Read DISTURBED RESIDENCE, Part I

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DISTURBED RESIDENCE, Part II

J. J. W. Mezun ☆ Season 2 ☆ 2015 January 1

VI. Façade

Earlier that morn, a cabal o’ men in identical—& constrictive—suits o’ armor sat round the 3 legs o’ the triangular table while the hypotenuse was reserved for their leader, a young man in a dark cloak, red cape, & black top hat. In front o’ him was a laminated nametag that said, “Lance F. Chamsby.”

Lance had his gloved hands clasped together on the table as he glanced left & right o’er all o’ his associates. His eyes were full o’ acid & his shoulders refused to remain still due to the sheer chill, the mugginess, & the smell o’ the place. He couldn’t help but notice every dreadful detail: the tan wallpaper peeling off all o’er the walls, revealing the bricks ’neath, & the dripping pipes hanging awkwardly everywhere, as if this were some mechanical jungle.

“Now, you are all probably wondering why I asked you to meet me down here in this cold, dank basement ’neath this seemingly random mansion…” began Lance.

1 o’ his minions spoke with a voice muffled by his mask: “Actually, Sir, we were wondering why you had us dress like knights.”

“That shall be ’splained in a minute,” Lance said with lips pursed like the sourest o’ felines @ this rude interruption.

“The reason we are down here is that I have entered a contest here to explore this maniac mansion & find any treasure I can. However, my experience staying in this rabid pit last night was so insulting, I simply could not stay; so I shall be operating from outside. Plus, I am sure that that looting ponytailed witch would have planned to have me purged.

“Anyway, you will be the ones to carry out my operation while I can focus on the decision-making down here, without the distractions o’ heat-sucking coats or that revolting looter.”

He backed ’way a decimeter, scooting his chair back with him, & held his arm out to his right to showcase an assortment o’ small TV monitors hanging off the wall. They all showed on their screens an assortment o’ TV monitors with assortments o’ TV monitors showing assortments o’ TV monitors on their screens.

“I’ll be able to see everything that goes on with these monitors, each o’ which is linked to chips I&rsquove embedded in each o’ your suits. & with this microphone,”—Lance turned back to the table, slid the microphone o’er to him with his face leaned toward it, & pressed the red button on its stand—“I will be able to communicate with you all.” His minions heard this last part right in their ears, as well as from in front o’ them.

“& when I turn on the speakers, I’ll be able to hear everything you all say with the microphones I embedded in your suits, allowing us to communicate. Does everyone understand?”

1 minion raised his hand.

“Yes, Agent Screamin’ Green?”

“Uh, is this legal?”

“’Course it’s legal,” Lance said, smacking his hands gainst the surface o’ the table. “There was no stipulation that I couldn’t get help; & though I said I was ‘leaving,’ I said nothing ’bout forfeiting or leaving the whole mansion. I haven’t breached a single verbal contact I made.”

“But how is this gonna work, Sir?” asked Agent Purple Mountain’s Majesty. “Are we just gonna knock on the door & just walk right in when she answers, saying, ‘Hey, we’re with Sir Chamsby, y’all.’”

“You won’t be knocking @ all,” said Lance. “She probably still hasn’t learned that terribly-complicated etiquette yet. You’ll just go in through the door upstairs.”

He pointed ’hind them. They turned back to where he was pointing to faintly see what looked like a crookedly handmade door bolted shut from their side.

“If she has no problem with that filthy looter breaking in, then she should have no trouble with you all doing the same,” said Lance. “Now, if everyone is done wasting time, you may all go & begin now.”

“I’ve got a question, Sir,” 1 o’ the minions said with his hand raised.

“Make it quick, Agent Red,”

“I was just curious why you were bothering to go through all o’ this just for some money that is surely a pittance compared to what you already have.”

“How much I have is irrelevant,” said Lance with a slam o’ his fist gainst the table. Then he grimaced & started sucking on his fist to soothe the pain caused by slamming it gainst the table’s hard wood.

“This is ’bout getting what I’ve earned,” Lance said with his finger raised in the air, & then continued with a louder voice, “Mo’ importantly, this is ’bout showing that looter that she cannot beat me! That Objectivist justice shall prevail!”

“Uh, no offense, Sir, but I don’t think that’s gonna work,” said Agent Purple Mountain’s Majesty.

“& why not?”

“Well, for 1 thing, the guy writing this is a leftist.”

“Yeah,” said Agent Screamin’ Green, “Let’s face it, Sir: you’re pretty much just an obnoxious strawman. Even if you did get a 1-up o’er her, some li’l detail will surely come in @ the last minute & smack your victory ’way just like the hand o’ the Programmers.”

“I don’t care much for that predetermined voodoo. The fact is that what happens to each o’ us is merely an outcome o’ our actions,” insisted Lance.

After a pause, Lance said louder, “Well, what are you idiots standing round doing nothing like idiots for?” Lance waved his hands forward. “Go on! Get on with your work already.”

His minions scrambled for the door, causing Agent Purple Mountain’s Majesty in front to smack right into it. They fiddled with the locks for a few minutes, trying to avoid looking back @ Lance’s poisonous stare. When they finally managed to open it, they stumbled up the stairs, making loud clattering sounds that bothered Lance’s ears.

When he saw that they were finally gone, he clasped his hands together on the table ’gain & twisted his face into the most diabolical expression he could muster. If he had a cat, he’d be petting it now; but he didn’t, so he made due with petting his trusty 20-kg gold nugget.

“Now we shall see who is the best man, Autumn Springer—I or you… ’Course, since you’re a woman & I said ‘best man,’ we can already pres’pose—”

Just then, Agent Screamin’ Green stumbled back down the stairs & o’er to Lance’s table, picking up a blue & yellow plastic lunch box with a picture o’ Pikachu & Ash Ketchum on it.

“Sorry, forgot my lunch!” he said as he dashed back o’er to & up the stairs.

Now Lance merely stared @ the empty spot @ the bottom o’ the stairs with such acerbic force that one would expect laser beams to shoot from his eyes. 1st they almost ruin my opening, & now they absolutely crush my amazing conclusion! What is the world coming to with workers such as these?

VII. Forgiven

Dawn didn’t want to tell Felix, for fear o’ worrying her too much, but she was quite sure they were lost. She figured she was an authority on the issue, since she was technically the 1 leading them.

All she knew was that they’d started by going down the hall just to the left o’ the main room, took a few turns, & then hit a dead end. When Dawn tried to lead them back the other way, she forgot which turns she’d made, guessed, & now she was still in the same hallway she was in before—a’least it had the same striped blue wallpaper.

“Yeah, I don’t see Autumn & Edgar anywhere round here,” said Dawn.

“I’m sorry,” said Felix.

“Sorry for what?” Dawn asked, turning her head to Felix with a perplexed expression.

“For not making Autumn & Edgar appear here when you need them.”

Dawn laughed. “What? That’s ridiculous. You can’t be @ fault for not bending the laws o’ time & space.”

“I can’t?” Felix asked, stopping with a stare even wider than normal, as if she had just had an epiphany. “But isn’t everything my fault?”

“No, ’course not. Who told you that?”

“Truly?” Felix’s head tilted a li’l upward, as if she were hoping to see light shine ’bove her. “Like, what isn’t my fault?”

Dawn threw her arms out. “Lots o’ things.”

“Could you… could you say exactly what isn’t?” Felix asked, & then quickly said, “No, I’m sorry, I shouldn’t bother you with that stupidity.”

Dawn said, “For starters, any tragedy that you had no involvement in wasn’t your fault. For instance, everything the Protectors did wasn’t your fault, since it probably happened decades ’fore you were born. If you can’t control it, it’s not your fault.”

“What the Protectors did isn’t my fault?” Felix asked, her hands clasped together o’er her heart like a kitten watching its owner open a bucket o’ chicken legs. She didn’t know who the “Protectors” were or what they did, but she could guess it must’ve been quite rude.

“No,” Dawn said as she put her arm round Felix’s shoulders & pulled her toward her. “Now, how ’bout we focus on looking for that treasure ’stead? There’s gotta be some in 1 o’ these rooms.”

“O, yeah, ’course, Madame mad science lady,” said Felix.

However, her mind was preoccupied. She clutched her hands to her heart as she repeated in her mind, Not everything is my fault! There are some things that aren’t my fault!

VIII. Decadence

Autumn noticed that ‘twas getting dark much mo’ quickly than she’d expected. By the time she & Edgar were a row o’ hallway down the 4th floor, she saw that the sky outside was already black. She figured ‘twas ’cause ’twas nearing winter, & thus the days were withering. However, when she checked the time, she saw that ‘twas a second before 12 AM.

“How long have we been looking for treasure?” Autumn asked without taking her eyes off her phone.

