Oh no, Kristi thought, horrified. It's Mr. Vernon's head.
"What do you have there, Batman?" Natalie asked.
The group's tiniest detective opened the sack, facing towards them.
An ancient skull rested inside, desiccated remnants of skin and hair flaking from it. It slowly revolved within the bag, turning to face them. Fire flared behind empty black sockets, and it levitated from the sack, skeletal jaws parted by echoing mirthless laughter. "HA HA HA HA HA!"
The children erupted in panick. Bobby flew at the skull, flailing with ineffectual terror. Mark gibbered. "Who said we were going to be okay? This not okay! We are not okay!"
Kristi froze. Wayne wailed. Matt tried to shield his twin sister. Jim pointed, yelping "That's red! It's totally red to us!"
As the skull flew in wide circles around the room, only Adelaide and Natalie remained calm. "It's all right," Adelaide said. "It's just a skull with burning eyes. We're all fine." She took Kristi's hand, and the older girl grabbed it in a white-knuckled death grip.
The front door slammed shut with a bang audible even over the bedlam of terrified kids. The wood of the window frames began to melt and run in downward streaks, forming bars across the windows to seal them shut. Still laughing, the skull passed intangibly through the ceiling.
"Everyone calm down. We're okay," Natalie said, while the others continued to freak. "Who wants a cookie? I've got cookies."
With the aid of Thin Mints and soothing words, the children gathered their scattered wits. Jim armed himself with the poker from the fireplace, Natalie grabbed the fireplace shovel, and Adelaide took the tongs. Matt broke the stout legs off the piano bench to serve as clubs. Kristi took a deep breath and held out her hand to Jim. "May I borrow that for a moment?"
Jim passed it to her. Kristi walked to one of the windows, newly-barred by wood, wound up, and swung the poker as hard as she could.
The iron poker bounced off the wooden bars. The wood was unaffected, with no scratched in its varnish or cracks in the glass. Kristi handed back the poker. "Can we call 911 now?"
Jim dug his phone from his pocket. "No."
"No signal." The icon for 'one new text message' flashed at the top of the screen. Jim flicked his fingers over the touchscreen to check it.
FLAMING-EYED DEATH SKULL: HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA"I don't think we need to bother checking the front door," Kristi said.
Sent: Nov 18 1:03
"Yeah." Matt started for the door back to the foyer, bench-leg club stuck through his belt, flashlight in one hand, and pocket knife in the other. Wayne darted out in front of him, skidding on the footies of his Batman pajamas. Matt tried to get an arm around the toddler " -- Hey, stay behind me -- " but Wayne broke free of the older boy's grasp. The rest of the kids ended up following Wayne up the stairs.
In the second floor hallway, the four year-old boy peeked through the first door. It was a little girl's room, with a canopied bed layered in dust, a dollhouse on a low table by one wall, and an armoire with little-girl clothes in it. Jim checked the family tree in the Bible as the other kids filed into the room. "This must be Elise's room. She was four. The two boys were a bit older."
"No Batman toys," Wayne announced, and left the room, evading Kristi when she tried to stop him.
Adelaide stepped over to the dollhouse, reaching inside to touch one of the curiously dust-free pieces of doll furniture. A tiny glass hand took her finger. "Play with us," it said, in a lilting high-pitched voice.
The young girl stammered in response, startled. The doll was of glass, two inches high and pretty by the flashlight glow. Kristi's skin crawled; all the kids were remembering the beersoul saying Mr. Vernon was 'putting souls in inanimate objects'.
Kristi stepped closer to her friend, putting an arm around Adelaide's shoulders. "What did you want to play?" Kristi asked the tiny glass figure.
"'Stay with Us Forever'," the figurine answered, as more tiny dolls joined it. Their eyes glinted red.
"I don't think we have enough time for that," Kristi said.
"BAD TOY!" Bobby yelled. He charged, slamming his makeshift club down on the dolls. They smashed into tiny pieces with a tinkling crunch.
As he lifted his club, the glass remains melted and flowed together to form a glass chimera, doll-legs and arms and heads sticking out of it in all directions. "Oh, so that's how you want to play," the chimera's many heads spoke as one.
Jim dropped the heavy old Bible on top of the chimera, smashing it again. As they heard tiny glass shards clawing their way through the thick book, the kids fled.
