The Scorned House:Part Three
Armin jumped, almost leaping out of the chair. A sudden loud racket caught him completely by surprise.
“What the heck was that?!”
He looked over his shoulder. The noise came from the kitchen, right behind him. He stood up and stepped away from the table, retrieving his lantern. It sounded like a metal vase or something similar had been knocked over. But what could have caused it? Other than him and his Usul companion, there was no one else around. Or was there?
He turned back again; Gilly came rushing down the hallway, lantern in hand.
“Are you okay? I heard a noise!”
“I’m…I’m okay, thanks. I heard it too, it came from back there!” He gestured towards the kitchen door.
Gilly walked past him, approaching the door at the end of the dining hall. She turned the handle and stepped through, cautiously.
Armin followed her into the kitchen, cabinets, shelves and tables topped with jugs, kettles, pots, pans and silverware, shined in the lantern light. At the far end of the room was an iron stove. Various herbs, vegetables and spices hung from racks nailed to the wall. Gilly approached the stove and opened the grate, only to let out a raspy cough as ashes scattered into the air. Fanning the ash away, she touched one of the iron racks; it was cold to the touch. It couldn’t have been used too long ago. But how long exactly she could not possibly tell for sure.
“There’s a lot of food here,” Armin said, examining a stack of wooden crates in the other side of the room, “I bet these crates could keep a whole village fed for months, maybe a whole year—YAAAAGH!”
Gilly gasped. She turned around just in time to see Armin stumble to the floor. She raised her lantern; the light revealed a single green vine thin enough to be confused for a Reptillior, lined across the wall. Following it, she noticed it protruded from a crack in the floor just inches away from the crates Armin was inspecting just a moment ago. Several shattered bits of jugs, vases and a cracked pot littered the floor beside it.
“What…wh—where did that come from?!” Armin exclaimed, eyes wide, backing even further away from the vine.
She lowered her lantern, “Listen, Armin. There’s something I need to tell you, about this mansion.”
He looked at her, giving her his complete attention, “Wh—what about?”
“I found the owner’s journal, he said that there’s an old tree that they didn’t cut down properly when they built this place. Apparently it’s been growing back and it’s starting to spread across the whole mansion.”
“You mean…there’s some kind of evil tree under this very house? And it could uproot this whole mansion any minute?”
“Seems like it.”
Armin paused for a second, then he spoke up once more, “I think we’ve overstayed our welcome here, don’t you think?”
Gilly nodded in agreement.
They rushed back to the main hall, running as fast as they could. Within minutes they approached the twin doors leading outside.
“Okay, now let’s get out of here before—”
The two pets came to a sudden stop in their tracks. Their eyes widened, mouths agape in shock. The front door and the windows were completely covered in dense vines reaching all the way to the ceiling.
“That’s not good.” Gilly uttered.
“Nice try, but you’re not locking us in that easy!” Armin said, drawing his trusty dagger.
He walked up towards the vines and outstretched his arms. He swiped down, both his dagger and sharp claws severing many of the vines with each slash, vine after vine crumpled to the floor, until a path to the door was clear.
“Ha!” Armin smirked.
Just as soon as he cut the vines, several more, much larger and thicker than before, sprouted out from cracks under the door, concealing the exit again.
He stared back in disbelief and stomped his foot in frustration, “Blast it! This thing won’t let us through!”
“Looks like there’s only one way out.”
Armin turned to look at her. Gilly was staring straight ahead to the end of the hall. Behind the set of stairs was a set of twin doors. He read her mind, following close behind as they made their way towards the entry.
Gilly pushed the doors open, revealing a stairwell descending steeply into the darkness below, the light from their lanterns too weak to reach the end.
They looked at each other. Armin gestured towards the stairwell, “After you.”
He waited until she took the first few steps, then he followed her, placing one hand on the rail for balance. As they started their descent, the floor didn’t creak or bend beneath their feet with every step, each individual stair as solid as if it were brand new.
It didn’t take long before they reached the cellar. After a short while they reached the end of the stairs. The chamber was pitch-black. Not a light to be found anywhere. They raised their lanterns, casting the shadows away; revealing barrels and crates stacked up against the grey stonewalls. Cobwebs, dust and grime littered every surface, creating a pungent, grimy scent of decay.
Armin took one whiff and placed the back of his paw over his mouth, trying to ward off the toxic vapor.
As they walked through the dark cellar, they immediately spotted more vines growing on the walls, spreading like ivy. Armin shuddered when he noticed them moving, slithering, like snakes or worms.
“They really are spreading,” Gilly uttered, “I’ve never seen a tree grow like this. That can’t be natural.”
They followed the vines, leading them deeper and deeper into the basement. Finally they came across bits of chipped stone on the floor, giving way to a cracked open wall, torn down into a massive opening leading to a large tunnel.
Gilly glanced at Armin, “This is it. You ready?”
Armin nodded, “Ready if you are.”
