First of all, this is way different than any story I have previously written so please be warned.
Please enjoy my submission for the Halloween Contest. It was inspired by many sources, from Edgar Allen Poe, to Dungeons and Dragons, to the 1980's Dragon's Lair and Castlevania. But at the heart of it, it is a romance story with minimal sex yet tons of horror.
Thanks to Random Librarian for a quality check of this story; I made a few changes after he edited it, so I will claim any mistakes.
I gave a good friend of mine the advice to read this story late at night, in the dark, and listening to scary music (Personally, I listened to "The Last Door" soundtrack as I wrote the story). He said he woke up several times from nightmares the next night, so I take that as a compliment. No promises, but hopefully you will find this story just as intense as he did!
The Vanishing of Karina
At last, it was within his grasp.
As the knight pushed open the heavy oaken doors, air escaped from the abandoned room of worship and washed over him as if it were a living presence, replacing his fear and weariness with a profound sense of calmness and peace.
He was tired and wounded; his own blood (and that of his men) stained his white tunic and once-shining silver armor, yet he breathed a sigh of relief as he stepped into the chapel of the aberrant castle.
Though the chapel was deserted long ago, easily discernable by the thick layers of dust along the rickety pews, it somehow remained a sacred and holy bastion within the evil domain.
Though exhausted, the knight of the Order of the Word closed the doors behind him without hesitation. He slid a large walnut bookcase containing the chapel's hymnals in front of the doors, serving as a temporary makeshift barricade.
Finally confident that he could take a short moment to rest, he quietly murmured, "Praise be to God" . The knight turned his attention to the room while dropping to a knee from fatigue. The chapel was awe-inspiring, yet it seemed very out of place, a contrast to the rest of the stronghold. Here he was, deep in the heart of the castle, somehow having made it this far after battling against creatures of unimaginable evil. Creatures he had never seen before in his life. Creatures that should not have existed. Abominations to the world... and perhaps even to God.
His mind still wrestled with what he had seen, his eyes witnessing what no one would have ever believed possible.
Yet this chapel appeared untouched as if it were preserved and protected with God's very hand. The veteran knight looked up to the cross hanging thirty feet over the pulpit and offered a silent prayer. It was a simple wooden cross, yet it was so large that it commanded attention as the focal point of the room.
It was not unlike the cross he gave to her. Of course, hers was made of silver, hung on a thin chain, and was much, much smaller.
But it was still a cross.
Two Years Earlier
"IloveitIloveitIloveit!" she squealed as she pulled the silver cross out of the tiny box; her eyes couldn't possibly have been wider or full of more excitement. Princess Karina Devonswan threw her arms around the veteran knight assigned as her personal guard and head of her protection detail, Sir Victor Winchester.
He was unprepared for her act of affection, which showed through his hesitation and cautious manner in returning her hug. He didn't think she noticed his delay but he still had to be careful with lines of appropriateness. Nonetheless, he smiled. After all, she was special to him; incredibly special. Then again, she was special to the entire kingdom.
"Well, the sixteenth birthday is a hallmark moment in one's life, and yours is certainly no exception. It was difficult finding something for the princess that has everything, but hopefully you will find it... maybe just a little memorable?"
Her eyes sparkled as she looked at Victor, almost confused as to why he would say such a thing. "This gift will always remain memorable, and near to my heart! In fact, memorable isn't a strong enough word. Really, you should think more of me than being just an ungrateful princess."
Victor couldn't have been more proud of her. For being young, and perhaps a little spoiled (really through no fault of her own -- it was hard to blame her given the surrounding riches and how one was raised), she seemed to possess wisdom beyond her years.
Karina asked her knight protector, "Will you put it on me, Victor?" Immediately she handed him the box, asking him but expecting -- and quite certain of -- a yes. She pivoted her body away from him and flipped up her long blond hair, exposing her soft, warm neck to him.
Again, he hesitated. He silently cursed under his breath, realizing he acted against his better judgment; he should have given the gift to her in the presence of the king and queen. In addition, he had told her countless times to address him as Sir Winchester, as was simple protocol, but lately she had been in a bad habit of calling him by his given name. And to make matters even worse, perhaps because he was caught off guard, he -- for the first time -- let it slide without correcting her.
Still, she was harmless; nothing more than a child. And her parents both trusted him of course -- which is why he was chosen to be her protector in the first place -- but she was getting older. Soon enough she would be able to bring him to that uncomfortable point despite being almost twice her age. Had he been younger, the situation may have been different.
And of course there was perception. Which, when it came to the royal family, was everything. Like it or not it was just a cold, hard reality. Victor began to realize that he really needed to convince her to spend time with her Ladies-in-Waiting more often frequently. Granted, they couldn't be with her every minute of the day.
He grimaced with the thought that it might be time for him to step down and make sure his predecessor was a female knight from the Order who might be able to relate to her better than he. Even if he had known her throughout her entire life so far.
It was hard for him to imagine anyone else protecting Karina, but he had to consider what was best for the young girl. He loved the king, queen, and their daughter as if they were his very own family. But times were changing.
"Of course I will put it on you," he whispered, coming back to reality after a momentary lapse. "It will be my pleasure." Carefully he took the necklace and fastened the clasp around the back of her neck, unaware of her giddy smile and flushed cheeks.
His eyes fluttered open, beholding the woven tapestry of the Last Supper crookedly hanging on the wall. He sat upright on the pew, tilting his neck from side to side to work out the kinks. His muscles were still sore from the recent battle, and falling asleep in his armor didn't help.
It was hard to tell how much time had passed; fifteen minutes or fifteen hours... he was not sure. But judging from the lack of sunlight against the stain glass windows he guessed it was still before dawn. Then again, the sun didn't seem capable of penetrating the thick rolling fog surrounding the forlorn kingdom so he couldn't be quite sure.
No matter. Despite his soreness he still felt rejuvenated. His body was still tired, but his mind and spirit were restored.
He shook his head with irony, realizing that just a few days ago no living creature (as far as records could tell) had ever entered the gates of Wraithfall Castle within the last several centuries. Little had been known about the castle as none dared to embark into its domain. Legends handed down through time had said it held a great evil.
And now, here he was. Deep inside the walls of the very castle he had been told as a boy -- as had all other children by their parents -- was not only haunted, but evil to the core. In fact, Princess Karina's great-great-great Grandfather ensured the highway road was closed just before the mountain pass that led up towards Wraithfall Castle.
Sitting high upon the cliffs at the end of the mountain range, the old, ancient castle looked down and into the dark sea below. But history had forgotten the last time the mountain peak had been explored.
Some said that even the trail itself that led up the mountain and to the forsaken kingdom was haunted while others claimed it was nothing more than a fairy tale to keep children from staying out late at night. Whenever the occasional villager turned up missing throughout the years past, a great debate would follow on whether they succumbed to the natural elements, perhaps slipping off of a cliff or falling victim to a hungry bear, or whether they made the mistake of straying too close to the sinister kingdom.
A common rite of passage among the local teenagers was daring to venture beyond the old wooden warning sign that blocked off the road just before the pass. In fact, every All Hallows Eve, many youth ventured out to set up a bonfire a mere couple hundred meters down the pass, but that was the extent of their bravery.
Seldom would a young man or woman admit to having traveled so far down the pass that they saw the castle in the distance, no bigger than a speck, sitting high upon the neighboring mountain range. And the few that imprudently admitted such a thing were often dismissed as liars.
But no one within memories recollection had been anywhere near Wraithfall Castle.
That is, until a few days ago. When Princess Karina had vanished.
Four Days Earlier
"You're being so unreasonable, Victor!!"
The eighteen year old princess crossed her arms and stomped her feet, challenging the older knights authority.
"Unreasonable?" Victor echoed without backing down. He shook his head and gave a knowing look to the two Ladies-in-Waiting.
The two, having seen his look of warning before, quickly arose and dispersed from the room. He spoke calmly, although she knew him well enough to know his calmness was a façade.
"Karina, let's think this through."
She flinched; normally he addressed her as either 'Princess Devonswan', or 'Princess Karina'. She had always dreamed of hearing him call her by her first name and first name only, to hear the name 'Karina' roll off of his lips... but not like this. Not when he was agitated.
He continued, "Your mother and father... would they actually allow you to attend one of these All Hallows Eve 'bonfire' parties? The Royal Princess of Shandwick, drinking and fraternizing with common folk outside of a non-officially sanctioned royal event... does that sound 'reasonable' to you?"
"Of course it does," she said, without missing a beat. "If you were to ask them. They trust you, and I trust you. You know they would be fine with it. It's not until tomorrow night, so you'll have plenty of time to do your site-surveying, or whatever it is you do. It will be harmless."
With a flirtatious smile, she added, "Besides, I will be wearing a costume with my masquerade mask, so no one will know it is I."
Victor didn't so much as bat an eye, despite her every effort to work her charms. "They trust me because they know I understand your role as the kingdom's princess and they know I have the sense to prevent you from doing something unwise or outrageous," he answered back. "Especially with what's-his-name, you're current boyfriend of the hour," Victor added, somewhat annoyed.
Karina's face turned red with anger. So much so that Victor almost blinked, trying to contain his surprise; he wasn't sure he had ever seen her that upset.
"His name is Damon. And he's not my boyfriend," she shouted at him, her hands dropping to her hips. "I'm not a child anymore! This is absolutely ridiculous! You forget that not only am I old enough, but I do NOT have to ask for your 'permission'!"
Victor, understanding how upset she had become, tried to apologize and holding his hands outwards he made an attempt to calm the princess down, but Karina was on a roll and wouldn't be shaken. A look of defiance shot out from her eyes as she hissed, "Did you forget who I AM? You... you're being impossible!"
His anger was elevating but he kept it well under control. Trying his hardest to reason with her, he said, "Of course I didn't forget who you are. In fact, the problem is quite the opposite. It is because you are the princess that we have to take such great measures of safety. And the ones who cross the Kings Highway towards the mountain pass are fools. Especially on All Hallows Eve, of all nights. Surely you should know this is asking for trouble."
Karina snarled, "Well, fine. If that's how you want to be. On second thought, maybe Damon is my boyfriend! Maybe he can watch over me, or someone else can, if you aren't willing to do your job."
Even Karina was alarmed at the venom she spit out. She could feel her own body trembling. At first, it shook from anger. Now, it shook from regret. The wide-eyed look on Victors face made her feel even worse. She could practically sense his body deflating.
"Fine," he said with barely a whisper. Karina internally panicked, her heart skipping a beat or two. They had argued a lot over the years, but it was usually playful banter. Half of their arguments turned from fighting to teasing, and neither could resist laughing immediately afterwards. This time was different. This time she had really let it get out of hand, and stung him badly in the process.
But this... Karina had never known him to respond so quietly. Or give in so suddenly. His silent demeanor somehow enhanced her guilty feelings; she would have rather had him screaming at her. She wanted to apologize, but she just... couldn't.
Victor, wondering if she was serious about wanting him replaced, calmly and quietly asked, "Is that what you really want?"
She had to save face, of course. Thinking his question was regarding her participation at the bonfire, she put on a stone face and simply said, "Yes!" Her eyes challenged him to defy her even though her very own were trying hard to hold back the tears.
Victor looked hurt, but he didn't waiver. "Okay, then. You are eighteen now, and like you said you are not a child anymore. After all of our years together, that is sometimes hard for me to remember."
Karina's anger slowly began to melt away. Maybe she had been a little hard on Victor; as much as she didn't like it, it wasn't entirely all of his fault he didn't notice she was fully of age.
Victor continued, "I will talk to the king and queen in the morning and notify them of your request. Adult or not, I would still expect your father to send you another knight protector from the Order. And that untrained, adolescent "friend" of yours won't do. After all, you are the princess. But you'll have to take that up with your father. Not me." Karina saw him hesitate, as if he wanted to say something more. She was ready to let him speak, and fully prepared to promptly apologize afterwards, but she never had that chance as he simply turned around and left her chambers.
Her jaw dropped. She wanted to say something before he left the room, but nothing would come out. It was then that the extent of their miscommunication had fully sunk in.
Of course she didn't want him to quit! Not even if he was being unreasonable about the bonfire! It wasn't worth it. He was supposed to be her protector, but he was so much more than that.
He was her best friend.
After all of their years together... he was willing to quit and throw everything away, just like that?
Now alone in her chambers, there wasn't a reason to hold back her tears any longer. She fell to her knees and sobbed.
Karina was devastated. Her heart was broken. Never had Victor so easily given up on her; she couldn't understand how he could just... resign that easily!
After several minutes of weeping, she wiped her tears away and stood up with a new resolve. If he wanted to walk away after one little argument, then fine. Forget him.
She would be going to the party with or without him. In fact, she hoped she had a new protector by the morning; one who would understand how important the All Hallows Eve bonfire was to her.
Damon swore up and down it was the most fun she would ever have, and the leash her parents had kept upon her over the years... well, it was time for it to come off. She was going. No matter what. And nobody -- not even Victor -- was going to stop her.
Long separated from the other knights of the Order, Victor believed he was deeper into the castle than his fellow warriors were, but he couldn't be sure.
Victor reflected back to their initial assault. The band of soldiers fought their way inside the gates despite massive resistance, as they barely breached the vestibule. Victor led the charge valiantly, forcing his way down an adjoining hallway when a portcullis fell behind him, isolating him from the rest of the group.
With the gate to his back, he pressed further down the hall, fighting two more foes, hoping to defeat them quickly and find a way to rejoin his soldiers.
But the army they stood up against was formidable, and... unnatural.
Armored from head to toe, everything from their boots to their horned helmets was as black as night, aged and bit rusty perhaps, but Victor could tell they were made of the finest quality once upon a time. Their clothing were tattered and soiled, dirt stained as if they had just crawled out of the grave. And they smelled of decay.
The Horned Soldiers fought fiercely, but they fought silently. Eerily so, quite unlike other legions of raucous men and soldiers Victor had faced in the past. But they came from somewhere, and someone commanded them to fight. If there were a Master of Wraithfall Castle, he would no doubt be a terrible foe.
After dodging and blocking the swinging swords of the enemy, Victor quickly counterattacked; with one vertical strike his battle-axe sliced through the armor of one of the Horned Soldiers. After his shield deflected an attack from the last foe, Victor swung his axe into his legs, crushing his armor and dropping him to the ground. Neither made a sound as they fell to the ground.
He couldn't... wouldn't believe that they were anything other than human despite the evidence gathered by his very senses.
