The House on the Hill: Part Three
Reginald recovered quickly from his shock; moments later, he was dashing up the stairs in pursuit. "Reggie, get back here!" Bruno called after him. There was no way that the Gelert could let his younger brother chase a mysterious figure through a dark house by himself, and without a second thought, Bruno followed him up the staircase and down the hallway.
Deeper in the heart of the house, Reginald was following the light of the candle as it traveled through the corridor. The chase was not going exceedingly well for him, however. The figure had gotten a sizable head start, and Reginald was now finding out just how quickly it could run. Further complicating matters, Reginald himself was not very fond of exercise, and so was falling farther behind the longer he pursued the apparition.
But luck was on his side that night. The candlelight — and the figure — turned sharply into a room, and Reginald made to follow it, but before he reached the room's entrance, there was a thud and a yelp of pain. His eyes narrowed. That wasn't something ghosts usually did, was it?
The figure had tried to close the door after entering (also not a typical ghost maneuver), and Reginald gingerly pushed it open. There were lit candles mounted on the walls of this room, and shelves full of books everywhere he turned. Reginald remembered hiding in this room and reading while he waited for Bruno to find him, thinking it must have been Mr. Craven's study long ago. (Of course, because of all the books, Bruno always expected him to hide there, so Reginald had been forced to change his strategy after a few games.) The room had changed since he'd last seen it, though; it looked more lived in, messier, with several books strewn across the floor. It was one of these books on the floor that had tripped the mysterious apparition... and speaking of that mysterious apparition, it wasn't quite so mysterious anymore.
The figure on the floor looked up at Reginald with a frown. "What in Nuria's name are you doing in my house?" she snapped, propping herself on one bony elbow and glaring at him, only to grimace and rub the bump forming on her forehead. She pulled herself to her feet, then sat down on the corner of the desk in the room and resumed her glaring. For such a diminutive red Kougra — despite looking somewhat older than Reginald, she was shorter than him, and had a definite look of malnourishment — she had a remarkably intimidating glare, as if she'd spent a lot of time practicing it. She was dressed in the white, billowing clothes of the Lost Desert, though Reginald detected hints of gypsy influence as well.
"Your house?" he repeated. "Who are you?"
The Kougra girl sighed, brushing a strand of curly black hair out of her face. "Well, no one else seemed to be using it, so why shouldn't it be mine? And who're you?"
"I am one of the residents of the fair town that you have been terrifying for the past week," he said, adjusting his shirt collar importantly. It was at times like these that he wished he had a scholarly pair of glasses to adjust, to further refine his intellectual image. The Kougra didn't seem particularly impressed by his brilliance, and it was probably because he had no glasses to adjust.
"Now hold on a second, 'terrifying'?" the girl asked. If her glare had softened slightly since they'd first met, it was now back in full force. "I haven't been 'terrifying' anyone!"
At this point, Bruno entered the room. "Is everything okay, Reggie? Did you — oh, uh, hello...!" the large Gelert said, noticing the Kougra sitting on the desk.
The Kougra girl, for her part, took one look at the hulking figure in the doorway and hopped off the desk, backing away behind one of the bookshelves. "What is going on and why are you in my house?" she asked again. Her voice was higher than before, and her wide amber eyes flickered back and forth between Bruno and the window. Even now, cornered in the study by two intruders (one of whom was probably almost twice her size), she seemed to be trying to formulate some kind of escape plan.
"On the contrary," Reginald replied, "our primary concern is why you are in this house. Now, who are you?"
She glanced at Bruno and visibly swallowed a retort. "Fine," the Kougra said with a little frustrated growl. "I'm Layla Khepri, I live here. Are you happy now?"
A puzzled look came over Reginald's face. "You live here?" he asked in a familiar tone, the kind of tone one might expect from a detective a few steps away from solving the case. Bruno could just hear those cogs spinning in his brain as he added pensively, "Have you experienced any phenomena of a paranormal nature?" The Kougra raised her eyebrows at him. This was a pretty common reaction whenever Reginald spoke, but to Bruno's surprise, Layla didn't look like she was having any trouble understanding him; it was the content of his statement rather than his vocabulary that seemed to be confusing her.
"No!" she answered, wrinkling her nose in distaste. "And if I had, I wouldn't need help handling it. What is this about?"
