The darkness had become, if not a friend to, then at the very least familiar to Maurice De Valle. He had been sent here to this moldering, dank, rat infested cell at the bottom of the Bastille’s bottomless pits to rot, and rot he had done, by his own reckoning for seven long years, but it could have been longer. He occupied his mind during the first months and years with the injustice done him, with plotting and planning for his revenge, savoring the imagined and oh so slow death of Christophe Laurent. Even now, his fingers clutched spasmodically into clawing talons as he imagined the throat of his enemy beneath his gnarled hands, groveling as he had groveled, begging for his pitiful life as he had begged for his, and then as Laurent’s lips turned blue and his eyes bulged from their sallow sockets he would cackle and laugh and then Laurent would die, die like the cheating, lying swine he was, die for casting him into this Hell on earth. But his vengeance would be denied him, he knew. He would continue to live to spite Christophe in this filthy hole, but vengeance would be denied at the last, for he could no longer stand or walk; his eyes would never see the light of day again. Year after year of the profound, pitch blackness of the pit had stolen his sight and he imagined that if he could once more gaze into a mirror and recognize his own visage, he would see only sunken sockets with eyes that had gone milky white, the eyes of a ghost in the face of a ghoul long dead in mind and spirit. A homunculus animated only by hate and malice
and despair. These were his attributes, now. These were his reasons for living. Christophe Laurent had been his rival from childhood. For his entire life De Valle had been jealous of Laurent’s lofty station by way of his birth into the Aristocracy, his infuriating manner, his aloof condescension of De Valle and his family, commoners who had risen from peasantry to find a place in what passed for a middle class in a society where the poor and the rich were as divided as they could possibly be; by birth, by custom and by the basic necessities of life. De Valle’s father had worked himself to death by the age of forty, working the land, growing the finest grapes in the dark, loamy soil of the Parisian countryside. Providing for his family and earning Maurice, the only child of four that lived into adulthood, an education and a relatively comfortable position in a world he hated. A place where he was just worthy enough in Laurent’s eyes to be low bred trash. There were other Aristos to hate, that much was sure, plenty of them. Perfumed fops dressed in finery expensive enough to provide food for countless families and children. Children who were spurned and spat upon by these same so-called gentlemen and women who would rather have them kicked to death than give them the scraps from their gilded tables. De Valle had sworn as a young man never to become one of them, to never allow himself to degenerate into a sneering, fat self-appointed Lord over his fellow man, to never become what he hated with every fiber of his being, to never turn into Christophe Laurent.
His aversion to Laurent and to people like him turned De Valle, instead, into a bitter, hateful man whose loathing for his perceived nemesis expressed itself in his bearing, his speech, and his language. He goaded Laurent at every opportunity, stalked him from theater to restaurant, to parties and gatherings, and even to his home. Making himself a visible and vocal irritant at every occasion, intent on making Laurent’s every waking hour impossible to enjoy as befitted an Aristocrat. Harrying him, berating him in front of his Aristo friends and colleagues until, at last, Laurent could stand no more and hauled De Valle before the dock. Laurent, for his part, had no real hatred for De Valle, regarded him as merely a ne’re-do-well and a nuisance, and simply wanted a respite from the constant hounding De Valle seemed intent on heaping upon him and his acquaintances. He sued De Valle and had him publicly humiliated, forced into silence through the threat of imprisonment and broken financially. De Valle became insane with hate and using the last of his meager holdings began drinking heavily. His fevered mind was full of spite and he prayed to gods and devils alike to deliver him from the indignity of his sorry state, to restore to him his rightful station and property and to rid the world of Christophe Laurent, indeed, of all the Christophe Laurent’s and those like him. This became his singular purpose, his only ambition in life; destroy Laurent as Laurent had so easily and utterly destroyed him. His drunken ruminations had led him down the dark back alleys of his imagination. Every sort of torture and humiliation occurred to him and in all of them Laurent suffered, oh how he suffered, until at last he cried out and his breath left him and he died. But how to accomplish it? Hire an assassin? Stage an accident? Poison his family well? Eventually, the devils and the wine made the decision for him. One chill winter evening he went and retrieved his rifle and in a blind, fogged rage, began the hunt for Christophe Laurent. Not finding Laurent out, he went to his home, hid in a grove of trees bounding the property and waited for Laurent to show himself. Finally, just