The House on the Hill: Part Two
The helping of Steak and Kidney Pie on Reginald's dinner plate was almost demolished before either of his parents were nearly finished eating. One could always count on Reginald's large appetite, something he might have inherited from his father, but the contrast with his projected image of a refined scholar often surprised the family's new acquaintances. As Alice watched, an amused look on her face, her son devoured the remainder of the pie, using his fork to grab a piece of steak that had miraculously escaped during the pie's destruction. Well, boys will be boys, thought the purple Zafara, smiling fondly at her son.
"Thank you for the marvelous dinner, Mother," Reginald said, soaking up the Steak and Kidney sauce with a Corn Scone. Alice smiled at him again, standing up to bring her plate back to the kitchen.
As dinner conversation began to wind down in the household, however, there came the all too familiar sound of shouts outside in the streets. Edmund rose from his armchair and rushed to the window, peering out warily. Ever since the aftermath of Krawley's monstrous potion, everyone in the family was on edge at the slightest sign of turmoil in the town. Alice and Reginald soon joined him, all three Neopets trying to discern what was happening.
While the family was gathered at the window, craning their necks to catch a glimpse of the potential quarrel, there suddenly came a knock at the door.
Reginald almost leaped into the air, Alice clapped a paw over her heart, and Edmund whirled around to look at the front corridor. The family exchanged embarrassed, nervous glances, the yelling outside still reaching their ears. Finally, Edmund cleared his throat and walked briskly to the door. When he opened it, Reginald had to keep himself from cringing in fear (though he would never admit it), but Edmund's next exclamation was one of delight rather than terror.
"Bruno!" the Skeith said, ushering his eldest son into the house. "Come in! How have you been?"
"I've been well, thank you, Father," Bruno replied, as polite as always. His hulking, disfigured form appeared in the corridor. With one rejection after another marring his past, Bruno was (with good reason) somewhat reserved, even when he was among his relatives. Nonetheless, when Reginald rushed forward to greet him, the blue Gelert broke into an unmistakable grin. "Hi Reg," he added with a bit more cheer, "how has your latest novel been coming along?"
After the publication of Tale of Woe: The Untold Story and its sequel, Hide and Seek, a couple of years ago, Reginald had decided to put his interest in books and words to good use by becoming a writer. For the past several months, he'd been hard at work on a third novel, which he'd originally intended to be a work of historical fiction... but oddly, it was starting to lean closer to the horror genre. It seemed that living in the Haunted Woods had corrupted his mind beyond repair.
"Ah... well, my plans for the tale are certainly taking a number of intriguing turns lately," the Lupe said, laughing slightly under his breath. "By the way, Brother, have you any idea what's caused such a commotion outside?"
Bruno sighed, looking over at the window. "Well, from what I can tell, Weldon Bancroft's come out of his house for the first time in months," he explained. Edmund and Alice exchanged exasperated glances; Weldon Bancroft, an elderly grey Lupe who lived on Crescent Street, was known equally around town for his anti-social tendencies and his conviction that the world was in terrible danger.
"And he immediately launched into one of his usual rants, I imagine," Edmund said. When Bruno affirmed this, the Skeith shook his head in disbelief. "As if this is the proper time for him to go around insisting the end is nigh!" This was the only topic that most Neovian citizens had ever heard Weldon Bancroft discuss. Generally, everyone just ignored his apocalyptic ramblings, but with tensions running so high lately, the whole town was on edge.
Shrugging, Bruno continued his recollection of events. "In any case, he was outside his house warning everyone of their impending doom until Quincy Mapplethorpe started shouting back at him, and suddenly the two of them were fighting," he finished. Though the idea of Quincy Mapplethorpe, a Korbat just as elderly and nearly as cantankerous as Weldon, getting into a fistfight with the crazy old Lupe was actually sort of amusing, that didn't change the fact that Neovia desperately needed to sort out this business with the Craven house.
Unbeknownst to Edmund, his younger son was at that moment thinking of doing exactly that. When Bruno rose from his seat in the parlor to leave, saying he should go back home to water his garden, Reginald sprang up to join him. Edmund and Alice saw nothing wrong with Reginald wanting to spend the night at his brother's cottage. The two had always had a strong fraternal bond; no matter how much time passed, Reginald's admiration for Bruno never diminished. As they left the house, the yelling in the streets seemed to have died down, but the same could not be said for the blanket of fear that had settled over Neovia.
As soon as they were out of their parents' sight, Reginald turned to his brother with that terrible look on his face. That look had never led to anything good, and Bruno, alarmed, responded to it with a look of his own.
"Brother," Reginald began, rather dramatically. "I apologize in advance for using you as my... ah, cover story, shall we say, but let me assure you, it was entirely necessary."
Bruno's look turned to one of bewilderment, then suspicion. "Cover story...? Reginald, what is going on." Indeed, this last sentence ended up sounding more like a statement than a question.
Grinning nervously up at the blue Gelert, Reginald attempted to explain. "Well, er, you see... I have recently developed an interest in the... eh, the paranormal. And, well, it's only logical that, since there appears to be a haunted residence in our very own neighborhood, I... well, I should go... investigate..." His voice trailed off as Bruno's expression transformed once more, from suspicion to outright horror.
"You can't be serious, Reggie, you're going into the Craven house?" he exclaimed, clapping a huge paw to his forehead.
"Why not?" Reginald insisted. We played hide-and-seek there almost every afternoon as children, and furthermore, the town is completely hysterical. Someone has to conduct a search for the truth of the matter — you must have wondered if the house is haunted, just as everyone else has!"
