It was early evening when Corporal Phidega arrived in the highland village. Clouds blanketed the sky, casting a blue-gray hue over the countryside. The village was nestled in the rolling green hills and headlands bordering an expansive lake. The lanterns had already been lit in the fading daylight. As Phidega passed under the stone archway, he could see the street was quiet and empty. The buildings were lovely stone structures, with warm lights glowing in the windows.
While the village was charming, the fact that Phidega was there to work embittered his impression of it. Word had reached Hometropolis that the citizens of this provincial town were bothered by a supposed supernatural entity residing in the nearby castle. Several people claimed to have encountered an apparition who warned them to stay away from the castle. The Hometropolis guard chalked it up to superstitious nonsense—as did Phidega. However, since the province was under their rule, they decided to send a token guard to see what all the fuss was about and report back. With little men to spare, Sergeant Lockwood volunteered Phidega to go.
Phidega wandered along the cobblestone street in search of life. He went by a stable occupied by a single brown horse. The horse raised its narrow head and twitched its ears as it quietly watched him pass. As he neared the center of town, faint sounds of music began to drift by. He turned a corner past a darkened storefront and was let out into the town square. Small gardens with trees surrounded a circular fountain in the center, where he spotted a man and a woman quietly talking. The woman stopped and stared at Phidega as he entered, causing the man to turn. Phidega nodded to them and began to approach, but after exchanging a look the two turned and slowly made their way into a large building on the side opposite from him. Phidega narrowed his eyes and walked after them. He noticed the music filling the square seemed to originate from the same building. A sign hanging above the door showed it was the local inn.
As he neared the steps, the door opened and a large, bearded man came out. He leaned back against the wall, watching Phidega intently.
"Evenin'," the man said, his voice husky and deep. Phidega walked up the steps and stood in front of the powerful-looking man, who was about a head taller than him.
"Hello. I'm Corporal Phidega, of the Hometropolis City Night Watch. I understand your town has been having some problems lately."
"'City Watch,' huh?" said the man as he looked Phidega over.
"The Emperor would like you to know your well-being is, uh, very important to us, and I am here to investigate your claims."
"So, if you could tell me more about this situation your town's having, or direct me to someone..."
"Well, me and some of the men keep the peace around here. When the townsfolk are having problems, we're the ones they come to. Lately we've been hearin' from folks about seein' some kind of specter up at that old castle."
"Like a ghost?"
"Aye," said the peacekeeper. "Never seen it, myself. I mean, folks have been tellin' stories about that old castle since I was a wee lad. But the caretaker of the place came into town a couple of weeks ago raving about how the place was haunted. Old man was scared out of his mind, but we just figured the place was finally getting to him. You know, like seeing things at night that were working his imagination. Then others started seeing things, rumors started spreading—which, I suppose, is what brought you here?"
"Yes, the rumors have raised some concerns among my superiors," said Phidega.
"There's really nothing to worry about," said the peacekeeper. "Just a bunch of stories, is all."
"Well, regardless, I'm here now," Phidega said, getting irritated. "So, has anyone—"
"Now, we don't need a guard from Hometropolis pokin' around our town," said the peacekeeper sternly. "We do just fine on our own. Sorry that you came all this way for nothing."
Phidega shifted his weight in agitation. He would be more than happy to leave, if it wasn't for the fact that Lockwood would have his head for coming back with nothing to show for it.
"Has anyone actually gone into the castle since the caretaker ran away?" Phidega asked dryly.
"No," he said. "And you'd do well to stay away. Nothing good would come of it."
The peacekeeper gave Phidega a long look before he pushed off the wall and walked away, leaving Phidega standing there looking sullen.
"Ah, excuse me," said a calm voice from behind him.
He turned to see a bespectacled peasant in green clothes with his hands clasped in front of him.
"Pardon the intrusion," said the peasant. "You were talking about the spirit haunting Dunbar Castle, correct?"
"That's right," said Phidega, looking the peasant up and down.
"Perhaps I could be of some assistance. I've read many books on supernatural phenomena, and in every case it seems looking into the history of the site of the haunting reveals vital clues that are key to discovering a possible resolution."
"Have you seen it? The ghost?"
"Oh, no," said the peasant. "I've only just arrived. Word of this town's paranormal problem has spread as far as my village of Homeville. I thought I would come and help investigate—"
"Hey, don't I know you from someplace?" Phidega asked, narrowing his eyes at the peasant. "Yeah, you and your little band were trying to get into the city!"
"Ah. Yes," said the peasant, as he fidgeted and adjusted his glasses. "Well, that is actually quite an interesting story..."
"Save it. You've caused me enough trouble."
Phidega waved dismissively and went inside the inn. As he entered he was greeted by the joyful melody from a lutenist and a flautist playing on a small stage. The modest crowd of patrons seemed hardly moved by the music, however. Many were staring somberly into their drinks as the pair of musicians tried in vain to raise their spirits.
Suspicious eyes were raised to Phidega as he walked in, his armored boots thumping on the wooden floor. The music abruptly stopped when the musicians saw him, and the inn fell into silence. Soon, everyone was staring.
"Good evening," Phidega said. He cleared his throat, and cast his gaze around the room. "Uh, I'm Corporal Phidega, of the Hometropolis city guard. I'm here to—"
The sounds of people pushing their chairs out and getting up interrupted him. Half the gathered crowd began filing past him toward the door.
"Uh, I'm here to investigate whatever's going on up at the castle," he went on, his voice dimmed by the shuffling of people leaving. The peasant from outside was awkwardly trying to maneuver past the people, and curiously watched them go as he came inside.
"I say! Corporal!" called a uniformed man at a table, waving his hand. "Are you looking for me?" The man had a thin mustache and long brown hair in a ponytail. His other arm was in a sling.
"Uh, no," Phidega said flatly, walking toward him. "I'm sorry—who are you?"
"Why, I'm the postman!" he said. "I thought surely you were here to rescue me from this rabble."
"Why? What happened?"
"Well, I was delivering the mail, as usual. Just, you know, having a bit of sport with the locals, when they attacked me and knocked me from my horse!"
"The peacekeeper stopped him from throwing fireballs at people," said a woman at another table.
"He hurt my arm!" the postman cried, gesturing to his sling in indignation.
"He refused to let us help him," said the man behind the bar. "And he refuses to leave until he recovers. So, we keep him here."
"I am waiting for official escort!" said the postman. "Thunder and I will have to suffer what you call 'hospitality' in the meantime!"
The man rolled his eyes and resumed wiping down the bar. The remaining patrons had returned to their drinks, and Phidega noticed the bespectacled peasant from outside was engaged in conversation with a man in fine clothes and a foppish hat sitting at the back of the inn.
"So, have you seen or heard anything about a ghost since you've been here?" Phidega asked the postman.
"Oh, they keep going on about it!" said the postman. "It's dreadful. They say it appears to them in a flash of smoke, like from hellfire or the underworld. Then it speaks to them, telling them to stay away from the castle, or else. Another puff of smoke, and it's gone. Always the same story."
"It's true, sir!" said a man at the next table. "I saw it myself! It's like something outta this world, all pale and wrapped in chains!"
"It threatens to curse anyone who goes near the castle!" said an older woman.
"And what about the monster?" said another woman.
"Yeah, the lake monster!" said a young man.
"Wait a minute," said Phidega, holding his hands up. "Now there's a monster?"
"Oh, you don't know?" said the postman. "Well, that's another thing entirely. This town is known for the old stories about some kind of large, ancient creature living in the lake."
"I saw it!" said the young man. "I looks like a dragon. Only, without the wings. I saw it roaming down by the lakeshore the other night!"
"So did my husband," said the woman. "Now he won't go anywhere near the lake."
"Um...sir?" someone called. Phidega looked over to see the bespectacled peasant motioning for him to come over. Phidega sighed and walked toward him.
"Corporal!" the postman called after him. "You will take me away from here, won't you?"
"I'll see what I can do," Phidega said, rolling his eyes.
"Sir," said the peasant, "this is—"
"I am a scholar and historian of this province," said the man in the foppish hat, nodding politely to Phidega.
"He knows a great deal about this town and Dunbar Castle," said the peasant.
"Okay, can you tell me what these people are talking about?" Phidega asked.
"Lord Dunbar was a brilliant man," said the scholar. "His research was ahead of its time. However, after his wife died tragically, he became something of a recluse. When he did venture outside the castle, reportedly he would talk about strange, ghoulish things. Many started to fear him and his castle, believing the death of his wife may have driven him mad. After Lord Dunbar died, some believed his spirit remained, haunting the castle."
"Do you believe it's haunted?" Phidega asked.
"I do," said the scholar, "for I, too, have seen his ghost. I came to this town for study. When I tried to enter the castle, I encountered the specter, who warned me to leave, or else I would suffer. Understand that I am not a superstitious man, but I cannot deny what I have seen."
