Read DISTURBED RESIDENCE, Part IV

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DISTURBED RESIDENCE, Part V

J. J. W. Mezun ☆ Season 3 ☆ 2016 April 1

XXI. Bound

Autumn & Edgar stumbled o’er shrouded objects as they were pulled through a dark room.

“Remove her jacket & search it,” said Lance’s voice.

Since this was exactly as Autumn had predicted would happen, she stood passively as she felt hands unzip & pull off her jacket, &—mo’ significantly—dig through her pockets.

She heard a click & a flicker o’ light. She turned to her right to see Lance just as he was catching Autumn’s jacket, wearing a curly powdered wig & sitting @ a tall booth.

“Let’s see what evidence you’ve been hiding in here,” he said as he dug through the coat’s pockets.

Autumn was not interested in this, but in when the minion would bring him the contents o’ her pockets. Her breathing stilled when she finally saw 1 walk up to Lance’s booth with the familiar plastic disk…

Her stomach dropped when she saw him examine the objects. My only chance is if he thinks it’s just an alarm clock or something & misses the detonation buttons

“Don’t like being the pockets under someone else’s hands, ¿do you?” Lance sneered as he began reading the label on the bottle o’ pink liquid. Then he scoffed. “¿What’s this? It surprises me not that a vile socialist such as yourself would wish yourself the ability to steal individuals’ free wills. Well, I hate to burst your fairy tale, but the unquestionable reality o’ free will surmounts your pathetic collectivist magic—but don’t mind if I have a drink.” He snapped a finger. “Agent Mellow Yellow.”

But when Mellow Yellow started stepping toward Lance, Lance stopped him with an upraised hand & said, “Wait… In the spirit o’ full karmic justice, I’ll steal not just her possessions, but her servant, too. Skeleton, fill me a cup o’ this stuff. I don’t want to put my lips on the same bottle defiled by looter lips.”

Edgar hesitated @ 1st, wondering if Autumn would want him to refuse. The decision was made for him, however, when he was pushed forward by 1 o’ Lance’s minions.

Unbeknown to Edgar, Autumn thought this was perfect. Please distract him as much as possible Her only fear was that Edgar might still be next to them when the bomb goes off.

“Uh, I don’t know where any cups are, though…” Edgar said with stutters.

Lance sighed. “Check the shelves in the booth, you idiot.”

As Edgar did so, Lance turned next to the “plastic disk,” his eyes twisting in much greater confusion than when looking @ the other objects. Then his eyes ballooned when he examined its top. He quickly tapped 1 o’ its buttons & looked @ its interface. When he saw the # wasn’t moving anymo’, he sighed in relief.

“Turns out the extortionist thief is also a terrorist, ¿huh?” Lance said without a smile. He turned to the closest henchman & handed it to him. “Watch this a meter or 2 ’way, & if you see it start ticking ’gain, run out & take it as far ’way as you can.”

Well, there goes that plan… The good news was that she no longer had to worry ’bout Edgar being blown to bits; now she merely had to worry ’bout them both being killed in a likely much-mo’-mortifying manner.

& just to add TP to Autumn’s tombstone, she got to see Lance raise a cup o’ the liquid Edgar had to pore for him to his smiling mouth, only to be stopped by Agent Red.

“¿Are you sure the skeleton wizard hasn’t tampered with that, Sir?”

“You know he’s not a wizard, ¿right?” said Autumn.

Lance glared @ her. “Agents Razzmatazz & Laser Lemon, reprimand her for her disruption o’ justice.”

Agents Razzmatazz & Laser Lemon waggled their fingers @ her & said, “That’s not very proper” repeatedly.

“Here, you test it then,” Lance said as he handed the cup to Agent Red.

Agent Red nodded, took a sip, & then set it back onto Lance’s booth.

“I don’t notice any difference yet, but I would wait a’least a half hour, Sir.”

“That’s fine. Let’s just get on with the trial,” said Lance.

There was ’nother click, & then the spotlight shined down on Autumn, causing her to wince.

“Madame Springer, you are charged on multiple counts o’ thievery, violent extortion, terrorism, possession o’ insipid hipster garbage, & socialism. ¿How do you plead?”

Autumn eyed the minion still holding the time bomb, curious if delaying this inane marsupial trial might benefit her somehow. As she thought ’bout it, the prospects appeared dim—& she doubted the mental anguish playing Lance’s games would cause would be worth delayed death.

Autumn shrugged. “¿Not guilty?”

Lance thrust a finger in her direction. “¡Ah! So in addition to all o’ those things, ¡you’re a liar, too!”

Autumn shrugged ’gain.

“¿Where were you on the night o’ October 31, 2015, @ precisely 11:59 PM?” asked Lance.

Autumn shrugged yet ’gain. “I was in many places; ‘twas a long 11:59.”

“¡Lies! ¡Lies! ¡Lies & econometrics!” Lance shouted as he pounded his fist gainst the booth.

“But it’s true,” said Autumn.

“Fine then: ¡Truth! !Truth! ¡Truth & econometrics!” shouted Lance, pounding his fist gainst the booth ’gain. When he stopped, he added, “None o’ this changes the unquestionable fact that you robbed me & my late, great father, as well as many other Boskeopoleon citizens nobody knows or cares ’bout.”

“I question that,” said Autumn. “I didn’t steal from anybody; I simply held a nonconformist interpretation o’ property rights. You say you owned the treasure, I say I owned the treasure. I call it the ‘Subjective Theory o’ Ownership.’ So in the spirit o’ laissez-faire, we should put the question to the market o’ skills I like to call ‘Winners keepers, losers weepers.’ I must say, I don’t quite enjoy your socialist government intervention in the natural market o’ resource distribution, Lenin.”

Lance, whose frown only fell deeper & deeper, & who listened so long only out o’ sheer curiosity @ what he considered the cleverest o’ twisted logic, finally pounded his fist ’gain. “¡Untruths! ¡Untruths! I am adding ‘scandalous misinterpretation o’ free market principles’ on your list o’ crimes.”

Then he stared @ Autumn with the shrewd eyes, sipping his golden goblet o’ hipster juice.

“Madame Autumn Springer, since you love gold that is not yours so dearly, I shall give you all o’ the gold your heart could desire. I sentence you to be buried under 2 tons o’ gold.”

“¡No!” shouted Edgar.

“¡I object!” shouted Autumn, trying to stand taller.

“¿On what grounds?”

“I could want so much mo’ gold than merely 2 tons.”

“So be it.” Lance lifted his goblet. “It shall be 3.”

Autumn would’ve mentally kicked herself—a difficult procedure—if she hadn’t realized that either would kill her equally, anyway.

“¡No! ¡Don’t!” shouted Edgar.

Lance turned to him. “Silence, traitor. You’re my bellhop now—& the #1 duty o’ any o’ my bellhops is to ne’er help my enemies.”

He snapped his fingers. “Agent Red. Do the honors.”

Agent Red stepped toward Autumn.

“¡No! ¡Stop!” Edgar shouted as he scrambled forward, only to stop suddenly.

“Don’t think your cute li’l words can magically make us obey,” said Lance.

“Uh… ¿Boss?”

“¿What?” Lance swung back to Agent Red to see him frozen in mid-step.

“¿What are you doing?”

“I can’t move, Sir.”

“¿& why not?”

“I don’t know, Sir. No matter how much I try to move, my body refuses.”

“But…” Lance turned to Edgar with a look o’ sheer bewilderment. E’en Autumn, stoic so far, stared @ Edgar with wide eyes. Edgar’s expression emulated both o’ theirs.

“Whatever,” muttered Lance. “Agents Razzmatazz & Laser Lemon, you do it, then.”

They paused, staring @ each other, but then quickened their pace when they saw Lance’s expression redden. Lemon Laser grabbed Autumn by the wrists still locked ’hind her back while Razzmatazz picked her up by the feet, & they both carried her horizontally into the eastward darkness. Though Autumn tried rolling round & struggling, she could feel it accomplishing nothing.