“I dunno, but it’s getting awfully dark,” said Edgar. “What time is it?”

“Almost 12 AM.”

“Uh, I think you mean PM.”

She turned to Edgar & flipper her phone facing him. “See for yourself.

Edgar leaned in to look. “What? But that’s impossible. We’ve been @ this for a couple hours @ the most.”

“Well, ’less my phone company & the sky are both yanking us round the bone, apparently not,” Autumn said as she examined her phone once mo’.

“You don’t think… you don’t think something supernatural is causing it, do you?” Edgar said with a furtive glance to his side.

“That’s impossible.”

“But… but there were ghosts who sucked the warmth out o’ us…” Edgar said with a finger pointed up in the air. “Remember?”

“That’s different,” Autumn said with her arms crossed. “That’s scientifically possible… I think. But you can’t just change the rotation o’ the earth just like that. That’d be stupid even for cheap fiction.”

“Yeah, but we had that hungry rose monster before, remember?” said Edgar. “That was pretty stupid. I mean, it didn’t even have any relevance to any other part o’ the story.”

“Yeah, but that’s crazy stupid,” said Autumn. “That’s the kind o’ inanity you’d expect from some 50-₧ horror novel you’d find @ an airport shop or Goosebumps. But changing the earth’s rotation to make it night earlier? That’s just stupid in a boring way. Why bother?”

“Gee, I never thought ’bout it that way,” Edgar said as he sucked on his sleeve in ponder.

“Anyway, let’s not worry ’bout it. It’s not as if the night itself is threatening; & ’sides, I brought my flashlight with me this time.”

She rummaged through her pocket & flipped out her purple handheld flashlight, clicking it on to reveal a tiny beam o’ dusty light in front o’ them. ‘Twas only with such vibrancy & such focus that they both—’specially Edgar—noticed the infestation o’ cobwebs & tearing on the wallpaper.

She opened the nearest door on her left & swung the flashlight round to reveal patches o’ the room that, when put together, did not seem all that much different from most o’ the other rooms.

When I 1st imagined searching for this treasure, I expected a challenge; but I didn’t expect it to be this dull, thought Autumn. Did she just fill this whole mansion with hundreds o’ identical rooms & concentrate the bulk o’ it in a tiny place?

But something caught her eye when the light briefly flicked past a certain spot near the ceiling. She immediately pointed the flashlight back @ the spot & strained her eyes gainst the blinding light to see in better detail. ’Pon deeper scrutiny she could see a line o’ darkness scaping from a slit ’tween 1 o’ the ceiling tiles, which was dipping downward on 1 side.

She slowly crept under the loose ceiling tile—all the while training her light beam on it so she could see it from many different angles—while Edgar followed.

“Edgar, could you lift me up so I can examine the ceiling better? I see a loose tile up there that looks suspicious.”

Edgar nodded & bent down on 1 knee while Autumn put 1 foot on his right shoulder & climbed onto his shoulders. As he slowly returned to his feet, holding her ankles to keep her steady, she saw that she still couldn’t quite reach the ceiling, so she lifted her right foot off Edgar’s left shoulder & onto his head, pushing herself up as high as she could on her tiptoes, holding her arms out to her sides in an attempt to improve her flimsy balance. Though this didn’t keep her from wobbling left & right, ‘twas slightly improved when Edgar raised his arms & held her still.

With this extra boost, she was barely able to reach the ceiling with her hands. She hooked her fingers round the edge o’ the tile that was loosened from the rest o’ the ceiling & made an effort to pull it down to widen the hole. Though it didn’t want to budge @ 1st, after a while she felt it begin to shift under her fingers.

& then, ’fore she knew it, the tile suddenly plopped down to the floor, generating a loud thump gainst the thick carpet. The impact caused Edgar to sway backward in shock, almost losing his hold o’ Autumn & causing her to fall off.

Well, that was easier than I expected, thought Autumn. I was worried I’d have to spend all night trying to pry this open ’nough for me to fit my head through while I steadily crushed Edgar under my weight.

She looked down @ Edgar & said, “Hey, Edgar, are you all right down there? I’m not breaking your back here, am I?”

“Uh, no… it’s fine,” Edgar said, even though he did feel as if his shoulder blades were going to cave in & his arms were going to fall off.

Autumn, who didn’t believe him 1 bit, thought, Maybe I should have had him stand on my shoulders, ’stead… but then would he have been able to pull the tile off?

I guess it’s too late to change now, anyway…

With her conscience temporarily mollified, Autumn aimed her flashlight up into the hole, tilting it & her head to see it from as many angles as possible from her limited location. She couldn’t see much, but she could discern from the sight o’ flat horizontal wood planks & vertical bricks that there was an extra room up there.

She could have easily concluded that ’twas simply an attic, & that such a room was hardly suspicious; but she knew well ’nough that this was far from the 2nd-to-highest floor. Why would there be an attic in the middle o’ the mansion? & ’sides, she figured an auxiliary room such as this would be a perfect place to hide treasure, regardless.

She looked down @ Edgar ’gain & said, “OK, Edgar, if you can, could you try to step forward a bit so I can reach the inside o’ the hole better?”

“Uh, OK,” Edgar said as he slowly clomped his feet forward, inch by inch as a golem, all the while trying to hold Autumn up from falling.

“OK, that’s good,” she said as she gripped 1 o’ the inside edges o’ the hole with the tips o’ her fingers. “Now I just need you to grab my feet & try lifting me up just a li’l so I can get a boost up in here, if that’s not too much trouble.” She looked down @ Edgar to see if his expression indicated any trouble he might have; but she could not see any sign o’ emotion @ all.

“Yeah, I can do that,” he said as he made an effort to lift Autumn’s feet up off his shoulders, which he thankfully found easier than he thought it’d be, due to the fact that Autumn was holding onto the ceiling for extra support.

With ’nough effort from both o’ them, she was able to get her elbows ’bove the ceiling, pulling herself up with her whole arms till her upper body was in the secret room, only her feet still dangling down in the other room.

This was when she noticed she could feel Edgar’s sleeve-covered hands round her ankles no longer. She looked down as Edgar looked up @ her & both saw that she was too high for him to reach her anymore.

Edgar scratched his head & asked, “Um… what now?”

Autumn cringed & felt her breathing tighten as she felt the pressure o’ her arms & stomach trying to keep her upper body up ’bove the hole while she flailed her legs round in a mad attempt to propel her upward.

Seeing that this had no advantage, she relaxed her legs & said with some strain in her voice, “Do you think you could go round the hall & look for a somewhat long object—like a broom, perhaps—that you could use to push me up farther?”

“But what if you fall?” asked Edgar.

“I’ll fall ’ventually, regardless, if we don’t hurry & find a way to get me up here all the way. The drop isn’t too far, anyway, so it’s not as if I’ll break my neck.”

Edgar rushed out the room & down the hall in the opposite direction whence they came, looking for the next door down. ‘Twas only while Edgar was already dashing through the hall that he realized a flaw in her plan: Autumn still had the flashlight, & the lamps hanging from the walls were much to dim for Edgar to see much.

He considered running back & asking Autumn for the flashlight when his eyes caught a dark figure moving toward him. He stopped & backed up gainst the wall—which, if Autumn was present, she’d have considered a bad idea, since it’d only bring him closer to the lamplight—& watched the figure draw near, till it came close ’nough to 1 o’ the lamps that it melted into view.

That was when Edgar’s chest began hyperventilating, as what he saw was ’nother—or maybe the same?—suit o’ armor. It turned its head to Edgar, its metal mask hiding any emotion or life within it.

Lacking the most strategic o’ minds, Edgar simply turned & flew back down the hall without seeing or hearing what was in front o’ him or feeling the heaviness o’ his breath & the aching o’ his feet & legs, his whole consciousness focused merely on the existence o’ the threat ’hind him while his body switched to automatic.

So much so that he didn’t see it when he bumped into someone else. As he hit the ground, Edgar covered his face & whimpered, resigning himself to whatever dastardly fate these monsters had planned for him.

However, he was soon soothed when he heard the familiar voice in front o’ him say, “Edgar, is that you?”

Edgar uncovered his eyes to see that ‘twas Dawn, who was putting some sort o’ big stick ’hind her as she was rising from her own fall & staring @ Edgar.

A thousand1 thoughts rushed through Edgar’s head—getting ’way from the haunted armor, what Dawn was doing there, & how to find something to keep Autumn from falling—when his mind pinpointed on 1 idea.

He stood & said with urgency, “Um… can you follow me, please?”

“Uh, OK…”

She followed him to a door that was ajar. As she followed him through the doorway, he said, “Autumn needs some help getting up somewhere.”

Dawn stopped in the center o’ the room & looked up to see what she recognized as Autumn’s feet dangling from a hole in the ceiling.

