Aphelion Issue 266, Volume 25
October 2021
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Castle Keep

by Lori R. Lopez

Gray stones reflected the lunar frost
spilling down, a milky washed-to-null
mist on walls turned white as gypsum
in the black sojourn of night’s embrace.
I paused to catch a respite,
huffing like a boneyard brume,
and gazed upon the mysterious vision.

Crags and towers in black and white relief.
Shapes that appeared so unfamiliar…
far removed from the brick facades
and linear edges of a cityscape.
Gothic trappings; the setting from a novel,
 not my life. It loomed surreal. A reminder
of Medieval conflicts. Darker ages.

Out of my element, I altered course to
retreat. Ringing still, the warnings of a town
below — urgent and bitter, in anguish,
hoarsely whispered. Like pleas for a pardon,
a merciful reprieve, to be spared the noose
or firing squad — for what did they know
of my business? Maybe I was the one to fear!

I guessed their concern to not be my health.
Cloistered from the world. I was the foreigner.
Starkly modern. A threat to the perseverance
of their entrenched sameness. Weird in their eyes.
For a community dreading change, my arrival
would meet distrust. I swung back to scale
the laborious incline. I mustn’t falter.

Trudging, I viewed it from their side.
Why should a remote village greet me with
widespread arms? We were divided by barriers
of language and custom. They were mostly
wrinkled. Peasants. Glimpsing the castle daily,
an ugly remnant; a dormant depressing shard.
Quite natural to be suspicious, uneasy.

My visit disturbed them. I was unaware
of a macabre legend surrounding the place.
Yet wondered that these folk had not razed the
landmark to mere rubble if they hated it.
Couldn’t their town condemn the site?
Judging by an unusual manner of downcast eyes,
their aversion to gazing up the hill…

There were secrets here. Arcane details and
plenty of rumors, spaded under wary expressions.
The stirrings and mutterings that confronted my
alien presence; an undesirable intrusion.
I shivered, hiking the steep twisting lane toward
a jagged contour from which the castle had once
sprung like the jester tucked in a wind-up box.

I would perceive the scene as a tourist —
no intention of remaining longer than necessary
to arrange a sale. If a buyer could be located.
I had doubts. The property’s title weighed on my
shoulders. Rather than amount to a stroke of
fortune, this burdensome wreck was
a complication I did not require.

And a complete surprise. I had no idea
I was the final living heir, the distant cousin
of a Baron. His last descendant.
Forefathers had migrated generations ago,
all remaining kin forgot. I imagined there were
relatives, but rarely gave them a thought…
a typical American, past my melting point.

Striding closer, uncertainty continued to
nibble and vex: a legion of minute rats in my
skull, feeding, voracious. Tickling frayed nerves.
Peek and be done with it. Go home.
Consider it an interesting story to tell for
It was such an eve. Gloom, tatters
of fog masked any number of covert terrors.

Filaments on my nape arose. Gooseflesh
sprouted along arms. I wished for a thicker
coat. Armor, an axe or club, a weapon to
defend against the unknown. At least a sturdy
ally. A companion. I had none. Reaching
the massive portal, I banged an iron goblin.
“Don’t be silly.” Nobody lived there.

Unless a homeless individual resided in
the ruins. He or she could have it!
I’d give it up for free. I would just glance about
and be quickly on my way, excited to leave it
behind ;…lucky if I could. Who in their
right mind would take the relic off my hands?
A frigid wave of blackness struck.

I swayed at the threshold, flooded with
anxieties, frights, travails. I stood there quaking,
chest beating a frantic rhythm, fraught by
a rampage of insecurities. Afraid the people below
might bill me to demolish the eyesore; it could
collapse further, roll downhill, destroy their town!
Heedless of how foolish or genuine the worries.

Dismal sensations — torment, destruction, jeopardy
conspired, unraveling my sanity on the doorstep.
Every instinct howled to flee that mountain.
Catch a train back to civilization —
the real world! Don’t hesitate a moment more!
Save yourself! Run!
If only I were not so curious.
And obstinate. Embarking on a whim.

