Deirdre, a werewolf banned to Gravesend Manor, finds her peace interrupted with the arrival of tourists and the reawakening of the Gravesend family - a clan of vampires.
I watched the headlights sweep around the curve and come to a halt. I heard the tires clearly. They were the only sound I could hear.
The night wind was blowing gently. It was warm. You’d expect to hear crickets or owls or something.
Not here you don’t. Not around Gravesend Manor. I’m the only the only flesh and blood creature that lives within fifty miles of this place. That is, I was, until whoever was in that Ford Explorer turned up.
I saw the doors open and three people climbed out. One was a man, slightly overweight. Another was a woman with short brown hair. The third was a kid. He was around twelve, with real curly sandy hair and lots of freckles.
They pulled some luggage out of the Explorer and headed up to the doors of the Manor.
I silently dropped from my perch and crept down to meet them.
The door creaked open, letting a mixture of red, dying sunlight and white, pale moonlight into the hallway. I stood, my hair bristling, my shoulders hunched and my head down. My pupilless yellow eyes were glowing, and saliva dripped off my long white fangs onto the luscious rug.
The woman entered first, and she shrieked. I snarled and leapt forward, my huge body blocking the people’s entry into the manor.
The man stared at me. His wife grabbed him and began to run down the hill, back to their SUV. The boy gawked at me. I gathered my muscles to spring at him. He turned too then, and followed his parents, running as fast as he could. Outside, I watched the Explorer start up and race down the mountain.
I sat back, tilted my head, and let out a long, haunting howl.
The sun finally slipped away altogether, and the full moon came out.
There’s always a full moon at Gravesend Manor. Always. Go to the nearest village, though, which is a good twenty-five miles away from here, southward, and you’ll see whatever phase the moon is really in.
I paced the hallways, rooms, and balconies of Gravesend Manor, like every night. I heard the poltergeist of the Green Drawing Room, the poltergeist of the kitchen, saw the Black Nun and the Ghost Tabby, smelled, as every night, the delicious odor of roasting venison, which turned quickly to the smell of burnt meat, as usual. Doing my rounds in the garden I ran into the Guard Dog, a hideous creature with one eye and a leg that was shredded halfway down, but I chased him away, as usual, with a snarl.
Because nothing can be more hideous to look at than a werewolf.
I’m not saying I’m gross or ugly. In fact, I’m quite a good looking creature, both as human and as werewolf. I’m big, about the size of a Welsh pony. I have black fur. My fangs are long; the canines up front are a good three inches. I take good care of my teeth. I’m very proud of them. I know some werewolves who have brown, chipped teeth, but I think that’s a disgrace.
But then again, for some reason, werewolves are like humans. There’s some that are very messy. Their fur becomes knotted, stuck together, dirty, and stinky. Their faces get crusty with dried blood. Their teeth, as I said, get yellow, brown, and chipped.
Then there are werewolves, and these are mostly Beta ones, that try to take good care of themselves but haven’t quite been able to figure out how yet. They still haven’t gotten used to being one of our race.
I’m an Alpha werewolf, and Alphas usually take excellent care of themselves. My fur is clean, shiny, and smooth. My face isn’t bloody either, but I suppose that owes to fact that I haven’t tasted blood yet.
That’s unusual for an Alpha. And that’s one reason I was banned up to Gravesend Manor.
I’m basically an outcast from my werewolf clan. I don’t like to attack humans. I think they’re funny creatures, too funny to feed off. Of course, there’s sheep and cows too. I could eat those. But I’m a gourmet. I like my meat cooked, marinated, boiled, whatever. So whenever I’m hungry I leave the area around Gravesend Manor and run those twenty-five miles to the nearest village, which is simply called Fen. The people there have become good friends to me. They know I don’t take their animals or children away from them. So they always have something prepared for me.
We made a treaty a while back, I and the people of Fen. I agreed never to take an animal or child or adult away from them for food, and never to bite one of them, and they promised they’d always have a meal ready and waiting for me.
So I’m really quite well off.
Until yesterday. Yesterday a big mean werewolf moved into the woods down below Gravesend Manor. The woods surround my place. He patrols them.
Last night I wanted to go pick up my meal at Fen. I was challenged at the border of the woods by that werewolf. He wouldn’t tell me his name, but I’d never seen him before anyway.
We got in a fight, but he was older and heavier than me. I’m still nursing a very sore front leg, and I suppose I’m limping a little.
At any rate, on this evening, I was very hungry. I was beginning to think I should have tried out that boy who wasn’t sure if he should follow his parents back to the SUV or what.
It’s not often that people come up here to Gravesend Manor. When they do, they’re city people who want to prove the place isn’t haunted. So far, I’ve chased about fifteen persons away.
Sometimes I think I ought to let one family move in. But then I know that they’d find some silver bullets or something, and I’m not ready for eternity yet. Being a werewolf is fun, when you’re a good werewolf. And I think I’m only good werewolf there is.
I was getting bored. The ghosts of the place, which I consider the most haunted building in the world; not even Glamis Castle can hold a candle to it, were all going about their business. As was I. But they don’t need to eat. I did. And I was starving. I hadn’t had anything for two days, and I was really starting to think I should have given that boy a try.
It was about time for me to grow up anyway. I could eat people and still be a gourmet.
Besides, if I started looking for humans to eat, I’d probably at one time sooner or later break my promise to the people of Fen, and they’ve been very kind to me over the years.
Around two in the morning I was about ready to pounce on anything made of flesh and blood. Problem was, as I said before, nothing like that was within twenty-five miles of here
So I had to go Fen.
Maybe I’m stupid. Maybe I’m hard of learning or hard of feeling. But I was hungry. And everything better beware of crossing a hungry werewolf.
Everything except another bigger, meaner werewolf, of course.
Maybe I could outrace him. I’m an excellent runner.
So is he, most likely.
Big deal. I was going to risk it anyway.
I heard a door bang somewhere, but it didn’t bother me. I was so perfectly used to all these things that I didn’t even pay attention to them anymore.
I started down the long staircase. This staircase was made of mahogany decorated with ebony and ivory. The railing was of iron, with marble and gold decorations. It’s just quite a pity that halfway down from the third floor, an entire half of the staircase is simply gone. I have to jump a ways there, which is quite a nuisance.
No one knows what happened to that part of the staircase. Actually, I should say I don’t know what happened to it. No one else even cares about this place.
Legend has it – and don’t ask me how these legends originated, because as far as I know, no one has lived here for over a century, besides the ghosts, and who would keep these legends alive in that time I don’t know – that a demon took that missing part of the staircase away when a Lord Gravesend didn’t keep his promise to the Devil. No one is quite sure what the circumstances were, or what the promise was, but it was probably something like that Lord Gravesend promised the Devil something if the Devil would give him some certain treasure or a victory over his enemies in a battle.
At any rate, the lord didn’t keep his promise, and a demon, upon orders from his master, took away the missing section of stair while the lord was stepping onto it. The lord fell to his death, and there is definite unpleasant feeling about the place.
The stairway never turned up.
I was standing in the huge main doorway to Gravesend Manor now. The doorway is a gigantic affair. It’s made of massive oak, spiked with iron. The only decorations on it are some quite ornate iron spikes that are all the more lethal for their deco.
I heard a sudden wailing, but it didn’t worry or interest me. It was just the Cream Lady, a woman from three hundred years ago who had loved a boy of whom her family did not approve. After not too long, the family had the lady’s lover done away with, and she, as is to be expected, died of a broken heart. Since then, her ghost walks and wails around the road leading up the front door.
I began to trot down the path. It felt very cold, as usual, because of all the ghosts and the evil atmosphere there. Sometimes it still gave me the shivers, just because of the cold, not because of the frightful presences there.
Just then, I was shivering for a different reason. I dreaded meeting that huge werewolf again. I wondered if maybe my clan had found out about my pact with the people of Fen, and they had sent that werewolf to watch me and make sure I began to behave like a real werewolf, and not a gourmet.
That seemed plausible. I had to find a way to avoid that creature. There was no way I would break my pact with the citizens of Fen.
I started down the hill. The hill is haunted too, and has a curious sticky atmosphere that makes it hard to breathe. But that wasn’t worrying me at all.
Much sooner than I wanted I had reached the border of Tyynerth Wood.
That place is so foreboding and totally wicked that even I dislike going through it. For several years I tried to tread a path through the shortest part of it. The path was never around for long. It simply disappeared.
Tyynerth Wood is a hazardous place, even for werewolves. I was surprised my clan had found a wolf to take the job at all.
My stomach growled, reminding me of my duty. At the same moment my ears picked up the sound of quiet movement.
My huge white ruff began bristle. My lips curled in a snarl. I listened for another moment, then whirled and broke into a full run, flying along the border of the woods. Behind me I heard a crash. The big old werewolf was following me.
I ran faster, knowing I had a slight advantage. I had a clear path, since I was running through an overgrown field. My adversary had to run through a ghostly wood, where the ground was covered with tangled vines and roots and rocks and treacherous pieces of ground that looked firm but gave way to the slightest pressure.
I realized suddenly that I didn’t hear any more sounds from the wood. Confused, I stopped and listened, worrying that I was falling for some trick of the old werewolf.
I didn’t stay put very long. I didn’t care at all if anything happened to my pursuer. I broke into a lope, heading into the forest and hoping to get through the awful place quickly.
Inside Tyynerth Wood, I quickly took to my heels again. Behind me I heard heavy breathing. It was ragged and haunting. I knew it was the breathing of some invisible monster that had been in that wood longer than I had been around.
There was still no sign of my enemy werewolf.
In front of me, the specter of a man who had been murdered in this wood long ago suddenly appeared, gasping and stumbling. He disappeared from view, and a few seconds later I heard an awful shriek.
I shivered and ran faster, missing my footing now and again, but becoming too frightened to notice much.
This was how a run through Tyynerth Wood always went. I started out with a foreboding feeling and would crash form the dark, threatening trees crazed with terror. My sanity would only come back when I remembered subconsciously that I was heading to some delicious food.
I felt cold all over as I ran. It’s natural to feel that way when one is in the presence of ghosts.
The Manor was always terribly cold, too, even during very hot summer days. I had gotten used to the uncomfortable temperatures, but in Tyynerth Wood they seemed to reach unbearable dimensions.
I began to hear the ghostly chanting of specter witches. That was my halfway mark. Up ahead I saw the semi-familiar moving of lights from candles and lanterns.
I remembered unwillingly that night as a young werewolf that I had so naively followed those lights. They had led me off into the wood, toward a disgusting pool of stinking stagnant water. There I had witnessed the emergence of a hideous creature, dripping the awful water, drooling blood and other disgusting things I could not make out. The creature itself stunk worse than the water, its two heads and multiple eyes looking every direction at once. It had some kind of wings, ragged appendages that looked like shredded swamp plants.
The creature radiated a ghastly blue-green light.
I hadn’t waited for introductions. The witches had suddenly disappeared anyway with the appearance of the beast.
I had let out a howl of terror, stuck my tail between my legs, and fled. The only reason I found my way back to the Manor was because of the kindness of an apparition of a young maiden, who calmly led the way to the clearing around Gravesend Manor, where she faded from my view.
I never saw her again.
My thoughts were abruptly brought back to my current situation when I realized the old werewolf was suddenly standing before me.
My hair bristled and I swerved. He leaped and blocked my path, baring his teeth and lowering his head.
I dodged again, the hunger in my stomach pressuring me to hurry and get to Fen.
Easier said than done. I felt the old wolf’s teeth rip through my flank. With a howl of rage and pain I whirled again and attacked his front legs.
When werewolves fight, they don’t go for each other’s necks, like normal dogs. Werewolves have a thick white ruff, like collies, that protect their throats.
The main thing in a fight is to bring your opponent down. After that you do what’s the best at the moment, which may be kill the downed wolf, or just put him out of action for the present. Whatever it ends up being, it usually comes automatically.
My long canines just barely missed his front left paw, streaking him instead on a back leg.
He lunged for my shoulder. I dodged, turning my head to catch him somewhere, anywhere.
I tore his snout. He howled, staggered back, and then gathered himself for a spring.
I whirled on sudden impulse and charged away from him, continuing my path to Fen, hoping to outrun him.
I could hear him behind me, snarling and breathing quickly. I practically flew through the rest of the wood, crashing out onto a graveled road and picking up speed.
The old werewolf didn’t follow me there. His assigned territory was the woods, and he was not allowed past them, unless it was to search for food. I was not food.
Several miles away from the forbidding wood around Gravesend Manor, then, I slowed to a lope and soon became aware that I was approaching Fen. My stomach growled hungrily. I could already smell the scents of roast pork and warmed milk.
I looked at the moon. In a few days it would be new. I calculated it to be around 11 o’clock.
I trotted into the village, my head high, sniffing. Several people came from their houses, as usual. I noticed immediately, though, that their attitude was not as welcoming as usual.
Despite my hunger, I didn’t begin eating for a good long while. Several villagers stood around me. That was not unusual, but it still worried me. They just stood there, looking at me disappointedly and disgustedly, not saying anything.
Finally I demanded to be told what the problem was.
“You broke the pact, Deirdre,” an old man told me accusingly.
“I what?” I looked at him in surprise. “What did I do?”
The old man turned to several young boys and said something. They pulled forth the torn carcass of a fat ox. I saw it for the first time.
“Have we not fed you regularly? Have we not kept our part of the pact?”
“I did not do this!” I interrupted him. “I see this for the first time! When was it torn?”
“Last night,” the old man said, uncertain now. “You did not come to eat the food we prepared for you. Instead, you tore one of our best oxen.”
“I did not!” I repeated viciously. “Last night I did not leave the grounds of Gravesend Manor! A werewolf arrived last night! I planned to some to you as always, but he was suddenly there, and the fight came out in his favor. Look at my leg if you want! I was not here!”
The old man did check my wounded leg and had to admit a slash like that had to come from the canine teeth of another werewolf.
“But then who did tear the ox?”
“The bigger werewolf,” I suggested. “I wondered how he expected to survive in Tyynerth Wood. There is nothing edible in there at all.”
The old man nodded. “What can we do against it?”
I began to eat the food the villagers had set out for me. Between bites I answered, “I have no ideas. I already fought him twice, and the first time he won. I only got past him a few hours ago because I was prepared and I am younger and suppler than he is.”
“In other words we cannot count on your support?”
“Of course you can,” I said sharply, raising my head a moment, letting the meat juice run down my chin. “I meant that I am not sure how much good it will really do. A hungry werewolf is no welcome opponent.”
The old man nodded, sighing. “Will you be going back to the Manor tonight?”
“I usually do, but if that old wolf came all the way here, I do not like the idea of meeting him somewhere on the road.”
“So you are staying?”
“I don’t know. I don’t like being away from the Manor. He might go in there and try to establish his territory.”
“Please stay. Just for this night.”
I had expected that. I gave the platter a last lick and lifted my head. “All right,” I agreed. “But only tonight.”
I spent the rest of those dark hours walking the roads of Fen, sometimes loping around the fields, always keeping my ears and eyes pricked.
Only a few minutes before sunrise did something catch my attention. It was the dust rising from two cars heading into Fen.
Fen, though, a small village, had once been an attractive tourist place. Once I had been banned to Gravesend Manor, though, and the people of Fen and I had made the pact, the tourists became scantier. Sometimes they still came, though, so the two cars were not necessarily unusual.
Still, keeping quiet, I watched them drive into the village, and then followed, watching.
The villagers were early risers, and soon the travelers were surrounded by people offering them food and rooms and asking them all sorts of questions.
Going into a dark corner where no one would watch me, I slowly began to change back into the form of a girl.
The black hair melted into my arms and legs. My bones changed shape and position, a process that sounded unappetizing but didn’t hurt a bit. My snout and long teeth became smaller and smaller, retracting back into my head. My tail disappeared totally.
In approximately five minutes, I was standing on two legs, dressed in a light silver silk dress. The only traces of werewolf that were left on me were tiny, but fairly obvious. My eyes were a deep yellow color, and they had no pupils.
That was one. The other trace was my human canine teeth: they were longer than usual, and flecked with blood.
It didn’t matter that I didn’t live off the fresh blood others of my race do. It is just a standard characteristic of the human form of a werewolf, and it cannot be helped.
I left the shadow and walked out on the dusty main street of Fen, like just another villager. I was slightly surprised to see that one of the cars was the Ford Explorer I had chased away the night before. The other car, a Volkswagen Passat, was unfamiliar. It belonged to an elderly man and his young son.
I realized suddenly that the latter was staring at me.
I don’t like attention. I bared my teeth at him, and he looked away. I began to wander off, wondering whether or not I should go back to Gravesend Manor now or later.
The old man I had talked to the night before, the Village Elderly, called me aside just then. “Did the former night’s vigilante produce anything?”
I shook my head. “No. Not a sound.”
He nodded. “It did no good. The thief will only return when we have no guard. What can we do to keep our cattle safe? Bring we them into the houses, the beast will break in and eat the people, too!”
“I cannot stay here each night,” I told him. “I was banned to Gravesend Manor, and I must obey the Werewolf Council, whether it is just or not.”
“Yes, I know,” he replied. “Go on your way, Deirdre. I will expect you tonight as usual.”
“I will be here,” I promised, “if I can get past the big werewolf.”
I was just leaving Fen when the boy from the Passat and his father ran up behind me, passed my, and blocked my way.
I looked from one to the other, annoyed. “What do you want?”
“What did you speak to the Village Elderly about?” the boy asked mockingly. “Werewolf Council? You must be crazy. We just wanted to ask you, though, how to get to Gravesend Manor, since you say you were ‘banned’ there.”
“It is a good twenty-five miles away,” I replied, glaring at him for eavesdropping. “Are you in a hurry to get there?”
“Rather,” the man said impatiently. “I rented it for two weeks.”
Ï smiled viciously at him, revealing my long canines for just a moment. “Two weeks? I shall be surprised if you even hold out two nights in the Manor. Well, if you are hurried, I will wait here and you can get your car.”
“Don’t move!” the man called to me as he and his son ran back to the Passat.
While they went for their car, I transformed myself again into a werewolf. According to legend, werewolves in human form can only become as wolves when they put on or take off a belt or piece of clothing, or hear the scream of a vampire bat.
That may count for Betas, but not for Alphas. All I had to do to change shape was let my long canines prick the inside of my mouth, enough to draw blood. And five minutes later I am a pony-sized wolf with flaming pupil-less yellow eyes, three-inch fangs, and a flashing white ruff.
I stood in the middle of the road as the gray Passat drove slowly up. It halted abruptly in front of me. I heard a shriek from inside.
Mentally rolling my eyes, I ambled carelessly toward the Volkswagen. My head filled the driver’s window. He stared into my flaming eyes, his face an ashen gray, his chin quivering, and his mouth moving in terror.
I bared my teeth at him and smashed the window with my head. It hurt something awful, but the shriek the boy let loose when my black face stuck into the car was even worse. It nearly split my eardrums.
I snarled at him. “Be quiet, you fool. I am Deirdre. I was supposed to lead you to the Gravesend Manor. Now start the car and follow me.”
“Oh sure!” he said shrilly. “And you’ll lead us to your lair and eat us up! Get away from me!”
I pulled my head out of the car as the Village Elderly walked up. His step was brisk.
“Have no fear, honored visitors,” he said in calm, reassuring tones. “This beast speaks the truth. It is Deirdre. Follow her to Gravesend Manor. Have no fear of her.”
It took a good long while for the tourists to be convinced I meant them no harm whatsoever. Only when I began a transformation to my human form did they calm down and agree to follow me.
I broke into an easy run along the dusty road, the gray Passat following me at some distance.
With one five minute break halfway to the haunted Manor, it took me one and a half hours to run the twenty-five miles. The Volkswagen followed me the whole way.
When we reach the outskirts of Tyynerth Wood that were nearest the Manor, I halted and told the tourists that from here they would need to go by foot.
They protested, pointing out the amount of luggage they had with them. I considered a while; then decided the boy and two suitcases could ride on my back, and the older man would walk behind with the rest of the luggage.
I guess I must have looked ridiculous. I still find it hard to believe I degraded myself so much as to play packhorse for tourists.
“What are those lights?” the boy on my back demanded fearfully, tugging on my long white ruff.
I snarled. “Stop pulling, you fool. You don’t want to provoke me.”
He let his hands drop completely, repeating his question.
“The lights guide the assembly of witches. Follow them to meet your doom.”
“What would your doom be?” the boy asked curiously.
“A stinking swamp creature will tear you pieces and drag you under the stagnant water of dead pool. Does it sound inviting?”
