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Ch 1--What Happened Before
- Be wary then; best safety lies in fear.
- From "Hamlet". By William Shakespeare, English playwright and poet (1564 - 1616).
From the Journal Entry of Kes Allyntahl.
The house I had lived in was one of the oldest in town, and I knew this because despite new ownership, the locals still referred to the place after the original occupants--the Herons.
Heron Manor, as it was called, looked more like a frog than a heron. The house had none of the angular grace and spiky dignity of a heron. It was a low and rounded house with white plaster walls and a roof of thatched reed, plopped on a low hill above a marshy stream. Whoever had built the house had not liked straight lines; the corners were rounded as were the windows and a South facing bay window. It was an humorous house, with a certain froggy charm. The sort of house inhabited by harmless amiable bumpkins, whose conversations were full of fish caught and balls hit.
It was a happy house. Surely, I thought, nothing could possibly go wrong in such a picturesque, bucolic locale. No chaos or crazy things were going to happen to me out here.
I was so very wrong.
Year of the Silver Tiger
Heron Manor, Swanwick Coast
4th of Sept. 2012
Kes was curled up beneath her embroidered down covers. Its quilted layers were supposed to offer the occupant a comfy warm space to creep under and shut out the outside world. Yet her dreams were far from comforting.
In this dream, a steady stream of skunks was pursuing her. They were gamboling merrily along, while Kes shrieked and clawed her way desperately through air as thick as molasses.
Despite her frantic efforts, she only achieved the same rate of speed of an ordinary skunk plodding along in its usual flat-footed gait. Suddenly she was covered with them, hundreds, perhaps thousands, maybe even tens of thousands. She could feel their pudgy-clawed feet digging hard into her backside. At the same time there came an unmentionable odor that made her gorge rise.
Kes opened her eyes slowly and blearily. Reluctantly, she glanced up at the window at the foot of the bed. The advancing dawn made the bedroom shutters a luminous pattern. To Kes, it was a blurred smear of light that hung in the semi-darkness like a faint reflection in a dark pool.
She tried to pull the covers over her head, but they were caught under something. Working one hand loose from underneath the sheet, she fumbled around and felt something heavy and furry lounging between her shoulder blades.
Purring loudly, Miss Tabitha began kneading her claws into Kes's back as if it was a soft plush cushion. Squeaky was another leaden weight laying across her two twitching feet.
"Ow," said Kes, rolling the tabby off.
Miss Tabitha gave a little mew of disapproval and then jumped back onto Kes's shoulder. She started digging in her claws again.
“Hey, quit that," said Kes, rolling her aside again.
The cat went back to her favorite sleeping spot.
"Okay," muttered Kes, giving up. "You can stay there. Just don't claw me again."
With an exasperated sigh, she closed her eyes and tried to get back to sleep. A faint noxious odor made her think otherwise.
Of course, she thought, with that smell and the cats sleeping on me, it's no wonder I dreamed of skunks chasing me.
She wondered why of all places in the forest did the skunk had to let loose a barrage near the front door? Hopefully, the smell didn't seep through enough to permeate her clothes and carpeting. Scratching her head, she also wondered if the skunk's visitation was a sign, a warning even of something big and terrible was about to happen.
She rolled her eyes at this superstitious notion. Lighten up, Kes. You're seeing omens everywhere, even in the mundane actions of innocent woodland creatures.
Eventually, she rolled the cat to one side, stretched, and then slipped on her buckskins. From her bureau she got two large bath towels and her brush, which she stuffed into her shirt pocket. Then she walked outside, and down a narrow path through the forest.
Kes tried to make it her daily devotion to go down to the river and bathe before breakfast and dinner. She only did it during the summer months. During the winter, however, she would heat the water in a kettle and pour it into a washtub. Although there were hot springs in the Yggdrasil Wood, she no longer used them when she was informed of the Rules. New Residents to the Quinarth Rim Area were always told of the Rules, and usually, they obeyed them after they heard the numerous terrifying stories of people who had dared explore this dense wooded area after sunset.
“Eff'n yo' sh'd evah venture into th' Yggdrasil Wood, keep t'th' Long Trail an' don’t go too far in an' avoid gwine into th' Woods at night.”
