56 - The Devil Takes What's His

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Nat felt as though she were moving underwater. Every step forward was a struggle against some unseen but terrible force, an invisible pressure that pushed back against her. The effort of the small climb up the hill left her winded within moments, her pulse pounding and throbbing at her wounded shoulder. She cradled the wound with her opposite hand, feeling warm blood spill over her fingertips, spurting with the effort of hauling herself up the hill. Sand crumbled beneath her shoes, sliding down the shallow incline, threatening to send her back to the car with each step.

It was difficult to see clearly through the thick fog that had descended over the desert. But she could still make out the glowing crimson of the hound's eyes, and hear its snarls on the wind as it snapped and circled.

"Liz!" She tried to yell, but her voice was ripped away by the wind, silenced by the thick blanket of fog. It came out as a smothered, sibilant whisper. "Liz! What are you doing! Stop, please! Let's talk about this!"

Every phrase, a staccato burst of sound that seemed to bounce off the walls of fog; every cry died within inches of her lips, the sound refusing to carry. 

Go back, girl. A voice whispered in her ear, seeming to come from all around; perhaps it came from the darkness itself, closing in around her. Our business is not with you.

Nat lowered her head against the fog that pressed around her. It threatened to strangle, to smother, to push her back down the hill and separate her forever from what had become her family. A small one, at times a broken one: but her family, all the same.

"I'll be damned if you stop me," she muttered to the voice in the fog.

The voice seemed almost to laugh. Damned? Oh, my dear, you are not the one who has been damned.

A chill, like the grip of an icy hand, caught at the base of her spine and rolled upward, prickling the skin along its path. It clinched like a fist, her spine cracking as she was forced to double almost in half into a deep and uncomfortable bow. She shuddered violently against its grip, struggling to stand upright under her own power. Her stomach heaved, but there was nothing left for it to expel; she spit out a mouthful of acid and took another labored step up the sandy incline. 

Ahead, just feet from her, she could see them, bathed in the ghostly glow of headlights filtered through black-gray fog. Liz, with her hair disheveled, her face turned blankly toward the sky, an expression of utter despair tugging at her features, contorting her eyes and mouth into ghastly shapes. Liam, clutched to her body, her hand curled into a claw and gripping him tight against her. He struggled against the embrace, but feebly, his face smashed into the hollow between her hip and ribs.His injured arm had come loose from its sling. It dangled at his side, the empty sling a flap of fabric against his chest. 

A line of tension ran along Liz's forearm, flexing with the effort of holding him in place as he tried to wrench himself free.

"Why?" Nat screamed against the fog. "Why are you doing this to us?" 

The hound circled the three of them now, drawing the fog close with its body; it was like being trapped in a whirlwind of dusky smoke and gleaming crimson light. The voice came from everywhere and nowhere, rumbling through Nat's chest, piercing at her brain. Do not act surprised, child. You have known all along. The signs have always been there.

Flashes of memory, things that Nat did not want to see, tried to force herself away from seeing — but there, all the same, crowding her mind. Liz's temper. The way she grew snappish and irritable, even at the smallest things sometimes. The way she had disregarded Nat's dreams and ambitions.

The way she had trapped her in the house, the business, the role of motherhood.

We do not enter uninvited, the voice said. 

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