"Well, I'm still skeptical," said Phidega. "What about the lake monster? Have you seen that?"
"No, but I'm very familiar with the legend," said the scholar. "The sightings first began well before Lord Dunbar's time. As far as I'm concerned, that is an unproven myth. Though I find the recent sightings odd. No one has claimed to have seen the monster for quite some time."
"I see," said Phidega. "So, what else can you tell me about the ghost? What do you think it wants?"
"It seems to want the castle left in peace," the scholar said, shrugging. "It accosts any who go near. The fortune teller says it has bothered her many times, merely because her shop is in the little district just outside. She believes it is guarding Dunbar's fabled treasure."
"There is a rumor that Lord Dunbar hid his treasure away somewhere inside the castle," the peasant explained. "Some have even come in search of it."
"Treasure?" Phidega said, rubbing his chin. "What kind of treasure?"
"I cannot say," said the scholar. "I doubt it exists. If there was a treasure, surely the caretaker would have discovered it by now."
"Maybe I should ask him," said Phidega.
"I'm afraid he fled town before even I arrived," said the scholar.
"Well, thanks for the information," said Phidega. "I guess I'll have to see this ghost for myself."
As Phidega headed out the door, the peasant tagged along behind him.
"Sir?" said the peasant, as he quietly shut the door behind them. "I'd like to join you, if I may. Perhaps together we can solve this mystery."
"Alright, alright," said Phidega, holding a hand up to stop him. "Clearly, you're not going to let it go. You do seem pretty clever for a peasant, and you did lead me to maybe the most credible witness in there. So, you can come along."
"Oh, excellent," said the peasant, excitedly adjusting his backpack.
"So what's your name, anyway?"
"Bob. And you?"
"The name's Phidega. Phineas Phidega."
"Nice to meet—"
"But it's Corporal Phidega to you, peasant," Phidega said curtly.
"Um, nice to meet you, Corporal," Bob said with a shaky smile.
Phidega smirked as he turned and walked into the street. He may have been stuck with this job, but here was this poor sap eagerly volunteering himself. As luck would have it, he actually seemed competent. If the peasant wanted to come along and do the work for him, who was he to turn him away?
They walked together up the street toward the castle. They passed through a small, empty marketplace with a few vacant stalls lining the street. Phidega hesitated for a second when he noticed a lean man in a dark shirt loitering alone by the street lamp. He watched the man suspiciously as they continued up the street, until the man finally noticed them.
"Greetings!" the man called, smiling as he came toward them. "How are you this evening?"
"Uh, fine," said Phidega, instinctively raising an arm in front of himself as the man invaded their space.
"Tell me, brothers—have you found salvation by Lord Octopod's most glorious tentacle?"
"No, and I don't plan to," said Phidega. The man's wide-eyed, eerily pleasant expression didn't falter.
"Repent!" he pleaded. "Your souls are in danger! I have seen what becomes of those who stray from the path! I fear the castle lord's curse will spread through this province. Do not forsake the Ancient One, or it is you who will be forsaken!"
"Have you seen it?" Bob asked. "The spirit of Lord Dunbar?"
"I have," said the evangelist. "His soul remains in torment because he refused salvation. His spirit is chained by his transgressions. It is an example for us all! I implore you to accept the tentacle of brotherhood. Do not suffer his fate!"
"We'll get back to you on that," Phidega said, rolling his eyes and moving on. Bob hesitated awkwardly, then hurried after Phidega.
"Glory to Lord Octopod!" the evangelist called after them, raising both hands in the air.
"Crazy cultists," Phidega muttered.
Night was falling as they followed the road out of town. They were surrounded by open greenery on either side of the low stone walls lining the street. The castle rose in the distance, perched on a lakeside cliff against the cloudy night sky. There was a small, walled off district below the castle with Gothic stone buildings. Far off to the right they could see the lake below the sheer, rocky headlands. The full moon was reflected in the rippling water. Dark clouds swirled around it in the sky, threatening to drown out the moonlight.
The road took them past fields of fertile farmland. They passed an occasional fork with a dirt road leading off to a farmhouse or homestead in the distance. After going around a bend, Phidega saw three men coming down the street toward them. They were dressed in ragged brown clothes. One was big and muscular, and he and another wore brown sacks over their heads, cut like masks. The one in the middle wore a plumed hat and a mask over his eyes. The three stopped and looked at each other when they saw Phidega and Bob.
"Ahoy, there!" Phidega called sarcastically, clutching his nightstick. He could tell they were up to no good. The big one was carrying a bulging sack over his shoulder, and the other masked one was playfully twirling a knife in his hand. The one in the hat nonchalantly sat on the wall and took a bite on the carrot he was holding.
"And what are you three up to?" Phidega asked as he stopped in front of them.
"Just takin' an evenin' stroll, sir," said the one in the hat, extending his arms innocently. "It's a lovely night."
"You sure you aren't 'taking' more than that?" said Phidega, eyeing the sack. "Who are you? You live around here?"
"Just some travelers, milord."
"You ever travel as far as the castle?" Phidega asked.
"Uh-huh," said the big one. "That's when we saw the ghost."
"We come all this way and the place is haunted," the smaller one said bitterly. "No way I'm going in there."
"Oh?" said Phidega. "You wanted to visit the castle, huh?"
"Fer sight-seein'," the one in the hat quickly answered. "Your highness."
"It's 'Corporal,'" Phidega said with distaste. "All right, you three are just lucky I don't have time to deal with you. Just stay out of trouble."
"Aye, we will, Corporal," said the man, tipping his hat. "Let's be goin', lads." He got up and took another bite of his carrot as they continued on down the street. Phidega heard Bob exhale in relief behind him.
"You know, those three men are actually bandits," Bob told him quietly.
"No kidding," said Phidega. "Probably filchering from these fields. Not our problem."
"Perhaps we should have asked them more about the ghost."
"I'm not going to believe a word they say," said Phidega, watching them go.
He and Bob continued up the road and entered the walled district outside the castle. The urban environment around them was much older than the town proper, and seemed even more deserted. All the windows were dark, and there wasn't a soul in the streets. The street lamps stood cold and unlit. The only light came from a building down the way. The wooden sign hanging over the door depicted a stylized eye.
"That must be the fortune teller's shop," said Bob. "The scholar said she has seen the ghost more than once."
"You think we should pay the old crone a visit?" Phidega asked.
"She may be able to tell us something."
"All right," Phidega said, shrugging.
The wind started to pick up as they walked up the street and entered the shop together. There were burning candles all around, plush carpets and drapes, and a table in the middle with a crystal ball. The shop smelled of herbs and incense. A pretty young woman in a colorful dress pushed aside a curtain and entered the room to greet them.
"Welcome," she said. "Enter freely. Is there something I can help you with?"
"Yes, actually," said Bob. "I'm Bob, and this is Corporal Phidega. We are investigating the ghost of Dunbar Castle."
"Oh, you mustn't go up to the castle!" she said. "The spirit of Lord Dunbar has been angered, and I fear what he might do to intruders."
"What can you tell us about it?" Phidega asked.
"I have seen it many times," she said. "It guards the castle, and has appeared in the streets here at night, warning us to stay away. The others have moved their families into town out of fear. The other night, I found something outside my door that I believe was left by the ghost. I'll show it to you."
She went back behind the curtain. Phidega watched her go, then ran a hand through his hair and tried to smooth it down. It didn't help much. Bob watched him curiously, then looked around the shop. There was a table on the far side with herbs and a mortar and pestle. Next to it was a bookcase, and he went over to get a closer look. After browsing for a few moments, he pulled a book from the shelf and began paging through it.
"What are you doing?" Phidega scolded in a hushed tone. Then he quickly smiled when the fortune teller returned, carrying a rolled paper. She unrolled it for Phidega, and he saw the words "I am watching" scrawled in large letters in black ink. Bob went back over to take a look.
"You believe the ghost wrote this?" Bob asked.
"I'd hoped this meant he would tolerate my presence here," said the fortune teller. "So long as I don't enter the castle."
"Someone in town said you think it's guarding a treasure?" Phidega said.
"Yes, I believe the castle has secrets the spirit wishes to remain undiscovered, such as the rumored treasure. Perhaps the caretaker uncovered something before he was driven away, awakening the spirit. But, I cannot say."
"Forgive me," said Bob, "but I noticed you have this book on Lord Dunbar."
"Yes, I consulted that book when the hauntings first began to get some insight," she said. "It's tragic what has become of his spirit."
"There seem to be some pages missing," said Bob, showing her the book. She took the book and inspected it, looking puzzled. It was clear that some of the pages had been torn out.
"That's odd," she said. "I hadn't noticed."
"Do you remember what was on those pages?" Phidega asked.