The Rule Informer happened to be a be a troll woman who went by the name of Madame Mosley. Although grotesquely ugly with a red face, a droopy nose like a bulbous, wart-covered squash and crooked yellowed teeth protruding over her wide lips, Kes listened with grave courtesy and did not flinch as the crone tore greedily at the food with long claw-like nails and slurped her tea noisily.
It was only a week ago when Kes was first made aware of the rules. They were in the living room of Heron Manor. Many interesting things adorned the room--beautifully made clothing of sewn pelts and embroidery hung from the walls as well as the rafters, along with all kinds of ornamented objects. Numerous shelves were full of old books on plants and animal identification, carpentry and home improvement, woodcraft, bush-lore and trapping.
Kes took a sip of her tea and then heaved a deep sigh of disappointment.
“I guess going to those hot springs is out then,” she said gloomily, “since they’re way off that path.”
It was too bad since those hot springs were a good place to relax and to think without the outside world intruding in.
Madame Mosley shrugged her massive shoulders. “Wal, thar’s allus th' town pool, although it tends t'git a li'l crowded durin' th' summer.”
Kes frowned as she began filling her own lunch plate with some modest portions of roasted boar and stir-fried vegetables.
She hated the town pool with its harsh chlorine smell, the crowded locker room with so little privacy, the scrum of noisy kids running about (some with very little bladder control), and the nosy people who constantly badgered her with probing questions--
“Is Kes Allyntahl nearly yer real name? It soun's mo'e like an alias t'me.”
“Is yo' an o'phan? Yo' seemed rather yo'ng t'be off on yer own, as enny fool kin plainly see.”
“Whar on Relmar is yer parents, gel?”
“Aren’t yo' afraid of livin' near a haunted locashun?”
“Whuffo' don’t yo' live closer t'town? It’s mch safer an' mo'e cornvenient.”
“Whuffo' does like livin' by yo'seff? Aren’t yo' afraid of wild animals o' ghosts o' th' Kin' of Freaks payin' yo' a visit?”
“Whuffo' don’t yo' like houn'dogs?”
Kes sat herself back down in her chair. “You said there were two more rules?”
“Uh-huh,” said the troll woman, mopping the grease from her mouth. “Yo' knows thet clearin' whar th' trees bend completely away fum th' center... as eff'n shrinkin' in fear of sumpin unspeakable?”
“Yeah,” Kes muttered, feeling a slight chill.
“Yo' knows them large piles of stones aroun' th' center of th' clearin', cornnecked togither wif bolts an' ancho' chains?”
“The ones where the chains seemed brand new and the rocks never had anything growing on them?”
“Yessuh, these thin's,”” intoned Madame Mosley. “Don’t evah step between th' chained crains...yo' knows thet large metal gate at th' center of them stones.”
“Yeah, I always wonder about that,” muttered the perplexed Gerdin. “Why build a big gate without a big fancy mansion to go with it?”
“Acco'din' t'some of th' local lejunds thet Gate sits at th' entry way t'a deserted mano' house way back in them mighty woods,” replied Madame Mosley darkly. “Back in th' days of th' Old Courts, thar was a Juntry fambly of mino' aristocrats who used t'own all this lan' aroun' hyar includin' whar yer rental is stan'in'. A lot of banquets an' gatherin' went on at th' place, wif a lot of guests fum th' royal court fum Waldalchia’s capital, ah reckon.”
Kes took a forkful of stir-fried mushrooms.
“What was the family’s name?” she asked between chews.
“Ah believe they were called Chanterelle...”
“Oh, like the mushroom?” said Kes, nodding as she concentrated on her lunch.
“Yessuh, but these folk were mo'e like th' daidly, poisonous variety,” replied Madam Mosley darkly. “They were a haughty ruthless lot. All th' Common Folk hated them; th' chimeroids most all, ah reckon. Th' chimeroids were partially hoomin an' were a mighty proud folk. But th' Chauterelles regarded them as nothin' mo'e than servile beasts, lower than even a troll o' hoomin slave.
“Wal, th' War of th' Courts came, an' like so menny noble familes, th' Chanterelles were ruined by it. Most died off rather quickly af'er they lost much of their proteckive magic, an' th' few thet survived kepp t'themselves in thet old dilapidated house, too proud an' ashamed t'accepp enny charity, th' only sign of their exissence were a few old servants a-comin' t'town fo' supplies.
