I dreamed that night of the mansion. I was standing outside, shivering in the dark and the cold as I stared up the hill at its decayed face.
Why did you abandon me? it seemed to say, voicing its feelings through its groaning timbers and the howling of the wind. Why did you run?
Behind me, I was aware of the Richardses’ home, of their voices that sounded so cheerful—so real—and the flames that danced playfully in their fireplace. Those flames were reflected dimly in the dirty windows of the mansion above me like smoldering eyes.
You left me for the bed of a stranger. You would take them over me? Then without them, you would come back to me…come back to me…
The shadow of the mansion grew, reaching down into Hallowdale with its black fingers, and from up on the hill began a distant wailing.
Come back…come back…
The wailing turned into the shrill screams I had become so familiar with as the voice continued its pitiful mantra.
Come back…come back…
The screaming grew louder and louder, and suddenly I realized it was no longer coming from in front of me, but behind me—the Richardses!
I tried to turn around, to go inside to help them, but the glowering eyes of the mansion held me.
Come back to me, darling…
The sun lanced through the window, blinding me awake. Before my sleep-fogged mind had cleared, I was sitting upright, listening. Silence, save for my pounding heart, still worked up from my nightmare. No screams, no voices. With a sigh I lay back on the mattress and allowed the daylight to gradually calm my nerves.
Almost instinctively, my hand went to my throat, fingering it gently. This was the worst it had been all week. I could barely stand to swallow.
Finally, I got out of bed and stretched. My clothes were uncomfortable the way clothes get when they have been wet with dirty water and allowed to dry. My entire body ached, owing to my tumble down the cellar stairs, but the sun seemed to have brought with it a hope that no amount of bruising could dampen. Today I will find her. I already knew where to look, and, somehow, it made perfect sense that she would be hiding there. That’s what it was telling me, when I first found it that morning—
I nearly screamed when I stepped out of Kyle’s room. The Richardses’ eyes met me, pale and unseeing as they stared up from the floor. Their skin was transparently pale and shriveled, the last drops of their blood trickling slowly out of a pair of wounds on their necks.
I stumbled back into the bedroom, falling backwards onto the mattress where I lay shaking. You did this. You brought this upon them.
A memory danced through my head, an odd one, of Tom saying “all thirteen of us.”
Eleven, now, I mused darkly.
Somehow, I managed to pull myself together and venture outside, picking my way carefully over the corpses that had once been Tom and his wife. I have to find her, I thought. Just find her and get out of here. We’ll walk if we have to.
I wandered out into the street, making my way towards the edge of Hallowdale. A stranger stopped me, the one who rode the motorcycle.
“Hey,” he called. “Tom told me about you. Said you needed some help?”
I answered him without pausing. “No, no, don’t help me. She’ll get you if you do.”
“Just leave. Get out of here, and never come back.”
I left him standing there, a befuddled expression glued across his face, as I pressed on towards my goal. I was past the last row of ruined buildings now, wandering through the barren farm fields. Soon I was under the branches of the forest. The abandoned church peeked at me through the gray trunks, its corvid sentinels alerting the cemetery to my arrival. Those ebony birds watched me silently, their black eyes glittering keenly as they followed my progress. They reminded me, perversely, of Anna’s eyes the night we first met.
I was there. The crumbling stones sprawled before me, and in their midst stood the mausoleum, proud and terrible and inviting all at once. Here I paused, for I felt it again, that feeling I never thought to experience outside of the mansion. The sunlight, filtered through the fiery leaves, was not enough to banish the gloom. The shadows of the trees crept forward, and the detritus of the forest stirred. All seemed to focus on that lonely crypt, with its dark, gaping doorway, like a mouth or a black hole, sucking me towards it, eager to devour me. Its black depths seemed to swirl; at any moment I would not have been surprised to see one of those hypnotic shapes leap out to grab me.