He briefly considered raising the visor on one of the horned helmets, just to prove they were human. And as nerve-wracking as it may have been to do so, he would have, had there been time. But he had to find a way to reunite with his fellow soldiers.
Victor quickly ran down the hall, and it was shortly afterwards that he realized there was something very different about this castle. He couldn't find a way back to the vestibule where his knights were most likely still fighting.
It was then he realized that would be the last he saw of his fellow knights, and that he would have to journey further into the heart of the castle. Alone.
And now, here he was, taking refuge in a small, quiet sanctuary of worship.
With any luck the princess had already been found and escorted safely out of the castle, but he wasn't so optimistic. He worried how his brothers and sisters in arms were fairing, if the battle was over, or if they had made any progress. He hoped they were still alive and inside the castle, but it was possible they had all died during the siege. He prayed that was not the case, but it was out of his hands.
For now, he had to focus on the original task at hand: Finding Karina.
And he was on his own to do so.
Wherever she was, she was also alone, and had to be scared. Terrified. But if she was still somewhere within these castle walls he would find her before anything could happen to her.
With a new resolve and determination, Victor stood tall, grasped his steel battle-axe and readied his iron shield, adorned with the bright crimson cross -- the symbol of the Order of the Word -- and prepared to leave the tranquility of the sanctuary. With one last prayer before stepping out into the unknown, he asked God for wisdom, protection, guidance... and most of all, for the safety of the princess.
It was time to find Karina.
Not since leading the charge into the castle had Victor come across any other denizens of the castle. Which he was grateful for, but still they were somewhere nearby -- and he was never quite certain what might lurk around the next corner.
Nothing was as it seemed within the strongholds walls. The area was vast and disorienting; it was hard to discern his exact location even by looking outside the windows. Most of the hallways and staircases were straight and simple, yet there were some that randomly curved and jaggedly twisted with no rhyme or reason. A few hallways led to nowhere; one staircase led straight up at such a sharp angle a ladder would have been more appropriate, while another staircase simply ended in midair.
More than once he caught the movement of something shadowy out of the corner of his eye, as if dark, sinister claws were surreptitiously reaching out for him. Yet when he turned to engage the threat, the flickering shadow turned out to be nothing more than branches swaying in the wind just outside the window, illuminated against the flash of a sheet of lightning.
On one occasion, Victor could have sworn he saw and felt the presence of a mysterious individual; it proved to be nothing more than a statue.
Not long after that, Victor was passing through a vast and unlit dining area comprised of two grand walnut tables dominating the center of room. The knight noticed movement behind him through the reflection of the large mirror on the far wall. When he turned around to see what -- or who -- it was, nothing was there.
Even his ears seemed to play tricks on him. He could have sworn he heard the sound of a lone violin off in the distance, perhaps on the other side of the castle. Hoping he could find the source of the violin, and potentially someone who could tell him where Karina was, Victor tried to isolate the location of the haunting melody, but as he moved closer the music abruptly stopped, making him wonder if he actually did hear anything at all or if it was only his imagination.
Nonetheless, he would find her, even if he had to open every door and enter every room inside this massive castle.
Even if it took the remainder of his life to do so.
Shadows flickered from Victor's torchlight, crudely dancing down the long hallway until swallowed up by the darkness, but he pressed forward. Paintings lined the hallway, individual portraits supposedly of former residents of Wraithfall Castle. They were faces from another time, several centuries past... if not thousands of years.
Victor slowly stepped into the dark corridor, torch in his shield hand and his battle-axe at the ready. It felt as if the eyes of every portrait were gazing upon him. He singled one out and studied it carefully.
The old man in the portrait, dressed in a fine black suit fashionable from ages long ago, had long grey wisps of hair coming out from underneath his top hat. The slight cracks in the oil canvas made his scowl even more unnerving, and his eyes looked to the left... directly at Victor.
A loud crashing sound in the distance quickly snapped his attention down the hall; it sounded like a metal serving tray had been dropped, or perhaps one of the hollow suits of armor adorning the hallway tipped over. Victor took a few steps forward and readied himself into a combat stance.
While the source of the noise appeared close at hand, Victor couldn't tell where the clanging had come from. After staring down the hall, waiting only a few mere seconds -- which seemed like ages, for time seemed to stand still within these walls -- Victor was convinced nothing more would happen as long as he remained frozen in place. He brought his attention back to that of the old man to continue his inspection.
Again the old man stared angrily at Victor. Which wouldn't have been a problem, except Victor had moved his position since he last looked at the painting.
The eyes of the painting were now looking to the right.
With the Hallway of Portraits long since behind him Victor pressed forward, heading deeper into the castle. It wasn't long afterwards that he once again heard the sound of the lone violin. Although the unsettling requiem chilled him to the bone, it was clear what he had to do. Victor quickly raced down a long, dark hallway -- much narrower than any hallway he had previously passed through -- chasing after the music. Strangely, as he surged through the darkness it sounded like the lingering melody shifted from far ahead of him to well behind him. Victor, perplex but determined, quickly backtracked down the hallway and much to his surprise found himself in a completely unfamiliar location.
The hallway dumped Victor out onto a mezzanine, perhaps high upon the third level, overlooking one of the Grand Halls of the castle. The great room must have been at least one hundred feet high from the ground level to the vaulted ceiling; several tall, narrow and pointed windows stretched far up towards the high Gothic arches.
The enormous room contained at least four open levels that connected with six separate red-carpeted staircases, maybe more from what Victor could tell from his limited viewpoint (given the fact that several stone pillars held the structure in place but obstructed his view). Two of the staircases connected the third-level mezzanine he stood on to the next upper and lower levels.
In spite of sketching a map of the route he traveled in the castle (having earlier found a sheet of papyrus and a charcoal stick), Victor scratched his head with confusion. Because he was down to his last torch, which he vowed to save for an emergency, he held the rudimentary map up to a nearby glass window which caught bleak rays of moonlight providing nocturnal illumination. Still, all the light in the world couldn't help him decipher his own map.
This wasn't at all what Victor was expecting. That hallway he had just come from... he had already been down that hallway... and back; he was sure of it. Yet the mezzanine wasn't there before; the hallway previously didn't connect to it, but it did now. It was as if the very walls were alive, shifting and changing rooms when he wasn't looking.
And to make matters worse, the music stopped again.
This was maddening! Even if he could find Princess Karina, he wasn't so sure he could find a way out of this place. He'd covered at least thirty different rooms on three different levels, yet it seemed like he was getting nowhere.
But strangely enough he still hadn't encountered any resistance; if he didn't know any better he would have thought that he was all alone in the dark castle. Yet every so often, he could swear he felt the presence of someone else... or something else. Besides, where was the silent, dreadful army he ran into at the castle gates?
With those thoughts swirling in his head, he felt fear gradually returning. Odds were high that the other knights had been driven back, and no one was with him to help him explore this fortress of evil. And as of now, it didn't seem like there was a way out. It was beginning to seem hopeless.
But Karina needed him. As unnerved as he was, a seasoned warrior who knew combat and war, she had to be terrified. Wherever she was.
"Though I walk in the valley of the shadow of death," Victor prayed silently, "I will not fear, for You are with me..."
He recited Psalm 23 over and over. By the third or fourth time, he managed to find an inner peace.
A thought suddenly occurred to him. Maybe he wasn't completely alone in this wretched castle after all. Perhaps God was with him, every step of the way.
The distant sound of a weeping child from somewhere within the fortress almost seemed to cry out to Victor specifically.
It had been a long time since his ears had heard the gravely distressed cries of a child -- not since he was a fledgling knight, newly assigned as Princess Karina's personal protector, back when she was but a little girl. As theatrical as the lovely princess was today, her melodramatic nature was greatly magnified in her younger years, forcing a young Victor --whom had virtually no experience with children -- on a steep learning curve. More than once he had been prepared to give up his post and humbly resign, and of course follow up with begging of the king and queen's forgiveness, but he somehow managed to adapt to the stresses of protecting a royal child.
He never did confess that to Karina.
But in this forsaken stronghold... what could a child possibly be doing in a place like this? How could a young toddler possibly survive, if fortunate enough to not become driven mad? Victor was afraid for the child's safety and knew he had to locate him or her at once. If he were lucky, maybe Karina would be found with the child.
Clenching his battle-axe he quickly bounded up the stairs. He finally came to a door that he suspected the sobbing was coming from behind. To his surprise, the door was already cracked open; every door he had encountered until now had been closed. Whatever lie behind the door, he would be ready.
Releasing his tight choke on the battle-axe, he carefully lowered his arm and let the shaft slide though his fingertips until the blade nearly touched the floor, grasping the handle again at the base. With his other hand, he carefully pushed open the door.
An old study lie before him, one that potentially could have seemed cozy or warm, but within these walls it instead appeared dark and stoic. Even with the flickering flames dancing within the fireplace, lapping at the firewood as if it were a living, feeding creature, the room still seemed oddly dim. A high-backed chair faced away from Victor and towards a rather long writing desk. Several books cluttered the right side of the desk while one the left, a small jar half-full of ink with two black writing feathers used its meager weight to try and flatten a small stack of yellowed scrolls.
An adjoining doorway within the room was also open, revealing a nursery -- as well as the source of the crying.
Maintaining his focus inside the study -- he would get to the nursery in a moment -- Victor knew there was someone sitting in the chair even though he couldn't see past the chair's tall back. There was an unmistakable presence; for good or ill he couldn't be sure, but he suspected the later as the oppressing force against him that he felt the moment he first entered the castle had amplified as soon as he stepped into the study. Nonetheless whomever sat in the chair would be the first person he encountered since becoming separated from the other knights, and perhaps he or she might have an answer as to the whereabouts of Karina.
Filled with a sense of uneasiness, Victor slowly walked towards the front of the chair. His heart leapt with both astonishment and discomfort -- the chair was empty! And just as suddenly, the room no longer felt as if there were two, but only one.
As if that wasn't enough depravity, the crying stopped almost instantly -- hauntingly so -- not like a normal child turning his fits of sobbing into a few whimpers before winding down and falling asleep. It was deathly abrupt. And then all became quiet. Only the crackling of the fire reminded Victor he hadn't gone deaf.
Uncertain if his senses were betraying his body, Victor began to doubt his own instincts, the same instincts that made him the knight that he was today. He quickly rushed to the next room, hoping for some sign of the crying child. The crib was empty and every possible hiding place in the room featured a lack of evidence of anyone having been in this room for years -- if not centuries.
All that was left was a deep sense of frustration. This place was playing with his mind -- driving him absolutely mad. Exasperated, Victor returned to the study. He was about to leave when he took one last look at the fireplace. And then he began to wonder. Why was the fireplace lit? What need would there be to keep warm if the castle was supposedly uninhabited, save for the abnormal mysterious army at the castle gates (and that was assuming they were of the living)?
Victor returned to the desk with the books and scrolls. A thin layer of dust covered the surface, proving that living hands had not been in contact with the desk in quite some time. Yet as he carefully tilted the ink jar, the liquid flowed gently revealing it was far from dried up. Carefully he lifted one of the feathered pens a few inches above the jar; droplets of ink trickled back down into the black solution before he set it back down.
Even stranger was the fact that the books were dusty but the scrolls were not. Victor moved the jar of ink and carefully sorted through the parchments; he didn't stop to count how many. The top scroll was blank but still he quickly flipped through the loose pages. About halfway through he saw writing; each and every page after that, completely filled from top to bottom, had some sort of script.
A chill ran down his spine as he took in the psychotic repetitive scribbling. It read: "Thou shall not kill thou shall not kill thou shall not kill..." over and over until it filled up the parchment completely. The next page contained the same writing, as did the next. In fact, every page with writing had those same four words displayed in a seemingly never-ending cycle.
Then there were the three books. He didn't dare touch them, but he did take note of the titles: "Memento Morieris", "The Unforgivable Sin", and "Where the Styx Ends." They were unfamiliar titles of which he had never heard or read. But it was obvious death and demise were the at their core, and it would do little to serve him in finding the princess.
Just as he turned to leave from this ominous room, he noticed a twinkle out of the corner of his eye; the warm glow from the fire briefly reflected off of a silver key sitting on the floor by the corner of the desk. It must have fallen off at one point in time. Carefully he reached down to pick it up, half expecting a trap of some kind, but nothing happened. Flipping the key over in the palm of his hand, he saw a small inscription on the key's head, signifying it belonged to the bedchambers of royalty. It reminded him of Karina and the moment he discovered she was missing.
It was recent, and on All Hallows Eve. He closed his fingers over the silver key before placing it safely inside one of his pouches.
He wanted nothing more to do with this room of ill-omen; if anything, he had been in there too long. It was time to move on.
Three Days Earlier -- On All Hallows Eve, the Night of Princess Karina's Disappearance
Thirteen. That's how old Karina was the last time she attempted to slip out from under Victor's watchful eye. Thirteen years old.
Of course, she didn't succeed. Victor was much too experienced and prepared to let her escape from his protection. In reality, she was a good child and didn't give him that much difficulty; in a lot of ways, Victor considered himself blessed.
Today, five years later and at the age of eighteen, Karina had tried again on the night of All Hallows Eve -- and this time she was successful.
It was the moment he entered her bedchambers that he realized she was gone.
He was absolutely furious when he discovered that she slipped out from right under his nose; he wasn't sure if he was angrier with Karina, or himself for letting it happen. He took pride in developing as an experienced knight over the years, but it also seemed that the princess had gained her own degree of shrewdness.
Even her Ladies-in-Waiting didn't know where the princess had gone, leaving Victor seething with rage.
He instructed two of the chambermaids to summon the Sergeant and the rest of his squadron with intentions of hunting her down. Both of the chambermaids looked at each other, their eyes wide open, never having seen Victor this concerted. They were perhaps even more shocked at his notion to "hunt her down." The two quickly ran to grab the Sergeant.
It was bad enough the king and queen rejected his request to withdraw from protection detail not even a full day prior, despite his claim that it was a mutual decision between him and the princess. Even after reminding the royal rulers that she was technically an adult, Victor was told by the king in no uncertain terms that it wasn't an option and that the two of them best fix whatever problem manifested between them.
And with a "Yes, your highness," that was end of discussion. He was to remain her protecting guardian, whether either of them liked it or not.
Despite the grief she gave him, the one advantage Victor had was that he already knew where she would be.
In his opinion, the All Hallows Eve gathering had finally grown out of control as it seemed to grow exponentially year after year. With all of the costumed youth in the area she could have been within ten feet of him and he never would have known. Victor's mere presence to the outside person would have appeared calm, but his tell included a twitching left eye and a slight audible growl under his breath.
