The city of Crescent Valley is named for its position below an arcing mountain range shaped on a map like the waxing moon. Home to over half a million residents, their numbers swell with the countless visitors that enter its limits every year; for during the days of its founding, Crescent Valley was home to a being of legend, simply known to locals as ‘The Great Vampire King’.
Many are skeptical that such creatures ever walked among humans, yet cannot explain the great stone castle that sits above the city. Strong and silent, the structure watches them through the ages, though marks no time of its own; the grand clock fixed to the central tower, has sat frozen for over a century, with hands set at one minute to midnight.
“Legend has it that when the clock strikes twelve a great evil will beset mankind,” Lindsay said, leaning toward the group with the eagerness of a believer. “Flames and darkness and destruction!” Her arms rose with the scale of her story. “And on that day the Great Vampire King will return to defend us with his power.”
“What a load of bologna.”
Lindsay frowned at the boy. Of course it was a boy. Some snot-nosed little punk determined to prove how big he was by shattering the illusion. Sure, most people thought it was fake; but that was no reason to spoil the show. After all, it was fun! So fun in fact that as a little girl Lindsday came to the castle every other day, and grew into the red uniform she now wore while ushering guests at the gate.
She folded her hands in front of her skirt and leaned down to the boy. Hazel eyes smouldered, but her smile painted the image of composure.
“You’re very bold,” she said, “to doubt the Great Vampire King in his very home. You should know that he was said to be a very magnanimous host, but did not suffer impolite guests… no matter their size.”
“There’s no such thing as vampires,” he said, “or ghosts, or goblins, or fairies. It’s all made up.”
His parents stood behind him, smug and satisfied with their offspring. What a fine skeptic they’d produced, for whom doubt was the greatest virtue.
Such strong conviction, Lindsay thought, and for a child still in elementary school. A part of her wondered if she should feel sorry for him and his lack of imagination. The rest of her cackled with anticipation.
Their eyes locked, as if daring the other to blink. Lindsay smiled; and then darkness.
A collective gasp ran through the tour group. There was no light in the windowless stone corridor, and the only anchor they had was each other. Some groaned, knowing what was coming. The little boy, however, released an involuntary whine.
“Everybody stay calm,” Lindsay said. “The wiring in this building is really old. We’ll have maintenance get right-”
Suddenly the air shook.
Ringing filled their ears.
The emergency breakers came to life, and flooded the room with a deep red hue. Lindsay pried herself from the wall, and hurried to count all the members of the group. They were present and accounted for, but the knowledge brought no relief. “I-I don’t understand! What is this?”
Deep, guttural vibrations rattled their collective bones with each toll of the bell. The volume permeated everything, from head to toe and far beyond.
The young boy clutched to his parents.
“It’s alright, sweetie,” his mother said. “It’s all for show.”
Linsday shook her head. “I-I-I wish it were! If this is new they didn’t tell me! I… I-I think I should get my manager.” She turned to the dimly lit hallway and stumbled as quickly as she could in a tight pencil skirt. Her cries echoed between the stones. “Mr. Nowak! Mr. Nowak, something strange is happening!”
The clock tower rang until the twelfth strike, and then stopped. With silence there was calm, and a young boy clinging to his parents started to settle.
Just then was a burst of light, revealing an ominous figure dressed in black; arms outstretched, cape flared, and fangs glistening. He loomed over the unsuspecting tour group and basked in their screams – in particular the screams of a youth who’d think twice in future before expressing disdain in a sacred place.
Lowering his arms, the grey haired man stepped from the platform, revealing a much shorter stature than one would attribute to a vampire. He removed the dentures from his mouth, and took a humble bow.
“Apologies for the theatrics, dear guests; but I’m sure you’ll agree that no visit to the castle complete without a scare.”
Lindsay bounced to his side. “May I introduce to you, playing the Great Vampire King, Mr. Herbert Nowak, the curator of this castle for the last twenty years.”
“And many more to come,” he continued.
The crowd responded with gentle applause; all except for a confused boy, whose own imagination had got the better of him. Lindsay offered a knowing smile, and winked at him. She waved the remote concealed in her hand, and pressed it once more for effect.
There are places beneath the earth where magic still resides; places forgotten by humans, or dismissed as superstition. One still existed who clung to the old ways, who remembered an age older than time, and truths no-one dare speak. He shambled through the unseen corridors, in shadows darker than dark, to a chasm whose yawn could swallow souls a thousand at a time.
The nameless traveler, himself little more than bone and dust, collapsed to his knees in reverence to the void. It was here that he would build his altar, and go about fulfilling his centuries old duty. From under the tattered veil concealing his form, the figure reached to draw in the dirt. Thin, brittle nails stained yellow traced primordial symbols, accompanied by a language only he remembered.
His lips cracked upon parting, and the dry taste of sand grated upon his tongue. Still he ventured to speak. “From darkness all things come.”
A hot breeze blew from the abyss, carrying with it sulphur and the stink of rot. The figure prostrated so far down that he kissed the bedrock. He knew better than to gaze into the eye of infinity; the nesting bed from which the plague of life was rejected. Ancient prayers with meaning beyond mortal understanding cut his mouth. The wind grew into a freezing tempest that shredded the rags upon his back, but still the traveler bowed.
The wind settled, and the abyss listened.
When next he lifted himself the cave was transformed; not in a way that could be seen, but in a manner he remained aware of. Gone was the eroded tunnel compacted by the weight of the surface. In its place were open chambers and smooth pillars; an underground palace for a primordial dynasty.
The nameless sage turned again to the abyss. His work was not yet done. On cracked knees and with limbs like twigs, he cried with all his spirit. It was a tiny cry, drowned by the immutable silence to which no force was equal, but still he offered it a prayer none would ever know.
