For the first installment of this tale of horror, click here…
“Are you comfortable enough, Sir de Vair?”
“Yes, Marquis.” The truth was that the straight-backed, armless oaken chair that I had been given was easily one of the most unpleasant examples of its type, but I comforted myself with the knowledge that I would certainly not fall asleep during my vigil. A single storm lantern burned upon a low table by the bed, illuminating the face of my ‘patient.’
I had inspected the Marquis previously that evening and found that physically he was indeed a hopeless case: the joints at his wrists and ankles were swollen in a manner that I had not beheld even within the joints of the extremely aged. It was clear that any sort of movement was extremely painful to him, thus accounting for his current helpless and bedridden condition. I had to allow myself utterly baffled, though, as to what could be the cause behind it and once again felt in my heart of hearts that the Marquis would be better off in the hands of a physic than a knight.
I heard the shutters of the window bang as though they were loose and I rose to fasten them shut. As I did, I noticed how thickly the mist outside pressed against the glass panes, like a grey, suffocating wall of darkness. Turning away, I settled myself down again in my chair, watching my charge with the belief that I was to have a dull, though somewhat wearying evening.
I was awakened by the sound of a cry from somewhere downstairs. My eyes flew open and I caught up the lantern which now burned low with a blue flame as though without air. With shaky steps, I made my way down the narrow staircase to my daughter’s room. To my relief, I found that although frightened, she was perfectly safe. She apologised, saying that she had only dreamt that someone had entered her room. As soon as I saw that she had recovered from her fright, I returned to the bedchamber of my charge.
To my horror, I found that he was lying rigid beneath his bedclothes, his face contorted and his teeth clenched tightly as though he were in terrible agony. Upon hearing my shouts for help, Jacques rushed in. However, seeing the cause of my concern, his appearance was one of nervous unsurprise.
“Oui, Monsieur, the Marquis experiences such difficulties every night,” he said in a low voice. “No physician has yet been able to discern the cause.” As he spoke, his eyes – as well as mine – were drawn upwards towards the ceiling: for from somewhere above, there resounded a distant creaking. It was an odd sort of sound and I would have thought it but the wind battering against the foundations of the chateau had it not held such a solid, mechanical quality to it. Its steady rhythm put me in mind of a churchbell’s toll, even though the sound that it produced was altogether different: rather like the clicking of a stick caught within the spokes of a wheel or something of that nature. I certainly caught the solid feeling of wood behind it at any rate.
“Is there anyone living above us, Jacques?” I asked.
“No, Monsieur,” he replied. “Ours is the uppermost floor.”
Our attentions were abruptly transferred to the Marquis, who let out a piercing shriek as though some sudden, unspeakable pain had transfixed him. Then, like a child’s plaything rudely cast down, he sagged limply upon the bed, his mouth and eyes still hanging loosely open.
I hastened to his side, fearing the worst; for, he had all the appearance of a dead man. As Jacques chafed at the Marquis’ wrists with little enthusiasm, I took up a mirror that lay upon a nearby mantelpiece and held it up to his yellow lips. At first I saw nothing, but at last to my relief the faintest of mists began to appear upon its surface over his mouth.
“He still lives?” Jacques enquired.
I nodded. “You may go about your business, Jacques. All appears to be well for the moment.”
He bowed and exited, leaving me to ponder the strange manifestations of the Marquis’ illness. I decided to take advantage of the deep, exhausted slumber into which he had fallen and began examining him for any sign of physical deterioration. As I had half-feared, the swollen quality of his tendons had become still more noticeable. Wonderingly, I replaced the coverlets and fell into silent thought.
As I stood within that dimly-lit chamber, I noticed how heatedly oppressive the air seemed to be, as though it had not stirred in decades. I moved towards the window, lantern in hand, with the intention of opening it. As I stood there, however, I happened to turn my eyes down towards the landscape below the window, observing that not only was the wall below us too steep and high for climbing, but that directly below us lapped the moat itself. Then, glancing upward, I noticed the faintest trace of an oval-shaped patch of mist upon the glass pane, much like the mist of the Marquis’ breath that had appeared upon the mantle’s mirror. But as I continued to gaze, my heart quickening with sudden recognition and disbelief, the mist disappeared and I could see naught but the pressing darkness without.
“Think you that your holy water will save me from death, Sir de Vair?”
I did not bother to reply to the Marquis’ question, but continued to silently sprinkle the windowsill and the perimeter of the bed with what little blessed water I had in reserve within my glass vial. Turning to my daughter Elaine who was nailing a crucifix above the bed as I had instructed her, I asked, “Have we any more of the holy wafers?”
She shook her head. “No, father. But surely the chateau’s bishop would be willing to aid us in such a matter?”
I nodded. “We shall seek him out at once.” As the two of us started for the door, the Marquis called after us, “Then are you convinced that my malady is not of a natural origin?”
“I am indeed convinced.”
“Do you know what it is then?”
“Would you like me to tell you?”