"Lost in a sea of faces, it would seem, sir," his sergeant calmly noted.
There wasn't a finer Sergeant than Colin Aldergrove. Even if Colin took an occasional liberty to harass the older knight... in the most respectfully possible way of course. He was capable of making hard decisions during the stress of battle, proved himself always faithful to the crown, and most of all he remained steadfast to the knight's orders. Which made Victors job easier.
"So it would seem," the knight confessed. The bonfire party was not only larger than it ever had been, but unlike the previous years many of the youth had split off into the mountains and forest, well beyond the normal boundaries.
And of course to make things worse, every costume -- from goblins to witches, to court jesters and princesses, and even an occasional fairy or other whimsical creature of fantasy -- had some kind of a mask on.
The Sergeant most likely already knew what his commander was thinking, but prompted him nonetheless. "Orders, sir?"
Without breaking his eyes away from the crowd, still actively scanning for the princess, he responded, "I don't care if we have to search them, one by one. I'm a hairs breath away from having them all arrested and rounded up; none of them -- or us -- should be on this side of the Great King's highway closure warning sign. But more importantly than that we must remember that every second the princess is absent and out from under our safeguard is an opportunity for harm to befall her."
He continued, "If our subtleness fails, I will have you sound your horn to gather everyone's attention once your men are strategically posted, should she try to slip away. Unfortunately I do not know her costume, but it will likely be of a very expensive quality so use that as a measurement. She will likely be with her male friend. Possibly one or two other females, but I expect no more than that. She wouldn't be willing to risk a large number of people knowing her exact location. We must act quickly."
For a moment he thought he saw her; a girl dressed as an angel passed no more than ten feet in front of him, although there was nothing angelic about the length of her dress. He couldn't make out her facial features thanks to her sparkling white mask, but the ringlets of her blonde hair looked much like the princesses. He quickly stepped forward and grabbed her arm, startling her.
The frightened angel initially resisted until she realized a Knight of the Word had taken hold of her, and it was obvious his attire was much more than costume.
Victor looked at her intently. Within only seconds, his face softened and he let go of her arm, allowing her to stumble away.
The Sergeant asked, "Not her?"
Victor shook his head.
"How could you tell?"
"Her eyes. Mask or no mask, I can tell by her eyes."
The Sergeant couldn't help a smile creeping up on his face. "You could tell in less than a second... just by her eyes?"
Victor turned towards Sergeant Aldergrove and gave him a stern look of caution. "Of course. I've been with her since she was a toddler. As long as I've been assigned to her, I can tell you what every inch of..." He flinched, stopping himself in mid sentence. His stern look vanished, replaced with resign.
He couldn't deny the fact that her crystalline blue eyes sparkled like nothing he had ever seen; she was truly blessed with the wide, beautiful eyes of a doe.
"So... should I tell the men they will be able to find her by her eyes?" The Sergeant maintained a neutral face, but Victor knew better.
"Get going," Victor commanded, shaking his head, refusing to give any hint of a smile until the Sergeant departed.
Continuing to scan the crowd, Victor exhaled, "Where are you, Karina?"
"I think we should head back," Princess Karina warily whispered to Damon, shifting her eyes from the left to the right and back again. All evening guilt had been eating away at her despite her best efforts to push it down and enjoy the night. But straying into the forest, further away from the bonfire, put her on the edge of feeling that this was all a mistake.
The moon was eerily bright tonight -- full and big -- but at least it shed a little light on the dark forest floor. They had been following the river's edge for the last quarter-mile, the sound of the roaring rapids drowned out all noise back at the bonfire. Damon had promised to show her something exciting; she didn't want to lose her nerve in front of him, but every instinct told her this was a bad idea.
"Oh, come on," Damon started in with an exasperated sigh, removing his pirate captain's hat. "First you ask me to get you out of the castle, and now you want to go back."
"I didn't say I wanted to go back to the castle... just... back to the bonfire. We already are way outside of my fathers boundaries..."
"You'll be fine; no one knows we are out here. You'll be back before you know it. I thought you wanted to live a little? Was your sense of adventure nothing more than talk?"
"Fine," she snapped, "but it better not be much further. Whatever it is that is so important you want to show me. And you better not try anything!"
Damon smirked, yet wisely remained silent.
That wasn't a good sign. Karina was already tired of carrying her high heels; not only were her feet becoming sore but she fathomed this would be the last time she wore her poor black stockings. The last thing she needed was for Damon to put the moves on her; she liked him, but she simply wasn't in the mood.
She adjusted her French maid's dress, pulling it down and straightening her small lacy apron. If only Victor could see her now; he would tell her to "stop fidgeting!"
Actually, if Victor could see her now, he would probably be speechless...
She must have giggled out loud because Damon asked, "What's so funny?"
The thought of Victor always brought a smile to her face. In fact, she could have sworn she heard him calling her name. His voice was so incredibly real.
"Karina! Princess Karina!"
Her eyes widened. He was calling her name. From across the river. She was caught red-handed. The princess gasped with disbelief, astonished he found her this quickly. Somehow he knew it was her, despite the gold-lined black masquerade ball mask across her face. It should have been at least a few more hours before he discovered she left the castle!
She scoffed as Damon bolted, that coward. Of course Victor did have a longbow in his hand and looked angry enough to use it. He was a sweetheart; he'd never use it anywhere near her. Well, maybe Damon didn't know that.
With her hands on her hips, even though she knew she was in trouble her stubborn nature refused to give Victor any leniency. "What are you doing here? Go; you're not welcome," she shouted angrily across the river.
Victor looked up and down the river, and then took a step forward. Her heart skipped a beat; it looked as if he was actually considering plunging into the icy cold water, risking certain death against the rapids, just to take her back under his control.
"Are you insane? Don't you even think of it, Victor! You'll drown!" she shouted at the top of her lungs.
"Listen to me very carefully," he yelled back, holding off for the moment. "Your father will hang both of us if you keep avoiding me." Taking a deep breath, Victor tried to reason with her.
"I'm... I'm sorry about everything. I regret our argument more than you know. Maybe I have been a little stern with you lately." Victor shrugged, removing the arrow from the bowstring.
She could feel her heart softening again. The princess almost cursed her weakness; she wanted to remain upset with him, but it was so difficult to do so. "You wanted to leave me; you wanted another knight to be my guardian." It was difficult to say that without her lip quivering.
Refusing to show her weakness, she embraced her natural talent for sarcasm and added, "So I figured you wouldn't mind if I left your watch and went to the party on my own. That way, we both get what we want." It was a childish thing to say, of course. But as much as she wanted things to go back to the way they were, she wasn't ready to apologize.
"Of course I didn't want to leave you! I thought you wanted... look. I know we went down the wrong path, but I want everything to return to normal as well."
She smiled, listening to him bare his heart, truly enjoying every moment. Not for the sake of being right, but for the sake of hearing him bare his heart.
"I... it's not like I have children. You've always been the closest thing I have to a daughter, and somewhere along the way you blossomed into this wonderful young lady I see before me."
She flinched out of complete surprise. Daughter? Is that what he'd thought of her? She didn't know whether to yell at him for his stupidity, or cry from a broken heart.
Of course he didn't know how she really felt about him... but still.
So maybe it was a crazy childish crush. At first, anyway. It was more than that now; Karina would never forget the time she first began to see him in a different light, no longer simply a handsome knight in her eyes, but a compassionate, caring man.
It started back when she was having a really, really bad day; her pet dog had just died a few days ago at the ripe old age of fifteen. She also had an awful fight with one of her friends, and they were no longer speaking to each other. And of course her studies had to be particularly difficult this day.
Yet Victor identified her struggle and sat down next to her, offering to help with her schoolwork (he often did that, and she didn't mind; he was smarter than her tutor anyway). But he detected more than a frustrated young girl that didn't understand her assignment.
Her friends, Ladies-in-Waiting, and even her parents... none of them seemed to notice the heartache she was going through. Of course she put on a brave front that fooled everyone... everyone except Victor.
He knew. Somehow, he just knew she was in pain. Without saying a word, he seemingly out of the blue put his arms around her, wrapping her in a tight embrace. Karina's lip quivered as she put her head against his armored chest, dropping her book and returning his embrace, allowing her protective veil to fall away. The tears began to flow; she was unable to hold them back in spite of her embarrassment. Somehow he saw her pain when no one else did regardless of her best efforts to hide it. She would always cherish that memory.
And here he was again, always showing up and protecting her. She knew it was his job, but she couldn't help but wonder if the thought of it as more than just that? Having softened a little, she asked him, "How did you find me anyway?"
"We found some acquaintances that recognized what's-his-face... your semi-noble pirate friend who bravely ran away," he said smartly and with a touch of disdain. "They saw you two sneaking off this way."
Placing her hands behind her back and pursing her lips, she looked away, eyes downcast. Just the word 'sneaking' made her feel remorseful. Suddenly her eyes opened wide; after a brief moment the intent of his words had hit her... and she was mortified! He must have thought the worst about her; no wonder he had been furious up until this point! This was about more than sneaking off, she reasoned. Yet the princess wasn't about to let Damon touch her with a ten-foot pole, but Victor didn't know that.
Quickly she blurted, "IT'S NOT WHAT YOU THINK!" Now she was seriously worried. If this got back to her father and mother, they would tar and feather her. But even worse than that was Victor's perception of her.
"I SWEAR! He said he was going to show me something," she said, pointing down the path. "I...no, I didn't mean... I meant..." she fumbled through her words, wringing her fingers and absolutely horrified at what he must have thought.
"But of course. And in return, I shall show him something," Victor said, subtly brandishing the tip of his arrow, eyeing the reflection of the moonlight off of the dense, cold steel.
She gasped, "You wouldn't!" Yet to her surprise, she found herself admitting, in a twisted sort of way, that it was incredibly romantic. Butterflies tickled her stomach.
"Oh, I would." But he sighed, "Relax; I do believe you, Princess Karina, if that is what you are sincerely telling me. But him, I do not trust. You must be more careful."
With a deep sigh of relief, the princess slowly began to understand that he trusted her. She had her moments of defiance... and this latest move was a big one, but she never had lied to him.
"By the way, I love the irony," he added.
Looking back at Victor, somewhat puzzled, she asked, "What?"
"I imagine tonight a fair number of maids have dressed up as princesses, yet you chose to do it quite contrary. A princess. Dressing as a maid." She could tell he was smiling with amusement simply by the way he pronounced his words; no one else could have detected the subtle nuances of his speech, but she knew him better than anyone else.
"Even in an outfit as... risqué as that. Still, I have always known your lifelong desire to see how life marches on through the ordinary, mundane life, far outside of your royal lineage. So I do understand the satire."
"So you've seen my outfit," she said with a blush, suddenly feeling close to naked. Much to her relief, her mask and the night sky hid the bright red shade upon her face. Showing off her legs to her friends underneath the unreasonably short maid skirt was one thing, but Victor catching her in it... she felt incredibly flush.
But not so much that she couldn't tease him. "So where is your outfit, good Sir Knight? It is All Hallows Eve after all!"
She could have sworn he was smiling as he said, "I'm wearing it; tonight I am a Knight of the Word."
The princess scoffed, "So boring; you're no fun! You always are a knight. Be rebellious! Try to do something different! Or be someone different!"
She could hear his deliberate laugh, "Like what, a pirate?" She crossed her arms and huffed. Not only was he making fun of Damon, but also he wasn't being any fun, period.
Changing subjects, apparently wanting to get to the heart of the matter, Victor told her, "As far as you leaving the castle, perhaps we can work something out in the future. I am willing to work on becoming less rigid, if you are willing to accept certain limitations?"
She beamed, "I'd like that."
"Me too. But you truly have flirted with danger tonight, and sneaking away without my notice is unacceptable."
His lecture stung, suddenly making her feel half her age. Maybe it was because she had acted half of her age.
He continued "We will both have to explain this to your father and mother. There is a realistic chance I will be removed from duty, as I am sure you've considered. So our reconciliation may be for naught."
Her eyes widened and she gasped. No! She had not considered that her defiance might cause the removal of Victor from his position. Remorse weighed on her heavily, now aware of the fact that her rebelliousness may have potentially caused not only the termination of the brave knight from his duty, but also his removal from her life. The notion was unbearable.
"I do not believe I can save you from this consequence, but perhaps we can lessen the damage. Now please, will you come? The bridge isn't that far. I will meet you down there..." She could tell by the inflection of his words that he wasn't sure if she would come.
"Oh, I don't know..." She said, pretending it was a hard decision, teasing him one last time despite her reluctant admission that it was time to face the music. The first thing she would do when she returned to the castle was beg her parents for forgiveness in hopes that they would refrain from reassigning Victor.
Still, she refused to give in that easily -- she couldn't give in that easily. After all, she wasn't a weak princess.
"I suppose it depends on the punishment. What did you have in mind?" Princess Karina couldn't tell if he could see her smile in the moonlight, given the distance of separation between the two, but it was one of pure seduction. So what if the bastard thought she was "like a daughter"? She'd make him change his mind. She'd half considered flipping up the back of her short frilly maid's dress and asking if a spanking was in order for her defiance.
Her desirable thoughts were interrupted as he screamed, "KARINA, BEHIND YOU!" In one swift motion he had his arrow nocked and pointed in her direction.
Something sinister and made up entirely of black snuck out from the tree line behind Karina and grabbed her; she screamed frantically. The way it moved was unnatural; it darted rapidly like a living shadow but it was so opaquely black that even the darkness around it seemed translucent and dim in contrast.
Even if he could manage to get a shot off without risking harm to the princess, he wasn't necessarily sure where to aim, or if it would do any good.
Something grabbed her wrists and waist as if they were shadowy and abnormally long, dark fingers, or perhaps even tentacles. Victor, wide-eyed and aiming his bow for something to shoot at, could have sworn he saw two small specks within the shadows, almost as if they were eyes. Within mere seconds she was enveloped within shadow, the last thing he saw of her was the frightening look on her face before darkness swallowed her. And then, whatever it was, it pulled her back into the forest.
And just like that, assuming she was still alive, Princess Karina was gone. Taken.
She had vanished into the night.
The moment Karina was grabbed and pulled into the blackness remained seared into his mind. Every time he closed his eyes he saw her being ripped away, just out of his grasp, and also from his very life. The terror she must be feeling right now... he didn't want to think about it, but it was a difficult thought to block out.