“I was thinking maybe you could stand on my shoulders & with the extra height you could help push Autumn up,” said Edgar.

Autumn glanced down & could see through the space ’tween her & the edge o’ the hole that Edgar was below her, looking up @ her.

“Edgar, is that you? Who are you talking to?”

Dawn crossed her arms & said, “Well, well, well, if it isn’t Li’l Madame Cheater getting herself stuck in the ceiling like always, & expecting the competition to help her so she can steal all o’ the treasure she found for herself.”

Autumn exhaled a heavy sigh o’ petulance. “Edgar, I was hoping you could find me an inanimate object to help me.”

“Well, gee, if you’re going to be that way, maybe I won’t help you after all,” Dawn said, crossing her arms with a mild smirk, though turning to look ’way.

“Excellent,” Autumn said with heavy breaths. “Now, Edgar, could you go find something to help me up, please?”

“But that evil suit o’ armor is out there.”

“Armor?” Dawn asked, turning her attention back to Edgar. “You saw haunted armor, too? Did it try to capture you, too?”

“Uh, I dunno…” said Edgar. His expression grew mo’ anxious. “Did he try to capture you?”

Dawn nodded.

This caught Autumn’s curiosity. She couldn’t help sensing that ever since they ran into that 1 possessed suit o’ armor, ‘twas following her—whether ‘twas the sight o’ ajar doors when they’d returned to hallways from other rooms or what she swore sounded like clanking metal always far ’hind.

However, Autumn had mo’ important issues to deal with now: how was she going to get up there with Edgar too pale to leave the room ’gain?

Suddenly, she heard a door close below.

“Edgar?” said Autumn.

“That knight’s coming right for our door,” Dawn said in whispered gasps. She was sitting back gainst the door with Edgar, both holding their knees & shivering.

“Poker. We don’t have time for this,” whispered Autumn. “Edgar, quickly rummage through the—”

Dawn rose to her feet. “We all need to get up there, so why don’t I just boost Edgar & you up & you can pull me up after?”

Autumn hesitated, but then finally mumbled, “Whatever.”

So Dawn bent down to let Edgar climb her shoulders & then lifted him up so he could push Autumn up. With this much greater boost, Autumn’s knees were easily able to reach o’er the top o’ the hole, & she easily climbed in.

Then she needed only to lie on her stomach—to the side, so that the bulk o’ her weight was lodged gainst the side o’ the attic area, making it harder to fall back out the hole—& reach down to pick Edgar up & pull him in.

That was when the complication revealed itself: how would she pull the ditz inside? ’Course, she considered just leaving the sucker down there to rot—but she decided to a’least take the effort to think o’ a way to help her. What li’l humor Autumn would derive from screwing o’er Dawn would only risk creating bitterness that she knew could bite her in the shins later. It’d be better to keep their relations a’least neutral—never knew when it could come convenient. Plus, she remembered that she was a friend o’ Edgar’s.

“Now, you’re not going to bail on me, are you?”

When Autumn glanced down @ the noise, she saw that Dawn’s expression was not angry, but distraught, like a puppy left out in the rain all night. Autumn had to admit it made her feel a li’l crummy.

“Autumn, I hear footsteps ’hind me,” Dawn whispered up to them, eyelines digging deeper in fear.

“Shit.” Autumn lay on her back & scooted o’er to the hole. “Edgar, hold my legs & hold me down o’er the side. She’ll have to use me as a rope.”

“Uh… Are you sur—?”

“Yes. No time for questions,” snapped Autumn.

Edgar put his sleeved hands round her ankles, & with soft grunts, lifted them up as he slowly moved her forward, & down into the hole, causing her costume to fall to the floor.

Flashbacks entered Autumn’s vision as she remembered Edgar’s failed attempt to hold her up by her feet back @ Tangerine Tombs long ago—a rather confusing memory, Autumn thought, since it seemed as if she & Edgar ended up dying in the end, somehow.

Dawn stared up & watched as Autumn was lowered upside-down, dreading the obvious conclusion. Climbing on someone else’s shoulders was 1 thing, but climbing all o’er someone as if she were a human rope seemed too awkward, even for Dawn.

But the strengthening footsteps outside the door reminded Dawn that there was no time for hesitation. So, with a short hop to gain the li’l extra height needed, she grabbed Autumn’s hands & began to climb up to Autumn’s arm sockets, & then up to the bottom o’ Autumn’s drooping jacket. Autumn, meanwhile, gazed straight forward with worn eyes, trying to distract her mind from the indignity o’ what she was going through—’specially when Dawn put her foot on Autumn’s chin, pushing her head back so much it felt as if her neck were going to snap.

“Uh, sorry,” Dawn said with a guilty glance down @ Autumn’s face. “I don’t know where else I can find a foothold.”

“S’all right. Just hurry,” Autumn replied, trying to hold back steep sighs like steam.

Meanwhile ’bove, Edgar’s mind began to realize a flaw that Autumn had not considered in her plan, which he soon realized with the assistance o’ his arms: Autumn, in putting their plan in the risk o’ Edgar being able to hold Autumn long ’nough, forgot to factor in Dawn’s weight. While Edgar doubted he could keep Autumn up for long, he knew he couldn’t keep both o’ their weights up for long. Already his arms felt like they were ’bout to fall off & he felt his body gradually shift forward gainst his will.

This also caused Autumn & Dawn to gradually droop lower, which Autumn began to notice. She looked up & said, “Edgar, how you holding up there?” with the kind o’ inflection that indicated she did not expect the answer to be positive.

But Edgar only responded with a curt, “OK.”

That was when Autumn & Dawn suddenly heard the sound of a turning doorknob. Dawn turned her head back to look @ it, while Autumn rolled her eyes down to do the same. Each could see that she was not imagining things: they could see the knob slowly turning counterclockwise.

By this point, Dawn had reached as high as she could atop Mount Springer; however, Edgar had slid down so low that her arms were still a’least a foot ’way from reaching the top o’ the hole.

Autumn, trying to ignore Dawn’s assaults all o’er her person, said, “Edgar, do you think you could maybe try pulling us both up?” with her voice rising, since she knew this was far mo’ hypothetical than likely.

& almost as if to unconsciously laugh @ Autumn’s request, Edgar’s upper body finally slid out the hole, causing him to tip vertically & fall, dropping Autumn & Dawn with him.

Just as they landed, they heard the door creak open. They only gaped in powerless anticipation as they awaited what the suit had in shop for them, only to sigh in relief when they saw ‘twas only Madame Heureuse—albeit 1 who looked much mo’ haggard & distant round the eyes, & whose slouch appeared much less powerful than her usual straight stance.

Heureuse stared down @ the new mess on the floor & said with a weaker voice than usual, “Well, I see you three are using team work.”

Dawn was the 1st to jump back onto her feet. “We were wondering where you were all day.”

“Sorry,” Heureuse said, & then coughed. “I didn’t feel well this morning. I just woke up a little bit ago, and… Well, I found something you probably don’t want to see, but probably should.”

“What?” asked Dawn.

Madame Heureuse hesitated with a deep sigh ’fore saying, “You had better come with me and see.”

“Uh, OK.” Dawn turned to Edgar, whom she quickly saw was just fine, & then Autumn, who was still holding her neck & still sitting on the floor. “Uh, are you all right, Autumn?”

“No, I’m fine. You only almost broke my neck, so I should be just fine.”

Dawn shrugged. “’Twas your idea.”

“No, my idea was to leave you down there.”

With Dawn’s mood properly squashed down to meet Autumn’s, Autumn put her costume back on & they followed Madame Heureuse out & down to the 2nd floor till she stopped @ 1 o’ its doors. After opening it & stepping inside, she stepped ’way to the side to allow the others to come in & see. Autumn was in front, & thus the 1st to enter.

That was when she saw what Heureuse was so distraught ’bout: there were 2 men hung by their necks on ropes protruding from the ceiling, dangling a foot ’bove the floor. Their eyes were bulging blank & their bodies were so limp, that they looked like ragdolls; their skin was so white they already looked like ghosts. Autumn’s eyes & mouth twisted as she looked @ them & she felt as if a large worm was squirming round in her stomach.

She turned to Heureuse with disgust. “Why are you showing us this? & how did this happen?”

Dawn & Edgar stepped in from ’hind her, & their reactions were worse. Both immediately left the room without a word. Autumn & Heureuse followed, Heureuse closing the door ’hind them.

“S-so I guess that’s what happened to them…” Dawn said, her skin becoming paler with sickness.

“Who the hell are they?” said Autumn, her own expression still wary.

“They’re those 2 guys who arrived with me, Felix, & that Chamsby guy,” said Dawn.

