THE DUNGEONS OF NIGHT - SIMINA LUNGU
Walk not alone through the dungeons of night. Lucas was sure he had heard those words before. He had no idea if they were a famous line – or if it was something Josie and her friends had come up with all those years back, during their so-called “creative evenings”, when they commandeered the entire house (and their father let them, since it was much better knowing Josie was in the house than having her wondering through the woods, pretending to be a witch). But that was long ago. Before Josie's disappearance. Before his father moved them out of the family home.
Sit not at night with the darkness alone. Walk not alone through the dungeons of night. The words kept spinning in Lucas' mind, as he drove through the once familiar wooded hills – now turned cold and foreign by twelve years of absence. With a jolt, he realised they were in Josie's voice, that quiet, excited half-whisper he had heard so often in the middle of the night. He could see her now, pale-faced and bright-eyed, her long dark hair making her look much older than fifteen.
“Like a fairy,” Katrina had remarked that day Lucas had shown her the photograph from the locket he always wore.
Lucas had been taken aback by the remark. Weren't fairies supposed to be golden-haired? Not that it mattered. Katrina had died that very night in an unexpected car accident. Lucas had never shown the photograph again, afraid he would unleash on others the shadows that had haunted Josie.
Sit not at night -. Annoyed, he switched on the radio, turning the volume to full blast. The shrill sound of electric guitars drowned the voices in his head, grounding him in the here and now.
The road got progressively worse, stones and potholes slowing down the car's progress. Trees flanked both sides of the narrow road, extending thin branches, scratching at the windows. Lucas had the impression they were begging to be let in, just like his memories.
One lonely road sign pointed upward. Countless green creeping things were trying to consume it, but it still defiantly spelled out the word Wyndbourne in faded letters. Lucas knew he would soon see it up the hill. Wyndbourne house. And he, the last of the Wyndbournes coming back to it. The young master, finally returning to his ancestral home.
He switched off the music. He needed to make that last stretch of the road in silence.
Lucas stopped the car in front of the house, next to another, rather battered vehicle. He got out, wondering where its owner could have gone. People had a tendency of disappearing in that place, he thought wryly.
Whatever could be said of the road leading up to it, the house itself was in excellent condition. The hedges were trimmed. The front door had been painted recently. Even the second-storey window had been fixed. Josie had broken it one night, shortly before she vanished.
“I have to let them in,” she had told a terrified Lucas with that trademark, manic grin of hers.
There had been no time to put it back after the disappearance. Somebody must have fixed it meanwhile.
“Your father and I were in constant communication. He gave me specific instructions. Wyndbourne House was to be always well-maintained. I strove to follow his wishes to the best of my abilities.”
Lucas turned around sharply at the sound of the clipped voice. He did not know the figure walking up the path to meet him. He was tall and lean, with that unhealthy colour of one who did not see much sunlight. That and the way the evening mists closed in behind him gave Lucas the impression he was looking at a wood sprite.
“Are you Mr. Tibor?” he asked cautiously.
“Just Tibor,” the other man said, extending his hand. “And you, I presume, are Mr. Lucas Wyndbourne.”
“Lucas is fine. I'm glad to finally put a name to the face.”
The handshake was brief. It felt as if he had touched something cold and slimy – like the many crawling creatures that hid beneath the undergrowth of the forest.
“I assume you want to go in now,” Tibor said.
Actually, that was the last thing Lucas wanted. What he wished he could do was turn his back on the house, and Tibor, and the dreaded hills and walk away. But he had something to do. He would never be free of the family curse unless he saw this through.
“We might as well go in, I suppose.”
As he stood on the threshold, waiting for Tibor to open the door, the wind picked up behind him. The forest laughed and howled. He thought he could recognise Josie's voice in the choir. He resolutely did not turn to look.
What was coming home supposed to do to one? How were you supposed to feel? Should there be some kind of revelation when entering your childhood house after many years away from it? Lucas did not know. The only thing he was aware of was the numbness – and the terrifying realization that the place was exactly as he had left it.
