It Came Back by Samantha Lienhard
“Luna Anderson…” He stared at me with an intensity that made me fidget. “The lost sheep has returned at last.”
After five years of avoiding her past, Luna finally returns to her childhood home. Her imposing grandfather may be long gone, but his specter hangs over the estate like a curse–Luna is eager to sell everything and leave the Anderson House behind her for good.
But when she stumbles across a sheath of letters, Luna discovers her grandfather’s past is darker and more twisted than she ever could have imagined. A secret is uncovered, and a monster awakens…
Curses don’t stay buried forever.
Nothing had changed since I left town five years earlier.
Heads turned as I drove past the old library and the older church, the stores, the homes, and the schoolhouse. An old woman leaned against her broom and squinted at me. A young man with glasses and silver hair looked up from his newspaper. Two pigtailed girls whispered to one another. All around, neighbors appeared at their windows.
I gritted my teeth. Before long, rumors would fly about the Anderson daughter who returned after so many years. People loved to gossip about my family, after all. I reached out to switch off my car’s cassette deck. Driving home while Genesis sang about someone trapped in a haunted house felt like a bad omen.
At the edge of town, a long road wound its way between trees, up the steep hill to the house. My car objected to the ascent. I sympathized. If it were up to me, I’d turn around and drive away. This was not home. My home was the city free of small-town gossip, superstition, and the domineering specter of my late grandfather.
But in my parents’ wills, they followed the first of three commands handed down from my grandfather: pass the house on to the eldest child of the bloodline.
As their only child, that meant me.
I’d rather live my quiet life and worry only about my job at the historical society and whether or not my dog, Lady, would eat my socks, but I had to sell my family’s ancestral house first. I owed my parents that much.
Tears filled my eyes and I wiped them away. Mother and Father never bugged me about returning to see them. They were content to visit me, because they knew how I felt about the house, the town. I thought I’d never have to see this place again.
In an instant, all of that changed.
I pulled into the driveway and got out, taking a deep breath to focus. Stones crunched beneath my feet on my way to the trunk. Before I contacted a realtor, I’d have to take care of certain things. Some of the furniture Mother wouldn’t want sold, and Father kept mementos in his room. Antiques and old papers dating back to my grandfather’s time filled the attic. It would take time. At least nothing in town would draw me away from my work.
I retrieved my suitcase, closed the trunk, and braced myself.
The old house hadn’t changed.
Two dark pines brushed the arched peaks of the roof, their lowest branches bowed over the driveway in greeting. Behind them loomed three stories of blackened stone. Curtains obscured the windows, and ivy crawled up the sides in creeping bunches. Not quite a mansion, but much larger than the typical suburban home, The Anderson House filled more myths and rumors around town than I could count.
With a sigh, I walked up the steps to the doors. They swung open before I could knock.
The caretaker stood there, bent by age, a cane gripped in one gnarled hand. His few strands of white hair were wild, and pale eyes blinked at me from his gaunt face. He cracked his mouth open in a smile.
My heart sank. “Still working here, Max?” As far as I knew, no one paid him aside from room and board.
It was the second of my grandfather’s commands: allow Max to live and work on the estate.
And of all the superstitious people in town, he had to be the worst. Good luck charms, vague warnings of dark forces lurking in the shadows, shouted admonitions whenever I became curious about the supernatural—Max might have been enough to drive my teenage self away even without the rest of the town.
“Luna Anderson…” He stared at me with an intensity that made me fidget. “The lost sheep has returned at last.”
I never knew how to react to his creepy comments, but as soon as I got rid of the house, he’d be someone else’s problem.
With a polite smile, I stepped past him.
My grandfather’s image greeted me the moment I crossed the threshold. The massive portrait of Wilton Anderson hung above the door at the far end of the foyer. Gray hair cut a severe outline around the thin bones of his face, his paleness prominent against his black suit. Dark eyes glared at me from across the room. God, I hated that painting. Even so many years after his death, the sight of him made me stiffen. He was younger in the portrait than when I knew him, but it brought back memories of his shouts whenever someone disobeyed his commands.
Old photos I’d seen in family albums suggested I resembled a young Wilton. With any luck, I’d never mirror him in personality.
Max closed the doors. “Shame about what happened.”
I didn’t meet his gaze. “Yeah.”
He shuffled into the dining room. I followed behind him and peered through the entryway.
To Max’s credit, everything was in pristine condition. The dining table was polished, the lamps all shone, and the cabinets were clean of dust.
“You’ve kept it in good shape,” I said.
He bowed his head. “It’s all ready for you and your descendants.”
I frowned. “I don’t intend to stay.”
“But you must! Wilton’s instructions—”
“To hell with his instructions!” The outburst exploded from me before I could catch myself. If he expected me to return to this gossip-filled town where I had no friends, to live with him and his superstitions and raise my own children to fear my grandfather’s shadow, he could think again.
His gaze darkened. “You’ll bring doom upon us.”
This conversation would go nowhere. I stepped past the grumbling caretaker and climbed the spiral staircase to my childhood bedroom.
It looked just as I had left it. The bed rested against one corner, a small desk sat near the window, and an empty closet took up the far wall. No posters or photographs adorned the walls, no stuffed animals or awards or books sat on my empty, dust-free shelves. Not a single one of my belongings remained; I had left nothing behind when I moved away.
This was not my home.
It never would be.
I set my suitcase at the foot of the bed and rolled my shoulders to focus. Time to get to work. I pulled out a notebook and pen from my handbag to list everything I would keep, give away, or decide about later.
I glanced over at the window and the awful crushed velvet curtain that covered it. My first order of business would be to throw open all of the godforsaken curtains in the house. The black velvet was beautiful, but heavy and oppressive. Since Max continued to prowl the first floor and I couldn’t bring myself to face my parents’ room on the second, I climbed up to the third floor to begin my work.
