Excerpt for Haunted Secrets by , available in its entirety at Smashwords

Altered Creatures Epic Fantasy Adventures

Nums of Shoreview Series

Haunted Secrets

Historical Date 4.0649.1127

(4th Age, 649th Year, 11th Month, 27th Day)

Copyright © 2018 by Anthony G. Wedgeworth

Published by Anthony G. Wedgeworth

Cover artwork by Frederick L. Wedgeworth

Illustration artwork by Steve Ott

ISBN-13: 9780463159422

Library of Congress Control Number: 2018904738

Altered Creatures Epic Fantasy Adventures

Historical Date 4.0649.1127

Nums of Shoreview Series

Book 5, Revision 1.0 eBook

Haunted Secrets

Printed in the United States of America

Without limiting the rights under the copyright reserved above, no part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in or introduced into retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by and means (electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise), without the prior written permission of copyright owner of this book.

The scanning, uploading, and distribution of this book via the Internet or via any other means without the permission of the copyright owner is illegal and punishable by law. Please purchase only authorized electronic editions, and do not participate in or encourage electronic piracy of copyright materials.

Your support of the author’s rights is appreciated.

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.

No Thrashers or Chuttlebeasts were harmed in the making of this book.

Dedication: To Tami; my wife, my editor, my consultant, and my best friend. Thank you for always being there for me.

Acknowledgments: JoAnn Cegon, Tami Wedgeworth, Darci Knapp, Jennifer Eulgem for editing support, Steve Ott for his wonderful illustrations, and Rick Wedgeworth for his cover art renderings. I’m very fortunate to have you on my team; I couldn’t have done this without you.

Altered Creatures Epic Adventures continues with the following books:

Nums of Shoreview Series (Pre-Teen, Ages 9 to 12)

Stolen Orb (Book 1)

Unfair Trade (Book 2)

Slave Trade (Book 3)

Baka’s Curse (Book 4)

Haunted Secrets (Book 5)

Rodent Buttes (Book 6)

Thorik Dain Series (Young Adult and Adult)

Treasure of Sorat (Prequel)

Fate of Thorik (Book 1)

Sacrifice of Ericc (Book 2)

Essence of Gluic (Book 3)

Rise of Rummon (Book 4)

Prey of Ambrosius (Book 5)

Plea of Avanda (Book 6)

Tilli of Kingsfoot Series (Adult)

Time Will Tell (Book 1)

Santorray’s Privations Series (Adult)



Look for other upcoming stories of

Santorray’s Privations

Tilli of Kingsfoot

Dragon & Del’Unday Wars

and more…

Haunted Secrets


Anthony G. Wedgeworth

Chapter 1

The Key to Getting Along

As the citizens of Shoreview rebuilt their city after its most recent disaster, Bik, Faun, and Gaz were busy cleaning up the mess in their shop. It wasn’t the first time they had cleaned up the store of unique items and they doubted it would be the last. There always seemed to be something that would make them start all over again.

This time it was a bit more than just cleaning. Boards had been knocked from the ceiling and walls, which needed to be rebuilt once the floor had been repaired. Several openings in the floor gave them the view of the shoreline water that ran under most of the city. Falling through and ending up in the lake wasn’t an issue, unless the tide was going out. However, the extremely strong undertow could be deadly even to the strongest of swimmers.

“Gaz, grab another board for me,” Bik ordered as he was busy fitting lumber into the openings of the floor to be hammered in. “I want to get this done before I go see my father.”

“This isn’t even our shop. It belongs to Captain Dare. Why do we have to fix it?” Gaz was less than excited about rebuilding the structure on the floating pier.

“Captain Dare left this place in our hands to take care of until he returns.” Bik hammered the last nail into the board he was finishing. “You know, for being the son of the Sheriff, I would have thought you’d learn how to take some responsibility.”

Gaz didn’t like being compared to his father’s achievements. “Oh, that means so much from the son of a prisoner in my pa’s jail. Clearly your family is so much more responsible than mine.” He tossed a board to Bik a bit harder than he had planned and it bounced up and slapped his friend across the head.

“Why, you…” Bik jumped to his feet before Gaz had a chance to apologize. Leaping at him, they both crashed against the wall, knocking a few more planks from it.

“I didn’t mean it!” Gaz yelled, covering his face to prevent being beaten up.

Landing on top of him, Bik sat and watched his friend cower below him. He knew it was an accident, but he was still mad about the situation. “It’s not right!”

“I said I was sorry.” Peaking between his fingers, Gaz was prepared for his pounding.

“That’s not what I meant.” Standing back up, Bik inspected the additional damage they had done to the shop wall. “Our parents were once friends, just like you and I are. Now look at them. They’re on the opposite sides of a jail cell.” Picking up one of the broken boards, he sized it up to see if he could easily nail it back into place. Upon doing so, he noticed an old metal object that had been hidden inside the wall.

Gaz was relieved that he avoided another rumble with Bik. “Do you think we’ll stay friends when we’re older?”

“Let’s see if you make it to being older, first.” Bik snickered at his own joke while brushing away debris to uncover the metal item. To his surprise, it was an old skeleton key with an engraved hexagonal handle. “Look what I found,” he said as he held it up in the air.

“Looks like a key,” Gaz said in all seriousness.

“Really?” Bik replied with a playful shocked expression. “What gave you that idea?”

“Because it looks like one.”

“Wow, Gaz. I don’t know why your pa hasn’t asked for your assistance to solve crimes in Shoreview. You’re amazing.” His sarcastic voice was overly played with his expressive body language. “Of course it’s a key. The question is to what?”

Gaz opened up his mouth to answer, but was stopped by Bik.

“Gaz, if you say ‘a lock’ I’m going to have to pound on you.”

