Chapter 14- Chateau de Pumken
A couple of hours from morning, the road gave way to wet, muddy grass and there were lakes and bodies of water as far as the eye could see, sliced here and there by narrow trails of tall weeds and grass. I shook Blaze awake. “We’re here,” I said.
We exited the vehicles, stepping out first onto the soft ground. The soldiers followed, waking up one by one. I dug my toes around in the mud, noting how after only a few inches, water pooled into my toe-made hole. Out in the marsh, dozens of trails disappeared into the distance, with a couple abruptly ending at the water’s edge. Beside me, Blaze was flipping through the history book, a flashlight clenched between her teeth.
“I don’t suppose there’s a map that could guide us through?” I asked.
“There’s a rough map of the terrain. But it’s very old, before this place was a marsh, so we can’t fully rely on it,” she said, sighing.
“And was I right? Is the Sol Emerald at the far end of the marsh?”
She nodded. “Yeah. In Chateau de Hunnid. It’s located on the far end, beside the Bowl Sea.”
“Great.” We couldn’t very well drive the vehicles through to the other side. At best, they would get stuck in the mud, if they didn’t sink entirely. With Nega’s ships, he should have no trouble finding and locating the chateau from above. By the time we managed our way through, he would already have the Sol Emerald and be moving onto the next one.
Blaze jumped back into our vehicle, grabbed a walkie-talkie, then peered up at the sky. “Gardon, you still there?” We waited for several seconds, hearing nothing but radio silence. “Gardon?”
“Yeah, we’re here,” he said, his voice broken up by constant static.
Blaze lit a fireball and threw it into the air. “Can you see that?”
“Yeah, we see it and you.” In the distance, the sound of an engine rumbled across the starry sky.
“You think you have room in there to seat some of us?”
I looked up hopefully. Even if I had to hang on the wings of a plane, it would be much faster than traversing the marsh on foot. And with any luck, we would beat Nega to the punch.
Unfortunately, Gardon’s news sank our hopes. “No. And we have another problem. I don’t think these planes are built for long-range travel. If I’m reading these gauges right, then we don’t have much juice in them left.”
There went that plan. Blaze pressed the button. “Very well. We can’t lose those planes. Having a squad of Nega’s weaponry that works is too precious to neglect. Head back to the capital. We should be able to replenish their fuel cells with what we’ve salvaged from Nega’s other vehicles. Once you return to the capital, make sure to send more reinforcements to the remaining Sol Emeralds. If we can’t stop Nega here, then we can’t allow him to take even one more.”
“Roger that,” he said and the planes’ engines circled overhead, pointing to the horizon behind us. “We’ll return with more troops for you posthaste, Your Highness. Good luck.”
“Good luck to you too.” She tucked the walkie-talkie into her clothes, gathered up some more in a bag, and came back to us, studying the paths through the marsh.
“What are you thinking?” I asked. “Maybe use your fire to light our way through?”
“Exactly,” she said.
“I could contain the fires, use them as lanterns,” I said.
She bit her lip and gazed into the air. “That would definitely be a beacon for Nega. We may as well shout and scream our position while we’re at it.” She was right and I scanned the stars too, afraid one was secretly the light of a flagship searching for us. “The best we can do is use short fireballs sparingly and only when we absolutely need to. It won’t do us any good to wander around completely in the dark. Think you could carry us across any dead ends?”
I judged the weight of the soldiers behind us, including their armor and weapons, against my own energy. “Yes, but not for long.” I already spied some long stretches of water where the next piece of land was nowhere to be seen. “It would have to be across short gaps.”
“Good.” Then she chopped her arm forward to a long trail in the marsh. “Let’s move out!” she said to the soldiers.
They hopped to attention and filed in behind her and me. With trepidation in our bones, we entered the Misty Marsh.
* * *
For an hour, we didn’t see much of anything beyond vast bodies of water dotted with cattails. Blaze occasionally threw a fireball or two forward, lighting the trails we were on. Thankfully, I only had to carry the group from one bank to the next twice. Most of the time, I led the way while Blaze read up on the chateau that awaited us.