It was devoted to my family’s strange collections, born of the same eccentricities that sent them up in a hot air balloon during a thunderstorm. I gritted my teeth and forced back thoughts of the accident. Notebook in hand, I explored the third floor.
A room filled with abstract art brought back memories of Father beaming as he showed it off to bewildered neighbors. Shelves covered in hats reminded me of Mother’s smile when she found a unique piece of headwear. The pile of vacuum cleaners they insisted would be worth something someday made me laugh out loud.
Each collection was dust-free and in perfect condition. Maybe Max didn’t deserve the way I treated him.
With my inventory of the collections complete, I headed for the stairs, but paused. My gaze drifted toward the trapdoor on the ceiling. If I was to do this right, I needed to check the whole house—and finally break the restriction put upon me as a child.
Time to see what was up in the attic.
Clouds of dust rose when I reached the top of the ladder—but giddy excitement filled me. Undisturbed, always forbidden to me before, the attic felt like a sacred place. And judging by the amount of dust, even Max didn’t go up there often.
I coughed and checked beneath each of the tarps that covered old furniture and boxes. Most of my discoveries went right on the “give away” list. Old clothes, forgotten toys, long-abandoned pieces of furniture. Junk filled the attic, in no particular arrangement, as if everyone shoved whatever they wanted to forget about into the nearest available space.
In the farthest corner, a decrepit writing desk sagged beneath three tarps. I caught my breath and pushed aside layers of cobwebs to open the desk’s drawer. A bundle of papers lay inside, held together by thin, golden clasps.
My heart hammered against my chest.
Father always warned me and Mother not to touch any old papers we found. If we did, we “couldn’t claim ignorance of their contents”—an odd warning passed through the generations. I must’ve heard that warning thousands of times growing up. I didn’t even realize how weird it was until I mentioned it to a coworker years later.
It was the final command from my grandfather: never touch the papers in the attic.
His enraged shout rang through my memory. He died when I was still in elementary school, but my few memories of him involved nothing happy. I never saw him smile or show affection. Even Max, whom he adamantly allowed to live with us, seemed more a nuisance to him than a friend.
Part of me wanted to run, as if my grandfather could punish me from beyond the grave for reading these papers, but I steeled myself. They contained something our family wanted to forget about. Better I deal with them than leave them to be found by the new owners of the house and become the next piece of town gossip.
I unfastened the clasps and gently flattened the sheets against the desk. The paper was old and worn, covered with tidy script. It appeared to be a series of letters addressed to my grandfather from thirty years back.
August 29, 1953
To Mr. Wilton Anderson,
My name is Alexander Gruenewald. I am a scientist working with an archaeological team in Germany, and our recent discoveries brought your name to my attention.
I understand you are a scholar of arcane myths and legends, and have studied subjects rarely covered by the great historians and learned men of our time. I am writing to you because of an article you published, “Incubi, Succubi, and Dream Demons: A Study of Nightmare Phenomena.” Though I understand your work is controversial, I believe it to be accurate.
In the article, you admitted your inability to find a scientific explanation for one particular “dream demon,” as you called it—a creature that not only appeared to victims in their nightmares, but seemingly killed them.
Our team is investigating ancient ruins, and the records we’ve found suggest the lord who ruled here, Manfred von Hagt, was haunted by strange dreams before he died. It piqued my curiosity, and my attempts to learn more about what could have killed him led me to your article. The similarities between his account and those you described are astounding.
I would love to send you further details to see if his account matches your research, and seek out your professional opinion. I would also be interested in any further information you can provide.
The world spun as I stared at the page. Impossible. A scholar of the arcane? I could still hear my grandfather screaming at me the day I watched a movie about witches, and again when I asked if ghosts were real. He despised anything related to the occult or supernatural.
No wonder he wanted these letters forgotten. My parents would have been shocked to learn he once studied—and published papers on—arcane myths.
The rest of the attic could wait. I clutched the packet of letters to my chest and hurried back down the ladder and into my room.
Sunlight streamed in through the open curtains, and I sat down at my desk with the letters. I flipped to the next entry, hardly able to contain my curiosity. I knew my family must have secrets, but I never expected something like this. It was a shame I didn’t have my grandfather’s replies, only the next message sent by Alexander Gruenewald.
September 21, 1953
To Mr. Wilton Anderson,
Thank you kindly for your response, and I apologize for any confusion I caused. I will explain the records as best I can, although the rules around this expedition prevent me from sending translations to an outsider.
Manfred von Hagt, whose remains we discovered in the course of our excavation, presided over the von Hagt manor in the mid-nineteenth century. He took painstaking notes of his observations—he must have kept a journal with him constantly. Although some pages are unusually blotched with ink, the majority is readable. Toward the end of his life, von Hagt began recording strange nightmares.
He described a vast plane of darkness, in which he saw nothing but a monster. This monster approached him in each dream, but failed to reach him—yet he made a great deal out of the fear he felt when it looked at him. He was convinced this “demon” would find him in the waking world.
The final entries of his journal spiral into paranoia. Shortly thereafter, he died—just as the man in your legend died. Like you, I find it difficult to accept that a “demon” killed these people. I am interested in any light you can shed on these unexplained cases.
My skin prickled. Although warm sunlight shone through the window, the empty bedroom seemed cold. Hostile. There was no rational reason for me to feel uneasy. They were just letters. I’d read many old documents at work. Yet this was the first time I had a direct connection to them. I could almost picture my grandfather at his own desk, reading the letter just like I did.
