The Way Out
The heavy, rhythmic pounding of stone resounded down the corridor, accompanied every now and then by the screech of metal against the ancient flagged floor. It drew unbearably near, every beat seeming to be the final one; but it did not stop. It marched away with agonising slowness, then faded away, at long last. A shy silence dared to fill the empty corridor again. Sophia allowed herself to let out a breath for what felt like the first time in hours.
She was immediately startled by another ear-splitting sound just inches from her face, scraping this time against the rough wood of the closet doors. The Xweetok shrank inside her little nook, her fluffy tail wrapped around her quivering body. The scraping moved around the doors as if searching for a way in, slamming against the wood every now and then. Sophia could only stare at the tiny crevice between the two panels, hoping not to see anything through it.
"Soph?" The voice was right outside the door, too. "Are you in there? You can come out now, it's gone."
She didn't move an inch. A few heartbeats' silent wait, then the doors were wrenched open.
Sophia cringed. When nothing pounced on her or dragged her out, she dared to open her eyes. She managed to make out the sleek silhouette of a Halloween Kougra in the darkness; he was holding the closet door cautiously at arm's length.
"Ben! It was you."
"Of course it was me."
He peered into every corner of the closet, before stepping in front of the opening and extending a hand to Sophia. "I can't believe you managed to hide in here without getting eaten by anything."
She watched him without making a move. "How did you even get through those corridors in one piece?"
He shrugged. "You can hear them coming from a distance, you know. Just find a hiding place."
"And avoid the Neopet-eating walls, closets, shelves..." Sophia allowed him to pull her up and out of the closet. She brushed shreds of cobwebs out of her fur.
Ben rubbed her ears, which had been pressed flat against the back of her head. "Where are the others?" he asked.
So he didn't know. She shuffled from side to side, shivering as the cold of the floor spread to her bare feet.
"After you left, we managed to escape the Drackonack statues." Sophia's ears twitched around, as if scanning her surroundings for the presence of more of those creatures. "Then the walls shifted again. Ashley and Simon found another exit to try, but it led to a swamp, and mires. I tried to stop them. There were no more statues, but the other monster... it was still around." How she hated to have to tell him. "I couldn't do anything! I'm so sorry. I heard them. It... it pushed them in."
Ben listened quietly. "I see," he commented. "I heard Oliver's voice not long after we got separated. When I arrived, he was gone; the walls had already closed again. There were Blobikins trails everywhere. It's like the whole place is alive."
Sophia stifled a sob, though her eyes remained dry. "M-maybe they'll find a way out and meet us later?"
"Maybe. For now, it's just the two of us, and Fyora knows how many of those abominations from the catacombs." Ben took a few steps down the corridor, strolling almost leisurely towards a patch of torchlight. "And we will find a way out. We can call some exterminators, monster hunters or ghoul catchers. Follow me, Sophia."
When the Kougra did not hear her footsteps behind him, he looked back over his shoulder.
"Ben. Before Ashley went towards the swamp, I thought that she seemed sort of suspicious." Sophia twisted a lock of her purple hair, picking her words carefully and watching his reaction. "The monster that pushed them, I... I think it can change the way it looks. Play tricks on us. Maybe even get inside our heads. What if it comes for us next?"
She saw his gleaming yellow eyes widen in the dim light. "That is a troubling observation." He shrugged, with a light smile. "Let's hope we don't run into it, then. That would be unfortunate."
He opened the next door by a crack and waited for her. His calm exterior was almost puzzling to her - how had he not panicked yet, after being stuck for hours in this monstrous labyrinth, losing their friends one by one? But that was typical of Ben, their rock, the island of imperturbable composure in their little group.
Sophia walked past him and into the next room, which was pitch black, devoid of torches. The door immediately slammed shut behind them; by now, that did not surprise them anymore. The echo of the slam did not hint at a very large room.
"This could lead us anywhere. I thought Ashley would at least have brought a map of this place," Sophia whispered.
"Then again, Ashley is the one who thought that a mansion built over the fashionable cursed catacombs would be a perfect spot for a vacation."
Ben, who had the better night vision, took Sophia's arm and led her further inside, keeping well away from the walls. "There's usually another door right across -"
The Kougra was cut off when Sophia shrieked and pulled out of his grip. He immediately raised his hands over his face, while his leathery wings unfurled to shield his torso. "Don't move! What's attacking...?"
"No, wait!" Sophia didn't seem to be struggling with anything. "I remember this place! There are spikes in the floor, we almost walked right into them!"
