Well, I know that technically Demon Dagger came before Ghost Stories, but... well, I dunno. Anyways, part VII of the Christmas update is upon us with the third installment of GS. This arc is gonna be a bit different from any other you experienced up till now in my tales and while in general this type of plot is not "new" to me, it's been a very long while since I've done something like that, so I'm both anxious and worried over how this will turn out. But don't fret, this is still an action/adventure tale, so there'll be plenty of fights in the meantime ;)

ATTENTION: from this chapter on, a special contest for all, you readers is opened! Details at the end of the chappie.

As usual, I'd like to thank everyone who reviewed the previous chapter. It means a lot and here's hoping you'll enjoy this chappie as well. And to those of you who actually guessed Cuesta Verde was reference to "Poltergeist"... kudos ;) Well, I'm off to handle DD, so you enjoy yourselves, ya hear? :D

Chapter #3: Whispers in the Dark

Title Page: Matthew is in a fighting stance with the rain pouring down on him

Cuesta Verde was a well-known place to the Order; a huge mansion, located on top of a cliff, far from civilization, it stood abandoned for years. However archives claim it once belonged to one Sigmund Stanruck, a local surgeon, who lost his wife, a famous actress, in a tragic accident. This supposedly driven him mad to the point he began kidnapping people for experiments, which were meant to help him truly conquer death. None of his test subjects returned though.

Eventually the Order took action - a small squad of Slayers stormed the estate, broke into the lab through the basement and took Stanruck prisoner. The mad doctor spent the rest of his life in the dungeon. His stay was surprisingly long, considering that he ate nothing, according to records at least. These claim the man just sat in his cell, staring at the same spot all day.

While these events took place many decades ago and there's no indication how much truth they contain, Cuesta Verde's reputation grew, making it a place of nightmares for common men. The Slayers who ended Stanruck's terror, prepared a burial ground for the unfortunate victims of the mad man; those whose bodies they managed to find were buried in the cemetery on the back of the mansion, basically turning the entire yard into a resting ground.

This only frightened people further, who believed the tormented souls haunted the mansion, forcing those, who dared came, to share their fate. Due to this, no-one dared to enter the estate for the past sixty years... give or take. However, recently, strange noises came from the house, as reported by a group of hunters who raid the surrounding forest at night few days ago. To that end, Bruto's team was send to investigate... and that would be all we know at this point the Asian Slayer concluded his report as his squad reached the gates of the cursed grounds, scanning the area.

"Good" Matthew nodded in approval as he looked the place down.

Cuesta Verde was a massive complex, which exterior certainly helped strengthen the feel of a haunted house; the four stories of the mansion were higher then necessary, allowing tall and thin windows to decorate the walls. These windows had glass in them, but most of it was already either broken or so dirty, that it nearly became black. The wooden walls on the other hand gave the impression of being rotten, ready to fall apart at any time.

Through the middle of the house, a high tower climbed to the sky, adding two, more floors to the height of the estate, yet the triangular roof of the construct had a large hole in it, most likely caused by the age of the wood. The rest of the mansion surrounded it in a cube-like shape with flat roofs, only a tad steep on the outside edges. The house itself was separated from the rest of the world with a thick, stone wall, high for three meters. This was not a big obstacle, yet even so there was no point in jumping over these, as the massive, rusty gates stood widen open, bended beyond repair.

The yard consisted mostly of grass, now reaching to the visitor's knees, and several trees, which roots stretched through the wild meadow. The path leading to the mansion was a simply, dirt one, while another circled the house, most certainly allowing guests to enter the cemetery on the back of the estate.

Matthew lead the team straight towards the doors, pushing the large frames to the sides, clearing the way. The inside of the mansion was nothing that the squad didn't predicted: dirty, dim and decaying, despite antic furniture and once marvelous paintings decorating its interior. Webs hung in every corner, while every step was accompanied with a loud 'screek', which annoyed Iris slightly.

"This place is generally rundown" the Asian Slayer finally spoke, as he moved his palm by the wall. "Dust covers various areas, most specifically the upper layers of the mansion, however there's little indication to anyone actually setting foot in here in the past months and those that are there can be considered makings of the team send before us. Strangely enough, nothing suggests any battle took place here."