I felt him shudder.
“What is your name?” I demanded suddenly, leaping a trickle of black water, and turning to wait for the boy’s father.
“Dennis Leighton,” he responded. “What’s that?”
“The hanged criminal specter or the ghost of the murdered squire?” I returned, not particularly interested.
“They both look awful… Ahhh! That scream! What was that?”
I stopped and turned my head to look at him in disgust. “You screamed. Stop being such a baby.”
“Not that scream,” he protested. “The one before that.”
“It was the scream of the murdered squire,” I said, letting Dennis’ father catch up and catch his breath before we continued.
“How can you stand these woods?” the man demanded, panting.
“I don’t,” I replied. “Come now. We have only fifty or so yards left until we reach the Manor grounds.”
“I thought these were the Manor grounds,” Mr. Leighton said suspiciously.
“They do belong to the Manor,” I explained. “I meant the cleared grounds of Gravesend Manor.”
“Cleared of ghosts?” Dennis asked hopefully.
I laughed, but to the Leighton two it sounded like a terrible howl.
“Very amusing,” I told Dennis with a wolfish grin. “I can tell you right now that just the house of Gravesend Manor has about 350 ghosts. The surrounding cleared grounds, meaning lawns, parks, and pools, contain another 150. This wood carries 400. And the outhouses – stable, sauna, chapel, pagoda, guard houses, servants’ quarters – carry somewhere around 100.”
“But that’s 1000 ghosts!” Dennis protested.
“You add very well,” I told him, “It may be that there are even more. Some of them are so alike I may have counted two separate ghosts as one.”
“Are they all big, mean, chain-rattling, red-eyed, people-eaters?” Dennis asked fearfully.
“No. Many – in fact, probably half of them – are very small. Some of them are even unnoticeable. Just a cold wind or a dust storm down a garden path. The calling of a hawk that doesn’t exists. The cry of a pigeon that became prey to that hawk or to a different one. The slam of a door in the middle of the house, where no wind and no creature is. A faint scraping under a floorboard, where a young servant was buried alive for knowing something he should not have. Such things are all very ignorable.”
Dennis looked at his father in terror.
All at once I stopped in my track, listening, my head raised and my teeth bared. In the distance, from the other end of the wood, I heard a sound I had never heard before: the snorting of horses and the clanking of armor. It almost sounded as if there was a duel going on.
Carefully, watchfully, I began to walk again. Up ahead, I could already see the bright green of the well-tended lawn.
It was well-tended because each night the ghostly gardeners would mow and groom it.
On that beautiful lawn, two mighty, snorting Shires were facing each other. Mounted upon the one steed was a large knight, whose black armor had an evil glitter to it. His helmet decoration was a red eye flanked on both sides by large black plumes. His shield showed the same frightening eye, bordered by a very intricate arabesque border. His lance was long, black, and glittered the same strange evil light his armor did.
An equally large knight was mounted upon the other steed. This latter man did not radiate evil, but he did not necessarily look like the model of chivalry, either. His armor was silver and midnight blue, sparkling in the full moon. Upon his helmet, two blue plumes waved gently around a silver and bronze oak tree. The same tree flourished on his bronze shield. His lance was silver, with ribbons of blue and bronze twisting around it.
Dennis whispered breathlessly in my pricked ears. “What is that? What’s the story behind this?”
“Ask me afterwards,” I told him sharply. “Watch.*
The knights circled each other threateningly, and then backed their horses a good ten yards away from each other.
I heard Dennis stop breathing.
The black knight’s horse snorted and pawed the ground. The blue knight’s horse stood patiently.
Suddenly, a lone fork of lightening flashed across the sky. No thunder, no darkening, no rain accompanied it.
The black knight’s Shire reared and leapt forward. The steed of the blue knight stayed perfectly still until the black knight had nearly reached him. Then he cleanly sidestepped.
The black knight, hurling hysterical curses, reined in his horse and turned, charging at the blue knight.
Again, the steed of the blue knight simple side-stepped, sending the black knight in a terrible fury.
I still was not sure what the story behind this spectral appearance was, but I seem to have ragged remembrances of the recording of an incident of this sort in the Chronicles of Gravesend, a series of thirteen hand-written volumes, kept chained to the Haunted Bookcase in the Library of Darkness.
The steed of black knight reared again, and as it did so, the knight underwent a transformation. A ghastly fire-like light seemed to glow from his helmet and through his armor. Hissing sounds came through the armor, and the black glittering became even more evident.
The Shire also changed. His armored head transformed itself into the scaled head of a deformed, evil dragon. Huge, black, leathery wings appeared from his withers in a sudden explosion of fire. His hooves turned into burning claws, and his breath was fire. His tail solidified into a short spike that swung threateningly this way and that. His body and legs, though, were still those of a Shire.
The blue knight sat frozen with shock, watching this transformation. His steed, however, snorted and pranced in terror. In a moment, the blue knight’s Shire whirled and began to gallop down toward the woods.
Behind the crest of the hill, I saw a ball of fire go up, and the cry of the dragon-horse, which sounded like the grating of metal, and not a whinny.
Then, all was still and silent.
After a few moments, I stepped cautiously out of the brush and onto the dewy grass, ears pricked and nose alert.
When I was convinced there was nothing out of the normal left here, I began to climb the hill up to the forbidding Manor.
Dennis was unusually quiet as we approached the huge gates of the house. He asked me to stop so he could look at the metalwork, and I consented, watching as he ran his fingers along the jagged edges of the gates. When Mr. Leighton turned up, he too studied the metalwork for a minute, commenting on its excellent handiwork.
“It’s very well done, but it’s so grotesque,” he remarked. “The edges are jagged and torn…”
“The Gravesend clan was supposed to have partly descended from the Devil himself,” I explained. When they wanted some metalwork done, they most likely had a demon come fetch it and bring it down to hell, where it would be shaped.”
For one moment, Dennis looked skeptical, but remembering what he had just seen took the doubt off his face. He nodded slowly.
Mr. Leighton asked how they were supposed to get into the Manor’s more immediate grounds. The grassy hill we had just climbed did belong to the sprawling house, but it wasn’t confined in the massive iron gates that ran around the house. The stable and its grounds, a pond, and two gazebos were inside the wall. Tyynerth Wood, Ysgard Lake, and Kysw Glen were all outside the gate.
I let out a sharp bark, and the gates swung open noiselessly, glittering ominously under the full moon.
Dennis seemed fascinated and terrified at the same time as I led the way through the portals. As soon as we had passed through, the closed abruptly with a bang that made my rider jump. I snarled at him to stay still.
He answered nothing.
We slowly walked up the wide graveled road leading up to the gigantic doors. Arriving there, Dennis climbed off my back and ran his fingers of the iron-studded doors. “What story gets told here?” he asked.
“Tell you what,” I replied coldly. “You get situated, and when you’ve chosen your rooms and gotten acquainted with the place, we can review the history. Is that an idea?”
Mr. Leighton advanced then and stuck his key into the key hole. It was gigantic lock and gigantic bronze key, coiled like a snake.
“Where did you get that?” I demanded of him suspiciously.
He looked at me confusedly. “It was sent to me when I expressed interest in the place,” he explained.
My eyes narrowed as I watched him unlock the door. There were thirteen keys to Gravesend Manor: nine were hidden or lost on the Manor’s grounds or in the house itself, three had been given to mysterious visitors centuries ago and had since been lost from record, and one was especially accursed and had been buried under the Snyka Tree.
The Village Elderly of Fen would have taken care of this man’s wish to rent Gravesend Manor for two weeks, which meant Mr. Leighton claimed the Village Elderly had sent him the key.
But the Village Elderly did not have a key.
I heard Dennis gasp as the door swung opened. The front hallway of Gravesend Manor was truly luxurious, though I had become used to it during my long stay here in the Manor. The long Persian rug that stretched the length of the hall, the huge golden chandeliers that hung low, the painting masterpieces and hunting prizes that adorned the walls, and the pedestals carrying beautiful sculptures.
“Where are the cobwebs?” Mr. Leighton inquired. “This is so clean and neat… as if people were still living here.”
“People do not live here, no,” I answered. “And those who have tried ended up not living, either. But ghosts, specters, and beasts live here. They keep it neat.”
Mr. Leighton snorted, but Dennis shuddered.
“Now what floor would you like your bedrooms on?” I asked. “Second, third, or fourth?”
“Why not first or fifth?” Mr. Leighton demanded, miffed.
“Because the first floor has no bedrooms, and the fifth floor is called the Floor of Death. I strongly advise against entering it, at least on your first day.”
The man gave me a skeptical look. Dennis said quickly, “Second.”
Walking up the large flight of stairs to the second floor was an adventure in itself. Dennis had, by this time, climbed off my back and was puffing up the stairs behind me as I silently padded up them.
Suddenly, both Mr. Leighton and Dennis stopped abruptly and stared ahead. Irritated that they should be struck to stone by such a simple appearance as the gentle apparition of an old grandmother who would now and again glide softly down these stairs and disappear into a wall where in times before there had been a door to the parlor, I turned and snarled at them to move on.
Dennis, using for the first time in my presence a snappy voice, retorted, “Give us a break, Deirdre. We’ve never seen a ghost before. It is rather surprising. Please excuse us!”
I smiled wolfishly and continued to pad up the stairs.
The lush, bright blue carpeting of the steps swallowed the sound of every footfall. The skillfully wrought, yet grotesque iron and gilded railing of the stairs glittered softly in the ghostly light of the every-burning beeswax tapers in the crystal chandeliers.
Dennis could not help but stare at the length and lusciousness of the hallway on the second floor. Impatiently urging him on, though, I asked him which room he would like to claim for his own and sleep in.
Uncertainly he looked around. “These are all bedrooms?”
“No,” I replied. “But just pick a door and I will tell you if it is a bedroom or not – and if it is a bedroom, if it is a smart choice.”
Dennis swallowed and gave me a worried look, then, slowly walked down the hallway, looking at the doors. Each had some kind of frightful or mythical beast carved onto its solid oak surface.
He stopped at one, studying the vicious-looking face of a gnome. He shook his head and began to move on.
“I agree,” I said beside him. “That is the Gnome Guestroom. It is a strange place. In the night, the sleeper awakes to find thirteen gnomes dancing upon and around his bed. As he watches in fright or wonderment – it depends upon the person – they slow their dance and begin to advance upon him. What happens after that is always different.”
“Like what?” Dennis asked me curiously.
“One man simply disappeared without a trace, and the other was found hacked to pieces – with no trace of blood anywhere, mind you.”
“Only two people slept in the room?”
“After that story, would you like to be third?” I asked him sarcastically. He did not reply.
All at once he stopped before a door carved with a unicorn head. The creature had a magnificent mane that swept all around its elegant head.
“Is this one safe?” Dennis asked uncertainly.
“In comparison to others, yes,” I said.
“What’s its spook?” he demanded.
“A unicorn walks through your room at midnight. That is all.”
“A real unicorn?”
“Of course not. Just the specter of one who used to live on these grounds many hundreds of years ago. When the Gravesend family built this domicile, though, the unicorn was slain, and his blood was drunk by all the members of the family.”
Dennis shuddered. “Doesn’t that mean the unicorn wants revenge?”
I shrugged. “Yes. But it looks for a certain birthmark that all Gravesend members carry. You do not have that mark, I see. It will not hurt you.”
“What is the birthmark?”
Dennis looked at me in horror. “Deirdre?”
“There’s no Gravesend people living now, are there?”
“Not in the house, no. They only float around as apparitions and those are obviously not alive.”
“I’ll be safe from them in the Unicorn Bedroom?”
Mr. Leighton appeared behind me all at once. “Deirdre, how comes it that you know all the stories connected to these rooms so well?”
I glanced at him. “They are written in the Chronicles of Gravesend Manor, and I have slept in each of these rooms at one time or other.”
The man raised an eyebrow.
“I am a werewolf, and I slept as a werewolf. They will not touch a creature of their own genre,” I explained impatiently.
He nodded. “Open the door, Dennis,” he told his son. “Let’s have a look at your room.”
Gingerly Dennis pressed down on the wrought iron handle of the big solid oak door. Though it took a good shove to get the door moving, the massive construction swept open noiselessly and easily.
Dennis looked around curiously before he stepped into his room. “Cool,” he said. Clearly he had not been expecting such a luscious room from a haunted house.
I rolled my pupil-less eyes. “What were you thinking?” I asked him. “Spider webs as thick as unshorn wool? Rat-chewed blankets? Torn fabrics, destroyed paintings, and broken glass?”
“That’s what a haunted house is made of,” Dennis snapped. “I’m sorry, Deirdre, but I don’t happen to be a werewolf, and I don’t know about this stuff.”
“I could make you a werewolf,” I said poisonously.
Dennis took a step away from me and returned his attention to the room.
The bed was king-sized, made of black walnut and carved in that wonderful grotesque way unique to all Gravesend artwork.
Unicorns proudly arched their massive necks at the corners of the bed, while the heavy blue canopy, interwoven with curious magical signs in silver, was held aloft by twisted knobby branches.
Paintings of stern, pompous people lined the high walls. The mantle, made of black and white marble, took up half the back wall, and was flanked on either side by a bronze pot of dried rushes and wild flowers.
The entire room smelled strangely sweet, but it was a sweetness that suggested a long, long presence.
“This is… nice. I think I’ll enjoy it here.”
I smiled wolfishly and turned to the older man. “Mr. Leighton, would you like to choose your room now?”
He nodded. “We’ll leave Dennis to his dreams for a few minutes. Are there any more of these “relatively safe” bedrooms on this floor?”
I considered a moment. “If you don’t mind three shrieks and a frightful cold for five minutes after midnight, there is another bedroom for you. Otherwise, I would take the third floor.”
He nodded and looked at the stairs. “Well then.”
I led the way up the stairs to the third floor. I wondered about this Mr. Leighton. He seemed a pleasant enough man, and I might have considered trusting him, except for that lie about the key to Gravesend Manor. Now I watched him suspiciously.
As for Dennis, though, he might be stupid, but he would be no plotter of anything.
I halted at the top of the stairs and jerked my head down the hallway. “Take a look,” I invited Mr. Leighton. “Afterwards I will tell you which rooms are the best.”
The man accepted my invitation and walked slowly down the hallway, scanning the carvings on the doors. Upon returning, he suggested, “The ivy or the cat seems the best to me.”
I laughed at his naivety. “Mr. Leighton, shall we take a look into the Ivy Sitting Room?”
“It’s not a bedroom?”
“Not really, though it could be used for one. I was referring to the spook. You do not want to spend the night in the Ivy Sitting Room if you value your life.”
In answer, I pushed down on the handle of the door with my jaw and let it swing open, revealing the room.
Mr. Leighton looked cautiously around. Gradually his face began to wrinkle into a frown. “Uh… This looks very inviting. I almost feel like reading a good book here. There’s even a fire burning.”
“Go ahead and sit down,” I invited him.
He looked at me strangely and took a few slow steps into the room. He noticed two large, spreading ivy plants growing from large bronze containers. For several moments, nothing happened. Then, suddenly, an ivy plant slowly turned and began to grow rapidly in Mr. Leighton’s direction. He watched with idle curiosity until the plant took hold of his arm. He cried out and turned to stare at me.
“Would you like some help?” I asked dryly.
“Don’t just stand there!” he shouted at me. “Do something!”
I nodded and sprang into the room, landing on the wild ivy plant and ripping it from Mr. Leighton’s sleeve. Freed from the ivy, the man stumbled back out of the room and demanded that I close the door. I consented, and then looked at him for a long moment.
“I know I should have believed you the first time you told me,” he said in an irritated voice, holding his arm. The shirt sleeve was torn and speckled with blood.
Without answering, I slowly opened the door of the Ivy Sitting Room again. Mr. Leighton stared at me, and probably would have tried to make me stop, had I been in human form. Instead, he just watched in horror.
The door swung open again, revealing the room, just as it had been when I first opened to it. The ivy plants were silently sitting in their bronze pots, spreading around the room and adding a decorative touch. They seemed perfectly harmless.
I let Mr. Leighton take a look, then pulled the door closed and continued to pad down the hallway. I knew he wouldn’t want to sleep in that room.
Mr. Leighton finally settled for the White Guest Room, a large spacious area actually meant for two people. Everything in the room was some form of white, silver, or cream. The only ghost in the room, I told its new inhabitant, was a baby that would suddenly appear on the bed, and then fade away.
Mr. Leighton said he could handle that.
When I returned to the Unicorn Bedroom, Dennis was putting away the last of his clothes in a large ivory wardrobe. “Do you feel all right in this room?” I asked him, after walking up behind him very quietly.
He started and whirled around, dropping a hangar. “Oh, it’s you, Deirdre. Don’t scare me like that. Yes, I like it fine here. Where’s Mr. Putnam?”
It was my turn to be surprised. “Mr. Putnam? I thought he was Mr. Leighton, your father!”
Dennis shook his head. “My dad was a soldier; he was killed. My mom ran off with some other guy and stuck me in an orphan’s home. Mr. Putnam is a regular visitor of the home. When he said he was going on a trip, and he’d like a little company, he chose me to go with him.”
“What do you know,” I murmured. This sounded rather strange, especially after the key incident. I spoke to Dennis again. “Well, do you want me to inform you on the history of this place or not? Let’s go.”
“Uh, Deirdre?” he asked, running down the stairs after me, “is it possible there’s something to eat around here? I’m hungry.”
I scowled. “This house is haunted, but it’s not enchanted. I wouldn’t have to run to Fen every day if I could just wish for food and have it appear. If you didn’t bring anything, well, you’ll have to starve.”
“Mr. Putnam has some food, but I don’t want to climb the stairs to go ask him for it,” Dennis answered, panting. “Where are we going?”
“The Library of Darkness is at the end of this hallway. Come on now, don’t lag.”
“Library of Darkness?” the boy whined. “Man, can’t these folks give anything a nice name?”
“What do you expect it to be called?” I growled. “Maybe Library of Good Light, or, even better, Library of Angels? These were wicked people!”
Dennis would have talked back, as usual, but we arrived at the Library, and I heaved the oak doors open. It had been a while since I’d been in here, and I must admit, it was a pretty impressive room.
The boy stood with his mouth open, staring up at the ceiling. Shelves piled upon shelves, and each was laden with neatly organized books, pamphlets, and sheaves of loose papers.
The Library of Darkness was in the shape of a half-hexagon. The Haunted Bookcase was in the very center. It was crafted from jet black ebony, with repulsive snakes writhing all over it, and the thirteen fat volumes it carried looked heavy and menacing, as if they intended to fall on the foot of the person who lifted them.
Dennis tore his eyes away from the other shelves and took a step toward the Haunted Bookcase. “Wow. Can I take one of these up to bed with me?” he asked.
“If you really want to spoil your sleep, yes,” I replied. “Just let me warn you that the Library Warden will come looking for the missing volume around midnight, and he’s a rather nasty fellow.”
“What is he?” Dennis asked curiously.
“Well, he’s a bent old man that leans on a crooked stick, but when he raises his head to look at you, you go mad. It’s an incurable madness, too.”
The boy shuddered again. “Can I least read one of the books here?”
“I’ll point out to you the legends you asked about,” I told him coldly, walking up to Bookcase and choosing Volume III. “Pull this one out.”
Dennis reached for it, but then suddenly froze. “The snakes are moving!” he breathed, staring at the ebony creatures and then at me.
I just scowled at him.
Summoning his courage, he seized the book and yanked it from the bookcase. The volume was chained, though, and he lost grasp of it. There was crash as the volume reached the end of its chain and hung there.
“Klutz,” I snarled at him. “Now you’ve done it after all. Get behind me and keep your eyes covered.”
Dennis dropped to all fours and pressed his hands over his eyes. I placed myself in front of him as a muttering and evil babbling began.
The Library Warden appeared from a corner of the Library of Darkness. He was only about four feet tall; bent double, his clothes were shabby and dusty; he looked like an undead mummy. He hobbled towards me, babbling.
“You disturb me again, Wolf,” he muttered, keeping his eyes toward the ground, spitting out the last word. “Or is it something else? I smell sweat, oh yes. Is there something else here? Move, Wolf!”
“Warden, I follow no one’s orders and I shall not move!” I roared at him. “Get back, return to your cranny! Or I will bite your imperceptible head from its unseen neck!”
“The Library is my command,” he muttered at me, still not raising his eyes. “Move, Wolf!”
I lowered my head and bared my teeth. My yellow eyes narrowed down to slits. My hair was bristling. “Warden, remove yourself.”
