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It was a dark and stormy night….
But that’s skipping ahead. The day had actually been quite pleasant. The Wilder family’s station wagon was parked on the side of the road, and Howard took a knee by the passenger-side wheel. “Yep,” he said. “Definitely a flat.”
“Howard, we’re in the middle of nowhere,” his wife Donna said, leaning her head out the window.
“Forget that,” said Jane, their youngest daughter, who leaned against the hood of the car on the driver’s side. “If we were in the middle, at least we’d have some idea where we are.” Typical teenage attitude. Howard told himself that he’d become jaded to it, but the girl had just turned eighteen, and the sass had been cranked up to eleven.
“Oh, now, don’t you worry about a thing,” he said. “In fact, I brought along a full-size spare. You never know, on trips like this. Hon, why don’t you take the kids and go set up the picnic here while I get this fixed. Should only be a moment.”
“A picnic? Here?” Jane asked.
“Sure!” Howard said. “Why not? I mean look at the view!” He stood and gestured widely to the expanse of lush forest stretching to the horizon.
Donna gazed out into the forest and noticed a sapphire blue glimmer. “And maybe we can find a way down to that lake and go swimming later.”
Jane looked out on the same expanse. She knew her parents were former ‘flower children,’ whatever that meant, but she had serious concerns that they might still be a bit off. When she looked out over the landscape, all she saw was a mass of snarled trees, burned like matchsticks. The lake her mother mentioned, opaque and greenish-brown, had more in common with a pustulant boil than a pristine swimming hole. “Yeah,” she said. “It’s… uh… super.” She walked off to join her siblings, who had gathered at the edge of what turned out to be a witheringly steep incline. She had never been good with heights, and looking down made her stomach turn.
“Are we stopping?” asked her brother, Dan, who had developed a weird zen-like personality that shielded him from the kind of breathtaking weirdness involved in having two sisters. His calm demeanor was reflected in his loose-fitting, natural colored clothes. His hair wasn’t overly long, and was actually the kind of bed-head look that Jane liked on boys, but it was less a style and more a staunch refusal to comb it with anything but his fingers.
“Uh huh,” Jane said.
“Here?” Tina, her older sister asked. Tina was, for a lack of a better description, mousy. To Jane, the rebel sibling, her older sister was the quintessential bookworm. Thin and with long legs and arms, she could be cast as a librarian in a sitcom, and, in fact, had taken a job at her college’s library the day she had set foot on campus. She had nice, slightly wavy brown hair, but she never did anything interesting with it. Granted, Jane’s idea of interesting involved dying her own hair candy-apple red, which drove their mother mad.
To the older girl, Jane had always seemed so at ease in her own body. She never was particularly athletic in any organized sense, but throughout their childhood, Tina regularly glimpsed her climbing a tree or fence, usually on the way to cause trouble somewhere. While Tina hid her thin figure under baggy sweaters and jeans or long, flowing skirts, Jane wore dangerously short cut-offs and a t-shirt that, while not skin tight, made the most of her young curves. Too many times for comfort, Tina had caught herself tracing the younger girl’s round edges with her eyes. There was something about the girl’s overt sexuality that gave the older sister a funny feeling in her belly, but she dismissed it as jealousy. “We’re going to eat here?” Tina asked.
“So you see it, too?” Jane said.
“It’s a wasteland,” Dan said.
“Like out of a book,” Tina said.
“I know,” Jane said. “Dad seemed to think it looks like paradise.”
“Well,” Dan said, “just try not to bring it up, ok?”
“Please?” Tina said. “We’re on vacation. Can we not fight? I just want everyone to be happy.”
“Fine,” Jane said. “But as soon as we get home, I’m asking them what they’re on.”
“Who’s on what?” Donna said, walking up behind them with the picnic basket.
“Uh…” Tina said, trying to cover for her sister.
“What road we’re on,” Jane said seamlessly.
“Oh,” Donna said. “The same one we’ve been on for the last few hours, I suppose. Why?”
“No reason,” Jane said. “Just wondering where we actually are.”
“I’m sure your father has it all on the map.”
“Nice view, huh?” asked Dan.
“Sure is!” their mother said. Dan gave his sisters a knowing look, but then shrugged it off. As Howard replaced the car tire, the rest of the Wilder family spread out the blanket and drew their picnic out of the wicker basket Donna had brought. Jane began to dig in, but her mother stopped her. “Wait for your father, Jane.”
