For the first few moments outside, it seemed as if I’d lost all my vision. But slowly as my eyes adjusted, I could actually see Brenden surprisingly well in the dark. His skin almost had a spooky silver glow all its own, which I felt made him an easy target for something that might want to eat him. I didn’t say that out loud, though, for his sake. And as we walked farther along, I felt as though the darkest dark became more vivid like this was how the Under Realm should be seen. Things were clearer and more vibrant at night than in the daytime, even in the mist. So strange.
“Listen,” Brenden said, stopping so we’d catch up. “Follow me. I saw a place we could hide for the night while you all were having tea with a monster.”
“I liked Mr. Payne,” Holly said.
“Hey, you missed out, sour-pants,” Francisco said. “Those brownies were awesome.”
“I would kindly ask that you refrain from referring to me as my dressing drawers and be quiet,” Brenden whispered. “There’s something scuttling about up ahead.”
He shrunk into the nearest bush. We followed hiding behind a large tree.
I heard a voice say, “I’m telling you, Ferbish, I sawr it. A fairy. Its skin was like a flash of moon, it was.”
Two winged creatures bobbled toward us. As they got closer, I noticed they looked like the gargoyles guarding Payne’s place. I had no idea if gargoyles were nice, but I didn’t want to find out. I stayed still as a stone.
The other creature laughed a high-pitched throaty sound. “Go on, Grigor. Fairies wouldn’t be within a hoot an’ a hickle from here. You’ve had too much of Plum Willie’s good ale.”
“Did not. I’m telling you…hold on…what’s that?”
“That’s ye large mole at the end of yer nose, ye globstroppet.” Ferbish, the one with the blue wings, took a poke at Grigor’s nose.
“Ow! That hurt.”
“Serves ye right, ye big baby,” Ferbish sniggered.
Then he stopped laughing. “Oh, wait a minute, Grigor, ye might be right.” The gargoyle flapped his wings and jumped into the bush where Brenden was hiding. He launched upward, holding Brenden by his scruff. “Lookie what I found?” The nasty gargoyle wiggled Brenden in the air.
“Not fair, Ferbish, I sawr him first.”
“If you don’t mind,” Brenden yelled, trying to pull the gargoyle’s hand off him, “Let me down.”
The gargoyles laughed. “Think fast!” Ferbish hurled Brenden over to the other gargoyle. Grigor flew up and caught him with one hand before Brenden could flutter away.
“Amazing, I am!” Grigor boasted.
I whispered to Francisco, “What should we do? We’ve got to help poor Brenden somehow.”
“Eh…he can take care of himself,” Francisco said, scratching his shoulder like he does when he’s nervous.
“But what if they try to eat him?” Holly asked, ominously.
“I haven’t heard them say anything about eating him,” Francisco said. “Looks like they just want to play.” He leaned in closer to me. “And besides, he had it coming.”
I felt bad. I had to think of a way to rescue him somehow. But I didn’t have anything to fight off two large, muscle bound gargoyles. I hoped Francisco was right and they weren’t going to do anything horrifying to Brenden.
“Tell you what,” Grigor said. “Let’s cut him in half. Then you can have your share and I’ll have mine.”
“No one is going to cut anyone in half,” Brenden said. “Now let me down.”
“You gots a knife, Ferbish?”
Ferbish hit Grigor on the head. “You know I don’t owns any knives.”
“Well, this is a pickle.”
I couldn’t take it any longer. If I was part witch, I had to start acting like one. Rolling out from the tree we were hiding behind, I hollered, “Hey, Thing One and Thing Two. Release him or die.”
“Look, Grigor, get a
load of her?”
“Yeah…it’s a little girl.”
“Aye…and she’s still in her shroud.”
Brenden waved me off. “Athena, get out of here. I have this matter in hand.”
I smirked. “Yeah, you look like it. They’re about to cut you in half.”
The two gargoyles snorted.
“Didn’t you hear me?” I yelled. Although they didn’t seem menacing, I had to pretend I was.
“Aye, lass, we heard,” Grigor said.
Ferbish giggled through his nose, sounding like a car sputtering. “Yeah, but we ain’t listening.” The two thought that was such a funny joke.
When they stopped laughing, Ferbish flew up to me and said, “Miss, it’s not nice to be in shroud after dark. People might get the wrong impression.”
“Yeah, like ye was trying to hide somefing,” Grigor agreed.
“Take it off,” Ferbish commanded. His beady eyes grew cold. “And we’ll give ye back yer little friend.”
I rolled backward as a knot formed in my stomach. I wasn’t feeling good like I was about to puke. “I…no…I can’t…”
Ferbish grabbed my leg. “If you’re not going to take it off, I will.”
