In thirty seconds, the next shell would fall. Every night was the same, but every night Lorenzo experienced it as if it were the first time. His throat felt swollen; breathing was hard. He glanced around at the others; young men like him who had been shipped out in the name of honour and freedom. There was no honour in this, no freedom. Only death behind your eyelids, and a fear so gutting, that it carved out your innards and left you a hollow husk. Lorenzo tried to breathe, tried to assure himself that he was still whole, still made of flesh. They had lied when they told him he was ready.
Matteo ran towards him, arms out, rifle swinging uselessly at his side. He shouted for him to run, but Lorenzo remained motionless, unable to move as his friend’s warning was lost in the constant blare of gunfire. None of them were ready.
“The cycle is repeating. It is not safe.” The voice was soft and weak, yet it carried over the gunfire and battle cries without impediment.
Lorenzo’s eyes were drawn to the source of the announcement. He saw not a soldier, but a young woman, one who had no right to be on the front lines. Her skin was pale and sallow, her eyes rested over dark shadows. Her dirty gown was of a style Lorenzo had only seen in old books.
He expected her to scream or cower from the battle around her, but she seemed almost unaware of it, her gaze only following him. Lorenzo stared at her and a familiar cold feeling began to tug at his heart. She was not part of this world, of any world. Matteo was still running, but his voice was entirely lost, as were the sounds of the enemy assault.
“It is not safe,” the woman said again.
Lorenzo shook his head, as if the action would be enough to dispel the vision of her. She took a step towards him and he uprooted his feet from the sodden earth, stumbling as he turned. Before he could run, the next shell hit. Lorenzo, Matteo and the rest of their unit were thrown into the air.
Lorenzo gasped and thrashed. It was too dark to see. Sweat poured off him and he struggled against the restraints that bound him. He cried out in fear, pulling against the straps, until they threatened to cut into his wrists and ankles.
The door swung open and a light flickered on overhead, blinding him. Lorenzo cried out again and tried to turn away from the light.
“Shh, Lorenzo, quiet now,” a gentle voice said. He felt pressure on the mattress as someone sat down beside him.
He turned to see a beautiful woman, with soft golden hair pulled back in a bun. Small escaped curls dangled about her ears and temples. She hushed him again and laid a hand gently on his arm until he stopped struggling.
“Quiet now, dear one. Do you remember who I am?”
Lorenzo stared at her a moment. Her face was familiar; it spoke of warmth and kindness, of safety from the gunfire and the falling shells. “Nurse Elea,” he said.
She smiled and nodded. “That’s right.”
But it was not safe. He had to warn Nurse Elea, as he too had been warned. “We have to run, it isn’t safe.” He began to pull at his restraints again.
Nurse Elea patted his arm. “It’s alright, Lorenzo, you’re safe. It was just a dream. The war is over now, you’re safe. I’m here to look after you. Do you remember this place?”
He looked around, at the bare white walls of the small, unfurnished room. The only object in it was the cot on which he lay, beneath a small, barred window. He knew this place.
“Poveglia,” he whispered, as if the name were too fragile, or too dangerous, to be said any louder. They had sent him to the island when the Visitors had started coming. They told him he was broken. Poveglia would fix him.
“The girl,” he gasped suddenly.
“There was a girl, I saw her. She said it wasn’t safe.”
“It was just a dream, Lorenzo, try to forget about it. You’re sick, you must remember that these visions aren’t real. Now, I’m going to give you something to help you sleep, and then I’ll come back in the morning, all right?”
Lorenzo nodded and she placed a syringe against the crease inside his arm. The needle gave a small sting as it pricked his flesh, and the orange liquid surged into his veins. Nurse Elea smiled again and rose from the bed.
“Good night, Lorenzo.” She backed out of the room and closed the door. As the light vanished with her, Lorenzo expected the darkness to return, but it was not absolute. A figure appeared and approached him, standing over the bed. Lorenzo looked up, and in the faint light from the window he saw a girl with hollow cheeks and sunken eyes.
