The road from the infamous 'Dontgointhe Castle' is bright and cheery. The trees that surround it shimmer with emerald green leaves and are intertwined and interconnected with vines. Unseen birds chirp and caw, and when the breeze is just right, the mossy smell of the swamp can be detected.
It's still early afternoon, but Zahn is feeling a bit rushed. The just barely dried plaster casting he carries is wrapped in protective cloth, mostly to make sure nobody can see it clearly. It was enough of a hassle dealing with just Gunther and his discovery letting others find out would just make things worse. Like the Lapi boy with antlers sitting on a Rughrat up ahead, just in front of the castle's ruined gate.
"Gunther is too hyper for his own good," Zahnrad grumbles and he half walks and half runs up the road, carefully cradling the bundle in his arms. He spots Kalvin up ahead and calls out, "Something wrong?"
The little shepherd turns and gives a little wave to the Kadie, but doesn't speak until Zahnrad is closer. "The otters want my Axel, but I think he's still inside the castle. I'm afraid to go ask," Kalvin explains.
"Afraid? Why?" Zahnrad asks as he reaches the Lapi. "Sure, the doctor is a little odd, and come to think of it I haven't seen Rey since he went in there, but she seems pretty harmless. Her servant is more worrying."
"The garden spooks my Rughrat," Kalvin says. "I'm smaller than a Rughrat, so anything that spooks them scares me."
"Eh, come with me, then," Zahnrad offers and pushes the gate open and steps into the dilapidated courtyard. "Anyone home?" he calls out.
A few moments after the shout, the door creaks open and the hodgepodge face of Igor pokes out. "Who wan'th to know… oh! Young marthter Thahnrad and… a thpecimen for the doctor'th collection?"
"No, he's Kalvin and he's here to collect Axel," Zahnrad says quickly. "I have something I need to compare to the stuff we found in the cellar."
"Akthel?" Igor asks. "The bird man? Didn't he leave with you latht time?"
"No?" Zahnrad says and eyes the strange rat. "Come to think of it, neither did the other Eeee. So … just what have you done with them, hm?"
"Oh, that Rey chap made himthelf right at home, he did," Igor says, and gives one of his strange wheezing chuckles. "Haven't theen Akthel though, unleth… uh… "
Zahnrad approaches the rat and motions for Kalvin to come on. "Unless what?" he asks and eyes Igor suspiciously.
"Unleth he never came up from the bathement," Igor notes, standing back from the door a bit. "There'th a privy down there, tho I gueth he wouldn't need to come up until he got hungry."
Zahnrad rolls his eyes. "We'd better go look, then. Sorry that Olivia's not with me, by the way," he notes. "And can I put this mold down somewhere?"
"The doctor ith collecting mold now too?" Igor asks in surprise. "Thee doethn't theme fond of muthroomth though… "
"Not that sort of mold," Zahnrad grumbles. "As in, an impression. I need to compare it to those claws we found."
"And she probably doesn't like fried mushrooms," Zahnrad adds with a grin. "I mean, yuck."
"Oh, I think thothe are thtill in her thtudy," Igor says, since Zahn already knows the way there. "Thall I wake up the doctor?"
"Please do. She's still in bed at this hour?" Zahnrad asks.
"Thee hathn't been getting much thleep," Igor says, and cackles in his hehn-hehn-hehn laugh again after letting the visitors inside.
"Rey, eh?" Zahn inquires as he steps inside. "Seems the doctor got herself a second live in servant, eh?" The Kadie then looks around quickly for Gaspode. He's not had a good experience with that thing yet.
There's no sign of the evil black one-eyed Creen in the main hall, thankfully. Kalvin follows Zahn closely, his antlers seeming to poke the Kadie's tail every so often.
"You can come out, you know," Zahn tells Kalvin.
"I like it under here," the Lapi replies. "Would you like me to take that mold to the thtudy while you look for your friend?" Igor asks. "It could be thome time before the doctor is prethentable."
Zahnrad offers the bundle to the rat. "Don't drop it, it's mostly dry and still very fragile," the Kadie warns. "So, mind if I go down to the cellar while you rouse the doctor?"
