After years of searching, he found the castle on a remote forgotten world in an abandoned corner of the unknown universe. Castles littered the cosmos like dead stars, relics of the ancients. Each one of these monuments to Ozymandias divulged the secrets of its womb with labyrinthine corridors or arresting garrets, grown mausolean with the passing of ages.
A bloated sun swelled over a third of the enflamed sky, casting vegetation and ruins alike in ominous red. The legend suggested that once this had been either a blue or yellow sun, if the legend were true, but now it lay dying over an elapsed world whose mountains had burned to ash and whose seas had boiled away to craters of salt.
He found the entrance to the castle, a great wooden door as if made for a giant, and he pushed it inward, thinking only of the Beauty of the Night.
• • • •
As the legend goes, the magnificent castle was built from shining stone that reflected the light of morn, fortified to protect the noble blood that ran through its veins. At the time of its building, lords lived in the keep and soldiers manned the battlements, maintaining a barrier of defense through the crenellations in the curtain walls to keep out human enemies.
As the legend goes, such enemies, when captured, were housed in a dungeon beneath the earth—dank as a dead womb and lightless. There are mysteries in this dungeon. As the legend goes, he who is swallowed by that black abyss shall never return.
Over the many thousands of years it has existed in the solitude of neglect, the castle has grown hungry.
The dungeon, however, is reserved for those who are able to first make it through the bitter forest with its ages of overgrowth, where only the deadliest florae has thriven in the eye of the hostile red sun.
• • • •
First, he had to pass that untrodden and silent wood.
Castle turrets emerged provocatively from the canopy of the forest grown wild and fecund around the derelict estate. As he fought his way through the forest, brambles and thorns grown razor-sharp and dense closed around him, biting his flesh until blood welled in angry spherules. “It is worth it,” he said to himself, “to find the Night’s Beauty.”
There was no beauty left in the known cosmos, as far as he could see, and so he had ventured to the unknown cosmos—the unexplored edges of reality, places where time might run backward or light and shadow reverse. These are strange worlds that lie on the fringes, so old they may have existed before physics settled down with its proper rules.
And still, somehow, the forest remained.
A snarl of brambles ensnared his wrists and ankles, held him in a thorny cage, and he wondered how many skeletons remained thus, trapped within the intractable wood. How many had gotten this far? He tugged on his bindings, held nearly aloft by the scratching, whispering wood, and after some great exertion he let himself slump, panting and winded.
Was it worth it, he wondered, to find the Beauty of the Night?
Men and women of the modern age seemed to him ugly creatures, but he had seen glimpses of the alluring ancients. Woe betide he who has never found a wormhole to bring him into the past. He will have to bring the past to the present, instead.
He was not the first to make this voyage, but perhaps he would be the one to succeed.
As soon as he had seen it, he’d known that this was the castle—the one sought by men since the earliest legends had flown and settled like dandelion seeds across the universe. He found it on a world that should not be, from a time so far removed as to seem magical in its antiquity. It would have been very long indeed since any other traveler had found his way here.
The forest sighed around him, lonesome and oscitant. No other living creatures existed here any longer. No birds called in the sky; no rodents crept through the earth. It was only him and the vast empty forest and the vast empty world.
Sleep, the forest seemed to suggest. Sleep. Sleep.
Over exhausting lightyears he had traveled to arrive here, and indeed the forest lulled him now, cradled him. He closed his eyes.
The rustling sounds around him intensified and shadows moved in the distance and he knew he could not sleep. For how did he know, truly, that nothing else living existed on this world? It seemed to him there was something just behind him, watching unseen.
At last he struggled his way free and ran through the endless tangle of spindly branches on which no leaves would grow, and he arrived at the castle.
• • • •
He had only to give the door a gentle push for it to swing inward with a grinding moan, whereupon it crumbled into dust before his eyes. It was so old, whatever held it together so tenuous, that the merest touch had disrupted its careful equilibrium.
The portcullis was open, although he suspected that even its iron would crumble away, were he to push against it.
The interior of the castle was likewise ruined and decrepit, its diseased antediluvian stone like a scabbed wound. Walls loomed above and around him with rotting regality. It seemed strange that such a Beauty could lie sleeping for so long in this dead place.
And so a moment of terror gripped him—for what if the legend were false? What if she did not exist? What if this was just another empty castle and he was chasing mythic ghosts?
First he found the dungeon.
Stone-hewn stairs led down into a deeper darkness, like a remote pocket of space. He descended several steps and peered down, tried to see what lay within, but nothing there had been visible for thousands of years, and he wondered if perhaps the dungeon had quietly slipped out of existence itself, without eyes to behold it. If he descended fully into the darkness, he might find himself lost in an inescapable void, transported to beyond the fringes of the universe.
The darkness reached up for him as he slowly crept back up the stairs, caressing his ankles, and he turned back briefly to gaze into the mystery of nothing. How was it that he could not seem to look away? How was it that the darkness reached out for him, came closer as he watched?
Sleep, it seemed to say in a sibilant hiss, like wind pushing itself through hairline cracks in weathered stone. Sleep. Sleep.
And darkness was a kind of sleep to which he could so easily succumb, if only he took one more, then another step into its cool embrace. And darkness was a kind of beauty, too, in its ineffable void, for not to see at all would be not to see the ugly in the universe.
Even while the darkness touched the nape of his neck and pulled back gently on his clothing, he climbed back up and out and resumed his search for the tower where love slept on.
