Icicles hung from the eaves of the chalet's sturdy roof like teeth in the maw of a snow-laden beast. The wind screamed banshee-like against the log and stone walls, hurling snow against the wood at an alarming speed. The whole building had the feeling of leaning in on itself, as though trying to hunker down against the onslaught of the blizzard.
Indeed, this chalet had seen its fair share of storms--and so too had its keeper. Jasmine Skau was young, too young to be holed up alone, year after year, in her little pocket of heat and light through these harsh and barren mountain winters. But there was a job to be done, and one her family had for many generations. Her grandmother had always said it was special, and something to take immense pride in. Our hostel is a gateway to the ceiling of the earth, she had said. The last line of refuge between heaven and the mundane.
Whether or not that was true, Jasmine supposed someone had to shelter the occasional straggling hiker, even if the winter months were notoriously empty and hardly saw any traffic at all. But visitors were limited even in the warmer months, and it was lonely work. It always had been. Skau girls were supposedly resilient in such conditions, stubbornly keeping to their job for decades while retaining all their mental faculties. But though she liked to think she was used to it, the isolation had a way of getting to her, gnawing at the corners of her consciousness, tugging at the loose threads in the tapestry of her mind. Before she was born her grandmother had had her daughter, Jasmine's mother, for company. For five years, Jasmine had had no one.
In the dead of winter, the days were appallingly short; the sun rose at 9 and set at 3 in the afternoon. Jasmine did her best to keep the place warm and well-lit, as much for her own sanity as in preparation for any potential visitors. There was a huge stock of firewood at her disposal, running water and electricity, ample fuel for the boiler, and a generator should push come to shove. Food was hardly an issue either, given the huge bulk orders she made in the summer months and the occasional root and bulb forager from the village a few kilometers away. All things considered, it was a cozy little inn nestled away in the mountains. It certainly could have been worse.
It was another blisteringly cold late afternoon, and the blizzard outside had been raging for days. The meek glow of the setting sun created a deep, penetrating gloom, weighing almost physically upon the mind and the body, seemingly calling on every animal instinct to rest, hide, and hibernate. Coupled with being totally alone in a very remote place, it had Jasmine in a nearly trance-like state. Her wits, it was safe to say, were not entirely about her. And why should they be? These were months to be lived in starkest isolation. No one was coming. There was nothing to be done. All she could do was wait.
Jasmine was passing the time quietly by stoking the fire in the common area and reading one of her grandmother's many books. She had read them all before, of course, over and over. The only sound was the crackling of the hearth and the moaning of the wind outside. Otherwise, the inn was silent.
It was then that an audible knock came at the door.
At first, Jasmine assumed it was safe to think she had simply heard a trick of the wind. But the same knock came again only a few moments later. Still unconvinced, she made her way to the door.
Peering outside, Jasmine was greeted by a sight that defied all logic: a tall and lean figure, silhouetted in the waning sunlight, standing on the front stoop. Though the figure was not at all dressed for the weather, they appeared unfazed by the cold.
Well, it's happened, thought Jasmine. I've finally lost my mind. The first in my family--only took five generations. Sorry, Nana.
Against her better judgement, she unlocked the padlock (Why do I keep this locked?) and cracked open the heavy door.
"At last," said the newcomer, in a rich timbre perfectly audible despite the storm howling in the background. "I was beginning to think this place was finally empty."
"Oh, sorry...sorry about that," replied a bewildered Jasmine. "I didn't think anyone could possibly be out in this storm. Please, come inside. You must be freezing."
"Thank you," said the stranger. "It is a tad chilly."
Once inside, Jasmine busied herself with heaving the door closed and locking it again. Then she turned, and got her first good look at her guest.
The first thing she noticed was that the man before her was an astonishing height. Jasmine, who had stopped growing at fifteen, felt positively dwarfed by it. Her subsequent observation was that he had long silver hair and smooth, olive-toned skin. Lean and angular, he wore fitted leggings with a tunic shirt and a long, flowing overcoat, which, while fashionable, was definitely not suited to the weather.
