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Ch 1--Chambre of Escaliers
Year of the Hound
Badger and Hare Books & Tea Shoppe,
30th of Oct. 2015
It was now nine o’ clock and the storm continued on unabated. Lightning forked and crackled through the churning black sky, while the ground and window panes reverberated with booming thunder. Unpaved paths were awash with deep slushy mud and puddles, while swollen streams and rivers raced along the gutters, overwhelming the drains and cisterns. The only light to be seen at the Badger and Hare Books & Tea Shoppe was a nearby street light that flickered its dim glow upon the now darkened windows and deserted street.
The vast reading room now hung with heavy silence apart from the rain outside and the soft sounds of small fauna and cats prowling the floor and shelves. Eventually all nocturnal activity ceased as every inhabitant turned its head to stare down the Great Hall. Even the carved beasts and mythical figures adorning the ornate and various stair banisters and railings seemed to turn in the direction of the hall... where the shadows seemed to gather.
Up the Grand Stairway, to the left of the Great Hall, was the section known as the Chambre of Escaliers where the bookstore owners lived. Like the architecture of Great Hall, it had numerous stairways going in all directions, including upside-down. It also seemed to be part of an entirely separate city and country, with the majority of inhabitants casually going about their daily lives, similar to inhabitants within Eskaŕd itself. Most of these Folk there were house and woodland faeries, although there were outsiders such as Dr. Akern who used one of the basement doors below the park as a shortcut to and from home.
The bookstore owners’ "residence" was the first house behind the Chambre’s Main Entrance. It was also known the Gatekeeper’s Cottage, although in actuality, it was little more than a door tucked away in a stone archway. Behind this innocuous-looking barrier was a large, elegant living space cluttered with books and antique furnishings.
Seated in a plush chair, Kes Allyntahl took the glistening object between her fingers and looked it over. It did look like a poker chip, like the kobold lad had said, and probably would be deemed the most expensive in the world by Guinness Book of World Records standards. Yet that all too familiar nagging doubt began to take root in her mind. If this was the very same thing that came into her possession three years prior, she had more to worry about than just a streak of bad luck at the poker table.
“So let me get this straight,” said the kobold lad, whose name was Duncan McKone. “You had a pet eyeball that followed you around wherever you went?”
“Not a pet,” she told him stiffly, setting the gem back on the table. “More like a ghost... only he did magical stuff--like manipulating water and granting wishes.”
“Oh,” the dark-haired twin named Pipsqueak nodded. “Kinda like a genie?”
“Yes,” Kes frowned, “and a rather sarcastic, cynical one whose wishes go really bad if you’re too careless or not specific enough when you state them. Sure can’t blame the poor blighter for his attitude given his tragic personal history.”
“So is that fake eyeball thingumabob the genie-ghost then?” the blonde twin named Skeeter asked suddenly.
Due to their long hair, Kes had mistook the twins as girls until Dr. Akern had explained to her it was customary among kobolds of the Vlar River Region to let their children’s hair grow long until they reach the age of fourteen.
“No,” Kes replied, a bit miffed that her story was constantly being interrupted by numerous questions. “This one’s silvery-blue and flat; the other one that acted like a bodyguard was like a real eyeball, only he flew and glowed green.”
Everyone looked at one another from Dr. Akern to the McKone Brothers to their uncle--Thomas Gregory, co-owner of the Badger and Hare Books & Tea Shoppe. And then at the crystal eye and then back at Kes.
Oh great, she thought, now they think I’m nuts. Well, at least that crowd finally went home. I’m not telling my weird past experiences to a large audience.
The McKones’s aunt and uncle were kind enough to let Kes stay the night at their house, but now she wondered if they were perhaps having second thoughts.
“Look, I know it sounds crazy,” Kes told them. “I’m not some spiritual medium freak, but it actually happened.”
“And I believe you,” said Mr. Gregory as he did some last minute sorting. “Just as I believed your story about the visitor in orange and Monsieur Akern’s story about his encounter with the Thing disguised as that missing diva.”
He then nodded toward the McKone trio. “Even my nephews have something to add to this series of strange curious events.”
All eyes turned to the McKone Brothers who fidgeted uneasily with blanched cheeks, clearly wishing they were somewhere else.
“Yeah, okay,” said Duncan, finally sitting down on an old bar stool. "Well... it all started like this, we were all in the Tower Library, the room in back of the Relativity or M. C. Escher Room.”
Kes nodded her head slowly.
“Well, right, we were hanging about the Comic/Graphic novels section, right, organizing all the brand new merchandise Uncle Greg just got today from the Mortal Territories, right, yew see, rare vintage stuff like Mad Magazine, right, Tales From the Crypt and rare Marvel and DC super heroes comics...”
“Which I all wanted in the climate-control storage unit,” Mr. Gregory interjected, with severe disapproval, “and not in the general reading area, simply leaving them just sitting around exposed to the elements and fauna of the Outer Shelves is a big No-No!”
“Well, you can relax, Uncle Greg,” Duncan assured, not meeting his guardian’s piercing gaze. “They’re still in their acid-free boxes and Melar totes, right, all now alphabetically and chronologically archived, ready to be shipped off to your ‘Fortress of Solitude,' ” he cleared his throat and cracked his knuckles before continuing on. “So it was just us free sorting stuff...”
“Don’t forget Shelly!” Pipsqueak cried. “She was helping and all!”
“Who’s Shelly?” Kes asked.
There was a sound of loud purring and something began rubbing against her legs. Looking down, she noticed the blue cat again.
“That’s Shelly,” Skeeter explained. “She’s got a twin like us--”
“Her brother’s name’s Archie,” Pipsqueak cut in. “You saw him earlier when he was cuddling up with those elves, probably be going to a new home pretty soon and all.”
“Yeah,” muttered Skeeter. “She were helping a bit unlike Lummox here, right, he were lounging a few shelves up, having a look at some girlie mags.”
“Button it! Right!” Duncan snapped. “Gawdon Bennet! Gods above and below! They were 'Calvin and Hobbes' comics, you know Aunty Mira and Uncle Greg don’t allow that sort of risque stuff in their shop! Geez! OK?”
“Oh yeah...” Skeeter nodded before adding with a smirk, “and I thought you was looking at pictures of farm animals in frilly knickers and garter belts.”
“Why, you little freak--” Duncan lunged forward, snagging the kid by his striped shirt, yanking him back into a tight headlock. Skeeter howled, flailing wildly about, but Duncan never loosened his grip. “Okay, you little midget pervert! Get ready for a massive atomic wedgie and noogie!”
“That’s enough!” Mr. Gregory snapped. “Stop that gods-awful ruckus! Do you want to attract the attentions of that Chanterelle taximare wandering out there? Do you want to end up like the other poor sods who ran across it--either consumed entirely or dried-out, discarded shells?”
Dr. Akern arched an eyebrow. "Excuse moi?"
Kes stared at Mr. Gregory. “What?”
Duncan looked wildly about, a scared look on his face. Skeeter seized the opportunity to squirm out of his brother’s grasp. Dodging behind his startled twin, his pale face peeed out over Pipsqueak’s shoulder with wide terrified eyes.
At the end of the Great Hall, where all eyes were staring, were a set of large double doors, a push broom and several shillelagh thrust through the handles and wrapped tightly in bright red curtain cords and tassels. For a moment, all there was in the darkness was silence, then deep from somewhere far beyond the sealed doors--something made a wheezy rasp.
“So that Thing is... was a Chanterelle?” Dr. Akern asked.
Kes interrupted. “And just what is a taximare anyway?” she asked. “Is that like a zombie or a vampire or a ghost-something or rather?”
“All three of these things combines into one of the worst creatures imaginable,” Mr. Gregory explained, his voice heavy with foreboding. “The name derives the word taxim which is an Eastern European variant of the walking dead- an animated corpse who crawls out of his grave to exact revenge for some evil committed against him in his life. However, unlike the taxim, who is just an ordinary person longing for justice, and is only dangerous to those against whom it seeks revenge, and can only move during the nocturnal hours, and on foot, the taximare is usually a wizard or sorcerer but sometimes a witch, who has used its magical powers to unnaturally prolong its life. Usually, they come from noble elfin families who have corrupted their bloodlines with tainted arcane magic, although from time to time, you get an occasional human. What makes them more dangerous is that they can manifest themselves as a living person and are not vulnerable to direct sunlight unlike other types of revenants. And to make matters even worse, they are driven by an eternal and insatiable hunger to devour other souls, living or dead, in order to try to preserve themselves.
“You probably heard about that missing Ainsel girl they found at the Willowdale Station. Nothing but a drained, skeletal husk she was. The taximare probably was interrupted in its feeding or it wouldn’t have left any evidence behind.”
“I’ve heard of draugr and haugbui,” said Dr. Akern with a shiver, “but I never heard of taximare.”
“Not many people have. It’s not something people want to talk about, especially with outsiders who might find the prospect of a ‘witch hunt’ utterly abhorrent.”
“That troll woman told me about them,” Kes told him, “although she never told me what they were called. I just thought she was talking about vampires.”
“Lords and Ladies love a duck! Vampires?” Duncan suddenly exclaimed. “Vampires? Miss, I’ve seen plenty of vampires and they’re all pussycats compared to that Thing I saw back in the Tower Library. What I saw was a full-blown demonic infestation and possession!”
Kes, Dr. Akern and Mr. Gregory exchanged nervous glances.
Both the twins nodded in agreement.
“Yep, we saw it and all!” Pipsqueak burst out, earnestly.
“Yeah!” Skeeter exclaimed. “Only it looked like a girl at first.”
“Really?” Dr. Akern regarded Skeeter curiously. “This girl wouldn’t happen to be tall and drop-dead gorgeous... sort of like a pop singer?”
Again the twins rapidly shook their heads.
“Nah, she was definitely no pop-star type! Blimey!” Pipsqueak declared. “Kinda plain and dumpy like a potato sack, she was, with a face like a puddock.”
“A what?” Dr. Akern asked, looking confused.
“It’s a country term for toad,” Mr. Gregory explained. “My nephews happened to be from East Brambly, by the way.”
“She wasn’t that puddock-looking!” Skeeter argued. “She looked more like a mouse, a mousy 7th grader with short dark hair, she kinda had an underbite. Oh... and she was wearing an orange raincoat.”
Kes regarded him with an owlish stare. “An orange raincoat?”
“Yeah, one of those floppy tent things with the hoods and no sleeves.”
“Poncho?” prompted his uncle.
“Yeah, poncho! That’s it.”
“That’s not what I saw--” Duncan started to say.
“And it was grotty!” Pipsqueak chimed in. “Covered in muck and slimy gunk... like you’d find in a sewer, and she smelled awful and all.”
“Like stinky perfume?” Kes asked.
“Like a stinky hunk of rancid old meat, that’s what,” Duncan muttered, plonking down a stack of books. “And I didn’t see no girl...”
“What? You just saw empty air?” Kes enquired as she drew up a stool.
“Wish I just saw empty air,” Duncan said with a shrug. “Wish it was just a ghost I saw, but it wasn’t.”
“Well, what was it then?” Dr. Akern demanded, gazing at the kobold in astonishment. “In gods’ names, man, what did you see in there?”
Duncan’s head drooped as he stared at the floor; his hands trembled slightly. But he eventually answered, “Like I said before, I saw a demon and not just any ole demon with fiery eyes and fangs and claws, this thing was far worse--”
“How?” Dr. Akern queried.
“It’s got no face. I’m telling you the straight honest truth! I swear I’m not making this up! It’s got no face, it’s like something out of a madman’s dream or some nameless dark dimension.”
There was silence except for the slow swish of the overhead fans and Shelly’s steady purring.
Ch. 2--The Revenant
“We was all organizing all the comics,” Duncan went on, his eyes still fixed on the floor. “Putting the recent aged ones in the shelves while leaving the antique ones in the boxes, an' then I slipped and got me hand wedged between the bookcases. So while I was thrashing around trying to get free, Skeet and Pip got off, I assumed to fetch help, but they was actually playing detective and following someone in an orange poncho.”
“Yeah, it’s true,” Skeeter admitted, blushing, “but it was because this bloke was singing some weird tune.”
“And smelled gross an' all,” Pipsqueak added, fanning his nose with a grimace. “Like carrion and offal and the cheesy gunk you find under grotty toenails.”
“Uh-huh,” said Kes, slightly wincing at the gross mental images. “So what kind of weird tune exactly?”
“Well, it sounded like something you hear at summer camp or playschool,” Skeeter said thoughtfully. “Went kinda like this:
Nobody likes me,
Everybody hates me,
Guess I’ll go eat worms.”
Kes froze. Her eyes locked on Skeeter’s face. Duncan, too, stared at his little brother, his face blanching a ghastly white.
“Big fat juicy ones,
Eensie weensy squeensy ones,
See how they wiggle and squirm!”
Now Pipsqueak was singing along:
“Down goes the first one, down goes the second one,
Oh how they wiggle and squirm!
Up comes the first one, up comes the second one,
Oh how they wiggle and squirm!”
“It just kept going on and on,” Skeeter resumed the tale, “and we couldn’t tell if it was a lad or lady, because there was a different person’s voice with each word. Then we tracked it to the Teen Fiction/Romance which is in this square dead end space and watched it go in. And shortly after it went through the doorway, the singing suddenly stopped as if shut off by an electrical switch.
“At what moment I was longing for a stick, or any other weapon, but we had none of those things, and we were too scared to go back. So we marched steadily up the rest of the hall, and in less then a minute we were standing just inside the room."
“Well, we was freaking out,” Pipsqueak took his turn speaking, “because there wasn’t any furniture in the room for somebody to hide under, and it felt empty and all. After spending several minutes checking for secret cupboards and hidden doors big enough for a person to creep into, we decided to leave. So as we was backing out the place when we heard a very faint noise, like wind whistling through a crack or a mouse speaking. We suddenly felt clammy and cold, that orange poncho thing was back... right behind us!”
“It just stood there in the doorway--this Plain Jane, staring back at us, with this cheesy smile plastered on her face, smelling downright awful.”
“And to make it even more repulsive,” Skeeter declared, “it seemed to be trying to probe our brains with its thought tentacles or something, trying to force us to be its friend, even though we was grossed out to the point of puking our guts out.
“Well, we was scrambling like frightened squirrels up the shelves with the thing clawing at our heels when Duncan suddenly came barreling in. I guess he was a mite peeved at us for leaving him stuck like that. Well, as soon as he saw the thing, he just kicked it straight across the room.”
“Well, that was mighty courageous of him,” Dr. Akern murmured with admiration.
Mr. Gregory merely nodded and grunted his approval.
“Have you ever walked into a room, or a house, where someone was really sick with the flu or worse?” Duncan asked abruptly, staring with glazed eyes at the doctor.
Dr. Akern looked at him oddly. “Yes, many times.”
“Yeah.” Duncan’s head drooped and he stared at the floor again. “That was what it felt like when I came into that room. And when I saw that... that... terror... trying to get at Skeet and Pip, I just saw red. So I ran over and kicked it in the rear, hard. I thought it was a nutty vagrant at first, until it got up again and turned to face me. It didn’t even look remotely human. Where its... its... face... should have been, it was just... just... some ragged holes in this burlap-like stuff... where these... brownish-black squirming things... like horsehair worms... were poking out.
“I don’t know if what was its actual face or it just had a sack over its head, but it was like it... gorgonizing... me and I couldn’t even stomach the thought of hitting it a second time.
“Then it began singing that damn kid song in this high pitched girly voice:
Nobody likes me,
Everybody hates me,
Guess I’ll go eat worms.
Big fat juicy ones,
Eensie weensy squeensy ones,
See how they wiggle an' squirm!
“First one was easy.
Second one was greasy,
Third and fourth went down easy,
Fifth was chewy and six was gooey,
Seven was rich and the eight was a witch.
Oh, how I love worms.”
“Then it started giggling like an imbecile.
“Well, I lost me nerve soon after and booked it out of that room as if the King of Freaks was after me. Maybe he was. I only turned back when I heard this all mighty crash, thought one of the twins might have lost his grip and fallen off the shelves. Come to find out, it was a big pile of books instead, the twins had pushed from the top shelf onto the abomination.”
“And what happened next?” Dr. Akern asked.
