A very early version of what eventually turned into ‘Stanger in a Strange Land’
I sat on the back of the rumbling wagon. The blood moon was high over the wintery grounds, snow piled on the sides of the road and the cold air nipped at my nose. I looked at the eternally black sky and at the blackened trees. I had only read about ‘demon realms’ before now. The air was thick and suffocating. I wanted to turn back, but, I was here for a reason. I picked up my camera and looked around, trying to snag a picture of something to get these thoughts out of my mind. “We’re coming up on the town,” The wagon driver told me. I climbed up onto the top of the wagon to take a look. We rode past farmhouses outside the walls. Past the walls, on the mountain side was a eerie castle. If the sun was still around, the town would physically exist in the castles shadow. I took a photo of the castle and walls that surrounded the small town. I got sideways looks from the few people on the road. “What’s this place called?” I asked the driver. “Grimridge,” The lady told me, her face was covered by a scarf and her small frame was covered by a large coat. The spectral horses that pulled the wagon made me uneasy. “Thank you again for this.” “No problem. Grimridge is always looking for fresh men,” Her scratchy voice cackled. “I’m here looking for my girlfriend,” I reminded her, “Not to get hitched.” “Hmph,” She turned her attention back to the road, “If she was human when she got here, she is not human anymore.” “She’s a smart girl, I’m sure she’s fine.” “Then why are you here?” The woman pointed a boney finger at me. “I’m a photographer. Do you know how popular an article on this town could be? A medieval, spooky and hostile town in the deep woods of Canada that exists in an eternal night with a choking atmosphere!? Amazing!” I told her excitedly. “You’re strange.” “Yup. I’ve seen some crazy things but magic and monsters suddenly coming into reality takes the cake.” “Didn’t they take over your homeland?” “Mhm, I was in Canada when it happened and couldn’t make it back over the border when shit hit the fan. Now Canada belongs to monsters as well.” “We’re here,” The lady stopped the wagon. I hadn’t even realised we had arrived yet. I climbed off the wagon and looked around. Monsters and humans walked past me, ignoring me. Everyone was bundled up in jackets, hats and scarves making it difficult to tell what kinds of monsters were around, “Some free advice, boy,” The wagon driver climbed down and opened up the side of the wagon, “Keep your nose out of places it doesn’t belong. And stay away from that castle,” She ominously pointed towards the great mountain side castle. It was a lot bigger than I had initially thought. “What’s in there?” I wondered aloud. “Nothing but death for you. Are you going to take that picture of me already?” She demanded, eager to be rid of me. I nodded, grabbing my bag from the wagon. I stepped back and got a wide shot of the woman and her wagon. I waved at her as I headed off deeper into the town, eager to find information on her whereabouts. The inside of the town was a lot warmer than outside. Strange bright red fires burned on lamps, letting off a lot of heat. Loitering people clumped around these lamps to stay warm. Everyone spoke softly as if some unseen force would hear them. Children stood in groups, no laughter, no fun, no playing. I could feel the despair on the air. I approached a group of children, in other places in the world I found them easy enough to get information from, “Excuse me?” I called to the five of them. They slowly turned to me fear in their eyes. I crouched down to get on their levels, a gentle smile on my face, “I’m looking for this woman, have you seen her?” I showed them one of my printed out photos of my girlfriend. They looked at the photo quickly before running off, eager to get away from me. I grunted and stood up. “Terrorizing kids, creep?” Someone said to me as they pushed past. “No, I’m just--” They didn’t give me an opportunity to explain myself. I sighed and put the photo away before moving on. I found what looked like some kinds of inn. The Snowy Dragon. I liked the name, I took a quick photo of the outside. I pushed the door open and wandered inside. It was much warmer in here. A fireplace cracked along one wall, lamps lit up each table and the shaggy cow woman behind the bar gave me a warm smile. There were only a people here. A couple consisting of a man and a woman that was covered in soft white fur a third person, covered in a cloak off in the corner and the woman behind the counter. A sign said ‘Please seat yourself.’ I wandered up to the bar and pulled a stool out. “Welcome. Don’t see too many folks from out of town,” The cow woman told me. “The reputation of this place keeps most away. Even other monsters,” I explained. “That--” She stopped herself, “What can I do for you, honey?” “A room and some food?” I asked, “Oh, and information.” “Well, the room and food price can be discussed, handsome,” She winked at me, “What are you hoping to know?” “I’m looking for my girlfriend, she came here about two weeks ago,” I showed the photo to the disappointed cow woman. Her expression changed to fear. She looked away from me, “Put that away,” She demanded. I did as she said, “I can’t help you. You should leave.” “There’s no other inn in town!” I was shocked. “Go.” I sighed, “Alright,” I picked up my things and left. I trudged around town, looking for somewhere to sleep. I wandered into an alleyway and sat on a discarded barrel. The chill of