The corridor led to the wide living room. Beyond it, he could glimpse the door to his father's study and the staircase. On the first floor, there used to be his father's bedroom, Lucas' own room, and his mother's room, locked ever since she had died when Lucas was two. Then there was the second floor: Josie's bedroom and three guest rooms. Only Josie had used them, whenever she wanted to invite her friends - “the coven,” as the kids at the local school used to call them. Lucas never brought friends over – he did not want them under that shadowy influence that suffocated him whenever he was close to Wyndbourne House.
He fancied he could see his father sitting in his usual armchair, some detective novel in hand. He would look at Lucas and smile, that strained smile he wore whenever he was trying to ignore Josie's latest antics which had once again appalled the entire neighbourhood. They were both good at not mentioning Josie's outrages in the house.
“I trust everything is to your satisfaction.”
The images of the past fled and hid at the sound of Tibor's clipped voice. Lucas shook his head, a sudden fit of irritation overwhelming him.
“This place has never offered anyone satisfaction. I'll have a look through some things – then I'll be out of here for good. And then you can burn the damn building to the ground, for all I care.”
“It's yours to do as you please,” Tibor declared coolly. “Although, if I might make a suggestion – it is quite a valuable piece of property. Selling it would be far more profitable than burning it to the ground.”
Lucas smiled rather sheepishly.
“Sorry. I don't know what came over me. You must understand Wyndbourne House doesn't exactly hold happy memories for me.”
“Of course,” Tibor said with a faint hint of sympathy. “This is where the disappearance occurred, after all.”
Lucas whirled round to face him. Tibor shrugged calmly.
“I did mention I was in contact with your father. Besides – everyone around here talks about it. Josephine Wyndbourne's disappearance is the favourite local legend.”
“Josie,” Lucas corrected tersely. “She never liked to be called Josephine. It was always Josie.”
He realised now how much of his life was spent following rules set up by his vanished sister. Josie did not like her full name, so he bristled whenever he heard it (he had punched a reporter at fourteen, not because he had cornered him in front of his high school to ask about the incident, but because he had referred to her as Josephine). Josie loved the rain, so Lucas always left the windows wide open during thunderstorms. Josie would explore every forest she came across, so Lucas felt complied to do the same. His days were spent obeying the idiosyncrasies of someone who was probably no longer alive and had not been for a while.
“What do you know about Josie, Tibor? If you and my father talked – what did he tell you about her?”
He switched on the lights in the living room, and invited Tibor to sit down. In the artificial light, the older man's face was even more yellowish. Like that of a wax figure. Or a corpse. Lucas looked away.
“From what I gathered, your sister was a rather... complicated person.”
Lucas felt like bursting into peals of hysterical laughter at the cold, clinical description. That was not it at all. Tibor had no idea what he was talking about. There had been nothing complicated about Josie. Her actions, her desires had always been plain. Lucas had always understood her. That was why he had been terrified of her in the first place.
“I don't think you understood me when I said this place doesn't have the best memories for me. You naturally assumed I was referring to my sister's disappearance. Well, I won't deny that was a traumatising experience for a ten-year-old. But that was not what haunted my childhood. No, it was actually Josie herself.”
Uneasily, he searched Tibor's face. There was no trace of judgement in the other's eyes. Everything else around them seemed to judge his words, though. He could sense the disapproval in the air. Wyndbourne House had always sided with Josie, never with him.
The windows rattled. From above he thought he could catch the small patter of running feet. It could have been only a rat. Or maybe it was one of Josie’s friends – the ones she had let in by breaking the window all those years back.
“I was awake, you know,” he went on, aware he had come to Wyndbourne House exactly so he could make this confession. “The night of the disappearance. I was looking out the window and saw Josie heading towards the woods.”
Something flickered in Tibor's eyes, the first proof of life since Lucas had met him.
“Your father never mentioned that.”
Lucas shook his head.
“He did not know. I never told him. He would have blamed me, I think, had he known.”
The words would forever be ingrained in his mind. He still heard them every evening before falling asleep, even now after his father's death. He was sure his father had said them plenty of times even when they were out of Wyndbourne House and Josie was long gone.
“If you hear your sister wandering about at night, let me know. We don't want her to wander too far, do we?”
Lucas would always nod dutifully. And he always woke his father whenever he heard his sister sneaking away. Except for that night.
