Kristian stopped in the town square to listen to the cryer, who was screaming so loudly Kris had thought it was a bird when he was coming down the mountain.
“If you consider yourself brave,” shrieked the cryer, “then report to Georgie’s Tavern at once!”
Kris considered this. He thought of his empty cabin in the woods, outside of town, and he thought of the warmth of the tavern, and maybe of a free drink if they thought he was “brave enough.” He dropped the tree he had been dragging to the carpenter’s place and shook out his arms.
“What’s this for, anyways?” asked Adrian, one of the tailor’s apprentices, of the cryer. Kris looked Adrian up, and down; a moron like him wasn’t stiff competition.
“Carver’ll tell you if you go to Georgie’s,” the cryer told him, before moving down the street to repeat his message. Adrian glanced to Kris, shrugged, and headed for Georgie’s. Kris watched him disappear out of the snow into the warm wood building before he hefted his tree back onto his shoulder and headed once more towards the carpenter’s. Now delivered of his tree, paid only half from a carpenter who never kept his promises, and with his night wide open, he headed to Georgie’s.
Adrian was not the only one in town who considered himself brave, it seemed. Carver, the squire of the duke who legally owned their village lands, was seated in a chair on top of a table, surrounded by a handful of the town’s largest or most confident citizens.
Kris stood in the doorway a moment, relishing in the way people turned to look at him, how they had to crane their necks to see his face. He had been lonely for a long time; he enjoyed how little he cared about what they thought, at this point in his life. He tipped his head to Bryony behind the bar, who frowned at him like he was a stray dog and looked away. The wind blew the door shut behind him.
“I was wondering if you’d show,” Adrian’s nasal voice called to him. Kris grunted at him and sat down in a recently-vacated chair, ignoring how it creaked underneath him. “Carver was just about to explain what we’re all doing here, innit he?”
“Yes,” Carver, who Kris privately thought of as The Duke’s Pissant, said, with the air of someone who thought he was important despite regularly being told otherwise. “I have a quest.”
“A quest?” snorted Ruthie, the blacksmith. “What kind of fucking fairy-tale story is this?”
“Let him talk,” Adrian snapped. Ruthie, that bitch, yanked him into a headlock. The Duke’s Pissant pretended not to notice the antics of less civilized beings as he looked down on them all from his perch.
“The Duke would like the castle cleared,” The Duke’s Pissant said, and the tavern fell silent in waves as the crowd processed what he said.
“The castle?” Adrian asked. “The castle castle? Up on the ledge?”
“You know another one, dipshit?” Ruthie asked. Bryony came out from behind the bar wedged herself between them to prevent further scuffling.
“You know that place’s got a monster in it, right?” said Wilson. “Like, a beast. Big one. My da saw it once.”
Kris glanced to his left, then his right. People went quiet and all creased-faced when he looked at them. He turned his attention back up to The Duke’s Pissant.
“Thank you… sir,” The Duke’s Pissant said, barely looking at Kris. Kris didn’t move. “Okay,” The Duke’s Pissant continued. “Beast or not, The Duke wants it cleared. He anticipated your reluctance. That’s why we ask that the bravest among you goes first. The second-place winner goes after him, if he can’t succeed, and so on.”
“I vote for myself,” Adrian exclaimed, leaping to his feet. Ruthie glared at him.
“This is not a democracy,” The Duke’s Pissant said. “Sit down, Archer.”
“Adrian,” Adrian corrected, but The Duke’s Pissant had already moved on.
“You must perform a feat of strength,” The Duke’s Pissant said. “Not only of body, but also,” he tapped his temple, “of mind.”
“I think you should use Kristian,” Bryony, now back behind the bar, told him, nearly cutting him off, but too smart to try it. She glanced at Kris, then away, like she didn’t want to look him in the eye while she offered him up as a whipping boy. “He’s our biggest.”
“That doesn’t mean he’s your smartest,” The Duke’s Pissant said, looking Kris over like he was a hunk of meat. Kris weighed his options, looked around the room full of neighbors he hated, then stood up. Once he reached his full height, he looked down at The Duke’s Pissant, meeting him dead in the eye.
