By Chris Cooper

Chapter 1: Any Port In A Storm…

The roar of the falling rain was almost deafening, the thunder booming, the wind cutting. Imari Foxglove wearily staggered this way and that, in and out of the scant cover of the great oaks that stood eternally proud, in this Ancient Forest.
For three days she had endured the ferocious weather, three whole days of soupy fog, vicious storms and icy blizzards. But then her exhausted heart was lifted, for in the distance, through the thick, muggy fog, and sodden foliage, she spied a glimmer of hope in the form of an inn, situated on the outskirts of what appeared to be a deserted township.
Drawing on the very last of her strength, the saturated vixen clumsily leaped over the tiny, yet fast flowing, brook that separated the village from the inhospitable forest and stumbled towards the inn.
The rather homely looking orangey glow from the inn’s lead lined windows doused the muddy path outside and lifted Imari’s weakened spirit.
Finally, thought the shattered vixen. A hot meal and a warm bed, this just about makes the whole damn journey worth it.
She stepped up to the solid looking oak door and tried the handle. Mercifully it opened with relative ease and she stepped out of the rain and into the warmth. Her heart sighed contently.

“A hell of a nigh’ to be caught oo’side, ain’t i’?” said the rather butch looking canine behind the bar.
Imari just nodded, for she was too weak to reply with any competent degree of wit.
“I guess you’ll be wan’in’ a room then”.
Again Imari nodded.
“Just head upstairs, i’s the firs’ room on yer left” and with that, the butch gentlefur reached below the bar and picked out a key, which he threw in the direction of the weary guest.
“How much…?”
“Nay lass,” interrupted the barman, “we’ll talk abou’ wha’ you owe on the morro’; you need t’rest now”

Surprised and heartened at the innkeeper’s generosity, the vixen took to the stairs and headed straight for the room. There she collapsed in a muddy heap and slept a deep yet troubled sleep.
The adventuress awoke abruptly to the sound of footsteps, and the terrible feeling that she was not alone in the room. Sitting bolt upright her eyes darted this way and that desperately trying to make sense of the disturbance.

“Oh… hello” came a voice from nowhere.
Imari was utterly frantic. It was dark in the room: very dark. All she could see was her own shadow. cast on the wall by the pale blue moonlight as it penetrated the lead latticed window.
“I wasn’t aware we had guests…” continued the voice.
“I… uh… who are you?”
“Me? Oh I’m sorry, how rude of me. My name is Arin.”

The voice, contrary to it’s warm and inviting tone, was cold, dark, oppressive; as if it belonged to a creature not of this world. Attempting to picture the source of the voice in her mind did nothing to ease Imari’s anxiety. If anything, it just made things worse.

“W- what are you doing in my room?” questioned the fox, her voice trembling.
“Oh I was just wandering, as I frequently do. I live here you know.”
“B- but… this is my room!…”
“I know, and I am sorry, as I said, I wasn’t aware we had any guests. But since you are here, I fear I must warn you…”
“Warn me of what?” replied the vixen, all the while frantically searching for her sword somewhere in the darkness.
“You must leave this place”
“The inn? Why?”
“No, this place… the town… it is not safe for you here…”
“I… you must leave, please, I beg of you, leave now while you still can!”
“I can’t leave now, it is the middle of the night!”
“Please, you have to listen to me. I didn’t listen when they warned me and now I can’t leave!”
“B- but you’re not making any sense, why can’t you leave? Step into the light, I can’t see you!”
“But I am in the light…” retorted the voice.

Just then Imari’s shaking paw made contact with the hilt of her sword. Almost immediately she lashed out into the blackness aiming for the voice.
The room was lit rather suddenly by flickering light of the candle at her bedside and Imari was left dazed, confused and, most shockingly: alone. The door was bolted shut from the inside and the window was locked.
She cautiously peered under the surprisingly comfortable bed, then inside the wardrobe. Perplexingly, her search was rewarded by nothing but a cold, claustrophobic emptiness.
Collapsing back down onto the bed Imari wondered what had just happened. The voice was there, she thought, and then it wasn’t… was it all just a dream?
Soon, however, exhaustion caught up with her once again, and she drifted off into a semi peaceful slumber.

Chapter 2: Day One, part one

The sun pierced the early morning mist with little effort, raining down rays of brilliant white light on Imari, as she woke from her troubled sleep and rubbed her sore eyes.
The restless night had done nothing but aggravate her chronic exhaustion, yet she felt strong enough to stand.
Looking herself over in the mirror confirmed the suspicion that she indeed was a mess.
Her normally beautiful white fur was matted and caked in mud and moss scum. Usually she would have a patch of black at the very tip of her bushy tail, but now it was almost entirely brown with smatterings of green and white. Her sea blue eyes were weary and bloodshot, her shock of blue hair now more of a shocking green.
A long hot bath later and she was back to her usual cheery self, she trotted down stairs and ordered herself a hearty breakfast from the kitchens.

“How did ye sleep lass?” the gruff old cattledog’s voice boomed as he delivered a veritable mountain of food.
“Ok, I guess” replied Imari as she looked over the monstrous meal, a look of awe creeping it’s way across her stubby muzzle, “I had the strangest dream though”.
“Let me guess,” said the cattledog, “our old friend Arin paid ye a visit?”
“How did you-”
“Know? Oh, Arin be the most frequen’ of our ‘visitors'”, he means ye no harm though. Ye best off ignoring him”.
“He said I should leave!” replied the fox as she tucked into a thick pork sausage.
“Aye lass, he’s said that to me too. But he’s never tol’ me why”.