“Well, I joined up with the twins on the top level and we shoved a much bigger stack of books onto the first pile.... you know, just to make sure the beastie wasn’t gonna go crawling out like a zombie from the movies.”
"So... it's dead, then?"
Duncan nodded. "Yeah, I saw it just lying there quite still before we nailed it a second time. Looks like its neck got busted from the first book pummel."
“Wait, just a minute here.” Dr. Akern shot Mr. Gregory a baffled look. “If your nephews told you that they have successfully vanquished an undead creature, then why had they jumped at your mention of a legendary monster?”
Mr. Gregory shrugged nonchalantly. “To make those three quit fighting, of course,” he replied. “Instead of nursery bogles, we use the threat of real life monsters to ensure good behavior among our young people. Whether that thing lying dead under the detritus of Teen Paranormal Romance is in fact an actual undead spellcaster, well, that’s up to the forensics to decide.”
Mr. Gregory looked at him and raised his brushy eyebrows. “Surely your parents must have threatened to summon forth some monstrous Frumious Bandersnatch or a Jubjub bird to make you behave.”
“Actually I had more to fear from my older, thuggish siblings than from some of the local wildlife,” Dr. Akern admitted.
“I think I’ll go and take a quick look at it,” Kes declared, getting up abruptly.
“What?” both the lamia and kobold said.
“You know, the taximare corpse. I want to go see what one of these things actually look like.”
“Whaaaaaaaa?!” Duncan exclaimed, gazing at her in astonishment. “You’re not seriously planning on looking at that blighter up close, are you?”
“Sure, I’m serious,” Kes replied, folding her arms nonchalantly. “Never seen a dead lich monster before, except maybe in a museum or in an Adventure Time movie.”
“Uncle Greg! Uncle Greg!” Duncan looked beseechingly at the elder McKone. “Don’t let her go in that room! It’s pretty damn awful. She mustn’t see that--that--I don’t know what you would call that hideous monstrosity, but that the most freak-jobbing vilest thing I've ever seen and I hope to gods I don’t see another like it or else, my eyes will burst with the most immense, utmost disgusting-ness and then my brain will start leaking out through my nose!”
Wow, that's pretty graphic, Kes thought. If anything it'll be like the movie Scanners... only with people’s heads exploding with sheer disgust instead of psionic attack.
Still, she wasn’t going to be deterred by Duncan’s rather dramatic warning.
"Yeah, well," she rolled her eyes, then started toward the door, "I'll believe it when I see for myself."
“No, don’t!” Duncan suddenly lunged forward, knocking aside the doctor who was flung headfirst into a towering indoor Gru’ dancreeper.
“Duncan, you bloody idiot!” Mr. Gregory shouted as he hurried over to extricate Dr. Akern from the hairy green tendrils.
“Sorry, Uncle Greg!” cried Duncan as he barred Kes’s way. “But there are some things in this world that a bloke should never know and see; that horror back there in the Tower Room is both those things!”
“But didn’t you just say it was dead?” Kes asked, her eyes still fixed on the door.
"Uh... Well... the thing is...” Duncan stammered as he rubbed the back of his neck. “It’s kind of complicated.”
Kes narrowed her eyes at the kobold’s tall form. “Exactly what do you mean by ‘complicated’?”
The double doors groaned and violently shook as something massive shoved and rained down hammer-fisted blows. The crackling and splintering of the makeshift barricades were heard throughout the hall, and by the time the first ragged cracks appeared, all of the animals had fled.
“Uh... Well... the thing is...” Duncan stuttered, his face growing increasingly red. He took off his hat to wipe the cold sweat beading on his forehead. “Hoo-boy, how do I explain this...?”
The office was dead silent as five pairs of puzzled eyes stared at him.
“Well, you see,” he continued quickly, holding his bowler by the brim, nervously rotating it in his hands. “Okay, you know how things don’t go jolly spiffingly in real life as they do in the movies?”
A deeply frowning Mr. Gregory slowly nodded as he and the twins finally yanked Dr. Akern out of the Gru’ dancreeper’s Velcro-like grip and onto his respectable feet again.
“I see, Mr. Duncan,” his uncle said sarcastically. “Well, could you please enlighten us as to what these un-spiffingly ‘things’ might possibly be? It would spare you a lot of further embarrassment.”
“Yes, do tell us,” chimed Dr. Akern, straightening up with great dignity. “Surely, it wouldn’t hurt to impart to us some extremely important news as soon as possible.” A tug on his sleeve soon diverted his attention. Looking down, he noticed Skeeter holding his top hat.
“Ahh, thank you, young man,” said Dr. Akern, retrieving it and placing it back on his head. Turning to face Duncan again, he said, “Now Mr. Duncan, I think it would be best if you--”
He was interrupted a second time by another important tug from Skeeter. “Yes?”
The boy beckoned for him to lean his head in closer.
“You have something you wish to convey to me?” muttered the perplexed lamia. “Yet you don’t want the others to know?”
Skeeter gritted his teeth then nodded guiltily.
“Skeet noooooo!” Duncan whispered dryly. “Don’t--” He promptly clammed up as Kes gave him a suspicious glance before turning back to regard Skeeter secretly whispering into Dr. Akern’s ear.
Kes sighed, pricking her ears in vain, her eyebrows turning from their usual beige pink to glaring white in annoyance. As she looked on with growing bafflement and confusion, Dr. Akern grew pale as he digested what Skeeter had told him.
“Well?” she asked, as the doctor turned with a very grim expression.
Dr. Akern ahemed a couple times before speaking.
“I fear that our worse fears have finally come to pass,” he affirmed as something rustled far down the dark hall leading toward the office. “It’s up and walking again.”
“What do you mean ‘up and walking again?’ ” Kes demanded. “The thing just got hit by two tons of books!”
There was a strained silence for a moment, after which Dr. Akern cleared his throat again.
“My friends,” he said gravely, “what young Skeeter just told me will no doubt disturb you.”
“Yeah, well, I’m already pretty disturbed by all this creepy stuff,” replied Kes irately. “So what difference...?”
“Get to the point,” Mr. Gregory interrupted impatiently.
“The point is,” Dr. Akern continued, “is that Mr. Duncan had decided that it would be best if he took the blame for his brother’s serious mistake.”
“What serious mistake?” Kes inquired, putting her hands on her hips. “Like using paper-backed novels for weapons instead of heavy duty hard backs?”
“No, more like accidentally dropping your golden ammonite shell healing amulet key chain into the book pile,” Dr. Akern went on, “then being too scared to retrieve it.”
“But that thing’s dead already!” shouted Kes in frustration. “The guys probably just saw some parasites on it still twitching about. Dead bodies don’t come back to life at the touch of some good luck gewgaw. That only happens in the movies and D&D games!”
“D&D?” Duncan raised an eyebrow.
“Yeah,” Kes nodded, turning toward him. “It’s a role-playing game popular among humans. Now it’s getting popular among Gerdins and Faire Folk. Heck, even my brother’s playing, and he’s only ten...”
But Duncan was no longer looking at her; instead he was staring in gaping horror over her shoulder.
Turning with cold dread, Kes noticed that the others were all staring in the same direction--at the office door as the brass knob slowly turned. No one moved a muscle or breathed as the door slowly creaked open revealing a large mass of scarlet, thick, rope-like tresses wrapped tightly around pink curlers. Walking forward, the bouffant hair apparition revealed itself to be a tall, spindly figure clad in a purple fuzzy robe and house slippers with an oatmeal avocado crusted, cucumber-eyed face mask covering its sharp pointed features.
“What’s all this now?” Mrs. Mira Gregory peeled off her cucumber slices to reveal piercing black eyes flickering with annoyance. “It’s late! You should all be in bed!”
Behind the startled group came a dull thunk as Duncan fell back against the front door, sinking to the floor in a dead faint.
Ch 3--In Search Of
It was nearly half past midnight by the time Kes crawled into bed in the Gregorys’ guest room. Outside the wind still howled while torrents of rain lashed the sidewalks and swirled into the streets. After a brief scowl at the sudden clatter of rain against the window glass, she drew the covers over the chin and peered up at the ornate scallop headboard.
A subsequent search by police had turned up nothing, other than a broken set of doors and a ghastly mephitic stench lingering over the book pile in the Tower Library. Neither Kes, Dr. Akern, the Gregorys nor the twins had anything further to add to what they had already told the police, and as for Duncan, he was still recovering from the shock of seeing what he thought was a taximare zombie wearing a tacky night robe with its head loaded up with 15 pounds of hair curlers.
Having seen Mrs. Gregory with her homemade beauty treatment, Kes wasn’t really surprised at Duncan’s reaction.
“It had to have been a ghost,” Kes told Dr. Akern shortly before he left for home, “or a djinn even. That’s why the police didn’t find a corpse under all those books.”
“Yeah, and they didn’t find Skeeter’s healing amulet key chain either,” muttered Dr. Akern, glancing about nervously. “That’s what worries me.”
“Well, the Tower Library’s huge,” Kes replied with a shrug. “It could have ended up underneath one of the shelves or wedged in one of the books.”
“Well, it’s got to be found and fast,” said Dr. Akern thoughtfully, “if Skeeter was telling the truth and that amulet’s a genuine thing and not some tourist knock-off. If those healing properties work on people then why not on beings of possibly inhuman origin.”
“Then we’re completely and totally toast, ehh?” Kes muttered, feeling a cold sick feeling form in the pit of her stomach.
“Well, not necessarily,” Dr. Akern replied reassuringly. “The taximare, if that was really what it was, may have figured it had been discovered or soon would be. So it decided to leave once the coast was clear. Probably holed-up in some shelter somewhere where there’s fewer people around.” He stared thoughtfully at the carpet. “I might have to research that amulet more,” he muttered. “I believe there is one mentioned in a rare book called The Cult of the Wyrm.”
“That so? Well, would this shop have it then?” Kes asked with more interest.
Dr. Akern frowned, shaking his head. “No, it’s quite rare,” he replied. “There’s only a handful of copies in the world, and the one I’m interested in is the unabridged German version by Heinrik Whitmore which is included in the collection at Miskatonic University.”
Kes’s brows furrowed. “Miskatonic? That’s way off in the Mortal Territories, Massachusetts to be exact. You got a lot of traveling to do, Doctor... unless you got some computer set up to connect you to the library via Internet.”
“Well, there’s a jump station near where I live.” The doctor gave his trousers a hitch. “So I don’t think I need to commute all the way across America to find out about Skeeter’s bauble.”
“Well, you take care, Doctor,” said Kes encouragingly. “And try not to call up any eldritch abomination while you’re at it.”
Chuckling dryly, Dr. Akern shook his head and waved a dismissive hand casually. “I’d make some cheesy joke right now about the stars being right,” he replied, “but my harrowing experience with the unknown seemed to have had drained all creativity from me today.” He then tipped his hat to her. “Well, ‘night, Kes. I’ll be seeing you.”
As he was walking toward the door, Kes suddenly called out, “Say, Doc?
“When that... that... creature had you cornered under those stairs,” she said hesitantly, “did it say anything to you?”
Dr. Akern gave her an odd look, and then nodded. “Yes, it did,” he said slowly. “It said, ‘Pssst. Hey you. Yeah, you--wanna hear a secret? Come a bit closer then... and I’ll tell you...” He glanced curiously at Kes. “Does that weird comment remind you of anything?”
Kes bit her lip to keep them from trembling then slowly shook her head. “No,” she said finally. “I don’t think so.”
Thunder rumbled again, shaking the walls of the dark room. Kes lay with her arms crossed under her head as she stared up at the ceiling. Hopefully, tomorrow will be just be an ordinary Halloween day, she thought, with the only monsters about just trick-or-treaters and party-goers. Hopefully, that taximare-ghost-demon-djinn-whatever got the message and has gone back to whatever nethermost pit it crawled out of.
Her alert golden eyes shifted to the pendulum wall clock across from the bed; it was nearly half past twelve. This is sure a long storm; hopefully Duncan’s sleeping soundly and will be alright in the morning. I know I’m not getting any sleep tonight...
As another roll of thunder rumbled overhead, Kes let her thoughts drift back to the dark and ominous quote uttered by Dr. Akern-- "Psst. Hey you. Yeah, you--wanna hear a secret? Come a bit closer then...”
Gradually her eyelids drooped as she drifted off to sleep.
Dreams soon immersed her as well as memories.
Ch. 4--Les Expats
Year of the Silver Tiger
15th of Sept. 2012
It was a Saturday afternoon in the local Swanwick Library and Kes was frustrated. Instead of blazing headlines heralding the mystery of three missing evacuee children, she found only a short paragraph stating that three of the ungrateful guttersnipes had taken “French leave.”
When she inquired at the main desk as to why she could only find one article that cast such a disparaging light upon some young, possibly confused and frightened kids, the elderly hippopode librarian just sighed and shook her gray-maned head.
“I knew the editor back then,” the woman replied crossly with a rapid swish of her tail. “He was a grouchy old fart who hadn’t had a new idea since the funeral of Queen Titania XVIII.” She frowned and shrugged her bony shoulders. “I guess I shouldn’t complain. He hired me for the Cooking and Home Ec. section and even bought for me what was supposed to be oldest and sturdiest typewriter in the world. I supposed I was lucky since the guy in charge of the Sports columns had to use a goose quill to pen his articles.”
"Do you have any more news articles from that time period?" Kes said.
The hippopode shook her head again. “Well, we did,” she said, adjusting her gold-rimmed spectacles. “Unfortunately, the library suffered extensive cyclone damage last October--ruined much of our WWII news archive as well as most of the study and work area.
“Oh,” Kes frowned in disappointment. “Well, what about your electronic archives?”
“Access to electronic resources and services were also wiped out,” the librarian replied, her pinched horsey features tightening in irritation. “And due to our ‘beloved’ Mayor Desrosiers’s decision that the money is best spent on frivolous items such as landscaping, koi ponds and impressing the toffee-nosed poshers... it will be a while before we ever do get anything resembling a functional computer terminal.”
Kes grimaced slightly at the mention of Mayor Desrosiers. The Ainsel woman was the very definition of a politician who had tons of money and wealth but not an ounce of sense in her perfectly coiffed head.
“Are you doing a report?” the librarian asked abruptly, startling her out of her dismal thoughts.
“A report?” Kes blinked at her, uncomprehending. “Well... no, I’m not a journalist.”
“No, I mean a report,” the librarian persisted, “for a school project.”
“Oh,” said Kes, finally understanding. Do I really look young enough to be in high school? I’m actually twenty, but I got regressed due to an accidental ingestion of some fountain of youth curry. But that explanation would take a whole day to explain, and would only lead to numerous probing questions. “No,” she replied instead. “It's just that someone told me this story about these mutated wizard monsters that supposedly made off with these three British kids; I just wanted to know if it was all true...”
The librarian nodded thoughtfully. “And the thing about those kids disappearing turned out to be true,” she took a sip from her coffee mug. “You hear lots of rumors besides the Chanterelle Monster one... like they had all run away to either Manchester or Liverpool,” she continued, flicking her sharp furry ears. “And there was even some talk about them running to join a skillk band.”
Confusion filled Kes’s face. “But... but why would they run back to England when the Blitz was still going on?” she asked. “That doesn’t make any sense. Why not run further into Faerie and ‘go native,’ like the humans say?”
The librarian pursed her wide wrinkled lips and set down her coffee mug. “I wasn’t there so I dunno,” she said. “Humans aren’t known for their rationality, especially among the young. You have to remember that the war time evacuation was a very traumatic experience for many of those children. Not only do they have to cope with a new family, but an entirely different culture and environment as well. Some of them couldn’t handle it and went back home, even when it meant taking their chances in the Blitz.” She popped a baby carrot into her mouth and chewed it slowly and thoughtfully. "You might try asking Gillian Dupret; she had been a British evacuee around that time. I know she was there at that Halloween Party when those three kids disappeared."
Kes knew Gillian Dupret, having several times shopped at the Dupret Bakery. The 85-year-old woman also happened to be Mayor Desrosiers's human mother-in-law, and Kes would rather not run into Madame Mayor "Chatterbox." The Ainsel had asked her on various occasions for art commissions and even though these assignments had helped pay the rent and feed her ducks, it was starting to seem like Kes would hardly have any free time to herself.