"Not at all," Igor says, carrying the mold as if it were a full bowl of acid. "Thothe thtairs are annoying, unleth you want to rithk uthing the elevator."
"No, stairs are fine," Zahn says and starts heading in the direction of the stairwell. "Thanks again and come on Kalvin. It's really not that bad in here. They're all crazy, but they're harmless… "
"Mmm," is all Kalvin has to say to that. At least the journey down the ever spiraling staircase doesn't seem to phase him. Even the swamp stink at the bottom elicits little more than a sneeze.
"Geh. It still stinks down here," Zahnrad complains. He peers around the dilapidated corridor for a moment, then calls out, "Hey, Axel! You down here?"
All of the doors along the hall are closed, but one near the canal is open slightly. The pipe room door.
"He probably got himself killed," Zahnrad grumbles and heads towards the only open door. "Why did you call him your Axel?" Zahn asks Kalvin.
"He's my pet," Kalvin says.
"Your pet? Isn't he a person?" Zahn asks.
"Is he?" Kalvin asks, looking serious. But then, he always looks serious. "He's not a Rughrat, or a Lapi, or an otter or anything like other people or animals."
"Well, he was a human I think, and they're people," Zahnrad points out, then just shrugs. "So, do you feed and bathe him?"
"Yes, but sometimes Parsley does it too," Kalvin notes.
Opening the door further reveals that the pipe room is, indeed, occupied.
"Parsley bathes everyone, I think," Zahn points out, then peeks into the room.
Among the twisty-turny array of countless pipes, a spray of feathers can be seen. The trail of feathers leads further among the pipes, like a trail of breadcrumbs.
"Hey, Axel, you in here?" Zahnrad calls into the room with all the piping. "Kalvin has been looking for you."
A shadow in the back of the room begins to stir, rising slowly. One three-digit hand reaches over to take hold of a pipe as it begins to stand. The blackness seems to spread as the being moves, casting off from its outline like some sort of miasma.
"Oh no, he needs another bath," Kalvin says, letting out a sigh. "Parsley will blame me for letting him get all sooty."
"Uh. This is bad," Zahnrad notes and starts backing up. He urges Kalvin to do the same.
Not all of the blackness is attached to the moving creature some of the pipes have also been darkened by heat.
There's an ominous scraping noise as the creature's three-digit hand pulls on a pipe, helping it rise. The noise is rather like a knife against metal, the shrill sound of a sharp edge against a smooth surface. Once fully risen, the creature spreads its wings, creating a winged black silhouette that dwarfs both the Kadie and the Lapi.
"Uh," Zahnrad says again and reaches for the door. Slowly, he starts to close it. "We really better go," he whispers to Kalvin. The Kadie's tail is puffed out rather more than usual.
"Axel?" Kalvin whispers.
Silently, the shadow seems to stare at the two smaller beings, until …
Ah-choo! The miasma bursts forward, scattering like an enveloping cloud of darkness. Ah-choo! AH-CHOO! The creature breaks into a fit of sneezing, its claws squealing against the pipes as it tries to maintain its balance.
"Eeek!" Zahnrad says loudly and slams the door shut.
"Was that Axel?" Kalvin asks Zahn outside the room.
"Well, I'm not really sure. We might want to fetch the doctor. And perhaps a horde with torches, pitchforks, and axes," Zahnrad suggests.
"Are you all right, Axel?" Kalvin calls through the door, saying each word very slowly.
The squealing, shink-shreek noise of claws echoes from inside the room, muffled by the door. The sounds continue, along with the rattling of pipes, and a subtle brushing, rising in volume slowly.
Zahn puts his hand on Kalvin's shoulder. "You were afraid of the garden, but not of that?" he asks, looking confused. "That thing can't be safe."
"It can't?" Kalvin asks, then looks at the door. "There isn't a lock. Are you going to hold it closed?"
The noises draw closer, each sound dropping off suddenly, until they all go silent.
"No, that's why we should leave," Zahn tells the Lapi. He eyes the door worriedly.
When Zahnrad eyes the door, the handle suddenly jiggles.
"I don't want to run up all those stairs," Kalvin says. "Can we just hide?"