The canine’s thick Scots accent was becoming difficult to decipher. Imari decided to end the conversation as quickly as possible to preclude embarrassment.

“So how much do I owe you?”
“Nay lass, ye don’ owe me a thing…” replied the overly gracious host. “We don’t get many visitors out here” mesel’ and Bessie ‘re just glad o’ the company, to be honest”.
“Bessie?” questioned the vixen.
“Bessie’s my beautiful wife, she’s a little shy so she spends most of her time in the kitchen, Don’ ye Bessie?!” The innkeeper’s call was met by cold hard silence, which he deftly shrugged off. “Don’ think badly o’ her, lassie; tis jus’ her way”.
Imari nodded uncomfortably as the stout innkeeper turned and wandered off into the kitchens.
“Ach, I nearly forgot! How long will ye be stayin’ with us?…”
“Just one more night; I think I need a little more rest before continuing”.
“Then might I sugges’ ye visit the local library? Ye may fin’ the history of our little town quite int’restin'”.
Imari nodded once again and continued to navigate the mountain of a meal that lay before her.
The meal itself was obviously not designed with mere mortals in mind for, after a full hour, Imari was barely even half way through. She decided to risk leaving the rest of it, and stood up to leave.
“Ye going to visit the Library now lassie?” came the Scot’s accent from the direction of the kitchen.
“I think I might” replied the vixen.
“Well, you have a good day lass”.

Imari said nothing and made a beeline for the door. As far as she was concerned, the less time she spent in the presence of that cow-poke, the happier she would be. For some reason, Imari didn’t quite trust him. He just seemed a little too… nice…

Opening the door and stepping out into the street, Imari looked the town over, as it basked in the mid morning sun.
That’s strange, she thought as she gazed down at her paws and kicked up a thin cloud of brown dust, where’s all the mud?
The loud clang of the town bell echoed down the dusty street, almost making the vixen jump out of her fur.
She turned her attentions to the foreboding looking town hall at the other end of the main street. Frankly it looked quite surreal. The gothic architecture on this odd looking building would probably be better suited to a church sometime into the middle ages. The stone gargoyles looked menacingly down from their vantage point atop the four turrets, that towered over the great oaks of the nearby forest. On closer inspection, the stone beasts seemed to be crying out in pain, with their arms held high and their gaping maws open wide.
Come to think of it, mused the ice-white vixen, there are not many people here, either…
Imari sniffed at the air in a vain attempt at picking up the scent of any nearby furs, but all she got was a cloud of dust up the nose for her trouble.
“It’s that way lassie!” yelled the innkeeper from his kitchen window.
“Thank you!” replied Imari, as she rubbed her itching nose. She then headed in the direction indicated by the sheepdog, down the main street and up the steps of a rather rotten looking log hut.
“Shalebridge Library” quoted the hanging sign, as it swayed listlessly in the wind with a subtle squeak.
It was very dark inside. The windowpanes were grimy and unwashed, with moss growing along the well-worn sills, obviously the result of decades of abuse at the hands of an uncaring owner. “Always Open”, confirmed the sign on the door.
Imari wrapped her paw around the badly tarnished brass handle and tried the door. It opened with little effort and swung open violently, almost of it’s own accord, nearly yanking the startled vixen off her feet. Taking a moment to steady herself, in the physical sense as well as the mental, Imari peered into the darkness.

“H- hello?”
“Shhh!” came as an agitated response.
The voice was ice cold… the fur on the back of Imari’s neck stood on end.
“Uh…” continued the fox, her timid voice now barely a whisper.
“I’m looking for the history of the town; can you help me?”
Just then a decidedly haughty-looking looking ostrich poked her head out from behind a nearby bookshelf.
“Why?” Asked the bespectacled librarian as she cast a beady eye over the vixen.
“I… don’t know. I was just interested, I suppose”
“Sent by the innkeeper were we? Hmm? Hmm?”
“Come on girl, speak up! Speak up, I say!”
“Well, yes, as a matter of fact, he did mention it”
“He’s not one of us, you know; not one of us I tell you… he only moved here recently…”
“Here?” replied the vixen.
“Where exactly is here?”
“Oh?… Another lost traveller are we? Hmm? Hmm?”
“Uh, I wouldn’t say I was lost, as such…”
“Brookend; here you be”.
“But the sign outside said Shalebridge-”
“The sign is wrong! Wrong I tell you!” interrupted the librarian.
Imari shook her head violently in an attempt to shake out the mounting confusion: “so where exactly is Brookend?…”
The librarian sighed a disgruntled sigh…
“in the centre of the Ancient Forest! The forest I tell you!”
“Right… so how do I get to Tristram from here?” queried the fox.
“Tristram? Tristram?! What is this Tristram you speak of?” The highly-strung ostrich stepped out from behind the bookshelf to reveal her wizened, hunched body.
“Uh… It’s only the capitol city of the entire Empire…”
“Empire? Empire?!”
“Oh, never mind. Just point me in the direction of Brookend’s history.”
“Section B: that way; that way I tell you!”

Imari did open her muzzle to speak once again, but soon decided against it. Instead she started for section B and Brookend’s history.