Instead of going directly on to Main Street, Kes went instead to Irvine Street where Madame Mosley had her stone cottage. If there was anyone who was a vast repository of odd local history and gossip, it would be Madam Mosley. Trolls remembered everything and had lots more smarts than most people gave them credit for. Perhaps the old woman remembered something of great significance from the many whispers and dark rumors three quarters of century ago. Hopes for a further interview, however, were soon dashed when one of Madam Mosley’s daughters informed Kes that her mother was house sitting over in Swallowdale and wouldn’t be home for a fortnight.
Kes spent the next couple hours trying to question the other town inhabitants in the various shops, diners and the two small fire stations. Surprisingly, most these residents were rather forthcoming about information, although it was the usual wild legends and superstitious speculation--the sort of things that old grandams and gaffers had told for years to frightened children huddled around the hearth fire.
Unlike Madam Mosley, the eager speakers weren’t native to the region and probably never had an unsettling paranormal experience in their entire life and were just glad that Kes was there to enliven an otherwise boring coffee break and lunchtime conversation.
Although the few long-time locals she did meet also spoke freely and at length about the Virebelle Rock Incident, they would not discuss nor mention anything about the Chanterelle ghosts.
This was one of the strange and rather annoying of Swanwick customs, the whole notion that to even speak of an unwholesome spirit would bring it visiting. Kes doubted this bound of secrecy would deter all unpleasant spirits, especially the live one that was right now following her as she towed her utility wagon cart along Main Street. Kes’s mouth tightened as she tugged harder at the metal handle, but she had a heavy load... as well as several fae hitchhikers who couldn’t afford cab fare.
Ellie Lambert was everything Kes wasn’t--short and stocky, with a pudgy baby face which gave her a rabbit-like appearance due to her large pale blue eyes, rather over-sized ears and pink button nose. Her ridiculously short pageboy-style hair was the color of sun-bleached straw. She always wore pretty yet impractical-looking dresses with a lot of lace trim and silk sashes, not the sort of costumes Kes would prefer to be wearing, especially when she was cutting firewood, hauling water or butchering and preparing meat.
Like the White Rabbit, Kes thought when she first saw this eccentrically-dressed human girl, wondering who exactly invited her to the mayor’s welcoming party. The twitching of the pink nose and the constant fidgeting and grooming of her shorn locks seemed to remind her of a nervous rabbit.
“Ellie,” the mayor’s eldest daughter huffily told her. “Her name’s Ellie Lambert, and she’s from California- the State of Jefferson, to be exact. She may look totally sweet and adorable, but she’s not. She’s a compulsive liar as well as a kleptomaniac, so keep your wallet or purse close by and don't let her shake your hand or get close behind you.”
Unlike Kes, who rather was baffled and somewhat flattered by the party thrown in her honor, Vanessa thought the occasion was a total waste of her teenage time and she had way better things to do... in Vanessa’s case, attending a Mötley Crüe concert with all her friends.
Kes nodded. “Well, I don’t think she looks sweet and adorable,” she muttered. “She looks kind of freaky, like one of those creepy china dolls that come to life and murders you in the middle of the night.”
“Yeah,” Vanessa shifted uncomfortably on her high platform shoes and sighed. “She gives me the willies, especially those eyes of hers. They’re like doll's eyes--just blank and vacant, you know? It’s not just me who notices this. Other people at school, my sisters and dad... Even my mom who’s not the brightest fork in the drawer’s been giving her funny looks lately.”
Kes thoughtfully sipped her glass of lemonade as she discreetly studied the strange guest in the clamorous town hall. Ellie didn’t mingle, but just stood in the far corner near the table display of floral arrangements and local crafts--behavior that earned her a few curious looks.
Kes couldn’t help but feel a little bit sorry for the girl. Perhaps she was one of those naive Luddite country kids who had been home-schooled by strict religious parents. That might explain her lack of good social skills and compulsive lying and kleptomania.
“I don’t get it,” Kes said, looking confused. “If she creeps your mom out then why was she invited then?”
“Because her aunt happened to be a very prominent business person,” was Vanessa’s immediate answer, “and she doesn’t trust Ellie to be left alone in the same room with a purse, or alone in a coach and certainly never in the house.”
Kes frowned as she studied this pathetic fluff of humanity. “Aren’t there servants that could watch her... a nanny maybe?”
“Ellie just lost her ninth nanny,” Vanessa explained. “She goes through nannies the way some people go through Kleenex. The same goes for babysitters as well as tutors. Even her own cousin can’t stand to be around her. The eldest one--Sandra had already moved out and is now staying with friends up in Branshel. The twins--Marc and Philippe, however, well... they get along okay with Ellie... probably because they’re young and don’t know any better and she’s not interested in stealing lil’ kids’ toys. Just money and valuables.”
Kes thought for a minute and then asked, “You sure she’s not some kind of trickster animal in disguise... like a tanuki or fox or even a magpie?”
Vanessa shook her spiky thatch of jet-black hair. “No. She’s completely human as far as I know. I’ve even seen her parents when they brought her up here five years ago. They seemed like loving, caring people--not like druggies or fundamentalist nutjobs.”
“Her folks just abandoned her?” Kes stared at her, incredulous.
The goth girl shrugged. “They finally couldn’t cope with this rotten kid who just uses the Asperger excuse to be offensive to people. Her older brother and sister turned out fine yet Ellie was just born to be a hellbrat.”
“But why send her here?” Kes exclaimed in disbelief. “Can’t she get therapy back in the States?”
“The Republic of the Americas pretty much sucks at the whole mental health thing,” Vanessa replied pointedly. “Besides, Ellie’s folks still care enough not to foist their offspring onto a private and potentially dangerous reform company, instead they decided to have a Hawaiian-style of adoption and hanai’d Ellie out to her aunt. I guess they’re hoping that Ellie might get a lesson in manners as well as the social skills needed to get a real world career.”
“I wonder if her aunt now regrets her decision,” Kes murmured, taking another sip of her lemonade.
Vanessa thought for a minute before replying, “Probably, although Mrs. Lambert’s a pretty stoic person who tends to keep her personal feelings to herself.” She looked down at the tiled floor, her violet eyes following an iridescent green beetle as it crawled its way across it. “I think Ellie’s problems might be improved if she acquired a new hobby, maybe collecting bergmen’s beetles or pillywiggan poop.”
Kes started to say, “Well, hopefully she won’t end up like Norman Bates and...”
“How are you girls doing?” Mayor Desrosiers came up from behind, startling them both.
“Oh, we’re doing great, mum,” said Vanessa, her purple lips quickly curving into a most convincing smile.
“Uh, yeah,” Kes flushed as she stared up at the tall, platinum blonde woman in the tailored suit. “Just fine, Madam Mayor.” She quickly added, “Wow, you people are really nice! A welcoming party in my honor? I thought that was only for veterans and people who did great things like winning Tour du Faerie or climbing to the top of Mt. Ulinshan.”
“Well, scarcely do we get anyone new moving to Swanwick,” Mayor Desrossiers replied brightly. “So when it does happen it’s actually cause for celebration.”
“Am I required to make a speech?” Kes sheepishly asked.
Mayor Desrosiers shook her head. Wispy strands of hair fell against her glass smooth forehead. “Not if you don't want to.”
A look of immense relief flooded Kes’s features. “Oh, good. For a moment I thought I was going to have to tell my whole life story.”
“There’s no need to get stressed out,” Mayor Desrosiers assured. “We’re here to welcome you and make you feel part of the community, not to conduct a job interview.”
“Well, I’m really honored to be here...”
But Mayor Desrosiers didn’t notice. Her attention was now fixed over Kes’s right shoulder. She stared with wide opened eyes. Her bright smile fading.
“Mum, what is it?” Vanessa asked with concern. “What’s wrong?”
Kes quickly glanced behind her, but she saw no sign of Ellie Lambert among the milling guests.
“Mum, are you sick?” Vanessa continued to ask. “Do you need me to call an ambulance? You look like you’ve seen a ghost.”
“Ghost?” Mayor Desrosiers quickly shook her head. “No. It’s just that... I thought I saw someone. Oh, never mind. Just a case of celebration jitters.” Her eyes brightened as her smile returned. “Well, let’s get this party started, shall we?” She tapped her champagne glass with a polished silver spoon to get everyone’s attention. “Before we begin the Ancient and Honorable Midsummer's Eve Celebration, I would like to welcome a brand new Swanwick citizen today. Her voyage to this country was long and arduous, often fraught with trouble and strife, and, more often than not a great deal of frightful peril from the elements...”
All during the lengthy speech, Kes and Vanessa exchanged confused glances. Then Vanessa shrugged and discreetly moved her index finger in a corkscrew gesture near her right ear. “Mum gets a bit weird at times,” she silently mouthed.
Kes nodded, although she wasn't convinced, and she was beginning to wonder if Vanessa was, either.
Later that night, Kes stood at the window of her new house--or Heron Manor, as it was known, peering into the shadowy Swanwick Forest.
That was certainly a long welcoming party, she thought, in perplexity and amazement.
She let the curtain drop and turned to consider the stacks of presents scattered hither and thither, including an accumulation of new pets from an anonymous sender named Smiley Face.
You would think more people would be moving here on account of the gift-giving and hospitality, she wondered. Maybe I got this VIP treatment because my arrival happened to coincide with the annual Mid-Summer Eve tradition. I really should ask Vanessa more about this custom of gift-giving.
As she crawled into bed, she couldn’t help thinking about Ellie Lambert. Had that human cub received a similar welcoming party or had she been deemed unworthy... even for a gift of Krampus coal?
The girl certainly did act a bit funny, not funny in any obviously wild crazy fashion. No, quite the opposite--clinging to the corners of the room, or skittering through the crowds, never talking or laughing with anyone, not displaying the least bit interest or excitement in the fun games and revelry going on around her. Always sneaking glances in Kes’s direction like she wanted to strike up a conversation, yet she kept her distance. Maybe it was because Kes was hanging around Vanessa at the time, and the goth was giving Ellie the death stare as if in the hopes that her face might melt, explode, or shrink with Raiders of the Lost Ark dramatics.
Vanessa wouldn’t go into specific details about the incident that caused her to totally reject Ellie’s friendship, except to say that it nearly ruined her middle school reputation and further cemented her hatred for the anime genre and its numerous fandoms.
A hardcore otaku then, Kes thought with a grimace. Or as Yoda would say, ‘the weeaboo vibe is strong in this one.’
However, Kes kept her personal comments to herself and made a silent vow never to get too close to ‘Lil’ Mis Bo Beep for she didn’t want a repeat of that nonsense back in Simak where she had to deal with a raging otaku mental case.
When she looked over at Ellie again, the girl had moved under the central domed skylight. Rays of moonlight shone brightly through the Art Nouveau-style stained-glass.
Kes froze rigid, staring transfixed. For a moment, just as the girl stepped into one of the moonlit patches, the whole shape of her face seems to have changed. Her tight Buster Brown curls grew loose and dark while her cherub features grew pimply-cheeked and dough-faced. The eyes that continued to stare back were now murky-brown and bulging like a frog’s. Even the wide, pale mouth was frog-like as it slowly lifted in a lazy smile.
Her hair fluffing up in shock, she whirled around, expecting to see Vanessa staring also in mute horror. Instead, her new friend had her back turned and was waving cheerily across the vast hall to a group of her fellow goths. Looking back, Kes saw that the moonbeam was now occupied by a noisy Japanese tour group.
She could be anywhere, Kes thought numbly, if she could change her face like that then... she could look just about anyone.
She no longer wanted to be in the city hall even though she was surrounded by swarms of people.
And when Vanessa asked if she wanted to come to a Gothic theater production of a famous horror movie, Kes immediately accepted.
Watching a bunch of goths pay homage to the golden age of B-rated horror movies, accompanied with a heavy dose of hardcore techno and fake gore, seemed preferable to waiting around to be eaten up by some shape-shifting monster.
It turned out the show was taking place in Vanessa’s backyard, and it was a reinterpretation of John Carpenter's ‘The Thing.’
For a moment, Kes lay staring up at the ceiling. Her mind teeming with the images from hours earlier--the corrugated iron and scrap wood arrangement that was supposed to resemble an Antarctica research station, the werewolves dyed to resemble sled dogs, the imps and spriggans animating the mechanical monster parts, the actors rushing about heroically in corpse paint and cold weather gear, the whole set going up into flames that would have met with John Carpenter’s approval.
Frowning, she wondered if she would be able to hang out with Vanessa again, now that Vanessa was majorly grounded for burning down the Licorne Pavilion, part of the roof of her dad’s tea house as well as the neighbor’s topiary fence.
Having watched ‘The Thing’ before, Kes already knew the entire story.
She always thought that the assimilated humans, unlike the Borg and the Pod People, who had no idea they were imitations... like Norris with his bad heart or Palmer when he was tied up on the couch, waiting to have his blood tested. It was like when the Thing took over a body, it left just enough of the ‘host’ consciousness so that the imitation still felt like the original.
Thinking about Ellie again, Kes wondered if that was also the case with her.
“Well, crap!” she sighed in annoyance. “Been here hardly a month, and I wind up being assimilated by some weird alien monster. What a crummy way to start life in a new country!”
As if sensing her distress, the animals rustled agitatedly in their various crates and cages.
“You know,” said Kes after a while. “I don’t think Ellie is an alien shape-shifter... cause why would I see another person’s face then instead of a... I dunno, something utterly alien and inhuman?”
Her new roommates paused in their noisy rustling to listen and offer up the occasional chirp and squeak.
“I think I might have even seen a ghost,” she went on, “and you know what, I’ve even seen that face before.”
The countless small beasts ceased their comments as they all waited patiently for what she had to say.
Ch. 5--Short Hoggers
“It all started back a few years ago. I was among the Saffrasia Island population suddenly displaced due to the nearby volcano. Since Saffrasia was a Merlian Overseas Territory, we were all granted full residency rights in the Merlian United Kingdom.
“Well, I pretty much hated the Merlian weather, if it was not raining, it was windy and icy-cold, and it was hardly even sunny! I also hated the capital--Dimoil-Nu along with the native population. So unfriendly, superficial, and self absorbed. Just all stiff-upper-lip presentation, no one bothering to listen to one another because they were all much too busy trying to present themselves in a certain narrow minded manner.”
Her furry, feathered and scaly audience made various sympathetic-sounding noises.
“Well, the place I got in West Dimoil-Nu certainly wasn’t the ritz, but it wasn’t a total nightmare. Although we did find mushrooms growing atop the kitchen counter-top... plus it had roaches as well as rats. Not small ones. The big scary kind that tended to scurry over your face in the middle of the night.”
Her listeners shivered in sympathy and burrowed deeper into their straw and shaving bedding.
“Still, most of my housemates were great, the place was laid back and fun... I just didn’t want to live there forever.
“Well, anyway, I was standing in the checkout queue at this nearby supermarket, and I happened to spy this tabloid paper.
“‘SCANDAL IN LIMOUX COUNTY, WALDALCHIA’
“Proclaimed a banner in bold capital letters:
“‘YOUNGEST HEIRESS OF PROMINENT VAN DEVEREUX FAMILY ACCUSED OF SERIOUS CRIMES--HARASSMENT AND EXTORTION OF INNOCENT PRIMARY SCHOOL STUDENTS, CASTING OF DEBILITATING AND DEADLY HEX SPELLS, AS WELL AS A HORRIBLE HALLOWEEN PRANK LEADING TO MASS PANIC AND INJURY.’
“Then another banner:
‘UNLESS GRANTED CLEMENCY--SENTENCE WILL BE A DOG’S LIFE.’
“And I’m like ‘What? Exactly what do they mean by ‘a dog’s life?’
“I must have said the question out loud then for an old woman’s voice answered right back. ‘Well, dearie, it’s local slang meaning exile in a mortal shell.’
“Turning around, I see a couple of old goblin women--a fat one and a very thin one standing right behind me. It was the fat one who spoke up next.
“‘They turn the felon into a mortal first before they sending ‘im off,’ she explained. ‘Don’t know how they do it exactly except it’s long and complicated. Isn’t that right, Lottie?’
“‘Right you are, Fran,’ the thin goblin nodded. ‘Shortens 'is life down to one mortal span, plus it grounds ‘im hard to the Midgard earth so ‘im wouldn’t be able to hold a magical charge or anything else. Makes ‘im as weak and powerless as a dog.’
“‘Hence the saying--’Being mortal is no better than being a dog,’ Lottie replied.
