“Go go go Johnny go/Johnny B. Goode!”
Everyone applauded as Marty finished up the song. “You’re very good at that,” Alice complimented him.
“Thanks. Took a lot of practice to get to this point,” Marty said, slinging his guitar over his back again.
“I know how that feels, a little,” Victor said, glancing down at his long fingers. “I really, really miss my piano. I can’t think of how rusty I’ll be when I get the chance to play again. If I get the chance to play again.”
“We’ll find you a piano, Victor,” Marty said firmly. “Hell, Doc could wish you up one, if you wanted.”
“Right here in the woods?”
“It’s possible,” Doc said, holding up his watch. “Of course, I’m not sure what we’d do with it afterwards. . . .”
Victor frowned. “I wouldn’t feel right just abandoning it out here in the wilderness. Perhaps it’s strange, but I hate the thought of it getting soaked by rain, or eaten by termites, or used as a place to store nuts by a squirrel.”
“I don’t think it’s strange,” Marty said. “I’d hate for anything to happen to my guitar.”
“Doc could wish it away again the day after,” Alice suggested.
“Yes, but that feels like a waste of two wishes. We need those for the food.”
“I still don’t get why you’re so opposed to just wishing us straight to the Queen’s castle,” Marty said, glancing at his friend with a small frown.
“Because we’d get slaughtered within the first five minutes,” Doc replied, voice matter-of-fact. “The Queen’s castle is surrounded by all sorts of monstrosities, not to mention whatever normal troops she’s managed to keep. And God knows what the Queen herself is like these days. It would be a waste to magically send us there, only for us not to complete our goal. By going the long route, we at least have a chance of raising some sort of army.”
“Don’t think the four of us could take her?”
“Well, you and Alice would probably last a bit longer, but no. Trust me on this, Marty – we need every bit of help we can get.”
Marty shrugged. “You’re the Doc, Doc. I’m just kind of impatient to get to the end of this quest and see if it teaches me about fear.”
“Well, what if you were going to learn about it on the way? You have to consider all the possibilities here.”
“Okay, now that’s a good point.”
“I’m just impatient to get to the end of all this forest,” Victor admitted, glancing around suspiciously at the trees. “I keep feeling that something’s watching us now. I’m constantly half-expecting to be ambushed by bandits again.”
“I’ve been keeping an eye out – no sign of anyone,” Alice reassured him. “Hopefully that original band was scared off by suddenly being whisked away to another part of the woods.”
“And I’ve still got my wish for today, so if there’s any trouble, I’ll take care of it,” Doc promised.
However, it appeared that Doc’s watch would not be necessary, as after just a few more minutes of riding, the trees began to become sparser. “Looks like we’re heading back to open land,” Marty said, giving Victor a grin. “I guess we should figure out what the next town is after we get out of here.”
“Hopefully there will be a road nearby,” Doc said. “I remember a town named Elmdale being not too far from Gale’s Town, but I’m not sure if we went in the right direction to reach it.”
“We’ll figure it out once we’re out of the woods.”
As they neared the edge of the forest, however, something else caught Marty’s attention. “Hey, what’s that up ahead?” he said, peering between the tree trunks.
“What’s what?” Alice asked, riding up so she was level with him.
“Looks like – I don’t know. A bunch of thorny bushes, and a – I think it’s a castle!” Curiosity peaked, Marty spurred his horse ahead. The others followed close behind.
They broke out into the open again, to be confronted by a very strange sight. Across an old and looking long-disused road was a wall of thorny vines and bushes, stretching at least a foot above even Victor’s head. Nestled somewhere in the middle of the mess was a large, ancient castle. It looked like it had once been a beautiful thing of shining white marble, but age had dulled its brilliance, and made it look almost foreboding. “Well, that’s not something you see every day,” Alice finally remarked.
“I wonder whose castle it is,” Marty asked, sitting up straighter in an attempt to get a better look.
