They’d said on the news it wasn’t safe to drive; I should have listened to them. I just wasn’t expecting the road to end altogether.
I’m not from the country, I’m not accustomed to the claustrophobia of driving while encased by trees at both sides, to the road winding up and down hills and veering sharply in unexpected directions.
These were not the reasons why I crashed into the snow bank, though they were certainly on my mind and may have played a part. No, I crashed because the road ended.
Who knew how it had happened? Maybe they hadn’t bothered to dispatch their snow plows so far into the wilderness. This meant, of course, that they hadn’t expected anyone to drive down this road, that not a single person would require passage through it.
I myself hadn’t even been aware that this part of the world existed until recently. As I said before, I am not from around here. I work in an office building; or, rather, I used to work in an office building. They had not let me go, if that is your presumption. On the contrary, they valued my hard work and honesty more so than anyone else’s in the office, or so I have been told.
I had discovered that a colleague of mine was involved in some rather suspicious activities, and this knowledge vexed me greatly at the time. I realized, however, that to expose him would put my own well-being at risk, because, as I soon found out, I had unknowingly played a small part in his machinations. To reveal his falsehood would be to expose my own, and I was not willing to do that.
So I left. I gathered my things, I filled my car at the gas station, and I had been driving ever since. I was looking for a new place, far away from home. I was intrigued by the trees, the mountains, the wilderness. Last night I’d stayed in an inn two-hundred miles from where I crashed, and I’d watched through the window as the snow piled high. By the time the blizzard was over, more than two feet of snow had accumulated. Rather than waiting another day until the roads were safer, as I’d been advised, I dug out my car and resumed driving. It was only after I crashed into the snow bank that I regretted my decision.
I could not help but curse as I opened the door and jumped out of the car. There was no moon out, and it was frightfully dark. I kept the high beams on and immediately started digging with my hands. I dug for over an hour, freeing the tires first before making sure the path was clear. I ignited the engine and put the car in reverse, but the tires merely skidded in place.
I got out and tried again, removing all the snow I could, my hands numb from the cold. Still nothing.
Anxious and desperate now, I tried to think of what to do. I hadn’t seen one house or building for many miles. Deep in the mountains, I was alone.
One last time, I bent to my knees beside the front tires, wiping the space clean. This was ridiculous. The air bags hadn’t even deployed, and my car was stuck. I began digging faster, furiously clawing at the snow, and my hand touched something solid and strangely metallic. I pulled it out and brushed away the snow to reveal what I can only describe as an amulet, a round piece of metal with strange words carved on one side and a symbol on the other. The words I could not decipher, but the symbol I could: an inverted pentagram, the sign of the Devil.
I pocketed the treasure, not knowing what else to do with it, and returned to the task of moving my car. But even after all my laboring, the car wouldn’t move, and I was left shouting at the side of the hood, utterly defeated.
That was when I saw it, the house upon the hill. It was the only house in sight, and it rested right there, where the road ended. The house was a mansion of a style I had never seen in person but often read about in the dreary books I found in the library.
The mansion consisted of three sections, two tower-like structures on the sides and a box-like middle section between them. There were three levels to the building, all lined with crossed windows. Spires adorned the roof and stone statues were scattered across the façade. Columns held up the bottom level of the gothic structure, while a single titanic door resided in the symmetrical center.
I laughed nervously as I walked up the hill to this monstrous structure. I only needed a phone and perhaps I could call for a tow truck. But then, I was going to have to wait until morning, wouldn’t I? What would I do until then?
Trees lined the narrow path to the front door, crooked and overbearing. I heard the sound of a bird, perhaps a crow, though I do not claim to know much about birds. I could not see the bird, but I heard its awful laugh. “Ha…ha…ha!” it mocked me.
As I neared the entrance, I heard a sound and looked up to see a figure in a window, the only lighted room in the mansion. The figure disappeared and the light vanished. I approached the front door, shivering from the cold.
I pounded angrily on the door only to watch it creak open without resistance.
It was too dark to see. Candles were lit all throughout the hallway, but the shadows exceeded the light. Tentatively, I stepped inside only to hear the roar of a monster.
The shadowy beast rushed up to me, snarling and bearing its jaws. I backed away, prepared to run for my life, but a voice called out,
“Get back, Cerberus!” Still growling, the enormous black hound allowed me passage into the house.
A figure stepped into the candlelight, a short and frail-looking old woman with wiry grey hair. She moved closer to me, a scowl on her face, and reached out a bony hand to touch her pet, which had transformed from a ferocious beast into a friendly dog.