Bruno felt a rush of sympathy; from what he'd gathered, she had no idea why a pair of strangers had just broken into her house and trapped her in the study. "I'm sorry about all of this," he said, realizing that Reginald was a bit too wrapped up in solving the mystery to do it. Layla still flinched when he spoke, but when she turned to look at him, her face was less fearful than before. "My name is Bruno, and this is my brother Reginald, who wanted to see if there was any truth to the rumors circulating around town lately that this house is haunted."
Layla sighed, now looking much less frightened and much more annoyed. "Alright, well, I can tell you right now that it's not. The only thing here is me!" she insisted.
Next to Bruno, Reginald's ears perked up suddenly. The only thing here... he thought, his mind working at top speed. "That's it!" he said to himself, like a scientist who'd just made an incredible discovery. "How long have you been living here?" he asked feverishly, his eyes wide with excitement.
"About a week," was the answer.
And suddenly, everything fell into place; she had come to live in the Craven house a week ago, around the time when the paranormal activity began, but she had never noticed any of that activity, because the only thing there was Layla herself. The Craven manor had been inhabited, not haunted, and in the midst of the panic that settled over the town prior to Halloween, the Neovians had blindly mistaken all the signs of life — lights, sounds, missing food — for the actions of a vengeful ghost.
Reginald, always on top of the case, was the first to realize the irony of all of this. He burst out laughing, holding onto the corner of the desk for support. Soon Bruno was laughing softly along with him out of sheer relief that no one had gotten hurt over the course of this ridiculous expedition, and though she didn't laugh, per se, even Layla's expression relaxed a little. She too seemed markedly relieved to find out that the intruders meant her no harm.
Eventually Reginald stopped laughing and grabbed one of the books lying on the floor. "Haunted Antiquity," he read, that intrigued tone springing back into his voice.
"It's a series of anecdotes from the history of the Haunted Woods," Layla interjected. "It was one of the books on the shelf, and... well, I figured no one else was around to read it, so..."
"Oh, are you interested in history, then?" asked Reginald, flipping through the brittle, delicate pages.
Layla smiled for the first time since she'd met them, and nodded. "Actually, this library was one of the most influential factors for me in deciding to stay here," she added, effortlessly mirroring Reginald's intellectual way of speaking. "I find all the old books completely captivating."
Nodding fervently, Reginald said, "I understand perfectly. Reading is a favorite pastime of mine — there is some magnificent quality of the act of spending one's time engrossed in a worthwhile book, something almost..."
"Paradisaical," Layla suggested, her eyes lighting up the way Reginald's did whenever he learned a new fact.
"Precisely!" the Lupe exclaimed in agreement.
Bruno just smiled and shook his head.
On the afternoon of the Halloween festival, Alabaster Chesterdrawers was outside his shop handing out Vanilla Ice Cream Apple Lanterns to townspeople stopping by. Across the street, the Crumpetmonger was cheerfully serving slices of cake, Linzer Torte, Apple Tarts, and other pastries to everyone passing her shop. Currently she was handing a Cinnamon Spice Scone to Penelope Pemberley from the Neovian Printing Press offices; the green Pteri thanked her and headed back to work, presumably to start writing an article about the celebration.
The neighborhood children were skipping through the cobblestone streets, not dissuaded by the heavy layer of fog that always seemed to linger over Neovia. As usual, all of them wore costumes made by Prigpants and Swolthy, Tailors. Indeed, the yellow Lenny and purple Mynci made most of the town's outfits, from shoes to dresses to hats. There was a reason why the town of Neovia was always so finely dressed.
All in all, the Neovians had bounced back from their temporary panic. Down the road from Chesterdrawers' antique shop, Reginald was walking around town with Layla and Bruno in tow, pointing out various buildings and approaching citizens at random to introduce them to their new neighbor. The Gelert and Kougra took this in stride, not mentioning that Layla had by now seen most of the town and met most of the townspeople.
A group of children ran past the shop, yelling excitedly to each other that Quincy Mapplethorpe was handing out bags of candy corn. As usual, everyone was keeping a safe distance away from the Bancroft house.
Earlier that morning, Mayor Thumburt had stood in front of the town hall and delivered a brief speech. "My dear citizens of Neovia," he had announced, "surely I am not alone in saying that this past fortnight has been a trying one. And yet we have emerged from our tribulations all the wiser and more experienced. We rebuild, and we learn. With every day that passes, I become more convinced that the town of Neovia can triumph over any circumstance. And now, without further ado, I am pleased to wish you each a Happy Halloween."
Chesterdrawers looked out affectionately at his town, and as the night fell, lights flickered on inside the houses.