The only thing that caused him to temporarily push that thought out of his mind was the familiar sound of the lone violin, once again echoing throughout the castle.
Victor immediately began to follow the noise, chasing down hallway after hallway, following its twists and turns. Twice he went up a set of stairs and once he went down. He no longer knew which floor he was on.
The music was getting louder and louder, which meant he was getting close. With any luck, he would find whoever was playing the tragic requiem and force them to reveal Karina's whereabouts within the massive castle.
He was almost there; he had to be within one hundred feet of the source. Quickly, Victor turned the corner.
The music suddenly stopped.
In front of him and only ten feet down the hallway was a dark, rich oaken door ornately designed with intricate etchings along the border; the elaborate detail and expensive material indicated that of royalty.
Taking note of the fact that the music died, he soon discovered that the only sound remaining was the murmur of his pulsating heart, rapidly beating inside his chest.
He pulled out the silver key and looked at it in the palm of his hand. A thought occurred to him; he had long suspected he was being watched, perhaps even toyed with. The music led him to this door, and he wondered if the key would grant him access. If so, then he could almost assume there were invisible eyes upon him, studying his every move.
But for what purpose?
Carefully he inserted the key and turned it. The soft "click" signified he had just unlocked the door. Now he was almost certain that he was being manipulated, but to what end he couldn't be sure. Maybe the castle itself was alive, watching and waiting; maybe it would never let him leave, or perhaps deeper within the heart of the castle it had plans to lure him deeper and swallow him whole.
Pushing those corrupt thoughts out of his mind, he once again brought his focus to the task at hand. To the only thing that mattered -- finding Karina.
Victor carefully opened the door.
At first, he wasn't sure if the room was a bedchamber of a daughter of royalty, or perhaps the bower of the Lady of the castle, but it was definitely of the highest class once upon a time.
The design of the room was indicative to that of his own princess, with a few notable exceptions. The first of which was the dreary, somber appearance of the room; the flash from the lightning lit up a small portion of the room in a dark sea green, perhaps the same shade a metallic statue might become after centuries of exposure to rain, wind, and other harsher elements. Outside of that deathly green shade, the room dominated in black -- the remaining shadows so well hidden that even the lightning's momentary flash of light couldn't reach them.
But all attention was drawn to the center of the room.
Victor shuddered; every hair upon his body stood up as he witnessed a body hanging from the chandelier. The unfortunately soul wore a white wedding dress and gently swayed by the neck. As the night sky flashed again, the room filled with green and black but this time he could see a white porcelain mask with hollow black eyes upon her face. With a mixture of dread and sorrow, and perhaps a bit of shock, Victor stood transfixed at the sight of the Lady in White.
While the unknown Lady in White was not dressed in the maid's outfit Karina was last seen in, Victor feared this could possibly be her. Carefully he approached, reaching his hand out towards the mask, attempting to overcome the slight tremor in his fingers. Holding his breath in terrible anticipation, he peeled the mask off slowly.
He beheld there was no face. No eyes, no mouth, not even a nose.
A dummy. It was nothing more than a dressed up mannequin. In a fit of rage, Victor swung his axe as lightning crashed in the background; the rope was severed and the body fell to the floor, landing twisted with its arms and legs sharply bent in an unnatural, deformed position.
Clutching his head, Victor tried to shake off the overwhelming emotions crawling around in his head, threatening to overtake his body and dissolve his spirit. It felt like he was losing his mind. He hadn't seen a living, breathing creature in as long as he could remember. The darkness of this place began to weigh heavily on his mental state. He began to doubt not only reality, but wondered if Karina was even in the castle anymore.
Was she ever in the castle? What was real, and what was an illusion? When did the phantasms of confusion first enter his mind? Maybe he had been here so long he was beginning to assimilate with the castle.
He was half tempted to give in to the surging anger controlling his body, desiring nothing more than destroying everything in the room until there were nothing more than splinters of decaying antique furniture pieces. Victor first turned towards the vanity desk, preparing to strike his own reflection in the mirror and watch the shower of glass shards erupt. But then, through the reflection in the mirror, something caught his eye amidst the jewelry on the desk.
It was a silver cross necklace. The shape of the necklace alone was enough to re-center him, but it wasn't just any cross necklace. It was the same one he gave Karina for her sixteenth birthday. It was given to her not just as a flamboyant decoration, but as a reminder of the hope Christ bestowed all upon dying on the cross.
Carefully he picked it up by the thin chain and allowed the cross to settle in the palm of his hand. He took one big breath and exhaled, thanking the Lord yet again for a renewed sense of faith and sanity.
She was still here in the castle, and he knew he was on the right track, getting closer. He would find her, or die trying.
Every great castle has an archive or library, and Victor knew that would be his best chance to gather information. Surprisingly, the easy part was finding the Grand Library. As for the hard part: what he didn't count on was the gargantuan size of the Grand Library, so he didn't know where to start.
After he pushed the library doors closed behind him he turned towards the center of the room, he looked up with sheer awe, beholding the largest library he had ever laid eyes on. It was at least twice the size of his king and queen's royal library, perhaps even larger as he had yet to fully explore the majestic and splendid institution. The walls reached up at least eighty feet high, covered wall to wall in books, maps, and archived tomes. It consisted of four floors (maybe even more, as he did not have a full field of vision of the entire library); as it stretched towards the ceiling, it gradually sloped upwards until reaching a shallow glass dome forming a central apex.
Yet as vast and splendorous as it was, the archaic nature of the library (such as how the dusty bookshelves formed long aisles making up passageways of utter darkness, or how the numerous alcoves were dimly lit) that gave it a foreboding appearance.
Dark tattered curtains covered the windows haphazardly, once luxurious but now having given in to the decay of time. An old world terrestrial globe sat quietly upon its wooden stand. It almost looked as if there was just the slightest rotation out of the corner of Victor's eye, but when he looked directly at it, he was certain the navigator's globe remained stationary.
Marble busts of long forgotten men, most of whom scowled back ominously, graced the occasional small niche between bookshelves. As Victor began exploring the library, he took note of the marble strangers, uncertain that they were not looking directly at him. With his shield arm, he took out Karina's silver cross and simply held it, running his fingers over it carefully as if reminding himself he wasn't alone.
After carefully exploring the library, navigating the massive labyrinth of literature for what seemed like hours upon hours, Victor finally found something intriguing in one of the far off alcoves.
There wasn't anything specific that separated this particular nook from any of the others; it was just as dark, spider webs hung from the corners like everywhere else, and the furniture arrangement was similar. It was a little harder to find, though; he stumbled upon it accidentally after becoming temporarily lost, guided down one of the dark aisles until it emptied out into this small half-octagon area.
Two maroon leather wingback chairs sprawled out from across a small rosewood table adorned with a bronze candelabrum in the center. A black leather-bound book sat angled and open as if recently read; its matching bookmark rested in the crease.
Victor stepped forward prudently to analyze the book and it's writing. It was already open, so Victor read from the book:
"...He came on All Hallows Eve, that Stranger. He came from roaming to and fro across the land, seeking an audience with my father, the King. Along the narrow bridge this night and towards the castle's iron gates he trudged along slowly as if invisible chains burdened his shoulders, yet in spite of his old bones, his fingers were more than able to play an eerie tune on his violin. Despite the long walk that may burden one as old as he, his long, gaunt and pale face seemed to secretly convey a sinister and twisted smile underneath his tattered hood.
Notwithstanding his repugnant stature, there seemed to be some kind of a hidden power manifesting underneath his cloak, evident in the way he hauntingly played his violin. The silver moon -- that night much bigger than I had ever seen it -- seemed to follow him as if also captured by the distorted requiem.
It became colder as he began to speak, as if the Southern winter's air had suddenly arrived, "You have been expecting me, though you may not know it. You have called me, though you do not remember. I am your answer."
The King was entranced, perhaps able to feel the very power bleeding out of the awful pale Stranger.
As if looking into the King's very soul, the Stranger brought forth a black parchment scroll, flicking it open; it unraveled to the floor. "Power I offer you and your line; power of youth, wealth, and even immortality. Power!" The word rolled off of the Tempter's forked tongue with ease, as if his very words held promise. We were all transfixed; almost hypnotized I would say, if I did not know better. We knew he had power; seductive and sinister he may have been yet the promise of might overwhelmed. And all of this in spite of a warning in the back of my mind. He spoke again, "You need only sign this scroll in red, and our Pact will be complete."
Transfixed to the Tempter, the wide-eyed King shouted, "Yes! Tell me more!" He stood up from his throne, marching down with zeal, fully prepared to sign the Pact. But before the King could reach the scroll, the Tempter quickly pulled it away.
"Skin for skin! Nothing is free, yet my price is fair. I merely ask that you allow me to roam within your castle walls as long as your family line remains on the throne; this is all I ask. What does the wise King say to this? Will he accept my offer?"
And with a resounding "Yes", the King took the black writing quill and, with red ink, signed our royal family into the Pact. Lightning crashed and thunder shook the foundation the moment it had been done, precisely eight minutes past the third hour; our fate was sealed.
A smile from the pale man brought a shiver to my body; never in my life had I been so disturbed from a mere look -- let alone a smile -- but there was something wicked about it.
Just then, the wind began to blow inside the Great Hall as if a gale of tremendous strength ignored the stone walls much like the wind might ignore a portcullis. The smell of sulfur hung in the air. The torches flickered and the candles went out, and just like that the Stranger -- the Tempter -- had vanished before our very eyes. Not some trick of a master magician, but a feat of real sorcery. Never had I believed... until that moment. Yet there was an uneasiness that resided within me, second-guessing the decision of the King.
But it was too late. Just like that, on that fateful All Hallows Eve, the Pact was made between The Stranger and The King.
Immortality, as promised, we were given.
But at a horrible price."
Victor sat in the chair, captivated by the story. He wondered if the story were nothing more than a fictional tale, or if it was supposedly a true story? He pitied the author despite the tragic and despiteful actions his father and family had taken. Victor couldn't help but wonder what was on the black scroll -- what the Pact consisted of? As the chapter had come to an end, he turned the page to see how the story might continue.
Though we never saw the Stranger again, we knew he wandered the castle halls, just as he said he would. And the Pact was upheld, though it was at a terrible cost.
At first, the riches came quick, power fell into our laps, and a rejuvenated youth befell the entire royal family. Euphoria overflowed inside and around us; it was as if everything we touched turned into gold.
But the ecstasy was not to last. Slowly we began to waste away from the inside out. We still had our wealth, but the joy of it all began to fade away. Our youth remained evident by our skin, but inside, we felt ten times as old. And with that feeling, we strived to gain more wealth because what we had wasn't enough, and suddenly we no longer believed we were as young as we should have been. It wasn't enough. The more we acquired, the less fulfilled we became.
My father, along with all of my brothers and sisters, never seemed to notice this. Only my youngest brother and I. But by the time he and I discovered our very souls were rotting inside and spreading rapidly like a disease, there was nothing we could do.
I watched helplessly as my sisters attempted to beautify themselves further, yet I could tell that they -- like I -- were becoming more and more hollow the harder and harder they tried. Once the best of friends, they soon became resentful of each other, stopping at nothing to become the fairest... even if it meant sabotaging their own flesh and blood. One sister set fire to my older sisters hair. Yet another sister who wanted to be the most beautiful across the land tried to cut the nose off of her very twin.
My brothers, all having benefited from the power of the Pact, continually tried to outdo each other until playful rivalry had turned into a power-hungry, bloodthirsty and disdainful enmity that cost two of them their lives.
I hope they find the peace they seek as they lay still in our graveyard in the ward; hopefully they have found eternal rest within the royal family mausoleum.
But I doubt it.
As for my father: I shall not begin to speak of the atrocities he committed.
Now for my confession. Not of my sins -- for they are so grave that I cannot fathom being forgiven -- but confession over my writings.
I am ashamed to say not everything in the last chapter was true. No; it was true, I suppose, but I left something out.
The Stranger did ask for an invitation into our castle; that much is true. But he also requested something more. A sort of payment was required every seven years... but of what I cannot bear to discuss or admit to. The very notion is the blackest of sins, vile and beyond unforgiveable. Our hearts have been hardened, and our very thoughts have become a dark swirl of shadows. I believe some of my siblings have embraced the darkness while others of us can foresee our own demise, destined to crumble under the weight of this curse... this terrible secret.
That secret shall be taken to my grave.
When I walk up and down the castle halls, my mind is filled with shadows. When I close my eyes to escape them, the shadows still taunt me. As I write this very piece of literature, I can feel them stirring my brain like a kettle of boiling liquid, waiting for it to boil over until I remain hollow.
Peace evades me... in fact I often forget the very meaning of that word. "Peace." I long for it; I do not remember what it feels like anymore, but I know that peace does not share this wretched feeling... like I am feeling now.
If only I could, I would tell that repugnant, pale Stranger to take his power back. Take his riches back. Beg my father to refrain from signing the Pact.
Or, at the very least, let us fade away and die quietly, one by one; let our family line end before our children bear our curse.
Forgiveness... that word echoes hallow and it's meaning shrivels in my mind. Can we be forgiven? Can I be forgiven? Impossible!
WHAT HAVE WE DONE??
Victor lamented for the author, pitying at how horrified he must have felt as he slipped into the darkness, believing hope had evaded him. The short story weighed heavily upon his mind, yet it also revealed a small insight into the days gone past of Wraithfall Castle.
As one chapter came to an end, Victor flipped the page to begin another. With furrowed eyebrows and a great sense of bewilderment, he tried to make sense of the remainder of the book. It was all gibberish and nonsense, as if written by a madman. But Victor could still sense the common theme of a deep remorse and sheer horror.
Flipping the page back and forth, comparing the handwriting, Victor came to the conclusion it was in fact the same author but somewhere along the way his ability to comprehend the normal had been seriously degraded.
Excluding the mad ramblings and undecipherable scribbling, Victor found the story in the previous chapter incredibly intriguing, pondering its meaning after carefully closing the book and wondering about the great tragedy that befell the kingdom. He believed he had learned a little more about the history of the castle but unfortunately it did not help him with Karina.
Maybe if he could dig a little deeper into the roots of the castle, somehow understanding how this place became a bastion of evil, it might help him discover why she was taken and -- hopefully -- bring to light her whereabouts.
As Victor studied the manuscript of the unknown author in hopes of gleaning insight from the text, a familiar tune penetrated the still and quiet of the dark library.
It was the violin.
