The sky was a torrent of unrest as black night settled over the low Victorian valley. Professor Arthur Bainsworth hunched against the pounding rain, his teeth chattering senselessly as he hauled himself up the muddy path.
He’d missed the last coach, so he’d had to walk the three miles amidst the gale. But opportunities like this were worth a moment of misery.
A crack of lightning fractured the sky. The domineering castle broke into stark relief, and then darkness plunged over the ancient stone edifice as if it’d never been. There were no lights on inside. Had they forgotten?
He didn’t think so. He felt the eerie prickle of watching eyes. Arthur shuddered, pushed up his glasses, and clambered up to the towering double doors. The brass knocker with an embossed skull seemed all too apt. He raised it with clammy effort and let it drop. It clanged dully, then–
–Was it just him, or did the whole castle shake?
The clang echoed for half a second when, all too quickly, a slim figure appeared through a dim crack in the doorway. “Hello.” Her voice was as hollow as her frame, making Arthur think at once of a caged bird. She stared at him like a meal to a starving man. “Do come in, Professor,” she said before he could stammer any introductions. Her pale blue eyes flicked up and past his shoulder.
Arthur turned back, but there was only the night-laden valley. He followed her inside, dripping through the foyer.
Ancient. It was the first word that came to mind. Exposed stone jutted beneath layers of old cobwebs, and faded tapestries carpeted the walls along the stairs, followed by a domineering portrait at the top flight–a young man staring his nose down at Arthur.
Arthur was about to say something, then stopped. The young woman was gone, though he hadn’t heard her leave. It was as though the castle itself absorbed her into its depths.
An odd feeling churned at the base of his stomach. He scratched the back of his neck. “H-hello?”
A throat cleared behind him. Arthur whirled. The girl had vanished, but a much larger, imposing figure stood at a doorway. “Professor Bainsworth. Welcome.” The man’s voice was lower than a growl, like the first swelling note of a wolf’s howl. It sounded anything but welcoming.
But Arthur’s decorum ran marrow-deep, sprouting, undaunted, past his discomfort. He wiped his damp hand on his damper trousers and held it out. His fingers trembled slightly. “It’s good to meet you. Mister Klaue? Your daughter let me in.”
Klaue tilted his head, then let a faint curve touch his thin lips. “Daughter-in-law.” The way he said it made Arthur shudder again. Mr Klaue didn’t shake Arthur’s hand but turned and gestured for him to follow.
Arthur could have sworn there’d been no light inside the house, but now, he stepped into a sitting room packed with old sofas – he guessed a decades’ worth of dust coating each surface – and there was a popping fire inside the granite fireplace.
Arthur shivered, feeling the dampness more in the presence of such heat. He sidled closer, but it was one of those bone-seeping chills that even a roaring fire couldn’t sate.
Klaue was suddenly at his shoulder. Arthur jumped.
“A brandy. For the cold.”
“You, uh, read my mind, sir,” Arthur gave a nervous chuckle as he took the glass. This, at least, seemed to lack the grime of untouched years. Surely someone didn’t live here? But, that young lady looked as though she’d never seen the sun. Arthur held the drink up to the firelight. The liquid beamed crimson. He drained the glass, his eyes watering. It buzzed at the back of his eyes as he tried to reinsert why he’d come. “This artefact,” he began. “In the letter, your son mentioned it was quite delicate, requiring the care of an academic.”
He turned back; it seemed Klaue’s large frame took up the entire doorway, now.
Arthur berated his tired wits. The man couldn’t have grown in the last two minutes. Yet, he couldn’t shake the feeling. “Is your… son here?”
“Under the weather.” Klaue’s glittering eyes pulled Arthur’s gaze to the ceiling.
Another crack of lightning outside. It split the sky, then vanished as though swallowed up.
Right. Time to hurry this along. “Ah, well. If you don’t mind showing me yourself?”
At Arthur’s blank stare, Klaue brushed a hand in the air. “Your age, Professor.”
“Yes.” His voice sounded thin.
“My son w–is thirty-one.” Klaue pushed off the wall and gestured again for Arthur to follow.
Arthur rubbed his eyes under his glasses to blink away the blurriness.
A white figure moved in his periphery.
He froze. Blinked furiously.
It was just the white curtain, hanging limp and moth-eaten over the window. Blast it. You’re an educated man, Arthur Bainsworth. Stop jumping at imagined ghosts.
“Coming?” Klaue called at the same moment thunder shook the castle. It vibrated through the very bones of the structure.
Arthur stepped back into the foyer. Klaue was gone. But he’d just heard–
–A growl, like a bow drawn over a hellish violin. Then, a high-pitched scream.
Arthur threw his hands over his ears and leapt back as something dropped from the ceiling. A white figure dropped from the chandelier with a horrible crack, flopping in front of Arthur’s face like a wriggling worm on a line. Arthur screamed in horror as the dangling body twisted inexorably to face him.
It was the girl, her face frozen in a rictus of unbridled agony. Her eyes were holes–gouged from their sockets–and a silver chain looped around her purple-mottled neck.
Any communication his brain had with his limbs was severed. Arthur stood in mute terror. But then, somewhere deep in his muddled mind came a sharp reminder, seemingly out of place, but Arthur knew he couldn’t ignore it. The artefact. Somehow, he knew it was the key.
Arthur shook himself and tore up the stairs just as the eyeless corpse began to squirm from her glinting collar.