Chapter 3: Day One, part two

The dusty old tome landed on finely crafted pine table with a thump that promptly echoed around the room and sent thick plumes of dust reeling into the air. “Shhh!” exclaimed the stuffy librarian, although Imari couldn’t fathom why. Much like the town outside, the library was completely devoid of people… Apart from herself and the prim old bag in the corner, of course… Ignoring the ostrich, Imari opened the immense book at the first page.

“The small, yet prosperous, township of Brookend was originally founded by the bandit equine Serge Bremstov and his clan of buccaneers in the year of our lord 1292; as a base camp for Serge and his band of ne’er-do-wells. From here they would raid many of the nearby towns and villages, whom had become rich from the exploitation of the abundant natural resources that the Ancient Forest has to offer.

The camp itself was eventually discovered by a regiment of Empire soldiers on their way back from the battle of Shaman’s Rock (1294), and subsequently destroyed. Serge, along with his wife and child, were hung from Dead Furs Tree, which sits atop the ominously named hillock of Golgotha, to the north of the town.

The tactical importance of Brookend was clear, being that it was so well hidden in the Ancient Forest and lay exactly on the boarders of, what was then known as, the Demon Lands, where the vile ‘Horde’ hailed from. As a result the soldiers of the Empire settled in the area and erected a fortress, which was later to become the town hall. The township they founded became known as Brookend, which is a reference to the roaring river to the south of the town.”

“This can’t be right!” said Imari out loud, “The river I crossed was barely a puddle!”
Shrugging off the glaring error, the vixen continued in her studies.

“Over the course of a hundred years, Brookend would play a vital role in defending the Empire from the barbaric armies of the Horde. Much blood was shed here and many furs fell. The bodies of the Horde forces and the Empire soldiers were buried in and around the town, where they fell in combat, which earned the town the nickname ‘Murder Ridge’.
In the year of our lord, 1396, an unnamed hero defeated the vicious Horde, and the Empire was, for the first time in nearly three hundred years, safe. The township of Brookend then fell silent, as the Empire forces abandoned the now defunct outpost.
The year 1400,and once again the township was rediscovered, this time by a band of wandering gypsies. They settled and made a permanent home here, and were soon joined by many other settlers, looking to make a living from the fertile soils of the Ancient Forest. All too soon “Murder Ridge” would once again live up to it’s namesake as-”

Imari hurriedly turned the page, her curiosity piqued…

“-a tragedy of colossal proportions befell the town’s unsuspecting inhabitants.

A demon witch, by the name of Shelly Winters, settled in the hills around Golgotha in December of 1408, and one by one the town’s inhabitants started to disappear. Fearing the witch and her evil powers, the town council commissioned a lynch mob to ferret out the monster and destroy her, and on the cold night of December 28, the lynch mob made it’s move.

On the morn of December 29, the lynch mob had failed to return and the council sent out a messenger, who was to head for Fort Lyger and return with Empire reinforcements.

January 8 came, and the Empire reinforcements arrived, but alas, it was far too late; for they discovered the towns inhabitants-”

Once again the vixen turned the page, yet this time a little more cautiously.

“-town prospered under this new authority, and soon-”

“Wait a minute, that’s not right!” Imari frantically flipped the pages back and forth’ trying to make sense of the sudden jump in the text. It took a while; but it did dawn on her that someone had ripped most of the pages out.

“Hey!” Uh, excuse me!” Imari raised her paw in an attempt at getting the morose librarians attention.
“What? What is it? Busy I am, very busy. Be quick, I say. be quick!”
“Um, somebody has ripped the pages out of this one.”
“So? What do you want me to do about it? Hmm? Hmm?!”
“I… uh… nothing, I guess…”
“Getting late it is! You go home now! Library is closed.”
“But the sign outside says-”
“The sign is wrong! Wrong I tell you!”
Imari promptly slammed the book shut, half expecting such a reply, and stood to leave.
“Can I take this with me?”
“Take it if you must,” replied the librarian, “just get out of my library, get out I say, chop-chop! Get moving!”

Stumbling out of the door, the dusty old tome tucked under her arm, Imari once again looked the creepy old town hall over. In this light it seemed all the more foreboding, with the moon raised high, bathing the fortress in a musky yellow glow.
Once again Imari was left feeling a little stunned as a new strange fact dawned upon her.
“It’s night time…but I couldn’t have been in the library longer than half an hour or so…I could have sworn I-”
Looking…and feeling, more than a little bemused, the vixen wearily made her way back to the tavern.

“You’ve bin in tha’ library for hours lass!” exclaimed the innkeeper-dog as Imari stepped in through the door.
“I take it you found the towns history book then?”
“Yeah, I found it” replied the Vixen, as she sat down at the nearest table to the old stone fireplace and gazed into the roaring fire.
“Did ye not find i’ int’restin’?”
“It was ok I guess…someone’s ripped half the pages out though.”
“Aye, that they have. I was just talking to the wife, wasn’t I Bessie?”
Once again, the innkeeper’s call was met with silence.
“Who would do such a thing, I said. She was as shocked as I am…”
“Right…well, I’m going to bed now…”
“Do yo’ no’ wan’ to eat firs’ lassie? Ye have n’ eaten a thing all day!…”
“No…I don’t think so. I’m too tired to eat anything. Thanks anyway though.”
“A’ righ’ then lass: we’ll make you a larger breakfast on the morrow, to make up fer it. Sleep well!” the dog spoke, in his usually cheerful manner.

