Fate and the Man In Black have led Jane to the Island of Shadows, a mysterious place shunned by the locals and surrounded by rumors of dark spells and ancient phantoms.
They are warned not to go to the island where the last master lost his mind in his efforts to achieve what Gad could not, but their date with the Man In Black forces them onto the rocky, barren place where no man treads. They find their host waiting for them, along with an old and unwelcome foe. The Man In Black presents them with a challenge, one last feat to prove Jane’s worthiness: using the gift of the vidori they must scour the dark recesses of the castle and discover the truth about happened to the young master.
The task would be easier but for their adversary, a wily foe who is as intent at gaining the Man In Black’s favor as Jane is loathed to earn it. The dark halls, too, hold tight to their secrets, and as they explore the silent passages they find that there is a third party playing the game. Someone seeks to keep the past hidden, even if that means deadly consequences for Jane and her friends.
I had been through almost a dozen big adventures with my family, but this one felt different. This one was personal. I was the target.
I shook myself from my brooding thoughts and looked around me. My grandparents, Caius, and I were seated in a closed carriage that rocked to and fro with the rocky, uneven ground on which we traveled. Outside the sparse countryside was cast in gloom by the dark clouds that hung over us. The smell of rain permeated the air, along with a tension I couldn't shake.
"You're quiet," Caius spoke up.
I wrapped my arms closer about me and smile up at him. "Just trying to keep warm by keeping my mouth shut."
"You're still a horrible liar," he warned me.
"We shall soon have a view of the sea and the barren rock known as the Island of Shadows," Sage promised as he leaned out the window. "There."
I leaned out my own window and beheld the dark ocean that lapped against the rocky shores.
The waters were as black as pitch except for the waves that battered at the long docks and boats tied to the thick posts. A few short, thatched roofs indicated houses, and a taller building with many lights signaled the end of our coach ride at the local inn.
"Fun place," Caius quipped as he looked back to my grandfather. "Can you tell us any more about why this island is supposed to be haunted?"
Sage shook his head. "I fear not, as the story was one I heard only in passing. However, we may be able to inquire at the local pub in Horsvald, the village you can see just ahead of us. I wrote the owner, a man by the name of Balakin, and told him of our need for a boat, and he kindly informed me he would have everything we needed."
"I'm surprised anyone would be around a haunted place," I spoke up.
Sage smiled. "Though the fisherman avoid the area around the island, the catch is still excellent and trade with the capital is always brisk."
The carriage drove us to the front door of the cheery inn and our host, a gray-haired man with a wide stomach and a grim countenance, greeted us on the stoop. He sported a large, black handlebar mustache that was too stiff to droop as he gave us a deep bow of his head. "Welcome, my dear guests. Welcome to my inn, the Hound's Howl, and may you find rest before you venture over the waters to that accursed place."
Sage stepped out of the carriage and smiled at our host. "That is a topic on which we are very interested, though food would also be welcome."
"I have food, but that topic-" The man crossed himself and shook his head. "That I have less of, but come out of the damp air. The fog will soon be in and you will catch your death of cold out in the night."
He herded us into a small but comfortable front room that acted as the dining hall. A half dozen round tables with a few chairs a piece stood nestled against the wall so as to give the diner a view out of the paned glass windows. The tablecloths were old, but clean, and he was quick to grab a seat to sit all of us at the last of the tables.
The others were occupied by the seamen in their long overcoats and thick shirts. Their faces and hands were gnarled by the winds and weathered by the waves. They had large pint glasses of tough brew in front of them, and at our entrance their chatter died. Many cast us ugly looks before they resumed their hushed conversations.
"Will you have a pint of mead to warm you?" our host offered us.
"I'll have one," Caius agreed.
"As will I," Sage chimed in.
The man looked to Bee and me. "Water for the ladies?"
"That would be lovely," Bee confirmed.