"Where?" Zahn asks and waves around. "One of the other rooms? Let's go try the elevator." The Kadie starts backing away from the door and keeping an eye on it.
The elevator is a little cubby-closet inside a small room next to the stairs. It's still down, where it was left the last time it was used, so there's no way to tell if it will actually go up again.
The door rattles more, then, like the sounds, suddenly stops. Stops, until it shakes with a sudden thump, followed by an echoing cry, inhuman, sounding like a large Korv crying scrawk!
"Well, it sure acts like Axel," Zahnrad grudgingly admits and stops. "A doorknob is confusing it."
"Doorknobs are confusing," Kalvin asserts, clinging to one of Zahn's legs.
"Oh, they are not," Zahnrad argues. "Well, except for the one built by an uncle. It requires you hang upside down, turn it, belch, pull, then … what am I saying?!? We're a door away from some horrific monster and we're discussing doorknobs!"
The doorknob doesn't confuse it for long, anyway. Slowly the doorknob turns, then the door swings inwards, hitting the wall with a thump. Standing in the doorway is large figure of blackness and wings, still casting off a faint haze. At this distance it's obvious the figure isn't all shadows and miasma its eyes glow red, too.
"What's an elevator?" Kalvin suddenly asks.
"A movable room," Zahnrad explains quickly. He eyes the creature and calls out, "Hey, if you don't stop scaring him I'll get a bucket of water!" A sure test of Axelness: threaten with water.
"Water," the creature wheezes in a scratchy, squawky voice. It stands there for a moment, eyeing Zahnrad, then it mumbles groggily as it trudges across the room. Black clouds trail behind it, and several feathers fall in its wake. It seems to be walking towards a door in the middle of the hall, across from the blood-stained room Zahnrad remembers.
From the looks of the creature, it appears different than Axel. For one, Axel isn't usually covered in blurry black stuff. Secondly, Axel has more fingers than the creature smaller, more human, and less sharp-looking fingers. Thirdly, Axel's wings weren't nearly as full when last Zahnrad and Kalvin saw him. It, who or whatever it is, trudges towards the bathroom, then pushes the door open.
Zahnrad looks down at Kalvin. "Uh, I don't think that's Axel. We'd better go up," he says and backs slowly into the elevator. "Now, how does this one work… "
The box of the elevator isn't very big, but it's enough to fit a Kadie and a small Lapi. The only apparent control is a pull-cord dangling from a small hole in the ceiling of the elevator.
Zahnrad gives it a firm and steady pull.
There's a clunk from behind the wall, and the sound of running water when the cord is pulled, and then the elevator car lurches and begins to move. Downward.
Zahnrad acks, "Wrong way!" He pulls the cord again.
The car stops, about halfway below floor level, so there's still room to get out if needed.
Zahnrad sighs and lifts Kalvin out first. "Okay, stairs it is," he grumbles.
The creature lurches into the bathroom, then shuts the door. A clamor ensues.
Kalvin hurries to the foot of the stairs, pauses, then hurries back towards Zahn. "Another one is coming down the stairs!" he squeaks.
"It's probably just the doctor," Zahnrad insists as he squeezes himself up and out of the elevator. "It'd better be, anyway."
"Zahnrad?" comes the voice of Dr. Pike, as she comes out of the stairwell. "Are you down here? What is making all that noise?"
"You have a monster in your basement," Zahnrad calls back. "It's currently attacking your privy."
After some rattling, a few clatters, and a thump, the bathroom is quiet except for the sound of running water.
"See?" Zahn says and heads towards the stairs, looking for the doctor.
"Oh… my," the Eeee squeaks, fiddling with her glasses. "I don't suppose Amelia is here with you?"
"Haven't seen her for a couple days," Zahnrad admits. "Don't you have any monster-catching gear? Or any of those growling tomatoes we can throw at it, at least?"
The sound of running water dwindles to a stop, and then the door pulls inward slowly, opening to reveal glowing red eyes and a winged black outline.
"Eeep?" the Doctor queries. "I only handle small creatures, and THAT is bigger than I am!" she notes, and looks like she's about to faint. "Did it get Axel?"