"I'm afraid I don't," she said. "Please, do not go into the castle. I know the townspeople are frightened, as I am, but I believe if we leave the spirit in peace, it will find a way to move on."
* * *
The castle loomed before them. Once, it might have been an inspiring architectural achievement. Now, it was a dark monument of terror, housing the vengeful spirit of its previous owner. Phidega took a deep breath and willed away his fearful apprehension as he and Bob continued up the road. The wind was rushing swiftly over the sheer cliffs, pushing by the two men as if trying to keep them back. Phidega looked up at the facade, searching the windows for any sign of light or movement. A few appeared to be broken, and inside them he could only see inky blackness.
As they neared the large wooden doors, the wind suddenly picked up, rushing harshly to the left. Phidega and Bob had to stop and steady themselves. The castle doors rattled, as if struggling to contain something behind them. Then there was a sound carried on the wind, an unearthly moaning that was at first hard to tell apart from the howling of the air.
"Leave this place!" echoed an ethereal voice. "Or suffer my curse!"
Phidega turned to Bob as the wind began to settle.
"Did you hear that?" Phidega asked.
"Uh, well, I guess there's something to the stories after all."
Bob adjusted his glasses as he continued staring up at the shadowy castle.
"Perhaps...we should heed the spirit's warning?"
"No, it was just..." Phidega furrowed his brow in determination. "Whoever is in there is just trying to scare us off. And we aren't falling for it. Now, come on."
Bob hesitantly followed Phidega as he marched forward and forcefully pushed open the doors. The heavy doors creaked as they swung inward to reveal a darkened hall. Phidega grabbed a torch from a sconce and held his other hand near the tip. A magic flame burst from the torch to push back the darkness, illuminating the sparsely furnished foyer that lay before them.
Phidega and Bob carefully moved inside, down a short set of stairs into a grand hall. The vault of the ceiling rose high above them, curved with criss-crossing support work extending from rows of columns. The air became very cold inside, and a whistling draft echoed deep throughout hall. Several tapestries were hung on the cold stone walls, and a worn blue rug ran the length of the floor. The darkness shrunk away from the torchlight and gathered in the shadowy passages as Phidega and Bob moved further in. They were silent as they stopped in the center of the hall to take in their surroundings.
"Look, Corporal," said Bob, moving toward the north wall. Phidega turned, and noticed there was writing visible on the stone wall at the edge of the light. The letters were large, dark, and crudely written.
Phidega read the top line: "'I am cursed.'"
Bob continued: "'I am forsaken.'"
"Who wrote that? The ghost?"
"Perhaps," said Bob, holding his chin as he studied the message. "If so, it would seem to be lamenting its condition. It is often presumed the lingering spirits of the dead are unable to move on because something is holding them back, effectively imprisoning them in the realm of the living."
Phidega shuddered as he continued staring at the writing, then he turned around and searched the walls for any more messages.
"Well, there doesn't seem to be anything else here," he said. "Let's move on. This way."
Phidega walked through a wide archway on the west side, leading to a large stairwell. He held the torch out and over his head as they slowly climbed the winding stairs. Eventually they were let out into a corridor that stretched out in both directions. Phidega looked down one way, then the other. Rows of wooden doors lined the passage.
"Maybe we should split up," said Phidega.
"U-um," Bob stammered, "wouldn't it be best...to stay together?"
"Yeah, that's probably best. Uh, let's try that way. Check the doors one by one."
Phidega pointed to the left, and Bob followed him to the first door. Phidega held his breath as he slowly reached for the handle and pushed the door open. Inside the chamber was little more than a simple bed and a wardrobe in the corner. The torchlight gleamed in the narrow glass window across from the door. Outside he could see the night sky.
"All right," Phidega said, turning around and motioning to the door across the hall. "You check that one, and we'll go down the line."
Bob complied, revealing a similar bedroom. They moved down the hall opening doors, seeing only simple bedrooms in various stages of disrepair.
"Here's something," said Phidega, walking into the room at the end of the hallway. Bob turned around and followed him into a better furnished room, with newer bedding, paintings on the wall, and a candle on the bedside table that was nearly melted down. The room was clearly lived in, and recently. Phidega rummaged around in a bucket of tools in the corner, while Bob inspected a stack of books on the table.
"Maybe this was the caretaker's room," said Phidega, as he opened the wardrobe next to the window.
"That seems likely. Some of these books were only scribed within the last ten years."
"He left most of his things."
"Well," said Bob, as he paged through one of the books, "they did say he was chased out of here by the ghost."
"All right. There's nothing here."
Phidega nodded to the door, and followed Bob out, closing the door behind them. They went back past the stairwell and began searching the other end of the corridor. As Bob was about to open another door, Phidega put a hand on his shoulder to stop him. At the very end of the hallway was another message, written on a large wooden door. It read: "Turn Back."
Phidega and Bob exchanged a look before carefully moving toward it.
"That was always there, right?" Phidega asked quietly.
"We probably just...couldn't see it."
"Somebody doesn't want us to go in there."
"Which means...we have to search inside. Correct?"
Phidega just nodded, and swallowed audibly before reaching for the handle.
"Ha!" he yelled, throwing the door open. A large, richly furnished bedchamber stood before them. Phidega pointed his torch inside and exhaled with relief. Bob walked in, looking around curiously. A large, plush-looking bed was situated in the center on an ornate rug. The bedding was clearly disturbed, appearing not as much slept in as tossed about. There was a small table against the west wall between narrow windows, and another door on the north side. Bob inspected a large wardrobe on the far right. Oddly, there was a pile of clothes on the floor next to it.
Phidega stared askance at the message on the door for a minute, then quietly closed the door behind him. Then he noticed a couple of papers on the table. Each had one side that appeared torn, as if they were taken out of a book.
"Listen to this," said Phidega, holding one of the pages. "'A noted scholar, Lord Dunbar was dedicated to the search for true knowledge. While fascinated by myths and folklore, in his later life he was compelled to expose them as false through the scrutiny of skeptical investigation. His first inquiry concerned the stories of a monster residing in the lake beneath his very castle. Ultimately he explained the sightings as misidentifications of mundane objects, though many locals found this was not enough to discredit the claims. He continued to travel throughout the province investigating cryptids, cults, and various paranormal phenomena. Although he kept detailed records, few ever saw them, and none of his findings were ever published.'"
"Fascinating," said Bob.
"This other one just has a list of dates, like a timeline of events in Dunbar's life. You know, I think these are the missing pages from the fortune teller's book."
"So, Lord Dunbar was a dedicated debunker of the supernatural. That is not well known. And it's quite ironic, considering the circumstances."
"But what are these doing here?"
"Hmm," Bob said, opening the large doors of the wardrobe. "I can't say. But it is very curious."
Bob stared into the wardrobe, finding it empty. The pile of clothes on the floor had apparently been removed from it. Bob inspected the inside closely, then noticed something and walked into the wardrobe.
"What are you doing?" Phidega asked, walking over to him.
"There's something here," he said.
Bob pointed to a cylindrical wooden device attached to the back panel. It was halfway up the wooden panel, in the left corner. Phidega inspected the odd device, and noticed a row of seemingly movable pieces, each inscribed with numbers. There was a thick metal switch on one side of the cylinder.
"That list of dates you mentioned," Bob said, "was this one of them?"
Phidega searched the page for the aligned series of numbers facing him.
"Uh, yeah, right here," he said, astonished. "According to this, it's the year Lady Dunbar died. His wife, I guess."
"Aha," said Bob, and he pressed down on the switch. There was a scraping of stone against stone inside the wall, and Phidega moved back in surprise as the back panel slid back and rolled to the side, revealing a hidden chamber. Phidega stood dumbfounded while Bob moved inside. Piles of books, scrolls, and loose pages littered the floor. There was a writing desk against the wall straight across from them, with several stacks of books and papers that appeared more ordered than the rest of the clutter. To one side of the room was a chest with the lid standing open; it was partially filled with more books and papers. Next to the chest was another messy pile of literature, looking as though it had been taken out. Phidega brought the torch inside to get a better look around.
"Hold on to these," Phidega said as he tucked the missing book pages away in Bob's pack, while Bob distractedly picked up a book from the table and began paging through it.
"These appear to be Lord Dunbar's writings," Bob said, as he set one book down and opened another. "Scientific journals, dissertations..."
Phidega flipped through a stack of papers. "Notes, records, lists..."
"Chemistry, physics, philosophy... So much knowledge!"
"Nothing really of value in here," said Phidega, narrowing his eyes thoughtfully as he looked around.
"On the contrary! This is all very valuable."
"I thought he was supposed to have a hidden treasure. This seems as good a place as any to hide it."
"Don't you see? These writings may very well be the rumored treasure!"
"Maybe somebody already found the treasure."
"Well," Bob said, looking at the open chest, "it appears that somebody beat us here."
"Yeah, the door was already unlocked. Someone else must have solved the combination."