He hurried away to do our bidding and gave us time to inspect our surroundings. The second floor was accessed by a narrow flight of wooden steps against the far right wall. A short bar started at the side of the stairs and ran down the room before it stopped five feet short of the far wall. A narrow hall led to a door, and it was through there that our host disappeared. Steam floated out of the portal and the smells of fresh herbs and grilled meat wafted over to us.
Sage swept his eyes over the rough wood walls and worn floors. "Though the decor of country inns leaves something to be desired, the food is of such high quality that one regrets going into the city for a morsel."
"And it's a lot easier to do business in these places, too," Caius added as he cast a glance at the fishermen. Those who stared at us looked away, and Caius grinned. "Nobody will give you the time of day, much less admit they were eavesdropping."
"No doubt you have handled many transactions in places such as these," Sage dryly commented.
Caius shrugged. "I may have had a dealing or two, at least when the pay was big enough."
"Big enough for what?" I asked him.
"Well, I have done a couple of jobs that involved getting into houses," he explained.
Sage scoffed. "No doubt without permission of the owner."
Caius leaned back with his sly smile and folded his arms over his chest. "I would have asked the owners, but they generally weren't home and I kind of liked it that way."
"Were you ever caught?" I wondered.
He shrugged. "A few times, when the info given to me wasn't any good, but I never got into too bad of trouble except when the Blue Binds were involved."
"As we were countless times reminded. . ." Sage muttered.
Our host returned with our drinks and served us himself. Sage took a sip of the drink and smiled up at Balakin. "Wonderful brew. I've heard the winds off the Island of Shadows grant them a unique flavor."
The chatter died as quickly as if Sage had announced that the plague had arrived. Balakin frowned and shook his head. "I wouldn't know anything about that place."
Sage pulled out our heavy leather purse and set the bag on the table. The many coins inside chinked together. "What a pity."
Balakin's eyes grew big as saucers before he gathered himself and turned to the other patrons. "The drinks are on the house and you can finish them at home."
The fishermen took their mugs in hand and stood, but eyed the bag and their host with envy. They shuffled out of the building, leaving the room in a still silence.
One fisherman, however, remained at his table with his half-finished mug before him. Balakin frowned at him. "That goes for you, too, Tarovich."
The man wore a broad-brimmed hat beaten by time and the elements. He raised his head and revealed a wrinkled old face with a long gray beard. His eyes were sharp and his teeth even sharper as he sneered at our host. "I'm not fool enough to get scared every time that place is mentioned, and I think you're a fool to let these outsiders know the tales that belong to us."
"If no one speaks of the place then outsiders must be the ones to hear the tales, or who else will remember them?" Sage countered.
Tarovich leapt to his feet and upset his chair which clattered loudly against the boards of the wood floor He slammed his hands on the table and glared at my grandfather. "What you're asking for is to hear misery and lies about people ya don't give a damn about!" He stormed out, taking his mug with him.
Balakin scowled at the door as he shook his head. "The fool. . ."
"Why is he a fool?" Sage inquired.
Our host returned his attention to us and sighed. "You wish to know of the island? Then I will tell you what I know, and I hope your hearts will not be too heavy when my tale is done."
Balakin grabbed one of the empty chair. and placed it in front of our table before he seated himself. He took a deep breath, and began his story.
"Long ago, so long that it was a dim memory even to my great-grandfather, the castle on the island was owned by a count of the house of Devin. He was well-loved by everyone about the village and his servants, and his beautiful wife was equally cherished by all. He was older than her by many years, but their love was true. That is, until one stormy night after a thick fog had settled over all the land." He paused and glanced out the window. His bushy eyebrows crashed down. "Much like tonight."
"Isn't it foggy around here a lot?" Caius wondered.
Balakin returned his attention to us and nodded. "Yes, but not this fog. This fog was different. It was thick and heavy with evil."
Sage arched an eyebrow. "That is a heavy accusation against mere water."
Our host shrugged. "I only know what my great-grandfather told me, and he was not one to care for fanciful stories. What he told was the truth, and the truth was that the young count had one vice, and that vice was to dwell on things he shouldn't have."