"Probably. We'd better get up the stairs," Zahnrad says quickly. He just picks Kalvin up and tosses him onto his shoulder like a sack of flour. "You didn't experiment on Axel, did you?"
After stepping out, the creature extends to full height, reaching its claws for the ceiling… and then it just sits down and leans back against the wall. The smacking of lips can be heard, quietly, followed by a yawn.
"Umm, just examinations," Pike says, pausing on the bottom stair as the creature sits down. "It isn't acting very dangerous though, whatever it is. Are you sure it isn't just Axel covered in soot?"
"Any buckets of water down here?" Zahnrad asks without taking his eyes off the thing.
"Well, there's the bathroom," Pike notes, pointing to the door just next to the monster. "I never looked around for buckets. Maybe in the storage closet… uh, at the other end of the hall."
The creatures opens its mouth and says something in a harsh-sounding language, before rustling its wings and casting forth another cloud of shadow.
"Is Igor close by? Can we throw him at it to see what happens?" Zahnrad inquires next. "Or what about that other bat, Rey?"
"He was still sleeping when Igor woke me up," Pike says. "And Igor hates coming down the stairs. Why is he never around when I really need him?" she complains.
"Did you need me for thomething, Mithreth," Igor says, predictably, from right behind Dr. Pike where he was hidden by her wings.
"That's what makes him Igor," Zahn notes and rubs the bridge of his nose. "Can we throw you at the monster?"
"Aaaagh! Don't DO that!" the Eeee complains loudly. "You always do that! You'll give me a seizure!"
"How can you not hear him coming with those ears?" Zahn asks the Eeee.
"Throw me, young Marthter?" the pseudo-Skreek asks Zahn. "What monthter are you referring to?"
"He's very quiet, and I was distracted," Pike mumbles.
Zahnrad points at the bird-creature sitting in the hallway.
"What, ith it behind mithter Akthel then?" Igor asks, trying to crane his neck to look around the creature.
The winged darkness rustles its wings and yawns again, when pointed at. It says something in the same harsh-sounding language then waves at Kalvin.
"That can't be Axel," Zahn insists. "Why, if it's Axel, then I'll try to convince Olivia to come talk to you."
"He'th thpeaking Bothch," Igor says. "I'm a bit ruthty on Bothch."
Kalvin waves back automatically.
"Axel spoke Sylvanian," Pike notes.
"You're importing Bosch monsters here," Zahnrad says accusingly to Dr. Pike.
"It's a nice language," the creature agrees in a squawky, deeper sounding but familiar voice. The language is Sylvanian, with a hint of sleepiness.
"I… what?" Pike asks, turning to stare at Zahn incredulously. "I never… besides, you can't… "
"Well, how else would you get a Bosch monster here?" Zahnrad asks, still eying the Eee. "And you said you were doing monster research." His tail twitches a bit in agitation.
"Remindth me of the thound of thtew cooking," Igor says, nodding agreeably. It makes one wonder what sort of stew the servant makes though.
With a hand, the monster gestures Kalvin over to him.
"Now, look here young man, I… hey, he spoke normally!" Pike says.
Zahnrad spins around to stare at the creature again.
The Lapi walks over to the sitting creature, and says, "If that is you, Axel, Parsley is going to be very cross with us. And the otter girl wants you too."
Zahnrad erks! He makes a grab for the Lapi. "Don't go near it!" he says quickly, tail thwacking Dr. Pike in the process.
"Oh." The sitting figure reaches up and pushes its black hair back, then rubs its nose. The rubbing leaves a stretch of tan-colored skin exposed, and a rim of soot around it. He reaches up to try and take Kalvin's hand when the Lapi is snatched away.
"Watch it!" Pike says, fumbling for her dislodged spectacles. Kalvin stops short, and looks back at the mess. "What? Oh… right. I'd get dirty and need a bath too. Thank you, Mr. Zahn."
Igor shuffles past the others, to get a better look at Axel. "Did you thet yourthelf on fire again, Akthel? Olivia warned me that you might do that."
"Did she … " The figure sounds thoughtful, as if it weren't quite sure if Olivia did or didn't. After a moment, it nods, and then begins to rise. "She did," he agrees as he gets up. Stretching his wings back, Axel warns, "I don't want to get you dirty step away, please."
