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Introduction: Odd Happenings
"What kind of creatures?" the vole remembered asking.
"Interesting creatures," the squirrel had responded.
The vole sighed; he had had that conversation over two seasons ago, and he still thought the whole thing was odd. It was late autumn now, the last traces of warmth being eroded by a chilling wind. The leaves had long since fallen from the trees, painting the ground in orange and yellow. Yet there could be no appreciating nature's beauty so long as that wind cut like a knife. It wasn't a hard gust, but it was cold enough to cause discomfort to any beast caught in the wilderness of northern Mossflower.
Shivering, the vole tightened his scarf around his neck, pulled his backpack tight, and pressed on, jealously spotting a family of hares gathering fire wood in front of their den. They would keep warm, no doubt! If he had any brains at all, the vole told himself, he would turn around and head back to his home. Isabelle would have a nice warm hearth all ready, and a promise of a hot dinner was even more enticing.
Having been walking a good while, the vole wearily sat upon the stump of a felled tree. His foot paws ached fiercely, and had no hesitation of informing the vole of their discontent. He wasn't surprised: he had been wandering for two seasons now, and his body was bound to be in pain at the end of it. Deciding a rest would do him good, the vole shrugged off the pack from his shoulders, which caused his back to sigh in relief. The vole took no joy from this temporary respite: he was cold, worn out, and still suspicious about the work he had just finished. Turning to face away from the wind, the vole closed his eyes, allowing his sight to take a break as well. His whole body was a wreck, the vole deduced. Why did this Falliss fellow have to live near the mountains? Not only had it made the vole's trek that much longer, but the chill of the oncoming winter made any northern dealings torture to endure. "Never should have taken this one," he sullenly thought. "It's all odd. Don't like it one bit."
Isabelle hadn't liked it either, after hearing he was going away again. "Obadiah," she had chided, "you're getting to old to be messing around in shady business!"
The vole opened his eyes, awakening from his daydream with a sudden realization. The tavern! Of course, it had been around this part of the woods, right on the fringes. Here he was, freezing himself silly, when there was an establishment where he could rest warmly and properly. A well timed gust of wind convinced Obadiah's joints to cease their complaining and get moving again. Retrieving his backpack from the ground, the vole restarted his cold, lonely walk.
Obadiah had shrugged, trying to placate the wrath of his wife. "Now Izzy," he explained, "I should only be gone a season or two. That's not as bad as that fishing job I took down south. How long was that, eh? Four seasons?"
Isabelle snorted. "Five, actually. And at least that time there was no mystery involved. From what you've been saying, I wouldn't go any further than my front door."
In response, the vole displayed a small bag, generously filled with gold. "But he's already given me half already, so I don't reckon he'd be happy if I didn't follow up with my end of the deal." Knowing Isabelle wasn't convinced, he added, "And besides, after I finish this job and collect the rest of my pay, we can get ourselves one of those comfortable houses close to town. Not just a hut, mind, but a whole house! And wouldn't that be fine, eh?"
Isabelle crossed her arms, but knew she wouldn't change her husband's mind. "Well, on your own head be it, Obadiah, but you be sure you're careful. The whole thing is odd. Who is this Professor Falliss anyway?"
Obadiah looked at his feet, waffling. Isabelle had already voiced her displeasure, and she wouldn't like the answer to her question. "Er, well… the thing is, I don't really know. He didn't talk to me personally. I met up with one of his servants when I was at a tavern…"
It would prove to be worth it in very short order, however. He had not traveled much farther north when he caught a glimpse of white smoke rising to the sky, just beyond the ever receding wall of trees. Eager to leave the increasingly chilly outdoors behind, Obadiah increased his pace, noting that he was very close to the end of the forest. Onwards he went until finally the trees disappeared altogether, revealing a homely looking cabin, standing in picturesque glory in front of the still distant mountains. The tavern was titled Wood's End; aptly named, having been made out of trees felled at the edge of Mossflower, as well as marking the end of woodland territory and the beginning of northern land. There was nothing shady nor ominous about Wood's End: the building itself was well kept, and was owned and run by a former otter captain who dealt with any trouble quickly and efficiently.
The otter in question was stoking the flaming logs in the fireplace, much to the pleasure of other travelers gathered inside Wood's End. The building's interior was of simple design, the majority of the furniture being made from the same wood as the house. Yet it held a charm that attracted drifters and wanderers seeking refuge from the cold northern wind.
