Natalie and Matt had an even easier time getting out. Their parents mostly ignored them, leaving them to the care of their crazy-cat-lady nanny. She cooked for them: sometimes magnificent meals like grilled salmon and risotto. And sometimes ... more inexplicable dishes. Like tonight's macaroni with liver, and Cheez-it loaf.
They were too anxious to have eaten much anyway.
The four of them met on the street leading to the abandoned mansion, and were surprised to find Jim and Mark there too. "I figured it'd be like an adventure," Jim said. "I brought everything we'd need in my backpack -- rope, my phone, flashlight, lantern, kerosene, lighter, canteen .... "
"Bobby!" Natalie cried out, as the little boy came running up too, wearing his soccer shinguards like armor. "What are you doing out this late? You shouldn't be out by yourself!"
"But I had to make sure you were okay Nattie!" Bobby insisted. Natalie bent down to rig a tether for him, tsking. It was too late to send him home. And besides, it's not like any of us should be here, Kristi thought to herself, clutching Adelaide's hand. Adelaide crunched on another Wheat Thin.
As the seven continued up the hill, a movement from the side caught their eye, and they turned to see a lone figure emerge from the shadows at the wheel of a vehicle.
It was Wayne, wearing Batman footie pajamas, in his pedal-powered batcar. A cape made from a blanket tied around his neck fluttered in the breeze, then fell around his shoulders as he pedaled to a stop beside the group.
"... okay, who brought Batman?" Kristi asked.
"I think he brought himself," Mark said.
Natalie made a tether for Wayne, too, and passed the handle for it to Kristi. Together, the eight of them made their way to the yard of the abandoned house.
Kristi looked around nervously. "Did Scotty say to meet outside or inside?"
"Outside," Matt said.
"Okay well we're here and he's not so I guess he chickened out let's go," Kristi said.
"I'm here." Scotty stepped out from the woods surrounding the property, with five of his friends at his back. "I see you were too cowardly to come alone."
Kristi eyed Scotty's friends, all 5th-graders like him. "So were you."
Matt glanced over his own collection of friends, all younger and some of them less than half Scotty's size. "Well, if you're afraid to face Batman in the dark ... "
Scotty crossed his arms with a sour look. "I'm not the one who's a chicken. So here's what you're going to do, if you wanna prove you're not a coward. You're going to go into that house, go to the basement, flash your light through the window so we know you're there, then go to the attic and do the same."
Adelaine and Mark both looked terrified at the very mention of this.
"What we're gonna do?" Matt repeated. "What about you?"
"I'm not the one with anything to prove," Scotty said.
"So you admit you're too scared to do it yourself?"
Scotty started to say something, then snorted. "Fine. I'm not scared. I'll go in first."
Adelaine clutched at Kristi's hand, looking like she wanted to stop the other boy even if he was a mean bully. But no one did. The kids stood on the grounds outside the house, watching as the red-haired kid disappeared inside. A minute later, a light flashed through the basement window. Adelaide squeaked a little.
Mark muttered to himself, "He shouldn't go in the attic, it's not safe in the attic."
"It's fine," Kristi said, patting Mark's back in reassurance. "He's gonna be fine. We'll be fine. It's just a house. Here, hug Cthulhu." She took her stuffed toy out of her backpack and passed him to Mark, who clutched at it and did not look comforted.
Minutes passed. No light shone out of the attic window. Scotty did not come back out. Wayne started cutting away at his tether gradually, with a pair of fingernail clippers. "Stop that," Kristi said. "Batman doesn't break things."
Jim checked his smartphone. "It's been twenty minutes," he said finally.
"This is crazy," Matt said. "He should have been back by now. I'm going in after him."
"No," one of Scotty's friends said. "It's cool. I'm sure he's fine. Give him another ten minutes."
Not entirely persuaded, the kids waited.
Five minutes later, a terrible scream pierced the night, like the wailing of a woman in agony.
Scotty's friends took off in a panic.
"Call 911!" Kristi yelled at Jim.
"We can't call 911!" Mark said. "None of us are supposed to be here!"
