The Dim Realm, Volume II: Book Two of The Resurrection Tower
Kara Kinfolk, Tal Stormgren and their companions find themselves in the midst of murder, disappearances, and an ancient cult bent on destruction as they battle an evil that holds unyielding power over the small town of Arrow's Flight - a dark house that hungers, a monster that wants as much as any mortal, and it will do anything to prevent anyone from entering or leaving town.
The Dark House (sample chapter)
A child's laughter fluttered within the creak of a floorboard. It echoed around them in the dark house. Kara Kinfolk heard it, would never forget it.
Come play the imagination game, it whispered.
The room waiting on the other side of the Boarding House portal was murky but wide open. In a lot of ways, it reminded Kara of being inside the garrison of Hangman's Hill. The reverse side. Old wood, brick and mortar, with the occasional bench, table or chair. But there the similarities came to an end. These chairs and benches were knocked over, littered about, sometimes broken, always forgotten. All the windows were boarded over. What light came through them, if it had ever come from the sunlit world, it had taken a long, outlandish journey to get here, and gotten sick along the way. What smells existed were stale and unidentifiable.
...play with me, Kara. I do the Seeing. See with me what is Outside of everything...
The dark house itself was speaking to her, and only to her. For not the last time, Kara wondered what this thing really was, or were all haunted houses entities that somehow felt, dreamed and committed murder?
"So you've finally found me here awake," Kara whispered. "But I did not come alone. I was warned not to."
...they do not matter. None of them matter. Let the Master and his assorted Eyes sort the waking. You and I, we only wish to sow the dreams. We should hate no longer...
...we should be...
The voice faded away, like a card player finished placing a card, examining their hand, waiting to see what the other player bet.
I still don't think the dark house is totally awake, but I know it wants to kill me, sweet words or not. That way, it can keep me forever, steal my soul when it tries to flee.
Bander Stouthelm, standing beside Kara, had laid down a powerful rune of battering upon his axe. The red blaze sent out bright tongues of flame. The room should have been brighter for it, but the old wood did not reflect the glow, and instead, sucked it in, weeping no precious fluid.
They were all here. Kara Kinfolk had brought the dwarf and Tal Stormgren, as well as Sir Gareth and his protégés, Yinar and Tristan.
Why was she only remembering that now?
"So this is your dark house, eh?" Bander barked dismissively, if overly loud. "Hmph. I've seen scarier. You want a proper haunted house? You build big and tricky, not small and obvious. Why, there was this one time, in a trap called the Well of Souls, where me and Rinn and our companions all -"
"Hold on," Tal Stormgren warned, taking the lead, surveying their surroundings. If anyone's eyes could spot a weakness, if anyone's instincts could lead them on the right path, Kara was sure it would be the ranger. That was why he was here, wasn't it?
"Eh? What?" asked Bander.
Explained the ranger, "Small, but not so obvious. There are no exits from this room. Not for your eyes or mine."
It was true. A quick search showed only the walls and the thickly boarded windows. The room was more expansive than it seemed, as if expanding for their presence, foreboding like a lair where you knew the monster would be back soon. Shadows littered everywhere, even in spots logic dictated they should not. But there was no way out.
And, they soon learned, the room was dangerous. No matter what they looked at, the feeling that the wood would snap at them like an old bear trap kept them cautious. Any number of times, it was as if everything broke with sharp edges or fell with dead weight the moment any of them were unsuspecting. Yinar Faith nearly lost a hand when she peered beneath an overturned chair. As it had collapsed, Tristan had pulled her free, but the floorboards beneath his feet, once sturdy and timeless, had suddenly groaned and given way. Even when the floor didn't give, it afforded them so secrecy.
No one even tried peering out what little cracks showed light from the windows. No one dared see what caused that unhealthy light.
The house is waking up to us. It knows what I've done. And it does not like to share.
Kara only wished she could explain it better. But with one look at her companions, she knew she didn't have to. They understood enough.
"Be wary," Kara Kinfolk warned anyway. "Enemies will come for us. Maybe even the house itself."