“‘Well, that’s awful!’ I exclaimed, shocked. ‘Why not have them do their time as an ordinary animal like a donkey or a cow?’
“‘Oh, they still do that sort of thing in a few primitive parts,’ Fran told me. ‘Used to do it here until the Labor Party came along and abolished it.’
“‘Yep, got rid of that sort of punishment in 1965 along with the death penalty,’ Lottie muttered. ‘Too barbaric, they say plus there was a potential of magical backfire, causing the transformation to go horribly wrong.’
“‘That and the felon sometimes tried to get revenge in animal form.’
“‘But that Van Devereux girl looks feeble minded!’ I exclaimed, turning back to regard the vague dull-looking brunette on the magazine cover. ‘Surely the court wouldn’t sentence a natural to life long exile.’
“‘A natural?’ Fran’s scaly eyebrows went up. ‘A natural, you say? Oh no! Definitely not a natural, dearie.’
“Lottie chuckled, shaking her feathered head. ‘You don’t follow that news, do you? Ain’t no innocent halfwit, she is. That elf girl’s a cunning lil’ thing, cunning and mean like a lil’ viper. She don’t care nothing about anybody, not even her mamma, papa or any of her brothers and sisters!’
“‘Right,’ Fran snatched up the magazine from the rack. ‘A really mean lil’ witch indeed.’ Flipping through the pages, she added. ‘Never seen such a nasty beast in all my born days.’
“‘Ere!’ Lottie grabbed the magazine from her stout friend, thrusting it forward. ‘You can see some of that meanness in Clarissa’s eyes!’
“‘But...’ I started to say, and then as soon I saw that magazine cover again, my eyes widened in disbelief.
“What I say wasn’t a slovenly-dressed girl with an empty, flat face of a large baby. Instead, what I saw was an immaculately-dressed girl with curly blonde hair that was braided and tied back with silk ribbons. Although her oval face was fixed in an expression of charm and delight, the dimpled smile seemed icy while the wide blue eyes seemed cold and calculating as though she could see into my unsettled mind.
“‘But I swear I just saw...’ I began.
“Lottie narrowed her reddish eyes. 'You alright, dearie?’
“ ‘Don’t look alright to me,’ Fran observed. ‘Looks to me like she’ve seen a ghost.’
“Yeah, that’s what I think I saw, I wanted to say, but I didn’t because I didn’t want them to think I was losing my mind.
“Instead I blurted out something a little more reasonable-sounding:
“‘Well, for a minute there... I thought she was a brunette.’
“Both goblins screwed up their beastly faces in puzzlement before looking down at the magazine once again.
“‘Ooh, you might be right on that one, dearie,’ Fran remarked, pursing her bulldog lips. ‘She does seem to have some dark roots.’
“‘Hair’s a funny color too,’ Lottie chuckled without mirth. ‘Weird ginger blonde... like she did her own dye job, but botched it though.’
“‘Well, they probably don’t have any professional hairdressers where she’s at now,’ Fran replied brightly.
“Meanwhile I walked forward with my groceries, leaving the cackling goblins behind to their gossip. I wasn’t going to get involved in gloating over someone else’s troubles, even though, like the majority of goblins and working fae, I wasn’t too fond of the Gentry class.
“By the time I got home, I pretty much dismissed the strange occurrence as due to stress, travel fatigue along with shock of moving to a strange new place.”
Kes’s voice slowed to a mumble as drowsiness crept slowly over her. Still she continued on--recounting the events that prompted her coming to this country.
“Eighteen months later, I had nearly forgotten the supermarket incident. I had a new job waiting tables at this tea and coffee tavern. The landlord finally got around to repairing the apartment house and evicting the animal freeloaders. A few of my roomies even started up a backyard community garden.
“It was starting to be a pretty good place to live although I still didn’t like Dimoil-Nu. Then autumn rolled around with its lengthening chilly nights and thick fog, along with the weird wild life you tended to expect with the closing season--spectral hounds, blue and green goblin cats, multi-tailed foxes, pipe-smoking draugar, ghost pirates and sailors on shore leave, people with detachable heads, various bogeymen coming over and borrowing the lawn furniture and party lanterns.
“Since many of these ‘people’ patronized the tavern where I worked, I was pretty used to them by now.
“As strange as this might sound, I actually welcomed their company, their noisy house parties as they stood in the nearby yard and street, drinking and carousing.
“But on miserable wet nights when the streets were generally deserted, something would wander near the apartment complex and sing in this phlegmy burble. Always it would be the same song, this bit of nonsense ditty about nobody liking this person, and this person saying--guess I’ll go eat some worms then... or something to that effect.”
A shrill chorus of inquiring menagerie noises rose up from inside the cages and pens.
“Well, I didn’t know what it was exactly,” Kes replied with a yawn. “Just that this thing was invisible and that I wasn’t the only person who heard it, and it only came around on dark lonely nights of heavy rain or fog, and never tried to come inside.
“It seemed a mild-mannered spook and most of the residents along that particular street were used to it, treating it as a trifling nightly inconvenience, even going so far as accepting it as a rather eccentric member of the neighborhood. Some of the more sympathetic ones left it treats and small toys, thinking it was a ghost of a small child.
“I was one of the few people who never grew accustomed to the spirit, and often times slept with ear plugs whenever it came around. Even complained about it at work once, and the people there just nodded while I pitched a fit, then my boss told me I should consider myself lucky that the ghost/boggart/whatever only came around once a year. Then he mentioned the Skrim apartments where the residents were pestered by a full-time phantom in a veiled widow outfit banging on a gong.
“‘You’ll get used to Short Hoggers,’ he told me. ‘Everyone eventually does.’
“Now ‘Short Hoggers’ happened to be an affectionate local phrase used to address really small children. I think it meant 'Little Boots,’ although at the time I felt like calling it something a little less sweet and chucking some heavy duty boots at it.
“But as the weeks went by, I eventually got used to it. Even stopped griping about how it kept on singing the same old song.”
Kes fell silent and her audience waited with many a nervous scuttling and tail twitch.
“Unfortunately, one roomie in particular who was clever about occult things, but not so in common sense, decided to do a little dabbling, innocently thinking that what she was contacting was a lonely little ghost.
“Poor Joan. She was always boasting constantly about her great magical abilities. She claimed to have even vanquished a nest of shadow demons that normally would never have been defeated by just one person. She actually thought she was on par with the greatest human spell casters in history, instead of just being a trust fund hippie/wiccan wannabe. So when everyone was out at a movie one Halloween night, she called that something in... something that she thought was a lost child.
“She thought that something would also be her friend and would help her become the spell caster she always dreamed about. Poor stupid Joan.”
Kes gulped as her hands tightened onto the blankets.
“The neighbors heard her shrieks and came running, but it was already too late.
“They later told me that it looked like she had been attacked by lions. She was horribly mangled, claw marks all over her. Yet there wasn’t a trace of blood anywhere, just this black, stinky slime drenching the inside of the room.
“Me and everyone else who lived in that house had to go to an inquest, even though we weren’t around when the murder occurred and there weren’t any suspects, although we had a pretty good idea who it was, cause while we were at the movies, we kept hearing Joan’s voice going around the aisles--singing that wretched worm song... just like the Short Hoggers.
“The court ordered us not to talk since Joan happened to come from this ulta-rich family who didn’t want the negative publicity. But a person just can’t keep quiet about that sort of thing. I’ve got to tell somebody--even though that somebody’s a house pet.”
Several dozen bright beady eyes stared in bewilderment. What was their new owner trying to tell them? Was there a possible monster on the loose or was she just completely unhinged?
“But that wasn’t why I left Merlia,” Kes went on slowly. “Not wanting to stick around for a repeat performance of Joan’s messy demise, I fled West Dimoil-Nu. Much to my relief, the thing didn’t follow; it stayed on in the neighborhood, moving from one house to the next, although it didn’t take anyone this time. Instead it would sit outside either on the porch or on any lawn furniture left out. It would always leave in the morning, and all the wicker wood or couches would all be soaked in black oily slime--unfit for anything but the bonfire.
“I ended up moving to a house in East Dulwicher with five others in it. I was to share a room with a chatty Aussie exchange student and the privilege would cost me about £550 per month. But I felt it was all worth it after my harrowing experience in West Dimoil--Nu. Then, a few months later, I came home late from working as a kitchen assistant, and found the house filled with police and freaked out fellow tenants. Meanwhile, my roommate was having hysterics on the couch, and I thinking to myself--’Oh great, someone just got caught with a bag of Sparkle Freeeza or Brain Boasters.’ But it wasn’t about an illegal substance, it was about my roommate seeing the Short Hoggers. And when she finally told us the story, a shiver of cold horror ran through me. For it wasn't a ghost she saw sitting in the lawn chair when she went to take the trash to the curb. This was something much darker than any vengeful earthly shade, and far worse than any merely infernal spirit.
“‘It was squirming and twisting around in a chair,’ she stammered. ‘I thought... I thought it was an animal at first... like a seal or a giant eel even. Just lying there, wriggling and squirming horribly around... like it was dying or turning itself inside out. Then it saw me and stood up. But I ran back inside and locked the door. Then I saw it looking in through the window.’
“Then my roommate pointed to the window overlooking the drive.
“‘Right over there... it was pressed up against the glass. Its face... it was like that Wiccan girl that got killed a year back in West Dimoil-Nu, and yet it wasn’t. Like a death mask without any eyes, with the nose and lips all shriveled and rotting away. And I knew there was something hiding behind it--something even more terrible!’
“I moved out the very next morning and emigrated shortly afterwards. So that, everyone, is my story, and I know nothing more than what I just experienced... and I don’t want to know anymore.”
Her audience waited but Kes had nothing more to say. Eventually sleep overcame them and they drifted off to dream too.
Tattered clouds scudded past the closest moon and gray banks of fog rolled in from the Chuderheim Channel. Beneath the mist, wandering wild life turned tail and fled, and dogs huddled, trembling and whimpering in their yards and kennels. Down the old rutted coach road and weaving through the Swanwick Forest, someone began singing a strange song.
Ch. 6--Night Visitors
It was close to midnight when Kes awoke. For a minute or two, she lay there and blinked bewilderedly up at the ceiling. Then she sat up, rubbed her eyes and stared fixedly at the window.
A sharp tapping had sounded against the pane. She sat very still, listening carefully but did not hear the sound again. What could it have been? she thought as she laid back down. The wind? A branch scraping against the glass? No, the weather forecast had said it would be a calm night with a bit of fog and there weren’t any trees close enough to touch the cottage. It had to have been an animal then--maybe even a bat or an owl brushing up against the glass. That sounds reasonable, more reasonable than someone running around late at night, knocking on windows to freak people out.
Kes felt her eyelids growing heavy as her mind started drifting off into a dreamless sleep.
Tap, tap--tap, tap, tap, tap
She sat up quickly, eyes widening as they stared at the window.
No. That definitely wasn’t an animal. Must be a bunch of bratty kids then.
Tap, tap, tap, tap--tap, tap, tap
Clutching the covers, she pulled them up to her neck. She didn’t want to get out of bed. The night was disagreeably cold--unaccountable so for the middle of summer. The air also felt clammy like that of a damp cellar, and there was also a peculiar smell--kind of like cheap perfume mixed with stagnant seawater.
Tap, tap--tap, tap, tap, tap
Nope, Kes thought as she burrowed deeper underneath her blankets. No way. Uh-huh. I’m not getting up for some damn stupid kids. I’m just going to sit tight and let them think I’m a heavy sleeper then maybe they’ll get bored and go away... hopefully.
Rolling herself up tighter in her blankets, she lay quite still, occasionally glancing at the window which was lit up in silvered moonlight. Just as she was finally dozing off, she was roused by an entirely different noise.
Knock, knock--knock, knock, knock, knock
“Oh freak this!”
Furious and wide awake, Kes threw back the covers as her feet hit the cold floor.
“What the deuce is this, waking people up in the middle of the blooming night?” she muttered. “Freak! It’s like Fimbulwinter in here!”
Bleary-eyed, she stomped toward the door. “Hey doofuses! I’m trying to get some shut-eye here!”
Then she stopped suddenly when she felt the intense cold on her bare feet, the cold that was seeping through the cracks around the door.
Her spine tingled as her hair rose on end. Instinctively, she took several steps back, and as she did, she heard a voice call out from the other side of the door.
“It’s me. Vanessa. Let me in! It’s cold!”
“Vanessa?” Despite the cold, Kes started walking toward the door. “What are you doing? It’s late!”
“I got something to tell, something to tell you!” Vanessa called out. “Something very important. Just open the...”
“Look,” Kes interrupted. “Can’t this wait until tomorrow? It’s 12 AM. You ought be in--” She nearly stumbled over Miss Tabitha suddenly brushing up against her ankles. The cat had her ears back, and was growling away furiously.
Glancing back at the door again, a new shudder rippled down her frozen spine. Embedded under the edge of the door and into the door frame were several dozen cutlasses, daggers and dirks--the types used back in the Golden Age of piracy. Nowadays, you only see these sorts of weapons in museums or in the possession of historical hobbyists. But while the blades put on the display were just inert metal, the ones dug deep around the door were of a completely different nature. These weren’t toys to be trifled with by enthusiasts or fools in garish pretentious costumes. These polished blades most likely had ferocious wills of their own; they meant business, and Kes was right now wondering if this was the “Something” that Vanessa wanted to talk to her about. Were these living weapons possibly a midsummer present that now the goth was now having second thoughts about? Would Vanessa really do something really crazy like this?
Kes didn’t know. All she wanted now was not to remain here any longer. Not in this living room, not even in this house. She backed away from the front door, edging toward the back. Then her jaw fell open as her trembling hands brushed against coarse rope. Jerking around, she stood as rigid as a dressmaker’s dummy, staring at the taut heavy rope criss-crossing the door, securely attached to various grappling hooks, belaying pins and marlin spikes.
“Unblock the peephole, Kes,” it pleaded. “Unblock it if you wanna hear a secret. Please, you got to come in close. Come a bit closer then and unseal the barrier.”
The “peephole” was actually a natural knothole. Shortly after she moved in, Kes had sealed it up with plaster of Paris to keep out the drafts and any befuddled wildlife mistaking the door for a hollow tree.
THUMP! THUMP--THUMP! THUMP! THUMP! THUMP
She stood rigid in her loose-fitting pajamas, sweat beading on her ashen face. Shivering, she watched as the door creaked inward, scraping against the tightly-wedged blades. Another heavy thumping, but the blades bit deep into the surrounding timber and threshold; the door held. There were strange garbled words that instantly filled her with dread and sick revulsion. Then the very weighty tread of very heavy feet crunching on the gravel walk, waiting.
That definitely didn’t sound like Vanessa. She wouldn’t have shown up unannounced in the middle of the night, she wouldn’t be pleading in a sniveling-sort of manner like a brattling child, and certainly wouldn’t be strong enough to shake the entire door with her fists. Something else stood outside instead, something which was large, hefty and very formidable, but still needed help to gain entry. Something that would require an immediate and “permanent” response.
Walking stilly like a somnambulant, Kes went into her bedroom and carefully fetched down her “surprise.”
The “surprise” in question sat in the wooden rack near her bed. This wasn’t the bow and arrows that Kes used for hunting nor the repeating Gerdin crossbow that she often took with her whenever she visited a large city--a show of force to any unsavory aspects that she was not to be trifled with. The “surprise” was a far more sophisticated weapon that required a special license given only in a special circumstance, and in the baronial domain of the Quinarth Rim Region, most citizens cannot obtain one. Although she carried a license for the bowstring weapons, Kes knew she would be severely prosecuted if anyone found out about this relic of the by-gone Technol Age that had been smuggled inside a metal coatrack.
It was a Saffrasian-made rifle- a room temperature, superconducting Langston Railgun with a telescopic scope and a carbon fiber barrel, to be exact. This weapon had been wrought centuries ago, not by the Jötar or the Dwarves or even the nearly extinct Yngui, but by Kes’ own people--the most diligent and talented of mechanicians: against such powerful weapons, foes both human and nonhuman stood not a chance. In an effort to secure universal peace, the Langston rifle along with the other Technohance weaponry were banned from the Mortal and Free Folk Territories. The few remaining weapons that had escaped dismantlement under the Technohance Weaponry Control Act of 3755 were largely consigned to museums and subterranean vaults guarded by djinn and dragons.