They stepped foot into the tunnel. The cold cobblestone floors gave way to rough limestone and rocks as they found themselves in a large chamber. The retreating shadows revealed an assortment of pickaxes, shovels, axes and other tools scattered on the ground. Then roots as thick as logs came into view. They were entangled, twisting over and under, stacking on top of each other, piling up more and more, until they curved upwards, forming into a wall.
Armin and Gilly looked up. Their eyes widened. Before them was a tall tree almost as wide as the tunnel itself, its bark covered in vines and dense roots that writhed back and forth, stretching all the way up to the ceiling. They walked towards it, unable to resist a closer look.
Armin took several steps forward, only to hear something crack under his feet. He stopped in his tracks. Below him was an ornate wooden cane broken in half.
He froze, “Wait…this is…” Almost immediately the painting of the mansion’s owner flashed in his mind, “Gilly!”
“Huh?” Gilly turned towards him.
“The owner of the mansion, I saw a painting of him in the hallway. This is his cane!”
Gilly blinked, glancing down at the cane, then back to the giant tree.
“What should we do?” Armin spoke up again, “any ide—GAAH!”
Out of the darkness, a vine shot out, wrapping itself around Armin’s leg. It wrenched, sweeping the Bori off his feet, dragging him backwards into the shadows.
“Armin!” Gilly screamed.
Armin laid his hands firmly on the ground; his sharp claws scraped the stone floor, leaving marks as he tried to stop the branch’s pull. It was to no avail, the vine’s grip was far too strong. Within moments he was pushed up against the tree, tendrils ensnaring his arms and legs.
Gilly had to act quickly. Her eyes fell upon a particular tool lying on the ground. An axe. She lunged, gripping it firmly in her hands as she rolled on the ground. Without missing a beat, she ran up to the vine that had entangled her Bori companion.
“Armin, hold still!” Gilly commanded. She raised the axe above her head, aiming for the vines, ready to strike down.
Something struck her left shoulder, a sudden, fierce smack sent the Usul flying, knocking the axe out of her hands. She recovered quickly as she hit the ground, clambering to her feet. It was then that she saw what had struck her, one of the vines from the tree.
She caught a glint of light from the corner of her eye. The axe lay still on the ground not far from where she was thrown off. Another vine lunged at her. Gilly ducked just in time, the vine lashing the wall behind her. She was quick on her feet; jumping, ducking and dodging as more vines flailed and thrashed in a futile attempt to catch her.
She snatched up the axe in her arms. She eyed another one of the vines coming straight for her. She ducked under it, the wind whooshing past her as it missed its target. She swung the axe, the blade neatly cutting through the vine in one swing, severing it in two.
Armin struggled to wrest control of the vines that snared him. He gasped as the roots tightened their grip on him. That wasn’t all, he felt himself getting pushed back and the tree was reeling him in. The writhing, sturdy roots applied more pressure.
Gilly ran up to him and raised her axe. Armin clenched his eyes, bracing himself.
“Let go of my friend you stupid tree!” she bellowed.
She swung, the axe tearing through the vines as it hit its targets. Armin wrenched himself free as the vines finally loosened their grip on him. Gilly turned tail, rushing to regroup with him, only to feel a sudden tug on her ankles.
Gilly screamed. Armin turned back just in time to see a pair of vines entwine her legs, dragging her across the ground. He lunged, reaching out to grab her. He snatched her hand, only to lose his grip as she was wrenched away.
“Gilly!” Armin shouted.
Within moments she took Armin’s spot on the bark of the tree. Vines wrapped around her arms and legs, preventing her escape.
Armin spotted the axe on the ground. But a sudden sense of alarm overwhelmed him as he realized the blade had been shattered into tiny bits. Their most effective weapon against it had been destroyed.
[i]Not quite! I still have this![/i]
He reached into his belt and unsheathed his dagger. He dashed towards the tree.
More vines came flailing towards him. As they came close, he slashed at them with his dagger, deflecting and cutting them down as he advanced, coming closer and closer to where Gilly was being held.
Suddenly, he felt something smack him hard on his side; Armin was knocked back, flying into the wall. He crashed to the ground, dizzy, but not out of the fight just yet.
He heard a loud crash right beside him; glass and bits of metal shattered a few feet away. His lantern had been knocked off of his belt when the vine struck him. Embers flew off the shattered lantern, some landing atop one of the severed vines. The vine caught fire, flames engulfing it almost immediately.
It was then that Armin came to a sudden realization.
He got back up on his feet, dusting himself off. He squinted his eyes, scanning, searching for any sign of a weak spot as fast as he could.
And then he saw it, a small gap in the vines, just barely big enough for a small object to pass through. The idea came to him in an instant. He procured his trusty slingshot from his belt, snatched up the burning vine and loaded it.
Gilly started to feel dizzy, the grip the vines had on her arms and legs were far too tight, cutting off circulation. She could feel them pulling her back, increasing the pressure, her whole body aching.
“Armin, hurry!” Gilly shouted, the vines refusing to let their captive go, tightening their grip even more than before.
He had to act quickly, a moment too late and his friend would be crushed. He had only one shot. He had to make it count.