"And whoever solved it needed the dates from that book."
"So, they must have taken the treasure!" Phidega concluded.
"It's possible," said Bob, turning back to the desk.
"Must have been those bandits..."
"What have we here?"
Bob picked up a stack of papers and leafed through them, looking puzzled.
"What is it?" Phidega asked, looking over Bob's shoulder.
"These appear to be letters, but they make no sense. 'Dear Edgar, liars undermine several institutions of new societies. Our fathers' opulent culture takes over people, offering destruction. Places of illusion sustain one's needs, mesmerizing innocent nomadic dreamers. Seeing terrible horrors everywhere always nourishes corrupt ideas. Every night, thieves overrun northern encampments, interrupting supper. Avoid losing important edibles.'" Bob flipped to another. "'Dearest Annabel, remember kind offers. Criticize timely opportunities. Place under suspicion crazed usurpers leaning toward wrathful oppression. Regaining solace hastens internal peace. Start finding alternatives. Listen sincerely every day. Eternity includes temporal years.'"
Phidega scratched his head and shrugged.
"Maybe he lost his mind in his old age or something. Because those sound pretty crazy."
"The letters aren't signed," Bob said. "And they seem a little out of place in this collection." He tucked a couple of the letters in is pack and set the rest back down. "Well, I see nothing more of pertinence in here."
"So, that's it," Phidega said decisively as they walked back into the bedroom. "We have proof that someone's been up here looking for the treasure. People in town must have let their imaginations get carried away with the idea that it was some ghost."
"That is indeed a possible scenario," said Bob.
"So we can leave this creepy place and just start searching people to see who found the treasure—starting with those bandits."
"Uh," Bob said, fidgeting, "perhaps there are more clues to be found here that will help reveal the culprit?"
Phidega grunted and narrowed his eyes at Bob. Then, as silence fell between them, a faint sound outside the door suddenly caught his attention. Phidega went rigid and cocked his head as he listened to something like a metallic clinking coming from the hallway. He glanced at Bob, putting a finger against his lips as he turned and walked toward the door. He turned his ear to the door, and his eyes went wide as he realized it was the sound of metal chains being dragged across the floor. It was slowly moving toward them.
Phidega quickly turned and frantically looked around the bedroom. He nudged Bob toward the door at the opposite end, the only possible escape. A strong, cold wind met them as Bob opened the door and they emerged outside onto a large balcony. Phidega shut the door and hurried to the edge. Peering over the balustrade, he could see the lake far below, its waves crashing against the rocks. The balcony was suspended out over the steep cliff. Phidega searched for some other way off, but the balcony only let out to the master bedroom. The small ledges formed by the supports on the adjoining walls seemed impossible to climb. There was no way for them to escape.
There was a flash of lightning in the night sky, followed swiftly by a rumbling clap of thunder. Dark clouds enshrouded the moon, heralding a coming storm as the wind continued to sweep around them. Phidega clenched his teeth in frustration and herded Bob over to the narrow edge of the balcony, out of sight of the bedroom windows. Keeping Bob behind him, Phidega listened through the wind and thunder for the sound of rattling chains. He held the torch away with one hand and readied his nightstick in the other as he inched closer to the nearest window.
Tense moments passed before he thought he heard the sound of the bedroom door clanking against the wall as it was swung open. Then he went still as the sound of rattling chains were clearly heard. Bob moved closer to Phidega, crowding him while apparently trying to hear the sound as well. Phidega gave him a stern look and nodded harshly in the opposite direction. Bob nodded his compliance and backed up to the corner, against the stone balustrade.
Turning back to the window, Phidega listened to the rattling and tried to analyze its movements. The chains were dragged into the room, and then stopped. After a moment, the rattling sound moved to the right side of the room, toward the open chamber, and stopped again. The growing temptation to risk a look through the window at whatever was inside was suppressed by intense, irrational fear, and Phidega stood frozen as frantic ideas buzzed around in his head. He bit his lower lip and backed up slightly as he heard the chains being dragged loudly toward the windows. His eyes were locked on the door as the rattling moved past each window. Then the rattling stopped. Phidega held his breath, and gripped his nightstick tightly as he summoned the courage to attack whatever came through the door. His head twitched as he heard the rattling again, but it was fading. He hadn't decided whether or not he was really hearing the chains leave before the door slammed inside, and the rattling was gone.
Phidega let out a breath, feeling his nerves calm just before there was another crash of thunder, making him go stiff again. Then he felt a tremor in the stone and heard another crash right next to him, like the rumbling of a rockslide. Phidega whirled around to see that Bob was falling, the balcony crumbling away beneath him. Phidega threw himself toward Bob, throwing away what he was holding as he reached for Bob's arm. The heavy stone rubble fell down around Bob as Phidega caught his arm and was pulled down onto his stomach. Bob's face was frozen in silent terror as he dangled perilously over the cliff. The broken balcony splashed down into the lake below.
Phidega kicked his legs around until he got his footing, and slowly began pulling Bob up with all his muscle. Phidega groaned as he finally pulled Bob all the way up, and the two of them scurried away from the crumbled edge and collapsed against the wall, breathing deeply.
"Oh my," said Bob. Phidega worriedly listened for any more rattling inside the room, but there was no indication it had come back.
"Okay," he said meekly, staring at the fallen part of the balcony. "Back inside."
They used the wall for support as they struggled to their feet and went back into the castle. Phidega conjured a ball of fire over his hand to dispel the darkness, while Bob straightened his glasses on his face.
"Thank you, Corporal," said Bob, visibly shaken.
"Yeah, uh, okay," said Phidega absently as he dusted off of his metal chestpiece. His eyes scanned the room for any signs of whatever it was that had entered, but nothing seemed out of place.
"I know I heard something," he said.
"Yes," said Bob, "but what?"
Phidega shook his head and walked woodenly to the bedroom door, pausing to listen before he pulled it open. The hallway was empty, as far as they could see. Bob quietly closed the door behind them as they crept back to the stairs. Phidega grabbed and lit up another torch from a sconce next to the archway before they slowly headed back down. They wandered back to the center of the great hall, and Phidega rubbed the back of his neck as he tried to decide which way to go.
"Oh my," said Bob. He was staring at the north wall.
Phidega raised his torch toward the wall to see the painted message they had found earlier. "I am cursed, I am forsaken," it said. However, a new, third line had appeared.
"I am watching," read Phidega.
There was a sudden blast behind them, and Phidega and Bob spun around to see a thick plume of smoke rising from the floor. With a rattling of chains, a pale shape slowly emerged from the billows of smoke. Lightning flashed in the windows, briefly illuminating the figure in bright light. It had the shape of a man in only the vaguest sense. Two large, dark eyes gaped at them from an otherwise featureless head. Its white, spectral form was draped in the frame of a man but was otherwise amorphous, appearing as if woven from aether. Crossing metal chains were wrapped around its chest and dragged along the floor behind it. It raised its arms toward them as it passed through the smoky veil.
"You will leave," the specter moaned, "or you will suffer!"
Phidega and Bob cried out in terror and fled down the nearest passage. The waning light of Phidega's torch flickered on the walls of the narrow corridor as they ran. The specter's anguished moans echoed throughout the passage and seemed to be following them. They emerged into another dark hall dominated by a long table underneath twin chandeliers.
"Look!" said Bob, pointing to a doorway in the distance. There was a faint light coming from inside the passage.
"All right, go!" Phidega yelled, pushing Bob forward while he stopped to look back into the dark void behind them. The moaning and rattling of chains continued to echo somewhere in darkness, growing nearer. Phidega turned and hurried after Bob.
Suddenly the table shuddered, and Bob went down, apparently having tripped on something. One of the cups sitting on the table fell over and rolled off, hitting the floor with a metallic clank. Phidega caught up to Bob and grabbed his arm to help him up, and then pulled him along after him. Just before they reached the doorway, there was a loud crash behind them. Phidega pushed Bob through the doorway and looked back to see that one of the chandeliers had fallen down onto the table, cracking the wood and almost breaking the table in two. Phidega whimpered and slammed the door closed.
When he turned around, he could see the light was coming from a lit floor candelabrum. He and Bob had entered into a narrow passage declining around a corner. Bob crept to the corner and peered around it, then continued on. Phidega followed him down into a wide room lit by a large fireplace at the far end. On one side of the room was a long wooden counter with utensils and vegetables lying on top. Several large crates and barrels were stacked against the walls and in corners. Near the fireplace was an unlit fire pit with a metal pot held over it. They had apparently stumbled into the castle kitchen.
Phidega hurried past Bob in a panic and checked every end of the room.
"Th-there's no way out of here!" he said loudly, throwing his arm up. "And that thing is coming after us!"
Bob covered his mouth, closed his eyes, and took a deep breath to calm himself. Then he felt the bridge of his nose, and looked back over his shoulder.
