She dreamt of the tree line.
In the dream, autumn slouched toward winter, and all the leaves had lost color and wilted. The sky froze, the sun lanced warmth through cold clouds. The clouds won, filtering the world into graywash dimness. The trees, pale white and dull brown and mostly naked and leafless, reached out with kinked branches as if desperate to touch each other, and they almost never touched.
In the dream, she sat alone in her room, watching the sprawling wilderness from behind cold glass. Her breath fogged the window.
The thing in crimson appeared, a slash of violent color against sludgy grayscape. It wore a deep red robe and had an ivory skull the approximate shape of a deer’s. Its thin antlers mirrored the tree branches. They wanted to touch something with their sharpness.
It moved unnaturally, approaching the treeline. It had an uneven gait, listing slightly to one side, as if unacquainted with bipedal movement. When it reached the last of the trees before the sprawl of the Estate’s vast yard, it stopped. It tilted its deerskull face up toward the window, gazing with eyes that were long gone their sockets.
In the dream, Nora couldn’t catch her breath. She steamed her panic against the glass in short gasps. Her fingers touched the cross around her neck. She prayed, under her breath, in short staccato words.
The creature (or was it human) cocked its ivory skull, curious.
When she’d first come to the Estate, Ambrose had told her that the wards were ancient and powerful. Later, when Ambrose died in Egypt, Victor reiterated this. The wards of the Estate had protected the Blackwood’s Mansion for generations. Nothing supernatural could cross.
Almost nothing, at least. People could still cross over. Human beings. Even if they were psychic or if they knew witchcraft or if they knew nothing at all but how to wield a knife and put it to places that would hurt more than words could describe.
Nora prayed that the figure in crimson was not human.
It stood at the wards, head cocked. The shade of its robe reminded her of the curls of life that swirled in the bathwater when she razored her skin. It reminded her not just of blood, but of blood shed in a specific way, for a specific reason. Its robe, the color of precisely reasoned bloodshed, was the only gash of color in the grayscape. It unnerved her, how important that seemed.
The figure crossed the treeline, shambling, and began its uneven gait across the breadth of grass. It paused, halfway to her window, and peered up at her with those empty skull eyes. Lifting a robed arm, it extended a slender, sapient finger, and pointed crookedly at her.
you are chosen, a voice said in her mind.
The figure vanished.
A hand grabbed her shoulder.
“Whoa, there, Miss. Nora,” Victor said, jumping back from her reaction.
Awoken from slumber, she sat slouched in an office chair in the library. Her eyes darted around, a panic of disorientation. She leapt from her seat, spinning in circles, searching for a threat. Her better hand went for the shiv she kept in the front pocket of her hoodie–one of the keepsakes from her homeless days.
“You okay?” Victor asked, brow rucked and gaze uncertain.
“Just a dream,” she said, panting against cold nightmare sweat.
“The bad kind?”
She nodded. She was no psychic, her dreams contained no visions of possible futures, no premonitions of things to come–but they often arrived as omens, as metaphors, as threats. Nothing she ever saw in her dreams came to pass literally, but the dreams always seemed so obvious after the fact.
She picked up the book that had fallen from her lap when she awoke.
“We need to prep anything?” Victor asked.
“I don’t know yet,” she answered, turning the book over in her hand. “I mean…probably, yeah. But.” She shrugged, and flipped the book open to where she’d dog-eared the story before dozing off.
…’and the red death held sway over all,’ the bottom of the page told her.
A slash of color in grayscape. A mask of something dead and age-bleached. A finger, pointing. you are chosen, it whispered, its voice coming from that distant place in the mind where dreams are real.
She set the book aside and fidgeted with her necklace. She thumbed the cross and thought about how the old silver flatly symbolized two wooden boards. Thought about what it must’ve felt like, being chosen, as people drove nails through a good man’s hands. What must it have felt like, being chosen, when the hungry birds began circling overhead?
“You want breakfast? Coffee?” Victor asked, trying vainly to pull her out of her thoughts.
She let go of the necklace.
Being chosen seemed like a raw deal. Seemed a lot like being condemned.
“Coffee,” she said absently.
Seemed a lot like being damned, actually.
Abraham wasn’t leading Isaac up the mountain to have a picnic, after all.
you, the dream warned her. you.