Slowly, Gaz’s mouth closed, followed by a shrug of his shoulders.

It was then that Faun walked in to see how the cleanup was going. “Looks like you found a key,” she said as she walked past them on the way to the counter.

Gaz’s eyes grew large as he stared at Bik, wondering how he would react to her making the same observation that he had.

“Why yes it is, inspector. And you’ll never guess where I found it.” Bik’s smirk gleamed at her, knowing she had no idea.

Reaching the counter, she pulled out the large book of inventory items and plopped it onto the counter with a thud. “You found it inside that wall.”

Snapping his head from her to Bik, Gaz was stunned that she was correct.

Bik was surprised as well, but wasn’t going to give her the upper hand quite yet. “What makes you say that, oh wise one?”

Faun opened the book and started working her way through the pages. “I don’t recall seeing that hole in the wall this morning, and Gaz has splinters on his back. My guess is that you two were fighting again and you fell into the wall, breaking it, and then finding the key.”

Gaz’s mouth hung open. “How does she do that?”

Twisting his lips to one side, Bik took the challenge to the next level to stump her. “Okay, genius, what’s this key for?”

“And the answer can’t be ‘for a lock’!” Gaz announced.

Nodding at his friend, Bik agreed. “Exactly.”

“Well,” Faun said as she casually came to a stop within her book, “I would say it’s the key for an ancient chest which holds the power to influence your future.”

A moment of silence fell upon the shop of unique items before Bik spoke up. “You just made that up, didn’t you?”

She smiled. “Partially. But I haven’t had time to read all these notes.” She pointed at the open page of her book which had a drawing of the exact same key along with a small metal strapped wooden chest. Notes on the page made it clear that whatever was inside the chest was of some ancient magic.

Gaz and Bik rushed up to the counter to see the drawings. Unlike Faun, they had never taken the time to fully review all the pages within the large leather-bound inventory.

Scattered and unorganized, notes were made on the page in poor handwriting that faded in and out as letters became scribbles and back again. Symbols were drawn around the objects, most of which they didn’t understand. However, there were a few they had seen before and they were not happy to see them again.

“Get rid of it!” Gaz ordered as he stared at the page. “That key is cursed. I’ve seen that symbol on the wooden Baka idle I had.” He pointed at a specific symbol on the page. “Nothing good came from that.” Stepping back from the counter, he noticed Bik’s unwavering focus on the page.

Bik leaned forward, tilted his head, and squinted his eyes in hopes to see better. “Does that say what I think it does?” His finger moved to a small notation written in light ink among a description of the contents.

Curious, Faun leaned forward and tilted her head as well. Her eyes then grew larger at the word her friend was pointing at. “Oh my. Bik, do you think it’s him?”

It was driving Gaz crazy not knowing what the other two were talking about, so he jumped back to the counter to find out what they had read. And there on the page, near the symbols of warning, were the words, ‘Taken by Chasen’. “Bik, your father stole this? Is that why he’s in jail?”

Reading it over and over again, Bik hoped he was seeing it wrong, but it never changed. “I don’t know, Gaz. But I’m going to find out.” And with that, he marched out of the Dare to Trade shop with the key firmly gripped in his fist.

Chapter 2

What’s Chasen Hiding?

The jail was not immune from the recent damage to the city. Walls and roofs had collapsed on the office and jail cells. Fortunately, the structure had been built on the sandbar instead of on the docks like most of the city. Because of this, the floors and loadbearing wooden beams were still intact.

By the time Bik had arrived the building was filled with locals helping to reconstruct the jailhouse as well as the Sheriff’s office, which was attached. Guards, who normally stood at attention, were busy carrying lumber while carpenters nailed the boards in place. It was organized chaos at its finest.

Bik’s father, Chasen, was also helping in the process. In fact, he was in the thick of it as he helped manage the activities to ensure that the new building would be as good, if not better, than the original. “Drop that cross beam into place first,” he yelled up to the workers.

If Bik didn’t know better, he would have assumed his father was the foreman on the project. “Father?” His call was repeated a few times before he was heard over the construction noise.

“Bik!” Chasen was clearly pleased to see his son. “What do you think? We’re going to make this into something special.”

“It’s a jail.”

“True, but it’s going to be better than ever.”

“It’s a jail that you’re a prisoner in.”

“Yes, and I’ve had time to think about how we could make this so much better to protect the inmates.”

“I think the point of the jail is to protect the people from the prisoners.”

“What?” Chasen had returned to watching his unofficial crew hoist another crossbeam up. “Turn it around. I want the notch to be on this side,” he yelled up to them.

Bik knew his father would help, regardless the situation. It was just who he was. He always ended up getting involved and usually ended up taking charge of the situation. “I need to talk to you.” Not getting his father’s attention, Bik tugged on his shirt. “I found out why you’re in jail.”

Chasen’s facial expression quickly changed from one of enjoyment to that of horror. “Bik, I don’t know what you’ve been told, but I’ll tell you what my reasoning was when the time is right.”

“The time is right now,” Bik replied. Pulling out the key found in the shop’s wall, he showed it to his father.

“No!” Chasen covered the key with both hands so that no one else could see it. His head swiveled about in search for anyone who may have got a glimpsed of the object. Not seeing anyone looking his way, he lowered himself to be at eye level with his son and spoke in a soft tone. “You shouldn’t have this. Our lives are in jeopardy if anyone finds out you have this.”

“What is it? Why did you steal it?”

“Put it away before anyone suspects anything.”

“No. Is this the cause of you being in here? Is this why mother has to work several jobs to keep us fed?” Bik was upset that his family had been torn apart by the simple item within his hand. “If this is what you stole, then I want to return it so you can come home.”