the air was increasing. “Show me that picture,” a woman demanded. I looked up in surprise to see the cloaked figure from the corner of the inn. I nodded and pulled out the photo. She snatched it from my hand and took a look, “Don’t go waving this around, boy.” “Why? What’s going on?” I demanded. “This way,” She pushed past me and continued down the alley. I followed her. We made our way over to the housing area. There were very few people out as the snow began falling from the sky again. I took a few photos of the stone and wood buildings as I walked. The woman led me into another back alley close to the outer stone walls. There wasn’t anyone patrolling the walls. It felt like they weren’t to keep anything out. She pushed a box aside and opened a cellar, “In,” She demanded. I did as she told me, descending into a dark cramped room. Something dangling from the ceiling touched my forehead. It was garlic on strings. “What is this?” I asked looking around at the boxes in the room. Two more people hopped out from behind boxes, blades drawn, “Stand down,” The cloaked woman ordered. They did as she said, putting their weapons away. The cloaked woman pushed past me and stood in the middle of the room. She took off the cloak. She was a tall canine woman with scars on her face. Her hair was black and her tanned skin was underneath a light jacket and tight pants showing off her leg muscles. She scowled at me. The other two people were a young man with blonde hair and blue eyes and a large blue woman with two horns on her head, “How do you know that girl?” The canine woman barked, showing the photo to the other two. “She’s my girlfriend. She came here a couple weeks ago for her job and hasn’t checked in with me since,” I explained. “Her job?” The man asked. “What is her job, exactly?” The blue woman asked. “Uh...” I had to think long and hard, “I don’t know, actually.” “Should we just kill him or give him as an offering?” The blue lady asked the other two. “Killing him would just piss her off! Just surrender him to her,” The man retorted. “Giving him to her might buy us time,” The canine thought, looking around the room. “What are you three on about?” I turned the flash on my camera up to the max, stealthily. “Grab him,” The canine ordered. The blue woman stepped towards me, menacingly. I put my camera in her face and took a photo. A blinding light filled the small room. The woman screamed and grabbed her burning eyes. I turned and ran out of the cellar, taking a few more photos in an attempt to disorient the other two. I took off down the street headed towards the center of town. I looked around when I got there. No one around to help me, not like they would anyways. I looked up to the west, towards the grim castle. I dashed in that direction. I slowed down as I neared the walls. To get to the castle I would have to walk along an unlit path through the woods. I looked back at the town. I could see eyes peering through the windows at me. I nodded and walked into the woods. I didn’t know how long I had been walking. There was no sun to guide or heat me up, just a small flashlight to help me keep on the path. I heard howling in the distance. I shuddered-- from the cold, of course. I shook myself and wrapped my scarf around my head in an attempt to stay warm. I could see the dark stone castle towering above the trees. I heard the noise of a crank and chains rattling. A sudden slam jolted all the weariness from my body and got my heart pounding. I approached the front of the castle, a small stone landing with braziers ablaze with fire to light my way sat across a ravine from the rest of the castle. The castle was completely made of stone. I was disappointed to find no gargoyles or even skulls on the outside. The drawbridge was lowered. I snapped a few quick photos with the flash off. I thought about turning back or just resting here for a while. I heard a noise behind me, there was something beyond the light, scratching at the gravel road. Behind me, the drawbridge started to raise. I quickly hopped on the bridge as it lifted and ran across it. I was inside the castle grounds. The front area had a stone floor, lit braziers flanked both sides of the garden area allowing me to see. There were rows of mysterious flowers, bushes and trees with fruits and such that I did not recognize. On the far side of this garden was a greenhouse and a large wooden doorway. There were a few other doors along the sides that I decided to ignore. I slowly made my way across the silent grounds, the only noise coming from the ever burning fires. I stopped to take close up photos of the flowers. A door slammed open and two voices were heard from inside, “Why do we need to check the garden?” The man groaned, clad in armor. I dove behind a bush towards the opposite wall. “Mistress asked us to. Didn’t say what we were looking for,” A woman covered in natural green scales explained. Some kind of lizard woman. “Still stupid. Its late and cold,” He complained. “But we’re alone out here,” She said teasingly. I watched her push the man forcefully up against the wall, “You still need to defeat me if you want me.” I crawled towards the greenhouse, eager to get out of the cold and perhaps find something to eat. I heard a noise behind me, steel clashing. I slowly sat up to see the two of them clashing swords. I snuck a photo of them, just as their swords made contact. I nodded and continued crawling. I heard their fight finish, the lizard knocked the sword out of the man’s hand, I quickly pulled out my camera and got