Zahnrad just rubs his temples. "Can we have a normal day in this town? Just once? Please?" the Kadie says and looks upward at the ceiling briefly. Then with a glance over his shoulder he says to Pike, "Sorry, Kadie tails have a mind of their own."
"As do the hands of certain Eeee, I've found," Pike grumbles, setting her glasses aright. "Now then… everything dealt with here? And yes, please step back. I don't want anyone tracking soot all over the place… "
Zahnrad obligingly backs up.
Igor and Kalvin move even further away. It isn't clear if Igor ever actually bathes, and nobody really wants to think about it in any case.
Slowly, Axel begins to beat his swings back and forth, picking up speed until there's a small gale blowing about the place. Like a gigantic feather duster and fan, he dislodges much of the soot from his body, revealing he isn't quite the same Axel that came down here. His feathers have fully formed all across his wings, and his hands are that of a Korv; long, tri-digit, and taloned. His eyes glowing no longer appear to be a trick of the light; they really do glow, like embers resting in a fire pit. Once the soot is mostly sent swirling off down the hall, he relents on beating his wings, smiling pleasantly. "You all woke me up. Where are we," he asks.
"Uh, basement of the Eeee's" Zahnrad explains and points over his shoulder with his thumb.
"You need some clothes, too," Pike says, examining the ceiling after 'accidentally' glancing down at Axel's lower half.
"He always needs clothes," Zahnrad notes, "He burns them off regularly."
"Well, that mutht thave on laundry choreth then," Igor jokes, hehn-hehn-wheezing afterwards.
"And you … are Zahnrad," Axel declares, pointing a talon at the Kadie. "Pike … Doctor Pike … Igor … Kalvin!" He points to everyone individually, and especially beams at Kalvin. He then tilts his head, frowning. "Clothes … " he murmurs, before he heads back to the pipe room.
"Vhat is goin' on down here?" comes a sleepy-sounding Eeee voice from behind the group.
"Perhapth Mithter Rey can loan you hith clotheth, Akthel," Igor says. "It ithn't like he ever utheth them." Pike glares daggers at Igor's back after that comment.
"Oh, Rey, you're awake!" Dr. Pike says, sounding suddenly cheery. "You didn't have to come all the way down here though."
There's obviously some truth to that, as Rey has come down wearing a frilly and gaudy pink robe of some sort loosely draped over his shoulders. Underneath, well, the Eeee is bare. "I gots vorried vhen I voke up an vou veren't aroun'," the Eee notes. "I didn' get to vake vou like I usually do… "
Dr. Pike scratches idly at the scarf around her neck, and says, "Ah, well… business and all. The locals depend on me for advice and such in certain matters. That's why you came, isn't it Zahnrad?"
Axel wanders into the pipe room and can be heard to rummage around a bit. Shorty after, he returns with his pants, sash, and vest. "Clothes," he declares, holding them up before he begins to dress.
"You remembered to take them off, that's good," Kalvin says, and gives Rey an odd look. "Are you a vampire, Mr. Gypsy?" he asks bluntly.
"Ah, ves, vell, don' let me interrupt vou business. Vou always get so excited vhen you t'ink vou had a breakthrough," Rey says with a rather sly and fangy grin. He then blinks at the reappearance of Axel and comments, "Okay, dat is de weirdest t'ing I ever see."
Rey then grins fangily at Kalvin. "I be a vampire, ves," he says just as bluntly.
"Did you bite a Lapi girl on the butt last night?" Kalvin asks next.
"Ah, business, right," Zahnrad says, remembering why he came. "Did you see the molds I brought yet? They were made from a fresh tunnel dig."
"I remember," Axel agrees, sounding distant. He climbs into his pants, pulls on his vest, then begins trying to tie his sash around. Every so often he pauses, looking at his hands as if they were unfamiliar to him, flexing the talons and making low squawky sounds.
"No. I be occupied," Rey replies and points to Dr. Pike. "An I sure she can vouch fer dat."
"Oh, I thought I smelled fresh plaster," Pike says, then chokes a bit at being pointed out as Rey's alibi. "Uh, we can go look at it now, if everything is in order here?"
