Damon paid scant attention to the cemetery shadows as they raced past the graveyard. The friendly confines of Reding’s Mill welcomed the boys, and they slowed to a walk when they hit the first sidewalk. They looked at each other in that “twin way,” the brave smiles a little forced, a quivering fear behind each one. Mark started to look behind them.
“Don’t look! If he’s following us and we don’t look, he can’t hurt us.”
“How do you know?”
“Never mind. I just know.”
“Maybe you’re right, but I’m not afraid of him.”
Mark didn’t look back, though, not even when both boys reached the gate of their white clapboard two-story house on Joplin Avenue. Over the fence they went and pounded up the steps to the front door, jostling each other to see who got in first.
“Where have you two been?”
“Uh, hi, Dad,” Damon stammered. “We’ve been . . . er, uh . . . we, uh . . .”
“We couldn’t help it, Dad. With the wind blowing and the leaves and the dark, we just had to go the castle.” Mark blurted it all out in one breath.
Tom Damien stood at the foot of the stairs, hands on his hips, glaring. “Dinner’s already over, boys. On up to bed, both of you.”
Mark and Damon glanced at each other, the barest hint of a smile playing about their lips, and then bounded up the steps to their room.
Their father looked after his twins and shook his head. He’d hear all about the latest great adventure tomorrow.
Upstairs, Mark rummaged through a dresser drawer, then turned and tossed something at Damon, who snatched it with one hand and grinned when he saw the extra-large Snickers. He sat at the computer desk and ripped the paper off the candy bar.
“Boy, did we ever get lucky. I thought Dad’d skin us for sure. Think we oughta tell him what happened?”
“I’m not sure,” Mark answered through a mouthful of chocolate and peanuts. “I just want to eat this and get some sleep.”
“Maybe you can sleep, but I sure won’t be able to.”
“Shuddup and get in your bunk.”
Damon climbed onto the top bunk, crawled under the covers, and lay on his back, one hand behind his head, the other still holding the candy bar he was munching. He stared at the ceiling in the darkened room until he heard soft snores from below and smiled to himself. That guy could sleep through a train wreck.
Damon found himself yawning, though, and closed his eyes, soon falling into a fitful sleep, turning and twisting in his sheets.
Damon glided as if he were on ice skates, but he couldn’t feel any resistance against the surface. When he looked down and around himself, he saw a smooth, endless plain of glass beneath which murky shadows and shapes moved. At times the shapes were almost recognizable and appeared to have wings, soaring through a watery substance that churned and boiled like an angry sea.
Sky Castle loomed in front of Damon, bigger and darker than ever. He looked up at the battlements and continued gliding toward the front entrance’s massive, oaken double doors. Looking down at him, he saw grim-visaged warriors, armed with pikes and halberds, wearing dull black armor and helmets. Above the soldiers, on gigantic perches, sat what, at first glance, appeared to be huge black birds. A closer inspection revealed wings and a bird-like shape, but there the resemblance ended. They had no feathers, but a leathery skin that covered gargantuan bodies down to wickedly taloned feet. The heads and faces disclaimed any avian kinship, more closely resembling great apes, though devoid of hair, and with blubbery grinning lips and long fangs.
One of the monsters looked down on Damon and loosed a loud cry, an obscene sound that he felt penetrate to his bones. He shuddered and looked away. He was almost upon the great wooden door then and tried to stop himself. No luck. He raised his arm to protect his face and squeezed his eyes shut. Surprised when he felt no crash, he lowered his arm, opened his eyes, and realized he must have passed through the door, though someone may have opened it before he hit. He doubted the latter theory, for he hadn’t heard the creaking hinge.
Damon stood in the castle’s main hall, lit only by a few candles scattered about on ancient sideboards and the mantels above three dark, gaping fireplaces. The air in the room was not what he would have expected of an old castle. Neither damp nor cold, it was a comfortable temperature, which seemed strange considering the candles, cold fireplaces, and the general unused appearance of things.
Before him lay a flight of stairs leading up into a Stygian blackness. At the top, a candle appeared, bobbing as it moved down the steps. He could see a dark figure behind the candle but could make out no details . . . not that he needed to.
It’s him! I know it!
He tried to turn and run but his legs wouldn’t obey, as if he were rooted to the floor. I wish I had my slingshot or my bow and arrows . . . or my .410 shotgun! I wish Mark was here!
Damon flinched as Mark appeared at his side, cradling a bow, a quiver, and the .410. A slingshot protruded from one hip pocket.
“How did you get here?” Damon said.
“Beats me. One second I hear your voice calling me, and the next I’m standing here holding all this junk in my arms. What are you doing here, anyway?”
The black figure stood on the bottom step.
“Watch it, Mark! Here he comes.”
Damon grabbed the shotgun, and Mark nocked an arrow. They both aimed at the figure now standing at the foot of the staircase.
“You’ll have no need for those weapons here, boys.”
The figure’s voice wasn’t frightening at all but calm and soothing. Decidedly male, its lyrical quality sounded incongruous issuing from the forbidding form.
“Please lay down the weapons, boys, and follow me.”
Mark and Damon clutched their protection tighter and maintained their aims.
“Very well,” came the voice with a short sigh.
The slingshot, quiver, bow, and shotgun disappeared.
“Now, you will follow me.”
Against their wills, the brothers’ feet began to move after the mysterious shape, which Damon had come to think of as Death. He knew the face, as yet uncovered, was nothing but a grinning skull.
(See Part 3 Next Week)