He wasn't sure why, but there was something inside him, almost like an innate sense warning him that there was much more to this haunting melody -- something he didn't pick up on the last time he heard the music. Almost as if the very music were evil, subtly working it's way into his mind, threatening to corrupt and destroy.
It was harder -- much harder -- to follow the malevolent song given the utter darkness relentlessly attempting to penetrate his heart.
Once again he placed his hand upon the cross necklace, reminding himself of both his service to the Lord and his mission dedicated to finding Karina.
Victor marched out of the library, once more following the ominous music.
Thick cold fog trickled inside the moment Victor threw open the double doors leading to the outer courtyard, slowly rolling inside past his feet and across the red carpet.
He was certain the music came from behind the door, but the moment he opened them the only sound to be heard was that of the wind whistling between the leafless branches.
The fog inside the ward obscured the walls of the courtyard, but from his view the courtyard looked like any other outdoor cemetery; he had to remind himself it was still technically part of the castle. Even the trees were large; their bark, seemingly black under the night sky, gave an imposing, shadowy presence as they loomed over him. The headstones nearby were old and faded -- some cracked and broken -- and many were so weathered they couldn't be read.
Off in the distance Victor could hear the repetitive sound of a shovel digging and tossing dirt, repeating the cycle over and over -- digging and tossing, digging and tossing -- in a slow but steady manner. He hoped to locate the source of the sound expeditiously, electing to step deeper into the misty ward, careful with each step as to avoid tripping over the smaller unmarked gravestones.
Up ahead he could barely make out the slightest hint of yellow light. A small opening in the fog revealed the source of light to be coming from a lit lantern peacefully sitting upon a headstone.
In the lantern's light Victor could vaguely make out the form of a hunchbacked man in a tattered brown cloak, his back towards him, digging up and throwing dirt on top of a nearby pile.
Victor stepped forward ready to finally speak with a living human being -- friend or foe, he couldn't be sure -- in hopes of getting answers. He remained cautious and alert, wrapping his fingers one by one around the hilt of his battle-axe, ready to draw his weapon if necessary. An old hunchbacked man shouldn't be a threat, but with the constant deception Wraithfall Castle offered, one could never be too careful.
But just as quickly as the fog had parted, it swiftly filled back in, masking the entire scene except for a small trace of the dingy yellow light which strained futilely, unable to peek through. Victor quickly moved forward but by the time he arrived at the grave, the old hunchback was nowhere to be seen. The lantern remained atop of the headstone, leaning slightly over the open grave, and the rusty shovel lay unattended on the ground.
Wherever he may have vanished to, assuming Victor could believe his own eyes, was a mystery. He never heard footsteps, but it was possible he ran off into the fog. Then again, it was possible he was nothing more than a hallucination -- a figment of his mind; the castle walls tested his sanity more and more with each second he remained within them. It was also possible he unexplainably disappeared, vanishing into thin air.
Now that Victor stood by the gravesite he noticed something he hadn't seen earlier -- an old, shadowy coffin of the darkest ebony wood sitting behind the pile of dirt, silently waiting to be lowered into the depthless void. Ready... yet waiting as if it could wait for an eternity.
Victor grabbed the shovel and, after walking around the grave, he jammed the shovel's tip between the coffin and the lid and pried it open.
And inside, he discovered a body.
Maggots crawled over the body inside the coffin, infesting the deteriorating corpse.
Despite the facial decay, it was someone Victor immediately recognized. Dressed in a cheap pirate ensemble, just as Victor saw him last, Karina's friend Damon lay rotting within the coffin. As much as the old knight didn't like the boy, whatever happened to Damon... he never would have wished this fate upon anyone.
Victor, having been trained in the application of combat medicine over a countless number of years, inspected the unfortunate soul. A quick scan revealed an absence of stabbing or puncture wounds; external bleeding was not evident on his clothing or flesh. It was the look on the body's face that offered volumes of information.
Horror. Pure horror had been molded upon his face. Even after death his hollow eyes (what were left of them) remained fixed wide open, conveying extreme shock and fear, most likely only moments before his demise.
Damon had died of fright.
Victor dropped to a knee and sighed, removing his helm. As much as he wanted to remove Damon from this realm of evil -- assuming he could actually find a way out -- he would have to come back for him later. Much of his hope in finding Karina had faded; if Damon had died, then odds were Karina suffered the same fate.
But no; he couldn't think like that. And until he could prove Karina's demise, he would remain steadfast in finding her, hoping against hope that she somehow avoided Damon's lot.
For now, Victor would offer a quiet prayer from his lips for God's mercy upon Damon's soul. He struggled for the right words, not because of what he thought about Damon but because of the burden upon him and the corrupt environment, as if an unseen dark presence weighed heavily on him, disrupting his very thoughts. Despair itself attacked him evident in his sorrow for Damon and worry for the princess.
Victor found it incredibly difficult to focus on prayer within the stronghold; it was a great mental and spiritual fight to keep his heart and mind clear and focused, evident through his sweating and increased breathing. But through will and determination, and even through a few groans, he concluded his prayer for Damon with an Amen.
Victor stood up and donned his helm, turning his attention to the headstone. Grabbing the lantern and shining its dim light at the engraving, he witnessed an absence of name, date of birth, and date of death. Jaggedly etched into the stone, it simply read:
"...They went down alive into the realm of the dead, with everything they owned; the earth closed over them, and they perished and were gone..."
Victor's body tensed up. It took him a short moment to recall where he had heard those words, but he had definitely heard them before.
It came to him suddenly as he remembered hearing that verse in a class he had taken during his knighthood training with the church. "Numbers 16," he muttered with a combination of concern and displeasure. "Straight from the Bible." It distressed him how greatly those words had been taken from the most Holy of Books and perverted for evil purposes.
Turning his attention to the grave, even with the lantern's light Victor couldn't tell how deep the grave had been dug. All he could see were four walls of dirt descending into an empty black pit. Picking up a small round pebble from the dirt pile, he tossed it down the hole and, once it vanished from sight, he listened intently with an expectation of hearing it hit the bottom.
But it never made a sound.
Imagining Damon's coffin hurled into an oblivion of endless darkness, the thought of leaving his body behind began to weigh heavily upon his mind. Victor couldn't imagine such desecration -- not to anyone.
Returning to the coffin, Victor carefully and respectfully lifted him out with his shield arm, flicking off the maggots, and gently rested his remains over his shoulder. With any luck, he would be able to hide his body somewhere nearby and return shortly after he rescued Karina.
It wasn't far down the foggy pathway when Victor saw the decrepit and discolored grey walls -- perhaps walls of white many centuries ago -- walls of a hidden mausoleum. It seemed like he had his answer, or at least a temporary solution to his problem at hand.
Carefully working his way around the old structure, he came across a rather large entryway featuring two large angelic statues guarding a granite door. As with the mausoleum, the statues appeared to have been beautiful at one time; immaculate detail was evident in the original sculpting. But after years of erosion from the natural elements, coupled with reprehensible vandalism, they appeared sinister -- and almost demonic.
Stonework upon one of the angelic faces had been crudely chipped away at forming fanged teeth and jagged cuts at the corners of the mouth, but even more disturbing was the sanded-down eyes and accompanying faded-black tear stains. The other statue's face had been caved in, giving it a hollow and gaunt appearance. Each statue featured an outstretched arm as if beckoning Victor to enter, yet leaving him uncertain if he would ever leave alive.
He slowly climbed up the few steps, his hand resting upon his axe and his head swiveling back and forth from statue to statue, not convinced they weren't up to something ominous. He scoffed at himself for having such thoughts; the very notion was filled with madness... statues that could move, or threaten. Perhaps even harm or kill. Yet he knew that thought wouldn't have even occurred to him before he entered the castle, but now nothing would surprise him.
Victor could have sworn that the ill-omened angels were watching every step he took; their necks seemed to make the slightest of movements, unnoticeably turning as if their very eyes were upon him -- all without making a sound. Then again, if there was any movement, it was so subtle that it could have been his imagination.
Despite his preconceived notion of the worst, he made it to the door without incident. At first, the door wouldn't budge open; Victor guessed that it hadn't been opened in decades if not centuries. With his second attempt, he kicked it as hard as he could, forcing it open a few inches but more importantly unjamming it. The bottom of the door scraped against the stone floor, emitting a horrible shriek so loud it could wake the dead; there was no doubt the sound traveled throughout the entire cemetery ward and perhaps half the castle. He winced, knowing he may have drawn unnecessary attention to himself.
Victor carefully lay Damon down on the ground and prayed his body would be safe until he could return. He didn't want to disrupt any of the caskets in the mausoleum so he turned to leave, but as he prepared to exit the mausoleum Victor's ears picked up on a quiet sound; the tic-tocking of an old grandfather clock.
Through the darkness and across the chamber he spotted the grandfather clock standing ominously tall against the far wall, as if hovering -- or watching -- over the tombs of the dead. It must have been at least ten feet tall and weighed five times his own weight. Upon closer inspection, Victor realized it was made of the finest and darkest walnut, but in contrast to the masterwork wood, the glass case was cracked and the pendulum hung suspended in place, defying gravity. The hands on the clock were frozen at three hours and eight minutes.
Yet he heard the clock continue to tick away, the stroke of each second echoing off the chamber walls, ringing hollow as if counting away the remaining seconds of life itself, each one telling him that he was one tick closer to decay and death itself.
Memento Mori, he thought to himself, remembering the old book in the study.
In essence, the clock itself was broken as if dead yet it ticked away as if undead, seemingly fitting in this very castle... or cemetery.
The moon dial upon the clock featured a dark pale-faced moon, blood red and full, imitating where the moon might actually have hung the very night the clock had been broken.
But the hands of the clock -- there was something about the position of the hands... the third hour and the eighth minute. Something familiar that he could not recall. No matter; although the broken grandfather clock had all the time in the world, he didn't. Hopefully it would come to him, but if not he still had to move on.
He was surprised when he located the initials of the clockmaker, inscribed on the lower part of the clock. J.O.B.
He carefully tried to recollect any last names that may have started with the letter 'B'; perhaps a name from one of the busts in the library? Perhaps one of the paintings? No; nothing was coming to him. He came up empty.
Victor noticed a shadow moving out of the corner of his eye. Without warning, the large grandfather clock began to fall forward -- right where Victor was standing.
Caught off guard, he quickly threw his shield up and stepped towards the side, partially deflecting the falling object and moving out of its way just in time, knocked to the ground in the process. But the grandfather clock partially landed on one of the stone mausoleum caskets, breaking the lid and collapsing an entire side as well as sending up a cloud of dust.
Victor carefully stood up and, after coughing, swatted away the airborne dust particles. He didn't know how it fell over; as far as he could tell there was nothing that should have caused it to tip over.
With the lid cracked and one of the sides of the casket smashed, it was easy to see the skeleton from one of long past lying uncomfortably inside. The skeleton appeared to be wearing the garb of a royal family member although much of the cloth had wasted away due to the passing of time, yet validating Victor's opinion that this was most likely the tomb of the royal family. There was no doubt this unfortunate soul had been a relative of the king; perhaps a son or grandson, maybe even a nephew of high esteem. Interestingly enough the skeleton held a feathered pen in one hand and a scroll in the other.
Victor knew he was grasping at straws at this point, but desperate for any information he gently pried the sheet of vellum paper from the bony fingers. With the utmost of caution to ensure the parchment didn't crumble in his hands, he took his time to carefully unroll the scroll. It read:
Haceldama! We have accepted our thirty pieces of silver and thus we are paying the terrible price for those cursed and bloodstained coins. Terror... terror of which I cannot speak! Eternal dread! There is no reconciliation any longer, there is only suffering. Oh how I would eat away at my flesh to only numb the pain. To gnaw at my arm, to rip the sinews and flesh with my teeth. Would that I could end the everlasting sting!
Victor, having recognized the writing, froze in place. It matched that of the author of the book he read back in the library.
Will someone not save me? Is it not possible? Of course it is not! They are coming for me; I must hide! But hiding will only be in vain for they are always watching. They are staring at me with their red eyes; they know I can see them. I do not know how, but they know. I hear them taunting me... "Every seven years... every seven years," they say, echoing in a chorus of evil.
"Every seven years..."
I close my eyes and I can still see them...
"Every seven years..."
I scream at them, begging for them to go away but they only laugh and continue to torment me
"Every seven years..."
I try to run but they are all around me
"Every seven years..."
There is only one way out
"Bring one to us... EVERY SEVEN YEARS..."
...and bring them we did. One girl, up to the highest bridge -- the Bridge of Sacrifice -- was delivered every seven years.
And it would come.
And shake the foundation of the earth.
And after it was done, over the next seven years, we would pretend like nothing happened. But it did happen, and we were always reminded. And then the cycle repeated itself as we did it all over again. The screams of the innocents echo inside my head. Can no one see that?!?
The demons around me shriek; their shrill cries mimic that of the young girls taken, one every seven years. They will not stop.
There is only one way to make the screams stop.
To the mausoleum I go; I shall retire early where my soul may rot with my forefathers in dust and ashes, my body to join the worms. Yes, to the place where the worm does not die and the fire does not quench.
And so I now come to the end of this note -- my final writing -- as I sit in my coffin and prepare to slide closed the lid and lock it from the inside (for I have no key), and thus it shall remain forever closed... I shall breathe my last. As my hope has faded, may these wretched creatures also fade away, and leave me to wither away and die with only regret to keep me company.
So this was the tragic end that the author had faced. Lying himself down in a stone box devoid of light and air, waiting until he could breathe no more, waiting for the Reaper's hand to come take him away. He was so full of despair that he saw only one way out. Victor, full of sorrow, took a look at the skeleton before him and pitied the man.
His story was awful, yet cryptic. And yet despite his tragic suicide, he played his part out of his own free will, and there were many other victims to feel sorrow. Victor narrowed his eyebrows, thinking about the young girls taken as a sacrifice...
Surely that was why she was here! Princess Karina was to become a sacrifice of some sort; she was connected to whatever dark power had seized her. Perhaps she could be found near what the author referenced as the Bridge of Sacrifice... supposedly the highest bridge in the castle. He began to think: Where could such a bridge be located? If the highest part of a castle were the tower tops, then the bridge was likely at the highest point between the two highest towers.
That was where he must go.
He was in a hurry to leave but there remained one more thing weighing heavily on his mind... something that still kept nagging at him.
J.O.B. The initials of the clockmaker.
Take away the punctuation and it became "Job". A job. Defined as "To work". That didn't make any sense either. Unless...