Zahn glances over his shoulder at Axel, then to Kalvin. "Can you handle him?" he asks the Lapi.
"Are there lots of vampires with the Gypsies?" Kalvin asks next, as if going through a list of questions in his head. "Ones that could carry someone like me while flying?"
"Dere are a few, bu' we can' carry anyone wit us vhen ve fly. No very strong, so no go very far vhen trying to carry someone," Rey tells the Lapi.
Kalvin sniffs at the answer, and says, "Okay then, thank you Mr. Vampire." He nods to Zahn, then tells Axel, "That otter girl, Nene or maybe it was Bebe, they look alike came 'round and said you had to go see Dame Natasha at the Gypsy camp soon as you were found, because someone's been hurt and they mentioned your name."
"Vell, I be seeing vou later," Rey tells Pike, then leans over and whispers something in her ear. "Haf fun wit de vork."
Axel finally manages to tie his sash, then he walks over and scoops Kalvin up. With a swing of his arm, Kalvin's riding Axel's shoulder. Given the ceiling height, though, his antlers brush against it. "Someone is hurt?" Axel frowns. "I'll go. This is Stonebarrow, isn't it? Not … " The avian man looks around, frowns more, and shakes his head, " … no, it's not. Bravil and … Miranda? … aren't here either."
"Miranda?" Zahnrad says, momentarily distracted from the mold discussion. "Isn't she the one who was hurt?"
Dr. Pike blushes at the whisper, and discreetly pats the retreating Eeee on the bum.
"Ta," Rey says as he slinks back up the stairwell.
"Yeah, Miranda got bit on the butt and left in the bath spring," Kalvin says. "That's what Nene or Bebe told me. So we have to go see about it."
"This involves the bath incident too. My brother found claw marks. I think they look similar to those claws we found down here. I wanted to compare them," Zahnrad tells Pike.
"Miranda was here, or, … " Axel eyes the pipe chamber, then looks around again. "I don't know. She wasn't hurt before, not that way."
"Well, let's go look then, shall we?" Dr. Pike says.
"Sorry I don't remember everything the otter said," Kalvin says. "She talked fast."
"It's okay, Kalvin." Axel reaches up with his free hand and pats Kalvin on the shoulder. "I'm glad to see you."
"Yes. Kalvin, uh, Axel? Be careful. Something strange is going on. Well, stranger than … okay, it's Stonebarrow, never mind," Zahnrad says, looking rather frustrated as the town weirdness derailed his little commentary. "Igor was taking the molds to your office."
"I left them there before going to wake the doctor," Igor says. He's looking at the bits of soot left in the corridor now, and sighing. "I gueth I'll clean up down here while you go off and look at interethting thingth."
Axel nods slowly, as if he understands perfectly. "The winds of fate are always strange," he offers. He also reaches over and pats Igor, offering, "I'll return to help you, if you wait for me."
"Can't you use the soot with your spiders to make things look more creepy?" Zahnrad suggests to Igor, "Like sooty trails going up the walls from the candles?"
"You should probably come back soon for more tests, Axel," Pike notes. "You've changed noticeably, and there may be other effects we don't see."
"Rey might get jealous if you keep poking another monster," Zahnrad teases slightly…
"Thoot ith too thooty to be thuitable for thuch thingth," Igor laments.
"That makes no sense," Zahn tells Igor flatly.
"I don't want to make anyone jealous," Axel insists, sounding concerned.
"Ahem, that's quite enough teasing for one day," Dr. Pike says. "And Igor, my tongue hurts after listening to that comment."
Zahnrad starts up the stairwell, figuring if someone doesn't move they'll just stay down there forever.
Pike hurries up as well, leaving Axel and Kalvin to follow, or to stay with Igor.
Axel just follows right after Zahnrad, carrying Kalvin in his shoulder.
"I feel a lot better, Kalvin. I had a good dream," Axel tells Kalvin as they walk up the winding stair way. "I'll tell you all about it later, when we are at ease again."
"Alright," Kalvin says, ducking his head a bit. "I hope you will sleep at night now. Your eyes will attract bugs otherwise."