“This hyar went on till th' sprin' of 1888 when an old groun'skeeper an' his wife came into town an' said thet th' remainin' Chanterelles weren’t thar enny mo'e, thet they all lef' one sto'mah night wifout givin' enny partin' wo'd o' explanashun. Th' couple didn’t knows whar th' fambly had gone, but they were afraid t'stay on th' propuhty themselves. Said even though th' house was supposed t'be emppy, they were cornstantly plagued by th' maddenin' feelin' thet someone was cornstantly lookin' on over their sh'der o' waitin' jest aroun' th' co'ner of th' hallway. At night as soon as th' sun set, they'd offen heard someone prowlin' outside their locked dore, fumblin' an' tuggin' at th' latch.
“Th' old couple might haf known who o' whut was roamin' about, but fear an' mebbe fambly loyalty had sealed their lips. Folk had said thet their remainin' years were spent in a crowded boardin' house an' they allus kepp a lamp burnin' all night long wif th' dores locked an' blocked by heavy furniture.
“As fo' th' house, nobody ev'ry bought it, an' it stood jest as th' last caretakers had lef' it--full of dest wif cobwebs layin' thick in th' high ceilin's an' shadowy co'ners... an' acco'din' t'th' crows an' ravens who fly on over th' Wood, it still stan's wif all its furnishin' in place on account o' folks aroun' hyar is much too scared t'steal ev'rythin' outta it... even th' Rom an' tinkers give it wide berth. Ah reckon it was eifer one of them nomadic folk who raised them cairns aroun' th' Gate, t'ack as both warnin' beacons an' a proteckive barrier.”
Madam Mosley sipped her tea thoughtfully while Kes watched her. “Folk aroun' hyar, don’t like t'talk about it, an' most visito's t'these parts don’t even knows about th' Chanterelle Place, which is a fine thin' on account o' not only keepin' mum on this hyar lejund keeps us fum bein' invaded by hundreds of noisy, obnoxious splorers an' thrill seekers, it keeps visito's fum fallin' vickim t'th' Curse.”
“Curse?” said Kes, pausing in mid-chew.
“Yeah,” said Madam Mosley gravely. “It’s widely believed thet ennyone who dasts t'venture past th' cairns t'stan' in front of thet Gate, will be stricken wif bad luck, illness an' even death unner mahsterious circumstances. Supposedly thet place claimed an untold number of lives on over th' last 300 years.”
Kes blinked anxiously as she gulped down her food, “Oh, so no rain of frogs and fish then?”
“Fraid not,”Madam Mosley replied, setting down her now empty tea cup. She then delicately picked her teeth with her personal silver toothpick. “It’s a vicious curse spawned by long-ago cruelty an' heartlessness, an' ah hope it doesn’t come true, fo' yer sake.”
“Uh, yeah, that would be really depressing if it did,” Kes mumbled as she stared nervously at her plate.
Madam Mosley pursed her lips and furrowed her enormous brow. “Oh?” she said, staring hard at Kes. “Yo' did go up t'thet Gate, did yo'? Perhaps yo' thunk yo' c'd jest go an' pick at th' lock?”
Kes set down her fork. “No,” she said. “I didn’t do that. I went around the clearing instead.”
Madam Mosley looked startled. The toothpick slid from her droopy lips with a clatter. “But yo' didn’t step between them chained stones...?”
Kes shook her head. “No, Madam,” she said. “I know something was very fishy with that place, got that creepy feeling people get when something bad was going to happen. Well, I soon found these pathways in back and tried to walk up them--”
“No mater how hard yo' try an' no matter whichevah path yo' take, yo' nevah seem t'git enny closer t'th' House itse'f. Yo'’re not th' fust t'experience this hyar odd phenomenon, on account o' I’m no so'ceress, ah don’t rightfully knows if it’s part of th' curse o' eff'n thar is further barriers which prevent yo' fum gittin' enny closer, but promise me yo' keep fine away fum them Stones an' Gate. Th' place isn’t fo' th' likes of livin' folk like us, but a place fo' th' daid...an' not th' fine hono'able daid, but th' dark twisted souls thet don’t desarve a return t'life an' rebirth.”