Kara wished that she had the authoritative voice of Shay Lor. A warning would have sounded so much better coming from the wizard, if her memory of the sunstone conversation could be trusted. Kara supposed being able to smite your enemies with bolts of magic probably lent a person a whole lot of self-confidence. But Kara had no such power herself.
Or do I?
Tal Stormgren snapped her back to reality. "Kara, we will distract whoever comes. But you must find the way to the well. We need that chalice at all costs. I suspect that only you can get out of this room."
"How -" she began to ask, but was cut off.
Stormgren's staff abruptly roared with new life, its elven enchantments barely held in by its dimensions. Ancient symbols of protection flowed along it, faster and faster, powering its silent fury. They became rapids in a tireless river, an unending day, each a blur made of daylight. There were several things for it to hate in this place. Perversion spoke strong here. It wore no more masks.
"We are not alone," Gareth Lyellwynne warned. It was not a question. The knight-commander obviously still did not like the staff as a weapon (you could tell from his inflection every time he mentioned it) but he trusted it all the same. Gareth himself had not yet drawn a weapon - the commander should either be first or last, apparently - but Tristan and Yinar on each side certainly had.
"We should not gamble here, Sir, for I suspect the house always wins," offered Yinar Faith. Kara wasn't sure if Yinar knew enough about cards to know that she'd made a joke.
Bander was the only one of the makeshift party who looked whole-heartedly keen for battle now that it was upon them. "Aye, we're up against it, lass, no doubt. So it's time to distract whoever - or whatever - comes, just as the young lad said!" The dwarf was slapping his fiery battleaxe in one hand. Some beastie out there was just begging for a licking!
Kara felt a sudden chill run up her spine. Her whole body tingled for a moment. Something had changed. Something only she could sense.
"They're here," she whispered.
Her words carried to all ears. Nothing appeared different, not at first, but then the lie was upon them.
"There! In the corner!" Kara pointed.
In fact, it was all four corners of the room that had grown dark. At first, all that their eyes could register were contrasts of light and dark playing inside the shadows. But then, in the corner closest to Kara, a shape began to resolve, that of a small, dark-haired girl. It was difficult to be sure, but it appeared as if she was facing away from them. Her hands were held together, perhaps petting something, head bowed and looking into the corner, admonished.
But it was Tal Stormgren who moved quickly towards the young girl. He was treating it as more than an apparition. Uncaring of the sighing shadows or diseased twilight, he stepped into the corner, and then in front of the little girl even as her image fought to resolve itself and become clear. Elly was deep in reflection. Had she been punished for something? Had she been bad?
"What is she looking at?" Kara asked, now that Tal was in position to see Elly's face. "Is she crying?"
Tal gave Kara a puzzled look from the other side of the little girl.
"Kara, all I see is the back of her head. Isn't she looking towards you?"
Laughter poured out from the little girl. Elly's face impossibly pushed its way out from the long hair on the back of her head, like she was pretending to be a jungle explorer, peering out through the trees. Then, whatever mirage she wore melted away. All that was left was a shadow in the shape of a girl once named Elanor Talma. No detail. No depth. Just blackness, blackness with perceptible eyes and a smile. Elly was now Shadow.
From the other three corners of the room, figures emerged, their details resolving. Unlike Elly, they did not melt away. Not when there was killing to be done.
In the corner to the right of Elly's shadow, the impossibly scrunched up old woman stood, a near-dwarf with considerable girth. Long grey hair fell over her face and down her body like sewage, stringy and matted and undoubtedly filled with insects, moving and rustling of its own accord. Dark eyes and yellow skin gleamed through, touched with a hint of madness. There were people you swore could disembowel another human being by hand alone, simply through the strength of their own hideous conviction. This old woman was one of those.
"Woe to the earth and the sea that is held by our enemies," the old woman sniggered, "for our Lord Artificer shall one day bring down His wrath upon them."
If Elly was called the Shadow, Kara remembered that this one was called the Hag, as much as she knew who it had to be. "Aunt Talma... oh, Auntie, what did they do to you?"
"Another orphan raised, oh deary, such a good midwife am I."