Many of the glass display cases were broken and some were plundered of their contents. She turned left and walked down a corridor dimly lit by dirty skylights. There was a faded sign saying "Prohibited Techohance Weapons." That sounded interesting to Kes and she walked into the exhibit. There were dusty glass cases holding containers of poison fungal spores and corrosive gas and Plovit eggs. She found nothing that really plucked at her heartstrings. But then she saw an exhibit that was labeled "Langston Rail Gun." She rubbed her elbow on the dusty glass and peered inside. There was one long container and two metal boxes.
Miss Tabitha had watched its removal from the museum case with alarm, convinced the mysterious weapon was cursed and that it would turn on its discoverer. But the gun, it seemed, was content to be resurrected and put to good use once again.
As well as ammunition, there was also a military instruction manual for the gun. It was a multilingual booklet with clear page protectors; the pages were a little faded but still quite legible, and included her native language. The manual was illustrated and gave easy to understand directions on maintenance, charging, loading, aiming and firing the weapon.
All these rules and directions Kes religiously followed, and in return the gun provided her and her fellow companions with fresh game and protection. Most of the dark forces that prowled that once-mighty metropolis kept their distance, knowing they had zero chances of winning against a Gerdin weapon equipped with iron bullets with copper cores and silver tips.
But even this indomitable warrior girl armed with formidable hardware was now quaking at the prospect at facing the Thing standing outside.
As she did last minute safety checks, Kes wondered if it was the very same Thing that was haunting her last two residences. Did it follow her, somehow... even across the sea?
But no sooner did that unpleasant thought enter her mind than she quickly shut it out. No, no, it's best not to think about it... best to concentrate on the here and now instead... like putting that Thing out of action for good!
Tightly clutching the Langston, Kes hurriedly scooped up some extra bullets before running back into the living room... only to skid to a halt, the ammo slipping from numb fingers to clatter on the hardwood floor.
She had expected to find an austere, nineteenth-century, rustic interior with its snowy lace curtains, unmatched assortment of furnishings and smoke-blackened granite hearth. Instead, she came straight into a large room built from salvaged parts of wrecked ships and other assorted flotsam, and lit from numerous candles and oil lamps. The warm golden light glinted off polished luxurious furniture, tapestries, rich fabrics, brass, gold and silver ornaments. The room was also full of people--a most colorful gathering of exotic people clad in the fashion of three centuries past.
Just like the midsummer celebration earlier, Kes saw a bewildering variety of alien races and species, although they were the exact opposite of the respectable refined townsfolk of Swanwick. There was much grog-swilling, raucous swearing and shouting, and pounding and dancing on tables, as well as much ogling and pinching of waitresses.
That all stopped following her abrupt entrance as everyone (aside from a few drunken louts passed out on the floor) turned to gawk at her. It was just like an Errol Flynn movie, only much worse due to the soupy miasma of odors assaulting her sinuses and numerous diabolical eyes staring at her with fixed intent. Are these people really for real? she thought, and where did my living room go... and did that Thing ever break in yet? It would probably eat up all the animals first before it gets on to wrecking the furniture!
Still keeping her eyes on this horde of ravenous-looking scoundrels, Kes backed slowly away and fumbled around for the bedroom door... only to encounter solid oak walls instead.
Miss Tabitha’s unhappy mews confirmed what she already feared--there was no exit out of this madness. Not only did she blunder straight into an earlier time period, it happened to be one of the more anarchic periods.
Well, it could have been much worse, Kes thought, as she scuttled up and down the side of the room, pounding with one hand while holding the rifle with the other. I could have wound up in the Plague Years or when the Yngui were in charge of everything.
“You seemed lost, my young friend,” came a soft voice somewhere to her left. It didn’t sound like a voice you’d expect a seafaring man to have, more like that of a country vicar or a barrister.
Yeah, I think I’ve completely lost my marbles, Kes wanted to say, but instead, she grumbled, "Someone--I don’t know who or what exactly... stole away my house I just moved into.”
"Someone pilfered away yer house?" came a voice that sounded like it belonged to a stout chain-smoker.
“Yes, they did,” she replied, her lips tightly pursed in an angry pout. Now she was pounding harder and listening with one ear against the walls, but there was no hollow sound. She turned to check to see if the pirates had moved in closer, but they had wisely kept their distance. “And just when I was going to do something very important.”
“And what would that be?” asked the meek-and-mild sounding voice.
“Blasting this Monster--Thing to smithereens,” Kes fumed, her cheeks flushing crimson.
“Monster, eh?” rasped the long-time smoker, and Kes was startled to see the speaker was in fact a woman--a witchy-faced wench with frizzy red hair.
“Yeah.” Kes gave the pirate wrench a baffled glance before continuing. “It came at midnight to my place, I thought it was someone from town at first then my cat started hissing...”
Miss Tabitha mewed, lashing her tail in great agitation.
“Oh, I then found my front and back door barred by cutlasses and dirks and rigging.” Kes looked at the crowd sharply. “You wouldn’t happen to know anything about that sort of thing.”
A silence greeted her deeper than the first. Then a man stepped from the crowd, a tall, thin wood elf in the colorful ornamented dress of a gentleman and officer of noble class.
“Did it knock?” he asked, and Kes recognized him as the first speaker.
She frowned in confusion. What difference did it make if it knocked or not? The bloody Thing wanted in!
She then nodded grimly. “Yes, it did knock... like this.” Turning, she started rapping out the number of knocks she heard--two-four followed by a pause then four-three.
A whizzing buzz distracted her, and then she noticed with extreme dismay the dirk embedded into the sleeve of her raised fist.
Whirling, she stared disbelieving at the pirates all staring back, gray-faced with fear and disbelief.
The wood elf walked forward and plucked out the dirk with ease.
“My friend,” he said as he brushed the fragments of splintered wood from the knife-blade. “I think it would be wise that you don’t continue that code signal. There’s a great chance that you might attract her attention.”
“Her?” Kes stared at him as she slowly lowered her hand. “It’s a her? Well, who is she then and why is she coming after me?”
The pirate captain nodded. He handed over the dirk to the witch redhead before turning back to Kes. “What she is now, I do not know,” he said darkly. “Who she was that I can tell. Why she wanted you to let her in, that I can also tell.” He gestured to an archway just right to the bar. “Come. We can talk comfortably in there.”
Kes balked, not liking the looks of that dark strange room. How could she be sure that there wasn’t anyone waiting among the rows of kegs with a heavy truncheon and a large burlap sack?
“Thank you,” she muttered, “but I much rather stay out here in case my door returns.”
The captain shook his head slowly. “Then you might as well wait forever,” he told her. “Those ghosts responsible for your unexpected trip aren’t going to let you back in... until you do some very important things first.”
“Such as?” Kes asked, nervously watching the flickering candle and lights, half-expecting them to turn bluish-green any second.
“Listen to my story for one,” he answered. “It might save your life one day. Come.” He turned away, and began walking toward the dark archway, followed closely by the red-maned witch.”
Kes trailed slowly along behind them, still keeping a tight grip on her rifle.
Hundreds of eyes turned to watch her as she passed, their gazes strangely full of pity.
Ch. 7--The Waif
“So what would you call this Thing exactly?” asked Kes. “It...She must have some scarifying things-that-go-bump-in-the-night name.”
The buxom pirate wench pursed her thin lips. “Around here, they called her ‘Th' Waif.’”
Kes raised a hairless eyebrow. “The Waif?”
“The Waif,” repeated the elvish captain as he led the way down the flagged, unlighted corridor, past a row of storerooms all crammed tight as a ship’s hold, until they got to double wooden doors with wrought-iron hinges and a bisected ship wheel for handles.
Stationed in front as sentries were a pair of immense, sphinx-like beasts. One of them approached Kes, reaching out a taloned paw for her gun.
“No,” she choked out as she clutched it closer. “I’d rather hang on to it.”
The beast leaned its face in close and gave a low, rumbling growl. Both the captain and his lead assistant looked at her expectantly.
“Oh, alright!” Kes grumbled. She thrust the weapon into the waiting beast’s paws. “And it’s antique,” she added as the second beast went to open the door. “So treat it with great respect.”
The first beast snorted indignantly before cracking open the rifle and emptying out the ammunition.
“But he shouldn’t do that!” Kes protested. “What if that Waif-Thing shows up here?”
“She won’t,” the redhead patted Kes’s shoulder reassuringly. “She won’t come anywhere nigh this here town ‘n now that Cap’n Jarvis Sievers be in charge.”
“And where is here then?” Kes asked as they were ushered across the threshold.
“In th’ sanctuary n’ safe harbor o’ Port Bognar,” returned the redhead, “on th’ northwest coast o’ Toria, n’ ye happen t’ be standin’ in th’ oldest standin’ structure in town--Th’ Admiral Kolchak Inn.” She then looked at Kes with a slight smile. “‘n ye happen t’ be natterin’ t’ Cap’n Jarvis Sievers’s second-in-command ‘n co-owner o’ this here establishment--Martina Cavendish.”
“Oh, my gods,” Kes swayed on her feet, her thin cheeks ash-gray, staring down at the carpeted floor. “Five-thousand, five-hundred and eighty-four point eight-hundred and eight-four miles,” she muttered. “I’ve not only gone back through time, I’ve gone across the blooming Hyperborean Sea and Sereadaland Continent.” She seemed about ready to collapse, and her hosts led her to a bench near a blazing hearth, and Martina thrust a drink into Kes’s hand which she barely noticed until she took a sip.
“What this?” Kes’s eyes bulged in shock the moment the hot, spicy drink doused her tongue. “Whisky? Port? Rice Wine?”
“Oriim ginger-ale,” Captain Jarvis replied, seating himself down in an armchair. “From a Gerdin merchant vessel we took three summers ago.”
Kes looked at him, stunned. “You took a Gerdin merchant vessel?”
“Aye,” affirmed the captain, pouring himself a drink from a crystal decatur.
“A huge, nano-steel-hulled, high-speed airship, several millenniums more advanced than your elfin technology...guided by computers and armed with sonic-pulse cannons and lightning guns?”
“Aye,” replied Captain Jarvis, swirling the orange-colored liquid in the glass. At his feet, Miss Tabitha chased after the watery light patterns on the floor. “It was carrying a cargo of spices, liquor and art objects bound for Europe, and had stopped for supplies in the port of Libertallia. We managed to replace some of the crew and soon after these saboteurs managed to disable the navigation and communication systems.” The wood elf delicately sipped his ginger-ale and scratched his pointed chin. “Never stood a chance, that ship; it was dead and drifting neat the Laputan Straits. Just needed a haul back to the nearest salvage port for a further re-fitting and redesign.”
“And the rest of the crew?” Kes asked warily.
“All swore an oath of piratical allegiance. Even the captain was happy to oblige.”
Kes looked at him inquiringly. “Didn’t they even try to fight back?”
“Ye got t’ remember, dearie,” said Martina as she plunked herself down in a crocotta-hide arm chair. “When some freebooter’s wavin’ a plasma gun in yer face ‘n tellin’ ye wha’ t’ do, ye do it wha’ he says without riddle.”
“Riddle?” Kes asked.
“Oh, okay,” Kes nodded as she glanced around the magnificent, well-lit room. Crystal chandeliers rather than candles and oil lamps bathed the room in a warm rosy glow. The diamond lattice windows were well-polished as well as the wall paneling and exquisite furniture. Lining the walls were priceless paintings and statues of various gods and mystical creatures; every niche and crannie was filled with every conceivable artifact collected all across the high seas and sky-ways. As she cast her glance along a far wall full of tribal masks and ceremonial talismans, something strange caught her attentions.
Kes stared at the object for a moment, unable to quite believe what she was seeing. It looked so out of place among the treasure trove of trinkets and trophied mementoes.
In a small, narrow, glass-sealed cubbyhole in the center of the wall stood a short, stout dress-maker’s dummy. Covering it was a full-length gown of fur-lined velvet and silk embroidered with shimmering gilt. A set of golden slippers fashioned from silk glistened at the base of the dummy.
“Where did you get these from?” muttered the perplexed Kes. “A museum?”
This costume resembled something found in either a museum or an expensive theater production; perhaps it was even a family heirloom. It looked very old. She guessed somewhere around the 14th-15th Century. Its previous owners must have been doing some tailoring on it since there were a lot of silver pins sticking out of the front.
“Not from a museum,” Captain Jarvis replied, sipping contentedly more of his ginger-ale. “It’s part of a family fortune taken from the Eastern Nye Alps, the Kingdom of Valarien to be exact.”
“Your fortune?” Kes asked.
Captain Jarvis grinned as he slowly shook his curly-haired head. “Oh no, someone else’s, of course,” he replied. “The family needed help getting rid of it...and they hired me to do it.”
“Oh, ‘family’ as in fellow pirates?” Kes guessed. Or maybe even burglars.
“No, a Highborn family that had fallen under a cloud of bad luck ever since they recently acquired the Bisharne manor estate of their great-aunt--Dowager Countess Elizabeth Van Devereux.
Kes leaned forward in her seat, her interest piqued by that familiar-sounding last name.
Martina nodded. “Aye, th' whole mess seemed t' 'ave started when th' workmen discovered a hidden attic crammed wit' chests 'n crates filled t' o'erflowin' wit' loot.” She took a sip from her glass and looked thoughtful for a moment. “Those Highborn thought they had found a hidden loot, somethin' that miserly ole crone had walled up shortly afore she kicked th' bucket. But that secret cabin soon proved t' be a tomb that concealed somethin' far worse than any black spotted mummified pharaoh.”
Kes’s brow furrowed. “A vampire?” Having read a lot of Gothic horror stories, she wasn’t at all surprised. If there was an old manor house involved, there were most certainly a lot of ghosts as well as a half a dozen rooms bricked up in the place containing hidden treasure as well as dark, dismal secrets...some of them not quite dead.
Captain Jarvis shrugged. “Perhaps. For centuries, there have been rumors of ‘not quite normal’ or fully monstrous progeny periodically appearing in the Van Devereux line. What those workmen actually witnessed in that chamber, we may never know for sure.”
“And why is that?” Kes asked. “Did they all die of shock or meet their end at the hands of whatever was imprisoned in that room?”
“Neither,” Martina replied as she downed half her drink. “Accordin' t' wha' I heard, th' new Earl 'n his bottom feeder had all work on that attic stopped 'n interrogated th' workers. Eventually, th' workers were all paid off 'n ‘persuaded' t' immigrate t' th' Outer Faerie Territories. But even several hundred thousand pounds o' hush doubloons 'n threats o' exile ain't goin' t' keep some folks from natterin'...ore keep hidden a dark 'n dreadful secret such as Th' Waif.”
“But just who is this Waif?” Kes demanded impatiently, “and what’s she doing hassling me in my century?”
“Patience, my young friend.” Captain Jarvis waved his hand and rang a small golden bell with the other. “Before we begin, I’d like you to first sample this more excellent local Stilton.”
The door promptly opened as one of the guard beasts came padding in, carrying a great wedge of greenish-yellow cheese.
Kes wasn’t much of a cheese enthusiast, but one bite from her garlic and herb-flavored slice drew an appreciative comment and a dismissal of her griping about time-consuming elfin etiquette.
Her eccentric hosts seemed to relax as soon as she sampled her first slice, and soon everyone was munching away contentedly.
“Yes, Green Moon Stilton,” said Captain Jarvis, helping himself to his eighth piece. “Reminds me of something very peculiar that had happened to my father back when he was a young lad.”
“Was he a pirate too?”
“No, no. He was the son of a wealthy farmer and landowner. Originally, he was from the Kingdom of Valarien--and grew up in the village near Bisharne Manor. Eventually, his family was forced to emigrate due to the Red Death epidemic of 1690.”
“So he probably knew the Van Devereuxes?” said Kes, feeling warm and cozy with the tabby now on her lap, and the guard beast lounging at her feet.
“Oh, yes,” Captain Jarvis replied, nodding, “and he was quite popular with the Van Devereuxes, being from one of the country’s most prosperous families. He even was an ardent suitor to the youngest daughter of the family, Clarissa.” He refilled his glass, this time with port. “He was quite the town rowdy in his youth, always ready to fight or play, and share a mug of beer with his riotous gang of loyal followers. Quite the practical joker too, always playing pranks, particularly on his best friend and rival--Arthur Gerhardt, the son of a well-to-do cheesemaker. Even though Victor’s burly physique and bullying behavior was able to scare off rivals for Clarissa’s hand, he finally met his match with Arthur’s wit, lightning speed, and chivalrous civility.