“I did not raise the alarm then,” Lucas went on, and now that he had begun talking no force in the world could have stopped him. “I watched Josie go into the forest and I knew I was supposed to wake my father. But I didn't. I went back to bed and the next morning I pretended I had been asleep the whole time – and had heard and seen nothing.”
Tibor leaned forward. His eyes glinted in the dim light. It could have been only curiosity at what the locals considered a juicy story. But the way his lips were parted and his long fingers trembled made Lucas uneasy.
“Why?” Tibor pressed. “Why didn't you raise the alarm? Why did you just let her go?”
Briefly, Lucas had a terrifying vision. Tibor was nothing but a withered old tree creaking against the window. He was alone in the room, giving reckoning to some ancient spirit of the forest. Why did you send your sister to me? He could almost hear the words.
The vision faded. Lucas found himself sitting in front of Tibor once more. He ran a shaky hand across his face.
“I'm afraid that if you want me to answer that, you'll need the whole story. Would you care to hear it?”
All traces of emotion were wiped from Tibor's face. He sat back, shrugging carelessly.
“By all means,” he said, without the faintest hint of curiosity. “If you insist on telling me.”
Lucas was one of those people who could relive the past in great detail – his memories more like movies that came to him when he wanted them least. He had never forgotten Josie's face or the sound of her voice, or that twinkle in her eyes that seemed to come from something that was not really her. He remembered all the things she used to say to him – how she would one day cross into another world, a place of dark roots and tangled weeds – and she would take Lucas with her.
His childhood until the age of ten was a patchwork of snapshots all centred around Josie – or, rather, around his fear of Josie. The fear was important. It led him to know from early on, without any doubt, that as long as Josie was there, he would never be safe.
His first clear recollection was of snow. He must have been around four at the time. His father was away. They had a nanny, but she usually showed herself only at meals and bedtimes. She avoided Josie – who claimed she was too old to have a babysitter. It was evening and Lucas was standing outside in the doorway. He was shivering. It was cold, but the tremors were brought on by an unexplainable nervousness. Josie stood in front of the house, her arms outstretched. She looked as if she was catching snowflakes – but that was not what she was doing. Something else was happening.
Lucas could see it, the crawling fog creeping in from the forest, billowing towards Josie, surrounding her, embracing her and battering itself against her. And Josie stood there, taking it all. Her hair was flowing in the wind, a dark shadow made even blacker by the dancing snowflakes around her. A smile was painted on her face, erasing everything that was kind and human from it.
That was how it all started. After that evening, Josie became the shadow in Lucas' nightmares, the lines of worry on their father's face, the darkness in their neighbours' eyes. After that night, everyone referred to her as “the witch of Wyndbourne House.”
“From then on, Josie was never the same. I mean, she had always been odd. But until then she used to be harmless. What happened after that night, though...”
Lucas paused. He watched as Tibor got up and walked to the window. He peered outside.
“It is getting late.”
Lucas' shoulders hunched in alarm.
“You want to leave?”
He hoped he had managed to keep the question casual. In truth, he did not want to be alone in the house now that it was dark. Things happened there, after dark. Josie had told him this many times.
Tibor shook his head slowly. There was something mocking in his eyes. Lucas could not blame him. He was a grown man and was practically begging not to be left alone for the night – and all because of some silly stories he could not really make sense of.
Whether Tibor really thought this, it was difficult to say. His face did not betray much. He simply headed back to the chair and sat down, making himself comfortable.
“I suppose I have some time until midnight. Can you finish your story by then?”
Lucas did not pause to think how strange the question was. He just nodded, relieved that he did not have to stop talking – and that he would not be on his own.
The fleeting thought entered his mind, that when Tibor had approached the window, the rain and the wind had picked up. He dismissed it as proof of his wrecked nerves and went on with the story.
It started with little things. Josie became quieter – moodier. She seldom smiled now – except when it rained. Then she would turn her face to the forest, a broad grin marring her features. It never reached her eyes. A neighbour remarked once it resembled the smile of a madwoman. Someone else said she had to be possessed. Lucas thought back to that night and the fog engulfing the old Josie and giving birth to a different version, with his sister's looks but a stranger's soul – and knew how close to the truth that was.