The Marquis’ voice, needling and self-pitying to the point of loathliness, at last caused me to forsake every ounce of civility and self-restraint. “Marquis,” I returned, my voice rising. “I do not wish to know. You have called upon me that I might rid you of your torments. Very well: I shall. Take care, however, that I do not discover the cause of them or I may find myself siding with your tormentor rather than with you – by God, even if he be the Devil himself!”
And with that I departed, my daughter hiding a slight smile as she followed me and I busily cursing myself for my foul temper.
“Father, you seem to be more versed in the Marquis’ ailment than you have told me,” she said, her voice one of mock reproof as we emerged into the mist-laden air of the courtyard.
“I am well versed in the Marquis’ cruelties,” I replied with a heavy sigh that still held a good deal of the resentment that I felt. “And now that I believe that I know what the cause of his mysterious ailment may be…”
My voice trailed off, but Elaine was not to be so easily deterred. “What is your theory?” she demanded.
“Of little value until it has been verified,” I replied. “Which we shall hopefully manage to do very shortly.”
The chapel of the Chateau de Conflans was a tall, stone edifice built into the side of the castle wall and across the courtyard from the chateau proper. The clinging mist was as thick and impenetrable as it had been the day before and I sensed once again that stifling, sickly quality that it held. As before, my brow and body began to take on the clammy feel of a fevered man’s frame and as I breathed in the fog, I actually began to feel myself grow ill as though a lingering, smothering hand had been laid over my face, hindering my breath.
I was relieved when Elaine and I finally managed to escape that poisonous air and enter the comparatively wholesome atmosphere of the cloister. I found that I preferred the dust of the pews to the open air of that unhealthy courtyard. Above us were the ribbed arches of the chapel’s sanctuary and about us there hung about the whole of the place an echoing quiet. The chapel seemed to be entirely empty, save for a crimson-robed figure who stood a few yards ahead of us before the altar. As is the custom within such places of worship, an ornamental cross hung suspended by several ropes over his head; however, the ropes seemed to have sagged and loosened over time, causing the cross to sway crookedly above his head, with a creaking akin to that of a loose shingle.
“Sir, might I have a word with you?” I called as my daughter and I approached him.
He turned his head very slowly, the muscles at his wan neck rippling like those of some reptile’s. His eyes moved like a reptile’s as well: slitted, cold, quick, and glistening. Only the fear in them endowed them with some form of human emotion. He was very old, easily as old as the Marquis, with greying hair that clung to the sides of his skull but a comparatively smooth face.
“Who are you?” he asked, his voice little more than a hoarse whisper.
I introduced Elaine and myself and told him the purpose of our visit. He nodded silently and beckoned for us to follow him. As we followed him, I was startled to hear the Marquis’ previous question issue from his lips, though with a telling variation: “Well, my son – do you believe that you can save the Marquis de Conflans from his tormentor?”
“I shall do all that I can, Father,” I replied.
“Shall you?” His eyes were hard upon me; then his gaze turned away and his hands shook as he opened a small cabinet built into the side of the stone wall close by, withdrawing a few loaves of bread.
“Yes,” I replied. After a pause: “And who is his tormentor, Holy Father?”
“I would think that it would be obvious, Monsieur.” His eyes shone as though tears stood within them, though there was an iron quality in them that told me that they were not tears of sorrow. “The Marquis and I had him within our power decades ago and have had to pay a terrible price for our mercilessness – a price that is still being exacted. We tortured a man’s body and then consigned his soul to the Pit – and with him our own souls as well.” He smiled at me, his quivering lips compressing still further. “You have been within this chateau long enough to feel the fevered mist that surrounds it like a tangible malady – a slow, lingering sickness – his sickness. Know you now who it is that has racked the Marquis with torments until his joints have withered and grown useless? Know you now who it is who has made himself the new lord of the Chateau de Conflans?”
All that he said coincided with what I had half-guessed, but I still felt a pang of wondrous disbelief at the utter fantastic nature of what he was hinting at. “It cannot be…” I murmured.
“Yes,” the Archbishop replied and then, his voice cracking as though revolting against uttering the very name: “Clotaire de la Croix.”
I would have spoken but at that moment my glance shifted towards my daughter who, upon hearing the name, had turned as pale as a winding sheet and would have fallen had I not steadied her. Wondering at her sudden terror, I heard the Archbishop say, “Do you still think to expel our tormentor, Sir de Vair? Know, then, that I attempted to do so once and failed. He has made this land his own, Monsieur, and it is of no use to drive him away for he is manifest within every element of it. You would just as well attempt to exorcise Satan from Hell as purge the Chateau de Conflans of its daemon.”
“Anything is possible, Holy Father, so long as God is on our side,” I replied.
He returned my gaze unwaveringly. “God is not on our side.” He pressed the holy wafers into my hand and as Elaine and I turned to depart, I heard him murmur to himself, “Would that the Marquis had not dealt so mercifully with the wretch but had left him upon the rack, alive to suffer rather than dead to punish! Else we would not have been damned so swiftly…”
To be continued…