The screeching was horrifying. For each one of Blan’s friends they killed, the ghouls added the deceased’s death screams to the cacophony of shrieks that preceded their arrival. Blan’s legs wobbled over the stony terrain, weak as reeds. He’d left the treeline below him; the ghouls preferred the forest so he strove to reach higher ground. Loose shards of slate shifted beneath him as he ran, digging painfully through the soles of his shoes with every slamming footstep. His chest felt tight and his throat was stinging. He couldn’t force his lungs to ventilate any more frequently, so he tried to breathe more deeply with each breath. He succeeded only in choking on the cold evening air. His vision blurred and darkened and he tasted blood, but he stayed on his feet, unsteadily progressing. The ghouls were getting closer.
His mind was foggy. Oxygen to the brain was in short supply. What little decisionmaking capability he possessed, had it been able to react in time to the sharp conclusion of the mountain path, may have elected to plunge over the edge anyway. Being shredded by dozens of sharp rocks was surely preferable to whatever horrors the nearing ghouls would inflict upon him. As it was, however, his brain didn’t even consider the available options before sheer momentum made the decision for him. He was propelled off the side of the mountain and into a shadowed ravine.
Blan’s body bounced painfully off the face of the rocks partway down, breaking bones but ultimately slowing his descent so that it was non-fatal. Coming to rest amongst razor-sharp fragments of blue slate in a slowly-growing patch of his own blood, he was able to catch his breath at last. The screams were more distant now, less urgent. Maybe, he thought, maybe he’d escaped them.
Or maybe not. In the encroaching twilight, Blan could just make out the spectral glow of the pursuing ghouls, congregating above him at the precipice over which he’d tumbled. They emitted a coordinated cry, incorporating the death knells of each of the six allies with whom he’d started his journey. Blan scrambled shakily to his feet and scanned his surroundings for somewhere to flee.
The ghouls swirled into a glowing comet and began blazing a ghostly trail down the side of the ravine. Blan steeled himself, wincing as his ribs grated against one another, and set off the only passable direction: deeper into the ravine. He serpentined through the blue-grey mountain, following the shape of the chasm. Blan did not directly see his pursuers behind him, so he had no way of knowing if they were gaining on him, but he heard their wails echo off the walls, spurring him onwards through the pain.
After a sudden sharp corner, Blan emerged into a wide open space, hundreds of feet across. Compared with the oppressively claustrophobic ravine, Blan suddenly felt very defenceless. No twisting terrain was left to delay the ghouls now. The ground sloped slightly upwards, coming to a point about six hundred feet in front of him. It looked like steep drops over the edge; Blan couldn’t even see the bottom. But most importantly, where the slope crested, a narrow stone bridge led to an enormous foreign-looking castle, dilapidated and ruined. Maybe Blan could hide in there and evade capture. Otherwise it was looking like another plunge off of something high.
He looked back into the ravine, as far as he could before it twisted out of sight. The ghouls’ ambient glow was throwing weaving shapes and shadows up onto the jagged walls. He kept running, hoping the castle would provide some answer. His vision went blurry again as he chanced another look behind him, and he could no longer make out the green glow. The rushing blood must have filled his ears too, as the wailing seemed muted, like it was coming from underwater. Blan turned again to face his destination. Now that he had a closer look, he could see the castle wasn’t dilapidated at all! In fact it looked brand new. It didn’t appear to be constructed in contemporary local style, though. It looked like something from history, maybe some replica of an old fortress from the west, built to look like it was from a long-past era. That’s probably why he thought it was a ruin.
Blan looked for the ghouls once more, but night was upon him now and he could not see clearly more than a hundred feet or so back the way he’d come. The shrieks were gone, which was promising. There were no lights on in the castle, he noted, as he crashed painfully into the wooden doors. Still, being inside even a weird-looking building was better than being out here and staring down the ghouls that has ripped his companions to pieces in front of him. He tugged on one of the wrought iron handles of the doorway. He must have lost a lot of blood; this grey stone castle appeared weirdly reflective and shiny. The castle foyer was pitch dark inside. Blan shoved the door closed behind him and involuntarily crumpled onto the floor. The ground was ice-cold to the touch, thought Blan incoherently. His clammy hands and face clung to the surface. Whether it was lying down, ceasing running, or relief flowing through him from his apparent safety, a rush of blood overwhelmed Blan’s brain and he giggled and burbled like an infant, before announcing out loud to himself and nobody in particular, “welcome… to the Castle of Steel!”
Blan’s body slumped on the metal floor as he passed out.
Blan awoke to the now-familiar chill, naked atop a well-made bed. He swung his legs over the side of the bed and braced himself for the touch of cold metal on his feet. He swiftly patted over to a wooden wardrobe door in the wall of the bedroom, using the balls of his feet to minimise contact with the freezing ground. He pulled out some woolen clothes and a bathrobe, and crucially a pair of comfortable slippers.