Edgar turned to Lance with his hands clasped. “Please don’t do this. We ne’er meant you any harm.”

“¿Ne’er meant me any harm?” said Lance, voice rising. “¡That’s the nakedest lie I’ve e’er heard! ¡Tell that to your murderous buddies, you witch!”

“But we ne’er—”

“Shut up & pore me ’nother drink, bellhop,” Lance demanded as he held his goblet out to Edgar.

Edgar did so, staring down @ it with his face melting in despair.

There was ’nother click, & then a large light flashed down on the eastern side o’ the room, revealing a large transparent tub with Autumn lying inside. Her eyes were staring up @ what she could clearly tell was a trapdoor on the ceiling--perfect for dumping gold onto her.

You know, this is the perfect way for me to end it, actually. I don’t think Chamsby ol’ boy realizes what a gift he’s given me, compared to the alternatives he could’ve concocted…

After a quick press o’ an under-booth button by Lance, the trap door opened a crack, releasing a slow stream o’ coins. Autumn cringed as she felt each coin smack into her in various places, but otherwise didn’t change her still, blank stare upward. She could feel the familiar thrill o’ barbed wire wrap round her heart & lungs e’en mo’ tightly than she’d remembered before--& like before, she couldn’t decide whether she liked it or not.

Can’t do nothing ’bout it, anyway, so it’s not like I can be stressed ’bout it. I can only watch what happens happen.

Holding up his goblet, Lance announced, “These coins will slowly cover the looter till she’s smothered by them, blocking her off from the oxygen she steals from capable people & crushing her under the weight o’ this gold’s immense value—which her puny moral character could ne’er heave in a million years--

“Wait, I need to write that 1 down; it’s brilliant.” Lance slipped out a sheet o’ paper from under his booth & began furiously writing.

When he finished, he sat back in his booth with his legs up on top & his chair leaning back. He held his goblet up with a triumphant smile & then drank as he watched the show.

Edgar also watched—’cept not with cheer, but with horror. He shook with frantic energy, feeling as if a time bomb were truly ticking & that all minutes passed were mere seconds.

Finally, out o’ sheer desperation, he grabbed Lance by the scruff o’ his robe & wailed, “¡You have to stop that, please!”

“¡I absolutely will not!” Lance said as he pulled Edgar’s hands off him.

Despite this statement, Lance couldn’t help feeling the sudden urge to press the stop button on the gold dropper. He couldn’t ’splain why he’d e’er want to do such a thing when his dream was coming true right before his eyes; yet still, his finger kept creeping toward the button under the booth. It became so bad that he had to clutch his left hand with his right just to stop it.

But this still was not ’nough: his left hand o’erpowered his right & pressed the button.

“¡Ahh! ¿What are you doing? ¡You’re s’posed to be my hands! ¿What’s going on?”

His right hand pressed the start button ’gain. But rather than returning to his cheer from before, he sat back & stared bewilderedly @ his left hand.

Edgar, too, stared in wide-eyeholed wonder.

There’s only 1 explanation for why he did that…

Edgar picked up the bottle & read the label. It claimed as Lance’d claimed.

“Lance, stop the gold from falling on Autumn & don’t e’er start it ’gain.”

“¿’Scuse me?” Lance turned to Edgar with lightning eyes o’ shock & fury. “¿Who’s the master & who’s the servant? Don’t you dare order me round.”

But his fingers crept below the booth & pushed the off button all the same.

“¿What? ¡Stop that!” he shouted down to his hands.

But when he tried turning the machine back on, he found that he couldn’t. Whenever he’d move his fingers toward the start button, they’d just stop as if tied back by some invisible string.

“¿What’s going on here? Have my hands become poss… ess…” Lance’s eyes ballooned. “¡No!” he gasped.

“Lance, order your minions to release Autumn.”

“I will no—Idiots, release the looter.” Lance slapped his hands o’er his mouth.

He aimed a finger @ Edgar. But Edgar couldn’t help noticing Lance’s thunder splitting into clouds o’ horror. “¡You can’t do this to me!” he shouted shakily. “I… ¡I choose free will! It’s like that Rush song goes.” He swung his head eastward. “¿Wh-what is the looter doing free ’gain? ¡I didn’t tell you to release her!”

“Yes you did,” said Agent Razzmatazz. “You said, ‘Idiots, release the looter.’ We’re the idiots & she’s the looter, so we released her.”

“Well, ’cept Agent Red,” said Agent Laser Lemon.

“Uh, I still can’t move,” said Agent Red.

Autumn paced toward Lance @ a slow but steady pace, hands stuffed in pockets & o’erall devoid o’ emotional output. Lance knew that that was her most dangerous condition.

He jumped back in his seat & shouted, “¡Uphold her, idiots!”

“O, now we’re the idiots ’gain, suddenly,” said Agent Razzmatazz, shaking his head. “You always told us A couldn’t be A & not A @ the same time, Sir.”

“¡Just shut up & do it!”

“¡Order your minions not to touch either o’ us!” shouted Edgar.

Lance grasped the edges o’ his booth & cringed tightly, trying to hold in the event he knew was inevitable. I can’t do this… It can’t be possible. I have free will; I do what I want to do. I cannot be so enslaved that my body refuses to obey my own mind…

“Don’t… touch… either o’ them… ¡Gah!”

The agents stopped.

“You should truly make up your mind, Sir,” said Agent Razzmatazz.

The toasty glare Lance aimed @ him could roast Graciousgiving turkeys. ‘Twas an interesting superpower he was inexplicably born with that, sadly, ne’er comes up in any o’ these stories.

By this point, Autumn had finally reached Lance, standing just half a meter ’way from him with her hands clasped together ’hind her back, a businesslike expression on her face.

“Greetings, Sir Chamsby. Gorgeous night we’re having, ¿yes? Intriguing trial you had there,” said Autumn.

“You cheated. Your demon skeleton—who certainly can’t perform the magic he just performed—robbed me o’ my free will. I… I am utterly impressed by the lengths you’d go to steal from people. I don’t e’en think Stalin could rob one o’ his free will.”

Autumn smiled. “Thanks. That means a lot to me—though you truly should thank Edgar.”

“I’d rather shatter him into a million pieces…”

“You shall ne’er do so so long as I’m ’live.” She turned to Edgar, who had just walked up next to & wrapped his arms round her. “Edgar, ¿could you please make Sir Chamsby stop bothering us for now on real quick while I recover my possessions for a 2nd time?”

“Uh… OK. Lance, you are to… give us peace for as long as we’re here, OK.”

“Fore’er,” Autumn said as she was slipping an arm into 1 o’ her jacket sleeves.

Lance turned to Autumn & said with a waggling finger, “Your words don’t work.”

“Uh, the bottle said my orders only last within the mansion,” said Edgar.

“¿What if he leaves?” asked Autumn.

“Then all o’ my orders wear off.”

Lance’s mouth curled into a Grinchlike smile.

Edgar saw this & said, “Uh, you’re not to leave this mansion till I say you can.”

The smile fell into a frown ’gain.

“¿What? ¡You can’t do that! ¡That’s not fair!”

“Neither are kangaroo trials,” said Autumn.

“You can order your henchmen to get you food & drink & other necessities—but you can’t bring in any mo’ than are already here, & you can’t order them to hurt us, ¿’K?” said Edgar.

“Hey, ¿can you order him to give us all o’ his money?” Autumn asked as she slipped her backpack on.

Lance’s eyes widened in horror. “¡No, you can’t do that! ¡That money’s everything I have! ¡My father didn’t work so hard so his wealth could be stolen by some street rats!”

Edgar turned to Autumn with that stare o’ his she always hated seeing. She already predicted it when he said his familiar, “Autumn…”

“Fine, whatever. Let’s just go,” Autumn muttered as she walked up to the booth & pocketed the rest o’ her stuff.