"My spectacles!" he said. "I've lost them!"
"Oh great," said Phidega. "Let me guess: you're blind without them, right?"
"Well, no, actually I see quite fine."
"Yeah? Well, I lost my nightstick! Over a cliff! When we almost died!"
Phidega moved in front of Bob and stared down at him with a wild look in his eyes.
"And you know what I think?" he said. "I think that ghost made the balcony fall. I think it made that chandelier fall."
"I'm sure there's a logical explanation for all of this," Bob tried to reassure him.
"Yeah! The place is haunted!"
Phidega rubbed his forehead in frustration and turned away. Bob sighed, and his gaze drifted over to the burning fireplace.
"What am I even doing here?" Phidega said to himself. "I shouldn't be here. I should be in Hometropolis. I swear, I'll never—"
"Look at this," said Bob. Phidega turned to see Bob inspecting the fireplace. He quickly found a pair of tongs and dug around in the coals, and then pulled out a burning piece of paper. Phidega watched him curiously as he blew out the fire and carefully took the paper in his hand.
"What?" Phidega asked.
"There's writing, but I can only make out some of it. Look, there's more in the fire. Pages, books. It looks like Lord Dunbar's writing."
"Being used as kindling?"
"Being destroyed," Bob corrected.
"That's very interesting, Bob," said Phidega sarcastically. "Now, maybe we should start thinking of a way out of here."
"I, uh, see no exits other than the way we came."
Phidega grunted and turned back to the passage.
"All right," he said in a breath. "Maybe we lost it. Maybe it's gone. Guess I'll go check."
Phidega slowly walked back up the passage. With his back to the wall, he quietly edged toward the corner and peered around it. The door at the end remained closed. All was silent: no chain rattling, no ghostly voices.
'Okay, I can do this,' he thought. 'I'm not afraid. What is there to be afraid of? If I see it again, I'll just fry it. I can do this.'
Phidega crept around the corner and to the door. Still not hearing anything in the room beyond, he slowly cracked the door open, and grimaced as the hinges creaked noisily. The room was dark, but appeared to be empty. He detected no movement in the shadows. Phidega opened the door wider and made his way in, illuminating the room with his torch. Bob followed close behind.
"Okay," Phidega said with relief. "I think it's gone. Let's just...make sure."
Phidega moved around the far side of the table while Bob wandered over to the fallen chandelier, where he had tripped. He noticed something glinting in the light under the table, and knelt down to inspect it.
"Ah. My spectacles," he said, picking them up. As he put them on, he noticed something else under the table: a piece of rope tied to the table leg.
"What's this?" he said, picking up the rope to analyze it. There was a thin piece of metal tied to the other end. Bob looked across from the table to find a large pulley against the wall with chain around the spool. Bob's gaze followed the chain up the wall to a mount in the ceiling, and back down to the fallen chandelier next to him.
"Corporal, look at this," he said. "It would appear the chandelier trick was a little more mundane than we imagined."
Bob inspected the pulley as Phidega came back around.
"See?" Bob said, showing him the rope. "When I tripped on this rope, it pulled this metal piece out of the mechanism, releasing the chandelier."
"So it was a trap? Just a tripwire?"
Phidega ran his hand through his hair and walked over to the chandelier. The table was badly damaged, with splintered wood all around the chandelier's metal frame and fallen on the floor. He looked up at the ceiling and back down at the mechanism, and realized that Bob was right. It wasn't a poltergeist phenomenon that dropped the chandelier: just a simple trap.
"I, uh, guess I got carried away," said Phidega. "Maybe what happened on the balcony wasn't a haunting, either."
"Well," said Bob, "this castle is very old. Perhaps it was no longer structurally sound."
"Which just leaves that specter," Phidega said in a voice dripping with bitterness. Bob nervously tapped his fingertips together.
"That, I'm afraid, I cannot explain," he said.
"Then let's go figure it out."
Phidega confidently walked back down the passage toward the great hall, with Bob trailing behind anxiously. When they were back in the cold, cavernous room, Phidega carefully approached the spot where the ghost had appeared. As he neared it, he could see some black markings on floor.
"What do you make of this?" he asked.
Bob knelt down and traced a finger over one of the marks, then rubbed his fingertips together.
"Some sort of residue," he said, "burned into the floor."
"I think that's where the smoke came from."
"The smoke comes from hellfire, according to the stories."
"Right," Phidega said flatly. He turned around and walked back through the hall, briefly looking down each shadowy passage for some sign of the ghost. Bob caught up to him before he disappeared through the doorway across from the dining room. As Phidega walked steadily on, Bob looked around curiously at the tapestries lining the walls of the corridor. Then he stopped when he saw a large painting hung between two of the tapestries. It was a portrait of a man, but it was badly tattered where the man's face was supposed to be. It looked as though someone had taken a knife to it, creating a disturbing image.
As he approached the painting to get a better look, Bob suddenly cried out in surprise, and Phidega spun around to see him falling through a hole in the floor. In a second he was gone.
"Bob!" Phidega yelled, falling to his knees in front of the square hole. "Bob!"
His own voice echoed down into the chasm; there was no reply from Bob. A metal door hung from the floor, the top painted to blend in with the stone. It was another trap.
Phidega brought his torch low to see down into the narrow chasm, but it seemed to stretch into an abyss. In a panic, he briefly considered jumping down after Bob, then thought better of it and ran back to the great hall. He took the passage next to the stairs going up to the bedrooms, and soon found a spiral stairway leading down.
Worried thoughts raced through his head, along with several imagined scenarios of what could have happened to the poor little guy, compounding his dread. He descended the stairs two at a time, going deeper and deeper, and nearly tumbled once or twice. If there was still time, he had to make it. Beads of sweat formed on his forehead as he continued down into the depths of the castle, becoming dizzy as the stairs just kept spiraling down further and further. Finally he was let out into a wide brick tunnel.
"Bob!" he yelled. "Where are you?!"
He stopped to get his bearings and catch his breath. The tunnel stretched on in both directions, with the walls curving up over him to form an arched ceiling. He started down the direction toward where Bob had fallen above. The tunnel was eerie, dark and cold, and he began to wonder just how far down he had gone. After a short distance, he passed under an archway with a large portcullis suspended up in the ceiling.
"Bob?" he yelled again. As he quickly trodded on through the dark tunnel, his footsteps echoing in the vast space, the realization that he was now all alone began to fall upon him. While the hauntings before were questionable, it had become clear that the castle was still very dangerous. Whatever fate had befallen Bob in these dark catacombs could just as easily befall him. Fears threatened his determination, but he fought them back and pressed on.
Eventually Phidega saw an arched wooden door off to one side. It appeared old and rickety, and had a small barred window set into it. He frantically tried the handle, but the door was locked. Phidega clenched his teeth, backed up, and kicked the door in as hard as he could. The door was shoved inwards a few inches, and he could hear cracking wood and the sound of a metal piece falling off somewhere and clanking on the floor. Phidega roared in frustration and kicked again, this time breaking the door wide open. He charged down a narrow tunnel that let out into an enormous, circular chamber. He entered onto an upper level, and as he brought the torch further in he could see a heavy cylindrical cage suspended in the center of the room, hanging on several chains from the ceiling.
"Bob!" Phidega yelled as he hurried to a low wall between support columns. With the torchlight shone on the cage, he could see Bob standing inside.
"Corporal!" Bob said in relief, gripping the bars of the cage. "Please, help me!"
Phidega was so relieved to see Bob alive that he failed to notice the cage was slowly descending. He looked down to see a wide pool of water at the bottom of the chamber, several meters down. Though it was hard to tell the depth of the dark water, it seemed the cage was meant to be submerged.
"I got you!" Phidega said, looking around the room in a frenzy. The cage was nearly reaching eye level as it was slowly lowered. He could hear chains clanking and rattling in the ceiling as well as somewhere below. There were four or five chains linked to outer points on the top of the cage. He followed the chains up to the ceiling, where they spread out and each went down through a groove in the supports circling the chamber. Phidega looked at each of the supports, and finally spotted some kind of mechanism attached to one of them that was turning on its own.
Phidega hurried down a steep set of stairs and around the edge of the pool to get to the mechanism. He dropped the torch to the ground and grabbed two spokes of the large handle that was slowly turning. It took all of his strength to bring the wheel to a stop. The loud clanking abruptly ended, and he looked up to see the cage was no longer moving.
"That's it!" said Bob.
"I-I can't hold it!" Phidega spluttered. "It's too heavy!"
His arms bulged and began to shake as he pulled back on the spokes. The wheel wouldn't budge in the other direction, and he realized it was useless to try to pull the cage back up. Meanwhile, in the critical moments Phidega was giving him, Bob knelt down in the cage and analyzed the mechanism operating the chains.
"I think it's run by clockwork," Bob called down. "Its gears are exposed in the box. Try and jam them with something!"
