‘Welcome! Welcome everyone!’ he announces in his booming voice.
It carries far over the heads of the gathered citizens who buzz with excitement at the bottom of the steps. There’s a flash of cameras from the crowd. For the first time in recent history, the reporters have all gone quiet.
The house behind the man is old, although how old no-one can really say. It’s been there longer than the entire lineage of all the people who call this city their home.
And no-one, not a single history book or civil record, can recall when it was erected.
It’s a curious structure, with many storeys and wings that jut out incoherently, and the entire building is made from a mysterious wood as strong and hard as marble.
The man stands before everyone, waiting.
He lifts one large calloused hand and snaps his fingers with a resounding click. The gleaming brass doors swing open behind him, spilling a brilliant light into the street. He turns around, and everybody follows without question, drawn in by the power of their own wonder.
The first thing she notices as she steps over the threshold is the static which tingles at her fingertips. And then she looks up at the source of the light which overflows into the world through the front doors.
A chandelier hangs from the ceiling.
The crystals are arranged to resemble an eagle with its wings outstretched from wall to wall. It takes her a moment to realise what’s so strange about the fixture. There are no candles or light bulbs upon it, and the crystals are completely opaque. The light itself bursts forth from the luminescent stones with an intensity stronger than a roaring fire.
‘Do you like it?’ he asks. She jumps at his words, not expecting him to appear beside her like that.
‘Very much,’ she replies. ‘How does it work?’
‘It’s quite simple,’ he scratches his beard thoughtfully. She waits, but he doesn’t go on. His blue eyes sparkle with mischief as he looks around at the gathering in his home.
‘Care to explain?’ she prompts.
‘Oh, I’m sorry. You see, normally, a crystal has a repeating pattern in space so that the atoms hold the structure together. However, these lovely little trinkets repeat themselves in time instead of space. So after they’ve been ignited, they retain a memory of the light and repeat that moment over and over, letting them continue to transfer the light even though the original source is long gone.’
‘Marvellous,’ she whispers.
‘Hm.’ He walks back to the front of the crowd, who instantly grow quiet. Standing beside a small man with such fine facial hair he looks more like a rodent than a man, he addresses the crowd.
‘And now, my friends, if you’d like to follow my assistant,’ he claps the small fellow on the back, ‘Ratatoskr, (you may call him Ratty), he will lead you on a tour through the House of Ash. Do not stray from the main corridor, only enter the rooms with a branch emblazoned upon their door, and don’t take anything which you didn’t bring with you to begin with.’
There’s a string of nervous laughter. “Ratty” begins to chatter away at the head of the crowd, which follows him up the grand staircase and disappears into the hallway. She stands beneath the chandelier looking up at the glowing stones.
‘I just don’t understand how you people can be so transfixed by something as paltry as a light fitting,’ he grins at her through his beard. ‘Personally, I think the real loveliness here has been completely missed by everyone.’
He winks. She drops her gaze to the floor.
‘You journalists are always looking up or down, but never straight ahead at what’s right before your eyes,’ he continues.
‘That’s because people usually hide things either above or below, but never in plain sight.’
‘Do you think I’m hiding something?’ he asks, amused.
She pins him with her dark eyes and smiles. ‘You tell me? You appear out of nowhere, with no birth certificate, no school records, and no tax file number. You come to inherit a mansion older than the city. At about the same time that a string of locals go missing. You must think I’m an idiot if you believe I don’t suspect anything.’
‘I think no such thing,’ he replies coolly. ‘Come along, Edda. Or you’ll miss the tour.’
As she walks away from him, she realises that she never told the man her name. She turns, but he’s already gone.
The crowd had disappeared, and with them all sound had vanished. Her heels click loudly on the floor as she wanders down the hall. She passes door after door emblazoned with tree branches.
She opens a few here and there which lead into galleries and libraries more beautiful than anything she’s ever seen. Still, she goes on, searching for the first forbidden door. The corridors feel like a maze, rising and falling, twisting and intersecting until she’s certain she’s lost.
The air feels thinner now.
She takes deep breaths, but it doesn’t seem to allow more oxygen into her lungs. Her head begins to reel. She reaches for the handle of the nearest door and pulls it open. She doesn’t notice how blank and plain the door is compared with all the others. Stumbling into the empty little room, she shuts the door behind her and sits down on the floor, waiting for her head to stop spinning.
Her vision blurs. She presses both hands over her eyes as pain washes over her skull. A ringing starts in her ears. The sound gets thicker, full of static as it builds. She curls into a ball on the floor, unable to see or hear as her senses overload with noise.
And then, as quickly as it set in, the feeling recedes.
She opens her eyes, but the room is not the same. The blank walls start seeping colours that swirl and churn before her. Suddenly the walls vanish. Instead, she’s sitting beneath a vast tree with branches that seem to go on forever into the sky. The entire world is frozen in snow, and mountains loom beyond the trees.
She stands, shaking with cold. Her breath plumes out like smoke. She stamps her feet to keep them warm, but her heels only sink further into the snow.
‘Hello,’ she shouts.
The word bounces against the mountains and returns to her unanswered.
‘Somebody!’ she calls again, her panic rising. She spins around, but the door to the room is gone and her palms meet nothing but the smooth bark of the ancient tree.
‘Help,’ she cries out.
But this time, instead of an echo she hears a groan so deep and resounding, it travels through the earth. The ground shudders and the mountains hum as the sound washes over her in a wall of noise.
After a time it dissipates, leaving the world silent once more.
She walks forward, stumbling through the snow. When she reaches the base of the mountain, she places a hand upon it. The stone is cool and still, but it doesn’t feel like stone.
She can’t describe what it feels like.
It just feels… alive.
The sudden cawing of a raven makes her jump and quickly draw her hand away. A thrill of terror runs down her spine as the bird takes flight, followed by two deer that flee through the trees.
She stares up in horror at the colossal mountain above her.
The ground starts to shake. Snow gathers in an avalanche, and slowly, like the parting of the earth itself, two enormous eyes begin to open on the frost-hardened mountain.