But as they walked back to the door, Autumn stopped.

“’K, how ’bout this, Edgar: ¿could you a’least order him to deliver us the jewels he found so we can open that door?”

Edgar squirmed in pause for a second, but then said, “I guess that’s fair. This is a competition, I guess, & he doesn’t truly need it… Lance, order 1 o’ your minions to give us whatever jewels you have.”

“I can’t,” Lance said with a shrug.

“¿Why not?” asked Autumn.

Lance simply stood there, shrugging silently.

“Uh… tell us why, please,” said Edgar, still feeling his bones heat up from awkwardness.

Lance grumbled. “I only have 1.”

“Well, uh, could you have 1 o’ your henchmen give us it, please.”

“¿What is ‘it’?” asked Lance.

“You’re just wasting our time,” Autumn said with heavy breaths.

“Uh, ¿could you order 1 o’ your henchmen to give us the jewel you or 1 o’ your henchmen found that we do not already have on us?”

Lance cringed, trying as hard as he could to devise a loophole, but coming up with nothing. Finally, his mouth repeated the command to Agent Purple Mountain’s Majesty gainst his wishes.

Purple Mountain’s Majesty shrugged, set the doused time bomb on the desk, & then left. Autumn, noticing this, walked up to pocket it. Lance, watching her, glared, but didn’t move.

“Yes, make sure not to leave your bomb ’hind. Wouldn’t want to interrupt mo’ terrorism, as well as slave-taking,” said he.

“I would quite like to interrupt such from you,” said Autumn without looking @ him.

Lance raised his voice as he replied, “¡You’re 1 to talk! ¡I’m amazed such a person o’ such small moral fiber could hold such big hypocrisy!” But then Lance’s eyes screwed up when he realized what he’d said. “Well, now that I think ’bout it, it makes perfect sense, actually…”

Thankfully for Autumn, Agent Purple Mountain’s Majesty returned soon after, & gave the jewel to Edgar.

“Thank you,” Edgar said as he handed it to Autumn.

“Well, good doing business with you, Sir Chamsby,” Autumn said with a wave. “This ought to teach you that no bad deed goes unpunished.

“Hey, uh, wait…”

Autumn & Edgar turned back with confused expressions. Both recognized the voice as not Lance’s, but 1 o’ his henchmen’s.

“I don’t mean to trouble anyone, ¿but could you, skeleton Sir, let me move ’gain, please?” asked Agent Red.

XXII. The Curse

“The problem is, we still have 1 mo’ jewel to find,” said Autumn, “but we’ve searched this whole mansion up & down, practically;—or, a’least, Lance’s minions & we did--& we literally forced Lance to give us all o’ the jewels he had.”

“It must be truly well hidden,” said Edgar.

Autumn sighed. “Then we’re practically back @ the start. I mean, pretty much any room will have just as much chance o’ hiding the last jewel, so we’ll have to search every room ’gain, but e’en finer than before.”

“¿Is that Dawn?”

She turned to her left, where Edgar was standing, & saw far-off down the other end o’ the hall Dawn stumbling toward them. @ 1st she thought, ¿Why’s she still here? I thought she left, till she noticed something… odd ’bout Dawn. The lurching gait was 1 thing: dragging her right leg ’hind her as if ’twere wounded. Her hand also seemed to hang & waggle in the air as if ‘twere not sure what it wanted to do. Strangely, though, Dawn did not seem to be in any pain: her eyes were blank.

“¿Are you OK?” Edgar asked nervously as Dawn neared.

Dawn emitted a short, moaning “Uhhhhhhh” sound. Her eyes didn’t rise from the floor to look @ either Edgar or Autumn.

“¿Did something attack you, I s’pose?” asked Autumn. The mo’ Autumn watched Dawn, the mo’ her nerves twitched.

Dawn stood just in front o’ Edgar & held her open hands up in front o’ her toward Edgar. They shook in the air as if they were trying to press forward @ Edgar, but were hitting an invisible barrier.

Edgar squirmed back a li’l & asked, “¿Are you all right?”

“Yeah, ¿what the hell are you doing?” asked Autumn.

“Go,” said Dawn.

“¿What?”

Dawn seemed to break through the barrier as she pressed forward on Edgar, knocking him to the floor with Dawn falling on him. As she held him down, her hands wrapped round Edgar’s throat. Her eyes kept their blank stare, turned ’way from Edgar & Autumn @ the wall to her left.

“¿What the hell d’you think you’re doing?” Autumn shouted as she reached down & grabbed Dawn’s arms.

“Go… Now,” was all Dawn barely said in garbled pronunciation.

“That’s rather hard with your hands glued to his windpipe,” Autumn grunted as she put the rest o’ her force into prying Dawn’s hands off Edgar.

However, Dawn’s grip was tepid, as if she were still vacillating o’er whether she wanted to strangle Edgar or not, & Autumn was rather quickly able to peel off finger after finger till she fully released Edgar. “Slide out,” Autumn said as she held Dawn’s hands up.

Edgar paused to cough & pant ’fore wordlessly squeezing out from under Dawn.

Dawn’s effort was no longer on Edgar, so this was simple. ’Stead, Dawn’s arms tried to push gainst Autumn &, when that failed, she suddenly snapped her head @ Autumn’s, giving her a heavy headbutt. Though Autumn pulled her head back to avoid ’nother beating, she still kept a tight grip on Dawn’s hands.

“¿You need me to help in some way?” Edgar said as he stood gainst the wall on the other side.

“No,” said Autumn, her voice out o’ breath. “Just try to go ’way as far as you can while I hold her back.”

“’K,” Then Edgar turned & scampered down the hall. Though he felt bad ’bout leaving Autumn ’hind to deal with… whatever Dawn was doing, he was now savvy ’nough to know that staying ’hind & trying to help would probably just hinder Autumn e’en mo’.

Still, only a meter or so down the hall, he turned round & walked backward, keeping an eye on them all the way just in case.

“Dawn, ¿what the hell are you doing?” Autumn grunted as she struggled to keep Dawn’s hands back.

“Can’t…” was all Dawn managed to say.

“¿What?”

Dawn raised her knees up & then stood, Autumn raising her grasp on Dawn’s hands to match the growing height.

“Don’t tell me you’ve become possessed,” said Autumn.

Dawn didn’t. ’Stead, she shot her foot out & kicked Autumn in the leg. The shock o’ the attack stunned Autumn so much that her legs gave in, causing her to collapse on the floor & loosen her grip on Dawn.

Dawn plunged on Autumn, pinning Autumn’s arms down with her knees while she wrapped her hands round Autumn’s throat, squeezing as hard as she could.

Dawn subtly struggled gainst her upper body, but found that her control o’er her body was now virtually all gone. What waning independent thought she kept screamed as her treasonous fingers felt the thick mound o’ flesh that was Autumn’s neck pulsing. Under her Autumn felt like a fish flopping round out o’ water—her face bluing, her mouth emitting strangulation noises, & her pressed-down arms flopping up & down mindlessly.

Luckily, this problem was soon solved when she felt a heavy force knock her from the left, causing her to collapse off Autumn & her grip on Autumn’s neck to loosen.

“Sorry, Dawn… if you can still listen in there…” Autumn heard a familiar voice say.

As Autumn hacked & heaved for breath, she flipped round to see Edgar standing just ’bove her. She took Edgar’s hand, she returned to her feet, & they both began to run down the hall.

However, just as Autumn was making her 1st step forward, she felt her other foot held down, causing her to collapse face-forward on the floor ’gain. Turning her head, she could see—not to her surprise—that ‘twas Dawn, who had made a successful dive @ her feet.

Edgar & Dawn played tug-o-war with Autumn, Edgar pulling Autumn back by her arms & Dawn holding her down by her feet. Autumn could see by the way Dawn was pulling herself forward o’er Autumn’s legs that this was a futile venture for them.

