“Goodnight, Dan!” Stuart called out semi-mockingly. This was going to be an easy win. He’d seen way too many horror movies and read way too many horror novels to fall for this set-up. Obviously, the old man stood to inherit the castle if Elliott failed tonight and so he was going to do everything he could to scare the guys and take the place for his own. And why not? It made sense to Stuart. He’d do it, too.
Closing the door, Stuart took in his surroundings. He’d chosen this room because it had a large bookcase filled with ancient volumes and, who knew? There could be a Necronomicon or De Vermis Mysteriis or Cultes des Goules up there. Old castles always had lots of magic books, right?
In the middle of the room, standing atop a threadbare green rug, was Stuart’s bed, a rickety twin size with a musty looking mattress. At the foot of the bed stood a small case with two hinged doors. Inside the case, Stuart found candles, matches, sheets and a blank notebook with a pencil. As the light was already growing dim, he lit three candles.
On the other end of the room, Stuart found a battered desk. It was one of those desks with lots of little drawers, and Stuart opened each one finding nothing until the last. Pulling out the drawer, he heard a rattling inside and, upon further investigation, discovered the drawer had a false bottom. Sliding the false bottom out of its slot, revealed a small silver key. Stuart held it up to get a better look at it. Engraved into the top was the strange triangular symbol from the old man’s parchment.
“Must be, like, the sign of this castle or something,” he said to himself.
Stuart glanced around the room, but didn’t see anything that might require a key to open. He began perusing the books.
As he’d suspected, most of the volumes were written in languages other than English. Stuart was fluent in French, Spanish and Greek, but his Latin was rusty and his Gaelic practically nonexistent.
He pulled book after book down from the shelves, holding their covers up to the candlelight.
“Dang,” he said as each one proved more impenetrable than the last. “Dang.”
Just as he was about to give up, he noticed a slim, shiny volume on the bottom shelf. The cover was made of a textured leather, dyed yellow and lacking any writing. Stamped into the cover, however, was the mysterious symbol from the key.
“Well, well, well,” Stuart said, “This looks totally scarifying.”
He tried opening the book. The cover wouldn’t budge. There was no lock holding it shut, at least no visible lock.
“That’s weird,” Stuart muttered to himself. He ran his fingers along the front and back of the book, feeling for a latch or indentation. The spine was slightly curved and at the apex of the curve, Stuart felt what seemed to be a slight flaw in the binding. He pushed against the flaw and felt something inside the book shift. Just a small vibration as if some internal mechanism had been triggered. Still, the cover would not open.
“Oh, it’s going to be like that, is it?” Stuart asked the book. It gave no response, which Stuart interpreted as a further challenge.
Settling himself on the bed and pulling a candle closer, Stuart began his examination of the book in earnest. He flipped it over, rapped on the cover, scratched at the pages and finally, after a few more minutes, his fingernail snagged another imperfection.
“Gotcha,” Stuart whispered.
Another movement from inside the book. The candle fluttered. The room seemed to grow slightly cooler.
Stuart’s face was covered in a sheen of sweat. He now felt as if this book – and the knowledge contained within – were the only things he cared about in the world. He had to get in. Had to! His fingers flew across its surface, studying its bumps and contours. Stuart began breathing more heavily as his hands spun and flipped the volume this way and that.
“There has to be one more switch,” he said. “I can’t see it! Where is it?!”
As he grew more and more agitated, the breeze in the room seemed to pick up, blowing across his neck and back. The candle flame sputtered on the verge of blowing out.
“The candle!” Stuart suddenly yelled and leaping up, he snuffed it out with his fingers.
Now, in the pitch black, Stuart felt the book in his hands. It was like holding a lover’s face; he knew it so well. Had studied it for years. He exhaled and, had he been able to see, would have noticed his breath crystalizing in the air in front of his face.
Slowly, he ran his thumbs up the spine of the book. He felt a snag and pushed.
The yellow volume heaved in his hands. He almost dropped it, the movement was so strong. More than the small vibration of before, it was a complete shifting of weight. Like an animal gaining consciousness and smelling the air around it.
