Turning back to the window, she took two steps and the wood creaked loudly under her weight. Terri froze, her legs braced wide apart and she stared wide-eyed at her exit still too far away.
“Female!” Veral shouted, his voice literally vibrating with anger as it carried to her through the dark room.
“Veral…” she whispered as a deafening crack surrounded her. A high-pitched shriek came out of her mouth as the floor gave way beneath her and sent her hurtling down below.
Rotten floorboards and dust fell all around her as her hip and rib cage slammed against the floor of the third-level hallway. Her breath rushed out of her in a wheeze. Choking on the thick dust, she gagged and drew in a long, unsteady breath to regain control of herself between hacking coughs that sent spasms through her body until they settled. Distantly, she could hear Veral shouting her name as she lay there staring up at the broken ceiling.
With a painful groan, Terri rolled over onto her belly and pulled her elbows and knees beneath her before slowly pushing herself onto her hands and knees, and then finally to her feet. Bending over, she picked up her oil lamp, the flames thankfully extinguished by her fall, and set it upright before refilling and lighting it.
Light spilled through the corridor, showing off the faded wallpaper. She recoiled from a dark patch staining the floor and wall near a room, the door of which had been left ajar. She began to back away from the door before she caught herself and swiped a hand down her face. Obviously, whatever had happened there was some time ago. It was unlikely that anything dangerous still remained in the room, if it had even been inside there at all. There was a thick coating of dust undisturbed on everything. Whatever had eaten the bodies upstairs must not have left the attic—at least as far as she could tell. As both the far ends of the hallway were collapsed, that didn’t leave her with very many options for a starting place. She might as well start there.
Stepping around a dried bloodstain, Terri pushed her way through the door. The room itself, though covered with dust, was elegant as if caught in time. Although yellowed with age, white lace and linens graced with what once had to have been lush comforters adorned the room against what appeared to be a pink wallpaper that was browning in many places.
Holding her sack tightly against her shoulder, she crept through the room, her fingers skimming over surfaces. On one chair, a pile of teddy bears watched her through smudged glass eyes as she explored the space. Despite being watched by her inanimate audience, she ignored them, a wide smile breaking over her face as she came across a jewelry box set in the corner of a large wooden vanity.
Tilting up the lid, she jumped and nearly dropped it when a mechanism moved, sending a few notes of a melody chiming out of it. It sang so cheerfully in the empty quiet of the room that she could hear a trace echo of the brief melody in the house. Enchanted, she thrust the box into her bag instead of just upending it like she’d planned. Working her way through the room, she picked over the offerings, tossing anything that Veral could possibly have use for into her bag. When thoroughly scouting through the room offered nothing else of possible value, she slipped back out the door and proceeded to the next room.
A room in shades of blue ended up being a complete waste of her time. Despite its palette of restful hues, it seemed like no one had resided in that room. She settled for stripping a tiny frame painting of flowers and another of an ocean scene off the walls before departing. The other two rooms weren’t much better. They both had large open bags sitting on their beds, although each bedside stand held personal electronics that she broke before removing their delicate inner pieces.
Burdened with the pleasant weight of her findings, Terri hummed a tune, almost able to forget the grisly scene upstairs. Almost. It kept intruding into her thoughts like an unwelcome visitor, reminding her there was something not quite right about the entire scenario. She descended the dark stairs, each step creaking ominously underfoot. She paused at the first one and breathed a sigh of relief as it held. Not wanting to tempt misfortune, she sped down the stairs, stepping as lightly as possible. It wasn’t until she was panting at the bottom of the steps, safely on the second floor—really the main floor since the first floor had appeared to once have been a large garage and daylight basement—that the thought which had been niggling in the back of her mind came to the fore.
All the blood and decaying bodies. It wasn’t right. It didn’t fit with what was normal in Phoenix if it had happened some time ago. It had been oddly fresh… the desert typically dried corpses out quickly. Wood rot was expected, not mushy corpses. That meant that whoever it had been must have been in and out of the house recently. There had to be a way in and out that was so well hidden on the outside that neither of them detected it. She thought of the garage level.
Even though the roof appeared to be completely collapsed over the garage, what if there was space to wiggle in and out?
She grinned, relieved that she wasn’t going to have to figure out a way to scurry back up through the ceiling onto the fourth floor. Terri raided the living room, busting open electronics and removing metal components and even taking some decorations from the walls.
A pungent scent wafted through the lower level of the house. Until that moment, the scent had been contained in the upper levels of the house. Why was it penetrating the main floor now? Saliva filled her mouth as her stomach protested the strong scent of rot. Groaning, Terri slapped a hand over her mouth and nose, trying not to breathe it in.
Fuck, that was awful! How was it even worse than it had been upstairs?
Her eyes flew to the side as she heard a creak from the kitchen, her muscles freezing. Quickly she snuffed out her light, throwing the room into darkness. She’d been an idiot not to connect the dots, but she assumed that no one would have been able to get inside.
She’d been wrong. Very, very wrong.
Terri jumped when a door banged open in the kitchen just off the living room where she stood. Heavy breathing broke the silence. Inhaling through her nose and exhaling through her mouth, she breathed as silently as possible, unwilling to even move in her desperate bid to not be discovered.
A chuckle broke the silence, the pitch sliding unevenly through the laughter, making her skin prickle and the fine hairs on her arms stand on end.
“Little girl,” a voice called out, shifting into falsetto as a male voice called out to her. “I know you are here. Come out, sweet little thing. I won’t hurt you.”
Terri pressed herself against the wall, staring blindly, searching through the darkness.
“Oh, don’t be shy. You aren’t scared, are you? I wouldn’t hurt a sweet girl like you.” He paused and giggled. “Ah, you sawthem,didn’t you? A man has to eat, sweet girl, but I wouldn’t do more than taste. I would sip you like the sweetest water.” He growled and thrashed as he stumbled through the kitchen into the living room.
Terri inched along the wall, her body shivering in fear.He was insane!His words fell disjointedly as he spoke to himself almost as much as to her.
“Disgusting, filthy Reapers. They tried to attack me, butImade them sorry. I locked them in a room. All but one. Him, I pushed against the wall and gutted right there, devouring his innards while he screamed. It was a precious sound. Not as sweet as your screams will be, my sweet one. No. Not as sweet.” His voice quickened with excitement. “I kept the others until I hungered again, and again I took one. They kept me fed for weeks, those nasty Reapers, while they were fed the bloated corpses of their brethren to keep them alive. But they know all about eating people. Can’t fault them for doing that. Survival of the fittest, as my father would say.”
He darted forward, slamming into the wall just feet away from her, his fingernails scratching along the wood, loudly tearing into the wallpaper as he screamed. “Where are you?!”
She bit her tongue, feeling blood well into her mouth with its iron flavor as she tried not to scream in terror. His hands slapped the walls, scratching, pounding, searching for her. Terri took a step toward the kitchen and then another before bolting. She couldn’t muffle her steps as she ran terrified through the kitchen, his footsteps pounding as he called out.
“Come back!Come back! Mine! You are mine!”
Her heart raced as she rounded a corner. His long fingernails caught on her shirt before she broke free, her blood curdling with his screams of rage. She could hear Veral’s furious roar outside, and something heavy began to strike the outside of the building, making the weakened walls tremble from the brute force.
She needed to get out of there! She needed to get to Veral before he brought the entire house down in his attempt to get her free. Twisting to the left, she flew away from the banging, appreciating that the loud noise would confuse the man pursuing her. Knowing that the entrance was blocked, she plunged down the steps into the garage, her breath coming out in loud, uneven pants.