X. The Ruined Cottage

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With eyebrows perpetually arched, the frozen face of Antonia Sibley was that of utmost terror, that her final moments were so horrifying, her facial features were forever doomed to portray the innermost trepidation. An air of fright kept me immobile, that the lightning dawned on my face, and revealed to any spirit present that I felt hopeless in whatever I dared venture next.

Dare I be so bold of feeling for a pulse on the broken neck of my late sister? It was discernible that she had departed this life and into the next, but the uncertainty of death being the final stage of human existence disturbed my every sense. Whatever explanations could be furnished by my archaic mind were now annihilated with the awakenings of phenomena beyond my comprehension.

Lilianna had disappeared before my very eyes, between flashes sent down by the Gods to mark this wicked night. My countenance was touched by sorrow. I could not overrule my functioning eyes as they shed tears for the woman at my feet. The poor, late Antonia.

Had I then been the same Rowena from days afore, I would have said a prayer, and bid her rest in peace. But one knew better.

The passage in which Antonia's body now lay was adorned in shadow, yet light aroused my attention to the living quarters. My own spirits lifted in the hopes of other company – of human company – and so I shouted for the owner.

'Mr. Croft!' My voice cracked in my emotive state, yet I proceeded. I allowed myself to be heard as I was, despite previous reservations on showing sentiment publically. 'Mr. Croft! Are you there?'

When I pulled myself into the living quarters, my sorrow returned. The room was desolate, abandoned. There was no one living nor dead amongst the light by the kindling fire. That is, until I saw something move in the shadow, and at first I thought it a horrid perversion of the firelight, but I was gravely mistaken.

By this moment, I was impregnated by terror. My soul expanded, and it had awakened the faculties to a higher degree of life. This feeling, obscure, yet at my highest level of being, recognised a face in the shadow, until it revealed itself as that of a rook.

It squawked and spat, stretching its wings as if to scare me senseless. That notion need not be, for I was already out of my mind in every sense of the word. Lilliana dawned there, within my brain, the woman of the birds, clad in black, whom I must not look at.

Another Rook appeared from the darkness of the room. Its yellow eyes flicked open. From its curtain of black, another revealed itself to me. The barren room soon filled with the sounds of the pests, and they cut through the drums of my ears as harshly as a blade on a hard surface.

The pounding of the rain drew my attention to the open casement window. I dared not move for fear of meeting my maker through the sharp, pointed beaks of the birds. However, as I glanced around the room, I noticed that they had now disappeared. Vanished, like the woman they accompany.

My sighs of relief could not ignite pleasure or stir my spirits from futility. But reason tried to spring there, for this hellish night was fated to end with either my death or my reasoning with the spirit. She was a presence with whom I had no chance of escaping, and I hoped that the power of language would inspire her retreat, to leave the living in amity.

The storm indeed added to the atmosphere of mortal dread. Even if I should escape with my life, the storm would not be so easily vanquished. I chanced upon a candle and lit it with the flames within the fireplace. I did not realise at the time that this action would prove perilous, for the spirit would use the flames to ignite the nearby rug.

My back turned to the scene as I headed for the hallway, the flames spread quickly and tirelessly to the furniture. I had not heard the crackling or noticed the abundance of light, and I continued my journey to the scene of Antonia's death.

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