“It’s not like that.” Chasen’s voice became sterner. “Put that away so no one sees it.”

Pausing for a moment, Bik eventually gave in and did as his father instructed. He placed it back into his pocket and pushed it to the bottom, under a few nails, a foot of string, and various other objects he had picked up recently. “I deserve an answer as to why you’ve put mother and me in this situation. You’ve never told me exactly what happened.”

Chasen’s head nodded forward with a sigh of relief that the key was out of sight. “There are too many eyes and ears here for us to talk, Bik. I will tell you when the time is right. For now, you need to use all your wit to find the best hiding place in Shoreview to prevent anyone from finding that.”

“I’m not hiding it until you tell me what this is all about.”

His father glanced around as workers passed by them. “You don’t understand the danger you’re in with that in your possession. Hide it before it gets you and your mom into a situation I can’t save you from.”

Feeling the key in his pocket, Bik struggled to understand how such a small object could be involved in the level of danger his father was expressing. “I will hide this tonight if you promise to tell me all about this once I return.”

“Always making a deal, aren’t you? Using leverage while you have it.” A grin grew upon Chasen’s face. “You truly are my son.” Peering down at the pocket the key rested in, he nodded. “We have an agreement. Just make sure that’s hidden someplace no one will find.”

A half smile was accompanied by misty eyes. “I love you, father. I just want you to come home.”

Hugging his son, Chasen’s heart and chest had tightened from his emotions. “I love you more than you’ll ever know, son. Once this is all over, I’ll make up for lost time.”

The feeling of his father’s arms around him made Bik feel safe from all dangers, but he knew it would only last a few moments. “I’ll hide it and then I’ll be back.”

Releasing his son, Chasen stood up straight and said his goodbyes before returning to his duties in the construction of the building that would house him as a prisoner.

Bik walked off, looking back periodically and admiring how his father took charge and could make things happen. Despite the prison sentence, he was still Bik’s hero.

Chapter 3

What Must We Do?

Bik contemplated the best hiding place for the key as he walked upon the raised wooden streets over the breaking waves that crashed under the docks. He climbed a few ladders and crossed a few rope bridges to take a less direct route back to the shop. He wasn’t ready to face his friends so he meandered off the normal path to give him more time to think.

His father’s warning kept playing in his mind and every once in a while he got the feeling that he was being followed. A sense of paranoia started making him wonder if locals were watching him. Perhaps that man in the dark red cloak had seen him show his father the key. And then a woman with a thin veil over her face seemed suspicious. Even the baker with a basket full of breads was in question since he had seen him more than once on his trek back to the shop. In fact, he had seen them all several times.

Stopping in his tracks, Bik took a deep breath to relax himself. He realized his own wandering about the city had caused him to see many locals more than once. His conversation with his father about their family being in danger had obviously spooked him more than he had realized.

It was then that he glanced up and spotted an old abandoned home hanging from the bluff wall. The decayed pathway that once led to it had fallen apart long ago during various storms. The structure just barely hung from the sandstone bluff with sections of collapsed floors and a sagging roof. It was a deathtrap for anyone to enter.

“It’s perfect,” Bik said to himself.

Racing back to the shop, he flew through the doorway to find Fawn sweeping and Gaz playing with a glass relic from the shop. “I found the perfect hiding place!”

Easily spooked, Gaz jumped from his friend’s unexpected entrance. Dropping the relic he had been playing with, it shattered upon hitting the floor. “That’s not my fault!”

Bik ignored the damaged item. “We need to hide this!” He held up the key.

“Our key is cursed?” Gaz asked. “I told you it was!”

“It’s not our key and it’s not cursed. But I do need to hide it. My family is at risk if it is found.”

Faun gave off a skeptical expression. “In what way are you at risk?”

“Well, I don’t know yet. But once I hide it, my father will tell me.”

“So your father is involved?” Faun asked. “The name in the book was referring to him?”


“That’s not good news.”

Bik didn’t like the sound of that. “Why? What do you know about this?”

Faun led him to the counter and opened the inventory book once again. Turning it to the page with the drawing of the key, she pointed at a few of the symbols. “Traitor. Deadly. Power.” She said the words as she pointed at each of the applicable symbols. “It sounds like your father has done something dreadful.”

Gaz moved to the counter to look for himself. His eyes grew in size as she made her case. “Now we know why your father is in jail.”

“No,” Bik said. “We know what these symbols mean, but there’s nothing that says my father did any of those things.”

Faun slid her finger over to some poorly written notes. “I think this says something about the Matriarch of Southwind.”

“The Matriarch?” Gaz asked. “I’ve heard my pa talk about her. She’s evil. But the province of Southwind is on the far side of the Kingdom. Has your father ever traveled that far?”

“Sure,” Bik replied with a shrug of his shoulders. “My father has traveled all over these lands. He’s traveled to all seven Provinces as well as outside the Kingdom.”

“So he was there.” Gaz was in awe of their discovery. “It’s all true. He must have killed someone in order to steel something from the Matriarch. I thought your father was smarter than to try to take something from such a powerful leader.”

“We don’t know any such thing! He’s not like that. We’re not like that. Our family would never hurt anyone.” Bik defended his family.

“Not hurt anyone? How about when you attacked me this morning?”

“Attacked you? You threw a board at me and I got mad and pushed you.”

“I think you may have the same anger issues your father has.”

“We can stand here and guess all day, but I’m telling you my father is a good man.” Bik’s passion came across stronger than expected. “I need your help. I need my friends to promise to help me hide this key.”

Faun placed a calming hand upon his shoulder. “You’re right, Bik. We’re always here for you when you need us.”

“Friends to the end.” Gaz nodded. “I promise to help.”