Any kind of beverage could be asked for and received, and on this particular day, the common request was tea, soup, and anything else that warmed a creature's insides. Obadiah personally preferred something a little stronger, but had given up drinking alcohol a long time ago. Besides, he was keen on enjoying a hot bowl of barely and vegetable soup, which a sign claimed was the special dish today. Savouring the pleasant atmosphere of Wood's End, the vole staggered towards a particularly comfortable chair near the fire. Removing his backpack once more, he flopped heavily onto the soft cushion. Oh, that was nice! Much better than a tree stump.
The old otter, still stoking the fire, had heard the deep, contented sigh emit from the vole, and greeted the newcomer with a friendly wave. "G'afternoon, mate. That wind's something else today, eh? Not fit for any decent beast to stretch the old legs!"
Obadiah laughed and nodded in agreement. "Aye, and isn't that the truth? I'm getting to old to be making these trips. Should've listened to my wife and stayed home."
Laying the metal poker aside, the otter sagely replied, "If there's one thing I hear more than anything, its beats ruing that they didn't listen to their Missus. Now, what can I fetch for you to cut out that shivering?" Obtaining the vole's request for soup, the otter strolled to the kitchens and returned a minute later bearing a well filled bowl of vegetable soup, not spilling a drop as he handed the dish and spoon to Obadiah. "There now, that'll get the feeling back in your paws!"
Obadiah gingerly sipped the broth, satisfaction plastered on his face. "Oh," he remarked as he slurped, "oh-ho-ho! Oh, I needed that, sure enough! Just the thing to keep me going, thank you kindly!"
The old otter bowed dramatically. "Naught but the finest in this house, sir! Now, while you make yourself comfortable, would you like me to hang up your scarf? Your coat? Your bag…"
"No!" the vole answered compulsively. The suddenness and sharpness of this denial obviously caught his host off guard, and Obadiah felt self conscious of his rudeness. "No, thank you," he continued more genially. "Didn't mean to jump on you like that, but I haven't let that bag leave my sights for two seasons now. It's the reason I'm up here after all, and I'm almost rid of it. But I'm going to see it delivered safely, mark my words!" As he spoke, he continued to glare at the bag, as if it was mocking him somehow.
Sensing he had touched upon a sensitive subject, the otter didn't force the issue. "Suit yourself, mate. Can I do anything else for you?"
Reluctantly, the vole recalled his purpose being north in the first place, and felt his pleasure vanish. "Yeah, actually," he began hesitantly, not comfortable asking something that made Obadiah himself uneasy. "This bag, I'm supposed to deliver it to a fellow who lives around here. Goes by the name of Falliss."
The otter's eyes widened slightly, and his brow furrowed as if seeing his guest in a new light. "Oh aye?" he murmured.
Obadiah's suspicions had been all but confirmed by the otter's reaction. "Aye," he answered. "Well, I know he lives near the mountains, but I'm not to keen on scouring the area looking for him, not with winter coming. I don't suppose you could give me directions? That is, if you know where he lives?"
Having decided that the vole looked innocent enough, the otter acquiesced. "You're in luck, mate. Professor Falliss…" He had been about to say "lives," but it didn't seem like the right term. "…is believed to reside in an old castle, built at the base of a mountain not too far from here. You could probably make it there by nightfall." There was a minute of awkward silence, until the otter spoke again. "Don't answer this if you'd rather not, mate, but have you ever actually met the Professor?"
Obadiah shook his head. "Not face to face. I ran into a beast who said he represented Falliss. It was here, now I think on it. At one of those tables over there. It was him who asked me to do some… research for the Professor." Now it was the vole's turn to eye the other with suspicion. "Er, there's not something I should know about him, is there?"
The otter leaned against a chair, scratching his chin thoughtfully. "I'd reckon there's a thing or two about Professor Falliss that warrants knowing, to be sure. But there's no one around here who could tell you much about him. Falliss hasn't left that castle since he arrived there, and that was many seasons ago. He must be right old now, if he's still alive. Anyone who knew him before hand is long dead. Myself, I don't even know what species he is! If he needs something, he sends one of his servants to act under his name.
"And that's something else that's odd about Falliss. His servants all have the personality of a mud hole. They don't seem to want to do anything but aide the Professor. And that goes for both kinds."
Obadiah was perplexed. "Both kinds? Both kinds of what?"
"Creatures, sir! The Professor employs woodlanders and vermin alike, and none of them act any different than the other. Not any better, not any worse. Now, I wouldn't mind us all getting along, but not by becoming walking dummies."
Obadiah thought back to the servant he had talked to. He had been stone-faced and deliberate, but well spoken and educated. "Dummies" might not have been the right word for it.