Instead of making me feel closer to him, the thought of retreading his path gave me the creeps. The lingering touch of the paper on my skin reminded me that I’d trespassed where he forbade us from going. I looked down at my hands. Ink from the letters stained my fingers, and I quickly wiped them against my pants. It wasn’t like my grandfather could still get angry with me for reading the letters, but the longer I stayed in this house, the more I felt I didn’t belong there.
And I didn’t intend to stay.
I rose from my desk and left the room. The sooner I got my work done, the sooner I could go home. If I worked hard, I could finish in a few days.
There were ten rooms on the first floor, not counting the caretaker’s. I’d cross that bridge another time. When I was a child, he got upset if I went anywhere near his room. For the sake of his privacy, I’d give him the option of clearing out his things himself.
I started with the dining room, my checklist in hand, and set aside items that could be donated, sold, or thrown out. I wouldn’t take any of it with me. Gradually, I made my way to the living room. When I reached the foyer, I looked up at the painting of my grandfather.
He glared back at me. In the few, early years of my life that I knew him, I never saw any kindness from my grandfather. He was all anger and rigidity. I never really even thought of him as a person. To me, he was the source of my family’s strict rules, a force that kept us in line.
What was Wilton Anderson the man like?
I put the portrait on my “undecided” list and moved on to the parlor, but I couldn’t concentrate. My grandfather, his correspondent in Germany, the letters…
I took a moment to call my neighbor back home from the rotary phone in the parlor and make sure my dog, Lady, was all right, and then I returned to my room.
The letters lay right where I left them, on my desk.
October 10, 1953
Mr. Wilton Anderson,
Your notes arrived today. Thank you. They were most enlightening. I had no idea there were so many legends about this monster. I now believe it is safe to say it was no coincidence—something real and deadly was at work.
You mentioned a theory that the monster could be bound, thereby preventing it from harming its victim. Initially, I thought this detail from the diary was unimportant, but von Hagt began work on an artifact to seal the demon away. I believe I have located the site described in his entries. An archaeologist friend and I will attempt to gently guide the dig in that direction.
My breath caught. This was fascinating. Something good might come of this trip after all.
Larger, untidy handwriting filled the next page. This letter wasn’t written by Alexander, but by another person.
November 15, 1953
Mr. Wilton Anderson,
I hope this finds you well. My name is Maximilian Meyer, an archaeologist and a close associate of Dr. Alexander Gruenewald, with whom you’ve already been in contact. Alexander apprised me of your knowledge in this unusual field and gave me your notes. In studying them, I discovered something most intriguing. When the stories are placed in chronological order, a pattern emerges.
Each is somehow linked to the next. One victim dies in a forest; the next victim walks through the forest before the nightmares begin. That victim dies in a castle; the next travels to the same castle and has the first nightmare. All eight cases you studied fit the pattern, though the final two (the ones who died together at sea) appear to be a joint case. If von Hagt is the ninth, something must link him to them!
Of course, he could be the tenth or eleventh victim. There is no guarantee we have uncovered all the accounts, after all.
In your research, have you uncovered anything beyond proximity to account for the spread of this phenomenon? Your thoughts on this matter are highly anticipated.
Excitement filled me with each word. Although it was impossible that a demon actually killed people in their nightmares, the story of the three men in their quest to piece together the mystery thrilled me. This sense of discovery was the reason I enjoyed my work at the historical society, and these letters implied a side of my grandfather I never dreamed existed.
The next page returned to Alexander’s handwriting, although dark spots of ink obscured parts and forced me to squint to make out the words.
It’s incredible! We looked into von Hagt’s history. Just days before his nightmares began, he took a short journey by ship. This ship—but of course you must have guessed already—was the Santa Maria. Yes, the very same vessel that, years earlier, witnessed the deaths of its crazed captain and first mate, after their nightmares of being pursued by a demon. This proves Meyer’s theory of transference: Von Hagt was the ninth victim!
Jagged letters began the next message, with irregular spaces between them, as though the writer’s hand shook as he wrote.
Help. Whatever you know, you must tell us. Even though it was I who discovered the pattern, I did not realize the danger until it was too late. This von Hagt was the most recent victim, and we’ve done our best to uncover his history.
Our team found his artifact today. When I saw it, I felt… ill. Wrong. It is difficult to describe. I included a sketch of the artifact with this letter.
What did von Hagt intend to do with this thing? How does it work? What IS it? If you can answer these questions, please do so at once. If there is anything I can do to help you find answers, you merely have to ask. My resources are at your disposal, Mr. Anderson.
I saw the demon in my nightmares for the first time last night.
Your terrified correspondent,
My heart skipped a beat. I couldn’t breathe. It had to be a coincidence, yet part of me demanded I hurry through the rest of the letters, to make sure the archaeologist survived. I shoved the frightened letter aside.
A drawing covered the next page—the promised sketch of von Hagt’s artifact. The lines looped and curved around one another multiple times, twisted together in Escheresque formations with a crescent moon at its center. Something about the shape seemed wrong. Unnatural.
I rubbed my eyes. It was just a drawing. Even if the artist made use of optical illusions the way Escher did, it was illogical to think there was anything “wrong” with the shape. The sense of fear in the last letter must have gotten the better of me.
I choked down the irrational tang of fear in my mouth and forced myself to look at the drawing again. It is just a drawing. Nothing to be afraid of. I focused on the page and tried to make sense of the lines. For a second, I saw it—three-dimensional, otherworldly, beautiful, terrible, wrong—and then darkness swept me into unconsciousness.
I stood in a black void. There was nothing below me, nothing above me, just darkness. My legs wobbled, my heart pounded, and I took a deep breath. Even if I couldn’t see the ground, it had to be there, I told myself. This had to be a nightmare. I’d never experienced lucid dreaming before, but I’d read about the experiences before: dreams so vivid that the dreamer was fully knowledgeable in the dream-state. And lucid dreaming often involved sleep paralysis and paranoia, leading to the historical accounts of succubi and incubi attacks my grandfather must have researched.