The troll held out a huge, clawed hand with the pinkie stuck out.“Promise me yo'’ll pay heed t'them most impo'tant rules: eff'n yo' sh'd evah venture into th' Yggdrasil Wood, keep t'th' Long Trail an' don’t go further in, as enny fool kin plainly see.
“Don’t evah go between them chained crains an' don’t stan' in front of th' Gate.
“Don’t evah go into th' Yggdrasil Wood af'er sundown, as enny fool kin plainly see.”
Kes bit her lip as she wrapped her tiny pinkie around Madam Mosley’s salami-sized digit. “I promise to obey all the rules,” she managed to stammer out.
“Good,” Madam Mosley nodded approvingly as she released her firm grip. “Oh, by th' way...thar’s also a fourth rule.
“Don’t evah open th' dore t'ennyone late at night, especially af'er th' clock strikes twelve. No matter how much they knock an' beg, don’t evah open th' dore.”
“But what if it’s someone in serious trouble?” Kes protested, feeling rather annoyed. “What if it’s a starving or injured animal--a stray kitten even? Am I supposed to turn my back on that?”
“Sometimes a closed dore as fine as yer instincks is th' bess defense aginst thin's of th' Dark Wo'ld, especially th' Thin's like th' Chanterelles.”
“The Chanterelles?” Kes looked startled. “Aren’t they all dead or gone away with the other High Elves to Alfheim...unless these Chanterelles were Dark Elves then they retreated underground.”
“Dark Elves is acshully dwarves,” Madam Mosley explained, “an' they’re not sech a bad lot when compared t'thet jest Chanterelles bunch. Them Highborne were jest as bad as them hualau hoomins, fiercely nashunalistic an' violent. Savage t'a degree thet made even th' Sidhe shake their haids in dismay. An' thet’s not th' wo'st of it.”
Kes nodded as she refilled Madam Mosley’s tea. Not the worse of it? she wondered. What could be more worse than a bunch of nationalistic in-bred, Gentry snobs? Still she bit her tongue and waited patiently while the troll sipped her tea slowly.
“Frequent magic use tends t'breed arrogance. Sho'nuff, yo' kin does almost ennythin' wif it--walk on air, cuz invisible spirits t'do yer housewawk an' prepare yer meals, but thet kind of power kin quickly go to yer haid. Not only does yo' become spoiled an' lazy as a sluggard , but yo' also become stoopid. An' when yo' start traffickin' wif unsavo'y intities fum outside th' Known Wo'ld, thar’s no turnin' back. Elves, like them Chanterelles, is th' end results of thousan's of years of livin' in an elitist, intitled society on over-reliant on magic. An' when thet magic starts t'go away an' when yo' been knocked down a peg o' two, yo' git a li'l desperate an' crazy. Yo' start allyin' yo'seff t'demons an' thin's wo'se than demons. Yo' got power an' magic alright, but yo' pay sech a high price in th' end, cuss it's all livin' death an' dadburnashun fum thar on out.
“Them thet prackice th' dark art surrenner their hoominity as fine as their soul, an' they’re jest as dangerous daid as alive fo' they kin come back.
“Th' Chanterelles were like thet. Wif etch century, they got crazier an' mo'e greedier fo' power, wealth an' immo'tality until af'er centuries of isolashun thet were only hinted at in rumo's, an' thar were a lot of rumo's about thet place although none were even proven on account o' folk didn’t take it serious inough o' else, they were too scared t'have a look.
“But believe me...” Madam Mosley added before Kes could skeptically ask, “th' Chanterelles is real an' is no longer of th' livin'... an' yet they walk. Mah fambly lived in th' village of Virebelle which was a postcard-puffick so't of place--tidy village greens, quaint thetched cottages bedecked wif begonias an' geraniums, plenty of neighbo'ly folks an' noisy kids. Nothin' t'disturb th' peace thar apart fum an off course mo'tal fox hunt o' a garden raidin' herds of livestock. Then WWII came an' wif it came th' frequent nighttime air-raid an' gas max drills, th' whole town blackouts an' mo'tal evacuees streamin' in droves acrost th' Paladiun an' Wyvahn Gates.
“Wal, us kids had strick nightly curfews due t'th' blackouts an' lissenin' t'th' radio was th' only thin's thar was t'do until our bedtime. On account o' Paw had taped noospaper on over th' back of th' radio t'hide th' glowin' tubes we c'd lissen t'it durin' th' blackout.