The otter hadn't finished yet. The truth was, he rather liked discussing rumours and mysteries, and was pleased to find a willing audience. "And then we get down to the queerest of it all: that castle he lives in! The place used to belong to some royal family or rather, who used to have a kingdom of sorts up north. Well, things go bad for them, so the king takes his family and court and hightails it to that castle and locks the door. Now, whoever it was that was after them never shows up, but the family never comes out anyway! Now, what do you make of that?"
The vole couldn't help but smile wryly. "Surely you aren't suggesting the place is haunted?"
The otter shrugged. "Who's to say it isn't? I've never been in there, and the servants aren't talking. But I had a group in here a while back, when I first built Wood's End. Treasure hunters, they were, and they reckoned that the old king must've had some loot stored away in the castle. So they go to check it out, and sure enough, they wind up disappearing too! It isn't natural, two parties separated by how many generations, each vanishing in the same place like that."
Reasonably shaken, Obadiah still tried to feign disbelief. "It's queer, yes, but I think it can all be explained somehow."
His attention grabbed by a duo of mice gathered at a table, the old otter began to walk away. "Well, if you're bent on going there yourself, I hope it can be explained. I'll give you directions in a minute." And with that, he began to chat with the mice, enjoying far brighter topics of conversation.
As for Obadiah, any pleasure he could have derived from his soup was gone now. The whole thing was odd, and the otter's stories didn't help matters. The vole wasn't about to but into every spook story he was fed: more often than not, those added up to the locals trying to pull the leg of ignorant travelers. But curse it all, it was strange! He picked up the backpack and looked inside. As always, he could see three fair sized journals, perfectly innocent looking. The vole glared at the unfeeling books. They were what this was all about! They were the cause of his involvement in this strange business! He was tempted to hurl them into the fire and forget this whole thing… but that wouldn't do. Obadiah had been paid half in advance, and it had been a tidy sum. Not only did it go against his morals of keeping a promise, but he didn't fancy the repercussions of cheating Professor Falliss would be pleasant. No, he would have to go through with it. It was almost over. He had done what was asked of him…
Obadiah stared at a table tucked away in a corner of the room. That was where it had happened, two seasons ago…
…He was trying to enjoy his herbal tea, doing his best to ignore the urges to indulge in a mug of beer. It was always refreshing this time of spring, right after the snow had melted. Somehow, it seemed a more appropriate way of welcoming warm weather than by drinking hot beverages. Obadiah eyed his steaming cup of light green liquid with distaste. He had never liked tea: much too bitter. But he had sworn to Isabelle that he wouldn't drink, even when he was travelling, and continued to sip from his cup, grimacing after every gulp.
…And it was still odd, he thought as he trudged down the path. The whole thing was odd! He had left Wood's End a while ago, the old otter giving him directions and "good luck" before he went. It was dusk now, and ordinarily Obadiah's eyelids would have been drooping. But he was far too anxious, and maybe just a little scared, to think about sleep now. He was coming to the end of this strange journey, and he wanted to get it over with.
His mind was occupied with the job he had just finished. A simple one this time, assisting the building of a barn some miles west of Woods End. It hadn't taken long at all, and he had made decent money out of it. Isabelle didn't like his being away, of course, but that was an occupational hazard. He would make it up to her somehow. Maybe a nice dress…
Engrossed in his own thoughts, Obadiah failed to notice the approaching figure until it was directly next to the table. The close proximity of the newcomer forced Obadiah to acknowledge the presence of the tall squirrel with an emotionless face. He couldn't have been an adult for more than a season, but his demeanour was that of an ancient butler. "You are Obadiah Tussle, yes?" the squirrel said. It was phrased as a question, but sounded more like a statement of fact.
Taken aback by both the question and appearance of the stranger, the vole warily answered, "Maybe. It depends on who's asking?"
Either unaware or uncaring about the vole's apprehension, the squirrel sat down on a chair. "I am in the service of Professor Falliss, who lives not far from here." He leaned forward. "You are Obadiah Tussle, worker of odd jobs." It was not a question this time.
Obadiah would have been pleased that news of his odd job business had spread so far north, if not for the peculiarity of the situation. Since the squirrel appeared well informed, there was no point in denying identity. "I suppose I am," he conceded. "What can I do for you?"
The squirrel explained in a dead-pan voice. "The Professor requires research for the subject he is currently studying, but believes it to be impractical to do it himself. As such, he is hiring creatures such as yourself to do the research for him."
