The classic team role-playing game of conspiracy and strangeness
Fangs for the Memory – Chapter 3
The Castle Cnoiff, 11 pm, Friday 31st October 1997
As the clock chimes eleven, Kyle remarks to the party "Have ye seen that 'Dusk till Dawn' film by Quentin Tarantino? At midnight, everyone except the stars turn into vampires and start ripping peoples heads off. Not that I'm superstitious or anything but I think a prolonged separation from ye cranium would spoil the evening."
Ferdinand, who seems even more jumpy than usual, is sticking to the burly Scotsman's elbow like glue, and from time to time can be seen to pop a clove of garlic into his mouth.
Jeffrey has put down his glass of port and moves to Paul Crab's side. "Mr Crab – or may I call you Paul? – can you tell me any more about tomorrow's destination, Kwell Tower?"
"Oh, it's a charming place: the view from the top is spectacular, you can see over five counties as they say - not that counties here are very big, it seems like there's a new Count every five miles!"
"What about the legends associated with it?"
"Oh, the main story is Heinrick, the Hunter of Heads." Paul's eyes sparkle mischievously. "He's not a legend, though, he's solid well-attested historical fact. With any luck we'll be able to talk to a descendant of the man who shot him, Koz Bleka."
"How did you come to be working here in Transylvania? It's a long way from home. Do you have links with the region?"
"Ooh, I've been here twelve years or so now. No, like I was telling Mr Winters, I just wrote off to the Fangs for the Memory ad, because I was getting bored with the job I had in Belgium: it's not a bad life! The people here are really friendly, and the cooking...!" He rubs the region of his stomach.
Kyle's mind is still on a Hollywood theme. "Have ye seen the film Highlander, shame about that poncy Lambert being the star an' all. When the Highlander wanted to hide his immortality, he'd arrange to "die" and then pop up as some relation who'd inherit the lot. Strange how the Baron and his sister lost their mother and father at the same time in an 'accident'. Time to move on perhaps?"
Ferdinand nods, popping another clove of garlic. He has been deliberately breathing into the faces of everyone who has approached him, to gauge their reaction: none has so far exhibited more than ordinary revulsion.
Kris has headed over to take some punch: she sips cautiously at it, and is slightly surprised to find that it is actually rather nice, flavoured vaguely of kiwi fruit. She turns to observe the Baron, who is once more surrounded by the group of five people dressed as vampires: they are talking quietly and seriously. The Baron turns away briefly to issue complex instructions to a small posse of servants, who scatter through the room's various exits.
Grace's costume is attracting a great deal of attention, and despite herself she starts to play up to the role, brandishing her dead chicken fiercely and swinging her beads. Mike Richards prances around her like a mad thing, flapping his cape: unlike Grace, he has not been sticking to the soft drinks.
Kyle wanders over and pretends to measure the wingspan of Mike's cloak. Mike whirls round and catches him, and draws himself up to his full height, fangs bared. Kyle's delivery is deadpan serious but searing with irony: "I was wondering how a vampire could generate the power-to-weight ratio for sustained flight, let alone vertical take off. D'ye think they need a run up first?"
Mike considers this conundrum. "I should think they launch themselves from high towers and sort of glide, like a pterodactyl or a flying squirrel sort of thing: that way you wouldn't have to flap so much. And I expect they take advantage of thermals once their aloft." He is quite enthused, whipping out a small notepad and starting to scrawl diagrams.. "Are you an engineer too, then, Kyle?"
Jeffrey strolls casually over to Stuart, whom he has noticed sizing up opportunities to sneak off.
He suggests, a little sheepishly, that Stuart take advantage of the grand unmasking at midnight. "Everyone's attention will be elsewhere. And if the unmasking isn't diversion enough, I'll wow them with a song!"
Stuart looks more than a little surprised at such words coming from the mouth of a minister of the Lord, but agrees relievedly. At least he will not have to listen to the song.
Kyle manages to detach himself from Mike Richards, and he catches Gino's eye. Both men finger their bulbs of garlic as they head off together in search of the lavatory (fortunately no-one seems to notice, as this would otherwise almost certainly arouse comment of one kind or another).
A helpful servant is able to direct them: there are several bathrooms, not surprisingly, and Kyle and Gino are able to do a little surreptitious exploration. They slip out into the inner courtyard, which is gradually filling up with snow. There is a pond, which is frozen over, a set of small sheds, miscellaneous bits of farm equipment scattered about, and so forth. They spend ten minutes or so looking round it, but are surprised to see that there are no doors at all leading from it into either of the other towers: the only ways out of the yard are back into the part of the castle from which they came. There are windows, but all are high and narrow. Kyle eyes them up professionally and reckons that in these icy conditions he would want to be using pitons.
They return to the party: Kyle is pretty sure that they were not followed or observed during their absence.
Just before midnight, the gypsy band strike up a frenzied dance step, and the Baron ushers everyone to pair up for the grand parade of masks. As if by magic, Kyle, Ferdinand, Gino, Stuart and Grace all melt into the shadows and disappear from the room, leaving Jeffrey and Kris looking rather forlorn and lonely. Fortunately, in the general excitement, their disappearance does not appear to be widely noted.