He raised his head then, and his empty eyes stared at me. His face was dried out like a prune, and his eyes were only empty sockets – sockets that sent out curious twirling black, green, and yellow rays of evil light. I was immune to it, but I hoped Dennis was keeping his eyes covered and head down.
“Warden, I am stronger than you. GET BACK!”
He dropped his eyes again and still babbling, hobbled back to his corner, where he melted into the darkness.
“Is he gone?” Dennis asked in whisper.
“Yes,” I snapped. “Now carefully pick up the book and set it on the reading platform.”
“What reading platform?” the boy asked, hoisting the great volume up.
Underneath the Haunted Bookcase, there was black marble rim. I took a corner of it in my teeth and pulled it out a little ways. My teeth slipped on the smooth rock then, but I had it out far enough to get a good grip on it now.
The platform could be propped up. Dennis managed to heave the fat volume up onto the platform before loosing hold of it again. He stared at it for a moment. The cover was made of leather-overlaid wood, and a bizarre ‘III’ was crafted into it. The Roman numeral was encircled with dark-colored precious stones.
“Could these be pried off?” Dennis wondered.
I bared my teeth. “Listen here, stupid boy, you’ve done enough foolish things today. Open the book and think twice before you speak.”
He did, holding the cover with a thumb and forefinger and finding a page towards the middle of the volume.
“Did these people have lots of time or what?” he asked me, pointing to an incredibly ornate page.
“Devils did the craftwork,” I answered. “I told you that. Go farther; the legend of the knights should be towards the end.”
Dennis paged through the book slowly. I wished he would hurry up, but I granted him the time, seeing how enchanted he was with the artwork
He finally stopped on a page whose lead letter was ‘W’ and whose title illustration depicted a beastly head, like the deformed dragon head of the Shire after it had transformed, and the ornate tournament helmet of a knight.
He frowned, trying to read the title. “Lord… Something Gravesend’s… Encounter… With… Beelzebub. Bother, Deirdre, it will take me forever to read this!”
“It is not Something Gravesend, unwelcome stranger,” a haunting gentle voice whispered from the pages of the book. “His name was Lord Uziel Gravesend.”
“This thing is talking!” Dennis exclaimed, and looked at me. I scowled at him, and he looked sheepish. “Will it just read the story to me?”
“Ask it and see.”
“Um, Miss… Book, would you tell me this, uh, legend?”
“My name is Rae, not Book,” the voice replied. “Yes, if you wish, I shall tell you this part of the History of the Gravesend Clan. Should I begin at the beginning?”
“Uh, yes, please. Is there any way I could see you?”
“Very well, I am standing next to you,” the voice said.
Dennis looked around him and noticed the solid-looking form of a middle-aged lady. She was dressed in a dark green dress that was plain in front but drawn up in puffs and bulges in back. She had a kindly look, but Dennis still turned to ask me, “Is she safe, Deirdre?”
“She’s safe,” I told him. “In fact, I can leave you in her care. You will be fine with her. She’s very kind, but when she tells you she has to go, you must thank her and immediately – and I mean immediately – leave this library. Don’t worry about the book then, just say, ‘Thank you very much, Rae,’ and leave. Is that clear?”
“Yes,” Dennis said nervously. “Will you be far?”
I just cocked an eyebrow at him and turned. “Take care of him, Rae,” I said over my shoulder, and walked out the open doors of the Library of Darkness.
I broke into an easy lope down the hallway and headed up onto the third floor to check on Mr. Putnam. I wondered about this man, but I was not concerned. I was not going to start spinning theories, either, until I ran into something really serious.
The door to the White Guest Room was open when I reached it. Mr. Putnam was sprawled on the bed, asleep. I figured he’d probably had a long drive.
To test his alertness, I stepped inside the room and began to pad around; looking at the few things he had out. Most of his clothes were already inside the wardrobes. The only things out were three pairs of shoes: rubber boots, leather shoes, and hiking boots.
I sniffed these. They seemed new; his scent wasn’t very strong in them.
His hand hung off the side of the bed, I sniffed this too. He had a watery smell, somehow, I thought, pulling away and wrinkling my nose. He probably wears some disgusting perfume.
I could find nothing to alert me, and I wasn’t expecting to. I left the room and went back downstairs to see how Dennis was faring
Glancing into the Library of Darkness, I saw he was still bent over a volume of the Chronicles of Gravesend, speaking with the apparition of Rae.
I left them and went outside, taking a lope around the grounds, making a lazy path toward the Eight-Sided Gazebo.
This building was rather large for a gazebo, and painted in a shimmering, spider web gray. It was quite a beautiful creation, considering – until you got up close. Then you became aware of a strange, metallic smell coming from the floor and the east wall.
I was familiar with this, but it still made me pull my lips back in a disgusted grimace. I stepped inside, gingerly making my way around a large gooey splotch of dark red – an eternal pool of festering blood. There was some of the stuff on the table and bench attached directly to the wall; I took a seat near the doorway, leaping lightly up onto the bench and looking out across the grounds.
It was a beautiful day, but somehow the entire area seemed faded. It was an impression that hit you on first sight, but then grew fainter as you studied the landscape. Occasionally it returned though, and made you wonder if you weren’t just looking at a matt photograph under a light film of dust.
My ears pricked at the sound of horses’ hooves and the creaking of a wooden coach being pulled twice as fast as it was supposed to be.
I knew this one. The coach, pulled by two wild-eyed Dartmoor ponies, tore down the graveled path. Right in front of the gazebo, one of the ponies suddenly shied and ran into the other, and the coach flipped. There was a shriek from inside, and one of the ponies got entangled in its harness and fell. The other danced around.
A small figure crawled out of the coach. I leapt out of the gazebo and carefully approached the apparition. For weeks now I’d been trying to figure out if the figure was a boy or a girl. It was a child, I knew that. But I had never been able to catch its face.
But, as so many times before, the ponies caught sight or wind of me and suddenly they weren’t there anymore.
I let out a bark of frustration and ran to the place, sniffing around, hoping to pick up a scent. I never did, only a bad chill that left me as soon as I g tot offhe road.
With a final growl of disappointment, I trotted off, staying off the road and keeping to the grass. I was never sure what sort of crazy ghost would rip down that path next. The Gravesend family had had so many accidents with coaches, ponies, horses, and dogs that the path leading around and then off the grounds was simply infested with specters.
Of course, so was the rest of the area, I reflected. I found myself heading toward Ysgard Lake. This place was one of my favorite spots of the whole Manor. It was actually quite a horrible, spooky place, but that’s why I liked it. A normal human would have been in deep trouble to even approach the Lake, but I, being a werewolf, was safe – usually. I enjoyed the atmosphere. It made my fur rise and my nose tingle.
The lake was surrounded by large boulders overrun with moss. Some of the rocks were so big it was like Ysgard was surrounded by mountain walls. On two sides it was – the mountain that ran back up to the Manor.
Long strands of brown, crumbling, twisted vine rose up the mountainsides, while toothed-leaf plants grew – or sat; I had lost faith in life in this place long ago – one the boulders. The whole lake was in shadow, almost drowning under a canopy of dark biology.
The Lake itself was rumored and recorded to be extremely deep. I had even read in the Chronicles it was direct passage to Hell, but that didn’t make much sense to me; it should have been boiling then. I had noticed on a few occasions that the water suddenly grew extremely hot, but that wasn’t much evidence.
I had never gone for a swim in it, though occasionally I dared to lope along the outer rim. I had never been in farther than two feet, however, because there the ground dropped abruptly away, falling backwards at a 225 degree angle. From there on the water shimmered like motor oil. It almost seemed alive at times, flowing around smoothly, invitingly, like a beautiful carnivorous plant.
I was never as dumb as a fly, though, and I never even considered taking a dive.
I sprang up onto my favorite rock, a big quartz boulder that didn’t support any plants bigger than a prickly forest green moss. I noticed today that the moss was blooming, tiny brown flowers that emitted the smell of perfumed cod. It was quite a combination.
I decided to change seats.
Tempting Ysgard, I stood in the water, looking out over the Lake. I could see all sides of it, and I could easily lope around it in fifteen minutes. The water licked gently at my paws. My claws automatically protracted at the feel.
I checked the sun. This would be about the time when one of my favorite apparitions appeared. Remaining in the water, I started to pant. The Lake was heating up again.
Suddenly the tide retracted back toward the center of Ysgard Lake. It went quickly, as if being sucked through a drain. The black waters heaped up in the center of the lake, forming a large smooth ball.
It was simply fascinating, even though I had witness this many times before. The ball was sitting in the bottomless gorge of Ysgard, and I was only able to see the top third. It was like the earth, half-covered in black space, from the moon.
I came to the edge of the ledge and looked down. The rock was a dirty bronze, glittering in the weak sun. The ball of water floated before me.
It began to bubble and swirl, but still retained its shape. My lips curled a little into an anticipating grin. I knew what would happen now, but my white ruff was still standing on end with electricity bouncing from every follicle.
The black ball of sweltering water abruptly burst into a thousand puddles, and crashed back down into the lake, foaming and splashing like there was a herd of wild mustangs stampeding through it.
Now, where seconds before the ball had been was a great foggy red patch. It was actually quite frightening, terrifying – the first time I’d seen it, I’d been driven mad for an entire day, barking, howling, and chasing apparitions, always with an awful burning in my brain.
This sight still made my cerebellum tingle, and hurt my eyes like looking into an acid sun, but I was gradually becoming desensitized to it.
The great red splotch was actually an eye, or better said, the single iris of an eye. This ocular instrument, as one book in the Library of Darkness called it, belonged to a demonic power that once upon a time had been responsible for seeing that the Gravesend family kept their parts in deals with Satan.
The power now obviously no longer had the job, since the Gravesend name is extinct among man, but he still leaves a replica of his eye to every day at the same time look about the area, as if searching for any Gravesend who might be hiding from the pact.
Thank God, the eye is only a replica – I know I would hardly be able to face the real thing. The facsimile seems to be fading, too. One day, it will disappear.
The eye revolved slowly, like a planet, searching the area. It came to rest on me. I knew it didn’t appreciate me there at all. I was as out of place here in this wicked, haunted, devilish place as a Chrysler Crossfire is in the 11th century. I’m not good, not at all – but I’m a werewolf, and I’m supposed to be a loathsome creature, which I’m also definitely not.
Slowly the iris moved on, this time directing its sight up the mountain to the Manor.
Then something happened I was not at all prepared for. The eye blazed up into such a furious red as I have never seen before and will never see again. Sword pricks stabbed my brain and eyes.
With a yelp, I turned and raced from Ysgard Lake, racing from the sudden throbbing in my head. Behind me, the Lake began to growl and storm, a wind coming up between the rocks. The fogged sky above it glowed an evil red, the same red as the eye had exploded into.
I fled Ysgard, flying up the road to Gravesend Manor. I could already guess why the eye had become so furious. I needed to get back and protect Dennis and Mr. Putnam from whatever was coming now.
Behind me, the eye swelled and burned, sending little streams of heat out on the air. Ahead of me, the gates were open; I dashed through.
I had barely entered the Manor house when Dennis ran full-pelt into me. Half-winded, I sat back hard on my haunches, panting. “Are you done in the Library?”
He nodded. “Rae just left, and I almost didn’t see.” He shivered. “Where were you?”
“Down at Ysgard Lake. Come on; I need to see Mr. Putnam.”
He clambered up onto my back. That wasn’t exactly what I had meant, but no matter. I bounded up the stairs.
One the fourth floor, I halted at the top of the stairs. Both of us listened. My fur was bristling; Dennis was pinching me.
From the White Guest Room there came something of a heated argument. One voice was clearly Mr. Putnam’s; the other speaker’s tone reminded me very clearly of the cries of the dragon-Shire from that morning.
“This is not good,” I muttered.
Dennis slid down off my shoulders and would have headed for the White Guest Room if I hadn’t bitten his shoulder – gently of course – and held him back. “You stay put,” I hissed at him. “Hold onto the railing; don’t move until I’m back. Yes?”
He nodded; I padded forward.
The door to the Guest Room was very slightly open, and a red light rimmed the crack. The smell of molten rock and burning flesh hit my nose. I tried to hold my breath, but being a wolf, it didn’t last so long.
I stopped outside the door, careful to stay away from the red light. I caught a sentence spoken by strange voice.
“You have a pact to execute, Zared Gravesend!”
My snarling lips dropped over my fangs in surprise. My first thought was, How many names does this man have?
Then I realized the meaning of the sentence and hurriedly returned to Dennis. We went back downstairs to the second floor, where I took him to the Forestry Sitting Room, called so because its tapestries and paintings – and colors – all took the woods as theme.
Dennis plopped comfortably onto a massive upholstered chair three times his size, landed a big pillow on his stomach, and asked, a little too comfortably for my taste, “What’s going on upstairs?”
“Your Mr. Putnam is not Mr. Putnam – someone says he’s Zared Gravesend.”
Dennis sat up so abruptly he lost his balance and slid back into the chair again, the pillow over his head. I heard a muffled “What?”
I quickly explained to him about the Iris of Ysgard, and my suspicions of that Iris being the second speaker in the White Guest Room.
I think Dennis got lost toward the end. By now he had beaten the chair enough to sit reasonably upright and was looking at me sort of confusedly. “So… Now what do we do?” Then something hit him and he bounced off the piece of furniture.
“Didn’t you say this morning a Gravesend person has vamp fangs?”
I nodded. “Yes… You didn’t notice any on ‘Mr. Putnam,’ did you?”
“I wasn’t looking for them,” Dennis said. “But if I just act normal for now, maybe I can catch him brushing his teeth.”
I couldn’t stop a low growl of laughter. “Act normal, all right – if he gives us a chance.” I turned on him abruptly. “Show me your teeth.”
He readily yawned wide, and I could not detect anything that was not entirely human.
I heard footsteps in the hall, then, and quickly turned my attention to a secretary desk.
Zared Gravesend entered. I thought it suspicious he had found me so fast – just another hint at his true character.
“Ah, Deirdre and Dennis. Good that I find you. I’ve been searching for you. Dennis, have you found out a lot about this Manor?”
The boy nodded. “I spent a lot of time in the Library of Darkness. Pretty interesting stuff they’ve got there.”
“How about you tell me about it over a snack?” he suggested. “I’m hungry.”
You probably need something to get over an encounter with the Devil, I thought in disgust, but said nothing.
“What time do you usually leave for Fen for supper?” Dennis asked me as we went down the stairs to the dining room, overlooking a small courtyard.
I wished he hadn’t asked; I didn’t want Zared Gravesend to know. “It varies,” I replied. “There’s still that big werewolf down in Tyynerth Wood – I need to be careful to avoid him.”
“Oh, you have to leave us this evening, don’t you?” Zared asked, and his disappointment sounded almost real. “How long will you be gone?”
“Several hours,” I returned, trying to keep the ice out of my voice. “I have no intention of hurrying supper because of tourists.”
“You’re such a grouch,” Dennis said with a grin, fondly scrubbing the fur on my muscular shoulders. I snapped at his hand, but it was a friendly move. I think he knew – but he did remove his hand.
“Say, Deirdre,” Dennis remarked through a mouth full of chicken sandwich, “you’re a werewolf. Have you ever eaten anyone?”
I snorted. “No. I, my dear boy, am a connoisseur of good food. Humans aren’t even on the list. I’ll take a pork chop in thick tartar sauce over a human thigh anytime. Besides, I don’t think humans are worth the trouble. I have a pact with Fen, and their cooking is much better than I could ever do by myself on raw Homo sapiens. Why? What’s your point?”
He shrugged. “I was just wondering. I think it’s kind of weird the way you operate. A ‘good’ werewolf is like… oh… a fast turtle. It’s just hard to imagine. I thought werewolves were inherently bad.”
“You have to remember that werewolves are people who happen to have to ability to turn into oversized monsters. No human is rotten to the core, just like no one is perfectly good. Many people are almost bad through and through, but they can’t be quite. And a lot of people try to be or think they are good, but they’re not. I admit, being a werewolf, especially an Alpha, gives you a monstrous mean streak, but I just somehow happened to get a slight genetic modification or something. I can be bad,” I focused my pupil-less eyes on him a moment and snarled, “but it doesn’t burn me all the time like I’m sure it does with other werewolves.”
“You’re saying you happened to have the luck to be born with a defect.”
“Who were your parents?”
I looked out into the Courtyard of Feuding. “I don’t much remember,” I said, “except that they must both have been Alphas, since I’m one. My mother was a cleanliness enthusiast, I know that. That’s where I learned my habits from. And my father was a powerful wolf. But I was weaned at two or three – in human years.”
“Don’t you ever miss them? Wolves are pack creatures, you know.”
“Yes. They are, but I was banned here because I refuse to eat raw meat. No, I don’t miss them.”
“This is fascinating,” ‘Mr. Putnam’ remarked. “It’s hard to believe we’re sitting here eating lunch in the most haunted place in the world, talking to a horse-sized werewolf about family.”
Dennis grinned. “This is a cool place actually – as long as we have a guide.”
“You have yet to survive the night,” I warned him.
“Where will you be?” he asked.
“That’s my business,” I replied, a touch coldly.
“Will you be within…?” Dennis persisted, but I interrupted him.
“Rescuing distance? Yes, I’ll stick close enough. But I’m not here to act as your bodyguard. You’ll have to do some things yourself.”
That night, I reached Fen extremely hungry. The old werewolf in Tyynerth Wood hadn’t shown himself, though I’d heard snapping and growling on my panicked run through the haunted forest. Either he’d been arguing with an apparition or he’d found something to eat – but what, I couldn’t possibly guess.
The people of Fen had prepared a wonderful meal for me again, in plenteous portions, for which I was very thankful. As I literally wolfed the entire haunch of an ox, the Village Elderly walked up to me and greeted me with a pat on the shoulder. “Good night, Deirdre.”
I raised my head and swallowed a piece of red meat. The juices were running down my chin, but I tried to halt them before they reached my white ruff and stained it.
“Is something wrong?” I asked him.
“We’ve lost another ox. The same creature must have torn it as tore the first one.”
“In broad daylight?” I asked in surprise.
“Oh no, it must have been about half an hour before you arrived.”
I stared at him for a moment, and then realized he was getting uncomfortable looking into me pupil-less eyes, and lowered my head to take another chunk of meat. “Allow me to finish my meal,” he asked, “then I want to see the ox and the place where it was torn.”
I was carrying the bone of the haunch in my mouth and sucking the last bits of juice and meat out of it as I trotted to the field where the ox had been torn.
The animal was still there, guarded by two men from the village. The ox’s strange position immediately struck me. It was down on its two front legs, with its rear end propped up on two broken back legs. The meat on the ribs had been eaten off quickly, as if the thing that tore it had just yanked on the flesh and ripped it off.
I trotted around the ox, still chewing on my bone.
“The neck’s not broken,” I said to the Village Elderly. “This animal shouldn’t actually be dead – unless it died of a heart attack.”
The old man shrugged. “I do not know. We found it like this just before you arrived.”
“Well I can tell you that a werewolf did not kill it,” I remarked. “You can have the laziest, sloppiest werewolf you want – we always kill from the front by biting the throat or break the neck. And we never take the trouble to break the back legs and prop up the rear end. Also, a werewolf would have taken the shoulders or haunches – hardly the ribs.”
The Village Elderly could only nod.
“How was the other ox found?”
“On its side, throat bitten through, shoulder and haunches eaten,” the old man answered. “That is why we mistakenly thought you were responsible, for which I’m very sorry.”
“Never mind it,” I said. “That just seems to say that two different creatures tore these oxen.”
“Well it has got to stop,” the Elderly told me energetically. “We have very few oxen as it is, and losing one every day will ruin us.”
I bit my bone in half and chewed on the pointed ends, thinking. “I would stay here for a while, but that would mean leaving Dennis and Zared alone at the Manor, which is rather dangerous.” I waited for a reaction from the Village Elderly at the true name of ‘Mr. Leighton.’
“Zared?” the Elderly asked, mildly curious. “Is his name Zared Leighton?”
“No, Zared Gravesend.”
The Elderly and the village people around me all stopped breathing at once, I thought.
“A Gravesend has returned to the Manor?” an old woman asked. “Doom is on us!”
I would have rolled my eyes, had it made an impression.
The Village Elderly kept his cool better the other villagers. “Deirdre, come to my house afterwards and tell me of this. But first we finish the business with the ox.”
I nodded and returned to the slain animal. I sniffed the torn flesh, trying to catch a scent. I could smell nothing. I even licked the meat, but could only taste meat. No saliva, no sweat, no anything.
