Nobody in the village could tell how it had started.
The memories had crumbled in the long walk of the years. The beginning was so distant, by then, that the keepers of the stories – men among forgetful men – had lost track of the first generation from time immemorial.
In the great blank that had replaced the past, the people had lost sight of many things. Their fear, if not completely gone, had washed away, and was no longer more than a cold breeze in the night of their consciences. Nobody ever felt surprise or sadness – the unfortunate parents stayed silent, and bent their heads to the greater good. Nobody felt regret.
Even so, among the echoes of long-forgotten times, a few hints had stayed.
Those who took care of the sacrifices never talked. The ritual was carried out in silence, and passed on in secret. Not a soul ever dreamt of doubting that those children meant misfortune – there was the touch of a curse, and unspeakable fear.
Most of all, they knew the cursed children were to be conducted to the castle. It was the only certainty they held, and, to their eyes, the one remaining trace of an ancestral call.
Scraps of truth, or at least habits – they were their only clues. As the generations became more and more forgetful, the villagers clung to them with all the tenacity of their superstitions. The shamans and the elders gathered with the people each time one of those births took place, telling the only stories they knew, rewritten and changed too many times to count.
Far above, beyond the trees and the towers, the sun had been shining for centuries.
Its rays followed their cycle, ahead and back in time; they drenched the village, the forest and the castle, with those forgotten moments all treasured in their eyes.
Seasons and seasons before, in the summer, the same light showered on a tall watchtower, built on a rocky formation not far from the beach.
It was a familiar place to the grown men of the village. From time to time, each of them had to return to his duties as a guard, and keep watch on whatever dangers the sea could bring.
The dock for the village boats lay next to a wide cave, marking the main entrance. Just inside, the circular stone wall sustained a spiral staircase to the top. The flat space where the sentinels stood was narrow, yet tall enough to embrace much of the boundless blue expanse below.
In those remote times, there was a shared belief among whoever had served as a sentinel at least once, and any soul who returned from there could confirm it without hesitating. They thought the watchtower had a magical atmosphere – from up there, they said, all the sounds from the land were muffled, and the gulls and the waves sang the only song.
Odd as it was, they enjoyed it; those who considered it to be a bad omen were few, and never truly listened to. So it went, at least, until the curse began.
That day was a long row of hot, suffocating hours, at the end of which none of the sentinels came back from the sea. All the people saw was the lonely silhouette of a boat. That night, under their worried gaze, just one man climbed his way to the village.
He had gone fishing by mere chance – that was what he told them, his voice full of the anxious excitement that accompanies terrifying news. He told of how the fish fled his net, unnaturally fast, and of the sudden vibration he had felt from the bowel of the earth. When the water had stopped quivering, finally leaving his boat still, he was very close to the watchtower, and could distinctly hear the sound of hammers.
The night that followed refused to bring quiet sleep to anyone. More men than usual stayed up, willing to guard the borders and check on anything that might come from the sea. Most of them could only see the moonless sky; but the finest ears caught, hidden among the waves, the echoes of sounds typically bound to a large, growing building.
Fears and rumours spread throughout that entire night, keeping the adults of the village constantly half-awake. In the last seconds of complete darkness, minutes before dawn, they had long given up on rest.
They were conscious, and much less calm than the evening before, when the earthquake came.
Never leaving the shore for a moment, their eyes followed the sunrise as it lit an island that had never been there. The rocks had risen twice their natural height – they had grown to be a tiny mountain by themselves, with clefts, solid sides and natural caves swept by the wind.
The summit, on the other hand, was flat and smooth; and in its middle, standing out against a rough sea, the watchtower lay unharmed. The base of the building, now solidly planted on the island, lay at a lower level than the highest rocks, whereas its silhouette was still erect and sharp.
They were unable to tear their gaze away. However, scared and tired as they were from the long watch, none of them could tell the difference at first.
It was a little girl to notice, later in the morning, that the tower had grown in height. The roof had disappeared, hidden by a tall line of freshly assembled walls. They were built in square, large stone blocks, which looked nothing like the ones they made use of.
A shiver ran down the spines of the villagers. Not only did they know who must have spent the night building those walls – there was also the fact that, just by looking at them in broad daylight, they couldn’t tell how it had been possible in the first place.
Those who could collect enough strength to row to the open sea reported exactly what everyone had feared. Even from the large caves at the bottom of the cliffs, which did not show any kind of entrance and no longer had a dock, they could hear men at work.