Faun was always pleased to see her friends get along. Turning back to her book, she pointed at a few symbols. “We know what some of this says but we don’t know how they all tie together.” She gave Bik a smile, hoping it would make him feel better. “We’ll help you hide that key. Then you can tell us what your father says about all of this.”

“Thanks,” Bik said. “I just want this to be over and I want him to come home. I miss him.”

“I know.” She patted his shoulder before moving back to the book and closing it. “So where should we hide the key?”

Gaz kicked a few loose boards to the side and looked down into the hole. “Toss it down here. The tide should take it out.”

Bik shook his head. “No. The tide is coming and it could be pushed up to the bluffs. Besides, I was told to hide it, not to lose it or destroy it. My father would have been clear if that was what he wanted me to do.”

“Okay,” Gaz searched around inside the shop. “Put it back in the wall and we’ll nail a board back over it.”

“No. I’m not hiding it in here. If someone comes looking for me to find it, they will surely come to my house and to this shop. Both would be torn apart and my mother and you two would be in danger as well. It’s best to have it someplace else.”

Gaz was quick to give him another option. “Give it to my pa. As the Sheriff, he can protect anything. That’s what he does.”

“If my father wanted the Sheriff to have it then he would have given it to him or told me to give it to him. No, this key needs to be hidden and we can’t tell anyone the location.”

Faun waited patiently for her turn to talk once there was a break between the boys bantering back and forth. “Alright, Bik. I know you well enough. You already have a place in mind.”

He seemed shocked at the assumption. “What makes you say that?”

“Just spit it out,” she replied.

He quickly gave in. “I found a home that’s been abandoned.”

Gaz laughed. “She’s good.”

Faun wasn’t laughing. “What home?”

A smirk grew on Bik’s face as he prepared to let her know. “It’s the Traub family home.”

She had her suspicions and she was not pleased to find out she was correct. “Bik…”

“I know what you’re going to say, Faun, but hear me out. If you think about it that home makes perfect sense.”

Gaz was in the dark about the subject. “Who is the Traub family?”

Bik was surprised at the question. “You’ve never heard the history of that family?”

Faun decided to answer before Bik in order to keep Bik from adding his spin on the facts to scare Gaz. “Many years ago, before we were born, the Traub family lived in one of the few homes attached to the bluff instead of the raised walkways and docks like the rest of us.”

Gaz didn’t understand where she was going. “So?”

“They were very wealthy and could afford a home high above the rest of us. They treated everyone else as though they were lower class and made many enemies over the years. They refused to help when natural disasters would strike our city and they even refused to help finance the cure needed for a plague that ran its course through here. The cure was available, for a price. Instead of helping purchase it, they locked themselves up in their home and waited it out. It’s said that old lady Traub told the locals it was a curse on them for their low life ways.”

“Were the people of Shoreview able to get the cure without them?” Gaz asked.

“No, they all died,” Bik responded sarcastically. “Of course they got the cure.”

“But at great cost,” Faun added. “They had to sign agreements with the Kingdom to tax all goods sold in Shoreview. The cost has hurt our community ever since.”

“Did people started hating the Traub family, causing them to move away?” Gaz asked.

“No. That’s not what happened,” Faun said. “The Traubs locked and boarded themselves up to avoid anyone with the plague from coming in contact with them. But what they didn’t realize was that it was already in their bodies. Before they knew it, they had fallen ill. But old lady Traub refused to ask the locals for help. The illness moved fast and all the family members quickly became weak. They weren’t able to escape their own home to ask for help before they passed away in their sleep.”

Bik agreed with the story, but felt he needed to add a bit more. “And it’s been said that some nights you can see old lady Traub carrying her lantern from room to room and you can hear her family clawing at the doors and walls trying to escape.”

Gaz screamed at the idea. “They’re still in there?”

“That’s what I’ve heard,” Bik said in a deeper voice to add more fear to the idea.

“Why are you telling me this? I’m not going to be able to sleep tonight!” Gaz was not kidding about his emotions.

“Because that’s where the three of us are going tonight to hide the key.”

“NO!” Gaz yelled.

“Gaz, it’s okay. Bik is just telling you stories. There is no proof there is anything in there but old furniture and clothes.”

“Am I, Gaz?” Bik said with a smile. “Are you sure there aren’t ghost haunting that place?”

“I’m not going in,” Gaz announced.

“Yes you are.”

“Why would I go in there?”

“Because I need your help and it’s time you grow up and get past your fears on the unknown. These are just stories.”

“Take Faun. I don’t want to go.”

“I plan to, but I need both of you in order to get inside.”

“Ask someone else.”

“I don’t trust anyone knowing where I’m going to hide this. My family is in danger. Surely you’re not going to be like old lady Traub and not provide help when it’s needed. We both know what happened to her.”

“Bik, you make me so mad sometimes!” Gaz pointed his finger at him. “You’re always getting us into things that we shouldn’t be involved with and then somehow I’m the bad guy if I don’t help.”

Bik nodded. “It’s a gift.”

Faun laughed at the reply. “You two deserve each other.” Closing the book back up, she grabbed her broom. “We have more to get fixed around here before we head over after dinner. Let’s make the most of it.”

The boys went to work as well, while Gaz mumbled, “This isn’t going to end well.”

Chapter 4

Unexpected Stranger

Darkness set in on Shoreview and the three met at the shop before heading to the abandoned Traub home. Bik arrived with a coil of rope over his shoulder and some climbing gear. He was ready for the mission to hide the key.

Faun and Gaz had been waiting and were in a deep conversation about their plans, but both stopped immediately once Bik arrived.

“Is there a problem?” Bik asked.

Faun shook her head. “No. We were just discussing what we would do if we get stopped by someone looking for the key.”

