The Shadow of Nemesis

"Where were you?" Jon demanded the next morning at breakfast.

"I was visiting the church with the Countess. Why?"

"They were sharing the most amazing stories in the parlor," Jon said, unrolling the layers of his croissant. "The most horrible and frightening accounts. The type of stories we used to work on, Gabriel."

I took a quick sip of coffee, trying to hide my interest. "Really?" I asked. "What about?"

"Oh, you know. The mansion. The village. The Countess. Her family has had its share of madmen, let me tell you."

"What did...what have you heard?"

Jon paused to stuff a bit of pastry into his mouth. "Well," he said, lowering his voice. "There was one--the servants all say she was a witch, but Helene called that nonsense--anyway, she used to kill...I'm going about this all wrong."

"No," I said, slowly setting my cup back on its saucer. "I know something of the story. The Countess told me," I added in answer to his startled look.

"Oh. Did you hear about her death?" I shook my head, and Jon smiled, always eager to share a story. "It seems the townspeople were getting sick of her tricks, and they wanted to burn her. But someone must have warned her beforehand, because when they came for her, they found that she had poisoned herself. So they put her in a stone coffin and locked it shut, in case someone ever tried to call her back from the dead. What do you think of that?"

"It's interesting. Did it work?"

Jon's smiled vanished. "That's the strange part," he said. "You see, about eighty years ago, a couple young men from the village decided to rob the mausoleum. For all the jewels she was buried with, you see. But the townspeople told them not to go out, that the Countess would know what they were doing and would kill them before they could do it. Not the woman who was Countess, then, you understand, but the witch."

I narrowed my eyes at his vulgar choice of words and nodded for him to continue.

"So that night, the young men decided to 'sneak up' on the church, coming in through the woods in back. Some of the townspeople gathered in the inn, waiting to see what would happen. At first, they heard nothing. Then, around midnight, they heard--you know how far it is to the inn, don't you?--they heard someone screaming. Then the screaming stopped, and they heard a laugh, and the sound of a door slamming shut.

"When they went out into the sunlight the next morning, do you know what they found?"

I shook my head and raised the coffee cup to my lips.

"Neither did they."

He sat back in his chair with a satisfied smile. "That's not the end of it, is it?" I asked, raising an eyebrow. "You're a better storyteller than that, Jon."

"I'm not making this up!" he said indignantly. "Very well, I'll tell you what Clytemne told me. She said they found the men in a clearing in the woods. All of them were dead, except for one, who was buried in the snow--it was winter time--he was buried in the snow, and he kept trying to dig deeper, as if to get away from something. They tried to bring him in to the village, but he refused to go past the mansion, so they left him in the woods, thinking he would come back. He didn't, and they found his body that spring."

"And the others?"

"The others were dead. And no one knew which they were because their faces--their faces were gone. The flesh was sucked away from the bones, like something..." He shuddered, and I knew him well enough to know that it was not for theatrical effect. "There was nothing left but bones. The search party refused to bring them out into the light. They called a priest and buried them all there, beneath the tree branches and the snow."

I lowered my eyes and examined the scarred surface of the table. "I'm warning you, Gabriel," Jon said, laying his hand on mine. "Stay away from her. I saw a painting last night...it was of the witch, but I swear, it looked just like her. This whole place looks just like it used to. I dragged us into a mess, Gabriel. Please be careful."

I pulled my hand out from under his. "I will," I said coolly.

We finished breakfast in silence.

I spent the next three days working on the Countess's portrait. Though I was pleased with the finished pencil sketch and a few color studies, the oil paints Helene provided were old, and the final work left much to be desired. I found myself spending hours at a time poised in front of the easel, laboriously applying paint. Finally, at evening on the third day, it was completed to my satisfaction, and I presented it to the Countess.

"It's very lovely," she said softly, pressing her fingertips into the dried paint.

"Thank you."

She turned to me with a sad smile. "I suppose you'll be leaving now?"

"Excuse me?"

"I don't imagine you want to stay here much longer. Your friend seems most impatient to leave."

It was true. Jon had all the material he needed from the library, and each day we spent at the chateau set him more and more on edge. I lifted the Countess's hand from the painting and gently kissed it.

"Please don't think us ungrateful," I said.

She shook her head and turned back to the painting.

We made preparations to leave around noon the next day. I left Jon in charge of packing, a task he set into with surprising gusto, considering that he was the one who led us to the mansion in the first place. As for me, I went down to the mausoleum to say my farewells to the Countess.

She wasn't there, of course. I took the key from its nail in the woods and slipped into the darkened little tomb. The coffins looked less sinister now that the setting sun cast its rays on their pale faces, and the Inescapable herself seemed worn, too tired to hunt down her enemies. Now that I stood directly beside it, I saw that the current Countess and her ancestor's effigy had much in common in the way of eyes and mouth, though there was a slight difference in the neck and still, frozen hands.

"Well," I said softly. "I suppose this is farewell, Countess."

As if in answer, the final padlock fell from its chain. I waited, almost expecting the lid to suddenly rise up, but nothing more happened. With a sigh, I turned and left the tombs to keep their own secrets.

We traveled fast, retracing our steps to the cave and, from there, south along the banks of the Somme. In less than a week we reached Amiens, but neither Jon nor I wished to prolong our visit, and we quickly found another boat and crew to take us back to England. Jon seemed frightfully nervous on the return trip, always glancing over his shoulder when we spoke together and staring off into space when I left him alone.

His breakdown came as we passed the spot where, on our journey upriver, we both could have sworn the waterfall had been. It wasn't there now.

"Something's wrong, Gabriel," he said, struggling to light a cigarette. "Something's terribly wrong. We weren't supposed to find her. She isn't going to let us get away after all we've seen, don't you understand? She never was buried...whatever they put in that coffin, it wasn't her. But it's with her now. She's following us." He pulled a notebook out of his carpetbag and shoved it at me.

I opened it to the front page, and found it filled with numerous descriptions of what I first thought were characters for his stories. Reading closer, I realized they were all of our fellow passengers.

"Jon..."

"Read it!" He tossed the cigarette away in disgust. "Seventeen of us, always seventeen. Me, you, the doctor, the poet, the sailor..." He continued listed ten more descriptions, finally finishing with, "The woman in the black traveling cloak, and the other one, the short figure." He took a deep breath. "Seventeen, except for at mealtimes, when there are only fifteen. The cloaked ones are never there, Gabriel--they aren't there!"

I handed the notebook back, shaking my head. For once, I had no idea what to say.

Jon and I parted ways in Dover, promising to reunite once I'd sold a few paintings and he'd recovered his nerves. I never saw him again.

Three days ago, the story reached me of how, in early May of 1846, a young man fitting Jon's description stopped at an inn in a small village outside of Canterbury. He was found dead the next morning: there was an investigation, and all seven of the constables that came to view the body fainted. The innkeepers left the area, as did many of the neighbors, and the inn was burnt to the ground. The jury's ruling was, I suppose, an act of God: but how close to the truth that verdict came, I doubt they'll ever know.

I haven't slept a night since the news reached me. It's terrible to think of what Jon's curiosity finally did to him: but even worse is the thought that, for all these years since we parted ways, I've been having the same dream every night: and I now doubt that I'll ever find peace, until I too am one of those horrible, faceless things that have persisted all these years in haunting my sleep.