Chapter 14: Return

The wind drove cold and hard against John’s back as he stared up at the rotting wood and broken windows. The mansion groaned, threatening to come crashing down the hill, obliterating everything in its path.

“She lives up there,” Donna had explained. “Her and the others.”

“Wait a minute,” John had argued. “Tom told me that no one lived there.”

Donna pondered that for a moment, then said, “Well, he was right, I guess. Nobody lives there, if you take my meanin’.”

John did take her meaning, and with less skepticism than he might have just a few days ago. Donna’s words, combined with his earlier experiences, made him loath to return to that house.

But Anna’s there, John thought as he stood at the base of the hill, trying to make himself start the climb.

The ruined grandeur of the house seemed to mock him. Each window was a leering eye assaulting him, making him feel naked. He could hear its taunts in the creaking timbers of its construction.

Give her back to me!

Alexander came beside him, and together they marched up the hill. “I was almost married once,” Alexander announced. “Her name was Stasha.”

John shot him a confused glance. “What happened?”

“She…well, technically I left her, but she was going to be the death of me. I shouldn’t have, of course. Should’ve just taken care of it, but I was so scared. You’ve no idea how much I want to go back, do it all right. Then we wouldn’t be in this mess.”

“What do you mean we?” John replied. “Why are you telling me this?”

“Stasha wasn’t…what she appeared to be. I still don’t entirely know how she pulled it off. She broke so many rules.”

“Look,” John interrupted, coming to a halt halfway up the hill, “not to be a jerk, but I really don’t care about your past love woes. Can we just focus on finding Anna?”

“Of course,” Alexander agreed. “It’s just…alright. I’ll be straight. My ex-fianc’E9e. Stasha. She’s the one who took your wife.”

“No,” John protested. “Donna said it was someone named—”

“Anastasia. I know. I told you Stasha wasn’t who she appeared to be. But her name was just the beginning. You know the traditional wedding vow, ’till death do us part’? Well, that wasn’t good enough for her. You see, she was already dead.”

John stumbled. His brain wanted to laugh, but he’d been through enough the past two days that the concept didn’t seem so laughable anymore.

“There were a million little clues,” Alexander continued, “but I ignored them all. I was in love, and they were just quirks. Everybody’s got quirks. That’s what makes people so interesting.”

“So what finally tipped you off?”

“A month before our wedding, I was on a trip, alone. I decided to come back early and surprise her. I went to her house, and guess where I found her?”

“Not the front porch sipping lemonade, I assume.”

“In the basement. With the lights off. Curled up in the corner, cold as ice. Of course I assumed she’d died recently, called the police. They came, took the body, and I figured that was the end. Obviously, it wasn’t. That night, she came back. I thought it was just a dream—maybe it started out that way, but next thing I know I’m awake, standing in front of my bedroom window, which was wide open, and she’s there with me. She was angry, but still wanted me. I said no.”

“I take it she didn’t appreciate that.”

“I thought she was going to kill me. Such rage, such power. She tore my room apart. When she was done she asked me again, said we could live forever. But she was a monster! I called her that. Called her other things too. Devil. Abomination. She didn’t like that. The look on her face…at the time I was too scared to see anything but her blazing eyes and sharpened teeth, but now, looking back, I think I hurt her. She left me, and I moved across the country, terrified she’d come back for revenge. Of course, then I wizened up and realized I was the only one who knew what she was. She’d seek out other victims, and I was the only one who could stop her. After years of searching, I ended up here.”

“But what does she want with Anna?”

“This village is her home, her feeding ground. Look at it; it’s dying. I think her pantry’s running dry, and she wants to refill it.”

They reached the mansion’s porch and paused in front of the door.

“I’m really not sure what we’ll find in there,” Alexander warned.

“It’s just a big empty house,” John said. Or is it? What did I touch that night?

“Alright, let’s get this over with.” Alexander pushed open the door and stepped inside, sweeping his long coat open as he did. John stared at him. The inside of his coat was lined with weapons: two pistols, a dagger, several pointed wooden sticks, and one made of metal—Silver? Alexander took one of the pistols and studied John for a moment before putting the gun back and replacing it with one of the wooden stakes. “Hang on to that.”

“What am I supposed to do with it?”

“Hopefully you won’t have to do anything, but should the time come, I think it’ll be obvious.”

John looked at him quizzically, so Alexander punctuated himself by raising a fist and jabbing downward. “Stay together. She should be asleep, but it wouldn’t be the first time she’s wandered in daylight.”

They moved quickly through the ground floor. Everything was just as John remembered it from before. The only evidences of life were the footprints he and Anna had left in the dust. “Anna!” John called as they moved down the main hall. The only response was an annoyed glance from Alexander.

“If your wife’s here, we’ll find her,” the older man said. “Making noise will only get us into trouble.”

They reached the line of portraits, and Alexander paused in front of the blank patch. “This probably used to be hers,” he whispered. “Wonder why she’d take it down?”

John staggered to a halt outside the next room. It was the library, where he’d found that heinous book and its gruesome illustrations.

“Something wrong?” asked Alexander.

“I…” John felt like he’d hit a wall. Beyond the doorway he could see it lying there, exactly where he’d dropped it. Except it had been closed when it fell. Now it was open.

Anything could’ve done that. The wind. But he still couldn’t make himself step into the room. The tome was open to the illustration of the cloaked figure cutting the child’s throat. In the back of his mind, he heard a distant scream, a little girl—

Alexander pushed by and inspected the library. He gave the book only a passing, disapproving glance. “No place to hide in here. Let’s keep moving.”

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