The researcher's breath hissed through her teeth and she stood, white-knuckled, gripping the windowframe. She held that pose for a long minute till the pain in her hip subsided to a dull ache.
Rain lashed against the walls of her home, blown hard by a storm off the ocean. Here, at the end of the earth, the weather was not kind to old bones.
She turned from the window and made her slow way to a cluttered desk. She pressed the stud at the base of a desk lamp and some of the gloom lifted from the room. Light spilled out revealing scattered papers, weighty and dusty tomes open to pages written in dead languages, the collected debris of a life's work.
She moved to sit and stopped, her heart faltering before settling down again to a natural rhythm.
The shadows had shifted.
"Who's there?" she asked, a voice grown thin from age and lack of use.
"Your searching has served you well, I see." The voice from the darkness was soft, deep, resonant.
The researcher's heart leapt, its natural rhythm disturbed. She heard a fingernail as it snagged the spine of each of her published works, one after the other, on her bookcase.
The bookcase was in shadow. She could see nothing.
The voice came again. "I had not realized so much time had passed for you."
"I spent my life looking for you," the researcher said. "Those books represent my findings, all I've learned."
"And have you truly learned anything?" The voice was warm now, with an undercurrent of amusement.
"I hope I have," the researcher answered.
She heard one of the volumes being taken down, heard the pages rustle as they were turned. She stood, waiting.
Laughter, as she had heard so long ago, floated across the room to her. She waited.
Pages, like so many dead leaves, slid from the books to the floor.
"Perhaps," her visitor said, "perhaps you did learn something. But it is not here."
"I hoped to see you once again."
"Did I not warn you once before?" came the reply.
The researcher nodded, the weight of her years suddenly feeling very heavy. "You did. But I do not regret it."
Again she heard that laughter and closed her eyes for an instant.
"Then I grant you that boon, and that curse."
The researcher opened her eyes in time to see the face as it swam out of the darkness before her. A face of unutterable beauty.
She breathed deeply of the other's scent. Then her heart lurched as the beauty changed to terrible horror. A hand reached out, fingernails filed to sharp points, and touched her below her left breast.
Her heart exploded and the researcher fell to the floor, dead long before flames began licking at her life's work.