“I think I’ve heard about this place,” Doc commented, riding a little closer. “This used to be the royal family’s castle, back in the olden times. But about a hundred years ago, it was abandoned. Apparently one of the royal family lost their life within its walls, and the king and queen couldn’t bear to live near their tragedy. Legend holds it’s haunted by many ghosts.”
Victor grimaced. “Oh my. That’s awful.”
“Yes.” Doc looked down. “At least we’ve found ourselves a road. All we have to do is follow it and it’s sure to take us – Marty, what in the name of Sir Isaac H. Newton are you doing?”
Marty paused in unsheathing his sword. “I want to find out what’s in that castle,” he said, pulling the blade free and slicing it through a thorny branch. “Maybe there’s something in there that’ll finally give me the shudders.”
“Didn’t you already try that?” Victor pointed out, frowning.
“Yeah, but – different castle, different spooks, you know?” Marty slashed through another branch.
“Marty, I thought the objective here was to get to the Queen’s castle as soon as possible,” Doc pointed out.
“It is, but you yourself said maybe I’m supposed to learn fear along the way. Maybe I learn it here at this castle! You never know!” He grinned at the others. “Come on, it’ll be an adventure. And maybe we’ll find some treasure inside.”
“Do you really think they would have left any of the royal treasury here?” Alice said skeptically.
“Maybe. You wouldn’t have thought there would be all that gold and jewels in the other castle I stayed in, but there was. Or maybe we’ll find something else that’s enchanted. Hell, maybe we’ll find a piano for Victor!”
Victor looked intrigued despite himself. “Marty, that castle’s been abandoned one hundred years. Even if there was a piano inside, it’s probably decayed to dust by now.”
“Do we know for sure? Has anyone been inside since that king and queen left, Doc?”
“I don’t think so,” Doc said, eyeing the thorns thoughtfully. “Actually, from the rumors I heard, the thorns grew up shortly after the couple left. Almost as if they’d been made to grow. And I seem to recall stories about princes trying to make their way through the thorns, seeking a great treasure inside. . . .”
“See, what did I tell you!” Marty hacked away at a few vines. “I say we see what’s inside!”
Victor looked over at Doc. “I don’t think it’s much use arguing with him,” he said. “All the warnings Mr. Statler gave him about you just made him want to meet you all the more.”
“You’re probably right,” Doc agreed. “All right, let’s see if we can make it. But let’s leave the horses outside the thorns – they’re big enough that they’ll probably hinder our progress in there.”
“Good idea,” Marty said, promptly sliding off his horse. “What say we tether them to the trees over here?”
They tied up the horses, leaving them to graze on the grass at the edge of the forest. Then they returned to the thorns. “Guess Alice and I will be hacking the path,” he said, looking between his sword and her axe. “Doc, you cover the back, Victor, you stay in the middle. Might be a wild animal or two living in here.”
“It’s hard to imagine anything living in that mess,” Victor said, though he obligingly moved between Doc and Marty.
“You never know,” Doc said, arming his rifle. “Shall we get this over with?”
“Yes,” Alice said shortly, swinging her axe through a hunk of thorny branches. With that, the group began – slowly – to move forward.
They made good progress – both Marty’s sword and Alice’s axe were well-sharpened, and they cut through the offending thorns like they were made of butter. They made it just over halfway to the castle when Doc heard a rustling. “Seems like we’ve got company,” he said, keeping a tight hold on his rifle.
“Hopefully it’s just a rabbit,” Victor said, eyes darting around nervously. The thorns were making him feel dreadfully hemmed-in. Not to mention the feeling of death seemed to be getting stronger the further they went in. Deep breaths, Victor, it’s nothing worse than what you’ve already gone through. Besides, you have three very much alive companions. That ought to offset things a little.
Suddenly, something large and rather bat-like leapt at the group, screeching. Marty turned with his sword, but Doc was faster, blowing the creature’s head off while it was still in mid-leap. Victor winced as he caught the brief flash of his godfather he saw at the death of every animal. “Great shot, Doc!” Marty said, grinning in a way that suggested he was completely unaffected.