Imari nodded in acceptance, then made her way up the creaky old staircase stopping outside the first door on the left. Taking a candle from the hallway she warily pushed the door open and drew her short sword. The door opened with the squeak of metal joints and she slowly stepped inside.
Lighting the first candle she came across, Imari cast her gaze around the dimly lit room.
Shadows danced on the bare wooden walls like mischievous beings, playing tricks with her eyes, doing their best to make her jump, while pale yellow moonlight poured in through the window, bringing with it its eerily melancholic glow.
“A- Arin?…” she called out, half expecting an answer; but chuckled to herself when her call was ignored.
“Silly fox, it was just a dream”.
She sat on the edge of her bed and lit the candle on the bedside table. Placing the tome gently down on the floor, she turned and lay back into the soft, inviting pillow; and all too soon, she drifted off into a restful slumber.

Chapter 4: Things That Go Bump…

The adventuress awoke abruptly to the sound of footsteps and the terrible feeling that she was not alone in the room.
“Arin?… Is that you?”
Her call was met with silence.
Again nothing…
It was dark in the room… very dark. All she could see was her own shadow, cast on the wall by the pale blue moonlight as it penetrated the lead latticed window.

“You again!” came a voice from the black.
“Arin!” Imari sighed, almost relieved, although she didn’t know why.
“You silly girl, I told you to leave”
“I’m leaving tomorrow”
“It’s too late! They have your scent now, they wont let you leave”
“Who wont let me leave?”
Her question was met by nothing but an icy stillness… a few heart stopping moments later and the room was once again doused in the flickering orange glow of the bedside candle.
“I have got to get out of here!”
Imari jumped out of bed, picked up her sword and duffle bag then started for the door.
With a quivering paw, she grabbed the iron handle… it was then that she noticed the piece of paper, nailed to the door with a rusty dagger.
Hesitantly, she reached out and pulled the page from its resting place, and with some degree of uncertainty, began to read.

“…had all disappeared!
The town itself couldn’t have been deserted all that long as pots boiled on stoves, and cattle grazed in the fields, waiting for the farmers to return… they never did.
A search of the witch’s lair was ordered, and to the horror of the solders, the hag was discovered… crucified and skinned. Strung up between two close standing oaks, nailed to the trunks by her own claws, which had been pulled from her paws with a great degree of force, her intestines lay in the mud, some distance from the body, her bones crushed, her heart ripped from it’s resting place beneath the ribcage… it was never found.
Since then a foul smelling green mist has settled over the area surrounding Golgotha. The source of the mist, to this day, remains undetermined.”

Imari sat down on the bed, her heart thumping, her paws quivering; for some reason she felt dizzy. She knew it was just a silly legend, but every bone in her body was screaming at her run from this town.
Without thinking, she turned the tattered page over and continued to read…

“Many a traveller to this region have reported hearing the wails of the witch resonating in the hills and vales that surround Golgotha, usually late at night or early in the morning, at which time it is assumed that the hag had died. Some have even reported a feeling of being watched or followed, as if the forest itself came alive and stalked them. It wasn’t until the year of our lord 1420 that travellers started to recount tales of actually sighting the demon witch and, more worryingly-”

Fear began to grip Imari like an icy demon. Placing its claws on her shoulders and sending shivers up her spine, the demon had her now, and it wasn’t about to let her go. Sure, it was just a silly book, but deep down Imari could feel something nagging at her, something she couldn’t quite understand…
Throwing the page to the ground, the vixen jumped to her feet and darted out of the room. Almost falling down the stairs, she rushed for the front door.
With a still trembling paw she reached for the bolt…

“Ye leavin’ us now lassie?” the bulky sheepdog silhouette spoke. Imari turned to see the innkeeper sitting in front of the fireplace nursing a tankard of ale.
“No, I- uh…”
“Have you been speaking to Arin again?”
Imari nodded.
“Ach, lass, pay ne heed to th’ lad; his bark’s worse than his bite”
“What is he?”
“What is he? Ha!”
The innkeeper erupted with laughter, his big booming voice making the glasses behind the bar rattle unnervingly.
“I would have thought that were’ obvious lassie?…”
“Is he… dead?”
“Aye lass, that is usually the case for furs in his position” smirked the innkeeper.
“What is with this town? Where is everybody?”
“Lassie; do you not know a ghost town when you see one?”
Imari, being in two minds about what she should do next, stood at the doorway, half expecting her legs to take on a life of their own and carry her out of the door to safety…
“What happened to the people?”
“I wouldn’t know lass, I’ve only been here a few months”
“Are you…?”
“Ha! No, lassie; I’m no’ dead”
“I think I should leave now…”
“Ach lass, you canne leave now! Tis not safe in the forest at night, have you not read the history book?”
“But that’s just a story…”
“Is i’ lass? Are ye sure abo’ tha’? Only, I seem to recall seeing her with my own two eyes…”
“Seeing… her?”
“You know who I’m talking about lassie…”
Imari swallowed hard… she knew who the innkeeper was talking about…
“The witch?”
“Aye” nodded the sheepdog. “That be one name fer her”.
“What happened?”
“I didn’ get a good took a’ her… Jus’ a glimpse… I was si’ing righ’ here one night, no’ too long ago…
It was raining outside and the green mist had rolled into town that day… I didn’ suppose anyone’d be able to find me through that foul smelling haze, so I locked up early fer the nigh’. So I got myself a tankard of ale, much like I have now, and I sat down in fron’ of the fire… it was then that I got the funny feeling I was being watched… I turned to face that window, and there she was, staring in at me… Well, you could have knock’ me down with a feather lass”.
Imari slowly edged away from the window and towards the gruff barman…
Stopping half way, she pulled up a chair and gingerly sat down.
“What did she look like?”
“Angry… very angry…” the innkeeper stared off into the middle distance and shuddered.
Imari could tell by the look on his face that he was recollecting something truly horrific, “…her face was contorted in pain, her eyes were as black as coal, her fur, white as a sheet, hung fro’ ‘er bones like an bad-fittin’ shawl, her hair all matted and grey… I tell ye lass, I looked into those eyes and I saw the mouth of hell!”
Imari was aghast, she really didn’t want to know anymore, yet couldn’t stop herself.
“W- what happened next?”
“Och, she wer’ there fer only a few seconds, then she just turned and walked into the mist… I really don’ remember much of what happened next, but I do remember this much lassie. She walked real funny li’e; slow an’ graceful; bu’ painfully li’e, staggering with each step. I could hear the stranges’ sound, like the sound of bones crackin’, as if someone were walkin’ on broken legs…”
Imari was paralysed with fear. She wasn’t one to normally believe in ghost stories, but there was something different about this one…
“I think you need a drink lass…” said the innkeeper, as he stood and strolled up to the bar…

