the locks, she'd endured them.
But it'd been too late for some.
Hikers had found a gruesome altar in the woods, with human bones littering the site. Mama had whispered to Ephraim, "You reckon it was Ellie?"
Not me! The damned thing inside her was winning, taking control more often, and more easily.
Just a matter of time till I'm gone altogether.
As blue lights crawled closer, glaring even in the bright moonlight, Ellie had a mad impulse to clean herself up, waylay the sheriff outside to badger him for a warrant, then maybe cop to a crank call.
After all, she hadn't done these killings. Or maybe she should run!
But she knew the Law would put dogs on her trail; she'd never make it to the next holler, not in the winter.
And that wouldn't solve the problem of the demon within her-
She heard a thud behind her and spun around. Her mother, usually so resilient, had fallen to her knees, her face crumpling. "It told me it'd do me in, then go after the rest of the family, go after baby Josh."
Joshua, Ellie's adored brother. She pictured him toddling about in his footy pajamas, his chubby cheeks growing pink as he laughed. An aunt was babysitting him in a trailer just down the mountain.
At the thought of harm coming to him, Ellie's tears fell unchecked. "Wh-what should I do?"
Mama's own tears poured. "If the reverend-God rest his soul-and his ministerin' couldn't get that devil of yourn out of you . . . no one can, Ellie. Maybe you ought to let the sheriff take you."
"You want me to go to jail?"
"We done everything we can." Mama rose, warily stepping closer. "Maybe them prison folks or even them psychiatrists can keep it from killin' again."
Prison? Or death? Ellie swallowed, knowing that once she decided how she'd handle this, nothing could sway her. If her mother was stubborn, Ellie was trebly so, as immovable as the mountains all around them.
Sirens echoed as the cruisers prowled up the long drive, then skidded to a stop in front of the trailer.
Ellie swiped at her tears. "I'll do you one better than jail." I could take the demon with me. If she ran out the front door with blood on her and a gun in hand . . .
Mama shook her head sternly. "Elizabeth Ann Peirce, don't you even think about it!"
"If this thing"-Ellie slashed her nails across her chest-"thinks it'll hurt my kin, then it don't know me very good." Though her own gun and ammo had been taken from her, her father's Remington remained in his closet. The sheriff wouldn't know it was empty.
"You ain't doin' this, Ellie! There might be hope, some kind of newfangled treatment."
"You want me to go from roamin' these mountains to being locked in a tiny cell?" She didn't remind her mother that she'd probably get the death penalty anyway.
Slaughtering five deacons in Appalachia? Ellie was done for.
"I won't let you do this." Mama jutted her chin.
"We both suspected it'd come to this." The demon's just killin' me slow. "My mind's made up."
At that, Mama paled even more, knowing it was as good as done.
"And just think-if I kill this demon, I'll go to heaven. Be with Daddy," Ellie said, hoping that was where she'd end up. She held out her arms, and her mother sank against her, sobbing. "Now, stop actin' like you don't know this has to happen, like you haven't known for months."
"Ah, God, honey, I just . . ." More sobs. "Y-you want to say a prayer?"
Ellie stood on her toes and pressed a kiss to her mother's smooth forehead. "No time. What if it comes back?" And already the deputies were surrounding the trailer, their boots crunching in the snow, while the pompous sheriff demanded that Mrs. Peirce open up for them this minute.
He knew better than to storm a household on this mountain.
With a steadying exhalation, Ellie turned toward her mother's bedroom, forcing herself to look at the bodies. These men had had families. How many children were fatherless because of this demon?
Because I've been doggedly clinging to hope?
Ellie passed her own bedroom, shuddering at the sight of the chains at the ends of her bed, coiled like rattlesnakes.
Then she stared bitterly at the Middle State University pennants she'd tacked to her room's vinyl walls just before all this had begun.
How excited she'd been about college! To afford the tuition and dorm, she'd worked at her uncle's outfitter shop each day after school and as a guide during every holiday for years.
Ellie had been in classes just long enough to comprehend with wonder, Holy shit, I can . . . I can actually do this! Coursework had come surprisingly easy to her.
Then she'd started losing time, waking in strange places. They'd sent her packing back home before the semester was over.
She would've been the first one in the family to get a college degree.
When she reached the back bedroom, she spied her reflection in the mirrored closet door. Blood covered her-her long brown hair was wet with it. Her eyes were as flinty gray and hard as Peirce Mountain.
Her sodden T-shirt read: EPHRAIM'S OUTFITTERS: rafting, fishing, hunting supplies & guides.
What would Uncle Eph say about this?
She pictured his weathered face and earnest expression, so like her late father's. You go on now and take care of your business, Ellie. Ain't nobody gonna do it for you.
She slid the closet door open, reaching past her father's old work gear-a mining helmet, locksmith tools, a handyman belt. Before he'd died in the mine, her adoring pa had never held fewer than three jobs at a time.