I stood back, staring at a puzzle. I remembered that I could smell nothing when I sniffed Zared Gravesend’s shoes, but I was hesitant to make the comparison.
I turned to the Elderly. “I can make neither heads of tails of this,” I told him. What creature would bring down an ox, eat so little, and then prop it up so artistically? It doesn’t make sense.”
“It’s not possibly a monster from the Manor?”
“It’s possibly anything,” I said, a little snappishly. “But I don’t see why a monster would suddenly leave the familiar grounds after having lived there for centuries.”
The Elderly shrugged. “I wonder if the rest of the ox is still edible. There is so much good meat left on it…”
I looked a little skeptical. “What happened to the remaining meat of the first ox?”
“The women broiled some and dried some. You ate part of it.”
I licked my lips. “It was good too – but it was also torn like any wild animal’s prey. I don’t know if you should risk eating something done up as much as this second one.”
The Elderly nodded. “I shall see. Now would you tell me why Mr. Leighton is suddenly Zared Gravesend?”
The sun was rising in the outside world when I broke out of Tyynerth Wood, into the cold gray mists that constituted ‘day’ for Gravesend Manor.
I let out a last gasp, held my breath a moment, and returned to normal breathing. I held my head up and sniffed around. Nothing strange attacked my senses; I loped up to the Manor.
In the house, everything that was supposed to be asleep at five in the morning was; everything normally awake also was.
I padded up the stairs and checked on the Unicorn Bedroom. Dennis was still asleep, sprawled lengthwise across the bed. He didn’t seem to have been very disturbed during the night.
Then I went to check up on Zared Gravesend. It did not surprise me to find his bed slept in, but empty.
I entered the room and sniffed around. I was more than just uncomfortable to find no scent at all.
I couldn’t explain this. I looked around for anything that belonged to Zared, but nothing was in the closets, nothing was lying on any furniture or tossed under the bed.
I growled and left the room to do my daily morning tour of the house to check up on the specters.
Two hours later, I returned to the Manor and went back up to Dennis’ room. He was dressed now and wandering around.
“Are you looking for something?” I asked him.
He started; I grinned. It looked funny.
“Don’t sneak up on me!” he exclaimed. “Good morning to you too! I was just seeing if my room has any hidden doors or closets or something.”
I cocked my head. “Actually,” I said, “I think it does. Come with me into the Elf Bedroom and see if you can find it.”
Dennis looked confused, but followed me into the neighboring room.
The Elf Bedroom, like every room in Gravesend Manor, was unique and interesting. The dominating color was aquamarine. Dennis took two steps into the room and looked around. “What’s the spook here?” he asked.
“Mischievous elves do everything in their power to rob you of your sleep. They’ll style your hair into lots of knots, or tie your clothes to your bed, or…”
“I get it,” Dennis assured me. “But are they out in the daytime?”
“Yes, but I’m right here and they won’t bother you,” I said, a bit snappishly. “Now, do you notice anything in this room that might hint at a secret passage?”
Dennis walked around the perimeter of the room, knocking on the walls. At the back one, he stopped. “This one’s hollow, right?”
“Yes,” I said. I was about to say something more when suddenly a whole slew of little winged creature, shrieking and giggling in high-pitched voices, plunged onto Dennis.
He squealed and swatted at them. I watched for a moment, then barked abruptly. The little creatures froze wherever they were and slowly turned their heads to stare accusingly at me.
“Go away,” I growled.
Like sulky children, they slowly fluttered away from Dennis and disappeared back into their hiding places around the room.
“I though elves were big and carried bows,” Dennis said.
“Some do, the noble ones,” I answered. “But obviously there aren’t any of those here.”
“So where the door to the passage?” he demanded then.
“In your room,” I answered. “There used to be a door in this room, but it was sealed up because the elves once got into the passageway and caused some problems.”
“What kind?” Dennis wanted to know.
“The story is in the Fourth Book of the Chronicles,” I answered. “Come on, do you want to follow the passage?”
“Yes, I do,” he said hesitantly, following me out of the Elf Bedroom and closing the door behind him, “but Deirdre, I’m awful hungry. It’s breakfast time.”
“Well, then we’ll save the passage for later,” I told him. “Let’s see what Matilda wants to fix for you.”
“Who’s Matilda?” Dennis asked. I knew he would. We headed for the stairs. To go down them, he clambered up on my back again. He mistrusted the stairs.
“She’s the cook,” I replied.
“But yesterday you said that you can’t get any food here?”
“You can’t,” I said.
“Just wait, will you?”
I could feel Dennis shrug, irritated. But, as was his nature, he was soon asking questions on the next subject. “Where’s Mr. Putnam? Is he still in bed?”
“No. What did you find out last night?”
“Last… Oh yeah! He does have weird teeth. They’re not as weird as yours. But they look too long.”
“Were they hollow?”
“I don’t know,” Dennis said huffily. “You didn’t tell me to look for hollow. Speaking of last night anyway, I didn’t see any unicorn in my bedroom.”
“You probably slept right through it,” I told him. “Well, here’s the kitchen. What would you like for breakfast?”
“Can I have anything?” he wondered.
“Just say something,” I said impatiently.
“Okay – white bread, real butter, blueberry jelly, thick honey, chocolate cereal…”
“I said something,” I interrupted him.
“That’ll do for starters,” Dennis replied generously.
For a minute, both of us waited. Then Dennis got impatient. “Where’s Matilda? I’m hungry!”
No sooner had he said that than the ghost of a well-rounded middle-aged woman with a flustered but kind face bustled into the kitchen from a side door, singing loudly.
“Hurry, hurry, hurry,
Oh, flurry, flurry, flurry
First it’s breakfast, then it’s lunch,
Suddenly tea time, or time for punch,
Then comes supper, a bedtime snack –
And then we start back at the back.
Why, hullo there, boy. Good morning, Deirdre. Who’s this?”
“You should probably ask ‘What’s this,’” I answered, “because it’s hungry.”
“Oh dear me,” Matilda said, throwing her hands in the air. “Then I shall certainly get it something to eat. What does it like?”
“It likes breakfast,” I told her with a smile. “Anything you’ve got, I suppose.”
“Croissants, butter, fruits…” Matilda began listing.
“All of it,” Dennis interrupted.
The ghost looked at him in jovial surprise. “It has its mind made up, doesn’t it now,” she said, smiling. “I’ll be back in a minute.”
“This doesn’t make sense,” Dennis began. “If I can have breakfast here, why can’t you? Why do you go to Fen every night if you can get food here just as easily?”
“Eat your breakfast, and then I’ll tell you,” I answered. “I’m going to leave you here with Matilda for a few minutes to go find Putnam. Don’t worry; Matilda is a very good ghost, and if the Kitchen Cat decides to show up, yell for her.”
Dennis was going to say something, but I was already out the door.
On the staircase, I met the specter of the old woman who walked through the door that wasn’t there anymore, like I did at least once every day. “Good morning, Grandmother,” I called to her. “May I ask you something?”
“Why of course, dear,” the ghost said, stopping just before she stepped through the wall. “What would you like to know?”
“Have you seen an adult man this morning?”
“Why, yes, dear, I have,” she said. “He came up these stairs but a few minutes ago.”
“How did he look?” I asked.
“He seemed weary, dear,” the ghost answered. “And his clothes were wet, as if from dew.”
“Thank you, Grandmother,” I said. “Enjoy your day.”
“Same to you, dear,” the specter returned, and walked through the wall.
I bounded up the stairs to Zared Gravesend’s room. As I expected, he was in bed, asleep, as if he’d been there since last night. His shoes were at the foot of his bed, but they weren’t wet, and they carried no scent whatsoever. There were no wet clothes lying around, either. I didn’t smell anything wet. With a suspicious shrug, I returned to the kitchen.
Dennis was sitting at the massive oak table in the kitchen, munching happily on a fresh croissant. Around him were grapes, apples, oranges, and pomegranates, waiting to be eaten.
“How’s breakfast?” I asked wryly.
“Good,” he said through a full mouth. “And say, the Kitchen Cat is right over there with Matilda. Why did you say I should yell if it turned up? It’s a nice critter.”
“It is?” I asked, rather surprised. “Whenever I get near, it hunches itself up and spits.”
“You’re… a wolf,” Dennis pointed out carefully, worried about getting ridiculed again.
“Oh,” I said. I’d never considered that.
Dennis laughed and bit into an apple. “So,” he said, “I’m working on breakfast. Now tell me why you don’t eat here.”
I scowled at him.
He grinned sheepishly. “Please.”
“The fact is,” I said, “I am a monster made of flesh and blood, but the ghosts are monsters made of, well, something else. So we are of different material. The food made up of ghost material; I need real food to keep me alive. See?”
“No,” Dennis said, “because I’m eating and getting full, and I’m flesh and blood too.”
“But you’re not a monster.”
“So it fills you up.”
“Huh? What difference does that make? I don’t get it.”
“Good,” I said. “If you did understand, you’d have more brains than I’d ever thought would fit your skull.”
Dennis scowled. “That’s mean.”
I lifted my lips. “Either you put up with my sarcasm, or you get yourself killed by some specter.”
“Will they really kill me?” Dennis asked, the insult already forgotten. “Won’t they just scare the wits out of me?”
“Do you have any wits?” I retorted.
Dennis threw a muffin at me; I opened my mouth and caught it, but it turned into cold air on my tongue.
I shook my head and licked my teeth to warm my mouth again. Eating ghost food was like putting ice cream on my teeth – cold.
Dennis grinned. “That looked cool.”
“I’m sure,” I snorted. “Do you still want your question answered?”
“The one about whether or not the ghosts here can actually kill you – remember?”
“Oh yeah. Please, answer.”
“It depends,” I said.
“On what?” Dennis asked, stuffing a croissant in his mouth and washing it down with fresh milk. I watched him jealously.
“It depends,” I repeated in a slightly annoyed tone, “on how weak your nerves are. I don’t know of any specter here that can actually pick up a knife and stab something solid with it. But there are lots of ghosts that can get pretty fearsome looks.”
“What about the knights we saw before?” Dennis asked. “Could one of them have run me through with the lance?”
“Yes, but you would only have felt cold air. The lance was just as much specter as the knight, and the ghosts can only reenact their history. They’re dead, you know.”
“Matilda bringing me breakfast wasn’t part of her history,” Dennis pointed out.
“You talk too much,” I growled at him. “No, it wasn’t, but bringing breakfast to hungry boys definitely was.”
“This is so not logical,” Dennis commented, finishing a pear.
“Logical,” I snarled. “If you’re looking for logical, boy, you won’t find it here. I’m not logical, this food’s not logical, and you’re least logical of all.”
“Beg to differ,” he retorted. “There’s still Mr. Putnam – or Zared Gravesend, whatever his name is.”
“Good point. Are you done stuffing yourself yet? We should go find him.”
“Isn’t he in his room?”
“Yes.” Dennis and I climbed the stairs and I checked on the Gravesend bedroom. Zared was still there, still asleep.
“So now what?” Dennis demanded. “Can you please show me around some more, like you did yesterday? This is such a cool place.”
“I suppose. Where do you want to start?”
“The fifth floor,” Dennis said promptly. “With a name like ‘Floor of Death’ it’s bound to be real awesome.”
“Determine that yourself,” I said with a wolfish grin. “Get on my back; you can’t climb the last flight of stairs yourself.”
We came to the fourth floor and I halted in front of the stairs leading the landing between the fourth and fifth.
“Look at the carpet,” I told Dennis.
He leaned over my neck. “It’s dark purple,” he said. “It’s not the same material as the other ones.”
“This is tougher material,” I told him. “It takes longer to wear down. Now let’s go up to the landing.”
I bounded up the stairs and stopped on the landing. “Look back where we came up.”
Dennis squeaked and pulled on my fur. “There’s nothing there!”
“Will you stop pulling my hair?” I barked at him.
“Sorry,” he apologized, and almost slid off my back, but I shrugged him back on. “Don’t get off me until I give you permission,” I snapped. “Just because the ghosts can’t kill you doesn’t mean some of the traps here can’t. This floor is called deadly for a reason.”
“Sorry,” he said again, looking back to where the stairs should be. “Where are they?”
“Still there,” I said. “But they only become solid again once you’ve stepped onto the fifth floor and accomplished your business. This floor was where the Master of Gravesend would do his business – temporal and eternal.”
“Question?” Dennis asked hesitantly.
“Go ahead,” I said. I wouldn’t admit it, of course, but I was in no hurry to step onto that fifth floor. It had been a long time since I was up there, and though I didn’t fear its dangers, they did make me feel rather queasy. Now having a Curious George along to watch out for didn’t make me feel any better.
“Why did Master Gravesend do his business with the devil on the top floor? The Devil belongs down below – God gets the up high.”
“Right,” I said, “except that the Gravesend family made the Devil their god, so he got up high.”
“Ready to step onto the fifth floor?”
I heard Dennis swallow. “I guess.”
“You don’t want out now, do you?” I asked.
“If we want to get back down, we’ve got to go up,” he said. “So let’s go.” There was spunk in his voice again.
I climbed the last flight stairs. Dennis was leaning over my shoulder, looking at the carpet.
“It’s black ahead of us and disappeared behind us,” he said. “This is so cool. I’m going to write a book about this when I grow up.”
I halted abruptly on the stairs. “Don’t,” I told him sharply. “It’s a bad idea to write about things you don’t understand.”
“I’m a bad writer anyway,” Dennis informed me with a grin. “Keep going, please – we still have five stairs left.”
I climbed those last five stairs, and paused a moment before setting my paw down on the black carpeting up the upstairs hallway.
There was no sound as I sunk it into the plush carpet – at first.
But as Dennis and I listened, a sound grew out of the silence, a dull thud sound, as if my paw had set off an earthquake.
“This is the first time in two years I’ve been up here,” I told Dennis in a whisper. “It’s the first time in two years that anything solid has been up here.”
“Do we have to whisper all the time on this floor?” Dennis asked, peaking around the corner and looking up and down the passage. It was dimly lit by black iron candelabras lining the walls. The candelabra held candles that burned eternally but never burned down, tended by the ghost personnel. However, there were only two specters who in their lifetime had been allowed onto the fifth floor, so this hallway was considerably dustier and worse kept than the other four stories.
“It’s a good idea,” I answered. “Where do you want to go first, left or right?”
“Umm… which one stays closest to the staircase?”
“It doesn’t matter when it counts,” I said. “I run fast.”
I turned down the hallway, and each step I took produced the same delayed thud as my first footfall had done. I felt Dennis turn his head from side to side as we walked down the hall. He was staring at the doors and shelves that alternated down the walls.
“This is so cool,” he breathed. “Can we go into any of these rooms?”
“We can go into all of them,” I said, a little snappishly because my hair was rising on my neck for a reason I couldn’t determine yet, “we should go into none, but I’ll allow us to go into a few.”
“How about this one?” Dennis asked, pulling a little on my fur.
I didn’t even look up. “That’s a very bad idea. Open the door, a cage will fall over you, pull you into the wall, and dump you out into a swarming army of starved, diseased rats. It’s quite disgusting.”
“Have you ever tried it out?” Dennis asked interestedly. “How do you know?”
“I read about it, for one thing,” I reminded him, “and for another thing, I saw it done. I’ve been here a long time.”
“Yuck,” Dennis muttered under his breath.
By this time we had already reached the end of the hallway.
“Can I get off now?” Dennis asked, as we stood in front of the door at the end of the passage.
“Quietly,” I reminded him, probably superfluously.
He slid off my back and landed gently, but still the delayed thud echoed back to us.
“Can we go in here?” he asked, once the sound had died away.
I nodded, and pushed down on the huge, heavy iron door handle with my jaws. “But don’t touch anything. Don’t say anything, and do stay behind me.”
“Am I allowed to breathe?” Dennis asked.
He said it in such a serious tone I had to grin. “Yes, you can breathe, but do it quietly.”
Flanking the doorposts were two evil-looking lizards, holding in each upheld paw a huge, wax-driveling stump of a candle.
“Cool lizards,” Dennis said. “Why aren’t there any dragons around here, though?”
“These are dragons,” I said, “wingless devil dragons. But that’s not the same as wyverns. There are wyverns somewhere on this floor, too…”
“Wyverns?” Dennis asked. “What are wyverns?”
“Dragons with only legs and wings – no arms. Now let’s stop discussing biology and go in.”
At that moment, on command, the massive oak door swung open and we walked in.
As I entered, the room slowly lit up. Candles were set aflame by an unseen specter.
“What is this place?” Dennis asked behind me, so quietly I barely heard him.
“The Master of Gravesend’s… you might call it an office,” I answered. “This is where most of the Gravesend business was begun and closed.”
“Can it be lighter? I can barely see anything.”
“Jarvis, light, please,” I said, speaking the manservant ghost who lived in the room. The office lit up promptly, and now we could really see what it looked like.
I stopped to scrutinize the place; Dennis, of course, ran right into me. I figured I’d not growl at him for it this once.
The floor under our feet was polished ebony, inlaid with twisting mahogany accents. The walls were inlaid with solid oak paneling, but mostly covered with mirrors or paintings, paintings of fire, and fire only. No people, no animals, no landscapes, no, the artwork in this office was purely diabolic fire.
I looked up. The ceiling was one giant mirror, rimmed and split into sectors by gold-plated plaster fire.
All in all, it was very beautiful, but the atmosphere was heavy and somehow hot, even though the air was decidedly cold.
The furniture was sparse. There was a massive ebony desk at one end of the room, sitting in front of a huge window covered with black velvet curtains rimmed in stitched silk fire. There were two chairs: a big ebony one carved with lizards and demons behind the desk, and a slightly smaller but no less grotesque one in front.
That was all.
“Man, were these people rich or what?” Dennis asked.
I hissed at him to speak more quietly. “They were rich, but they paid a huge price for it. Come over here.” I padded over to the huge piece of furniture. “Do not touch.”
Dennis folded his arms across his chest and tiptoed behind me.
I sniffed the curtains behind the desk. They smelled strongly of dust – of course – but also smoke and heat.
I grasped one of the silk bell pulls hanging down the middle of the curtains and pulled. The curtains swept aside.
Dennis came up to stand beside me.
The window behind the curtains at first looked foggy, as if it were freezing outside. Then the glass began to clear, and revealed a gray landscape, almost indiscernible.
“Is that outside?” Dennis asked. “We’re way high up!”
Instead of answering, I waited another half minute, as the gray faded, and suddenly plunged into a deep black, that was gradually broken by a flickering light that had to come from a fire. The flames quickly grew into an inferno, and Dennis and I found ourselves looking into a series of black caves, burning violently. There were creatures moving around in the caves.
I looked down at Dennis to check whether I had to tell him what this place was.
“If I believed in heaven before, I definitely do double now,” he said.
“Just believing in heaven won’t get you there,” I growled.
He ignored me. “Is this the Gravesend clan’s portal to Hell? Is this where they got in?”
“No. This was their remote report on what’s going in the manufacturing center of Hell. Here the Gravesend could see the progress made on his order.”
“What are we seeing now?” Dennis asked, still staring out the window.
“What’s going on right now, down there,” I answered. “The Gravesend families weren’t the only idiots on this earth; there are other people who think they strike gold when they make a deal with the Devil.”
“This is so weird.”
“Respect it,” I told him. “This is a real place, and now that you’ve seen it, I trust you have enough brains you know you don’t want to end up there.”
“I’m not going to,” he said, then asked, “When was payment made?”
“The Devil was very generous with his payment conditions,” I said, hoping Dennis heard the sarcasm. “You could order what you wanted in your lifetime, have it delivered when you wanted, wherever you wanted – and all he asked for was your soul when you died. Nice deal, huh?”
Dennis shook his head.
I grabbed on the bell pull then, and the curtains swung closed over the window. We turned back to the empty floor of the office.
“Hey!” Dennis suddenly exclaimed in a whisper. “I just saw something in the mirror up there!”
“The big one there on the right, the one with a snake curling around a gold vine – I thought I saw reflection in it.”
“You did. It’s time we leave the office.” I got behind him and pushed him towards the door.
He didn’t ask any questions for once, and once we were outside in the hallway, the oak door swung closed silently behind us.
“What was it?” Dennis wanted to know.
“One of the Gravesend Masters,” I told him, “but I can’t remember which one. Have you had enough of this level, or do you want to check out some more of these doors?”
“Is it okay?” he asked.
“Then let’s go. How about that door up there, the one with the werewolf head carved on it. Is that one safe?”
