The next Masks stories is over 21k words and only about a quarter of the way through, so here's something to hold you in the meantime.
There's a lot of humor in this tale, but it's darker than my usual. Also, as with Weave of Life it ends after some immediate problems are solved but with the larger situation still needing to be addressed.
I began this set of stories in 2000 and the last installment was in 2002; which gives you a clue as to how fast (or slowly) I write.
Castle Freak: Part 1
The rental car slowly rolled up the sweeping drive, as if the occupant were admiring the surroundings. Or was uncertain this was the right place. Or perhaps was intimidated by the large - and apparently genuine - castle at the head of the drive. Most likely the cause was a combination of those factors.
Abruptly, the car stopped, as the driver spotted an attractive young woman on her knees, planting bulbs in a flower bed near the drive. Down went the window.
"Excuse me," the man inside called out, "is this the home of Dr. Richard Frique?"
"Oh, well, of course it is," the woman replied, beaming as she rose and walked gracefully to the car, "and I should know; I'm Winnifred, his wife of nearly fifty years and mother of his children and, as you can see, keeper of the grounds."
The driver was rather taken aback; the woman didn't look over twenty, much less old enough to have been married for half a century.
"Oh, uh, well, thank you," he replied, with a nervous laugh. "I wasn't sure. The guy at the gas station gave me some very strange directions. He actually said that if I need to know if I was at the right place I should just ask the talking dog."
"Well, isn't that just the silliest thing you ever heard?" the woman tittered. "A talking dog, how silly."
"That's what I thought," the man replied, a bit relieved the women could realized absurdity when she heard it. "Can you tell me..."
"I wonder if he meant Oliver, our werewolf?"
Now the man definitely knew he was talking to someone who wasn't all there. Even if she was startlingly beautiful. He was about to say something else, when a gravelly voice with a thick Southern accent interrupted him.
"This gentleman bothering you, Winnie?"
The man was startled; he hadn't seen or heard anyone approach. He glanced around, trying to see who had spoken, but all he saw was a large, grey dog, standing under his car window. It must have walked up while the driver was distracted by the woman's odd speech. Strange, how it stared at him. Almost like it knew...
"This here's private property," said the dog, which the driver now realized was actually a wolf. A very large wolf. "Unless you got an appointment with the Doc you better get off of it."
The driver's eyes rolled up in his head, and that head lolled forward, hitting the steering wheel.
* * *
The young man slowly regained an awareness of his surroundings. At one point he moaned, and the babble of conversation around him - unnoticed until then - stopped.
"Are you all right?" asked a male voice.
"Uh, yeah," said the man, opening his eyes to see a concerned face looking down at him. He appeared to be in early middle age, his hair slightly grey but his body still quite fit.
"We looked through your wallet to see if you had some sort of medical alert card," the man said apologetically, as he leaned back a bit and helped the younger fellow sit up. "I'm Dr. Frique. I understand you wanted to see me."
"Yeah. I'm Daryl Potts... though I guess you already know this."
They were inside, in what appeared to be a large drawing room. It appeared quite normal, except that the high ceiling was supported by massive beams and obviously the underside of a sloped roof. Though the original construction was old - likely more than a century, from the pegged beams - the decor was nearly modern; just used enough to have some comfortable wear. Daryl was lying on a plush sofa, his shoes off and feet elevated. There was a pressure cuff around his arm, and other medical gear on the coffee table in front of the sofa.
"Sorry about that," he muttered, swinging his feet carefully to the floor. "I've been under a lot of stress lately, and, well, when I imagined I saw a talking wolf..."
"There you go again," someone muttered in a gravelly voice.
Daryl quickly looked towards the source, then relaxed when he saw a gruff, grey-haired man. One who appeared older than the doctor, and also much more capable of violence. There was something disturbingly... feral about him.
"Yes, well, that's beside the point," said Dr. Frique. "Who recommended you come to me? I'm a medical researcher, not a practicing physician."
"Dr. Arnoldson," said Daryl. "Most doctors wouldn't even see me if I described my problem to them ahead of time, and if I told them during the exam they recommended I see a psychiatrist without even waiting to confirm my story. Only Dr. Arnoldson did me the courtesy of testing my claim. When he saw I was telling the truth he recommend I come see you."
"Henry Arnoldson?" mused Dr. Frique, rubbing his chin. "I'm surprised he's still practicing. We were classmates. He must be - What? - 78 by now."
"Huh?" said Daryl, upon hearing this statement from someone who didn't look a day over 40.
"Just what is your problem?" asked Dr. Frique.
"I'm under a curse," said Daryl, flatly.
"Let me guess; you're a werewolf," sneered the gravelly-voiced man.
"Oliver, why don't you go tell Winnie our guest is all right? I don't think I'll need your help carrying him any more. At least not right away."
Muttering under his breath, the other man stalked out.
"Okay, now, what's this about a curse?"
"What time is it?" Daryl asked.
"You still have your watch on," Dr. Frique replied, pointing.
"No, I mean, how long is it until sundown? Locally? I'm not from here and..."
The doctor frowned, then walked over to a window and peeked out between the expensive curtains.
"Looks like about another half an hour, maybe more."
"Well, I think a demonstration would be better than trying to describe it," sighed the young man. "So if you don't mind I'd rather wait."
"Hmm, you know, curses actually aren't in my line," said Dr. Frique, looking thoughtful. "You really need to speak with my uncle Quatrus. He's the current mystic of the family. Problem is, no-one's actually seen him in several weeks."
"Do you know if he's still alive?" asked Daryl, concerned.