photos of her forcefully kissing him on the lips before knocking him to the floor with a swift kick. She laughed, “Get up, whelp!” She challenged before diving to the ground to roughhouse with him. I slowly opened the greenhouse door and ducked inside with a sigh of relief, “Who is this that has come to visit me?” A voice softly asked. I looked up, ready to defend my camera before myself. A green woman with pink hair stood inside a large white flower. She had vines lewdly covering up her lady parts. She was resting her head on her hands and leaning over the side of the flower. She was making a pouting face. “Uh, does it matter?” I asked. “I suppose not. I could call for the guards to take you... Being an intruder at all,” She mused. “Please don’t. I’m just looking for my girlfriend.” “Your girlfriend!? How romantic!” She gracefully danced around in her flower before standing before me, hands on her hips, “You are braving a terrifying adventure in the pursuit of love! Oh! Please, when the bards tell your tale, make sure they include me, yes?” “Uh,” I thought for a moment, “Usually the only characters in the hero’s tale are the ones that aid him.” “Yes, of course! What can I help you with?” “I could use some food, to be honest,” I told her, my stomach growling. “Is that all?” She giggled, “Here,” She quickly produced a bowl of fruits from around her warm inclosure. “Thank you,” I said before chowing down. “Of course, hero. Anything else?” I felt bad taking advantage of her, “Just one, may I take a photo of you for my records?” Her face lit up brightly, “Of course you may! Make sure you get my good side,” She told me. It didn’t look like she had a bad side at all. I got a handful of photos of her in different sassy and sexy poses. I thanked her again before heading back out into the cold. The lizard woman and the man were gone. His sword still lie on the ground in some nearby bushes. I ignored it and headed into the castle through the large wooden doors. The inside was warm and inviting. I finally saw stone skulls in here along the walls near the ceiling. I was in a foyer, twin sets of stair on my left and right led up to a raised area, there was a set of double door in front of me, a door to the left and right under the stairs and a few entries on the upper level. I peeked through the double doors. Warm hallways lined with torches, doors and paintings as well as a floor covered in carpet was through here. I was about to turn and try another door when I heard noise above me. I ducked into the double doors and quickly started moving. I wandered through the maze of halls and glaring paintings. Busts of unknown men and women sat on shelves. I sweat profusely. I heard humming coming towards me down the hallway. I ducked into a random door to avoid them. I held my ear up to the door, waiting for them to pass before sneaking back out. As I reached for the door to continue moving, I felt a hand firmly grasp my shoulder. Fear gripped my heart. I was thrown deeper into the room. I grabbed my camera instinctively as I went, trying to keep it safe. I hit the ground with a loud noise. I quickly shed my bag and stood up, facing my attacker. I stared at another lizard woman in horror, this one covered in fire. She had an evil toothy grin on her face. Her red skin and scales were barely covered by a small shirt and loose pants. “What do we have here?” She cracked her knuckles, “A intruder looking to be punished?” She pulled a sword off of a shelf and pointed it at me. “J-just a guy... looking for his girlfriend,” I tried to speak to her emotions. She cackled at me, “I doubt the one you want is here. No one comes here.” “I did. You’re here, and I know she did,” I wanted to slap myself. “Pfft. Whatever. I earned my spot in luxury! Your girlfriend probably wanted a piece of it. A little thief to go with the little intruder,” She moved towards me, sword at the ready. I turned up my flash, “You’re going to cut down an unarmed man?” My heart pounded. “Fine. I’ll beat you with my own--” I put the camera in her face as she put her guard down for a moment and took a photo, “YOU LITTLE SHIT!” She screamed, rubbing her eyes. I body checked her, causing her to hit her head on the table behind her and falling to the floor with more angry shouting. I ran out of the room, going the way I came. I came across the small humming woman in a maid’s uniform, she looked at me and gasped, pressing herself up against the wall. “Excuse me,” I panted as I slowed down to go past her, trying to give her a quick smile. I heard the flaming lizard stomping behind me. The stomping suddenly stopped, a loud crash rang out and the lizard shouting again. That maid must have tripped her up. I was back in the foyer. I took a right and entered one of the doors under the stairs. I slowly closed the door behind me. I heard the lizard stomp into the foyer. She stomped up the stairs above me and down a hallway. I breathed a sigh of relief and slumped to the floor. I tried to catch my breath, panting on the floor. I slowly looked at the room I had stumbled into. The floor was covered in a layer of dust, no one had been here in some time. There was a window at the end of the hallway, the torches on the walls were unlit, and the one door here was barred shut. Near the window was an opening going down. I clenched my fist and stood up after catching my breath. The dungeon, perhaps? I hoped so. She had to be there. I pulled my small flashlight out of my pocket and headed for the stairs. I glanced out the window at the town. I took