“You’re not real,” Lorenzo said, filling his voice with all the resolution he could muster. “Visitors aren’t real.”
“It isn’t safe, Lorenzo,” she said, her voice quivering, as if she were waiting to cough.
“Leave me alone.”
“She will hurt you, like she hurt us. You have to end her. It isn’t safe.”
“Go away!” Lorenzo squeezed his eyes shut. When he opened them again, the room was empty.
* * *
When Nurse Elea returned, her smile was as warm as the sunlight reaching through the window to stroke Lorenzo’s cheek.
“How did you sleep?” she asked.
“Very well, thank you.”
“No more visions?”
Lorenzo thought of the girl who had appeared after the nurse had left, but not wanting to disappoint Elea, he shook his head. “No, there was no one.”
“I’m glad.” She smiled again. “You’ve been very good, Lorenzo. Get up, and you can go outside for a few hours. Would you like that?”
Lorenzo nodded and got out of bed, allowing Nurse Elea to lead him through the compound. Other patients, in simple white robes like his, wandered about aimlessly, whilst the nurses flitted between them. They passed Federico, who believed the war was still going and he was in an enemy camp. He was hunched into a corner, both hands covering his ears as he prayed in a hurried whisper, while a nurse tried to coax him out.
As they stepped out into the garden, Giovanni spotted them and hurried over, speaking in a language only he understood. Lorenzo stopped as the other man addressed him with enigmatic fervour. His words were lost, but his tone was obviously pleading. Despite knowing that Giovanni was harmless, Lorenzo felt himself become uncomfortable. He looked to nurse Elea for assistance. She smiled at him and patted his arm.
“Go and find a nice place to sit,” she instructed.
Lorenzo edged his way around Giovanni, who tried to follow him, but Elea had his arm in her grip. Lorenzo backed away as the nurse led Giovanni back towards the building. Giovanni reached out his free arm towards Lorenzo, calling out again in his strange tongue, begging for aid. Lorenzo turned his back, and the other man’s voice faded.
Shaking off the remnants of Giovanni’s calls, Lorenzo made for his favorite bench. It stood alone on the grass, still damp with the morning’s dew, and glistening in the sunlight. Sitting down, Lorenzo looked out towards the lighthouse which stood sentinel over the island. Like a great protector, it would watch over him, ensuring that Poveglia remained free of planes dropping bombs, and soldiers charging through the trees. And girls who could not exist.
In the clear morning light, it was easy to forget the Visitors, and the terror they brought with them. He gazed eastward, towards Lido di Venezia, although his view of the sandbar was blocked by the surrounding trees and buildings. A figure appeared in the shadows under the foliage, not wearing the white gowns of the patients, or the uniforms of the doctors and nurses. Lorenzo stared as the shifting figure solidified into the form of a girl in a tattered dress.
Lorenzo’s breath caught and he felt his heart hitch a beat. He began to shake his head, but was unable to close his eyes or look away.
“Who are you?” he managed to croak instead.
“I was called Sofia,” she replied.
“What do you want?”
Rather than reply, Sofia turned and began to drift back towards the lighthouse.
“Wait,” Lorenzo called as she faded from sight. “What do you want?”
He jumped and turned in his seat to see Nurse Elea standing beside him. She looked down at him with something that hovered between worry and pity.
“Would you like to go back inside?”
Lorenzo glanced back towards the lighthouse, but Sofia was gone. Turning back to Elea, he nodded.
* * *
In thirty seconds, the next shell would fall. Matteo ran towards him. To his side stood Sofia.
“Come with me,” she said, and began walking away.
Lorenzo followed her, past silent Matteo, who seemed to have frozen mid-stride, past the other soldiers, with bursts of fire coming from their rifles. The battle fell away, and Lorenzo was once again on Poveglia Island. However, the Poveglia before him was different than the one he knew. The hospital where Nurse Elea and the doctors cared for him and the other patients was gone. Instead the large building seemed to be serving a different purpose.
