The captain ordered the drawbridge lowered for the fourth time that night. The men obeyed. As the portcullis lifted, he took a torch from the wall; the same he had carried out with him throughout the night. The cloth of the grip was damp with the sweat of its last use. As he carried it further from its sconce and towards the bare openness of the night, the flame struggled and withered to little more than the beak of a blackbird.
As the bridge lowered its final few inches, the chains within the mechanism shuddered. The top of the wooden walkway met its end across the moat with an unnerving silence, which all at once spread to the chains themselves.
The night air pulled at his cheeks with its coldness, and his breath stood a moment before him, taking good time to dissipate completely. Once the phantom of his exhale had gone, all that remained was darkness; a darkness so black and complete, it seemed as though the end of the bridge were lost to the edge of all existence, its ancient wooden boards aging before his eyes as they met with oblivion.
The captain turned to his men sharply, not wishing to keep his focus away from the night for longer than a second. They hadn’t removed themselves from the stone archway that lead up to the parapet. He hadn’t time to count who remained, or gauge the expression on their sleepless faces, as he swiftly returned his gaze to the dark.
Inhaling deeply, his lungs felt tortured by the atmosphere that filled them. Overcoming the choke of a cough, he bellowed to the night, “Reveal yourself!”.
The night did not return so much as an echo. All sound was consumed by the pitch.
“If you be a brave man, which surely you are to travel unhindered by the demons and drougrs of the dark, then reveal thyself!”
He opened his jaw to call out again, but could not. Words that came to his mind could not find their way to his lips. His jowl struck closed, filtering his heavy breathing into hisses. His attempts to utter curses and frustrations were lost to his breath and the barrier of his jaw.
Three times previously he had been baited, and three times he had opened the castle’s portal to nothing. The challenge to his fortitude and sanity was becoming too great a strain. The chink in the amour of his mind was extending, becoming a rift that bled his courage and lucidity.
He noticed the weight of the torch in his hand, and gripped it tighter. His other hand felt clumsily for the hilt of his sword in its scabbard as he moved the torch ahead of him, beyond the threshold of the gateway. A slow wave of the flame did nothing to influence the darkness. A second wave over the dead sea of the night snuffed it out entirely.
With a muted thud, the extinguished torch hit the wooden bridge. Again, the sound did not carry into the darkness. The captain removed his sword and held it out in front of him, prone to face the invisible force that had killed the light.
The sound of his own heavy breathing became him. Shuffling the dead torch aside with the tip of his boot, he dared a step out onto the bridge, which did not creak beneath his weight, as it had done every day previous. In the margin of his sight, he noticed that his breaths were no longer forming their usual clouds of grey in the air; in fact, the sting of cold that had gripped him entirely was now shedding from him, starting from the tip of his nose and crawling with a warmth down his skull, over his shoulders, and all the way through his body to the soles of his feet. Warmth unfamiliar, but entirely welcome.
The weight of his shoulders sank away to nothing, as his arms lowered in the comfort. The point of the captain’s sword now swung downwards, lowering his guard, but he did not feel the need to correct this. He took another slow, silent step into the night, and another, and another. He stood a few empty feet from the castle walls, and stopped. The still quietness of the night was broken by a sound that lapped and rose gently, almost inaudibly.
Looking up into the sky, he could not detect a single star, nor the brush of silver he had expected from the full moon that had begun rising the previous afternoon; all was black. The sound grew in volume, like the approaching wakening of a dreamer. A rushing, slapping sound, like the swirl of-
“Water.” Uttered the captain, breaking his mute agreement with the night. As the unspoken contract was ended, the cold returned to his body in one clawing bolt, up from his heels to his eyes. He looked over the side of the bridge with caution, but saw nothing. The void was exploding with the sound of rising water, but gave no visual evidence of its approach.
He looked up to the end of the drawbridge once more, seeing nothing. Spinning into a sprint, he headed back towards the castle, the noise becoming a cacophony on either side.