Imari said nothing and instead gazed into the roaring fire, taking a moment to lose herself in thought…
Her fatigue was unceasing. She could barely keep her eyes open, yet she didn’t dare close them…
She wasn’t sure what got to her the most.
Was it the innkeeper?
He was certainly a strange one, living out here, all alone, with only the horrors of the Ancient Forest for company. Oh, and Bessie… although that was yet to be confirmed…
Or was it the spectre of Arin?
She didn’t think so…
Although Arin was certainly creepy, he didn’t seem to wish malice upon her…
Then there was that nutty librarian… was she even alive?
And what about the witch?
So many questions she had, and not enough answers to go round…
Before long her consciousness waned and she found herself being dragged, kicking and screaming, into the dream world…

Chapter 5: Day Two, part one

Imari woke to the sound of bacon frying and the bittersweet stench of liquor…
Opening her eyes, she found herself staring at a shot glass, full to the brim with a foul-looking brownish concoction…

“Goo’ mornin’ to ye lassie… Did ya sleep well?”
“Wha… where am I?”
“Ye fell asleep in the bar, but I didn’ have the hear’ to wake ye… Breakfas’ll be ready in a few minutes”.
“No,” said the vixen, as she stood.
“I’m leaving now…”
“Are ye sure tha’s a good idea lass? You don’ look a’ all well…”
Imari said nothing and headed for the front door…
The innkeeper shrugged…
“Well, goo’bye lassie… I’ was nice knowing ye”.

Stepping out into the cold light of the mid-winter morning, Imari looked over the town for the final time…
“I wont be missing this place” she said to herself, shaking her head.
A cold breeze whipped up the dust around her paws, and sent a shiver up her spine. In her present state of mind, Imari might have thought of it as a sign, as if someone were trying to tell her something…but didn’t quite know how to go about it.
She didn’t care though… Right now, the only thing that mattered was getting out of this ghost town and back to some form of civilisation.
“A hot bath, some coffee… maybe even someone normal to talk to…”
Stepping up to the stream that separated the Ancient Forest from the town, Imari ran through all the things she missed in a vain attempt at gathering some degree of courage for the journey ahead.
“Food… a warm bed…”
The forest looked all the more ominous now. Darker, wiser… maybe even smug… like it knew something, but wasn’t about to let on.
The cold breeze made its unwelcome return, only this time it hit the vixen square in the face, bringing with it the nauseating stench of decay. It was screaming at her, begging her not to go. Even the trees themselves seemed to be advising her to turn back… in fact everything about the forest seemed to be a threat… or a warning.
“C’mon Ri, it’s just your imagination!” she said… although she really didn’t believe it.
Clenching her teeth, she took a step back then launched herself into the air and over the brook, landing on the other side with little effort.
“See, that wasn’t so hard now, was it…”
It took all the nerve she had left to take the next step, into the shade of the great oaks. But she took a deep breath and after a few moments, clawed her way through the moist bracken.
Twigs cracked underfoot as she walk ever deeper.
A cascade of reddish brown leaves diminished visibility. All that could be heard was the icy cool breeze as it stalked, watching her every move. Hunting her through leaf-strewn clearings and plant-lined furrows, across muddy ditches and moss-covered logs.
By way of keeping her spirits up, she began to hum herself a cheery tune, and for the most part, it was working. She barely even noticed the cool breeze, nor did she pay any heed to the spats of rainwater, or the rugged terrain… Or the greenish mist as it slowly crept in around her legs… She did, however; notice the ragged piece of paper, nailed to a nearby tree, although she wished she hadn’t.
Swallowing hard, she looked in all directions for a possible rational explanation, yet predictably, there wasn’t one. Hesitantly, and ever so vigilantly, she approached the tree, removed the page and began to read…

“-another strange beast.
1428, and the township was settled for the final time by a band of prospectors from Tristram, who had discovered a coal seam in the nearby hills of Golgotha.
Coal soon became the number one export of this small mining community… but… stone black spirit of the fallen monster in the undergrowth watches wails moans night time stalks the beast-”

Imari rubbed her sore eyes in disbelief and looked at the page once again…

“- breathes deeply does the beast smells thine fear does the beast monster in the undergrowth feasting on the flesh of the fallen-

Whichever way she looked at it, the page made no sense! It was just lines and lines of total gibberish…
She expectantly turned the page over.