Ben slowly bent down, squinting at the floor. He jumped back when dozens of large metal prongs burst out of the stone with a shrill grating sound. Even in the near-total darkness, they looked viciously sharp.
"Nice save. We could have been skewered," he told Sophia politely. She didn't answer.
They gave the spikes a wide berth, still keeping a safe distance from the walls. Ben had almost located the doorframe when a deep rumble shook the entire room. Sudden taps on the backs of their heads turned out to be bits of rubble raining from the ceiling.
"Oh no, not again," Sophia whispered.
They tensed, ready to backtrack as fast as they could go, but no larger chunks of stone fell. A loud scraping was heard in the distance, followed by thunderous booms as walls and blocks fell into place, much heavier than the statues' steps. It took a minute for the echoes to die down.
Ben approached the door with even more caution than before and pressed his ear against it. There was no sound from the other side. "Ready?"
Sophia had taken a few steps back. Once again, the Kougra held the door at arm's length before swinging it open, in a loud creak of hinges. A blast of cold wind rushed in, stinging their eyes and ears, then a dimly glowing blue mist that quickly spread over the dark room. Sophia saw Ben cover his mouth and nose with one hand; she copied him.
A sudden movement near the floor made her lower her gaze: two small translucent heads had peeked around the door and stared at her with wide, round, unblinking red eyes. More of the critters appeared and frolicked into the room with the blue mist, quite content to ignore the two lost Neopians. Sophia began to edge away from them, but Ben motioned for her to stay calm.
"Ghost Meepits come from the Woods," he whispered. "That means this new path will lead us to an exit. Come on, let's move before the walls shift again." He took her arm once more and began to lead her into the unfamiliar torchlit corridor that had formed behind the door.
"They're ghosts," Sophia said with rising panic, "they could have come from anywhere and they're probably trying to trick us-" She feebly tried to plant her heels and push against the floor, but his pull was too strong and her bare feet had no grip. "Ben, wait!"
On and on he marched, his face set, his eyes flashing every time they passed a torch. Sophia slipped and stumbled behind him, doing her best to keep up with his pace. A chandelier lit up the middle of the corridor, ill-assorted with the torches. Before she could warn Ben, the chandelier's branches stretched out and lashed at them with flaming candles. The Kougra simply pulled them faster to dodge the haunted antique, ignoring Sophia's shriek when she almost fell on her face.
They narrowly escaped an angry flock of biting books, a portrait that fired beams of crackling light from its eyes - Sophia saw shards of stone fly off the wall behind her head -, and a patch of floor that suddenly tried to drop them into a Spyder-filled pit. Ben, fired up by his determination to find a way out, would not slow down no matter how hard she pulled.
They sped past a heavy-looking casket that rested against the wall, an empty pedestal with two footprints clearly outlined in the dust, and a giant Blobikins that didn't even have time to notice them. A posse of Werhond skeletons awaited them around a corner; Sophia hadn't even skidded to a stop when Ben about-faced and yanked her back to the main shaft of the corridor.
The Xweetok finally collapsed as they reached the casket they had already passed on the way. Gasping for breath, she could only stare at its empty, rotting interior, and the heavy lid which had somehow fallen to the floor in front of them. Her fur bristled at the thought of what had been in there - and was probably still close at hand.
"It's just trying to scare us," growled Ben, glaring at the casket. "To remind us that it knows where we are." He half-dragged Sophia down a smaller passage that opened on the side of the main corridor, deaf to her breathless protests.
At last, they found themselves in front of a new door. Their mad dash had felt like mere seconds to Sophia, but hours to Ben. Another flock of Ghost Meepits burst through the door and gambolled over the two Neopians' heads. Ben glanced down at the exhausted Xweetok, a glint of triumph in his eyes.
"See? We're almost at the end..."
He opened the door and Sophia was faced with deep, impenetrable pitch darkness that seemed to reach out and swallow her. In that moment, the Xweetok knew in every fibre of her being that something dreadful awaited her in there, that the malicious entity controlling this entire domain would catch up to her and claim her as its prey.
"Not in there, please, it's too scary," she whimpered.
"Oh no," the Kougra said with a grim smile, "now that I've brought you this far, you're making the trip with me."
Then the dim lights went out altogether and blackness surrounded them. The only thing to guide her was Ben's iron-like grip on her forearm; the Kougra stormed through the haunted labyrinth as if they were but one. Was it even Ben himself dragging her along, or a mere projection of the being that had pulled the strings the entire time?