“What do we get if we clear the castle?” Kris asked. The Duke’s Pissant stared up at him. “Sir?”
The Duke’s Pissant cleared his throat. “Money.”
Kris raised an eyebrow.
“How much money?” Wilson asked. “We make money here just fine.”
“More than just fine,” The Duke’s Pissant said. “A year’s wages.”
“A year’s wages?” Bryony behind the bar exclaimed, as the room exploded with excited murmuring. Kris continued eyeing The Duke’s Pissant, skeptical.
“And all we have to do is clear the castle?” Kris asked. The Duke’s Pissant nodded.
“That’s all,” he said. “Just clear it, come back to us, and tell us when you’ve done it.”
“You don’t want proof?” Kris asked.
“We’ll have proof enough,” The Duke’s Pissant told him. “We’ll check once you return.” Carter eyed him. “If you return.”
Kris glanced about again, then picked up one of the pewter tankards off the table and took a long drink from it. People stared. He enjoyed having that sort of effect on people, especially like his fellow villagers.
“I’ll do it,” he said, at last, in the growing silence. The Duke’s Pissant frowned and stood up from his chair, onto the table.
“We have to have the trial first,” The Duke’s Pissant said, and Kris loomed closer, satisfied in how his shadow darkened The Duke’s Pissant’s entire self.
“I won,” Kris said, in as deep a voice as he could manage without practicing first. The Duke’s Pissant stared at him, apparently weighing how much Kris cared about his title as The Duke’s squire against how far Kris could throw him.
“We’ll hold a trial for second place,” The Duke’s Pissant announced at last, “and for time’s sake, we’ll send Kristian up tonight. The sooner the better.”
“Good idea,” Kris said, finishing off what little was left of the tankard and setting it down in front of Adrian. He turned, winked at a scowling Bryony who was, now and forevermore, still behind the bar, and left, yanking the door back open. As the cold, snowy breeze rushed into the tavern, he glanced back at The Duke’s Pissant.
“If I’m not back in three days,” he said, “find yourself a new champion.”
“Oh, so now the stupid fucking woodsman’s our champion?” Kris heard Wilson ask, but he slammed the door forcefully enough that Wilson probably didn’t ask again. Kris headed for the armory first, stopping in to ask after their strongest weapons. He had only heard about the beast secondhand — from Wilson’s da, when Kris himself was still small — but he knew the thing was supposed to be massive, clever, and extraordinarily violent. Next was the tailor for warm clothes and sturdy shoes, then the baker for food supplies. They all seemed to please to hear of his imminent departure.
Armed with two long blades, four short blades, a new set of fur-lined clothes, sturdy boots, a basket full of food strapped to his back, and not a single coin in his pockets, Kris set on the path up the mountain. He already lived halfway between the castle and the town, so he hardly broke a sweat during the first half. He tugged his hood and scarf closer around his face and ducked his head against the snow and roaring winds, following his feet up, up through the darkness, up through the trees, against the darkness, and to the ledge that held the castle.
The castle, Kris thought, was truly just a large stone house, but it had pointed roofs and heavy carved rocks glued together for walls, so it earned the name castle based on the feelings it gave people alone. It didn’t seem so big to Kris, but, then again, nothing seemed so big to Kris. He listened closely, or tried to; the howling winds that whipped against his head drowned out any other sounds he might have heard.
Like any civilized man, he tried the door first.
He pushed it open — a heavy wooden thing, with brass knockers and all — and called out, “Is anyone here?”
Still, no answer.
Kris pushed the door open all the way and then let it slam shut behind him, of its own accord, leaving him in darkness. He dug in his pockets for one of his last bundles of tinder, and struck it on his boot, lighting the sticks up in his hand. He found his way to a torch on the wall, seemingly unused for quite some time, and lit it, illuminating the whole entry hall.
“Hello?” Kris called out, picking the torch off the wall and holding it high in front of him. The shadows from the fire flickered across the gray stone, but revealed no other person.