"If that was so" began the one with the sapphire, Matt. "We wouldn't have been send here. Be it the cause of a fight or another, supernatural phenomenon, an entire team of Slayers disappeared. That doesn't just happen. In order to bring down a whole squad, the paranormal activity would need to be extremely high. Something stopped them from contacting the Order as scheduled..."

"Ghosts" the black one suddenly announced with a stoic voice as he looked around slowly.

"What do you mean, Marcus?" Iris asked, turning towards her companion.

"There are traces of ectoplasma in the air" the one-eyed Slayer stated simply, gazing at the ceiling. "They're faint, but they're there. I do not know if this is related to our mission, mind you, but at the very least, we're dealing with a form of poltergeist."

"This is ridiculous" Matthew responded annoyed. "Ghosts are immaterial, for most part unable to truly affect our world. For a poltergeist to be strong enough to actually do harm to a team of Slayers... the ectoplasmic leftovers would've been felt by all of us and we wouldn't need your eye to inform us of it. There might be ghosts here, however it's doubtful those had anything to do with the disappearance of Bruto's squad."

"Well, you're the boss" stated the brown-haired teen, still playing with a coin in his fingers. "Any suggestions?"

"We split up" the leader responded simply, turning to the others. "Ivan and Marcus will look upstairs for any clues as to what transpired here. Iris, you take Jack and scout this floor, along with the gardens. Pei Kung and I will check the basement."

"Are you sure that is a good idea?" the redhead asked in his usual, emotionless monotone. "We are in a place where supposedly the entire team has vanished and have little idea what we're up against. By splitting up, we're decreasing our fighting power. Should trouble arise, sharing the fate of Bruto's team, whatever it may be, will be that much more probable..."

"I was appointed leader of this cell" Matthew reminded him with narrowed eyes. "I don't care for demon's opinion."

"Don't worry Jack" Iris joined in, wrapping her arm around the teen's neck. "I'll protect you" she announced with a wink, yet even as the boy glanced at her, his face remained stoic. The squad soon complied and as each of the pairs went on their way, Marcus and the teen, Ivan, climbed the stairs to their destination.

The steps lead through a narrow tunnel, confining the two from both sides and forcing them to walk in a line. The trip was not a long one though and as they reached the top, they glanced around, now standing in a hallway with tens of doors on each wall. The floor was covered with a long rug, decorated with light-green markings on the edges, while the center presented a scene from a dark forest on the cliffs, much like the location of Cuesta Verde itself. Perhaps it was just that.

"This is gonna take a while" Ivan let out a sigh, still playing with his coin. The one-eyed Slayer however seemed to ignore him as he headed for the nearest door and opened it, entering the room. The teen followed without a word, soon finding himself in a chamber with a bed, decorated with arbor and a few, simple closets, each covered with dust completely.

"Seems no-one was here in a longer while" Marcus stated simply after a short inspection. "Most likely we won't find anything of interest here" he concluded and spun to leave, but this time it was Ivan who just gave him a glance before proceeding to investigate the room.

The coin flipping in his hand, the youngster used the other to open the closet nearest to the bed, unleashing a cloud of dust. The teen scanned the inside carefully and then gazed to the side at the closet located next to the one he was examining. Only now did he noted none of the furniture pressed against the walls separating the room from the hallways or the outside, each only decorating those that had another room behind.

"Check the next, few rooms if they're decorated in a similar way" he asked his companion, carefully pushing the closet away from the wall. The one-eyed Slayer didn't argue and complied, while Ivan felt the wood of the closet and then moved his hand over the wall. By then Marcus returned, confirming the boy's suspicion: "The furniture seems unused, but the walls here are hollow. They appear to be two, three meters thick, yet in reality, there's only a thin layer here" he proclaimed with a stoic voice, still playing with the coin in his free hand.

Silently the black Slayer walked over to him and without warning smashed his fist into the wall, creating a hole in it. As the one-eyed man retreated his arm, the teen placed his head in the crack and looked inside. His hunch was correct; between the actual wall and the layer on the other side, there was a space that went from the roof above to the bottom far beyond the ground level, the darkness of the location preventing the youngster to see what was below.

"Besides the layer and pipes, the interior in empty" he reported, pulling his head out. "There's enough space for an entire body to fit in... if we're not talking of some fatso. It appears to stretch through the whole height of the estate and beyond."