For a second, mother and daughter locked eyes, and Tina felt her heart begin to race, but then Jane said, “Fine,” and leaned back on her elbows and looked out into the smoking wasteland. Tina felt a wave of relief hit her. As much as he hated the friction between her little sister and their parents, she secretly admired the girl and her blazing, bahis firmaları demonically red hair. Jane may have been a constant source of bad noise in their house, but Tina wished that she herself had the willpower to break out of her shell.
Dan, on the other hand, thought the whole dynamic was humorous, and took pleasure every day in witnessing the fallout from whatever misadventure Jane had embarked on. He never wasted a moment worrying about his little sister, though. Whatever happened, however many times her plans crashed and burned, he had the sense that she would somehow stagger away from the wreckage a little singed, but none the worse for wear. What did worry him at this very moment was his parents inability to recognize the hell pit that sprawled below them—or, even more discouragingly, the distinct possibility that it was he and his sisters who were unable to recognize what they saw.
When Howard finally joined his family, he found them sitting silently, all looking out over the picture perfect landscape. He knew Jane was a city girl through and through, and figured her sassiness was just her way of expressing her displeasure with having to brave the outdoors for a week during her summer vacation. Dan and Tina seemed unhappy, too, which bothered him. Typically, Tina would be off cataloging flora and fauna with a pencil and notebook, and Dan would be out scouting with the bowie knife Howard’s grandfather had given him when he’d entered the Scouts. Perhaps scouting wasn’t the best term for his son’s hikes. A year ago, the boy’s personality had shifted. Initially, Howard had attributed this to the death of Howard’s father, the man who had been Dan’s mentor, but there was something about the change that didn’t fit—something Howard couldn’t put a finger on. On his solitary walks, Dan would wander the wilderness with the knife unsheathed, but calm, like some sort of warrior monk. Although it was certainly odd, at least the interest was still there. But not today. None of the kids seemed interested at all in the natural beauty spread out before them. Thankfully, the longer he looked out onto the expanse, the less he seemed to mind.
Jane finally dug into the pile of sandwiches, calming her grumbling stomach. Nothing, however, could calm her mind. The feeling was an itch she couldn’t scratch, and she saw the same expression of anxiety and dread on the faces of her siblings. And the longer she sat looking out into the festering wasteland, the more she wanted to leave and never, ever come back. To this effect, she ate as much as she could, as quickly as she could, noticing that Dan and Tina were doing the same.
In no time, it seemed that they had eaten everything, and despite their parents’ protestations, packed up the picnic and returned to the car. “Well, that was a quick meal!” Howard said. “Everybody ready to hit the road?”
“Absolutely!” Tina said before Jane could say anything cutting. But it soon dawned on her that she couldn’t remember why they were on the road in the first place. As the car pulled off the shoulder and began again down the winding road through increasingly blackened trees, Tina leaned over to her brother and sister, and whispered, “Where are we going again?”
“You can’t remember, either?” Dan asked. Tina shook her head.
Jane also made a gesture of agreement. “It’s getting worse, too, the farther we go,” she said. Her siblings nodded. It was certainly getting harder to concentrate on anything but the feeling of unease in the pit of her stomach.
“We need to turn back.” Tina leaned forward to address their parents.
“Oh, dear,” Donna said. “Did you leave something at the last stop?”
“No. I mean we need to go home.”
“Why’s that, sweetie?” Howard asked, not taking his eyes off the road.
“I…” Tina stopped. “I… uh….” Her siblings looked at her with concern. “I can’t remember.”
“Oh,” their father chuckled. “Well, it’s probably nothing. If it was important, I’m certain you’d remember.”
Tina sat back in her seat, defeated. “What the hell’s wrong with you?” Jane said.
“I don’t know,” Tina said. “I tried to… say, you know… but I couldn’t—can’t.”
Jane punched her in the arm. “Get a grip!” she whispered. “All you had to say was that you… did… something.” She put a hand to her lips. “Oh, my god. I can’t either. I can think about… you know…” she gritted her teeth “… about turning around… away from this place.” She panted and gasped for breath. It had taken all her effort to force the words out.
“Something’s trying to stop you from saying anything,” Dan said at normal volume.
“Shh!” Tina said.
“What, are you worried that they’ll think you’re crazy?” her brother said. Tina nodded. “I don’t think you have to worry about that for the moment.” He clicked his fingers next to their mother’s ear. Nothing. Howard and Donna stared forward, completely oblivious.
“Oh, god,” Tina squeaked. “What’s going on? What is this?”
“Calm down,” Jane snapped. “You’re not helping.”
“What she means,” Dan said, “is that there’s clearly nothing any of us can do right now. Whatever this is, it’s taking us farther into the forest. All we can do is remain calm and keep control of our minds.”
