So It Seems
There was a silver mansion in the Haunted Woods. It once belonged to a tall man in a trench coat, but he had died a few years ago. Nobody knew why, save for perhaps the mutant gelert who wandered through the woods and claimed that he was "picking up where his predecessor left off", whatever that meant. The people of the nearby village of Achterbos only knew that his three sons now lived in that household. They became regular members of the community, and everybody knew them, but they rarely spoke of their father.
Vincent was lost and wandering through the trees without a path. It was cold. The dried up leaves crunched under his feet, reminding him of his cracked lips. It was only autumn, but in the Haunted Woods autumns were as cold as winter's deadest night. He pulled his clothes tight against his body, but they weren't helping much. What he really needed was protection for his fingers before they froze off.
He looked around. How had he managed to get lost? He had been strolling along a path. All it had taken was one sound, just one. He heard a ruffling noise of some sort, nothing too drastic, but his senses were on edge, knowing how dangerous things can be in the Haunted Woods. He had dodged off the path and into a veil of tall grass. He didn't think that he had gone in too far. After a minute of waiting he decided it was time to leave, but while hiding he had become disorientated. He kept on wandering through the grass and didn't come out until an hour later. All it had taken was a few feet of grass to blind him and he was as lost as a sheep without a shepherd.
Then night came. Everything was worse at night. Everything. The cold wasn't even half of it. The sheer terror he felt, wandering through the woods at night, knowing that they were haunted. He no longer had the daylight to protect him, and every minute he was afraid of something jumping out at him. More than once he'd ran into a tree branch and it had knocked off his glasses. At least he had the moon to guide him, and the gnarled branches of the trees weren't thick enough to block it out. To set his heart at a little more ease, the moon was only half-full. That was one less bad omen that he had to worry about.
In desperate hopes to raise his body temperature and to find a way out sooner versus later, Vincent broke out into a jog, which later became a sheer sprint. He didn't know how long he had ran. As far as he was concerned it was some equivalent of highway hypnosis. All he remembered was that soon he saw the light of a window. A house! He wandered toward it.
Will I be let in? wondered Vincent. He could hardly blame whoever lived there if he or she was weary of a strange traveler at this late hour. But Vincent had to try.
The front of the house had an unpleasant array of vegetables mixed with gnarled bushes. He saw a few plants that were so hideous and deformed that he could swear they had been bewitched by the most deranged imaginations. Vincent hesitated. Was this really a good idea? His mind began to mull things over again. Exactly who couldn't trust who in this situation?
A howl sounded in the distance. Vincent made up his mind. He ran down the path leading to the front door, then knocked three times.
The door opened. "Come in," said a voice. Vincent wanted to oblige, but first he had to satisfy his suspicion. He had to at least confirm that the man who sheltered him at least didn't look suspicious. He peered through the crack in the door. The man was a magma ruki, wearing all leather and a rectangular monocle. There was nothing haunted nor gloomy about him. He didn't even look like a resident of the Haunted Woods.
"Thank you," said Vincent. He stepped in. At once he felt warmth. On the opposite wall was a fireplace. The room was lit by torches along the wall. The ruki left for another room. "Wait!" said Vincent. "Thank you for taking me in. It was cold out there."
"I couldn't tell," said the ruki.
There was a pause. Something about the way the ruki said it..."Oh, I'm sorry," stuttered Vincent, "I mean, it's obvious that you're, uh, not the cold type, being magma and all."
The ruki turned around. "What is your name? Or should I call you 'Sir Blue Lutari' for the sake of anonymity?"
"My name is Blitz. There's a bed upstairs in this manor. You're welcome to stay overnight."
Vincent nodded and took off his cap, which over the course of the day had messed up his hair. "Blitz, sir, if you don't mind, I haven't had much to eat in a while. If you would allow me to have my fill before finding my bed..." He didn't want to be a bad guest, but he felt that his needs were too pressing at the moment to be set aside for the sake of politeness.
