Haunted Garden: Changeling teaser

Four stone towers, only one moderately intact, connected by walls that had long since crumbled in the middle. Vines crawled up the sides of the weathered stones as nature tried to reclaim what was rightfully hers. A flagpole still stood from the highest tower, the one closest to me, with a scrap of fabric still attached. It drifted lazily in the evening breeze.

Another shiver danced down my spine. The highest tower was one of the tallest buildings I had ever seen, aside from the castle in Nallis. It was majestic and magnificent, even with one side gone.

“I don’t like this,” I said to myself, and walked slowly past the tower, alongside the south wall, which was mostly intact. A few holes like slits were carved into the stone—places for archers to keep watch and ready their bows in case of invaders—and from one still dangled the ruined remains of a tapestry.

There was a small hole, big enough to crawl through, at the bottom of the wall. I peered at it, curious, and spotted broken, rusted bars protruding from the ground beneath it. A sewage drain, most likely. I took another step toward it, and realized that a small stream ran into it. Despite my fear, something drew me toward the stream. Stepping carefully over the wet rocks, I followed the thin path of water toward the forest. It wasn’t as dense here; the trees were thinner, and there were the remains of a stone wall crumbled on either side of the water.

I followed it several minutes into the forest, with a growing fear in my gut. There was something wrong about this place, but I couldn’t place a finger on just what it was.

The stream led to a small pond in a large walled space. The pond was overgrown with water weeds, but it looked to have once been decorative. Surrounding it was a stone pathway and the remains of a garden. Wildflowers and a few overgrown rose bushes surrounded the pathway, but everything was choked with weeds. The wild had long since tried to take over.

Something rustled in the shadows on the other side of the garden. The fear tightened around my heart, but I took another step into the garden, and my bare feet sunk into a soft bog. The shadows twisted, and still I took another step—and was enveloped in a feeling of icy dread.

I froze, shoulders hunched. The mantra vanished like smoke from my mind. Something dark was nearby. Something wrong. This place was haunted.

“Logan?” I called, barely daring to speak any louder than a hissing whisper. “Logan? Sophia?”

A soft noise rose up somewhere behind me, like a dry cackle. The hair on the back of my neck rose, and I turned, pulling my dagger from my belt.

There was nothing behind me but the edge of the garden, shrouded in shadows.

“Logan?” I called again. Night was almost upon us; there was only a faint ribbon of red light left on the horizon. “Are you there? This isn’t funny.”

Another noise, and a soft breeze against my neck like the breath of a stifled laugh.

I do not deal in jokes, child.

Fresh terror rippled through me and tears prickled my eyes. My breath came short as I turned—but yet again, there was nothing behind me.

I bit my lip; tears slipped from my eyes and slid down my cheeks. “Wh-Who’s there?” I stammered. My voice was pitiful, and was lost in the wind and mist almost immediately. Logan and Sophia would never hear me.

You tread in my territory, child—in my home. Unwanted. Uninvited. The outcasts of civilization do not want you; why should the ghosts of the past?

I shut my eyes as more tears fell free. My skin prickled as another icy breeze washed over me, and my trembling fingers slipped on the hilt of my knife. “Please…”

For what do you beg? Tendrils of glacial cold touched the back of my neck; I choked out a sob. It seemed to fall on me like a hand, growing stronger as the night mists gathered from the shadows. I see who you are. You have the hair and the eyes of your father, but the soul you possess is shared with your mother. Strange that destiny should decide to send you here, to me, but who are we to question what the gods decide? Do you beg for freedom from your blood, child? Do you beg for freedom from me? Another breathy noise, a child’s laughter in the wind. You would have more luck asking the mountains to walk and the sun to set in the east.

I opened my eyes, but saw nothing. Blackness surrounded me, twisting with the smoky shapes of half-seen ghosts and unrealized dreams.

“Help me,” I whispered, eyes blurred with tears.

One of the phantoms split from the rest, and a long arm stretched toward my face. “My, how you look like her,” it hissed, and the shadows swallowed me.

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