He heard the sound of a door shutting behind him.
Freddie was standing inside an unfamiliar building. High above his head was an arch-shaped plaster ceiling. There was no hint of fire inside the gaping hall, surrounded by marble walls, with cold air blowing in from somewhere. Faded portraits hung from the walls, covered in moss that made it impossible to tell what they depicted. Black and white tiles spread out to form a mosaic on the floor. Taking a closer look, he saw that it was shaped like an arrow. The arrow pointed forwards from where Freddie stood.
"So you want me to go that way, huh? But wait, first..."
He surveyed his surroundings. Just where was he? He didn't recognise the building. No windows were set into the walls, a chandelier suspended from the ceiling casting the only faint light. Even still, the red flames of its candles brought him no warmth.
"Ugh. It's freezing."
He wrapped his arms around himself, then realised that his feet were bare. If he went on standing around like this, he'd freeze to death. Turning around, he saw that there was no door - just empty black space stretching out before him.
"Guess I have no choice but to go ahead, then."
Having no other choice, Freddie cautiously began to walk. Following the arrow mosaic, he finally left the hall and stepped into a narrow hallway. As he went, the candles of the chandelier were extinguished in the places he had passed through. Behind him was pitch blackness. There was no turning back now.
He walked along, as if enticed inwards, until finally the hallway began to twist to the right. Turning the corner, he was shocked. Ahead of him stretched marble stairs covered with red rugs, upon which stood a crowd of sheep walking upright. The sheep looked familiar. He'd definitely seen the same thing before, when he'd scaled the castle walls... Something prickled in the back of his head.
"Right. So I'm inside that castle."
He remembered crossing the suspension bridge from the ramparts and entering the black castle. So was this a continuation of that, then?
The nightmare wasn't over. In fact, the stairs stretched on and on, as if to say that this was just the beginning.
"So I'm supposed to climb those?"
It wasn't like he had to scale an impenetrable, sloping cliff like the time at the ramparts, but even still, the stairs went on for so long that there was no end in sight.
"Hey, you got a minute?" Freddie called to a nearby sheep, hoping to figure out what was going on.
But the glasses-wearing sheep ignored his appeal, beginning to sluggishly climb the stairs.
Grabbing him by the shoulder and pulling him back, the sheep turned in irritation.
"Whadda you want? Get outta my way."
His voice was high-strung and harsh. For some reason, the instant he heard it he felt a sensation of discomfort rise up from within. He momentarily fought it back and questioned him.
"What's beyond here?"
He pointed at the long, long stairs. They were wide, with several sheep climbing them side by side at once, but he felt as if there were fewer than there had been at the walls.
The sheep's response was curt. He clicked his tongue often as if in annoyance.
"What do you mean you 'dunno'...?" Freddie asked in earnest surprise. "So we're supposed to just go on ahead and climb up there? What for?"
"I told you, I dunno. Just how dumb are you?"
The sheep stamped its hoofed foot, as if having flown into a temper. It turned its bloodshoot, glasses-covered eyes on Freddie.
"There's nowhere else to go. We've gotta climb, then, right? Or are you planning on just standin' around here like a fool forever?"
The air inside the castle had grown so cold that he could no longer stand it. Goosebumps rippled across his exposed flesh. And then there was the horrible presence he'd been sensing behind him for some time now - something was coming this way.
"So it's back, huh? Hey, what is that thing?"
The creepy tentacles and claws that had attacked Freddie. The suspension bridge torn apart. The falling sheep. Remembering it sent shivers down his spine.
"Shut up. Just leave me alone."
The sheep coldly shook free of Freddie's grasp, then began climbing the stairs as if in pursuit of the other sheep. Freddie suddenly realised that he was the only one left standing at the foot of the stairs. As he watched the sheep gradually grow smaller and smaller, he suddenly began to feel lonely.
"Wait for me!"
Freddie, too, swiftly began to climb. The rug was damp, sticking to the soles of his feet. Feeling like a cockroach made him even more depressed.