In an adjoining little boy's room, Wayne had found a cache of toy soldiers. They animated as he watched. "TEN-HUT!" their leader barked. "FORM UP!" They arranged in orderly ranks. "FORWARD MARCH!" They marched to the door.
Natalie scooped up Wayne as the kids streamed past and up the stairs.
"PRESENT ARMS!" the toy soldier shouted.
Still running with the others, Bobby held out his arms.
There was a crash of gunfire behind them as the kids raced to the third floor, but no one was hurt. The toy soldiers didn't pursue up the stairs.
Matt reached the third floor landing first. There were doors before him, to the right, and to the left His knife was glowing faintly. "Why is it doing that?" Natalie asked in a whisper.
"I don't know ... but the beersoul did bless it." The blade tugged in Matt's hand, turning towards the door on the right. He opened the door and stepped through. It was a master bedroom, with a big four-poster bed, a vanity with a stool, a high-backed chair, and an armoire. A path a little more than a foot wide had been dragged through the dust towards the armoire. The knife tugged Matt's arm towards it.
Smears of red-brown showed in the flashlight along the trail. Adelaide covered her mouth.
Matt opened the armoire.
Scotty was stuffed inside, unmoving.
Natalie rushed to help her brother get Scotty out of the armoire and lay him flat on the floor. He was bruised and bloody, and the tip of white bone was visble poking through the muscle of his right thigh. Bobby whimpered, and Kristi moved to hug him, turning his face from the scene. But Scotty was still breathing, shallowly. The twins splinted his leg with the bench legs and bound it and his other injuries with strips torn from the bedsheets. As they were working, Scotty regained consciousness. "Uhhnnh ... " His eyes focused on the room and the other kids, and widened. "Get out!" he said, urgently. "We have to -- " he tried to stand, and cried out in pain.
Matt pushed him flat again. "Don't move," Natalie said, "you're leg's broken."
"Doesn't matter," he croaked. "You gotta get outta here. They'll kill you. Leave me! Get out!"
"We can't," Kristi said, shocked by his earnestness. "Even if we wanted to leave you, we can't get the doors open and the windows are all barred and unbreakable."
"Oh man. You gotta get farther from the attic at least."
"Can't do that either," Kristi said. "The toy soldiers are blocking the second floor. 'PRESENT ARMS!'" she said in mimicry, and flinched at a crash of gunfire from the floor below.
Scotty winced in memory at the sound. "Hell, them."
"What happened to you, Scotty?" Natalie asked.
"I was running for the attic, away from the toy soldiers. There was this woman's voice coming from up there, begging for help. Then she said 'No, don't come up, get away!' I never even made it all the way up the ladder. Something knocked me off the ladder, and I don't remember anything after that."
"We have to go up there," Matt said.
"You can't be serious," Mark protested, at the same time as Scotty shook his head. "We can't go to the attic! It's the worst part of this whole nightmare."
"What else can we do?" Jim asked. "Hide here until we starve?"
"How do we get to the attic?" Natalie asked Scotty.
The red-haired boy shook his head, but answered anyway. "There's a store room through that door." He pointed to another door. "The stairway in there leads up to it."
"Thanks. Bobby, Wayne, you need to wait here with Scotty."
Bobby clung to Natalie's leg. "No! Gonna go with you!"
Wayne crossed his little arms in front of his chest. "I'm Batman."
Natalie tried and failed to pry Bobby off her leg. "All right, Bobby, you can come to the attic if you hold my hand, and if you remember to ask for permission while we're up there."
"Permission for what?" Bobby asked.
"Anything," Natalie told him.
"You don't need permission to breathe," Matt qualified. "But everything else."
"But you have to wait with Scotty, Batman," Natalie told Wayne.
By way of answer, Wayne walked through the door to the storeroom.
"You're just a little kid!" Natalie yelled after him. "Somebody has to make him wait here."
Kristi looked between the two. "... when have any of us managed to stop Batman from doing whatever he wants?"
Mark and Jim shrugged and trooped after Wayne, followed in a moment by Kristi and Adelaide.
Natalie sighed and patted Scotty's shoulder before following the rest of the kids. "We'll be back for you."
As the storeroom door closed behind the last of them, Scotty whispered hopelessly to the empty room, "No you won't."