The vole stared at the squirrel. No unnecessary words or attempt at conversation. It was eerie, in a way. He had half a mind to ask exactly how this squirrel knew who Obadiah was and where he was staying, but decided he didn't want to know the answer. "Mm-hm," he muttered. "This, ah, research you want me to do. Why doesn't Professor Falliss want to do it himself? If it's something illegal, I'm not interested."
The squirrel shook his head. "It is nothing harmful, I assure you. The Professor thinks that this project requires being able to observe without suspicion, and doesn't believe himself to be inconspicuous enough to accomplish this."
That was a rational enough explanation. There was nothing outstanding about Obadiah's appearance, and he could be overlooked in a crowd. "Fair enough, mate, thought I should warn you I'm no expert on spying."
Again, the squirrel seemed nonplussed at the vole's attempts to create disinterest. "We know. You will only be required to observe and take notes." Cutting off any further objections, he placed a small sack upon the table, which jingled as it moved. "The Professor understands you may be reluctant. As such, he is willing to pay half of your fee up front and half upon completion."
The Professor had assumed correctly: Obadiah was more than willing after looking into the bag and being overwhelmed by the sight of gold pieces. "And this is half?"
It was an offer no odd-job beast could refuse. Moving the bag over to his side of the table, Obadiah smiled for the first time at the squirrel. "Alright, mate, I'm your beast! Now, what does the Professor want me to research?"
Obadiah waited for further clarification, which was not forthcoming. "What kind of creatures?" asked the vole.
"Interesting creatures," the squirrel replied.
Feeling slightly nervous again, the vole remarked, "That's not much to go on."
The squirrel nodded in agreement. "I will explain. The Professor wants you to observe individual creatures of different species, societies, and cultures. You are to record as much as possible of their personality, appearance, age, history, social standing and anything else you deem important. Be specific as possible, and make sure to find out their names and general location. Record as many different entries as you can find, and then return here in two seasons with your results. The Professor lives north of this place, and should not be hard to find. Do you understand?"
Obadiah blinked. He wasn't sure if he quite knew what was being asked of him. "So… Professor Falliss is paying me to give him information on random creatures?"
The vole felt uneasy. If he had been asked to spy on a specific fellow, he would understand. But to supply the Professor with profiles of strangers seemed unorthodox at best. "If at all possible, can I know why?"
Obadiah was puzzled and hesitant about what he was getting into, but there didn't seem to be anything else to say. He took the gold, left the tavern, and spent the next two seasons wandering, watching, and writing. He traveled to towns and ports, through forests and swamps, near and far. And he spied on all sorts of creatures: old and young, weak and strong, poor and regal, good and evil, vermin and woodlander. He did what was asked of him, recording names and characters, not raising the suspicion of any beast he analyzed. That was his life for two seasons; But not a day went by that he didn't think it was odd…
The longer he walked, the stronger the feeling Obadiah got that this was going to end badly for him. No one in their right mind would pay for a book of random creatures! The vole figured he would deliver the notes to whomever was present, and would proceed to meat with an unpleasant end. He regretted listening to the otter's stories now; dark, sinister ideas kept creeping in his mind, and he began to see threats lurking behind every shadow. But he didn't turn around. Not after two seasons of walking. He was going to finish the job, his common sense told him, taking him away from his imagined fears. There was probably nothing to worry about. "It's all in your head," he told himself.
The terrain was hilly, and the road dipped up and down as the vole walked. The mountain was in plain view now, and getting ever closer. It was detached from the main ranges still in the distance: a lone, rocky crag standing away from its kin as if shunned. It wasn't very tall, evidenced by the lack of snow on its peak, but its jagged face made it look all the more dangerous. An altogether ugly looking chunk of earth, Obadiah thought as he mounted one particularly steep in hill in the path's way.
And yet, he realized once atop the hill's summit, the castle at the mountain's base was hardly appealing either.
From this hill the land sloped for a long run, giving a full view of Professor Falliss's home. The face of the mountains on this side possessed a deep cleft, giving an overhead impression of a giant V shape. In front of this cleft a great stone wall had been built, and with a flat roof covering the rest of the gap made the appearance of a giant wedge which found the perfect fit in this mountain. The castle's face was flat and sheer, with no protruding structures and very few windows. The only thing that stood out was a tower on the top, standing as beacon and containing the only window out of which light was shining through. There was only one visible entrance into the castle, and that was over a drawbridge which spanned an encircling moat. The castle of Professor Falliss had been built as an impenetrable fortress, and no matter who resided in it now, ages after its construction, it still stood as an unshakable bastion at the foot of an equally impressive rock.