“Just kaçak iddaa sit here and do nothing?” Jane said. “Fuck that.”
“That’s exactly what I mean,” her brother said calmly. “Did you notice how peaceful they seemed to think all this was.” He nodded toward the mesmerized adults in the front seats. “They eased right into it, let it take over.”
“The same might apply to us,” Tina said. “I felt afraid the moment I saw the wasteland. We give into that, and it gets us the same way.”
“Well, I’m not afraid,” Jane said.
“Maybe not,” her brother said. “But whatever it is that’s been gnawing at you, whatever seems easy right now, is what you need to not do.”
Jane opened her mouth to retort, but then shut it again. He was right. She was afraid, but doubted she was afraid in the same way her brother and sister were. She needed to take her own advice and get a grip. “Ok, so what now?”
“I guess we could keep a look out for anything that might give us clues about where we are or where we’re going,” Tina said, digging out her notebook.
“You’re gonna make a field journal?” Jane asked.
“Sure,” her sister said. “Why not? You see anything of note, let me know, and I’ll write it down. When we get wherever we’re going, we’re going to need to know as much about this place as possible. If we forget anything…”
“We’ll have a guidebook or even a map,” Dan said. “Good thinking.”
As they bumped down the road, Dan kept track of their direction and speed, scribbling a crude little map on the inside cover of the notebook, while Tina took notes. Every so often, the younger siblings would point out landmarks, and Tina would jot them down. Soon, the matchstick-like trees gave way to gnarled, more sinister flora, equally as blackened, but more expansive to the point out where the trees seemed to be reaching out for them with sharp, bony fingers. Jane pointed out the window at what they could only describe as a giant spider. It had something large cocooned in ropy spider silk, but the car zipped past before they could get a proper look. “Giant spiders?” Tina pulled her hands out of the sleeves of her oversize sweater and rubbed her face. “What’d we get sucked into someone’s D&D?” Dan snickered, glad for the brief moment of levity.
“Eh?” Jane said.
“It’s a game,” Tina said. “You know: swords and sorcery, might and magic?”
“Oh. How do people usually do giant spiders?” The car went silent again. “That bad, huh?”
“Not really, but usually your characters are magical or are, you know, armed,” Dan said, suddenly wishing he hadn’t left his knife in his luggage.
“So I should learn some magic,” Jane said dryly.
Tina held up a finger. “Well, actually, giant spiders are resistant to magic, so—”
Jane interrupted with a sigh. “Just forget I asked, ok?”
Gradually, the car began to bump as the paved road gave way to a dirt and gravel drive. Up ahead, the siblings saw an end to the menacing archway of trees. Tina took in a deep breath to calm her nerves. When the car cleared the trees, their spirits sank. A house stood up ahead, but as they drew closer they realized it was less a house than a mansion, looming large and dark, leafless brambles scaling its eerily smooth stone walls as if the it were almost a natural feature of the woods.
“Oh, come on!” Jane complained as her father pulled the car to a stop in front. “That’s obviously a haunted castle!”
“Right?” Dan said, sketching the main features as well and quickly as he could.
“This is wrong,” Tina said. “Wrong, wrong, wrong.”
“Oh, now kids,” their father spoke for the first time in what seemed like hours. “I know this hasn’t been ideal, but just look at this place!” He spread his arms out as if the grand beauty of the place was some grand chateau.
“Yeah, Tina,” Jane smirked, slipping on a sweatshirt to battle the chill coming from the creepy forest. “Just look at it.” Tina just shook her head.
“Uh, someone’s coming out,” Dan said, noticing the great, iron doors creak open.
“Oh, good!” Donna said. “It must be the valet.”
To the siblings’ surprise, the man who strode out to greet them was no caped dracula or monosyllabic monster butler, but a man of indeterminate age with a sharply angular, clean-cut face and dressed in an immaculate, black three-piece suit. “Greetings!” he said in a voice that sounded of honey, brandy, and a warm hearth, with a significant upper-crust cadence. But what else was to be expected from someone living in such an estate? Jane saw her brother take a small step back.
“How do you do?” their father greeted the man, shaking his hand.
“Well. Thank you,” the man said. “And you, madame?”
“Very well, thank you for asking,” Donna said, and the man took her hand and placed a gentlemanly kiss on her fingers.
“Charmed,” the man said. Howard turned to unlock the trunk of the car, but the man protested. “Oh, sir. You needn’t bother. I will have the servants take the car around to garage and bring your luggage to your rooms.” He raised his forearm effetely and snapped his fingers. Instantly, a man in a tuxedo materialized from within the house.