“Thanks,” Doc said, reloading. “I doubt that was the only beast we’ll have to face. Let’s pick up the pace a bit.”
“Perhaps you could just wish us inside?” Alice asked, as Marty went back to hacking away at the thorns.
“That’s true. All right, I wish that--”
Doc’s statement was abruptly interrupted by another creature, this one more catlike, bursting from the thorns, foam streaming from its mouth as it roared and swiped at them with massive claws. Marty was the first to attack this time, beheading it with one swift sweep of his sword.
Only for another one to jump straight at his head. Marty tried to duck, but the creature landed on his back, promptly scratching and biting all it could reach. “Ow! Get off!” Marty yelled, grabbing it by the back of the neck and trying to yank it off him. It yowled and tried to bite his hand.
“Put your hand down!” Doc ordered, aiming at the creature with his gun. Marty dropped it, leaving the cat beast to stare stupidly at the rifle before Doc put a hole in its face. It dropped dead off Marty’s back. “You okay, kid?”
“Sort of,” Marty said, wincing as he stood back up. “Son of a bitch scratched my back up bad, but I can still fight.”
“Good, because I think we need you,” Alice said, as more creatures started emerging from the thorns. She buried her axe into the head of one that resembled a large, mad dog, twisting to avoid the claws of another that looked like a smoke-blackened dragon.
“They’re everywhere!” Victor gasped, jumping backward as one with a snake’s head and neck snapped at his legs.
“Probably lying in wait for whoever dares to try and cross!” Doc said, hurriedly shooting at one with tentacles like the fabled giant squid. “I’d bet my life these are what got all those princes so long ago!”
“Well, they’re not getting us,” Marty said, stabbing another bat monster through the stomach and pulling upward to cut the thing in two from the waist up.
“Why don’t you use your wish?!” Alice demanded, yanking her axe free from her kill and swinging it at the dragon. It missed, but forced the beast to back up a step.
“I have to vocalize it, and I’m a bit distracted at the moment!” Doc snapped back, firing once more into the squid’s eyes. “I wish that--” He dodged one of the flailing tentacles. “I wish that we--” Another cat creature’s claws raked his side. “ARGH! Damn, damn damn!”
“Couldn’t wait until we were a little further to the castle, no,” Marty mumbled, slicing the paw off what looked to be a mix between a dog, a rooster, and a wild boar. “Had to attack us now.”
“Of course, that’s what all beasts do,” Alice said, finally managing to chop off the arm of the dragon. “They attack when their prey is at the worst disadvantage. I don’t think it makes a difference whether they’re demonic or not.”
“If only they’d break off long enough for me to make a proper wish,” Doc grumbled, reloading and firing on something with an eagle’s beak and a bear’s claws.
“I’d settle for a nice, clear path to the castle,” Marty said, getting his creature in the throat. “After killing these things, it’s gonna be a bitch to keep cutting.”
Alice seemed to have an idea at that. “Doc, try and wish that Victor was invisible to these creatures!” she said, beheading the dragon.
“W-What? Why j-just me? Why n-not all of us?” Victor demanded, pulling out his fork and jabbing it at a slithery-looking slug oozing toward his feet. It made a horrible, high-pitched shriek, making everyone (even the other monsters) wince.
“It’ll take less breath! Try it, Doc!”
“I – all right!” Doc paused briefly in his shooting. “I wish that Victor was invisible to the beasts!”
There was a flash of light from the watch, and another from Victor’s skin. Victor stood very still until the light faded. “D-did it work?” he asked, voice trembling a bit.
“Try it and see,” Marty suggested.
Victor hesitated – if it hadn’t worked, he didn’t want to have his head or a limb pulled off – but forced himself to walk in front of one of the beasts. It paid him no notice. Victor sighed, relieved. “Oh, good. So it did--”
Alice’s axe was abruptly thrust into his hands. “Cut us a path,” she said, pulling her knife out from her apron strings. “We’ll finish off these beasts.”