The book of the Holy Bible... Job?
Think, Victor... think, he chided himself. But if it was the book of the Bible, there wasn't a verse or a chapter to reference.
Pondering the mystery of the clock, he lowered his head and closed his eyes. This was important because it was connected to Karina; he wasn't sure how, but he just knew it. As random as the events in the castle may have appeared, he was convinced something had been guiding him since he first crossed the threshold of the castle gates. But for good or ill, he couldn't be sure.
He briefly opened his eyes; he happened to be staring down at the face of the clock, it's hands still frozen at eight minutes past three.
Three hours and eight minutes.
And then everything clicked.
It was in fact a Bible verse! Job 3:8!
Victor paused for a moment to recall the Bible verse:
"May those who curse days curse that day, those who are ready to rouse Leviathan."
In cold silence, all he could do was blink.
The Leviathan... a mighty and ancient creature of untold power, destined to come from the sea. It was said that only the great and powerful sword of God would slay it. He went on to recall other verses about the Leviathan: "When it rises up, the mighty are terrified; they retreat before its thrashing. The sword that reaches it has no effect, nor does the spear or the dart or the javelin. Iron it treats like straw and bronze like rotten wood."
Whatever dark forces were unrelentingly sustaining Castle Wraithfall must have been preparing to rouse the Leviathan. And Princess Karina appeared to be it's next sacrifice.
Victor ran as fast as he could throughout the castle, giving up his former prudence and ways of caution for the sake of time, for the hourglass would soon run out. As he ran down hall after hall he looked outside through several windows until finally spotting across the way what he believed to be the two largest towers of the castle, both of which were connected hundreds and hundreds of feet high by a stone bridge. He was confident it was there that Karina could be found.
Once inside the tower he climbed stair after stair, his weapon drawn and ready; up the countless stairs he went until they finally reached the top. And there in front of him, at the stair's end, sat an iron black door.
Throwing the door open he was immediately met with a gusty wind which nearly knocked him down the shaft of the tower; his back foot slipped off the edge but he fell sideways, catching himself on the stairs. He pulled himself up and breathed a huge sigh of relief after looking down into the black pit of the stairwell some hundreds of feet below. Angry with himself, he realized his impatience almost cost him his life. Victor entered the room with a restored sense of caution.
The large circular area featured numerous open windows spaced evenly around the room (with exception of the door he came through and the door on the opposite end of the room which led to the bridge), perhaps contributing to the initially massive gust. He suspected the higher altitude might have also accounted for stronger winds, yet strangely, of the hundreds of black candles scattered throughout not a single one had been blown out.
In the center of the room a young woman stood with her back towards Victor, gracefully holding one of the black iron rails of the canopy bed. Her long elegant and nearly transparent robe flowed hypnotically with the breeze.
She turned around...
Victor could hardly believe it was her! He almost ran to her, desiring to embrace and comfort her... until she spoke.
"You finally came," she said with an air of confidence, perhaps almost with a touch of smugness. Slowly she glided towards Victor, one foot in front of the other.
Something wasn't right. "Princess Karina? What..."
He noticed there was something different about her, and as she came closer he became more and more convinced she wasn't acting like herself.
"Yes, my love? Have you come to claim your reward?" Her smile was too perfect. She should have been terrified. Yet Karina remained not only calm, but there was an unnerving manner with which she carried herself. It was almost eerie.
Slowly and seductively she began to open her robe. For a moment Victor was lost on her body as she displayed her finest assets, causing him to lower his weapon and shield. He could feel his inhibitions drifting away; his mind was finally beginning to accept this was no longer the child princess, but she was fully an adult.
But, if he had to reveal his greatest secret, the one he had wrestled with only recently... a secret so overwhelming that he buried his own feelings so far down that not even he could recognize it -- it was that he wanted more than her body. He wanted her.
All of her.
He couldn't explain why or how, but the wave of lust swept over him with such intensity that he felt week in the legs. The desire he felt was real and passionate, but it was almost unnatural.
She was so much more than the princess, more than beauty. She was a precious friend; a caring companion. And as such, he looked away from her body... and into her eyes. At first, they sparkled with the same crystalline blue he was familiar with. But there was something unusual about her eyes; just unusual enough to convince him they were not those of his Princess Karina.
A violent sickness dropped him to his knees as he realized her eyes weren't actually blue -- how he did not notice before, he wasn't sure -- but they were pitch black, as black as the moonless night, radiating an evil unlike anything he had ever felt or experienced. They were empty. Soulless. Yet had he been unable to pry his eyes away from her body, he may never have even noticed.
"You kneel before me? That is good... and most wise," she said haughtily, patiently circling around him.
Victor could feel blood rising in his throat; with a single cough, a small splattering lurched out of his mouth and hit the floor. A small drop hung from his lip, elongating into a thin but larger drop. His bones ached and his muscles grew weak; he couldn't even bring himself to stand in the presence of such evil.
"Y-you... you're n-not the princess," he strained out. "Wh..who are..."
"Come now," she scoffed. "I am whoever you want me to be; I can take any form you desire. And this one seems to be to your liking, no?" Gradually she lowered the robe past her shoulders.
This was all wrong. He tried to pray... he tried to utter the name of Jesus on his lips, but it wouldn't come. He couldn't say his Savior's name. A single tear dripped down to the floor, followed by another, and then another. He was horrified as he realized they were tears of blood; his very eyes were bleeding.
The timing of her laughter was uncanny; Victor wondered if she knew what he was doing.
Victor knew that even if he couldn't say the name of Jesus with his tongue, he could say it in his heart. "Christ is King... Christ is King..." he repeated over and over in his mind, refusing to be overcome.
The false Karina laughed even louder; the sound of a young woman intertwined with a deep guttural growl escaping from her lips echoed throughout the tower.
Bearing rows and rows of razor-sharp teeth, her mouth unnaturally widened and a hideous sound came out. "THERE IS NO GOD HERE," the demonic voice hissed.
Victor prayed in his mind even harder; he couldn't stand, he couldn't grasp his weapon. Sweat rolled off his brow and blood still trickled out of his mouth and eyes.
Her voice and mouth returned to normal as if never distorted in the first place, and she let out a soft giggle. "But fortunately for you, I am the only one you need." She offered a fake lament, bending down behind him and whispering in his ear, "Aww. You look to be in a dreadful amount of pain and suffering. And the pain will not end any time soon. You may die here from the pain; perhaps from starvation. Or perhaps your bones will wax old, wasting into nothing, or your body will simply wither away."
With a twisted smile, she added, "But I can restore you."
Though it took all of his strength, Victor managed to lift his head. The pain was tremendous; he could barely tolerate it any longer; it was as much of a mental struggle as it was physical. The temptation to give in to her, to allow her to ease the pain, was great.
Yet he couldn't give in... not like that. Though there may be great pain to him, he would not betray his God. Despite his suffering, even as blood dripped down off of his tongue, he spoke with confidence, "The scripture says, "Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they?" So my answer is no, monster. I refuse your help and choose to rely on my Lord's hand of providence, despite your dark curse upon me."
"You underestimate my power. I will not only heal you, but I offer you riches beyond your wildest dreams," she exclaimed. "You could rule as king with tens of wives at your side, hundreds of mistresses for companionship, thousands of servants to do your bidding, and hundreds of thousands of loyal soldiers for your personal army. Imagine storehouses of grain and gold... all for you. You have only to take my hand, and you shall rule the world."
The unyielding concentrated evil seemed to be spreading within him and attacking the purity of his very soul. And moreover, it was as if a fog permeated his mind, but he continued praying in his heart. Yet for all his turmoil, Victor somehow found the strength to counter and said, "It is written, "Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moths and vermin destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moths and vermin do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.""
The wind blew harder and the candles flickered rapidly, as if the very air around him grew angry. She spoke again, but her laughter had been replaced with a spewing venomous wrath. "There is only one way your princess can be spared from the Leviathan, and only one way you shall survive. Allow me into your life, and let me watch over your family line for generations to come; this is all I ask. Forsake your Creator and take my hand. This is the only way her life shall be spared, otherwise a horrible and gruesome death is upon both of your heads."
"Death?" Victor shook his head. "You still do not understand. Long ago three devout followers of the Lord, upon facing persecution and death, said to their king, "If we are thrown into the blazing furnace, the God we serve is able to deliver us from it, and he will deliver us from Your Majesty's hand. But even if he does not, we want you to know, Your Majesty, that we will not serve your gods or worship the image of gold you have set up." And thrown into the furnace they were. And that day, the Lord chose to deliver them."
Despite his agony, Victor managed a smile and said, "I will love Karina more than you will ever know. But I trust..." He took a breath, groaned and then with all of his might forced out, "I trust the Christ." Clenching his teeth, determined to follow in the footsteps of the prophets before him, he grunted out, "I... choose fire!"
Enraged, she yelled at the top of her lungs, and then her face slowly altered, displaying a sunken gaunt and pale scowl. Suddenly the room erupted with what he could only describe as a wave of dark energy; he was hit in the chest so hard that it felt as if his heart would explode.
Yet it came to pass, and within mere seconds she was nowhere to be seen and the light of every candle had been snuffed out. The room was dark and empty, abandoned... but it remained untouched. It was almost as if what had just transpired had never really happened.
But Victor still felt the pain in his body and soul, assuring him that whatever had happened was real enough. After taking a few breaths, the pain subsided just enough for him to function. He took a quick moment to bow his head and once more thank his God. Though his body ached and the very fiber of his core felt weak, his renewed faith energized him.
Warily he grasped his axe and brought one knee forward; steadfast, he pushed off of the ground and forced himself to his feet, ready to carry on.
Victor walked across the room, held his breath and carefully pushed open the door leading to the bridge.
A large grey bridge, connecting one tower to the next, lay before him. He was surprised at the sheer size of the bridge; when he first laid eyes upon it from far away it didn't seem impressive. But up close, Victor could now see that the span was enormous. Solid stone railings adorned each side, rising up to the waist-level. Victor guessed the sturdy bridge was several hundred feet long, and perhaps four times as high. About half way down the bridge he noticed a large wooden frame in the shape of an "X" bolted down to the stone bridge floor.
Standing up against the obscene wooden device was Princess Karina.
His heart skipped a beat. On one hand he was relieved to see her -- he had finally found Karina. On the other hand, given the cryptic prophecy of what her fate was to become, a slight fear came over him.
Four iron chains dangled from each end, ensuring her wrists and ankles were held firmly in place. She was still dressed in her All Hallows Eve costume, but it was evident that she had been treated roughly as proven by the multiple scratches and tears in what little fabric there was. There were also marks upon her body; cuts and bruises marked her skin and a thin trail of blood ran down her leg. A cloth gag prevented her from effectively crying out for help, but her muffled screams could still be heard. Her cries for help were directed towards Victor.
The moment she made eye contact with him, it was as if the world stopped if for only a moment. This was his Karina... the real princess. And he finally found her.
To say she was terrified was an understatement. He understood quite well the fear she had been through, having been a recent guest of the inhospitable castle himself for an unknown duration. But for her it must have been worse. As a Knight of the Order, he more than once had put his life at risk for a cause he believed in. He was experienced and trained. Yet the princess was too young and, as a protected royal member for her entire life, she never experienced a serious level of discomfort. But now, her very life was being threatened.
Yet despite her trepidation and tear-stained face, she now displayed a tremendous amount of relief in seeing her protector, knowing that he had finally come. For her. The princess tried to shout something to him, but it was unintelligible because of her gag; she tugged fiercely at her chains., Victor wasted no time in running towards Karina with great exhilaration, vowing he would never let her out of his sight again.
Her eyes immediately met his, and if there had been any doubt before it was immediately erased. Even from such a great distance, those were the deep blue eyes he remembered and it was impossible they belonged to anyone else.
Their eye contact did not remain for long, for an ear-shattering noise erupted from the ocean below.
Victor dared to look over the stone railing and down towards the ocean below as he ran for the princess.
Far away and towards the horizon, visible only by the moonlight, the ocean tide began to swell, rising over a diameter so large it was beyond his measure. And then it was as if the ocean exploded, as if a sleeping volcano erupted from deep below. In fact, Victor could hear the hiss and see the steam from the boiling rain. Yet it was no volcano.
Rising up from the depths of the ocean, a winged monstrosity much like a gliding serpent took to the night sky, shrieking once again.
It was the Leviathan.
Everything that the long deceased author spoke of was now happening. It was the seventh year, and the massive creature had returned. And this time Karina was the sacrifice.
Victor ran faster than he ever had before. He reached Karina and immediately swung his axe at one of the chains holding her wrist. She let out a muffled scream.
Without hesitation he struck again and again, unleashing a myriad of sparks, until the chain severed. Quickly he hit the chain holding her other wrist, this time striking faster and breaking it with two solid blows.
Karina didn't stop screaming; even without turning around he was aware the monster from the abyss was flying towards them with great haste.
With her hands free, she pulled off her gag and screamed, "VICTOR! IT'S ALMOST HERE!!" Victor frantically swung at her ankle chain and smashed it with multiple strikes.
There was one last chain but the Leviathan was almost upon them both. Its speed was incredible; he didn't think he could free her in time. It drew its head back; wide open its maw gaped. Victor's eyes opened wide with the realization that the monster's throat was a blazing furnace; flames rose inside its mouth and the heat convection blurred as a mirage.
The monster inhaled, fanning its own flames within, smoke pouring out of its nostrils.
With one mighty swing, Victor severed the last chain with one blow. He grabbed Karina and threw her to the ground and up against the stone rail just as a concentrated blast of flame ignited the wooden structure where she had been not even a second before.
Karina screamed but Victor held her in place; the heat was so intense the metal from his armor began to burn his skin. He clenched his jaw and swore to withstand the pain for as long as it took.
The flame stopped just as the Leviathan landed on the stone rail, fracturing the solid structure with its claws. Victor grabbed Karina by the arm and ran towards the tower.
The creature struck, its neck jutting out and its rows of razor-sharp teeth snapping at Victor. Its underside alone was jagged like steel potsherds, easily capable of slicing flesh and bone.
But Victor was ready, looking over his shoulder as he ran and never letting it out of his sight. With a counterstrike Victor swung his axe and blocked with his shield. His axe bounced off of the monsters scales; he marveled at how the creatures armor must have been as hard as iron. With his shield he managed to deflect the teeth, but the sheer power from the head of the beast dented his shield and knocked Victor over.