"Well, something is taking in the trays of food we leave for him, and putting them back out in the hall later with the silverware neatly arranged on the plate," said Dr. Frique, with a slight smile. "Come on; we've got time, and I think he'd be interested in this."
"Let's go!" said Daryl, bouncing off the sofa. He wavered a bit and Dr. Frique caught his arm.
"Gently," said the Doctor. "Move slowly until you've recovered some more."
Once satisfied that the young man wasn't going to fall over, he turned and led the way. The walked across the room to a heavy wooden door; beyond which lay darkness. Dr. Frique flipped a switch on the wall, and Daryl winced a bit at the sudden, harsh light which resulted. Now, though, he could see some old but sturdy steps, leading down. The bare bulbs - all of them old-fashioned incandescents - hanging overhead cast stark illumination on the dusty wood, combining with the echoes bouncing back from the close stone walls to give a surreal air to the situation.
At the bottom of the steps Dr. Frique flipped another switch, turning on the overhead lights in a corridor leading left and right. However, these were office fluorescent fixtures. Of course, the construction was still mortared and well-fitted stone.
"An actual dungeon," said Daryl, startled.
"Well, it was designed to look like one," said Dr. Frique, with a fond smile. "My great-grandfather was an eccentric, but a practical one. This is actually a quite functional basement. The furnace and some storerooms are down here, as well as the heavier laboratory equipment. It's all well-drained, and air-conditioned. My uncle is a bit of a claustrophile, which is why his rooms are also down here. He doesn't like airy, open spaces."
As they proceeded left down the corridor Daryl imagined this uncle as resembling another uncle, famous from fiction.
The doors weren't labeled, but his guide knew where they were going. To the end, turn right, a few doors down, and they stopped. Dr. Frique pounded on the door.
"Uncle Quatrus! Open up! I've got a patient for you."
There was a pause, then the sound of muffled footsteps. Those stopped, and were followed by unlocking sounds. The door swung smoothly open, not making the ominous squeak Daryl expected. Instead of Uncle Fester Daryl found himself looking up at a man who might have been a fullback in college and still made a point of keeping in shape. He was very Russian in appearance, even to wearing a full, spade-shaped beard.
"Patient?" the big man rumbled, his beard twitching seemingly independently of his words. Some part of Daryl's brain noted there was no Russian accent.
"This young man says he has a curse. I wanted you to check him out, since that's more your field than mine."
"Hmph," the big man grunted. "Well, bring him in. Maybe this will be interesting."
The room inside was actually quite cozy, more a bachelor's apartment than an ascetic's cell. Despite Daryl's preconceptions it wasn't musty at all, but instead smelled faintly of incense. Tapestries covered the stone walls, some showing mundane scenes and some showing very odd ones, and while the drop ceiling of acoustic tile nearly brushed Uncle Quatrus' bushy hair it also quashed echoes and provided insulation. An indoor-outdoor carpet covered the floor. Besides the door they had entered by, there was another in each of the other three walls of the small but cozy square room.
"So, what's this curse?" Quatrus rumbled.
"Uh, well," said Daryl, glancing at his watch, "It's almost sundown. I think seeing it would be better than me trying to tell you."
"Activates at sundown, eh?" said Quatrus, now seeming mildly interested. "I suppose it reverses at sunup?"
"Yeah," said Daryl, sighing.
"You don't seem too affected by it." said Quatrus, leaning in a bit to examining the younger man. "I mean you are obviously not comfortable with the curse, but neither are you excessively concerned. Is is dangerous to bystanders?"
"No, sir," said Daryl, shaking his head.
Their host turned a chair in front of a small but expensive-looking home entertainment center around and invited the other two to take seats of their own across from his. Daryl wondered why he had multiple, matching chairs if he rarely had guests.
"So, how did you come by this curse?" Quatrus prompted, when Daryl didn't continue on his own.
"Uh, well, an ex-girlfriend put it on me," sighed Daryl, squirming uncomfortably between the arm rests. "Her name is Carol Weiss..."
"Is she a cabalist?" asked Quatrus, suddenly interested.
"What sort of wizard, warlock, witch or whatever was she?"
"I don't really know," said Daryl, shrugging. "She never told me. We'd been dating for a while, and I did something that really honked her off, and she stormed out. I didn't see her for a few days, and then she showed up back at my apartment. She was still angry, but smiling, which I guess should have made me realize something was up.
"Anyway, she told me she was going to teach me a lesson, and threw some powder in my face. While I was choking and coughing she chanted something. I felt this weird flush run through my whole body, and she laughed. Really weird laugh. That's the first time I've actually heard someone cackle outside a movie or TV show. She told me I'd earned this, and would have to live with it for the rest of my life.
"For a while I thought she'd poisoned me. I showered and changed clothes, and felt fine. Figured it was just her trying to put a scare in me. Then, at sundown, I changed for the first time."
"So it's a physical transformation?" said Quatrus.
"Oh, yeah," said Daryl, wincing.
"Hmph. This might just be interesting after all."
Uncle Quatrus questioned the young man for a while, but was mostly frustrated with the answers he got. Daryl refused to go into the actual nature of the curse, and simply didn't know any more about the woman who had placed it. Suddenly, Daryl stiffened.
"Okay, here it comes."
He quickly stood. Then, smoothly, his form changed, shrinking and shifting. In perhaps two seconds, where once had stood a young Caucasian man of average height, now stood a petit young Asian woman. She was quite cute, modestly endowed, with long, straight, black hair and big eyes. The other two also stood, reflexively, demonstrating both surprise and fascination.
"Oh, yes..." said Quatrus, nodding, grinning and eagerly rubbing his hands together. "That's magic, all right. Don't know whether I'd call that a curse - Rowr! - but it's definitely magic."
END Part One
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