Autumn shook her head as she said, “What other guys? I don’t remember these 2 @ all.” She turned to Heureuse & said, “Well, how did this happen & why are you showing us it?”

“I know not how this happened, though I know plenty of ways it might have happened,” said Heureuse. “I wanted to show you this as a warning that I feel morally obligated to give you. I’m sorry to traumatize you all, and I hate to ruin what I hoped would be a fun little contest. This type of thing hasn’t happened in decades, and I thought it would have gone much better than this, but it seems now that all of the occult creatures that haunt this place had only held themselves dormant until a special surprise like you all showed up.”

Autumn blinked @ Heureuse, not entirely sure if she understood everything. “So, what, are you saying these creatures are going to do this to us next?”

“No,” said Heureuse. “I will personally make sure that will not happen. I shall accompany and protect you on your way out our yard, and then they will not be able to touch you once you are away from this property.”

“On our way out…?” muttered Autumn.

Heureuse turned to the others. “Do any of you need to retrieve anything?”

Then it finally hit Autumn.

“Wait… Are you saying we’re s’posed to leave?” asked Autumn.

Heureuse slowly turned round, giving Autumn a horrified gaze. “Of course that is what I’m saying. You are not… you were not planning on staying, were you?”

“Actually…” Autumn said as she rummaged through her coat pockets to pull out Heureuse’s pamphlet, which she flopped in front o’ her face so she could see it. “I believe it says here—I believe you promise in this pamphlet o’ yours that we have 3 days to find the treasure. Now, ’less you’re a weasel o’ the highest degree, we should still have 2 mo’ days left. You’re not trying to scam us with false advertising, are you?”

“But… but you can’t stay here…” Heureuse said with a shaky, gravelly voice. “I mean, sure, you can stay here if you choose, but… why would you? Don’t you see how dangerous it is? It is not worth it.”

“I see you’re trying to trick us into forfeiture as you did with the refusal to answer the door,” Autumn said with her arms crossed. “I would thank you not to insult my intelligence, Madame Heureuse, for I’m too wise to fall for such an elementary trick.”

Heureuse shook her head slowly. “This is no trick, Madame Springer. Look closer at those… those young men hanging from the ceiling. I would not do that for mere jest in a silly contest.”

“Hmm…” Autumn put her hand o’er her mouth & stared down @ the ground to ponder. She does have a point there; & while I’d like to believe all o’ these occult activities are mere chicanery, I cannot conjure up any explanation for how she was able to make artificial ghosts that could drain one’s heat…

She looked back @ Heureuse & said, “What kind o’ treasure did you hide here, anyway? Why would the ghosts be so intent on attacking us here?”

“I… I don’t know,” Heureuse said with her eyes pointed down in concern. “As for the treasure, well, it’s nothing worth losing one’s life o’er…”

“I’ll decide that for myself,” said Autumn. “How much we speaking?”

“What?”

“Could you give me a range o’ where this treasure falls? Are we talking hundred-thousands o’ ₧? Millions? Billions?” Autumn said, wringing her wrists in circles.

“You… you cannot truly be considering risking your life for mere wealth,” said Heureuse. She glanced @ Edgar & Dawn.

Edgar said, “Uh… I don’t think you know Autumn very well; she’s spent her whole life doing dangerous stuff for money.”

Dawn nervously raised her hand. Heureuse saw it & turned her head to Dawn.

“Uh, yeah… Not to interrupt, or anything, but have you seen Felix anywhere? I lost her a while ago, & now that you’re talking ’bout all o’ these dangerous activities going on, I don’t want to leave her by herself for too long. You know how she is: if a monster tries to hang her, she’ll probably help him construct the rope herself while telling herself out loud how ‘twas ‘bout time she finally got what she deserved.”

Heureuse’s brows twisted. “What are you talking about? Who’s Felix?”

“Remember, the 1 in the cat costume? The 1 who hates herself so much?”

Heureuse’s eyes widened as she glanced to Dawn’s left & saw that the cat-costumed woman was nowhere to be seen. She clutched her chest & said, “Oh no… Look, we won’t have time to go looking for her now. I’ll quickly escort you three out and then I’ll immediately look for the feline, okay?”

Autumn’s eyebrows lowered. “What part o’ ‘I’m not leaving without me gold’ do you not comprehend?”

“Look, I don’t have time to argue,” Heureuse said as she threw her arms into the air.

“Good, then let’s not argue. I’m staying till our agreed time’s up, & that’s final.”

Madame Heureuse turned pleading eyes to Edgar.

“I can’t leave without Autumn,” Edgar said with an apologetic slump o’ his shoulders. “We’re partners.”

Heureuse looked @ Dawn next, who straightened up with her head tilted up, finding herself with renewed bravery after hearing cowardly Edgar’s statement.

“& I can’t leave without my partner,” said Dawn.

“So, none of you are leaving?” Heureuse said with a hand slowly rubbing down the side o’ her face, causing its skin to pull down a li’l, making its eye look even mo’ tired.

All 3 nodded.

Heureuse gave a heavy sigh as she turned for the door. “At least follow me into the main room and let me get us all food and drinks. You must be famished after going all day without.”

Both Autumn & Dawn’s stomachs growled & their mouths felt twice as dry after they heard this. But while Dawn rubbed her stomach & was ’bout to agree, Autumn replied, “That’s OK; we don’t need anything.”

Dawn & Madame Heureuse both turned to look @ Autumn with bewilderment—Edgar did, too, but less with bewilderment, & mo’ with curiosity.

“What’s wrong now?” said Dawn.

“Oh, but surely you must be thirsty at least,” said Heureuse. “Now you’re just trying to be difficult.”

Autumn looked straight into Madame Heureuse’s eyes & said, “I once ’gain ask you not to insult my intelligence. I think it’s quite clear to anyone who is paying attention what your angle is: you hope to drug us to sleep so you can sneak us out without any struggle & deprive us o’ the treasure.”

Dawn glanced @ Autumn mo’ with skepticism than horror. She nudged Edgar on the arm & whispered, “Hey bro, I think your girlfriend might be a li’l paranoid.”

Edgar merely shrugged. He generally preferred not to have to make such complicated choices as these. After all, she could be correct; what she said was certainly possible.

“Surely you don’t think I would do something so ridiculous, do you?” Heureuse asked, voice becoming breathless with exasperation.

“I think I just indicated that I do & that there is nothing you can say to make me believe otherwise,” said Autumn. “Or else, let us go to the bathroom & let us drink from the tap. Surely, if you have no plans for harm, you would be fine with this.”

“Uh… of course not,” Heureuse said, expression still baffled. “But what about food?”

“Show us to your kitchen & we can prepare it ourselves. You can even watch & tell us what food we can’t use if you’re saving some o’ it.”

Madame Heureuse didn’t say anything. Finally, she turned to the other 2 & said, “I’m not sure if any of you want any food or drink…”

Edgar piped up, “Uh, I don’t eat or drink anything anyway…”

Heureuse’s gave Edgar a stern look. “You do not have to lie to protect my feelings. I’ll understand if you wish to go with your friend.”

“Uh… no, truly, I don’t,” Edgar said, ducking his head a bit. “See, ‘cause I’m a skeleton & all it just goes right through me, anyway.”

“Forgive me if I am not in the mood for jokes,” Heureuse said, which caused Edgar to look @ Autumn guiltily.

Dawn raised her hand & said, “Uh, Edgar’s being truthful. As the 1 who used to run the restaurant he oft frequented, I can confirm that he never eats or drinks anything.”

“I see…” Madame Heureuse said, though she didn’t appear to believe any o’ them. “And I take it you don’t want anything, either?” She was looking @ Dawn when she said this.

“Uh… Not now a’least.” Now Dawn wasn’t sure if she wanted to trust Madame Heureuse, either. She did find her alibi for being gone so long rather sharky. ’Sides, she had ’nother reason why she didn’t want to go ’way from Autumn & Edgar…

Madame Heureuse turned to look Autumn sternly in the eye & said, “I suppose you have won both times here; and yet I am afraid what you have truly done was lose dearly.”

She waited to see how this registered with Autumn & was unsurprised when she saw that it hadn’t registered @ all: Autumn merely stared right back @ her.

With that, Madame Heureuse turned for the door ’gain, but was interrupted by Autumn, which Heureuse expected to be a change o’ brain:

“I will say, though, that if you do want to assist us, you could tell us what kind o’ monsters lurk round here, so we can be prepared—that is, if you are concerned ’bout our safety.”

Heureuse turned back to them & said with still-heavy voice, “Well, there are many occult creatures that lurk around here. It would take forever to name them all.”

“Well, let’s narrow it down: I know I’ve already seen a glowing set o’ floating eyes & lips, the ’kappa-obake,’ a rose monster that seems to be able to talk & ask for water, & possessed suits o’ armor. Do you know anything mo’ ’bout these?”

