*Continued from A Winter Tale, Part I
"The twilight thickens, and the fleeting scene
Leaves but a hallow’d memory of love!" - H.P Lovecraft, "Sunset"
"What happened here?" They were the first words spoken by either my partner or myself since we first set our footprints on this property this night. The horrible conclusion which had been gradually obtruding itself upon our confused and reluctant minds was now an awful certainty. This manor was no house, but a lair. And somewhere inside - with us - there lurked a beast.
My partner shot me a questioning glance, his left hand on the edge of the door. I could only reply with a nod and watched in subdued terror as he shut the double-doors behind us. The encroaching fear each of us had experienced was now fully present and it was likely only our overzealous pride that forced us to remain enclosed in the manor. There was no doubt that my partner briefly considered a rapid absconding, as I had. The consideration likely occurred a subsequent instance, as the flickering light from my hasty torch revealed blood-stained keys on the grand piano. The stains were black under the orange light, but the dried texture was unmistakable. Beyond the occasional crackle from the flame and the conventional creaks and groans of such a large structure, we could hear nothing save our own respiration.
Moving into an adjacent gallery, shadows thrown onto portraits of the manor's residents and their ancestors heightened our anxieties and almost caused me to allow the torch to extinguish itself. Painted eyes stared at us as we walked toward the hallway leading to the grand salon and the staircase to the upper levels. Though a childish notion, the eyes seemed foreboding, as if they could see the outcome of this night. Equally childish, the thought that those same eyes bore cognizant witness to earlier events bore its way into my imagination and I mentally interrogated the portraits within my own mind. That the image of a previous matriarch answered my query with mortal warning served only to reinforce my own intuition or my own insanity.
Fortuitously, most of the manor's walkways were at least partially carpeted and afforded us the ability to maneuver through the home in relative silence. Communication between my partner and myself was a necessity, but the strengthening of the odor as we ascended the staircase only motivated our taciturn mood, and we withheld our desire for vocal reassurance, preferring instead to utilize visual expressions and an expeditiously concocted language of hand signals.
It was in the second floor dining room that we found the deputy. Rather, a portion of him, identified only by the worn leather holster below what was left of a hip, for his upper torso was nowhere to be found. Neither my partner nor I were very much interested in following the trail of smeared blood that led into the next room, a room designed to fully appropriate a morning's sunlight for the enjoyment of any occupant. This disinterest was perpetuated by the fact that the deputy's firearm - a trusty Colt revolver - was incontrovertibly missing.
Our attempt at avoiding encounter with the remainder of the deputy's body, however, proved fruitless as we again encountered the trail of blood upon the staircase to the third floor. Thankfully, the revolver was located at the bottom of the staircase, likely having dislodged itself from the upper torso that was ostensibly dragged up the steps. I handed the torch - whose flames were by now threatening to expire - to my partner and collected the firearm, verifying that it contained its lethal payload. We were disheartened to learn that two bullets had been fired. Given the deputy's reputation as an expert shot, we could only assume that his aim was certain and that whatever it was that he hit simply did not die before halving the man's figure.
Not lacking want of departure, my partner and I silently agreed to hasten our search of the manor, our original intent long abandoned in lieu of solving this mystery we had unwisely decided to decipher. The horrifying discovery made upon entering the master bedroom is what caused my partner to break our self-imposed silence.
I had no response. Piled and protected under rudimentary camouflage were several bodies, all unrecognizable in their state of massacre. That three were women was no question - the mother, the daughter, and a servant - but the rest were indistinguishable from one another. Just before the flame from the torch died a fitful death, my partner attempted to point to the floor. I could briefly see a pattern painted in blood before we were engulfed by darkness.
Despite being able to literally see nothing, I leveled the pistol in the darkness, listening to the sounds of my partner feeling along the walls for another mounted lamp.
My partner inadvertently placed his hand in dried sinew that once belonged to the body of the son. That a seven-year-old boy's flesh had solidified itself to a wall six-feet from the floor was enough to finally convince us to partake in an exit. The match-strike was deafeningly loud and both of us quickly examined the symbol outlined in blood. Resembling a demon with a tentacled mouth, it bewildered our sensibilities. Sections of the image were smeared by footprints. Some human and others... something else entirely. My eyes made contact with my partner's and a cooperative decision was come to - we were to immediately leave.
Upon turning to the doorway, I became educated in what the image portrayed. My partner was never granted the same opportunity. His soul-curdling scream pierced its way into my very bones and I was once again engulfed by darkness.
Lighting my way to the corridor with the flash of gunpowder, the sound of penetrated tissue momentarily encouraged me until I accepted the possibility that I had instead shot my partner. Selfishly - and embarrassingly - I prayed that the beast would stop long enough to enjoy its feast or to preserve my partner's body with the bodies of the others. Amid the chaos of thoughts of death and the reality of blindness-induced vertigo I ran, unsure of whether or not I was even on the ground floor. Even after the fall through broken glass I could not determine how far I descended. Fainting from the impact on iced-over snow was not, I bemoaned, what I wanted my final impression of life to be.
In the morning, I awoke to the scrutinizing hands of a doctor and the sounds of a fire brigade quenching thirsting flames. The manor was saved and the bodies of the inhabitants were found, along with the body of my partner and, strangely, the intact - and completely nude - body of the patriarch. He had been shot three times with the gun the local police found in my possession.
It is for that reason that I have been divorced and am currently awaiting the hangman's noose. Only in facing death do I realize the truth. My partner and I invaded the home of a demon surreptitiously living among us in a man's form. A demon, perhaps in an effort to return home, that devoured its own friend and family. I attempt to take solace in the fact that the killing of such a monster might earn my passage into Heaven.
But I fear that even God will not believe my tale.