“Raise the bridge!” he yelled, barely above the din of the tide. He felt the floor beneath him start to alter, tipping him forward over the stone threshold. The bridge lifted with the urgency of a dozen men fighting for their lives, and crashed into place with stone-shaking impact. The portcullis simultaneously lowered with the swiftness of a guillotine, shrieking its way down until metal met metal at its base; the almighty clamour of these few seconds drowned out the unholy rush outside. When the bridge and gate were closed and quiet, so too was all sound beyond the great door.
The captain faced the entrance, panting from his exertion. He flicked his gaze to the empty sconce on the wall, then down to the cold torch that had rolled into the entrance with him during his retreat. Sheathing his sword back into his hip, he strode towards it and scooped it up in anger. Tossing it to the first soldier he saw, he barked, “Light this and return it to the wall. Keep all eyes on the door. We have not yet reached an end to these games of the night.”
He pushed through the number of soldiers in his path, and climbed the steps to the parapet. The men did not look at him once, keeping their bloodshot eyes stuck to the back of the drawbridge. He reached the top of the staircase and stepped with weighted force onto the parapet walk, but was stopped suddenly by a soldier jumping with haste before him.
“Sire?” The man’s voice trembled and clogged from the effort. He raised an arm out towards the battlement front. “It- it’s back.”
“Already? Has it moved yet?” returned the captain, eyes widened with fright.
“No, Sire, n-no. It seems to be waiting for you… A-again,” reported the man, “S-sorry, Sire.”
The captain swallowed through a grimace, and seized his brow back into a glower. He took a long and hesitant time walking the short way to the spot above the drawbridge, then approached the gap in the machicolation that peered out over the moat, unblinking. His gaze fell upon the far side of the moat, which was now partially bathed in an unnatural light, as it had been four times previously, but which disappeared into blackness the moment that the bridge had lowered. There, in the haunting glow on the far side, stood a figure that filled the captain with absolute dread; a figure all too familiar, whose eyes pierced his own with an expressionless will.
Without a thread of clothing on it, the captain saw an exact copy of himself. The unholy apparition had stood in the exact spot four times that night, though usually appearing after an hour’s tense respite. Each time it did not move a muscle, and not a hair on its head moved a fraction out of place, until it locked eyes with the captain. As expected, the shared gaze triggered movement in the creature.
One of the ghoul’s bare feet slid forwards silently, approaching the drop to the pitch dark waters below. Instead of collapsing the creature over the ledge, it found footing on a walkway invisible to sight. Keeping its stare on the captain, who stood high above him, it continued its approach. Each shuffle moving along nothingness and propelling it closer and closer to the closed bridge.
A soldier back at the stairwell yelled down the news of the creature’s approach, and the captain could make out the clatter of another man succumbing to his fear and retreating across the courtyard and into the keep. A punishable offence that would not be followed-through, now that more bodies hid within the guardhouse than remained at the battlements. Another soldier further along the walk lay in a heap below a weathered corbel, rolling a rosary close to his lips, muttering prayers through it, into the chilling air.
The soldier’s prayers became distant, as a great pressure began to force itself into the captain’s skull. The dull silence threatened to deafen him as it had before, on each of the the monster’s previous unwavering approaches. The sensation mounted, a dispiriting oppression of woe and hope-dampening loss that could almost drown him. He knew from the previous occasions that his men would be clutching their skulls and gaping in silent screams of mercy, as they felt it too.
The creature’s journey across the abyss was almost at an end. The captain had to lean over the wall to keep it within sight; the piercing eyes were still locked vertically to his. Stopping before the aged and splintered wood ahead of it, the apparition finally looked down, as if through the barrier, and raised a clenched fist. The captain’s every muscle braced taut in anticipation and shook from the effort.
It knocked three times, turned away from the castle, and began returning at its torturous pace across the empty chasm of night.