Inspired by Bluebeard Once upon a time, there was a young nobleman who lived way up in the mountains of the north. He was a tall, strong man, unbothered by the howling winds or bitter cold that mercilessly toyed with others. Though wealthy and intelligent, he had been horribly disfigured at birth, causing him to hide his face in shame for the first twenty years of his life. He was not locked away, but instead chose to flee from his family’s chateau and seclude himself within the frigid peaks, for fear of being ridiculed. Though he felt safe, his heart longed for the company of another. It was his father, mere days before he died, who urged him to leave the castle he’d built for himself, to at least try to find a wife. Though hesitant at first, the young man obeyed father’s final wishes and made the long descent down the mountain to the village that lay below. And oh, what wonders he found! It was all so different, so alive, so beautiful. Even the splendor his mother and father’s grand home had owned was nothing compared to the chatter of villagers in the air, the clang of cowbells and shouting of vendors. The smell of dried hay and freshly baked bread floated sweetly through the air, and brightly colored yarns filled cart upon cart in the little square. Fresh cuts of meat hung enticingly in the butcher’s shop. And she, she, was stunning. Long golden hair cascaded down her back and her cheeks looked as if they had been kissed by roses. Eyes the color of robin eggs peeked out past long lashes, and he felt a sharp pang of want course through his veins. She was an angel, she had to be. With his heart moving at a stallion’s pace, he slowly approached her, dark velvet shrouding his face from the vision of others. “My lady,” he whispered, quietly trying to get her attention. He rarely spoke, for not only was his face malformed, but his vocal cords were a mangled mess. His voice rasped like a raven’s caw and ground against one’s ears like talons upon slate. It was as monstrous as he, and the nobleman feared the becoming dame would hear him speak and flee.She turned around, facing him and tilting her head upon seeing the hooded stranger in the village center. “My lady, if I may be so bold-” “Who are you?” she demanded, interrupting him before he could say another word. “Speak up, I cannot hear you.” Her brow furrowed, frowning up at him. “Nor can I see your face. Remove your hood.” He stiffened, too terrified of the idea of her seeing the monstrosity he was to do anything. Before he could react, her fists were clenched around the velvet and the sun fell upon his skin. His eyes widened in synchronicity with hers as the shriek shot up through her throat and cut through the easy atmosphere like soft butter. “You’re… you’re revolting,” she whispered, though not out of fear. “What are you? Surely you’re not human!” The young lady snickered, chuckles bubbling up before escaping her in their finest, wickedest form: full, pure laughter at the ugliness he had been cursed with all his life. It was his greatest fear, the thought that plagued his nightmares, come to haunt him in reality. Turning and fleeing the village before anyone else could lay their eyes upon his crookedness, he raced back up the mountainside, taking refuge in the safety of his isolated castle. Agonized tears rolled down the sun-deprived cheeks, and he fell to his knees in front of the fireplace that warmed his chambers. It was hopeless. His god had not been good to him, had not bestowed mercy upon the pathetic, malformed creature he was. He was desperate. Lucifer, my Lord, show me pity, show me kindness. Make me beautiful, free me from these chains. I don’t care what it costs, for I cannot bear to be alone any longer. Day after day, night after night, he prayed. He forwent sleep, food, drink, warmth. The embers in the fire had long burnt out and his throat was dry, lips were chapped, stomach hollow, when finally, his savior appeared before him. I see many of you. Many, many a pitiful man, just as horrible as yourself… tell me, o grotesque one, shall we make a deal? Please, Lord. Bring me the soul of another, and I will end your suffering. Bring me an attractive soul, the loveliest you can find, and we shall exchange beauty. Under the cloak of night, the dark, velvet cloak, he made his way back to the village. And in the earliest of hours, as the sun was just beginning to warm the skies, he returned to the castle with, as requested, the most attractive soul he could find. Are you ready? I am. The daemon vanished and the nobleman was on fire, but a smile pulled at his lips as the flames ravenously ate away at his ugliness. The heat scalded him and the ash got in his mouth, but oh, when the smoke cleared, he knew the pain was worth it. Rushing to the mirror, he gazed upon his reflection: his new, perfect reflection. He then glanced down at the locks of golden hair on the ground, the once-rosy cheeks and lifeless blue eyes. He cradled the lovely corpse and carried her into a tiny, unused room in the lowest level of the castle. He wrapped a rope around her ankles and strung her upside down from the ceiling, not staying to watch the blood drain from the slit in her throat. The next day, the nobleman found himself once again with the villagers, no longer hidden beneath the cloak. His head was up, his shoulders were back, and he walked with the regality his title implied. Indeed, he was a sight to see, and the womenfolk could not help but stare. “Sir?” someone asked, her voice silky and feminine, and at first he did not realize its owner was speaking to him. He turned around, and before him stood the most gorgeous