• • • •
As the legend goes, there was a lord and his beautiful daughter, and she was more beautiful than the sunlight streaming in rainbows through a glass, more beautiful than the first birdsong in spring, more beautiful than the ballet of planets around the sun. But she lived on a world where the modern rules of science did not yet apply, so long ago is the tale, and so in this world there was such a thing as magic.
As the legend goes, her beauty was so captivating to the people of the castle that her father ordered her to come out only at night, when the darkness softened her radiance and made her bearable to look upon without weeping, or going mad, so wonderful and terrible is such a thing as beauty.
Yet it was not enough. Men still fell in ecstasy when they beheld her features by moonlight, and her beauty was so great, it blinded the stars and turned them to burnt-out husks.
Out of spite, perhaps, a timecurse was placed upon her and sent her into deepest sleep. Years, decades, centuries passed while she lay in a high room of the castle, in eternal ageless repose, able to be awakened only by a touch or a kiss. Perhaps they forgot about her, those people of the castle going about their daily lives. Perhaps after an hundred years they knew nothing of what lay in the tower room, and perhaps after a thousand years the castle was vacated, and perhaps after another thousand the world was vacated.
And still she lies sleeping, waiting, in eternal repose, for the kiss that will awaken her to the unrecognizable post-apocalyptic world.
• • • •
In the courtyard, black vines grew up out of the dirt. Inside the castle, scabrous and crumbling arched corridors groaned ominously, threatening to collapse and bury him in stone.
He found a stairway that corkscrewed up through a tower and he ascended the narrow passage.
That he could not see what lay beyond the curved stone gave him a passing dread as he followed it up and around. At every moment he expected to reach the top of the tower, but like an endless train of thought that delivers one nowhere, the stairs continued interminably. Though he knew logically there must be an end, in his heart he began to believe that he had entered a rupture in the space-time continuum and that there was no end, that the tower simply went on forever, he in its throat.
At last, he had to stop and sit upon the stair, the infinite spiral descending below him, the unknown above. Slitted windows opened to the outside, but each time he gazed out into the blood-red dying world, he seemed to be always at the same height.
“It is worth it,” he reminded himself emphatically, “for the Beauty of the Night.”
All was worth it. The years he had given to the search, the woman he had left behind, the currency he had paid to make his dreams come true. It had to be worth it.
He stood and continued.
For another hour or more he climbed, dreading with each step that he would find only more stairs above him, that he might never leave the gullet of this tower, this mad endless tower.
And then, at last, when a dull sort of dismay had begun to germinate within his weary steps, the staircase ended at an arched doorway.
At last, he thought. At last, he would behold the Beauty of the Night, and that beauty would be his and his alone to gaze upon. His treasure. To own such beauty in an ugly cosmos—he would be the richest man alive.
He crept inside the room and saw that it was a bedchamber, cobwebbed with accumulated dust. Furniture still sat within—a nearly unrecognizable armchair, a dresser—but were so faded with age that he dared not touch them.
Upon the four-poster bed beside a window, bathed in the crimson light of day, lay a woman.
Unlike the ruined room, the woman was pristine as a newborn. No dust had touched her pearly flesh over the eons she had slept. He wondered if she dreamed.
She looked very little like the humans of today. Flaxen hair unspooled around her pallid face, although her lips retained their rubicund hue, and spidery brown lashes extended from her closed eyelids.
She was almost too perfect to disturb, and he thought perhaps he could be happy simply to gaze upon her sleeping form for the rest of his days.
But then he imagined how lovely she must be with her eyes open—what those eyes might look like. Two shining sun-glistened lakes? A golden amberwood? And what music might he hear in her voice?
And besides, once he awakened her, she would be his and his alone.
He bent down over her prostrate sleeping form, thinking to himself at last, at last, and laid a gentle kiss upon her flower-petal-soft lips.
At last, at last, he leaned back and beheld eyes which had been closed for millennia creak open, and he had been wrong for they were neither azure lakes nor amberwood, but milky gauze. On bones as brittle as the ages, she sat up in bed, turning her head blindly and twitching with the surprise of awakening. Despite the eyes which had lost their use, she was the loveliest creature he had ever beheld.
He reached forward again to touch her, and his fingers brushed her soft, smooth cheek.
At the sensation she flinched, drew back her lips in a hideous smile, and began to scream.
Before his eyes, her flesh turned black and sour, decayed, and sloughed off gangrenous chunks in patchwork disarray. Still shrieking in agony, she brought a hand to her face and came away with a portion of scalp trailing strings of hair like evil tentacles.
Hastily he backed away from the creature decomposing before his eyes as time finally caught up with her.
Sinewy tendons burst through atrophied muscle; a puddle of wet excretion soaked the collapsing bed; she was now a skeleton, now her eyes had liquefied from her ancient skull, now her clothing fell away in tatters to reveal the ribs and spine beneath, and now even the bones disintegrated, turned to dust, and blew away shrieking on the air.
That dust flew into his face—his nose, his mouth, his eyes—and burning with pain, half-blinded, he turn and stumbled for the doorway and the staircase where he fell . . .
. . . and fell . . .
. . . and fell . . . . . . and fell . . .
. . . and fell . . .
And as the legend goes, he is still falling down the spiral of that endless tower, for here on a planet so ripened like a wasted prune that something prior to physics once existed here, something we can only call magic, we might conclude that a kind of black hole opened up in that spindle of a tower and swallowed the lone traveler, who, in his eternal fall and blinded by the ashes of the dead, may take comfort in having witnessed, if only for the briefest of moments, timeless beauty.