Ancient Roman-style life-size statues stood at regular intervals on either side of the stairs. Red flames lit up the trays and torches they held, but gave off no heat and did nothing to warm his body.
He desperately hoped that he could make it to the top before his legs got so cold that they stopped moving. Even the breaths he expelled appeared distinct and white.
How far had he climbed? Finally, he heard a scream from up ahead. One of the sheep had collapsed, clutching at its stomach. Red blood seeped from between the gaps in its fingers, dyeing the dirty rug back to vibrancy.
Panic began to spread amongst the sheep, who had up until then been climbing in silence. Freddie included, most of them were unable to understand what had happened. They stopped and watched over it, but the collapsed sheep continued to bleed, finally spasming faintly before going still.
The sheep surrounded him in wordless commotion. One of the eagle-eyed sheep who had been near the collapsed sheep finally let out a scream, pointing at one of the statues.
"Baa! Look at that!"
The statue was modelled after a Roman soldier. He donned a helmet adorned with wings, dignified armour, and a cape, holding a rectangular shield. What attracted Freddie's attention, however, was the fresh, bright red blood that dripped from the tip of the pike held aloft in its right hand.
At that moment, a statue nearby to where the sheep had pointed moved. All of a sudden the apparent marble statue jabbed out its spear, as if having a mind of its own, attacking the sheep. The sheep, not having anticipated this, was instantly skewered clean through the stomach, froth bubbling from his mouth as he breathed his last.
"Baaaaaa!" someone shouted.
By now, they were in a complete panic. All of the sheep began hurrying up the steps as quickly as they could. They all rushed to the centre of the stairs so as to put as much distance as possible between them and the murderous, moving statue, at once leaving him trapped. Everyone dragged down the sheep in front of him, so that at least he may proceed even a little forward. Ugly struggles broke out here and there. As they squashed together, unable to move, the living statue's spear attacked anew.
The sharp tip of the spear ran through several sheep simultaneously. Blood splattered all over, wool fluttering through the air.
"This thing's bad news..."
Amidst the pandemonium that surrounded him, Freddie was - to a certain extent - calm. Rather than forgetting himself and making a run for it, he simply stooped over and waited to see what would happen.
As far as he could see, it didn't appear as though all of the statues that stood opposite each other on the sides of the stairs carried weapons. Statues of Roman soldiers stood on one side at intervals, several statues in between each, but it looked like the others were all goddess statues that held lamps. All he would have to do, in that case, was to pass by the goddess statue on the other side whenever he came to a step with a Roman soldier on it. That would put the most distance between them, and should be safest. Making his decision, Freddie set off once more.
"Your partner's pretty brutal, huh?" he muttered as he passed by a semi-naked goddess statue. If he didn't make such light jokes, he was afraid that his mental balance would crumble.
It seemed as though there were others like Freddie amongst the terrified sheep who had come to the same realisation as he had. The glasses sheep he had spoken to earlier was one of them. No - if anything, the glasses sheep was even more shrewd than Freddie and had even waited for the murderous statues to prey on the other sheep. Then, once the spear had been temporarily withdrawn, he had seen his chance and taken it.
I can't stand that guy...
The way he was underhanded enough to be willing even to use the other sheep as a shield just so he could move along was too much to take.
He's not a decent sheep anyway.
Freddie spat on the rug, then resumed his ascent. As he climbed, the statues on either side eventually disappeared, giving way to an area that looked like a landing. Perhaps this place was meant for him to take a breather. It was an act of consideration he was grateful for.
The number of sheep had been cut almost in half. Their shoulders drooped with exhaustion, and here and there he even saw sheep who lay flat on the floor, motionless.
"Hey. Pull yourself together," Freddie called to the sheep one by one in encouragement. "Now's not the time to be sitting around exhausted here. Get up and move."
Freddie himself was more surprised by his actions than anyone. He wasn't the type to be concerned about others, yet his tongue had moved by itself when he had seen the fatigued sheep. It reminded him of the sheep who had saved him at the "cliff stairs" on the previous floor.