Black robed doctors roamed about. Pointed, bird-like masks over their faces gave them the appearance of large crows. There were patients as well, but not dressed in clean white like Lorenzo, these patients were dirty and disheveled. Dark sores marred their pallid skin and their breath rattled through their chests.
“What is this place?” Lorenzo asked, trying to stomach his horror. Even the war had not filled him with as much sickness as the sight before him.
“The lazaretto,” Sofia replied, standing at his side.
Lorenzo nodded, he should have realized. Poveglia had once been a quarantine for sufferers of the black death.
“Why did you bring me here?” Lorenzo demanded, rounding on her. “I didn’t want to see this.”
“You need to understand, it is not safe.”
“Why? Tell me why.”
Sofia pointed. Lorenzo followed the direction of her gaze and saw a nurse bent over a patient. As the nurse shifted to the side, Lorenzo saw the patient’s face; it was a girl. Sofia.
“That’s you,” he began. “You were a patient.” He was about to ask why she was showing him this, but she just pointed back to her other self. Lorenzo looked again and saw the nurse who had been treating her stand up and turn to face them.
Elea walked past Lorenzo without seeing him. He tried to call to her again, but she did not respond.
“I don’t understand,” he said, turning back to Sofia. “What are you doing? Why are you showing me Nurse Elea?”
“Because she was here,” Sofia replied.
“Impossible. The lazaretto closed over one hundred and thirty years ago.”
“Elea was here. She pretended to treat us, but she killed us. We were sick, and we were weak. Like a vulture, she circled us, checking on us until we were ready. Until we were beyond saving. The cycle has begun again. You must end her, Lorenzo. You’re the only one who can. It is not safe.”
“No, you’re lying,” Lorenzo said, backing away from her. “It isn’t possible.”
“Lorenzo, you must listen to me.” She reached for him.
“No!” He jerked away. “You’re a liar and you’re not real. None of this is real.” He pressed his hands over his temples and squeezed his eyes shut. “It isn’t real. It isn’t real.” It isn’t real.
Lorenzo felt pressure on his arm and his eyes snapped open. The yellow light from the window framed Nurse Elea’s face, making her hair glow like a halo.
“It’s all right, Lorenzo,” she said soothingly. “It was just a dream.”
She unbuckled him so he could get out of bed, then guided him out onto the lawn. Lorenzo looked around as he crossed the grass.
“Where’s Giovanni?” he asked, noting the man’s absence.
“I’m afraid something very sad has happened, dear one,” Nurse Elea said, taking a seat on the bench and indicating that Lorenzo should sit beside her. “Giovanni passed away last night.”
Lorenzo stared at her for a moment. “Passed away? How?”
“He was very ill, and very unhappy. Mercifully, he is now in a more restful place.” She patted Lorenzo’s arm, then rose to head back inside the hospital.
He watched her until she disappeared from view. Giovanni had been unable to speak to anyone for years. The man’s mind was clearly damaged, but Lorenzo had never believed him to be in poor health.
“The cycle is repeating.”
He gave a small start at the voice from his side. Turning, he saw Sofia sitting next to him.
“She takes those who have forsaken themselves,” she said. “She will continue until there is no life left on the island. then she will wait for another to come, and it will begin again.”
Lorenzo rose and backed away from her. “You’re lying.” He turned and ran for the hospital.
* * *
That night, when he dreamed, Lorenzo awoke as he always did, moments before the shell would fall that would kill his entire unit. He opened his eyes to see not Sofia’s waxen features, but Nurse Elea’s bright visage.
“It’s all right, dear one. You were just dreaming.”
He looked up at her for a few moments. “How did you know I was dreaming?”
“I came to check on you. Like I always do.” She smiled at him. After a moment, Lorenzo smiled hesitantly back. “Would you like something to help you sleep?”
“No,” he said quickly, then smiled again. “I think I’ll be all right. Good night, Nurse Elea.”
“Good night.” She patted his arm and rose from the bed. At the door she stopped and turned back to him. “I’ll come and check on you again in the morning.”
The door closed, leaving Lorenzo alone in the dark again.