With such few sentinels trapped in the tower, no one was able to explain how the noise could be so loud.
As expected, their tale did nothing but fuel fears and nightmares. The villagers’ daily routine broke down – they kept talking, crying, or praying to the gods of light.
Becoming slow, and full of bad omens, was the fate of their lives. So it happened throughout the long days that followed – until the days melted in weeks, and months, and turned their anxiety into an uncomfortable habit. More or less everyone, women and children included, got used to the idea their men would never return.
Yet, right in front of them, the walls were telling a different truth.
Every time they paid attention to it, the monotonous chant of the tools multiplied. It was scarier at night, when the rustle made it seem like hundreds of workers had joined in. The once small tower, by then completely rebuilt, was being surrounded by a whole structure – which, way too fast for human rhythms, was getting closer to the size of a gigantic castle.
Countless blocks and tiles marked the passing of the seasons. A light drizzle made the first mushrooms grow; just like them, after every night, arches and pillars were found anew on the sea. The cold and the fog mingled, the walls whitened. The rare snow fell, and the halls multiplied under its touch.
By the time the bridge started growing, it was late spring again.
For the first time, the watchmen spotted a colossal stone door. With it, three arches had stretched in the sea, exactly towards the far end of the path to the beach. Stone steps parted it from the entrance to the castle, reaching the exact level of the village. And in fact, on the edge of the very land they inhabited, there was a change nobody had seen coming.
Where the bridge, once completed, should have leaned on their side, they found a black piece of machinery, devised by a knowledge they had never seen or heard of.
Whatever its function could be, it was certain – the castle was made to be accessible, and no one could guess why.
Since then, they never stopped checking on the bridge. As the arches grew in number, the whole building released soft whirrs; and by night, when their fires were all extinguished, many villagers noticed how the few windows and open spaces had started glowing green. They merely watched, helpless and confused. There was no way to stop such a curse.
The idea of a contact – to touch a building that had haunted the skyline for so long, full of dark and unknown magic – gave hope to the few families who had been left alone, but made the others restless. The villagers were split in half, as, once again, panic slowed down their daily lives to an intolerable level.
There were words of uncertainty, fears, fights. And the elders, put in front of a decision that would change everyone’s future either way, made the one choice they had left.
The final day was a unique one. It came at the beginning of the summer, the same day as the start, a whole unfortunate year later.
The shaman left with two warriors and the elders, rowing from the beach. The hunters, well-armed, crossed the completed bridge to meet whatever fate was expecting them. They walked away together, murmuring a prayer of good luck –for right then, in one of the smallest huts, the youngest mother was giving birth.
In spite of their heavy load, the two boats were swift and reliable as ever. The old men felt a gentle breeze on their skin, severed and far from the laws that usually bound the winds of the coast. It was leading them – to what, they could not know.
The shaman felt little surprise when, at the far end of the cave, he found a new dock ready for them. He had to expect anything. It was a time and place of foreign magic – he was aware that every object, every influence, every sight he witnessed was bound to serve a purpose, sooner or later.
Just as the elders crossed the small entrance, a group of long-lost sentinels reunited with the hunters, seemingly oblivious and in shock. They spoke of nightmares, of black and light blue – they told tales of a prison, and insisted they knew nothing more. They were led back home, and prepared to cleanse their souls.
At the bottom of the tower, the few men stared at the immense void above their heads, trembling in fear and awe. One of them, however, looked for other traces.
The shaman could not help ignoring the walls, the tall stairs, the light that rained on them. He felt a strong hint of power, quivering and beckoning from someplace close to them. He gave a start as his hands moved on their own, to reach a seemingly ancient door.
The first thing he could think of was that the portal his fingers were exploring – the shapes, the colours, the faint glow – had to be old, very old, and very powerful. Such level of magic had never touched his soul before. And he dreamt of how the gods of light and darkness show themselves among mortals, how the vital energy of their soldiers, of their victims, is carved deep in the stone idols…
From the core of the portal, a scream pierced through his heart, echoing from his mouth to the bends of the tall tower. It was a sound terrible enough to cycle through time, over and over again – bound to repeat itself, in the voices of many years and descendants, sealing a fate beyond mortal knowledge.
He could not see it yet, but he soon would – the deep horror of that sound sprang from his home, where a woman, her face wet with terrified tears, was staring at the head of her newborn son.