And Obadiah didn't like it one bit. The stories the otter had told managed to take over his mind, coupled with a few imagined fears. Neither reputation nor appearance did anything to make the vole want to press on. They were never seen again… "It's all in your head," he told himself again, with less conviction than before. With no small effort, Obadiah forced himself to go forward. He was going to deliver the journals, just like he had said. It would be all right. But he wouldn't go in the castle, he told himself. No, no, not at all. There was no way he would enter. He would wait until someone came to him. If Falliss wanted the books, he could come and get them himself!
Cautiously, the vole sidled down the slope towards the castle. Although he tried to take his time, he was forced to reluctantly acknowledge the ever looming castle wasn't going away. The closer he got to it, the more foreboding it became, towering over the tiny vole. Scared though he was, Obadiah kept his wits about him, constantly looking out for any threats or traps. But despite his anxiety, there was no sign of danger: the only flicker of life continued to come from the dimly lit tower window. This lack of activity brought up the question: how would anyone know Obadiah had arrived? The drawbridge was up, there was no way to knock, and Obadiah didn't have the heart to shout a greeting. He was only a few yards away from the moat now. The wall stared down at the vole, almost as if it was a living being itself, but nothing made a move to hinder Obadiah's progress. Something wanted him to come closer, and the vole had no choice but to oblige. The hair stood up on Obadiah's neck. He couldn't shake the feeling that something was watching him, waiting for him.
But it wasn't until Obadiah was literally on the edge of the moat that the castle reacted.
A dulled thud emitted from behind the stone wall, followed by various whirring noises of what sounded like heavy gears shifting. The oaken drawbridge shuddered as if being wakened from a deep sleep, and slowly started to fall forward, supported by methodically clicking chains. Obadiah was transfixed, frozen with fear and awe, the ability to think being replaced with the terrible fascination of the present. The imagery of a predator opening its jaws had not escaped him, and he had yet to see a living soul, giving the impression that the castle was acting on its own. "It's all in your head," he tried once more, but there could be no convincing his shaking knees that there wasn't something ethereal going on. He felt trapped by reality, unable to escape the events unfolding before his eyes. And that was what was so frightening: the whole thing was undeniably real.
Finally, the drawbridge completed its journey, comfortably connecting with the earth in front of Obadiah's feet. The vole stared down the wooden walkway, trying to see anything emerging out of the dark arch carved into the castle's face. Minutes seemed like hours, until finally, and with less relief than Obadiah had hoped for, a familiar figure appeared out of the gloom. He still looked as statuesque and unfeeling as he had been when Obadiah saw him last. He strode down the drawbridge slowly, his dull eyes always staring at Obadiah, every bit as ominous and unsettling as the castle itself.
"Mr. Tussle," the squirrel greeted, sounding unsurprised by the reappearance of the vole. "We've been expecting you."
We? So there is more than one of you, Obadiah thought to himself, trying to decide whether that was a good or bad thing. Unable to find the will to attempt conversation, he slipped off the back pack and handed it to the squirrel. "I did it," he choked out. "It's all in here, Three journals worth of 'interesting creatures.'" The squirrel took the bag, and immediately Obadiah's back felt the weight it had born fade away.
The squirrel removed one of the books from the bag and flipped through its pages, nodding approvingly. "Very well done. Exceptional detail. The Professor will be quite pleased." Closing the document and placing it back in its hold, the squirrel gave a small bow. "Thank you, Obadiah Tussle. Your efforts will be put to good use. Professor Falliss wishes to thank you personally. He is waiting in his tower, along with your payment. Will you come inside?"
In that second, all of Obadiah's fear and stress surged through his brain: the stories of the royal family and the treasure hunters; the days of tedious spying; the zombie-like demeanour of the squirrel; the unseen employer; the foreboding, predator like castle. He could feel his nerves ready to burst, and wanted nothing more than to wake up and find it was all a dream. "No!" he shouted, the tension having grown too much. "No, I won't go inside your bloody castle! Go away!"
For the first time, the squirrel seemed taken aback. "Your payment is inside, sir," he repeated, as if Obadiah had overlooked that fact.
The vole backed away hurriedly, paws raised in defiance, "I don't care! Keep it! Keep your money and keep your 'interesting creatures' and keep your odd business to yourself! I'm not going in, do you hear me?! Just leave me alone! And Obadiah turned and ran back down the path, away from the mysterious castle and the unseen Professor Falliss. He was going home to Isabelle, to tell her she had been right, he had been wrong, and hoped that he could forget the entire bizarre ordeal.
And Obadiah Tussle would never know the role his research would play in a demented game developed by an evil mind.