Chapter 1: Within the Valley
The gusts of snow drove unremittingly across the land, sweeping away all signs of life. Not even the mountains that towered over the valley like hardened guards cast a shadow into the pure, blinding white of the blizzard’s wrath. The storm was centered over the valley as if God had sensed the impurities ingrained into that very earth, and was wiping it out to begin anew with the tears of the sentinel angels that had long stood watching as the corruption crept forth.
Through the storm trudged one solitary man who had avoided the hand of God, a huddled gray mass that pushed determinedly against the punishing blows of the howling wind and biting cold. He had been on his way to Galway, Ireland, north of Kerry, and had settled on taking a shortcut through the Carrantuohill Mountains rather than attempting the long and grueling trip around them. He gritted his chattering teeth as he wondered if that choice would be his death. If he had made a mistake by yielding to the persuasive, yet apparently injudicious, desire to sooner end his journey rather than do as common sense demanded and follow the beaten path. No, in the end he didn’t need to wonder, as he already knew the answer. He was trapped in a hellhole with seemingly no way out except one, the route all mortals take in the end.
His one and only consolation now was barely a reality in his mind, more a glimpse, a flash that had come and gone so quickly it was as if he were asleep and it had all been a part of a dream. But the hope that he had not been hallucinating was all he had to desperately cling to. And oh, what a fragile hope it was, and how desperately he clung. Before he had breached the trees of the valley, before the gentle, almost calming snowfall had turned into a full tempest with winds that seemed to want to rip the very soul from his body, he had thought he had glimpsed a light off in the distance through a gap in the trees. The sight was gone as quickly as he’d seen it and had never returned, and he told himself then that he had only imagined it. But now, with shelter being his last hope for survival, he vigorously rubbed his arms to contain the remaining dredges of warmth the freeze had yet to drive from him. He trudged ever onward through the mounting piles of snow, telling himself all the while that safety was just ahead.
He almost wanted to give up. In this storm even if there was a shelter up ahead and even if it was close enough to reach he could not know if he was heading towards it. The blizzard that drove relentlessly at him was so thick he could not see his hand when he held it aloft. He could be walking in circles and have no way of knowing. But he had come this far from the battle of the Diamonds, and he would not surrender to the product of heaven’s wrath yet.
He had deserted the army for his baby. His pregnant wife was due and, with impossible odds and no morale left in the army he fought for, he knew he would not survive another battle. He had refused in that moment, when death and newfound life loomed upon him on divided sides of one path, to die. He had chosen his way and it was one shielded by old weeping willows sending their tears and piercing shadows down onto him, filling him with their mournful mark. Yes, it was a path cast with shame, but it was now his to stick to, and it was far more lively than the dead shambles that lined the road at the other end. He had decided the army that forcibly enlisted him could go join the devil- he would not let his child enter the world fatherless. His child is what had brought him to the valley and what compelled him onwards even then when he wanted to relent to the fury of the storm.
By what he believed a miracle, he arrived at what he saw was a grand castle. Not even the storm could hide the heaven-reaching towers and massive parapets that forced their mark of black into its raging reaches. He rushed at the castle, his frost-bitten lips opening to issue a parched cry of relief. Pushing through the knee-deep snow, he managed to reach the huge wooden doors that stood like the most lovely song of heaven before him.
He painstakingly labored to open the heavy barriers, his strength all but leached from his body. The doors were unrelenting in the face of his feeble shoves and refused him the shelter beyond. He knew nobody would hear his knocks above the overwhelming howl of the wind, which had filled his head with a persistent scream since they had first begun. Desperate, he began walking along the castle searching for a way in. Reaching a window, he lifted his pack that had been strapped securely to his front and used his remaining strength to launch through the stained glass in front of him. The glass shattered, tinkling down like stardust onto the earth, tiny pieces of cool yet somehow hellish fire mixing bitterly with the tears of the angels.