“Edgar, release my arms; I have an idea.”

“’K.”

Let’s hope my guess was accurate…

He did so & Autumn quickly lunged forward with her own arms, toward the slit ’tween Dawn’s back & jacket. She forced her hands inside & found Dawn’s bat.

But she found that, no matter how hard she tugged, ’twould not come out. She felt round mo’ to find a strap holding the bat down & began trying to unlatch it when she felt the room spin under her. It took a while for her to realize Dawn had stood back up, raising Autumn high off the ground, hanging halfway upside-down o’er Dawn’s head.

Then Dawn tilted her head forward, giving Autumn a better orientation with which to work. Autumn was thankful for this, but wouldn’t have been if she knew what ‘twas for: just as Autumn was finally forcing the clasp open, she felt the room rush past her & looked down to see that Dawn was dashing forward. She looked ’hind her in confusion to find the explanation: a wall.

“Ah,” said Autumn.

She scrabbled @ the clasp for a few seconds mo’ ’fore ’twas finally wrenched open. She grabbed the end o’ the bat ’gain & lightly pulled it.

However, ’fore she could pull it out, she felt the wall slam into her back, causing a pain in her back so sharp it flooded into her stomach, too, making her want to vomit.

Luckily for her, though, it also stunned Dawn, causing her to waltz back dizzily. ‘Twas ’nough for Autumn to be able to flip forward off Dawn’s back & onto the floor ’gain—though sadly for her, not on her feet.

When she returned to her feet & turned round, she saw that Dawn was already no longer stunned--though her eyes still showed no emotion.

As they both paced in the same direction, Autumn backward & Dawn forward, Autumn held the bat in front o’ her.

“I’m warning you, Dawn: I don’t know how much influence you have on your own body anymo’; but if your body comes @ me ’gain, I’m swinging this thing.”

She could feel sweat drenching her head & her hands o’er the bat. She had a good guess as to what would happen if she did swing the bat @ Dawn, but tried to dash the thoughts from her mind ’fore they made her puke.

Dawn charged @ Autumn just the same, with her arms stretched out @ Autumn. Autumn wasn’t sure if Dawn intentionally influenced her body to use such a stupid tactic, or if whatever was possessing her just had a very vulgar thought process. Either way, the tactic was useless. Autumn swung the bat gainst Dawn’s side ’long before Dawn’s hands reached her.

With Dawn stunned on the floor, Autumn said a curt, “Sorry,” ’fore she dashed ’way back to Edgar—all the while cringing @ the sight o’ Dawn lying wounded on the floor with blank, dead eyes still burnt in her mind.

“¿Are you OK?” Edgar asked breathlessly as he stopped just in front o’ Autumn.

“Yeah, let’s run ’fore she returns to her feet,” Autumn said as she grabbed Edgar’s arm & ran forward.

“But…”

“¿What? ¿What d’you expect me to do?”

“¿Couldn’t we… couldn’t we a’least tie her up to keep her safe?” asked Edgar.

Autumn shook her head. “¿You have any idea what could happen to her then?” She thought o’ how Lance would react if he found her defenseless. She noticed Edgar hadn’t specifically said Lance couldn’t harm her & didn’t want to take the risk. “No, this is better for both o’ us. I’ll try & see if I can find a way to cure her later.”

Edgar nodded & they ran down the hall. They both looked o’ershoulder to see if Dawn was following them, but were relieved to see that Dawn was still lying on the floor.

I just hope I somehow knocked whatever was possessing her out o’ her, thought Autumn.

When they reached the stairs, they slowed to catch their breaths, though still kept their eyes peeled ’hind them.

“¿What d’you think happened to her?” asked Edgar.

“She was probably possessed.”

“¿How?”

“¿How would I know? ‘Twas just a guess,” said Autumn. “’Twas such a short way to the front door when she left us, you’d think she could make it that far without being attacked.”

“Maybe it snuck up on her while she was going ’cross the front yard. I remember Madame Heureuse said the ghosts haunt this whole property, not just the mansion.”

Autumn’s pupils dilated.

“¿Autumn? ¿What’s wrong?”

“Edgar, I think I know where the last jewel is.”

XXIII. Intoxicated

Something had happened to his li’l dark courtroom since Lance had dozed off for only a few minutes. As he raised his groggy head ’bove his spittle-stained desk, he noticed ‘twas full o’ lights, sounds, & movement. Somewhere not far-off a jukebox played some classic rock song Lance was too young to recognize. In the now-wider space ’hind him a herd ’ couples danced with wild cheer.

He looked round his desk & saw that ‘twas now a long booth full o’ people holding glasses full o’ golden liquid, all with listless eyelids. Opposite Lance ’hind said booth stood a short man in front o’ a long row o’ bottle shelves, wearing a tuxedo and wiping a glass with a cloth.

“¿What’ll it be, Sir Chamsby?”

“Le Désespoir,” grumbled Lance, marveling @ the hango’er he somehow felt ’fore e’en taking a single drink.

The bartender poured his drink & slid it o’er to him.

“¿How’d I end up here, anyway?” mumbled Lance. “’Twas that shameless looter & her devil-spawn friend, ¿wasn’t it?”

“Can’t say I know,” the bartender said as he continued wiping his glass. “I believe you must take it up further with her, Sir Chamsby. She appears to have a better understanding ’ what goes on in this mansion, if the fine li’l trick she played on you earlier is any indication. Rather naughty o’ her, if I may be so bold, Sir. In fact, she’s crossed you @ almost every turn, ¿hasn’t she? & she just a petty thief.”

“Yeah, thanks for the reminder,” grumbled Lance. “I’d ne’er know what to do with my life if it weren’t for such fine advice from a bartender.

Lance rubbed his temple as he took a drink o’ his wine, feeling it burn the back o’ his throat as it sunk in. Something ’bout this conversation seemed eerily familiar.

“She needs to be corrected, if you don’t mind me saying so,” said the bartender, as if he hadn’t heard Lance. “& when her partner tries to stop you from doing your duty, you should correct him, too. The rich do have certain responsibilities, ¿don’t they, Sir? We must protect our individual rights. After all, if we don’t, ¿who will? ¿The government? We know better than that.”

“I can’t,” Lance said with a scowl. “That skeleton from hell put a curse on me that makes me stay ’way from them.”

The bartender shook his head. “Tut, tut. Chamsby, I’m surprised @ you. Such ’scuses. ¿What kind o’ Objectivist thinks that way? ¿Are you not a man? ¿Have you not free will?”

Lance squeezed his hand gainst his glass.

“Your puny mind doesn’t understand…” he said slowly ’hind gritted teeth. “I am physically incapable o’ doing anything gainst them. I can’t ’splain it, but some screwed-up magic makes me physically unable to do what I want. It’s as if my body just refuses to listen.” He threw his arms up. “I don’t know how it happens this way.”

“Come on, now, Sir Chamsby. I know you’re cleverer than that. ¿Did they specifically say you couldn’t do anything?

Lance paused, the thought instantly sapping the drunkenness he’d just gained from his drink.

“No…” he muttered, mo’ to himself than to the bartender. He turned back to the bartender. “They said I had to give them peace, though.”

“& that’s exactly what you should give ’em,” said the bartender. “After all, ¿what is the most peaceful condition to have in this tedious world? Why, to not be burdened by such dreary conditions as life. Let them rest in peace, Chamsby, ol’ boy.”

Lance’s mouth suddenly twisted into a smile.

“¿You think that’ll truly work?”

“¿Why shouldn’t it? That stupid skeleton didn’t specifically mention not killing them, ¿did he?”

Lance stared down @ the booth & rubbed his chin.

“Not that I recall…”

“Then there you go, my good man,” the bartender said as he slapped Lance on the back. “¿See? Don’t e’er go believing anything can deprive you o’ your free will; ’cause once you give up on free will, you have nothing.”