As the gypsies reach their frantic crescendo, and each couple in turn skips nimbly down the alley formed by the other dancers, who are all clapping, stamping and shrieking with excitement, the great clock at the end of the hall starts to strike the carillon. At once there is utter silence, the room holding its breath.
Then, slowly, but inevitably, the first stroke of twelve booms out all through the castle.
The Baron, standing on a small dais under the clock, cries out in a mighty voice "Unmask! Unmask!" and casts away his own devil mask into a far corner of the room.
All round the room there is applause, laughter, cries of delight and so forth, as all the revellers fling their masks about the place.
The servants scurry round picking them up.
There is a general toast, announced by the Baron, who insists that everyone charge their glasses, even if only with something soft. "To the good Lord and all his saints!"
Kyle and Ferdinand left together and lurk at the foot of the stairs outside the hall, waiting for the stroke of twelve. They are relieved to not hear the chorus of screams and cries they may have been fearing. Grace, Stuart and Gino join them, all having made their own ways out of the hall, and together they ascend into the darkness above.
This staircase was included on the tour earlier today, and the portraits that festoon it, which were bad enough during the day, at night take on a lively awfulness, their faces seeming to stand clear of the frames. The stairs creak ominously as the party ascend.
The slightly tense, febrile atmosphere of the party has somewhat dissipated, and all the guests move around freely, chatting and joking with each other, proposing small toasts of their own to their particular favourite saint.
Two servants drag out a colossal parcel, as big as a sheep, and the Baron calls for everyone to sit in a circle. When the music stop, he explains, whoever is holding the parcel must unwrap a layer of it. Within they will find either a prize or a forfeit!
This scheme is met with further shrieks of delight, and all the guests rush to obey, while the gypsy band break into 'The Teddy-Bears' Picnic'.
There seems to be a consensus that the party must find a way through into one of the other towers. To start with they retrace the route they were taken on the tour, noting the places where it passes nearest to the edges of this tower and associated buildings, and trying all the other doors that are apparent.
Unfortunately all are cupboards, closets, garderobes and other such. Gino finds one that leads to a staircase, but at its head is nothing but a small disused alchemical laboratory, its retorts and alembics gathering heavy dust.
After half an hour or so the party are convinced that there is no conventional route from this eastern tower to any other: it has been architecturally isolated, presumably deliberately. But the walls of all the rooms, stairways and corridors are very thick, far thicker than their size necessitates. There would well be secret passages riddling the place.
At the centre of the parcel was a huge bar of Swiss chocolate, which was won by one of the Baron's gorilla-clad nephews. Jeffrey managed to get away without having to unwrap a layer, but Kris was forced to pay a forfeit: miming a harassed waitress in a cocktail bar. She received a certain amount of polite applause.
As the game concludes, Jeffrey leaps to his feet and bounds over to join the musicians, who look perturbed. He gestures for silence and firmly strikes the opening chords of 'Coward of the County'. There is silence at first, then in response to a gesture from the Baron the band join in, enthusiastically if rather inaccurately.
Among the guests there is a great wash of movement towards the drinks area.
Kris, looking around, notices that, as well as her five accomplices, the five people dressed as vampires are also now absent from the gathering.
The party are now in a trophy room, and Stuart is patiently tapping on the walls to check for hollows behind them. This is rather hard work, as they are not wood-panelled but bare stone.
Ferdinand, easily bored, slouches against the empty fireplace, fiddling with his mobile phone.
Suddenly there is a click and a loud grating sound, and as the others look up, they find that Ferdinand has disappeared, and a patch of chill air is wafting from where he stood.
Grace rushes over, and starts to manipulate the fireplace. After a couple of worried minutes she finds the place where Ferdinand was leaning. There is another click, and the entire fireplace revolved by 180 degrees, to reveal an identical fireplace on its back, this one containing Ferdinand. He is coolly munching garlic, seemingly not fazed at all.
"There's a passageway back here," he says.
"And Everyone considered him the Coward of the County-y-y... He never did a single thing to prove the county wrong..."
"Paul," says Kris to the tour guide, "Where's Janice tonight? I'd have thought she'd enjoy this party."
Paul nods sadly. "Yes, poor moppet: it's her condition, you know. She thought it best not to come out at night, you know. Still, Mike seems to be having a good time, at any rate."
This is true: if Mike Richards is sparing thought for his suffering lady, he is not showing it. He is currently attempting to clamber up to the minstrels' gallery, presumably preparatory to flinging himself off in a steep dive.
The passageway leads steeply downwards, and its walls are coated thickly in cobwebs. Occasional gusts of dank, chill air pass down it as the party fumble their way along. Everyone has torches, but they are insufficient to prevent the odd painful bump of head on stone. Even the firm-willed Grace finds it a peculiarly disturbing experience: only Ferdinand, who saunters long at the head of the file, seems relaxed (much more so now than he was at the party, in fact).
There are occasional chinks in the walls which admit a certain amount of light, and peering though one of these Kyle sees a large kitchen, full of bustling servants: the passage is somewhat above the floor level.