He traversed the vast interior of the Castle of Steel, crossed its ornate hallways and descended down its sweeping curved staircases to the lower levels. In the kitchen, he rummaged through the pristine pantry for breakfast ingredients. The fire was low in the stove, but he fed it a little fuel and started cooking. By the time he’d produced a plate of something, the kitchen was a complete mess. Dirty pans were strewn across the room, he’d tracked spilled egg-white across the floor and a not-inconsiderable quantity of flour had fallen down the gap between polished steel worksurface and stove.
Blan ate as he walked, now moving into the castle’s armoury. He passed across the entrance hall to the castle, where he’d spent his first night, so long ago now. In the centre of the room stood a graceful silver pedestal, about chest high, made of graceful thin arcs and sprays as though it were forged by a droplet hitting a molten pool of metal. Ensconced at the top of the pedestal was a large glass orb, about the size of a watermelon, inside which writhed an animated black and gold marbling effect. A huge two-pronged crack marred the otherwise perfect surface, and every thirty minutes without fail, the orb would vibrate violently, rattling in its setting and spinning randomly against the frictionless silver.
Blan reached the armoury. He began to one-handedly don padded underlay for plate armour, and then when he’d finished eating, moved onto strapping various panels to his body. He grabbed a sword and scabbard and tied it to his belt.
The next part of his routine was the trip into the grounds. Every morning, from breakfast to lunch, from lunch to dinner, from dinner to bedtime, Blan kept watch in the castle grounds. He stepped outside to a miserable grey rain and walked the hundred or so feet to his patrol route. By the time he arrived, a pleasant spring sun was smiling down on him from above. He could hear muted chirps of birdsong and make out a blurred forest in the valley below. His patrol took him back and forth in an arc across the front of the grounds. Never once did he cross the line he’d crossed once before, on the night he arrived.
For at this barrier was a shimmering translucent field. Blan looked through it at enormous grey buildings in the distance, blanketed by night. Regularly-spaced lights peppered the sides vertically, and the scene was completed by a procession of horizontally-marching lights that crept along an enormous grey bridge. The field swirled like a soap bubble, blurring and distorting all sights and sounds beyond. A distant roar echoed from the valley, punctuated by notes from a harsh-sounding brass instrument.
Every thirty minutes, when the orb juddered and rocked and spun in its setting, the vista beyond the shimmering barrier would transform. The world beyond would dissolve into grey and reforge into a new world. Blan could often see the outline of the ravine he’d run through to get here, although some scenes shown to him displayed slightly warped terrain, and others seemed to show him being underground. He could infrequently look down into the valley below a little, most of the time the castle seemed to be obscured, intentionally or accidentally, from the more interesting parts of its surroundings, by the nature of its foundation’s terrain.
Blan paced back and forth along the perimeter of the castle’s grounds, forever vigilant of a scene before him that resembled the night he’d arrived. He’d spent his time in the Castle of Steel healing, living well, and exercising. He was confident if he could get back, he could evade the pursuing ghouls. Maybe he’d even be able to get back to his quest, or at the very least return the bodies of his fallen allies to their families.
The castle itself was strangely beautiful. Its reflective surface on a clear day would appear the colour of the sky. Coupled with the muting effect of its surrounding bubble, Blan doubted anyone would be able to spot this thing perched on a random outcropping of a random mountain pass, but up close Blan could appreciate its detailing. Roughly square in shape, the castle had no outer wall either beyond or within the barrier. The keep had regularly-spaced round towers that increased in height towards the middle, topped with conical spires. No pennants flew from the spires, though the flagpoles were present. From the tallest central tower hung a single, huge, exquisite sheet, a black flag adorned with a red and gold hourglass.
The day passed slowly. Blan couldn’t really tell how long he spent before deciding a day was over; the exterior of the bubble shifted between day and night with no regularity or pattern. Dusk gave way to noon, winter gave way to autumn, crumbling ruins gave way to buzzing metropolises. When Blan got tired, he rested. When he got hungry, he ate. When he got bored, he slept. Staring at the eternally-shifting exterior all day had worn him down, and he began walking back to the castle, slowly divesting himself of his weapons and armour, letting the equipment lay where it fell.
He ascended back up to the bedroom and clambered into his freshly-made bed. The shutters on the window were permanently closed, since daylight was a possibility at any hour. Blan used his fingernail to carve a single notch in the wood of the bedframe, ready to count the days.
He awoke again at what he hoped was morning the following day, shivering against the cold of the room. He was lying naked on top of a freshly-made bed. He scampered across the room to the wardrobe and opened it to find his bathrobe and slippers, clean and fresh as the day they were made. Downstairs, all the food he’d eaten from the larder had been replaced. Any weapons he equipped yesterday were back in their racks, polished and sharpened. Yesterday’s mess-spattered kitchen was clean, ready for a new day.
He’d lost his clothes and all his belongings when he’d placed them neatly in the chest at the foot of his bed on his second night. He’d woken up tired, freezing, naked and confused, and when he’d checked the chest, it was empty, just as he’d found it. So Blan fairly quickly figured out that as soon as his attention was sufficiently divided, such as through sleep, the castle would clean up after him and return to the state it was in when he’d first arrived.