What unnerved me the most was the deathly silence. The further we went into the marsh, the quieter it became. Crickets stopped chirping, nocturnal birds were nowhere to be found, and even croaking frogs didn’t venture our as far as we did. All I could hear was the shuffling of our feet in the grass and the sticky squishing as we left tracks in the mud.
To make matters worse, we encountered the misty portion of the area, which swirled around with long tendrils stroking our bodies at first. Before we knew it, we were deep into an unnatural fog that blinded us to everything more than twenty feet away. The group huddled close together, packed in tightly so that everyone kept stepping on each other’s toes and kicking the back of their heels.
“So,” I said, my voice soft. For some reason, I felt like I should respect the sanctity of the atmosphere that nature had abandoned. “What can we expect when we get there?”
“Not anything good,” she said, snapping the tome shut. It was too foggy to read well anyway. “The chateau belonged to the Pumken family, whose last known ancestor was Kovaz, the Pagan Savage.”
“Charming,” I said. “Dare I ask how he got it?”
“The legend goes that his family was rich and powerful. Many of the peasants were subservient to his family and his ancestors commanded respect. On the other hand, Kovaz ruled through fear and bloodlust, going to war with nobles and seizing their property. Any that he defeated were executed, along with their families, in horrific fashion to warn others about challenging him. Even some who surrendered were executed because he felt like it, and many dubbed him insane and power-hungry.”
I gave a derisive snort. “Sound like anyone you know?”
She crafted a fireball and lobbed it into the fog, where it disappeared as soon as it fell from its arc. “Suffice to say, many feared him, even believing him to practice dark arts and associate with evil forces. Some of the nobles used these rumors and rallied the peasants and their own forces against Kovaz, attacking him at the chateau.”
“What happened?” I asked. The soldiers were also watching Blaze, anxious to hear the outcome.
“Again, according to the legend, Kovaz made a blood sacrifice, offering up two of his youngest children to a pagan sea god in exchange for victory over his enemy. The god obliged and sent the sea, with its tidal waves, to wash away Kovaz’s enemies and carry them off to the sea’s depths.
“Kovaz celebrated the victory, climbing to the rooftop of the chateau, and proclaimed over the now water-logged battlefield that he had defeated his enemies and no one was greater than he. Kovaz’s hubris and failure to credit the sea god or provide a thankful sacrifice angered him. Therefore, the sea god raised a massive tidal wave, larger than the world has ever seen, with his own personal beast riding the crest of the wave. The beast snatched Kovaz from the chateau’s roof and swallowed him whole. The tidal wave washed all his relatives and servants out to sea and swamped the land we’re walking on.”
Blaze was startled by all the unblinking eyes on her when she looked back at us. By now, the entire group was listening with rapt attention. I prompted her to continue. “And?”
“And that was the end of his family,” she said, a little too quickly.
“Is there more?” I asked, but I already knew the answer. It was plain on her face and she was bad at hiding it. “Tell us the rest. It may help.”
She appeared to think about arguing, then gave up and sighed. “Fine. But you asked.” That and her annoyed look sent an uneasy feeling through me and suddenly, I wasn’t sure I wanted to hear anymore. “A curse was laid on the chateau and all who entered it to seek the lost fortune of the Pumken family. They would suffer terribly at the sea god’s hand and join the spirits that now haunt its halls, doomed to roam aimlessly for all eternity, trapped in a never-ending misery and unable to escape. The legend also says that you can hear their moans and howls across the marsh late at night, their souls screaming in the agony of their afterlife.”
She stopped, tossing another fireball ahead and directed us down a left path. But no one was worrying about Nega anymore. A collective chill crept through our spines and I hated being the first to ask.
“Is there any truth to that?”
She shrugged. “I doubt it. There are many ghost stories like that, so close to the water where people imagine all sorts of oddities in its depths. I do know that the tome mentioned that all reports of this area have never seen any hauntings. Most historians and scientists agree that the sea did indeed turn this area into a marsh, but not from any vengeful sea god. They believe it was likely massive swells over time, the low sea level of the area, and natural erosion. As for the chateau, no curse as far as I know. A few unlucky accidents are all that have happened. There have been stories circulated of people dying after they returned home, but these were all debunked and proved to be natural deaths.”