when it seemed that De Valle might sober up and go home, he saw the door open, a rectangle of candle light shining like a signal through the gloom, and in that glow was silhouetted the figure of Christophe Laurent. De Valle aimed his flintlock, bleary with wine and fatigue, and squeezed the trigger. The touchhole flared as the powder ignited and the report knocked De Valle backward to fall unceremoniously on his backside, the rifle flung from his grasp. His shot went wide; he heard the sound of glass breaking. From the house he could hear a woman screaming through his drunken buzz and it occurred to him that he had done it! He had killed Laurent! He struggled to wobbly knees then staggered to his feet and half ran, half stumbled, in the direction of the screams and upon arriving was thunderstruck to find Laurent not only alive and unharmed, but in fact quite animated, shaking him by the shirt front and screaming at him. De Valle’s bullet had indeed struck a member of the Laurent
household. It had struck their house servant, a slave girl, in the temple and killed her instantly. The trial was a short affair. Had De Valle actually killed Laurent or his wife, or children, he would have surely faced the guillotine, but since the victim was a slave, he was instead sentenced to imprisonment in the Bastille, where many entered but very few ever returned intact. Laurent, being an influential man, saw to it that De Valle’s living quarters were as mean and base as possible, and so De Valle was dragged howling to the pits, beaten and left to die. That was seven years ago. Seven years of abject solitude, the only human contact being the delivery of what passed for food through a foot wide slot in the bottom of his cell door and always, even when the slot was opened, there was the darkness, the cruel, unrelenting darkness pressing in on him, crushing him as surely as if the ceiling had collapsed and made this cell his eternal resting place. Seven years of the creeping, scuttling denizens of the earth, crawling over and around him, biting and scratching him, until he found that by consuming them in between servings of the thin gruel that was his breakfast, dinner and supper, he could in turn sustain his meager life, keeping alive his hate, hoarding it, saving it for that unimagined day when at last he would be vomited out from the bowels of the prison. So he ate as many of the many legged things as he could catch, not knowing what exactly he put into his toothless maw, simply crushing them with his gums and swallowing. The rats had long ago learned not go too near the wretched figure in the corner, had lost too many of their cousins to it, watched it eat them screaming and raw and so they waited as well, waited for the day when the thing in the dark finally stopped shrieking and lay still so they could, in turn, repay it the favor. And so Maurice De Valle rotted, body and soul, for those seven years in hell and now he choked on the bile in his soul as he realized he would die here, his revenge never realized, only fantasized, and that Christophe Laurent would live on without punishment, would die an old man with his family around him, in luxury and comfort, and peace. It ate at his humanity, as the insects ate at his flesh, and he cried aloud, now, in his extremity. “Laurent! Laurent! You who are my bane, my mortal foe! Oh what would I give to see you suffer!” “Ah, but you have nothing left to give, De Valle.” De Valle shrieked at the unexpected voice in the darkness and shrank back into his corner, hugging his knees to his body. He fairly quaked with fear as he strained his ears to catch some sound, some evidence that he was indeed not alone in the darkness, or that finally his last shred of sanity had fled him. “Who…who is there?” he whispered tensely. “The instrument of your release, my friend,” came the reply, the voice low and gravelly,
unmistakable in its malevolence. “I…I don’t understand! Who are you?” “You know who I am.” “I do not! I do not know you!” cried De Valle. “WHO ARE YOU?” “All who dwell in this place know me, De Valle, all whose souls are forfeit, all for whom the light is void. I am he whom you call Death.” “Death!” moaned De Valle, “Death! But it is not my time! Not Yet! Not while Laurent yet lives!” “Fear not for Laurent. At the last, his breath will fail him as you have envisaged, as it will with all men and I will come for him, as I come now for you, Maurice De Valle.” De Valle’s flesh crawled on his bones as he heard the unmistakable sound of movement and suddenly into his blinded sight stepped the figure of a man, tall and stooped, covered from head to toe in a shadowy glow somehow blacker than the all-encompassing darkness around them and as it reached for him, his final terrified shrieks were cut short as it’s bony grasp closed on his throat. And so Maurice De Valle died. He was discovered five days later when it was noticed his gruel had gone uneaten, and the story that passed around the fires in the cold Parisian winter told of a prisoner found dead in the pits of the Bastille, his arms in rigor outstretched as if fending off an unseen attacker, his blind eyes open, his face contorted in a rictus of dread that stayed with him even as finally, along with his hate, his body was interred into the frozen earth.