I traveled by coach, ship, locomotive, wagon.
Sometimes on foot. I couldn’t retrace the trek
without examining, exploring my bequeathed
domain. Internal bedlam silenced. A calmer tone
prevailed: Come in. You are welcome here.
The voice was eerie, soothing. Weary legs
responded. I found myself in a drafty hall.

The figure emerged from ample depths,
attired in a suit that belonged in a museum.
I recognized, with flashes of apprehension
and comprehension, I did indeed glimpse
a pale visage at the window of a broken tower
when approaching the summit.
He gave a firm nod. I am Baron Von Krypt.

“You can’t be! The Baron lived a century ago.”
Perhaps two. And you are? My protest ignored.
Cracked lips didn’t move yet I heard him clearly,
and obeyed an impulse to guard my name,
vaguely asserting “The new owner.
Shall I consider you a tenant or squatter?”
I told you who I am. A ghoulish scowl.

His features writhed — possessed —
white as a spirit. In fact, I half-believed him
a ghost, the specter of my ancestor.
This is my house! Virulent; a declaration.
I am the owner! Who are you? Impostor!
Thief! Coming to steal my sanctuary. My Keep.

“No. I don’t want it.” Stepping away.

I assured him I would depart at Dawn.
“I came because a letter said I was — the sole
beneficiary — in line for the estate, following years
of research. I didn’t care about a creepy castle,
but it’s going to be my birthday, on the stroke of
Midnight, three decades, and I decided to have
a look. Before selling it. Then I hoped —”

The voice fails when most needed.
“I hoped that someone might accept this
decrepit tomb as a gift. It’s yours! Keep it with
my blessing.” Right hand extended to seal
the bargain. He clasped my palm. A grave chill
seeped to elbow and shoulder. My core
congealed, head swooning in trepidation.

Barely conscious, I was dragged through
dust and dirt, fragments of blocks, to a fortress.
Rousing, I gaped at its entrance — the Castle Keep.
Walls, a high ceiling were intact. A laboratory:
not of Medicine. Gadgets for the Devil’s work.
Fey apparatuses. Jars, tubes and pipes.
Coils. Hoses and clamps. Pulleys and weights.

Bottles, flasks, beakers. Crucibles, vats and
burners. A hodgepodge of Science; the lair of
a crazed Baron. From an earlier period I wanly
surmised while he strapped me to a device.
The rodent on a sacrificial altar; a hapless
Guinea Pig for his experiments! Revenant
or monster, his aspect bore no humanity.

How convenient you should faint…
and spare me the task of overpowering you.

Terrible tools, antique blades and forceps,
hammers and chisels lay at his grim disposal.
Never had I felt as desolate — utterly
forsaken by Heaven; perilously vulnerable
to the rim of Hell’s rock-bottom pit.

Dry lips parted. An arid throat coughed out
“Why?” A bleak, lone, hollow appeal. Not for
salvation, but elucidation. A random death
seemed crueler. My inflamed heart burst
like an abscess, draining of hope.
The last drop hung, glistering, suspended.
Straining my bonds, a cuff loosened.

Why do the letters of an alphabet have to
stay in order? Who made those rules? It wasn’t
me. I have rules of my own…
The unholy
menace patted my cheek, drab as a Mortician,
a peculiar grin across the withery morbid span of
his wax-like countenance. Claw-fingers grasped
a lengthy needle. I smelled you. Coming.

Patient, subtle, my hand squirmed the instant
round buggish orbs averted. He had pried open
the intellect; I would not let him carve into
my body, whatever his purpose.
Various pieces of equipment were hooked to
bizarre contrivances. Torches and candelabras
lent shadows; an occult atmosphere.

Let us haste! Soon you will be too ripe for
the procedure. You are on the cusp of maturity.

I wanted an explanation. He spoke in my
cranium of selfish impersonal reasons
that centered on my fitness to serve him.
The fiend wasn’t grinning —
teeth were exposed in a diabolic leer!

Needle plunged to arm. I watched
in dismay the sanguine syrup of life fill a tube,
collect within a bulb-shaped vessel
attached by intricate design to a bulky machine.
Frowning, keen to discern my fate, I noted
the mechanism had a bellows; it was air-driven,
controlled by a foot pedal. “What is this?”