“Leave,” he heard, a soft whisper like it was carried by the wind. Kris turned around, but saw no one. He heard it too clearly to believe it just a trick of the breeze, or of his own mind, and glanced about the room, wary.
“I can’t leave,” Kris said. “I have a job.”
“Get out,” he heard this time. He forged forwards, ignoring the frantic, rhythmic thrum of “get out, get out, get out” that followed him to the next door. And then he shoved the wooden door with his shoulder, nearly splintering it in his wake.
“I have to clear the castle,” Kris told this disembodied voice. “I’m assuming you’re the monster.”
“I am,” whispered the voice. “Leave, now.”
“I don’t think so,” said Kris. He had years of experience with people who wanted him to leave, and he wasn’t about to cave so easily to some disembodied guy who wouldn’t even show his face. The next room was just as empty, and he eyed one of three doors, straight ahead. The other doors were on either side of him, and he hesitated before choosing the door to his right. He shoved it open then stepped back, and a tremendous weight hit the floor where a normal man would have stepped over the threshold. Upon closer examination, it seemed to be a heavy stone chair.
“Nice try,” Kris told the air. He stepped on and over the chair into the room, and the door shut behind him, leaving him alone with his torch. A shadow flickered into view, first within the torch, then without; a dark presence seemed to touch the back of Kris’ neck, and he suppressed a shiver as the room grew darker. His torch extinguished itself at the same time his eyes adjusted enough to see the shadowy figure before him.
“I warned you,” the voice said, echoing from the huge shape, that mass of undefined darkness. It was easy to project his fear onto it, but Kris held back, trying to see it for what it was, rather than what Wilson’s da told him it would be. “I warned you to get out. To leave. And you—”
“Do you have a name?” Kris asked. The shape, still shimmering, fell silent.
“What?” it asked. The coldness, damp and wet along Kris’ shoulders, started to creep down his spine at the question.
“A name,” Kris said. “Have you ever had a name?”
The silence filled the room, the shape swelling, then shrinking, then swelling again. “I have no name.”
“Everyone’s got a name,” Kris said. “Even demons, or beasts, or whatever it is you are.”
“What,” the voice asked, “did you mean, when you said you have to ‘clear the castle’?”
“I was hired to do it,” Kris said. “Well, I wasn’t paid yet. In case I die, I’m guessing. But The Duke wants to use your castle for something, I suppose, so they sent me to clear you out of it.”
“The Duke?” the thing asked. “The Duke wants my castle? My castle? After all these years?”
“Guess so,” Kris said. “It’s your castle, then? You’re not just squatting here?”
“No, it’s mine,” it told him. Kris nodded, reaching into his pocket for another bundle of sticks.
“How long’ve you lived here?” Kris asked. The thing hummed.
“I don’t know,” it said. “Time doesn’t matter to me.”
“Nah, I get that,” Kris said. “I can respect that. You’re a monster, I’ve heard. Monsters probably don’t tell time much.”
“That’s right,” it said. Kris lifted his boot, just slightly, and bent a little bit.
“Sounds right,” Kris said. “Has anyone tried to clear the castle before?”
“All have failed,” it told him. “All have run in terror.”
“Anyone die?” Kris asked.
Silence. Kris’ skin was warming, drying up. The thing seemed to have pulled back, filling only its own space now.
“What?” the thing asked again.
“You kill anyone?” Kris asked. “Anyone ever die here?”
“I’ve never killed anyone, no,” it said. “And nobody has died here in a very long time.”
“Thought you couldn’t tell time,” Kris said.
“It feels long,” the thing clarified, shimmering, without definition. Just shadows and dread. “Feels so very, very long.”
All in one fast, striking movement, Kris lit the bundle of kindling on fire and brought the flame to the torch, letting it lick back into life, casting the thing into light for the first time. Kris stared at it, then blinked, his eyes refocusing.