“I see,” I said, looking into the fog, afraid that I caught sight of a face forming in certain a certain break of the white mist. The story, and the accompanying bone-rattling fear, reminded me all too well of late-night ghost stories that robbed me of sleep as a child. “So no ghosts then?”
She glanced at me, as if chiding me privately. “This is why I didn’t want to tell the rest,” her face said loud and clear. “Well,” she said aloud, marching ahead, “the tome also says that some of the souls swim in the marsh, grabbing travelers by their ankles and dragging them into the water. Ow. Something scratched my leg.”
As soon as she said it, the soldiers and I jumped back into each other, spinning and swirling in all directions and patting at our legs. We were okay. Nothing had snatched us.
Blaze watched us, a sardonic grin on her face. “Are you all quite through?” she asked, tapping her foot with her hands on her hips. “Because I made that last part up.” We stopped checking ourselves and sheepishly tucked our arms at our sides. “Now, get over here before you fall in the water.”
We trudged back to her and Blaze chuckled to herself. This woman was incorrigible, I thought as we continued onwards. Desperate for a change of topic, I asked, “So where does the Sol Emerald fit into this macabre tale?”
“One of the treasures that Kovaz coveted highly and valued as his largest prize was the Sol Emerald he seized from one of the nobles he conquered,” Blaze said.
“The crown jewel of his hoard?”
“Exactly, and kept in a very safe place. With the local rumors of the curse and supposed traps in the chateau itself against invaders, it should still be there. Speaking of which, I think I see the chateau.”
Ahead, a faint silhouette in the backdrop of the fog, rose a tall castle with multiple towers all pointing to the night sky. As we neared it and the monument came clearer into view, I was overwhelmed by the size of such a building out here. I couldn’t see the end of the chateau, but it seemed large to me.
The gate was flanked by two tall towers and a moat of bubbling water surrounded the grounds, forcing us to bottleneck on the lowered drawbridge. We huddled close together, crossing the creaking bridge and on the lookout for any sign of attack. Although our eyes gazed skyward a time or two, most of it was spent watching the doors to the towers, afraid that a specter may jump out at us. A couple of the guards checked the water, ignoring the fact that Blaze had made up the part about ghosts grabbing ankles. Now that the fear had taken root in their mind, there was no getting it out.
The muddy grounds were barren and lifeless. I beat that word out of my head. The last thing I wanted to be reminded of was that story and how lifeless this place was. The chateau loomed above us as we approached its large double doors. Blaze ventured further into the mist, checking one of the many cracked, broken windows, and I followed.
“See anything?” I asked.
“No,” she said and crinkled her nose, catching a whiff of the same dank odor I inhaled. The entire chateau smelled rotten. “It’s dark. Which may mean Nega isn’t here yet.” I was more concerned by ghostly reflections in the window panes. “All the same, we need to be careful. He could be lying in wait again and we can’t see anything out here.”
With much yanking and pulling, the front doors swung open with a heavy creak, and a that musty scent of ancient water and mold slapped us across the face full-force, as if we had opened a door into the underbelly of the marsh itself. Blaze stepped in first, cradling a small fire in her palm. Then one by one, the rest of us entered.
From what I could see of the chateau, it was as large on the inside as on the outside. Spacious and opulent enough for a noble, as paintings, heirlooms, suits of armor, and jewelry were on display everywhere in the grand foyer. But there was something amiss about it all, something that set my nerves on edge.
Then I realized what it was. The entire foyer was coated in a slimy film as if it had been drudged up from the seabed. Every artifact in the foyer, from the rusted plates of the armor to the cases of jewelry, and even the stairs, their bannisters, and the rolls of carpet leading further into this tomb, were covered in the slime.
One of the soldiers slipped on the slime and scrambled for something to hold onto, knocking down a couple of other soldiers. “What is this? Blood?” he shouted. “Ectoplasm?”
Blaze shushed him and I knelt closer to the ground. The film was cloudy and colorless, so neither blood nor ghostly residue. I pointed it out to Blaze and she nodded. “With how much water covered the land, perhaps some got in here. With no caretaker, there’s no one to keep the slime and mold from developing.”
