Content Warning: Scarring, self-harm, firearms, animal attack, grisly images
The edge of the knife rang as she drew the blade down the length of the well-oiled stone and pulled it away for the fifth time. Warming as she ground away its dullness, the steel glinted against the dim light of the candelabra behind her. Then, as the massive thud from outside shook the floor, the blade trembled in her hand and twisted upward just enough to reflect her own hollowed eyes back at her. She held it in that position for half an indrawn breath, considering the gray tinge that had crept into her skin, the mark of insomnia and grief. Then the room shuddered again, and she resumed the honing of her weapon.
They would never let her live now, she knew. Following her even to this shelter, this retreat she had made for herself far away in the hills, showed the extent of their resolve. They had tracked her to this remote place, over a wild and hostile country, following the evil rumors and superstitions that had sprung up about her, had broken past her outer defenses and had made their way through the labyrinth she had constructed around herself. Soon their assault on the door would splinter the wood into fragments, unleashing their righteous fury upon her.
As she swept her knife along the stone for the final time, she rose and looked about the room in which she had cocooned herself for so many years—years of isolation, of solitary contemplation uninterrupted by any shameful desire for significance or delusion of purpose. She had made herself comfortable here, amidst the rich furnishings, the vaulted ceilings, and the masses of books ancient and new, all filled with the vapid philosophies and ponderous futility of man. Whiling away years beyond count, she had let the chambers grow stale with the dull despair she had long ago embraced, until a new force had burst in upon her like the very battering of her enemies outside.
Soon they would be upon her. She turned, holding the knife in a loose grip, but before she could pick up the candelabra, her eye caught a movement to her left: her own reflection in a mirror across the room. Despite the new shock that reverberated about the chamber, she took a step toward the mirror, her eyes drifting downward to her shoulder, which the wide, scooped neckline of her dress exposed to view.
Faint lines still lingered there, below her collarbone, but the scar was fading. Disregarding the renewed shouting she could hear from beyond the door, she kept walking toward the mirror, pulling one side of the dress down to free her entire shoulder. When she reached the mirror, she squinted down at the scar and ran the fingertips of her right hand over it. Frowning as she realized that it was now no longer discernible by touch from the rest of her skin, she raised the knife in her left hand and shifted her grip from the hilt to hold it near the point, giving herself finer control over its movement.
The tip of the blade broke the skin at once, and she did not even have to grit her teeth. Blood bubbled up around her fingers, but she pressed the knife further into her skin, then dragged it upward and to the left, tracing the top line of the scar. Guiding the knife with smooth and practiced precision, she renewed each of the lines that made up the mark on her chest, then looked about until she located the large silver vessel that stood on a shelf nearby. She let the lid fall to the floor and scooped out a handful of coarse salt with her left hand, holding the knife in her right. Then, her jaw hardening in preparation, she crushed the salt against the open wounds and ground it in with her palm. Tears oozed out of her eyes, but she wiped them away with the back of her hand. At last, she used her sleeve to soak up some of the blood and examined her work.
The red flow began at once to disguise the shape, but she knew she had executed well, as always. Another assault upon the door trembled the boards beneath her feet, and without waiting to further appreciate her own craft, she strode across the room to a narrow passage beyond, snatching up the light as she went. Passing through the dim torchlight that sent her shadow twisting and dancing ahead of her in a grim parody of jubilation, she reached at last the heavy stone door. It ground upon rusting hinges as she thrust it open to reveal an even heavier darkness stretching up to embrace her from the bottom of the stone steps at her feet. The flickering of the seven candles she held at the level of her eye as she stalked down the shallow staircase now no longer mocked but threatened her, transforming her lonely silhouette into a sisterhood of seven ghosts that beckoned her to join them in the world of the dead.
As she neared the bottom, the cold air grew dank and thick with decay. She paused as she reached the chamber below, forcing herself to draw in a long, slow breath and quell the nausea that rose up in response. Then, lighting the torches on the walls one by one, she passed around the edge of the crypt, her cloak brushing the stone shelves upon which lay the bones of those who had gone before her. She blew out the candles and set the candelabra on the edge of the last shelf, then approached the far end of the crypt once more.
There lay the still-graying bones of the noble lady whose final days she had shared and who, the last of her house, had bequeathed to her this dwelling place as a shelter from the world that had never offered her another home.
“Forgive me, my friend,” she said. Another distant boom echoed from above as she swept up her benefactor’s remains and transferred them, with as much reverence as time permitted, to a nearby shelf, laying them next to those of an even more remote ancestor. Returning to the now-empty repository, she looked back toward the opening of the crypt. Yes, their eyes would fall first upon her here as they entered. Picking up the knife she had laid on the narrow stone ledge, she drew a deep breath, gritted her teeth, and sliced open her left wrist.