“Clarissa being the shameless flirt that she was, played the two lads off each other, resulting in Victor becoming more jealous of Arthur.”
“So when did this peculiar Stilton thing happen?” Kes asked as she took the last savory greenish-yellow fragment.
“It was at the Van Devereux’s annual All Hallows’ Eve Celebration, and as usual, Victor was quietly fuming as he watched Arthur and Clarissa dance merrily in the Earl’s grand hall.
“What about Clarissa’s older sisters?”
“They were dancing too,” Captain Jarvis answered. “Seems like every young lad was paired up and dancing, and those ladies that were still unaccompanied were either infirm or invalid or painfully plain or homely, possessed with high-pitched voices reminisced of parrots and starlings. Much to his alarm, a lady by the name of Jessy Tamron was making a beeline in his direction. Now although Jessy was an honest enough girl with a sweet disposition, Victor was rather appalled by her awkwardness as well as her most irritating habit of talking way too much.
“Backing into the buffet room, Victor quickly shut the door behind her. Looking about him, he noted the various tables loaded with artistic displays of hors d’oeuves for the up-coming feast. His attention was attracted in particular by a colorful fruit and cheese display with flowers and bird decorations. As he reached out a hand to steal a small wheel of cheese, he heard muffled giggling coming in the direction of the corridor. Just as he ducked underneath the cheese and fruit table, the rear door suddenly burst open and Clarissa rushed into the room.
“But that was impossible, for he had just seen Clarissa in the grand hall, and as flighty as she was, it wasn’t like her at all to suddenly run off right in the middle of an important dance with her parents and neighbors watching.
“But was it really her?” Kes inquired.
“At that very moment, he thought it was,” Captain Jarvis told her, “for the girl had Clarissa’s slender build with the pale aquiline features typical among young Highborn elfin ladies. She had a great quantity of silky, red-gold hair which she wore loose to go with her white and gold medieval princess gown. It was supposed to be a replica of a similar dress that had been worn by one of the former inhabitants of the estate--a Cinderella-type ancestor who married some duke’s son and moved overseas to Waldalchia.”
Kes sat up straighter in her seat, her eyes darting to the gown in the far corner.
“She even displayed Clarissa’s typical vanity as she stood before the mirror and inspected her image carefully as she preened and posed. Victor munched on his stolen Stilton thoughtfully, wondering whether if he should come out of hiding and go speak to her.
“Suddenly, something small and hard jammed against his rear molar. Victor cursed under his breath as he extracted something that resembled a flattened glass eye. As he stared in astonishment, the gem began to flicker and flame, its eerie green glow resembling that of a firefly. But it wasn’t the eye itself that made Victor’s blood run cold, but what he saw when he looked back at Clarissa again.
“Although the mirror still reflected that of a golden maiden, what he saw standing before it was a grotesque travesty.
“It resembled something you would see in a freak show or a marionette puppet theater--a human-sized doll with a bloated, cupid face with a wide frog-like grin. The loose, hanging flaps of skin was pale as a toad's belly without any blush, resembling raw bread dough in texture. The hair, instead of silky gold, was dark, matted with greasy tangles. The gold and white dress now strained at the seams, although the eyes were the same almond shape and the same light blue color as Clarissa’s, they were over-sized, nearly taking up half the face.
“Huddled under the table, Victor could only stare. So numbed with icy horror was he that he couldn’t utter a sound let alone twitch a muscle. Then he became aware of voices and approaching footsteps, and then the front door of the buffet suddenly swung open.
“Then he remembered sudden gasps and then a chorus of screams, the loudest of which was coming from Clarissa (the real one), and then running footsteps and an un-ladylike weeping, just gusty, squally sobs, followed shortly by the metallic crash of falling pastry trays. He must have fainted at some point for the next thing he knew he was on the drawing room divan. Clarissa, meanwhile lay on a nearby sofa, being attended to by her mother and several maid-servants. As soon as Victor was on his feet, and with Clarissa still unconscious, the Earl took him aside and explained what it was he had actually witnessed in the buffet room.
“No, it wasn’t a doppelganger nor a demon young Victor had seen, but a young scullery maid with dreamy ambitions and an abysmal lack of sense. A rather pitiful unfortunate, actually--besides being an orphan and a hualau/outcast human, she was possessed of a very weak understanding as well as a very uncomely appearance which the family had hidden under a veil of glamour so not to offend and frighten the other servants. Somehow the girl learned how to transform herself into the mirror image of Clarissa, perhaps even using it to her advantage.”
“So this Waif was a shape-shifter then?” said Kes, stealing a wary glance at the dress in its case.
“No, not a shape-shifter,” Captain Jarvis retorted with a shake of his coppery-bronze curls. “Being a hualau, she lacked any hereditary magic to physically transform and reshape herself nor could she decipher the arcane knowledge in books. But what she lacked in natural magic and letter smarts, she made up for in hypnotic deceit and cunning, and by sheer, stubborn will alone was able to manipulate the glamour spell that had been imposed upon her.”
“But she wasn't cunnin' enough,” Martina chimed in, “fer she was caught when she blundered into a servant comin' through aft entrance.”
“And after that?” Kes began.
“And shortly after that, she wasn’t seen again,” said Captain Jarvis with a shrug, “not in the village nor in the halls of Bisharne Manor. Normally, the abrupt dismissal of so lowly a servant wouldn’t have caused such a stir, but Anne Milton, despite all her obvious faults, was such a hard worker and a cheerful girl, always willing to lend a helpful hand without a single complaint. Now that she was gone, the other housemaids’ days of drudgery grew even longer as they tried to pick up the slack.
“‘Perhaps someone upstairs convinced Anne to disguise herself as Clarissa,’ suggested one disgruntled maid. ‘Perhaps even Clarissa herself to trick one of her hopeful, foolish suitors in some cruel jest’
“‘Or maybe she caught Anne trying on one of her dresses,’ suggested another. ‘And couldn’t even stomach the thought of a scullery maid looking handsomer in it than herself.’
“The other servants nodded silently, for they knew Clarissa could be cruel and spiteful at times. Unlike the two older sisters, Catherine and Lorraine, who were charitable enough to throw coins from their coach or pass on an old dress or two to a maid, ficklish Clarissa would rather hoard all her accessories in chests and tightly locked wardrobes for the mice and moths to nest in and nibble on. However , out of fear of losing their jobs and facing life on the streets or in a work house, they kept their hushed gossip to themselves.
“Meanwhile upstairs, the Countess Elizabeth complained loudly and openly at the deceitfulness of Anne, to have run off in the middle of the night like a common criminal rather than face honorable exile as a maid of all work for an elderly widow. The Earl fully agreed with his wife, concluding that the girl had run away to avoid the inevitable scandal and had fled to a place where she could practice her hypnotic mind trickery in secret.
“Most of the villagers thought this was unfair judgment, for it was the Van Devereuxes that gave this poor simpleton the gift of glamour in the first place. Had they left her ugly instead, this whole misfortune wouldn’t have happened.”
“Well, why didn’t the family just use a magical cure for her ‘facial deformities?’” Kes stared at him, baffled. “If she was so unhappy about her looks, then why not just give her a total make-over to make her more ‘normal’ then?”
The captain frowned. “Officially, the word was that Anne had committed the ultimate offense, ‘getting above yourself’ or ‘putting on airs and graces,’ a crime not just in Faerie, but also in the Mortal Territories of Midgard. And just for that she was fired and sent back to the Mortal Realm.”
“Which Mortal Realm?” Kes asked. “Midgard or Hualau Urth?”
“Midgard, of course,” Captain Jarvis replied, “since only the most heinous of criminals are cast into Hualau Urth.”
“But didn’t she come from Hualau Urth?”
“Aye, but a Hualau scallywag already here can't be forcibly scuttled from this world 'n sent back t' thar native realm without first bein' tried by a proper judge 'n jury,” Martina explained. “Even among th' courts o' Faerie thar are strict laws 'n regulations...especially when th' defendant in riddle be a simple-minded innocent whose only crime was t' imitate a 'blue-blood’ Th' powers that be tend t' be extremely patient 'n forgivin' in such cases.”
“And what did young Victor think?” Kes asked Captain Jarvis, her voice subdued. “Did your father believe that the Van Devereuxes were extremely patient and forgiving in their judgment of Anne?”
The captain shrugged. “He did...although he did feel some sympathy for the poor girl, but he was of the Highborn and disgrace and ruin would only follow if he had courted a scullion, especially a mere mortal one from a barbaric alien world.
“Neither he or Arthur or any one else for that matter ever brought up the subject again. And as the weeks came and went, and no word was heard of Anne, things eventually got back to normal...although it was now only Arthur Gerhardt who accompanied Clarissa on daily strolls throughout the village. Victor, much to his father’s relief, was seeing Madeline Sievers, the daughter of the village’s most prosperous apothecary and a far better-sense girl than Clarissa. He would eventually marry her.”
"But what made him change his mind about Clarissa?" muttered the perplexed Kes. "Was it because she was spoiled rotten and shallow as well as being a bit of a floozy?"
"Well that, of course," Captain Jarvis shrugged, "but it was mainly because of something she said--something about what happened to Anne."
Kes stared at him. "Well, what was it? What did she say?"
Captain Jarvis frowned as he finished his port. "What she told my father on the fifth night of the Floating Lantern Festival with all the gods on holiday was this--she absolutely detested Anne from the start even though the girl was tolerated, even welcomed, by the rest of the Van Devereux household. In her opinion, the hualau was no more than a mooncalf, lower than even a street cur or a goblin slave. But she knew people like Anne were protected not only by rules of hospitality which granted charity to any stranger, no matter how lowly in rank, but also by the gods who protected both children and people of low intellect.
“The only time of the year when the gods weren’t watching was during the first two weeks of November when they all take a holiday and tread the earth as men or beasts.”
Kes suddenly thought about all those visiting gods who suddenly swamped her Saffrasian island home. Really nice chaps, they were...except for that Coyote bloke who made off with the cappuccino maker as well as most of her summer wardrobe.
“The crime rate must be really high during those first two weeks,” Kes muttered, leaning back in her chair.
Martina shook her head. “Nah really, 'cause thar's others watchin'.”
Kes frowned. “What? You mean like local constables or helper gods?”
“No, I mean th' Jurisdiction Down Below ” Martina replied, jabbing a spidery forefinger at the floor. “Ye know th' pirate's sayin--'Davy Jones' locker doesn't loot a holiday?’”
Kes shook her head, peering over the still-sprawled out guard beast at the pointing digit.
“Well, it’s true,” Martina smiled grimly. “Davy Jones' locker doesn't loot a holiday. Sooner or later, th' blokes downstairs are goin' t' find out about any crime committed on th' first two weeks o' th' eleventh month, 'n they’re nah always th' patient sort when it comes t' waitin' around fer yer mortal coil t' shed.”
“New there were a lot of strange and unearthly legends connected to Bisharne Manor, tales of bloody family feuds and clan battles, of ghosts and grim hounds, the sort of tales you would expect with a place that started out in life as a fortified Sidhe stronghold. Some of these legends were pure rubbish, of course, celebrated and embroidered by countless Gothic writers and storytellers throughout the centuries. But a few were utterly true and one such tale stood out in its strangeness and macabreness.
“It concerns a secret attic room somewhere in the south-east corner of the manor.
“A careful examination by telescope and by looking at the ancient plans for the house, Clarissa was able to discover that one of the chimneys was a dummy, and that it concealed a door that was clearly constructed from the same kind of cemented building stone as the chimney. There was no knob nor lock for this was a very special door that could only be unlocked by a certain pattern of knocks.”
“Knocks?” Again, Kes sat up in her seat.
“The same two signals of knocks you heard earlier,” Captain Jarvis went on. “Fourteen raps in two combinations that I dare not reproduce.”
“And this was the very same room those workmen discovered years later?” she asked. “The same place where they found that dress along with the treasure trove?”
Captain Jarvis’s frown deepened as he nodded. “The very same, although Clarissa just saw the front entrance way when the door slowly swung inward--a narrow tunnel-like space with an ascending spiral of stone steps nearby. Lifting her lantern, she stared up the long upward spiral. According to the stories she had heard as a child, stories that her parents now forbade her to even discuss or ask any questions about, there were fifty steps that led to an attic that must remain locked, lest anyone entering meet with a curse causing either death or madness or complete vanishing. Who it was that first laid this curse upon this particular room was not known or why, but the family took the curse so seriously that the secret room remained locked, and the key hidden...until Clarissa found it behind a secret panel while searching her father’s desk.”
“I declare!” Kes exclaimed in disgust. “These Van Deveureux people are so bloody stupid! A desk is one of the worse places to hide stuff in, even one with secret compartments. All the hidden drawers in the Nine Worlds wouldn’t protect your precious valuables and documents from a very determined burglar or a stubborn spoiled brat!” Frowning, she stared into the crackling fire. “It’s like what happened to me when I was living in Saffrasia,” she angrily muttered. “A spoiled, snot-nosed brat hellbent on being a horse’s patoot as well as a trashy creepoid clown character stole nearly all the stuff me and my roommates put in a secure area.”
“But did this spoiled brat ever take a life?” Captain Jarvis asked pointedly.
“No, but we felt like taking hers,” was Kes’s immediate answer, “even though we managed to get most of our stuff back...and she wound up getting sent to some reform school in Medford, Massachusetts. Sure, she was a creep, a moocher as well as a thieving rat turd, but at least she wasn’t a serial killer.”
Captain Jarvis was silent for a whole minute. Then he said, “What Clarissa Van Devereux did was far more worse than mere burglary. She took a mortal life, a life of a poor hapless innocent who caused no harm to anybody. What was even worse her diabolical deed created a ravenous monster.”
“How exactly?” Kes wanted to know.
“According to my father, Clarissa claimed that after she had climbed the staircase and had slipped the key into the attic lock, an indescribably hollow, sepulchral-sounding voice told her to ‘come in.’” he explained. “Not wanting to be smitten by the curse herself or by whatever other malevolence that was lurking inside, Clarissa hurried downstairs shutting the first door behind her.
“If this plan was to ever succeed, she would have to convince Anne to open those two doors herself.
“So what does this monstrous girl do next? Well, she then goes and cleverly disguised herself with glamour and scullery clothes as Flora Heidigen--one of Anne’s few friends at Bisharne. The real Flora happened to be out in the main gardens, lighting the Wish Lanterns with the rest of the household staff. Only Anne was left, confined to her small room, forbidden to attend the festival by the furious housekeeper.
“What she thought was her friend handed her a clean handkerchief then gently brushed her hair as the girl poured out her heart. In a flurry of tears and uncontrollable sobs, Anne confessed of having on more than one occasion disguised herself as the youngest Van Devereux daughter, and slipping out when the family left to go visit friends or relatives or when the other servants weren’t looking. In those brief moments of freedom, she felt genuine love and affection. People seemed happy to be around her; men were constantly approaching her just to chat or to shower her with gifts, and sometimes she was told by random strangers how pretty she was or questioned whether she was some sort of a nymph or goddess in disguise. When she was a kitchen maid, even with her 'Plain Jane’ glamour mask, the village folk still viewed her with contempt bordering on superstitious dread. But most the people here at Bisharne completely ignored her, just like the people back in her universe, including her very own family who focused all their attention on her more gifted, better-looking siblings.
“Had she been born an elf or even an enhanced human instead of an ugly, base-born hualau, people would at least treat her as something perfect and beautiful.
“Now that she had been found out, she was going to be set away for sure. Maybe to a penal colony somewhere or worse, back home where uglies were typically treated worse than even animals.
“Geez, that poor kid!” Kes suddenly exclaimed.
Both Martina and the guard beast solemnly nod in agreement.