Pulling the key from his pocket, Bik showed his friends. “I don’t understand what this has to do with my family, but I do appreciate your support in helping me hide it.” A soft nervous rub of his thumb across the hexagonal handle caused the center section to glow.

“Wow!” Gaz was impressed. “I didn’t know it could do that.”

Bik gazed at it as well. “I didn’t either.” The glowing faded away and Bik shoved it back into his pocket. “Let’s get this over with so I can learn the truth from my father.”

Agreeing, Gaz and Faun followed their friend out of the shop and down the street which was populated by several locals and strangers. Shipmates took time away from their vessels to stretch their legs while glass blowers and metal workers closed up for the day and headed home. The streets were busy, as usual.

The three Nums passed an odd assortment of people along with some strange species they had never seen before. Women in overly large hats made Bik and his friends laugh, but it was the sight of a man in a red cloak that made Bik feel uneasy.

“I’ve seen him before,” Bik told his friends.

“It’s not that large of a city. We’ve seen a lot of these locals before,” Faun replied.

Turning, Bik led his friends down a different path so they didn’t have to walk by the red-cloaked man. After climbing up a few ladders and cross a few bridges they all came to a stop when they saw the same red-cloaked man standing at the end of an alleyway.

“This is bad,” Bik said.

Gaz was already starting to panic. “I don’t want to be here.”

“Should we head home and wait until tomorrow?” Faun asked.

“No.” Bik stared at the man at the far end before giving him a respectful nod.

The man nodded back as he held his position.

Bik spoke quietly to his friends, even though the man was several dozen yards away. “You two go your own way. He’ll follow me, so I’ll draw him back out to the docks before I make my way back to you two. Be waiting at the place we discussed.” He then handed his friends his rope and gear.

“Bik, I don’t like this.” Faun didn’t like leaving her friend when she knew he was in danger.

Never taking his eyes off the distant man, Bik continued with his orders. “Do this for me. No one can move through this city faster than me. I’ll lose him.”

She gave him a hug goodbye and Gaz joined the embrace as well.

Still eyeing the man, Bik waited for his friends to release him before making one final command. “Go!”

Bik made it obvious to the cloaked man which way he raced off before his friends had time to consider their direction. Racing down the raised wooden streets, Bik knew when to leap, slide, and jump to other levels of the chaotic system of passageways throughout the city. Yet, to his surprise, he saw the red-cloaked man several more times on his way to the docked boats.

Leaping off of a higher street, Bik flew out to one of the boats and grabbed a rope hanging from a mast’s crow’s nest. His speed carried him around the mast and back onto another street. He was in his element as he let go and did a flip in the air before landing on a new walkway.

Upon landing his dismount, he found himself face to face with the cloaked man.

Completely perplexed, Bik turned to run, only to be grabbed by the man by the scruff of his neck. He was caught, and he began to fight for freedom. Unfortunately, it was useless, none of the blows seemed to phase the man.

The cloaked man reached out his free hand with his palm up, waiting for Bik to give him what he had come for.

“I don’t know who you are or what you want.” Bik continued to try to free himself without success.

A deep shallow voice came from the man. “Key.”

Bik attempted to play dumb. “What key? The key to my house?”

A tightening of the man’s grip around the Num’s neck stopped all of Bik’s games. “Key,” was said once again by the man, but louder.

“I don’t have a key.” Bik patted his pants to show him nothing was in his pockets.

Tired of the games, the man gave additional instructions. “Turn them inside out.”

The pressure on Bik’s neck was intense and he gave in to the man’s order. Reaching in to both pockets, he grabbed the cloth at the bottom and pulled them out.

Falling from them were a few nails, a foot of string, and various other objects. However, no key was in the mix.

This struck Bik with horror. He had lost the key. Did it fly out of his pocket on some of his maneuvers out to the docks to evade the man? If so, it could be anywhere!

Angry with the result, the man patted the Num down to ensure it wasn’t somewhere else on him. Once he was satisfied that the key wasn’t there, he pushed Bik forward, guiding him down the street.

Bik’s mind raced as to where the key was and what the man was about to do to him. Both appeared to lead to bad situations.

Chapter 5

Haunted House

Running from one alley to another and under several walkways, Faun and Gaz made it to the abandoned home as planned. Both were slightly out of breath as they peered up at the structure hanging off the bluff nearly thirty feet above them. Several floor boards were hanging by a single nail as they swayed slowly in the breeze.

“Are you sure it’s not haunted?” Gaz asked.

“Keep it together,” she said in a calming tone. “Do you have the key in a safe place?”

Gaz reached into his pocket and felt the key. Rubbing it with a nervous thumb he wasn’t excited about being the holder of it. “Yes. How did you know we needed to be ready to take it?”

“I didn’t. But I figured it be worth having a plan to take it if we had to and I figured giving Bik a hug would be the best option to take it.”

“Old lady Traub!” Gaz said in horror as he stared up at the home above them.

Faun snapped her head up to see what he was talking about, only to find the unthinkable. A faint light could be seen through the slots of the old lumber floor. It faded for a moment and then lit up strong enough to cast soft shadows against the bluff. “What is that?”

“Ghosts!” Pulling his hands out of his pocket, Gaz covered his eyes. “Go away!”

And upon his command, the light faded away from within the home.

“Someone has to be in there. There has to be an explanation.” Faun was not going to assume there were ghosts when there were other possibilities.

“Are you serious?” Gaz was convinced he had just seen something paranormal. “How would they get in? There aren’t any ropes or ladders up to it from here or down from the top of the bluff. How would they get in?”