Blood began to ebb forth at once, and, before it could make her grip too slick and tenuous, she took the knife in her left hand and opened the right wrist as well. Shaking a little as the adrenaline began to flood her system, she wiped the blade as well as she could on her own sleeve, then returned the knife to its place at her hip. Then she laid herself down on the cold stone and tried to quiet her mind, willing her pulse to slow as her blood drained away. There in the heavy silence of the tomb, punctuated now and again by the echoes of her chamber door’s last resistance, the image of her lover’s face rose up once more before her eyes, still and pale and peaceful in death, but not less beautiful or heartbreaking. Growing oblivious even to the crash of the door overhead as it fell inward, and to the thunder of footsteps running down the stairs to her grim deathbed, she cast her thoughts back to the day they had laid her lover’s body in the ground.
She had watched the miserable affair from far away, high up on the cliffs that stretched their fingers out into the sea. Despite the wind that gusted up into her face, stinging her eyes with the tears she had thus far resisted, she could see the tiny forms of the four pallbearers bearing the casket toward the narrow opening of the family crypt that yawned like a chasm in her mind. A few other mourners stood about, disordered scratches of black amid the perverse vibrance of the green turf. A storm of mingled hate and anguish gathered in her throat as she longed to stand among them, permitted for once to love, to do the things a lover might do, even in the face of death. But she knew that none of those in attendance would have tolerated her presence, even now that her lover had passed beyond her reach. Her very tears would grate upon their souls, her sorrow making a mockery of their own, and they would have marred with strife the peace of her lover’s last moments in the land of the living. No, at least here, waiting at a distance with only the crashing of the waves to join in her mourning, she could grieve in peace, unchallenged and undisturbed.
Long after the mourners had dispersed and the sextons had emerged from the tomb, closing the great stone door behind them, she stood upon the cliff, gazing with unseeing eyes upon the scattered headstones and monuments while night slowly fell around her. When the temperature dropped and she began to shiver, she pulled her cloak tight about her shoulders and turned to make her way back down the path that led toward the huddled coastal town. The moon burst forth from behind the gray clouds that had hastened the advent of the darkness, and for a moment her heart quickened within her. How many times had this same moon lit her way across the garden to her lover’s window, where she could steal a few hours of joy in the darkness when no one could come between them? Now its pale brilliance mocked her, and she scowled as she turned her eyes back toward the earth, stumbling for a moment over the rocky ground as her vision adjusted to the darkness once more.
On that last night, as she had turned the latch of the windows from the outside with the tip of her knife, the moon had shone more brightly than ever, so that she had feared at every moment to be discovered and banished by force. With greater caution even than usual, she had eased open the windows and stepped into the room, parting the curtains so that only the narrowest ray of moonlight fell upon her lover’s sleeping face—luminescent and pale, growing ever more angelic as consumption sucked away the mortal life within.
Laying herself down on the edge of the bed with slow, gentle movements, she rolled herself over until she could rest her head against the side of the rising and falling chest. Gradually releasing the breath she had kept pent up in her body, she laid her hand over the burning fingers that had found their way out from beneath the stifling coverlet. Thus content, she composed herself to wait until her lover woke, or morning came to drive her away once more. The moon rose high up in the clear sky, withdrawing its light by degrees, and the rhythm of her lover’s breathing lulled her toward a dim semi-consciousness in which the comfort of their proximity could dispel the impending certainty of their separation.
“You should have woken me.”
“I was happy as I was.”
“Selfish woman! You were with me, but I was not with you.”
“You are always with me.”
“Can you never be serious now? You know what I meant. No… no! Pressing your face into my arm won’t help you.”
“It usually does. See, you are already laughing.”
“Because you make yourself ridiculous. This is how cats and small children ingratiate themselves, not grown women. Stop that! Stop—”
“Oh no, Darling! I’m sorry… I shouldn’t have made you laugh.”
“It’s only a little cough, I’m—”
“It is not! Lay back down now, don’t tire yourself. Here, doesn’t this feel better? No, don’t speak. I’ll talk for both of us. I’ve been tormented all day without you. ‘I know; I am very wonderful and it is hard to be away from my side.’ If I don’t struggle to think of other things, I just imagine myself lying next to you, touching your skin, feeling your hands in mine. ‘Just hearing you speak of this makes me long to hold you—’ Why are you laughing? This is all very serious.”
“I’m—oh, gracious… I’m sorry. You’re just so delightful. How I love you. Who wouldn’t love you?”
“I can think of several close at hand.”
“Now, don’t be sad! Why must I always make you sad?”
“Please forgive me! I promised myself I would make you happy; why do I always make you unhappy?”
