Prison of the Mind: Part One
Abigail DuPont knew this was a bad idea.
The manor was centuries old, practically a relic of the Woods it was built in. The facts of its origin had long since faded, and yet, it was common knowledge who the manor belonged to. No one failed to recognize the moldy roof, painted a queer shade of blue. It rested on a building constructed of grey stone, with pillars and towers haphazardly jutting out of its sides. Those structures were what earned the manor the somewhat unfitting title of “castle”. But, crumbling more with every passing day, it was hardly a place of magnificence. Few ever dared set foot inside. The smart ones didn't. But every so often, a wandering fool might pass through its rotting doors hoping for shelter from the Haunted Wood, or perhaps for an adventure of sorts. Such fools never returned with their sanity, as was common knowledge.
Yes, common knowledge. Perhaps too common.
Abigail DuPont knew this. Atop a hill, gazing down at the once-great manor, she knew very well that this was ridiculous. Yes, utterly ridiculous—she shouldn't even be in the Haunted Woods, much less within a mile radius of this specific landmark. Clutching her notebook to her chest, she wanted almost nothing more than to turn her back to the manor and walk away, to walk away and never look back. But something kept her firmly rooted in place. What was it? Curiosity? No, she had never acted on such heady impulses before. That couldn't be it. Never.
“Can you see it from there?”
Abigail turned, her eyes skirting over the approaching figure. A scarecrowish Bori trudged up the hill to meet her, his large trench coat flapping in the wind. The sight of him was both assuring and unsettling, a mixture of reactions that confused her.
It took the white Aisha a moment to find her voice. “It's just down this hill.”
The man stopped next to her, hands shoved deep in his pockets. He craned his brown neck, peering down at the manor and its many oddities. “Not much of a castle anymore, is it? The weather damage is probably more frightening than any ghost in there.”
Abigail felt inclined to disagree. She couldn't quite work out how the Bori was able to stay so nonchalant about the danger they were about to be in. True, he was probably used to this, and did have height on his side. He was over a head taller than the petite Aisha and slightly intimidating because of it. What were more fearsome were the unsavory rumors that were often circulated around him. All the same, Abigail knew he was good at his job, and it was because of this that she trusted him. But only just.
“I-I do hope you realize the importance of this, Mr. Mason,” she stammered uncomfortably.
“Just Alphonse will do.” A small grin passed over his face. “I'm sure I've dealt with worse than this. No need to fret, Miss DuPont—I plan on walking away from this with all of my extremities.”
Abigail wondered if she should be at all worried about her own extremities.
“Oh, and pardon me for prying,” he added as they began half-walking, half-stumbling down the hill, “but why would someone such as yourself want to pay a visit to one of the most feared ghosts in the Haunted Woods? I find it peculiar, coming from a young woman. You haven't told me much.”
Abigail bit her lip, trying to keep fistfuls of her caramel hair from being tossed in the wind. “Erm... about two months ago, I started looking into Eliv Thade's past,” she lied. “Everyone knows about him, but the story's so old, and I...”
“Couldn't help but wonder if there was more to it?”
The Aisha nodded. “I'm a reporter for the Times, and I mean to get the details on his past, but...”
She paused. Alphonse caught a glance of her anxious expression before she was able to falsely compose herself. The Bori gave her a sympathetic look. “But it was a ridiculous idea? It's one you're passionate about, at any rate. You must really want to know if you've come this far.”
“I-I said I'd write a report on him, those two months back, but since I haven't the information, there was no report, and-”
“And no paycheck. Say no more! Every man grows desperate when he isn't able to put food on the table. You'll get that information, though. You have my word.” Alphonse smiled. “We bodyguards need our paychecks too, you know.”
The weather damage was, indeed, something to be frightened of. Inside, the castle of Eliv Thade seemed no more stable than a neglected shack. Through decades of spills from a leaky roof and ages gone without dusting, a peasant's household would be more appealing. The furniture had rotted through, as were the beams up in the rafters, still damp from a recent shower. Thick, tangled, trailing cobwebs clung to anything they could latch themselves to, and layers of filth and mold had settled on every surface. Abigail had sneezed several times upon entering, the dust irritating her allergies. Eyes watering, she peered about the lobby, her eyebrows furrowing at the significant decay.