Her attitude towards all of them changed, too. She took command of her small group of friends, leading them into dark games of pretend magic. Her father she ignored most of the time, although she did obey him when he directly ordered her to do something. She just never spoke to him. But more troubling was how she acted with Lucas.
Before the fog, Lucas could hardly remember how Josie treated him. She had more or less tolerated him, although she kept him at arm's length, but that was not unusual with older siblings. After the fog, something shifted in their interactions. Josie sought him out, told him stories and sat with him, being the first to greet him in the mornings and the last to say good night. Lucas would have basked under the attention – only, he was certain it wasn't out of love.
Whenever she touched him, her hands were either icy cold or burning hot. The arm around his shoulders was too restrictive. The way she looked at him had something feral in it. She was weaving threads around him. She was the spider and he was the fly. And she needed him in her web – forever. If she caught him completely, she would never let him go. She would have everyone around him dead, and him delivered to the wilderness – but she would never let him go.
“You think it was nothing more than a childhood fear, right? I must have been about four when it all started. How much could I know at that age? And Josie could have just been playing on my fears. Making fun of me, so to speak. But then, if this were true, what about the rest of the world? They too saw Josie differently.”
Tibor did not say anything. It was hard to tell what he was thinking. His sharp eyes bore into the younger man's, but there was no hint of judgement in them. It was like being stared at by someone without a soul.
In a fit of nervous energy, Lucas sprang up from his armchair. He walked to where the drinks cabinet would have been back in the day. But no one had been living in that house for years, there weren't any drinks there anymore. He turned towards the window.
“I wouldn't go there if I were you.”
He swung round at the unexpected words. The voice was still calm, but there was a hard edge hidden beneath that carelessness. He felt the approach of something he couldn't understand. He shivered.
“Why not?” he challenged.
Tibor did not flinch when Lucas tried to stare him down.
“I just wouldn't,” he repeated, and his tone was now patient, gentle even. “Come back and finish your story, Lucas. You said it would be done by midnight.”
What's it to you when it's done? Lucas was tempted to ask. The words died in his throat, though. As Tibor sat there, looking at him, he was filled with a sudden sense of urgency. There was darkness outside, but also inside, upstairs where Josie's domain used to be. Wordlessly, he headed back to his armchair. He took a blanket from the back of one of the chairs and wrapped it around him, in an attempt to stave off the sudden chill. Tibor watched on, impassively.
“The rest of the story, then. Yes, I'll finish it for you. I'll have it done by midnight.”
Very soon, there was the need for a very firm set of rules when it came to Josie. No escaping to the forests. No wandering off on the moors. No sneaking out of the house at night. Their father was away most of the time, and the string of babysitters wanted nothing to do with the unruly child. Many were secretly afraid of her. It fell upon Lucas to be her guardian, though he was several years her junior and was also quite terrified of her. But no one asked him how he felt about his duties. He was expected to fulfil them.
Years passed. The shadows lengthened around Josie. What was at first considered nothing more than an eccentric phase proved to be part of her character. The mystery with which she surrounded herself, that knowing smile, as if the blackest secrets of the universe were revealed to her, they all became ingrained in her. One could scarcely imagine Josie without them.
After three years, Lucas' father finally decided to take action.
“We should move,” he announced out of the blue. “To a bigger town, I mean. With proper schools and all.”
They were all at dinner when he dropped that bombshell. Lucas froze, his heart thudding painfully against his chest. His soul was filled with longing for that “proper place”, as his father described it, where people did not know their names and where there was no fog creeping in from the woods. But, at the same time, he knew – it was a dream. They would never be able to do it. They would never be able to escape. Josie wouldn't let them.
Josie was sitting at the table, straight and stiff as a pale statue. Her dark eyes were smouldering. Lucas could see the shadows gathering around her, forming a protective wall. He wondered why their father couldn't see it. He acted so calm.
“We're leaving Wyndbourne House?” she snapped sharply.
Their father raised a pacifying hand.
“Not completely. We would still be able to come here during school holidays, if you want to...”
Josie shook her head. She turned her attention to her food – chicken with mushrooms, Lucas could recall that after all these years – and stabbed viciously with the fork.