The air was cut by the loud scrape of metal. Kara risked a glance behind her, to the corner nearest Gareth and his two last and dearest soldiers. The misshapen behemoth Kara named the Walker had appeared. Through the rusted mask driven into his face, his baleful eyes stared outward. All the hate that had been visited upon him - all the scars across his huge upper body, his distended belly, his small, useless legs - was now fixated upon the intruders. Perhaps a cure had been offered, and all that had been asked back was murder. A small price to pay for the hulking, bile spewing Walker of Halls.
As silent as was the Walker, not so the creature in the last corner, to the close left of the Shadow.
Clinging to the walls and looking down madly upon Bander Stouthelm was the grey creature Kara knew only as the Prostrate Man. How he held himself there was impossible. The usually penitent form craned his face towards the dwarf, sniffing for something, head twitching inhumanly quick. Sizing Stouthelm up for a meal of severed limbs, perhaps? The Prostrate Man's green tongue flicked outwards like a whip, dancing over its own shivering teeth.
"Don't you be trying nothing, Snaky!" Bander grunted, obviously asking the Prostrate Man to do just the opposite. "I'll use you as a friggin' anvil!"
The zealot, barely aware of Bander beyond an amusement, spewed his dogma with exuberant conviction:
"The people are one and speak one language.
Lest we be scattered, we make a new name.
Let us build a city and a tower
Whose top may reach unto Heaven itself.
The Lord shall see the city and come down
To reign from what host His children have wrought."
The rest was lost in endless diatribe, words jumbling over careless spittle. Less sane the Prostrate Man had become. More excitable. Whatever voices he heard were shouting at him now, not whispering. Meanwhile, the ring of keys hanging from his belt jingled gamely in discordant merriment.
"Kara, stand with me!" said Tal. He had stepped back with her and the others, and placed a hand on her shoulder, holding her close. "Fall together everyone! Face outwards!"
"They were waiting for us," spat Tristan del'Corvus. From the look in his eye, the baron's son distrusted the Walker most. And wanted a piece of him for his father's mantle. What a trophy that rusted mask would make!
"The nightmare figures, the configuration of the room, are too well prepared for it to be otherwise," Gareth Lyellwynne agreed. Still, the knight-commander had drawn no sword. Kara was starting to find that odd. But the old man appeared more inclined to watch Yinar and Tristan closely in case they acted impulsively.
"No movement. Not yet," Tal said to the knight-commander, watching the creatures in the corners.
"A standoff?" Gareth asked. Kara did not detect any uncertainty in the knight's voice, but there was something off about it. It reminded Kara that Tal, and to an extent Bander, were the only two who had seen anything remotely like this before.
The shadow of Elly strode forward, and looked up at Kara with mock incredulity. "My, oh my, what have we here? Trespassers?"
The shadowy form of the eight-year-old danced mischievously. Judging by her companions, Kara realized that since becoming shadow, only she could see Elly, although they could all hear her voice. Tal gave nothing away, but she could see the others looking around, trying to figure it out. It was useless to try and follow echoes in this room.
"You aren't one of them," Kara said, looking right at the little girl, feeling certain about her instinct. How can you be the same child I have seen every day? "You aren't like the others, no matter what you might say."
If Elly was concerned by Kara's being able to see her, it didn't show. "Am I not? I have become. When you start seeing worlds through the thin places, such changes may come. They are Shadow Selves, the reflections that hang on by day but are freed at night. And am I not Shadow, too?"
Surprising them both, it was the Prostrate Man who answered. "Little chit, little berk, ye are absence, not shadow, aye!" His words were barely comprehensible, floating in and out of hearing, but had obviously been meant for Elly. His tongue waggled more than a foot out of his mouth at one point, a toad that had just missed snapping up a fly.
Dissension in the ranks? Kara wondered.
"Ha! A slave has chains!" the crazed creature raved, still hanging from the wall. Bander looked ready to smack it with his weapon if it got any closer. "I like to prattle, prattle, prattle!"
The Shadow turned back to Kara, who could no longer see the smile of Elly's teeth, but heard it in her voice, just as pretty as you please. As right as rain, as their Aunt Talma might once have said.