His most striking quality by far, though, was his eyes: a liquid amber color, bronze and golden, almost glowing in the lamplight. But they were as awful as they were beautiful. Though physically he seemed like just a taller than average man, a distinctly inhuman presence stared back at Jasmine through those eyes, an animalistic intelligence her addled brain could not process. Involuntarily, she shivered.
"Uh, welcome," she finally said. "Like I said, I wasn't really expecting visitors with this storm...but the rooms are warm, and the sheets and stuff are clean. If you haven't eaten, I could also fix you something."
The man's expression was cordial. "Thank you, that won't be necessary. This is a recurring visit of mine, you see. I ask only for the honor of your company and conversation, perhaps by a warm fireplace."
Jasmine, alarm bells going off in her head, noticed for the first time that there was zero snow anywhere on the man or his clothes. She shook herself. "Sorry, I've been alone out here awhile. Looks like I could probably do with some conversation myself." She laughed nervously. "Can I get you some tea?"
"Tea would be lovely."
Jasmine struggled not to scurry away.
By the time she had come back with the tray of tea and set it down to steep, her visitor had settled comfortably into an easy chair by the hearth. A large, imposing fireplace that dominated the hostel's communal sitting room blazed with the fire Jasmine had recently stoked.
Jasmine sat perched on the edge of her chair as though it might be full of needles. Her woman's instincts, as they were, were on full alert. She felt it was hard to relax considering her position. Alone in a building with a strange man, with no real means to call for help? In the middle of nowhere in a huge winter storm? She had always hated this part of the job.
The man in question, sensing her discomfort, smiled gently. "You've been cooped up here for a long time, haven't you? In near-isolation, I assume."
Jasmine shifted uncomfortably. "Uh, yeah. We don't get many visitors in the dead of winter." She leaned over to examine the tea's steeping progress with too much interest. "Particularly not in a raging storm."
"Yes, well. I happen to...live nearby." He stretched his legs out and crossed them.
"Oh. Then why come here?"
He ignored the question. "This little hut is quite ancient, you know, by your standards. And in the middle of nowhere, it's almost certain you'll get an odd visitor or two."
The tea still needed a few minutes, but Jasmine busied herself with arranging the cups and saucers, just to give her hands something to do. "You keep saying you've been here before, but I've been tending this place since I was little. I don't remember anyone like you, and no offense, but I'm pretty sure you'd be hard to forget."
He laughed. "Fair enough, and none taken. We should make proper introduction. My name is Erlend."
Jasmine finally raised her eyes to his and narrowed them. "No, it isn't." His eyebrows shot up in surprise. "Or at least, it can't be. The villagers around here are very careful not to give that name to any of their children. It's...taboo. Reserved for a local legend only. It's folklore, but remote places are superstitious."
"Indeed! How very curious. No one has ever informed me of this before."
"So if we're..."getting acquainted," how about coming clean and telling me your real name?"
"It is my 'real name.'" Those eyes of liquid gold held hers calmly, almost casually. "Or, at least one of them. The very villagers you speak of have come up with a different version or two, but Erlend is most common."
"I...see." She did not see, but the tea was done steeping. The man, as though reading her mind, leaned forward to fill the cups.
"It is usually polite to introduce oneself in return, you know."
"My name is Jasmine."
"I am very pleased to make your acquaintance, Jasmine. Tell me, does your grandmother still live?"
This question caused her heart to stutter. "What? No, she died ten years ago. How could you...?"
He set the pot back down, and his next words were almost gentle. "She's an old friend. Marigold, wasn't it?"
Jasmine's head was reeling. "I--Yes."
"I visited her once just after you were born. It was a night not unlike tonight, actually. She was...anguished. Grieving. Your birth--"
"It killed my mother. I know."