Blitz pointed to the wall left of the entrance. "Go through the kitchens. The door to the dining room will be on the right. I'll cook something up for you, though be warned that my variety of food might not be in your tastes. As an inorganic being my nutrients aren't the same as yours."
"So long as it's edible I'll be grateful," said Vincent. He followed the ruki's instructions. The kitchens were clean and pristine, but as in the entrance way, it was lit by torches. Out of curiosity, Vincent glanced at the contents of the shelves to gather an idea of what food he would be treated to. To his surprise there were several turkeys hung up. Perhaps Blitz was wrong about his food being bad.
At the end of the room there was a door on the right, just as Blitz had said. Upon going through it, there was no doubt that it led to the living room. It was like a large silver hallway, with a long table down the center. It was large enough for plenty of socializing. There was a chandelier overhead, but neither it nor any of the plethora of torches were lit. The only light was a small oil lamp set on the table and another fireplace. Vincent took a seat at the table next to the fireplace. After that long night he wished for nothing more than comfort. He undid his bow tie to give himself some extra space around the color and stretched.
Blitz came in after a time with a silver tray, a stool, and a couple of chairs. He set them all in front of the fireplace. "I'm surprised you didn't huddle up next to the fire in the first place," said Blitz.
Vincent considered this thoughtful and accepted the new seat. Blitz took the other. Vincent took a glass from the tray and gave it a sip before spitting it out in alarm. "Holy crow!" said Vincent.
"An interesting exclamation. I might add it to my vocabulary. You see too many crows around here anyway, and only a fool would deny their supernatural presence," said Blitz.
"No, I mean that this is hot!" said Vincent.
"I didn't want to keep you waiting and risk any bad hospitality, so I just made do," said Blitz, holding up one of his hands and removing its leather glove. "Just blow over it. The heat won't last for too long."
Vincent waited for a while and instead looked at the available food on the tray, which only consisted of apples and bread. He took the bread and ate it.
"You know, for someone who claims that his food might not be in my taste, this sure it good," said Vincent. He could have sworn that there was a glint in Blitz's white-hot magma eye. Or maybe it was the monocle. Either way, Blitz broke eye contact and looked into the fire.
"My father was very opinionated on food. So, Vincent, where do you come from?"
Vincent thought about it. "I'm from Neopia Central. Normal, everyday, mainstream society."
"I know about it. Back in the good days, I would spend my time traveling. Things came up."
"Like what?" asked Vincent.
"It's tiresome. We lost the spirit and didn't want to lose anything again," Blitz's eyes closed for a moment, and he as he sat there in silence, he looked like some personification of the fire, warm, comforting, homely, and noble. "Which reminds me: I have two brothers and you would be best advices not to wake them up."
"I'll keep that in mind."
"What brings a Neopia Central denizen such as yourself here? Did you spontaneously realize that their society was superficial and impersonal and decide to come here to learn the ways of the civilized?" asked Blitz. The corner of his mouth twitched upward for a moment before relaxing again.
"Uh, no," said Vincent. "I was more thinking of just visiting the ongoing fair. You know, I thought that I'd get something good if I was lucky."
"Tell me, what do you think of the Haunted Woods?"
"It's scary here. I don't know why you'd live here, or why anyone would."
"Faith, hope, and love," whispered Blitz. "Although I wouldn't expect you to know that."
"Blitz, sir, don't treat me like that," said Vincent. He set down his bread and look at Blitz. "I'm not arrogant. A little naive, more than likely, but I'm trying to live a good life. You took me in when I needed help and I admire that. I'll try my best to be worthy of your hospitality. That ought to say something."
"It's an automatic reaction. A certain man I knew had the same reaction whenever anyone mentioned that they liked something called the 'Yankees'," said Blitz. "Although, the same man taught me to have faith. That is of course one of the virtues that I believe that these woods have brought out of me. How did you get lost?"
Vincent told him about losing his way in only a few feet of grass. "It's stupid, right?"