“It's not enough. I want to stay here all the time. I can't leave.”
Her father frowned. He was not usually assertive when it came to his daughter, but this time his mind appeared to be made up.
“You're growing up. The both of you. You need more than this place can offer.”
Lucas watched the exchange with bated breath. He felt their lives were hanging in the balance. If their father managed to convince Josie – if she gave in – they would be safe. They would leave that place and things would become normal.
The lights flickered above them. Lucas glanced uneasily at Josie. She said nothing, but concentrated on eating. She was looking at neither of them – nor at the lights. Their father paid no heed to the lights, either. No doubt, he attributed the flickering to something wrong with the wiring.
“I do not want you turning into some wild thing. I want you both to have as many opportunities as possible to become something. That can't happen if we remain here. This place is locked in a past century. I don't want you to stagnate here.”
Clang! Josie slammed her fork against the plate. Her father flinched. Lucas couldn't blame him. The look in Josie's eyes said she was ready to murder the lot of them. He tried to make himself as small as possible, while he waited for the outcome.
“I want to stay here,” was all Josie said.
Her voice was quite calm. Lucas shivered. Beyond that peace he could hear a thousand threats. She did not say anything else, but simply got up and left the table. Lucas thought he could breathe more easily when she wasn't in the room. She usually took all the shadows with her.
“Convince your sister, would you?” his father asked, already distracted – he was often distracted when dealing with Lucas. “I do intend to move in a couple of years.”
The cold was now a block of ice enclosing the room. It was unusual for the time of year, but Lucas had already guessed it had nothing to do with normal weather. One thing baffled him – Tibor was completely unaffected. While Lucas shivered, his teeth chattering so hard he sometimes had trouble forming words, Tibor watched on, bored and impassive, interested only in the story.
“Tell me something, Lucas,” he began, calling him by his given name for the first time. “Did you hate Josie?”
The words wouldn't form on Lucas' lips. He settled for shrugging.
“I feared her. That much you must already know. I think my father feared her too – even if he did not realise that.”
Tibor stretched out his legs in front of him. He looked utterly comfortable. Lucas realized he could hardly feel his own legs. He remembered a friend of his who had once been caught in an avalanche describing something similar.
“I think I'm dying,” he blurted out.
Any other person would have jumped up at such a statement. Tibor merely shrugged his shoulders.
“You came here to exorcise your demons – rid yourself of your ghosts,” he reminded Lucas. “Did you think this could be done without any suffering on your part? You probably are dying – but what else did you expect?”
Lucas stared at him wide-eyed. For the first time he wondered if he should leave. But outside the forest was waiting for him. Where was he supposed to go to be safe?
“Finish your story,” Tibor continued coldly. “You have less than an hour.”
In the last years before Josie's disappearance, things started to turn dark for Lucas. Nightmares haunted him regularly. He rarely got a good night's sleep, except when he was staying with friends, away from Wyndbourne House and Josie. And he was always cold – like the fog that enveloped Josie was now searching for him; wanting to ensnare him as he had done with his sister.
His father was too busy with work and Josie to figure out his distress. In his mind, Lucas was the rational one and the boy did not have the heart to prove him wrong. So, he bottled his fear until it grew and took substance, a shadow as menacing as the ones surrounding Josie.
She noticed. She saw his daily terror and fed from it, enjoying the way he flinched whenever she was around, how he barely restrained himself from covering his ears when she was muttering some dark poem about the fog and the forest. She knew he was the one who alerted his father on the nights she tried to leave – and she never stopped punishing him for it.
“If you'd let me go where I belong – things would be so much easier for you,” she told him a few days before that fateful night when she left, never to return. “Or maybe not. Maybe it's too late for you. Maybe you've turned your back to the forest too long. Maybe you've kept us away from our rightful place for too long.”
“Us? Who else are you talking about, Josie?”
They were in his room. It was nine in the evening and it was already dark. The fog outside was once more a living thing, coiling at the windows, scratching with wet claws. Lucas did his best not to look at it. Josie noticed his hesitation and laughed.
“Don't worry,” she told him, and, if it had been anyone else, her words would have been reassuring. “What's outside – they cannot get to you. Not unless I let them in.”