"What's the point of that?"

"No idea" Ivan admitted, now scanning the ceiling as he played with his coin. "But if you're agile enough, you could use the pipes are a footing, possibly making this a web of tunnels, allowing you to reach basically any part of the house. Problem is, that with the layer still there, in order to actually enter the room, one has to break through, thus alarming anyone nearby..."

"Lets see if we can find anything else" Marcus purposed, receiving a nod from the teen, yet as they headed to the exit, the boy froze, a strange whisper echoing in his ear. Immediately he glanced over his shoulder, yet there was no-one there. Ivan narrowed his eyes at the sensation, but then reality kicked back as he heard his companion's concerned voice: "Something wrong?"

The youngster gazed at the one-eyed Slayer instantly and then, once more looked over his shoulder for a moment, resuming the play with his coin: "Nah, it's nothing" he assured him, shifting his attention back to the black man. Marcus stared at his for a while, but finally nodded, exiting the room.

Ivan followed, yet his headed lowered as the boy's eyes narrowed once again: "Just now... what was that voice? I could've sworn it told me to run... he thought to himself, giving the room he was just in one, final glance...

-That time, the mansion's backyard-

Jack and Iris searched the cemetery, scanning the gray tombstones that spread throughout the entire area. Most of them were blank, merely indicating that there is a person buried here. The girl looked troubled by that fact, yet the redhead didn't scoop the subject, concentrating on the investigation. Suddenly he stopped, narrowing his eyes as he settled them on the ground.

The female Slayer glanced at him curiously as she walked over, asking what is it. The half-demon merely pointed at the short grass in the spot, before replying: "There are tracks here. Considering the chaotic pattern the footprints are placed, it suggests a struggle" he proclaimed calmly in his emotionless voice.

Iris kneeled down next to him and strolled the grass gently with concentration plastered on her face. She then raised her sight, looking down the hill, between the stone: "Yeah... furthermore, whoever won, seemed to drag the loser that way" she announced, pointing west, straight at the mausoleum. "Looks like a single prisoner though."

"Maybe the rest were killed" Jack offered bluntly, much to the girl's dismal.

"Well, ain't you a sunshine" she responded sarcastically and drilled the other teen with her eyes for a moment, yet quickly looked away, once more shifting her attention to the mausoleum: "Either way, I say it's worth checking" she stated, heading towards the building. The half-demon gazed at her for a second, before moving out as well.

They followed the trail, which mainly went in a straight line, soon reaching their destination.. The mausoleum greeted them with massive, stone doors shut tight. The entrance was decorated with a symbol of a bird that flew towards the sky with its wings spread and a long tail, contained in three, thin lines stretched behind it. The building was of a triangular shape, similar to the pyramid, only much thinner, with pointy columns located on each corner. These structures were covered in markings, which none of the Slayers understood, yet Jack found them particularly intriguing.

"Is that what I think it is?" Iris asked, gazing at the doors closely.

"Yup" the shadow spawn replied simply as he walked over to her, his eyes still set on the nearest column. Finally he shifted his glance at the entrance as well, pressing his hands against the stone wings: "I have no idea as to why Slayers who build this place would actually use a portrait of a mythical creature, but that bird most definitely represents a phoenix" he announced as the doors slowly opened with a rasp.

The duo now found themselves standing before a wide chamber with shelves assuming most of the walls. These contained wooden coffins, majority of which were already eaten by the teeth of time, revealing skeletons which laid within. The center of the room had a circle, decorated with a relief, which represented the same bird that guarded the doors, only in a slightly different pose. Jack slowly walked over to it, carefully examining the floor.

"So many bodies" the girl calculated, shivering involuntarily. "At least half as much as in the cemetery itself. Are all of them really victims of a single man's obsession?" she wondered out loud, disgust by the very thought.

"According to what Pei Kung said, only those who were taken by Stanruck are buried here, so that is most likely the case" the half-demon stated in his normal, emotionless voice, narrowing his eyes as they set on the edge of the relief: "I believe the trail we're following goes down here" he announced, pointing at a line carved into the floor, which seemed to go beneath the bird's portrait.

"The relief could be a door" Iris nodded, glancing over his shoulder. "But I don't see any means to open them..."

