* * * *
You turn the corner and stop dead, staring at the dark stone corridor. Your eyes wander unbidden to the left wall, to the chalked X directly under the single torch in that hallway. That same X you put there hours ago.
You turn quickly and hurry back down the way you came. Maybe you made a wrong turn someplace.
You spy a door that you haven't marked and slam your weight into it, knowing from past doors that they require some coaxing before they will let you in.
You catch yourself on the doorframe when the door gives easily. You take in the richly decorated parlor and you realize you've been there, too. You remember losing the chalk in the darkness down a crack in the floor. You close the door and continue down the corridor.
A faint light behind a curtain raises your spirits for a split second as you rush to the window and rip the curtain back. Your hopes crash once more as you glare at the revealed torch, not the sunlight you expected.
There aren't many more doors. You've tried nearly all of them, but every one of them either conceals a torch or a screaming ghost. Your heart probably can't much more of those. Nasty ghouls keep screaming at you and disappearing right before they reach you.
You feel like someone is playing with you. Corridors circle back on themselves, and doors you thought you left far behind are suddenly there again. With each step up a staircase you grow weary and nervous. You haven't found any booby traps, but you guess it's only a matter of time before you're stuck with arrows, chased by rolling boulders, or dropped into a hungry mass of rats.
Suppressing a shiver you force yourself up another flight of stairs. They turn to the right so suddenly you slam into the wall. You hurry up the rest of the stairs and stumble into a spacious and bare room. There aren't any doors. There isn't even a window. Torchlight flickers and makes the shadows dance.
You hear a flutter behind you, and you turn just in time to get a face full of bat. You yelp and swat at the pest. It circles back around and attacks again.
You're not sure how it happens, but you feel your hand connect with the bat's wing, and you see it drop into a dive to recover its balance.
But when you expect it to regain its flight, it hits the floor.
And it's gone.
You stare at the spot uncertainly, muscles tense and ready for the bat's reappearance, maybe with reinforcements.
But the bat doesn't appear. You edge closer to the spot where it disappeared.
Your foot falls through and catches the edge of a step. You lose your balance and crash down a few steps, coming to a sudden and painful stop.
You glance up. The staircase is pitch black. You can't see the torch-lit room anymore. It's like a rug has covered the opening.
But then you remember there was no rug in the room, only stone floor. And yet here you are, lying on a staircase you know wasn't there before.
Well, it's better then turning around, you suppose. You follow the stairs down. They are wide and like the rest they are made of stone. You don't see any more of your white chalk X's. Two days here and you never found this stair.
Of course, the castle is huge. You could have missed it for another week.
You shudder at the thought of being lost in this haunted place for a week. You jolt in alarm when your hand, which has been running along the right-hand wall, brushes against fabric.
You don't see any light from behind it, and you turn away from it.
You stop a few steps away and look back at it.
If a stair can be hidden under the floor...
You pull back the curtain and tentatively reach your hand through. You can't help a smile when there's nothing but air, and upon further investigation you find another staircase, this time it's moving up.
You look down the stairs you've been traveling thus far, then at the ascending staircase. Up or down.
Down, there were plenty of curtains you haven't checked; curtains that you passed over previously because they didn't hold the promise, false or not, of sunlight. Who knows, there might even be hidden stairs or rooms behind walls or under floors.
Up, who knew?
You turn to go down, then stop. That maniacal bat is probably down there, and you'd rather not face that thing again. And if the curtains don't hold any secrets, there's no promise you could even find these stairs again. You're not even entirely sure how you found the room that led you these stairs in the first place.
Steeling yourself, you head through the hidden staircase and begin to ascend.
This staircase winds so often it almost makes you sick. Then the stairs flatten into more corridors, and those twist and writhe as much as the stairs did.
The torches are sparse in these halls. You step cautiously, one hand sliding along the wall. The next torch you reach you try to remove it from its sconce, but like all the others you've tried over the past couple days, it doesn't budge. Whoever put them there made sure no one could ever take them.
A blood-curdling scream hits your ears. You freeze in place. You've heard someone scream a couple times before, but they were so faint you thought it was your imagination.
But now you realize it wasn't your imagination.
You want to run back down the stairs. You don't care if you encounter the bat, or if you starve or go mad. Goodness, you wouldn't care if you found that pit of hungry rats. Anywhere would be better than heading closer to whoever owns this freakish nightmare of a castle. He or she has a sick sense of humor.
You turn to go, to run until you can't run anymore, but footsteps on the stone floor make you stop.
The steps are faint at first, but they grow steadily closer.
Maybe there's another staircase further ahead.
You whirl around and run. You run like you did on day one when you realized you were lost. When you realized the front door was no longer where it should have been.
There are doors. You try each one, but none of them budge. The footsteps are following you, forcing you to keep moving forward. Your breathing grows heavy, and your legs burn. Traversing stairs was murder, and running now was just cruel.
You guess you must have come upon a guarded part of the castle. Whoever is behind you must be a sentry. While this should have comforted you to some degree, knowing you might be able to get out by asking for help, you know that whoever it is could also be your death.
Another scream makes you jump. You stop at the next door and slam your shoulder into the door twice before it grants you passage.
You bolt inside and close the door, and relief washes over you. You lean against the door, gasping and listening as the footsteps approach the door. They stop right in front of it. You hold your breath, but there's no movement.
After a minute, you straighten, watching the door carefully. You turn to survey the room.
It's a small, round room. It's furnished with a canopied bed, a wardrobe, and a single chair in the middle of the room.
The presence of the old man on the chair makes you jump in surprise. He doesn't look up from his lap, on which there are scraps of paper. In his wrinkled hand a pen scrawls endlessly.
When he finishes with one paper scrap, he tosses them to the ground. You watch, slack-jawed, as a breeze takes hold of them before they touch the floor and whisks them out the window.
You rush to it, inhaling the sharp, cold ocean air. You're very high up, but right now you don't particularly care. You found the outside. You can work with this. It's nighttime now. The moon is full and bright.
A scrap of paper brushes your cheek. You grab it, but it turns to ash at your touch. You try another one, and it too turns to ash.
You reach for a third when you realize you don't hear the scratch of the pen anymore.
You turn slowly. The man stands before you. In the moonlight you see he's wearing rich blue, red, and purple robes. His white hair, you notice, is pulled back from his face, and his beard neatly braided.
In his hand he holds a tall staff with a glass sphere nestled on top. Something deep red pulses and glows inside it. His knuckles are whiter than the rest of him.
His eyes flash with what you think is anger, and the glowing orb gets brighter in response.
You hear the scream again. This time it's behind the curtained bed.
That's it, it’s time to leave. Maybe the wind will take you like it did the notes. It seemed very controlled, so it must have some kind of magical trait to it.
You lunge out the window.
A bright flash of red blinds you for a second and you find yourself on your belly in the dark stone room. You look up to see the old wizard looking down at you, his expression now enraged.
You guess you won't be leaving this castle anytime soon.