Another branch snapped in your hand as you attempted to steady yourself in the dense snow, wool-clad fingers unfurling to watch pieces of the brittle wood fall. The frigid air burned your throat, making each greedy gasp heavier and more excruciating than the last. Your chest ached as well, heart thrumming like hundreds of galloping steeds, deafening you to any sounds that you had keenly listened for.
This winter was premature and unusual, especially when merely weeks prior fresh blossoms had erupted and speckled trees with vibrant hues of white and pink and orange, denoting the rebirth of life again. The muddy pastures had turned green, does appeared with their young, and the birds sang a symphony of return.
“How could this have happened?” your voice reached no one, so fragile you had hardly recognized it as your own. “I need to get out of this weather.”
Your legs had carried you hours away from the town, it wasn’t the time to realize just how cold you were. Sniffing hard, you nestled into your furs and thick scarves to keep your skin hidden from the bitter winds, blinking against the weight of the tiny crystals on your eyelashes and burning in your eyes.
As you pushed onward, treading a path of your own in the endless white, you found the bent trees for support, noting the way they seemed to be frozen in motion as though blown by an enormous gust. Deep holes pocketed the snow with ice entombed corpses of birds, eternally captured in mid-flight, squirrels midst a lunge, and deer on their sides like toppled statues.
‘They didn’t stand a chance…’
It wasn’t until the forest cleared, giving way to an expanse of field that you escaped the horrid images.
Yet, you were immediately cast into another sight, one unlike you had ever seen. Slowly, you pulled the scarf away from your mouth, breath a thick fog as you looked on incredulously.
Before you stood a towering castle, spiraling and desolate. The stones were nearly black, making it a rather glum thing to look at surrounded by untouched white. There were no tracks leading up to the castle; no hooves, nor trails from heavy sleighs or wagons, leaving you to question the occupancy of the place.
‘Surely if someone were there, they would’ve had to leave at some point for food or wood. But, I see nothing…’
Stranger than the presence of the bleak castle itself was the feeling it exuded, a sensation you weren’t foreign to these days. It was very obviously a castle, an inanimate structure expertly built stone-by-stone, yet as the stillness in the crisp air was met with a light gust, you couldn’t help but think it was breathing.
‘This place gives me a creeps, maybe I should keep going–’
Distantly, still very far yet but amplified by the unsettling quiet, you heard the familiar cry from bloodhounds–a distinct yelp when they had found something. Mustering your nerves, you trudged onward through the snow towards the castle, ignoring the unease prickling at your spine and every instinct to turn away.
Better to face uncertainty than what you know awaited you where the bloodhounds called, those ominous devils.
The castle doors were sealed shut, whether by bolt and lock, by ice, or something else–you only stared at them hopelessly, up the entire length and then to the left and right, taking in the way the sun struck the stained glass windows that were perfectly spaced and proportioned on both sides.
‘The doors are locked, the bloodhounds are close… what do I do?’
Your fingers splayed across the grand walls of metal, the chill of winter seemed ensnared by it and you felt it through your mittens. If a portcullis had stood, there would had been some home to climb it or bend the metal, yet this castle was unique in design–in every sense.
‘Okay, maybe if I walk around I could find a way in.’
It was that thought alone that motivated you now; aside from the impending doom of approaching bloodhounds and the absolute certainty that if the hounds didn’t find you, you’d freeze to death instead.
What you found on the other side was another door, a replica of the first. Much as its twin, there was no hope to pry it open despite your efforts to wedge your fingers between the large crevice where they met. For the second time, you gazed high, taking in the stained glass, stumbling through the snow to look at each one.
‘W-Wait, is that… a hole?’
You squinted, hand raised to shield your eyes from the sun, noticing one window in particular had a rather sizable gap in the left-hand corner, leaving the rest of the glass a hideous mess of cracks.
Despite your surroundings being a mess of ice and snow, the castle remained untouched down to the far and few flawed cracks in the stone. You were certain whomever had constructed the castle hadn’t accounted for a single person to invade–much less by scaling the side of it.
‘Oh, man. I am out of shape… I am not meant for this… I’m just a simple person with simple needs. Oh, how did this happen?’
You struggled to root your fingertips in the stone and to find your footing, coming close to plummeting thirty feet back into the powdery sea below. A sigh quivered from your lips, reminded of just how much your body ached and chest burned–your fingers were beginning to stiffen as though cursed with old age.
‘Keep going, keep going, keep going, keep… going…’
Just when you had reached the verge of letting go, your fingers curled the ledge of the window. You promptly splayed your hand across it, fighting the weight of your own exhaustion to climb atop of it. The ledge overlooked but a small part of the forest you had wandered from, but truthfully, even sitting that high up, there was nothing to see that you already hadn’t.
A wasteland of nothingness, there was nothing to yearn for or go back to now.
You didn’t waste any more time dwelling on what didn’t matter. With a careful maneuver; twisting your body on the ledge, your arms shook as you braced your weight and stood, thrusting your foot into the glass to smash it inward. The harsh winter had made the glass brittle, shattering into countless fragments of shining red and blue.
The fit through the window had been tight, but you managed well enough and jumped into the castle, away from the headhunters, but simultaneously into the lion’s den, you thought.
Already, the inside of the castle was a start contrast to the outside, both in terms of appearance and comfort. You eased the scarf away from your mouth while your eyes remained moving, scouring all around for signs of life.