“None of them are safe,” I snapped at him. “You should know that by now. But I think we can try that room without mush risk.”
I padded up to the door and studied it well. “Okay, you open it,” I told Dennis. “This has the fireplace where the Master would spend the evening with his dogs.”
It took quite some effort from Dennis to pull down on the handle and open the door. Then it, too, like all the others, swung open without a sound.
I stepped in first, and immediately a roaring fire leapt up in the hearth, the hearth that had held nothing but cold ashes for years.
“Why are there books everywhere?” Dennis asked. “Didn’t these people have anything to do besides read? What are these books about anyway?” He grabbed one off a shelf before I could stop him.
There was a blast of cold air, and the ghost of a large but bent man rose out of the chair in front of the fire. Around his feet, huge mastiff hounds with red eyes and bloody mouths were leaping up.
I nipped Dennis in the arm. “Get on my back,” I snapped. “Of all the people I know, you have got to be the dumbest.”
“I didn’t sell my soul to the Devil,” Dennis said defiantly, clambering on my back as I turned and fled the room.
“I told you a dozen times not to touch anything,” I barked at him.
The ghost pack of mastiffs flowed out of the room then. I say floated because their legs were hidden in a mist, but they were making barking motions with their jaws, even though neither I nor Dennis could hear anything.
I almost flew down the passage to the stairs. I don’t think Dennis realized that we were in semi-serious trouble, because I couldn’t smell any nervousness. I wondered if he’d even seen the mastiffs.
When I reached the staircase, it wasn’t there. It hadn’t reappeared.
This was a problem. It was supposed to reappear after the intended business had been accomplished…
“Dennis, look behind us!” I said abruptly.
He raised his head out of my fur just as the lead mastiff of pack sprang at us.
His shriek of terror brought those stairs back like a flash of lightning. I took the entire flight of steps to the landing in a single leap, with Dennis pulling on my white ruff the whole way.
“Let go of my hair!” I roared at him, when I landed rather ungracefully on the landing. He did, falling off my back in the process.
At the head of the stairs, the pack of ghost mastiffs kept trying to follow us, but as soon a specter crossed the edge of the first step, it disappeared in a gust of cold air, only to reappear at the back of the pack a moment later.
“Wow,” Dennis said when he realized the ghost dogs couldn’t come after us.
“Wow,” I snorted. “If you can’t follow directions, I’m not going to baby sit you anymore.”
“What would happen then?” he wondered.
I lowered my head to his level. “You would get into a lot of trouble.”
“That’s it? That’s normal.”
I scowled. I didn’t want to give the already busy ghost housekeepers here any more work, like cleaning up after Dennis when he knocked things over while being chased, for example. Besides, this was finally something different from the continuous wanderings around the Manor and grounds, neither of which seemed to hold any more secrets for me.
“How long were we on the fifth floor?” I asked, and Dennis checked his watch.
“An hour,” he said.
“Where do you want to go next?”
“Outside,” he suggested, then looked up at the mastiffs again. “Unless there are things like that out there…”
“There are things like that everywhere,” I informed him snappishly. “Climb on my back and let’s go.”
Zared Gravesend found us outside then, almost three hours later.
I had been trying to explain to Dennis the difference between the tracks of a squirrel and the tracks of a martin. The catch to the story was that both creatures were, of course, ghosts, and tracking was complicated for a human – especially a human with as small a brain as Dennis had. I told him that at least twice, until he got offended and I apologized sincerely and told him to come with me to the Eight-Sided Gazebo, which immediately let him forget any insults and got him curious about ghosts again.
And that’s where Zared found us.
“There you are!” Dennis exclaimed. “You’ve missed half the day! Why’d you sleep so long, Mr. Putnam?”
“I was tired,” Zared said, and I curled my lips in disgust. “Deirdre, I’m hungry. Is there anywhere you can get food around her.”
“You can get your own food in the kitchen,” I informed him somewhat stiffly. “Tell Matilda the cook to bring you whatever you want.”
“Thanks,” he said, either missing or ignoring my tone. “Well, Dennis, what have you done all morning?”
“Explored,” Dennis told him. “We went up to the fifth floor.”
I watched ‘Mr. Putnam’s’ expression carefully as he answered. He tried to keep his face straight, but I was pretty sure I saw a flicker of sudden interest – interest in more than just the new forms of ghosts that inhabited the Floor of Death.
“Oh, really?” Zared asked. “And what did you find up there?”
“Hell,” Dennis said nonchalantly.
The boy looked surprised at the exclamation, then sheepish. “I wasn’t cussing, Mr. Putnam. That’s really what we found. There’s a window – sort of a webcam connection to Hell. We saw a lot of fire, and caves, and little black critters moving around in them.”
“That’s interesting,” Zared remarked. “And then?”
“And then Deirdre closed up the curtain again and we left the room and got chased by ghost dogs.”
“So you’ve had your morning adventure, I see,” the man said. “In that case, I’ll go have breakfast. Where can I find you in an hour?”
Dennis looked at me. I shrugged. “You’ll have to scour the grounds,” I said. “If you run into trouble, just yell.”
He disappeared toward the Manor again, and Dennis turned to me. “What are we going to do now? How about we go visit that glen you told me about?”
“Kysw Glen? Yes, it’s morning – I suppose it’ll be relatively safe,” I agreed. “Climb on my back, or we’ll take forever getting there.”
I loped off the park grounds of the Manor and toward a small, cultivated and not-quite-so-frightening outgrowth of Tyynerth Wood, where a small glen was carefully tended by the ghost gardeners.
“What’s the story here?” Dennis asked, sliding off my back when we reached the glen. He looked around. “This looks perfectly normal – except that there aren’t any birds or other animals around.”
“That’s the point,” I said, lying down and beginning to pant. I warmed up quickly under all that fur. “If you were to stay here overnight, you’d wake up dead. Everything that’s flesh and blood does that.”
“I suppose that doesn’t count for you?” Dennis asked.
“If you pinch me,” I told him coldly, “I’d react in the typical flesh and blood way. I told you over breakfast I’m flesh and blood.”
“Sorry,” Dennis grumbled. “But still, what’s the story?”
“What’s there to tell?” I asked. “You wake up dead. I suppose you’ll want elaboration on that, though. You really wake up dead. You‘re asleep, and then it’s morning, and you wake up feeling cold. Nothing’s different for you, though. You get up and leave. If you have friends, you go join them – if they didn’t get spirited away in the night – and you wish them a happy morning. That’s when you start to notice that something’s a little off. Why? Because your friends are ignoring you – they can’t see you. When you find that out, you get rather scared, obviously, and you probably want to leave the Manor grounds as fast as you can. And that’s where you really get stuck. You can’t leave. There’s an invisible fence around the place that keeps all its specters inside.”
“You end up a ghost?” Dennis asked. “Wow. That’s cool. Did you watch it happen before?”
“Obviously,” I said. “That story has happened that way least twice since I’ve been here.”
“But nothing happens in the day time, right?”
“Not anything worth mentioning,” I told him. That was, of course, a relative statement, but Dennis didn’t seem to mind too much right now. He went exploring while I panted.
Kysw Glen was quite a pretty place, actually, and it would have been even nicer if the animals that inhabited it had been something besides rather see-through. Dennis didn’t seem to be much concerned by it, though. He quickly made friends with the pair of squirrels who lived in an old tree. It was kind of funny, watching a boy play around with two largish transparent squirrels.
One thing’s sure, I thought, dropping my head onto my paws and closing my eyes, I’m going to be kind of sorry when Dennis leaves here again. It’s good to finally have some sort of distraction from the normal goings-on around here.
Actually, I should know better than to think things like that, especially with a none-too-bright kid like Dennis along.
When I looked up again, he was gone – poof, just like that.
With an irritated growl, I got up and sniffed the grass. He’d wandered off… eastward! Four choices of directions to go and he just had to pick eastward. I couldn’t help an angry bark as I took off into the eastern outgrowth of Tyynerth Wood. That dumb kid had no idea what was waiting for him.
The trees quickly lost their beautiful gray-green sheen and turned black and dark brown – forbidding.
So far, these were the same trees I had to run through every time I wanted to eat at Fen – but they quickly changed to pitch black, with branches that actually reached for you, grabbed on, and never let go. It wasn’t the trees I was worried about, though. I could order them around. There was one thing in these woods, though, that I couldn’t order around – one of the two things on the whole Manor grounds I had no power over. One of the things was Hell. The other was the creatures that probably right now had Dennis in its grasp.
I had no idea how that boy could have gotten so far into the woods in such a short time. I had only closed my eyes for a few moments. Well, it was possible that he’d only gone a few feet into the woods and there the monster had caught him. I had known the creature to come all the way up to the Eight-Sided Gazebo – only once, but that was a bad enough sign.
The worst thing was that this creature had no smell that was traceable to my werewolf nose. I’m sure it stank horribly to the other monsters and ghosts that roamed these woods, but I was not able to pick up a scent. Plus, this monster moved at great speeds through these tangled woods. I was confined to four muscular legs clothed in lots of fine fur which was always getting caught on the thick undergrowth.
By now the forest had become pitch black, except for ghostly white flickers that popped up often but irregularly here and there, trying to lure me from my path.
My eyesight, like that of an owl, only improved in the darkness, though. I saw the twisting, groaning tree branches and avoided them, pressing deeper and deeper into the heart of Black Tyynerth.
All at once, I came on what I was looking for. There was a prickly bush, crushed flat on the ground. The creature had left the trees and continued its path on terra firma.
I kept going. Looking around as I loped, dodging tree branches and jumping black trickles of water swarming with disgusting fish- and worm-like ghosts, I realized I had never been in this part of the woods before.
I didn’t like Tyynerth. I think I said that before. I avoided it as much as possible, and even though, as a wolf, I had a very strong sense of curiosity, nothing would induce me to enter that wood for any other reason than to race through it in blind panic and head for food.
Up ahead, the trees thinned in a very small clearing. There were black rocks in the clearing, completely overgrown with the same strange plants that grew on the rocks beside Ysgard Lake. The rocks made up a small cave.
So this was where the creature lived. I halted for a moment. Then a branch swiped me and I had no choice but to get out of the reach of the trees and step into the clearing.
The monster heard me and came out of its cave. I was ready for that, though. Even though I couldn’t command this creature around, I could very well fight it.
It was quite a beautiful being, actually. It shimmered dark green and blue, as if its skin were made up of fish scales. Its head was grown directly onto its chest, and had five eyes, one in each direction of the compass and another at the top of its head. They were big, black, and poisonous.
It had a relatively short, scaled tail, like a fish, except that the tail had a poisonous spike at the end. That was what I would mostly have to watch out for if I got into a real fight with this thing.
I didn’t know the name of this creature. I had tried to find it in the Chronicles of Gravesend Manor but had read not even the slightest mention of anything remotely similar. Whenever I referred to it, then, I just called it the Scaled One.
Before picking a fight with the Scaled One, I wanted to make sure it was actually worth it, so I called for Dennis.
Yes, there was an answering holler from inside the cave. How on earth could that boy get himself into so much trouble in such a short time?
The creature approached me; I was trying to evaluate the best way to attack it. I wondered if it was even killable. On the grounds of Gravesend Manor, that was very justified worry.
I had to knock it out somehow, grab Dennis, and get out of there as fast as I could.
That was the plan, anyway. But, of course, I forgot that Dennis ran on his own machinery.
I was just crouching for a spring at the creature’s head – fighting someone or something with no neck is annoying – when Dennis appeared at the mouth of the cave.
“Deirdre! What are you doing?”
I backed off, keeping my eyes on the Scaled One. “Dennis, get over here now. If you ask any questions, I’ll kill you.”
I don’t know how his face looked when I said that, but he obeyed, and headed over to me.
The creature wanted to go over and stop Dennis, but I kept it in check.
“Dennis, get on my back, hold on tight, and crouch down,” I snarled, backing away from the Scaled One.
I think he almost said ‘what?’, but I don’t know. I lowered a shoulder and half shrugged him up onto my back. We turned and raced off through the forest, back to the glen where Dennis had left me only minutes before.
Once I started running, Dennis opened his mouth.
“Deirdre, why are we running? What’s the matter?”
I growled. “The problem, you idiot, is that you should know better than to wander off with the specters and monsters that live here.”
“But she was nice,” Dennis argued. “She…”
I took a sharp curve and winced as he hung onto my fur to stay aboard. “She? How do you know it’s a she?”
“She said so. She said that she was a… whoa!”
I slid to a stop. “You talked to that thing?”
Whatever she’d said, it would have to wait until we were back someplace where I felt better. I didn’t care that the Scaled One hadn’t eaten Dennis when she had the chance, I didn’t care that she wasn’t following us – maybe she was out of her assigned range – I didn’t care anything except that Tyynerth Wood was starting to pull at my sense again.
We crashed out of the forest, me panting like I had run forty miles, and Dennis very amused at his new experience of racing on the back of a werewolf.
I bucked and threw him to the ground, then pushed my panting face into his. “You,” I had to breathe between every word, “talked to that thing?”
“Was I not supposed to?”
“Dennis, it’s a ghost. It’s something I’ve found no reference to in the Gravesend Chronicles, it’s something I don’t know, and if I don’t know it, you shouldn’t mess with it. Do you understand? Now what did she tell you?”
“For starters,” the boy retorted, “it’s not a ghost, it’s flesh and blood, like you. And second of all, she was just there, all of a sudden, and led me away from the clearing where you were. She…”
“And you didn’t think to scream or holler or anything like that?” I snapped.
“No… Anyway, she led me to that cave, and she told me that she’d been here ever since the first building was put up, and that she’s a she, and… yeah.”
“That’s basically it.”
I pulled in my panting tongue and snarled at him. “It took me several minutes to find you. I’m sure that’s not all that creature said.”
“It wasn’t, but I couldn’t understand the rest of it,” Dennis said. “Why did we have to run away from her?”
“Because you don’t mess with what you don’t know,” I snapped at him.
“Now I want to find out what it was, but first you are going back to the Manor, you’ll stay where I put you, and if you’re not there when I come back, I will not pull you out this time.”
“Where are you going to put me?”
“Where will you not have a chance of escaping?” I snapped, crouching so he could climb on my back. “How about the dungeon?”
“Cool!” was his first reaction, but it changed quickly. “Wait a minute – the dungeon? Can…?”
“I’ll put you in care of Craig. He’s patient, and he won’t let anything happen to you.”
“Will you be within calling distance?”
“No. And don’t you start arguing.”
I brought him back to the Manor and as we walked into the main hallway, I saw a door close at the far end of the corridor. I shrugged Dennis off of my back, snarled at him to stay put, and loped down to the door.
It opened into the Frosty Reading Room, so named because all the colors seemed to be frosted, or covered in spider webs. Why, I did not know. The room was always cold, thought, even though the ghost attendants were good about keeping a fire roaring in the hearth. Its heat was lost in the room.
Sitting in the big, blue, upholstered chair was Zared Gravesend alias Mr. Putnam.
“Hello, Zared,” I said. I hadn’t intended to call him by his right name, but I didn’t regret it once I let it slip. It wouldn’t hurt anything.
He looked up, not surprised, not worried, just curious. “Who told you my first name?”
“I heard it somewhere,” I said. “How was your day?”
“The part that’s over was quite all right,” he answered. “I went into the library – I hope that was permissible – and checked out a few books.”
“You were never in trouble?”
“If I had been, I’m quite sure you would have heard it,” he answered, smiling. “Where’s Dennis?”
“I’m going to take him down into the dungeons,” I said, wondering whether it was smart to tell Zared that.
“That should be interesting,” he remarked, laying his book down completely. “Would you mind if I came along?”
That was interesting. Zared wasn’t waiting for any opportunity to get me away from himself. But he was still suspicious. If he hadn’t had that key, I probably wouldn’t have noticed anything.
I figured I could go find out about the Scaled One any time; she wouldn’t be going anywhere. So I agreed to let Zared come along. Maybe I could test a few reactions.
I returned to Dennis, who looked at ‘Mr. Putnam’ in surprise. I explained before he could ask anything stupid, “We’re all going to the dungeons.”
Dennis seemed to expect to be able to climb onto my back again, but I bared my teeth at him. “You can’t ride everywhere. Use your own feet this time.”
He shrugged and followed me down the hallway.
We left the main house out the back door, and I led the way down a paved path to a small stone tower with a door just up to my lowered head. The tower was dug into the earth, so that its top was maybe two feet over ground level. It had a wrought iron fence around it, and a wooden door reinforced with iron studs. I padded down the stone stairs to the door, and spoke to it.
“Craig, let me in, please.”
Nothing moved for such a long time that I heard Dennis and Zared start to get nervous behind me. Finally, though, the door creaked open and a ghostly man in his late twenties opened to me. He had a torch in his hand, burning with a white-blue light.
“Good day, Deirdre. Who are these?”
“Friends, Craig. Allow us to enter.”
“I must ask the purpose.”
“The purpose,” I said, with a wolfish grin, “is my will.”
Craig smiled, sadly. He was a sad young man; he always made me feel a little depressed, which is why I didn’t visit the dungeon much, even though I was sure he would have appreciated more visits.
He opened the door all the way and let us pass. I had Dennis go through first, then Zared, and then followed them. Craig closed the door behind us, and then passed to the front.
“Where do you wish to go?”
“Let’s start out easy and go to the Second Level.”
“What about the First Level?” Dennis demanded – of course.
“You’ll get to the First Level when I say you can,” I retorted, “which might be never. The First Level has at least fifteen ghosts haunting it.”
“How many does the Second Level have?”
“Seven?” The question was directed to Craig.
“I believe so, aye,” the ghostly warden answered me. “Here we are.”
We had been passing through a dark stone corridor, lit every ten feet or so by torches that burned with the same blue-white color as Craig’s torch. The walls reflected the light and dripped with stale water.
“Are there rats down here?” Zared asked. “And if there are, are they real or ghost?”
“Ghost rats,” I said, padding along behind him. “Not dangerous, not edible, just noisy.”
No sooner had I said that then a chorus of squeaking and shrieking started up, echoing up and down the halls.
“That sounds gross,” Dennis said.
“Yes; in a few of these cells the prisoners were condemned to be eaten alive by rats,” Craig said, quite blandly.
“He’s kidding, right?”
“Hardly. Sometimes they weren’t even condemned, sometimes they were just fed to the rats because the wardens or – usually – family Gravesend wanted it that way.”
“These people were bad,” Dennis commented, as Craig opened a door that led down another flight of steps.
“This is out of my assigned territory,” Craig said apologetically. “Deirdre, from here on, it’s all your responsibility.”
“Thank you, Craig,” I said. “Meet us back here in half an hour, all right? Dennis, it’s probably best if you get on my back now.”
“What are we heading into?” Dennis asked, climbing onto my back. I started to pant.
“We’re heading down into Level Two. What we just passed through was the corridor, the entryway. The puniest, least dangerous prisoners where kept there. On Level Two the people were kept who displeased the head of family.”
Zared spoke up. “Why does a manor have a prison?” he asked. “It’s not usual.”
“It actually started out as a secret passageway out of the grounds,” I said, continuing down the stairs, deeper into the earth. “It was a single tunnel with a few wrong routes. Then treasures were put into secret rooms and bricked up. Later on, guards were added to protect the treasure.”
“Guards? Like Craig?” Dennis asked. I could hear from the way his voice echoed that he was turning his head every which way, trying to see everything at once through the continuously degenerating light.
“No, Craig is – was – human. The only human down here – he screwed up on something and was punished. All the rest of the guards were demons. They came from the middle of the earth and guarded the treasure the Gravesend family, the treasure that their master, the Devil, had given the family in the first place.”
“What did Craig do?”
“I think he was too nice. He didn’t fit with the Gravesend family’s criteria of servants.”
“Then why was he there?”
“Illegitimate son of somebody,” I said. We had reached Level Two, finally. The ground, paved stone, was cold, and wet in places, but there was no moss growing anywhere. There were a few drip sounds occasionally, but not often. It was just bleak.
“You stay on my back,” I growled at Dennis, when I felt him lean forward as if he would slide off. “We’re about to meet our first ghost, the Black Chain.”
“The ghost of a chain?” Dennis asked. “What did it do?”
I didn’t have to answer, because we heard the approach of a heavy breathing and a rattling chain.
“One of many,” I muttered. The dungeons weren’t even that interesting. The ghosts’ stories were guessable, and there was only one story really worth telling, and that was on Level One.