“But I don’t have nothing,” Lance muttered quietly to himself. “In fact, I have everything I need within me.”

“Damn straight.”

“But I must be careful here…” Lance said with frantic eyes, his weak hand scrabbling for his glass once mo’. “I have only 1 chance ’fore that sniveling skeleton says something that’ll fill these loopholes. Once he does, that’s it.”

He took ’nother gulp o’ his wine. He couldn’t help noticing the colors becoming brighter & blurrier, the music becoming less earthly. He set the glass down ’gain.

“I’ll have to sneak up on the skeleton & make it so he can’t speak, whether by covering his mouth or outright killing the bloodless bastard,” Lance said with a slight stutter. “Once he’s out o’ the way, the ponytailed bitch will be declawed.”

He frantically rummaged through his pockets for his cell & called his henchmen. While he did this, he remembered ’nother flaw in Edgar’s instructions: Edgar said Lance had to order his associates not to touch them, but he ne’er said Lance couldn’t order them to do so afterward. He knew with his back-&-forth game with the gold-dropper button that this was perfectly legal logic in the otherwise illogic o’ the skeleton’s totalitarian magic.

But he still had to be careful. He couldn’t have them attack just yet. Sending many after them would have no benefit o’ stealth, & in fact, would only make them mo’ likely to be caught. He would have them stay close ’hind & wait till he properly dispatched the skeleton ’fore they would come in and help him rid the world o’ the ponytailed devil.

Once he hung up, he drained the rest o’ his wine, slammed his glass down, & called for ’nother. As the bartender refilled his glass, he sat back with his hands tied ’hind his back & a cocky smile, his spirits suddenly reawaken.

“Sounds like you have a top-notch plan then,” the bartender said with a sly smile.

“They’ve tried to crush me under every use o’ force they could contrive—e’en slavery—but they could still ne’er outsmart good ol’ Lance Chamsby.”

Lance raised his glass & then released a deep, throaty laugh.

Suddenly, the rest o’ the bar stopped & laughed with him.

XXIV. Torn

Please don’t get back up. Please just stay down here for just a li’l longer.

Or better: please just give me my body back…

‘Twas no use. She still wasn’t sure if there was a cognizant… something possessing her body or if her body had just started moving on its own volition. When she could regain ’nough o’ her brain to e’en form such thoughts, she figured there must be intelligence ’hind what her body was being forced to do; otherwise she should just flop round on the floor.

This would have a better effect than what it’s probably planning to do now.

The mental images returned: her own hands throttling Felix’s neck, smothering Autumn till her face turned deep blue & her lungs collapsed, shattering Edgar’s head open like a vase with her bat—which she was glad she’d lost.

¡No! ¡You can’t make me do these things! ¡I’ll destroy this body so neither o’ us can use it 1st!

But every time she tried this, the body wouldn’t let her. Hands clutching knives just wouldn’t twist backward, no matter how much her brain struggled to transmit the command, nor would they turn backward ’nough to let her strangle herself with them.

She began to feel a buzz o’ hope when she saw her body climb itself out a shattered window outside. ¿Didn’t Madame Heureuse say this magic wore off outside the mansion?

However, e’en as she felt the breeze brush gainst her, she still felt as powerless o’er her motions as before, & only became mo’ distraught when she saw why her body had come out here.

But that soon changed. Suddenly, Dawn had an idea for how both she & whoever was possessing her could finally get what they wanted.

XXV. The Vengeful One

“It won’t budge,” Autumn said after her 3rd attempt to throttle the doorknob unlocked.

“¿What ’bout when we need to leave?” Edgar said as he tightened his fingers together.

Autumn paused as ’nother idea came to her. She walked down to the hallway to her left, waving for Edgar to follow her.

Edgar raced ’head to Autumn.

“¿Where are we going?” he whispered.

“We’re going outside by a different route.”

“¿How?”

“You’ll see.”

Edgar huddled near Autumn when he heard a loud snarl just in front o’ him till he looked up & saw that ‘twas just the rose monster, still tied up.

“Hmm… you know, we still ne’er thought o’ what to do with it,” Autumn said with her hand resting on her mouth. “O well.”

Finally, they reached round the other side o’ the hall, where windows bigger than humans were opening out to the backyard. Edgar could already guess Autumn’s plan.

She went up to the nearest & shoved her foot into it. Now, normally if someone tried this their foot would just smack gainst the glass, ’cause windows are usually much stronger than someone’s kick; but it just so happened that these windows were specially made for action scenes like these where they need to be kicked down.

Or it might have been that the glass was ol’.

Either way, the glass shattered, which didn’t cut up Autumn’s leg 1 pixel1. Through the now-open hole entered a breeze that Autumn & Edgar found refreshing, having not had contact with outside for… well, technically not that long by the clock’s standards, truly. It sure felt like a long time, though.

As they climbed out the window, they gazed o’er the area. Much to Autumn’s bitterness, the backyard was not a short grassy area with the last chest just sitting there in simple sight. No, as expected, ‘twas a large field with a hedge maze stretching from gate to gate on the sides. In front o’ it the empty field was littered with a variety o’ gravestones, many o’ which were tilted & were inscribed with obnoxious puns that made all the mist spirits floating o’er the air roll their shadowy eyes, turning them into sharpened apostrophes.

Though ‘twas the middle o’ the night, the moon, still waning-gibbous as the 1st night in Heureuse Manor, was large & bright ’nough to light the backyard despite the dark purple clouds attempting to smother it. The yawning contrast ’tween this white light & darkness dug deep shadows ’hind the hedge walls & tombstones.

Seeing no way to bypass the maze—she didn’t e’en want to go near the gates covered in spikes the size o’ tree limbs to try passing them—Autumn entered the only opening. Edgar followed wordlessly, the only noise being his robe brushing gainst the unkempt grass & the e’er-busy wind.

As they walked through the bushy arteries, Edgar curled himself together tightly to try shielding his shaking bones from the chill. The wind did not seem able to make up its mind ’bout which direction it wanted to blow, assaulting Edgar from all sides.

On both sides the short leaves o’ the hedges rustled. Sometimes Edgar would feel a stray leaf hit his face as ‘twas flung from its family by a particularly hard gust. It unnerved him: @ every rustle he expected a monster to jump out.

Autumn was less sensitive to the sound & feel o’ the wind; in fact, she was much too preoccupied with trying to navigate through the hedge maze to e’en notice them.

The problem with mazes like these was that one could ne’er figure out which way was the right way ’cept through trial & error. Thus, ‘twas inevitable that they’d run into their 1st dead end & have to turn back to ’nother fork. Only, then they ended up @ ’nother dead end. & then ’nother. & ’nother. & ’gain & ’gain & ’gain, till Autumn had to stop & puzzle out which pathways she tried & which she hadn’t, holding her head in her hands from the sheer frustration. Edgar, meanwhile, looked all round him to try gauging how far they were from the mansion.

Lemme think… thought Autumn. We already went down all o’ the paths the 1 on the left leads to, the rightmost side led to a dead end… Wait. We tried… we tried all o’ the paths back before this 1… ’Cept, wait, ¿did we try the 1 going diagonal from that leftmost path? No, I think I remember we did. ¿What path are we missing then? Augh. Screw it, I’m just gonna bust through these walls then.

She tried to elbow her way through the dead end, but found the leaves hardier than she imagined. No matter how much she kicked or tried to squeeze gainst the wall, it stayed virtually solid.

Well, we’ll see ’bout that, she thought as she backed ’way from the wall.

She stood with her feet stretched out & her left arm pointed out. She waited for a second & then charged toward the wall, throwing the rest o’ her energy into her shoulder & elbow as she hit the hedges.

Though she was able to push the wall in a centimeter, it merely rebounded as a rubber band, bouncing Autumn backward onto the ground.

Suddenly, Edgar turned his head @ the strum o’ Autumn’s fall.

“¿Are you OK?”

“Yeah,” Autumn said as she brushed leaves & grass off her.