“Who are you?” she demanded, her wintry eyes glaring.
I had trouble forming words. “My name is Randall Price.”
“Why are you here?” the old woman said, rising to her feet.
“I’m sorry. The road ended, you see, and I crashed into the snow. I tried digging my car out, but, well, it’s still there, obviously. Do you think I can use your phone?”
“I don’t have a phone,” the old woman said, and turned away. She started walking down the hall, her black dog at her heel. I had no choice but to follow.
“No phone?” I repeated.
“No electricity at all,” the woman muttered. She grabbed a torch from the wall. “Is there something else you want?” She didn’t wait for an answer. She kept walking down the cavernous hall, and I could tell from the dog’s incessant growling that she was growing impatient.
“I hate to trouble you,” I began, “but I don’t think I’ll be able to dig my car out tonight. It’s getting late, and it’s,” I shivered, “very cold out. It will be easier to solve my problem in the morning when I can think straight, but until then, do you think you could…that is, would it be any trouble if I…”
“You want to stay the night,” she said. I nodded gravely. She shrugged and said, “You may.”
This is how I met the woman who called herself the Lady of Shadows. When I later asked her how she preferred to be addressed, she said Sonya would do. I don’t know why she introduced herself as the Lady of Shadows, but I continued calling her Sonya because that is what she preferred. I viewed her as senile, mad, and, yes, I was deathly afraid of her.
Sonya later instructed me to take my pick from the countless guest rooms. There were too many to choose from, and I just wanted to sleep, so I laid down my things in the first room she offered me and told her it suited my needs perfectly. Sonya nodded and left without saying a word.
I had trouble sleeping that night. The mattress was too hard and stiff and the pillows smelled like mold. The ancient house made sounds in the night, creaking, moaning. And out the window, the bird perched on the branch of a tree, and laughed, “Ha…ha…ha!”
I turned away, fumbling in my bag for a bottle of water. Instead, I retrieved the amulet I had found in the snow, the amulet with the sign of the Devil carved into it. Hastily, I deposited the amulet back in my bag and forced myself to sleep. Eventually, I did.
It was still dark when I awoke next. The door to my bedroom was ajar, though I remembered closing it. A breeze passed through a crack in the window. I admit to being frightened, and certainly I was tired, but I swear I saw the old woman peek her head through the door, her colorless eyes searching, her mouth half-open and revealing a row of crooked yellow teeth. I watched her through the darkness, but she did not move. Finally, reasoning that she could not be real and I was only seeing things, I closed my eyes and went back to sleep.
Sonya made me breakfast in the morning, a few hardboiled eggs that she cooked in a pot over her fireplace. We sat in silence for a long time as we ate. Once in a while, Sonya would cut off a piece of egg and feed it to her dog.
“So, how long have you been staying here?” I asked finally, unable to endure the silence any longer.
The old woman grunted. “Longer than I can remember.”
“And how did you acquire this home? It is quite extravagant. I didn’t know places like this still exist.”
“I built it,” Sonya replied.
“Built it?” I repeated. “You mean by yourself?”
“Yes,” she said, annoyed. I knew from the size of the mansion that it would have probably taken a single person years or even decades to build a place like this, especially for someone as old as Sonya, but I didn’t question her.
“I’m going to try to push my car out,” I said. “I don’t suppose you have a vehicle of your own? Then I could tie a chain to both cars’ bumpers and pull it out that way.”
I had expected the answer she gave me: “I don’t own a car.”
I nodded and thanked her for breakfast before going out into the brisk winter morning. My car rested exactly where I had left it. First I tried turning it on and putting it into reverse. When that didn’t work, I shoveled away some more snow with my hands, put the car into neutral, and pushed as hard as I could. I wanted desperately to be away from this place, but that was not to be.
When I finally gave up, I was cold, tired, and wet. I ignored the bird’s laughter on the way up to the mansion and sat by the fire to dry off. Sonya left me alone for most of the afternoon, but I saw her pass by several times. I even followed her once, making sure to keep out of sight until she had entered through one of the doors. I knew from the sound of her footsteps that she was heading downstairs, possibly into a cellar. She remained in that cellar for the better part of the day.
For dinner she served me a meat stew. I don’t know what type of animal it was made from, and I didn’t ask.
“Why are you here, Randall Price?” she asked.
I was baffled by her question. “What do you mean? My car is stuck. I don’t have any other choice.”
“No,” Sonya dismissed me. “There is a reason. There is always a reason.”
