An unusual Saturday post! This is the first story in what I’ve decided to call Invitational Prompts. This is where I ask one person to give me several prompts they’d like to see made into a story. This set of prompts is provided by my good friend, Sharmishtha Basu. Go check out her stories and thoughtful posts here, here, here or here.
The prompts were: a vampire, a small town, an old castle, and a scary tone (more mystery and spook than gore)
Sincere apologies to Sharmishtha for taking so long to finish writing this.
The town of Nerakrist slept, but on the overlooking hill, four figures picked their way up the overgrown track to the moldering ruins of the castle. The lead figure, a boy, carried a lantern to light the way. The contrast in their clothes was striking: the boy shivered in the fierce wind that whipped through his patched rags, while the three men behind him wore rich furs and thick woolen cloaks. They were the leaders of the town: the mayor, the thane and the master of lands. The boy’s name was Pavel.
They reached the rotting gate of the old castle and Pavel held the light for the men to enter through a gap in the timbers. They walked straight to a low door in the right-hand gate tower and the mayor unlocked it. Then they stepped inside and closed it, leaving Pavel alone.
Pavel hated the castle, but as the servant of the mayor, he had to accompany the Inner Circle whenever they held their midnight meetings there. He huddled on the ground, hugging his thin jacket around him. The lantern burned feebly and the deep shadows of the barren courtyard outside the circle of light seemed to hold creatures just beyond his vision. The castle was surely haunted, if not with spirits then with dark history. He hated being there, not because he felt he did not belong, but because he was terrified that he did.
Fifteen years ago, Pavel’s grandfather had been the viscount in the castle. His mother never talked about it, so Pavel had only the rumors and gossip of the townsfolk to rely on. They said his grandfather was a monster, a sorcerer, a devil-worshipper who captured and tortured the peasants of the region. They said that the viscount even murdered his own son, Pavel’s father, in the highest tower of the castle, even as the revolting peasants were breaking through the gate. So they said, at least.
Pavel heard footsteps outside the gate and he stiffened. No one would be foolish enough to come to the castle at any time, let alone during one of the Inner Circle’s midnight meeting. Not unless something was seriously wrong.
“Hello? Is anyone there?” a fearful voice called.
“You can’t be here,” Pavel said, looking through the gate and holding the lantern up. It was Sergiu, one of the mayor’s house servants, looking cold and scared. “Go, quickly.”
“I was sent by the mayor’s wife. His daughter Crina has taken a turn for the worse. She may die.”
“I will die if I go down there and disturb them at whatever they are doing,” Pavel said. “Wait here, if you want, or I will tell him as soon as they come back up.”
“What do you think he will do to you when he finds out his daughter died while he was away because you withheld the message?” Sergiu said.
Pavel looked towards the closed door. “It’s probably locked anyway,” he said, although without conviction. He tried the latch and door opened.
“Go! Tell him now,” Sergiu said. “He will not mind an interruption for this.” Both of them knew this was not true. Sergiu disappeared and Pavel heard his running footsteps disappear down the slope.
The mayor would be furious—it was inevitable at this point. All that remained was to determine which action would make him less angry. The Inner Circle had many meetings here, perhaps several a month, but the mayor only had one daughter and Crina was the world to him. Pavel stepped inside the door.
The inside of the tower was a barren, circular room with stairs going up and down. The Inner Circle’s cloaks hung on hooks along one side of the wall and tracks in the dust headed towards the descending stairs. There was a very faint odor of old decay that hung in the cold air.
Pavel started down the steps slowly, holding the lantern above him. The steps curved down to the right and then split, with steps going left and right. There were no tracks here and the air was totally still as if he were sealed in lead. After a moment’s hesitation, he took the left-hand stair.
It descended, straight and narrow for almost a hundred steps until Pavel reached two heavy wooden doors. One was locked, but the other was only barred with a heavy bolt slid across it. Pavel stopped and listened at the door. He should not have come. It had seemed the right thing to do, to warn the mayor about his daughter, but now that he was actually outside the chamber where the Inner Circle held their clandestine gatherings, he knew it was foolish. Any interruption for any reason would be punished harshly. But it was as if he were sliding downhill, with no way to stop. Pavel placed the lantern on the stairs and carefully slid the bolt back from the door.
The door did not squeak, which was strange for a ruin, but a blessing for him. As soon as the door had opened a crack, a vile stench of rot and death hit him and almost made him sick. The room beyond was dim, lit from somewhere far beyond. He could see black bars ahead in the gloom and voices talking.
“Please, please let me go! I’ll do anything you want. For God’s sake, think of my family.” The voice was thin and cracked from dehydration. Another voice spoke further off. It was fainter and Pavel took a few steps in to hear better.
“We are the executors of justice,” the second voice said. “The keepers of righteous violence. You do not want us to think of your family as well. You were brought here because of wrongdoing. It was you who were supposed to take care of Crina’s horse. When she was out riding, it threw a shoe and she had to walk back in the rain. It is because of you that she is gravely ill.”
Pavel moved forward and found the way blocked by a barred door, standing ajar. Through it, he could see a wide arena bordered with more dark cells. In the middle of the area knelt a man in ragged clothes, his face upturned in supplication. Fifteen feet above, three figures stood looking down from behind a breastwork of stone. They were robed in white and wore masks, but it was clear to Pavel who they were.
“Mercy!” the man cried. “I did my best. I could not have known that the horse would lose its shoe.”
“Nevertheless, the damage was done and because of your actions, my daughter may die,” one of the masked men said. He took off the mask and Pavel saw the mayor’s face contorted in hate. “There is only one thing you can do now, Iosif: die and ask God Almighty for mercy. You will get none on this earth.”
Iosif, Pavel thought with a shock. He recognized him now. Iosif, the mayor’s stableman had disappeared the night after Crina had gotten sick. They said that the wolves of the Dark Forest had gotten him as he was bringing a load of hay back to the barn. That was four days ago.
One of the other masked men, reached up and pulled a rope that was hanging from the ceiling. Across the arena, there was a click and a barred door opened. Iosif gave a moan of dread, as if he knew that the moment of judgment had come, although not its form.
Something moved in the darkness of the cell. It shuffled forward into the lamplight and Pavel saw with horror a blighted and hairless scalp, stretched thin and tight over a protuberant skull. The monster reached out a ghoulish hand towards Iosif, pulling itself forward with the other, as if it were not used to walking. Iosif turned and ran, stumbling into the gloom towards where Pavel was hiding. The creature paused for a moment, then leapt with claws outstretched onto the unfortunate man’s back. The last thing Pavel saw before he ran was the monster’s lips pulling back to reveal long, stained fangs. Pavel fled back into the hall and up the steps, not bothering to rebolt the door he had opened.
(to be continued)