Phidega reluctantly let go of the spokes and took a closer look at the mechanism. Several large gears turned inside the frame, interlocking in a complex network. He shook his head, failing to understand the functions of all the moving parts. He looked around in the waning glow of the torch for anything that would stop the machine. There were a couple of other cages standing off to the side, their barred shadows dancing on the stone wall. One of them was laying on its side, and he noticed some of the bars looked bent and broken.
Phidega ran over to it, grabbed two of the bars and shook them to test how secure they were. He went through testing the bars that looked damaged until he found one that felt loose. He stomped down on it hard a couple of times, then put one boot on the cage for leverage and pulled on the bar with all his might. The bar bent and finally snapped out of the cage, almost sending him reeling. Phidega hurried back over to the mechanism and tried to figure out the best place to jam it. He quickly gave up, and just thrust the bar between the two biggest gears he could see. The gears ground against the metal bar, and a grating sound echoed deep in the chamber until the machine came to a stop.
Phidega exhaled in relief and wiped his forehead.
"Okay," he said, "that should buy us some time, right?"
"Well," said Bob, "uh, judging by the density of the metal bars on these cages, and the mechanical force of the—"
Phidega grabbed the torch and looked up at the cage, still hanging several meters above the pool. Now that the cage was stopped, they could focus on getting Bob out of it.
"How did you get in there, anyway?" Phidega asked as he circled back to the stairs.
"See the hole in the ceiling? I tumbled down through a series of tunnels until I wound up in here. The hatch on top closed when I fell in and I can't move it!"
"Okay," said Phidega. "It's gonna be okay."
The cage was now suspended below the balcony of the upper level. It occurred to Phidega to jump on top of the cage, but it was so far out from the balcony it seemed unlikely he could reach it. He decided to try for one of the chains holding the cage instead.
Phidega set the torch down and walked several paces back, quietly psyching himself up for the crazy stunt. He took a deep breath, balled his hands into fists, and took off running toward the cage. He leapt up onto the wall and pushed off of it as hard as he could, sending himself flying out into open space. He reached up to grab the chain, but his fingers grasped only the air. Phidega fell, arms flailing desperately, before he caught the bottom of one of the cage bars with one hand and was jerked in the air. Phidega cried out in pain as he kicked his legs and flapped his arm under the cage, which swayed in the air from the sudden impact. He quickly reached up and grabbed a bar with his other hand to keep from falling.
His face tightened into a grimace as he struggled to climb up the bars using only his upper body. He glanced at Bob, who had sunk down in the cage, eyes wide with his hands covering his mouth. With one last, strained pull, Phidega was finally able to get a foothold on the cage, and brought himself up to a standing position outside the bars. He exhaled in relief and rested his head against the bars, desperate for a moment's reprieve.
Another grinding sound echoed in the chamber, and Phidega and Bob both looked up in worry. The extra weight on the cage seemed to be aggravating the mechanism, and they were probably running out of time. Phidega growled in frustration and quickly began climbing the cage again, powering through the aching in his arms. When he climbed up onto the top, he felt around in the darkness and found the hatch, which he soon realized was secured with a simple locking bar. Phidega moved the bar and pulled the hatch open.
"Well done!" Bob said in relief as he got to his feet.
Phidega took Bob's hand and helped him climb out through the hatch. The grinding noise started again, this time persisting and sounding worse. As Phidega kicked the hatch closed behind them, something clanged in the gearbox below.
"Hold on!" Bob said, clinging to one of the chains for dear life. The cage suddenly dropped slightly and swayed, and Phidega grabbed two of the chains to stop himself from falling off backwards. There was another loud clang, and finally a rushing of chains as the cage fell down into the water with a splash.
"You can swim, right?" Phidega asked, looking over the side as the cage sunk. "Or do you just 'bob'? Haw!"
"Um, yes," Bob said as they were submerged in the cold water. He took his pack off and threw it across, then kicked off from the cage and swam with Phidega to the edge of the pool. Phidega quickly pulled himself up, then helped Bob out of the water.
"You bloody rascal!" Phidega laughed, grinning widely as he caught Bob in a strong hug. Bob froze, wide-eyed with surprise. After an awkward moment, Phidega blinked and pushed himself away, then cleared his throat and straightened his armor. Bob fixed his glasses, and they both watched as the chains continued to lower into the water.
"All right, let's get out of here," said Phidega, returning to his sullen self. He grabbed the pack from the floor and shoved it into Bob's arms.
"Thank you again, Corporal," said Bob.
They climbed the steep, curving stairs, and Phidega picked the torch up from the floor while Bob wringed the water from one of his sleeves. Bob shivered and rubbed his arms as Phidega led them back out through the broken door. As they entered the wide tunnel, Bob wandered out into the middle and looked around curiously.
"These catacombs are rather extensive," he said, fascinated.
"I think Lord Dunbar was into more than debunking table-rappers," said Phidega. "Wonder if he keeps his victims down here. Or what's left of them, anyway."
"What do you mean? He was a scholar!"
"A mad scholar. Or was that not an elaborate death trap I just rescued you from?"
"Yes, well," Bob stammered, shivering again. "Perhaps he was a bit...eccentric. The trap may be a vestige of the castle's defenses. Anyway, I agree there may be more to be found in these catacombs. Perhaps Lord Dunbar is interred here himself."
Phidega was about to respond when they both heard something in the darkness. There was a sound of something snorting, like an animal, and a shuffling of movement. Footsteps slowly clopped against the brick floor. Phidega and Bob gradually turned around, nearly frozen in terror. A bizarre form emerged from the shadows into the hazy periphery of torchlight. The creature was large and purple, with a long, powerful body, leathery skin, and a dragging tail. A narrow head with beady eyes was attached to a long neck, and it had four limbs that appeared to be flippers.
Phidega and Bob cried out as the creature snorted and raised its head, then they turned and ran. Their yells resounded through the tunnel, soon joined by the rapid clopping of the creature's footsteps as it chased after them. Phidega didn't dare look back as he ran as fast as his legs could carry him. The tunnel stretched on into darkness, and he could hear the monster gaining on them. There was no escape. It would be upon them before they reached the stairwell, snatching one of them up with its long neck like they were fish from the lake.
Phidega looked up as he passed under the portcullis, and nearly doubled over as he stopped and turned around. He'd lost Bob some distance back, who was quickly losing his lead on the monster as it bounded after him. Phidega looked from side to side and found a lever. He waited, holding it tensely, and yanked it down just before Bob reached the archway. The gate fell with startling speed. Bob covered his head and tripped just pass the arch, falling to the ground as the portcullis crashed down behind him.
The creature whinnied as it stopped before the gate, and snorted angrily at them. Bob turned onto his back and crawled away from the saurian monster, staring up at it in terror. Phidega pulled him up, and they watched as the creature turned and disappeared back into the dark depths of the tunnel.
"What the hells was that?!" Phidega said breathlessly. Bob merely shook his head, standing frozen in place as he stared after the monster. Phidega grabbed him by the arm and dragged him along.
"C'mon," he said. "The stairs are this way. I don't want to be here when it breaks that gate down."
"Wait," Bob stammered, "I, I thought we were going to look around."
"Are you serious?"
"There must be something down here. We could take a look around while the monster is trapped."
Phidega pursed his lips in anger, then relented and sighed.
"All right," he said. "Let's just make it quick."
They walked together through the tunnel, eventually passing the stairwell. The thought of the monster roaming around somewhere behind them kept them at the edge of their nerves, but they pressed on into the unknown. It wasn't very long before their way was barred by another portcullis gate, already lowered.
"Well," Phidega said, raising his arm in defeat, "I guess we can't get through."
"The lever operates the gate, yes?" Bob asked, pointing thoughtfully to the mechanism on the wall.
Phidega grunted and walked up to the gate to see if anything was beyond, while Bob tentatively grabbed the lever.
"Gods know what else is down here," Phidega said as he paced back and forth in front of the gate.
"I'm opening it," said Bob, and he pulled the lever up. There was a steady clanking of metal as the portcullis was slowly raised. Phidega backed up as if expecting something to leap out at them. He strained to see into the darkness, where everything remained still. With a heavy thud, the gate settled into the ceiling, and the way was open.
They wandered carefully under the gate and continued on through the tunnel. Phidega looked back once or twice as they walked, unable to escape the feeling of something following behind them. He kept imagining things waiting just past the veil of darkness, ready to strike when he wasn't looking. What other horrors lay in wait for them? As if ghosts and grotesque creatures weren't enough, the castle itself seemed to be trying to kill them. Indeed, there were secrets to be found in this dark place, and part of him was compelled to follow Bob in discovering them. The rest of him was cold, and wet, and scared, and wondering what their search would cost them.