“So I guess we tried all the paths, ¿haven’t we?”

“As far as I can remember, ’less I’m missing something; & if that’s the case, then we’ll have to start all o’er.”

She sat back down, grabbed a nearby branch, & started to draw out the maze as she remembered it. However, she kept making mistakes & having to all o’ the marks out with her hand & restart.

After her 2nd failure, she gazed round to give herself some peace to think. That was when she noticed that Edgar was looking up-north; she followed his face, but saw nothing. When she glanced back @ Edgar she saw that he was moving his head ’gain. Must just be looking round aimlessly, she thought.

But then she did notice something: she looked up @ the top edge o’ the hedge wall & saw that ’twas only ’bout 2 & a half meters high.

“Edgar, ¿could you lean down so I can climb on your shoulders, please?” she asked without taking her eyes off the hedge.

“¿Why?”

“I figured out a better way to get through here.”

Edgar didn’t ask any mo’ questions & did as she asked.

When she’d climbed up onto his shoulders she said, “Thank you. ’K, now stand up & go o’er to the nearest hedge wall, please.”

“’K.”

When she neared ’nough, she saw that most o’ her head went ’bove the wall—mo’ than ’nough height. Still, she wasn’t so sure how well these hedges would hold her weight up, regardless o’ how strong they were gainst her horizontal force before. She tested it out with her hands, pressing down on it & it felt thick ’nough—similar to sponge, but mo’ pokey.

She hoisted herself up the wall. Though it sagged a li’l, it remained solid ’nough not to make her fall for the entire climb.

In fact, her main impediment was not the hedge’s mass but its surface area: the wall was a bit too thin for her to trust herself to stand straight up without losing her balance, so for now she kept to a crouch, with her hands firmly grasping the hedge. She wasn’t sure how great a safety that’d provide her, considering the leaves she was holding would probably just tear down with her if she fell; but she felt perfectly balanced as o’ now.

When she finally felt safe from gravity, she tilted her head up to see the rest o’ her maze. It spread too far out—& she was much too low—for her to see much detail @ the end. However, she could see ’nough o’ the back wall to know that ‘twas completely closed off. She looked to both sides to see that the same applied to them as well. She looked back just to be perfectly sure; but her inkling was soon confirmed: the entrance was the only path that led out or in.

“¿D’you see anything?” Edgar asked up to her.

“Yeah, I see that this maze is a troll job.”

“¿What? ¿How?”

“There’s no ’scape other than the path we went through.”

“¿So what do we do now?” asked Edgar.

“I s’pose there’s no choice but to go ’bove the hedges.”

“¿How?”

Autumn leaned down the side o’ the hedge wall so that her lower body was below the top.

“Climb up,” she said.

“Uh, ¿are you sure this will work?” asked Edgar.

“¿Do we have a choice?”

“I guess not.”

He hopped up & grabbed Autumn’s ankles, & then gradually climbed up to the top. When he climbed up past Autumn, she hoisted herself back up.

“Great. But that was just the easy part; now we’ll have to somehow make it to the end without falling off.”

“I guess crawling round like this”—Edgar was in the same crouched position Autumn was in—“wouldn’t work so well for that, ¿would it?”

Autumn shook her head & then slowly tried standing, holding her hands out as she did. Though she wobbled, she was able to keep a comfortable stillness.

Seeing her success, Edgar copied her. Despite his lack o’ confidence hindering him mo’ than Autumn, he was able to keep himself balanced as well.

“Now an e’en harder part: we’ll need to move ’long these walls till we reach the end,” said Autumn.

So they wormed forward as trapeze artists on tightropes. Due to Edgar’s ending up in front o’ Autumn by accident, he was the 1 leading the way. For now, the path went only 1 way, & so Edgar considered it nugatory, anyway.

Let’s focus on not falling off 1st, he thought.

‘Twas a smooth venture so far, though. The wind was much softer than Edgar feared—no gust was near ’nough to significantly hinder their balance. The worst impediment was a stray branch from a nearby tree that they had to duck; but nothing much else.

He soon reached the 1st fork without falling, to his relief. He glanced backward to check if Autumn was still ’hind him, feeling guilty that he had momentarily forgotten ’bout her in all his worries. Thankfully, she was still ’hind Edgar, still continuing forward with her eyes fully on her feet, seemingly not yet knowing that Edgar had stopped.

“¿Which way should I go now?” Edgar asked turning his sight ’tween the path to his left & the path forward.

“¿Huh?” Autumn lifted her head to see where she & Edgar were. After a few seconds’ survey, she answered, “Keep going forward till the end there. I want us to hit the outmost border so we’ll have a smooth & simple way forward.”

Edgar nodded & continued. Silence—save for the rustling leaves & whistling wind still ongoing, ’course—filled their surroundings once mo’ as they remained focused on their careful movements.

‘Twas only when Edgar finally reached the outer border that he spoke.

“Uh… ¿are you sure you want us to walk ’long here?” Edgar said with the warble o’ fear in his voice.

“¿Why? ¿What’s wrong?”

“The land seems to end a li’l ways back,” Edgar said as he backed a few centimeters, ’fraid that some wind might push him forward into the abyss below.

“¿What?”

“You may need to come look,” said Edgar.

But Autumn didn’t need to come closer to see what was clear from e’en her distance: the suburbs @ the distance seemed to slide down into a cliff far off in the horizon. When she reached Edgar, she squeezed close so she could look down from their side; she could see that there was no land on the side o’ the hedges. A fall off that side would be a guaranteed fall down the cliff. All ’long the ground below were stalagmites that thinned sharp ’nough @ the top to impale anyone who was unfortunate ’nough to fall on them.

“I should’ve known…” muttered Autumn. “I would say we should try the other side, but it’s probably the same.” She let out a sigh. “Well, I guess we’ll just have to go round. Come on, I’ll lead us back to the other path.”

Though ‘twas tedious for Autumn to keep every path they went ’long in mind, they ’ventually reached the outer border on the other side. Her secret worries that it’d also lead down to a chasm, & that this was just ’nother cute li’l prank o’ whoever set this all up, were relieved when she saw that there was indeed land—though only ’bout 3 meter’s worth.

They climbed down & then searched round the short stretch o’ land for where the treasure might be hiding. Unlike the other side, which was covered with wild grass, this side was mostly just dirt & pebbles, with a few nettles & leaves from nearby pine & oak trees.

‘Twas 1 o’ these trees—a red oak twisted into a knobby shape—that Autumn noticed 1st. Though on 1st glance it appeared inconspicuous, ’pon examination it looked a li’l off. Maybe ‘twas just a rare tree, but it seemed a bit wider—’specially compared to its short stature—than any other tree she’d e’er seen. As she stepped toward it, other imperfections bloomed: its texture seemed simplistic for nature & some o’ its lines looked particularly human-crafted: they formed almost perfect rectangles.

She put her hand on the tree. ’Stead o’ the scratchy wood texture one’d expect from touching a tree, she felt a much smoother surface—like plastic or steel. She put her fingers o’er the glaring lines she noticed before & felt them dig in much further than any other lines.

Convinced that this was the key to the treasure, she explored round the tree, frisking it.

‘Twas ’pon her 2nd check round its back that she found it. Since the tree was partway ’bove the end o’ the cliff, many o’ its back roots, rather than digging into the ground as is natural for a tree, protruded out in the free air. All o’ these roots branched out into thinner & thinner lines as woody veins—all but 1, which ended @ a flattened trapezoid shape, mo’ like a strange tail than a root.

She put her foot out & stamped down on it. To add further evidence to her suspicions, it did not bend down as would be normal, but shifted down as if ‘twere loosely connected to the tree.

While she was noticing this, she heard the rubbing o’ metal gainst metal & felt the trunk she was still leaning gainst rumble.

“Autumn, look,” Edgar said as he pointed @ the front o’ the tree.

