The group walked up the steps to the front door of the building. Tia placed her hand on the door knob.
"You guys ready?" she whispered, glancing around the group nervously.
"Go for it," Myrah said.
Tia twisted the knob, and the door slowly swung open.
They all stepped inside.
"Why is it so quiet in here?" asked Pocky softly, tilting her head.
Silence. Absolute, utter silence.
"This isn't right," Prodigy whispered.
Then suddenly there was a loud "BANG!" as the door behind them slammed shut.
"Well, well, well. Isn't this a nice surprise?"
Startled, the group looked around for the source of the voice. Nothing.
"IS THAT ROD?!" Jess asked, looking at the figure sprinting passed them.
Yep, that was DEFINITELY Rod.
"What the heck is he doing?" Prodigy snarled.
"Most likely still looking for that fish thingymabob..." said Chloe, watching him with amusement.
"GUYS!" Myrah interrupted. "Although I would like to wonder about what's going on with Rod, we have to concentrate on what that strange voice thing is, remember?"
"Oh, you won't be able to see me . . ." whispered the voice.
An uneasy chill crept into the room. "Who are you?" asked Raven.
And with that, the shutters flew open dramatically, flapping back and forth in the wind that had suddenly appeared to materialize. A slightly deformed chicken flew into the room, and everybody ducked their heads. It whooshed past the startled onlookers, disappearing through a brick wall.
Four seconds later, a piercing scream emanated from the next room.
"It sounds like Raven," noted Jess. "But I could've sworn she was standing next to me just a few seconds ago . . . "
"I guess there's only one way to find out." said Tia.
The others nodded, making headway towards the large door. The passed through the frame, entering the room from which the scream had originated. There crouched Raven, huddled in a corner on the floor, clutching her head.
"I-I-I-It tried to attack me!" she exclaimed, still shuddering. "The chicken, I mean."
"You're afraid of chickens?" asked Jess, suppressing a laugh.
Chloe interrupted. "Look, you can settle your dispute later. What I want to know is how on earth you managed to get into this room?"
Raven looked at her resentfully. “I walked.”
“But, you, like, disappeared!” Chloe protested.
Raven crossed her arms. “Just goes to show no one was paying attention to me.”
“I WAS,” Rod yelled, barreling into the room. “YOU ALMOST GOT EATEN BY THAT CHICKEN - THAT WAS SO COOL!”
They were all too stunned to even make a Rad joke. Myrah cleared her throat. “So, uh, did you catch that blob thing you were after?”
Rod shrugged. “I got bored. I was sidetracked by a room of shiny things.”
“Naturally,” Prodigy muttered.
Rod shot her a look. “Anyway, thi-”
Another scream emanated from their left, somewhere in the bowels of the weird creepy castle building.
Tia paled. “Who’s missing this time?”
Prodigy did a quick head count. “Pocky,” she decided.
“Well, come on!” Myrah said, starting that way at a run. They followed her down the darkened corridor which gradually grew more narrow and cramped to the point where they could barely stand.
“Guys, maybe we should...” Jess rasped in the tight space.
“It opens up,” Myrah promised from the front.
And it did. Soon enough, the hallway became wide enough to stand and even move about comfortably. That was when they realized it had opened up into a large room with a viewing platform on a second story balcony. It was ringed with glass windows but they were dark.
In the center of the room, a man with bananas growing out of his ears, nostrils and mouth stood, holding a banana like a gun.
It was pressed to Pocky’s throat.
Jess took a step forward, but the weird man dug the banana in deeper.
“Not another step, or I’ll shoot!”
“...You’ll shoot what? It’s a banana,” Prodigy pointed out, brow furrowed.
The man grinned, showing scary banana-peel colored teeth. “Yes, and it shoots concentrated potassium in doses so high it’ll turn her blood toxic. You wouldn’t want that, would you?”
They were silent.
With a cackle, a woman stepped from the darkness. She was hideous; she had two mouths, the bottom one simply hung open listelessly while the upper kept smiling repeatedly, revealing rows of tiny white teeth. The more unnerving part was the fact that the smiling mouth was smiling in time with two identical mouths in her eye sockets. Creeeepy. “I would!” she proclaimed with her bottom mouth.
The man shrugged. “Good enough for me.” He raised the banana to Pocky’s head.
“Wait!” Chloe screamed. “We’ll- we’ll do anything.”
Another man stepped out of the darkness. He had...well, he had two miniature arms coming out of his nostrils, and those mini hands were doing a mini rubik’s cube identical to the one he twisted in his real hands.
“Anything, you say?”
The rubik’s man spoke in a nasally voice, probably because his nostrils were stuffed with arms. That couldn’t be good for the breathing. “Well, you see, my mini arms are pro at the rubik’s cube. Look! Two seconds flat.”
As they watched, the mini rubik’s cube was solved, then promptly messed up again.
“But, my real hands, on the other hand,” he said, adding quietly, “no pun intended, can’t seem to get it. My nostril hands like to tease them about it.” The man pouted. “Solve this rubik’s cube and we’ll let your friend go.”
“We’ll do what now?” the banana man asked indignantly. Rubik’s dude silenced him with a look.