Francisco burst out and leaped onto Ferbish, but it was too late.
Like a fingernail ripping off of a finger, Ferbish tore the shroud off my body. Fire erupted all over my skin and I fell out of my wheelchair, shaking and writhing in pain.
Holly ran over to me, and I screamed at her, “DON’T TOUCH ME!”
Fire thundered through my legs as though hot liquid was burning them into existence.
“Ahhh!” I shrieked. I’d never experienced stinging like this. It was as if a never-ending blaze had turned my skin to bubbling flesh. Darkness swallowed me. I had to escape the torment. I wanted to die.
I could hear Holly crying next to me. “Francisco, we need to do something!”
As an inferno burned through my body, rage welled inside me. It was like a caldron or volcano that needed to explode.
I rose up on legs I didn’t know existed, rising higher in the air, I roared. Flames erupted from my mouth. The gargoyle cried out, dropping Brenden.
But then a crushing weakness overpowered me as if I hadn’t eaten in weeks, and I collapsed. Tiny lights flickered before my eyes. My breathing was short and rapid like a dog panting.
Holly cried out, “Brenden, please help her! Is she dying?”
Brenden kneeled next to me. “I don’t know.” He thrust two of his fingers against my neck. “Her heart is weak. She needs help. We have to get back to Middle Realm somehow.”
“Awr…” said one of the gargoyles. “We didn’t means any harm.”
“Aye,” said the other. “We was just having a wee bit o’ fun.”
One of them smacked the other. “Why’d you go and take off her shroud? You know that’s not polite.”
“Ow! I wasn’t finking, okay? Nurse Mellecant can help her.”
“Aye, that. Come with us. Hurry.”
I want to thank Natalie Auditore for her explosion cc she made for this story. (There’s more to it as well that you’ll see in the coming chapters.)
Leading the charge, I rolled my wheelchair as fast as I could over the cobblestone street to Mr. Payne’s place. I kept looking back to see if we were being followed, but it seemed as if Gran hadn’t discovered I was missing.
Holly glanced around while we rushed down the street. “Is it going to rain? I can barely see ahead of me.”
The street lamps cast an ominous glow through the mist. I could see the old, Victorian style houses fairly clearly along the streets and jagged branches of black trees.
“Scotland gives me the creeps,” Francisco said beside me, looking up all around him. “It’s spring yet the trees haven’t even budded. And that’s the weirdest full moon I’ve ever seen.”
I glanced up ahead of me in the sky. The round, glowing orb that should have been the moon at night looked more like the sun on a REALLY foggy day.
Brenden didn’t stay behind as he’d threatened. He’d followed right along with us. “Oh, Great Guardian,” he implored, shaking his head.
“What have I been trying to explain to you simpletons? We. Are. In. The. UNDER REALM!”
“Save it for someone
who cares, dork,” Francisco retorted.
“Fine. Don’t listen to me, but when the sun sets, you all had better get indoors. Got it?”
“You mean it’s not night time?” I asked.
“No,” Brenden answered. “It’s about four thirty in the afternoon. The sun never really shines in the Under Realm, although you can see it. When it sets, everyone in this realm will take off their shrouds and come out to play and believe me, you don’t want to be from a different realm then.”
“We’re here!” I cried, pointing at the huge house looming ahead. “Now, all I have to do is ask Mr. Payne to call my parents and we’re saved.”
Brenden rolled his eyes.
“What’s wrong with that plan?”
Brenden crossed his arms.
“You can’t call the Over Realm here.”
I stopped at Mr.Payne’s mailbox, ignoring Brenden’s Under Realm ravings.
“See?” I pointed. “Just a normal, everyday, OVER REALM mailbox.”
“Lovely,” Brenden moaned.
“What’s wrong now?” I asked.
Francisco scratched his head. “Um…I hate to say it, Athena, but I think I’m agreeing with old sour-pants here. That’s not someplace I want to go.”
“Y-Yeah…” Holly’s already huge eyes had grown into full moons.
I didn’t understand until I saw the house. It was a typical Victorian style mansion much like most of the houses on the street except this one looked as if it had been converted from some sort of mill with strange pipes growing out its sides. And instead of a beautiful gazebo on the lawn, there were two menacing gargoyles almost growling at us.
“No…it’s okay,” I said, but getting very creepy vibes as we rolled up to the house. A shrill screechy squawk made me jump as something flew past. “I-I s-see what you mean,” I stammered, stopping my chair as we approached the doorsteps. “You sure don’t notice things like that when you’re a little kid.”