The wind was blowing. I could see the branches quivering overhead, but I could not hear them rattling against each other. I could not hear my own footfalls. I could not here my heartbeat, which surprised me, for it felt ready to burst from my chest. Slowly, I advanced until I stood on the threshold of the tomb. This close, the darkness should have been dispelled, but I could see nothing inside.
I was greeted with laughter; the same laughter I had heard the night of Anna’s disappearance as I followed the shadow through the mansion; the same laughter I thought I had heard on my first visit to the graveyard; a laughter that, although I had not realized it before now, sounded so very familiar.
A pair of crow’s eyes appeared in the darkness, obsidian gems glistening with an unexplained light. “You came back, darling.”
A rustle of movement, and the eyes came forward, transformed into normal human eyes framed by dark, wavy hair, and at last the gloom of the crypt evaporated. There before me stood Anna, still wearing her nightgown, though it was stained with drops of crimson that trickled from the corners of her mouth.
“Anna?” she cooed softly. “No…or yes. Would you have loved me, married me, had I given you my full name, had I revealed to you what I was?”
She came close, taking my face gently in her hands and placing a soft kiss on my chin. I was aware of the moistness of her lips—not saliva, I knew—and I found it revolting. I could feel it after she had pulled away, dribbling down my throat.
“I’m sorry for deceiving you,” she continued, caressing my cheek with her slender hand. Her voice was the same, her movements the same—everything. This was, indeed, my Anna, and yet so different. Her expression turned to one of pity. “Poor darling, so confused. Let me help you understand…”
She stared into me, and I could not help but stare back. I was overcome with a curious feeling—what was it, exactly? I could not put my finger on it. Something about this place—something in its dust-laden air, something that drifted through its quiet streets or lurked in its shadowed corners—had taken a hold of me. This feeling was…pleasant…yes, that was it; a warm sleepy feeling and the contentment of giving in. That was it exactly: surrender. In her eyes I found all the answers. I saw her past, her desires, her plans. I saw how the villagers managed to hang on to their pitiful existence, never knowing when their time would come. I too was under the spell, drowning in the inescapable abyss of Hallowdale, and I had no desire to ever leave.
“Of course not, my love,” whispered Anna, her cool breath dancing entrancingly down my neck. “I brought you here, and I would never let you go.”
Then those eyes, with their keen glimmering highlights, went dark. They became black pits, bottomless, infinite chasms, and I was overcome with the dizziness of falling. Out of the darkness grew a roaring like an inferno that caught me as I fell, seizing me by the throat and quickly dissolving my perishable flesh. The black fire flooded my veins and devoured me, searing my nerves until all sensation died away.
There was a peal of icy laughter, soft and distant, and I was released. I hit the floor a dry husk, a man-shaped pile of ashes, hollow, and yet it was not me. I had been drained; I had slipped out from the confines of my body like water from a leaky vase, and my will was no longer bound to its fragile form. Anna’s face was all I could see, pale and cold and beautiful as moonlit marble.
“Now at last we are truly one,” she whispered, her musical voice resonating through my ashen mind, its dulcet vibrations filling even the darkest corners. “We shall live together forever, you and I and our children—”
A chorus of ghostly laughter, and in her empty eyes I saw reflected the faces of countless children, infants and toddlers and teenagers, all with the same hollow sockets and marble skin. All were strangers to me, but I knew them each by name. There was Kyle Richards…
“Isn’t our family beautiful?” Anna asked. “It will only grow more so as we endure through the ages, immortal, witnessing the births and deaths of the centuries. We shall bathe in the blood of the earth, and long after the mightiest kings have fallen, we will remain, our beautiful, perfect family.”
The vision died away, and once more I was in the crypt in the cemetery in the woods of Hallowdale. My wife knelt beside me, running her fingers through my hair. My throat no longer hurt, although I was desperately thirsty.
“I know, dear,” comforted Anna, as though she had read my thoughts. Standing, she went to the sarcophagus that occupied most of the mausoleum, opened it, and pulled a child from inside. I recognized him, vaguely. I had seen him working with his father in the fields.
Anna dropped him on the floor beside me and smiled. “Drink, my love.”