Genius or lunatic, tall and gruesome,
a dour rogue sapped precious fluid like a spider!
I had stumbled into his artificial web.
The potion of vigor, sprightliness! I created
a chemical formula to survive the dark summons
of Death. Your brain, your vital organs will be
added, the serum transferred to my veins.

He lifted a bone saw. I began in nearby towns,
abducting orphans, the sixth and seventh-born,
children nobody wanted, for generations. Unruly
young men, disobedient daughters. The elders
were grateful. Then grew penitent, accusing.
They had no proof of the crimes. Timid,
law-abiding, they could not penetrate my Keep.

I broadened the field. Now I am forced to pluck
victims from scattered villages. Slinking at night
to their beds, kidnapping one without waking others,
hauling them here. My flesh is deceased, a walking
corpse. I must reanimate it. Each Lunar Cycle.

“Why do families in the region not move?
Why would they risk your appalling appetite?”

They have nowhere to go. The world doesn’t
welcome strangers. I however, like a politician,
am delighted to receive their donations.

His smile was worse than the grimace.
As your heart pumps the dregs of your blood,
I shall commence the dissections. You will not
feel a thing. By that stage you will be expired.

Though not your blood! The Baron paced.
For dessert I consume their limbs. It isn’t necessary.
A matter of taste.
His back was to me. I slipped
out my hand, released its partner. Ankles next.
You were deceived. The words halted my escape.
Whatever council of cowards sent for an heir,
they suppose my bloodline to be the forbidden fruit.

They are mistaken. Von Krypt boasted, I created
an immortal being with the strength of twenty men!
I am invincible!
He was pure evil. The kind that
could wring a gasp from the dead with gnarled digits,
a skeletal touch. Humanity hoards its empty riches.
Money. Coffers of gold and gems. But Life is the
only treasure of value. Worth keeping…coveting.

It is the true wealth we inherit. He whirled
to face me. I sat frozen — a prisoner caught in
mid-flight. Acting swiftly, I stripped the bindings,
tore the needle from my arm. Baron Von Krypt
and I circled, adversaries, a pair of Tomcats.
He was so thin, I pictured snapping him twig-like.
“You should have aimed for twenty-five.”

A blank mug. “Men!” I clarified. Brash,
antagonistic, confident in my ability to fell the
beastly ogre, I seized narrow shoulders. We grappled,
staggering. Our wrestling match careened, bumping
the contraption that stored a quantity of my blood.
The rotter couldn’t fling me aside, almost to the
limit of his monthly duration, and so we waltzed…

An awkward couple. I took a leap of trust in
the universe — a theory that for there to be balance
and order, all that could be done could also be
undone. Gripping him single-handed, I yanked
a lever and reversed the flow of his machine.
Then fished for the tube with the needle to jab the
spike in his Jugular, while we stepped and swerved.

Twelve-O-Clock tolled. The Ball was over!

My boot located a pedal. Our shuffling dance
concluded. I stomped and pumped what he had
robbed from me into his neck, his own stream.
Our eyes met while the liquids verged and blended.
Nooooooooooo! A shriek such as I had never heard,
and never would aloud. Without a scrap of pity,
I beheld my predecessor’s untimely demise.

The stiff crumbled like a vampire in the sun.
“You were right,” I admitted. “Thirty is getting old.”
Kicking ashes, I snatched a vintage coat out of
the debris, shook it and donned the snug garment.
I could lose weight. Changing my diet, I would live,
at least exist, forever! “It’s the best birthday present.
I’m the end of the line, and nothing can stop me.”

2021 Lori R. Lopez

Lori R. Lopez is an author, poet, illustrator, and wearer of hats. Verse and stories have appeared in a variety of magazines and anthologies including Weirdbook, The Horror Zine, The Sirens Call, Spectral Realms, Space & Time, Illumen, Altered Reality, California Screamin’ (Foreword Poem), and several HWA Poetry Showcases. Books include The Dark Mister Snark, Leery Lane, An Ill Wind Blows, The Fairy Fly, and Darkverse: The Shadow Hours (nominated for an Elgin Award). Four of Lori’s poems have been nominated for Rhysling Awards. You can learn more about her at the website shared with two talented sons: https://www.fairyflyentertainment.com

Find more by Lori R. Lopez in the Author Index.

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