a photo through the window of the town. I wanted to help them, but I didn’t know how. The only thing I could think of was to upload my photos online and tell the story. Maybe someone would come out here if I happen to fail. I sighed. That was stupid. I was stupid. I was so stupid for coming here and putting my life at risk like this. I sat on the first stair, head in my hands. “What am I doing?” I asked myself, despair creeping into my thoughts and voice. I stood up, “No. She’s counting on me,” I grabbed the handrail and started down the stairs, using my flashlight to guide the way. The stairs went down pretty far, causing my ears to pop from the air pressure change. The level of dust increased as I descended the stone stairs. I saw something white that broke up the grey stoney monotony. I pointed the light at it. A skull. I froze for a moment before getting my bearings again. I stepped over it carefully and continued down. My heart beat increased as I neared the bottom. An impressive wooden door blocked my path. The landing here was small and contained another skull. I ignored it and opened the door. I didn’t find a dungeon, instead I found a large library. I walked in, trying to find something that can help me. I walked past tomes with runes on the binding. I didn’t want to mess with magic. I could be turned into a frog, explode or even trapped within a magic surface. I searched for anything of help or note. I wasn’t seeing anything other than the tomes, “What am I expecting? Its a library, not an armory,” I heard a noise behind me. I turned around to see a woman with grey-purple skin floating a foot off the floor. She was wearing nothing but a purple cloak. Magic purple fire floated near her head illuminating the space around her. She looked at me with a blank face. I smiled nervously, “Uh, hi?” “Kneel,” She commanded, murmuring gibberish from a book that flew to her at her call. My muscles locked up, as I was forced onto my knees. The woman floated over to me and with the wave of her hand my head was tilted up, “Drink,” She put a bottle to my lips. I drank the foul liquid despite my attempts to fight the spell, “How does it taste?” “Awful,” My voice spoke by itself. I was sweating horribly, wanting to vomit. “Good, good,” She took notes, she went on to ask me questions about myself. Name, where I lived, what I do, all of that. I was forced to answer all of them truthfully, “Why are you in my library?” She asked. “I was looking for something to help me find my girlfriend,” I told her, gagging behind my calm exterior. “Your girlfriend?” “Yes. I came to Grimridge looking for her.” “Why did you come to the castle?” “I was attacked in the town. I ran here to seek safety.” “Safety? You came to the vampire’s castle seeking refuge?” I snapped out of the spell and stood up, “Vampire!?” I shouted in disbelief. “Keep your voice down,” She rubbed the sides of her head, “Indeed, a vampire.” “Shit,” I swore quietly and walked in a small circle, trying to figure out what to do. “It would be best for you to leave.” “I can’t leave without her,” I seethed. “You truly love her? Hmph,” She thought for a few moments, “I will aid you.” “Really!?” “You did help me test that potion. I require one thing from you.” “Anything,” I breathed. “Help me find a husband.” “Easy!” I pulled out my camera, “Strike a pose for me.” “A pose?” She looked nervous. “Yeah, something to charm a man. I’ll send a photo of you out into the internet and a bio! I’ll act as a middle man for you.” Her eyes shined, “Like this?” She gave a weak smile and held up two fingers. “Faaantastic! Give me a few more!” “That should be enough,” I had taken like 100 photos of her. Displays of power, cute photos, everything, “Now, your part of the deal?” “Of course. This way,” She looked much happier than before, a little bit of life in her otherwise lifeless eyes. I was led past rows of books that reached up the high ceiling. I heard rattlings of bones beyond the shelves. I ignored it. Keep those skeletons in the closet. I was brought into a back room. Desks and tables were carefully laid out, each with various beakers, test tubes, burners, books and unknown materials in jars. The room was dimly lit by candles burning with blue flames. I was still shining my flashlight everywhere, “Turn that light off, you’ll disturb my experiments,” The floating woman told me. I nodded and turned it off. She hovered to a chest and opened it up. The inside of the chest reminded me of the night sky. A star filled, glowing void poured out of the chest and the woman searched the inside for something. I stretched and fiddled with my camera. The woman turned back around, a bag in one hand and a dull grey cloak in the other. I took the cloak and put it on. Nothing happened. I took the bag and looked inside to see the same star speckled blackness. I reached in and found that the deepness of the bag kept going past me elbow despite looking like it could hardly fit two apples in it. “Magic potion bag. Speak aloud what you wish for and it will give it to you,” She explained. “Cool, and the cloak?” She gave me a small sly smile, “Secret.” I shook my head, “Fine. Thank you,” I grumbled. She made a noise that ALMOST sounded like a quick laugh, “Good luck, hero. Let me know when a man wants to meet me.” “Of course. Good bye,” With newfound energy I turned heel and walked out of the library. I could feel the eyes of that woman on the back of my head as I wandered out and back up the stairs. I felt the same feeling as I passed that skull on the stairs again.