“How did ye sleep lass?” The gruff old sheepdog’s voice boomed as he delivered a veritable mountain of food.
“Ok, I guess” replied Imari as she looked over the monstrous meal, a look of awe creeping it’s way across her stubby muzzle.
“I had the strangest dream though-”

Imari threw the page down in utter shock! That was her! She had that conversation only yesterday!
It was then that she noticed the thick green mist, which was by now up to her thighs.
“Oh god! Not now! Please not now!”
Taking to the winds, Imari made a mad dash to back where she came from, through leaf-strewn clearings and plant-lined furrows, all the while clawing her way through the nauseating green fog.
Thicker and thicker became the fog obscuring her vision even further. On several occasions she came close to running headlong into a tree, not to mention the ditches she fell into and exposed roots she stumbled over.
But then, she spied a glimmer of hope in the form of the inn, on the edge of the desolate ghost town.
Slipping down the muddy bank and falling into the stream, Imari clambered her way up the other side and staggered into town, totally out of breath and exhausted.
The mist was everywhere… it had even obscured the sun, which was, by now, nothing more than a pale yellow dot in a soupy green sky.
Then came the wails, like the howls of a wounded beast, resonating through the town. Imari knew that the hag must be close by…
Yanking on the door handle yielded little result and it became clear that the inn was locked up tight. Darting over to the window, Imari yelled and banged on the glass as hard as she could. Inside she could see the sheepdog with his tankard of ale, sitting by the fireplace.
He looked up at her and smiled.
“No chance lassie! I’m not letting that beast in here! you’re on yer own!”
The library! She thought, I’d be safe there…
And she sped across the dusty street, up the step and onto the porch.
“Closed” exclaimed the sign on the door.
“NO!…” she screamed.
“You can’t leave me out here!”
Not willing to waste time hurling obscenities, Imari once again took to the winds, this time heading for the town hall.
The wails were louder now… so much louder. The hag must have been within spitting distance… Imari could feel her skin starting to crawl at the thought of actually coming face to face with the witch. Oh god, how she wished she had never come to this place.
[Bang!] Imari made bone crunching contact with the town hall’s thick oak door… the fog was so thick now she could barely see the end of her nose.
“Please be open, please be open, please be open…”
Before she knew what was happening, the door flew open and she tumbled inside… the door slamming shut and, rather alarmingly, bolting behind her.
Then she heard the strangest sound… like bones cracking, as if someone were walking on broken legs!

Chapter 6: Day Two, part two

The black marble floor was cold as ice. Cobwebs hung from magnificent oak beams like long silk curtains in the wonderfully gothic entrance hall.
Like something from a grand European cathedral, the seemingly endless stone hallway reached out with nothing to fill it but an eerie stillness and the coldest, emptiest of blacks.
Imari Foxglove watched the door with terror, barely breathing for fear she may alert the hag to her presence.
With the cracking of fractured bones drawing ever nearer, Imari drew her sword and closely watched the crevice under the door, as the noxious green mist filtered in. She could make out the faint silhouette of two distorted and bloodied paws.

[Crunch, crack…]

The hag started pacing, this way and that, on the other side of the great oak doors.


The grinding of shattered bone was sickening. Imari couldn’t help but cringe with every step the hag took.
For a moment, the adventuress allowed herself the privilege of blinking, but when she opened her eyes, the green mist and the bloodied paws were gone… disappeared in, quite literally, the blink of an eye.
Not wanting to believe her good fortune, the vixen sat painfully still on the freezing marble.
It felt like an age before she would allow herself to breathe a heavy sigh of relief.
Listening closely at the door revealed nothing but the howl of the cold northerly winds and the rustle of fallen leaves on dry dust.
Was she finally safe?
Thanking her lucky stars, yet lacking the confidence to leave, Imari turned and looked her temporary sanctuary over.
It was indeed grand. The hallway itself, lined with archways and alcoves, ran off as far as the eye could see, with huge oak beams the zigzagged this way and that.
Although it was near impossible to see adequately in this light, the ceiling seemed high enough to prompt a serious case of vertigo just by looking at it. If fact, it was starting to make Imari feel a little dizzy.
On closer inspection, the adventuress could make out the faint outline of some kind of alter at the opposite end of the hall, but was not really curious enough to inspect it. Right now she had bigger things on her mind.

“Are you still here?” came a voice from the blue.
Imari should have jumped a mile in the air, given the circumstances; yet she didn’t, for she half expected this.
“Arin? You have got to help me get out of here…”
“Why do you fear that which you do not understand?” replied the voice, seemingly oblivious to the vixen’s plight.
“Arin, I’m serious, help me get out of here!”
“I know a secret… but I’m not telling!” sang the voice.
For a moment Imari could swear the spectre was enjoying watching her squirm.
“Secret? What secret?”
“…it’s behind you!…” whispered the voice, before breaking out in a fit of hysterics.