She stepped past Lucas and put her hand on the latch. The fog outside greeted her like an old friend. Thin tendrils floated around the glass, begging Josie to let them in. Watching her, Lucas started to fear that she would indeed do it. She had that wild look on her face – the one that came whenever she was about to do something reckless.
He drew away, until his back hit the wall and there was nowhere else to go.
“Don't do it,” he begged. “Josie, please, don't let them in.”
Josie's hand wavered. She turned to look at Lucas, her eyes widening at the sight of him shivering against the wall. For a moment, Lucas had the impression he was looking at the old Josie, the one without the shadows and the fog.
“Don't let them in,” he repeated quietly.
Slowly, Josie lowered her hand. She turned her back to the window. The fog receded a little, in disappointment that Josie was no longer paying attention to it.
“I won't,” she said and for once the gentleness in her voice was not mocking. “I won't let them in. Not today.”
Lucas disentangled himself from the wall. He took a few shaky steps towards Josie, but did not get too close.
“Thank you,” he breathed.
Josie's eyes narrowed. All traces of sympathy faded.
“Don't thank me yet. One day, I will let them in. They will come for you. They will take you away, deep in the forest, deep in the dungeons of night. That's where you'll stay. You won't die – not immediately. You will live for many years, surrounded by darkness, with terror your only companion.”
“Why?” he pleaded, ashamed to feel tears in the corner of his eyes. “Why would you do this to me?”
She got close enough to put her hands on his shoulders. Her palms felt like blocks of ice.
“Because you won't let me go. You won't let me leave. You keep stopping me from going to the woods.”
That night, Lucas heard Josie trying to sneak out. He lay still for a few moments, recalling her words, knowing what would happen if he acted. Then he thought of his father's instructions, the ones he would repeat to him every night. He went to wake him.
Lucas leaned his head against the back of the armchair. Shadows danced in front of his eyes. He could no longer tell if they were real, or if they were only the result of his vision clouding over. He was fading. He did not know if he could finish his story – time was running out. It was nearly midnight.
“Why did you do it, then?”
Tibor's voice was muffled, as if it came from the edge of the world. But, at the same time, it was booming in his ears. Through clouded eyes Lucas saw the man leaning over him. He had not heard Tibor leave his chair.
“Why did you keep stopping her?” Tibor insisted, cold and sharp. “All those times she tried to escape, why didn't you let her?”
It dawned on Lucas how wrong he had been. He had gone there in search of forgiveness for the time he had let Josie escape. But Tibor wanted an explanation about all the times when he hadn't.
“You've hinted yourself several times,” Tibor went on ruthlessly. “You knew it was not Josie – or, not only Josie. Since the fog, something happened to your sister, and you knew it. Yet you insisted on clinging to her – on not letting her go, even though she clearly wanted to. Why?”
“She was my sister, wasn't she?” Lucas argued. “Even after the fog. I wanted her there.”
He broke off, coughing. The cold was inside him now. Everything was sluggish and distant. He could taste blood whenever he swallowed. He must have looked terribly ill, but that, apparently, was not enough to move Tibor.
“Finish your story,” he ordered in a steely voice. “You do not have much time until midnight. Tell me why you let her go, in the end.”
Lucas cleared his throat, trying to keep his mind working just for a little while longer.
“She kept her word. She broke the window. She let them in.”
Josie was surprisingly calm that evening. She did not threaten Lucas in any way. She was actually civil with him throughout the day. So much so, that when she requested he bring her some book from the downstairs library, he obeyed without questioning her reasons. Everything was normal for once. And his guard was down.
She was standing by the window, but she was not looking out. For once, there was no fog on the other side. She greeted Lucas with a smile and motioned him to put the book on the small bedside table. That meant he would have to walk further into the room – something he was most of the time careful to avoid. But the friendliness in Josie's face put him at ease. She wasn't in a whimsical mood for once, so he was not going to do anything that might irritate her. He stepped into the room, going so far as to close the door behind him. He walked to the bedside table and set the book down.
A resounding crash made him jump and draw a step back, his heart pounding. He was aware of a change in the air and when he looked up, he saw Josie, standing as she had before, one hand on the windowsill. But the previous kind smile had turned into a grimace. And the window was broken.