“The monsters won’t look at you now. You can get us to the castle – or at the very least, yourself – to the castle safely. We’ll follow as quickly as we can.”
“But – but I’ve n-never used an axe before!”
“It’s not that difficult,” Alice said, her tone surprisingly gentle. “Just lift it as high as you can, then bring it down. Being careful not to hit yourself, of course.”
“But – I – I’m not--”
“You can do it,” Alice cut him off, smiling at him. Victor felt a funny, surprisingly pleasant twinge deep inside him. “I trust you.” The smile vanished as another creature came for her. She spun and slit open its belly, releasing a spray of blood. “Get going!”
“Right!” Victor turned and looked at the problem at hand, hefting the axe uncertainly. This was a big job for someone who’d never even touched an axe before. Could he really clear a path and get them all to safety without hurting either himself or the others?
There’s only one way to find out, he thought, stiffening his spine. He raised the axe and swung.
The well-sharpened blade went through the thorns almost like they weren’t even there. The weight of the head started to drag Victor down into the swing, but he compensated and was soon hacking away at the thorns.
Unhindered by the beasts, it took him surprisingly little time to finally reach the castle. He glanced back down the narrow corridor he’d managed to chop through the branches and vines. The other three were still near the center of the thorns, holding their own quite well against the demonic creatures. In fact, the crowd of monsters had lessened considerably. Victor sighed. If only I were like Marty, and had never known fear, he thought sadly. Maybe then I would have been more useful as a fighter. I hate being something extra to worry about to my friends.
Well, at least he’d been able to make himself useful in another way. He chopped down the last branch in his path, then raced into the courtyard, breathing hard. “Oh, thank God that’s--”
He froze. The castle – it was – it was pressing down on him, overwhelming his senses, worse than any graveyard, almost worse than that first, horrible day. His godfather’s presence was everywhere, in every brick, every nook, every breath of stale air. . . . The axe dropped from his nerveless fingers as he tried and failed to step back, to get out of there before – “No,” Victor whispered as the death flooded over him, through him, forcing him to watch as one by one – “no no no no no no--”
Everyone, even the remaining demons, looked up as the scream cut through the air. “What the hell was that?” Marty asked, running one of the distracted creatures through.
“Sounded like Victor,” Doc said, frowning as he did a quick headcount. “Where is he?”
Alice stared behind her at the freshly cut foliage. “I gave him my axe,” she said softly, a distinct note of worry in her voice. “Sent him to clear this all away. . . .” She suddenly tore her knife through the closest beast’s belly and took off down the path, red cloak streaming behind her.
“Hey, wait for us!” Marty decapitated the last of the demons, and he and Doc set off in pursuit. “Damn, I hope there’s not something bigger at the castle. My arm’s kind of tired. And my back still hurts,” he added with a wince.
Doc shook his head. “You know, I thought for sure you would have gotten the shudders from having to face down so many of those things.”
“Eh, it was old hat to me. Just like having to deal with all those cats and dogs at the other castle. Hell, this was actually a little easier – back then I was alone, and just had a cutting board knife.” He sighed in frustration. “I’m never going to find fear at this rate.”
“Well, I think we have more important things to worry about at the moment,” Doc said with a frown. “Like what’s happened to Victor. Damn it, I hope he’s okay.”
“Yeah, me too.”
They reached the end of the path to find Alice standing at the entrance to the castle courtyard. She was watching a figure kneeling and clutching his head in the middle. “It’s Victor,” she said as the boys came up to stand beside her. “He seems in great pain, but – the courtyard’s empty. And I don’t feel a thing. I don’t know what’s causing this.” Her grip on her knife tightened. “I don’t like it.”
Marty looked at his friend. Victor appeared to be muttering to himself, rocking back and forth on his knees. A form of the shudders, or something else, something worse? Well, there was only one way to find out. He sheathed his sword and approached the young man with a friendly smile. “Hey. You okay?” he asked gently.
