Gary laughed, and tears streamed down his face. “I could go home… I could go home!” He paused, and a wondrous look alighted upon him. “I could see my mum.”
“That’s right, Gary,” said Victor. “Now tell me what you know about these other rooms—the ones that are still cursed. If I can clear all the cursed rooms, we’re free!”
“Yeah, okay,” said Gary. “Well, let’s see. You defeated the curse in the upstairs hall, so—”
“And I’ve cleared a bunch of rooms downstairs, and the courtyard outside.”
Gary gave Victor a puzzled look. “Um, no, see—”
“Yeah, there can’t be too many more cursed rooms downstairs. We’re probably halfway done already.”
“But it doesn’t matter about—”
“I was going to see what’s beyond the ballroom next. What’s back there?”
“No, forget that,” said Gary.
“But what about—”
“Stop! Just listen. The next thing you need to do—” He stopped and stood still.
“Gary? What’s up?”
Gary looked at Victor with frightened eyes and shook his head.
“Gary, what is it?”
Gary lowered his head; his shoulders sank. Behind him appeared a smoking black figure; burning specks swirled up from its shoulders and floated down in a rain of ash. It murmured low, indecipherable groans, and emitted a palpable stench of rotting meat. The figure stepped toward Gary and placed a shadowy, white-dotted hand on his shoulder. It spoke in a deep, slow hiss, “That’s enough, boy.”
Victor stepped back, covering his nose and observing with disgust the maggots writhing on the figure’s hand. Gary stood still with a pathetic calmness as the ghoul gripped him. He sighed and muttered, “I wasn’t doing anything wrong.”
The dark figure made a short, disturbing noise, half agonised moan and half pig squeal. Waves of smoke swam and surged around its body, and then in an instant vanished. The figure had transformed—military uniform; bristling moustache; hard, cold eyes wearing a look of disdain. It was the officer from the haunted painting, the towering man from the tent outside—it was Gary’s stepfather.
Victor lunged forward and landed a swift right cross on his jaw, but the jaw sank and squelched like soft rubber then sprang back into shape. Victor swung again—a rip to the rib ribcage—but the ribs absorbed his fist as though swallowing it, and then spat it out; it was like punching a mound of melted cheese. Gary’s stepfather seemed not to notice the attack; he seemed not to notice Victor at all. “Hitting him won’t help,” said Gary.
Gary’s stepfather tightened his grip on Gary’s shoulder. Though Gary now looked ten years older than his stepfather, and was just two inches shorter, he still had the submissive look of a scared eleven-year-old boy. “I was just talking,” said Gary, meekly.
“You are a child,” said his stepfather. “You have nothing worthwhile to say. Now… it’s time to go.”
A frightened yet determined look sparked in Gary’s eye. “I don’t want to go with you,” he declared.
His stepfather’s face reddened, and he bellowed, “You take that tone with me again, boy, and I’ll kick your arse so hard you won’t be able to sit for a month!”
Gary sighed. “Yes sir.”
Twisting snakes of black smoke took form and rose from the ashes on the carpet; they began to envelope Gary and his stepfather. “Wait, Gary!” cried Victor, as the smoke rose almost to Gary’s face. “Gary, come on! Don’t you want to go home?”
Gary looked through the swelling fog. “It’s okay,” he said. “Good luck, Victor.” The smoke swallowed Gary and his stepfather, and sucked them down through the floor and away.
Victor was left alone, staring down in astonishment. When the final traces of smoke dissipated, Victor backed away and around the long dining table. “Screw that,” he said. “I have to get out of here.” He ran from the room, and headed back to the bedroom.
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