Matt said, "And they'll just think we're pranking them, if we tell them we heard a scream at night by the haunted house."
"It doesn't matter if they think it's a prank, they still have to send someone!" Kristi said.
"Maybe Scotty is pranking us," Jim said.
Wayne gave up on waiting for the others and charged for the front door, snapping his weakened tether. Kristi tried to intercept him, but the little kid easily evaded her lunge.
Bobby followed in Wayne's wake, pulling Natalie stumbling along behind him. As Wayne vanished through the mansion's front door, Bobby reached the porch. It caved way beneath him and he fell into the basement below.
"Bobby!" Natalie fought to keep her balance at the edge of the hole. Jim and Matt tried to tackle her to keep her from falling, and instead sent all three of them tumbling in after Bobby.
Through good luck, though they suffered a few bruises, no one was seriously hurt. They got out their flashlights and called up "We're okay!" as the kids above yelled down at them.
Adelaide, Kristi, and Mark advanced more cautiously on the porch, skirting the gaping hole. "Jim, throw me your rope," Kristi yelled. He tossed it up, and Kristi tested the posts of the porch and railing for something sturdy enough to tie it to. Everything felt rotted and weak. "This is a death trap ... I can't believe it hasn't fallen down already. I can't find anything safe to secure it to."
"We'll find the door up," Matt said. "Don't worry!"
Kristi threw the rope back down. Wayne had vanished into the house. "Okay, we'll go in and look for the entrance from the first floor."
Jim and Matt shone their flashlights around the basement. The basement was full of wine racks -- row after row of them -- but no bottles. There was no door visible, but stacks of wooden crates were piled against one wall. Detritus and cobwebs littered the dusty floor. An old moosehead was mounted on the wall, something metallic glinting in its mouth. Natalie checked Bobby over to make sure he was all right, scolding him for running ahead of them.
A flash of something blue by the crates caught the attention of the older boys. "What was that?" Matt whispered.
"I don't know," Jim said. "One of the websites said that this house used to have a beersoul."
"A beersoul? What's that?"
"It's like a brownie for wine cellars. They'll take care of your stuff, keep it in order and clean and make sure nothing happens to it. But you have to give them a pint of beer a day, or ... "
"Or what?" Natalie asked.
"Or else." Jim gave them a meaningful look.
Matt gave the moosehead a closer inspection, putting his hand into its mouth. He retrieved a metal flask, like the one Mr.Jacobs carried, but much older. Its cap was rusted shut, but something was sloshing inside it.
A blue face appeared behind the crates, yellow eyes glinting ferally at the kids. Natalie hugged Bobby to her chest so he wouldn't see. Jim swung his flashlight to catch it in the full beam, but it darted out of sight again. "Something's there."
Matt tried to open the flask, but it was stuck fast. He got out the plier attachment on his swiss army knife and wrenched at it, but only scored the metal around the lid.
"I'll help you with that Mattie!" Bobby broke free of Natalie's grip and took the flask, wrenching it open. Alcohol fumes wafted out. "There you go!"
"I loosened it first," Matt mumbled.
A plaintive, drawn-out whimper came from the crates. Matt handed Bobby back to Natalie and advanced on the boxes, holding out the flask. He put it down where they'd seen the face, and stepped back.
A blue furry creature, looking a bit like a cross between a chimp and a dog, snatched up the flask in both paw-hands and drank it down, making tiny slurping contented noises. The children stared with a mixture of terror and fascination.
Natalie broke the silence first. "It's so cute!"
Bobby squirmed about in her arms. "Ahhh MONSTER!" He broke from her grasp and charged it.
Matt tackled him to the ground. "No, Bobby, don't!"
"Are you a beersoul?" Jim asked. The furry blue creature nodded. "How long have you been here?"
"Man many years," the creature said. "All dry, so dry, so very dry. Now at last! Drink again." He waved the flask happily. "Thank you."
"It's not a monster, Bobby," Natalie said, as Matt let Bobby up. "It"s a magical talking puppy."
"Puppy?" Bobby said. He peered at the beersoul, then ran over to it and began patting its head. The creature's mobile ears splayed out to either side. "Can you do magic?"