"No, it's understandable. Nobody can have their senses about them all the time. Forgive yourself, Vincent."
"Is there a place nearby where I can gather supplies and return home?"
Blitz nodded. "The village of Achterbos is nearby. I like to consider this house part of it, even though geographically enough trees stand in the way of here and there that it isn't technically so. They're natives, by the way: mutants. Don't be put off by their appearance, though; we are all good people at heart. It's those people out in the wilderness without faith, hope, and love that you have to worry about."
Vincent nodded. "I suppose that I'll be turning home after all this."
"Depends on what you call 'home', I guess. Sometimes it's not a place," said Blitz. "I guess I'm still trying to find mine. Perhaps some day I'll pick up adventuring again, if I can rediscover the reason why I ever did it in the first place."
"What do you do around here?" asked Vincent.
"I'm a tailor," said Blitz. "We don't have access to supermarkets way out here. The economy is home-grown. It's nice to contribute to Achterbos. Of course, I make things for the visitors as well. Commissions are always welcome. I might even make you a good coat as well as an extension of my hospitality. It won't be fashionable, but it will be practical and keep you warm. That's what happens when you get something for free."
"I'm not picky," said Vincent. "So long as you sew the seems. I have my mind set on higher things."
"What's your occupation, Vincent?"
Vincent hesitated. That one was always an awkward question. "I'm...into the news."
"Ah, that is to say, you appreciate the news but can't get into it, or don't know how you want to get involved."
Blood ran to Vincent's face. His level of comfort was diminishing by the second. Yet, at least this man couldn't have anything to hide. After associating with him long enough, he'd got the feeling that Blitz was just a normal person. "Yeah, something like that," Vincent whispered to himself. Blitz must have had good hearing, because he responded.
"Judging by those jumbo glasses and bow tie, you look like you were particularly inspired by Jimmy Ogrin from the Daily Neopia. Therefore you have an idea of what job within the field you want, but there aren't any openings."
Vincent smiled, and he chuckled a little bit. In fact he was a fan of Jimmy Ogrin. Vincent tried the drink. It had cooled down. "Tastes like apple cider," he said.
"Again, my father was opinionated," said Blitz. From one of his pockets, he pulled out a ring and played with it in one hand. He waited in silence as Vincent finished up his drink and ate the apple.
"Thank you," said Vincent, "I'll need my sleep now. If there's any way I can help you in the morning, you can just let me know."
Blitz still never took his eyes off the fire, but he reacted with a smile. "Kraggh is strong. He doesn't need help chopping the wood in the morning, but you can help him. Don't think you owe me, though."
"Naw, just wouldn't want to give the wrong impression," said Vincent.
Blitz bowed his head and left. When he closed the door it leased an echo through the room, which continued just slightly more than what seemed natural. Vinncent shuttered. It couldn't be that there was something strange about the house.
No, his mind was just playing tricks on him.
Vincent was left next to the fireplace alone and for the most part in complete darkness. At least this darkness was comforting, the kind that invited sleep. He looked out across the room to appreciate the comfort it brought him, and he noticed a glint. The ring Blitz had been turning around in his had was left on the table.
Some time passed, and Vincent was just about to finally get his well-deserved sleep when he was jolted awake. Some presence demanded that he stay alert. He looked at the fireplace, and then from side to side. On the far corner of the room, there was a paleness that caught his eye.
It was a ghost!
Vincent fell out of his chair. The ghost approached. It bore the appearance of a giant hissi, measuring dozens of feet long. Its eyes glowed an evil shade of red. Before Vincent knew it, the snake was upon him, curling around his body and glaring at him with his spectral gaze. What was he to do? Would it do him any good to call out for Blitz?
"Riddle me this: Who...are you?" hissed the ghost.
Vincent was in shock. He wasn't expecting to be asked any questions. Would it hurt to answer? His quick instinct told him it wasn't safe. The ghost hissi looked to be everything the magma ruki was not: hostile instead of hospitable, hunting instead of homely. These were the things that Vincent feared in the Haunted Woods.