Heureuse paused, unable to keep herself from shooting Autumn an incredulous look. “Repeat that last one ’gain.”

“The possessed suit o’ armor? Edgar & I ran into it this morn. He just walked down the stairs talking to some invisible ‘boss,’ & then fled when he glimpsed us. Edgar says he saw him not long ago, too.”

“Felix & I saw him too,” said Dawn. “But he didn’t run from us: he flat-out tried to capture us for his li’l ‘boss’—some creature ’hind this locked door we ran into. His attempt to capture us was actually how we were separated.”

“Ah, yes,” said Heureuse—though in the back o’ her head she was thinking, Either they’re all lying to me or one of them is lying to trip the others up. I am almost certain it would be Madame Springer that would be doing the latter.

“So, can you tell us anything ’bout them so we can better defend ourselves?” asked Dawn.

“All I can say is that they work in ways impossible to predict so that even I am often surprised and that there is no way you can defend yourselves, regardless, save for escaping.”

& with that Madame Heureuse turned & left, leaving Autumn, Edgar, & Dawn to fend for themselves.

IX. Overburdened

Agent Purple Mountain’s Majesty was not having a good morn. He knew he shouldn’t have volunteered to take the 2nd & 3rd floors. Well, no he didn’t—he didn’t think there was anything significant ’bout those floors @ all when he 1st chose them; & now that he thought ’bout it, he was pretty certain he didn’t even pick these floors to begin with, but was assigned them by Sir Chamsby not long after leaving their meeting.

@ the least very, he knew now that his being assigned to floors 3 & 2 were bad news for him, even if the news didn’t come to him till ‘twas too late to do nothing, since he couldn’t have prevented his being assigned to these floors, anyway.

1st, every room appeared empty, which caused Lance to get angry @ him for being assigned to hallways with empty rooms. The only room that seemed to interest Sir Chamsby was 1 that had a lime green backpack, which Sir Chamsby instructed him to search through. All they could find were bags o’ trail mix, water bottles, a notebook, a phial o’ some red liquid—he guessed ‘twas perfume o’ some sort—& a farrago o’ tools.

All he remembered was hearing Sir Chamsby say, “These must be that looter’s secret tools. Well, we’ll see how bold she is without her wheelchairs!” & then instructed him to take the whole pack & deliver it to the hideout. What Sir Chamsby planned to do with it was blocked from Purple Majesty’s mind.

& then there was the room with that terrible rose monster that squeaked & squealed & sounded as if ‘twere asking for water—or was he only imagining things? When he 1st opened the door & saw it, he reflexively started to back out, only to be stilled by Sir Chamsby’s orders.

“Stop! Where d’you think you’re going?” Purple could hear Sir Chamsby’s crackling voice say. “This is 1 o’ the 1st rooms with something different to see & you want to glide off like some kind o’ union worker?”

“But, Sir, the thing that makes that room different is that it has a dangerous plant monster inside! What if it eats me?”

“Don’t worry: if it does, then you can easily be replaced,” said Sir Chamsby.

“Well… what am I s’posed to do in there, then?”

“Look round it for any clues or something—I dunno!” Sir Chamsby’s voice was rising in indignation. “Obviously this thing is guarding some treasure; why else would it be there?”

“I-I’m not sure how it could be there al all, Sir. & furthermo’, even if it is guarding any treasure, how would I ever get past it?”

“Don’t you have any skills in anything?” said Sir Chamsby.

“Fighting venomous rose monsters was not on my résumé, Sir,” said Agent Purple Mountain’s Majesty. “I think that was Agent Red’s that did.”

Sir Chamsby grumbled. “Well, you could a’least go in there & see what it does. Maybe it won’t expect you to fight it; maybe it’ll give you a riddle or something to solve.”

Agent Purple Mountain’s Majesty was doubtful. Usually riddlers were crafty old men or cutesy animals, not semisentient vegetables dripping with blood & saliva. After all, why go through all o’ the trouble o’ getting such a scary monster & then just have it waste its skills talking to people?

But he wasn’t ’bout to argue with Sir Chamsby & risk losing the only job he could find that offered a free health plan2; so he slowly cracked the door open & slid in, keeping his eyes trained on the rose monster that seemed to be eyeing him as well—which he thought was impressive, considering it didn’t actually have any eyes.

He looked @ it with the pleading, guilty look one would give when one wants to tell one’s grandparents one needs to put them in a retirement home, but doesn’t know the polite way to introduce the subject.

“Uh… hey, Sir Plant. I don’t know your name, so if you can talk, please tell me. I don’t mean to be rude.” He fumbled his fingers. “Uh, so I was wondering if you might give me a riddle I could solve to get whatever treasure you’re guarding? Please?”

The rose monster squeak-growled ’gain & seemed to say once mo’, “Water…”

“I just discovered the riddle!” shouted Sir Chamsby, which made Agent Purple Mountain’s Majesty almost jump straight up through the roof, it surprised him so much.

“Wh-what?” he asked as he clutched his heart.

“It’s obvious what you need to do to get past this plant: you’ll need to go & find a gardener hidden somewhere else in this mansion & bring him here. It’s a fetch quest.”

Agent Purple Mountain’s Majesty stood & blinked for a while ’fore saying, “O… O yeah, definitely. That’s brilliant, Sir,” while thinking afterward, Whatever gets me out o’ this place!

Luckily for him, the 3rd floor was a return to bland sameness in all rooms, which he had now learned to cherish. The only detail he could possibly think might be important was some loose ceiling tile, which he thought might have been hiding something.

However, when he asked his boss, Sir Chamsby berated him: “Don’t be stupid. This whole mansion is falling apart; if we check every li’l imperfection, we’ll never get anything done.”

When he finished through the 3rd floor, he was sure he was on Safe Street. Now all he had to do was wander back through the 2 floors to check for any changes that might’ve happened. He didn’t really think much o’ it till he was walking downstairs to the 2nd floor & he saw that the 2nd floor had, indeed, changed: now it had someone under a tartan sheet ’longside—worse!—a skeleton covered in a black robe.

Are these costumes or are these things real?

His eyes matched awkwardly with the ghost (?) while he could see the skeleton slink ’hind it.

Was he preparing a spell? Does he know magic?

Finally Agent Purple Mountain’s Majesty felt himself regain his voice & said, “Uh… Boss, I think someone caught me. What should I do?”

“Huh? Wha—Ah! It’s that vile looter come to foil my plans!”

“Well, what should I do with her?”

“Nothing! Get ’way from her immediately! You don’t want to be ensnared in 1 o’ her death traps!”

“Uh, OK.”

He didn’t need to be urged to turn & climb back up to the 3rd floor, flinging himself into the 1st door he could find, which, thankfully, led to a generic room.

“What should I do now, Sir?” asked he.

“Open the door a crack, peek through, & wait for the vile looter to follow up, & then watch her & follow her. Your new job is to keep an eye on this villain.”

I’m going to have to follow the ghost & skeleton? O, why did I ever decide to major in Minionology in college? I knew I should’ve went with Forestry ’stead.

But he did as Sir Chamsby said, without a spoken word o’ protest. When the “vile looter” didn’t appear to come by, he said, “She doesn’t seem to be coming, Sir.”

“Keep waiting. She’ll have to come through here ’ventually.”

Purple wasn’t sure that was so certain, but he wasn’t going to complain. As far as he was concerned, boredom was the best he could hope for in this job.

This was sadly ruined by that stupid ghost woman actually showing up a mere 5 minutes later—1st as scary footsteps from his left, & then in the scarier form o’ their actual appearance, since it now meant he had to actually do something that he could potentially fail at, which was always stressful.

& to add to this stress, as he watched them stand by the stairs & turn their heads he realized a flaw in Sir Chamsby’s plan: what if she checked the room he was in?

& much to his horror, that was exactly where they seemed to be headed 1st. He watched helplessly as he saw the ghost woman near, till her stomach was right in front o’ his peeking eye & he could smell her stench o’ hemp, maple syrup, & sweat.

Suddenly, he heard Sir Chamsby’s voice yell, “What the hell d’you think you’re doing? Go hide somewhere?”

He wanted to ask, “Where?” but didn’t dare speak, & didn’t have any time to bother, anyway, since she was already turning the doorknob; so ’stead, he hid in the best place he could imagine: he stood up & backed gainst the wall just to the side o’ the door, using the now-opened door to block him from their sight.

The ghost woman glanced left & right & muttered, “I s’pose this hallway will be filled with the same rooms, too,” ’fore leaving.

Agent Purple Mountain’s Majesty stood there for the next few minutes, staring @ the spot the ghost woman had been standing in before, ’fraid to move for fear that she’d return. That is, till he heard Sir Chamsby yell, “What are you doing just standing round? Go follow her & see what she’s doing!”