He clambered into the welcoming confines of the castle with unconstrained relief and collapsed onto the floor. Arms outstretched, he lay among the shattered glass, breathing heavily with eyes closed. He knew he needed to rise and find a place to hide, but for the moment, at least, he wanted nothing but to rest. He could only hope nobody found the shattered window for a while to come.
His hopes were found to be in vain.
A croaking voice, which sounded to him like the chorus of heaven itself after the endless shrieking of the wind, met his ears. He had never been more relieved, nor more terrified.
“We’ve been waiting for you.”
He was filled with adrenaline at the sound. His eyes flew open as he jolted upright and whipped his head from side to side. His eyes darted around the room in search of the source of the voice. He did not have to look far.
A lady stood before him. “Follow me. Leave your pack,” she commanded with the same creaky tone. He was taken aback when he saw she had been right in front of him- he had never heard her approach, and he was certain there was nobody there when he had lunged through the window moments before. Could he have fallen asleep without realizing it? But then why would she say that they had been expecting him?
He stared soundlessly at the woman as he sat motionless on the floor. He was completely clueless about everything- how she was standing before him, what she meant by her cryptic statement- but he was most staggered by the sight of her. The vision before him could not have been older than twenty-five, yet her voice had led him to the conclusion she was archaic. He had presumed he would be met with salt and cracks sinking into a hardened surface, the very image of time itself. Just like earth exposed too long to the sun, he had expected all vitality to be drained, leaving nothing except for a barren foundation as a shadow of what once was. Yet he was met with the image of a darkened beauty- her skin glowed with the unrestrained privilege of youth, her hair was a glossy black that would not see the regrettable touch of gray for many years to come, and inside of her was a fire so strong that the man was certain it was the heat of it that warmed the very room he lay in. She suffered none from her darkness, for she seemed to shine into the dark interior of the parlor he had landed in, only glowing brighter as her surroundings dimmed.
As he sat stunned on the floor, taking all of her in, the darkened beauty he had been appraising was walking slowly away. She tread lightly over the cushioned rug that he had landed on, almost as though her feet never touched it at all.
“You may follow me into the unknown or embrace the early death you only just avoided by entering the throes of this furious blizzard once more,” she issued the ultimatum with no inflection to reveal any hint of emotion, as if offering him his death were as casual a thing as sipping tea.
He remained sitting, still terrified of what would happen. He had broken the window of the castle- whatever the lord’s intent was, it could not be pleasant, and he was neither ready to die by the blizzard, nor be punished by the lord’s hand.
“Choose,” she commanded with just as steady a tone as she had said everything else.
That last command was all he needed. Rising, he followed her, somewhat pacified. He was a soldier, after all. If need arose, he could kill her and any other nuisances.
She led him down a dimly lit hallway lined with flickering candles in Gothic style holders that were placed between stony-faced and empty-eyed visages of people long past. Surrounded by darkened wood frames as grim as the paintings themselves, they were the only things in the castle not teeming with energy. The subjects of the paintings were long gone, their bodies returned to be nothing more than dirt in the earth, leaving only the sad and meaningless rendering of their image behind in an inefficacious attempt to be remembered.
“This place has seen many lives,” he remarked as he appraised each hauntingly dull piece in turn.
“More than can be discerned from these depictions,” came the strange reply.
“So this castle has been the site of many battles?”
“Of a sort. It has not seen any grand wars, but many fights have been won,” her answer drifted back to him clearly, yet it still seemed to him to be a purposely abstruse riddle. It had its desired effect: it told the man little yet filled him with an unexplainable sense of dread.
He quickly gathered himself enough to continue on, having paused to stare at the retreating woman’s form in a fruitless attempt to get a better sense of her. Something about her shook him to his core. It wasn’t just her, though, it was also the mansion, where every panel moaned with unreleased pain and every spire and wall seemed to conceal a sordid secret. It was a mansion bulging with barely-concealed secrets that had been carefully gathered and contained over eons, and it seemed to the man about to rupture. In front of him the woman began singing, as though to hide the pained voices that called out to him from the darkened corners.
