Interlude: Chasing Shadows

A young adventurer tests his mettle in a castle full of deadly secrets.

Joseph exploded through the heavy oak door. He spun around and made to heave it back shut. The monstrous entity trailing him had other ideas. One of its muscular green arms shot through the gap, a black-clawed hand gripping the edge of the door tightly.

“I don’t… want… to play!” Joseph shoved repeatedly against the door, making little progress. He reached into his brown leather vest and produced a gleaming dagger. He jabbed it into the bulging green hand and twisted the blade back and forth.

The monster on the other side of the door howled in pain and anger. It retracted the hand, nearly taking the dagger with it. Joseph hurled himself against the door once again. It slammed shut with a resounding boom. He smiled, turning the knob below the handle to lock it shut.

He stood back, breathing heavily. He nearly wiped the dagger on his clean white shirt, but caught himself. He opted to clean the black ichor from the blade on his ragged trousers, instead.

Joseph tucked the dagger back into his vest and turned around. This room was filled with rows of shelves covered top to bottom with glass beakers, vials, and bottles holding liquids of every color and description. Unidentifiable animals, freshly vivisected, were stretched across a bloody operating table. Their mutilated bodies occasionally lit in vivid blue by a nearby Jacob’s ladder electrical device.

He walked slowly, cautiously past the shelves and around the operating table. He shuddered as he passed the still-twitching bodies. A bloodied head turned towards the sound of his footsteps, single eye pleading for death. He quickly looked away, swallowing hard.

He suddenly lurched to one side. The glass ball that had caught his eye went shooting past his head. It smashed into a million pieces on the wall behind him. He spun around to see thick smoke rising from the spilled liquid from within. The acid hissed as it ate at the stone floor and wall.

The cackles of an unhinged mind rang out from somewhere beyond the rows of shelves. Joseph reached back into his vest and found the dagger. He looked it over. It suddenly looked very small to him. He held it out before him as he proceeded past the operating table.

He passed into a narrow aisle separating two sets of wooden shelves. The close quarters and limited freedom made him uneasy. So too did the various specimen jars he observed as he crept quietly along. Some of the specimens appeared to be staring back.

Joseph hesitantly stepped out into the open past the end of the wooden shelves. He paused suddenly, his heart skipping a beat. A sound, surely a foot dragging on the dusty stone floor, echoed loudly through the room. He held his breath and listened intently.

First there was a blur, then a great set of powerful hands thrusting into Joseph’s shoulders. The blow forced him backwards into the end of one of the wooden shelves. It shuddered violently. Some of the woeful specimens found their way to the floor, their glass cages shattering. He cried out in pain and surprise.

Joseph lifted his dagger, poised to strike out at his attacker. The other man, a crazy-eyed scientist with white, untamed hair struck the blade from his hand with an arm forged from steel. Joseph cried out and slunk to the side. The mad scientist’s unhinged laughter chased him across the laboratory.

The young adventurer scanned the room for any type of weapon. His hand found a length of steel pipe. He grinned devilishly as he turned it on the mad scientist. He struck out at the man, who easily smacked the pipe away with his steel arm.

The resulting clank rang in Joseph’s ears, the strike sending waves of pain down both arms. The scientist cackled quietly. Joseph swung again, causing the scientist to hop backwards with a small growl. The Jacob’s ladder hummed and crackled somewhere behind him.

A smile slipped across Joseph’s face, a plan blooming in the back of his mind. He swatted at the mad scientist again and again, backing up after each jarring impact. He at last found himself close enough to the Jacob’s ladder to smell the burning ozone lingering in the air.

Joseph brought the pipe crashing down right into the metallic hand of the crazed scientist. The maniacal creature smiled smugly as he ripped the pipe from Joseph’s hands. The man reacted in mock horror, stepping backwards towards the crackling Jacob’s ladder.

The mad scientist’s smile became a grimace as he swung the metal pipe straight at Joseph’s head. The young adventurer deftly ducked. The pipe crashed into the Jacob’s ladder, just as he had hoped it would.

Jagged blue-white arcs of energy surged into the pipe, up the scientist’s arm, and into his chest. The monstrous man jerked violently, smoke curling up around his wild white hair. The Jacob’s ladder gave one final, large jolt before failing completely.

The mad scientist continued to stare at Joseph, his body trembling. The pipe slipped from his grip and fell to the floor, causing an ear-splitting cacophony. The light left the scientists eyes. He collapsed.

Joseph kept his place and watched the body intently for several moments. Steeling himself, he slowly rose to his feet. He crept past the still-smoking scientist. The smell of burnt flesh twisted into the young man’s nostrils and held fast.

His footfalls became quicker, more sure as he strode towards the door. They halted suddenly as he spotted a writing desk. More to the point, he spotted the pair of crossed rapiers hung above the desk.

He stretched to reach the handle of the left one. He smiled as his fingers wrapped around the seasoned leather grip and pulled gently. The sword slid away from its fastening. He was heartened to see that the weapon was not merely ornamental.