“Oh,” Kris said, when he realized what he was seeing. The room was filled with furniture, nearly seeming lived-in and almost warm, even nicer than his cabin. The shadow had shrunk to a shape even smaller than Kris: the shape of a man. “You’re just a guy.”
The man stared at him, his face gaunt and white, eyes squinted and angry. “I am not just anything. I am the occupant of this house, and you are a trespasser.”
“You certainly are occupying this house,” Kris said. “You must have a name. You’re a normal guy.”
“I am not a normal guy,” the guy said. He stared at Kris for a beat longer. “But, uhh. My name is Beau.”
“Beau?” Kris repeated. “Your name is Beau?”
“Yeah,” said the guy, apparently named Beau, his brow furrowing. He seemed finely built, with delicate features and light bones, looking like he weighed almost nothing. He had on an expensive-looking suit, bespoke albeit quite old, and his long, dark hair was neatly combed back from his face. He didn’t look like any beast Kris had ever heard a story about. “What of it?”
“Nothing,” Kris said. He reached for his sword.
“What are you doing?” Beau demanded, taking a step back, arm raised as if he could catch the blade in his bare hand, should Kris choose to swing it.
“Full disclosure,” Kris said, unhooking his first scabbard, then the second, letting them clatter to the stone floor. He stepped out of his knife belts and let them, too, fall in a circle where his feet had been. He inched forward onto a rug and shed his coat. “I came ready to drive out a monster, not accidentally kill some guy.”
“You couldn’t’ve,” Beau told him. “I’m already dead.”
Kris looked up, faintly surprised. “No shit,” he said, tugging off his scarf. “Could’ve fooled me, what with the walking and talking and everything.”
“I don’t know why I’m like this,” Beau said. “But I am dead. I can prove it.”
“You can?” Kris said. He readjusted the basket on his back. “Then, by all means.”
Beau led Kris through the next door, and then another, glancing over his shoulder at him periodically like he thought Kris might either bolt or tackle him to the ground. Kris had no intention of doing either; his day had turned out much more interesting than he had anticipated when he woke up that morning, and the guy seemed both handsome and nice, albeit a bit waifish and maybe more than a bit skittish.
“Through here,” Beau instructed, after they climbed a high set of stone stairs, Kris’ boots making the only sounds of footfalls as they walked. He held open a wooden door and Kris ducked inside the new room, finding himself in a dark bedroom. The huge bed pressed against the far wall seemed to take up a lot of the space, with its burgundy hangings and rich brass posts. Beau ghosted past him and to the bedside, silent, his face drawn.
“See?” Beau asked, motioning to the bed. Kris stepped up behind him and peered around the curtain he was holding back to find a dusty corpse, mostly-decomposed, primarily made of bone and hair.
“Wow,” Kris said. “Yikes.”
“Yeah,” Beau said softly. “Yikes.”
Kris reached around him and gently smoothed the covers down around the chest of the skeleton. Beau extended his own hand, grasped the skull in his hand, and jerked it upwards, dislodging it from the spine.
“Looks better than I ever did before,” Beau joked lightly. He hefted his own skull in his hand like it was a toy, then handed it off to Kris. Kris took it, hesitantly; after a moment of inspecting it, he held it beside Beau’s flesh-covered head. He could see the resemblance. “This was you, then?”
“It was,” Beau told him. “Not anymore.”
“Looks like it hasn’t been for a while,” Kris commented. He settled the skull back on the pillow gingerly, suppressing the urge to tuck the grimy bedsheets around the dead thing. “And you don’t know why you’re a ghost, or whatever it is you are?”
“Nope,” Beau told him, his lips popping a little on the p. “I have no idea, and everything I do— Well. I can’t seem to leave.”
“What, leave forever?” Kris asked, and Beau nodded. “You’ve been given an opportunity here, buddy. You lived past death. I wouldn’t waste that so fast.”
“It’s lonely,” Beau snapped. Kris shut his mouth, and they stared at each other for a long time.
“Yeah?” Kris asked, thinking of his own empty cabin, of the unmarked graves in his backyard, courtesy of the winter of two years’ past. He thought of the town full of people who scowled at him as he passed. He looked down at Beau, then back at the corpse on the bed. “Sucks to be lonely.”