Unable to answer her question, I left the room.
That night, I was the one who sneaked out of my room. I was terribly afraid that Sonya was going to spy on me again, that she was planning something terrible. I waited a long time, and then I emerged out into the halls. I followed the directions in my head to her bedroom, which I had memorized the day before, and listened by her door for her steady breathing so I could be sure she was asleep.
Afterwards, I retreated down the steps, heading into the bowels of the mansion. The halls may as well have been a maze, so extensive and rambling were they, yet somehow I managed my way through them and came upon the door to the cellar.
I couldn’t expect the basement to be illuminated, so I brought a torch with me. Each step I took down the wooden stairs made a squeak, and I swear they were loud enough for Sonya to hear on the other side of the mansion.
Somehow, I made it all the way down the stairs, down into the cramped, dank cellar. There was nothing at all in the room save the well. It rested in the very center, the bricks piled neck-high. Unlike most wells, which were circular, this one had five sides. Each side was marked with an inverted pentagram identical to the symbol on my amulet. The fifth side, however, was empty. My amulet would have fit perfectly within the grooves, had I placed it there. Very slowly, I approached the well and gazed within it.
I cannot recall exactly what I saw. Perhaps the memory is too potent, too dreadful, that I had no choice but to simply flush it out of my mind. I do remember a few images, nothing more than shadows, really. They raked at the sides of the well, shrieking, wailing their terrible cries. I grew sick looking at them, turned away, and left with the intention of never coming back. But I did come back.
As I lay in bed that night, I pulled the blanket over my head as if the wool could protect me. I heard the shadows, even in my bedroom. I heard them rustling, stirring, and I knew they were trying to break free. They wanted out.
I realized then what was going on. The amulet I had found out in the snow was the last piece Sonya needed to free the darkness, to set it loose. She knew I had it. She had been waiting for her chance to snatch it from me since I arrived here. I realized that my life was danger and that I had two choices. I could either let her claim me or deal with her myself. I resolved that if she made her move, I would do the latter. I saw no other option.
The next day transpired in the same manner as the last. I awoke, fretful and restless as always, and devoted all of my energy to pushing my car out of the snow. I worked all morning while the old woman watched from her bedroom window. I found tools in her closet and used them to dig under the car, clearing all of the snow I could reach. But while the car would turn on, it wouldn’t move. I contemplated making the long journey to the nearest civilization, however many miles it would be, but ultimately decided to give up and head back inside.
Sonya’s dog greeted me at the door, licking the snow from my boots. The old woman stood in the middle of the hallway, a wicked smile on her face.
“So you couldn’t leave,” she commented.
“No,” I responded, and proceeded into the living room as usual to dry off by the fire. This time, the old woman followed me, Cerberus at her side.
“Why do you think you couldn’t leave?” she asked as I sat down.
“Because my car wouldn’t move.”
“No,” she said, bending down to pet her dog. “No, that isn’t it at all.”
I was getting annoyed, so I said, “Because this is the twentieth century, and you don’t have a telephone or electricity of any kind. Because you live out here in the middle of nowhere, and someone was bound to get stuck here. Because nobody bothered to plow the goddamn road!”
She stared at me blankly, and then her gaze drifted to the fire. The red flames reflected against her pallid eyes.
“You are keeping something from me, Randall Price,” she said mechanically. “Something that doesn’t belong to you. Something that is mine. And I want it back.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
She turned her head, displaying her hideous, wax-like face. The wrinkles under her eyes looked as if they had been cut into marble.
“I think you do,” she said.
She challenged me with her stare, but I stared right back. Finally, when she could glare at me no longer, the old woman turned around and left the room. The dog lingered for a moment, turning its head to look at me, to see into me, but not viciously at all. Then it too left.
I decided then that the old woman needed to be killed. I would do it that night, when she was asleep. In my cowardice, I wanted to flee, I wanted to run far from here, but I knew I couldn’t. Besides the fact that I would have gotten frostbite and perished by the side of the road before ever reaching safety, I knew I had a moral obligation to oppose Sonya, she who called herself the Lady of Shadows.
So I stayed, and this was the bravest thing I had ever done. In the middle of the night, I rose from my bed and gripped the knife in my hand which I had stolen from the kitchens the day prior. I looked out the window, but the bird wasn’t present, not anymore. It would laugh at me no longer, I hoped.
As I approached the old woman’s bedchamber, I walked quietly on the tips of my toes. I listened intently by the door, but I heard no breathing. Had she known I was coming? My heartbeat intensified; the knife felt slippery in my hands. But I had to go through with this.