Eventually they saw a door, similar to the one leading to the water dungeon. Phidega looked through the bars, then tried the handle, finding the door unlocked. They walked into a short, narrow passage. Past a small set of descending stairs was what appeared to be some kind of laboratory. To the right were several shelves holding a variety of books, bottles, jars, and strange objects. On the left was a long table with a mortar and pestle and a series of interconnected glass vessels. At the far end there was a small oven between racks holding different kinds of implements.
"Some weird stuff in here," said Phidega as they wandered in.
Bob pushed his glasses up on his nose as he peered into the glass vessels, then he picked up the mortar and inspected the contents.
"I believe this is an alchemy laboratory," he said.
"I'll be sure not to touch anything," said Phidega.
Bob set the mortar back down, and noticed traces of a powdery substance covering an empty space on the table. At the very end of the table was a book, lying open.
"Could you bring the light over here please, Corporal?"
"Sure. What is it?"
"A recipe book, of sorts," Bob said as he moved his finger over the page. "Some of these compounds are explosive, if I'm not mistaken."
"Oh, great," said Phidega, eyeing the bottles and jars on the shelf. Bob studied the page thoughtfully, then raised a finger as though he'd figured something out. He walked over to the shelves and browsed through the assorted items, then picked up a jar and inspected it carefully. Then he set the jar back down, found a metal case next to it, carefully opened the lid, and peeked inside.
"Uh, excuse me, professor," said Phidega, growing impatient, "but is there something you would like to share?"
Bob retrieved a small, round object from the case and looked it over. Then he turned and suddenly threw the object to the ground. The flash of a small explosion made Phidega start. A cloud of smoke rose from the floor and swirled around them.
"What the—!" Phidega coughed. As smoke filled the room, he fanned the air then covered his face with his arm.
"Forgive me," said Bob. "Merely testing a hypothesis."
They both succumbed to coughing fits until the smoke began to dissipate. Bob knelt down where he had thrown the bomb and examined the floor.
"What was that?" Phidega asked.
"A small explosive that produces a large discharge of smoke," said Bob, "Look familiar?"
Bob looked up at Phidega and pointed to black markings the bomb had left on the floor.
"It does indeed," said Phidega, narrowing his eyes. Bob stood up and took another bomb from the case to show Phidega.
"That book describes precisely how to craft these explosives," he said. "It appears that someone has been working on them quite recently."
"And putting them to good use," Phidega muttered. "All right, I think we've found everything we need to in here."
Bob nodded and delicately placed the bomb into a pouch on his belt, then he followed Phidega back out into the tunnel. After ascending the long spiral stairway, they emerged back into the great hall. Phidega determinedly led them back through the west hall where Bob had fallen through the trap door. Both of them glanced at the disturbing portrait as they passed by.
"Watch out for traps this time," said Phidega. Bob nodded quietly and clasped his hands together as he followed behind, his eyes wandering about the decorated hall. They soon found an open door that led into a large room. As they entered, they could see books spanning the walls on dark wooden shelves. There was a small, ornate wooden table with chairs in the center of the room, covered with books. Some of the shelves were in disarray, with piles of books left on the floor in front of them.
"Ah. The library," said Bob, sounding awestruck. "Castle Dunbar must have quite a collection."
"Looks like they need a new librarian," said Phidega. He pointed out the books on the floor.
"Yes. That's unfortunate."
"Looks like someone was searching for something."
"Quite carelessly," Bob added as he picked up a book from the floor and looked it over. Phidega circled around the room, holding the torch high. Above each section of books there was a plaque with a strange runic symbol. He stared up at the plaques, trying to figure out what the symbols meant, and noticed a large piece of stained glass art hanging above. The composition of the piece was a little odd. It depicted four objects: a runic symbol, a frowning mask, a fiery bird with a halo, and a star.
"Do those runes mean anything?" Phidega asked. Bob adjusted his glasses and looked up at the plaques.
"I'm afraid I don't know," he said. "I assume they're part of an organizational system."
"What about the stained glass up there? Does that mean anything to you?"
Bob looked up at it thoughtfully for few moments.
"Well," he said, raising a finger and turning around, "the rune depicted in the stained glass is the same as the one over that bookcase."
"Okay, you're right, but what about the rest of the picture? I don't see those things anywhere else."
"Perhaps they refer to one of the books on the shelf," said Bob. He stood in front of the bookcase and browsed through it while Phidega scratched his head and stared up at the stained glass.
"So, a book about a mask, a bird, and a star?" Phidega asked. "Or a title? Sad Bird Star? Masked Bird of the Stars?"
"How about The Tragedy of the Phoenix Star?" said Bob. He reached up and took the book's spine. As he pulled it, something clicked behind the bookcase. Startled, Bob let go of the book, and it slid back into place on its own. Then the bookcase began to rotate, revealing a passage hidden behind it.
"Well, well," said Phidega, raising his eyebrows. "Another hidden room."
They carefully slipped past the bookcase into a narrow tunnel that ran parallel to the wall. The passage was dusty with some cobwebs hanging between the stone walls. At the end was a small, square room containing nothing more than an empty bookshelf. Phidega furrowed his brow in disappointment as he and Bob searched the room.
"There must be something in here," he said. "Unless somebody else was here first."
"This place doesn't appear to have been disturbed for some time," Bob said as he wiped a cobweb from his shirt. Phidega tried to look behind the bookcase, then put his shoulder against it and pushed. The bookcase wobbled as Phidega shoved it across the floor, and something fell from one of the shelves. There was a small cloud of dust as a book hit the floor.
"What's this?" Bob said, kneeling down.
"I thought the shelf was empty," said Phidega. Bob held the book in both hands and blew a thick layer of dust from the cover. The book was flimsy and leatherbound, with no title or markings.
"Well, there's nothing behind the shelf," said Phidega. "Looks like that's the only thing in here."
Bob stood up and flipped through the book. As he did so, a folded paper fell out; he picked it up and carefully opened it.
"There's a note," said Bob. "'The first letters reveal the truth. All else is illusion.'"
"Letters? What letters? The crazy ones?"
Bob set the book and the note on the shelf, then took off his pack and rummaged around in it for the letters.
"So what was in the book?" Phidega asked.
"Nothing—the pages were blank," said Bob. "Ah."
Bob pulled out the letters and looked them over again, while Phidega moved in to read over his shoulder.
"These aren't even dated," said Phidega. "The note and those letters are just the senseless ramblings of a madman."
"How could I not have seen this before?" said Bob, captivated as he studied the letter. Phidega gave him a strange look.
"I, uh, thought we did," he said.
"No! The letter itself isn't important. It is merely camouflage. The real message is hidden in code, and that note reveals the key!"
"So, 'first letters', as in the first letters of words?"
"That's right," said Bob. He looked up at Phidega with wide-eyed realization. "I don't mean to sound presumptuous, but I believe I've figured it out."
"The mystery of Castle Dunbar!"
Phidega furrowed his brow at Bob as he put the letters back in his pack, along with the note.
"Now," Bob said as he pulled the pack on, "all that remains is to capture the ghost."
* * *
Lightning flashed behind large stained glass windows, briefly illuminating their depictions with flickering light. The sharp crashing of thunder made Bob shudder as he stared up at the images in the glass. The windows portrayed the Light Bringer as he bestowed light upon the world, and granted magic to mortals. The images were somewhat haunting as he stood alone in the castle chapel, waiting for the undead specter to appear.
He and Corporal Phidega had decided it would be best to split up. Alone, one might seem more vulnerable to the ghost, and lure it out. Bob's confidence in that plan quickly drained away as he searched the empty halls by himself, hoping—and yet not hoping—to draw out the ghost. Eventually he had wandered into the castle chapel, where he found something that would surely attract the ghost's attention: a large pipe organ behind the altar. After some tormented hesitation, he finally summoned the courage to strike a few of the keys, sending loud, continuous notes throughout the castle. Since then he'd been waiting nervously, debating whether or not he should try the organ again.
Bob looked down the long aisle to the darkened doorway. His torchlight was just enough to see throughout the chapel. Old, wooden pews lined the aisle. There was a small alcove in either wall near the entrance, containing ruined shrines to Lucideus. Windows lined the east wall, with empty candelabras between them on both walls. There didn't seem to be any way for the ghost to surprise him—a thought which gave little comfort.
Bob walked back to organ, and shut his eyes tightly before pressing down on the keyboard. Three notes resounded through the pipes until Bob suddenly let go, startled by more thunder outside. He instinctively looked back at the doorway, which remained empty.
A thought suddenly occurred to him, and made his heart skip a beat. There was only one way in or out of the chapel. If the ghost suddenly appeared, there was nowhere for him to run. It was a grave miscalculation of the highest order: he'd effectively trapped himself.
Bob quickly moved away from the organ and down the altar steps, but was forced to stop and shield his face from a bright flash in front of him. He slowly lowered his arm to see a cloud of smoke rising from the floor at the far end of the aisle. With rattling chains, the ghost appeared through the fog.