“Yes,” Beau said. He said that word differently than The Duke’s Pissant did, like he knew it better, like he knew the world better.
“I’ve heard a lot of stories,” Kris told him. Beau glanced at him, brow furrowed again. His dark eyes, for how dead he truly appeared to be, were blazing. “You know. Legends. About people with unfinished business, and how there are things that can release them. Want me to try one?”
“Sure,” Beau said. “Yes, I would like that, thank you.”
“Great,” Kris said, before taking Beau’s head between his hands. He was small, but he felt less delicate like this than his own skull had just moments ago. He had a solid weight to him, filled with a warmth that belied his status as a spirit. Kris shifted, then bent down, pressing his lips to Beau’s. Beau startled backwards, staring at him, one thin hand over his mouth.
“What?” Beau asked, then frowned. “What?” he demanded this time. Kris shrugged.
“I read it in a story,” Kris said, since that was all the explanation he had needed. Beau glared at him, then shuffled forwards a step. “True love’s kiss.”
“That’s awfully presumptuous of you,” Beau said.
“Well,” Kris said, “I’m lonely, too.”
“Are you?” Beau asked. “This place… You know, it’s hard, when I’m the only one rattling around it. It’s lonely.”
“You said that already.”
“You did.” Kris shrugged his basket off, letting it drop to the floor. “You know, if I had cleared this castle, I was just going to use the money to buy a new house in a new place anyways. If I stay here… Well, that’s just as good, I think. Don’t you?”
Beau nodded, shifting his weight to his other foot, then glanced out the window. It was still snowing, but the sun was starting to come up, turning the falling snow orange in the growing light. “Will they come looking for you?”
“Probably,” Kris told him. “But you put on quite the show back there, and I’ve got a lot of training with my knives. I don’t think they’ll be clearing the both of us out anytime soon.”
“What about The Duke?” Beau asked. Kris looked down at him, and felt an overwhelming urge to smile. He fought it off.
“Fuck the duke,” he said, sweeping Beau up in his arms. Beau grinned against his mouth, then pulled back.
“Are you sure?” Beau asked. Kris looked out the window, too, at the sunrise, at the snow like thousands — like millions — of tiny flames, falling to the earth in the new dawn sunlight.
“How did you become a ghost?” Kris asked abruptly. Beau glanced up at him.
“I don’t know,” Beau said. “But there are things in this castle. Other things. They told me, when people die here, they have to stay here, like me. I’m very careful — nobody dies here. They usually die in the woods or down in the town or something.”
“You’re sure about that?” Kris said. “That if someone dies here, they turn out like you?”
Beau stepped back, squared his shoulders, lifted his chin. Looked Kris right in the eye.
“I’m sure,” Beau said, with the gravity of someone who hasn’t had the opportunity to really be sure about anything in years.
“Great,” Kris told him. He thought back to the graves in his backyard, and to the unkind eyes of the villagers in the tavern, and the lonely, heavy feeling that settled over him every night, when he climbed, alone, into a cold bed, in a cold house. He felt his own heart pound in his throat, then settle, like it already knew what he wanted and decided, yes, that was more than okay.
“Got any rope?” Kris asked, when his pulse balanced back out.
Beau eyed him, but led him back out of the room. Kris reached down and lifted him up, tossed him over his shoulder, and followed his directions through the castle.
“Are you sure?” Beau asked, when they were on top of the castle. The wind whipped them in the face; Kris pushed his hair back out of his eyes and focused on tying the tightest possible knot he could. “What if—”
“What if it doesn’t work?” Kris asked. “You’ve asked me that nineteen times. Those cursed spirits following you around seem to think it’ll work.”
“But if it doesn’t—”
“If it doesn’t, buddy,” Kris said, “I’m no worse off than I am right now.”
Beau was silent for a long moment, so Kris turned back to look at him. He had a crumpled look on his face, like he was really struggling internally with some sad words he didn’t know how to say.