He didn’t think this sounded like a good idea. But then, he figured he didn’t truly have a choice, anyway.

He followed them through the 3rd & 4th floors @ a great distance, worried that if he got too close, 1 o’ them would be able to sense him. ‘Twas bad ’nough he had to wear this loud, heavy armor, which squeaked & clanked every step he took.

He’d carefully open & enter doors as he went ’long, to provide him with hiding places—which he later found was necessary when he saw the ghost woman turn back, forcing him to quickly pull back into his room & pull the door closed with him—but not all the way, so as not to make a loud clicking noise. He only considered himself lucky that 1 o’ the randomly chosen doors to hide ’hind didn’t end up to be the 1 with the rose monster.

While this plan kept him from being caught, it also oft caused him to fall far ’hind, which thereby caused Sir Chamsby to yell some mo’.

This was exacerbated by the day quickly turning to night—a li’l too quickly, Purple felt—which made it almost impossible for him to see his way round. On 1 edge, it did mean that he didn’t need to bother trying to hide, since the other 2 would doubtlessly never see him; on the other, it also meant he had to stumble round using his hands as guides, which he feared would be noisy ’nough to catch their attention. This began with him smacking right into the hand rail o’ the stairs ’tween the 3rd & 4th floors.

Luckily, from the clatter he heard far ’head o’ him, he doubted they were close ’nough to acknowledge his presence—which only meant that he was failing @ his job, anyway.

I just can’t win in this job, he wailed in his head.

& just to pour lava into his wounds, as he was walking down the 4th floor hall, just as he was thinking he was safe, a flicker o’ white caught his eye to his left, & when he turned his head, he saw the skeleton standing there, staring right @ him.

Excrement, he’s seen me! It’s too late to hide now!

He was thankful when he saw that, rather than casting a spell on him & turning him into a beer mascot, the skeleton turned & scurried ’way.

He was surprised he didn’t hear Sir Chamsby yell @ him through his communicator. Must not have been watching the screen when the skeleton was there, thought he. Still, he decided it’d be better to try following the skeleton; with the noises he heard before, he estimated they were probably finding treasure right now.

He soon found the room from which the noise originated, which was distinguishable by the light leaking from under its door. But when he put his ear to the door, he couldn’t hear much o’ anything; & when he ducked down on the ground & peeked through the slit under the door, he couldn’t see anything inside.

“Agent Purple Mountain’s Majesty, did you find them?” he suddenly heard Sir Chamsby say. Though he felt that Sir Chamsby’s outbursts always came @ the most unexpected times, it had been happening so much now that it didn’t faze him as much anymo’.

He made a thumbs-up sign in front o’ his face as a soundless affirmative to Sir Chamsby’s monitor.

“What’s she doing in there?”

Unable to conceive o’ a nonverbal way to answer, he moved a li’l ways from the door & whispered as quietly as he could, “No idea.”

“Well, find out.”

Purple gave Chamsby ’nother thumbs-up & then slunk ’way into the dark when he heard quickening footsteps emerge. He looked out from his hiding place to see the skeleton, followed by some woman in a spooky lab jacket, go into the room he was checking, saying, “Autumn needs some help getting up somewhere,” to the other woman as he went in.

When the door closed ’hind them, Purple tiptoed closer to the door so he could hear what they were doing in there.

“…ter getting herself stuck in the ceiling like always, & expecting the competition to help her so she can steal all o’ the treasure she found for herself,” he heard 1 o’ the voices say.

“Did I just hear her say she found some treasure?” Sir Chamsby said, & then paused ’gain till he heard her finish. When he heard nothing else important being said, he continued, “Agent Purple Mountain’s Majesty, stay there & make sure they don’t ’scape. All others, immediately go to where Agent Purple is on floor 4. You 3 will have to ambush them as they come out & take whatever treasure they find.”

Purple didn’t relish the idea o’ having to attack them, even if he had backup. He knew he couldn’t voice any protests right now without being heard, however, so he simply stood & continued to listen in on the 3 inside, which worryingly included a mention o’ him. Do they know I’m here? What are they planning to do to me?

His worrying was interrupted when he heard mo’ important information: the 2 women seemed to be competing for the treasure, even though the ghost woman was not certain there was truly treasure “up there.” All o’ this pleased Purple, as they both made the possibility o’ him having to do something gainst them less likely.

While he listened in on them, he’d oft glance round the hallway, impatient for the others to show up.

If I do have to fight them, I’d better not have to do it ’lone.

So ‘twas with relief that he heard footsteps arrive from the other direction. However, when they neared, & thus sounded clearer, he noticed they oddly didn’t sound like the clanking his suit made.

Maybe it’s not 1 o’ the other agents…

He decided, just to be safe, to go back & hide in the darkness ’tween 2 lamps. As he watched the dark figure emerge from the darkness before the door, he witnessed his fears confirmed: ‘twas some tall woman in a red cloak with brown hair in a bun.

Sir Chamsby blurted, “That’s Madame Heureuse; don’t let her see you.”

Purple had already made that decision, anyway.

He watched Madame Heureuse enter the door; but ’cause she left it open, he didn’t dare come closer. He was still close ’nough to be able to hear them, anyway—though he wasn’t sure if Sir Chamsby could.

This turned out to be a good idea, as he soon saw them exit the door & walk down the hall in the other direction. When he saw that they were far ’nough ’way to be unable to hear him, he whispered, “What should I do, Sir? Should I follow them or stay ’hind & guard the treasure?”

“Follow them. No one else will find this treasure; you’ll be able to get it later. They’re probably planning something important. Now hurry! Agents Screamin’ Green & Red, are you still headed for floor 3?” Sir Chamsby paused, probably to hear the other 2 respond, which Purple couldn’t hear. “Good. Stay there & look for the room—it should be the only 1 with the lights on. Search it, & if you find the treasure, send it to my headquarters immediately.”

Purple tiptoed as fast as he could without making noise—which wasn’t fast @ all. By the time he reached them, he knew he had missed something important. All he knew was that something dangerous was going to happen—so much so that Madame Heureuse was asking them to leave. This only worried him mo’; he was sure that whatever danger staying in this mansion may hold, Sir Chamsby would not let him go home, regardless.

But he was specially frightened when they mentioned him.

O crap, we’ve been spotted! Madame Heureuse’s going to know we’re not a normal part o’ her ghouls—how else would she have never seen us for all those years till now?

& then ’fore he knew it, he heard her footsteps & turned to see her walking ’way from the door in his direction. He stood as still as he could, though his shot nerves made this difficult.

& anyway, it failed: as she passed him, she glanced rightward @ him—the kind o’ suspicious glance that showed she knew some silly industry was in production. However, she did no mo’, & merely passed.

But just when he thought he could relax, he heard the door creak, heard 1 o’ them say, “Follow me: I know a better place for us to talk,” & saw that the other 3 were leaving, in the same direction Madame Heureuse went. They, however, did not seem to notice him @ all.

As he watched them disappear round the hallway’s turn, he sighed & thought, Well, I guess I’d better follow them.

Agent Purple Mountain’s Majesty was not having a good night.

X. Guarded

Within the drawn-out silence that swarmed the hall after Heureuse had exited, Dawn stared down @ the floor, distraught.

“I can’t believe these 2 were actually murdered in this place,” said she. “What reason could these creatures have for doing it? Are they protective o’ this place? O’ Madame Heureuse? Why else would they let her live here so long without harming her?”

“Yeah, it’s peculiar…” Autumn said, glancing in every direction, feeling awkward. She wasn’t sure how to feel ’bout 2 gruesomely murdered guys she didn’t even know. She felt she should probably feel sad, but it seemed so out o’ nowhere that she couldn’t muster it.

“Follow me,” she said as she walked down the hall. “I know a better place for us to talk.”

They followed her out & down the hall to ’nother room on the other side o’ the hall, round the corner. ‘Twas a room she & Edgar had found before: a study whose walls were lined with wooden bookcases full o’ dusty books, a lamp that she had forgot to turn off when she checked it before, & mo’ importantly, a couple arm chairs for them to sit on.

Autumn jumped backward on the leftmost 1, sitting sideways with her back gainst the left arm & her legs splayed o’er the right arm, so she could face the door.

Without taking her eyes off the door to look @ the others, she said, “I think it’s quite clear that Madame Heureuse lied ’bout the occult creatures in this mansion being unpredictable & merely said that to avoid helping us. If they were truly unpredictable, she shouldn’t be certain that she can hold off their powers any time, as she indicated earlier. ’Less she was lying ’bout that.”

“But why?” asked Dawn. “Does she think it’ll diminish our resolve to stay here if we have no help? It seems kind o’ hypocritical to act so concerned ’bout our health when it comes to having us leave, but then not help us when we decide to stay.”

