Lord of Eternal Night by Ben Alderson
Fire curled around my fingers as I watched the pregnant moon rise above the castle. Since dusk had arrived it was impossible not to take my eyes off the monstrosity of stone and mortar that seemed like a toy building so far in the distance. Not even the friendly warmth of the conjured fire could keep at bay the cold dread that had settled, unwelcomely, into my bones.
There was a flurry of snow that drifted across the world beyond the window. The first bout that came as a warning to the harsher conditions that would follow in the coming days and weeks. It did little to help the shivering that passed over my skin.
From my perch on the windowsill, I could see Castle Dread perfectly. It would seem my mother had purchased this humble dwelling for the view alone. A way of reminding me of my life’s duty. Not that the view before me was the reminder I needed, not when every day for as long as I could remember I was reminded of it.
Every day was in preparation for this one.
I pulled my gaze from the sleeping castle, giving up on waiting for the countless windows to glow with light. It only happened during the final month.
A signal of warning for the guest it would soon welcome within its empty rooms.
“Jak, they are waiting for you.”
I fisted my hand and the flames winked out. Fire was my most obedient element, the one that came more naturally to me. Tearing my gaze from the castle, I regarded Lamiere who had poked her head around the bedroom door.
“And they can wait a moment longer,” I replied.
Lamiere lowered her stare to the floor. It was custom to respect your elders, but that was a wasted tradition for the mundane. A witch never bowed to those with more age. For with age came a lack of power. And I was the last of our kind with ties to magic. It was why they held respect for me.
“Margery has asked for you to join the coven for our last circle. She worries that you will be late before the Claiming.”
I sucked my tongue across my teeth and peered at the faint glow of candlelight far down the dark corridor behind Lamiere. “I cannot help but feel that I am being rushed out the door. If they believe me to be late on such a special day, then they do not know me well enough at all.”
“You know that your mother holds you to a high esteem… she means well. I can sense her anxiety for your pending separation.”
I hated the term Lamiere used. Mother. I scoffed at it, knowing that it was likely the very woman before me that deserved the title more.
“She has an awfully odd way of showing it.” I moved across the room, sparing it a final glance. I had never slept anywhere but here. For as long as I remembered, these four walls had become my den. A place of safety. Of peace. I was more worried about sleeping away from this place than I was the deed that would soon follow.
“Will you miss me, Lamiere?” I asked, studying her expression closely as I passed her.
“So much that it already hurts.” Lamiere pressed an aged spotted hand to her heart and held it there. Her wide, amber eyes glistened with tears of honesty.
I sighed, reaching for her cheek. “I will return. Do not be sad.”
“You are a kind boy, Jak.”
“Kind boys are not brought up as killers.”
Lamiere winced. “Perhaps not…”
“And anyway, I am not a boy. I’m a witch. Has Mother not drummed that into you enough since morning?”
Lamiere laughed through a hiccup, her smile returning to her creased face. “I fear that it is your humour which will finally destroy it.”
“There are worst ways to go,” I said, taking her arm and folding it in the crook of mine. “Do not worry for me, Lamiere. You know as well as I that I am ready for this. I do not believe anyone in this life or the next has ever been more prepared to complete a task as I am.”
“This is no simple task, Jak.”
“Really?” I tugged her away from the room, leaving it for the final time in a while. “And here I was thinking that it was an easy feat, ending the life of the Eternal Prince.”
It was a silly name given to the creature that dwelled within the castle. Even the name of the castle was conjured by youths of past and present. Castle Dread. I was certain it would have had a real name lost to the forgotten memory of history. Much like that of the creature that was trapped within the castle’s boundaries.
“It is not a laughing matter,” she scolded, feet shuffling across the worn, carpeted floor of our home.
“If you do not laugh, dear Lamiere, you cry.”
She stopped me halfway down the corridor. The sounds of the coven had picked up. They spoke in rushed whispers, reflecting the inner anxiety I had for the evening ahead of me.
We both were similar heights which made it easier to hold her gaze. Mother would say that the resurgence of my power stunted my growth, that and the insolent human she sired me from.
But I did not mind. It was an inside joke I shared with Lamiere, as I was the same height as the old woman. Lamiere revelled in it.
“Promise me you will be careful.”
I averted my eyes, unable to see the worry in her stare. “I will be fine.”
“Do not be foolish. He is dangerous and unforgiving. Never has someone returned from the Claiming. You may have the upper hand in training and preparation. But out there…” she pointed to the window far back in the bedroom. “Is different from in here. Be smart. Be cautious.”
“There is one great difference between me and the ninety-nine that precede me.” I raised my spare hand and wiggled my fingers slightly. Sparks of fire tickled across my skin as a phantom wind blew down the corridor, tousling my loose, brown hair. “I have power.”
“And so will he. You are cut from the same cloth, Jak, just be wary.”
I could not fight the curl of my lip at her comparison. “We are nothing alike.”
Lamiere’s brow furrowed as she regarded me. “Come, Jak, before your mother believes you have fled for the night. It is time to say your goodbyes and receive your final blessings.”
“I have not wasted a childhood to simply flee at the final hour.”
Lamiere’s face pinched into a scowl. “You are doing what is required to restore our power. Your life and duty to our kind is the most valuable. That, Jak Bishop, is not a waste.”
