Always wear a coat, Odette.
Elliott shivered as he recalled the advice he’d always given to his daughter, one he himself had failed to take to heart. The sun had long since set, and whatever warmth it had once offered had long since been leeched away in favor of howling winds.
At least Elliott hoped it was the wind howling.
He had taken to following a small stream, and remained parallel to it for much of his journey. At the very least, he wouldn’t die of dehydration. In Elliott’s eyes, this was a small price to pay for the pain he had inflicted on Odette. To convince a small child their mother had perished in a fire was possibly the most heartless thing a man could do, but even Elliott couldn’t bring himself to admit she’d disappeared. He’d rather have the finality of death than the unknown of life.
A large branch cracked and fell from a tree beside him.
Always wear a coat, Odette.
Odette was glad she had taken her father’s advice. She could see her breath creating puffs of white in front of her, her hair had long since fallen out of it’s braid, thankfully protecting her small ears from the dangers of frostbite.
“Papa?” She called into the night. Odette knew he was in trouble – after all, she was wearing his coat. To be out in the middle of the night with no protection from the inclement weather practically begged death to come for you. Not to mention Elliott’s age, which already put him at risk of attacks to the heart.
“Papa!” Odette called again, cupping her fingers around her mouth. “Where are you?”
Eventually she came upon a deserted maze that seemed to stretch endlessly into the night. Ominous fog poured out of every crack and crevice, forming a hazy glow around the hedges. There was no way around it – she would have to go through.
Meanwhile, Elliott stumbled through a break in the forest on unsteady legs. A large, crumbling sign overgrown with ivy poked out of the ground. The words were illegible, and when Elliott tried to rub the dirt away with this hand, more of the paint flaked off.
“Devil?” Elliott muttered to himself. The only letters he could make out were D, E, and V – suddenly he wasn’t sure he wanted to know the rest.
Elliott continued down the crumbling path that seemed to twist and turn every which way. Larger, darker trees than the ones he had passed before loomed over him, each the exact same. It was official – he was lost.
Almost instantaneously, he turned the corner and was met with an enormous castle. Though the midnight fog was unforgiving, Elliott could just make out a candle flickering inside one of the many windows. He bounded up the stairs and marveled at the door – it was an intricate carving of an entire story, one with evil witches, cloaked men, and hundreds of tombstones. As he placed a hand on the knocker, the door swung inwards.
“Hello?” Elliott called, poking his head inside. “Is anybody here?”
When no one answered, he tentatively stepped in. Elliott jumped as the door slammed shut on its own.
“Hello?” Elliott called again. “I don’t mean to impose.”
As he searched through the hallways, the scent of freshly baked pastries and cooked meat wafted a door at the end of one of the many hallways. Elliott was entranced, and when his stomach rumbled, he patted it reassuringly. No one would notice if he just had a little bite to eat.
Elliott pushed another door open to find a completely empty dining room laden with food. Everything his heart desired was there – an entire roast chicken, fine pie, cooked fish, and other delicacies he couldn’t even begin to name. The table was set with fine china, almost as if someone had been waiting for him.
“I suppose it would be rude to let all this food go to waste,” Elliott rationalized.
And so he ate.
Outside in the cold, Odette had gotten completely turned around in the maze. The land seemed to shift and change with every turn: Mountains turned to trees, grass turned to hedges, and the ground shifted below her.
“Papa!” She screamed, hysterical now. “Where are you?”
“Here, child…” A faint voice whispered.
“Thissss wayyyy,” the voice continued. “For papaaa…”
With no other ideas and limited options, Odette gave in to the mysterious voice.
As Elliott finished his extensive meal, a sparkle caught his eye. In the corner, a breakfast nook was tucked away, it’s polished table gleaming in the torch light. But what really enticed him was the glittering sapphire that bedecked the table. It was prim, polished, and one of the many priceless artifacts scattered throughout the dark castle.
Elliott couldn’t resist a closer look – the gem seemed to call out to him. His thoughts flashed back to Odette and her tears about losing the one thing dear to her. All it would take is one sapphire and a well-known pawn shop to provide her with the money she needed. Elliott conceded that he was no thief, but perhaps he could find the owner later and set up a payment process.
If the owner would ever show.
If Elliott couldn’t bring back his wife, he could at least bring back some security.
With that thought, he gripped the heavy stone and quickly stuffed it into his blazer before he could lose his nerve.
And then there was a shout.
“What the hell are you doing?”
Elliott shot up out of his seat and cowered instantly. What looked like a huge shadow of darkness was looming over him. The shadow’s silver crown glinted, practically blinding Elliott.
“You come into my castle, you eat my meal, you steal my possessions?” The shadow roared.
“I can expl-”
The shadow lunged forward.
And everything went black.
“Whoa,” Odette murmured as she came upon the castle.
“Goooneee,” the voice crowed.
“Wait, what?” Odette said as she whipped her head around. The voice seemed to fade away on the wind, whispering gone, gone, gone as it went.
When Odette turned to face the castle again, she heard a shout. It crept up from a gaping crater in the ground, echoing off the walls. The front doors of the castle flung open with a clang, blasting heat at Odette’s face. The heat was enticing after such a cold journey, but she knew she couldn’t go in before making sure the voice wasn’t who she thought it was.
“Papa?” She called out.
Odette continued to shout when she heard the hinges of the castle’s front doors creak. The doors began to swing inwards slowly.
“NO!” Odette shouted as she darted forward just as the doors closed. She managed to slip past them just as they clanged shut with finality.
Odette was flung backwards as she tried to walk, forcing her backwards. Her head smacked against the stone with a sickening crack that was even louder than the crackling fire in the corner. She gingerly reached a hand behind her and gently touched the bump on her head. Odette’s dress had gotten caught up in the doors. An involuntary tear slipped down her cheek as she ripped and pulled at the fabric. It tore in two, leaving a limp piece of dirty brown material wedged between the doors.
Odette shook her head in dismay before examining the room around her.
Light footsteps echoed around the cavernous foyer, drawing Odette up the stairs. The person was always just out of her sight and almost completely silent. Still, she followed the sound, regardless of the fact that she doubted it was truly there – with her head wound, she’d be lucky to remember any of this come morning.
Suddenly, the footsteps ceased. The only break in the imposing stone walls was an unassuming brown door in front of Odette. She peaked in the iron slats of it’s window and gasped. Many stairs led downwards towards the deep crater in the ground where an elderly figure was hunched over behind a small prison.
“Papa!” Odette howled. She flung open the door and ran down the dozens of steps, tripping as she went. The world seemed to swirl around her, but she knew that face.
“Papa, what is this place?” Odette whimpered. “What happened to you?”
“Odette, you need to leave-”
“No!” She said, much too forcefully. Her head was throbbing in time with her heartbeat. She reached a shaky hand towards the lock. “We’ll get you out of here, we’ll-”
“What a touching display,” a voice called out. Odette flung her head upwards and shrieked. A man was standing over a crumbling bridge, leaning over the fence.
“But it’s time this reunion ended.”