Pressing on, the party reach a fork. They head north, and with excitement Gino realizes that they must now be entering the northern tower of the castle.
As Jeffrey takes his bow and the band strike up their gypsy dance routine once more, Kris, who has been indulging rather freely in the punch, joins the dancers and starts to whirl with one of the gorilla nephews in a mesmeric zigane. Very swiftly she is forced to stop, wincing in pain, and hobble from the dancefloor, clutching at her crippled leg.
The nephew, who introduced himself earlier as Boris, is all attention and consideration, seemingly genuine. He finds her a pillow to rest her leg on and brings her another glass of punch. He then sits beside her and chats merrily about his student days in Heidelberg, as though to distract her from her pain.
Jeffrey has introduced himself to the Baron's sister Eleonora and her husband Count Bakwerdz. He compliments Eleonora on her costume: "It is most becoming, my Lady! No! – let me guess... you are Maria Teresa von Habsburg – my favourite middle European historical personage! Now, who do you think I am?"
She furrows her brow. "Elvis Presley?" Evidently she is not a connoisseur of country music.
Slightly shocked but not put off, Jeffrey asks politely whether she and her family live here at the Castle or whether they are just visiting. She tells him that they live at Castle Dreng, which is fifty or so miles away: the ancestral seat of the Bakwerdz family.
"Fine looking young men, your sons. You must be very proud of them. Such a shame their grandparents never saw them grow up – yes, I've heard of the terrible tragedy that befell your parents," says Jeffrey. "It must have been hard for you, losing your mother and father at such a young age – why, you must have been just a baby!"
Eleonora is charmed by this rather obvious flattery and simpers, a disturbing sight. She prods Jeffrey familiarly in the ribs. "You must not let my husband hear you say such things, you dreadful wicked priest, you!"
The passageway twists and turns, then rises sharply. To the left is a small hatch in the wall, at head height, just big enough to crawl through: there is a brass catch on this side, which is clearly well used, its surface clean and untarnished.
Ferdinand gently lifts the catch, but with a clatter the hatch panel falls through into the space beyond, which the party sees is a small library-type room. One by one they clamber through, but Gino is unfortunate enough to step on the hatch panel as he descends. There is a cracking and rending noise, and as he lifts it up to examine the damage he sees that he has put his foot though the back of a painting of some ancestral Srelt, which covered the hatchway from this side. He carefully smooths it down, but it is obvious that it has been disturbed.
The party move on into the quiet darkness of the north tower.
Jeffrey has moved on, seeking out the couple dressed as Antony and Cleopatra. He introduces himself as a man of the cloth, and provides some friendly advice for the big day tomorrow. "Yes, weddings are proud family occasions – but they bring out the worst in families, too! Can't you all forget your differences, just for one day? Who knows – it may be a new beginning!"
"You are not wrong, my friend," says the man, who introduces himself as Hungis Szolt and his wife as Velmilla. "My brother - the father of the bride - what a sweet child! – never had a firm enough hand when the children were young, and now we reap the whirlwind, as we say."
"What do you mean - is there some difficulty?"
"It is the young man's family, the Prants: people say bad things about them. And my fool nephew Kidu, he is saying that he will not let his sister marry a Prant, because they... it's too foolish to say. He deserves a good beating, that boy, and if he were mine I would give him it, but my brother -" he shrugs.
"Because what?" asks Jeffrey shamelessly.
Velmilla leans closer, taking Jeffrey's sleeve and looking around. "They say the Prants are werewolves, imagine! That Jurgend Prant who was stolen by the werewolves came back and converted his whole family!"
"Velmilla! You must not tell such foolish tales in front of our English guest, he will think we are all superstitious peasants. Next you'll be saying that werewolves can never be struck by lightning, or that when you bury one you must separate the teeth one from the other so that they cannot still bite, or some such equally childish tale." Hungis is rather annoyed.
"It is just a story," apologises Velmilla to Jeffrey, but there is a wistfulness about her manner that suggests she does not entirely share her husband's scepticism.
Venturing downwards, the party have come upon an area that is clearly inhabited by several people: there are remnants of food, clothes scattered about and a silver ewer of water that is still slightly warm. It is a connected suite of rooms on the ground floor of the northern tower, none of which have windows at all, and in the last one the party see a chilling sight: five wooden caskets, each approximately person-sized, laid out in a row on the floor, each lined with a curious soft dark earth, traces of which are also scattered over the floor.
In the banqueting hall Jeffrey and Kris are aware that it is now pretty much three o'clock, and that Paul is now gathering the rest of the group. "Jeffrey, Miss Macdowell, have you seen the others at all? It's filthy weather outside, we need to get moving!"
The Baron approaches. "Surely not time to leave, so soon? And we were just about to play the game where you pass oranges from one person's throat to the next - except here in Pfaawelt we use potatoes, of course."
Stood staring at the caskets lid out before them, the party hear the sound of footsteps and voices. A group of people is approaching them from the floor above.
As one they scamper back to the library room through which they entered this tower, and poise indecisively by the hatchway as the sounds come closer.
The Castle Cnoiff, 2.55 am, Saturday 1st November 1997