Nevertheless, my breath came in shallow bursts. Even though I knew I was asleep, something in the back of my mind pleaded with me to run. All my senses were alert, even though there was nothing to detect.
Then he appeared.
The man seemed a part of the darkness itself, and he followed his own path as if unaware of me. I opened my mouth to call out for help, but the words stuck in my throat.
Inexplicable terror consumed me. I cowered, repulsed by him even though he was little more than a silhouette. I couldn’t take my gaze off him, but I didn’t want him to see me. I couldn’t let him see me.
Every step brought him closer.
No hiding places existed in the darkness. I hunched my shoulders to make myself smaller. Running would attract his attention. Maybe if I kept still, he wouldn’t notice me.
Closer and closer, until he stood right in front of me, his features indistinct in the darkness despite being so close to me that my whole body tingled with dread. I held my breath, willing him not to look at me. He slowed—but then continued past.
I allowed myself to breathe again.
The man turned and looked at me with eyes that glowed solid white.
When I opened my eyes, the sketch of the impossible artifact glared up at me from the desk and shook me out of my momentary disorientation. My fingers trembled as I flipped it over.
It was only a nightmare, I was safe—but those eyes, those terrible glowing eyes…
Moonlight, bright and cold shone through the window—I must have been out for hours. I wrapped my arms around my body and took a shuddering breath to steady myself. Black velvet curtains, secret letters about nightmare demons, a superstitious caretaker—this house would make anyone believe in horror stories.
I jumped up and grabbed my unopened suitcase. There was no need to spend the night. If I stayed here any longer, I was liable to start believing in ghosts and demons myself. I had my list, and everything else could be handled over the phone. As for the letters, whatever. Let people gossip about my grandfather. I’d be home, away from it all.
As I fled my room and clattered down the stairs, I realized Max would wonder what happened to me. If I saw him, I’d say goodbye. If not, I’d call on the phone and say something urgent came up.
I burst through the main doors, ran down the steps toward my car—and froze. Just beyond the trees, a pair of eyes glowed. My legs went numb. I blinked and looked again. Nothing.
My imagination. Nothing more. It had to be.
I fumbled for the door handle and backed into the foyer. The house which had seemed so hostile earlier, now felt warm and safe in comparison to the cold outdoors. Maybe I should stay after all.
A heavy footstep sounded from behind me, and I whirled around. It was just Max, but his eyes blazed with anger. He advanced toward me, and I edged out of his way. He clutched a suitcase in a white-knuckled grip.
“Now you’ve done it.” He stomped past me toward the doors. “He’s found you.” He knocked the doors open with his cane and stepped out into the night. “He hasn’t remembered me yet, he won’t remember me…”
I walked to the doorway and stared after him. I started to call out, but his name froze on my lips.
“Wait!” I shouted. “Max! Those letters you wrote to my grandfather…”
If anything, he increased his pace as he hurried down the hill. Beneath the trees, two pinpricks of light glimmered.
I slammed the doors. The house felt cold and empty without Max, but I couldn’t go out there with those eyes. It was silly, of course it was. I’d go home and laugh about it.
In the daylight.
Once again, I shuddered in darkness as the man walked past me. Once again, he turned to spear me with his terrible gaze.
I woke up with a scream. Sweat soaked my pajamas and sheets. I wiped my slick forehead. Sunlight streamed through the window, but it didn’t help. At home, Lady’s happy barks would greet me while I lay safe and warm in my own bed. Instead, I was alone in this terrible house, with only nightmares for company.
Today, I would leave.
Except he might be outside. I wrapped my arms around myself and tried to work my way through this logically. Nightmares couldn’t walk around town. The eyes were a coincidence or a trick of the light. Nothing more. I rejected superstition and beliefs in the paranormal. My old self would laugh at the way I was behaving. As soon as I calmed down, everything would be fine.
A week had passed since Max left.
I rolled out of bed and rubbed my forehead. No matter how much I pretended I lingered because of unfinished work, deep inside I knew I’d gone through the items in the house so many times, I couldn’t have missed a thing. No, fear trapped me in the house and made me bury my grandfather’s letters in my suitcase.
Fear of a nightmare—or a demon.
I slammed my fists against my legs. I was an adult. I needed to act my age. It was just a nightmare. I was safe.
“It’s just a nightmare, and I am safe.” The words became my mantra as I got dressed. They carried me through the front doors to stand outside, where I lingered at the steps just as I had every day for the past week.
Yesterday, I almost made it to my car before I convinced myself I couldn’t leave yet. If I went home and the nightmares continued anyway, I’d be out of ideas. I needed to solve my problem at its source.
Today, however, I didn’t let that thought drive me back inside. I couldn’t give up. I’d dig through all possible information about dreams until I knew the answer. Between a scholar, a scientist, and an archaeologist, surely they thought to look for a psychological origin, but I had to try. Maybe modern books would help—and maybe my experience from the historical society would let me find explanations they missed.
When in doubt, I knew one universal truth: the library always had the answers.
I ran to my car and descended the hill into town. Once again, everyone stared as I drove by. The caretaker’s departure probably stirred up even more rumors. At least the library parking lot was empty.
I parked and hurried inside with only a brief nod to the librarian.
Two large wings made up the library, with hallways between them and the lobby. I headed straight towards the psychology section, near the stacks to the back of the building.
Books on dreams lined several shelves. I grabbed as many as I could carry.
Tables sat between sections of bookcases, each with four seats and a lamp in the center. I chose one in the perfect position—no one, demonic or otherwise, would be able to enter the room unseen.