"You have been tethered here, Kara. So foolish of you."
"Tethered for us," the Hag added hungrily. Kara really didn't want any more clarification than that. It was all bad, no matter which way you went.
The Prostrate Man's tongue slashed across his own face in mock hunger. "Shall we do with them as we please? Make her dreams give us the answers we seek?" To Kara, he sounded nervous. Then Kara remembered the Masterson Cemetery. Perhaps her dreams had used him to convey a message that he had not wanted to pass along.
Tal gently nudged Kara. With a short couple of steps, the ranger had neatly moved her into the center of their ring, the herd protecting its young. So easily he had done it, Kara had barely realized it until she was behind him.
"Stand out of our way," Tal warned the creatures around them, as if he knew exactly where he would go if they actually did. "We outnumber you. We can overpower you. Easily."
"Easily?" Elly giggled. Tal obviously knew exactly where she was now from her voice.
The Hag huffed like something between a hungry animal and an old thing wheezing up the stairs, both of which were apt. "Some are wounded. I smell it. No cleric to heal you?"
The Prostrate Man got in on the party. "They are tired, tired, TIRED! So very tired. Cutters that be hardly worth the bother."
Tristan del'Corvus, both hands white on his sword, yelled angrily, "Come try us, then, fiend!"
"Lad's right!" exclaimed Bander. "I'm aimin' to see any of you try us on for size! Who's first, eh?"
Tal held out his blazing staff. Elly shied away from it, retreating momentarily before the elven light, even in this forsaken place. The Hag that had been Aunt Talma also did not care to see it, but that only deepened her anger, her hunger. The Prostrate Man cared not.
And the Walker? Kara realized. He just stares. And stares. And waits to start killing.
"Leave us to our business," Stormgren warned them, but there was a beseeching quality to his voice now. He pulled back the staff ever so slightly. Practiced for effect, or true feeling, Kara couldn't tell. "We only want to help you. All of you."
"Perhaps we want to be monsters. Perhaps we've always been monsters," said Elly, and with those words, the Shadow did not seem young and full of glee. Not anymore.
"Sometimes, so are we, or their slayers. It's how I was trained, what some of us are made for." Tal looked all the creatures in the eye. "You are no threat to anyone but yourselves."
Tal couldn't possibly think his words were going to work! Could he? But Kara didn't think that was his intent. No, Kara began to understand, his words were for her and the rest of those she had brought here. They were going to have to fight their way out of this.
He wants us to feed off him. Put our fears aside. Get angry.
The Walker's glare was the most deadly of all. The creature held that intimidating, twisted-metal axe in his big left hand. But Kara realized that for all his hate, he hadn't attacked yet. There had to be a reason. Was it because they were still waiting for some phantom appointed time? No, she didn't think so, at least not completely. Kara wondered if, deep down, they were still the townsfolk of Arrow's Flight.
After a pause, Elly began to say, "You might be able to fight us elsewhere, but not in this place. It is of us! It -"
Kara barely caught it a second before all the hells broke loose. It was a look between Tal Stormgren and Gareth Lyellwynne. It basically said, No More Parlay. They had talked long enough to size up their enemies and get themselves into position. And now they would do exactly what Tal said they would do - buy Kara time. Slay the monsters, if they could.
Sir Lyellwynne unsheathed his sword, and gallantly cried, "For the King!"
From everything Ebin Code had ever told her, the knight-commander's sword was holy, blessed by the High King in Waterguard himself. Kara believed it. The shadows of the dark house cringed and tried to run away, only to be stuck to whatever cast them, caught helpless. If the elven staff sought danger in the darkness, then the sword sought mastery of it.
The world wavered for Kara Kinfolk. It was clamor and a flurry of bodies! All around her, too much commotion, too much to concentrate on! Kara couldn't take it all in! She heard Tristan and Yinar yelling. She heard the dwarf utter curses while the sound of metal scraped. Light and shadow fluttered without pattern, fighting for supremacy, disorienting her.