Victor fell silent and still. Slowly, he raised his head. He looked at Marty – or, rather, seemed to look through him, as his brown eyes weren’t quite focusing on anything. Then one hand shot out, grabbing Marty’s shirt and pulling the teen close to Victor’s face. “He’s coming for you,” Victor hissed, eyes wide. “Sink or swim – you’d better grow gills.”
Marty stared at him for a minute, completely confused. “Uh, okay,” he finally said, blinking. “Doc, Alice, you understand that?”
“No – not sure I want to,” Doc admitted, looking rather concerned.
Victor turned to face Doc, a mad grin lighting up his face. “He nearly had you,” he said, using his leverage on Marty’s shirt to pull himself to his feet. “Came for you one night with an axe and a greedy princess. But the viper bought you many more years – more loyal than dog or cat.”
Doc’s jaw dropped. “What – how – she was planning to kill me?” he said in a whisper. Victor nodded. “But – how do you know that?”
“See it all now,” Victor beamed, in a very unVictorish way. “He’s everywhere here, in every breath, in every blink.”
“You used to talk sense,” Alice commented, frowning.
Victor looked over at her. “Oh, he hates you,” he said softly, shaking his head. “Nearly had you twice. Third time’s the charm?”
“What do you mean by that?” Alice demanded. “Stop talking in riddles like a Cheshire Cat!”
To everyone’s surprise, Victor laughed. It was an oddly disturbing sound. “Got it in one! All the poor kittycat’s fault, though she didn’t mean it. Knocked over the books, which knocked over the pictures, which knocked over the journals, which knocked over the lamp, which fed the fireplace with oil. . . .” He giggled. “Ashes to ashes, we all fall down.”
Alice had gone almost as white as a ghost. “Dinah?” she whispered. “It – it was Dinah who set the house on fire?”
Victor nodded. “One stretch in one unfortunate place, and it all went up in flames.”
“He’s talking about your house, right?” Marty said, looking at her.
“He – he must be,” Alice said, voice shaking. “I never knew what started the fire, though.” She stepped forward. “Victor, how did you know?”
“I told you, I see it all now. Being here brings it all back.”
“Oh?” Doc glanced around, curious. “Is there an enchantment on the castle? Though we should all be seeing events from each other’s pasts in that case. . . .”
Victor laughed again. “Oh, nothing as special as that! Just a curse to sleep forever and a mother and father who didn’t want to wait that long.”
Victor spread his arms, still grinning from ear to ear. “Dearest daughter pricked her finger, fell down as if dead, slept and still sleeps, waiting her lover, her kiss. The King and Queen abandoned her from grief, cried as they ordered all their servants to stay behind the walls and tend her, left them to do their duty to a fallen princess. . . .” His smile suddenly flickered, then faded. “And they all died,” he continued, his voice quiet. “Oh God, THEY ALL DIED!”
Victor fell back to his knees, face screwed up in pain. Doc and Alice stared at him in shock, Marty in mere puzzlement. “One hundred years, and every last thing that comes here DIES!”
“This is what happens when he enters graveyards,” Marty realized, eyes widening. “He told us that when he first got overwhelmed by all that death, he went a little nutty. . . .”
“Great Scott,” Doc breathed. “And with one hundred years of death pressing down on him– we have to get him out of here before he goes permanently insane!”
“Too late,” Victor said, looking up at Doc with crazed eyes. “Mad as a hatter, mad as a march hare – so long as there is death, I shall never be sane. Cursed forever to see only the ends. . . .”
Alice picked up her axe, then reached down and took his arm. “We’re going to get you out of here,” she told him, voice gentle. “It’s going to be all right.”
“Never all right,” Victor protested, shaking his head. “Everything ends, everything di--”
He froze abruptly, eyes staring out at nothing. “She lives?”
“Huh?” Marty frowned at him. “Of course Alice is alive. Take her pulse, maybe it’ll help–”
“No! The other! A hundred years, and yet she lives!” Victor scrambled to his feet, turning in all directions. “Why has Godfather not claimed her? Is the curse that strong?”
