The Royal Holloway College, London, stands within one hundred and thirty-five acres of woodland in Egham. The institution’s Founder’s building is home to the famous picture gallery which houses some renowned artworks, one of which has a myth surrounding it. This particular oil painting is the work of renowned nineteenth century English painter Edwin Landseer. Titled “Man proposes, God disposes”, the painting from 1864 depicts an Arctic scene detailing the aftermath of Sir John Franklin’s ill-fated expedition in 1845 to explore the Northwest Passage. The scattered wreckage of the expedition spans the canvas while the looming figures of two polar bears dominate the painting. Desolate icebergs in the background play the part of the silent spectator with quiet doggedness. For years, students believed that if one were to sit in front of the painting, one would fail one’s exams. In the 1970s, when one student refused to sit next to it during her exam, the registrar of the university arranged for the painting to be covered by a Union Jack flag. The practice persisted, withstanding the passage of time. The rumor went on to mutate, with one version claiming that a student who had stared directly into one of the bears’ eyes during her exams, had been driven to lunacy and had taken her own life. Her last act had been to write upon her exam paper the words “The polar bears made me do it”.
In the present day, on a quiet October night, the corridors of the picture gallery look like a ghostly chessboard, the darkness juxtaposed with the light from the streetlamps outside. Silence settled in the corridor akin to a cat on its favorite pillow. Trouble often arrives amidst much fanfare, but sometimes, it quietens its steps and catches one unawares. Four individuals moved silently along the corridor, carrying torches whose beams illuminated the surroundings beautifully, much to the elation of the students. Henry, Oliver, Amelia and Sophia moved as fast as they dared. Henry and Sophia had already been at Holloway for over a year and knew the campus well enough to be able to navigate these corridors at night. None of them were exactly sure if there were security guards about, but they did not want to take chances. After a few minutes, Henry turned to face his companions, the torch beam cutting a swathe through the darkness that hung around them like a heavy blanket, pressing in on them from all sides. “Hope you two aren’t scared yet” whispered the tall golden-haired senior, standing in front of a pair of old wooden doors. “Wouldn’t be surprised if they were,” Sophia murmured. The silence seemed curiously fluid to Amelia, as if it parted itself to allow a sound to pass, and then regained its composure in the space of a heartbeat. Cocking her head to one side, she whispered, “I’m more worried about my assignments than I am about anything you two might have planned for us” she whispered. Oliver nodded in what he hoped was a brave manner.
“Brave words, freshman. Care to walk the walk?” drawled Henry.
Sophia was casually leaning against the adjacent wall, watching the freshmen. The entire thing had been Henry’s idea. He’d asked her to help and she had readily agreed. Convincing Amelia had been easy and she, in turn, had roped in Oliver.
“What exactly are we supposed to do?” Amelia whispered, an edge in her voice. Oliver seemed to have regained his composure a bit, judging by the fact that the beam from his torch had stopped shaking.
“Oh, nothing much. Just open these doors, walk inside, close them, and stay there for a whole ten minutes” Henry said coolly.
“Sounds difficult for you. Want me to show you how it’s done, I suppose?” Amelia’s voice was cool as a cucumber.
“Isn’t this the picture gallery that has that painting of the bears?” whispered Oliver, shining his torch towards Henry.
“Scared of some rumors, freshman?” sneered Sophia.
“I’m not,” snapped Amelia.
“Well, I see someone’s chomping at the bit” Henry smirked. “Fine. Let’s get to it. I shall lock the doors from outside. As you can see, I managed to procure the keys”.
“And how exactly did you do that?” asked Amelia, her eyes narrowing suspiciously.
“Ah, don’t concern yourself with petty details. Just go inside” sighed Sophia. She was eager to see the thing through. Anxiety bubbled within her but she hid it well. She took a calm, steadying breath and nodded encouragingly at the freshmen, the lights from the torches ensconcing them in a pool of light.
“Fine” snapped Amelia. Striding forward determinedly, she grabbed the keys from Henry, opened the door, and walked into the gallery. Smiling widely, Henry locked the door after her, pointing his torch at Oliver. “See freshman? Now that is pluck”.
Amelia walked along the corridor, shining her torch around, casting idle glances at the paintings. She half-expected someone to be hiding in the gallery, waiting to scare her, probably by jumping out from the darkness wearing a mask. As she scanned the room, the light from her torch illuminated the familiar pattern of a Union Jack flag lying on the floor in a pool of fabric. A gentle breeze ruffled her hair and she turned to see a long pole lying on the ground, propped up against an open window, buried under the flag. The freshman’s torch beam fell on the frightening painting and as her eyes scanned the destruction portrayed on the canvas, a strange sense of foreboding seemed to creep up on her. She suddenly realized she wanted to leave. She tried to turn but her body would not budge. She tried to open her mouth but she could not move an inch. Panic flooded through her. Beads of perspiration formed on her forehead as her eyes stared ahead, right into those of one of the bears. Suddenly she realized they were staring back at her. Those were not painted eyes. Those were alive and they were red like glowing embers.
