Chapter 9 | Bones

Single file, the party ascended further into the house, Ruh Ruh making up the rear.

They emerged into the attic, which, like the third floor, was in a dire state of neglect, all surfaces caked in grime. The attic held an additional few rooms, the doors all closed.

Akra and Phaedrus began opening doors.

One opened into a room packed with old furniture — chairs, coat racks, standing mirrors, dress mannequins, and more — all draped in dusty white sheets. Ruh Ruh watched, with some annoyance, as the dragonborn moved quickly through the room, snatching sheets from various items. Didn’t she fear what might awaken if disturbed?

Near the iron stove, underneath a sheet, Akra found an unlocked wooden trunk. She called to them, and Ruh Ruh stood tentatively nearby as she opened it.

The chest contained skeletal remains, wrapped in a tattered bedsheets stained with dry blood. The paladin muttered under his breath. Ruh Ruh inspected the remains without touching them. The clothes had been ripped, and the markings on the bones implied that the victim may have been stopped to death.

Phaedrus mused that it was probably the body of the nursemaid, whose angry spirit they had dispatched just minutes ago. The only comfort Ruh Ruh found in this was that she was, hopefully, now at peace.

The group split again, walking without delicacy around the top floor. Ruh Ruh tried glimpsing out of the hazy windows and out to the street below, but the mists choked the house, and all he saw outside was dim grey light.

He heard thudding behind him, the sound of something heavy against wood, and turned to find Liam and Akra collectively try to bash in a locked door to the only room they hadn’t yet explored. Liam counted to three, and on three, they rammed against it with their armored shoulders.

It didn’t budge.

Amira produced two crowbars from her satchel — that seemed unnecessary, Ruh Ruh thought, as they were both the same size, and he briefly wondered what the warlock did with multiple crowbars.

“Come help, Ruh Ruh,” Akra said. He obliged, and Liam counted down — the three strongest members of the party pushed against the locked door as hard as they could, and the door gave way. They spilled into the room.

They stood and brushed the dust from their armor, Ruh Ruh’s left arm stinging. The party gathered in what looked like a childrens’ room. A bricked-up window was flanked by two dusty, wood-framed beds sized for children. Closer to the door was a toy chest with windmills painted on its sides, and a dollhouse that appeared to be a perfect replica of the dreary edifice. All furnishings were draped in cobwebs.

“This looks like Rose and Thorn’s room,” said Hoben. As he said it, the party fixed their eyes on two small skeletons in the center of the floor wearing tattered but familiar clothing. The smaller of the two cradled a stuffed doll that Ruh Ruh recognized. The sight hit Ruh Ruh square in the gut.

“And those look like Rose and Thorn,” said the ranger, pointing to the bodies.

Amira grimaced, her face dark, and turned away. Ruh Ruh watched the paladin kneel next to the bodies.

“We should bury them,” the warlock suggested, although she seemed wary to near the bones.

Ruh Ruh nodded in agreement, appreciating her suggestion. “Do you know how to put them to rest?” he asked Liam.

The paladin was somber. “We should be able to put their remains in a designated burial area, or perhaps a tomb. This house may have a family crypt.”

Even Akra was silent, for once, as the paladin completed his prayers. Ruh Ruh went to Phaedrus, who crouched in front of the dollhouse, inspecting it. The two outlanders took note of the layout, identifying where they were located. The model of the attic revealed a secret door and a staircase, which appeared to lead straight down into the basement, bypassing the rest of the house.

“If this dollhouse is a correct replica, there is a basement under the house which may have a place for the children,” said Phaedrus. “That’s also where they said there would be monsters. We should go check it out, and we can come back and take care of the bodies.”

This seemed as good a plan as any. They turned toward the door, where they were joined by two small figures.

Apparitions of Rose and Thorn appeared before the doorway of their room. Thorn looked sadly upon his small body on the floor.

“Who are you?” Rose asked Liam, looking peculiarly at him on his knees next to her corpse. She glared at Phaedrus, whose hand gripped a tiny dollhouse chair.

Ruh Ruh went to them, conflicted about seeing them standing and talking when their mortal forms had been left here to rot. He reached for Thorn’s hand, but the boy pulled away. Ruh Ruh knelt to their level. “Don’t you remember us?”

The boy shook his head.

“I knew it,” snapped the warlock. “I knew those children were demons. Or something.” She looked to Thorn. “Did you lure us in here?”

Thorn was unaffected by her tone. “We died in here. Our parents forgot about us.”

The warlock’s face softened momentarily, and she clamped her mouth shut.

Ruh Ruh wanted to prod her painfully with the handle of his axe. It didn’t matter one bit to Ruh Ruh that the children were likely some sort of ghosts. They were still the souls of children, and they deserved their help.

He was relieved when the warlock changed her approach. To his surprise, she knelt next to him, and looked at both children with the most patient look she could muster.

“We want to help you,” she said, softly. Ruh Ruh recalled that Amira had spoken briefly of her own brother, when they had first sat around the campfire. Perhaps this was the reason for her abrasiveness — the trauma of encountering yet another sibling pair that had been destroyed by something dark. “We’re going to go look for your parents, OK?”

Thorn shook his head, ghostly eyes welling with ghostly tears. “Don’t leave us!”

Amira looked to Ruh Ruh for support, and he took the hint. “Once we take care of the monsters, you’ll be safe in here, little pups.”

Rose and Thorn looked unconvinced, but there was nothing more to be done. The party gathered near the doorway, and readied to leave. Ruh Ruh stood, smiling at the children with what he hoped was a warm, convincing smile, and not one that sometimes earned him either chortles or cringes in return.

Akra left the room first, Amira and Hoben following. The ghosts of the children suddenly dissipated, and the warlock and bard halted their tracks.

The change in Amira and Hoben was palpable — well, in Hoben, at least.

“I suspect we have acquired two hitchhikers,” the warlock said, calmly, looking more haughty than usual, as if absorbing a young girl’s spirit was somehow a normal part of her day. She glanced down at Hoben, whose face had gone pale. He lifted a shaking hand.

“What’s happening?” he cried. “I don’t want to go to the basement.”

“Relax,” Amira said, firmly, her lips pursed and eyebrows raised. “You’re just temporarily harboring a frightened seven-year-old boy. And Rose is in me, so we’ll have to take extra care not to get hurt while we investigate the rest of this house.”

To Ruh Ruh, Amira didn’t look any different. She crouched near the bodies, and took Thorn’s stuffed toy from the remains, placing it in her satchel. But Hoben looked stricken, his eyes wide and his mustache drooping, and Ruh Ruh thought he appeared very childlike in this fearful state.

“Just stay with me, and I’ll look out for you.” Ruh Ruh reached for Hoben’s hand, and grasped it. It was clammy and trembling in his own. Upon Hoben’s face cycled fear, and embarrassment, and determination, and comfort.

Ruh Ruh glanced over his shoulder as they left the room, lamenting the fate of the two small bodies. What kind of world, what kind of monsters, did something like this to children? The paladin remained standing over them, and Ruh Ruh allowed him his privacy.

We won’t abandon you, little pups, thought Ruh Ruh, and hoped very much that would be true.

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