“It was a cold Ockober night, an' Hallereen was two weeks away. Mah sister Emily (who was 11) an' mah brother Danny (who was 7) had snuck downstairs t'lissen t'th' radio, they brought me along too on th' promise thet ah w'd keep an' not tattle on them.
“Wal, nothin' peekoolyar happened fo' awhile. We sat while th' various radio shows intertained us wif ho'ro' an' crime noir drama, science fickshun, an' even a bit of black hoomar. By th' time Lights Out rolled aroun', ah was already cornked out, right thar in th' middle of th' den, as enny fool kin plainly see. Then th' Hermit’s Cave started...
“Emily an' Danny heard th' town clock toll twelve chimes an' as they were decidin' whether they had lissened inough an' t'go straight t'bed, th' houn'dogs a couple blocks away started t'bark an' howln.
“At fust, no one took notice on account o' they thunk it was part of th' intry which featured bayin' wolves, but then th' commoshun nevah stopped, cuss it all t' tarnation. Instead it kepp growin' louder an' closer as etch of th' nearby neighbo's’ houn'dogs added their voices t'th' hysterical an' incessant cho'us.
“Then thar came some noo soun's--a dry restle at th' dore an' then a sudden light tappin'.
“Emily suddenly switched off th' radio, she an' Danny looked at one t'other, an' then at th' dore. Neifer one c'dn’t brin' themselves t'git up an' peer out th' window t'see who it was thet was waitin' fo' a reply. At th' same time, they felt this hyar inexplicable urge t'lif' up th' latch t'open th' dore. Once mo'e they heard th' slow tap, tap, tap of fingertips jest barely brushin' aginst th' oak panelin'; once mo'e dry restlin' was heard as eff'n starchy linen was snappin' an' flappin' in th' wind, cuss it all t' tarnation. While fear an' commonsense kepp Emily rooted t'th' spot, Danny was already rushin' t'th' dore wif his han' retchin' out fo' th' latch. She tried t'scream an' tried t'yell his name but fear froze her tongue solid. She c'd only watch in hopeless terro' as th' fool fella lif'ed up th' latch, an' th' dore slowly began creakin' open, soun'in' a lot like thet long drawn-out squeak on thet basement dore on th' Inner Sanckum show. A chill scooted up her sh'ders, not intirely fum th' cold air seepin' through th' widenin' crack, but fum th' long, gray, bony fingers slowly creepin' like spider legs aroun' th' edge of th' dore.
“‘Shet thet goddadburn dore befo'e thet Thin' gits in an' steal our souls! an' hides!'” somebody bellered.
It was Mum rushin' in wif a fire poker, an' Paw not far behind wif a rowan oak club. Well bust mah britches an' call me streaker.
While Mum yanked Danny away by his arm, Da scooted fo'ward an' kicked th' dore shet. Th' han' ducked back, but it wasn’t quite inough fo' th' heavy oak dore slammed shet, snappin' off th' tip of th' fingers. This prompped a hair-raisin' squeal fum whutevah it was thet stood outside, while th' fingertips wrifed an' squirmed aroun' like maggots on over th' carpet.”
Kes rubbed her arms, feeling suddenly itchy.
“While Paw bashed them thin's t'paste an' powder, ah woke up on account of th' noise an' started t'bawl at th' top of mah lungs. Then Mum picked me up an' held me close, befo'e glowerin' down at crin'in', shame-faced Danny.
“Nevah evah answer th' bloomin' dore at this hyar hour!” she told him sternly, especially when them mad, Juntry daiders is walkin' about!
“It was th' Chanterelle daid,, mah sister told me when ah was a li'l older, an' they’re especially dangerous durin' th' autumn an' winter months. Mah sister also said thet fo' about two weeks af'erwards, she an' Danny were plagued by nightmares of bein' hunted down by rail-thin figgers in flutterin' drapery- like linen ban'ages wif only their long teeth showin', an' one of th' them was lackin' fingertips on its right han'. This only stopped on Hallereen when three British evacuees kids went missin' at th' annual picnic/fun fair at Virebelle Rock. To this hyar mighty day, both mah siblin's allus check their peepholes befo'e answerin' their dore an' allus kepp a large houn'dog an' stout club close by.”
