His Only Treasure
Charlotte awoke in a cold sweat, trembling from head to foot. She had just awoken from the most terrifying nightmare, and now she sat up near her headboard, knees drawn up to her chin, trying to shake away its last remnants from her waking memory. She shuddered as the images flashed once again through her over-active mind.
She was standing alone on the shaded grounds of her ruins, an eerie breeze whispering around her in the otherwise still, moonless night. She heard it then, the voice of her Angel, though she was no longer filled with the same rapture at its sound. Something was different, something was wrong about his voice. As she peered through the gathering mist, she thought she saw a shadow - the shadow of a man. It was advancing towards her, and as it approached, she realized that it was a man, shrouded in a black cloak, his face hidden within the shadowed depths of his hood. He spoke to her, but the sound was one that she did not expect; he had her Angel's voice.
"Angel?" she inquired, her voice trembling with fear.
"Yes," he replied, "I am your Angel. Come to me." As he extended his hand, his hood fell away, revealing a white, sinister mask over his face.
Charlotte screamed as a bolt of lightning ripped through the sky, briefly illuminating the courtyard ruins and at her feet, the body of her dead father, clutching a blood red rose in his hand.
She shivered again, a frightened tear trailing down her cheek. This was not the first nightmare of this sort that she had had. Many times throughout her childhood, she had dreamt of a masked man who endlessly pursued her. Sometimes she would run away, but never fast enough - she would feel his icy hand grip her shoulder just before she could awake. When she would turn around, she would find not the masked man standing there, but a skeleton in his place. Other times, she would try to escape, only to find him blocking every exit to which she ran, trapping her in his dark prison.
Unable to sleep, she slid out of bed, lighting the candle on her night table to help chase away the shadows. She wrapped her heavy woolen shawl around her shoulders to drive the chill from her bones and curled in a chair by the window, gazing into the moonless sky. Never had she dreamed her father's death before. She closed her eyes and prayed that her dream was not an omen.
She looked out again, searching the black and empty sky - for what, she wasn't sure. "Papa," she whispered through the tears that stung her eyes, "please be safe."
You have been expected.
The words turned over in the old man's mind as he sat in the great drawing room, contemplating this turn of events. He had no explanation for the fear that tugged at the back of his mind or the sense of premonition that hung heavily in the air around him. His mysterious masked host had temporarily deserted him here in this massive drawing room after taking his wet clothes from him and providing him with a warm, dry robe instead.
He looked about the room helplessly, stunted in the midst of such opulence. The floor was carpeted with a plush, rich, red rug with intricate weavings around its perimeter. The windows were draped with thick brocade curtains - black with golden weaving - and massive red-and-gold tassels used as tie-backs. The chairs and end tables were crafted from various dark, rare and expensive woods, as was the plush velvet sofa which took up much of the wall to his right. But the main feature which commanded his attention was the fireplace which was right before him. Made of the finest ebony marble, the mantle stretched the entire height of the wall and spanned more than half its length. It was intricately carved with fantastic scenes, and as he moved forward for a closer inspection, he gave an involuntary shudder, for carved into that black marble was a much too realistic depiction of the lost souls in the mythological Underworld. They burned, they writhed, faces twisted in inhuman agony over and around the fire which blazed in the fireplace. He stared at the hellish mantlepiece in horrified wonder, filled with awe and repulsion by turns, yet he found that he could not look away.
It was in this captivated state that his masked host found him when he returned. "It's a rather remarkable work of art, is it not?"
He started at the sound of his mysterious host's voice. "I am not sure that 'remarkable' is the word I would choose; it revolts me, yet I cannot look away for its expert craftsmanship."
"Which is precisely what makes it remarkable," his host replied from behind the mask. For the first time, the old man had a decent look at his host; though the lighting in the room was dim, it afforded him a better look than the moonlight alone. He was dressed as any ordinary man of status, carefully groomed, pinned and tucked in all of the appropriate places, yet his mask seemed to provide him with a sinister power, his golden eyes shining through its holes like two burning flames. Those burning eyes and his lips and chin were all that the mask revealed - the rest was hidden away beneath the white porcelain with the classical nose and the arched golden eyebrows. He exuded a regal air, even as he leaned casually against the door frame, arms folded over his chest. He seemed in every way a man to be highly respected - and feared.
"I'm sure you are wondering why you are here," his host continued, eyeing him carefully. "Let us sit and talk; there is a rather important matter which I wish discuss with you." He motioned towards two over-stuffed chairs that stood before the fireplace which the old man was certain had not been there just a moment before. He sat despite his bafflement and his uneasiness increased.
"I can see you are uneasy," his host addressed him. "Perhaps an introduction will help to put your mind at ease. I am Erik, and I own this castle and all its grounds. Everything you see is mine. I own it all; you might even say that I am its ruler." He chuckled at his own private joke. "I have lived here alone for countless years and I now seek release from my solitude. But enough about me for now; tell me something about yourself." He sat back in his chair and steepled his fingers, and the old man gasped at the sight; his hands looked like a skeleton's!
He regained his composure with a firm resolve. "I only tell my name to honest men who are not afraid to show their faces to a stranger," he replied. "If you are an honest man and are hiding no secrets, then show me your face; then I shall speak of myself!"