A horribly familiar scraping of stone echoed in the narrow passage; its source had to be mere yards from them. Sophia's ragged breaths turned to hysterical sobs as it drew nearer. A more metallic screech rang out clearly against the low rumble.
"Get away from me!" she screamed suddenly, wrestling against her friend.
They were running now; a tiny, dim rectangular outline hinted at a door in the distance. The stone fiend was almost at their heels. Ben heard something hiss through the icy air; he abruptly pulled them down to dodge. A heavy object smashed into a wall far too close to them, with an ear-splitting crash.
Then an opening tore through the darkness, seemingly appearing out of nowhere, and they were released into a wide room flooded with more light and clean air than they had even expected.
"Get away," Sophia wailed, stumbling away from him at last.
Ben slammed the door behind them with a loud, satisfying bang. He caught his breath, smiling at their new surroundings. They could actually see the night sky through the tall, narrow windows; and moonlight shone over the lighter grey stone of the walls.
"See, Soph? I didn't land you in any trouble! We're almost out."
Then came another sound of metal being dragged against the floor, so close behind him that it sent shivers up his spine. He turned to find himself nearly face-to-face with a heavy-looking candlestick - Sophia screamed - then it abruptly sank lower and hit him in the stomach instead, knocking the breath out of him. He fell to his knees. Before he could make a move, the long handle of a glaive slammed into his throat and he was pinned to the floor by a tearful Sophia.
As the Kougra gasped for breath, his first thought was that she had finally had enough of being pushed and pulled around the corridors without a second to rest.
"I'm sorry Soph," he grunted around the pressure of the handle. "Was in a hurry... could you just let me..."
He tried to shift out from under her, but she was fitter than him and pressing down with all of her weight. Then he noticed the look in her wide, fixed eyes. It was nothing like petty anger; it was a look of horror, the look of a person witnessing a disaster and unable to help. For a second, it occurred to him that he may very well be in mortal danger.
"I'm sorry Ben, I'm so sorry, I can't." The Xweetok spoke as fast as possible. Her arms felt stiff, frozen in place. "I just can't. I tried to warn you before, as much as it would let me..."
The fear that had appeared in Ben's eyes vanished; his face returned to its calm mask. "Of course. The creature was inside you."
Those words were enough to make her shudder, though her grip did not loosen on the handle of the weapon. It was a long, scythe-like glaive that had probably been propped somewhere in the dark corridor. It had a blade, albeit ancient and rusty.
"I did find it strange that a sensible girl like you would act so frightened," he continued gently. "So that's why you kept pulling me back towards the traps. I didn't even catch the hints. Soph... you have to fight it."
"I'm sorry, I can't," she repeated through clenched teeth.
"Not to rush you, but I'm starting to feel a bit flat," he croaked. "You have to, I know you can -"
"Fight it? How do you even fight it?" she shouted. "It hurts to even talk to you right now! Do you think I was NOT trying to fight it before? Did you think I let it find all the others of my own accord?"
"Of course." He spoke as quietly as possible, as if to counterbalance her outburst. "You're the one who led them to that other exit. You lost your shoes while pushing them into the mire, didn't you. And when we were in the dark room, you couldn't have seen those spikes, not with your eyes... but it already knew where they were, so you could avoid them."
She let out a strangled sob, relieved not to have to explain that herself.
This was far beyond what the Kougra had expected to cope with; but he knew that he could not panic, not him. "We've made it so far, right?"
"You have no idea how this feels! Your body just moves and there is nothing you can do about it, Ben, nothing!"
As if to demonstrate her words, she swung the handle of the glaive until it hit a hidden switch in the floor near them. A slab of stone slid open, revealing an opening that reeked of underground mould. The candlestick that she had dropped rolled and fell into the hole. Sophia and Ben held their breaths, counting the seconds, until a tiny clatter reached their ears, far too distant for their liking. More sounds rose from the pit: a faint clicking, like myriads of little legs.
"I didn't even know that was there," she choked. "I didn't even know about the other traps, but it did..."
It became quite obvious to Ben where he would end up, or rather down, if he did not find a way out of this situation.
"Well, Sophia," he said in his most casual tone, "let us keep calm and talk at a more reasonable distance from the deep pit of darkness." As he spoke, he propped himself on his arms and crawled a few steps back.
Immediately, Sophia swung the glaive around. Ben couldn't stop his eyes from shutting tight. When he opened them again, the blade had stopped inches from the side of his head.
"Don't move!" yelled the Xweetok. "Stay down - please! I don't want to hurt you!"