"M-my n-name is Lance," said Vincent.
The hissi's eyes drew nearer to Vincent's. He felt more like he was looking at the tip of a sword than at a face. "That's not much of a riddle," mused the hissi. "Alas, names are rarely riddles anyway, so permit me to be a hypocrite. My name is John Quizzler Iceheart. You may call me by my first, middle, or last name, or initials, or any combination of the three, so long as they are in the right chronological order, otherwise you'd technically not be calling me by my name. Is your middle name Lance, then? I seem to recall you telling someone that it was Vincent."
The hissi - John Quizzler Iceheart, if Vincent could take the word of a ghost - pulled away at once and again hid in the far corner of the room.
"Uh..." said Vincent in a high and dazed voice. He was on his feet now but his balance was ill. This Iceheart had been spying on him? "Well, you see, I was a bit surprised, and you scared the living daylights out of me. I did what I thought was safe and all...please understand!"
He saw a the red glow of the eye emit a single pulse. "This family has been my friend, and I theirs. I am a thief who plagues people in the night. Not that I need to steal; indeed my needs are few. Still, one day my practice will surely answer to a higher purpose."
"So you're a friend of Blitz?" asked Vincent.
"Of course, of course, and he benefits from my presence in the family. Understand that as a thief I have caught thieves before. I will see you later, Vincent Lance."
After the hissi disappeared, Vincent stood there, numb. Something told him that he would not get much sleep. He sat in his chair and cradled himself with his knees held up against his chin. Not only had the encounter with a ghost put him off, but what it had said about thievery disturbed him.
Somehow, Vincent got sleep anyway. When he woke up, he was sprawled out on the floor and the fire in the fireplace was no more than a pile of glowing embers. A window on the west side of the room revealed the sky turning pale blue. He blinked and rubbed his eyes, then looked at his traveling bag. Everything was there.
Vincent shook his head a bit. He normally woke up in his own home, and he wasn't used to waking up in a foreign environment. Here he felt he had to orientate himself as soon as possible.
Somewhere he heard a high pitched cracking noise like a baseball bat hitting home. He looked around but couldn't determine what it was.
Other than the kitchen, there was one other door in the dining hall. Vincent felt curious and walked through. What he found was a library. There was a silver lupe shuffling through the shelves.
"Ah, the prodigal runaway awakens!" said the lupe. "I was wondering when you'd get up."
"Are you looking for something?" asked Vincent.
"It just so happens I am. There's a book somewhere about how faerie tales are the essence of modern stories and how one can draw upon them to improve their writing. It's an old family book, but the title eludes me," pondered the lupe. "My name is Mathias, by the way. Nice to meet you."
"I'd be glad to help," said Vincent.
"Thanks. You can handle the other side of the library," said Mathias.
Vincent did as was suggested. He looked for a while but never found anything, although he noted that there were many books, including one with a silver spine. Ultimately he didn't feel of much help when Mathias found what he was looking for anyway.
"Found it!" said Mathias. "Well, I guess it didn't actually have a title. I knew there was one that didn't, but I had forgotten which. Anyway, thanks for your help. Have you seen John?"
Vincent stiffened up. He had hoped that the ghost was nothing more than a bad dream, and part of him believed it. This smashed his hopes. "Well, yesterday night I chanced an encounter with him."
"No, this morning, have you seen him?" said Mathias, whose head was already buried in the book.
"No," said Vincent. "Are you a writer?"
"That I am not," said Mathias. "Just an enthusiast of legitimate thought, which this is. It's a darn good book. And I felt like reading it on a whim. What I'm most interested in is music. Beetlehoven, Barch, and Poptart."
A third voice entered the room. "I'm right here." Out of the wall appeared the ghost hissi. "Ah, it seems you met the newcomer."