Some of the books seemed geared toward psychology experts, so I started with one of the more accessible volumes. It contained no references to nightmares about men with glowing eyes. Little surprise there. My grandfather would have found the answer if it was that easy. I moved on to the next one.
As I read, my fear faded. The books contained so many studies on nightmares and data on their causes, my case had to be there somewhere. When I finished the pile, I went back for more. On my third trip, I grabbed books on signs and symbols, as well as tomes of legends and myths, which I put off to the side. There might be many similar myths throughout history.
Perhaps the similarity between von Hagt’s nightmares and the ones my grandfather studied was only a coincidence after all. The horror overwhelmed him and his friends until they found connections where none existed.
I read until my eyes hurt from the strain, but none of the books helped me. If the clock on the wall was accurate, it was already five in the afternoon. I closed my eyes. Great. If I didn’t solve this soon, I’d have to leave in the dark.
Footsteps made my heart leap into my throat.
It was just the librarian. “The library closes soon.”
My chest tightened. If I went outside, the man with the glowing eyes would be there. And if I made it up the hill, it might be another week before I convinced myself to leave again. Only one thin book remained. It was my last chance.
“I’ll be done soon,” I said. “I promise.”
She pursed her lips. “Very well… If it gets too late, I’ll be back.”
As soon as she turned away, I picked up the final volume. My breath caught in my throat. I’d scooped this one up with all the other books, and I hadn’t seen what it was.
Fatal Nightmares: Unraveling the Mystery, by Wilton Anderson.
I swallowed hard and opened it. The front page listed Maximilian Meyer as co-author, and the chapters were arranged according to his pattern. Each myth led to the next. The first was titled “Incubi, Succubi, and Dream Demons: A Study of Nightmare Phenomena.” A footnote mentioned it was originally published as a standalone article—the article that led Alexander to contact my grandfather.
The book listed a publication year of 1955. I quickly did the math. Wilton would have been in his 50s, and he wrote it two years after the first letters. The full meaning of the date suddenly struck me. He already had a family when he began corresponding with Alexander and Maximilian. My father would have been a child. Did Wilton worry the demon might target his wife and son, too? Maybe his harsh opposition to the occult came from a desire to protect us.
But I didn’t have time to wonder about my grandfather’s motivations, so I turned my attention to the book. The stories within were all too familiar.
When I finished the ninth, “The Madness of Manfred von Hagt,” my hands shook. Maximilian was supposed to be the tenth victim. I turned the page.
“Triumph: Sealing Away a Demon.”
I drew in a sharp breath. They succeeded, then. It took me until the last book, but I’d done it. My answers—and peace of mind—were pages away.
The floor creaked behind me.
I dropped the book and leaped out of my chair. Even as I spun around, I remembered the librarian’s promise to return. Prepared to plead for just a few more seconds to finish the book, I instead saw a young man dressed in all black who was most definitely not the librarian. I shrieked.
The man jumped and stared at me through his glasses.
“Sorry.” My muscles remained tensed, in case I needed to run. “I didn’t think anyone else was here, that’s all.”
“I saw the library was still open.” He ran a hand through his hair.
I followed the action with my eyes. His hair was a strange silvery color. It almost matched his soft gray eyes. I’d seen him in town when I arrived.
“I didn’t mean to startle you,” he said.
“It’s not your fault.”
“Is something wrong?”
I hesitated. His soft voice was gentle, with a slight accent and an edge of worry. It made me want to trust him. Maybe I could tell him the truth.
Probably a bad idea. He’d think I was nuts.
Instead, I said, “I was reading a scary story.”
“Oh?” He stepped closer, and I jumped away. His lips curved in a smile. “I only wanted to see the story.”
I blushed and nodded toward the book still open on the table. My hands shook too much to hand it to him. I took a deep breath. Everything was fine. I needed to calm down. Still, my body refused to listen to reason and screamed at me to run away from this man.
He tilted his head to look at the story and the lamplight glinted off his glasses. I froze.
It couldn’t be.
Then it happened again.
The light struck his glasses and reflected back in such a way to make his eyes appear as orbs of white light. I backed up. It had to be my imagination, except…
Why hadn’t I heard his footsteps until he was right behind me?
He looked up. White light shone from his eyes. My breath hitched, and I scrambled backwards, knocking down my chair as I raced out of the room. I ran as fast as I could, through the halls toward the front of the building.
When I reached the glass doors to the lobby and saw my reflection—deathly pale, mismatched blouse and skirt askew, dark circles under my eyes—I stopped.
I hazarded a quick glance over my shoulder. Maybe I was crazy. The young man had trailed after me, brow furrowed, mouth twisted with concern. He reached out a hand, and I stopped. I couldn’t go on like this—too scared to go outside, paranoid of strangers, trapped in a hell of my own creation.
Maybe he would help me. I took a hesitant step toward him. At the very least, maybe he would console me.
I took another step—and the world spun around me.
His feet weren’t touching the ground.
My legs locked, even though I needed to run, escape. My breath came shallow and quick. He glided ever closer, light glinting from his glasses.
The sight jerked me out of my paralysis. I staggered backward on wobbly legs, turned, and ran.
In the lobby, I risked another look back. He loomed closer, a shadow at the end of the hallway. The librarian? Could she help me?
I raced past her. There was nothing she or anyone else could do.
Outside, I faltered. It was full dark, now. Night. Danger. He’d win. Giggles welled up inside of me. The night wasn’t a threat. Lightheaded, almost giddy, I assured myself there was nothing to be afraid of. The man from my nightmares couldn’t be out there.
Warm breath washed against my neck with his soft murmur. “Because I’m right here.”
His long fingers brushed my shoulders in a warped parody of tenderness, and I ripped away from his grip. My car bobbed up and down in my vision as I ran for it. I couldn’t hear footsteps behind me, but he didn’t need footsteps, he could be anywhere, about to grab me.
