It was nearly midnight by the look of things. A pale moon hung loosely in the sky and wavered in the sharp wind along with the dim stars. The night air was brick and a thin layer of frost coated the ground. Black ice filled the indentations in the cobbled road as it lifted upwards.
Before her, Susan saw a hill, or a mountain. It was tall–impossibly tall–and thin. Most curious of all, it was twisted. It curled towards the heavens, smaller knolls branching off to the sides and curling down again like wisps off of a cloud. At the knotted top of the mountain was a castle. She could barely make out any details from the foot.
Every thirty yards there was a thin gas street lamp that jutted from the ground at an odd angle. Behind her was a dark, foreboding forest.
Susan decided she would take her chances in the castle.
The climb was difficult, but shorter than Susan had thought it would be. At times the cobbled road was completely vertical and she had to scale the road as one would a stone wall. Her training came in handy again. The wind did not whip her off. In fact, it was gentle and warm.
When she reached the top, she was able to see the castle in full detail. The moon sat behind the many Gothic towers and made the frozen rain spouts look menacing and sharp.
The front door was open and a man was standing just inside with a lantern. She approached him.
"Please come in," Edward said, "My lady is expecting you."
Susan did not say anything. She let the butler lead her to a small drawing room on the south side of the castle. The hallways were dark and the paintings stared at her.
"Pay no attention to them," Edward remarked, "They are just jealous of the attention you are getting."
Susan shot him a look.
"It has been ages since they have been dusted," he clarified.
It made sense. They did look a little dusty.
He knocked politely on the door and announced that the guest was present. He heard a reply that Susan could not and silently opened the door. He gestured for her to go in.
Susan crept into the darkness before she noticed that there was a lamp, however dim it may have been, sitting on a table in the distance. In a large, luxurious chair at the far end of the room sat Rosalind.
Please sit down, she said in a smooth, oily voice. Susan found her way to the nearby chair and sank into the red velvet.
"Would you like some tea?" Rosalind said calmly. She motioned and her maid appeared with the tea cart ahead of her.
Rosalind began to drink from her cup as Su began to pour tea into a fine cup and hand it to Susan.
The maid turned around and left as Susan caught a glimpse of the finer details of her uniform.
It was missing most of the back side and Susan watched in horror as the maid faded into the darkness towards the hallway with her rear end unabashedly hanging out.
"Please drink," Rosalind said, directing Susan's attention back to her hostess.
She slowly took a sip and nearly spat it out. It was poison. Her poison. It couldn't hurt her. She forced the gulp down and set the cup on the side table.
There was a moment of silence.
"Thank you for coming," Rosalind said. There was a hint of happiness in the phrase and her small voice rang like a tin can.
"Thank you for taking me in tonight," Susan said gratefully. "It sure beats being in the forest."
"Yes," the hostess remarked softly, "That is not the kind of place I would wish anyone go."
Rosalind took another sip of Susan's poison.
"Did you see the portraits in the hallway," she asked.
"Yes," Susan said, quickly remembering their prying eyes.
"Relatives of mine," Rosalind said in an alien tone, "Most are dead."
A noise came in from the hallway. It started soft at first but became loud enough to cause Rosalind to drop her cup.
The moaning reverberated through the drawing room. A loud rhythmic thumping sound could be heard just outside the door.
"Shall we move to the balcony?" Rosalind said, visibly peeved.
"Yes, please," Susan said, blushing slightly.
The two of them crossed the room and stepped onto the balcony. The night air was sharp again and a soft wind carried sparse flurries through the air.
Below them stretched the forest. It sprawled impossibly far in all directions. Some small lights flickered from beneath the canopy.
"The human soul is a remarkable thing," Rosalind said looking down at the lights. "Even in the depths of hell, they still carry on. They still strive, even though they cannot prevail."
Susan noticed that there were more than just a few of the lights. They were hard to see at first because of the trees, but there were thousands of them, milling about in all directions, never crossing paths.
The dull thumping continued from back inside the castle.
"Who are they?" Susan ventured.
"Who do you want them to be?" Rosalind said coyly. "They could be all the people who picked the wrong religion. Perhaps they are the souls of those who died opposing Caesar. Conversely, they could be the people who died in service to Caesar."
"It doesn't matter who they are," Susan said quietly.
"Nobody matters once they die. Maybe someone writes your name down in a book. Maybe the people who cared about you in life tell stories long after you are gone. But what happens after a thousand years? Two thousand? Ten thousand?"
Susan was silent.
"Wait long enough and it is as if you never existed," Rosalind continued. "Men live their lives to become legends; hoping to attain immortality through their deeds. But I can see them from here. Down there, nobody remembers their names. Down there, nobody can say for certain whether or not they are even real."
"Where are we?" Susan asked softly.
A loud shriek came from the other room. It gargled and silenced. The thumping continued for a moment and then stopped abruptly.
"True immortality," the hostess continued, "is not something mortals can comprehend. It is not a matter of numbers nor transcendence. It is simply a fact of life. People search their whole lives for something they cannot attain. They say things like, 'I will attain the unobtainable' or 'I will grasp the impossible.' But I can see them from here."
"Please," Susan said, nearly silent, "Why are you telling me this?"
Rosalind's head froze in Susan's direction. The oily voice clanked for a moment. It continued, more tinny than ever.
"Why do you live, Susannah? Do you seek fame, fortune, or immortality? Shall I see you too down there one day?"
"No," Susan said, her voice almost mute.
"You just want to help people?" the voice mocked. "A noble effort, but that is not a reason to live. Life is much more than a sentence. Life is more than a phrase!"
"What should I live for?" Susan's mouth motioned.
Rosalind smiled fiendishly and handed her the dim lamp. With a fluid motion, the small hostess touched Susan gently pushing her center of gravity over the rail.
The black forest flew towards Susan as her heart raced. She could still hear Rosalind's voice in her head. It was not a voice, but an idea. And it was someone else's idea, at that.
I gave you a lamp. What more do you want from me?
Bang! Bang! Bang!
Susan awoke in a rush. She put on her robe and walked across the cold floor to her flat's front door. She unlatched the bolts and cracked the door.
Mr. Blakeley stood in his night gown looking very worried. His nightcap flopped over the left side of his face and he carried an old-looking candlestick in his hand.
"Is everything all right?" he said as soon as she opened the door.
"Yes," Susan said, almost out of breath. Her heart was still pumping loudly; nearly pounding through her chest.
"It's just," his voice wavered, "I heard you screaming and I thought a burglar may have broken in."
Susan noticed the small club in his other hand.
"No," Susan said, "Night terrors. They run in my family."
Mr. Blakeley sighed in relief.
"If you like I can bring you something to help you sleep better. Grandpa Blakeley's own brew. Something of a family secret, actually."
"No," Susan said quickly, "Thank you."
"Ah well," he said softly, "In that case, I'll be off. Sleep well, Miss Susan."