Vincent really hoped that this guy didn't pop in on him all day. He grimaced and Mathias noticed. "Oh, don't worry, he annoys most people."
"Now Math, you're only telling half the story," said the ghost. "It's when I have nothing better to do, and you know for a fact that I have had better things to do."
"Hmm, yeah," sighed Mathias, then pondered to himself, "Maybe we should take up adventuring again..."
The ghost hovered through Vincent, who flinched, and checked out the bookcase that earlier he had been scanning. Vincent stood there in awkward silence. The book about fantasy had Mathias in a deadlock, and the ghost was scanning the shelves with his hands held behind his back. He didn't quite understand the relationship between this Iceheart and the rest of the family.
"That's strange, a book is missing," said the ghost.
"Mm-hm," said Mathias. Was that an actual acknowledgment or a reflex?
"No, I think it's one of your special books," said the ghost. Mathias pried his eyes off of his book only for a moment. The hissi pointed to the space right in front of him. "Look here."
"What? No, I'm sure that I have that one locked in a case in my room," said Mathias.
"Unless it moved around since then," said the ghost.
"What?" said Vincent. "Wait a minute, I'm here, you know. Do you realize what this sounds like to me? You're talking about a moving book. Like, something that just gets up and hovers around, like in those old sories where there's a hovering candle in an old mansion, then does what it wants. That sounds haunted to me."
Both the ghost and Mathias looked at him for a moment.
"What are you looking at me for?" said Vincent.
"Nothing in particular," said Mathias. "It's just that based off of a single phrase - 'it moved around' - you jump to an unlikely conclusion as to what it means and don't ask for any clarification."
"The conclusion isn't that far-fetched. We're in the Haunted Woods," said Vincent.
"Good point," said Mathias. He straitened up in his chair.
"Good point indeed. He happens to be right," said the ghost. Vincent gave himself a palm in the face. "I saw it last night leave your room and come down to this spot on this shelf to spend time with the other books. Now it's gone." He then sighed and phased through the wall.
"Oh, that's not good," said Mathias. "I guess I'll look for it later, but I'm sure I know what it's doing. So long as it doesn't get into the wrong hands, it should be able to take care of itself."
"Wait, did you know of this or not?" said Vincent.
"I had my suspicions that one of my books did some abnormal - "
Paranormal, more like it, thought Vincent.
" - things, so I guess this just proves it. I'm not all that surprised. By the way, I like your imagination. What kind of nerd are you?"
"The type who wants to be a reporter," Vincent answered automatically.
Mathias nodded and went back to his untitled book. Vincent thought of carrying on the conversation, but it looked like Mathias's mind was like a submarine immersed in a sea of knowledge. He moved through the library and came to another room. It was large and ovular in shape. There was a giant carpet, and Blitz was there, pacing around in circles. Well, ovals. Vincent could see a path that had been worn out over time. The entire southern wall was a curved window, displaying the front yard.
"Hello, Vincent," said Blitz. "The wood is being chopped in the backyard. I'm sure that you wouldn't mind helping."
"No, of course not," said Vincent.
Blitz nodded, then pointed with his eyes toward a coat rack. Hanging on it was a thick coat. It looked heavy and ugly, but on the other hand it was windproof and very warm. "I made it last night. It might be bland, but it will keep you warm. You might not want to wear it until you leave, though. It's not that cold yet, and your current coat will be enough for these morning chores."
"Thank you, sir," said Vincent.
He found that this ovular room connected to the entrance way, and he walked outside. It was chilly out. Vincent could see his breath, but it was nowhere near as cold as it was at night. He headed behind the house. There, in a clearing, he saw what was making the clanging, cracking noise. An ice bori had a pile of wood before him. One by one, he was splitting stumps in two.
Vincent stood on the sidelines, at first too shy to interrupt. This must have been Kraggh. He was every bit as strong as Blitz had said. There was an intense ferocity with which he attacked the wood. It wasn't quite anger, but at the same time he seemed so focused that Vincent had to wonder what would happen if he broke his concentration.