“She senses us when we are sleeping,” Sofia’s voice spoke from the shadows. Lorenzo turned his head to see her, glowing faintly in the stripe of moonlight from his window. “That’s how she knows when we are ready.”
“Ready for what?”
Sofia’s eyes pulled away from the window and shifted slowly to his face. “For harvesting.”
“I don’t understand,” he admitted. “Why would Nurse Elea do that to us? Why was she in your vision?”
“The woman you know as Nurse Elea is a spirit, a daemon. The love-child of Thanatos and a mortal woman. She was bound to this island, unable to ever leave. She was granted immortality, but the price was that she must take life from another, in order to sustain herself.”
Lorenzo looked away, fixing his gaze on the ceiling. “Why should I believe you? No one else can see you; you’re just my imagination. You and the other visitors, you’re the reason they sent me here. You’re not real.”
“You know what I am, Lorenzo. You can feel it.”
He shook his head, still without looking at her. “They said the war addled my brains. Made me see things. Things that don’t exist.”
“The war killed you, Lorenzo,” she said bluntly. “You died on that field, and when you came back, not all of you made it through. That’s why you can see me, when no one else can.”
He looked quickly at Sofia, then back to the ceiling. “That doesn’t mean Nurse Elea’s a daemon.”
“Come with me, Lorenzo.”
He turned his head in time to see Sofia drift through the wall. He was about to call out that he could not follow her, because he was strapped down, but as he moved, he realised that the buckles which usually held him while he slept were undone. He did not know when they had been released. Had Sofia unstrapped him, or had Nurse Elea?
Shaking off the belts, Lorenzo stood up and looked out the window. Moonlight fell upon the grass outside, illuminating the transient form of Sofia, gliding across the lawn.
Lorenzo slipped out of his room and ran down the dark corridors until he was outside. Sofia had almost disappeared into the shadows of the trees, and he had to run to catch up to her.
“Where are we going?” he asked as he reached her side. No sooner had he spoken, than the image in front of him changed. It was still night, and he continued to walk the narrow path between the trees, but now a dozen figures walked with him. A winding line of shivering, decrepit forms shuffled along the path. Many looked as if they lacked the strength to walk, but walk they did, like the damned unto the promise of salvation.
Lorenzo looked about himself and soon spotted the other Sofia, shoulders hunched and arms wrapped tight about her frail form. Her eyes remained on the ground, as she shuffled along with the rest. He was about to ask again where they were going, but as he looked ahead, he saw the light house, reaching up above them. Only instead of a light, the tower housed only a silent bell.
A golden glow seeped through the trees and Lorenzo sought out its source. A woman stood at the base of the bell tower, a glowing lantern in her hand. Lorenzo only had to glance at her to recognise Elea. To her side was a dark pit, swallowed completely in shadow and devoid even of moonlight.
The plague sufferers came to a halt in a mottled group before her. Lorenzo stood amongst them, Sofia at his side. All turned to Elea, as if waiting for her to speak.
Taking a step forward, Elea addressed them. “My dear ones, you are here because you have suffered greatly, and because you wish to suffer no more. I have promised you a painless passing, into the void of serenity. An eternal sleep, where you will feel no pain, no hunger, and no sickness. Step forth, and welcome oblivion.”
One by one, the patients approached Elea. Each time, she caressed their faces, showing no disgust at the sores that marked them. Then she leaned forward, pressing her lips lightly against theirs. As she straightened up, they collapsed, and she guided their fall into the pit.
Lorenzo watched in horror, desperate to call out to the patients to stop, but unable to make himself heard through the centuries that separated them. He recoiled from the thought of so many souls claimed by a beautiful monster.
“Giovanni,” he whispered. The man had not died in his sleep, unless it was a sleep brought on by Elea.
“The cycle can be broken,” Sofia said. “You’re the only one who can stop her.”
“How?” he pleaded.
“She needs life force to hold her back from the world of the dead. You are only half alive. You are a bridge between us.”
“But what do I do?”
Sofia turned to the side and Lorenzo followed her gaze, to where Elea drew the life out of the last patient and let her fall.
