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The Scottish Highlands
Outside the cottage. The storm had reached its peak. Rain was lashing out of the starless sky. The wind was screaming. The branches of the forest whipped and scraped violently at the windows.
The lights had gone out, and the old place was filled with shadows from flickering candles. The twelve-year-old boy had been cowering at the top of the creaky stairs, listening to the argument between his parents and his grandfather and wishing they'd stop. Wanting to run downstairs and yell at them to quit fighting. Especially as he knew they were fighting about him—
…When the thing had come. A creature that looked like a man—but could not have been a man.
The boy had seen it all take place. Watched in speechless horror, peering through the banister rails as the intruder crashed in the door and strode through the hallway. The argument had stopped suddenly. His parents and his grandfather turned and stared. Then the sound of his mother's scream had torn through the roar of the storm.
The creature never even slowed down. It caught his father and his mother by the arms, whipping them off their feet as though they weighed nothing. Like dead leaves. It dashed their heads together with a sound the boy would never forget. Candles hissed, snuffed out by the blood spray.
Then the thing had dropped the bodies and stepped over them where they lay. Smiling now. Taking its time. And approached his grandfather.
The old man backed away, quaking in fear. Spoke words that the boy could not understand.
The thing laughed. Then it bit. Its teeth closed on the old man's throat and the boy could hear the terrible gurgle as it gorged on his blood.
It was just like the stories. The stories his parents hadn't wanted his grandfather to tell him. The boy shrank away and closed his eyes and wept silently and trembled and prayed.
And then it was over. When he opened his eyes, the killer had gone. The boy ran down the stairs. He gaped at the twisted bodies of his mother and father, then heard the groan from across the room.
The old man was lying on his back, his arms outflung. The boy ran to him, kneeled by his side. Saw the wound in his grandfather's neck. There was no blood. All gone.
Claimed by the creature.
"I'm dying," his grandfather gasped.
"No!" the boy shouted.
"I'll turn." The old man's face was deathly pale and he gripped the boy's arms so tightly it hurt. "You know what to do."
"It has to be done," the old man whispered. He pointed weakly at the saber that hung over the fireplace. "Do it. Do it now, before it's too late."
The boy was convulsed with tears as he staggered over to the fireplace. His fingers closed on the scabbard of the saber, and he unhooked the weapon from its mounting. The blade gave a soft zing as he drew it out.
"Hurry," his grandfather croaked.
The boy pushed the sword back into the scabbard. "I can't," he sobbed. "Please, Granddad. I don't want to."
His grandfather looked up at him. "You must, Joel. And when it's done, you have to remember the things I told you." His life energy was fading fast, and he was struggling to talk. "You have to find it. Find the cross. It's the only thing they truly fear."
The cross of Ardaich. The boy remembered. Tears flooded down his face. He closed his eyes.
Then opened them. And saw that his grandfather was dead.
The storm was still raging outside. The boy stood over his grandfather's body and wept.
And then his grandfather's eyes snapped open and looked deep into his. He sat upright. Slowly, his lips rolled back and he snarled.
For a second the boy stood as if mesmerized. Then he started back in alarm as his grandfather began to climb to his feet. Except it wasn't his grandfather anymore. The boy knew what he'd become.
Candlelight flashed on the blade as he drew the saber. He raised it high and sliced with all his strength—the way the old man had taught him. Felt the horrible impact all the way to the hilt as it chopped through his grandfather's neck and took the head clean off.
When it was done, the boy staggered out into the storm. He began to walk through the hammering rain. He walked for miles, numb with shock.
And when the villagers found him the next morning, he couldn't even speak.
Eighteen years later
Pockets of thick autumnal mist drifted over the waters of the Thames as the big cargo ship cut upriver from the estuary, heading for the wharfs of the Port of London. Smaller vessels seemed to shy out of its way. With its lights poking beams through the gloom, the ship carved its way westward into the heart of the city.
On the approach to the docks, the beat of a helicopter thudded through the chill evening air.
Eight sailors of mixed Romanian and Czech origin were assembled around the helipad on the forward deck, craning their necks skyward at the approaching aircraft. At their feet lay a row of five steel-reinforced crates, seven feet long, all identical, unmarked, that had been wheeled up from the hold. Most of the crew preferred to keep their distance from them. The strong downdraft from the chopper's rotors tore at the men's clothing and hair as its pilot brought it down to land on the pad.
"Okay, boys, let's get these bastard things off our ship," the senior crewman yelled over the noise as the chopper's cargo hatch slid open.
"I'd love to know what the hell's inside them," said one of the Romanians.
"I don't fucking want to know," someone else replied. "All I can say is I'm glad to be shot of them."
There wasn't a man aboard who hadn't felt the sense of unease that had been hanging like a pall over the vessel since they'd left the Romanian port of Constantza. It hadn't been a happy voyage. Five of the hands were sick belowdecks, suffering from some kind of fever that the ship's medic couldn't identify. The radio kept talking about the major flu pandemic that had much of Europe in its grip—maybe that was it. But some of the guys were skeptical. Flu didn't wake you up in the middle of the night screaming in terror.
The crewmen heaved each crate onto the chopper and then stepped back from the blast as the cargo was strapped into place. The hatch slammed shut, the rotors accelerated to a deafening roar, and the chopper took off.
A handful of the ship's crew remained on deck and watched the aircraft's twinkling lights disappear into the mist that overhung the city skyline. One quickly made the sign of the cross over his chest and muttered a prayer under his breath. He was a devout Catholic, and his faith was normally the butt of many jokes on board.
Today, though, nobody laughed.
Near Henley-on-Thames, Oxfordshire
Forty miles away, the gnarled figure of Seymour Finch stepped out of the grand entrance of the manor house. He raised his bald head and peered up at the sky. The stars were out, seeming dead and flat through the ragged holes in the mist that curled around the mansion's gables and clung to the lawns.
Finch couldn't stop grinning to himself, though his big hands were quaking in fear as he nervously, impatiently awaited the arrival of the helicopter. He glanced at his watch.
Eventually he heard the distant beat of approaching rotor blades. He rubbed his hands together. Took out a small radio handset and spoke into it.
"He's coming. He's here."