Again the abyss listened, and for his devotion yawned with favor.
Silence shattered with the sound of footsteps; three – no, four sets echoing through the chamber. The traveler remained prostrate, well until the others approached. That moment more than any other warranted his veneration.
A stout figure loomed over him. Of all to emerge from the void his strength was the greatest. The ground trembled with his every step.
“You have done well, Wiseman,” he declared with satisfaction. “Now, rise!”
The traveler, now possessing a title in place of a name, stifled a groan as he stood and straightened his filthy rags. Even at equal height he dared not look at his master’s single, wandering eye. The revived monster presented an unholy vision, even in darkness, with features arranged from the nightmares of children.
‘Wiseman’ bowed, both to his master and the three companions following. “Welcome home, Lord Nihilex.”
His aura resonated through the caverns and saturated the earth above. Many ages passed since the world tasted his power; Lord Nihilex would feed it to them, no matter how much they screamed. After centuries of anticipation the new age of evil had arrived!
The hour was late and the sun had long set. The tourists returned to their hotels, and Lindsay pulled the large double doors to a close. She turned the great wheel which ran a bar across the entrance, and fixed it in place with iron padlocks. Who needed electronic security when you had old world ingenuity? She tapped a code into the security panel, just in case.
Alone in the main hall, the castle took on a new life. It was quiet as the grave; quiet as the Great Vampire King had been for centuries. Lindsay clutched her arms for warmth. To this day she swore he was there; not only as a wall sized portrait that bore down on visitors, but in the air. The Great Vampire King was embodied within the castle itself.
That might have frightened anyone else, but not Lindsay. She stopped before the painting to drink the visage of the Great Vampire King, just as she had a thousand times before. With each passing she learned a new detail; whether it was the slightly concave dimple of his emaciated cheeks, or the likeness of storm clouds in his harsh, amber eyes. Sometimes he appeared to grip his sword more tightly – the legendary sword called ‘Midnight’s Kiss’, clutched with a force that turned his knuckles white.
“I wonder what you were really like,” she murmured. Some part of him must have a base in truth. The young woman shook herself from fascination and continued down the hall. There was still much work to be done.
Up the spiral staircase and down the corridor was the dressing-chamber-turned-office, where a sliver of light shone beneath the door. Lindsay pressed it open and leaned on the frame, waiting for her employer to acknowledge her presence. Unfortunately for Lindsay, Mr. Nowak was prone to losing himself in a mountain of papers – so much so that he failed to realize the time.
“I hear there’s a bowl of goulash at home with your name on it,” Lindsay said. So came the word of Mrs. Nowak, who’d recruited Lindsay to send her Herbert on his way.
She plucked the pen from his hand and gently brought the ledger to a close. Mr. Nowak blinked, as though just realizing her presence. The old man winced with embarrassment.
“Sorry,” he said. “There’s just so much to do around here. It’s so easy to get caught up!”
Lindsay’s grin stretched to the far corners of her face. “That’s why you hired a beautiful young assistant to make sure you’re not handling it alone.”
The curator chuckled. “It’s a good thing you’re like a daughter, or the missus might suspect something.” Not that Mr. Nowak was prone to such a thing. He adored his wife only slightly more than he adored the castle.
And Lindsay was like a daughter to him. The two had known each other since she was a little girl. It was likely that she’d spent more time with Mr. Nowak than with her own family. From the moment she was able to catch the bus by herself she would journey straight to the castle, both after school and on weekends. Countless times she’d followed the tour, learned every detail there was to know, and a few others saved for VIPs.
She shoved a stack of papers out of the way and sat on the desk. “Don’t you ever feel bad for scaring poor, innocent children?” Lindsay couldn’t keep a straight face. Children were rarely as innocent as they seemed.
“That’s why we have a sign,” Mr. Nowak said. “‘Enter at your own risk.’ If you’re pregnant, have photosensitive epilepsy, or a heart condition we’ll give you the basic tour. Everyone else is fair game; especially little kiddies. It keeps the magic alive!”
She leaned closer. “But don’t you get sick of pulling the same prank, again and again?”
The old man smirked knowingly. How many times had Lindsay bounced, laughed and clapped when the ‘Great Vampire King’ sprung? Hundreds, if not more. Even now that she was a part of the joke, an official employee of the castle, she relished in delight with every shock, just as he did.
“I’ll let you know if I do.”
Lindsay reached for Mr. Nowak’s coat and dropped it into his lap. “You should go home.”
His expression soured. “Alright. Once I’ve finished closing up.”
“I can finish closing up,” she said. “You have your darling wife waiting for you, pining at the window, slaving for hours over a hot stove-”
“Yes, yes, yes. You’ve made your point.” Mr. Nowak pulled on his coat and grimaced. It seemed almost painful for him to leave.
“The castle will be here in the morning,” she said. That was of some comfort.
Mr. Nowak relented in theory, but bickered every step of the way, always finding one last job that needed his attention. What should have been a short walk to the staff exit took three times as long with all his fussing. That in turn resulted in a ‘to-do’ list longer than Lindsay could track. Then, at last, he was gone. Lindsay pressed the side door closed behind him, and she was alone.
She paused to regard the cavernous space, where she was the only thing to stir. Well, the only human, at any rate.
Just as she was setting about her work there was a sound. Something deep, but distant, looming above her head. Lindsay turned her attention toward the belfry, and listened over the sound of her own heart beating.
BONG! BONG! BONG!
“What the heck?”
It could be the sound system, she thought, but there were no speakers in the high tower. Yet there was the sound, guttural and haunting, reaching into her chest with a quiet but thunderous bass.
She started on the stairs and climbed toward the belfry. It was probably another of Mr. Nowak’s pranks.
To be continued…