Shallow hand chiseled steps led ever downward, down, down, down into the labyrinthine gloom below. The stale scent of sweat tangles with fear as she felt her way down into the murky darkness below. She never knew what crept beneath the old house, had always imagined spiders and snakes, all the creepy crawlies little girls were supposed to be afraid of, but she never had been. Not really, although she had put on the expected show often enough to get her way.
Her foot slipped in something slick. She managed to shine the meager light from the cheap votive candle downward, to see what she had stepped in. It was dark and looked suspiciously wet, like blood.
The ceramic holder with its little glass bubble protected the tiny flame from the drafts she imagined would flow constantly down here, but to her surprise, there was no draft at all. Just stale, thick air with a heavy sense of foreboding clinging to it.
She imagined she had gotten closer to the bottom, but couldn't be sure. She couldn't see that well. The hands of her watch glowed a faint sickly green, telling her that she had already lost the better part of an hour, and the steps seemed to wind on downward forever.
Something cool brushed against her, then whispered, "Go back!" Then it was gone.
She shuddered, wondering if she should heed the voice or continue.
When the light of the candle snuffed out, she stifled a scream as she was
thrust into utter darkness.
And then the sounds...
The sounds were terrible, sounds of pain and struggling, sounds of chains clanking against cold stone. Afraid, yet too far gone to turn back, she pushed forward, wishing she had had enough sense to grab up a candle stick or something that might pose as a weapon in a pinch!
Tiptoeing as quietly as she could, she felt her way along the cold, slightly damp wall, cursing the ancient stone for feeling so creepy. Her ears were more sensitive now, growing accustomed to the eerie quiet and the unsettling sounds. In her steadily growing fear, her senses sharpened quickly. Groping her way around a corner she saw a faint, dim light, even that making her eyes sting after such darkness, then gasped as her eyes refused to believe what they were being shown.
A half naked man, shackled and chained to the wall, his tormentor's face hidden in shadow.
He shot her an imploring look. Strangely enough, she heard his voice inside her head.
"Please, for the love of god, turn back! Go away, dear lady!"
The one who tormented him so horribly, with wicked lash, all metal studded and bloodied, peered into the darkness, seeing her most assuredly. Then he shrugged, laughed evilly, and lashed the man across his already bleeding face.
"Give me what I want and I may deem it fitting to let you go!" the mysterious tormentor commanded, raising the whip yet again.
The chained man shook his head, eyes belligerent, staring past the blood and the swelling.
She trembled, disbelief warring with what her own sight said was real. Margaret Deschamps squeezed her eyes, then opened them again to still see what she had been seeing. Only now the tormentor had departed.
A few quick steps took her closer to the tortured man hanging limply from his shackles.
She looked up into the dark eyes of the prisoner, asking, "Who the hell are you?"
"I am called Ruchard," he told her past swollen lips, wincing as they cracked the caked blood and bled again.
Casting furtive looks about the dark room, she whispered, "I'll try to get you loose-"
"Do not bother. Save yourself! He is a demon, this persecutor of mine; he will chain you as surely as he has me, and will devour you body and soul."
"He practices his filth in my house!" she argued stubbornly, not willing to allow such torture to continue, demon or not.
"You are the lady of the house?" Utter surprise crossed the battered, once handsome face.
"Yes, I have recently inherited this estate. I did not know this place was here-"
"What? The dungeon? All grand houses have them!" A sarcastic little chuckle escaped him. "Everyone knows of the Deschamps' shipping practices, how they haul in slaves and riches from the world over; how their own servants are allowed their own fun and games.."
"He is one of ours?" She shot a look toward the darker recesses of the dungeon, fear crawling up her neck.
"Was," the man acknowledged. "He was one of Martin Deschamps favorite drivers."
She tugged and pulled, jiggled at the iron shackles, then spied a large ring full of keys hanging beneath a burned out torch. Her sigh of relief came out almost explosively.
All was not to be lost!
Acting swiftly she snagged the keys and began testing them in the lock. "How did you get here? I mean, obviously-" The clicking sound announced Ruchard was closer than ever to his long awaited freedom.
His dark eyes danced at the thought of freedom, then blackened hatefully when the whip master returned.
A warning was on his lips when she felt a cold chill ripple throughout her entire body.
Margaret cried out, swaying against the prisoner, only to hear him cry out as the monster lifted the whip and slashed him repeatedly across the face and torso, laughing maniacally all the while, his cursed whip cutting through her body to rain repeatedly upon the prisoner's face.
Ruchard felt cold to her touch. Colder than he had only moments before.
She snapped her head around to glare at the driver turned torturer and screamed mindlessly.
Past the shadows, past the shroud of utter gloom floated a dingy skull, eye sockets burning with eerie orange and green flames.
Cold hands clasped her by the face, turned her back around to face the semi-imprisoned man, forcing her to look away from the hellish vision.
The demon torturer laughed, raising his whip again and again.
The prisoner died, as he had many, many times since 1743, and in his arms, against his heart, the only one who had ever tried to come to his rescue lay sobbing, trying to hold him against the inevitable, swearing she would keep trying until she succeeded in freeing him from his demon captor.
In the distance, the sound of water lapping against cold stone filled the large chamber, the creaks and groans of an old vessel tossing gently in its wake, its cargo long forgotten.
A slight current of air ruffled the pages of Jonas Ruchard's journal, in it his words scrawled out that he was to meet with Silas Hardigan, driver of Lord Deschamps' coach, to venture to the estate for his first meeting with his new bride...
Editor's Note: This story is also available in Storm DeVille's anthology, Amaranth.