"A secret passage, perhaps" Jack more stated then asked, while looking around the chamber. Aside from a few candle stands, there was nothing that could be even used as a level to activate a mechanism. "This is thick... I doubt we'll manage to get through forcefully" he added, although unnecessary, since the girl was already aware of that.

"Well, that scratch is a clue most likely left by the one that was dragged here" she concluded, scanning the area. "Maybe he left us more, whoever it was" she purposed without much hope in her voice. Jack however nodded simply as he rose back to his feet: "We can always look" he agreed, heading towards the eastern wall.

"If there's a door, there's also a mechanism meant to open it" he went one, examining the shelves. "Most likely it'd somehow stand out, so that those who use it, could easily locate the switch. At first sight it's probably invisible, but when you know it's there, it becomes quite obvious" he said, looking at his companion, yet to his surprise, Iris didn't move from her spot, mesmerized by the bird: "What is it?"

"It's different from the one on the doors" she replied, still gazing at the floor. "It has its wings spread, by the head is shifted, showing the phoenix's profile. If this was supposed to be a crest of some sort, both relieves should be the same, right?" she asked rhetorically as she bended down to take a closer look. Slowly she reached out with her hand, pressing the bird's eye.

A moment later the ground began shaking, while the relief sunk below the floor. In the next instant it slowly slipped under the surface, leaving a round gasp in the middle of the chamber with a set of circling stairs that led downwards. Iris noted another, carved line on one of the upper steps; an undoubtful sign someone was here.

"I guess this is our path" she announced, sliding down to the stairway. Jack stopped at the edge of the hole and observed his comrade walking down for a while before following. The road was struck into the walls, which quickly turned into ground as the duo went deeper and deeper, much below the surface level. The female Slayer cursed at the darkness that wrapped around them, making it near impossible to see the way ahead. Stopping, she formed a sign with her hand, clenching her fingers into a fist, while her thumb and pinky went sideways.

In a instant her eyes exploded with light, pupils becoming completely yellow. The surroundings gotten clearer, almost like a torch was lit nearby. Iris glanced over to her companion, narrowing her eyes curiously at the sight he has not activated the seal.

"I have no need for it" he stated simply, almost like he could read her mind. "I can see just fine."

"Right, demon blood" the girl reminded herself, twisting her mouth as a sight of dismal, yet quickly shook it off. "Lets keep moving" she spoke a moment later, resuming her march. Eventually they reached the bottom with a tunnel dug in a wall, leading in the direction of the mansion. The hall was decorated with torches, making Iris' night vision redundant.

"Where do you suppose this leads?" she asked curiously.

"Well, if I'm not mistaken, the tunnel itself goes in the direction of Cuesta Verde" Jack responded in his monotone. "However I'd venture a theory we're too deep underground for it to connect with the basement. The most logical assumption would be that we have found the entrance to Stanruck's laboratory. If I recall the report, it was hidden..."

"Yeah, but the entrance was located in the basement. That's what the archives said. You suppose this is another way in?"

"Possibly... but if the entrance was truly in the house, then we're too low to be on the laboratory's level... that is, assuming that the lab is no more then two-three stories high... could it be possible the Slayers who searched this place all those years back missed a few floors of the hideout?"

"Well, that's one explanation" the girl nodded thoughtful. "I doubt that however. Question is: if this ain't the entrance to Stanruck's lab, where does it lead to?"

"Just one way to find out" Jack announced calmly, while pointing at the wall which had a long line cut into it. "Besides, seems we need to check it out anyway..." and with that the two resumed their march...

-Back at the mansion-

Matthew glanced around the basement with his eyes yellow, spotting nothing out of the ordinary; the ceiling was supported by several, wooden pales, while most of the area was cramped with crates and barrels. Also here spiders have done their work, while the cold air gave the place an extra chill.

"So, were is the entrance to the lab located?" he asked his companion, looking over his shoulder.

"The northern wall" Pei Kung replied immediately with a calm voice. "However, perhaps it would be beneficial to examine this place further? While it is likely the laboratory gives a good chance of finding some clues, that's only true if the one responsible managed to get inside. In a different scenario, whatever transpired here, the answer should be found in a more... accessible part of the mansion."