As he approached, Tina noticed that this second man, bald and slim, kaçak bahis wore a mask, plain and white, with just a hint of gloss. “That’s certainly odd,” she said, futilely hoping that her parents would notice and snap out of whatever trance they seemed to be in.
“Ah, indeed,” the man said. “An ancient tradition, actually, from the old country.”
“What country is that, exactly?” Jane asked.
“I apologize,” Donna said to the man. “Kids today….”
“Oh!” the man dismissed the apology with a wave of his long, slender fingers. “No need to apologize, my dear. Natural curiosity and skepticism is a mark of the young. Indeed, it may be what keeps the human race going.”
Howard gave his daughters a look that told them to be silent. “You’re too kind, mister…”
“Magister d’X,” the man said, pronouncing his name ‘deex.’ “Master of Chateau d’X, at your service.”
“My!” Donna said, holding a hand to her heart. “I didn’t expect such a regal reception.”
“Nonsense,” the man said. “We receive guests rarely, and it is only proper to make sure they feel welcome.”
The servant approached, performed a half bow, and without a word held out a white-gloved hand. Howard placed the car keys in the man’s palm. Without a moment’s delay, the servant climbed behind the wheel of the car and drove away, circling behind the mansion. Monsieur D’X turned gracefully toward the chateau, and Howard and Donna followed. The siblings paused a moment and then Tina, looking over her shoulder and remembering the giant spiders, made the first step. Dan shoved his hands in his pockets and went next. Jane tucked her candy-apple red hair behind her ear and let her eyes drift upward, taking in the castle. She felt eyes on her and searched the windows, but found no one watching. Turning on her heel, she faced the forest and caught only the gnarled trees looming darkly. Walking backward toward the house, she scanned the tree line, but still found nothing. Turning again, she jogged to catch up with her brother.
The inside of the castle was not what Jane had expected. Oak, mahogany and ebony, smooth and polished to an almost metallic sheen, greeted them at every turn—and there were a lot of them. By the time they had passed through the foyer, the main atrium, and into the guest wing, Dan had completely lost track of their path. It certainly wasn’t the most conventional layout. He tried reversing their progress in his head, but couldn’t seem to draw a mental map. He could go for walks in miles of unexplored forest without a map and find his way back to camp, but he doubted he could find the front door to this house. He knew something was still affecting his memory, but even this worried him. He looked forward and noticed that his sister was not looking for the exit, but at the servants, all identical to the first, and who seemed present in every room, waiting upon the whim of their master.
Tina was indeed curious about these masked figures. Some appeared to be awaiting instructions, and others were going about typical kitchen and cleaning duties. Yet there were a few who simply stood like statues, and almost always in front of doors. Her better judgment told her not to ask what lay beyond, so she filed the questions away for later.
Jane found something off-putting about the atmosphere inside the house. At first, there was a general disappointment that the mansion wasn’t nearly as spooky or scary as she’d expected it to be. The servants were weird and the inability to remember the way back to the front door was disconcerting, but given everything else about the place and its surroundings, none of that was surprising. What drew her attention was the lighting. Chandeliers and wall fixtures glowed with electric consistency, but nowhere could she find evidence of wiring or switches. There were no power lines outside, so the question became, what lit the castle?
Eventually, the magister led them to a hallway with one solid wooden door on either side and one at the end. “We each get our own room?” Jane asked, momentarily forgetting that she was in a spooky castle.
“It would simply not do to crowd our guests. However,” he added, “there are only three rooms available. You and your sister can share a room, I trust?” Jane shrugged. “Then, never let it be said that the Master of Chateau d’X was anything less than generous.” He opened the first door. Inside, a hearth, already lit, cast a golden glow onto the two giant suits of armor that flanked the door. The massive bed was seemingly made of onyx, but there was something odd about it, as none of the light from the hearth seemed to reflect off of its polished surfaces. A large blue carpet with gold embroidery and tassels lay across the floor. The bed sat betwixt bookshelves that reached all the way to the ceiling, to the edge of each wall, and to the edge of the hearth. Ladders on wheels ran on tracks, allowing easy access to every book in the room. Tina let out a squeaking breath and stepped in. Dan grabbed the sleeve of her sweater, and when she turned he gave her a concerned eye. “Quite right, young master,” d’X said, having observed the silent exchange. “Why don’t we view our other accommodations?” A servant appeared as if out of the ether, and d’X instructed the masked figure, “Please bring the young lady’s belongings to this room. Fresh candles, as well. I suspect she prefers to while away her late nights immersed in books, given her excitement.” The servant bowed and departed.
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