Burt pulled open the door of a caged platform. It was suspended on chains and swayed under Theodore’s feet as they stepped aboard.
“The welcome ceremony is normally much better, just so you know,” Burt said. “Rehearsals never go that bad.” He shut the door from the inside with a clang. “We’re just not used to playing to an audience, that’s all! That won’t be a problem once we start getting tourists.”
“You don’t get tourists now?” Oboe said.
“Erm…” Burt clicked his bony fingers together. “Well, we don’t usually get ANY human visitors. But the Chieftain plans to change that! Once word gets around about how fun a vacation destination we are, it’ll stimulate the economy and bring in jobs. We put up posters and everything!”
The other two skeletons threw their weight into pulling a massive lever. The whole cage lurched and started to descend. Theodore clung to the bars as the ancient contraption lowered them into the abyss.
“Isn’t there another way inside?” He said.
“There’s tunnels all over the Whirlwood if you know where to look,” Burt said. “Main entrance doesn’t get much traffic. The magic users just set up shadow links to their haunting territory.”
“Shadow-what?” Theodore said.
“Shadow links. With a little set up, they can connect two dark spaces together and teleport between them. Alleyways, bedroom closets, cracks and gaps, that sort of thing.”
“Oooh! Theo! Look! Look!” Oboe jumped across the cage to point.
The pit opened to reveal a vast subterranean main street. Homes and businesses were fashioned in ornate gothic stonework and illuminated by spectral green flame. Labyrinthine passages spiraled off this central hub in all directions. It was a vibrant world of deep navies and violets and the architecture alone took Theodore’s breath away.
They touched down with a clang onto a dais. They stepped off to see a gruesome array of creatures minding their own business: Ghouls gossiping around a well, goblins at market stalls hocking wares, stern wolf men, skeletons escorting briefcases to work, and giggling shadow children watching back with interest.
“They’re all looking at us,” Theodore said, conscious of the number of eyes on him.
“Well, yeah,” Burt said. “You’re such a bundle of nerves, every ghast in the square can probably taste it. Try to relax. No one’s going to hurt you.”
Oboe spun to take in the sights. “I thought it’d be dark and scary! I didn’t think it would be this cool!” She grabbed Theodore by the arm. “Let’s check out the market! C’mon!”
He pulled back, glaring. “We don’t have time for that! We’re in the middle of an investigation!”
“It’ll just be for a little bit!” She said. “Please!”
Burt wrapped his skeletal fingers around Theodore’s shoulder. “As a registered tour guide, I must INSIST you check out our gift shops.”
Theodore was dragged on either side into the marketplace before he could protest. Merchants shouted over one another about having the best deals on nightshade and toadstone. There was a queue wrapping clear around the square for something called the Bone Booth. Stalls bustled with imps, snake people, specters and gargoyles all arguing over prices and hunting for deals. Theodore was impressed despite himself.
“I had no idea there was anything like this down here,” he said. “No one told me the ghasts were this advan-“
Oboe gasped and darted off without warning. Theodore felt a prickle of fright as he was abandoned and the surrounding ghasts turned to look at him.
“Oboe!” He gave chase. “Where are you going?!”
Theodore tried to stay calm as he navigated around lumbering werewolf shoppers, pushy squid-faced merchants, and a pulsating gelatinous cube. He caught up with his assistant and found her bouncing excitedly in front of a market stall.
“Thistle?!” She said, smiling ear to ear. “What are you doing down here?”
“Moron!” The stall was manned by a battered looking sylph. He was a small, bulbous bug man who appeared to have survived being stepped on by something much larger. “What does it look like I’m doing? Working!” He shoved a receipt into a customer’s face and told them to get lost.
Oboe pulled Theo closer. “Look Theo!” She aimed him at the sylph. “It’s Thistle!”
“Okay.” Theodore did not know how to respond. “Who is Thistle?”
She beamed. “He’s my best friend in the whole wide world!”
The bug creature sneered. “I told you to stop telling people that.”
Thistle did not look like much. He was missing half an antenna, his carapace was cracked and faded, and his face appeared to be locked into a permanent scowl.
“Hello.” Theodore offered a handshake. “I’m Deputy Grayweather. Nice to meet you…?”
Thistle folded two pairs of arms. “I’ve heard about you. If you aren’t going to commission a nightmare, could you beat it? I’m trying to run a business here.”
“Nightmares?” Theodore glanced over the booth. Boxes behind the counter were filled with what looked like luminous soap bubbles. “You sell nightmares?”
The sylph rolled his eyes. “No. I sell ghasts the right to appear in nightmares.”
“Thistle is a dream sower,” Oboe said. “His magic lets him grow scary dreams so he can stick them in the brains of sleeping humans!”
“That’s horrible,” Theodore said. “Why would you do that?”
“You work for this idiot?” Thistle scoffed. “I’m not going to stand here and explain how our economy works!”
“Allow me!” Burt stepped in from nowhere. “Ghasts feed on strong human emotions, with fear being the most potent. In order to create peace between our people, the kingdom organized a system where ghasts can be entrusted with a haunting territory. The problem is that haunting licenses are hard to get and there aren’t enough to go around. The rest of us can work and pay a dream sower to insert us into a nightmare. That way we can produce enough fear and anxiety to sustain ourselves.”
“That makes sense,” Theodore said. It explained why ghasts like Ashby took jobs in the city.
Burt gave a rattling nod. “We’ve come a long way since Great War! With the cooperation of humans, we can sustain and large population and live in peace.” His gaze drifted. “Ideally, anyway.”
Theodore thought of Silas Jack and the Red Caps. He was glad that there was an alternative to ghasts preying on humans, but it was clear the system did not always work.
“Hey,” Thistle said. “I know you guys aren’t here to put an order in, so would you mind getting the hell out of the way?”
Oboe noticed a line of customers forming behind them “Sorry! We’ll see you later, okay Thistle?”
Thistle grunted and turned to his next patron. Burt led Oboe and Theodore back the way they came.
“I wish we had time to hang out with him,” Oboe said.
Theodore could not guess at why Oboe was so fond of such a mean little bug. He put the matter from his mind. “We need to focus on the investigation,” he said. “No more distractions.”
“Okay,” Oboe said. “What should we do next?”
Before Theodore could answer, he was distracted by a strange rumbling that shook the ground under their feet. “Do you hear something?” He said. It was growing louder.
“It’s probably that thing,” Oboe said, pointing.
The crowd scattered, screamed, and leapt out of the way of something. A massive creature hurtled through the market towards them, scuttling on dozens of flailing human-like arms and legs.
“Oh,” Theodore said.
It barreled at him with such speed that Theodore toppled backwards trying to get away. Before any of them could react, it was right on top of him.