“Yeah, well, I’m outta here,” Francisco said.
He grabbed my wheelchair and pulled me back to spin me around when I heard a low haunting voice say, “Going somewhere?”
I let out a small squeak and Holly outright squealed.
But then I recognized him. All decked out in a three piece greenish gray, velvet suit, and tails, I knew exactly who he was.
“Hi, Mr. Payne. It’s me. Athena Martin. Remember me?”
His sunken eyes widened, “Athena, me lovely! My, how you’ve grown!” He waved warmly at me. “Have you paid a visit to your old friend, Payne, now? How’s your Gran? She hasn’t come over for tea in ages.”
He was about a head taller than Brenden. “Name’s Payne, but everyone always calls me Old Jack.” He winked at Holly, mischievously. “And who are yer friends?”
I smiled at the kind man. Mr. Payne had always been so nice in the past and even though Scotland may have looked a little strange, it was how I remembered. Friendly. Warm. Comforting.
“Mr. Payne, these are my friends, Francisco Romero and Holly Woodlace.”
Payne kissed Holly’s hand and said, “You aren’t related to the Woodlaces of Dreary Lane are you? You do have a bit of their gothic flair.” I hadn’t realized it, but yeah. Holly did seem to fit in around this neighborhood.
“Check out these dreads,” Holly pointed to Mr. Payne’s hair. “My mom would love all the cool stuff you’ve wrapped them in. What are those? Car parts?”
“Actually, that’s a bit of tubing from an electric pumpkin coach I’ve been building. Want to see it, lass?”
“Would I?” Holly asked, gleefully.
“Ahem, with all due respect.” Brenden flew in front of Mr. Payne to get his attention. “We’re on a tight schedule, so if you don’t mind, Athena has something to ask you.”
The man stepped back, scrunching up his face. “Good Guardian…Is that a…a…fairy?”
I shifted in my seat. I was avoiding mentioning Brenden. I had no idea how he was going to treat poor Mr. Payne when he’d treated me so badly. Since he thought we were in the Under Realm, he probably thought Mr. Payne was a goblin or something. But then I realized Mr. Payne knew exactly what Brenden was. A creepy shiver crawled along my neck, replacing what used to feel normal and homey. Maybe this really was the Under Realm.
“Um…yes, this is my friend, Brenden.” I motioned toward my used-to-be-fairy friend. I didn’t mean to sound sarcastic, but my feelings were still hurt. Brenden hadn’t apologized. “Just ignore him if he comes off rude.”
“Aye, lass, rude is all they know,” Payne said, raising his bushy eyebrows. “I need to talk with ye about with whom you should make friends. Fairies are not to be trusted, ye know.”
Glaring at Brenden, I said, “I’ve been beginning to find that out.”
Brenden winced a smile. “Um, yes, well, let’s be off then, shall we?” He looked behind us, nervously then motioned toward Payne’s house.
Payne bowed. “Where are me manners? Of course. You need to sit for tea, do ye? We can take it in me garden. Lodestone will attend us.”
Francisco rolled my chair down the crooked pathway, following Mr. Payne and Holly, chatting away about steam engines and pumpkins.
Brenden whispered next to me, “Athena, we don’t have time for tea. You must either ask Mr. Payne to help us or whisk us out of here yourself. We have approximately thirty-five minutes before the spooks reveal themselves, and I want to be in another dimension when that happens!”
My eyebrows knitted. I’d had enough of Brenden for one day. “Shh! Tea sounds good and you better not be rude to Mr. Payne or I’ll sic Francisco on you.”
“Yeah,” Francisco agreed.“I’ve been wanting to get him in a guillotine headlock. Fitting for this place, huh?”
At that, Brenden flew away then faced us as I glanced back. I saw a hurt look on his face.
He kicked a weed and whacked at the rot iron fence.
Hanging back, he surveyed the yard. I could tell he was scared a vampire might fly out at any moment. A little twinge of guilt rippled over me. I didn’t like fighting with him.
Inside, I knew Brenden cared even though my grandmother was a witch and that disgusted him. I mean, he was looking out for us. Although he hated being outside, he was making sure we were safe by keeping watch. A clammy shiver tingled down my back. I didn’t like the idea of creatures coming out at night either. If this wasn’t nighttime, I hated to see what this place looked like after sunset.
Our situation scrolled through my mind. If this was the Under Realm, how could I call my parents?
Brenden was right. I couldn’t.
And the more and more I saw of Mr. Payne’s yard, the more convinced I was that this wasn’t Scotland.