Stuart tried to open the book in the dark. Still, it would not budge.
An intense anger flooded his senses and he was about to heave the book across the room when the image of the key floated before his unseeing eyes. Scrambling in the dark, he located the silver key in his pants pocket. He searched with his hands for a keyhole – there had to be one! This had to be it! But, he found nothing. Just the impression of the symbol on the front cover.
Stuart took the key and, laying it on the book cover, positioned it so the symbol on the key lined up with the symbol on the book.
The pages flew open. Words spilled out across Stuart’s hands. What did they say? How were they crawling up his arms? When had the candle relit? Who was in the doorway?
Stuart looked at Dan standing in the entrance to his room. Dan’s eyes were missing and the skin around his mouth had been pulled back exposing skull, gums and teeth.
“I found a book,” Stuart said.
“Let me read it,” The Dan thing said.
The door to Stuart’s room slammed shut and Stuart’s screams began in earnest, mixed with laughter and the wonder of a good book.
“You boys behave tonight!” Elliott called down the hall and shut his door. He was shaken. This little adventure did not feel right, not at all. First was the extreme fatigue. Never had he been this tired. He’d been all over the world, had travelled back and forth from America to parts unknown on numerous occasions, and had never been hit like this. Was he sick? He didn’t feel sick, exactly. It was like something was draining his spirit. Something in this castle. Castle O’Kalan? The more he thought about it, the less sense it made. He didn’t have any ancestors in Ireland, for criminy’s sake! What had put that in his head?
He took out his cell phone. No bars, just like the old man had said. No bars in this cell, he thought and smiled. Normally, he’d come up with some sort of clever play on words, but looking around, he didn’t feel like making jokes.
The room he’d picked had seemed cozy on first glance. It was also the only room that came with pre-lit candles in the wall sconces. That offered some comfort, but not a lot. The lack of windows had made him feel at ease, like nothing could get in. But, now he realized it felt more like he couldn’t get out. Cell, indeed.
Elliott opened his door. He looked up and down the dark hallway. Stuart and Dan were probably already settling in – Dan was probably already asleep by now; that guy could sleep through the “1812 Overture” if he was playing the cannonball – but, Elliott knew he wouldn’t be sleeping tonight. Besides, they didn’t use actual cannonballs in the “1812 Overture.” That would be stupid.
Throwing open the cardboard box at the foot of his bed – that seemed to be the old man’s idea of a “footlocker” – Elliott tossed the sheets, candles and matches onto the floor. At the bottom of the box, was a journal and a pencil. The journal was tied shut with ribbon, and looked new. Elliott lit a candle and brought it over to where he was sitting. Untying the ribbon, Elliott flipped through the journal. The pages were all blank.
Elliott set the journal down and then picked it back up. Something was nagging at him. Something about this entire scenario. Old castle? Mysterious benefactor? It was hitting too many familiar beats. He’d seen enough bad movies to recognize lazy storytelling; and, this was some of the laziest he’d ever experienced.
So, what would a lazy storyteller do in this situation? Well, a blank journal left in a box of supplies was obviously meant to be found. But, why?
Elliott flipped through the journal again. The pages steadfastly remained blank.
“What would the Hardy Boys do?” he said.
Holding the journal up to the candle, he turned the book so he was looking at the pages edge-on. He adjusted his positioning in minute increments and slowly flipped the pages until he saw what he was looking for. Setting the book in his lap, Elliott picked up the pencil and began to lightly rub the lead over the seemingly blank page. As if by magic, words appeared on the pages.
“Of course,” Elliott said. This whole trip was following a script. He felt like he should be two steps ahead of it, if only his head wasn’t so foggy. Peering at the page, Elliott began reading the words out loud.
“They. Are. Gone.” he read, “And. You. Are. Next.” He looked up. Was the candle being blown by something?
“Do. Not. Look. For. Them. Where. You. Can. See. Them. Look. For. Them. Where. Your. Sight. Does. Not. Go.”
Who? Elliott wondered. Look for who? Stuart and Dan? That couldn’t be it. That was DuckTales-level mystery solving. Nothing would be that obvious.