He searched for something to say, anything to end the thoughts that were racing through his head and to silence that eerie song.
“Who is the current lord of this land?”
“You needn’t worry about that.”
“But if I am to be meeting him...”
“Oh, you will not be meeting him. You shall only be meeting one other person tonight,” she informed him before once more resuming her song. He looked around nervously as rustling, this time very real, began. Nobody was in sight.
“Who is that, pray tell?”
“Be our guest, be our guest...” she began to sing in a clear voice, so unlike her usual one as she ignored his query.
“It must be earlier than I expected, for so many people to be awake,” the man remarked in a way that he hoped didn’t show how nervous he truly was. As he looked about him and listened that feeling only began to grow, and he found he couldn’t stop the cold sweat that broke out across his skin.
“Whatever do you mean?” the lady asked so calmly it could not have been a deception.
“The- voices...” the man croaked uncertainly as the mumbled words grew even louder.
“I am afraid I do not know what you mean. There are no people here.”
“We’re almost there,” she interrupted him blithely before once more resuming singing.
She moved to the side of the hall, trailing her fingers along the black and red wall. When she moved aside, a painting was revealed.
It covered the wall from top to bottom, its golden, intricate frame only serving to make the dangerous promise that lurked within all the more apparent.
In the painting a man kneeled with his face upturned. Hands lovingly caressed either side of his face as welcoming lips edged closer to his. It was almost the image of two lovers stealing a moment away, yet it was much more depraved of a scene than that. Between the two people who were the focus of the painting fleeted something so inescapable even lovers cannot truly share it: the kneeling man, eyes wide, yielded his soul to the devil that had him ensnared in its vile grasp. It hovered above the man with an immeasurable glee in its eyes. Around them was a macabre scene of corpses that had already surrendered that integral part of themselves. They lie emptily on the ground, gazing out on the world as if they were already dead. Demons, cherub skeletons and mutated creatures danced around the two in the center, completing the twisted scene before the soldier.
The man felt a wave of nausea as they reached the painting and it took everything within him to control himself. As he stood there before the painting the jumbled whispers grew more insistent, coming at him faster and louder from all directions; he had to control the overwhelming urge to sprint with everything he had back into the now quite welcoming blizzard. As the talking continued, each voice vying to be heard above the other, he began to register one repeated phrase, “Get out, get out, get out.” The intensity of the voices grew until they were a roar in his ears.
He wanted to run. He wanted to clap his hands over his ears and block out that harsh, terrorizing noise. Instead he stood fixated in place, suddenly colder than the blizzard that awaited him outside. Cold sweat began to pour out of him. He tried to speak but couldn’t; his tongue, now thick and clumsy in his mouth, was rendered as immobile as the rest of him.
The woman continued on past the portrait without sparing it another glance. She casually rested at the door beside it, her fingers still on the wall, one hand resting gracefully on the door. “These walls hum with vitality, do they not?” she whispered almost lovingly as she trailed her hand down to the knob. With a final push, the door opened with a creak...
“Be our guest, be our guest...” sang the butcher as he brought his cleaver down on a leg. Slicing off a piece of the meat, he dropped it down to the tattered cat beside him. The cat leaned its rotted nose down to give the meat a cursory sniff before hissing disdainfully, its shabby black fur spiking up along its hunched back.
“Donnae be so callous. We treat our guests wif respect,” the butcher brought down his cleaver once more as the cat wrapped itself about his leg with a cursory huff in reply. In the castle all was normal. Yet, in the town that rested ten miles past the valley, a carriage would soon roll in. It would bring with it a dream of happiness in the form of gleaming, golden walls and an optimistic, if rather volatile, family of three, but what lurked on the horizon was a promise of a raining fire that would burn everything once glorious to a hellish crisp.