Momentum carried me straight into the side of my car. I winced in pain and gasped for breath. I fumbled in my pocket for the keys with numb fingers.
It slipped twice before I forced it in. It didn’t turn, it wouldn’t turn, the skin on my neck tingled in anticipation of the demon’s arrival.
The key turned. With a strangled sob, I yanked opened the car door.
Pale hands caught it.
I screamed and dove into the driver’s seat. I wrenched the door free and slammed it shut. He peered through the window. I shifted into reverse and slammed down on the gas. Out in the street, I sped away from the library.
White eyes glowed in the rearview mirror.
I pressed the pedal to the floor. They could arrest me, throw me in jail, whatever they wanted, as long as they got me away from him.
No. I couldn’t think that way. If I had an accident, he’d pull me from the wreckage.
I slowed, struggle for control of the vehicle. The eyes remained constant in the mirror. I couldn’t breathe.
At the top of the hill, I parked and jumped out of the car. The demon stood in front of me, arms outstretched, eyes shining in the moonlight. I ducked to evade his grip and sprinted for the house. The doors were so far away. I pumped my legs until the muscles burned, found the right key as I ran.
When I reached the doors, I was ready. I shoved the key into the lock and twisted it.
A cold hand closed around my arm. “There is no escape.” His breath caressed my cheek, and his other arm closed around my waist. “Give up, Luna Anderson, you who look so much like your ancestor. Surrender, and you will suffer less.”
Tears blurred my vision. If only Max was there to let me in, if only he hadn’t left—
With a scream, I fought my way free of the demon’s grip. His nails left long scratches on my arm. I wrenched one door open and darted inside.
I backed away, my gaze fixed on the doors. How could wood stop him? He’d get through, he’d smile and kill me right there in my childhood home.
I put my head in my hands and sank to the ground. Safe. I was safe.
Laughter rang out on the other side of the door. “Come out, and I will get you on your doorstep. Stay… and I will come for you in your nightmares.”
Upstairs in my room, I walked to the window.
He faded from sight as soon as I looked. I shuddered and yanked the curtains closed. I wrapped my arms around myself and rubbed the marks he’d left on my skin. The memory of his touch clung to me, but his words were worse. I couldn’t stay awake forever. I needed to learn how Max escaped his fate.
The letters were my only hope.
I dug them out from where I’d hidden them in my suitcase and carried them to my desk. The first page was upside-down—the sketch. My stomach churned. I left the disturbing image hidden and moved it to the side so I could read the next letter.
Fear may kill me before the demon does.
This is real, and we need to stop it. Von Hagt had a plan, and it involved that artifact. We’ll continue searching for clues. Please, try to find something that can help us. Even if you don’t think your research will do any good, try anyway! I beg you!
The letter after that returned to Alexander’s hand.
When Maximilian showed me your last letter, guilt crushed my heart. Although I began dreaming of the demon, I’d still hoped its gaze would not fall upon you, as distant as you are. It seems our investigation has called the demon’s attention to us all.
The other archaeologists swear they’ve had no strange nightmares. That is one small blessing. It seems to be confined to the three of us… although how it reached you continues to baffle me.
I should never have sent you that first letter. I am truly sorry for having involved you in this. Can you ever forgive me?
Fury at Alexander flared up in me. If he never had contacted my grandfather, I wouldn’t be in danger. I wanted to scream, to tear the letters to shreds, to rip through time and curse Alexander for damning my family, for damning me. Then I slumped. It wasn’t his fault. We weren’t so different. I’d been about to share the truth with the man in the library, before I knew what he was.
Shudders wracked me, and I glanced at the window. The demon’s gaze penetrated the curtain and threaded my mind with promised pain.
My stomach heaved. I forced down my nausea and turned back to the letters. “Please.” I wasn’t sure who I meant my whispered plea for. “Please help me. Don’t let him get me. Tell me what I need to do.”
Only the letters could help me now.
Maximilian and I believe we’ve made a major discovery while searching von Hagt’s diary for clues.
Previously, we believed the demon to be entirely invisible, with no physical evidence left behind. However, that may not be entirely true. As I said before, von Hagt recorded events with incredible detail. When he described the voyage that preceded his nightmares, he mentioned a strange incident where he entered a “forbidden” cabin—a cabin kept off-limits for years, ever since the first mate died there.
In this forbidden cabin, von Hagt noticed an unusual black stain on the wall. He took a closer look, but could not identify it.
It is our belief that the demon cannot entirely hide its passage. Instead, it creates a sort of unearthly residue. Do you recall that I mentioned unusual inkblots in von Hagt’s diary? I believe the demon—or part of its power—took up residence there. It may have used a similar method to reach you, through our letters.
Your thoughts on this admittedly unusual theory would be greatly appreciated.
Unusual inkblots? Several letters did have unusual spots on them, but the idea that it transferred the demon’s power across the ocean to my grandfather was absurd.
New horror filled me as I remembered the way the old ink stained my fingers when I first started reading the letters. Alexander’s theory wasn’t so absurd after all.
I returned to my search. They didn’t die, so they must have found an answer.
At last, progress!
While you and Alexander devoted your attention to the demon’s actual powers, I returned to von Hagt’s accounts of the artifact. After all, he had to be just as shocked as we were when the nightmares began, yet somehow he learned how to create an artifact to seal it away.
According to his journal entries, von Hagt began studying ancient societies that believed in—and fought—demons. I’ve used what influence I have to gain access to certain sites he was interested in. If at all possible, I’d like you to see if you can learn anything about ancient encounters with this demon.
There’s no reason to believe the few incidents we’ve studied are the only times this has happened. It must go back earlier, and someone must have the answers von Hagt found.
