This story is by Kacy Hogg and was part of our 10th Anniversary Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Heavy velvet curtains covered the crystal windows, pooling on the floor like puddles of murky water. The walls were smeared a deep crimson, stretching up into the dark limbo of the ceiling. Ghastly medieval murals stood nearly thirty feet high, and the sensation of sinking far underground consumed me as I craned my neck to gaze upon them. My footsteps alone produced a soft echo as I walked over the white and black checkerboard floor; the other guests moved across it unerringly so. Floating almost, like otherworldly creatures. A gigantic chandelier hung from the grand ballroom, the gemstones glittering with an internal fire, casting bloody shafts of illumination across every surface.
I had received the curious invitation yesterday upon returning home from the city. Sealed inside a creamy envelope and a gob of sticky wax, there was no return address and only a scratchy Mr. A at the bottom of the page. The letter itself was brief, with the master of the estate cordially and firmly requesting my presence the next evening. He was throwing a private celebration and it was to be an extremely luxurious affair. Though he had failed to mention what, exactly, he was celebrating.
I’d met with Mr. Athan on a number of occasions during the previous months; usually he invited me to share an evening cup of tea with him and discuss my legal work in Paris. I had relocated to the region upon accepting a new position at a local firm. Due to my schedule, I hadn’t had the proper time to develop acquaintances, so Mr. Athan’s offer of friendship was both surprising and thoroughly welcome.
I did not recognize a single face. Skin pulled over high cheekbones, devoid of wrinkles or blemishes; long, rippling tresses fell from the heads of the ladies and neat, well-groomed beards and moustaches masked the men. Every slender body was cloaked in layers of lace, silk, satin and rubies. All the guests were devilishly handsome and held themselves as though iron stakes had been exchanged for their spines.
I couldn’t escape the way they loomed over me as I moved from room to room. The guests were reserved until I sought to introduce myself as Mr. Athan’s only neighbor for many miles. We were the only two souls living on the so-called haunted edge of the forest that surrounded the city. Many of the attendees spoke with a foreign accent, words clipped with a thickness that left me even more curious. None of them felt inclined to tell where they came from and I felt it rude to ask.
A thunderous booming soon reached us from outside; a great storm had descended. A noticeable chill seeped into the air, but no one made a move to bring the hearth to life with smoke and flame.
So, I continued my hunt for the elusive host.
Next to a drawing room, I came across an odd little parlor that was just as dark as the rest of the manor. I, plagued by lethal curiosity – the same curiosity I’d suffered from since I was a child, and of which had compelled me to attend this gathering tonight – stepped inside. The space was vacant of candles and I stupidly shuffled around in the blackness for some time before making contact with an irregular object. A pitchy, cawing noise pierced my ears as did a flurry of beating wings. Thankfully my eyes adjusted quickly, and I was saved further ignorance. I could not suppress the gasp that escaped my lips.
Multiple iron cages dangled dangerously low from the ceiling, with each one housing an extremely large crow. The room was, simply put, wholly occupied with a murder. The creatures’ beady little eyes gleamed, pointed beaks snapping at me with a sadistic pleasure. Eeeet eeeet! Eeeet eeeet! the murder screeched, but to me, it sounded awfully similar to Fresh meat! Fresh meat! Of all things for a gentleman to keep!
“Have you lost your way, Mr. Raoul?” spoke a voice from the room’s gloomy recesses. I started, praying the veil of obscurity would hide my flaring embarrassment. My companion, however, could seemingly see right through the shadows. “Do not fret. The door was not closed; all my guests are free to come and go throughout my home as they please.”
“You are most kind, sir.”
It dawned on me then that I was finally talking to the host himself, Mr. Athan. I stammered out a greeting, embarrassed twofold, but he waved me away.
“Nonsense my dear Raoul, nonsense. I couldn’t pass up such an opportunity to have you join in on the celebrations. It was difficult to catch you at a free moment, I must say.”
I nodded apologetically. I often worked long and irregular hours. “I appreciate your efforts to include me.”
“I wouldn’t have you miss out on my humble party for anything,” he responded. “Surely your clients won’t miss you for one evening, yes?”
I was suddenly and vividly aware of Mr. Athan’s presence then, and though I could hardly see his features save the eerily empty, crow-like twinkle of his eyes, I could sense every minute shift of his body, felt his gaze never leave my face. Long fingers reached through the bars to stroke the backside of a crow. Eeeet eeeet! Fresh meat!
“Lovely little monsters, aren’t they?” mused Mr. Athan. “Unusual pets, I’m sure you must be thinking, but they are wonderful company. Mainly I keep them for message delivery,” he said, reading my mind. “and for cleaning up scraps.”
“Yes.” Turning from the cages, Mr. Athan put his hand on my shoulder and guided me out of the room. I shivered as we turned our backs to the creepy things, defenseless. “Now, please allow me to escort you back to the ballroom, the main event of the evening is about to begin.”
An anticipatory hush fell over the massive space the instant we entered. Now, I could see Mr. Athan in all his rakish glory; he was just as foreboding, just as handsome as his guests. Perhaps only a few years older than I, yet his mannerisms spoke to having lived through much history. At the same time, a beautiful agelessness was detectable all over his countenance.
Letting me go at last, Mr. Athan clapped his hands together. “Ladies and gentlemen, I thank you all for coming to share in this glorious occasion. I know you’ve all been patient, and I do sympathize with you when I say that ten years is indeed a long time, but anniversaries are much sweeter to enjoy after a spell of patience, are they not? The moment is almost upon us, as soon as the clock strikes midnight . . .”
As Mr. Athan carried on, I couldn’t help but catch the eye of a young lady standing next to me. She smiled toothlessly, lips pale but full.
“Pardon me, miss, but I’m afraid I still don’t understand – what precisely is this occasion Mr. Athan speaks of?”
The lady smiled again and inched closer, her mouth against my ear. “We are celebrating a death day, of course.”
My alarmed expression made her giggle. “Excuse me?”
“Don’t worry, Monsieur Raoul, it will all make sense very soon.”
Her words did little to set me at ease. “It will? Whatever do you mean? How on earth do you know my name?” I didn’t remember introducing myself to her earlier.
She laughed. “Oh monsieur, everyone here knows of you.”
“Of course! You’re the guest of honor.”
“The guest of honor? Well, I’ll be damned!”
That same, smooth voice tickled my ear seconds before Mr. Athan appeared. “Oh Vivian, please.” His hand clamped down on my shoulder again, harder. Iron. “Damnation is out of the question. A good man like our dear Mr. Raoul here, I do think he will end up someplace else.”
I whirled to face Mr. Athan. I couldn’t cease the shaking of my bones as I met his eyes. Empty. Dull. Lifeless. An entire mausoleum contained within its depths that I had somehow failed to notice before. “I beg your pardon?”
“Surely you mustn’t think that men fated for sacrifice are slated for Hell, Mr. Raoul?”
“I’m sorry?” My head was spinning. The storm crashing against the windows, the loud sneer on Miss Vivian’s face, the cawing of Eeet eeeet! Fresh meat! all rang in my ears. As did the striking of the grandfather clock.
“Happy Death Day, Mr. Raoul.” whispered Mr. Athan.
My mind failed to supply me with an answer before a bloodcurdling pain gripped my neck.
Eeeet eeeet! Fresh meat!
Ten years gone, then again they must feast.
Beware, beware the Cursed Ones’ teeth,
Dinner is served, Eeeet eeeet! Fresh meat!