“Sorry,” Kris said. Beau shook his head.
“No, I get it,” Beau replied. “I just wish it was better for you.”
Kris looked down at the rope, quadruple-knotted around the highest spire of the castle. He lifted the noose carefully tied into the other end of the rope and held it in his hands, as if weighing and measuring it.
“Yeah,” Kris said. “Me, too.” He tightened the knot again. “Hopefully, it’s about to be.”
Beau did the sign of the cross and Kris lassoed his own neck with the noose. He looked back at Beau, then over the edge, at how far the ground was if the rope snapped. Optimistically, it wouldn’t. With his luck, though? Who knew.
“You’re sure?” Beau asked again. Kris didn’t sigh, but it was a close thing. He got the concern, he did, but things didn’t matter so much in the village anymore. He was pretty close to doing this on his own anyways; at least, this way, he potentially got Beau out of it, and Beau was the best anything he’d encountered in years.
“Yeah,” Kris said, “I’m sure.”
Kris stepped up onto the edge, and Beau covered one eye with his hand, head half-tilted away. Kris found a kind of twisted humor in a ghost who couldn’t watch someone die, but the thought cut off halfway through when the wind shoved him over the edge.
He felt himself falling, falling, the tops of the trees blurring past him in a whiz of green, white, and brown, and suddenly, he was standing beside Beau again. Beau stared at him, incredulous.
“Did you jump back up?” Beau asked, shocked. Kris laughed.
“Fuck no,” he said. He leaned over the edge and saw his own body swinging at the end of the noose, neck clearly snapped. He hoped he hadn’t shit himself; that would probably be embarrassing. “Fuck, it worked.”
“You swear a lot,” Beau commented.
“Get used to it, baby,” Kris said, turning and sweeping Beau up into his arms. Beau laughed, overjoyed, and let himself be handled back inside.
When Adrian arrived four days later, the wind howled fiercely, blowing him back several steps down the path. He forced his way forwards, then stopped at the front of the castle and looked directly up, at the shape swinging from the highest point of the roof. He squinted, and made out distinctly the hanged corpse of Kris, still huge in death, as it dangled by rope from the castle.
“Shit,” Adrian managed to say, before he turned and vomited into the snow. When he glanced back up, the corpse was still swinging there, bouncing off the stone facade. Adrian averted his eyes and pushed his way inside. He was instantly engulfed in darkness; the heavy doors swung shut behind him, brass knockers and locks slamming and clicking into place. Adrian turned slowly, carefully, trying to adjust to the blackness.
“Leave,” said a voice from the endless shadows, a soft, unfamiliar, disembodied voice. He meant to scoff, but a cold blade pressed into the hot flesh at his throat at the same moment. He froze.
“Now,” ordered a voice he knew well. He tried to turn his head, but only saw shadows looming larger and larger still as the metal dug harder into his skin, drawing blood to trickle down his chest.
“Kristian?” Adrian tried to ask. A vise seemed to wrap around his chest, to tighten there, but when he looked down, he saw only tendrils of darkness.
“Don’t come back,” Kris’ voice said. “Tell them what you saw. Tell them never to come here again.”
The shadows released Adrian, and he glanced around, feeling wild. The shadows retreated, then swelled when he did not move, surrounding him.
“Go,” said both voices at once, and Adrian stepped back once, then again, then turned tail. He let the heavy doors bang shut behind him, locking in place once again, and abandoned that place. He could still hear Kris’ voice echoing, see his body hanging from the roof, and sprinted back towards the town to warn them.
Back in the castle, Kris locked the front doors, sliding the tremendous bolt into place and turning back around. Beau ran at him, leaping up into his arms and kissing him fiercely.
“Good going,” Kris said around his mouth. Beau pulled back and pressed his forehead to Kris’, beaming from ear-to-ear. “You know, normal guys don’t usually do stuff like this.”
“Oh, and we’re such normal guys,” Beau laughed. Kris kissed him again and set him down.
“Fuck normal guys,” Kris said, and Beau high-fived him, still laughing.