His smile was wistful. "Even for all the pain of loss, she was ecstatic to have you, Jasmine. She hadn't decided on a name, last we spoke. I wish I had returned sooner. Time...works a little differently for me, you see."
Jasmine set her tea down, not trusting her shaking hands to hold it securely. "Excuse me?"
He continued as though he hadn't heard. "But then, the rules of time are subject to being bent and broken here, anyway." He stretched his free arm to gesture at the room around them. "Marigold must have told you stories. This building has been here for centuries. The women of your family have guarded it for generations. And it's almost entirely made of wood. What do you think keeps it standing so soundly?"
"I...I don't know. When I was a kid I think my grandmother told me it was special. Constructed with a special method, or something."
Erlend leaned forward slightly. "Can you remember what she said, specifically?"
"She said it was..." Jasmine rubbed her temples. "...blessed by a god, or something? But Nana always said stuff like that. She was an old woman, and adults like to tell kids crazy stories."
"I wouldn't know about that, but I'll take your word for it. Your grandmother was a very smart woman, Jasmine. Not so...lost to her old age as you might think."
"I never said that! She was just, you know, she didn't have all her faculties by the time she--" Her voice broke.
He spoke quietly. "You and your grandmother were--are--more than innkeepers. You have a very important job. This place would be completely different if not for you."
"Well, duh," grumbled Jasmine.
He shook his head. "You misunderstand. You, and your family before you, have all been positioned at the heart of something vital. To local mountaineers, certainly, but also...to our very reality." He took another sip of tea. "There are forces at play you may not be ready to understand, but they exist all the same."
"What are you even talking about? This is literally just an inn in the mountains. The strangest visitor I've ever seen pass through here is sitting in front of me. Nothing exciting happens here. I keep this job to honor my grandmother's memory, not because I'm a...a pawn, on some grand cosmic chessboard."
Erlend quirked a half-smile, his cat-like eyes curious, clever, wily. Something about them once again struck her as distinctly inhuman, and it made her gut clench like a fist. God, am I hallucinating this whole thing?
Then he said, "Perhaps a direct demonstration would better get my point across. Allow me to give you an idea of what this place might be like, without the stewardship of your family."
Jasmine had opened her mouth to reply when the room abruptly fell into darkness.
She cried out. The hearth that had housed the crackling fire a moment ago yawned empty, dark and cold. The power had gone out. Outside, the howling of the wind suddenly seemed a hundred times louder, crescendoing, beating on the walls of the chalet with angry fists. Though her world was blackness, Jasmine could feel the wood around her creaking, squealing, weakening as though suddenly besieged by a century of rot.
She couldn't explain how, but she knew, with an instinctual certainty, that the room around her was about to cave in on itself. It would be torn apart. The roof would collapse, crushing her to death.
No--it was something else, too. There was a presence there in the room with her, shrouded in shadow. It weighed on her mind like an anvil, and she felt like she was drowning, being dragged down into the maw of some leviathan beast, into a throat the size of the universe, into an oblivion that spanned an eternity and more. The beast roared, and it was the roar of the storm raging about her. Its presence filled her with terrible realization--she knew what it was. What it could be. And she understood what held it back from devouring her reality whole.
Then, like a film reel cutting to a new scene, she was back. Sitting in an easy chair. The fire crackled cheerfully to her right. The lights were on.. The awful shrieking of the building and the clamor of the storm had both subsided.
In the chair opposite, Erlend's amber orbs studied her with feline concentration. Jasmine struggled to calm the frantic beating of her heart.
"I'm surprised," he said slowly, "that your grandmother never told you about me."
"She did," rasped Jasmine. She understood everything now. "Or, she tried. She always told me stories. I thought they were just stories."
The lack of snow on his clothes. His silver hair. His preternatural height. And those beautiful, terrifying eyes.
She understood what her grandmother had been trying to tell her.
"As a gateway to the ceiling of the earth," he quoted. "The last line of refuge between heaven and the mundane."