“She doesn’t care if we die; she cares if we take her treasure,” said Autumn. She held up a hand to stop Dawn from speaking, since she knew what she’d say. “Yes, I know we saw creatures that she obviously couldn’t fake, & no, I don’t think she killed those 2 herself or faked their deaths just to get us out; but why can’t it be both? Perhaps this mansion is dangerous outside her control, but she still uses that lucky opportunity as a ’scuse to throw us out?”

“Why would she invite us here in the 1st place if she didn’t want us to get her treasure? Why even have the contest?” asked Dawn.

Autumn admitted ‘twas a good question; but she just couldn’t accept the argument that Madame Heureuse legitimately wanted to give all o’ these valuables ’way to them, regardless o’ whether ‘twas by contest or not. Not her. But then, why did she want them here? What did she gain?

“Why invite us here if she knows the place is dangerous?” asked Autumn. “Even if the spike in danger seems surprising to her—though if that is so, I ask ’gain how she could know that she is still safe ’mong the monsters—she still shouldn’t invite strangers here for contests, regardless, ’less she’s callous.”

“Maybe she hoped we’d just get a good scare,” said Dawn.

“& yet, now they are so unpredictable that this is not the case—in fact, so unpredictable that she cannot even give us the broadest o’ hints on how to deal with said monsters,” said Autumn. “The only consistency I can find in this whole mess is that Madame Heureuse is untrustworthy no matter how you chop it.”

Actually, there was 1 hypothesis she had that would be consistent with everything she knew; but it felt too farfetched—or, perhaps, too obvious in this circumstance—for her to have much confidence in it. Not yet, a’least.

“She did seem legitimately surprised when we mentioned the possessed armor, though,” said Dawn.

“Yes. She apparently needed repeating for that concept—something hardly surprising compared to ghost coats sucking warmth out from under one’s skin—but not the rose monster or glowing eyes & lips. It does seem to show that she truly cannot predict all o’ the creatures here; but then, if this surprised her so much compared to everything else, maybe she could before. Maybe this was simply what made her think otherwise. If that’s the case, then she should definitely be able to give us hints to most o’ the creatures here. I know she’s smart ’nough to realize that.”

Dawn stood up from her chair & said, “Anyway, I think we’d better go look for Felix before something happens to her.”

“We?”

Dawn’s shoulders slumped & her face became haggard. “I take that to mean you refuse to help me.”

“Not necessarily…”

“Lemme guess: you want me to agree to give up any treasure I find to you.”

Autumn held her hands together in an open triangular shape, her 3 middle fingers twiddling gainst each other as if powering Autumn’s thoughts.

“That would only be useful if you ever found any treasure.”

“What if I helped you up to that attic area ’gain?” said Dawn.

“If the cat agrees to give me any treasure she finds—which I doubt she will, but I like to hedge my bets as much as possible—then it’s a done deal. Shouldn’t be too hard, since her doormat mentality makes her liable to desire giving ’way any treasure she finds, anyway.”

“Fine, but we need to hurry ’fore something happens to her,” Dawn said, frown clearly revealing her displeasure @ this agreement.

“Whom do you fear most, the external or inner demons?”

“Internal.”

“Yes, I find those the most dangerous, too,” Autumn said as she stood.

“I don’t doubt it,” said Dawn.

“You mind if I return to my room for a sec to pick up my backpack I stupidly left ’hind?” Autumn asked. “We may need it.”

“If it’s quick,” Dawn said.

They followed Autumn out & through the halls till they were on the 2nd floor ’gain, moving toward Autumn & Edgar’s room. ‘Twas a trip much worse than any earlier time they’d spent wandering round the mansion in this now dire situation, ’specially since Autumn didn’t have her flashlight anymo’, having accidentally left it up in that secret ceiling room from before.

Still, they were able to get through well ’nough with hands touching walls & the li’l light offered by the lamps.

However, when Autumn looked round the room for her backpack, she didn’t see it. She walked o’er to their bed & moved the blankets & pillow round, but still couldn’t find it anywhere.

“Well, splew,” said Autumn. “Someone—or something—must’ve taken it. Bastards. I had a couple thousand ₧ stashed ’way in there.”

Edgar panicked. “But my personal journal was in there.”

“Why would someone take your backpack, though?” Dawn asked, her face slumped with the knowledge that she was going to still be deprived o’ sustenance.

“So they can slowly starve us,” Autumn said as she stepped ’way from her bed. “Perhaps it’d be a funnier way to kill someone than mere hanging. There’s probably not even a kitchen anywhere in this mansion, either. Still, we can a’least get something to drink @ the bathroom faucet.”

They reached the bathroom without a loose thread, though Autumn thought there was something peculiar ’bout the 3rd floor: some o’ the doors appeared open. Most notable was that the room with the rose monster had its door open, which made Edgar shudder as they passed it. She also thought she could faintly hear someone whisper to someone else to shut her eyes.

Probably illusions, thought she.

When they finally reached the bathroom—which Autumn noticed was also left open, unlike all o’ the other doors in the 1st floor hallway—Autumn & Dawn took turns holding their mouths under the faucet while cold water gushed in, doing nothing for the next minute or so but drinking water by the gallon, hoping to hold it for hydration for as long as they could, like camels.

As she finished her turn Autumn looked up @ the cabinet, thinking to look in there for a container to hold extra water in. She noticed ‘twas left open, just as the door was.

Madame Heureuse must have popped some pills to help that sickness she claimed she had, thought Autumn. While she was drinking from the faucet, she had noticed some pills lying on the side o’ the sink. ’Pon closer inspection, she noticed the words “Duermo Sleeping Medicine” imprinted on them & pocketed them out o’ habit.

Hope it won’t burden her too much if I take these.

As she rummaged through the cabinet, Autumn found 2 bottles decent ’nough—if not too small—& when Dawn finished, she rinsed them out thoroughly & then filled each o’ them, handing 1 o’ them to Dawn, & stashing her own ’way in 1 o’ her pockets.

I’d better not put this anywhere in my coat, since I’m sure someone will find a way to steal my coat, too, thought Autumn.

“OK, so where did you 2 separate, so we know where to start?” asked Autumn.

“I don’t know exactly,” Dawn said to Autumn, who was now leaning o’er the sink for 1 last extra drink o’ water while she still had the chance. “I think we were somewhere on the 1st floor. That was where we started, a’least. But then ’gain, I later somehow ended up on, what, the 4th floor?”

Then she raised her hand & said, “Wait! I know… The wallpaper was blue, so we were on the 1st floor. A’least if the wallpaper coloring is indicative o’ the floor, which so far seems to be the case.”

“Well, it’s a start,” Autumn said, her head still hanging o’er the sink with water dripping down her chin.

They left & continued down the blue-wallpapered 1st floor hallways. All 3 o’ them would open every door, stick their heads in, click on the light, check round the room quickly, & then turn off the light, leave, & close the door ’hind them. Since they divided the work ’mong themselves, it went much faster than when Autumn & Edgar had been searching through the mansion before.

Come to think ’bout it, I don’t think I even checked the 1st floor, did I? thought Autumn.

The hallway—in fact, the whole mansion—felt quiet throughout most o’ their work. None talked, focusing purely on their work. The cold, dark surroundings made them all uneasy, inhibiting their desires to speak. ’Course, it wasn’t as if Autumn would’ve been eager to talk, regardless.

But the comfortable silence was soon cut open like heart-surgery when they heard what sounded like heavy cords bumping & crawling ’long the floor ’bove them, causing them all to tilt their heads upward. They stood & waited as they heard the thumping continue. Then they heard squishing, sucking, slurping, & growling, mixed with various other noises none could verbally describe—& then, most horrifyingly, someone yelled, “Boss, I have a li’l problem here!”

“Well, there’s nothing we can do ’bout whatever’s up there, ’cept hide; & there’s not any good hiding places we’ve seen so far, so we’d better get going,” Autumn said, still staring up @ the ceiling.

They continued their search till they reached a door @ the end o’ the next corner & noticed ’twas locked—or something was keeping it from opening, a’least. Autumn tried pushing in the doorknob @ 1st, to no avail, & then was ’bout to ram into it with her shoulder ’fore Dawn stopped her.

“Wait,” whispered Dawn. “I remember this door. ‘Twas locked the last time Felix & I tried opening it. That was where that armored guy came by & chased us. It’s the guy on the other side o’ this door that I think was telling the armored guy what to do.”

Autumn turned back to the door & then leaned in & put her ear gainst it. Sure ’nough, she could faintly hear someone’s muffled voice.

“Let’s have 1 mo’ look round the place to be sure,” she could barely hear the voice say.