He was a good guy. He gave me advice even though he didn't know me from Adam, and he's the only reason I managed to make it this far. The poor guy, who had plummeted with a scream. This time, it's my turn to repay him, he decided firmly.
And then there was the glasses sheep. Each time he looked at the glasses sheep, maintaining his distance from the others and back hunched so as not to stand out, it made him think about how much he didn't want to turn into someone so awful. Freddie decided that he should keep his eye on him. If he didn't, he might be the next to be sacrificed.
I hope he falls into hell, Freddie muttered silently, stood, and clapped his hands.
"Alright. Come on, everyone. Not far to the goal now. Put your backs into it!"
He had no proof whatsoever that they were nearing the end of the staircase. Even still, if he didn't believe it and forcibly will himself on he wouldn't be able to take a step.
Passing over the landing, the difference of the level of the stairs suddenly increased. The height of each step was roughly to his knees. He would have to raise his legs higher to climb them, making the burden even heavier. It seemed like the person who created this castle was a certified sadist. He must be gloating all the way through tormenting these pitiful lambs.
"Go to hell," he muttered, his voice hoarse.
How far had he climbed since then? It seemed like the world's time had stopped ticking, yet the fatigue was clearly piling on. His legs were growing unsteady, and several times he had almost slipped down the steps.
He heard a scream from amidst the sheep who had gone on ahead. One of the sheep came tumbling down the stairs. As it passed by Freddie he immediately reached out his hand, but couldn't make it in time. Its desperate scream still echoing in his eardrums, the sheep fell far, far below before disappearing from view.
"What happened?" he shouted to the sheep ahead.
"The step sloped all of a sudden," a confused voice called back.
The step had vanished and turned into something like a slide, apparently causing him to lose his footing. After that, he had lost his balance and gone tumbling.
"How many traps are there?"
He could no longer climb up normally as he had been doing so far. He bent over, looking closely at the step he was to climb onto. The rug had been removed, leaving the marble bare. The long, vertical levels were made up of the usual cube blocks, and upon closer inspection he saw that some of the blocks had checked patterns engraved upon them. It was just like the cliff stairs he had climbed last time.
As a test, he lifted his right leg and cautiously poked at it with the tips of his toes. The instant his foot touched it, the block rotated 45 degrees with a crash, the stair part slanting. Flustered, he withdrew his leg. It was a simple trap, but an effective one. The marble was slippery, and if he lost his balance once he was unlikely to regain it.
"Watch out for the patterned stones."
Even as Freddie called out, several sheep slipped and fell. There were even other sheep who thoughtlessly stepped on and were skewered from below, as if on pincushions.
He clicked his tongue at the terrible scene, then turned, feeling a presence behind him. The glasses sheep stood a level below Freddie.
"What're you doing?"
"Nothing in particular."
He would give no real answer, a vague smile plastered to his lips. Even still, he didn't need to say anything for Freddie to understand what he was up to. His plan was to follow along after Freddie, using the safe spots he found.
"What are you doing, hm? Forget about me and go on ahead."
This sheep was a jerk through-and-through. Had they been anywhere else, this would be the point where Freddie would've smacked him right in the face, but preserving his own life took priority at this moment in time. And to do that, too, he had to climb to the top of these stairs.
He checked out each stone step he was to stand upon as he went and, as he had suspected, the glasses sheep followed right behind. When Freddie moved, so did he; when he came to a halt, the other sheep followed.
He must be like some kind of suckerfish, using other people's leftovers to survive. It drove him crazy, but getting involved seemed like it would just piss him off more, so he decided to just ignore it.
Despite Freddie's warning drawing attention to them, there were still sheep who screwed up and got caught by the traps. Suddenly he noticed that they had decreased quite sharply in number, so few remaining now that he could count them on his fingers.
Whenever he was left without a foothold he moved to the adjacent block, or secured himself a route by pulling out the one in front. Gradually, he became accustomed to the puzzle-like set-up. How far had he ascended like this?
From high above his head, he heard the chiming of a bell.
"Good. Not much further now."