Oliver paced nervously in front of the doors. Amelia had been there for a few minutes at this point. What was she up to? He wondered. Henry and Sophia were whispering to each other as they leaned against the wall. They probably had some prank planned for them in the gallery, thought Oliver. He sighed and continued pacing.
Amelia couldn’t move a muscle. The bears’ eyes stared into her own. Her jaw seemed to have frozen. She couldn’t open her mouth to scream or close her eyes, which had begun to water. Suddenly, she realized that her arms were raising themselves of their own accord. Her cellphone cluttered to the floor with a soft thud. Would they hear that? She wondered. Her hands were now in front of her face and Amelia found herself staring at her nails as they inched closer to her eyes. In a sudden flash of understanding, she realized what the painting was trying to make her do and she tried to stop her hands. But they seemed to obey the mysterious painting now. Sweat trickled down her brow as her fingernails inched closer. She began to feel nauseous as the horror of what was about to happen gripped her.
Her nails, trimmed as they were, still felt sharp as they pressed against her eyeballs. A soft squelching sound echoed through the empty corridor as Amelia pushed her fingers into her eye sockets and ripped out her own eyeballs. She stood in the dark gallery, her eyes now mere dark hollows as her arms slowly lowered themselves. She wanted to run away, but her legs were frozen. Her eyeballs dropped onto the polished floor with a soft sickening squelching sound as her arms hung rigidly at her sides. Fresh blood coated her fingers and dripped onto her eyeballs and formed a tiny pool around them on the erstwhile spotless floor even as two rivers of blood streamed down her face. Amelia began to shake, blood red vomit dribbled out her mouth in a silent flow. A couple of seconds later, her knees gave away and soon she was forced to kneel amidst her own bloody vomit. Her fingers started to move across the floor of their own accord. By the time she realized that they were moving in regular, familiar patterns, her body had nearly dropped to the floor. A few moments later, she was dead, sprawled on the floor in a pool of blood. Her fingers had written three words on the floor in her own blood- “THE POLAR BEARS”.
Oliver, having reached the limit of his patience, yanked open the door and strode in, his cellphone held aloft. He had only taken a few steps when he noticed her, the light from his phone illuminating the grisly scene in front of him. Wherever luck may have been on this October night, it was certainly not present in that corridor. For, what other explanation might there be for Oliver to look up before uttering so much as a sound?
Just as it had done to his friend, the painting took control of Oilver’s body. Within a few moments, the poor soul had lost both his eyes which joined those of his friend as they rolled across the floor, leaving behind a trail of blood. Soon enough, he began to vomit, and he met his demise a few seconds later. Unlike Amelia, the painting did not grant Oliver any last words.
A low rumble emanated from the painting as soon as Oliver’s body hit the floor. The two bears slowly pushed out of the canvas. They were not swathes of paint any more, nor were they entirely alive. Suspended somewhere between the two worlds, they seemed to be fused together halfway, for they had six pairs of legs between them, two in the rear and four in front. Their heads were joined together at the neck. A part of the left side of the entity’s body was devoid of flesh, leaving a gaping hole through which their ribs were visible. Half of the head on the left side was devoid of flesh. The entity’s eyes glowed red and blood dripped from its mouths. It stepped forward as Henry and Sophia entered the gallery, the palms of their hands covering their eyes. Stopping just inside the doors, they knelt on the floor, mere feet away from Oliver’s body.
“Greetings, O Ancient One. We hope our offerings were to your liking. We are glad to see that they granted you freedom from your prison where you had been so unjustly trapped by the erstwhile registrar” whispered Henry as Sophia murmured “The ice shall rise and cover the world once more”. Their heads were lowered and they stared resolutely at the floor. Sophia’s hands were clasped around a book she had been hiding beneath her jacket all evening. Peeling golden letters on the tattered front cover read “The Practices of the Order of Ice”.
The entity, standing next to Amelia’s body, lowered its 7 feet tall frame and snapped up her eyeballs in a flash of white teeth, swallowing them. It then proceeded to feed on the lifeless scholar. After a few mouthfuls of warm flesh, it let out a low rumble that echoed through the halls as the mercury began to dip, making the initiates shiver slightly. Blood dripped from its canines, which were now stained red as it bared its teeth at the two kneeling figures in front of it before continuing its meal.
Henry raised his head a fraction of an inch and watched the gruesome scene with obvious reverence. Elation spread across his face as he saw the entity start to chew upon Amelia’s arm. The ring her mother had given her for her last birthday slipped off her finger, cluttering to the floor before rolling across the hallway. The sound was drowned by the cacophony of bones being crushed by massive jaws.