Tower of London, 1734
The steady click of shoes on stone rang in Matthias’ ears. The sound echoed off the walls, making it sound as if a legion were marching down the steps. This was comforting to him. In reality, Matthias’ only companions were his shadow, creeping behind him in the torchlight, and a heavy sense of dread that rested in his stomach. His face reflected his fear in the trembling of his lips, the sweat beading on his upper lip like morning dew. If you had seen him, you would have thought he was the condemned, not the executioner.
“Thou must not worry about the witch,” Obadiah had said, with a friendly clap on the shoulder that had almost sent Matthias head-first into his plate. “It has not eaten in months; it cannot do thee any harm.”
This had not reassured him in the slightest.
No matter how slowly he crept along, Matthias’ destination was still inevitable. Soon, all too soon, his shoes clacked against even ground. A heavy wooden door braced with rusting strips of iron loomed over him. He stopped and took a deep breath, reaching for the keys with shaking fingers. His shadow shivered against the wall. Matthias couldn’t tell if it were trembling in fear or laughing at him.
Steeling his nerves, Matthias unlocked the door and shoved it open in a single movement. A blast of heated air and smoke hit his face, making the sweat feel cool against his face. The red glow of torches splashed across the floor like wine. This was where the witch awaited him.
Unfortunately, he only had a second to realize these things. Matthias had not let go of the keys before opening the door. It dragged him with it, through the doorway and directly into the opposing wall.
Matthias staggered backwards and fell on his behind. His torch clattered to the ground. Gasping, he whipped his head around to look over his shoulder. His shadow was on its hands and knees, pounding the ground with a fist. It was definitely laughing this time.
It wasn’t the only one.
Shaking his head fiercely, Matthias came to hear a hoarse chuckling. It seemed to crawl up his spine, curling around his shoulders. It could only belong to one creature.
In the corner of the room, behind a wall of iron bars, was a figure swathed in rags. It was painfully emaciated, so much so that if it weren’t chained to the floor it could slip out with ease. A lipless mouth leered at him with teeth pointed like a wild dog’s. Its black eyes were dull, but something seemed to pierce through its feverish haze and focus directly on him.
Matthias shuddered. His shadow stopped its fit of mirth and slunk behind him. The room no longer seemed so sweltering.
He stood, holding his head up and trying to maintain an air of superiority. “You may cease your mocking,” he snapped. “I have come to bring you to your death.”
The laughter grew quieter, then stopped. The two stared at each other. It unsettled Matthias, how it managed to look so uncannily human. Save a few deformities, it could almost be a young woman.
“Death?” it said, with a heavy accent that Matthias couldn’t place.
He nodded. “You are to be executed, burned at the stake. For your consortion with devilry and the practice of crimes so unspeakable I shalt not speak them aloud.”
It blinked, looking confused. Matthias frowned. Did it even understand his speech? It had come from across the ocean, a stowaway on a vessel returning from the colonies. There were only two words of English he was certain it knew: no and please. He’d heard it scream them many times.
Matthias cleared his throat. “No matter.” He retrieved the key ring from the door and began cautiously walking towards where the creature was bound. Closer up, it seemed less human. Lesions peppered its dark skin, and its extremities had been burnt black by frost. Matthias knew it wore crudely carven rings on each finger, although he could only see one hand. He shuddered to think what the rings were made of.
Matthias saw with disgust that its hair and face were crusted with blood. Leftovers of interrogations, he supposed. It bore no marks of these, save a raw burn on its neck. Fire was the only weapon that left a lasting injury.
The creature shifted, blocking the view of the chains. “Wait,” it said, holding up a closed fist.
Matthias froze, startled. “Pray pardon?” he gasped.
“Thing for you.” It shook its fist, causing a rattling sound. “A… present.”
“That is— erm.” Matthias rubbed his neck. His shadow began shaking its head ‘no’ repeatedly.
The creature tilted its head. “Accepted?” it asked. To Matthias, it seemed like a child offering a gift to an elder. Like a daughter to a father.
His shadow began gesticulating with more force. Matthias steeled himself. An apparition had no sway over him. “I do accept your kindly offer. Does this mean you shall repent before your death?”
It did not reply. Instead, it tossed the contents of its fist towards it, sending five small objects skittering across the floor like dice. They bounced off Matthias’ boots and went in all directions. He stooped to pick one up, then gave a cry and dropped it. It was one of the creature’s rings, but it was smeared with fresh blood. He stumbled back and hit a wall. It was cackling, a keening laugh that set Matthias’ hairs on edge.
As the initial shock wore off, Matthias grew angry at the creature’s cheap prank. “Why?” he gasped, taking deep breaths to calm himself down.
The creature twirled its hand, grinning. “For you. Not need them. Not enough…” It frowned, then pointed at its fingers. “Not enough these.”
Matthias furrowed his brow in confusion. “Not enough fingers? That does not make…”
He froze. The answer loomed over him, suffocating him. He knew he should run, but he couldn’t. Half of him refused to believe even desperation could drive a person to this extreme. Did it actually—
The creature stood and held out its other arm, the one chained to the floor by a cuff. The manacle slid down its arm, off its arm, onto the floor with a clang that rang with finality.
Where a hand would have stopped the cuff's progress, a bloody stump glistened red.
“Death,” it hissed triumphantly, then lunged through the bars at Matthias’ face.
His shadow turned and fled.