So, I did Dennis the favor and took him around Level Two, with Zared trailing – I didn’t know whether this was doing him a favor or not; as far as I knew he already knew this whole place by heart – snarling at ghosts that got too bold and talking to those few – two, to be exact – who were in need of consolation. We saw the wrong routes, went down a few, I ate a bat – they don’t taste bad, actually – and slowly we made our way to the Broken Door, the entrance to Level One.
The Broken Door was made of stone. Formerly it had been a large treasure chamber, but now it was just a haunted place with a story.
“Now you can get off my back,” I told Dennis. “But keep a hand on my shoulder. In here it does get a little dangerous.”
He slid off and grabbed a fistful of ruff fur. I bared my teeth at the pinch, but said nothing.
I barked, and the Broken Door opened, very, very slowly. Dennis, keeping his hold on my ruff, leaned way forward and peered through the door.
“Be careful,” I warned him. “Don’t stick your head over the threshold. Why? Because of this.”
By now, the door was completely open, and we could see into a chamber as large as a ballroom. It was pretty much round, and the walls glowed white and blue. The stones were marbleized, and glittered in the iridescent light. There were no torches that cast any extra brightness.
“So, can we go in now?” Dennis asked impatiently.
I looked around, picked up a loose rock lying on the ground, and spat it into the room. It disappeared in a puff of green, fluorescent smoke.
“Yes, now we can. Go ahead, it’s all right.”
He stepped in after another certain look at me. I motioned Zared in after him.
“Why aren’t you coming in?” Dennis asked, turning around. He was only about five feet into the room.
“Somebody has to stay out here to keep the door open,” I said. “If I went in, the door would close, and I don’t think even I could open it. I can’t command the devils, and Craig can’t come down here.”
“So what’s in here? Is this all the Level One there is?” Dennis asked.
“And there are seventeen ghosts down here?”
“I don’t know.”
Even Zared, who had been walking around, touching the walls and exploring the room, turned around to look at me. “You don’t know?”
“Not all ghosts appear as transparent humans or animals,” I answered from the doorway. “Some are a whirlwind, some a cold breeze, some are falling rocks.”
“You mean this place could collapse on us at any given moment?” Dennis asked.
“It would seem like it,” I said, “but it doesn’t really. There’s dust, there’s wind, there’s everything to make you think you’re being buried alive, but it ends within a few minutes, and you’re quite all right.”
“Will it happen?”
“Probably. Go on, go ahead, explore. I’ll be right here.”
He was still uncertain as he headed forward. Zared was already in the back half of the room.
“Look at this!” I heard him exclaim suddenly. “All this gold, these jewels…”
“Don’t touch!” I roared.
He started back and looked at me.
“Disguised demons,” I said, speaking loudly so he could hear me across the room. “If you touch them, they’ll take you over.”
“I won’t touch,” I heard him say.
I still watched him suspiciously.
Fifteen minutes I must have let them explore the Room of the Broken Door, until the ceiling began to crack.
“That’s enough!” I called to them. “Let’s go!”
Dennis, who seemed to have been queasy the whole time, turned and ran back to me. Zared followed, more slowly.
“So, what’s the story behind this room?” Dennis asked, reaching me and burying a hand in my white ruff.
I didn’t answer his question until Zared reached us. I noticed ‘Mr. Putnam’ several times looking back at the pile of jewels and gold.
Who was this man? A treasure seeker? A ghost buster? Was he someone just out for the challenge? Or was he a real Gravesend come back to his family’s heritage?
“Is there anything else interesting here in the dungeons?” Dennis asked, interrupting my thoughts. “This isn’t really very spooky, you know.”
I looked down at him and started to walk away from the Room of the Broken Door. “Maybe you should try coming down here when there’s no big white ruff to hang onto,” I growled.
“You’re such a grouch,” he said. I ignored it.
We climbed the stairs to the Second Level, slowly, so Dennis could thoroughly check out each cranny and dead end that grew off the main route.
“What’s the most haunted place of this whole thing?” the boy asked once, his head stuck around the corner of niche in the wall.
“Of what, the dungeon or the Gravesend property?”
“That would be the fifth floor of the Manor,” I said. “Why?”
“I thought so,” Dennis said, pulling his head out of the niche. “Can we go up there again? What time is it anyway?”
I didn’t see what the last question had to do with the first, but I answered, “It’s getting dark outside; it would be around 9 o’clock.”
“Already?” Dennis asked in surprise. “That day went fast. “Come to think of it, I’m hungry. Can we have supper?”
Waiting with my answer, I barked for Craig, who almost immediately arrived and let us out of the dungeon.
“Thank you,” he said, as we departed. “It was kind of you to drop by. I always like company.”
I nodded, wished him a good night and we started back to the Manor. Dennis promptly started jabbering again.
“This is such a cool place. Do you think we can explore all of it in two weeks?”
“Define explore,” I said.
He didn’t wait for a more definite answer. “What else do we have to visit here?”
“What else?” I repeated. “We haven’t visited half the rooms enterable in the Manor, and then there’s the cellar; we can go to the chapel and the stables yet, the kennels, the gardens, and then, of course, there are the Portals.”
“Chapel?” Dennis said, barely letting me finish. I noticed Zared had wanted to say thing, but Dennis kept talking. “Why do these folks have a chapel if they worshipped the Devil?”
“Not every chapel has a crucifix as a focal point,” Zared Gravesend answered, using almost exactly the words I wanted to. I frowned suspiciously as he kept talking. “Deirdre, what were the Portals you mentioned?”
Does he really not know, or is he being deceptive? I wondered. “The Portals are entrances to other places. Most of them lead to some sector of hell, but many enter on an area the Gravesend family would use as feeding grounds.”
“Huh?” That, of course, was Dennis.
“They were vampires,” I reminded him, “so they had to keep changing towns when the supply ran out. Portals were the easiest way to do it.”
“Cool,” Dennis said. “Can we go in one?”
“Yes, I could probably show you a ghost town.”
“Can we do it right away tomorrow?”
“I don’t see why not.”
I sat them down to supper. Zared, after ordering a steak, turned to me. “Are you going to Fen tonight?”
I didn’t want to answer that, but I didn’t have much of a choice if I wanted to keep my suspicions from him. “Yes,” I said, “for a short time.”
“Will we be safe while you’re gone?” he asked then.
That question surprised me. “Yes. I’ll go soon, so I’m back before midnight. You can finish your meals; when you’re done, ask Matilda to show you to the Frosty Reading Room. She’ll probably call a little serving girl to show you. Stay there in the room; it’s safe. Do not leave until I come back and pick you up.”
Zared nodded. “There are good books in there?”
“Plenty,” I said. “Just be careful what Dennis picks up. We don’t want him getting nightmares tonight.”
With that, I left the kitchen and loped down the hallway to the front door.
I slowed down as I approached my route through Tyynerth Wood. It wasn’t as frightening now at 9 o’clock as it was usually at or after midnight, but I still dreaded it. Maybe I, at least this time, wouldn’t meet the old werewolf.
I trotted into Tyynerth, sniffing and listening carefully. It was strangely still; many of the specters waited until midnight or after before they appeared. I saw lights and blue fires pop up here and there, but those were not interesting. They popped up even in the daytime; they just weren’t visible then.
Even at 9 o’clock, though, Tyynerth Wood had a maddening effect on me. I caught myself trotting faster and eventually breaking into a lope. The trees began to sigh and groan in the evening breeze; little white streaks of mist appeared and floated around me. Now and then red, white, or yellow eyes would flash out of the blackness and fade just as quickly.
I kept my senses as alert as I could as my speed increased. I heard nothing that sounded like the heavy dampened footfall of the old werewolf. Where was he now?
My run through the forest seemed to take less time than usual, and I broke out of Tyynerth Wood, panting, as usual, but not crazed with fear.
I considered making 9 o’clock my usual time to fetch supper. The people of Fen probably wouldn’t appreciate that, though – Fen was still rather awake at this time.
I hurried to get to the little town. I was quite hungry, but I was also anxious to get back to Gravesend Manor. I didn’t like leaving Dennis alone with all those ghosts and especially with Zared Gravesend. I had to get back before midnight; by the time I reached Fen, I still had one and a half hours left – not much time.
The Village Elderly was surprised to see me so early, but he immediately gave orders for my supper to be prepared.
“What brings you so soon, Deirdre?” he asked, as he and I slowly walked down the main street of the village. I kept looking from right to left, studying the buildings. We were trailed by a few children who were watching me in wonder. My frequent peaceful appearances had taken their fear of my monstrous form, flashing teeth, red jaws, and pupil-less yellow eyes.
“I don’t want to leave the guests alone in the Manor at midnight,” I told the Elderly.
“You have no further news of Zared Gravesend?”
“None. He was not in his room this morning when I checked, he has no apparent scent, and he gives no clue of his true character. But what news is there of Fen? Have you had any more cattle torn?”
“No, thanks God,” the Elderly said. “This morning we removed the torn ox from the field and cut it up. Some of the torn meat we have given to our physician – perhaps he can tell us something of the culprit. The rest of the meat is being frozen. It may, perhaps, still be edible.”
“Would you be kind enough to bring me out a piece?” I asked. “I should like to look it over again.”
They brought me out a rib with ripped meat still hanging off it and set it down in front of me. I sniffed it carefully.
Around the icy air that hit my nose, I immediately recognized the same watery smell I had sniffed from Zared Gravesend’s shoes.
I told the Village Elderly, and he looked thunderstruck. “Can it be? Can this Gravesend by killing our cattle?”
I shook my head. “In a pinch, one could think it likely, but Zared was with Dennis and me on the Manor Grounds shortly before I came here and found the ox torn. Zared would have had to change into some very swift creature in order to come, tear the ox, and arrive back at the Manor before me.”
“Is there no hidden passage or devilish trick hidden in that accursed house that might have helped him?” the Elderly asked.
I immediately thought of the Portals.
“There may be,” I said slowly. “I shall have to look into it.”
“What time may we expect you tomorrow?” a woman’s voice suddenly asked. I turned. Three of the village women had arrived with my supper.
“I expect I’ll return the same time as today,” I answered, thanking her with a nod before snapping up a piece of deliciously bloody meat and gulping it down.
At approximately ten minutes to midnight I stood on the outer rim of Tyynerth Wood, breathing fast, my legs almost shaking from exertion. I had never made the twenty-five miles from Fen to here in such good time, but despite that there was no way I would reach the Manor before the old clockwork in the East Tower struck midnight. I hoped Dennis was all right.
My ears picked up the sound of breathing. The huge old werewolf had returned to his domain and was probably ready to welcome me.
The hair on my neck bristled. I lowered my head, bared my teeth, and quietly slunk toward the woods.
Whatever the old werewolf lacked in strategy he made up with brute force. I had barely entered the trees when his massive bulk hit me from the left in the stomach. I yelped and lashed my head around, sinking my fangs deep in his nose. He howled in rage and regained his balance, snapping at my own face. I was faster than him, even though I was winded. We circled each other, he continuously springing at me, I avoiding him, trying to get my breath back for a strike and lead him farther into Tyynerth and nearer the Manor grounds.
My breathing was just barely steadied when the old werewolf suddenly stopped, right across from me, and spoke to me for the first time.
My lips lifted in an even bigger snarl as I stared into his tainted yellow eyes.
He returned the gesture by flashing his fangs. “A Gravesend has returned, Deirdre.”
“I know,” I growled, very low in my throat, keeping my fangs bared and my haunches ready for a spring.
“He has passed through these woods.”
“I know,” I said, even though I had just guessed it an hour ago and not been sure.
“He passed in the form of a mist.”
That I hadn’t known or guessed. My expression didn’t change, though. “Why do you tell me this? Who are you?”
“Do you not know me anymore?” he asked. “I am Devlin, your father’s sworn enemy.”
“I remember you now,” I said. “Yes, I know you.”
He smiled, lifting his scarred lips contemptuously over his white but cracked teeth. “Pay your respects to me, Deirdre, as a young wolf to an old one, and tonight I will let you pass without a fight. Only tonight.”
“Why?” I asked. I didn’t mind paying respects, it was proper; but Devlin’s sudden generosity seemed out of place.
“You have left a Gravesend in the Manor. You have left a young boy with him. This day, Deirdre, was the last day of the month. You are a foolish young Alpha.”
My snarling lips dropped over my fangs in shock. I was foolish. Oh, how could I have forgotten?
“Pay your respects and I shall let you pass,” Devlin said again. It was as much in his interest as in mine that I reach the Manor soon.
I bowed my head; stretching one front paw out in front of me and bending the other leg in a werewolf kneel. Devlin nipped me gently on the scruff of my neck, then stepped aside. “Till tomorrow, Deirdre,” he called after me.
I streaked through Tyynerth. The woods had no effect on me this time; my terror came from my own foolishness. I sprang over dead trees and black water, crashing upon the cool, dew-strewn grass of the Grounds just as I heard the first awful clang of the bells in the East Tower.
I didn’t stop to catch my breath as I raced up the hill to the Manor. Some of the windows were lit with a ghostly glow, but I noted that the bottom story was completely dark. That was a bad sign.
The East Tower continued to summon the specters out of their sleep, and the Grounds around me became alive with white or black forms, moving through the darkness or stepping into moonlit patches. I dodged the Guard Dog and the young huntsman with a torn face as I streaked for the massive front doors of the Manor.
They swung wide for me – a huge relief. I was already worried Zared had locked them.
I burst through the door and came to a halt in the hallway, trying to keep my panting quiet as I looked around and listened. I wondered what I should do now: burst on Zared and confront him with what I knew, or continue to play the uninformed. I would decide when I checked on Dennis.
I trotted down to the Frosty Reading Room and found the door shut. I pressed down on the handle with my jaws and it swung open.
Dennis was lying asleep on a great upholstered chair, breathing peacefully. Zared, of course, was nowhere in sight. If he were a true Gravesend he was a true vampire, and he would have met me at midnight in his true form: lengthened canines, white skin, red mouth, red eyes, and claw-like fingernails.
I sniffed Dennis and found no strange scent on him. Zared didn’t seem to have touched him.
Suddenly my ruff started bristling again. It always knew before I did when something was wrong.
I looked around the room, which was illuminated only by the dying fire in the hearth. Something was in the room that didn’t belong there. There was the old man sitting in his rocking chair not far away, and ghostly puppy bouncing around, playing with something invisible, but they belonged. They didn’t make me nervous.
I looked up at the ceiling. The ornate painting and wood inlays were black and hard to discern.
Wait. There had been the flick of red up in the corner.
I snarled. “Zared Gravesend, come down and face me.”
My voice woke up Dennis, who raised his head groggily and for a moment looked terrified to see my glistening fangs over his head. Then he remembered where he was and bit down his shriek.
The bat hanging upside down in the corner of the room opened its red eyes for real this time, and stared at me. What would have been hypnotizing to a mortal creature was uninteresting to a werewolf, though. The bat slowly let go of its perch and fluttered down to me. As soon as it touched the ground, it transformed into Zared Gravesend in a little explosion of dust.
Zared smiled, baring his blood-sucking fangs. “Just in time, as always, Deirdre,” he said. “What I couldn’t get from Dennis, I shall with no less trouble get from Fen. Ta.”
The puff of dust again and there was no Zared Gravesend.
I barked in frustration. Dennis looked like a complete idiot as he slowly turned his open mouth from where the vampire had been standing to where I was lowering my head to seize his light jacket.
“Get on my back,” I snapped. “Hurry up.”
He clambered up and I wheeled and raced out of the Frosty Reading Room, up the stairs to the Floor of Death.
“What are we doing?” Dennis wanted to know. “What’s Zared doing?”
“Going through the Portal,” I said with a reply that answered both questions.
Dennis probably guessed that further questions would only annoy me, because he was strangely quiet until we stepped onto the fifth floor.
“Put your head down,” I told him. “Close your eyes, and don’t look up until I give you permission, no matter what happens. Clear?”
I felt him bury his head in my white ruff and I heard a muffled, “Yes.”
As I’d expected, Zared had let all the specters and ghosts on this floor loose on us – loose on Dennis, that is. They respected me, even if I didn’t come up here often. They kept their distance, whining, howling, crying, snapping, hissing, and looking longingly at Dennis. I hoped the boy was keeping his head down and his eyes closed.
I broke into a lope. The hallway of the Floor of Death was the longest one of the whole house, as it circled the entire building. The Portals were on the east side.
The Door of the Portals, made completely of grotesquely carved ebony with little flickering red lights here and there in tiny hollow niches in the iron-studded wood, only yielded to my bark after I extinguished two of the ghost lights by licking them. They burned my tongue, but the door groaned and creaked open.
“Can I put my head up now?” I heard Dennis ask.
“Wait.” I stepped through the Door of the Portals and entered a strange room – in my opinion the strangest room of the whole Manor: the Room of the Portals. The walls were gray as an undercoat, but continually changing color and shape. Red flames would glimmer here and there, disappear, and relight elsewhere. Six swirls of color bounced about the room; they looked like funnels, their narrow ends flowing into infinity. They were the Portals.
“You can put your head up now,” I told Dennis, which he promptly did.
“Which one did Zared go into?” the boy asked, a question that rather surprised me. I thought his first question would be something stupid like, “Where are we?”
“That’s the question,” I said. “That’s the question.”
I watched the Portals for a moment. Each one had a main defining color: white, yellow, red, green, blue, and black. The black seemed most likely to me at first, since Zared seemed to only be concerned with the evil, but as I watched the swirling funnels, I saw that the yellow Portal was moving slower than the other ones, and its colors seemed to be oozing instead of flowing.
“We’ll try yellow,” I said. “Hang on.”
I really didn’t have time for speculations and mistakes, but neither would it do me any good to stand there guessing. I had made my gamble.
I leapt into the yellow Portal, and felt Dennis’ fingers pull on my ruff. For a moment I felt dizzy, and my paws seemed to be scuffing on a floor that was alternately shiny and smooth or almost liquid.
Then we suddenly hit solid earth. One front paw gave way and I went down onto my chest. With an angry grunt I heaved myself back up, and Dennis fell off. He was quick about getting adjusted, though.
“Oh man! Where are we?”
And this time the question was justified. For a moment, I didn’t know where we were, either.
We had landed somewhere where color was a foreign word. Everything was black or in shades of gray. Old wooden buildings sat around us, falling apart for who knows how long. Narrow cobbled streets ran away from us in all directions; a slight rise not far away from this eerie place had a small, squat building on it.
“What are these? Is this a ghost town? Are…?”
The fur on my neck and back suddenly snapped straight up. I bared my fangs.
Dennis noticed and looked at me in alarm. “What?” His voice was barely above a whisper.
For the first time I could remember, I actually felt scared. The wolf of me had its tail between its legs and was longing to flee this place. Icy shivers were running through my muscles. I took a step back.
Dennis nudged up to my shoulder and asked again, “What?”
“This place… this is the Gravesend family graveyard. Of all the Portal options, this was probably the worst.”
“There’s no graveyard at the Manor?” Dennis wondered. That was another of his stupid questions, but I barely heard it. My eyes had switched to their night mode, and I was seeing things he couldn’t see.
Little white wisps were floating around the streets; the dead plants were writhing and snapping at each other on the ground. The rocks moved at free will, avoiding the plants, and small legged creatures scampered among them.
I turned my attention back to the buildings and realized they weren’t falling apart at all. They were built to look that way on purpose. The architecture was actually fantastic, and if this had been a domain I could take command of, I would have told to Dennis to get on my back and we’d go exploring.
But even I couldn’t command these creatures of hell.
A large tower was the center of this dead city. The ragged openings in its structure glowed with eerie yellow and red light.
“That’s probably where we’re going, right?” Dennis asked.
I nodded. “Stay with me.”
“This place scares me,” he said, pressing as close to my fur as he could.
“Me too,” I muttered, hoping he couldn’t hear me.
I took my first steps in that cursed place and every footfall of my paw shook the ground. I made no sound, but my footsteps were like epicenters of little earthquakes. I guessed that it was because I was of flesh and blood and this place was inhabited by the undead and ghosts.
Dennis was afraid to move at all. He kept up reluctantly, walking on his tiptoes and staring around.
After a few moments, though, when nothing happened, he lost some of his fear.
“Nothing’s going on. What are we doing? Do I have to watch for something?”
“Movement,” I said, actually relieved to hear his whisper in this dead place. “And what we’re doing is looking for Zared Gravesend.”
Somehow I had expected to see a dark shape loom in front of me, or to hear a cold wind whisper something to the effect of, “You shall not disturb this resting place of the Gravesend family, o creature of flesh and blood,” but nothing happened.
I looked up at the tower, still a few streets away from us. There was no more yellow in its windows. I wondered if that meant something.