“They had to be let in,” she said.
From outside, a thin wisp of fog was creeping into the room. It had lain hidden somewhere, but now it floated closer, at Josie's summons. It surrounded her, caressing her, running wet fingers through her dark hair. It did not stop there. It advanced towards Lucas.
Every instinct was ordering him to flee. He had to get out of there. He had to get out of that room and lock the door behind him, shutting out Josie and the fog. But his feet would not obey him. He stood there, rooted to the spot, as the grey cloud got nearer and nearer. Josie's gleeful laughter rang in his ears.
He couldn't see anything in front of his eyes now. Only a grey wall that enveloped him, like it had Josie that winter evening. But that had looked gentle, protective. This one was cold and restrictive, like a dungeon, or a coffin. It blinded and deafened him. It took away everything that he was, living behind only fear and darkness and a curse that would follow him for the rest of his life.
In those breathless moments, he was certain that would be the end of him. The fog would make him just like Josie, and they would run away into the woods hand in hand, two shadow children abandoning the world of mortal men. He struggled with all his might to break out of that spell, managing only to embroil himself further in its clutches.
The fog took something from him. By the end of that battle, he was still Lucas, but all that had been bright in him was now dim. He found himself lying on the soft carpet in Josie's bedroom, staring vaguely at the cracked ceiling. Blackness swirled around him.
He opened his eyes to the familiar ceiling of his room. He was lying in bed, tucked in, with plenty of pillows to keep him comfortable and a cold cloth on his forehead. It gave him the illusion of being cared for. But the terror that gnawed at his bones told him the world would never again be safe for him.
He lay still for a while, watching shadows chase each other on the wall, in the dim glow of his bedside lamp. He tried to tell himself it had been a dream. He had actually fallen asleep and had never made it to Josie's room. There had been no fog and no broken window. But the fog was still inside him, beating against his brain and not giving him peace. He wondered vaguely if that was how Josie always felt.
The familiar hand on his shoulder had him flinch, even though the touch was warm and gentle. He had learned that evening, though, to be wary whenever Josie showed him friendship.
“Father thinks you're coming down with something,” Josie told him lightly.
She removed the cloth and placed her hand on his forehead instead. He felt tendrils of ice take hold of him. The fog inside him shuddered at Josie's closeness, like it was trying to get out.
“You are a hostage now,” she whispered. “You'll be a prisoner just as much as I have been for all those years. The fog will poison you. Your life will be cold, full of misfortune and you'll end up dying alone. And afterwards – your spirit will join the rest of us in the forest – and you'll wait in the dungeons of night, restless and cold.”
Despite the words, her tone was not threatening. She might as well have been repeating something she had read in a book. Against his will, Lucas stared at her. Her face was pale, her eyes were smouldering. Now the fog was inside him too, he could see more clearly. His suspicions were confirmed – this was not only Josie, and it had not been only her for a long time. That second personality had taken over his sister, and she was the one in charge. Josie was probably beyond saving now, and Lucas would be too – if he did not act quickly. If he did not strike a bargain that would have him forever disgusted with himself.
“What if I let you go? What if I let you leave tonight? You can return from wherever you came from.”
“That would be a start,” Josie whispered. “But only a start. You won't be free. There will be a reckoning at some point. We'll see then how much you deserve to be forgiven.”
Lucas woke shivering. He was alone in his room. The lamp was switched off. His head was clear, but his body felt numb and heavy, like he was no longer alone in his mind.
It was midnight. He knew that without having to look at the watch. He had gained a new awareness of the world, something that was not entirely his. He could identify every shadow that danced on his ceiling.
Shivering, he got up. His steps carried him towards the window against his will. And then he saw her. Josie, with her silver night-gown that made her look like a fairy, walking down the front lane towards the woods. Something must have warned her he was there. She turned around and their eyes met. Her gaze was hesitant. There was nothing threatening in it. She looked merely curious, waiting to see if Lucas would keep his end of the bargain. Would he let her go – or would he sound the alarm once again?
He stood frozen on the spot. Duty battled with fear. He saw the two directions his life would take. He saw his family in shambles, with Josie gone, never to return. Or he saw himself locked inside his mind, haunted and terrified, with nothing but the fog creatures to keep him company for all eternity. And he made his choice.