Armin held his breath, steadying his twitching arm. He let go, the flaming projectile shot through the air, the wind strengthening the flames, leaving a short trail as it flew.
It hit its target, flying through the small gap in the mass of roots. Sparks burst upon impact.
Suddenly the roots began to thrash around wildly. The ground rumbled, creating what Armin thought to be an unnatural roaring sound coming from within the very tree. The roots restraining Gilly relinquished their grip on her, dropping her to the ground. Without hesitation, Armin rushed to her side and helped her up.
The roots started to twitch madly as well, the cracks spreading as it’s thrashing intensified. Dust, rubble and bits of stone fell as they widened further and further as the roots tore through the ceiling.
Smoke began to rise from the gap in the vines; a bright orange light flickered for a few moments, then flames leapt up from the crevice, engulfing the tree in seconds, fire propagating to the vines above, passing through the cracks.
“That’s definitely not good.” Gilly said.
“RUN!” Armin screamed.
They ran as fast as their feet could carry them. The tunnel came crashing down, the pair barely making it out before a pile of rubble and stone sealed the passage.
They had lost their lantern’s light in the scuffle, but the flames had already spread through many of the vines on the walls. They ran through the shifting shadows, the firelight being their guide as they traversed through the dark cellar.
However, they were not as fast as the flames. The vines channeled the fire throughout the entire mansion, reaching every room, top to bottom, spreading even further through curtains, wooden drawers, cupboards and wardrobes, consuming anything within range.
Soon the whole mansion would come crashing down, reduced to little more than a pile of ash, and if the kids didn’t find a way out soon, so would they.
Following the burning vines, the stairwell leading to the first floor of the mansion was in sight. They didn’t waste a moment to catch their breath; they latched onto the railing for support as they ascended the stairs. Smoke began to engulf the tunnels below, reaching the stairwell within moments. They started coughing as smoke filled the air.
Before they knew it, they had reached the top of the stairs, bursting through the twin doors.
“There’s the front door! Hurry!” Gilly shouted.
Armin and Gilly ran through the grand hall as fast as they could. The vines that blocked the exit before were gone, crumbled to ash, their exit out of the accursed mansion coming closer and closer by the second.
The flames had engulfed the rest of the house, everything burned, bits and pieces of the walls and ceilings crumbled to the floor. Entire rooms and chambers and anything in the path of the raging blaze were reduced to cinder. The mansion was about to collapse.
Time seemed to slow, smoke coated the hall in a haze so thick their vision blurred, the room hot and scorched from the intense heat, they were stumbling, limping as they breathed in the hazy air. They reached out, lunging for the doors. Above them, the beams supporting the roof wilted. Fire roared, climbing the timbers, rafters and pillars, the whole house shifted as the blaze intensified every passing second.
They gasped; the smell of fresh air filled their lungs once again as they burst through the front doors. They came to a stop at the closed gate, panting, catching their breath. They pulled open the gate and slipped through, running back into the woods.
Once they were far enough away, they looked over their shoulder. The mansion was consumed in a blazing inferno. Flames burst from the windows, shattering the glass to pieces. A massive cloud of smoke rose into the air, covering a section of the Haunted Woods in an even thicker haze.
“Whoa. Now that was a close one.” Armin muttered.
“No kidding.” Gilly responded, dusting herself off.
Armin turned towards his Usul companion, “That Werelupe attack strayed us off the path, didn’t it? These woods are like a maze, how are we supposed to find our way to Neovia now?”
“Funny you should ask, because that shouldn’t be much of a problem anymore. Before the mansion burned down, I managed to get ahold of one of these from the master study.” Gilly reached into one of her pockets and procured a small map. It was an intricately detailed chart of almost the entirety of the Haunted Woods, listing all the towns, villages and even mapped out all the roads leading to and from the mansion, including a winding path leading straight to Neovia.
Armin stared back for a moment, impressed. He then stepped aside; gesturing towards the dirt road, “Lead the way.”
They set out on their way down the dirt path. Gilly glanced down at the map from time to time, with Armin marking their course as they traveled through the woods, helping with Gilly’s rather poor sense of direction. After a while, the Usul spoke up.
“Hey, Armin?” Gilly asked.
“You don’t mind if I show you around Neovia once we get there, do you?”
“No, not at all. That would be nice actually.”
Gilly smiled, “Great! You must meet Sophie’s family, they’d be happy to meet you! I’ll have to show you the Crumpetmonger, the Meerca owner is really nice and her pastries are just the best! There’s also a nice Ghostberry glade nearby too, if we’re lucky we’ll run into Magax the Destroyer, he likes to hang out there from time to time. He may look sinister, but he’s actually a good guy. I’ll take you to Sophie’s shack too. It’s not that far from Neovia, though I should warn you not to touch anything while you’re there, especially her Meowclops. They seem cute, but they bite. Trust me on that one.”
Gilly rambled on and on as they vanished into the mist. To Armin, this was just the beginning of many adventures to come. He realized quickly that no matter what perils he might face, he would always find a few new friends along the way.