girl he had ever laid his eyes upon. Her beauty outshone the other’s tenfold, with ebony curls and eyes that sparkled and danced in the sunlight. She was fair and slender, and a small smile graced her lips. He pressed a kiss to her hand and introduced himself. By nightfall, they were married. By sunrise, she was dead. He looked at himself in the mirror and thanked his Lord once again, picking up the lovely corpse and bringing it down to the tiny room. The other still hung, but as he tied up the pale ankles and hooked his wife to the ceiling, he did not even glance at her. He couldn’t. Yes, the nobleman was looking handsomer than ever, and women flocked to him like ravens to silver. He was married again and again, growing more irresistible after each beauty was sacrificed. The bodies hung, side by side, and only after a slaughter would he enter. It was always a quick visit, merely to get the job done. Never did he linger, never did he look up to acknowledge their rotting presence. He couldn’t. It was on his thirteenth trip down to the village that he met Maria. She was nowhere near as beautiful as the others, nor did she seem as enchanted by his own stunning looks. She was witty, smart, inquisitive, and there was a mischief that shone in her big brown eyes that melted the nobleman’s heart in a way he hadn’t experienced with the others. Never had he ached for something, someone, this badly. Never had someone’s laugh taken his breath away or whose slightest movements sent butterflies fluttering uproariously through his stomach. She did not accept his advances (or proposal, for that matter) right away, but chose instead to allow him to court her; as most men did. Though it took longer than he would’ve liked, the nobleman was finally able to take Maria as his wife. His own appearance was no longer a concern of his, instead consumed by his love for her, and for a while, he forgot about the women hanging beneath his feet. That is, until after the wedding. Curious by nature, Maria pleaded for the tour of the castle. A nauseating remembrance of his former wives hit him and his stomach dropped like a stone. But refusing the sweet girl was never something to cross his mind, so he took her hand and led her around. Eventually, they reached the lowest level of the castle. “Darling, what’s in there?” Maria asked, motioning towards the small door. “Nothing much, dear,” he smiled easily, though felt as if he was going to be sick. “Merely some cobwebs and dust, it’s never been used. No need to go in there.” She nodded, but he could tell as they walked off that she was still curious. That night, long after she had fallen asleep, he lay awake and agonized over what to do. He knew Maria was the sort that, if she put her mind to it, would find a way in. He didn’t want there to be secrets between them, but she could never, never know. She was his world, his everything, the light and joy of his life, and he couldn’t bear to think of losing her. He’d had such dreams for the two of them, and imagining himself with anyone else… he simply couldn’t do it. He pressed a soft kiss to her lips as the blade sunk into the tender flesh of her neck. “I’m sorry, beloved,” he whispered, hot tears burning his eyes. “Forgive me, Maria, forgive me…” He looked down at the lovely, lovely corpse and felt his sanity finally beginning to flee from him. Unable to watch the crimson pouring from her throat, he lapped it up until the blood ceased to flow. He staggered to the lowest level of the castle, opening the door and laying her limp body on the ground. “Is this okay, my love?” He murmured into the darkness, merely one candle providing enough light for him to knot the rope around her ankles. “I’m sorry I couldn’t show you this place before, I truly am.” The nobleman raised his eyes to meet those of his wife, the soulless eyes that he’d stripped of warmth. “Is this spot worth you?” No. The nobleman jumped, unsure if he had heard the voice or if it was a figment of his imagination. Hesitantly, he lifted his gaze once more, taking in the sight before him. Yes, there they were, the hanging beauties fallen victim to a madman’s greed. Stick thin limbs hung from decomposing torsos, held together only by shriveled sinew and rotting flesh. Dried blood caked and stained the floor, and for the first time, he noticed the smell, washing over him like an acerbic wave of death. Their mouldered sockets, long since without eyes, seemed to stare at him, seemed to glower at his depravity. Indeed, the beautiful bodies, the lovely corpses had been reduced to nothing repugnant mobiles of flesh and rot. As if a sickened artist had strung them up for his own selfish desires. You are a monster! Look at yourself, look at us, witness your sins. Aren’t we pretty, your grace? Yes, that’s it you repulsive creature, tighter, tighter! The knots must be secure!” His heart pounded in his ears, but his hands were steady, carefully wrapping the rope around itself, testing it on his wrist to make sure it would suffice. Perfect, yes, that’s it, monster! Evil, demon, ugly! Look up, look up and see what you have done! See the innocent you have slain! Deceitful narcissus, mink of Lucifer, repent for your crimes, for your gluttonous obsession! It was loud, so loud. The chorus of his wives boomed through the room, bouncing off the walls and battering him without mercy. Let the rope’s embrace consume you! Higher, higher! The nobleman felt the rope clench tight around his throat, the incessant orders finally interrupted by gleeful laughter as the oxygen was ripped from his throat and the world went dark. You are a monster. Demon. Evil. Ugly.