The ax hit the stump at a bad angle. Kraggh looked around. Vincent could see that he had a crack down the side of his muzzle and wore grizzly sideburns. "Who're you?" growled Kraggh.
"Vincent. I'm the visitor who came in last night."
"I didn't know that we had a visitor," said Kraggh. He began chopping again.
"Blitz said I could help."
"I don't need help," said Kraggh. He took in a deep breath and swung the ax with such might that the next stump shattered.
"Well, I'm just saying, can't I help get the job done quicker? I mean, from a practical standpoint some help is better than none."
Kraggh didn't answer. Being ignored, Vincent decided to ignore in return. He shuffled around the vegetable patch and found among the vines another ax wedged into a jack-o-lantern, which for some reason was lit. When Vincent picked up the ax remained attached. Vincent got a glimpse at the inside of the jack-o-lantern and saw that the light was coming from some sort of silver pocket watch. Curious. Vincent put the lid back on the pumpkin. He then walked over to the pile of wood and began splitting on his own, albeit at a slower pace than Kraggh. The moment Vincent started, Kraggh's eyebrows began to narrow. He didn't look up. In fact, he seemed to close his eyes and talk to himself in a low, impossible to understand undertone.
Cordiality wouldn't hurt, would it? "I never really valued strength, but you make it seem so noble." What did that even mean? It sounded stupid now that he said it. A person stuck in the woods probably didn't even care about nobility. He decided to try something else. "What do you do with your gifts?"
Kraggh just split another piece of wood.
Vincent heard a hissing sound. It stuttered, like it was some kind of laughter. He glanced to the side and saw that it was laughter. The ghost hissi was there, with a twisted look on his face that was without mistake a grin.
"Oh Kraggh, it seems that he's not listening to you! Perhaps if your social skills were better you'd talk some sense into the poor fool. Oh Kraggh! Kraggh! Can you hear me? Yoohoo! Kraggh has got a frieeeeeeend!"
"Shut up, John!" shot Kraggh. He jerked in the hissi's direction and before there was time to react the ax was flying through the air. It went through the ghost, who only continued to laugh.
"Bravo! Bravo!" jeered the ghost. He clapped his wings together. "Vincent Lance, how art thou? I do believe that I have given you a moment of opportunity to catch up on Kraggh whilst he retrieves his ax."
Instead of chasing after his ax, Kraggh stood there for a moment seething. The air around him grew colder and colder still. Then, like a controlled explosion, he turned back t the wood and began tearing apart with his bear claws, letting off an inward scream in his throat. When he was done with a couple of his, he glared at Vincent's little collection of stumps with eyes as focused as a microscope and as filled with intent as a predator's. He snatched them from Vincent and tore them apart with his bear claws, then went back to the rest of the pile, every once and a while muttering something about the ghost and some "ignoramus of a nerd".
Vincent stared wide-eyed at the them. What was he to do? He made some quick calculations in his head. Was it worth it to stick around and give a good impression? The answer was obvious. No. He dropped his eyes and ran away, back to the front yard, back through the front door.
"Did Kraggh's temper scare you away?" said Blitz upon Vincent's arrival.
"I guess," said Vincent.
"He's not a madman, you know. It's just that he doesn't like to be disturbed. John has a tendency to do that. At least he's already a ghost. Kraggh does have control."
Vincent forced his breathing back to normal. "Sorry for panicking."
"It's okay. I knew things wouldn't go too well. Still, I had to experiment to see if Kraggh could actually get along with someone. There has to be a chemistry that works for him."
Vincent nodded. "Thanks for taking me in."
"You'll be going?"
"Yes. Sooner than I expected, but yes."
"Don't forget to take your belongings," said Blitz.
Vincent took up his new coat and put it over the one he already had. Then he retrieved his traveling bag. With a final wave to Blitz, he left the house.