"You have been warned!" the ghost said menacingly, gaping at him with its hollow eyes. It began raising its arms as it slowly approached up the aisle. The torch in Bob's hand suddenly began to burn brighter. Then the flame turned blue and erupted with energy, forcing him to drop it before he got burned.
Bob threw himself to the floor as a ball of fire roared toward him and hit the altar with a swirl of embers. He looked up to see the ghost holding surging fireballs over each of its outstretched arms. Bob scrambled to his feet and dove between the pews as the fireballs burst against the floor and the back of the bench.
"The cleansing fire will purge your soul!" the ghost cried. "As it purges all wickedness!"
Bob fumbled over his belt for the pouch with the smoke bomb inside. He shot up, and, as the ghost was conjuring another pair of fireballs, he threw the bomb at the ghost's feet, making it shriek and cower behind its flowing arms. While it was distracted and lost in a pillar of smoke, Bob hurried around the edge of the chapel. He followed the wall back to the entrance and ran out into the dark hallway.
Without his torch, Bob could barely see as he ran through the castle. The ghost's coughing echoed after him, followed by an angry holler and rattling chains. Bob's heart was pounding as he felt his way along the wall through the dark. He passed several open passages, knowing it was the last one he needed to take to get away.
Then he hit something hard and nearly fell backward. He quickly grabbled in front of himself and felt the cold stone wall. He'd run too far.
He turned around in time to see a ball of flame hurtling toward him and he dodged out of the way. The fire exploded into the wall next to him with dazzling light. The ghost cried out again, and suddenly appeared in the hall as it summoned more fire over its arms.
There was a crash of lightning outside, briefly lighting up the hall, and Bob could see the large archway he needed to take. He scurried toward it as the ghost launched another volley at him. With fireballs bursting behind him, Bob escaped back into the grand foyer, then ran straight across to the opposite passage. Chains rattled noisily behind him as the ghost gave chase, and followed him into the dark corridor.
"Corporal!" Bob cried out as he ran. He kept running until he heard a brief shout from the ghost, and a thud.
"I got him!" Phidega called.
Bob turned around to see Phidega igniting a torch as he stepped out into the hall from a doorway. The ghost was sprawled out on the floor in front of him. Its legs were tangled in a piece of rope tied to the leg of a stone bench across from the door. It was the same rope Bob had tripped on earlier in the dining room. As per the plan, Phidega had been holding the other end, hidden and lying in wait to raise the rope when the ghost ran by.
The ghost groaned and tried to push itself up on decidedly non-ghostly hands as Bob hurried back over. Phidega handed Bob the torch and wrestled the ghost's arms behind its back, then bound them with the ghost's own chains. Phidega grinned triumphantly and pulled the ghost to its feet.
"Well, well," Phidega said, "looks like we've scared up a ghost! Haw!"
"Very good," said Bob, catching his breath. He adjusted his glasses and looked the ghost over. Under greater scrutiny, it was clear the 'ghost' was nothing more than a live person underneath a white linen sheet. "Lord Dunbar, it would seem that you are a bit more corporeal than you would have us believe!"
* * *
"Look everyone!" cried one of the townspeople. Phidega and Bob were coming down the road, with Phidega pushing the bound ghost along in front of him. Some of the townspeople were gathered in the street outside the fortune teller's shop.
"I don't believe it!" said another, amidst the crowd's gasping and murmuring. "They've caught the ghost!"
With a smug look on his face, Phidega hauled the ghost into the lamplight and before the gathering.
"I present to you the ghost of Castle Dunbar!" said Phidega. "Or, rather..."
Phidega pulled off the ghost's hood.
"The evangelist!" everyone said in unison. The Octopod evangelist looked around vacantly as he stood unmasked before everyone.
"He was after Dunbar's treasure," said Phidega. "He heard the old stories about the castle. So he used a bedsheet to dress himself up like the ghost of Lord Dunbar to scare people away while he searched for it."
"To aid with the ruse," Bob continued, "he used Lord Dunbar's alchemical laboratory to create smoke bombs that allowed him to appear and vanish as if by supernatural means."
Someone whistled from the shadows, drawing everyone's attention. The trio of bandits were hanging around in the alley next to the shop. The boss was leaning against the wall with his arms folded. "I shoulda known!" he said, shaking his head. "Clever git. I mighta done the same thing..."
"I think you'd be disappointed," Phidega told him derisively.
"The rumored treasure is actually a collection of Lord Dunbar's lost writings," said Bob.
"You mean you actually found it?" the scholar asked, clasping his hands together in astonishment. "Wonderful! Brilliant!"
"Yeah, well, most of it, anyway," said Phidega. Bob took off his pack and retrieved the missing book pages.
"First, he had to get into the secret chamber where it was stored, which has a numeral combination lock," said Bob. "One of the fortune teller's books contained a convenient list of specific dates in Dunbar's life—one of which provides the combination to the door."
"That's why the pages were missing?" said the fortune teller, raising a hand to her mouth. "He must have taken them when I wasn't looking."
"After he had access to the collection," said Phidega, "he went about destroying it, burning it in a fireplace."
"You cad!" cried the scholar.
"Whatever for?" the fortune teller asked.
"I can tell you," said Phidega. "One of your book pages told us Dunbar was a debunker of cults, such as Octopod's, here. Some of Dunbar's lost research threatened to expose him and his cult as a sham. He wanted to destroy it so no one would ever know."
"It's all lies!" the evangelist cried, squirming in Phidega's grip. "Salvation by his glorious tentacle can be yours! Praise to the Ancient One!"
"However," said Bob, digging in his pack again, "as he searched through the collection for any mention of his cult, he overlooked these letters. While seemingly ordinary, they are actually acrostic. When decrypted, they reveal secret messages that discredit his cult."
"I say!" said the postman. "Just imagine me delivering secret messages, and knowing none the better!"
"Fortunately for us, Lord Dunbar had written a key, which he kept hidden in a safe place," said Bob. "With that, we were able to piece things together."
"Wait!" yelled one of the townspeople. "Something's coming!"
Everyone looked up the road to see a monstrous figure coming toward them, shrouded in darkness under the night sky. It had a long neck with a narrow head, and a large body with a thick, dragging tail.
"It's the lake monster!" someone called out in fright. The purple saurian creature Phidega and Bob had encountered earlier was trotting down the road.
"No, it's all right," said Bob. "Everyone, please stay calm."
The people gasped as the monster came into the light. Its flippers dangled as it walked, revealing four brown, hoofed legs behind them.
"Wait a minute!" said the peacekeeper. He approached the monster, who snorted at him defiantly and scratched its hoof on the cobblestone. The peacekeeper grabbed the creature's purple skin, and pulled it up and off, revealing Thunder the horse underneath. The purple skin, flippers and tail were just a costume.
"Thunder!" everyone exclaimed.
"Thunder!" said the postman. "How could you?"
"I bribed him with oats," admitted the evangelist. "With you laid up he had nothing else to do. And he seemed to enjoy scaring people."
Thunder hung his head in shame.
"The evangelist told us of a secret entrance by the lake that leads into the castle's catacombs," said Bob. "Thunder would pose as the lake monster to revive the old stories and help keep people away"
"Well! Looks like you boys came through for us after all," the peacekeeper said in gruff approval. He nodded to Phidega and took the evangelist by the arm. "And here we were gettin' worried, and about to go and save your sorry hides! Seems we all owe you a debt of thanks."
"I only wanted you all to find salvation!" said the evangelist, struggling and wearing a desperate, crazed smile. "To extend the tentacle of brotherhood and show you the way! Oh yes, the brotherhood knew of Lord Dunbar and his evil lies! He was cursed by his sacrilege! You, you all needed to know! I was to be Lord Octopod's agent of truth! I had to spread the word!"
"So, you thought you could scare us into joining your insane cult, eh?" said the peacekeeper.
"While destroying valuable literature!" added the scholar.
"And I would have gotten away with it, too, if it weren't for you meddling heretics!" the evangelist cried at Phidega and Bob.
"That's enough outta you," said the peacekeeper, dragging him away. The stunned crowd talked quietly amongst themselves as they watched him go. There was a rolling thunder overhead, and the wind briefly picked up as the storm continued to loom in the distance.
"Well, Bob," said Phidega, grinning with satisfaction, "I guess we did it."
"That we did," said Bob happily. "These good people no longer have to live in fear, and, in addition, Lord Dunbar's lost works have been recovered."
"I gotta say, Bob, I couldn't have done it without you."
Phidega extended a hand to Bob, and they shook hands like old friends.
"A pleasure, Corporal."
'Maybe peasants aren't so bad after all,' Phidega thought. He and Bob smiled as they joined the crowd and received congratulations, and they all went to the inn to celebrate.
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