It didn’t take a genius to piece together the hourglass motifs and the shifting state of decay and youth the mountain beyond the bubble looked as it transformed twice an hour. But that’s as far as his intellect would take him; Blan was no scientist, no mage, no cleric. His power was his sword arm and his cunning lay in battle tactics and mêlée combat techniques. He had no idea how the castle worked, or who had built it or why. He knew enough to avoid interfering with the vibrating glass orb in the centre of the keep, at least while there was still a chance the castle would return him to his own time.
It was not without some guesswork that Blan made his preparations to leave. He was banking on the immutability of castle objects transferred beyond the bubble. His experimenting over the past weeks and months had involved tossing various items across the barrier and watching for them. He’d seen none. Once the image outside shifted once, the items vanished. Even when the vista phased into one vaguely similar to one he’d tossed objects into, he could never see any on the ground out there. He supposed the items could have diligent collectors, but he also never saw any people wandering around picking stuff up either.
He’d deduced that even times that looked similar at first had to be sufficiently distant. He knew the transitions weren’t linear because of the varying progress and architectural styles of the civilisation that was settled in the valley below.
The tipping point, the catalyst for his new resolution, was catching sight of his face in one of the many shining steel surfaces in the castle, and spotting his first grey hair. He’d been here too long, the monotony of the day-to-day life, far from making time feel like it was stretching on forever, instead allowed the days to run together and pass without Blan’s realising it. The castle didn’t age; it reverted to the same state he’d found it in every time he went to sleep. But it didn’t prevent aging for people that entered.
So Blan had gathered everything he thought he might need to hike down to the settlement in the valley, whatever age it was when he arrived, and get some answers, and then doubled it. He had everything assembled outside the front of the keep. He had donned the best-fitting armour, collected the most well-balanced weapons. The months of patrolling the barrier boundary had given him plenty of practice, executing his training exercises in all light and weather conditions imaginable. He’d thrown open the doors to get a good line of sight on the world beyond the barrier, and he’d watched the glass orb.
It was the final thing he’d yet to try. Attempting to manipulate the cracked black glass might yet yield the way back to his own time. And if it didn’t, nothing would be lost. He would set out anyway, waiting for a time period to arrive in which he wouldn’t feel too out of place. With all of his preparations made, and the doors to the castle propped wide open so he could see the vista beyond, Blan took up a stance in front of the orb and reached out his hand.
The smallest graze of his fingertips against the glass sent it spinning violently in its frictionless stand. The castle seemed to lurch with it, the scene beyond the bubble shifted violently. Blan’s head spun with a sudden onset of extreme motion sickness and he stumbled sideways. He reached out to the pedestal for balance and jostled the orb again, further increasing the disorientation. Blan’s face flushed with heat and he felt his breakfast rising in his stomach. He drunkenly meandered out into the castle grounds, where he saw that outside the bubble, night had fallen. He was mid-vomit when he heard it: the unearthly screech that haunted his nightmares, muted by the barrier. Was he back? He shook his head to try to clear it and get a glimpse through the veil, eyes roving for the ghostly luminescence to confirm his suspicion. Head still spinning, he stood up and started for the surface of the barrier at a run, slowing down momentarily to grab the supplies and equipment he’d gathered from the castle stores. The sword he’d selected was engraved with the same hourglass pictographs that peppered the rest of the castle, and gleamed with the telltale hint of an enchanted weapon: he finally had the capability to fight back against these creatures that had preyed on him before. He collided with the barrier at a flat-out run, just as the vision beyond melded into a sea of grey.
Blan emerged into the early morning, an acrid smoke filling the air around him. A low vibrating roar sounded from the valley below, and large thrumming objects cast indistinct shadows in the smog above his head. Where this miasma thinned out, directly above him, he could see he was standing in the shadow of an enormous black structure with blinking multicoloured lights in unfamiliar patterns decorating the side. Some kind of horseless metal cart swam through the air above him, leaving a trail of the same smog surrounding him on the ground. He looked around him.
His disoriented charge had deposited him on the very precipice of the cliffside. He surveyed the stretch between ravine and castle, but there were no ghouls… he’d missed his window! The castle, barely visible through the air even though it was only 20 paces away, did not look not aged or dilapidated; it looked like it did when he left. He could get back and try again. He took a step towards it and missed spotting a loose fragment of the degraded cliffside. He lost his footing and crashed heavily into the ground. The eroded rock beneath him gave an ominous groan. Blan climbed to his feet and edged closer. Surely if he just walked over the threshold from this side then he would get back, and he could try again? But one step was all it took to loosen the weathered chunk of outcropping beneath his feet. It broke away from the mountainside too suddenly for Blan to catch his balance and jump to safety. For the second time in his life, he took a fateful plunge over a sharp precipice and landed in the unknown.