Her head was groggy and throbbed with pain; her mouth was dry, her tongue felt huge and like she was going to swallow it. She could hear voices, machines, murmurs from afar. Where was she? She could remember the fire, albeit faintly, as if it was only a dream. Was it just a dream? Or had it really happened? Mercia. The demon child. The murderer. She was real. Everything was real.
Steph woke up abruptly. The lights were blindingly bright and burned her eyes. There was a flash here and a flash there as machines bleeped and droned around her. She looked down and saw wires trailing across her arms. Her one hand was bandaged and when she remembered what Mercia had done to her, pain tore through her skin and muscles as a nasty reminder.
"Steph!" cried her mum. "Oh, thank God you're alright!"
She turned to face her mum, who was sat in a chair beside her bed. Streaks of mascara were running down her cheeks and dark rings circled her eyes, but she looked happy now. Her dad was standing behind her mum, his arms cocooning her in a protective embrace.
"Hey kiddo," he said. "You okay?"
"Don't call me kiddo," she croaked, giving him the side-eye. He always called her that as a joke. He knew it wound her up, and she'd always shoot back a witty remark, that was their way, but this time she was so mentally and physically exhausted that she could barely talk, let alone think of something funny to reply back with.
"Lacey," she mumbled. Her heart dropped to the pit of her stomach. She could remember her friend barely conscious back at the classroom.
"She's fine, honey," her mum chimed in. "Your dad saw her auntie while he was getting a drink. She inhaled a lot of smoke, and she couldn't breathe properly, that's why she passed out."
Her heart lifted and the weight that she felt pressing down on her shoulders eased now that she knew Lacey was okay, but no sooner that the good emotions swept in, nasty, heart-wrenching ones took over; the cold, evil eyes of Mercia; the burning body of a teacher who was in his prime of his life and too young to die. Lacey was okay, but what about Dani and Lola? All the other children?
A wave of dizziness grabbed at her from both sides, shaking her body left to right, right to left. Her ears whistled and crackled and black dots clouded her vision.
"Mum…" she cried. "I don't… feel… too good…"
The machines surrounding her started bleeping furiously as the whistling in her ears grew louder and the black dots in her vision merged together, cloaking the entire room in darkness. The last thing she remembered before she passed out was Mercia cackling, her shrill laughter penetrating the immense whistling that was reverberating in her ears.
Everything was quiet now. The silence was deafening. Darkness stretched around her for miles and miles. Where was she? The machines were going haywire, what did that mean? Cardiac arrest? Was she dead? She tried to move her arms but it was as if they were being weighed down by some immensely strong, invisible force. Then, a voice. Quiet at first, barely a whisper. But it grew louder and louder, piercing the silence. Mercia.
"You are quite the adversary, Stephanie," began Mercia. "You know what I am, and what I am capable of. I have never met anyone like you before. You are strong, in both mind and body, too clever for your own good and always one step ahead of the game. I cannot have someone like you walking around freely and that is why I have chosen you as my next victim. When you have died, I can focus on those closest to you; your mother, father, Daniella, Lola, Lacey. Everyone you care about. Then I will unleash my power on the town you grew up in and stand back and watch it burn."
Her voice was like an icy wind, setting Steph's senses on edge. She tried to scream out but felt her throat close up as if someone was grabbing her round the neck. Icy coldness and ravaging heat licked over her entire body simultaneously.
"N- no…" she managed to croak.
"What did you say? Are you begging? Begging for mercy?"
"P-please… get… out… of… my… head…"
"You are stronger than I thought. Perhaps I could use you," she considered. "You are resistant and one of the strongest people I have ever met. Would you like to be my new puppet, Stephanie?"
"No!" she cried. "Never!" Get out of my head! Get out of my town! Leave us all alone! You wicked, wicked bitch!"
Mercia chuckled quietly to herself. "That is quite the temper. I could use that to my advantage."
"Let me go!" she wailed.
"As you wish. However, I am a part of you, just as I am a part of everyone and everything. You cannot escape. Sooner or later, my final plan will come to fruition, and you will be my tool. This is only the beginning."
"Wait," demanded Steph. "Why? Why are you doing this? Why have you killed all those children, ruined so many lives? What has this town ever done to you?"
The demon child just laughed smugly.
"Because I can."
Anger welled inside Steph. She should have realised that trying to reason with a demon would raise more questions than answers, and that things would be twisted, and questions evaded, but Mercia said it herself; she'd never seen anyone so strong, and so clever. She wasn't one to blow her own trumpet but maybe now was the time to start believing more in her own abilities. There was a demon toying with lives like the children were nothing but rag dolls and the town a model replica. She had to be stopped, and for that to happen, it was time for Steph to believe in herself.
"That's not what I meant and you know it!" hissed Steph. "What are your motives? Why are you really here?"
"Some questions, Stephanie, are better left unanswered."
The pain and the darkness and the deafening silence lifted as the void that Mercia had created faded into obscurity. She could see blurred shapes, muted colours and the steady, punctuating bleep and drones of hospital machinery.
"No!" cried Steph. "I haven't finished with you yet!"
Her parents' voices; so gentle and warming compared to the steely coldness of Mercia's. She had taken them for granted all her life but now she had never felt more relieved to hear them again.
"What… happened? Did I pass out again?"
"It's the meds, sweetie. Did you have a bad dream? You were shouting in your sleep."
Steph shot up from her bed. Her back was clammy and her hair was clinging to her forehead. She tried to swallow but her throat was so dry that she couldn't manage it. Shakily, she took the small glass of water from the bedside table and downed it in one go.
"It wasn't a dream, mum," she wept. "If I told you both the truth, you wouldn't believe it, not in a million years."
Even though she was here, in a hospital bed, with her parents by her side, Steph never felt so scared and alone.