Early the next morning, as soon as she finished her river bath, Kes sat by the hearth, pondering the story Mrs. Mosley told her. She even went as far as to record it in her journal.
It happened to be her third journal, newly purchased shortly after she arrived in Waldachia. The first one was currently in the possession of her parents, and is right now being “illustrated" by her kid brother Leonard and some of his pals, while the second one got stolen during her stay on the island of Saffrasia by a crazy otaku/hikikomori girl.
While she wrote, Miss Tabitha watched from her perch on the back of the armchair. So far, the feline offered no comment.
Kes nibbled the end of her pencil for a few minutes and then wrote some more:
Well, that was certainly a weird, harrowing tale even though I’m rather kind of skeptical about it. Mrs. Mosley doesn’t strike me as the sort of person that would tell crazy tall tales, but being a really young, impressionable kid at the time, she was naturally gullible enough to believe something like that. Her siblings, being both young, imaginable kids themselves, probably mistook some poor wandering vagrant as one of the infamous Chanterelle ghosts. Fear and quite possibly guilt caused their nightmares, and as far as the severed fingers still twitching around...well that could account for the nerves still firing away and sending signals to the various joint muscles... rather similar to what happens in a detached lizard’s tail or a just-guillotined head.
As for those three Brit kids disappearing... well, a lot of things could have happened--none of it supernatural-related. They could have fallen down a sinkhole (I know, I nearly did while in Saffrasia), or gotten lost and eventually died of exposure, perhaps while taking shelter in one of the many isolated caves in that rock formation. Or else, they all became the unfortunate meal of a local predator--a rock tiger or an amphiptere.
Maybe when I get the time, I could go down to the local library and look up that incident on those missing evacuee kids, and maybe even try to find something about Virebelle’s late-night visitor that gave even trolls nightmares--you would think something like that would have gotten into the newspapers. Not everyone’s bound by some age-old oath to keep silent about it like they did about those wretched Stones and Gate.
Kes closed her journal and laid it aside. Then she sat back in her armchair and gazed ruminatively into the fire. She thought about what lurked beyond those ancient Crains and Gate, imaging the old house with its high turret walls looming shadowy and stark amidst a wilderness of briars and wind-twisted trees. She thought about what walked through the shadowed courtyards and darkened halls, occasionally passing into the realm of the commonplace to cast its dismal pall over everything.
“Why didn’t the local folk just burn that Chanterelle Manor down if they feared it so much?” she grumbled to herself. “That would certainly take care of the ghosts or whatever’s haunting that old place...or else, build a big blooming fence around it to keep people away. Don’t just put up a bunch of magical standing stones around the front gate with a list of rules to follow!”
“Mrr?” said Miss Tabitha reflectively.
“No, I don’t think the elves were responsible for putting up those stones there,” Kes murmured. “Got to be either the Rom or some of the tinkers like Mrs. Mosley had said, maybe even the dwarves or the Jötnar.
"Elves just don’t strike me as the enterprising types to go tramping through some haunted woods and piling up stones into some mini stone henge. They much rather let someone else do all the hard work while they stay at home gathered around the table, sipping wine spiced with cinnamon, telling bawdy jokes, and thinking up long-winded ballads.”
Unlike humans, Gerdins and felines could easily understand one another. It all had to do with sharing a similar wavelength as well as a common ancestor.
“Mrraw,” Miss Tabitha insisted.
“Alright, not all elves are decadent homebodies,” Kes acknowledged. Then she added with a frown. “But that still doesn’t mean they got plenty of Old Magic left to put up some arcanely powerful barricade against evil.
“The elves nowadays are a weakened race, degenerated survivors of a catastrophic civil war between the great Courts. The only real magic they use nowadays is mainly the domestic, less dramatic sort such as enhancing the flavor of their cheese and making their glass and crystal ornaments more sparkily and less prone to breakage.”
“Mmew?” Miss Tabitha sighed.
“What do you mean you ‘don’t believe that load of codswallop?’ I think that was a pretty good for a spur of the moment elven anthropology lesson.”
“Rowrr,” Miss Tabitha firmly.