At the entrance of a small garden of unusual glowing grass and trees was an enormous plant with a huge, cow’s head at the top. I signaled to Francisco that I was going on ahead, and rolled up to the plant to get a better look when…
The plant lunged at me, taking a bite of air, nearly missing sinking its fangs in me by inches. I screamed and shot backwards.
Payne ran over and caressed the plant. “Now, Mordenia, you know these are me friends. Let’s not be a naughty pet today, okay, love?”
The plant growled as if it was a huge Rottweiler protecting its master. I wasn’t about to go past it. “Uh…maybe we should have tea inside instead.”
“Oh, higgledyfop.” Payne waved his arm. “She won’t bite you now that she knows we’re great pals.” He turned to the plant and cooed at it, ”Will you, dragonkins?” The plant trilled a purr.
“Now I’ve seen everything,” Francisco said, walking over to me. “You’ve got some weird relatives, Athena.”
“He’s not my relative.” But I had to agree with him. I was feeling stranger and stranger by the minute.
Holly bounced up to Mordenia and asked Payne, “May I?”
He bowed and said, “Of course. She loves to play. Go on. She won’t bite.”
Gingerly, Holly wiggled her fingers and said, “Who’s a sweet plant? Is that you, Mordy? Yes, it is! You want to play, huh?”
Mordenia huffed and whimpered which sounded almost like a laugh. She nodded that big cowhead of hers.
“Well, alright! Up you go, Mordy! Yes, that’s it!” Holly cooed.
The plant looked as if she perched on her hind…stalk…and panted, wagging her…uh…leaf.
Holly beamed. “Hey, guys! How cool is this? I just made friends with a plant!”
Payne ushered us underneath a giant, black tree to a quaint rot iron table with four chairs.
“This is the perfect setting for tea, don’t ye think?” he asked.
Taking out his cell phone, he tapped a button and a loud gong rang out.
Instantly, a mechanical butler, of sorts, rolled over to us with a full set of tea and brownies. “Thank ye kindly, Lode,” Payne said.
It clicked a few times then sputtered away to its position in the garden.
“So,” Payne said, grabbing his mug, “what brings you to our delightfully dark side of the world?”
I sipped the warm tea. It tasted like pumpkins and spice and something else I’d never tasted before but would like to eat everyday like mangos or chocolate or ice cream. “Mmm…this is good, Mr. Payne, thank you!” I sipped the warm deliciousness again then set it down and answered his question, “Well, I’m kind of in a little trouble, I guess.” I didn’t know what else to say. I mean, could I trust Mr. Payne or any Under-realmer for that matter? But what choice did I have? It was either trust him or go back to Gran. “Have you ever heard of the Shroud of Protection?”
Mr. Payne’s eyes held sadness. “Oy, yer not mixed up in that mess are ye, lass? I don’t care what ye heard.” His serious face leaned toward me and said, “Queen Casteen is off her crock. Don’t get muddled in her affairs. I said as much to your grandmother months ago. Not sure if she listened to me though.”
“Well, that’s just it,” I said. “I don’t understand everything, but if we don’t fix the shroud, your queen is going to war with all the realms.”
“Bloody houndstooth,” Payne roared. “Is that true, lass? Don’t surprise me none seeing as how that blood thirsty creature killed her way onto her pedestal in the first place.” He sipped his tea, staring far away. Pointing toward the front yard, he asked, “Is that your fairy now?”
And it was as if something hit him like a rock or a brick, and he flinched. Eyes wide, he covered his mouth and exclaimed, “Yer not the Wishcaster, are ye?”
“Not yet,” Francisco said with a little pride in his voice, filling his plate again for thirds of brownies. “But she’s gonna be.”
“That’s not true, Francisco,” I said. “I haven’t passed the Third Trial.”
I turned to Mr. Payne.“My grandmother kidnapped me as I was about to go. I don’t know what your queen wants with me, but I’ve got to get back. If I don’t…”
Payne shushed me, looking around nervously. “Great Guardian in heaven, don’t say anything more, lass. The queen has spies everywhere.” He hunkered down and whispered as if there were microphones hidden in the trees, “Most of us are peace-loving folk. I know many Over-realmers stick their fancy human noses up in the air and hate our kind, but we aren’t like her or her ilk and we don’t want no war.” He leaned in even closer, “If I help you, will you let those Over-realmers know we ain’t a bad lot? There’s a few rotten apples, sure, maybe more than usual.” Payne’s eyes grew misty and he put his hand on his heart. “But they don’t represent the majority who live and breathe and love here.”