* * *
Whereas I could callupon the elements with a single thought, the only ability my fellow coven members had was the art of staying silent. It was a pathetic ability — passive, unlike those I wielded. The last of my kind to possess the true power which had long since dwindled out.
It was why they all came to give me their final blessing before the Claiming. A moment in our history — the tipping of the scales of fate.
If I would succeed in my task, they would soon share the power they had since long lost.
The room we entered was full of them. Witches. Still and silent they filled the space, heads turning slowly to watch me walk amongst them. I kept my chin raised as the weight of countless stares settled on me.
Lamiere held onto me with firm, stiff fingers, but I did not need her touch to calm me. These men and women would tumble beneath a single gust of conjured wind. I could shake the very room and layer them in broken wood and stone.
They did not unnerve me.
But the woman in the midst of them did.
Her raven black hair draped like rivers of molten shadow over her narrow shoulders. Everything about her face was soft. From the light blue of her gaze to the button shape of her nose. She was a painting of beauty. She was of an age that would expect deep lines to set across her porcelain skin. But she clung to youth more so than me.
“You look divine, my son. Handsome. Likes of which the creature has never seen.” Creature. The only name she dared speak of him. “The perfect ruse.”
I released Lamiere’s hand, leaving her at the edge of the circle. “Mother.” I bowed to the matriarch of the coven, and my family. The only blood relative I had left.
“Let me take you in for this final time.”
The crowd murmured in agreement.
“Do you hold little faith in my return … Mother?”
She barely flinched at my bite. Her finger snaked beneath my chin and raised it, her nail nipping into skin. “Now, my son, you know there is no room for failure. You have the tools. You have the confidence in your abilities. You… you know what is to be done and when.”
I snap my head from her touch, leaving her painted nail to hover awkwardly in the air. “It will be done.”
She opened her arms wide, smiling to the crowd that listened in. “To restore our greatness. To break the curse that was laid upon us when the creature was punished for his… greed.”
I knew the story well. Everyone in this room and the town beyond had been brought up on it. Even those who came before us. I did not need reminding now.
“Should we not tie this up?” I said. “Unlike you all, I have somewhere important to be.”
The sharp crack of Mother’s laugh sounded painfully. “With wit like that, Jak, you will fail long before entering the door.”
“Do not let it worry you. I can assure you I will play the part well.” With that I smiled, relaxing the tension from my face. My lips softened and my forehead smoothed. It was an act — but a simple one. A face I had mastered from years before a mirror. “I have had years of practice… Mother.”
Her dress swept across the wooden floor, catching dust among the swirling black fabric as she walked away from me. I kept still, holding my blissful expression as though it were a test to myself.
“You are permitted to take two items during the Claiming. Items in which we have prepared.”
There was a clink of metal as she fussed with a clothed table in the middle of the room. Her altar, although organised, was a shamble of relics, candles and jarred herbs.
It was a risk taking anything that would give me away as a witch to the creature. It would ruin the entire plan in a heartbeat if a candle etched with Mother’s runes, or a pack of tarot cards would be found in my possession by him.
“I felt these were necessary. You will not be allowed to leave the grounds of the castle. Not for the entire duration of the Claiming, not even if you desire to. The cycle of the moon will be your guide. From tonight you will have until the next full moon. Only when the moon bleeds on the final night will you do what is needed of you. This bowl…” From the plain brown sack, she pulled a brass item. Shallow enough for stew or soup, there was nothing out of the ordinary about its design. “You can use to scry. I have its sister component with me. Simply reach for it if you need our aid. Or … encouragement.”
“I do not imagine encouragement is what I will be craving.”
“Jak, do not be fooled. The creature is a trickster. A devil. This cycle of his has gone on many years and he has perfected his own agenda, I am certain. The bowl is there when you need it. Not if.”
She put the tool back into the sack. I waited for her to retrieve the final item but her hand came back out empty.
“What of the other?”
“That is for you to decide,” she replied, her bright stare trailing me from head to foot. “Perhaps a home comfort would be ideal to take with you.”
My brows tugged inward. There was nothing that I could think of that would be of such nature. No comforts but my grimoires and tools that I had to leave behind.
“The bowl will be enough,” I said plainly.
Mother tugged at the thin rope that bound the sack closed and handed it to me. I was surprised with how light it felt.
“Then you must take your leave, my son.”
Suddenly my legs did not work. I heard her speak but my body seemed to ignore her. Twenty-one years had led up to this night. This moment. Now looking forward at the front door of our home, I lost all ability to move.
Mother was inches from me. A waft of sage and cedar wood filled my nose. “You are ready for this, Jak. I know you are. Go, do what is needed to be done. And when you return, your name will be remembered for an eternity.”
She pressed her lips to my cheek and held them there. Beneath her hands that gripped at either of my shoulders I felt her warmth. Human, living warmth.
The last I would feel in weeks. For it would be death that I dwelled alongside. Until I gave him his release from his entrapment. And my own. Or I failed and his bindings to the castle would break. Allowing him to be free to spread his disease across the world.
His curse was the flipside of our own. With one that succeeded, the other would not.
As I was guided to the front door I only hoped that I had learned enough. Retained what I needed to know.
The front door opened and with it the cold was invited into the home. Snow dusted by my feet and every dark hair on my arm stood on end.
“After you... Jak. He waits.”
This is it.