“I’m afraid that it only gets worse,” Captain Jarvis sighed. “Clarissa pretended to listen with a sympathetic ear then she made a suggestion. What if there was a way for Anne to get her wish answered, to be a belle of the ball instead of a lowly drudge scuttling up and down the backstairs? What if this involved walking up a hidden flight of stairs and going up into a magical attic room and releasing a Wish Lantern from one of the turret windows? Surely one of the gods might take notice and grant you the wish of beauty, but you must hurry. You mustn't dilly-dally any longer, you know; tonight you must make up your mind, because the doorway only remained visible for the first three nights of the Floating Lantern Festival before fading back into invisibility. Then beaming a bright smile, she gave Anne the stolen key, a sky lantern and careful instructions on where to go and how to open the first door. Anne agreed to this plan, but only if Flora accompanied her on the quest to the south-east corner.
“Anne was nervous because that small portion of the house was off-limits to everyone, including the Upstairs staff, plus she hadn’t been altogether well recently. Scuttling up and down the back way was made even harder by the lethargic heavy feeling dogging her footsteps and dragging her down, and then there were the dizzy spells and bouts of nausea. But Anne reassured her she was much better now, and could make the journey to the attic space.
“‘Well, I really hope it’s nothing serious then,’ said Clarissa through gritted teeth. ‘Perhaps we should call a doctor just to make sure you’re not coming down with cholera...or even halfway with child.’
“‘No, I’m not in a bad way!’ Anne stammered as she stumbled off her bed. ‘Just a slight cold...and no doctors!’ She had a real terror of them ever since she heard the bellowing screams and howls of one unfortunate patient in town who didn’t swig enough anesthetic (brandy). ‘I won’t have one of those loony butchers bleeding me with them knifes and gross slimy leeches! I’ll wish these ills away instead when I get a whole better body.”
“'Then we must make haste then,’ said Clarissa quickly, tugging impatiently at Anne’s sleeve. ‘The sooner you get that lantern into the air, the more likely your wishes will be answered.’
“To avoid detection by either the housekeeper or butler, they decided to use the back stairs, Clarissa leading the way with Anne, nervously alert for the dreaded jingling of the housekeeper’s keys, slowly followng along like a frightened mouse.
“Finally they climbed the last set of creaking stairs till they were standing in front of the false chimney.
“‘Now remember what I told you about the knocks,' Clarissa whispered.
Anne nodded slowly before timidly knocking the signal, but midway through she hesitated.
“‘I don’t know, Flora,’ she looked pleadingly at the impostor. ‘I don’t think I can manage this all by myself. Supposing I meet something up there in the dark?’
“‘Anne, this is no time for any of your wild fancies,’ said Clarissa firmly. ‘There's nothing up there except for some mice and cobwebs and some old furniture. We’ve discussed this already; the wish can only work if there’s one person at a time--not two or three or more.’
“Anne’s brow furrowed worriedly. 'You’ll be right here at this door keeping watch...and if I need any help?’
“Smiling, Clarissa patted the girl’s arm gently. ‘I’ll stay right,’ she assured Anne. ‘Now hurry and finish those knocks.’
“And when the stone door swung inward again, and when Anne, shaking with fright and holding the flickering paper lantern high, crept into the dust-filled space and up the stairs, Clarissa waited.
“When she no longer saw the glow of the lantern, she tapped the code in reverse on the door and it immediately sealed shut. Then hurrying down the stairs and out the back entrance, she emerged into the rear courtyard. Then turning to look at the south-east corner, she soon saw a ball of yellow-orange light slowly working its way from one small garret window to another as if the lantern bearer was searching for a loose-enough latch. Then the light disappeared abruptly as though its owner had been suddenly jerked away. Then came what sounded like a faint scream followed by utter silence.
“Clarissa waited ten minutes, fifteen, and then twenty, but there was no sign of further moment from the sixth floor. It was all quiet and dark as a grave up in that small corner of the house. Finally, she came back inside and changed out of her Flora disguise before rejoining her family out on the lawn. Nothing in her carefree and frivolous demeanor to suggest that she was guilty of perpetrating a most perfect and horrendous crime."
“Well, it would have been a perfect crime if that murderous witch hadn’t told your father about it,” Kes muttered, fidgeting around in her seat. “Exactly why would she do that anyway? Was she furious at him for mistaking Anne for her? Did she also suspect him of...Uh.” Blushing, she faltered for a moment. “Well, you know...doing something more than just strolling about and holding hands.”
“Even though my father was a rowdy and boisterous troublemaker, never once did he behave dishonorably toward a woman. He knew any caddish behavior would reflect rather badly on his family and would be a very difficult time for him socially." Captain Jarvis picked up a long-stemmed pipe from the table next to him. With a snap of his fingers, a small flame suddenly danced on his fingertip.
Wow, that’s really convenient, Kes thought, staring as he lit the pipe and puffed out clouds of blue-gray smoke.
“My father lived in a strait-laced, staunchly conservative town where everyone made a habit of knowing everyone else’s business and any rumor spread like wildfire.” Captain Jarvis shook his hand to put out the flame. “It was the practice of the village elders to keep a close watch on the younger members of the community, especially any courting couples.”
Kes frowned. “Kind of like the morality patrols back in my homeland.”
The captain nodded as he puffed on his pipe. “Exactly. Whenever he, Arthur and Clarissa appeared in public together, there was always some old neighbor striving to keep up with their long strides. My father was always under intense scrutiny since he was an openly rebellious young man and not of the High Aristocratic station that Clarissa and Arthur belonged to.”
Kes looked confused. “Wait, his friend was an aristocrat... as well as a cheese-maker?”
Captain Jarvis blew out a stream of smoke. “Not all the rich lead idle and luxurious lives. Some would rather work hard rather then waste their time going to gaudy balls and tedious social functions.
“But unlike Arthur, whose head was full of pompous, self-absorbed daydreams and esoteric lore, Victor was a down-to-earth realist who wasn’t blinded by lust nor greedy ambition. So it must have come to a total shock to my father when the object of his passion suddenly confessed to a heinous crime. All his heartfelt yearning to beseech her hand in marriage was suddenly turned to cold ash.” Captain Jarvis blew out another stream of smoke. “What Clarissa’s exact motives behind her confession...we can only speculate. Perhaps out of boastful pride and sheer boredom. Most certainly not out of guilt or remorse for that girl felt not one ounce of sympathy nor sadness for what she did to poor Anne Milton.”
Kes’s eyes narrowed as a hot flush of anger clenched her jaw. “Did your father ever tell anyone else about this...like to a local constable or a priest or maybe even to his friend Arthur?”
The elf looked up at the ceiling. “My father only told one other person about this; his father (my grandfather). The senior Boisvert’s face was set hard and stiff as he listened to every word. He had always suspected there was something a little off with Clarissa, way before Anne Milton ever made an appearance. She was also well aware of the rumors floating around about the taint of insanity in the Van Devereux bloodline, as well as a cruel and frightening curse that sometimes affected outsiders marrying into the family. Not wanting a terrible fate to befall his only son and surviving heir, he forbade Victor from having any more contact with Clarissa.
“At any other time, Victor would have fought his father’s decision, his ego pushing him to stay with Clarissa despite knowing she wasn’t capable of even taking responsibility for her own actions or of even truly loving anyone. Instead, he took heed of his father’s advice and promptly broke off the engagement, leaving Clarissa in a huff and a lot of people scratching their heads in bafflement. Perhaps Victor got tried of waiting for her to propose to him, they thought. Perhaps he even got tired of trying to satisfy her every whim, trying to outdo the lavish worship of his more sly and spindly rival Arthur Gerhardt.
“Victor, meanwhile, remained stoic and silent through it all; neither he nor his father made any mention of Clarissa’s stunning confession.”
“But why keep silent?” Kes exclaimed as she absentmindedly stroked the tabby resting on her lap. “That vicious tart just fed some poor defenseless girl to some ghost monster!”
“Fer fear,” Martina muttered, shifting in her seat and drawing on a large cigar.
Kes looked over at her. “Fear of what? The monster in the attic?”
Captain Jarvis shook his head as he tapped his pipe on a crab ashtray. “No, of Clarissa herself...for this coquettish temptress was an incredible manipulator and was capable of turning people against the Boisverts, since there was never a shortage of allies and champions ready to defend a pretty girl’s perceived honor.”
“Hmm...” Kes thoughtfully tapped the chair arm with her claws. “That lil’ minx was definitely a witch or else a succubus. Whatever happened to her...did she die of the Red Death or get eaten by the same thing that got Anne?”
“That’s where the story takes a more bizarre turn,” Captain Jarvis replied gravely, “although it had started out ordinarily enough.
"Weeks passed then months. Another scullery maid scrubbed Bisharne’s passageway and kitchen floors. Victor took up with Madeline Siever while Arthur continued to pursue Clarissa although he now had to compete with a crowd of new suitors. Life continued as before. It was as though Anne Milton had never existed, as though an iron door had slammed shut on that memory in Victor’s mind. And then on the first anniversary of Anne’s disappearance, the nightmares began.”
Ch. 8-- Oubliette
“Nightmares?” Kes asked. “About Anne’s ghost coming to haunt him?”
“Anne’s ghost?” Captain Jarvis gave a nervous chuckle. “My father wished it was.”
“Wished it was?” Kes repeated in confusion.
“Because a ghost is still a person, even though it is dead and without a body. It still possesses human thought and emotion. What my father saw was a demon.
“Victor began having a sequence of disturbing dreams. In the first dream, he entered Bisharne Manor and then proceeded up the six flights of stairs where he finally entered the strange attic room, alone--”
“What did he find up there?” asked Kes, interrupting.
“I was just coming to that. He found nothing--no footprints, no scuff marks or even a bloodstain. Not even a deflated paper lantern. Just what you expect to find in a rich family’s attic--old furniture, stacks of books, wardrobes and trunks full of musty, assorted clothes, miscellaneous bric-a-brac. However, something was off about the entire room in general. Aside from it being too large for such a small garret space...there was also a door in back of that space, which he soon discovered the next night led to yet another new room--or yet another door. As he moved from one heavily decorated and spacious room to another, Victor noticed the initial V embellished on every visible object within these interiors--including that of the wallpaper. After three more nights of exploring, he finally understood where he was. He was in the Lost Rooms of the Van Devereuxes.”
Kes stared. “Lost Rooms?”
“The Lost Rooms of Bisharne Manor,” Captain Jarvis went on. “It’s a well-known Valarian legend. The original building used to have been a massive castle, passing through several great dynasties before it came to be held by the Van Devereuxes. Used to contain about 1,000 rooms until someone fooled around with some black magic, and teleported 754 of those rooms all around the multiverse. It also brought about a curse that corrupted their bloodline, leading to various kinds of physical or mental aberrations.
“Well, that explains why that Clarissa girl’s so weird,” Kes muttered. “Of course, it could have also been the result of a few missing vital genetic components due to a shallow gene pool.”
“It might also jus' be 'cause she was th' youngest o' three sisters, 'n th' spoiled rotten apple o' th' lot,” Martina broke in. “A few o' th' Highborn families are like that, devoid o' most moral restraints, favorin' th' pretty o'er th' plain. At least th' two older ones showed enough sense t' elope wit' foreigners even though they were disowned fer doin' so.”
“But Victor would only learn about those defections years later.” Captain Jarvis paused as he puffed on his pipe some more. “That, however is a whole different story...Well, as I was saying, my father soon realized he was traversing through the famous Lost Rooms. Eventually, he started keeping a journal on his nightly travels. It would be impossible to describe every door and room he passed through in such a short time, but he had little to fear in the beginning.
"And why was that?" Kes asked.
“Because there was life within those rooms,” he replied. “Life that despite all its foreignness, was somehow very familiar to him--elderly club members reading newspapers and being served by dapper waiters, people having tea-with-gossip sessions, college students studying or raising hell, dragons and other hoarding creatures lounging on various furniture, surrounded by the Van Devereuxes 'misplaced’ wealth. None of these folk seemed to be aware of the passages between their worlds nor were they aware of my father’s presence. He moved noiselessly like a ghost, watching as the various inhabitants casually went about their daily lives.
“As he moved further and further into the ‘House,’ he began to grow uneasy. The rooms were changing, growing more decrepit and disused. What people he saw acted skittish like frightened birds or mice. He knew somehow that he was in a haunted possibly even cursed territory and something bad was going to happen to him should he reach his final destination. Each night, he would awake in a heavy sweat, heart pounding, limbs shaking. Each time, he managed to get through several rooms, but always woke just before reaching the basement door. He knew something horrible was lurking down in that place. The door was not only nailed and padlocked shut. It was also surrounded by a circle of salt and quicklime."
“And did he ever open that door?” Kes asked, now sitting rigid and straight.
“No,” the captain replied, shaking his head. “He dared not go near it, although he feared he would pass through it like he did all the other doors previously. It was a plague door, marked with an ominous red X with an inscription scrawled across it--DO NOT ENTER...NO MATTER HOW MUCH THEY WILL CRY, NO MATTER HOW MUCH THEY WILL BEG...NEVER, EVER OPEN THIS DOOR!
"It wasn't until the third night of his discovery that ‘THEY’ finally made their appearance known.
"As Victor stared at the door, it began to rapidly shake as a scratching sound suddenly erupted from beyond the barrier. An icy chill slowly prickled its way down his back as he listened as the scratching rose higher than any dog could possibly reach. The scratching stopped as he shrank backwards and flattened himself against the walls.
"An animal, Victor thought, then he discarded the idea the moment he heard the footsteps. They moved to the center of the door and then the scratching began anew. The door started shaking violently as Victor scanned the wall behind him for an exit. Then a pleading voice cut into his frantic thoughts, startling him and making him look again in the direction of the door.
“‘Psssssst...hey, mister. Psssssst, mister.’
"The whispering came from a widened crack running down the center of the door, which now proved to be two doors. Pallid stubby fingers protruded beseechingly between the padlocked chains and stout nailed beams. Their nails were ragged and broken, caked with blackened grime and smears of dried blood.
“‘Pssssss...hey, mister. Pssssss, mister!’ Movement stirred within the inky blackness of the narrow crack as a thin reedy voice spoke. ‘Please, I need your help.’
“‘Help?’ Victor asked, startled to hear his own voice echo hollowly within this strange dream world of cluttered storerooms, inhabited only by broken puppets and hybrid mannequins.
“‘Help getting free.’ The soft voice was barely audible over the wind blowing through the corridors of the abandoned warehouse, but it was clearly that of a child, maybe a young girl. ‘You’re the only one who can help me now.’
“‘This is a magic door,’ the voice told him. ‘It can only be opened by someone with magic. It can’t be opened by an ordinary human. That’s what the Witches told us before they slammed the door in our faces.’
“There was a high-pitched whimpering that reminded Victor more of a whipped dog than a crying child.
“‘The ones who built this Gate,’ the voice stammered out. ‘The mutants, the ones calling themselves the Ainsel, the Esk, the Nye-Am and all the other Espers, Psykes and Wild Tallants.’
“Victor gave a start.
“The names mentioned were of the various abhuman and magic-wielding tribes scattered in colonies throughout the Nine Worlds. Now he realized which particular world stood outside the door he was now facing--the Old Mother Earth or Terra where all the mutants and magic-users had originated, and from where they had fled centuries ago to escape oppression and annihilation from the ‘normal’ majority government.
“The voice went on bitterly, but now Victor was really afraid. He just wanted to leave. He didn’t want to listen anymore, he just wanted this dream to stop so could go back to his comfortably familiar bed to his comfortably familiar life, but the voice kept going on and on.
“‘They called us Hiiet and Hualau, creatures of absolute chaos and disorder; vile, disgusting beasts that ruin everything we touch. They said that we’re a walking virus factory, that the merest touch or breath from us could cancel out the most powerful spells and wipe out a nonhuman community in an instant. That even our shadows are deadly weapons, able to siphon away at the mind and soul. But we’re not monsters and inborn killers. We are simply normal people wanting just a safe place to live, like you Magic Folk...a place where we can live out lives in security and peace.’
“It was suddenly all very quiet except for the soft sobbing beyond the door. Victor felt his eyes filled with tears. He thought of poor Anne forced to disguise herself in glamour to hide her hideous hualau form. Where was she now? he wondered. Dead or going through even more lost suffering like this poor wretch.
“‘What can I do?’ Victor cried out. ‘I don’t know anything about galdrar magic!’
“‘Break the sigils on the locks,’ the voice answered.
"He growled slightly as his gaze flickered over the padlocks and nailed beams. Then he saw patterns slowly emerging from the wood and metal surfaces, ranging from simple lines to squiggles to elaborate runes and wheel patterns. They glowed with a faint silver-white light, resembling dew covered cobwebs glistening in early morning light.