“She’s still here?” Doc said, looking just as astonished as the young man. “The princess is still alive?”
“Yes! Still waiting. . .always waiting. . . .”
“We can’t leave her here too,” Marty said, looking at Doc. “Asleep or not. I’m going to go find her.”
“Wait, Marty, I’ll go with you,” Doc said, grabbing his arm as he prepared to leave. “Alice, you get Victor back through the thorns. Yell if any other demons attack you, and we’ll try to get to your aid as fast as possible.”
Alice’s face darkened. “If any demons dare to attack me now, they’ll find their worst nightmare waiting for them.” She softened again as she reclaimed her grip on Victor’s arm. “Come with me, Victor, we’re leaving. Going someplace where there’s not so much death.”
Victor laughed at that. “There’s death everywhere. No escape. Not for me.”
“Yes there is,” Alice insisted, leading him along back toward the path. “You’ll be fine. You’ll see.”
“I see too much. You can’t stop that.”
“I can bloody well try. Come along.”
Marty and Doc watched them go. “You know, I’m starting to think she’s sweet on him,” Marty commented.
“Never mind that now,” Doc said, pulling him away. “Let’s find that princess and get out of here.”
“Right.” They proceeded to the end of the courtyard, where they found two stairways leading up in opposite directions. “I take right, you take left, we meet back here in, let’s say, half a hour?”
“Sounds good to me.”They parted, Marty racing up the right flight of stairs.
The inside of the castle was musty and full of cobwebs and dust. The walls were stained with decades of grime, the carpets were full of holes, the paintings dull, the decorative suits of armor rusty. Marty coughed as he made his way down the halls, pausing at each door he found and looking inside. Most of the rooms seemed to be for storing various items, though at the end of the hall he found a music room, complete with piano. Curious, he went in and tried to play a tune, only for the keys to crumble to dust beneath his fingers. “Sucks,” Marty shrugged, and continued on.
It was on the third floor that he finally came across the right room. The door was nicer-looking than the others he’d encountered, painted what was probably once a blinding white with a golden handle. Marty opened it to find a spacious bedroom done in pinks and purples, all faded now with the ravages of time. There was a desk against one wall, a wardrobe against another, and the remains of a thick pink carpet on the floor. Directly across the room was a formerly opulent bed, with ragged purple curtains and silver bedposts and frame. And lying on it was –
Marty caught his breath. The princess was beautiful. Marty had seen pretty girls before, both at home and in his travels, but none of them compared to her. He drew closer, examining her. She was about his height, with long brown locks that curled slightly around her shoulders. Her skin was rather pale, most likely from lack of sunlight – but it still wasn’t as bad as Victor’s, he noted with mild amusement. She was dressed in a long gown – white, with a blue bodice and multicolored flowers on the skirt – and a pair of white slippers. Marty almost thought she was a painting or a sculpture, not a person.
He sat down on the bed next to her, raising a small cloud of dust. She didn’t react in the slightest, just continued to lie there. He put a hand on her chest – it was indeed rising and falling. Victor hadn’t lied. He took one of her shoulders and gently shook it. “Hey. Hey.”
No response. Marty shook her a bit harder. Still nothing. He frowned. “Tough curse.”
He looked at her face again – her soft cheeks, her pert nose, her pink lips. He had to admit, he kind of wanted to kiss her.
Kiss. Hadn’t Victor said something about her waiting for a kiss? Marty watched her thoughtfully for a second. Then he shrugged and leaned down. If it breaks the curse, great, he thought. If it doesn’t, no harm done – nobody will know. He pressed his lips to hers.
Her lips were soft and surprisingly warm. For a moment, it seemed like there was going to be no reaction from the princess. Then, just as Marty was about to break away, he felt a hand grab the back of his head and push him down again, and her lips press hard against his. Feeling rather giddy, Marty cheerfully went along. I guess I can chalk up another victory over haunted castles now. I think I like the reward here a lot better than the other one.