Alphonse delicately shut the double doors to keep out the wind. Taking a musty box of matches from his many pockets, he lit huge, dormant candles that were placed about the room. The slivers of firelight quivered in the chill of the evening, casting long shadows on the corroding walls. Abigail noticed some of the finer details of the room, such as the tattered curtains swaying in her peripheral vision and the number of books on the shelves.
The Aisha shivered, rubbing her arms and pulling her jacket closer to her body. It didn't help much, simply because she had other reasons for shivering. Actually being in the house where Eliv Thade lived... it was amazing and terrifying all at once. Abigail felt more of the latter, however. No one could have lived here for years, and yet it was painfully obvious that this place had once been called home to someone. On the nightstands next to the soiled chairs were books, books she recognized. In another day and age, perhaps Eliv had sat in one of those chairs, reading the same books she had. Abigail wasn't sure if she found this comforting or disturbing.
To take her mind off of the subject, she turned to her bodyguard. “Mr. Mas-oh, um, I mean, Alphonse...what is it you do, exactly?”
“That,” the Bori replied, “is an excellent question. A bit of everything, I suppose, as long as they all have one thing in common.”
“And that is...?”
He grinned. “Ghosts. Specters. Spirits. Ghouls. Shades. Spooks. Phantoms. Wraiths. That sort of thing. Fascinating subject, it is.”
Abigail found it hardly as fascinating as it was dreadful. “But what sort of things do they involve?”
“Oh, lots of things. I've worked as a guide, a bodyguard, a teacher, an observer, a hunter, and a few other things you probably wouldn't want to poke your little nose into. Keeps you busy, I s'pose.”
“Well, then,” the Aisha said, trying to find the right word. “It's good to know you're... experienced.”
“This place could use some fixing up,” Alphonse mused, rubbing his chin. "If there wasn't a deceased puzzle master living here, it could be quite fetching, with some repairs."
Abigail nodded. “I don't like the Haunted Woods, but I wouldn't mind living here, under those circumstances.”
“Indeed... well, then,” the Bori prompted, clapping his hands together, “let's find ourselves a ghost, shall we? You'll have to keep close to me. There's no telling what's in here, and even without the aspect of being haunted, this place is still dangerous.”
She didn't need telling twice, having originally planned to do just that. Slipping her notebook into her purse and drawing near Alphonse, the Aisha prepared herself for the worst, in which she imagined them both dying gruesome deaths or growing permanently insane. She didn't know how to prepare for either of these things, and so she merely kept herself alert. A small nagging tugged at the corners of her thoughts. Had Eliv Thade heard Alphonse's quips? Did he know of their presence in his home? Her worries were soon justified, painfully so.
A booming voice resounded through the manor, deep, sinister tones ringing in her ears and making her quiver. "Eacr rof a mage?"
"Shh." Alphonse slowly brought a finger to his lips. "It's him."
Amidst the wave of terror that seemed to sweep clean across the manor, Abigail thought she heard the Bori chuckle, a sort of mad delight creeping into his tone. Throwing out his arms and grinning excitedly, he called out, “My deepest apologies, old Thade, but we're here for no game.”
He's used to this, she thought, so I should have no reason to worry. But the wild, unhinged glint in Alphonse's eyes worried her very much. And the idea of her only protection against a dangerous ghost being insane as well only gave her all the more cause for worry. “D-Do you mean to provoke him?” she stuttered, flustered and terrified.
“If my hypothesis is correct,” he replied quietly, “then it's not really Eliv that I'm provoking. Just keep quiet and follow me. You might want to shut your eyes.”
It was an unsettling suggestion, but he didn't pause to explain. Alphonse walked forward, his stride steady and cautious as he entered the tunnel-like arch leading out of the lobby. Darkness settled over them, the candlelit lobby growing further away and heightening the Aisha's fear. Just when the darkness had eaten away at most of her vision, however, something caught her eye.
Abigail jumped, eyes wide with surprise as she gazed upon the walls. Letters, letters of all sorts were scrawled on their surfaces, skittering and swimming beneath the wood. Lines and lines of glowing bloodred script, arranging and rearranging themselves to form countless un-words, just fragments of what could be.