"We do not know what we're dealing with here" Matthew responded, slightly annoyed. "And while what you say is true, it may also be false. We're not even sure what we're looking for, besides Bruto's team that is. Unless we find a survival, learning what happened here could take days, if not longer. And if this is the work of something else... something that doesn't know the location of the lab... then a potential survival would choose the lab as a hiding spot. It's that simple."

"If you say so" the Asian nodded without a flinch in his voice before leading his commander in the right direction. But as he took a few steps forward, he froze, narrowing his eyes. His gaze shifted to the right, while he went into his fighting stance.

Without a word, Matthew also prepared for battle, the gem on his protector shining brightly. A moment later his eyes felt heavy and as he shut them, shaking his head to chase away the feeling, he noted the place was dark: What the...? The seal got broken involuntary? How is that possible? He wondered, shifting his attention to Pei Kung, only to realize his eyes were back to normal as well.

"Some sort of black magic... most likely" the Asian answered the silent question as the two felt shadows circling around them. The darkness thickened, leaving only the cold air as their companion. A sudden noise drew their attention to the side as heavy steps could be heard. The duo instinctually backed a bit, holding their breaths. They saw nothing. They did not know what was happening. The only thing they knew for certain was that something was coming...

-a dreadful development!-

And so this chapter ends. And yes, you're correct in thinking this arc will be, partly, a tribute to Scooby-Doo type of stories. It's actually a mix, as Poltergeist is part of the setting as well. Generally, the mystery behind Cuesta Verde, what really took place in it and what is happening right now is the part I'm most anxious about. To that extend, I figured we can make it a CONTEST of sorts. Now I haven't decided on the prize yet (suggestions are welcomed) as it's more for fun now, but hey, if anyone wins, I believe he/she deserves a reward.

The rules are quite simple really: the goal is for you to solve a puzzle concerning the FULL story behind the events that led to Cuesta Verde becoming the place of nightmares, as Pei Kung described it. As "our" Slayers investigate the mansion and its grounds, more and more hints will be given, but putting them together will be your job (eventually I'll reveal the whole truth, naturally, but that's at the end of the arc, which is quite a bit away). Those of you who'll get it right (or will come the closest to it) will be declared winners and shall receive the prize we'll decide upon (unless I'll think of one first :D).

Concerning the answers to the question at hand: the contest is opened to everyone, however to keep it fair, I figured it's best to let the reviewers be official contestants. This is not to raise the number of reviews really, but more to reward those who are truly interested in the tale, especially since the prize is probably gonna concern Ghost Stories in some way. As such those of you, who review can send me a PM message after, concerning their idea as to the truth behind the Cuesta Verde mystery. I'll make the effort to answer these messages once every two weeks and once you receive my answer, if it turns out your answer is wrong, you can feel free to try again. I'll give a note when the contest is closed in the proper chapter itself.

Now, at this point, I doubt anyone could put it all together, as there's still too little evidence (but, if you feel like it, then nothing stops you from trying). To make it a bit easier on you guys, here's what I'm hoping you'll address in your answers, to cover every issue regarding the mystery:

why did the experiments took place and what was their basis (if you think Sigmund Stanruck was not the one responsible for them, you should mention it as well, naming the "real" culprit);

how does the poltergeist, noted by Marcus, fits into all of this and why was it activated

whose behind the horrors of Cuesta Verde now

While looking for answers, I'd like to remind you this is still Ghost Stories setting we're talking about, so supernatural is not out of the question. However, to not make it too complicated, any reference to it will be strictly to the most classical folklore of the horror genre, so as long as you're aware of things like "werewolves turn during full-moon", "vampires are killed by sunlight", "salt chases away evil spirits" and the sort, you should have all the information you need. Naturally, in case you have any doubts concerning the above (like if vampires have reflections in the mirror), you can feel free to ask me outside the scheduled messaging and I'll give you the answer.

If any of the above is unclear, also feel free to ask, I'll try to explain it differently. Mind you I am not sure how long will it take for the contest to be resolve as this arc does have several chapters till being concluded, but until we get to the bottom of things, I plan to update GS alongside DB, meaning with every update from my profile.

With that said, I wish to thank you all for reading this chapter, hope to see you in 2012 and in the meantime: MERRY CHRISTMAS and a HAPPY NEW YEAR!