I smiled at him, feeling unusually guilty for my own race’s prejudice. Well, my half-race. I guessed nasty witches and trolls and goblins got all the press in my world. My Gran wasn’t doing Under-realmers any favors either. “If I escape and I become this Wishcaster, I’ll do what I can to wipe out any prejudice in all the realms.” I glanced up, looking at Brenden, pacing by the front gate. He’d probably been raised to hate the Under Realm even worse than we had as Over-realmers.
As we finished talking, I noticed the sky had turned everything into a hue of deep reddish orange.
“Whoa,” Francisco whispered. “That’s the reddest sunset I’ve ever seen.”
“Amazing,” Holly said, jumping out of her seat and bounding over to the garden fence to get a better look away from the trees.
Holly looked back at me, blinking her eyes. “I never imagined it would be like this.”
Payne cleared his throat and bent over to me. “Miss Athena, you’d better get your fairy friend inside. Although I’m a wee bit liberal when it comes to fairies, most people around this neighborhood are not, and if they come upon one, well, there won’t be much left of him by morning.” He sighed. “Under-realmers have their prejudices, too.”
I asked Francisco if he could grab Brenden. It didn’t take any type of coaxing to get him inside. As it was, everything took on a crimson hue as the sun crept downward. It gave me the creeps like we were all bathed in blood.
Most of the house was styled like a rich, Victorian home with lots of beautiful velvet furnishings, large unique sculptures, and many paintings of families, important individuals, and weird animals that looked like antiquated robots. No hobgoblins. No people with missing heads. It was fairly normal so I didn’t get why Brenden was so creeped out.
I was beginning to feel tired with all I’d been through. Back home, I was sure it was bedtime. I yawned, so glad Francisco was sweet enough to push my chair for me.
Payne ushered us to his workspace. This was where he’d crafted his mechanical pumpkin. He told us he was an actor by trade, and that he’d performed amazing stunts for the neighborhood. This huge pumpkin carriage was going to be his biggest triumph.
I honestly didn’t see how this thing was so amazing. Yeah, it was big and looked pretty cool but I’d seen bigger and better stuff at our rinky dink pumpkin farm back home.
“Here,” he pointed to a large painting, “is my family. There’s me mum and dad and over here is me in adolescence with me two little sisters, Pickled and Prune and the next eldest Plummie and my little brother Sheldon. Don’t we look nice in our shrouds?”
He winked at me. “What I love about these paintings (I had them especially made by a talented witch two hundred years ago), is that once the sun sets, the shrouds come off.”
Instantly, the beautiful human looking family morphed into five hideous zombies, complete with blood dripping from their skeletal mouths.
“Wicked!” Holly squealed, inching her face closer to inspect the painting.
“S-So, you’re a zombie.” Francisco stepped a safe distance away from Payne.
“Worse,” Brenden whispered to us. “He’s an undead. It’s probably the most despicable race in the Under Realm. Oh, thank you, Athena, for imprisoning us here with your flesh-eating friend. Now if you don’t mind, use your magic and get us home!”
Although Payne talked as smooth as liquid chocolate, I was beginning to agree with Brenden. Something wasn’t right. I didn’t like the way Payne was leering at us as if we were a Halloween treat.
“Um…yeah, well, hey, Mr. Payne, i-it’s been so nice chatting with you and seeing your awesome home, but I think we’d better get back to Gran’s place. I’ll check back with you on the favor, okay?”
I hit Francisco in the side and motioned for him to grab Holly.
Payne arched an eyebrow. “Aw, lass, you can’t go now. It’s the witching hour. Time for our unveiling. I noticed yer wearing quite a thick shroud yourself and the sun is down. We Under-realmers must free ourselves. It’s only proper.” He stepped close to me, reaching for my knee. “Want me to help you take it off?”
I squealed, rolling myself backward from his touch. “Francisco…” I sang.
“On it.” Francisco grabbed my chair and waved at Payne. “It’s been real, Payne. Later!” And he hustled me toward the red door with the wooden floor creaking against my wheels. Brenden was blazing the trail ahead, muttering angrily to himself about bloodthirsty creatures and goblins and hangings and all sorts of dangers we were heading into.
I heard Payne callout, “Okay, be careful then! Take off yer shroud if you get into any trouble, lass!”
Francisco whipped my chair down the short steps and we fled into the darkest night I’d ever known.
I want to give a huge shout out and thank you to Rabooski for designing Mr. Payne’s Place. It’s the coolest steam punk house I’ve ever seen with TONS of surprises all in the house (which I didn’t get to show you here, but hopefully will in the next installment of this story (which is Part 2 which won’t happen for a while.) Download it here to gape at the fun splendor! STEAMPUNK HAUNTS