“Deirdre, can I asked you something?”
“No. Just don’t talk here.”
He ignored me. “Why do we have to get Zared Gravesend? What’s he going to do?”
“I said don’t talk here,” I snarled.
Suddenly the red in the tower flared up and looked as if it was on fire. A pillar of red light flashed into the sky.
“Do you want to get us killed?” I demanded of Dennis.
“They can kill you here?” he asked.
That wasn’t as stupid a question as I thought at first. I automatically believed that every creature in this new realm that I had never been to before could kill me, or at least Dennis. Maybe this wasn’t such dangerous territory after all. Come to think of it, this didn’t look that much worse than Gravesend Manor…
I was abruptly brought to my senses. The pillar of fire disappeared as suddenly as it had come and the silence was torn by a dry growl. My tail instinctively went between my legs.
“Hello, Deirdre. Can you never follow the rules? Do you not even possess the common sense to keep to the area you know and not trespass into something you cannot handle?”
“What’s that?” Dennis shrieked.
The undead werewolf in front of me raised his head. “Ah, food. Are you perhaps come to make a pact, such as I did, many years ago?”
I placed myself between Dennis and the gaunt, dirty creature. “No, Quinian. He is not food, and I am not making a pact. When was the last time you looked at yourself in a mirror?”
“Ah, our young Deirdre has gotten even saucier than before.” He was still eyeing Dennis. “Come, my love, let me show you my home.”
“We do not have time for a tour, Quinian,” I apologized, “even though I’m sure this home of your is truly fascinating.”
“You have all the time in the world,” the werewolf replied. “You are no longer in a domain full of puny ghosts and specters that cannot harm you. You are here in a guardhouse of hell. You are where you belong.”
“I don’t belong in hell,” I said with dignity.
He turned around and stuck his ragged jaws, black teeth, and rotting tongue next to my snout. “Deirdre, you are a werewolf. A gene defect, a loss of information, won’t save you from coming here where all werewolves come.”
“All werewolves? I see only you.”
“Ah, my love, not many of our kind have the courage to live forever.” He smiled. “Now come. You have time. Your Zared Gravesend will not depart from here for quite a while.”
“You ask too many questions. Maybe I’ll explain it to you at some opportune moment, but for now, let’s go take a dip in the Styx River.”
“I thought the River Styx was in Hades,” Dennis hissed.
“The River Styx, Food,” Quinian said, “is the River of Hell. It is also in Hades, another ‘guardhouse’ of Hell.” He looked back at me. “Are you sure I cannot just sample a thigh?”
“I am quite sure, Quinian. Do not cross me for him. You have lived forever for quite a while now – my strength is more than yours.”
“And yet you remain mortal,” he pointed out. “Really, Deirdre, I think a fight would quite interesting.”
I kept a sharp eye on our surroundings as Quinian led us to the River Styx. The buildings remained purposefully, grotesquely dilapidated. The road was made of black marble. The only light came from strange wisps of glowing material that floated quietly around everything like a fog.
“What are those?” Dennis asked. He didn’t seem very frightened of Quinian, despite the undead werewolf’s rotting appearance.
“We call them Wisps,” Quinian replied. “Deirdre, keep the food quiet, or I will be bound to bite him.”
I look at Dennis. He swallowed audibly.
We felt the River Styx before we reached it. A blast of heat washed up to us. My fur, which till now had been more or less standing straight up, promptly drooped and I panted.
Quinian looked back at me and grinned. “I am not only immortal, my love,” he said, “I am also protected against the menaces of this place.”
The closer we got to the Styx, the harder it got for me to even move. I had a huge coat of lovely fur – with all the ghosts at Gravesend Manor, it was cold there. This sudden change of temperature was hard to handle.
We reached the Styx, a river of what looked like lava. It hissed and plunged, overflowing its bed. Geysers of molten rock sprang into the black sky, accompanied by dampened but very perceivable shrieks.
“There are people in there!” Dennis exclaimed, then covered his mouth with both hands as Quinian turned around and bared his teeth.
“Not people, Food,” the undead werewolf hissed, saliva dripping down his rotting jaws, “souls. Souls – and souls are very distasteful. You can believe me on that.”
“Do not tell stories, Quinian,” I said, barely able to speak around my panting. “You cannot have tasted a soul. You can’t even get your jaws around them.”
“They are cold, my love, like ghosts,” he said, turning back to me. “You do a lot of experimenting down here to pass the time when you have forever.”
“You never regret your choice to live eternally?” I asked him, backing away from the Styx. This was simply too hot for me. In a moment I was going to collapse.
“Regret? Deirdre, I am a werewolf. I do not know what regret is. And think carefully. Look down there, into the Styx. My soul would be in there, if I had not made this pact. Honestly, what is better – roasting forever or living forever? I know, I may not be handsome anymore, but I am alive.”
He had a point. I was too far away to look down into the Styx anymore, but between it and a rotting life… Then again, Quinian had only been living forever for about a hundred years now. What he look like in a thousand years?
“You should consider it yourself,” he was saying. “You won’t live forever, my love. And the only place you can go is into the Styx.”
“What, being a werewolf automatically means you go to hell?” Dennis asked.
I cursed him silently. Could he never keep his mouth shut?
“Nonsense,” I snapped, at the same moment Quinian hissed, “Of course.”
The undead werewolf approached Dennis and stuck his snout into the boy’s face. “For the last time, Food, do not advertise your presence. You look extremely tasty. I have not eaten anything for a century.” He snarled, and Dennis jumped back from his slobber.
“Come, my love,” Quinian growled. “The Styx is a highlight, but let me show you the town. I am sure you want to see the grave mansions of the Gravesend family.”
“Yes. Maybe we could start with the grave of Zared Gravesend?”
“Zared?” Quinian repeated. “Zared is still young, my love. He has a long time to live. But if you wish to see the building site, come.”
We left the Styx, and the air rapidly cooled off again. I noticed Dennis shiver. I was glad for the change. My fur dried off and began to rise again, sharply aware of the dangers still lurking in this place.
I kept a sharp eye on Dennis, who was walking a step behind me. He was fascinated by this place. I promised myself that if he took off here like he did in Kysw Glen, I would kill him – if something else didn’t first.
“Here we are,” Quinian said suddenly, stopping.
I looked around him. We were standing in front of a building that just had its foundations down.
“You see, Zared still has a long, long time to live,” Quinian said. “You cannot go inside, no – only the dead may go into these graves. Do you have any other special wishes?”
“Yes, I want to find Zared Gravesend,” I suddenly snapped, feeling impatient and irate with the fear that was gnawing at my heart. “What’s the sense in this tour, Quinian? I have…”
He interrupted me with a long howl of laughter. Behind us, the tower flared red again.
“Find Zared Gravesend! My love, you are in a front yard of hell! Zared will not come here until he is dead, and that will be a long time!”
I turned around. “Then we have to go back to the Room of the Portals. Quinian, I…”
“How, my love? How do you plan to get back? You are in hell – you cannot pass out of it by your own will.”
I froze; my tail automatically tucked itself between my legs. I slowly turned around again. Quinian stood there, grinning, his black teeth bared.
I caught a worried look from Dennis.
“You will be here for a long, long time, Deirdre,” Quinian told me, “until you die and your soul goes into the Styx. You may as well take the time and follow me around the graveyard. And as for the food,” he stepped around me to face Dennis, “we may as well shorten its suffering and eat it right now.”
Dennis squealed and grabbed a hold of my fur, edging behind me.
Quinian looked at me in disgust. “You are a disgrace, Deirdre. For the first time in our history a human seeks shelter from a werewolf. Why can you not behave like a true creature from hell?”
“Because I’m not one,” I growled. “There has got to be a way to get out of here. The devils can go to the real world; we can too.”
“The devils are actually in hell,” Quinian pointed out. “We are manning a guardhouse, my love. There is no way to get out of it.”
“The windows on the Fifth Floor,” Dennis suddenly said. “We could go through them – if we find out where they are on this end.”
Quinian almost sprang at him, but I placed myself between the undead creature and the boy. “They start in the workplace of hell,” I said, speaking to myself. “We’d have to go into hell for that.”
“I don’t want to go to hell,” Dennis whined.
Quinian was circling me, foaming at the mouth, trying to get to Dennis. I kept the boy behind my back.
We were in a front yard, a guardhouse, of Hell. We weren’t in Hell itself. Maybe we could still get out. But to return to the mortal world we couldn’t go through Hell. What Quinian said was true: No one can pass from or to Heaven or Hell by himself. There was no Beatrice here to lead us around on a sightseeing tour of the afterlife.
“Quinian, how did you get here?”
“I came through the Portal, of course,” he snarled, his eyes still on Dennis. “If I had died, my soul would be in the Styx now. The Devil doesn’t come at beck and call. But you can stop, Deirdre, racking your brain to try to find a way out. There is none. Next time, you should keep to the small domain you are assigned. You are going to die here, my love, die!”
“They will not die!”
Quinian stopped circling me and Dennis. We all raised our heads, looking into the black sky. I felt a rush of air past my head and snapped at the source, which materialized in the next instant before us as Zared Gravesend.
His face was deathly white; two little teeth pressed against his lower lip. His eyes were bloodshot.
“Hello Dennis,” he greeted the boy first. “Do you remember me?”
“Yes…” Dennis replied hesitantly.
“What a pity. I always thought I was rather good guardian. I supposed I looked absolutely awful to you…”
He turned to me. “You are already too late, Deirdre. I may as well allow you back up into the real world.”
I bared my teeth at him.
“Oh, you don’t want to? That’s all right. I’m sure Dennis would like to return to the sunshine.” He held out a thin white hand. Dennis shrank away.
“I’ll go,” I snarled, “if you take us back to the Manor.”
“I believe I am the one doing the favor here,” Zared said, “not you. Either you come, and accept to be placed anywhere I feel like letting you go, or you can stay here with Quinian and rot away like he is.”
“I accept your offer,” I said impatiently. I saw the tower in the center of this graveyard was burning a brighter and brighter red, and it was making me nervous.
Zared nodded and looked at Quinian. “I wish you, my friend, a pleasant everlasting life down here, wandering a dead land.”
I was surprised to hear the undead werewolf whimper. I glanced back and saw him with his head down and his tail drooping.
“Does he have to stay down here?” I asked Zared.
“What does it matter to you?”
“I’m simply wondering.”
“If he were to return with us, he would die immediately. Whether or not that is better than rotting forever – that is up to him to decide.” He looked challengingly at the cowering creature.
“I would rather rot than burn,” Quinian snapped, glaring at me. He was angry I was intruding on his matters.
“The tower!” Dennis suddenly exclaimed, bringing our attention to the burning structure.
The tower had burst into full flame, and a shape was forming in the flames. I looked at Zared and Quinian.
The undead werewolf was watching with interest, but no fear. Zared, on the other hand, had a look on intense anger in his eyes – anger or fear. It was hard to tell. The lack of pigment in his face considerably diminished his ability to convey expressions.
He suddenly reached out and grabbed my ruff in one hand and Dennis’s wrist in the other.
I heard a long wail, probably from Quinian, and then landed on my side on the floor of the Room of the Portals. It knocked the breath out of me, but I kept my senses and bit Zared when he tried to yank Dennis up and flee with him.
The Gravesend snarled at me as I hung onto his arm. Dennis scrambled to his feet and got behind me again.
“Zared,” I said through my full mouth, “I’m not letting go until you tell me exactly what’s going on.”
“You haven’t figured it out yet?” he asked mockingly. I saw his great, bat-like wings beginning to grow out of his back. His face became hairy, like an animal’s. “I will raise up the name of Gravesend again, to be plague upon the country-side, a ruler of the shadows.”
“The thing rising from the flames of the tower seemed to be a monster like yourself,” I growled, still hanging on as he tried to shake himself free. “Why did you fly from it?”
“I did not fly. I am accomplishing its orders quickly – to the best of my ability. Let go, wolf!”
In a flash of light and stinging dust, he completely transformed into a blood-sucking animal with a man’s mind. His swelling arm muscles and growing hairs hit against my mouth, forcing me to let go of him.
I lunged for his side, one of his more vulnerable spots. “Dennis, run!”
The vampire reached for the boy with one arm as he knocked me on the snout with the other. Dennis jumped into a corner, barely missing the Blue Portal.
“Run where to?” he asked frantically. “I can’t make the stairs appear! I can’t…!”
I sank my teeth into Zared’s thigh. The vampire roared and bashed me between the shoulder blades. I gasped and went down, turning my head in time to see Dennis back into the swirling Green Portal.
Zared cursed and kicked me, then leapt into the Portal after the boy.
I lay there, wheezing, for a moment, not really realizing what had happened. I felt sore when I struggled to my feet. At least the blood sucker didn’t seem to have broken any of my bones. With a snarl I sprang into the swirling green spiral.
I landed on my front paws, which hurt and stung for about two minutes. The landscape was lush and green. Not far away, I saw a town surrounded by fields of grazing cattle and growing harvest. It was warm. I began to pant.
I whirled around and saw Dennis peering out at me anxiously from a badger’s den.
“Deirdre, can I come out?” He was already worming his way out of the hole.
“Did Zared come through here?”
“He flew down to the town, but he came in way over there.” He waved his hand to the east.
No sooner had Dennis said that than I heard the first shriek. “Quick,” I said, “we need to find the Portal and get back to the Manor.”
“Isn’t it right there?” he asked, pointing to where I’d come in.
“It bounces around the room. It’s rarely ever in the same place in such a short interval as just happened.” I looked around. “The air will be flickering and swirling wherever the Portal is. Keep your eyes open. The room is small. The Portal should be in sight soon.”
“Well, while we’re waiting,” Dennis said, “and assuming that creep doesn’t come back too soon, will you tell me what’s going on?”
The cries from the town were increasing, but I blocked my ears. I needed to keep Dennis safe. Nothing else had importance right now.
*There it is!” Dennis was pointing to a spot of swimming air. I turned, just barely remembering not to pick him up by the scruff of his neck, but I stopped when I heard a thud behind me.
“Oh bother, he’s back,” Dennis complained, and sat down in the grass.
I faced Zared and was surprised by his appearance. He seemed out of breath; his eyes were shifty. He kept looking around me at Dennis.
“Come now, Deirdre,” the vampire began. “I think this is not a good way to negotiate. I don’t want to fight with you, especially over a human, of all things.”
“And if he was the Kitchen Cat’s litter box,” I snarled. “I wouldn’t let you run off with him for the sake of principle.”
The vampire frowned. “That’s not a wise argument.” His eyes were moving faster and faster; his wings flicked nervously.
“No? Tell me why you want him?”
“Oh, rest assured!” Zared told me, taking a step to the side. “He won’t be harmed. I just need him to look at something for me.”
My eyes narrowed. “You need him to look at something. And for that you pull us out of the family graveyard, reveal your identity… What else do you want to do?”
He stopped shifting his weight from one leg to another and bent down. “Deirdre, make me a promise and I will explain everything.”
“Promise to what?” I glanced over my shoulder. Dennis was obviously listening, though he amused himself by pulling up blades of grass and splitting them down the middle.
Zared spoke very quietly. “Promise to fight with me if I am attacked. You will not have to fight my kind or your kind or his kind. But we will all have to fight, sooner or later. It might as well be now.”
That piqued my curiosity. I looked back at Dennis again, and shrugged. “All right. But he will stay with me every moment.”
The vampire straightened up. “That is completely your choice. Please, just come. I’m running out of time.”
I called to the boy, who got up extremely slowly and dawdled over. When he reached me, he opened his mouth to say something, but I pushed my nose into his face and snapped, “Yes, you’re quite as good as the kitty’s litter box. Now get on.” I could hear Zared pacing the grass behind us.
I think Dennis pinched me on purpose when he pulled himself onto my back, but I determined to pay him back for that later. Zared spread his wings and flew toward the town. I followed at an easy run, noticing the screaming had stopped and a deathly silence settled on the air.
He looked down. “The town is dead. Touch nothing when we pas through, and do not stare into the windows.”
“Hear that?” I asked Dennis. “Put your face down in my fur and don’t look up until I tell you to.”
He grumbled, but I felt him bury his face.
I reached the main street of the town. I found it strange not to able to smell anything. There was the same lack of smell I had sensed on Zared Gravesend after I returned from Ysgard Lake that one day. Ysgard. What did the Iris of Ysgard have to do with all this?
I ran over the cobblestones. Out of the corner of my eyes I saw bodies lying on the ground or propped against the walls. The windows were fogged and dark, though every so often I saw flashes of light and movement through them. I didn’t stop to stare, and I felt Dennis kept his head down.
I looked around. I was missing something. A gray fog had descended on the town, making it hard to see. I called up to the vampire. “Zared?”
“We’re almost there!” he replied, and I heard the anxiety in his voice.
“Does this town have a church?”
“Church? No, it doesn’t have a church. The inhabitants broke it down so the Gravesend family wouldn’t feed on them. It was a pact. This town hasn’t been attacked in centuries.”
“Is it bad, that this doesn’t have a church?” I heard Dennis’s muffled question.
“Of course,” I growled. “Monsters avoid churches – because of their aura, not because of holy water. Besides that, churches are easily defensible since they’re so well built.”
The last house disappeared into the thickening fog. I relied on my ears, listening to the swoop of the vampire’s wings to guide me. Not long after leaving the town, I heard him fold them, and he landed in front of me, just a black shape in the fog. “They’re coming,” I heard him say. “Dennis, quickly now, come look. You need to tell me whether this is familiar.”
I let the boy slide off and followed him toward the vampire.
Zared was standing over a large stone planted in the ground. It was encircled by three rings of stones, each carved with words or letters. Zared pointed to the large centerpiece. “What does this picture show you?”
Dennis got down on his hands and knees in order to see it better. I crouched down for a moment, but though I couldn’t make anything out, I didn’t stay in that position. I didn’t want to be caught off my guard.
The boy frowned and traced the carved lines in the stone. He stopped when he got back to his starting point and didn’t move for the longest time.
I looked at the vampire, who was staring intently at Dennis. He reached down and pulled the boy up, raising his arm.
It was only when Dennis turned to look at me that I realized I’d been believing a lie since they arrived.
For a moment I considered fighting, but my ears caught the sound of breathing behind me. I didn’t stop to look at what was there. With a snarl I charged over Dennis and raced into the fog. Behind me there was a shriek. I couldn’t see anything; my senses seemed shrouded by the thick grayness.
I had never run this fast before. The grass was wet, almost sticky beneath my paws. Behind me I heard wings beating the air – several pairs of wings. I cursed myself for being such a dimwitted fool.
I cringed to think of telling Dennis that Zared was a Gravesend. They’d probably spent the night, feasting in one of these towns and laughing at me.
My train of thought disappeared with the ground beneath my feet. I crashed forward, landing on a front paw. Pain shot of my bones. I yelped, snarled, growled, and scrambled back to my feet. The ground was too soft. I could barely stand. It was closing in around me…
I realized I was in a net. Above me, in the impenetrable fog, something laughed. It didn’t sound like Zared.
The net kept rising through the air. I knew what they were going to do. I curled myself up, trying to protect my head. When the thing let the net fall, I smashed onto my ribs. It knocked the breath out me. I lay there, gasping, trying not to whine. The fog cleared away, and a whole congregation of winged monsters landed around me.
I let my eyes wander while I got my breath back. Zared hadn’t changed. He seemed to be a vampire in the lower levels of the hierarchy. Dennis had become an ugly little beast, with purplish eyes, an oddly deformed head and a ripped ear. His wing was ripped on the same side too. Because of his deformity and ugliness, I guessed he was an addition to the family by way of blood transfusion, not a natural descendant.
The other vampires looked just like the illustrations in the Chronicles. Their human features were very clear, though their heads were lengthened in back. The lower jaws had grown forward, and their teeth stuck over their dull lips. Their eyes were like cat’s eyes, with oblong pupils, made for seeing in the dark. Their wings’ colors varied according to their standing in the hierarchy. Dennis’s were mud brown; Zared’s were a gray-blue. The leader of them would have blood-red wings, but I didn’t see any such bright colors.
Zared approached me. “We’re just waiting for the Patriarch. Enjoy these moments, Wolf. Things make sense now, don’t they? You really disappointed all of us, you know. We were sure you’d try to kill Mr. Putnam when I suggested I got mine of the thirteen keys from the Village Elderly. But you didn’t even go for it combined with the dead cows propped up on their back legs, or even the Battle of the Two Knights – a sure sign of the reawakening of the Gravesend family. I’m sure the Iris of Ysgard became agitated at least once. Haven’t you ever read the Chronicles of Gravesend? It’s written there 87 times that when the Gravesend family awakes from hibernation, they take possession of their lands again and woe to those who consider themselves owners of Gravesend property. We go to sleep periodically, you know, so the pantry can replenish itself. What do you do with your time? Those books are so fascinating. You really should have read them.”