The beersoul nodded, and spread its arms. Candles in sconces the children had not noticed earlier lit up, flooding the room with a soft golden glow. The dust and debris in the room swept from the room, billowing from the hole in the porch in a mass of cobwebs. Planks flew upwards to nail themselves neatly into place, repairing the hole like a master carpenter.
From the front hall, Kristi, Adelaide, Mark and Wayne could see through the open front door as the cobwebs billowed up for no apparent reason, and heard the sound of wood hammering into place under its own power.
They freaked out.
"They shouldn't have gone into the basement!" Adelaide wailed. "There are always monsters in the basement!" Kristi stared in stunned disbelief, clutching her stuffed Cthulhu. Wayne shrieked. Mark worked to calm them down, and after some moments he got them to stop panicking.
"We have to get them out of the basement," Kristi said once she'd calmed down, starting for the stairs leading down.
"No!" Adelaide grabbed her arm. "You can't go in the basement! You don't know what might be down there!"
In the basement, the beersoul was moving the crates for the kids. At their request, it showed them the contents as well, ripping crates open with three-fingered taloned hands. One box was full of old books: an antique family bible with a family tree in it, an ancient picture book of fairy tales that Bobby seized on, and several other old and valuable-looking volumes.
Another crate held alchemical supplies. Jim dug through them while the beersoul opened another crate. He couldn't tell what must of the supplies did, but he found a ceremonial-looking knife, with the groove down its center streaked by rusty brown. Jim pocketed the knife, and next found some notes. "It says Mr. Vernon was using these for scientific experiments based on practices by ... African slaves in the Caribbean," Jim said. "... the last page says that his first subject was going to be 'to save my unfortunate daughter, Claire.'" Jim turned to the Bible and flipped to the family tree. "It says Claire died at four months."
The next crate held a tiny coffin.
The kids didn't open the coffin.
Kristi and Mark came down through the now-cleared doorway, having left Adelaide upstairs to protect Wayne, or possibly the other way around. They watched the beersoul in wide-eyed amazement.
"What was Mr. Vernon doing?" Natalie asked the beersoul in a hushed voice.
"Bad things. Very bad things." The beersoul shook its head. "Putting souls into inanimate things."
"Is this all of his experiments?"
"No. Others in the attic."
"... what's in the attic?" Matt asked.
"Things I not let him keep here," the beersoul said.
"We are NOT going to the attic," Mark interjected.
"He was bad man," the beersoul said. "Very bad. They took Master Vernon away. But then they brought him back."
Kristi swallowed hard. "... how many pieces was he in when they brought him back?"
The beersoul counted, slowly, using both hands. "Six."
"... Scotty's on his own let's go home," Kristi said.
"Have you seen another kid tonight?" Matt asked. "A red-haired boy, few inches taller than me?"
The beersoul said, "Boy appeared at top of steps, shone light through, went back up."
"That cheater!" Kristi exclaimed. "He didn't even come down here."
"We still have to find him," Matt said. The kids started trooping up the stairs, the beersoul following them. Adelaide stared at the strange creature as it reached the top, then offered it a Wheat Thin.
The beersoul took the Wheat thin and turned it over, perplexed. "Thank you?" Adelaide demonstrated by eating one herself.The beersoul ohhhed and put it in his mouth. He gave a big artificial smile, turned around and walked past the other kids, and spit it out as soon as he was out of Adelaide's sight. He put the cracker in a pocket with an expression between confused and appalled.
But before they left the basement, Natalie turned to Matt. "What about him?" She pointed to the beersoul. "We can't just leave him here."
"He does need a can of beer every day," Jim said.
"That's less than Bobby's uncle," Matt pointed out.
"We have a wine cellar," Natalie said. "He could stay there. Our parents order more liquor after every party anyway. They'd never notice one drink a day."
The beersoul brightened at this prospect, long ears pricking.
"Well ... all right."
After Natalie gave him the address, the little blue furry creature put a blessing on Matt's swiss army knife in thanks. Then it hurried away, speeding out into the night.