Victor had fitful nightmares since he saw the card. The first had been about the widow herself, the image of her hanging amid the blooming plants in her atrium sanctuary. He woke to the pungent scent of roses as though he’d had fresh cut ones placed next to his pillow while he slept. It had come to the time in the year when the dawn came later in the morning and the first lights had appeared over the horizon as streaks of light blue. Distant, it had still been dark and there was no starlight even to make him feel as though he could find comfort in any light. The single band of navy blue that had seemingly crept across the void of black outside his window was no comfort either, feeling less like the coming morning and more like an encroaching predator.
While there were no flowers next to his bed, Victor had found the tarot card sitting face down on his night stand. A part of him wanted nothing more than to be rid of the wretched thing. He wished to access the logic that should be calming this inner panic at the sight it but it seemed a remote kind of hope that was akin to wishing upon a star as a child. He felt as though the presence of it in his room kept close watch over him as though the reaper on the card were a true devil waiting to come forth. He felt the chill of its eyes on his back but refused to turn to face it. Instead, he stared helplessly at the coming signs of day. Dawn could not hear his thundering heart from this wicked distance and his cries for help could never be that strong. Instead, he watched for a moment as that terrible blue seemed to bring with it a dense fog. In that mist, the swirls of the autumn wind told secrets and he was bombarded by the memory of the widow’s face. Of her body and the way the blooms had seemed to want to climb them. The roses wanted to drag her down.
Victor forced himself away from the window and back into his bed. The exhaustion in his body was beyond terrible for him and though his mind raced with images that he could not forget and an overwhelming sense of dread, he could not force his eyes open. Back into terrified slumber he fell, this time into a hauntingly familiar image that began with the water. The pond where he found her body, lifeless and fluttering on the surface. Annabelle. The very name that seemed to conjure her had failed this time and it left him feeling vulnerable and frightened. His lover was nowhere to be found here as he stood amid the water, the sky above him darkening. The dream had been cruel to him, erasing the comforts of the estate that he knew would house him. He hated that house but it was somewhere to run in the face of the dread that had followed him into this dream state. Lost in the silence and surrounded by nothingness, he stood in the pond, the water gently lapping at his abdomen. He could feel the cold of it tingling on his skin the same as when he’d pulled her out. The wind stirred around him, rustling the leaves of a nearby tree. He attempted to move but his limbs felt too heavy, sluggish and weak to obey his demands. Instead, he felt the water rising slowly with each breath he took. The temperature of the water continued to drop, the cold seeping into him like icy hands. They grasped at his useless hands, holding tight to his fingers. They cruelly pulled at him, tugging downward as the water continued to climb up his body, now reaching up his ribcage.
In this moment, Victor did not care. Let it pull him down to her. Annabelle must be down there and he cared not to stay here without her. The invisible coldness of the water continued to pull, harder now. The water had climbed to his diaphragm and was beginning to make his breathing stagger. A slight tremor, he told himself. A small price to pay for the reward. It was almost a shriek in his mind that told him that this was wrong but he ignored it. Let the water swallow him as it had her. Let it erase all this torment from his life. Let Charlotte have the money she so desperately craved. Let Caroline leave empty-handed and let the family she tried to appease hang her for it. Let the whole world collapse. His mind had started a relentless chorus somewhere within him that screamed obscenely. She never loved him, it cried angrily. He did not care. He loved her. Was that not enough? Could not this sacrifice be enough to satisfy her in the end? To see all that he would leave behind for her? Would this not please her in the end to show her that he did love her? That it was real?
For a moment, the frigid temperature of the water had seemingly started to feel like ice gathering around him and the motion downward stopped as the water came up in line with his heart. It still beat furiously amid the cold, trembling waters that seemed intent on trying to stop it. As Victor began his silent questioning of why he should not simply completely his journey down to the depths, he paused and watched the ripple of the water. It ebbed and flowed out gently to the pulse of his breath and echoed his erratic heart. It created lines around him before smoothing back to the solid surface that might freeze at any moment from the icy temperatures. For one horrible moment, the surface cleared and he saw only the gather clouds in the sky reflected. Something was coming in this terrible storm and before he could figure it out, the waves created by his very life obscured them. His answer came seconds later, making him gasp as he saw the figure standing behind him. The tall, dark figure of a woman with brilliant, angry green eyes stared down at him, making him startle. He turned to face her, the spell over him broken, but she was not there. He looked back and saw a pair of crystal blue eyes frozen open staring at him from below the water’s surface. He heard a scratchy voice sound within his head but he was awake before he could register what it said.
Breathless and trembling, he woke and stumbled from his bed to the window. Dawn was not yet here but the sky had turned from black to a moody blue grey and he knew it would be here soon. While the day would offer him no comfort, he was reluctantly relieved to find that morning would come after all. That the world would still turn and eventually, he might feel like he was a part of it still. When his nerves had stilled, Victor finally allowed himself to move away from the window ledge. Dressing himself for the day, Victor forced himself to emerge from the room and go immediately to work.
He avoided almost all contact with everyone as he set to work on any financial dealings that must be dealt with. He wrote letters to everyone who was still awaiting contacts and checked his books over twice until he was content that his accounts were balanced. It was nearing noon when he heard a knock at the door to the study. He was greeted to the head housekeeper asking if he was prepared to take lunch yet. There was a slight scolding tone to her voice when she announced that he had ignored his breakfast dishes but after muttering a reply about feeding it to the workers who were nearly completely finished the housing quarters outside, the woman nodded and quickly left him. While Victor would have preferred to keep himself buried in his work, he found that the mention of food was enough to make his head ache and his stomach seize. Still, the feeling of dread had managed to rob him of much of an appetite. He did his best to act as though he were feeling well enough to eat but even Charlotte had noticed his lack of interest in it. When he’d had all he could possibly take and the rest had turned cold, he thanked the house staff and retreated with the intention of getting back to work. His mind, unfortunately, was far too restless. With Charlotte flitting about to get away to town, he knew that the area of the house closer to his bedroom would be empty. The housekeeper had already been and gone from most of these rooms and had likely done the bulk of the work for the morning there but none for the afternoon in the wing with the study. The idea of getting scolded further for barely touching his food again did not appeal so he allowed himself to wander back towards his bedroom.
Upon coming into this wing of the house, he could see the door ajar and knew immediately that it was his own room that had someone in it. The air was colder as he approached and when he paused at the door, he saw the figure of the child sitting on his bed. Under the harsher light of the afternoon, her pale face seemed chiseled in stone. The only thing that made her seem like a living child was the obscene bruising on her left eye, stretching across the bridge of her nose. There were, likewise, bruises along her wrist and Victor already knew there were more where he could not see. For a moment, he thought that she had simply come to seek comfort where there was no one to see her this way. It wasn’t until he saw the card in her hand that he knew that she was not sad. Her face was a mask of familiarity with this pain. A mask that he knew very well, himself. No, she was staring into the face of the card, her lips pursed and her brow furled as though she were waiting for the card in her hand to speak to her. Victor stepped into the room and her eyes shot up to greet him, first fearful and then starting to glisten.
“You need not concern yourself with that, child,” he said, easing his voice into an uncomfortable but non-threatening tone. “It was something given to me by someone you need not worry about.”
“I know this card,” she said, her voice soft and trembling. “Did she tell you what it meant? This person who gave it to you?”
“No,” Victor said, standing before her now. “How do you know of this card?”
“I know the one who made it,” she said, her eyes filling with tears. “I thought it lost forever.”
“And who made this card, child?”
Victor felt his blood run cold as he watched the child weep, her sniffling marked with a fresh line of blood dripping down her battered, tiny face.