They were actually a pretty normal family, thought Vincent. Yes, with their deficiencies, but they gave me a good impression. I was right to assume that they were safe, no trouble. I know a good man when I see one. On the whole, he was glad for the experience. It would make a interesting tale to tell his friends back in Neopia Central.
A ghastly shriek protruded from out behind him. Vincent looked around. All the windows of the manor glowed with eerie intensity. The torches alone would not have been enough to cause such an upwelling of light. The shrieking continued, then multiplied into the cacophony of many voices. They rose like a siren, high above the branches and out across the far corners of the forest. They grew and grew. The volume never changed, but their sense of omnipresence became ever more apparent.
Every hair on every inch of Vincent's body raised. He began running. The voices were cutting into his consciousness so much that he had to struggle to be aware of anything else. The forest! He had to run into the forest!
He stumbled and tripped, but by sheer force of adrenalin he stayed focused. He had to get away from the sound, if such was possible. They had originated from the manor. Although now he felt like he was drowning a thousand leagues underwater with the sound, he had to escape. He had to try.
The color was draining from his vision. The forest turned into shades of gray, and through his distorted view of the world, he saw a black figure coming toward him. His vision did not blur, though he feared it would soon. The crystalline terror cut through the icy air of autumn. It was like a bronze hammer pummeling into him. Their menace became more than just a sound to be heard by the ear. It became his world, it became every sense he could imagine, it swarmed into the very core of his being!
Somewhere in the back of his mind, Vincent knew that this terror would drive him insane. He couldn't deny it, nor could he accept it. He was torn and broken.
The black figure, a mutant gelert, eased him down to the ground. He looked at Vincent with a glare. Vincent wondered if he was really seeing this or if he was already insane. No, he wasn't insane, or at least this vision was not a delusion brought by insanity. It was like the calling and the tolling of the voices that surrounded him, crystalline, undeniably real. The gelert's eyes were so real, they pierced into him with the same intensity that the noises did. Cracks like lightning bolts zigzagged across the circular lenses of Vincent's glasses.
"What have you done?"
The mutant's eyes bore into Vincent's, searching him. Vincent tried to look away, tried not to meet his gaze. He looked somewhere else, anywhere else. On impulse his eyes glanced at his traveling sack. No, not there. He looked back at the gelert's gaze.
The gelert had caught on in a flash. Like a striking scorpion, he snatched the bag away from Vincent's shivering hands, then let the contents all fall out. There were items from the fairground, all the type which a person only had a one in a million chance of winning, but they seemed of no importance now.
A ring, a book with a silver spine, and a pocket watch fell onto the ground.
"You have stolen these things, which have belonged to the maker of the manor," said the gelert. "I will return these, for this shall be my duty until I die." He turned away and headed toward the manor. Through Vincent's glasses, his silhouette seemed shattered and demented even from behind.
"Wait! What about me?" cried Vincent. He held out his arm.
The gelert did not look around. Instead his back hunched a little more as he walked away. "I cannot save you."
His omen, his judgment, seemed to be reflected by the omnipresent sound around him. With the gelert's back turned, the dark sound closed in on Vincent once more, becoming his entire world, his entire reality. Crows left their tree branches and came upon him. Holy crow, he somehow managed to think. Vincent was in some vast shadow now, flailing, fighting for dear life, except this time he knew that there was nothing he could do about it. He knew that he had lost, that everything was over.
And then there was silence. It was as if he had drowned as much as he could, and now he had hit the bottom of the ocean and could rest.
He wasn't sure how much time had passed.
"About a day, actually, not that much," said a voice. Vincent turned around. He wasn't sure where he was. He wasn't sure what he was looking for. He wasn't sure if he was dead or alive.
His name was John. He was the ghost who had frightened him on a night that felt like an eternity ago.
He appeared before Vincent very clear. Vincent wondered why his glasses were no longer cracked, but then he realized that he no longer had them. He didn't even need them.
"Well, in our time at least," said John. "You know, I'm not entirely sure how this curse works in your time."