I had my breath back, but I stayed in a crumpled heap on the wet ground.
“I do not possess your property, and I have no desire to. I’m not standing in your way. There’s no reason to treat me like this.”
I saw Zared take a step back. A confused look flashed across his face – just before it disappeared in a black shadow.
“I shall take the dialog from here,” a deep voice growled above me. I raised my head to see the Patriarch. He was a huge old monster. His arms and wings bulged with muscle; his teeth were pearly white and so long they nearly reached his protruding chin. His eyes were pupil-less and pulsating a blood red light, harmonizing nicely with the bright red insides of his wings. His claws were long and jagged, and he stood over all the other vampires.
He bent over me, picked up the net and roughly shook me out. I landed on my side again, groaned, and got to my feet.
“There seems to be a slight misunderstanding here,” he began. “The point is not that you are on our property. I’m sure you would have no problem finding another place to live – especially since I’ve been told you have made good friends of the people of Fen.”
He stepped aside, and the old werewolf of Tyynerth entered the circle.
I stared at him for a moment, before regaining myself. “Devlin?”
“Things have changed, Deirdre. As representative of the Werewolf Council, I put the choice to you again: Will you follow the code of your kind, or do you insist on – forgive the loose formulation – being finicky?”
“This is about my food?” I asked. I backed up a step and ran into a vampire who swiped at me with her wing. I looked around the circle of beasts.
“Not your food, Deirdre. Your lifestyle. There is nothing wrong with being different. Your father constantly insisted on hunting his meals in the wild, instead of taking it from the streets of a town. So be it. That is the way of nature. But it is impermissible that you are taking people’s fear of us.”
I needed a way out of this. I remembered discussing this exact thing with my parents. They had never said it was essential to have normal people afraid of nightlife like myself. I was still trying to place what exactly was wrong.
“You look confused,” the Patriarch commented. “Come now, Deirdre. Make a choice. Will you join your kind?”
“If I don’t?” I asked.
The Patriarch bent down to me. “There is no if. You have decided, though not in your favor. Werewolf blood is useful in a great many things, but I have special need for yours.” He seized me at my ruff, as if I were a puppy, and lifted me into the air so he could look into my eyes as he stood straight. “Your blood, Deirdre, will unlock the gray Portals. The pantry provided us by the Portals already existing is no longer big enough. The food is insufficient. People are too fat now, and the wild animals lack. The gray Portals will permit us to reach back in time, when food was healthier.”
I didn’t care about the potential food of these beasts, but I was attached to my blood. I stared back at him for a moment, then bared my fangs and snapped at him.
“Bad dog!” he laughed, and his roar echoed across the fields. Still holding me high in the air, he looked around at the other vampires. “Come, my friends and relations! The table is as good as set!”
He swung me under his arm and clamped his other hand over my jaws. He squeezed hard, and I wriggled as he and the other vampires lifted into the air.
The Patriarch stank horribly of rotten meat. I realized it was because of his age. He was centuries old. By nature’s standards he shouldn’t even be alive anymore. I wondered what let him get so old.
We reached the field where the Portal should be bouncing around. The Patriarch would go first, with me still held tightly under his arm. It took quite a while before the air before us became swimmy, and I lay still the whole time. I was waiting for my chance on the trip back to the Manor.
As soon as he stepped into the Portal, I began to fight with every inch he gave me. I was just as dizzy as he was, but when we crashed onto the floor of the Room of the Portals, I was free, and the Patriarch’s black blood ran from half a dozen deep bite wounds.
I scrambled to my feet as he unfolded his wings and closed them against his body so they wouldn’t get in his way. I raced out the door as he roared behind me. I leapt down the stairs. I just wanted to get away from the Manor – get as far away as I could and never come back.
The house shook above me. Dust flew out of hidden corners, as if the inanimate things themselves were afraid. Furniture rattled. I heard ghosts shriek as they re-experienced a sight they’d seen while they were still alive.
And then I shrieked. Or I came as close to shrieking as a werewolf can. There in the hallway before me stood Dennis.
“Boy, am I glad to see you!” the boy exclaimed, rushing forward and hugging me before I could escape down the stairs to the ground floor. “What’s happening? What’s the matter with the house?”
“Oh, the vampires just want to kill me,” I snapped impatiently, wondering whether I should escape down the stairs or jump out the big window behind me. “Let go of me!”
“Vampires! What…? Aiiie!”
I scowled at him and whirled. The Patriarch and half his vampire entourage, including Zared and the ugly thing I’d thought was Dennis, swept down the stairs. The Patriarch was reaching for me when he noticed Dennis.
He halted in midair and then landed on the stairs, seizing the ugly little vampire from the air as he did.
“I told you to do away with him! We can’t have food wandering the place now!”
“I told Zared I couldn’t find him!” the little monster whined. “I thought he’d left by himself when his protectors disappeared!”
The Patriarch smashed Zared out of the sky with one wing and tore the head off the little vampire. Black blood dripping down his jaws and chest, he turned his attention back to me.
“Shame on you, Deirdre. Don’t you know running away only makes it worse?”
I couldn’t make heads or tails of these incidents, but I decided to put heads and tails on something else. I whirled around and bit Dennis in the arm.
His blood tasted awfully metallic and made me sick for a moment, but then I suddenly found it rather flavorsome. Dennis was too surprised to even say anything. I saw the Patriarch watching, a smile curling around his fangs.
I felt the boy start to go limp. I let go of him and whispered, “Get in the moonlight.” Then, licking my lips, I raised my head.
“You greedy flea bait,” the Patriarch said, shaking his head and taking a step down the stairs. “I wanted him. But now, do let me know – what did you think of your first taste of fresh blood?”
I snarled. “I liked it.”
The Patriarch was on the last stair. “It is certainly convincing, Deirdre, but we still need your blood. I will thank you for leaving some morsels…”
My muscles bunched; my haunches doubled under me, and I crashed through the window, landing in the moonlit grass below. I had barely stepped aside when misshapen blob of matted fur landed in my place. At first I thought it was another, particularly ugly vampire, but then I realized it was Dennis, who, in the moonlight, was becoming an extremely cute, fuzzy little werewolf.
He dizzily got to his feet, walked some drunken circles and shook his head, as if to clear it. Then he looked at me. “I’m hot.”
“No,” I replied, “you’re cute. I like you much better in a fur suit.”
He looked at me in surprise, then at himself. He squeaked; I rolled my eyes and grabbed him by the scruff of the neck.
“You’re a werewolf now, which means you’re much more useful to the moment. Come on. Let’s get away from here.” I dropped him again.
He seemed to be ignoring me. He kept brushing his chin in his deep anthracite ruff, walking around wagging his bushy tail and staring at it.
I tolerated it for about five seconds; then I gave him a sharp nip on the nose. “This isn’t a game, Dennis. The vampires want to kill me, and they’d like to kill you. Are you coming?”
He looked up at me. His nose was buried in his captive tail. I heard a reluctant, muffled, “Okay,” and took off.
I was surprised at Dennis’s speed as we ran towards Tyynerth Wood. I would rather face that awful forest than the vampires and Devlin.
The boy was obviously having fun in his Beta wolf form. Every so often he did a funny little bound in mid-stride, or kicked up his heels. We were within sight of the woods when he asked, “Do I have to change back?”
“You’re a Beta. You change as soon as you get out of the moonlight. But Gravesend Manor might extend the form while we’re on its grounds. Hope it does, because we’re going into Black Tyynerth.”
“Where’s that?” Dennis asked, snapping at the ghost of a bat that swooshed by his face. He shook his head right afterwards. “Cold!”
“Of course it’s cold. Ghosts are always cold. Black Tyynerth is where you disappeared with the Scaled One.”
“Why are we going there? Will she help us?”
“No. I don’t want to see her. I want to get out of here. As long as we don’t get into any trouble, the eastern end of the wood is the shortest way off the grounds. Besides that, if we have to stop, the vampires will take longer to find us there. Speaking of vampires…!”
I heard the swoosh of their leathery wings. The Patriarch himself was chasing us.
We had just passed into the confines of Tyynerth. Immediately the pressing blackness settled on my senses, but strangely enough, I was so concerned with the outside threat I didn’t take much note of the inside ones.
Dennis was another story. He was still jumping around, but now it was because he was frightened. He ran into trees half a dozen times before I halted my rush and let him run into me.
He backed up and looked at me. “I don’t remember this place being so scary when we came through here the first time,” he whined.
I cocked my head and lifted a lip. “Well, you certainly make a lot less noise about it now. Your senses have been sharpened, that’s all.”
“Are we safe here? What was that?”
“Stop jumping around,” I growled. “You’re distracting. There are ghosts all over these woods. Don’t look now, but the murderer who got quartered is coming up on your left.”
Of course he disobeyed me, but I had my jaws clamped over his before he could howl. Giving them a good squeeze, I let go and growled at the ghost, chasing it away. Then I sat down.
“We’re as safe here as anywhere. I can’t hear the vampires anymore. Now explain to me when you went missing.”
“When I went missing!” he gasped, still getting over his fright from seeing four barely attached sections of a man floating in formation. “You went missing! I went through the Portal and you never came to get me!”
“What? Never? I followed you in no more than a minute!”
“I waited for at least an hour,” he protested. “I’m sure. Since you said the Portal bounces around the room, I went to go look for it afterwards. You never came.”
I was beginning to understand. Time must pass during a journey through a Portal – the trip seemed shorter than it actually was. There had been no way to notice that by myself. Another thing learned, but it wasn’t important to me now.
“It saved your life,” I growled. “How did you get back to the Manor?”
He snorted. “I had all day. I ran into the Portal after a while and got back.”
“But how did you get away from the ghost mastiffs and down the stairs?” I was beginning to feel rather irritated. Either it was suspicion or envy. I opt for the former.
He gave me the saddest puppy eyes I’ve ever seen on werewolf. I always thought pupil-less eyes could only be scary, but Dennis proved me wrong. “I don’t know! I just know that you weren’t around and neither was Zared. So I wandered back to the kitchen and spent the rest of the time with Matilda until I got tired and went to bed. Nothing bothered me. Maybe they all knew you were taking care of me. I woke up when I heard a bunch of roaring upstairs.”
I scowled at him. “Wonderful. Now…”
“Here she comes!” he interrupted me excitedly.
I was surprised at myself that I wasn’t feeling tempted to send him flying through the woods. Usually my patience didn’t last this long, especially not with things smaller and younger than myself. I turned to see what he was looking at.
The Scaled One was approaching. She looked more threatening than I’d ever seen her. Her five eyes had turned from black to blood-red, and a pair of furred wings had grown from her arms. If she’d been friendly with Dennis before, she certainly didn’t seem to have the same intentions now.
The little werewolf had his tail tucked between his legs and had crept behind me. The Scaled One stopped just out of reach of my spring and stared at me. “I knew one day we would meet, Deirdre. The Manor never was large enough for the two of us.”
“That’s why only I live there,” I growled, my teeth bared, my white ruff standing on end.
“So witty,” she sneered. “I shall just keep you cornered until the Patriarch and the others arrived. Before you die, is there anything you are particularly curious about?”
I considered advancing on her, but her tail was swinging slowly from side to side, the poisonous spike glittering in the moonlight. Maybe Dennis could approach her as she talked. But I felt hesitant to give him any responsibility. He was sure to do something wrong.
“You’re sure to be wondering what exactly I am,” the Scaled One said, to break the silence. I suddenly realized she was as uncomfortable in Tyynerth as either of us werewolves. She was talking to distract herself from the gathering ghosts and specters. I saw barely any, but the wind was becoming cold, and it carried their voices as it blew through my fur. I heard Dennis’s frightened whine behind me.
“It seems we have nothing else to do as we calculate the best way to kill each other,” I replied. “Go on. What are you?”
“A vampire, of course,” she said. Her voice was tight. She was getting cold. Her scales didn’t offer the same sort of insulation against the ghostly cold as my thick fur. “I became a vampire, that is. I used to live in Ysgard Lake, a mermaid who kept a neat parlor with the beautiful fish in its clear waters. The Gravesend family ruled their Manor for years while I lived in peace and happiness, completely unaware of them. Then the Iris came. It killed all the fish, the frogs, the dragonflies. Each animal was my friend. I nursed them when they were injured or unwell. But the Iris burned them; let them sink to bottom to rot. It killed the plants and turned the rocks black. It drove me from Ysgard, onto the Manor grounds. A Gravesend found me there and passed his curse to me. I’ve lived in Tyynerth since, a mixed breed, unable to walk in the sun, but unwilling to go out at night, though the vampire comes out then. There’s no place for me to swim, and the animals have fled the woods.”
“I would sympathize with you if you weren’t in the process of proving yourself a spineless beast,” I told her. By now I could see the specters. There was a wall of white and gray around us, a freezing fog that faded and rolled and swirled.
Her wings shook for moment; she drew them closer to keep her warm. “Spineless? Everything but, Deirdre. I have learned in these long black years that might makes right. I have been condemned to a life between breeds, and I have determined to make the best of it.”
I saw the conflict of her two natures. The mermaid was trying to break through and aid us somehow, while the vampire held the upper hand and cornered us until the arrival of the Patriarch.
The vampire got its way. The wall of specters gave way as the huge vampire swept into their circle, landing halfway between me and the Scaled One.
I stood my ground. The Scaled One stepped back when he landed, but then she approached, coming into my range.
The specters had formed a white wall again and were drawing a close circle around us. I could feel the cold bite my nose. It was a dry, suffocating chill. I’d never stood so long in one place on the Manor grounds before, and I realized now why it was good idea not to.
The Scaled One was silent. She looked guilty, standing, staring back at the Patriarch, her wings wrapped around her body.
The silence didn’t last long. Suddenly the warm spot on my back legs disappeared. I whirled to see Zared lifting off, holding Dennis in his arms, one hand clamped around the little werewolf’s jaws.
When the Patriarch saw I’d noticed, he sent the Scaled One into the icy wall of ghosts and turned on me. The specter wall disappeared from around us as the spirits gathered over the Scaled One. I stayed where I was, but my muscles ached with their tenseness. For the first time I was faced with a fight I wasn’t likely to survive, let alone win.
The Patriarch didn’t wait around. He swept a huge clawed wing at me. I avoided it, but ran into his other wing. It left a ragged wound in my shoulder. I howled and lunged at him. He folded his wings around him; I grabbed onto a vein in one and snapped it. He roared and drew three deep gashes along my side with his claws, sending me to the ground. I landed badly, twisting a front paw. As I was getting to my feet, he kicked viciously me in the head. I felt the blood run out of my nose and mouth. I couldn’t see. He picked me up by the fur on my shoulders. His claws dug into my skin like flesh hooks. I was still spitting out blood and couldn’t cry with the pain.
He placed me on the ground, my head over a silver bowl. I vaguely realized the rest of the vampires had formed a circle. Devlin was standing in front of me. He said something, but I didn’t understand. I was coughing up blood into the bowl. The Patriarch was getting his way, as usual.
There was a pool of blood in the bowl, and I was severely feeling its loss in me. I held my injured paw off the ground, and the Patriarch had his foot on my back so I couldn’t completely stand up. I heard Dennis’s muffled whines and protests from somewhere. I didn’t understand why I wasn’t recovering faster from the fight. I wanted to throw him off, or just raise my head, but I felt too dizzy.
The Patriarch’s claws dug between my shoulder blades. My paw gave way and I fell to my chest, crushing my twisted paw under me. I cried, but it was barely audible. I felt myself getting weaker and weaker. My eyes were swimming; I could barely hear anymore. I felt sick.
I was drifting away into black oblivion when all at once the haze lifted, my senses returned, the weight disappeared from my back, and the pain in my shoulder dissolved. The only thing that remained was the dizziness, a result of a serious lack of blood. When I looked up, I saw it dripping from the Patriarch’s fangs. He had been feeding on me. He would have killed me, but for the interference.
Devlin lay dead in front of me, his face torn, a chunk missing from his ruff and throat. His killer was my father.
I only got a glimpse of the huge black wolf as he sprang at the Patriarch. My father was bigger than me, stronger, faster, and a better fighter. And right now he was furious.
He knocked the Patriarch backwards with the power of his spring. The vampire tripped on me and fell; my father ripped apart one of his wings in an effort to get to his throat. I sank my teeth into the Patriarch’s leg, but I let go in favor of Zared as the lesser vampire attacked from behind.
Zared had let Dennis fall, and the little werewolf was now busily aiding my mother in driving away the other vampires. More members of the Werewolf Council were arriving every minute. One of them lunged at Zared’s back and tore it, giving me the opportunity to go for his throat when he roared. And as he died, my father overcame the Patriarch.
The head of the Gravesend family died as infamously as so many others of his clan that night.
I ignored the weak feel in my head as I raised my head to meet my father’s eyes. “How did you know?” I asked, licking the bitter vampire blood from my lips and watching as he did the same.
He was a beautiful wolf. His thick fur was a rich, cold black, from his broad nose and powerful jaws to his long tail. His eyes burned bright with wisdom; his muscles bulged with power. When my mother came to stand by him, she presented a stark contrast. Her fine fur was a warm gray, except for her beautiful white ruff. Her head was long and elegant, and her delicate legs made her the fastest werewolf for miles.
“We were warned by a mermaid,” he replied, touching my mother’s nose to make sure she was all right. “I had no idea another creature of flesh and blood lived on these grounds.”
“Neither did I, until shortly,” I said, looking over at the Scaled One. She lay like a white rock in the moonlight. The ghosts had frozen her. She was relieved of her unhappy existence.
There was a moment of silence. Other Werewolf Council members walked among the vampire bodies, looking for jewelry and valuables to take away before the sun rose. My parents seemed to be waiting for an explanation, and I had just decided where to start when Dennis burst back onto the scene. He came tearing between my parents and me, violently shaking a ragged vampire wing in his teeth.
He gave it a few more good bites, then spit it out. “Hi Deirdre. That was so cool. I got a little one – man, they taste so bad. I love being a wolf. Can I stay here so I can stay one the whole time? They’ll go nuts if I look like this at the orphanage. Besides, there’s…”
“Deirdre!” my mother interrupted him joyfully. “You really should have told us!”
I looked at her, at Dennis, and then back to her. “This isn’t mine!”
“Am so!” Dennis retorted while she asked disappointedly, “It isn’t? Then where did it come from?”
Dennis took over my answer for me while I growled and seriously considered picking him up by the ruff, walking over to Ysgard and tossing him in.
“I am hers. She bit me, and now I’m a werewolf. It’s so cool. I don’t want to go back to the orphanage. Can you tell her she has to keep me here? I like this place. I can be a real good werewolf, and I get along just fine with the ghosts. She already showed me…”
“Dennis, shut up!” I roared, his jabbering adding to my dizziness.
“Deirdre!” my mother reprimanded me immediately. “That’s no way to treat a puppy. You need to be gentle and patient. You won’t believe how much patience it took to raise you.” She bowed her head and licked Dennis’s nose, and then his face, while he just sat there with such a smug little grin on his lips that I wanted to kick him up and go visit the Dungeons with him again, just to turn him back into the frightened little thing of before.
Instead, my father bumped me gently. He and I walked on ahead while my mother followed, pampering the ball of fur that had inevitably become her grandson.
“Devlin has proven himself unworthy of his race,” my father said, speaking in a low an serious voice. “He envied the material riches of the vampires, but he is a past threat. The Gravesend family has returned, though for now they are weak as they lack a Patriarch. One will rise, Deirdre, from this house. This place of your exile is now a place the Werewolf Council needs watched carefully. They proposed sending warriors, but you know the grounds better than any outsider. Your pact with Fen remains, despite the Gravesend interferences?”
“Will you accept the responsibility of staying here, keeping the Gravesend family contained and watching for the new Patriarch? When he comes, the Chronicles will repeat themselves another time. The world outside is forgetting, but between us the fight goes on.”
I thought about that for a while as we walked in silence toward the Manor. There was light in several windows.
My train of thought derailed when a high-pitched yelping raced past us. Dennis, his tail tucked between his legs, was flying as fast as his fuzzy little feet would carry him, fleeing the ghost of a stampeding horse.
I watched him run a circle, still yowling even though the specter had continued its century-old path into the woods. “I suppose there’s no better place to raise a pup.”