“Okay, okay, it was all Orrim propaganda!” said Kes irritably. “I’m sorry I said that thing about the elves being weak and all that. Still that doesn’t mean that they’re high, noble and superior to the other Faire Folk! The Chanterelles are clear proof of that...if there really were such a Gentry family.”
They sat in silence for a moment.
“Well, I know for one thing,” said Kes finally. “I sure in hell won’t be going into those woods anymore to find out for myself if there really is such a place as the Chanterelle Manor.” She tapped the armrest of her chair thoughtfully. “I already have enough excitement in my life without some wretched legendary curse and undead monsters hanging over my head.”
She tried to resist sleep for half an hour, but eventually her eyes closed and she slumped back into her seat.
Kes was awakened hours later by a very faint sound, not unlike the sighing of the wind, but since when did the wind learn to pronounce her name? Sitting up, she found Miss Tabitha was not there. Apparently, the cat had gone back to sleep on Kes's bed.
The gray light of dawn was streaming into the window. She looked at the fire; it was still burning. Kes frowned, very perplexed. It should have gone out by now—had she been adding more wood in her sleep?
As she pondered this, a shape seemed to emerge from the center of the fire. It was definitely a face—a wedge-shaped face with large glowing eyes and long writhing hair. Kes blinked and shook her head. There was no face now, just a mass of blazing wood. The two eyes she saw were almost certainly a couple of drifting sparks.
Kes got unsteadily to her feet and stretched her stiff muscles. As she headed for the outhouse, she thought how easily it was for the imagination to be fooled by things like shadows and firelight.
“Bother these unruly nerves!" she muttered. "I'm going to start taking it easy today. Maybe do some meditating."
However, if there was one thing Kes couldn't do, it was sit still for several hours thinking about nothing. She busied herself with various household chores, and then decided to take advantage of the good weather to pick up driftwood off the nearby beach.
Winter was coming, and she knew from previous experience on Narrak that winter wasn't something to be taken lightly. A person could easily freeze to death without sufficient fuel.
The beach she was on was vast with really high dunes. She called it Singing Green Beach because the sand here was olive-green and made a faint reedy whistle if you skidded along in your bare feet.
Unbeknownst to Kes, there was another Gateway laying several dozen paces from where she was gathering wood. However, she wouldn't have noticed it anyway because it was cleverly disguised as a large redwood stump.
Weathered-gray by the elements, it look innocent-enough, no different from the other half-buried flotsam dotting the beach.
Yet beneath its gnarled surface, it was an entirely different world bustling with rush-hour activity reminiscent of New York's Grand Central Station. Everywhere, doors were opening up and various creatures were hurrying to and fro to various destinations.
Those that walked in pairs or alone hurried more. They had every reason to pick up the pace. They knew that horrible things could happen should they venture into the deeper vaults of the House.
There were certain doors here that should never have been open in the first place. What came out from behind those doors was more frightening than even Death himself.
A small rodent, known as a Zimak, scampered through the halls. Every now and then he would stop to scarf up a bug or a food scrap left by some visitor. He paused at a door, sniffing with interest.
From inside the room came the unmistakable smell of cheese.
"Hhmmmn, I wonder if it's Stilton," said the Zimak to himself. He crept cautiously nearer and sniffed harder. "Yes, yes. No doubt about it—its Stilton all right!"
Then the door opened a crack and a deep crooning voice whispered. "Hey, buddy, you hungry?"
The Zimak was just about to flee, when the voice whispered again. "Wait, I got something for you."
The Zimak pricked up his ears. "Could it be a scrap of Stilton?" he tentatively asked.
"It's lots better than a measly scrap. "Look."
A tin full of scrumptious cheese balls poked through the crack.
The Zimak hesitated, blinking his bright button eyes.
"Go on," the voice urged. "Try some."
Licking his chops, the Zimak reached out a paw. Yet, as soon as he took one, a purplish red tentacle shot out from behind the door.
Squealing in terror, the Zimak quickly dodged the clutching appendage. Spinning around, he ran down the hall. He heard the door opening and then footsteps behind him.
As he crossed an entranceway, he felt the sudden grasp of a sharp-nailed hand. He promptly let out a shriek and started snapping at the bony talons, the hand didn't budge. It began to draw him upward.
The Zimak would have shrieked again, but was rendered speechless when he met the piercing yellow stare, and in that instant, the Zimak knew his crumb snatching days were over.