“You do make me happy. Just to look at you makes me… I don’t have the words any longer. But you know.”
“Of course—of course I do.”
“Don’t feel guilty. Put your head on my arm again.”
“I wish we could stay this way forever.”
“Now who’s being sad?”
“I’m sorry. I don’t mean to be sad. See, I’m happy again!”
“You’ll frighten me to death with such a smile. I know you’re not happy.”
“I’m happy with you.”
“But you’re thinking that—”
“No, I’m not! Really, I wasn’t. I only think about that when we’re apart. When I’m with you, I… no, no, why are you crying?”
“You’re so terribly brave. And I’m so afraid—so afraid.”
“It can’t last much longer, Darling. And then—”
“And then what? You know better than anyone—”
“That was before—long ago.”
“I wish I knew… what happens.”
“You’ll be at peace, and happy. It’s I who will be alone—alone and miserable, without you.”
“Morning is coming. You should go.”
“I don’t fear them. Let them find me here.”
“But I fear them. I fear—I couldn’t bear to hear the hateful things they say to you.”
“I wish I could have taken you away from them—away from here. If you only….”
“You promised—you promised you wouldn’t say such things! You mustn’t cry when I can’t comfort you.”
“I’m sorry… I’m sorry. I told you I wasn’t brave.”
“They were never going to let us be together. They weren’t. There’s nowhere we could have gone. At least this way, they don’t have time to tear us apart.”
“No, something much worse will do that. At least people I can fight. But how can I live when death takes you from me?”
“You’ll make yourself another life, just as you always have. You’ll mourn for me, and wherever I am… I’m sure I’ll mourn for you, if I can. But then you’ll find another life—another life without me. Now go… they’ll come to look in on me soon.”
She looked long into her lover’s deep blue eyes, lustrous and blazing with color amid the pallor of her face, and she suddenly knew she would never see her in life again. Her bravado melted away before the rising sun; she burst into tears and buried her face in her lover’s breast, and her lover reached up to caress her hair as she sobbed out her desperation and misery. Then, recovering herself, she sat up and smiled down through her tears.
“I wish you had the strength for me to make love to you once more… just once more. You still look so bewitching, I can feel my blood heating up.” She paused, biting her lip, and her lover grinned up at her. Then she sighed. “But just a kiss, then, before I go.”
Her lover nodded, then shook with another cough that heaved up from deep within her chest. A few drops of blood trickled out onto her lips, and her breath came short as the coughing died away.
Reaching for a handkerchief to wipe away the blood, she leaned in toward her lover’s face, but then the echo of footsteps in the passage outside reverberated into the room. Panic widened her lover’s eyes, and she reached up to pull her in close. With her lips pressed against her lover’s own blood-spattered mouth, she closed her eyes for the briefest of seconds, memorizing the sensation. Then her lover thrust her away with all her meager strength, mouthing, Go.
She let the feeble push propel her to the window, even as she heard a hand on the doorknob. Still, with one foot on the ledge, she could not resist a last look at her lover’s face, and she turned toward the bed once more.
For only a fraction of a heartbeat, their eyes locked, and in that infinitesimal moment a sudden, wild joy blazed within her. Then the door opened, and two men burst into the room. They halted when they saw her, escaping through the window like a thief, the red blood still shining on her lips. Her lover raised herself on her pillows with a choking cry and an outstretched arm, but they rushed toward the window as she leaped away into the cold dawn.
Thus, long after those who would have forbidden her presence had gone away to mourn in the private comfort of their homes and commiserate together on the loss of their friend and beloved, she stole through the quiet dark of the cemetery, passing by each headstone with scarcely a glance at the records of those whose mortal remains rested beneath them. As she crossed beneath the eaves of the tall family mausolea, with their self-satisfied imitations of classical grandeur, the moon cast faint shadows over her, and each time she quickened her steps to escape them, despising herself for her dread.
As she neared the tomb where her lover lay, the pale marble of its walls seemed to glow of its own accord in the reflected moonlight, a ghastly, haunted facade that scarcely masked the decay within. Almost longing now for the dark embrace of its interior, she laid her fingers on the handle of the door. The sextons had locked it, but, now determined at least not to be deprived of one last look upon the face of the one she had loved, she put forth her full strength upon the barrier. The marble groaned, then cracked, then burst around the latch as she forced it inward. Stepping over the splinters of stone as she entered, she descended the stairs into the crypt.
Her lover’s coffin stood upon a pedestal in the center of the wide floor, surrounded on every side by the banks of individual tombs within. As she approached, she saw that the sextons had covered it. Pushing the great stone slab of the lid to one side until she could grip the edges with her hands, she lifted it away and propped it up against the wall at her back, then looked down upon her lover’s face.