It was a fair question; one that Faun didn’t have an answer for. “Maybe it was an old mirror reflecting light from a city lamp. Perhaps it’s a bird that glows. I’ve heard of some fish that can do that. It seems more logical than a haunting.”

“I disagree. I’ve seen stranger things.”

“I know. So have I, but my parents have always told me to look for the more rational answer before assuming the less likely.”

“My pa always told me to trust my gut, and my gut is in knots right now after seeing ghosts up there.”

Faun smiled at her short friend and placed an arm over his shoulder to comfort him. “How long do we wait for Bik before we head back?”

“What? We’re not heading back. We can’t. We have to finish this for Bik and his family.”

“Why? Shouldn’t we go see if Bik is in harm’s way?”

Gaz shook his head. “I made a promise to him to hide the key before anyone else found it. If we go back there is a good chance we’ll get caught as well. We have to finish this for Bik and his family.”

Surprised at her friend’s internal desire to live up to his commitment, she searched his face to make sure he wasn’t playing. “I thought you didn’t want to go up in there. You said it was haunted.”

“Oh, I don’t want to. In fact, I’d rather go just about anywhere else. But I made a promise to my friend and he’s in trouble, so I’m going to go anyway.”

“I’m impressed. You’re a good friend to have.” She gave him a quick hug before stepping back to assess the situation. “There’s just one problem. How do we get up there?”

“I’m going to have to climb the bluff.”

“It’s dangerous enough in the day. I know Bik would go at night, but I’m not going up there at this hour.”

“Then I guess I’m going to have to be a substitute for Bik,” Gaz said. “He’s put his neck on the line for me before. It’s time I return the favor.”

“That’s noble of you, but it’s dangerous. You’re not as…”

“I know I’m not as good at this as Bik. I know I can be clumsy at times. But I can do this.” Gaz made sure the rope was coiled over his shoulder the way he wanted it. “Why are you trying to talk me out of this?”

“I just don’t want to see you get hurt.”

“Well, I don’t want to see Bik and his family hurt. So let’s do this and get it over with.”

“Okay. What do you want me to do?”

Gaz looked up the cliff for anything to tie his rope onto. The soft lights of the city gave just enough illumination for him to spot an outcropping above the house, off to one side. “I’m going to climb up, secure the rope, and toss the other end to you. I’ll need you to pull it tight and walk it out and over until the rope leans against the wall of the house. Then I’ll scale down the rope to that window and climb in.”

Faun nodded with the plan. “Please be alert for danger.”

“I’m going to climb into a haunted house by myself. How can I not be more on alert?”

Faun laughed. “Now you’re starting to sound more like Bik.”

Taking a deep breath, Gaz wished he had the courage his friend, Bik, did. Instead, it took all of his strength not to be shaking from head to toe. This was worse than his nightmares. Instead of hiding from his fears, he was willfully going toward them. What was he thinking?

Stepping to the end of the wooden platform, he jumped off and landed on the grass covered cliff. Grabbing handfuls of the grass in each hand, he took a moment to stabilize himself before heading up. However, once he started, he never looked back. Hand after hand of grass and outcropped rocks, he climbed his way up to the decaying wooden boards of the home.

Gaz took a moment to catch his breath and listen for any movement inside. However, the sound of his own heart beating rapidly pumped in his ears and drowned out any subtle noises. His mind raced with visions of potential ghosts, ghouls, and other unnatural creatures waiting for him inside. The idea of a hand breaking through the wall and grabbing him caused him to flinch back away from the building. He was starting to panic as the reality of his decision was starting to set in.

Frozen with fear, he hung onto the cliff with his eyes shut. He contemplated the idea of just hanging there until sunrise so it wouldn’t seem so scary. But then he would be spotted by the red-cloaked man which would give away their hiding location. No, he had to continue.

Squinting at first, he slowly opened his eyes to see if any vile beasts were reaching out of the home for him. There were none… so far.

Climbing up past the roof, Gaz tied the end of the rope to a rock sticking out of the cliff. Once secure, he tossed the rest of the rope down.

The final several yards of rope slapped against the platform, near Faun. She immediately scooped it up and walked away from the bluff to give her friend a chance to slide right to the window. Once she felt she had the correct angle, she pulled it taut and tied her end to a pole on the raised wooden street.

Gaz watched her wave, giving him the signal that the rope was ready. Somehow he wished she wasn’t so efficient. He would have preferred to wait a bit longer before climbing into the haunted house.

The wind picked up and pushed against Gaz and the building, prodding him to get moving. It also caused the home to moan as its old beams struggled to keep it from falling down. A soft whistle could be heard as the breeze blew through the thin gaps in the walls. The sounds added to Gaz’s anxiety as he prepared to climb down the rope to the window.

“If Bik can do it, I can do it,” he told himself. Placing his hands on the rope, he slowly worked them out from the cliff. One hand after another, he moved pretty well until he had to pull his feet from the small outcropping he was standing on. Once he hung freely, he panicked and his movement stopped.

Gaz dangled from the rope as it bowed more than expected. He was now too low to get to the window and too high to climb up from underneath. The wind blew him up against the outside wall of the home with a crash, snapping a few pieces of lumber. His initial reaction was to scream and find out if he had been hurt, but his thoughts of Bik gave him another perspective. “If those boards cracked that easy, perhaps I can break though.” Pushing himself away from the house, he swung out and then back in toward it. This time when he hit, it was with his feet; kicking the cracked lumber as hard as he could.

It worked. The boards snapped in half, leaving a hole large enough for the young Num to crawl through. On his second swing out and then back in, he tossed his legs into the hole and slid into the structure all the way up to his waist. After a little wiggling of his body, he was in.

Letting go of the rope, he proudly sat up until he realized where he was. His assumption of what the haunted house would look like wasn’t far off.