"RUN!!" He shouted to Karina as he tried to regain his footing, though he was somewhat dazed.
Karina stopped and ran back to his side. "Victor!!"
He couldn't believe his eyes. He screamed at her, "I told you to run! What are you doing?"
"I'm not leaving you, Victor!"
The creature prepared to strike again.
"I can't hold him off forever, Your Highness! You have to run or my death will be in vain!"
Karina froze. The thought of Victor dying while defending her was absolutely mortifying. But her emotion quickly changed from fear to anger.
If Victor would die, then so would she. Life wouldn't be worth living without him.
She pleaded to Victor with tears in her eyes, "Victor! Just leave me... please! It only wants me!"
His frustration with the princess grew; if he hadn't been so busy trying to ward off the attacks of the monster, he would have scolded Karina.
"I swore an oath to you long ago; I'll never let you out of my sight for as long as I live. I made that mistake once before; never again."
A powerful claw swung at Victor, but he ducked just in time for it to smash even more of the rail.
With a mixture of ire at his defiance and fear over his refusal that would no doubt lead certain death, Karina shouted at him, "Victor, I'm ordering you to leave!"
Victor had no choice but to ignore her. The creature was simply too fast, and leaving her behind wasn't an option. But the field of battle was his expertise, and his one advantage. Analyzing the situation around him, he had one idea that might work.
The creature drew its head back once again; Victor could feel the air around him heating up intensely. He could see a raging inferno rising in its throat. Taking his axe with two hands and winding his arms back, he stepped forward and heaved it as hard as he could at one of the feet clutching the stone rail.
Victor knew it wouldn't penetrate its armor, but it wasn't meant to.
It was hardly a glancing blow, but the force of the throw was enough to cause the Leviathan to shift its massive weight and in doing so, the perch beneath crumbled, causing the beast to plummet below.
Without wasting time, Victor grabbed her arm and, dragging her in tow, ran towards the tower. He muttered, "Don't even think of giving me an order again. Especially one as absurd as that."
A comment like that would have normally infuriated her and ensured such a rude individual would be placed in the stocks for a week, yet ironically it caused a soft, tiny smile to rise upon Karina's face. Only Victor could get away with addressing her in such a tone, and only in this moment of life and death.
"I'll never let you go," he said quietly, so quiet in fact that she wasn't sure if she was supposed to have heard that.
"That winged monster will return," Victor said, just before another screech from below confirmed his statement.
Quickly they entered the tower and scrambled down the winding stairs.
A terrible crash impacted the side of the tower. Looking up through one of the small stairwell windows, they could both see the Leviathan hadn't given up. The creature slammed the tower again and again. Dust was shaken from the walls, and even a few stones had come loose.
Karina held his hand tightly, trying not to fall as they ran down the awkward stairs. She made the mistake of looking down the tower shaft and into the darkness below, making her dizzy and reminding her how high up the tower they truly were.
With each powerful slam, both Victor and Karina held their breath, hoping the tower would remain intact long enough for them to reach the bottom.
Another devastating hit caved in part of the tower wall, forming a large hole. It wasn't big enough for the Leviathan to come through -- yet. Large stone fragments fell below; Victor came to a sudden stop but Karina didn't. Quickly he wrapped his arms around her and yanked her back just as a solid rectangular stone fell from above, smashing the stairs in front of them and leaving a large gap. Once again she marveled at how he had saved her life.
"We have to jump," Victor told her.
Karina couldn't help it but her tears were flowing once more. She was petrified with fear. Victor didn't blame her; she was young and untrained, and their situation was dire. But she wasn't a soldier he could yell and motivate her with force. She was tender. Delicate. She was a princess.
Carefully lifting his visor, he took his hands to her cheeks, making sure her eyes could see his. "I need you to make this jump," he said calmly.
Her lip quivered and she shook her head.
"You can do this, but you have to do it now. I'll be right behind you." Again Victor spoke calmly, although everything inside him was screaming for him to keep moving. The tower was still being torn apart and they didn't have much longer.
"I've seen you jump horses to heights and distances greater than most of my men. I've seen you dance, jumping from the tips of your toes. Look at me... you can do this. Don't be scared; I'm here with you."
He began to see that fighting spirit in her eyes once again; she was beginning to trust him. The princess nodded. Turning towards the stairs across the gap, Karina took a deep breath. Victor placed his hands upon her hips and said, "On three. One... two... THREE!"
Karina jumped and Victor boosted her across the gap; she safely made it across but landed hard on the other side. Nonetheless she was safe.
Victor immediately jumped after her, but as he landed, the stair he came to rest on crumbled underneath his feet. He quickly scrambled forward, grabbing the next stair with his hands before he could fall into the darkness below.
She lurched forward and grabbed his arms. "Run!" was all he said to her.
She held on as tightly as she could, aware that the Leviathan would penetrate the tower within moments. Straining to pull him up, she told him, "We've been over this; I'm not going anywhere without you!" It took every ounce of strength she had, but she managed to help Victor up. He didn't say a word, but there was something about the look on his face that captured her attention. Once again, he took her hand and led her down the stairs.
The Leviathan made it inside the tower just as Victor and Karina reached the bottom of the tower. With a terrifying scream, the creature dove straight down the center of the tower. Victor opened the door and pushed Karina through, following behind her and slamming it closed, just moments before the horrific creature could reach them.
With one final scream, the Leviathan launched upwards and out of their sight. The tower had finally stopped shaking, and all was quiet.
Victor and Karina could breathe a little easier now that they were back within the castle's walls and away from the monstrous creature, but they still had to find a way out.
"Maybe whatever that was gave up chasing after me?" Karina asked as he dragged her along.
"Maybe," Victor said warily but not necessarily convinced that was the case. He took a brief moment to stop, but delayed in letting go of her hand.
He looked her up and down, finally with the realization that he had her back under his protection and that she was very much alive.
He still had to get her out of the castle, yet the fact that she was with him gave him new reserves of energy. Having not known if she was dead or alive -- having no idea where she was -- was the most painful experience he ever had to endure.
Again, Victor touched the side of her face, but this time it was as if he had to make sure he wasn't dreaming. He had to know that it was really she and not another terrible trick of the castle.
Despite his skepticism, he really did know it was her. Maybe it was her mere presence, or her warmth -- another light in this dark and evil castle other than himself -- but he knew.
Having almost lost the princess forever, and now having her here before him, Victor began to see her in a different light. He was reminded that he not only lost the princess, but also his best friend. The pounding of his heart told him that he wanted her as more than a friend, even though that was next to impossible. But even in spite of her battered state, her body radiated such incredible beauty.
"I... forgive me, Your Highness. Are you all right? Wait... let me get some bandages." He began to inspect her closely, from head to toe, stopping at the thin blood trail on her leg.
Karina was still frightened, but she smiled. Victor's overprotective nature allowed her enough stillness to remain calm. And the way he inspected her body gave her goose bumps, even if his intention was noble. "I'll be fine; let's just get out of here first. Okay? It only hurts a little, and it will not slow me down."
Victor knew she was right and that they had to keep moving. He reluctantly nodded, turning to face the hallway and decipher the best way out of the castle.
"Wait," she said anxiously.
Time was of the essence, but she had to let him know. The only problem was she couldn't find the words to say.
Thinking of all the pain she caused him, her eyes began to water. Looking over him... his dented armor and shield, his once pure white tunic now bloodstained, and even the weary manor with which he carried himself... she bit her lip and shook her head remorsefully. Yet in spite of all of that he carried his head high and refused to give up on her.
And accordingly, he found her. "I'm so, so sorry," she whispered, full of regret.
At first Victor didn't know what to say, but he stepped forward and held her close. Gently he brought her head to his armored chest and kissed the top of her head through her golden curls. "You don't need to apologize, princess. This is a terrible place of evil and you were in the wrong place at the wrong time. This is not your fault. "
Squeezing her eyes shut, she nodded and said, "Yes it is! If I... if I didn't..."
Victor cut her off and shushed her. He simply held her.
She vowed to make it up to him. Somehow. To start with, she'd never go against him ever again. EVER. If he told her to do something, she would do it without question. If he simply recommended a course of action, she wouldn't think twice. She may have been the princess, but he could command her as he saw fit.
Karina looked up at him with a look of longing. He had sacrificed almost everything to retrieve her. To save her. He had always been there for her and, now when she needed him more than ever, he somehow found a way.
Princess Karina slowly leaned in, wondering what Victor might do. At first he flinched; but then he held his ground. She almost expected him to make her stop. She knew she promised herself to always listen to him... but this was the one exception. If he dared to tell her no, well then, this would be the last time ever that she would defy him. Because there was no way she was stopping.
Wrapping her arms around his neck, Karina closed her eyes and pursed her lips, inches away from his. So close that she could feel his breath.
Before their lips could touch, a deafening sound from outside the castle walls had startled them and shook the castle windows.
Frightened, Karina flinched but also she silently cursed to herself as Victor instinctively pulled away, turning his attention to one of the windows and outside the castle.
"That dragon-creature! Is he trying to break into the castle now? I don't see anything..."
Victor replied, "No, that sound...it sounded like the ocean erupted; my instincts tell me it returned to the dark aquatic abyss." He took a moment to ponder why the creature had given up so easily when, if given enough time, it could have leveled the castle.
For a brief moment, everything was calm.
But then, the very ground beneath their feet began to violently shake as a powerful shockwave, or perhaps an earthquake, tore throughout the castle, shattering the windows with a violent force. Both of them were thrown off balance.
Victor, after regaining his steadiness, grabbed her hand and ran down the corridor.
It was as if the castle was alive, it's very stone walls trying to keep them inside so it could swallow them whole.
"What is happening??" Princess Karina screamed, watching part of the ceiling collapse.
"Since the Leviathan failed to take you, I am guessing it was a violation of the Pact, forcing the termination of the agreement. And it would seem that results in the absolute destruction of Wraithfall Castle of which we are trapped in. And I sense that it doesn't want to let us go; its hate is so great that it wants to bury us with it."
Victor expeditiously but carefully attempted to navigate his way through the crumbling castle. A large section of floor buckled behind Princess Karina, causing her to lose her footing. Victor, still holding her hand, forcefully pulled her up and continued running before it could claim them both.
Sprinting through one of the main dining rooms, the chandelier crashed on the table next to the couple. Victor held his shield up in front of Princess Karina, deflecting crystal shards and splinters of debris before carrying on.
Further down the hallway, one of the walls collapsed just before they entered, forcing them to take another route.
The foundation of the entire castle continued to shake. Victor and the princess finally found themselves at a dead-end in an old embattlement and at the end of their exhausting run.
Longbows, crossbows, countless arrows and even an old rope littered the room and had been untouched for some time. A large iron cauldron, once used to pour scalding hot oil on opposing enemies (though it was now empty), had been tipped over, most likely during the castle's violent swan song.
A small section of wall where one of the narrow arrow slits had been was missing; Victor suspected the cauldron might have been violently thrown against the wall during the earthquake. As hard as it was for him to stand upon the shaking ground, his theory was certainly a possibility.
Karina, looking through the hole in the wall to the outside, excitedly tugged his arm and said, "Victor! I see people down there!"
Victor took a look down below; it was a good thirty-foot drop, but more importantly he recognized the terrain as the front of the castle. It was the same place where he led his soldiers on an assault.
He breathed a heavy sigh of relief upon realizing the people down below were the very same soldiers; Karina had been right! His relief turned into sorrow as he realized how few their numbers were; the toll taken on the soldiers during battle had been great. The ground was stained red with blood, and not a single individual below appeared unwounded. Still, his spirits were lifted knowing they fought the good fight and didn't give up on the princess.
"Sergeant Aldergrove," Victor shouted below, waving his arms.
The Sergeant, almost in disbelief, saw him and flagged down several of the other soldiers. "Look up, third story," he shouted to the others, pointing towards Victor and Princess Karina.
It was a long way down, Victor thought. Taking a quick look around the room, he grabbed the rope off the floor and sized it up. "Forty to fifty feet; this should work," he said to no one in particular. He took one end of the rope and began to wrap it around the princess.
She had been a few steps behind Victor's thought process but had finally caught up. Realizing what he was doing, she tried to stop him. "Wait! Victor, what are you doing?"
He continued wrapping the rope around her waist and tied it off in a knot. "Saving you, Princess Karina."
There was something about the way he said it that she didn't like. Concerned for Victor, wondering what his plan was, she asked, "But... how are you going to get down?"
Victor looked at her briefly and, by the look on his face, she knew.
There wasn't a way down. Not for him.
"Sergeant," Victor shouted, "I'm going to lower Princess Karina to you; get ready!"
"NO! Wait, just... stop! Tie the rope off to something and we can both go down it!"
Victor shook his head and said, "I've already thought of that; there is nothing I can tie it off to. Even if there was, the entire castle is ready to collapse and we don't have time. I will hold it myself, serving as your anchor so I can lower you down."
"There HAS to be another way! There has to..." Princess Karina cried.
Victor had already begun to push her towards the opening in the wall. "You'll be safe, Princess."
It amazed him how much Karina resisted, for she knew the same cold hard fact as he: There was no way out for him. But that was acceptable because it was his job; he was the protector of the Princess of Shandwick, and by his sacrifice she would be safe.
Yet she struggled and fought back as if the very fall would kill her. She pleaded, "No, don't do this!" Victor could barely look into her eyes; they were the eyes of one who had been betrayed by a friend.
She screamed with desperation, "Victor! I'm commanding you to stop! VICTOR!"
"Forgive me. I am not in the habit of ignoring the commands of my beloved princess, but for your own safety I have no choice." Despite his strength, Victor tried to hoist her up and through the hole, but she fought back desperately. "Please! You're running out of time! Stop fighting me, princess!"
"No no no no NO!" Her entire body trembled with fear; not for her own life, but for Victor's.
He was exasperated. She wouldn't listen to reason. As he stopped trying to force her out, she immediately clung to him, holding him tightly as if her life depended on it.
A loud thunderous rumble echoed not to far away; he realized an entire section of the castle had collapsed, and by the sound of it, fallen into the ocean. They were almost out of time.
He took a deep breath, placed two fingers underneath her chin and gently lifted it until she looked at him.
"Karina," he said in a soft voice.
The way he said her name... it gave her shivers. Not "Princess Karina". Not "Your Highness". He addressed her by her God-given name. The one and only time he had previously addressed her as such was several years ago when she managed to get herself into trouble, but this time... it was spoken with such tenderness. And love. She stopped shaking and looked at him.