He held the rapier to one side and continued through the door on the far side of the room. He climbed the jagged stone stairs with care. He craned his neck as he turned each corner, half-expecting someone — or something — to be waiting for him on the other side.

Joseph soon found himself standing before a large wooden door at the top of the stairwell. He braced himself and kicked the door open. The old hinges cried in protest at the rough treatment. The heavy door slammed into the wall on the other side with a deafening boom.

Then there was silence.

On the other side of the door was an ornate resting room. Multiple couches and chairs were arranged artfully throughout the chamber. Large book shelves lined the far wall. A small sampling of the estate’s manuscripts were placed on various coffee tables and side tables throughout the room.

First appearances would suggest that a book club had just adjourned, but the thick dust on everything attested to a sadder truth. It had been some time since the living had tread the ornate carpet before him. And yet, there was a feeling…

There, on one of the coffee tables. A book moved. He stared at it, unsure of what he saw. He walked towards the table. He stopped as the book in question slowly lifted itself into the air.

Joseph approached it with a sense of awe and deep distrust. He stretched his free hand towards the book. It suddenly dropped back onto the table. He jerked his hand back in surprise.

An eerie, feminine laugh floated to him from nowhere and everywhere. He warily stepped back from the coffee table. He jumped and winced as something bounced painfully off his back. The taunting laugh echoed throughout the room again.

He whirled around to face his attacker. There was none to be found, save for another book resting on the floor at his feet. Vague whispers caressed his ears. He swung back around, eyes darting from spot to spot, seeking out his tormentor.

More laughter greeted him. “Show yourself, foul creature!” The laughing abruptly stopped. Multiple books throughout the room lifted from their resting places. Joseph started inching backwards.

His fears were validated as one book after the other threw itself at him. He dodged some, slashed at others with his scavenged rapier. The laughter returned as he jumped and flailed.

The activity stopped as suddenly as it had started. The sound of a dozen books crashing onto wood and stone filled the air. He winced at the cacophony. Joseph held the rapier before him, prepared for further attack.

The air before him shimmered ever so slightly, like a mirage. He heard a feminine giggle. Something shoved into his chest, forcing him back a couple of steps. There was more laughter.

Joseph slowly turned around. He strained his eyes for any glimpse of his attacker. The air rippled beside him. Something jabbed into his ribs. More giggles. He growled in frustration.

He turned about once again. This time he strained to look out of the corner of his eyes. Back and forth. Left to right. His vigilance was rewarded. The air to his right glimmered.

He snapped his rapier up and jabbed it to the right. The blade found its way into solid flesh. An ear-piercing scream filled his ears. He turned about to find himself facing a ghastly pale young woman.

Her wide, black eyes stared through his soul. Her mouth worked, but produced no words or sound. Her head dipped, her body pulled backwards off of the sword. She disappeared from sight just before hitting the floor.

Joseph stared at the spot where the woman should have lain. His eyes shifted to the rapier. Its blade was clean, save for a barely disturbed layer of dust.

Awe gave way to determination. He strode through the grand door at the far end of the study. He found himself in a large room that gave way to a balcony overlooking the land behind the castle. It was very dark here, save for the occasional flash of purple-tinged lightning in the distance.

A pair of yellow eyes formed in the darkness. The body they were attached to stepped forward out of the shadows. A demonic form eight feet high stood before Joseph. Impossibly large muscles writhed and rippled under grayish white skin. A filthy brown cloth was the only thing that preserved the demon’s modesty, such as it was.

“Daganon, we meet at last.”

The mighty demon’s laughter boomed louder than the thunder that surrounded them. “I have been watching your journey closely, human. I must say, you’ve survived longer than I thought you would.”

“I’ll survive longer than you!” Joseph broke into a run, sword held back and at the ready. Daganon crossed his arms, a sly smile playing out across his lips. Joseph swung the sword with all his might, crying in fury.

The demon disappeared in a flash of yellow light. Joseph threw his weight backwards in a bid to stop his momentum. The balcony outside loomed as he dropped the sword and pinwheeled his arms. He stopped with one foot resting on the shallow balcony.

More booming laughter came from behind him. Joseph reeled around to see Daganon standing with his arms still crossed on the far side of the room. “Are you finished, adventurer?”

“Never.” In one fluid movement, Joseph produced and threw another dagger from his vest. Lightning glinted off the blade as it sailed towards its mark. Daganon never shifted.

Instead he watched, amused as the dagger passed uselessly through his body and stuck in the door behind him. He looked up and grinned at Joseph. “You cannot win.”

Realization washed over the young man. “You’re not even here.”

“You are correct. And I promise you… You will never find me. Give up, fool.”

Joseph gritted his teeth. “I will see you dead.”

“Perhaps… but not tonight.” Thunder crashed. Daganon disappeared in a flash of yellow light, replaced by a small colony of screeching bats. Joseph ducked as the flying rodents rumbled past him into the night.

The demon’s fading laugh rode upon their wings, then scattered into the chilling wind outside. Joseph stood and stared into night. He silently renewed his vow to see the demon destroyed.