She stepped on the carpet and water squelched out around her foot. It was absolutely saturated with sea water. “Smell that? It means water must be getting in here somewhere.”
Still, she seemed surprised by how extensive the film was. It had an underwater quality to it that made me feel like I was in Blue Mirage and had swam into one of the larger city buildings. The dark areas of the chateau itself appeared to have a blue-green tinge to them that further cemented the watery experience.
“Okay, we need to split up and find the Sol Emerald before Nega comes,” she said, passing out walkie talkies. All the soldiers were less than enthusiastic about the prospect of going in separate directions this time. I couldn’t blame them. I would prefer to stay in a large huddle, giving us several pairs of eyes to watch all our surroundings. “Silver and I will take upstairs on the right side. You two,” she pointed to a couple of soldiers, “take the other half.” Then she cut an invisible line down the middle of the remaining soldiers. “The rest of you, half take one side of the first floor, the other take the other half.”
The soldiers exchanged unsure looks among each other. “Hey,” Blaze said, “we have a job to do. If Nega gets his hands on that emerald, then all this is for naught. You’re some of the bravest men and women I’ve had the pleasure of having at my side and I know you’re better than any make-believe ghost or mindless robot.” She gave a stiff, encouraging smile at them and her fingers fidgeted behind her back, wringing one another to the breaking point where only I could see, not her audience. “You can do this.”
Emboldened by her pep talk, the soldiers separated to their assigned areas. Before they left, they gathered some dusty candelabras from the foyer, brushed off the cobwebs, and Blaze lit them one by one. “Meet back here in an hour,” she said.
Once we had climbed the stairs and were out of sight of the soldiers, Blaze’s shoulders relaxed. “That went well,” I said.
“You think so?” she asked. “I just pieced together things that Gardon usually says to them. Not that it isn’t true, of course.”
“I’m not really one for speeches,” she said with a sheepish shrug. “Some princess, huh?”
“Hey, I don’t mind,” I said. “Too many nobles seem to talk and direct others, but won’t get in the trenches themselves like you do. I admire that and so do they.”
“Really?” She raised her eyebrows, at a loss for words.
“Yeah. I’m sure it inspires them knowing you’re right there beside them. At least, that’s what Gardon used to tell me. In the other time.”
Blaze gave an amused snort. “He tends to overexaggerate.”
“Maybe. However, on this, he’s right. Having a leader beside their troops does a lot for morale.”
“You’d make a pretty good leader too,” she said. However, we both realized the second unintended meaning behind her words and my tongue swelled in my throat as large as her eyes did. “You know what I mean.”
“Yeah,” I said. Although, now that the idea was planted there, it wasn’t going away, haunted castle or not. The joke of a notion sprouted into full-on curiosity and wonderment as I imagined the two of us in the future, overseeing a peaceful country, one free from Nega’s terror. The two of us, side by side, leading together, living together.
I caught her eye and we each saw the same thoughts in each other’s minds and stared straight ahead, both too embarrassed to say it aloud. I wasn’t even sure if I had read her expression right. Yet I believed I had.
This was crazy. I couldn’t go down this path. It wouldn’t be right. There was an age gap, we had known one another for less than a month, and we had a lunatic bent on destroying the world. We were from different universes for goodness sake!
While I wrestled with the notion, a heavy metal object swung down behind me. I yelped and spun around, swinging the candlabra wildly and smacking a breastplate on a suit of armor. The candles died in my swings and clattered to the floor.
Blaze picked up the candles, set them back in the holders, and re-lit the wicks. “Such brave leadership,” she teased with a smirk. “No more ghost stories for you.”I didn’t have the nerve to tell her my parents often told me the same thing when I would come home from a friend’s house after staying awake all night from a spooky story around the fireplace. I refused to relive that part of my childhood, creepy castle or not. “Never know when Nega might strike. Helps to be prepared,” I said, marching off with my head held high. She rolled her eyes and followed, mercifully brightening the candles to chase away the dark shadows as we searched the castle.
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