Autumn thought she could recognize it. Something ’bout its squeaky tone—the way the voice always sounded like whining—felt familiar.

“Do you hear anything?” whispered Dawn.

Autumn nodded & waved for her to put her ear up to the door as well, which Dawn did.

“Try to move the trunk. Yes, I know you checked inside it already. I told you to move it. You never know what those looters could be hiding there.”

That was when Autumn recognized who the voice was. There was only 1 person she’d ever met who ever called anyone a “looter.”

“You never know what kind o’ voodoo magic these people use in this mansion,” said the voice. “OK, fine. But get o’er here as fast as you can, & try not to get your stupid selves eaten as well. Got it?”

Autumn clenched her hand into a fist & rapped on the door with the back o’ her hand. This caused Dawn to practically jump back in shock.

“What are you doing?” Dawn said in a panic-stricken whisper.

“I know who’s behind there,” whispered Autumn.

“Who?”

Autumn didn’t answer, but ’stead turned her head back to the door to wait for an answer from Lance. There was none: he was being completely silent.

Does he really think I won’t know he’s there? thought Autumn Does he really think I didn’t already hear him before?

As she considered this, she began to wonder what he was talking ’bout in there. Examining all o’ the evidence she’d seen in this mansion, she could guess that the “possessed” armor were his henchmen & he was somehow communicating with them. This was their “boss,” she s’posed. They were searching some trunk, & then he told them to come back here. That meant only 1 thing: they must have found some treasure.

“I don’t think whoever’s in there is going to answer, & there’s no way we’ll be able to break in,” said Dawn. “We might as well keep going.”

Autumn shook her head & opened her mouth to speak, but then her paranoia made her wonder if Lance could hear what they were saying now; so ’stead, she walked ’way from the door toward ’nother door, waving for the others to follow her. She carefully opened the other door & went in.

Dawn watched Autumn carefully close the door ’hind them to a small crack with a puzzled look on her face.

As she leaned down on her knees & watched out the thin crack o’ the door, Autumn whispered, “We must hide here for a while & watch: those suits o’ armor are coming, & I don’t believe they’re supernatural.”

“Are they that guy in that room’s henchmen or something? Who’s the guy ’hind the door, then?” whispered Dawn.

“He’s that rich Chamsby poker who pretended to storm out last night.”

“Well, then why are we waiting here for his henchmen to show up?” Dawn asked with her hands on her sides. “Wouldn’t we want to get ’way ’fore they come here? I mean, you’re not actually planning on trying to get in that room are you? Who cares what that Chamsby guy’s doing?”

“His henchmen found treasure.”

“So, what, are you planning on just swiping it from them as they come by?”

“Yes.”

“& how are you gonna do that?”

Autumn paused ’fore saying, “I haven’t quite planned it that far.”

Dawn was ’bout to protest, but then realized she did make a promise that she’d help Autumn search for treasure if she helped her find Felix. So she merely asked, “This won’t take long, will it? ’Cause I’d rather we find Felix ’fore she’s hung from a chandelier.”

“It’ll take however long they take to get here,” whispered Autumn. “Since they’re making straight for here, it shouldn’t take long.”

With that decided, Dawn sat down gainst the wall next to Edgar—who was so still, he seemed as if he were asleep—staring @ the 1 wide window on the opposite wall, trying to use her extra time to contemplate where Felix could be. She noticed the sky outside the window was such a deep, dark blue that she could only tell it wasn’t black ’cause o’ the darker pine trees in front o’ it. The moon was up, too, & was still in the waning gibbous state ’twas last night.

As she reflected on this, she noticed how long this night felt. It seemed as if it had been hours since it 1st became dark, making Dawn curious as to what time ’twas now. She dug through her coat pocket & pulled out her cellphone to check.

It said 11:59 PM.

Wow, it’s getting late, she thought as she returned her phone to her pocket.

She opened her mouth wide & released a large but quiet yawn. Then she turned on her side & leaned gainst the wall as if ‘twere a vertical bed, her eyelids drooping from the mix o’ drowsiness & boredom.

Autumn, meanwhile, spent what li’l time she had left ’fore Lance’s henchmen arrived trying to conjure up a plan for how to swipe their treasure. The problem was, she wasn’t even sure what the treasure was or how it looked. Was it going to be so big they had to carry it in their arms, or some other conspicuous, possibly even inconvenient, way? Or was it so small they could hide it in some secret compartment in their chainmail suits? If they could hide li’l communication devices in there, she couldn’t see why they couldn’t find a hiding place for treasure, either; & if that were the case, she’d probably never be able to steal that treasure.

Autumn’s thoughts were interrupted by even heavier thumping ’bove, & then squealing & growling ’gain. It made Autumn’s eyes point up @ the ceiling while the rest o’ her body froze. She was now starting to worry even mo’ ’bout when whatever that was would reach the 1st floor.

The noise also shook Dawn out o’ her halfway rest, causing her to sit straight up & widen her eyes. O, crap, I hope that thing hasn’t gotten anyone yet, she thought as she felt her heart race.

Edgar, who was even closer to sleep than she was, was also scared ’wake by the clamor. He slid o’er to Autumn & latched onto her arm like a Metroid.

“You don’t think, uh, whatever’s up there will be able to find us in here, do you?” whispered he.

“I think I’d probably close the door by then,” Autumn said, hoping to calm him. She could feel his shaking vibrate through her arm to the rest o’ her body. “& if it’s checking every door, it’ll probably take ages for it to finally get here.”

Dawn turned to look @ Autumn still sitting watch by the door—Dawn noticed by the dark rings under Autumn’s eyes & her own drooping eyelids that Autumn seemed to be tired as well—Dawn now conscious o’ how long ‘twas taking for those armored henchmen to appear. She wondered what was holding them up—Was it that monster? Was that why ’twas making those noises?—when ’nother idea struck.

“Hey, Autumn, since you knocked on his door, how d’you know Lance didn’t tell his henchmen not to come anymo’, since he’d obviously guess that you’d try to steal his treasure?”

Autumn paused to consider the question. It’d be the logical thing to do. But then, Lance wasn’t exactly the logical person, either; & yet, he’d be the type to o’er-suspect me, not under-suspect. This isn’t an error he’d make.

She’d have concluded it still better to wait, even if it took much longer than expected, rather than take the risk if all o’ that water she drank earlier wasn’t now asking to be released. She decided to give 1 last large check by opening the door all the way & sticking her head out, looking down both ends o’ the hall to see if anyone was near.

She saw nobody.

She stood up & said, “Fine, but I must use the bathroom 1st.”

“For what?” asked Dawn.

“For what people normally use them for,” Autumn said with the kind o’ expression a teacher would give a student who flunked her class for the 4th time.

Dawn chose not to respond to this rude rebuff.

They followed her back to the bathroom, Edgar & Dawn now trudging @ a much less energetic pace—their arms hanging low & their heads bobbing down every so oft. They sat outside while Autumn went in & leaned gainst the wall, returning to their half-sleep.

That was when they heard the thumping & squealing, even louder than before. Now they knew ‘twas on their floor. It shook them out o’ their half-sleep once mo’, & they both sat & watched down the hall in the direction from which it seemed to originate. From the other end, emerging from the main room, they could see a dark figure moving toward them.

Dawn knocked on the door & said, “Autumn, you might want to hurry up.”

“Is it Lance’s henchmen?” she heard Autumn’s echo-filtered voice say. “Do you see them holding anything?”

“I… I don’t know…”

Autumn leaned close to the door & whispered, “Try to distract them ’way from the door & I’ll sneak attack them, OK?”

“Uh, I don’t think this this thing’s them,” Dawn said, beginning to stand on her feet in case she needed to dash.

The dark figure grew enormously as it neared. When it entered the light o’ the lamp 5 meters from the bathroom door, its face melted into view: an eggplant-tinted bulb o’ leaves that resembled the shape o’ a rose—’cept roses usually didn’t have gaping black holes inside that held sharp, yellow fangs. Dawn looked down & saw tangles o’ vines wriggling round the carpet, much closer to them than where rose’s head was.

Edgar clutched the hood hanging from ’hind Dawn’ & snuck ’hind her.

“It’s the rose monster…”

“What?” Autumn called out.

Dawn & Edgar both backed ’way from the monster & then, seeing that ‘twas still getting closer, turned & sprinted ’way.

Autumn poked her head out the bathroom door & turned left & then right to see the rose monster skulking ’way in that direction. She was thankful that it didn’t seem to notice her, continuing on in the other direction; but she slunk her head in & closed the door lightly, anyway.

As she stood with her back gainst the door she thought, I have a feeling trying to figure out how to keep that thing from eating them is going to be harder than merely stealing treasure from some Renaissance-Faire rejects.

To be continued…

Read DISTURBED RESIDENCE, Part III