Even in the closeness of the vault, the light from the sky above shone brightly enough for her to take in the curve of the hollowed cheeks and the artificial color added by the mortuary to the pallid lips. They had arranged her lover’s features into a credible resemblance of the expression she often wore in her sleep, so that, with a treacherous flicker of momentary hope, she almost persuaded herself that she had only to rouse her with a soft kiss on the lips to see those bright eyes open once more.
Then, as hope faded into bitter resignation, she knew that she had achieved all she needed from this visit to the threshold of the underworld. Her lover was not here, and the abandoned shell lying in this monument to death held nothing she cared to possess. Still, since she had known and loved even that evacuated dwelling place, she honored it one last time by pressing her lips to the cold and unmoving forehead.
As she stood to leave, she heard footsteps and voices echoing on the stair. At the same time, a flicker of torchlight lit the walls as it approached, and she blinked as the vault flooded with orange radiance. Four men appeared on the stairs. The first two halted at the bottom when they saw her, frozen at the sight of her dark form hovering beside the coffin. The other two, not realizing at first why their companions had stopped, shouldered their way forward, then likewise froze, astonishment and rage mingling with the light of the torches to lend a diabolical cast to their faces.
“Fiend,” said one of them at last, breaking the silence filled only with their breathing. “How dare you enter this sacred place?”
“The monster must die!” screamed the smallest and most mouse-like of them, the one to whom her lover’s parents had betrothed her against her will. He started toward her, as if to accomplish the feat himself, but the two on either side of him clutched his shoulders.
“Be cautious, my friend,” said the one who had first spoken. “She has confounded us before.”
“I have never wished for enmity between you and me,” she said, keeping her voice soft and even. “We’ve all lost someone we loved very much. We can do nothing for her by quarreling or violence, and she would be grieved to witness this scene.”
“Don’t be deceived,” said the first man to the others. “We must rid the earth of her kind, or the evil will spread. Remember the oath we all swore.”
The other two, who had up to now kept their peace, nodded, and both produced pistols from within their coats, leveling them at her.
“Your weapons will avail little against me,” she said. “Let me depart in peace. Despite the evil you have done to me, my heart is against killing you.”
“That we can never do,” said the leader. “The evil you have done among us—to our beloved friend—must die with you tonight.”
“I tire of your posturing,” she said, “Leave me alone now, or you will regret it for the remainder of your miserable lives.”
Then, as they did not back down but brandished their weapons anew, she tilted her head back, opened wide her mouth, and screamed with all the breath she could hold in her lungs. The sound rose in pitch and intensity, until she was shrieking to pierce the eardrums of any who heard. Her enemies clamped their hands to their ears and fell to the floor with madness upon them. Then, as the scream reached beyond the frequency of human hearing, it faded beyond torment into oblivion, and they recovered themselves, struggling upright again.
Before they could gather their wits, she sprang over their prostrate forms and up the stairs. “Quick! Put an end to her before she summons any more diabolical tricks to her aid,” shouted one of the gun-wielders, pointing his pistol up at her.
“You know not how truly you speak of summons,” she cried, and as the retort of the gunshot echoed from within the crypt and the bullet glanced off the stones at her feet, she sprang away into the darkness. They clambered up after her, but before they had reached the head of the stairs a shrieking and chattering began to fill the air overheard. Out of the night sky a massive horde of bats swooped down toward the mausoleum, blotting out the light of the moon. They swarmed down the stairs and filled the crypt, driving her assailants screaming and panicking before them.
And now she lay in a tomb of her own, with bleeding wrists and eyes closed as if in death, and her enemies stood over her. Having slowed her own pulse to a feeble pace nearly indistinguishable from death itself, her flickering consciousness waited in stillness as one of them placed his fingers at her throat.
“No pulse,” he said after a few seconds. “The countess is dead.”
After a moment’s silence, another spoke. “I don’t like it. Why would she kill herself now, after giving us the slip so many times?”
“She thought she was in love,” said another, with a sneer in his voice. “Killed herself out of grief.”
“We should make certain of it,” said the man she dimly recognized as the leader. “Do to her what we did to Lucy. First we’ll take off her head, then we can lay her out and put a stake through her heart.”
She heard a ring as he drew his sword, but even before she recognized her own peril her eyes had already opened, and she sprang from her humble resting place, her pulse pounding back into life as the four of them stumbled away from her in shock.
“Fiends!” she cried, eyes blazing. “Have you no fear of God? You defile the dead through your superstition, but somehow I am the monster, the witch? I gave you every opportunity—if only you had let me lie in peace!”
She left their impaled, headless bodies in the crypt below, slamming the door behind her. Then, stalking through the decrepit halls and out into the moldering courtyard, she left Castle Dracula behind forever, still drenched in the blood of those who had come between her and her love.