With your help, I know we can find a solution.
Once again, I caught myself wishing Max hadn’t left. It was a strange feeling. When I was a child, Max was just the creepy old German man who yelled at me for watching horror movies or trying to sneak upstairs to the attic. As a teenager, things only got worse. My parents were torn between my wishes and my grandfather’s commands, and Max tried his hardest to enforce Wilton’s wishes after his death.
I remembered my mother asking Max why he felt such loyalty to someone who never showed him any kindness, and Max insisted Wilton was the only person who understood him. At the time, I found it pathetic. I vowed to never end up like Max, dependent on someone who treated him like dirt. I would have never guessed that the day would come when I wanted to ask him for help and advice.
But he was gone, and I didn’t know how to find him. I could only hope the letters would be enough.
According to the subsequent messages, my grandfather searched for clues about how the demon could be sealed away or defeated, while Alexander and Maximilian looked into von Hagt’s history. Their shared work and impending destruction turned them into close friends.
Close friends who didn’t discuss the details of their damned plan in their correspondence.
Dear Wilton Anderson,
Your last message left me greatly disturbed. Even if ancient peoples believed the method you detailed could be used to fight demons, and even if they described a shape similar to that of von Hagt’s artifact, I hope you weren’t implying we should try such a thing. I don’t know when this message will get to you, but I sincerely hope you abandon this train of thought. Therein lies madness.
I ground my teeth in frustration. If only I could read the letters sent by my grandfather, too. What method did he find? What “thing” didn’t Alexander want to describe?
Only two pages remained. If I reached the end and still had no answers—what then? I swallowed hard and kept reading.
I believe you’re right. Von Hagt researched that same society extensively, and I think he found the same answers you did.
Yet Alexander disagrees. He refuses to attempt your plan.
I don’t know what we’re going to do. We’re running out of time!
But… even if there’s no point to it, I would be pleased if you came here anyway. At least the three of us would be together when the end comes.
I rubbed my head. Somehow, they came up with a plan. So close to the end, they kept their sanity long enough to escape. They were stronger than me, then.
I took a deep breath and turned to the final letter.
It was almost illegible. The words changed sizes from one line to the next, and they were crammed together and slanted. I squinted and deciphered the jerky writing.
I don’t like it. It will save us, but I don’t like it. How can we do this? How can we even consider it?
But it’s the only way, isn’t it? I believe you.
I have von Hagt’s artifact and his notes. The information you uncovered fills in the gaps.
Come quickly. We’ll do it.
I stared at the page and turned it over. Blank space mocked me. Nothing. They couldn’t help me. I buried my head in my arms. As I sobbed, a strange numbness ran through me. This was the end. I was going to die at the hands of the demon.
Whatever they did wasn’t foolproof—and I was the fool who disobeyed my grandfather’s orders.
Max knew. He fled that night.
Why hadn’t my grandfather destroyed the letters?
I wiped my eyes and crept downstairs. I couldn’t give up. Not yet. If Wilton didn’t have the answers, maybe Maximilian did.
The demon’s presence felt stronger on the ground floor. I resisted the urge to look out the window and headed straight for the one place in the house I never entered—the caretaker’s room. Childhood memories of Max shouting when I went near his room flashed through my mind, but I opened the door.
The room was empty except for a small bed with thin coverlets and a dusty dresser. The walls were another story.
He’d drawn von Hagt’s artifact in every inch of space. It repeated itself at least a hundred times throughout the room. The distorted moon drew my gaze and tore at my mind. I averted my gaze, but it waited for me everywhere.
On the wall beside the bed, Max had written something. I hurried inside and leaned close to get a better look.
Verzeih mir verzeih mir verzeih mir verzeih mir verzeih mir verzeih mir
German. I ground my teeth and walked to the dresser. Maybe he left something behind from when they sealed the demon.
Inside the first drawer sat an envelope addressed to Wilton Anderson. My heart leaped. I tore it open, but frowned. Unlike the letters from the attic, the paper was crisp and new.
I don’t know what I was thinking when I wrote that last letter, but I’ve changed my mind. I mean, you can hardly expect me to have agreed to something like that—I didn’t agree to it, you see; that is, I’m not agreeing to it, and we really shouldn’t do it, Wilton.
Bizarre. I let it fall back into the drawer. He must have written it recently, maybe the night he left. What was he trying to do?
I didn’t have time to wonder. I continued my search.
A small, leather-bound journal rested inside the second drawer. He might have written a personal account of what they did. I opened it to the middle.
Kann nicht schlafen. Die Albträume. Das Geschrei. Mein Gott… das Geschrei…
I threw the diary back where I found it. I needed to find something I could understand. Only one chance left. My heart hammered as I opened the last drawer.
Something shifted inside.
I held my breath. A small, metal object gleamed in the light, clean even though it rested upon a layer of dust. I reached in and picked it up. A chill shot through my hand and into my arm. I stared at the object.
Von Hagt’s artifact.
Maximilian’s pictures were accurate. It curved upon itself in impossible ways. The world rocked and heaved around me as I tried to follow the twists and bends. Such a thing didn’t belong in this world.
Darkness blurred the edges of my vision and swooped up to claim me, but I couldn’t tear my eyes away from the artifact. It was alien. Twisted.
Alone in the void of my nightmares, I hunched in upon myself. The demon would come for me. Somehow, I had to escape. I looked around, but there was nothing to see, tried to move, but there was nowhere to go.
A shriek pierced the silence. It struck my nerves like a tuning fork. I cowered and clapped my hands over my ears.
The sound faded. I was alone. Hesitant, I rose.
“What are you doing here?”
I gasped. I knew that angry voice. My grandfather, infuriated with me again. I tried to answer, but my voice made no sound. Then a whimper echoed around me.
