Chapter 1: Midnight Strikes the Hour
Most nights Annabelle was buried in a book, giving little thought to anything else, and that cold summer’s night was no exception.
She was a sponge for words, reading them constantly, voraciously, equally at home with dense technical tomes as lurid romance novels, though her favorite books were those of far distant lands to fill the imagination that were completely unlike home.
This love for books did not extend to her academic studies, unfortunately. Term had ended for the summer, and her marks had ranged from average to poor. Every morning since summer began, Annabelle’s mother would explain how her daughter was wasting time with childhood fantasies, her younger sister Grace quietly snickering at her behind a mouthful of jammy toast.
Annabelle’s mother blamed her father, of course. He had ill-prepared them for the real world before he’d died, coddling them as he had done, and Annabelle’s barely passing marks was the result.
Annabelle endured this lecture every morning, waiting until her mother left the house in the mid-afternoon, when she would open the door to her father’s library and read quietly until it was time for bed. Sometimes she didn’t have to wait long, and other times she had to grit her teeth till dinnertime, but her mother always left them to their own devices.
Like most nights, Annabelle knew to expect Grace to roll through like a whirlwind with her own special brand of mischief. She could have timed her arrival to library’s grandfather clock. Annabelle became rigid when the library door opened, and Grace walked inside.
“What do you want?” Annabelle was in no mood to be bothered that night.
Grace ignored her question, instead giving an impish smile. “What are you reading?”
Without thinking, Annabelle shifted her body so that it covered the page from her sister’s view. Alarm bells were ringing as Grace never showed any curiosity in what she as reading. “Just a novel by—”
Grace peered over Annabelle’s shoulder. “Oh, one of those fantasy stories. But that can’t be one of your reading assignments. It looks much too whimsical.”
“No, it’s not. Well spotted.”
“But you like reading so much, don’t you?” It was like her mother was standing right there, speaking through Grace. “So it should be easy to get started on that, shouldn’t it?”
Annabelle might have said that she didn’t like the thought of reading something that someone else told her to read. That the last time she’d taken a suggestion with some enthusiasm was from her father.
In any case, she wasn’t going to tell her sister that. “I’ve got plenty of time until term starts back up again. Why don’t you go off and bother someone else?”
Grace grabbed the book from Annabelle’s hands. “Let me take a look at least. I want to see what all the fuss is about.”
“Give that back!” Standing to her full height, Annabelle was barely an inch taller than her sister, who was her junior by a full two years. Far from an intidmidating presence, but her eyes flared like flinty pieces of coal.
“Or what?” Grace countered. She read out the title, slipping all the while from Annabelle’s grasp. “‘The Broken Prince.’ What’s it about? Nevermind, I’ll read the last page. Oh! I guess he dies at the end.”
Annabelle’s face went red. “You-you little brat, come here!”
But before Annabelle could fester in her anger for too long, the lights went out, plunging them both in darkness, illuminated only by the starlight streaming through the windows.
“Ouch!” Annabelle yelled in surprise. Her sister had dropped the book onto her foot.
“Sorry!” Though Grace didn’t sound sorry. “The lights are out. What are you doing?”
Annabelle had crouched down on the ground, hands spread out. “Looking for my book, of course. Ah, here it is.”
“Do you think the lights will be off for very long?” Grace said, her voice trembling uncharacteristically.
Annabelle thought of a quick retort, but bit it down. Instead, she grabbed her sister’s hand. “Come on, let’s go find a lamp.”
Together, they walked out of the library, walking slowly down the hall. Grace bumped into Annabelle several times ad they traced their hands against the walls. She shivered and rubbed her arms. “Why is it so cold?”
That did seem a little bit odd, but Annabelle only said, “Might be a storm coming, I guess,” which still sounded more than a little silly to her ears.
“No, see, I can my breath,” said Grace. Indeed, what dim little light came from the windows caught the small vapors from her mouth. “But it’s the middle of summer!”
Annabelle didn’t know what to make of it either.
They made their way to the staircase, where Annabelle thought they might go up and rummage through a drawer or closet for a spare lamp, though she hoped the power returned before then.
There came a sudden loud knock from the front door, like a cannon shot. Both sisters jumped.
“Who do you think that is?” Grace clutched at Annabelle’s arm, her voice hushed to a whisper.
Who indeed? No one really came by this late at night, and the knock had sent her heart thudding. Another knock came like a shot, followed by the doorbell ringing. Annabelle started towards the front door, but Grace pulled at her arm.
“What are you doing?” she hissed.
Annabelle didn’t really know. She felt a pounding fear course its way through her, but curiosity was getting the better of her, too. Who was it that was knocking at so late an hour? She wanted to know even as her fingers shook.
Looking out the window, her breath misting the glass, Annabelle caught a glimpse of a man wearing a silk, dapper coat, a black muslin cravat, and a top hat. He was flanked by several figures of inky blackness with glowing red eyes.
Annabelle gasped. The shadowy beings beside the gentleman were translucent, and she could see the gravel behind them through their misty forms. She found herself staring at them, wondering whether it was a trick of the light or her overactive imagination when Grace gave her a good hard poke.
“Find the children.” Annabelle could hear the man’s voice.
Shrinking back from the window, Annabelle took her sister’s hand and ran as fast as her legs would go, back down the hall, though it was all they could do not to stumble and run smack into a wall. Annabelle thought she might go towards one of the back doors or perhaps hide in a spare room. Anything until the man had left.
Behind them, the ground seemed to tremble and buckle. The glass around the front door shattered all at once, and Annabelle and Grace both screamed.
Springing from the door came shadows in the elongated shape of men, twisting through the remains of the broken glass, sliding along the floor towards the sisters. They moved with preternatural quickness and soon caught up with them.
Annabelle turned into an unused bedroom, pulled Grace inside, and slammed the door shut. She tried to still her breath, all while wondering what to do next.
The shadows squeezed through the cracks of the door, their red eyes gleaming in the dark. Icy cold fingers grabbed at each sister and lifted them off their feet. Annabelle kicked and punched at them, but any blow hit the shadowy flesh as if it were only thin air. It was then that Annabelle noticed the shadows’ eerie laughter, all in sync with their fellows.
Annabelle felt sick with fear. She thought she could hear her sister saying something, but all sound had muted, and she could spare no attention except whatever these creatures were and what they were going to do to them before.
The shadow-men held them aloft, high above their heads, and brought them before the man. He lowered his spectacles and looked at Annabelle, then at Grace, almost as if inspecting merchandise. Then, he bowed low, doffing his hat in a grand, sweeping gesture.
“Hello, sweet children,” he said.