Vincent felt like saying something, but he didn't know what. He was no longer afraid. He felt that the worst had already happened. By now he was equals with this ghost. Now what was there to talk about? Finally, a clear thought came to mind.
"What did I do?" asked Vincent.
"You stole from the house," said John. "I alerted it. It's a privilege that I have, as a ghost, to communicate with resting supernatural forces. The rest, well, the house just took its own course. The spirit of its creator lives there no more, but his will is strong enough that it has stayed in his home."
John slid a sack off of one of his narrow shoulders. "These are some interesting things, might I add. Dare I say it, that sleazy little worm who runs that rigged strength testing game deserved to be robbed. I take it that you only steel from people when your conscious will allow it?"
Vincent stood silent. He understood what the question meant, but he didn't have the heart to answer. He wanted to say that the answer was yes, but he had stolen from a family who had been hospitable to him. He hung his head low in shame
"I see," said John. "You know, I'm the kind who always stole for sport. You know that invisible tower where all the most valuable items in the world are hidden? I swear, one of these days I'm going to rob that place, just to say that I did it, but the problem right now is that it's too secure for even a ghost to rob. Go figure." The ghost went silent and stared at Vincent as if he was some specimen. Vincent felt that the ball was in his court.
"I didn't care who I stole from," confessed Vincent. "In my neighborhood, they just stole whatever. I came from the art catacomes, you see. That's where there was a guild of rogues. It was just a way of living."
"Did you really mean it that you would like to go into news reporting?" asked John.
"Well, sort of," said Vincent. "It seemed like a fun job, although it never would have worked out for me. I tried, but they didn't take me in. Besides that, the pay wasn't as good as outright thievery. I felt guilty at first, but then I just stopped caring. It's not that hard to lie and gain people's trust. A rogue named Lance Giger was the best liar I ever knew and he taught me that the best pretenses were the ones that were based on truth, so I always told people that I was a nerd who was into reporting."
"It's very interesting how this all pieces together," said John.
Vincent felt himself walking. He didn't know why. The next thing he knew he saw an end to the darkness. It looked like a theater stage. Vincent wanted to reach out and jump onto it, but he knew that it was another world, one in which he was no longer meant to be in.
In this vision he saw Blitz out in the forest. He was fighting a monster in the forest, sword drawn. The monster was ferocious, but Blitz was giving it a run for its money. For a ruki who only claimed to be a tailor, he was much more formidable than Vincent had ever expected. He struck the beast down with little fight and no damage to himself. Vincent couldn't help but notice that he was wearing the stolen ring.
"He's a bit brash, I believe," said John. "I mean, a safe person really, and a good protector, but he sometimes tends to go looking for a fight when there's nothing to prove."
There was another vision. Vincent saw Mathias performing experiments on petpets. Some of them looked painful.
"Interesting fellow," said John. "A real good friend."
"Isn't that cruel?" asked Vincent.
"Ah, but think of the things he could learn from those experiments! The gift of knowledge is precious for those who have the imagination to go with it. Besides, they're not people."
The third vision was of Kraggh. Vincent gulped. After seeing the two seemingly sweet people, he was afraid to see what Kraggh was like under the hood. Did he eat children? Did he cast spells that caused villages to suffer of sicknesses? Vincent didn't want to look, but then he saw.
Kraggh was not eating or bewitching or doing anything that Vincent had imagined. Instead, he was sitting on a rocker in a small room. He clenched a Teddy Bear in his arms and was reading a book of fairy tales. The pocket watch was on a nearby drawer, and was opened so that it could shed light onto the pages. With the same intensity he had while chopping wood, he devoured stories of village girls becoming princesses and knights saving kingdoms.
"I don't understand, why isn't he a savage?"
"I thought you would have figured that out by now," laughed John. Vincent turned toward him. The ghost was fading away, returning to the real world, where Vincent couldn't follow.
"People aren't always what they seem. You of all people should know that."