Quick as a flash, Imari turned to face her exposed flank, half expecting to come face to face with some kind of heinous beast… fortunately her gaze met nothing but pitch black emptiness.
“Arin, this is no time for games… I need your help”.
Her plea was met with nothing but silence, and somehow Imari knew she was alone, once again.
It took a few moments of deafening silence before the vixen realised that she could hear something… a sort of “crackling” something… like a log fire, reverberating off the cold stone walls.
Looking all over for the source of the disturbance, revealed a dancing orangey yellow light emanating from one of the alcoves at the other end of the grand hallway.
“The secret!” whispered the voice from nowhere…
Gathering what was left of her shattered courage, the adventuress took a step closer to the “secret”.
“She won’t bite!” continued the voice…
Somehow, Arin’s reassurance came as little comfort, but Imari knew what she must do.
Taking a moment to steady herself, the vixen took another step… then another… and before she knew it, she was marching across the hall, towards the thing that terrified her the most about this whole mess: the truth, in whichever wicked form it may take.
Passing under a stone archway, pushing past the hanging cobwebs, suddenly it dawned on Imari exactly what she was doing… did she really want to know?
The point was moot, however, as she knew that she had to know.
Dark, was the hallway… cold and dark. It was getting colder and darker for every step the vixen took. For a split second, she could have sworn that the walls were moving. Not as if they were closing in on her, but like they were crawling… like they were breathing…
The firelight was warm and inviting, yet at the same time cold and distant. It was almost beckoning her to come nearer, yet also warning her to stay away.
Finally reaching the alcove, after an age of walking and worrying, Imari rounded the corner. To her surprise she didn’t spy a horrible beast, nor did she spy the gateway to hell, but instead a rather pleasant looking living space, with a great log fire burning under the beautifully ornamented stone hearth.
Two exquisitely decorated armchairs, sat in front of the fireplace atop a cosy-looking fuzzy white rug.
Imari cautiously stepped in through the doorway and looked the room over.
“Ok, so where the hell is this ‘secret’?” she said to herself, certainly not expecting a response.
“Is that you dear?” came a reply.
Imari nearly jumped out of her fur at this, completely unexpected, turn of events. Frantically looking round the room once again revealed the silhouette of someone sitting in the right-hand armchair, facing the fireplace.
“H… hello?” Imari shuddered, not knowing whether she should run or stay. Either way her legs refused to oblige, and she found herself fixed to the spot.
“It’s on the table dear”
Once again, came the response.
The young female voice, much like Arin’s, was empty and unnatural, although kindly and inviting. Imari could hazard a guess that the owner was no older than she, but she dreaded the thought of actually finding out, so instead glanced down at the foot high coffee table.
And, indeed, there “it” was. A bundle of scruffy pages, neatly piled up and tied with a frayed brown string.
Without thinking, Imari warily picked out the first page and began to read…

Imari rushed out of the town hall, absolutely terrified.

What evil acts had she just witnessed? Who could have done such things?

The clammy dark of night was all around her, yet she cared not. Along the main street she ran, as fast as her weary legs could carry her. Little did she know that with each step she took she was coming ever closer to a sinister fate, and soon, she would know only too well, of the full horror that befell this town on the night of September 26, 1512-

“1512? That’s this year!” said the vixen out loud, as she staggered back in shock.
“What was that dear?”
“I- uh?…”
Amari couldn’t help but listen…
“No dear, I haven’t seen your hammer”

Imari said nothing. I was apparent that this… “thing”… was quite happy having a conversation with itself, and Imari wasn’t about to disturb it.
The shadow stood and stepped into the light, yet still it was merely a shadow, with no real form or features.

“But dear, you have your hammer. Look, it’s in your paw… wait! What are you doing?”

Suddenly the coffee table flew off into the corner of the room sending the bundle of pages reeling into the air. Deftly dodging to one side, Imari continued to watch the display in absolute horror.

“Calm down dear… please, don’t do this! Not again! I’ll behave this time I swear!…”

And with that, the shadow cowered in the corner, behind the hearth and began to emit a blood-curdling scream.
One of the armchairs picked itself up and threw itself out of the door, seemingly in a rage, as some invisible entity crossed the room, making a beeline for the shadow.
The instantly recognizable squelching thud of blunt steel hitting flesh and bone echoed around the room as Imari stood aghast, watching the shadow being slowly and deliberately beaten to death.
The fuzzy rug, which was up until now white as a sheet, became smattered in red, while the stone grey walls became awash with hideous lumps of fleshy gore.
Almost as suddenly as it had begun, it was over, as the shadow fell silent and the room became flooded with a graveyard like calm. Only the sounds of the log fire, crackling and spitting in the fireplace could be heard.
Imari watched the shadow corpse with a silent terror, thinking that it may, at any moment, jump to its feet and vent its aggression. Terrible thoughts began to race through the vixens mind as she tried to make some form of sense of what she had just seen.
She wasn’t given the chance to think about it for long, however, before the firelight faded away, and the shadow began to disappear.
Quick as a flash, Imari took to the winds and scampered out of the door. She would be dammed if she was going to hang around in that room for a moment longer, doubly so in the dark!
Across the grand stone hallway she sped, under the arches and past the web curtains. She had to get out of here, and this time not even the hag would stop her.

Chapter 7: The Horrible Truth…

Imari rushed out of the town hall, absolutely terrified.
What evil acts had she just witnessed? Who could have done such things?
The clammy dark of night was all around her, yet she cared not. Along the main street she ran, as fast as her weary legs could carry her. Little did she know that with each step she took she was coming ever closer to a sinister fate, and soon, she would know only too well, of the full horror that befell this town on the night of September 26, 1512.

“Quick lassie, in here!” yelled the sheepdog, from the safety of the inn.