"Eyes away from the wall," Alphonse warned. "I told you you might want to keep them shut. He's trying to get you to play his game."
Abigail knew she couldn't have her eyes closed and still be alert to all that happened around her. Even with an able bodyguard, she needed sight to feel safe. It wasn't hard to see where Alphonse was coming from, however. She found it increasingly difficult to tear her eyes away from the dizzying display, her mind aching to get one more look, to create one more perfect, satisfying word.
The Bori turned the corner, his client not far behind. Two intersecting halls met where they stood, letters swarming their walls by the thousands. Alphonse ignored them entirely, staring straight ahead as he pressed on down one of the halls. The Aisha followed, raising her hands to the sides of her face to block out the sight of the frantic writing, keeping her eyes trained on the back of Alphonse's coat.
When they reached another intersection, Alphonse paused and stiffened, his eyes flickering to the left. “There,” he whispered. “He's in the parlor.” As he turned the corner, Abigail saw him slowly take a bottle of greenish liquid from one of his pockets.
Entering the parlor, the Bori's face broke into a wide grin, which was the exact opposite of his client's shocked expression.
In the moonlight pouring from a nearby window stood Eliv Thade, in all of his macabre beauty. A Kacheek who seemed to have died in his mid-thirties, he was abnormally short, even for his kind. His olive fur was straggly, his once-handsome mauve suit worn to rags. Soiled bandages were wrapped around his limbs, stained and fetid. By far the worst of his appearance was his face. Or, rather, it wasn't his face. Half of his features didn't seem to belong to any sort of species known to the world, stitched haphazardly into his skin. His devil's eye glowed red in the dim light, the same hue of the letters that still skimmed over the walls. The other eye, while more Kacheek-like, was closed. Eliv grinned, wide and horrible, to his welcomed guests.
And he was hideous. Abigail trembled, taking a few steps back in fear. Alphonse, however, seemed more than happy to see Thade. “You're a gorgeous specimen, you know that?” he said giddily. “A fine ghost among ghouls. Now that I've gotten a good look at you, I can see just how intricate you are. This is fantastic!”
The specter's body shifted as it bared its crooked teeth, its eye flashing with a feral rage. Eliv suddenly lunged at the Bori, a flurry of fur and claws and teeth. Alphonse seemed to be expecting this, and with one quick movement, he had the ghost by the neck. It spat and squirmed, but his grip was strong.
“Well, would you look at that,” he muttered to himself. “You're no ghost. Blimey, I've run into the living dead. Oh, but you're no zombie, are you? No, but you've got a spirit in you nonetheless. I s'pose a zombie does make things more interesting...”
"Ied eehr!" the creature hissed with a wicked scowl.
Alphonse raised the bottle of liquid from his pocket. At the sight of it, Eliv jerked and twisted, sinking its teeth into the Bori's hand. He recoiled with a loud curse and glowered at the monster. Quickly shaking off the pain, he aimed a punch, his fist connecting with Eliv's skull. The zombie reeled back and stumbled onto a sofa where Alphonse soon had him pinned. Like a frenzied doglefox having to take its medicine, Eliv struggled against the Bori's grip to no avail. Alphonse had popped the bottle open with his teeth, forcing down the liquid to the best of his abilities.
Luckily, enough of the potion had entered the zombie's system, and within minutes, its movements began to slow considerably. A few moments later, it had gone into an unconscious state, slumping over on the sofa.
“W-What did you do to him?” Abigail asked shakily, her voice cracking.
“It's a bit difficult to explain.” Alphonse kept his eyes on the motionless figure, wiping his hands on his coat and steadying his breathing. “It sedates a certain area of his mind and, well, he should be able to explain here in a moment. Come sit down. Don't be scared—he can't hurt anyone now, and I doubt he'd want to.”
Abigail was hesitant to sit next to something so vulgar, something with the potential to kill her in a heartbeat. “Are you positive?”
Alphonse nodded with a small, reassuring smile. The Aisha sat down next to him, looking nervously to Thade's limp body across from them. She took her notebook out of her purse and laid it on her lap, readying her pen. And then they began to wait.
To be continued...