I pushed open the door, holding out the knife. There was only darkness in the room, but I swished the torch in my hand around, searching. The old woman was not in her bed.
I heard a loud sound, like a gunshot, coming from downstairs. I realized where she was.
Like a madman, I sprinted downstairs, paying no heed to patience and stealth anymore. The old woman was awake, and she probably knew I was, too. At least I had been shrewd enough to take the amulet with me.
She was in the cellar, of course. I should have known that all along. Sonya had been careless; she’d left the door slightly open, just enough so I could see inside.
Through the crack, I watched. I saw her standing by the well, her hands held over the sides, feeding the darkness. Like some kind of witch or sorceress, she surged black fire from the palms of her hands into the abyss.
She laughed, reeling her head back. “HAHAHAHA!” She sounded like a thousand birds all cawing in unison.
I stood there, staring through the crack in the door, witnessing the madness. I heard a snarl, and suddenly I realized that the old woman’s dog, Cerberus, was at my side. I held the knife out, but the dog was not growling at me, but into the room with the well.
I looked back inside. The old woman had suspended her magic, but only briefly. She breathed heavily, and I could tell she was gathering her energy again. The shadows from the well were screaming now, and I saw one of them place its ugly hand on top of the stone. I could wait no longer.
Shouting, I ran down the wooden steps with the knife outstretched. Sonya saw me coming, but she was too drained of her energy to retaliate. As I plunged the knife into her heart, I saw her pale eyes go from transparent to an opaque white.
She fell into my arms, muttering incoherently.
In the ecstasy following the murder, I didn’t realize what I had done. The old woman’s dog ran down the stairs, barking unceasingly at the well.
The shapes were rising now, dark and terrible. I wanted to shout at the old woman, tell her to make the shadows go away, but she looked weak, and her eyelids were closing.
“The amulet…” Sonya croaked. “The amulet…The amulet...”
I realized then the horrible and irreparable mistake I had made. Sonya had not been fighting to free the dark shapes, but to contain them. The five pentagrams served not to let the shadows loose upon the world, but to keep them locked up. And with Sonya gone, the darkness could spread freely and unhindered.
I felt sick, very, very sick. I felt faint and wanted to lie down, and the dog’s incessant barking was doing little to help.
Meanwhile, the darkness had nearly clawed its way out of the well. Almost free, the shadows would soon spread unhindered, and who was I to know what they would do next?
I knew only that I had the amulet, and I knew where it was supposed to go.
It was cold, and moving my feet was suddenly a monumental task. I tried not to look at the hand coming out of the well. I tried not to picture its grotesque, bony structure, the claws, the palm without lines or features. I almost gave in to my nausea then, but I fought it down, thinking of the task ahead of me.
The shadows only noticed what I meant to do when it was almost too late. They struggled against me, whispered things in my ear that I worked hard to forget afterwards.
I thought only of stopping them, of preventing them from doing any more harm.
As soon as the amulet was in place, the shadows gave one final screech and then they were sucked back into the well like vermin into a vacuum. They made threats, promises, and even bribes. Then I saw them no more, even when I held a candle over the well and looked within. I knew, however, that they were not gone for good.
The five pentagrams were in place again, but they could not hold the darkness forever. It had been Sonya’s job to guard the well, to watch over the shadows, and so it would be mine. I was perfectly aware of what such a decision would entail.
Sonya’s life had revolved around the darkness, around keeping it in check. Her purposes were indeed noble, but by keeping herself so close to something so vile, a part of her was contaminated by it. Such is the fate of one who dares face the darkness, who keeps herself so close to something so terrible.
This had been Sonya’s fate, and so it will be mine. I will be turned into something ugly in the process; I know that now. But that ugliness is a reflection of my enemy, not myself.
It is quiet now. I sometimes grow lonely in these empty halls, but at least I have Cerberus as my companion. Cerberus understands me. Cerberus knows the difference between the true monster and the monster created within ourselves to oppose it. I know that darkness now, I’ve gazed into the well, but I’d rather not say what’s down there.
Sometimes in my reflective periods I stare out the window and think about my life before the darkness and the well, and how petty my problems truly were. If I had known what I was to become, would I still have fled my life and my home? Would I have understood, or would I have simply laughed?
As I wonder these things, I see the bird there, hanging on a branch out the window. I see myself in that bird as if it were a mirror. It laughs at me; but now I laugh back. “HAHAHAHA!” I say, and the bird looks at me, terrified, before flying away.