Predictably, you found nothing of the sort.
Instead, you found a spacious interior blanketed in dust, plumes swirling about you with each step you took. A grand staircase sprawled before you, the dark stone and red carpeting were discolored from years of neglect; even the gold banisters were lackluster from the weight of dust.
There was nothing particularly fascinating about the castle, to your disappointment. You noticed a set of metal doors far to your right, those likely being the ones you fought with. And several magnificent lantern-hooks seemed to sprout from the stone, branching outward towards the high ceiling. Upon further inspection, you saw structures of similar design embedded into the wall, undoubtedly tailored for actual flames.
‘Just what kind of castle is this?’
That question circled your mind during the entirety of your tour, finding it not only devoid of life but also of accessibility. There were no shortage of doors in the damn place, yet none budged when you tried to pry them open.
All accept one.
The door swung open with such force you were surprised you managed to step back in time to not lose your nose, but more startling than than were the skeletons that emerged from the dark room, bones clattering as they walked.
“What’s this? A human? How strange. How did you get in here, lamb?” spoke one skeleton, the voice had an unnatural distortion to it.
“Kekekeke, a brave one! A real brave soul, this one!” cackled another, drawing a tarnished blade from the depth of its rib-cage.
“Stay quiet, human. You’ll awaken the Master! Come with us, quietly. We haven’t had company in so long!” groaned the last, bony appendages attached by seemingly nothing by air reached towards you.
You couldn’t muster a word, jaw slack as you backed away before turning and sprinting opposite to them, up the grand staircase and through a corridor chiseled from the same stone as the rest of the castle. The skeleton’s cackling wasn’t far behind yet they weren’t sight when you looked back.
“Fucking open! Goddamnit!” you snarled, yanking at the handle on every door you passed, acquainted once more with the scenario from before. “Just open!”
“Come out, come out, sweet little lamb!”
“We won’t hurt ya, just wanna have a nice talk.”
“The sword ain’t nothin’ but a greeting to ya!”
Hearing that they growing closer with no foreseeable escape for you at the end of the corridor, you thrashed against the doors harder than before. Your heart hammered against your chest, pants filling the space before you with opaque fogs and the silence with whimpers.
Your chest was on fire, throat as parched as your lips and your mind was fading in an incoherent haze. You slumped against the wall, fingers twining the candle-holder embedded in the stone to keep yourself from crumpling to the ground altogether.
How did this happen? You only wanted to get out of that town, away from the headhunters and the prying, spiteful gazes around you. Was this fate truly worse than what it would had been at the hands of man?
A loud crack jarred you from your thoughts, the candle-stick dipping you closer to the floor whilst your body dragged across the stone as the wall spun you around, out of sight. Both hands gripped the candle-holder now, you crouched before a dimly lit hall preceding a rather decrepit set of stairs, crumbling and fissured.
It took you but a moment to gather your bearings and continue forward, especially at the grating sound of bone smashing into hard stone, the skeleton’s rambunctious chattering but feet away.
You leaned against the wall as you descended, tentative but quick into the depths of the castle. Twisting tighter and tighter, you soon realized that as the staircase circled more intensely, the walls also were much closer than before.
An end came before you were too claustrophobic, opening up into a large room that was surprisingly well-lit for being so deep under the castle. You stepped cautiously, picking at your nails as you examined the room and the strange contraptions that fed into the walls.
The pipes led to a single point: a gigantic bulbous tank in the center of the room brimming with a red substance. You were no fool to the raised rectangular container there as well.
If possible, mingling with the skeletons was much preferable now.
‘Oh shit, oh shit. I need to leave, I need to get out of here…’
As if on cue, the coffin gave a hiss as the clasps adhering the lid shot upright, allowing the smooth, black stone to slide down and land on the ground with such a ruckus you thought you felt vibrations beneath your feet.
Despite this, you were anchored to your spot, unblinking as you looked upon the slumbering man inside the coffin. His hair was vibrant contrast to the entirety of the castle; platinum with such a sheen you thought it could be spun into a lavish tapestry. His skin was of ash and so translucent you thought you could see the veins underneath even from where you stood.
His clothes were dark, obviously crafted from the finest silk and leather–you thought he could had been a prince. Truly, he was one of the most beautiful things you had ever laid eyes on, but quickly tore your eyes away at the thought and stepped back.
The clack of your heel against the stone sounded so much louder now, and you sure it was to that man. At the moment your heel had struck, his eyes opened, piercing into your own with such intensity that you felt as nothing. Insignificant and small.
‘He’s a vampire…’
You had half the mind to run, yet you hesitated. Where would you run to? Back to the skeletons? Back to the headhunters?
The vampire didn’t move for a moment, those unfathomably sharp eyes never missed a single movement you made; not your jittering, nor the rise and fall of your chest with each breath. You wondered if this is how the hunted felt? Ensnared in the eyes of the predator before death.
“A human steps foot into my castle? How?” said the vampire in tones far colder than the perpetual winter outside. He rose from the coffin–or rather, levitated, from his chamber, long tendrils of platinum draped over his shoulders. You had decided then to stand your ground, no matter how proudly he held himself and stared down down his nose at you. “Answer me.”
“I broke a window.”
The vampire’s face remained unchanged, unresponsive as though you hadn’t said anything at all. If possible, however, you were almost positive he was staring you down harder than before.
Out of the lion’s den and straight into a dragon’s nest.