Chapter 20: Surrender
He awoke to sobbing.
Sitting up, his vision was veiled by a puff of frozen breath. Moonlight filled the house.
The sobbing bubbled into a voice: Donna’s. “Please, take it, drink it all, but let me die. Let me go to Tom.”
“You beg my favor?” came a second female voice. This one hissed and sang, crystal chimes that lanced through the night with their unbearable softness. “You defied me, you and your fool of a husband.”
“No, please,” begged Donna, “forgive us. Be merciful.”
“You’ll never see your husband again, in this life or the next.”
John squirmed at the sound of that voice, desperate to get away from it, to hide. It was familiar, like something out of a dream.
Donna cried out suddenly, and her sobs became weak moans. There was another sound, one that made John imagine terrible, disgusting things. It went on and on, Donna’s pitiful outcries growing quieter and quieter. Soon there was only that other noise, like a wet kiss, then that too stopped.
Something heavy thumped on the floor.
John grabbed the blankets and suffocated himself in them. The moonlight gave volume to the shadows, made them dance and slither. They curled like tiny fingers, beckoning. No, John thought. No, I don’t want to.
It was the same feeling he’d had in the attic of the mansion. Outside his room, something was waiting, something bad. This time, however, it knew where he was.
Don’t you want to see your wife again?
John’s breath caught. “Where is she?” he called into the darkness.
The not-voice laughed, the same silver laugh he’d heard the night of Anna’s disappearance. Come with me.
The gloom beyond the doorway gathered, began to solidify. John caught the barest hint of a figure within. He bolted from the bed and dove to seize whatever stood at the core, but he fell through nothing; the darkness gave away like mist, and John tripped over something.
He groaned as he rolled over, then stifled a scream when he saw what it was.
Her eyes were wide but unseeing. A trail of liquid, black in the moonlight, ran from a pair of wounds on her neck.
What am I doing? John panicked. Get away from it! Don’t follow that thing!
But it has Anna.
But it’ll kill me!
It’ll kill Anna!
That forced him to his feet again. The elusive shadow was drifting out the door into the street. He chased it.
The sky had cleared and the snow had stopped. The ground was pale with frost. No matter how fast John ran, his quarry remained ahead of him. Now and then it laughed, the sound spiraling through the arctic air and causing John’s hair to tremble. His chest hurt. His heart beat an alarm, seemingly aware that it was being put in mortal danger. His brain seemed to have shut down completely, unable to deal with all the strangeness of the past couple days.
The shadow reached the edge of the village and kept going, sweeping across the fields beneath the glare of the moon. Bits of it flared out like a cloak, or long ebony tresses, or…wings? It passed under the trees before John could get a better look, and soon he too plunged into the forest.
Something white loomed ahead, bursting out of the trees like a mirage; the ruined church John and Anna had discovered their first day in Hallowdale, made otherworldly by the alien moonlight and the mad jumble of shadows cast by branches. The collapsing roof was lined with crows, all silent. John ran through their black, unblinking gaze.
The overgrown cemetery appeared next, and the shadow was waiting for him, lingering among the tombstones. For a moment it seemed solid, then it melted away, nothing more than dark smoke. John didn’t pause. That thing had his wife, and nothing was going to stop him.
Not even the tiny girl that sprang up in his path.
The sight of her made John bellow in terror. She was dressed in a lacy nightgown as white as her bloodless skin. Her mouth was unhinged in a scream that John knew all too well, and her hand was raised in a warding gesture. Most horrifying of all, however, was the ragged gash across her throat that spilled ethereal black blood down her dress.
John ran straight through her, not at all surprised when she vanished as suddenly as she appeared. Ahead loomed the mausoleum at the graveyard’s heart, and all the shadows of the forest were reaching for it, gathering in its mournful entrance. Just before he reached it, John staggered to a stop. This close, with the moon blazing coldly overhead, he should’ve been able to see into the crypt, even just a little, but the darkness was as solid as if a velvet curtain had been draped over the entrance. Silent concussions hammered John’s heart, projected from the mausoleum’s gaping maw in waves. As he stared into the blackness, a pair of obsidian eyes appeared.
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.
“Anna?” gasped John.
There 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. “No…or yes. Would you have loved me, married me, had I given my full name, revealed what I was?”
She came close, taking John’s face gently in her hands and placing a soft kiss on his chin. John was aware of the moistness of her lips—not saliva, something red—and it sickened him. He could feel it after she pulled away, dribbling down his throat.
“I’m sorry for deceiving you,” she continued, caressing his cheek with her slender hand, drawing him into the crypt. Her voice was the same, her movements the same—everything. This was Anna, and yet not. Her expression turned pitiful. “Poor darling, so confused. Let me help you understand.”
She stared into John, and he couldn’t help but stare back. He was overcome with a curious feeling—what was it exactly? He couldn’t put a finger on it. Something about Hallowdale, something in its dust-laden air, something that drifted through its quiet streets or lurked in its shadowed corners, had taken hold of him. The 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 John found all the answers. He saw her past, her desires, her plans. He saw how the villagers hung on to their pathetic existence, never knowing when their time would come. John too was under the spell, drowning in the inescapable abyss of Halowdale, and he had no desire to ever leave.
“Of course you don’t, my love,” whispered Anna, her cool breath trickling entrancingly down John’s neck. “I brought you here, and I would never let you go.”
Then those eyes, with their keen glimmering highlights, went dark. Black pits, bottomless, infinite chasms. John was overcome with the dizziness of falling. Out of the darkness grew a roaring like an inferno that caught him as he fell, seized him by the throat, quickly dissolved his perishable flesh. Black fire flooded his veins and devoured him, searing his nerves until all sensation died away.
There was a peal of icy laughter, soft and distant, and John was released. He hit the floor a dry husk, a man-shaped pile of ashes, hollow. But it wasn’t John. John had been drained. He’d slipped out from the confines of his body like water from a leaky vase, and his will was no longer bound to its fragile form. Anna’s face was all he could see, pale and cold and beautiful as moonlit marble.
“Now we are at last truly one,” she whispered, her musical voice resonating through John’s ashen mind. “We shall live together forever, you and I and our children.”
A chorus of ghostly laughter, and in her empty eyes John saw reflected the faces of countless children—infants, toddlers, teenagers—all with the same hollow sockets and marble skin. All were strangers to John, but he knew each by name. He recognized Tom and Donna’s son, Kyle.
“Isn’t our family beautiful?” asked Anna. “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 faded, and once more John was in the crypt in the cemetery in the woods of Hallowdale. His wife knelt beside him, running her fingers through his hair. John was desperately thirsty.
“I know dear,” comforted Anna, reading his thoughts. Standing, she went to the sarcophagus that filled most of the mausoleum, opened it, and pulled a child from inside. John recognized him vaguely; he’d seen him working with his father in the fields around the village.
Anna dropped him on the floor and smiled. “Drink, my love.”