Some of the furniture was still standing upright, but most had at least one leg in a hole or on a warped floor board. One of the two doorways had collapsed from a fallen ceiling joist long ago. Several sections of the ceiling had collapsed and scattered debris on counters, on furniture, and across the floor. Decorative trim and ceiling material hung precariously and swayed back and forth in the breeze.

A thick layer of dust and ceiling debris covered everything. He could tell that birds had been in there from their droppings. Large spider webs filled the ceilings and many of the walls. He could even see a few of the fist sized spiders move from the commotion of his entrance.

Gaz could tell where the strongest beams were from the bowing of the floor. In spite of his concern of falling through the floor, he was more worried about running into something unnatural.

Standing up, he reached into his pocket to make sure he still had the key. It was a minor victory when his fingers felt the key and rubbed against the handle. He was ready to finish his mission to hide it.

However, before he could take his first step, a soft glow began to grow from the next room. Starting off soft, it brightened for a moment before fading off again.

Frozen with fear, Gaz’s eyes grew as large as they could. “Is someone there? Old lady Traub?” Even though he asked the question he really didn’t want to hear an answer. After waiting a few moments, he realized it would be up to him to go to the next room to find out what was going on. He couldn’t hide the key if someone was up here, for they would take it for themselves.

Cautiously stepping on the strongest of the floor boards, he made his way to the doorway that led to the next room. Everything he touched for balance was coated with a layer of soft goo under the dust. The feeling was so unnerving that he refused to look at it, for fear it would make him give up.

Stepping into the doorway, he peered into a bedroom. A closet door was hanging from rusted hinges and appeared to be jammed in at a slight angle. A large dresser had toppled over as the weight of it had caused two legs of it to push through the floor. A thick layer of the goo and dust mixture had covered the large bed in the center of the room, but it was not that which caused Gaz to freeze.

His heart beat hard against his chest as he realized there were two bodies under the covers of the bed. Their heads had degraded to skulls with a thin dried layer of flesh, which held their jaws in place. The Traubs had never left their home during the plague. It had taken them in their sleep and no one came to remove their bodies. It was horrifying.

“Please don’t wake up. Please don’t sit up.” Gaz whispered instructions to them, hoping they wouldn’t jump up out of bed and grab him. “I won’t bother you and I won’t take anything of yours. I’m not a thief. I promise. Actually I’m just the opposite. I’m leaving something here for you.” He reached into his pocket and pulled out the key to show the skeletal remains. “See? Where would you like me to place it?” He rubbed the handle free of the goo and dust from his fingers so they could see it.

It was then that a light could be seen growing from inside the closet. Gaz froze like a statue. He had asked them a question and they had answered with a light to show him where to hide it. “You’re real. I knew it. Ghosts are real.” His voice was cracking under his nerves which were at their limit. “I believe in you, so please don’t hurt me,” he said as he slowly began moving toward the closet.

The boards creaked with each step he took around the bed, nearing the head of one of the Traub family members. It was then the skull tilted and fell to the side toward him.

Gaz let out scream, muffled by his own hand, as he jumped away against the closet door. The door broke off its hinges and fell into the room on top of the Num. Kicking the door off him, he crawled off to the side and curled up into a ball to compose himself. In doing so, he noticed that several of the floor boards he was on were causing two of the bed legs to lower and the bed tilt. Was the corpse alive or did his walking around the bed cause the skeleton’s head to fall to the side?

Regaining his composure, Gaz started crawling back to the closet. It helped balance his body over several floor boards as well as prevented him from having to look at the bodies up on the bed.

Arriving at the now doorless closet, he was blocked by a cloth covered object that had been up against the inside of the door before Gaz had broken it. He needed to pull it out of the way to get into the closet so he could hide the key and leave the place forever.

On his hands and knees, he pulled the object into the bedroom, only to find it fall apart in his arms. To his shock, it was another body, and by the hair, it looked like old lady Traub herself. “AWWWW!” Gaz screamed as her skeleton fell on top of him while he attempted to push her ribs, spine, and arm bones off him. His jumping about caused the bedstand to rock and one of the skeletons fell out of bed and directly onto him. It was his worst nightmare come true.

Diving into the closet to get away from the skeletons, he found himself curled up against a pile of old moth eaten clothes and a metal bound wooden chest. Taking a moment to calm himself, he struggled to see the chest in the small rays of light peering through the wall from the city.

Remembering that the key gave off a bit of light when he rubbed it, he cautiously grabbed it and gave it a rub. As hoped, the center of the handle began to glow. An unexpected answer to the key came from the wooden box as glowing could be seen pushing out between the base and the lid of the chest. Waiting until it faded away, Gaz rubbed the key again and the chest lit up once more. They were connected.

Touching the chest, he traced the lid and found an indentation in the shape of the key. He also realized that the lock appeared to be made for the key he was holding. The question was obvious. “Do I leave the key in the slot on the lid or unlock the chest and see what’s inside?”

It was not as easy of an answer as one would have assumed. His goal was to hide the key, but the temptation to see what was in the box was very alluring. However, he had a history of the unknown becoming big problems, and he already had enough on his plate.

“Should I?” Gaz asked himself. “What to do?”

Chapter 6

The Red-Cloaked Man

Bik was tossed into the unfinished jail house to the surprise of Chasen and the guards who were on watch. They all snapped their heads toward the entrance to see who had thrown the boy into the room.

The red-cloaked man stepped into the building and glared past the guards at Chasen. “Your son doesn’t have it, so that means you must.” His deep shallow voice was unwavering.

Both guards stepped forward, blocking the intruder from reaching the prisoner.

To everyone’s surprise, the stranger moved at an unreal speed, causing them to see nothing more than a blur blow past them. Before they knew it, he was standing behind Chasen with his hand around his neck.