If the first voice was Wilton’s, the second had to be Alexander or Maximilian. But I was alone.
“You shouldn’t have come! Don’t you think I have enough problems without you around?”
“I’m afraid… Do you think… he followed… ?”
Maximilian. Max. I imagined the caretaker on his knees, tears in his eyes. When a sharp crack rang out, I pictured my grandfather, as stern as in his portrait, striking the terrified man.
“Don’t you dare talk about it! If someone were to hear you… And to answer, your question, he cannot have followed you unless you brought—good God, you did bring the artifact here? Why?”
“I tried to destroy it, but I can’t.”
“Then hide it! Now get out of here!”
“Wilton, please… I can’t stay alone. I can’t stand it. I keep hearing the screams. Why does the screaming never stop?
“Stop it! We’re alive. That’s what matters.”
Silence filled the darkness for a long time. At last, Maximilian broke it with a ragged breath. When he spoke, his voice was all but a wail.
“I went to Alexander’s house to find his letters. I hid them with mine… Please, wouldn’t it be better to burn them?
“No! Don’t you understand? We didn’t end the cycle, we twisted it. For God’s sake, you discovered the demon’s method of travel. You know what’s at stake. Destroy those letters, and his power will return to von Hagt’s diary. Hide them away, and it ends here.”
“It will never end, Wilton! He will find us.”
“Hide the artifact, and our seal will remain intact. Hide the letters, and his power will be bound to them. We are safe, Maximilian. We won.”
“He’s out there. It’s not over, I tell you! He’ll find us!”
Max’s cry faded, and no reply came. I sank to my knees. I didn’t know how they won, and I wasn’t sure I wanted to. Their victory came with a price. Max lived in fear for the rest of his life and my grandfather bound his family by strict rules. And Alexander… hadn’t survived.
Cold, white eyes appeared in the darkness ahead of me.
Whatever had happened to Alexander, however the demon claimed one of the three lives, I would learn first-hand. I tried to move, but my legs wouldn’t obey. I stood paralyzed as the demon approached.
My eyes snapped open. I lay on the floor in Max’s room, my fingers still clasped around the artifact. I blinked away the remains of the nightmare and sat up—to stare straight into a pair of shining glasses.
I scrambled to my feet and backed away from him until I hit the wall. My heart thumped in my chest, my throat, my ears. I thrust out the artifact in a vain attempt to ward him away.
His eyes widened and he lifted his hands. For a moment, he seemed as human as he did in the library. “No!”
“Stay back.” I kept the artifact outstretched in front of me. “Don’t come any closer.”
He looked around and narrowed his eyes. “You’re as great a fool as Maximilian, thinking that phony letter could deceive me. What are you going to do?”
“S-seal you away.”
“The same way my grandfather did!”
Something unreadable flared in his eyes. He lunged at me. “You don’t know.” His hands closed around my shoulders and dug into my skin. “You don’t know what they did.”
I flinched and tried to break free. “P-please leave me alone.” God, he looked so human up close, not like the monster my grandfather’s book described. “I’ll do anything you ask.”
He grabbed my chin and forced me to look into his eyes. “You don’t know how Wilton Anderson escaped me.”
“No, I don’t,” I said. Any way to stall for time increased my chances—however miniscule they were—of escaping. “You stopped me before I could finish his book.”
One icy hand slid down my neck, the other glided across my back, until he hovered behind me with a firm grip on my shoulders. Blood roared in my ears, so loud I almost didn’t hear his whisper.
“You will finish the book tonight.”
He shoved me toward the door and marched me out of the house. Outside, he loosened his grip. As we descended the hill and approached the empty streets of town, he released me entirely and walked beside me instead. My feet itched to run, but he’d catch me if I tried. Besides, no one could help me.
The night sky was beautiful above us, in contrast to the hopelessness I felt. He wouldn’t take me to the library if the book could save me. Once I learned whatever he wanted me to know, he’d kill me.
His gaze burned into me, and I stared into his too-human eyes. “Please, don’t do this.”
Cold light reflected from his glasses. He looked away.
When we reached the library doors, he stroked the lock much in the way he touched me before. Shivers crawled across my skin. The door swung open.
He stepped aside for me to enter, and I obeyed. No one waited behind the lobby desk this time. The library was as still as a grave. My grave.
Tears pricked my eyes. The demon’s presence beside me made sure I didn’t delay, and we walked together through the dark halls to the shelf where I’d found my grandfather’s book. Once there, I hesitated.
A growl escaped him. “Now.”
I swallowed hard and took the book to one of the tables. I turned on the lamp and flipped to the ending, where Wilton explained his decision to go to Germany and seal the demon away.
Mouth dry, I turned the page.
We faced a terrible choice. Von Hagt chose to die rather than use the artifact he crafted. It could trap the demon within a vessel—but neither stone nor metal nor flesh could contain the demon’s power.
It had to be a human soul.
The ritual would trap the demon in a corporeal form, bound to the artifact, and seal the memories of both the demon and the man. The artifact would hold the truth, but as long as it remained unseen, neither demon nor man would remember what they once were.
Maximilian and I sealed away the demon to save our lives and stop its reign of terror. We planned carefully. The demon’s attacks would die with us.
My heart hammered. A human soul? They sacrificed someone’s life to stop the demon? No wonder they went mad, no wonder Alexander disagreed…
The book fell from my hands. It only listed two authors. No. It couldn’t be true. It couldn’t.
Hatred and pain radiated from the demon’s eyes, and I knew it was.
“Please…” I fell to my knees, and tears filled my eyes. “I didn’t know!”
The demon’s spectral hand brushed my chin and I didn’t move, too horrified by what my grandfather did so many years ago.
“I’m so sorry, Alexander.”
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