It was the bell in the bell tower that represented his salvation. Looking up, he saw a golden door standing at the top of what he had to climb. Windows appeared at either side of the stairs, through which spilled light. He could see a huge, silver moon through the frosted glass.
Freddie instinctively knew that he would be saved if he could make it to that door. Giving one last spur of encouragement to his heavy body, he desperately urged his faltering legs on. Just twenty more steps, and then tonight's nightmare would be over. He panted, feeling assured of his victory - and that was when it happened.
"Freeeeeeeddieeeeeeeee!" the same voice from before screamed from the depths of the earth.
A malevolent surge that seemed like it would swallow Freddie whole whooshed past him, sending a chill down his spine. He mustn't look. He mustn't turn back. He knew it, and yet his body moved of its own accord. He looked over his shoulder, and the first thing he saw was the glasses sheep. Behind him was a gaping darkness and an eerie shadow clambering out from within.
What revealed itself from beneath the stairs was a huge female torso. Its face alone was taller than Freddie. Short, brunette hair flowed behind her, and she wore the casual combination of a black t-shirt and leather jacket. Her long, red-painted nails extended and withdrew as if in search of their prey. From the waist down she melted into the darkness, and he couldn't see what was there.
What paralysed Freddie more than anything, however, was that the woman had no face. The space between her forehead and chin was gone, as if it had been scooped out with a giant spoon. None of her nerve tissue or skull jutted out, simply leaving a smooth space reminiscent of a rubber ball.
And yet he could clearly hear her calling to him. Rather than hearing her cries, it felt like they were directly resounding within his brain.
"Don't leave meee!"
Freddie was frozen, paralysed, unable even to recognise the voice as his own.
Leave me alone. Please, leave me alone.
His prayers had the opposite effect. As if having read his thoughts, the woman stopped moving momentarily, then clearly switched targets to Freddie.
"I've fouuund youuu!"
The woman's pace increased as she crawled up the stairs. Each time he looked, the distance between them shortened. Thirty steps. Twenty-five steps. Twenty steps.
Then, Freddie noticed the red butterfly earring glinting in the flat-faced woman's ear. He recognised it. It was...
Just as the horrible memory buried within the swamp of his mind was about to surface, the glasses sheep let out a shriek from behind Freddie.
"You're in my way. Get a move on!"
The glasses sheep raced up to the same level upon which Freddie stood, blindly attempting to push him aside. His elbow accidentally slammed into Freddie's face, the pain causing him to come crashing back down to earth.
I can't let go of myself now. I have to get away from that thing.
Taking back control of his body, Freddie tried to sprint towards the door above that served as his goal, but the glasses sheep clung onto him.
"Please. Do something about that thing."
"L-let go of me!"
"You're wrong. I was just playing around with her. We already broke up. So please, stop... Please leave me alone, Dad!"
The glasses sheep's cries made no sense. There was no way it could be a man.
Freddie remembered. The red butterfly. A birthday present. Yes - her name was...
"Fuck. I'm not dying!"
The glasses sheep, deranged, grabbed Freddie by the neck and tried to pull him to the ground. He was going to sacrifice Freddie to save himself.
"Let go of me, asshole!"
The two struggled on the stairs. Freddie resisted desperately. Even as they went at it, she was drawing closer and closer, her sharp claws clicking like those of a crab. Being torn apart by those wouldn't leave a single scrap of flesh behind.
The glasses sheep tried forcibly to offer Freddie to her as a sacrifice.
"Please, die instead of me!"
"Like hell. You're the one who's gonna die!"
He used all of his might to slam the glasses sheep with a hard right punch. He swayed violently, then tripped.
The glasses sheep flailed his arms, trying somehow to maintain his balance, but it was all in vain. His stout body slowly tumbled down the stairs, as if defying the laws of gravity.
"I've got youu!"
The woman seized the glasses sheep with her claws, then easily squashed him like an orange.
But Freddie didn't have the time to casually stand around and watch. Covering his ears, he desperately hurried towards the door that marked his freedom.
He gripped the golden doorknob and twisted it open with all of his strength. Light flooded out from within.
Ignoring the woman's scream, he tumbled through the door.