She backed ’way & turned to see that the front now opened into a li’l gray box. Inside was the treasure chest.

Autumn ran toward it & snatched it out as if she’d been ’fraid it’d close ’gain if she weren’t fast ’nough. She opened the chest just to ensure they were not being led into yet ’nother trick, but was relieved to see that familiar jewel corner sitting inside. She stuffed it into her pockets with the other 3.

“¿So is that it?” asked Edgar.

“I s’pose. Now we just need to make our way back to that door on the 8th floor—we’ll only need to climb o’er the wall & go the rest o’ the way on-ground—& the real treasure should be somewhere ’hind it.”

“Good,” Edgar said with a nod. He thought this was pretty fun & all; but he could only take so much o’ this mansion in 1 dose.

She hoisted him up the hedge wall & he held her up as she climbed after him. Then they both leapt down the other side. They were fortunate that it didn’t take them nearly so long to make it back through the maze as it did forward; they only hit 1 dead end, & quickly recovered their pace afterward.

But as she walked out the hedge maze’s entrance, something caught her eye to her right. She swung round to snatch a better look, but not before it tackled Edgar, who had just been following Autumn out the maze. ‘Twas a moving suit o’ armor.

¡We told him to piss off already!

’Fore Edgar could understand what was going on, he felt a hard metal hand clasp o’er his mouth in such a tight manner as to turn his exclamations into gibberish. He felt the rest o’ his body pressed back gainst a larger metal object by a metal tube on his stomach. He looked down to see that ‘twas an armored arm—what appeared to be a knight’s arm.

But that can’t be… thought Edgar.

“All right, let go o’ him you cocksucker,” Autumn said as she stormed o’er to the minion, only to feel her arms held back.

She looked to her sides to see 2 mo’ minions. They lifted her into the air & 2 mo’ minions came by to hold her legs. She tried throttling all her limbs, but found that this was as futile as the last time they carried her; she was completely disarmed.

Lance must’ve found some way to exit the mansion without breaking Edgar’s commands, & thus broke free o’ them entirely, thought Autumn.

“I hope you enjoyed what brief victory you had handed to you on a platter before, ’cause now that’s ’bout to be struck down, I’m ’fraid,” Lance said as he stepped forward into sight from ’hind the shadows o’ the hedges.

Autumn noticed that Lance looked much messier than usual: his hat was tilted & bent, his hair streamed out in haggard strains, & his cloak appeared shredded & creased. But what was most prominent was the twisted gleam in his eyes.

Something isn’t right in a mind with those eyes.

“I thought Edgar told you you had to leave us ’lone,” said Autumn, hoping he might be gullible ’nough to give them answers.

“Ah, but he didn’t,” said Lance. She swore she could see him lick his lips & drool @ the flavor o’ his own words. “He said I must give you peace; & so I plan to give you the greatest peace you could e’er ask for: death. You shall be relieved o’ all the burdens life punishes you with.”

Autumn was too threatstricken to be amused @ the incongruous congruity o’ their views on death in this instance. “I don’t think… No… That magic—whatever causes you to have to do what Edgar says—that can’t just let you use that obvious bullshit interpretation. Come the fuck on,” said Autumn, trying to slap her head, only to be reminded her arms were still being held.

“Well, it seems to be working now.”

“OK, fine; ¿but how are these assholes helping you? I clearly remember Edgar saying they were not to harm anyone… O shit.”

“Well 1st, as you’ve seemed to discover yourself, they are not harming anyone,” said Lance. “& while the skeleton ordered me to command them not to touch you before, he ne’er said I couldn’t change that order.”

“Edgar, couldn’t you just order him to—shit…”

That was when Autumn turned her head & saw that Edgar had his mouth covered.

“From past experience I can assume the skeleton will be much harder to dispose o’—’specially while preventing him from speaking; so the good news is, you’re the 1st to take your punishment.”

Lance stood bent o’er & breathed heavily as if he were preparing to transform into a werewolf as soon as the moon turned full. It reminded Autumn o’ how Dawn appeared when she went after them, & made her wonder if Lance was infected with the same virus.

“I s’pose I can expect you to be too cowardly to do the honors without me being held down by 4 other people, though a rational person might expect someone like you who harps on ’bout individuality & free will & all that tripe to be disdainful o’ such an obvious handout from others.”

Lance’s mouth twisted into an e’en wider smile.

“O, but Madame Springer, you most certainly do have the utmost o’ free will. No less than the skeleton & no less than I.”

I had a feeling that line would come back to bash my brains out with a bat, mused Autumn.

“Well, you’re just so lucky that, ’cause I won’t stoop down to your level, I’ll fight you fairly,” said Lance. “I’ll order my minions to release you & stay out o’ the fight—though they will intervene if you try to rescue the skeleton.”

“¿Truly?” Autumn said with a look that indicated she didn’t truly believe him. She remembered he tried this before, & it didn’t end well for him.

“Yes, let me just get out my new weapon I found,” Lance said as he lifted his hat & pulled out a cracked baseball bat.

I knew I forgot something when I left that stupid maze, thought Autumn. Well, a’least now I know where it is, I s’pose.

“I thought this might partly make up for the immense wealth you’ve already taken from so many,” said Lance.

“¿& I s’pose you fear giving me a weapon would be too e’en a match for you to win?”

“Sorry, but it’s not my responsibility to supply you with anything—you ought to, as the saying goes, pull yourself up by your bootstraps.”

Autumn raised a hand. “Um, objection. This is clearly a scandalous misinterpretation o’ free-market principles, which we’ve clearly indicated earlier means you must be punished with having 3 tons o’ gold dropped on you. You do believe in the rule o’ law, after all…”

“You may release the looter now,” Lance said as he glanced @ the 4 minions.

They nodded, released Autumn’s limbs, & turned & walked ’way toward the guard holding Edgar.

Lance didn’t move yet. He stood in place while he spun the bat round in his right hand.

Let’s hope he doesn’t actually know how to use that, Autumn thought as she spread her feet out to better prepare them for moving.

“This is it,” said Lance. “¡It is finally time for you to pay society back for all o’ the crimes you have committed!”

“Most people just use jail or fines, you know,” said Autumn, feeling saliva catch in the back o’ her throat.

“No, ¡that would be too generous for such a devious looter like you!” Lance said as he thrust the end o’ the bat toward Autumn.

Drool dripped down Lance’s bottom lip as if he were a mad dog. ¿What did this guy get infected with while we weren’t looking? Autumn asked herself. It made her wonder how well this would affect his ability to attack with that bat. He seemed a lot mo’ dexterous with it so far than she would have expected.

She would soon discover. Lance charged @ her & then swung up & left with all o’ his might so suddenly that Autumn just barely backed ’way in time. She backed ’way e’en farther, as quickly as her feet could manage, while watching Lance recover with similar speed. She ruminated o’er how if she’d been a bit later with that dodge, her head would be flying up o’er the hedge maze.

Lance followed with swing after swing after swing, each narrowly missing her as she stumbled backward.

Hopefully all o’ this heavy swinging will tire him out ’fore I’m cornered.

That was when Autumn felt her feet bump into something ’hind her, causing her to collapse backward off her feet. Staring down @ her legs, she could see that ‘twas a crooked tombstone that just so happened to say, “Autumn falls early this year…”

She was ’bout to try pulling herself back up when she saw Lance jump forward & slam the bat down on her legs, causing Autumn’s eyes to almost pop out their sockets & the breath to thicken & clog her mouth. She could hear the bone cracking as the bat struck &, sure ’nough, felt a burning numbness in her knees that made it hard for her to move them.

’Fore she could do mo’, Lance swung his bat ’gain—this time @ Autumn’s face, whipping it sideways. Though her head was not detached, she could feel some o’ her teeth get knocked out, & could feel her nose crack e’en mo’ than ‘twas before. Blood dribbled down her nose, filling her mouth, while the skin under her left eye swelled & purpled.