“I have to–” he trailed off, his eyes moving to the pit as fear gripped his gut and twisted around his lungs.
He jumped and turned. The lamplight and the pit vanished, the bell tower became a blinking lighthouse, and Lorenzo saw a woman approaching him, holding a flashlight and gripping a coat around herself.
“Stay away from me,” he shouted, backing towards the lighthouse.
“Lorenzo, come away from there,” Elea called. “Come back to the hospital. Let me take care of you.”
“So you can kill me, like you did Giovanni?”
“What are you talking about?” She took a few steps closer. Lorenzo backed away again, his back hitting the base of the tower.
“I know what you are. I saw you at the lazaretto. I saw how you killed those plague victims. You sucked their life out and tossed them in a pit.”
“Lorenzo, please calm down,” Elea said, her voice soft and even as she approached him. “This island was made a quarantine during the plague times. Many people who came here died, it couldn’t be helped.”
“It was not your right to kill them.”
“How could I have?” she asked. “Look at me, Lorenzo, I would have to be over a hundred and fifty for that to be possible.”
“You’re a daemon,” he said, as she stepped closer to him again. He was now unable to retreat. “The daughter of Death. You’re immortal.” His voice quietened as the strength to shout left him.
“Look at me, Lorenzo,” she repeated, now only a foot away from him. He could see the curl of her eyelashes, the bow arch of her lips. “Do I look like a daemon?”
“No,” he admitted.
“And even if what you said was true, and someone had killed those plague sufferers, would that not be a kinder fate than what they were enduring? Would it not be merciful?”
“Only God has the right to claim them,” he said with little conviction.
“God abandoned them, as He abandoned you. But I have not abandoned you, dear one, have I?”
She raised a hand and gently stroked his cheek. Leaning forward, she spoke softly. “Sleep now.” Her lips touched his.
Cold fire rushed through him, as though his breath were being wrenched from his lungs and set ablaze. Lorenzo tried to pull away, but his body was completely immobilised, held in place by Elea’s will.
“The cycle must be broken,” Sofia’s voice whispered in his ear.
Elea jerked backwards, wrenching herself away from him. Her eyes were wide and she gasped for air. Lorenzo felt the heat reside as more cold rushed through him. Sofia appeared at his side, and around her stood countless others. They raced towards Lorenzo, entering him. A jet of shadow burst from his mouth and flowed into Elea’s, fueled by more and more spirits as they flung themselves at him, using him as a conduit to reach her.
“We will hold her. You must end it,” Sofia said, her gaze dropping to his hand.
Lorenzo looked down and saw that he was carrying a knife. He didn’t know where it had come from, but there was no time to ask. The last of the spirits passed through him, followed by Sofia. The stream of shadow ended. Elea stumbled forward a step, her eyes still wide.
Before she could regain her strength, Lorenzo lunged forward and plunged the knife into her chest. Elea gasped and slumped against him. He caught her, as he had seen her catch her own victims, and lowered her to the ground where she lay still. Her eyes stared unseeingly at the moon and a dark blossom erupted across her body. He had expected her to burst into flame, or dissolve into smoke, but perhaps daemons who lived like humans, died like them too.
Lorenzo heard voices, and turned to see the approach of more flashlights.
“It’s all right,” he called. “I’ve stopped her. It’s over.”
Several of the doctors from the hospital appeared through the trees. On seeing him, they broke into a run, spreading out to surround him, and shouting to him to drop the knife. Lorenzo released the blade and let it fall to the grass.
“It’s all right,” he called again, holding his arms out. “It’s over now.”
One of the doctors crouched over Elea, pressing his fingers under her chin. The others ran for Lorenzo, grabbing his arms and pinning them behind his back.
“No, you don’t understand,” Lorenzo began. “I’ve saved you all. Sofia!” He continued to cry her name, but without answer. One of the doctors produced a needle and held it up to his arm.
Lorenzo felt the small sting, then the shadows blended into one. He opened his eyes to the sound of gunfire. In thirty seconds, the next shell would fall.