Wait. DuckTales. Something about the opening theme song of DuckTales was playing around in his head. What was it that happened? Huey was climbing a cliff during the “D-d-d-danger” part and then the three of them were looking at a gem during the “Watch behind you” part but what happened? Right. Something jumps out at them while they’re focusing on something else. Right when they’d made some sort of discovery, whatever it was that had been out to get them used that moment of distraction to –
Something grabbed Elliott from behind, squeezing the breath out of his lungs.
Something else grabbed his legs. Whipping his head around, Elliott looked into the face of Stuart Wellington.
“Stu!” he managed to gasp out as Stuart’s powerful arms constricted his chest,”Stu! What are you doing?! What happened to your face?!”
Stuart’s face was covered in what looked like writing; but, it was a language Elliott had never seen before. It covered Stuart’s neck, arms and hands. Stuart’s eyes were red and rolled back in his head; a strange rasping came from his throat and a vile black liquid oozed off of his tongue.
Glancing down, Elliott realized that Dan had ahold of his legs. Dan’s arms weren’t nearly as strong as Stuart’s, so it didn’t hurt very much. In fact, Dan wasn’t really having an easy time lifting Elliot.
“Come on, Dan!” Elliott called out, “Lift with your legs! Just, watch your knee!”
The thing that was Dan seemed to shudder with an intense sigh as it looked up at Elliott. So much of Dan’s face had been pulled away, that it was mostly skull that greeted Elliott. The empty eye sockets leaked the same horrid fluid that poured out of Stuart. And, from deep in Dan’s chest, came that pitiful rasping, moaning sound. As if someone had burrowed into Dan’s chest, and was chanting or singing or weeping.
“Dan!” Elliott cried out, “I know it’s you! Fight this! Let me go! We’ve been tricked! We’ve all been tricked and we played right into the hands – or, you guys played into them; I was doing a pretty good job of figuring things out on my own – of, whatever it is that’s been doing this to us!”
Stuart increased the pressure on Elliott’s small frame and Elliott began seeing stars.
“Well,” he said as he faded out, “I always thought this is how I’d go: with you two fighting over me.”
The Dan thing grabbed the sheets Elliott had tossed on the floor and flung them over Elliott’s form. Stuart and Dan bundled up the little man and Stuart hoisted him over his shoulder. As they exited the room, the candle blew out.
“Nope!” Elliott cried, looking around, “None of this!”
He had come to in a dimly lit chamber, tied to a stone table, still wrapped in the sheets from his room. The alter was surrounded by four unlit braziers. To his left, Dan stood against the wall as if waiting for a command. Stuart mirrored him on the other side, but seemed slightly more sure of himself.
“Guys!” Elliott whispered. “Come on, guys! Let me up. Get me out of here! I know it’s you two. Dan! Get me out of here and I’ll never interrupt you again!”
The two figures stood placidly, ignoring the entreaties of their friend.
“Stuart! Stuart, I’ll get you a writing job on the show! I don’t actually know if you want a writing job – it’s a lot of hard work and you’d have me over your shoulder and, frankly, I’m a pretty difficult guy to be around on the best days – but, just get me up! Come on!”
“They won’t listen to you, Mr. Kalan,” came a familiar voice from across the room.
Dilbert O’Kalan had entered, dressed in long purple robes, tied at the waist with a length of rope. Around his neck, he wore a chain with a jewel pendant. In his hands, he held a metal basin and a long blade.
“I have many legions under my command, Mr. Kalan,” the old man said, “and, given the opportunity, they will push a man’s soul from his flesh and inhabit his bones like a fish in a reef.”
“Wait,” Elliott said, “Wait, are you saying a fish wears a reef like a suit? Have you ever seen a reef? Fish don’t walk around in them, like David Byrne’s big suit. Coral reefs aren’t clothes! Reefs? Is it reefs or reeves?”
“Quiet!” cried Dilbert O’Kalan, “You will not distract me so easily. I am not one of your weak-willed compatriots. We have business to attend to and not much time.”
“Oh, well I better make things easy for you! It would certainly be in my best interest to let you get along with whatever it is you’re going to do with that knife and bowl!”