Giving up on her legs, she ’stead turned & tried crawling ’way, digging her nails forward & back in the mossy dirt like a mole digging ’way from a feral cat.

Though she tried moving as fast as possible, she couldn’t help pausing every now & then to catch her breath—not helped by the blood clogging her mouth. She opened her mouth wide to let in air, only for her mouth to cough up blood, her eyes watching it pour out as a spigot.

I can already see this won’t work well for me… she thought hazily. But I might as well try as hard as I can till the end.

Autumn was simply too slow on her arms to keep ’head o’ Lance—‘twas hard ’nough while my feet still functioned—& so he was soon able to strike ’nother hit gainst Autumn on the shoulder, busting it as well & causing her to collapse prone.

As she rubbed her busted shoulder with her other hand, feeling the same fiery numbness as in her legs still, she realized ’scape was futile. She would just have to go into defense mode till she could devise ’nother way out o’ this mess—though she doubted she could find a way. She sucked her head back as a turtle & put her right arm o’er her head for protection.

Lance laughed. “Given up already, I see. Well, ¡I guess I’ll finally get round to giving you that peace I promised!”

He hefted the bat up ’gain & released a flurry o’ swipes o’er her arm & back like lightning. She could feel the bones in her arm & back breaking further & further with each strike.

After Lance saw Autumn’s body sag from the weakening o’ the onslaught, he flipped her o’er on her back with his foot & pressed it down o’er her chest, leaning in toward her face.

“¿Any last pleas ’fore I finish you off? Maybe if you beg good ’nough I might make it less agonizing.”

Autumn was panting heavily, her body feeling as if ‘twere starved for oxygen, the blood still clogging her mouth making her cough.

While she was staring upward, she tried to keep most o’ her attention on his face—a wolfish, contorted parody o’ what she faintly remembered as the harmless visage he wore before. He had a wide grin open ’nough to show his sharp teeth.

“I s’pose it’d be ridiculous to ask you not to relieve your frustrations on me, ¿but could I ask that you a’least not be so pathetic ’nough to do so on someone as helpless as Edgar?” Autumn asked weakly.

Lance threw his head back & laughed. “¿Helpless? ¡The twerp enslaved me! ¡He locked me up in this revolting mansion! ¿Does he think I will let go such inhuman tyranny? ¿Do you?”

“You know, I told him to do that,” said Autumn. “You clearly saw he was reluctant to do it.”

“¿Reluctant? Well, poor ‘ol bastard. ¡I don’t care if he was reluctant—he did it, anyway! & ’sides, ¡the fact that he would choose to be subordinate to such filth as you is itself a crime! ¡If you are not part o’ the solution, you are part o’ the problem; his decision to abide such lawlessness—nay, e’en help you sometimes in it—indicts him itself! It’s just like ?-Man says: you can either be a healthy mushroom or poisonous, white or black. ¡There’s no middle point!”

Lance had his bat raised o’er his head, ready to slam down on Autumn’s head & turn it into mush. But Autumn saw that she still needed mo’ time.

“Wait…” Autumn said with a withering hand—the 1 whose shoulder wasn’t shattered—partly raised. “’Fore I die, could you… could you a’least give me a mo’ detailed reason. I mean, you’re an Objectivist, after all. Every action is backed by principle. I know a li’l ’bout it—you know, screw the poor, & all that—but I was hoping you could give me greater detail. You know, so maybe I could use it to improve myself in the afterlife.”

What shocked Autumn the most was not the fact that Lance’s expression showed her plan had worked—she expected it to; what shocked her was that Lance’s expression became less crazy: his smile faded, his eyes untwisted, & e’en his teeth seemed to become less fang-like. His breath began to slow & his face began to flush with warmth, in contrast to the bloodless ice that was his pallor before.

He laughed. “Such uselessness. But I’ll do it just ’cause I love to prolong this—¡us in our true, proper positions in the world! ¡Justice prevailing @ last!”

Autumn blinked in half horror, half curiosity.

“Well, 1st off, I am certain there is no afterlife. That is simply some leftist myth that gives them an ’scuse to use what time they truly do have in life to laze round doing nothing @ best, & commit outright evil in your case.”

“Mmm hmm, please continue.”

Autumn struggled to ignore the urge to glance left; she had to keep her eyes purely focused on Lance so he would not suspect anything.

“& as for why you are being punished so, why, it is ’cause you & your vile skeleton friend have violated the most sacred o’ man’s rights: the rights to be free, the rights o’ property. The fact that you would—”

Lance suddenly felt a pressure pulling his upraised bat back & then felt an arm wrap round under his armpits. He made a quick glance down @ the arm to see that ‘twas covered in a green jacket sleeve—¡That looter friend I forgot ’bout all this time! Then to Autumn, who was now flashing Lance a weak smile.

Lance had li’l time else to survey the situation. ’Fore he knew it, the other witch was pushing him forward, holding him so tightly he couldn’t manage to struggle out.

“¡Release me, you vile witch!” he yelled. “¡This is a clear violation o’ my personal space & you’d better release me this instant, or else! ¡Guards! Stop dinking round; ¡do something!”

The guards—who had earlier turned ’way from everything, playing a card game to take their minds off the fact that their boss was murdering a young woman—turned their heads @ the sound o’ Lance’s voice.

But there was nothing they could do. As Autumn watched Dawn’s actions—well, not truly Dawn: the monster possessing her—her smile faded into a gaze o’ horror. Straight ’head o’ them was the gate, with all o’ its spikes protruding from all sides.

“¡Dawn! ¡Wait!…” Autumn’s voice choked with blood.

But Dawn didn’t seem to respond.

Just as they were nearing the gate, Autumn shut her eyes into a sickened cringe. However, her fears were confirmed by the nerve-rending scream that came from Lance’s voice. Dawn was completely silent.

She forced her eyes open to see both Lance & Dawn hanging a few centimeters off the air, 1 long spike going right through them. She saw their arms hang limply from their sides. She could see by the way their bodies convulsed erratically & the blank glaze in their eyes that neither o’ their bodies functioned anymo’.

The guards had finally reached Dawn & Lance, shifting their bodies left & right awkwardly as they stood there, knowing they’d screwed something up. 1 o’ them put his finger to Lance’s wrist, let it fall back, & then shrugged.

“I guess the boss is dead.”

“Darn. I truly needed that extra cash. My daughter’s been begging for that new-fangled Wii fore’er.”

“& I spent all this time coming up with a cool name.”

They walked back to the 1 still holding Edgar, shaking their heads. 1 o’ them lightly kicked a pebble ’cross the grass.

“So, ¿what do we do now?” asked the 1 holding Edgar, Mellow Yellow.

“I guess we’re done. I mean, he can’t pay us if he’s dead.”

“Yeah, ’sides… I don’t feel comfortable doing this killing business. It seems wrong. I mean, look what happened to the boss.”

“Yeah, let’s all get out o’ here.”

The minion holding Edgar released him & then they all walked toward the open window & climbed in, 1 by 1.

The second Edgar felt his feet touch the floor, he ran as fast as he could o’er to Autumn.

“Autumn, ¿are you OK?” he said with gasps.

“Yeah,” Autumn said absentmindedly. “Just a few bones broken. It’s a good thing this is a cartoon, or I’d be outright dead.”

“&… & Dawn… She didn’t…”

Autumn suddenly frowned & looked ’way from him.

Her throat felt sore from all the coughing & the blood. But now it felt ’nother sensation: nauseated. She had the sudden urge to throw up.

When Edgar finished hyperventilating & sobbing, he said, “¿W-what are we going to do then? You won’t be able to move in that condition for months.”

“That’ll give us plenty o’ time.”

“¿What do you mean?”

This question received no answer. By this time, Autumn’s head had tilted to the side & her eyes had closed, her body’s sheer exhaustion knocking her into sleep.

To be continued…

Read DISTURBED RESIDENCE, Part VI