Bruno only frowned at him and said, "I'm not letting you go in there alone. The house might not be haunted, but what if something dangerous has moved in? This is the Haunted Woods, Reggie, it's not like it's impossible. It's not even unlikely."
"Come with me, then," Reginald said, stubborn as ever.
Now, in Bruno's defense, Reginald said this in a very determined tone, and for a scrawny sixteen year old Lupe who spent most of his time up to his ears in books, his determined tone was extremely determined. Given that he then paired it with a deeply wounded facial expression, no one can really hold it against Bruno if he agreed.
Bruno found it oddly comforting that, after all these years, the wooden planks of the Craven house's porch still made the same creaking sound when he stepped on them. The house itself, on the other hand, was somehow more terrifying to him as an adult than it had been when he was young. (Then again, maybe that had something to do with the fact that it was now rather late in the evening, and over the past week, there had been a flood of claims that the house was haunted.)
It occurred to him that Reginald really had not planned this expedition very well. The two of them walked up to the door without even so much as a candle to light the way — and with the dilapidated, lonely manor looming over them, Bruno was becoming more and more convinced that this was not one of Reggie's better ideas.
At any other time of the year, the misshapen Gelert wouldn't have such strong objections; sure, he'd never encourage his little brother to go waltzing into creepy abandoned mansions alone, but he thought it was particularly worrying that these haunting rumors had surfaced right before Halloween. The curse had been lifted from Neovia nearly five years ago, and yet Bruno still found himself growing tenser as Halloween approached. There was a part of his mind that was always sure he would wake up one morning back in his cave in the middle of the Woods, his beloved family and the other townspeople still suffering thanks to his own reckless behavior.
"Brother?" came Reginald's voice. Bruno turned to see his brother looking expectantly up at him, the door to the Craven house wide open. "As usual, it was unlocked," the brown Lupe said. During the years they used to play hide-and-seek there, the Craven manor had never had a locked door. Upon closer inspection, the lock appeared to have rusted to the point of falling apart.
"Now... Reg, are you sure about this?" Bruno asked, trying one final time to dissuade the boy from this terrible plan. The inhabitants of Neovia sometimes forgot that their town was, in fact, located in the depths of the Haunted Woods. It wasn't too much of a stretch to believe that a ghost had really moved into the empty house, and many of the ghosts in the Haunted Woods weren't friendly ones. Alternatively, one of the living inhabitants of the Woods might have moved in, and although more corporeal, they were no less dangerous.
And if there was actually no one at all in the mansion, then the lighting was starting to malfunction and the house beginning to creak of its own accord — in other words, it was about to fall to pieces, and what if by entering, they set the collapse in motion? Not only would the damage to the town's architecture and the surrounding area be severe, but Bruno and Reginald would almost definitely be crushed by debris. This truly seemed like a lose-lose situation, but for some bizarre reason, Reginald refused to see it that way.
As if to prove Bruno's point, Reginald responded at that moment with a determined nod, and crept through the doorway. The Gelert sighed heavily and, silencing his common sense, followed.
"I can't see a thing!" Reginald muttered. Neither could Bruno, but if he could, he assumed he would see his little brother pouting melodramatically. In spite of his age and intellect, Reginald could be surprisingly childish now and then.
"Come on, Reg, I'm not having much trouble, and you're even more familiar with this place than I am," Bruno reasoned, chuckling quietly when the only reply was a frustrated grumble from the shadows to his left. These were some of the classic Reginald Signs of Discontent, displayed when one of his plans wasn't going the way he wanted it to go. (And despite his staggering intellect, Reginald made an awful lot of plans that didn't go the way he wanted them to go.) The grumbling became markedly angrier when Reginald walked into a table. He stumbled around, clutching his knee, while Bruno looked on in concern.
And then both of them froze at the sound of footsteps.
The footsteps continued for several more seconds, then were drowned out by shuffling and a loud thump. All thoughts of his injured knee forgotten, Reginald grabbed hold of Bruno. "It's the ghost!" he whispered, his eyes wide in the darkness. Bruno braced himself, his gaze fixed on the staircase to the second floor, but the sounds seemed to have stopped. No hideous monster appeared to swallow them both, and after a minute or two of clinging to his brother for dear life, Reginald coughed sheepishly and let go. "Alright," he said, "I'm going to begin investigating."
Reginald disappeared again into the shadows, and Bruno was left reminiscing about the past. Coming back to the Craven house with his brother after so many years was dredging up old memories. In a way, it was strange and a little disorienting to realize that a good deal of these nooks and crannies had been their hiding places during many long, intense games of hide-and-seek; the dusty, old, abandoned, but harmless house of their childhood had become something much different, something that made his pulse race fearfully. For some reason, it just felt very wrong to be here searching for whatever was striking fear into the townspeople's hearts, wrong that the situation had come to this.
Was that why Reginald was so intent on discovering the truth — a sense of duty to the house he used to love?
Bruno's train of thought was cut jaggedly short by a loud squeak from Reginald. "There! On the stairs!" the Lupe exclaimed, sounding like all the air had been knocked out of him. Bruno whirled around to look at the staircase, gasping at the sight before him.
At the top of the stairs was a spectral figure shrouded in the darkness. It held a candle in one hand that illuminated the hallway on the second floor, throwing an eerie light onto the portraits that lined the walls. The figure was pale and wraith-like, watching them in silence while the candle's flame burned steadily... but then, apparently realizing that the two had spotted it, the apparition turned and vanished back into the darkness of the corridor.
To be continued...