"Like I said before, I will never let you out of my sight for as long as I live. I've kept that promise, even if the duration of my life was much shorter than I had planned on."
Unable to hold back her tears, Karina broke down into a hysterical sob.
"But you also said you would never let me go! You promised me; you PROMISED!!"
She was right, and he felt terrible.
"I... I'm sorry," he choked, trying to hold his own emotions back. "I supposed I did. It saddens me to break that promise."
He sighed. At a loss for words, he could only tell her the cruel truth: "But I have no choice. I have to let you go now."
Tilting her head back, he placed his lips upon hers, knowing it would be their first kiss... and their last.
If either of them could have stopped time, it would have been frozen in that single moment forever.
She kissed him back fiercely, placing her hands alongside his head, her tears dampening his cheeks; he kissed her back just as passionately, wrapping his hands around her slender waist.
With terrible remorse, he swept her legs out from under her and, still holding the rope, carried her to the edge. Realizing what he had planned, she wrapped her arms around him tightly and refused to be let go. "No! If you can't come with me, I'm not leaving! I'M STAYING WITH YOU!"
"It's time, Karina," he said, begrudgingly prying her off. Desperately she grabbed at his hand as he lowered her though the makeshift window.
The sorrow on her face hurt Victor more than anything else, especially after he pried her fingers off, effectively letting go of her hand.
"I love you! Please, don't do this Victor! PLEASE! I LOVE YOU!!"
Victor couldn't speak. He simply focused on lowering her hand over hand, professions of her love echoing inside his head, making sure she made it down safely. Before her feet touched the ground, Sergeant Aldergrove and three of his men had grabbed her and ran from the disintegrating castle.
They hadn't taken more than a few steps when the entire structure of Wraithfall Castle gave way. Half of the castle crashed into the ocean while the other half fell to the ground, causing an eruption of dust and debris hundreds of feet into the air, no doubt heard miles and miles away.
Sergeant Aldergrove barked, "Keep running!" He held up his shield to protect the princess from falling debris and forceful waves from the black cloud of stone; she remained inconsolable, oblivious to the immediate danger around her.
Once they were a safe distance away and the dust had settled, he instructed every remaining soldier to take the princess back to the castle, ensuring her protection at all cost.
Turning towards the pile of rubble, he asked for a few volunteers to stay behind and help him find their commander.
No one was ever left behind. Dead or alive, Victor would be brought back home.
And then voices calling out.
At first, he couldn't make out specific words or identities; maybe they were the angels of God, preparing to bring him home. If he were to pass through the Gates of Heaven and kneel before the throne of God, he could only pray to be found worthy in the eyes of the Lord.
How he longed to hear, "Well done, good and faithful one," knowing he answered the calling and served Him well.
His eyes were closed, yet it seemed bright all around him. It was a phenomenon that he couldn't explain.
But then for a brief moment, he could have sworn he heard soldiers calling to him. Perhaps they were the ones slain in battle such as he had been, preparing to enter the Kingdom of Heaven along his side.
And then, there was nothing.
"Sergeant! Over here," one of the soldiers cried out enthusiastically.
Sergeant Aldergrove ran across the field of debris, finding a small crowd of men surrounding a large, iron cauldron of some sort.
At the base of the cauldron rested a familiar shield.
His eyes began to open, but because it was so bright he could only squint.
Pain began to sink in. Incredible amounts of pain. He didn't know where he was, but it couldn't have been heaven... not with pain like this.
He was vaguely aware of a groaning noise, but where it had come from he had no idea. It could have been from his own lips for all he knew. A calm and soothing voice began to speak. He couldn't tell what was being said, but there was beauty behind it, and somehow it gave him peace.
Once again, he slipped away, likely to forget about what had just transpired.
Images from another time played inside his head, scenes unfolding from the past. Children ran around in the schoolyard; all of the boys pretending to be knights chased an imaginary dragon, which apparently had just escaped the school's boundaries.
A new act quickly followed; this time he saw a young boy, or perhaps a young man in his mid to late teens, standing in front of the double doors of the training academy inside the church. The young man awkwardly held on to a large sack over his shoulder -- filled with books, judging by the rectangular forms stretching out the bag -- but in his free hand he held a teddy bear.
Bending down on one knee, the young man offered the stuffed animal to a little girl who was clearly sad to see him go. But he knew what the young man was thinking: He was sad, too, but it was time to go. While the mother scooped up the little girl, who was on the verge of tears, the father gently smiled and, with a firm grip, he shook the teenagers hand.
Fingertips lightly stroked his forehead, and he didn't want to wake up. At first, it felt wonderful.
But then his own body betrayed him, reminding him of the pain radiating from head to toe.
"Don't move," he heard a voice gently say, presumably the same person touching his forehead. "Try to remain still; it will hurt less."
He knew that voice. That sweet, soothing voice.
Karina's, of course.
"Where..." he wheezed, barely able to speak.
"Shhh," she tenderly chastised him, "Don't try to speak. Just rest. You've been through... a lot."
His eyes began to flutter open. He tried to shift his body but a sharp pain in his left leg warned him otherwise.
Karina winced, "See? I told you not to move! You're so stubborn sometimes!"
Victor began to laugh, but he cut it short when his chest began to hurt. Fractured or broken ribs, he suspected.
Still, he managed to control his breathing, just to tell her, "Stubborn? Who do you think I learned from?"
Now fully awake, he noticed the smile on her face. She was beaming, smiling from ear to ear. Her eyes sparkled from the small dabs of moisture. "You scared me. You scared me badly," she whispered, her smile fading away, replaced with a look of worry and clearly thinking about what nearly happened to him.
Her sadness broke his heart. He reached out to her and, with his gauntlet now removed, his bare fingertips caressed the side of her face. It was nice to touch her; it reminded him that she was alive. He -- and the entire kingdom, of course -- came so incredibly close to losing her.
Just as quickly as her sadness came, it had vanished and been replaced with a blush.
He removed his hand quickly, afraid he had went too far. But she didn't say anything.
"So, what happened? My memory isn't completely clear. The last thing I remember was lowering you down the rope..."
Princess Karina pursed her lips and narrowed her eyebrows. Clearly, Victor thought, forcing her down the rope was still a sore subject. But she moved past her anger and said, "Only seconds after I made it to the ground the entire castle collapsed. Some of the soldiers stayed behind to search for you." She began to choke up as she said, "I... I thought y-you were... were, you know... dead."
Wiping away a tear, the princess squeaked out, "Don't ever do that to me again!"
He pondered her words carefully, trying to recreate the scene in his mind. "I should have been killed. How did I survive?"
Regaining her composure, she told him, "Do you remember the room we were in? Do you remember that large cauldron? Apparently you jumped inside it before the castle collapsed. It saved you from being crushed, but obviously the fall was still a long way down." She smiled, "At least you are alive. I saw the castle fall. I didn't think..."
One of the doctors came up to the two and, after humbly bowing, said, "Princess Karina? Please forgive me your highness but now that Sir Victor is awake..."
She interrupted with a sigh, "I know, I know," keeping her eyes on Victor. She stood up, getting ready to leave and said, "Time to rest. I'll come back every day; I promise." Without hesitation, regardless of witnesses in the room, she leaned down and tenderly kissed him on the lips.
While somewhat shocked by her actions and worried about improper perception, he didn't try to stop her.
After too many days of bed rest, Victor was finally able to move around, albeit with assistance from a wooden cane. But the absence of armor for the first time since he entered Wraithfall Castle helped. He was told his leg was healing well, and if he continued to make progress he would soon be able to walk unassisted.
Many from his Order had come by to check on him and congratulate him for saving Karina. The princess, however, had visited him every single day just as she promised. But today, he was hoping to return the favor with a surprise visit.
He found her in the flower garden sitting on a sculpted ivory bench surrounded by her Ladies-in-Waiting, one of which held the end of her long flowing dress as to keep it out of the fresh morning dew.
Her laughter captivated him and brought a smile to his face; he delayed approaching her as to avoid disturbing her, fearing her beautiful and infections smile might fade away. Whatever they were all laughing about didn't matter; what did matter was the fact that she was still alive and full of happiness. He was once again reminded how close he had come to losing her. That thought was unbearable.
But here she was, clothed in the finest of the royal dresses, her crown upon her head just as it should be. It was an encouraging -- and beautiful -- portrait.
His heart skipped a beat the moment her eyes caught his. Her smile instantly grew even bigger; quickly she stood up and, without warning, ran across the garden and threw her arms around him.
Victor laughed, although he had to make a concentrated effort to keep his balance.
"You're on your feet again! I knew you would be," she glowed.
"I just wanted to check up on you," he smiled back. "It's become habit after all of these years. I almost didn't know what to do without you. Is your new knight protector treating you well?"
With a stern look, she corrected him, "Temporary protector. And yes, she's fine. But you'll be back in no time!"
A guilty look crossed his face, which didn't escape her notice.
"What is it?"
He wasn't sure how to tell her. It wasn't going to be easy. "I have to step down."
She looked like she had been slapped in the face.
"I... have to step down. As much as I want to remain your protector, I... well, I failed to protect you. And that failure almost cost your life. I know we briefly discussed this before you were taken; if anything, the fact that you were captured right under my very nose is proof enough. I'm to meet with the king and queen later today, and I am giving them my resignation. Quite honestly, I expected them to release me already, but it seems they stayed their hand until I could properly heal. Your parents always were fair and kind, and to that I owe them my gratitude."
Her mouth hung open, but no words came out. "I... no! You can't..."
"It's not that simple," he sighed. A shade of red crept up on his face as he said, "Plus, I may have, as you recall... taken... inappropriate actions with you."
The worry on her face gradually morphed to a look of amusement. "You mean when you kissed me?"
Victor offered a defeated smile and said, "Losing my job or even having my knighthood stripped away is the least of my concerns, compared to what the king and queen might do..."
He was surprised she seemed so calm.
"Well, if you must know -- not to ruin the surprise -- I spoke with my parents several days ago about this very subject." She sheepishly added, "They knew I may have been slightly defiant with you in the days that led up to my disappearance..."
"Hush, you. As I was saying, they understand I put you in a horrible situation. And I confessed that to them. But I was adamant that, after all I put you through, they keep you as my knight protector. But I made them promise not to say anything to you, because I wanted to be the one to tell you first."
Victor sighed; he was caught in a quandary, and she knew it.
"But still, even if they were to retain me, the honorable thing is to step down."
"After all we've been through, you would still consider leaving me? Just like that?"
Princess Karina batted her eyes. He suspected she was using her charms against him intentionally. And he was irritated that it seemed to be working.
She continued, "Did I ever tell you my first memory of you? You were so kind and sweet. And I don't remember why, but you gave me that little stuffed teddy bear. Do you remember?"
Of course he remembered. He nodded.
She laughed, "That was also the day I knew we were going to get married."
He recoiled with great surprise and discomfort, retorting, "You were four!"
She snapped, "No; I was five! Stay with me." Her voice softened, "You've always held a special place in my heart; you meant so much more to me than you could possibly imagine. I remember being sad after that, because you went off to your Knighthood training with the church. But then you came back, and I was so excited! And ever since, you've been watching over me. Protecting me."
Karina smiled, "I still have that bear, you know." Victor smiled warmly. He knew she was pulling on his heartstrings, conjuring up old memories, simply to convince him to remain her protector.
"That reminds me," Victor said, pulling something out of his pocket. She leaned back to see what he held in his hand.
"Something else that belongs to you."
A silver cross necklace.
She gasped and covered her mouth.
He gently moved her hair aside, grazing his fingertips across her neck as he fastened the necklace behind her neck.
"Really, princess. You must be more careful with your possessions," he teased her.
"I thought it was gone forever! Where did you find it?"
"That's not important," he smiled. "But what is important is what this cross symbolizes. And just so you know, I found it to be a reminder of hope in such a dark, dark place."
Karina wrapped her arms around him, grateful to be feeling his warmth and not his cold metal breastplate. She placed her head against his chest and sighed.
Victor smiled and held her back. He realized that her embrace was unnaturally long; he could sense her body wasn't ready to pull away. And strangely enough... he didn't mind. In fact it was quite the opposite -- he didn't want her to stop. For once, he wasn't concerned with consequences, and it didn't feel wrong.
That was the moment he knew his embrace had finally gone beyond the hug of a concerned friend to the awkwardness of a newly discovered love.
"This time I mean it," he whispered into her ear. "I'm never letting you go."
She didn't say a word, but he felt her head nodding against his body. Quite possibly, judging by the wet tears on his shoulder, because she was too choked up to speak.
"There is something which we haven't discussed," Victor said sedately, holding her hand while escorting her back to her tower.
"I was wondering if you would bring it up," Karina replied with a very serious look on her face. She stopped on the walkway and placed one hand on the stone rail while her other hand nervously played with the cross hanging from her necklace. Briefly she looked up at the moon while trying to figure out what to say. "Before you ask, I remember hardly anything. But even then, I still remember an evil presence. A stronger evil than I have ever felt in my life, nor thought possible. And consequently, the emotion of pure fear." She crossed her arms, as if a cold wave washed across her skin.
Victor didn't say a word. He moved in behind her and gently placed his hands on her shoulder, letting her know it was all right.
The princess continued, "It was as if I was lost in a sleepless nightmare, expecting that I should never awaken." She thought for a moment and then said, "I have so many questions, and I do not know if I want any of them answered. What was that... thing? That creature? Why did they want me? I just..."
Victor slid his arms around her, hoping to comfort her. He didn't blame her. The things he saw -- they were visions of pure unholiness. He had learned much about the history of Castle Wraithfall, but each answer brought about several more questions.
"Will it come back for me?"
Victor remembered The Pact. As near as he could tell, that dark contract had been broken the moment he found and rescued Karina, although who knew how long ago it had been signed and agreed upon. Would the creature return in seven years for a new victim, or was the dark agreement made null? He suspected the later. But if he were wrong, he would still make sure it never came back for her.
"No; I do not believe it will. Yet even if it should return, I will be waiting. And this time, I will not let you out of my sight; not for a single moment."
Karina allowed herself the smallest of smiles.
And Victor was thankful she did; after all she had been through, she deserved it.
Far, far below the same pale moon that Princess Karina gazed upon, yet a great distance away, a wretched old man held aloft his violin bow with his knobby fingers before bringing it down across the strings, playing an ominous requiem in the night.
"There will be more," said the voice coming out of the old man.
With an unsteady gait he wandered off into the wilderness.
Jan 31, 2018 in romance