Then she heard Tal's voice tell her over the din, "Find the well, Kara! Search wherever you must! We'll keep them busy for as long as we can." And then the Hag was upon the ranger, snarling, baiting.
"Take them!" Elly yelled from close by. The little girl, or whatever Shadow she'd become while stripping the child away, sounded concerned. "They are here for the chalice!"
But it was a voice made from collected memory
(Close your eyes, and find your dream, Kara.)
that was strongest.
Kara's eyes went white, alight with reverie. She had instinctively stepped into a waking dream, just like she had in Barnad Dunn's secret lair. Now the young woman saw the opening pieces of the fight like they were pawns on a chessboard. It was not unlike Hurin and his Chosen facing down Surak of Sauros, only now it was her five friends striking at the Hag and most especially the monstrous Walker. The Prostrate Man had already been laid flat.
That certainly didn't take Bander long, Kara thought amusedly.
Kara then saw the trigger for her instinctual shift. Elly had left her little-girl shell behind for good and was using whatever her new gifts were to escape. This Shadow was more advanced than all the others, even the Walker, and it could travel where others could not. While Kara Kinfolk could not begin to understand why Elly had become like this (for it was a secret wrapped too tight for easy unraveling) she still knew the truth of it. Elly had not only become, she had evolved. The only question was why.
"What do you dream when you dream of me, Kara?" the Shadow called out to her, sounding childlike again. "Do you dare follow? Your arrival can buy both we little girls the entry we seek!"
Behind the living silhouette was a way out. Kara could see it now, a door that only existed in dreams. Children in the past had always been too scared to open this door, this dream passage into the true Orphanage of Arrow's Flight, unintentionally giving it even more power. Giving it bounty. It was simply made, wood and brass, not a blemish upon it, but something about it frightened Kara to the bone. Oh yes, it was a door that had once been a warning, a threat to children so terrifying that it had grown a malevolence of its own. It had slammed shut forever upon many a soul.
"You still don't understand, do you?" the Shadow teased. Her indistinct black eyes met Kara's pure white. "How you got here with your friends? To get the dark house to agree to anything, you have to sell some of yourself, and now you are caught. And it plans to feast upon you. And as for your friends, Kara? It will not willingly let them... leave..."
But the girl's voice trailed off. At the mention of danger, something in the house had been altered, given a scent to hunt on the astral wind. In response, Kara's rune had flared, and from both it and her eyes now leaked the coldfire, the Daermornian magic erupting to safely open passages for her. It cared not who the enemy was. In Daermorn, you watched your back as much as your front.
"I will daydream if you let me," Kara said with a smirk not entirely her own.
Freed from its bonds, the coldfire felt malicious, dragging Kara towards powers she might not be able to control in a place that would surely amplify them. Tal had said to find the chalice, and so the rune would help her do just that. The blue danced along the edges of the white, waiting to see what Kara would do, where she would take it, what she would ask it for.
The Shadow said not another word and fled through the dreamer's door. From down the long hallway into nothingness, though, came laughter, sweet laughter. And while it was that of a child's, it was not little Elly's voice alone. Was it the sound of even more children?
Kara Kinfolk looked down at her feet with her dreamer's eyes. She could now see why Elly had laughed. There was a spectral tether chaining her to the dark house. It was thin and silver, like riding moonlight, but somehow oh so strong. Kara made a disgusted sound. She had been lured in and made captive just like the goblin had warned her against. The tether would let her go anywhere in the dark house, but nowhere outside it. It would never let her leave! If Elly was scared of the coldfire, the dark house was not.
Come play the imagination game, something whispered again.
Kara steeled herself, mustering all the determination she could. She reached down to the floor near where the Prostrate Man had fallen. His key ring gleamed, beckoning, and she took it. Not a sound the keys made, not a chime to betray. For some reason, this was what they wanted, no matter what their keeper had warned outside the Mausoleum of Lords. Like the rune Kara now wore, the keys were only truly happy when they were unlocking something.
Elly cannot know much how I have changed, thought Kara. Even I don't.
The young woman strode deeper into the dark house, keys in one hand, Elder Blade in the other.
Time to play.