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McGuire asked: "You got anything besides the Colt?"
Cletus pressed down on the accelerator and ran a stop sign. "Look under the blanket on the back seat."
McGuire did and found one Mossholder handlegrip twelve-gauge shotgun and one Uzi. "These look new."
"They are," replied Cletus, squinting at the road. It was starting to rain again; not much, just a light drizzle, but he knew it would get worse.
Things always got worse.
He cast a quick glance at McGuire who was loading a clip into a .357 Magnum Auto-Mag. "Correct me if I'm wrong, but I don't think that's a standard issue gun, is it?"
McGuire grunted then said: "Did I hassle you about that monster you're carrying?"
"Forget I said anything."
They were now five miles from Helen Winston's house. Cletus could feel his pulse racing. Both he and McGuire knew that Paris would be there. They had only their gut instincts, but between them there was almost fifty years of experience and they both knew enough not to question those instincts.
The rain was coming down harder. Thunder, a flash of lightning. Cletus thought he heard the sound of a whip being snapped.
He cast a glance at McGuire. "What?"
"We have to take him alive, Cletus."
"If possible." It was tough talk, but that's all it was -- talk. Cletus was so scared he almost couldn't breathe.
"If he's like his buddy," said McGuire, "then I'll need living proof. I'm gonna have to prove that they ... ain't human."
Cletus looked up as the rain began pinging against the roof of the car. It was almost hypnotic, that sound.
"I'm sorry about Esther," said McGuire. "And I'm sorry no one believed you before."
"Not your fault, Joe. You came through for me, that's all that's important."
They both stared out into the night.
"I'm scared, Cletus."
"Welcome to the club." He slid the Mossholder within his reach. "How do you want to do this?"
"You go through the front and I'll take the back."
"When do the guys at the station expect you to call in?"
"I told them thirty minutes. If they don't hear from me, we're gonna have lots of company."
The car hit a puddle and started to fishtail but Cletus managed to keep it on the road.
Thunder. A flash of lightning.
Was it just his imagination or was the rain--
--tappity-tap-tap ... tappity-tap-tap--
--sounding a little too rhythmic?
The car seemed to shift despite his efforts, as if something were throwing it off-balance.
The rain pelted across the windshield. A chill crept down Cletus's spine as he suddenly remembered something from his readings over the years.
The Furies always appeared during storms. Their whips brought the thunder and lightning, and the rains gave them cover.
He slowed as he rounded a corner, felt the car lurch, and looked over at McGuire--
--who was looking up.
He never finished.
--tappity-tap-tap -scrape -scrape -SCRAAAAAAPE--
The roof buckled in from the center. The dome light exploded into McGuire's face and he fell forward, hands clutching at his eyes. It would only be a matter of moments before the thing on the roof broke through, so in both panic and anger, Cletus reached up and began beating against the bulge with his fist. His eyes weren't on the road, they were looking at the growing bulge but then McGuire screamed and Cletus turned, saw--
--the talon, the goddamned corded talon ram through the opening, sharp and glistening, jerking back and forth, opening and closing, trying to latch onto flesh and rend it to shreds and Cletus didntcouldntwouldnt panic, he was too goddamn angry now because McGuire was bleeding and howling in pain and this thing wasn't finshed yet--
--he glanced at the road, pressed down on the accelerator, pulled out the Colt, and fired three shots through the roof but the talon kept coming. Cletus screamed as one of its points gouged his cheek. The pain burst through him like fire as he looked in the windshield and saw the reflection of three little boys staring back so he took a deep breath, gripped the wheel--
--and slammed on the brakes.
The car jerked to a halt as the talon vanished through the hole and something huge whalloped against the hood and bounced off onto the road.
Cletus put the car into drive, then roared forward and drove over the thing. Bits and pieces of it flew up and splattered against the side windows as Cletus backed up again, pushing the car back and forth; loud, agonized shrieks broke through the night as the thing was crushed under the wheels.
Cletus backed up one more time, tires screaming; the stench of burning rubber filled the interior of the car, the gears scraped as he pressed on the accelerator and brought the car forward again, one last time, holding steady, spinning the tires, grinding the thing under the treads, watching slimy chunks of it fly in every direction, hearing its cries fade into whimpers and then a choke and then nothing. Nothing at all.