"What sort of things?" I asked him.
He shook his head. "Not what anyone could understand. His line always had plenty of magic in them, sages some of them were, much like yerself, sir." Sage bowed his head. "This led him to dabble in things he shouldn't have. Playing with magic he shouldn't have touched and pushing Gad from his heart. That's what made him make that fog, and that's what drove him mad. He was working late that night after dining with his wife and friend of his, another foolish young man he'd picked up somewhere on his travels, when something inside him must have driven him insane. He ran down the halls yelling that he'd done it, he'd created what Gad Himself couldn't do. The servants caught him and with the help of his friend settled him down, but he was too crazed to be made sense of. His friend, I forget his name, led him back up to his room for a rest, but when the old manservant, a most loyal man, looked in on them the room was empty.
This distressed the young lady and the castle was roused again in search of them. Noises were heard from the dungeons where he did his work, cries of help. The friend staggered out, bloodied and his clothes torn. He told a tale that curdled the blood of many present, that the master had gone mad and thrown himself into oblivion. A quick search was made and nothing was to be found of him, dead or alive. He had vanished.
The mistress was much distraught at not finding her husband and took some of the books to herself, his journals of his work, and closed herself off in her rooms pouring over them. The friend tried to comfort her, such as he could, but nothing could be done. She had become a victim of those infernal studies, and nothing would dissuade her that her husband was not gone forever, perhaps even in the arms of another woman.
One night, only a week after the master's disappearance, the mistress stormed out of her room and down the hall to the room of the friend. There was a terrible row and she left the room with a slam of the door. The old manservant asked if he could be helping, but the friend was too distracted to even answer. He just kept muttering something about the master and mistress, and the next moment there was a great explosion.
The shaking came from the dungeon. The friend yelled something about how she would doom them all, and he raced downstairs ahead of all the others. A black fog poured out of the door to the basement and fell over those that were crowded about the portal. The terrible darkness held within it some hideous, unnatural feeling in it, such that most fled but the old servant and a few others. The servant commanded the windows be opened and the fog escaped out through them. The hall before the dungeon door cleared and it was found that the young gentleman had disappeared. The mistress, too, could not be found." A dark look passed over his face. "At least, nothing natural."
"Ghosts?" I suggested.
He shook his head. "No. Far worse. What returned were their phantoms, the black remains of their crimes against Gad. They were dark shapes that moved about the halls, walking without rest until the day Gad takes us all." He leaned back and sighed. "The castle was without a master and mistress, and haunted as it was the servants would not stay. The castle was abandoned and stands as you now see it, dark and empty."
"This sounds a little too far-fetched to be true," Caius mused.
Balakin sat up straight and glared at Caius. "I know it is true, for my own great-great-grandfather was the old manservant, and he waited for his master to return until his dying day."
"You spoke of no locals visiting the island, but have outsiders such as us ventured onto those rocky shores?" Sage wondered.
Balakin nodded. "They have, and most don't come back. Some come back, but they were changed." He tapped his temple. "Up here. Broken and blighted. They have never told us what happened. They only leave and never return." He eyed us with a sharp gaze. "If you know what is good for you, you would leave the island alone. Nothing awaits you there but death, or worse."
"We have to go there," I spoke up.
Balakin sighed and shook his head. "If you will not listen to reason than I will not stop you. As you wished, I have chartered a boat that will take you over, but it will not take you back until the morning."
"That will work," Sage assured him as we stood. "If you would pack our supper we will continue our journey." Balakin cast a look of pity at us before he slipped away into the kitchen. Sage turned to me with searching eyes. "You are sure you wish to proceed?"
I shook my head. "Not after that story, but we have to try. Besides, maybe Caius is right and the story isn't all that true."
I wish I could have believed my own words, but deep down there was something horribly real about the story Balakin told to us. We were soon to find out just how real it all was.