“Oh, Mr. Kalan,” the old man said, “You have no idea the things I’m going to do. I’ve been stuck in this decrepit flesh suit for far too long. Now, it is time for a change.”
“Into what? Into me? You look just like me! It won’t be that big of a change! It’s hardly worth it!”
“Unfortunately, the Kalans and their relatives have always been the only humans capable of containing my essence. I contrived the story of your inheritance to bring you here. I also needed two vessels to serve as retainers to my glory, and you complied nicely by providing them. I am happy you did not bring along that brother of yours. It would have complicated the process.”
“He probably would have started talking about sports, too,” Elliott said.
“Yes, I listen to your program. It is amusing how you denigrate the works of others for the amusement of your social inferiors.”
“I think we have a new tag line,” Elliott said.
“But, enough. I am going to slice you open, remove your soul and enter your body. The procedure will take about five minutes. Your soul will writhe in torment . . . forever.”
Dilbert O’Kalan lit several of the braziers. The pungent sting of incense filled the air. Dilbert began drawing strange diagrams and symbols on the floor around the altar. Elliott struggled against his bindings, but they were far too tight to move.
“Hey, Dilbert!” Elliott cried, “Who are you, really? How are you tied in with my family? Why me? Do you really listen to our podcast?”
“I know what you’re trying to do, Mr. Kalan,” Dilbert said, continuing his work, “You’re trying to distract me while you think of a way to escape. But, don’t you see that even if you got off of the alter, your friends would simply stop you. Stuart is strong, stronger since his transformation. He always had a bit of the rebel about him; now he has everything he always wanted: unnatural strength, cosmic knowledge, eternal life! Dan finally has power over you. He no longer has to put up with your attitude! Your jabs! Your unending stream of useless knowledge!”
“Listen, Dilbert, you can say what you want, but Dan and I are friends. Sure, we rib each other on the show, but what you’re hearing is just a bit!”
“Nonsense! This man has no respect for you! The way he sighs! The way he swears at your singing! Dan McCoy is no friend of yours!”
“He is a friend!” Elliott shouted, “Dan! Aren’t you my friend?”
The Dan thing remained still, but its eyes shifted ever so slightly towards Elliott’s prone figure.
“See?!” Elliott cried, “He looked over at me! That’s a thing! Stu! Tell this guy where he can go and then get me loose!”
Stuart shifted slightly in his place but otherwise remained still.
“It’s working!” Elliott cried, “They’re coming to! They’re going to wake up, set me free and then beat the stuffing out of you, Mr. O’Kalan if that is your real name!”
“They’re not waking up,” Dilbert said, “They can’t ‘wake up’ because, as I keep telling you, their souls are no longer in their bodies! Those are demons in there! Their souls are trapped in eternal torment!”
“Bull! If their souls were trapped, you’d have them somewhere!”
“I do!” Dilbert shouted, exasperatedly, “I have them in this gem around my neck!”
“Ah HA!” Elliott shouted and burst free of the ropes.
“What?!” said a startled Dilbert O’Kalan, “How?!”
“I suspected something was up when I found that terrible secret message in the journal in my room!” Elliott explained, “Fearing the worst, I palmed a few of those matches you’d provided. This whole time we’ve been talking, I’ve been slowly burning through the ropes, trusting that the smell of incense would hide the odor of burning hemp!”
“Well done, Mr. Kalan,” Dilbert calmly intoned, “But, too little too late. Slaves, grab him!”
The Dan thing and Stuart darted towards the altar upon which Elliott now stood. Stuart dove for Elliott’s legs, but a well timed jump allowed Elliott to safely evade his grasp and land on the floor.
“Fools!” Dilbert cried, “Secure him! He must not escape!”
Elliott ran around the alter, straight into the Dan thing.
“Sorry about this, buddy!” he said and kicked with all his might at the Dan thing’s bad knee.
The Dan thing let loose a wild howl and collapsed, moaning with pain.
“Stuart!” Dilbert O’Kalan cried, “Destroy him! I can still use his body, even if it is slightly damaged!”