"Mmm, tasty," said the thing, smacking his lips. Then humming a tune, he strode down one of the dimly lit hallways of the House. He had important business to attend to elsewhere.
Around the same time, a Hobgoblin and Churcka were coming back from visiting some friends.
Turning a corner, the Churcka skidded to a dead halt.
"Oh Cripes!" she hissed, shoving her startled companion back. "Quick…we got to hide! Hide fast!"
"Why?" spluttered the Hobgoblin. "What's up?"
"Something's coming this way!" came the frantic reply. "Something really bad!"
"What?" he asked impatiently. "What's coming?"
"Hell lion," the Churcka said shatteringly. "There's a Hell lion fast approaching!"
Fortunately, they happened to be standing near an unlocked door. The Churcka shoved her friend in first, and then quickly followed, closing the door behind her.
"This place looks like a janitor's closet," the Hobgoblin muttered, peering around. "Let's hope that door holds up against that beastie, or we'll end up having to use that rear window as an escape hatch. I don't think I could squeeze through that wee small space."
"Ssh!" whispered the Churcka hoarsely. "Don't make a sound."
They listened, holding their breath. After ten minutes of utter quiet, they heard a slow tread of feet on oak boards. The footsteps soon passed the door, and faded into the distance.
"It's gone," the Hobgoblin said, highly relieved. "We can go now."
"You really think so?" the Churcka said, looking uneasy.
"Well, why don't we check?" he told her. "We can't stay here all day."
Eventually they got up enough nerve to open the door and peered out. At the end of the corridor something shadowy was moving away. It soon vanished around the corner.
"Well, that sure was a narrow squeak," muttered the Churcka, greatly relieved.
"Where's he's off to, I wonder?" the Hobgoblin said curiously.
"I don't know and I don't want to know," the Churcka replied. "I just hope the next poor bloke who runs into the guy comes out as lucky as us."
Meanwhile, the Hell lion finally found the exit he wanted, and stepped outside. He found himself looking out over a long stretch of green beach strewn with driftwood and hummocks of beach grass.
Dull, he thought.
Walking to the edge of the beach, he took something shiny from his coat pocket and flicked it out onto the sand. Then he watched and waited.
Chapter 3--The Crystal Eye
Kes decided it was time to go. She had a heavy load and the fog was coming in.
Out of the corner of her eye, she noticed Miss Tabitha pawing at something sparkly. Kes walked over for a closer look.
At first, she thought it was a piece of abalone shell, but looking more closely, she saw it was a crystal eye.
Kes sometimes found things washed overboard from trading vessels—trunks full of clothes and ceramics, barrels of dried fruit and salted meat, bales of silk and linen, hardly ever jewelry.
She decided to keep it; it was a curious thing that kind of reminded her of one of her spirit allies, only this artifact was as flat as a tiddlywink, whereas the ghostly entity that had watched her was a floating eyeball. Who knows what this new find might do? It might have a smidget of magic, maybe even Old Magic. It might even bring her good luck.
Shouldering her kindling bundle, she started walking again. At first, she heard nothing but the muted sound of waves breaking and the shuffling of her feet. Then suddenly, she became aware of another sound—like someone was moving closely behind her, mimicking her every step.
Kes froze in mid-step, her skin prickling with goose bumps. Slowly she turned around and peered over her shoulder. There was nothing to be seen except empty dunes. Still she continued staring behind her for a long while before resuming her hike. Eventually she dismissed the sound completely as having been made by a wandering fox or rabbit.
However, she kept scanning the beach as she walked. When she happened to look back again, she got just a glimpse of something—a whirlwind… a fragment of billowing fog?
Whatever it was, it vanished just as quickly as it had appeared.
Kes turned around and headed for home. Gradually, it dawned on her that what she saw might just have been a trick of fog and ocean breeze.
Yet as soon as she got home, she bolted the door tightly behind her.
After she put away the kindling, she examined the crystal once more. It seemed much radiant then when she first found it.
Kes wished she had a book on different types of jewelry, and then she might find out what this thing was and who exactly made it.
After a moment of wondering, she placed it in a basket with some other curiosities. Days went by, then weeks. Nestled within its tissue nest, the crystal bided its time.
Written by Mmpratt99 deviantart