Erik rose indignantly from his chair. "No living man has ever seen Erik's face, and no living man ever shall, without paying a dear, dear price!" he raged. The old man rose as well, more certain now than ever that he was in the company of a mad man and thinking only of escaping to return to his dear Little Lotte.
"Then I shall not stay here!" he exclaimed, taking a few steps back toward the doorway. "If you will kindly direct me to my own clothes, I shall put them on and be out and leave the way I came; it will be morning soon, and then I shall be able to find the road that I lost."
"I cannot let you leave!" Erik exclaimed, a sudden panic rising in his chest.
"And I cannot stay! Sir, if you please!" Erik blocked his path, not allowing him to pass. The old man persisted, and seeing that his captor would not relent, he did the only thing he could think of doing to gain him access to the doorway and his freedom - he reached for the mask. He only meant it as a distraction, to catch him off guard so he could dash for the doorway and the freedom of the perilous outdoors. But his captor seemed to take his act in a much different way.
He let out an almost superhuman cry of rage as the mask fell to the floor. "So this was your plan? You wanted to see?" he yelled, grinding his teeth. "You wanted to see the face of the deathly beast that haunts the woods? Well, then look! Look upon my deathly face!" He loomed over the old man who had fallen to the floor at his feet when Erik had turned on him, his cadaverous face glowing a hideous yellow in the firelight and his golden eyes gleaming maliciously. "I am quite a sight, am I not?" he hissed in an angry whisper, bending down so that his face was level with the old man's. The old man trembled and hid his face at the sight. "Had you not seen my face, I would have let you go free. But now that you know, now that you have seen, you shall never leave my castle alive!"
"Please, sir!" the old man begged, hiding his face and his tears of terror. "I meant no harm, I only - my daughter! My daughter, sir, she needs me!"
Erik checked himself suddenly; he was now the one in power. Perhaps he could turn the situation in his favor after all. "Your daughter," he echoed thoughtfully, staring pensively into the fire.
The old man looked at him suddenly, a new desperation in his eyes as he read into his captor's meaning. He could hardly vocalize his new fear.
Erik turned again to face his prey. "I would be willing to spare your life," he said, a dark note in his voice, "if you would be willing to make a trade."
"No, no!" he whimpered in a hoarse whisper. Desperation claimed him at the thought of the imminent loss of his beloved Little Lotte, the only treasure in the world that he had left.
"Come, monsieur," Erik pressed, "her life for yours. I promise that no harm shall come to her. In fact, she knows me already. Or do you not trust the word of an inhuman monster such as myself?" He spoke his last words with a searing venom.
A tense moment passed in silence as the old man considered his death-faced captor. The village rumors he had heard were true; the forest was haunted by a specter who looked like Death, and who was to say that the other nasty tales of his feasting on human flesh were not true as well? Yet he had promised no harm and had left him with no choice...
"Will you at least give me time to say goodbye?" he inquired brokenly.
Erik smiled a devious smile. "I shall give you one month to make your decision. When the month has passed, I shall expect to see one of you at my door again - either you or her, but preferably her." His demeanor changed then as he rose and replaced his mask, offering his hand to help the old man from the floor. "You shall stay the night here as it is a dangerous night outside, and in the morning after you have eaten, I shall point you in the direction of the proper road home." With that, he turned and left the old man alone in the massive room once more. Upon his leaving, the old man fell to the floor once again, weeping for his betrayal of his treasured daughter.
"I think you've gone too far."
"No one asked you opinion, Daroga," Erik replied moodily as he sat in his chair by the fire, smoking a pipe. He had finally sent the old man away after making his demands very clear. There was no doubt he would comply.
Disregarding his master's temper as usual, Nadir pressed on. "You've taken this infatuation far enough," he admonished. "I desire freedom from this curse as much as you, but this is not the way it should be done."
Erik took another puff. "Then tell me how," he replied coolly.
Nadir paused. Though he had imagined the breaking of the enchantment millions of times over, he had never fully considered the mechanics of how it was to take place. Love was the necessary ingredient, obviously. "Love for love's sake"; that's what the enchantress had said. But never had he considered how Erik was to learn to love, or how another individual was to learn to love him.
"Tell me how, Daroga," Erik repeated with an edge in his voice.
"Well," Nadir began, stopping to choose his words carefully, "I-"
"You have no idea, do you?" Erik cut him short as he rose from the armchair to face his advisor. "You have no idea how any living, rational being could find a way to love a cold, a hideous, a rotting, shriveled, decaying, living human corpse!" he seethed. "Well neither do I, dear Daroga, neither do I!" He stood fully erect, allowing his presence to intimidate the shade of a man before him, eyes flashing behind the mask. Then, his shoulders drooped with that familiar feeling of despair. "How else am I supposed to go about it?" he finally finished in a defeated tone.
"I do not know the right way," Nadir conceded, "but I do know that this cannot be it." With that, he turned to leave, not waiting to be dismissed. "Oh, and one more thing," he added, turning back once more, "please, do not crush the spirit of this poor girl. Something tells me that her young eyes have already seen enough." With that, he left Erik alone to brood.