Stuart darted around the altar. Elliott realized he would be no match for Stuart’s increased speed and strength. He couldn’t go face-to-face with him. He had to get to that gem!
Feinting to the left, Elliott counted on the thing inhabiting Stuart’s body to not be quite as quick-on-the-take as Stuart himself would have been. He guessed correctly and used Stuart’s brief mistake to dart around the other side of the altar, straight at Dilbert O’Kalan.
The old man was quick, but not quick enough. Elliott grabbed Dilbert around the waist, tackling him to the floor. With both hands, he yanked as hard as he could on the chain around the man’s neck and pulled the gem free.
“Ha!” Elliott shouted. But, something wasn’t right. He looked down.
Dilbert O’Kalan had shoved the sacrificial blade into Elliott’s torso, all the way up to the hilt. So sharp was the blade, Elliott hadn’t even felt it go it.
“It’s over, Mr. Kalan,” Dilbert said, “You played along very well. Now, my soul will enter your body and your soul will be trapped forever in torment!”
“Think so?” Elliott choked out, “Well, let’s take a look . . . in the mailbag.”
And, he smashed the gem on the stone floor.
A flash of light. Wind. Dilbert O’Kalan looked up. Elliott was suspended in the air, three feet above his head.
“Elliott!” he cried.
“There is no Elliott,” Elliott said with a deep, rumbling voice, “Only Zuul!”
“This is not possible!” O’Kalan yelled, “What have you done?!”
“It’s more what have you done, spooky!” Elliott spoke, “You cut me open, I let my friend’s souls out. Now, they’re in here with me! Think I’ll take ’em back to New York with me!”
“What? How?!” O’Kalan spluttered.
“I don’t know, man, it’s your little world! I didn’t make the rules. You okay in there, Dan? Yeah, I’m fine. You alright, Stuart. Yeah, eternal torment sucked. What should we do about this guy?”
Elliott turned his head. Across the room, the Dan thing and Stuart were watching everything with interest.
“Hey, chuckleheads,” Elliott said to them, “Is there a rule that, like, once the souls of the bodies you inhabit have been freed, you no longer have to do what this guy says?”
The Dan thing and Stuart looked at each other. Stuart gave a shrug.
“Works for me,” Elliott said, “I guess you can do whatever you want with him.
“No!” O’Kalan shouted, “No! Stay back! I command you! Stay back!”
“Okay, let’s wrap this up. Fine, Dan,” Elliott said, “Sheesh. You’d think you’d be happy to be freed from eternal torment. No, I’m glad you got me out. Got Meowth? No, ‘me’ ‘out’. My words are a little slurred from being trapped in eternal torment for so long. No, I think you said ‘Meowth’ because all you took from this is a reminder of the video games of your misspent youth. Good takeaway, Dan. *sigh*”
“On this episode of ‘The Flop House’ we answer the burning question ‘Is Martin Short more irritating in animated form?’ with a burning ‘yes’.”
Dan hit Pause on the recording program.
“Okay, guys,” he said, “We’re up for doing this?”
“I think so,” Stuart answered, “Got my beers; got my food. Let’s do it.”
“Elliott? You ready?”
“Of course I’m ready, Dan. I didn’t just sit through seven and a half hours of ‘Legends of OZ: Dorothy’s Return’ to not be ready.”
“Well, if your voice starts to get hoarse, let me know.”
“Dan, if my voice starts to get hoarse, you’ll know. How would you not know?”
“I’m just looking out for you, Elliott.”
“Well, thank you, Dan.”
“You’re welcome, Elliott. Okay, here goes.”
Dan hit record.
“Welcome to ‘The Flop House,” he said, “I’m Dan McCoy.”
“I’m Stuart Wellington.”
“And, I’m Elliott Kalan.”
The recording continued. The three Original Peaches spoke at length about a terrible computer animated children’s movie. The banter was quick. The jokes were on-point. There was even an appearance by the House Cat. Elliott sang a Letters Song. Stuart officially retired “Castle Freak.” Dan sighed. Things were pretty much the same as they’d always been.
Except, they only need one mic, now.