“‘Break them how?’ His brow knitted as he clenched his fists. It somehow felt wrong to demolish an old magical relic built by an ancient people. If he was violating sacred ground, he might definitely incur the wrath of whatever powers might still lurk here...but if there was a life at stake, an innocent life unjustly punished with exile for the crimes committed by a few...
"There was a moment and a dry scraping noise at the entrance, and then an object whirled from the opening and clattered to the ground in front of him. Cautiously, he picked up the glinting steel thing, and examined it closely. It appeared to be a folding knife of some kind, but no amount of flicking or prying could induce a blade to appear...until he happened to press down on a polished bolt jutting from one side. Immediately, a thin stiletto blade sprang into being, flecked with rust and what looked like black mold.
“The voice spoke again, more clearly now, ‘With blood. Break them with your blood.’
“Victor stood silent for a moment. Then a cold chill settled over him as he realized what he was expected to do.
“‘This blade just won’t do, it’s much too blunt,’ he finally said in a choked whisper. ‘But I might have a whetstone with me.’
“Trembling, Victor thrust his hand into the pocket of his nightshirt and pretended to make a search for said stone. That was when his fingers felt something small and round, and with a look of surprise, he pulled it out.
“Peering back at him was the emerald and silver ‘monocle'--the very same one he had discovered inside some cheese at last year’s All Hallows’ Eve party.
“‘Weeeell?’ said the voice, impatiently. ‘Have you found that wet stone yet?’
“It didn’t sound like a little girl now nor anything with a human-shaped mouth or throat or lungs.
“‘Have you?’ it rasped again.
“Shoving the gem back into his pocket, Victor turned slowly to face the doorway and then froze rigid and still, terror clutching icily at his throat.
"The double doors and the various barricades had suddenly become as transparent as window glass. Fronting them was a vast iron gate flanked by massive granite pillars. A tall scrawny figure was leaning up against the ironwork, its long stick-like arms gripping the doors standing just a few inches away. What skin that wasn’t covered with filthy, black-stained rags was slate-gray and leprous. The scraggly hair that mercifully covered its face hung in clumpy tangled strands, greenish-black with a hint of pale red.
“‘Well, have you found it or haven’t you?’ it gargled dryly.
“Victor swallowed several times before replying with a stammered, ‘Y-yes, but...the stone is dry...and....and I must go and wet it.’
“As he turned away, his gaze happened to fall upon one of the mannequins sprawled out on the wooden floor, a small pathetic figure clad in the tattered, dusty remnants of a serving maid’s outfit. Looking closer, he was suddenly grateful that the figure was lying facedown with its head mostly obscured by a ruffled cap. He had seen one of the thin, bony arms splayed out clutching in its dried withered hand the broken wooden frame of an oiled paper lantern.
“‘Great Dagda!’ Victor breathed hoarsely, as his skin crawled with rising gooseflesh. Was this dried, dead thing all that remained of poor Anne Milton?
“As he stared down, his face contorting with astonishment and horror, there was a sudden sliding, scraping noise and then the leathery brown arm lunged forward, its bony, claw-like hand encircling his ankle in a vise-like grip.”
“‘You know,’ the voice behind him said grimly, ‘I don't like when people lie to me.’
Ch. 9-- Strigoi Mort
Kes sat motionless, her knuckles turning white as her fingers dug deep into the cushion of her seat.
There was no sound in the room except for the guard beast stirring up the fire and the contended purring of a tabby cat. Outside the lattice windows, the gray twilight deepened as the lamp posts were lit and a night watchman called out the hour.
“Wha...what happened next?” she finally stammered out.
Captain Jarvis paused for a minute, tapping out his pipe and checking his gold pocket watch. “The next thing Victor knew he was back in bed, drenched in sweat and tears of pure terror. Trembling, he peered around the dark room. Although it was supposed to be a pleasant spell of Indian summer, the air felt strangely cold to chill his limbs and frost his breath. Eventually, he got up enough strength and nerve to build a fire, and when the room was all toasty and warm, he went back to bed.”
“What? He went back to bed?” Kes stammered in amazement. Yanking her claws from the padded seat, she began rubbing her numb fingers. “Your dad really had a lot of nerves to do that. I mean, had it been me, I would have been booking it out the door and down the road to the nearest priest or shaman’s house.”
“Yes,” the captain chuckled and shook his head. “Quite a brave man my father was, and a rather practical man too. He might have even dismissed his nightly journeys through the Lost Rooms of legend as nothing more than just a continuous lucid dream brought on by his rather traumatic break-up with Clarissa, on top of that, Clarissa’s bizarre murder confession.
Then his expression grew solemn and serious. “It was only afterwards that he became really afraid.”
“Because he found the knife and the grab marks on his ankle the next morning?” Kes guessed.
The captain shook his head as he put out his pipe. “No, he found neither a knife nor any bruises or scratches on his ankle...nor did he find the ‘monocle’ that granted him clarity to see what truly was there.
“As usual, he went through his morning rituals--getting up, getting dressed, plunging his face into a basin of cold water and running a comb through his coal-black hair. Yet as he went to push open the door of his chamber, it opened a few inches before jamming against something hard and solid.
“Victor shoved and pounded the door in frustration, yet it still wouldn’t budge. It was like a log or a stack of grain sacks was wedged up tight against the bottom. Finally, he slammed his shoulder against the door and it suddenly gave, swinging outward to crash into the wall. He nearly lost his balance, but caught himself just in time. That was when a pungent, vile odor hit his nostrils, almost causing him to gag and retch. Slowly he turned his gaze downward as dread welled in his heart.
“The floor near the doorway was covered by a large puddle of greenish-black ooze and crawling with small, wriggling maggots.
“As he choked back his nausea, he noticed the gangrenous pool was in the shape of a person lying flat out against the floor.
“Apparently the mysterious weight blocking the door was some grisly, slithering horror that had followed him back from that accursed place containing the Gate...or was it possibly the same nameless horror that first spoke to him in the voice of a child?
“He didn’t know, but was filled with even more terror when he looked at the outside of the door. The heavy oak door was deeply scored with ragged gorges, not just from claws but also from teeth that must have been the size of pike heads. Wondering why the thing tried to gain entry through the door rather than through the window which had been left open the entire night, Victor made a careful search of the window sill. Expecting to find some protective hex signs or yet another strange talisman, he found instead a spider web spread across the open space of his window.”
Kes’s mouth dropped open. “Wait...the thing was afraid of an ordinary spider?”
Captain Jarvis nodded, smiling wryly. “Not just the spider, but the web itself which is considered a protective symbol, and quite a common one too. The humans even weave them into their dream catcher talismans.”
Kes’s plucked eyebrows rose. “But ...why spiders? I don’t get it...why the hell would an undead monster be scared of spiders? This particular beastie sounded freakin’ huge if it could tear up a solid oak door, and you would think something that terrifyingly huge and horrific would be able to handle a little garden spider. It’s like...” she pondered a bit before continuing. “Oh, I don’t know...like an elephant being afraid of a gnat.”
“Perhaps I can explain this to our young guest,” said a soft trilling voice.
Startled, Kes stared at the guard beast as the creature got up from its crouch by the fire. Despite its obvious creepiness, it was rather distinguished-looking with its aristocratic leonine head sporting a luxurious black mane mingled with bluish-green scales. As its head moved in the lamp and firelight, the texture shifted and shone like the plumage on a peacock.
“Arachnophobia isn’t that unusual,” the creature went on. “A lot of people are afraid of spiders, including a lot of hualau. Perhaps this scullery maid possessed this phobia, perhaps a much earlier victim. The Waif devoured this poor unfortunate and in doing so, gained the victim’s essence.”
“Essence as in the soul bit?” Kes asked, wondering if this particular creature was a he-sphinx or a she-sphinx or maybe even both.
“No,” the creature chirped, “the ‘soul bit’ or life spark or animating force leaves the body after death. It may enter some form of afterlife or pass into the next reincarnation. But there is still remnants left of the deceased in the fresh blood, in the brain tissue--memories, fears and desires...stuff a strigoi mort-like thing could gain through consumption.”
“What do you mean--strigoi mort?” Kes asked. “Do you mean vampires?”
“Aye, that’s what some of the Romanian emigrants call the Waif around here,” the sphinx explained. “Some strigoi or strigoi viu (living strigoi) can be living people with certain magical abilities-- shape-shifting, invisibility, causing drought or dropping hail. The strigoi mort (dead strigoi) is much more dangerous. Its nature is ambiguous and unpredictable as a wild beast. Basically, it is a reanimated corpse of someone buried without proper rites or who was wicked in life. Though I am not absolutely sure if that's what the Waif truly is. I’m not even certain about her country of origin, whether she be native to this world or hualau-born, but one thing is certain--it’s that Devereux slut’s fault that Thing was loosen upon this realm in the first place. It was a foul deed what she did that November night, and on what should have been an auspicious time of the year. She snuffed out an innocent life, and in doing so broke open a door to the Unknown, without knowing or caring what might pass through. Not only that, this uninvited guest would go on to consume more innocent lives in the decades that followed."
“Then who exactly opened the Last Door?” Kes exclaimed. “The one that had all those sigils on it? Certainly not Victor since he stayed well away from it.”
The sphinx shrugged. “Bit of a mystery there. Perhaps another person traveled the same dream route as the captain’s father, and foolishly heeded the creature’s pleas.”
“Or else, th' varmint gained access t' a less secured Gate,” Martina interjected. “Maybe even joined a group o' human emigrants migratin' t' Midgard. Like wolves 'n sharks, vampires tend t' follow thar prey.”
“Did you ever see this Waif?” Kes asked her.
“Yeah, I’ve seen her,” Martina replied, flicking the ash from her cigar into the fireplace. “Sometimes she would look like that long gone scullery maid--squat 'n toad-like, sometimes as a scrawny, ratty-lookin', big-eyed thin' wrapped in filthy rags. She might 'ave looked weak 'n puny, but woe t' th' poor bastard who underestimated her. She was willin' t' fight back, 'n quite ferociously too- ripped apart or wounded many a grub Folk afore a silver-coated throwing axe t' th' throat brought her down.”
“What?” Kes stared at her incredulously. “You guys finally killed the Waif?”
“Her earthly remains at least.” Jarvis’s antennae eyebrows furrowed as his face set in a sharp frown. “Wasn’t much left of the corpse when we finally retrieved it from the townsfolk...”
“The mob?” Kes began.
“No,” Captain Jarvis fixed his bright golden eyes on hers, “although they were about to administer mob justice, but the moment the head was detached, the body immediately began to blacken and rot until not one particle of flesh remained on the bones, and they were very old bones too--yellowed and earth-stained with only damp rags and dried sinews holding them together. Certainly not the bones of someone who had died in a dry, enclosed space--such as an old warehouse somewhere in the desert.”
“But were they really human bones?” Kes wanted to know. “And were they that of a young girl?”
The pirate captain looked pained and shook his head. “I’m afraid I don’t have the answer to that,” he replied. “The body was half-decomposed, and the head was missing--perhaps smashed to pieces or else stolen away as a trophy.”
“Or else it could have sprouted legs and crawled off,” Kes remarked, remembering the scene with Norris’s head in The Thing."
Everyone looked at her inquiringly.
“I saw a moving picture play about a vampire-demon-thing that ate people and took on their form,” she hastily explained.
“Oh,” everyone nodded understandably.
“Well, that’s a slight possibility,” said Captain Jarvis, consulting his pocket watch once more. “But at the time, we didn’t stand around asking such questions. We just burnt what was left of the Waif and cast the ashes far out to sea and yet, she came back.”
“How?” asked Kes.
“Who can say for sure?” said Captain Jarvis, clicking his watch shut. “The Waif goes in defiance of every natural rule. There should have been nothing left to walk in the night once the body was gone. Yet she walked and scratched and whined and cried in the night, even knocking out the code to the attic room, begging to be let in, and sometimes she was...always by some new residents who didn’t know the local legends or simply dismissed them as just another boogie-story to frighten misbehaving children. We find them in the morning either driven completely insane or a dried-out husk.
“Eventually, we had to send for this French-Hawaiian exorcist, this rather little debonair man with a waxed, curled-up mustache Well, he may have looked small and runty, but he certainly packed a wallop when it came down to courage and incantation. And his will proved strong enough to drive the Waif far from the streets of Port Bognar and forced her down into the first place she ever haunted.”
“First place she ever haunted?” Kes asked, baffled. “What? Like Bisharne Manor?”
“No, back in Midgard,” said Captain Jarvis with a shrug. “The French kahuna wouldn’t say where exactly, except that the place was known as Lake Una, a small lake or pond out in the desert reputed to be bottomless and guarded by demons. There, the Waif was bound to empty the pool with only the help of a small limpet shell. Yet he felt pity for the creature in spite of all the mayhem and carnage she caused, and so split her in twain so that she would not only have a companion, but her in her never-ending task.”
Kes blanched as she nearly swallowed her tongue. “Two!” she finally blurted out. “There are two of those damned things running about?”
“Must be,” Martina puffed on her cigar nonchalantly. “Either someone released her from th' Endless Task or th' pond dried up...or thar's still another possibility.”
“Like what?” asked Kes, her nostrils flaring slightly with annoyance.
“Like th' Waif's pretty much like a starfish,” explained Martina. “Ye cut one in half, this two pieces eventually grow into two new starfishies.”
Kes started to rise from her seat, an expression of horror spreading across her face.
Martina laughed and shook her head. “I'm only kiddin' wit' ye, poppet. Waify can't grow into two separate scallywags, 'cause she's jus' spirit now, 'n 'tis her soul that's split.”
“Martina, enough.” Jarvis gave his first mate a stern look before turning back to his guest. “Don’t worry, Kes, you’re safe.”
“I would like very much to go home now,” said Kes as she sat back down, “and I would also like my rifle back with all its ammunition intact...if you please.”
She noticed glances exchanged between the two pirates and the sphinx, and felt a sudden chill of apprehension.
“Well, I’m afraid it really isn’t that simple,” said Captain Jarvis gravely. “You see, that particular portal you passed through happened to be part of the Lost Rooms of Bisharne.”
“Yeah, so what’s the problem then?” said Kes impatiently. “You just tell those ghosts of yours to bring back another working porter...and while they’re at it drop-kick that Waif-demon into whatever hualau hell pit she crawled out of!”
“The problem is that there’s a curse on this door,” replied Captain Jarvis darkly.
“Curse!” cried Kes. “But it didn’t affect your father when he went through the Lost Rooms!”
“He didn’t go through all 754 of them,” Captain Jarvis explained, “and he was in spirit form at the time so he escaped their notice.”
“Whose notice?” said Kes, growing more confused and alarmed, “and what does this curse do exactly? Am I going to end up like that hapless scullery maid in your story--all dried-up and gross?”
“Well, nothing final like that,” Captain Jarvis explained, “but there’s a great chance you might wind up losing something very precious. Very precious indeed.”
“Like what exactly?” Kes burst out. “Blood? Bodily organs? One of my eyeballs?”
"Most likely a soul,” replied the sphinx impassively, “since your people have more than one.”
Kes snorted. “Well, I’m planning on keeping all nine of them, thank you very much,” she said as she leaped up and scrambled for the door. “No freakin’ way am I forking them over to a...” She glanced back at her hosts, puzzled. “What exactly are these things that are supposed to be coming?”
She heard the bells from some shrine or chapel striking midnight. Outside, a sudden wind rose up, gusting through the streets, scraping branches against the windows, rattling doors and loose shutters. She squeaked when she heard a ground-floor door slam open. Then the sound of the wind hissing and rattling up the cellar stairs and into the passageway outside Captain Jarvis’s study.
“They’re called the D'uralihr or the Threshold Guardians,” Captain Jarvis explained, getting up out of his chair, “and they really like to gamble so you might have a great chance at winning, if you’re lucky, that is.”
Kes looked over her shoulder at him then back at the door which trembled and strained at its hinges.
“And if I’m unlucky?” she asked as she quickly dodged behind the captain’s chair.
Captain Jarvis remained unperturbed as he studied the violently shaking door. “If you’re unlucky,” he said finally, “then they’re going to make you sample a bit of their cooking.”
Written by Mmpratt99 deviantart
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