Cletus kept the car still, his breathing hard and painful, his head throbbing, his heart hammering against his ribs. McGuire fumbled around until he was sure the car wasn't moving anymore, then reached over and clamped onto Cletus's arm, pulling himself up. His face was bleeding from the shards of dome light glass and one eye was swollen shut. Cletus backed up one more time and heard the engine cough, sputter, then die.
"How bad are you hurt?"
"Not ... not too bad," said McGuire, pulling out a handkerchief and wiping blood from his face. "What in God's name was that?"
Cletus tried to start the car. Nothing but a click. He tried again with the same results, cursed, then flung open the door, happy to fill his lungs with the cold dampness. The exhaust in the car was choking him. The rain spit into the car, an icy and welcome reminder that there was still a world out there, a world with wind and cold and life-giving rain.
Cletus sat still for a moment, letting the chill soak in. It felt good, this cold. His senses became more attuned. He took several deep breaths to steady himself and thought again of Esther. He'd never really believed her when she told him how proud she was of the work he'd done. No. She was just trying to -- ah, the hell with it.
He gripped the Mossholder, pumped a round into the chamber, and climbed out. His legs were shaking as he stepped toward the front of the car.
He hoped the thing was dead.
He hoped the rain let up.
And he hoped that he and McGuire had the strength to make it to Helen Winston's house on foot.
Paris flipped the costume of flesh and muscle over his head.
Helen couldn't look away.
He burst forth from the cocoon of human flesh in all his deformed hideousness, staring at her through bulbous insect-like eyes. He was huge and overpowering.
And Helen was mesmerized.
Everything about Paris was repulsive and foul yet there was, she knew, a perfection in his malformity, one that she could not help but feel a kinship with.
Yet so glorious. Something that had lived in the bowels of the earth since the beginning of Night and Gods.
All the Gods of legend.
All the monsters of Night.
Helen looked at her arm, remembered what it had been, and understood. Her heart broke at the thought of the loneliness Paris and his kind had endured over the centuries. Had they, like her, been pitied rather than accepted? Had they lived with memories of mocking laughter and horrified stares?
Yes. She understood.
The thing that was Paris reached out with one dawed hand and pulled her toward itself. Its mandibles parted, revealing the maw. It balanced above her and spread her legs apart.
Helen opened her mouth, feeling Paris's breath pound down as something cold and leathery slipped from his maw and into her mouth, probing the back of her throat.
It felt hideous, yet renewing.
She gagged only once before releasing herself to a dream that was more memory than fancy. Once again she was a child sitting alone on her front porch, storybooks in hand, wishing that one of the neighborhood children would come up and talk to her. Not for long, just enough that she could tell Mommy that she'd made a new friend, that she hadn't been spending too much time alone with her books, books that Mommy said weren't good for her but that wasn't right, these books are fun and I can't really do anything with the other kids, they all think I'm some kind of monster but maybe, maybe one of these days they'll wonder what it is that I'm reading and I'll show them and pretty soon I might have a whole bunch of friends who'll sit out here with me and we can read each other stories and it'll be so much fun!
Then the memory faded and Mommy's face became Helen's own, only there was something different about it, something ancient and powerful. She turned toward herself, clad in a long flowing gown of white satin.
"I've waited so long," she whispered. Helen stood facing herself in the heart of the Acropolis, in the temple of Apollo on Mount Pernassus. Below, the Gulf of Corinth foamed, its waters crashing against the shore. Helen was power here; she was beauty and perfection and grace and she thanked Paris in a silent part of her soul. A deep and dormant love was re-awakening in her, a love for herself -- and a recognition of her long-lost, timeless beauty.
She felt him enter between her legs, pumping.
Something thick and wet covered her body.
The waters of Cornith carried the Siren's song, a serenade for their lovemaking. Distant voices across the seas of time.
Paris pushed himself in deeper. The pain was exquisite and Helen gasped and moaned, pulling him closer.
The great columns of Apollo's temple began to tremble.
Helen arched her back and screamed.
She was perfection now. Grace. Beauty. Her long wait was over. The world would no longer pity those like her or look upon them with disgust.
Come worship, she thought as her body bucked and shuddered.
Come champion me.
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