Imari did as instructed and sprinted towards the grotty tavern, kicking up great plumes of dry red dust as she went.
“He knows…”
Arin’s empty voice rolled with the winds:
“…he knows…”
The hag’s moans crept ever nearer. Just a few hundred yards away, at the edge of town, across the brook and behind the great oaks; Imari could spy the noxious green mist, as it once again began to take form.

“Fear not the hag…he knows, he knows…”
Completely ignoring Arin’s pleas for attention, Imari reached the relative safety of the tavern just as the innkeeper was closing the door.

“That were a close call, eh lass?!”
Imari shot the innkeeper the angriest look she could muster.
“You bastard! You left me out there with the witch!”
“Aye lass, I’m sorry. I fel’ s’guilty aboot i’ that I went out looking for ye once the mist’d settled…”
“Oh so you think that makes it ok, do you?”
“Nay lass… le’ me ge’ ye a drink, tha’ll make ye feel better.”
With that, the innkeeper disappeared into the kitchen.
“From the glass, she watches…” whispered Arin.

An icy cold chill rushed up her spine, like a lightning bolt to a church spire. Imari knew that she was being scrutinised from the direction of the window, but she wasn’t about to confirm her suspicions. Somehow she lacked the nerve.

“Go away Arin! I am not looking at the window!”
“Let her in…he knows, he knows…”
“Arin, go away!”
“On the table, the truth be told…” Arin’s relentless assault continued.

Imari knew that the only way she could shut him up would be to appease him in some small way.
Heaving a disgruntled sigh she turned to face the table.
In the centre, next to the unlit candle, lay a small bundle of pages, neatly tied with a ragged brown string.
“Oh, now there’s a surprise.” said the vixen sardonically; as she picked out the first page and began to read…

“Quick lassie, in here!” yelled the sheepdog, from the safety of the inn.
Imari did as instructed and sprinted towards the grotty tavern, kicking up great plumes of dry red-

Imari threw the page away and picked out the next…

Heaving a disgruntled sigh she turned to face the table.
In the centre, next to the unlit candle, lay a small bundle of pages, neatly tied-

Throwing the page to the ground, the vixen grabbed at the bundle and ripped out the last three pages. A moment of hesitation ensued. What if it all ended badly?
Yet she could stay her curiosity no longer, and after taking a deep breath, she once again began to read…

It was only now, after studying the twisted pages, from The Book of Providence, that the vixen would finally learn the truth and of her own destiny.
For it was the warped innkeeper, driven mad by the legend of Shalebridge and the wicked ghost of Shelly Winters, that sealed the town’s fate on the night of September 26 1512, when he picked up his hammer and struck down his long suffering wife in the town hall.
Soon after, he would continue on his grizzly quest, by murdering the town’s residents, one by one, before skinning the corpses, boiling the remains and feasting on their flesh.
Breathes deeply does the beast. Smells thine fear does the beast. For he is the monster in the undergrowth feasting on the flesh of the fallen and now he comes for you…

Shocked beyond words Imari placed the remaining two pages in her pocket and drew her sword.
Slowly, she turned to face the window, and the hag, looking in, watching her every move.
Her snow-white fur, hung from her broken frame like a ragged shawl, her hair, matted and grey. Her eyes, black as coal, were filled with… sorrow…
“I- its not me you want… is it?” said Imari, almost to herself.
The hag said nothing.
“You’re not a hag, are you? You’re Bessie, right?”
Again, the hag said nothing, but something in her sorrowful eyes confirmed it.
“Oh lassie?” called the sheepdog from the kitchen.
“I’ve got a little something for ye!”
With that, he emerged, carrying a rusted, bloodied hammer.
“Where are ye lassie?… I won’ bite” said the innkeeper, with an evil grin.
Looking around the room confirmed the suspicion that he was indeed alone.
“Now, where have ye gone lass? Ye couldn’ be outside. Not with tha’… hag runnin’ round ou’ there…”
Then, like being hit by a (rusted, bloodied) hammer, it dawned on him that he was no longer alone in the room… but it wasn’t until he noticed the noxious green fog at his feet, and that the front door was open, that his suspicions were fully confirmed.
Slowly, ever so slowly; he turned to face the living remains of his once long-suffering wife.

Chapter 8: The Bit That’s Not The Beginning, Honest…

Imari stumbled into the clearing and collapsed to the ground. Struggling to catch her breath, she gazed up at the night sky.
In a few more days, she would be at Fort Lyger, far to the east. Well away from that… evil town.
The chilling screams of the innkeeper once again rang out, making Imari shudder.
He had been wailing for well over an hour, and still showed no sign of stopping. Oh, what torment he must be suffering at the ghastly paws of the ghosts of Shalebridge. She silently wondered if there was enough of the innkeeper to go round…
Just then, Imari remembered the last two pages, which she had stuffed in her pocket earlier. She pulled them out and looked them over. Did she really need to know any more?
The screams of the innkeeper continued to fill the night air. Imari decided to read the pages, if anything just to take her mind off it.
Squinting in the moonlight, she unfolded the pages and, for the last time, began to read…

The roar of the falling rain was almost deafening, the thunder booming, the wind cutting. Skippy Cottontail wearily staggered this way and that, in and out of the scant cover of the great oaks that stood eternally proud, in this Ancient Forest. For three days he had endured the ferocious weather, three whole days of soupy fog, vicious storms and icy blizzards. But then his exhausted heart was lifted, for in the distance, through the thick, muggy fog and sodden foliage, he spied a glimmer of hope in the form of an inn, situated on the outskirts of what appeared to be a deserted township…


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