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A Stirring of Wings

Ken's short fiction has appeared in Fantasy & Science Fiction as well as Interzone, Daily Science Fiction, BuzzyMag, Abyss & Apex, Perihelion, and various anthologies. His first short story collection Fortune's Fantasy was released last year. He has created an arctic fantasy world based on Inuit mythology in Alaana's Way, his series of epic fantasy novels from Cat's Cradle Press. You can preview this work and others at his website KenAltabef.com.

Occasionally, the castle shifts in the night. Not that anyone could perceive such a tiny motion, you understand, but I can hear it. The sound sits somewhere between a weary creak and a desperate sigh. Nestled high on its hill, Castle Adjura is dark and muted now, home to nary a cautious mouse nor creeping spider. I am its only tenant, a lonely wretch, blind and forgotten. I wander its lofty halls, its vast empty rooms, its dread dungeons; its gaily painted walls I shall see no more; its famed tapestries are rendered as grayly carpeted deserts to my questing fingertips.
I am not totally blind. I can still see the birds. Don't ask me for explanations I cannot supply. And let me be clear, I do not see the birds quite the way as I used to through sighted eyes. I see them only as shimmers of silver light, fluttery silhouettes winging their way across the infinite pool of ebony beyond my prison window, and within each, at its breast, burns a fierce ruby glow. Silver and ruby, that is what I see, all I see. But how beautiful they are!
In the winter months, with the birds all flown, I am left in total darkness. As you can imagine, winter is a time for only the darkest of moods, the solitary domain of desolation and despair. How happy then is the spring, and the return of my feathered friends!
This is to be that day. Through the open tower window I can smell--not fresh air, no, not that--for the air here is forever stained and mildewed. Never fresh. Never. But spring has come. I stand at the window, staring into the blackness, eagerly awaiting the magnificent sparkle of the first aerial visitant that might happen by.
A sigh of anticipation passes my lips, an exhalation of sulphurous breath.
My hearing has grown quite naturally acute, as you might expect. There are few sounds here, in this skull-faced castle keep, in the here and now. But often I experience echoes from the past, ghosts sounds if you will, and none of them pleasant. Screams of death-agony in the night, peals of darkling laughter, and the occasional gruntings of animal passion.
And so I can hardly believe my ears when I hear a muffled sound seeping up from below. A footfall. A visitor!
My heart flutters at the thought--sluggishly of course, always sluggishly. I have been alone here for so very long. So, so hungry.
I take the cold stone steps on bare feet, the tips of my fingers caressing the wall as I go. One, two, three, four... fourteen, fifteen.
"Who's there?" I want to cry, but am fearful of how those syllables will sound passing my lips. I have not spoken in a very long time. Would they come as a barely discernable croak? Would they tremble with fear?
"W-w-who?"
A whisper. A frightened whisper. How I must seem to them, a frail old man in a dirty nightshirt, blind, barely alive.
"Monseigneur Salazar?"
His voice holds a strange timbre; it does not seem quite human. I can see nothing, no light, no spark whatsoever.
I reach forward and tremulous fingers touch cool metal. A featureless face. If I were still sighted, would I see my reflection in its polished surface? Ancient skin cracked and weeping, so unnaturally pale, and red-rimmed eyes that stare with unending blood-lust. Could I bear to see it?
"Who is it? Why have you come here?"
My visitor takes a step back. "I am your death."
The click-whirr of a weapon charging, a tingling in the air, followed by a vague hum, its intensity slowly building. And I know he speaks true; it is the hum of death.
I welcome it.
And then...
For just a moment, the assassin's boldness irritates me, just enough to freeze the scene in that instant. He has come here, to my castle, to my place, to destroy me. And Lord knows, I deserve it. There is so much blood on my hands, such foulness, an inhuman betrayal of everything I've ever held holy, over and over and over again--my soul is steeped in sin. I stand disgusted by the horrors I have done.
Perhaps better to be set free of this? To be laid finally to rest, my weary soul released from the fetters of mortality, to fly straightaway to final Judgement. What hideous fate is writ for me in Heaven's book, I cannot imagine. But I will accept my punishment. I must.
The moment unwinds. The assassin is ready to act, but I am quicker. You see, I still have a little spring to my step.
Turning sharply, I reach forth, stretching from dungeon to spire, and draw upon the eldritch energies that imbue the castle, its invisible ineluctable mists, its very breath, one final time. Its hidden shrieks and midnight screams fill my ears as never before, amplified now to a thunderous roar. Even in my blindness I see a sinister silhouette, darker than the darkness itself, as a pair of gigantic ebon wings envelop my foe.
He never gets to push the control stud to fire the weapon. Add one more death scream to my castle casket's infernal cacophony.
I stagger exhausted, frozen with weakness, almost dead, the assassin having nearly succeeded with merely the failed attempt.
Hungry. So hungry.
But fate has provided surcease once again. I need only pry open the tin can and take my feast.
For a moment I mourn this faceless adversary, but more than that--this opportunity squandered.
It may be a long while before they send someone against me again, or perhaps a short while. I don't know. This had been such a close thing. Perhaps next time I will let them destroy me and end my suffering. But not just yet. It's the first day of spring and I want to see the birds again one more time.
The End
This story was first published on Friday, January 14th, 2022
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