“Sorcery!” one guard announced before giving orders to the other. “Tell the Sheriff an Alchemist has captured Chasen!”

Bik stepped forward as the guard ran out of the jail house. “Don’t hurt my father!”

Chasen’s attempt to escape had little effect on the magical man. “I don’t have the key!”

The stranger squeezed his throat tighter. “Then I’ll find a way to open the lock on that chest without it. What’s important is the item inside the chest. Tell me where it is.”

“It’s not yours!”

“It belongs to the Matriarch.”

“The artifact inside is too dangerous to be possessed by anyone. She will use it against you!”

“If you don’t tell me where it is, I’ll search your home and if your wife is there I’ll make sure she suffers if she doesn’t tell me.”

“Leave my family out of this!”

“You brought them into this the moment you stole it.” His free hand placed a metal disk against Chasen’s forehead. The symbol engraved disk held a spherical gem in the center that was foggy and peppered with red glowing dots. “This is your last chance before I break your arm and then hunt down your wife.”

The powers of the disk caused Chasen’s thoughts to become distorted as it overpowered his ability to withhold information. The harder he fought it, the more it grabbed hold of his mind. “It’s here!” he finally said, against his will.

“Be specific! Where exactly is that artifact!”

“In an abandoned home, hanging on the eastern cliff of the city.” Chasen’s words were forced as he struggled to regain control of his own mind. “Don’t do this. The Matriarch will use it to control you.”

Glaring at Chasen, he nodded. “If it’s not there, I will return. And next time I won’t be so easy on you… or your family.” He glared at Bik at the end of his comment.

Just then, the Sheriff arrived along with nearly a dozen armed guards. “Halt!”

Before they could finish entering the area, the Alchemist let go of Chasen and moved again at unbelievable speeds past the guards and out of the building.

The Sheriff grabbed Bik and tossed him into the cell near his father. He then immediately gave orders to his troops; half were to stay and protect Chasen and Bik. “The rest of you head to Traub’s old place and burn that building down before he can ransack it!”

Grabbing one of his men by the shoulder, he gave further instructions. “Go fetch Chasen’s wife and place her in here as well. I want all three of them to be watched all night with triple staffing.” He then stomped away to help destroy the home hanging on the cliff before the Alchemist found what he was looking for.

Completely confused, Bik looked to his father for answers. “Why am I in here? What did Mum do wrong? Why is she being thrown in jail?”

His father was still recovering from the Alchemist’s attack as he tried to shake his thoughts back into place. “She didn’t do anything wrong, except marry me.”

“Don’t say that. She loves you. I love you.”

“That’s not what I meant.” Chasen reached over and gave his son a hug. “She is being brought here to protect her from the Alchemist, just as you have been. In fact, that’s why I’ve been in here all this time.”

“What did you do to the Alchemist?”

“Nothing. He works for the Matriarch. I knew she’d eventually send someone here to hunt me down. We had no idea who or when. But I knew she wouldn’t delay too long. That’s why I asked the Sheriff to place me in here to protect me from the Matriarch’s henchmen.”

“You asked him to put you in here?”

“Yes. Just until this blew over. He’s been protecting me.”

“You’re still friends? I thought he hated us.”

“He might be a bit rough on you because you remind him of me at your age. I used to pull a lot of pranks on him.” His father gave a slight smirk at an old memory. “You know, Bik, he and I were actually great friends growing up. Oh, we had our differences and some fights, but we knew we had each other’s back when times were tough.”

Bik thought about his own dealings with Gaz. “Kind of like Gaz and I.” He started to realize the danger he put his friend in. “Oh no!”

“What’s the matter?”

“I made him promise to hide the key in the old Traub house if I couldn’t. And then we got separated. I don’t have the key, so he must have taken it and then gone to hide it.” He turned to his father in terror. “He’s in that home and their going to burn it down! We have to stop them!”

Chasen stepped toward the guards. “We need to warn the Sheriff that his son is in the home he plans to destroy! Let us out!”

“You cannot leave, per the Sheriff’s orders.”

The tension grew as Chasen and Bik argued their point and the urgency of it to the guard.

Refusing to let them pass, one of the guards finally agreed to alert him.

Chapter 7

Sheriff’s Orders

The Sheriff lifted his stiff arm high into the air. “Ready…”

His guards dipped the oil soaked rags on the end of their arrows into their torches.

“Aim…” The Sheriff’s voice was clear and crisp as usual. He was focused on the task that needed to be completed before the Alchemist could find what he was looking for. His own deep thoughts drowned out any sound in the background, including the yelling by a guard that raced toward them.

“Fire!” The Sheriff’s command came just as he heard a cry to stop. But it was too late as the bow twanged and the flaming arrows flew up at the old home.

Not all hit their mark, but enough did. Some landed on the roof, some struck underneath, and a few even went inside. The old dry wood caught on fire instantly and smoke began to billow out through the cracks.

It was then that the guard reached the Sheriff. “Sir, your son!” He took a second to catch his breath. “Chasen said your son is inside that home.”

With widening eyes, the Sheriff turned back up to the home filling with flames as he could see movement inside. Someone was inside. “Please let Chasen be wrong this time,” he mumbled to himself. He knew there was no way to climb up in time so looked for a faster option. “Arrows! Again!”

A fresh set of arrows were placed in their bows and awaited to be shot.

“This time aim for the beams on the bottom! Fire!” he yelled. “Keep firing until those beams give way!”

A fresh volley of arrows flew up and most hit their marks. The timbers were already on their last leg and the cuts from the arrows reduced their strength even more. A single arrow tip couldn’t shatter the strength of the timber, but several dozen may just do the job.

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