Ben slowly lay down again, resting his arms on the floor, palms open. Of the entire group, Sophia had received the most battle training. He didn't really stand a chance.
Sophia seemed to be struggling to keep her hold on the glaive. With disproportionate effort for such a small task, she managed to shift it, aiming the handle at Ben instead of the blade; the wooden tip poked him sharply in the chest. Sophia cringed and panted with effort as if she were the one being pinned down. Neither of them dared to move for almost a minute.
"Are you feeling all right?" he asked tentatively.
"Not particularly worse." Sophia opened and closed her mouth several times, looking anywhere but at Ben. He waited for her to voice her thought. Whatever it was, it had her on the verge of tears.
"Ben, what if... what if there is no monster? What if this is just me?"
"Of course not." His answer came easily, as reassuring to him as to her. "You're my friend, Soph. I know you wouldn't do any of that to us. And I'm sorry for what you went through with the others. You're fighting really hard for me right now, aren't you?"
She nodded, choking back a sob.
"If you know that it's in you somehow, can you focus on it? The creature, or spirit, whatever it is. Can you guess what it wants?"
"Oh, I can hear it well. It wants to keep the strongest. Like a contest for the best body." She shuddered in disgust. "I've felt it for a while. I'm sure Ashley had it first, when she tried to open that casket we passed, for some stupid dare. The lid was too heavy move, but the thing must have stuck to her somehow."
Ben almost thought that he could hear the creature's voice too, unless it was his imagination. It was a mere whisper, a second voice superimposed on Sophia's. The Xweetok sounded braver now; he took advantage of it.
"We can do this, Soph. Keep calm, don't try anything sudden. Just listen to my voice." He couldn't make her lose control again. "Focus on your grip on the handle, first your hands, then your wrists. Are you focused?"
Her eyes were still wide with fear, but she nodded.
"Now bring your attention to your shoulders. Switch to the right shoulder... and throw your arms to the right."
Having understood his game, she practically dived to her right when he said the words. There it was, standing right where she had been previously: a ghostly, empty-eyed figure which let out a pitiful wail as soon as it was exposed. Sophia winced in pain as if she had been burned; she quickly returned to her previous position, but she had managed to let go of the weapon, which rolled away with a clatter. The figure melted away.
"I saw it, Soph! It is some kind of ghost! You managed to catch it off guard, throw off its hold on you for a second!" Ben stood up cautiously. "Soph? Has it... has it got you again?"
The Xweetok was gripping the sides of her head tightly, frowning in concentration. Suddenly, she looked up at him. Ben knew instantly that she was back - this was the Sophia he knew, with the spark in her eyes and her confident little grin. The fear had been the spirit's own, he realised.
"No, Ben. I've got her. I've got her good," she said, relieved and fierce. "I can hear all her wailing about her death and bitterness. Well, that's tough for her, but we're getting out. Grab a torch and go and burn that casket of hers. I'll stay here so that she can't follow you."
He gave her a mock salute and hastened to follow her instructions. It was good to have his friend back.
She was still in excellent spirits when he returned, bringing with him a strong smell of smoke and a few bits of rotting wood for show.
"Thanks, Ben! She's definitely gone for good, I've never felt so free!" Sophia was nearly skipping in a victory dance.
The Kougra just smiled in his mellow manner. "I'm glad we made it."
"Come on, we're going to find some ghoul catchers and form a search party! We'll wake the whole town if we must, but we won't leave our friends in there!" Even after all that had happened, she would never abandon anyone in the monstrous mansion.
They had reached the original rooms of the mansion, unchanged by the catacombs' bewitched architecture. Only a few hallways separated them from the main entrance. They ran all the way out and burst into the fresh night air at last.
Ben tried to scream a warning at Sophia.
His mouth was frozen shut. His limbs were frozen in the action of running. He watched his own legs move, suspended, feeling disconnected from the ground and from gravity itself.
The insufferable girlish laughter had filled his mind as soon as his eyes fell upon the casket. Of course the spirit was not inside Sophia anymore. She would not let him go, and he could not fight - how can one fight without any control over one's own limbs?
"It's a pity, she was stronger than you," the voice had sneered as he watched himself set fire to a bookcase, betraying his friend. "At least you're easier to control. She knows about my casket, so we can't very well let her wander, can we? But we can always wake up a few of my friends to join us! Won't it be fun?"
Sophia ran in front of him, free as the wind, completely unaware of the treason behind her back.
"Thank you for showing me the way out," the voice purred.