Slowly, he padded back to his bed. He lay down and drew the covers over his head. He spent the rest of the night crying. Afterwards, he could not tell if he was mourning Josie – or if he was simply relieved to be free of her.
The memories faded. He found himself back in the armchair. He felt trapped, as if his life after Josie's disappearance had not been real. Perhaps it was all an illusion, and he had never left Wyndbourne house. Reality was slipping away from him. Only the fog remained. He had a few minutes before the clock struck midnight.
Tibor towered over him. The calm of before was gone. There was fire on his features. Before Lucas' eyes, he shifted, becoming tree, then fog, then man once more.
“You aren't who you say you are,” Lucas stated confidently. “You're not in charge of selling the Wyndbourne property. You never spoke to my father. You're not Tibor.”
The form before him remained that of a man, but it expanded until his head almost touched the ceiling. Lucas would have looked away, but he had no strength left to move his head.
“You are wrong. I am Tibor. I did talk to your father, before he died. I wanted to know what had happened to Josie. Well, not to Josephine Wyndbourne, but to the fog inside her. You thought it entered her willingly. But the truth is – it, or rather she got lost. She found your sister and blended with her. They became one person... She could have escaped if she found her way back to the forest, if she was allowed to leave quickly. Who knows, maybe there would have been a way to save Josephine Wyndbourne too if we got to her in time. But we did not, did we? You always stood in our way.”
Lucas could no longer defend himself. The mocking laughter of the fog within him cut him like a knife. He could see clearly now how wrong he had been all those years. He was guilty. He was to blame for Josie and not only for her. He closed his eyes, ready to surrender to the guilt gnawing at him. Tibor tapped his face, forcing him to look up.
“Not yet,” he urged harshly. “Not until you've heard everything. I knew her. The bit of fog that merged with Josie. She was to me what Josie was to you, although our bonds go far beyond the simplistic names mortals give to their relationships. We of the fog are for ever part of each other. If we lose one piece, we lose a part of ourselves. My sister's absence damaged all of us. That is why we tried so hard to get her back. When we finally did... she was not the same. Too much time tied to a mortal. The effects were devastating.”
Something groaned upstairs. The windows clattered. But Lucas' enemies were already in the room with him. Tibor, with the fire in his eyes, and yet even he could not bring more torment than Lucas' own guilt. Tibor must have read this in the younger man's pale features. He smiled, tight and sad.
“I hated you for so many years. We cursed your life. We made you a recluse, one who lost every friend he made. We gave you nightmares and made you fear every moment of your life. It was not enough. We waited for you to return to the place where it all started. Then, we would have you completely in our clutches.”
“And now you do.”
His voice was hoarse. His throat felt painful. Midnight was just around the corner.
Tibor made to touch his shoulder, a futile gesture of comfort, but stopped at the last moment.
“The truth is – you did not do anything out of malice. It was all a misunderstanding.”
“And Josie was caught in the middle.”
Tibor's features turned to ice.
“Was she? Why do you think the fog came to her? You kept saying the fog changed her – why wouldn't it be the other way round, though?”
Lucas did not answer. He barely heard Tibor anymore, his ears ringing and his vision greying. In his mind, that cold and insistent voice was repeating over and over the poem that had tormented him on his drive to Wyndbourne House.
Shadows of darkness, shadows of dread,
Come to devour all hope and all light.
Walk not the woods when the sunlight is dead,
Stand not alone in the dungeons of night.
Before the world was wrenched from him, he felt a brief twinge of regret. Not because he had been wrong all those years or because Josie was gone, never to be found again. He was sorry he would never find out how much of his sister was Josie and how much the fog inside her. He thought he deserved that much – to know for certain.
It was the last thought he had, before the clock struck midnight.
Simina Lungu has been making up stories – the weirder, the better - ever since she can remember, but has only recently entered the world of published writing. Her short stories have appeared in magazines like Night Picnic and Scarlet Leaf Review. She is also the author of a children’s fantasy novel, The Last Survivors (though adults have also been known to find it enjoyable). When she is not writing or teaching Business English, she can be found on long walks with her six-year-old rescue dog.