He offered the cube. “You have five minutes.”
At first, no one accepted it. Myrah and Tia looked at each other nervously.
“I got this, guys,” Raven said, stepping forward.
Everyone looked at her incredulously. “You can solve a rubik’s cube?” Prodigy hissed after she’d taken it in her hand.
“Shhh. Cover me,” Raven whispered. “Hide me with your backs.”
Hopefully inconspicuously, they gathered in a tight circle around Raven who knelt to the ground. Luckily, the three really weird people had broken out in argument and weren’t exactly paying attention.
Raven held out her hand. “Give me your flashlight, Rod.”
Rod obliged. Raven pried off the metal battery cover and stuck it between the plastic rows of squares on the Rubik’s cube. She used it like a lever, breaking the toy apart into several pieces.
Hastily, she reassembled them, aligning the sides as solid colors.
“Two minutes,” the Rubik’s man called from amidst his argument. The lady with all the mouths was currently gnawing on the banana man’s banana ear. It was weird beyond belief.
“Hurry!” Jess urged Raven.
“I am!” she replied.
As the clock ticked down, she clicked the last piece in place and stood up triumphantly. “Here!” she said, breaking through the line of people and thrusting it at the guy.
He took it in wonder. “Wow. You actually did it. Neat. Want to kill them all now?” he asked the banana man.
“But I thought-”
“You thought wrong,” banana guy replied. He pressed his banana into the side of Pocky’s head again. She squeezed her eyes shut.
“NO!” Raven yelled, stomping her foot and throwing a temper tantrum. “This is completely unfair! I demand to speak with your superior!”
They all looked at each other. “Well, by rights, we have to oblige,” Rubik’s guy admitted. “It’s in the handbook.”
He sighed. “Fine.” The lady pressed a button on the wall and a circular chunk of the ceiling descended upon them. They scrambled out of the way as it crashed to a stop on the ground, revealing a boy sitting on a throne, mist swirling about his feet.
He examined his nails lazily. “What?”
“These people wanted to talk to you,” banana said nervously.
The boy stood. “Who are they?”
“Who are you?” Myrah demanded stepping forward. She continued angrily. “What gives you the rig-”
Myrah broke stride. “What?”
“I’m Paul. This is my place,” he said. “What are you doing here?”
“We, uh, wandered in...” Myrah said, obviously flustered.
“Let her go!” Tia spoke up.
“Who?” Paul asked.
“Her,” Tia said, pointing.
“Oh. Why, what would you do if I didn’t?”
Rod hefted his flashlight. “I WILL BURN YOU!”
Paul didn’t look concerned, just tired. “Fine, whatever. Let her go.”
“I said, ‘Let her go’.”
They let her go. Pocky stumbled back over to the others. Jess and Chloe took her by the arm and led her the rest of the way, hugging her reassuringly.
“However, I’ll have you know that she’s not leaving here - none of you are leaving here - without a price,” he said in a monotone.
Prodigy’s eyes narrowed. “What price?”
Paul smiled. “Do you think I stay here for fun? Do you think only having these creepy manifestations of gifs for company is fun?”
She didn’t answer.
“I think it’s time I pass the responsibility on,” he said. Paul pointed at Pocky. “She can stay and take care of the blob fish and the cute gifs. The other ones don’t need anything. They’ll listen to the master of the house, though.”
“No, we won’t leave her here!” Tia shouted.
Paul shrugged. “Fine. Guess you’ll all have to have a potassium overload...”
The banana guy stepped forward.
“Wait!” Pocky said. “I’ll-I’ll do it. I’ll stay. I’d only have to tend to the cute gifs, right? I won’t even have to see these guys?”
“Not at all,” Paul promised.
“It’s okay, guys. I kinda want to. It’d be fun!” she said. Pocky smiled. “I’ve had enough of this adventure... I’d rather make sure I’m not the one to die.”
The group nodded in quiet acceptance.
“But we need eight people. The prophecy says so,” Prodigy pointed out.
“I’ll come,” Paul volunteeered. “I’ve been cooped up in here for a very long time. It’d be nice to get out, get some company...”
They all looked at him. In comparison to the severely creepy people at his side, he seemed pretty normal. Through silent communication, they came to an agreement.
“If Pocky’s okay with it, it’s a deal.”
“Great!” Paul said, hopping down from his platform. “Go find the blob fish - he’s smarter than he looks. He’ll show you the ropes.”
“Got it,” Pocky said.
Paul joined the group over on the side. “Well, shouldn’t we be off?”
He led the way out of the room. Pocky waved cheerily, and then disappeared around the corner.
“Wait, we heard a voice out here...” Tia said nervously as they stepped into the lobby.
“Oh, that’s just the one gif who’s cloaked in darkness. He likes to freak people out, lead them away from the group.”
“He told me I was the most beautiful fish that ever lived,” Rod said dreamily.
“Are you sure it wasn’t Raven who said that?” Jess teased.
She immediately received identical glares from Raven and Rod. “Aw, glaring in unison. Adorable.”
As they stepped out into the sun, something felt different. Their steps were a little more weighed, their hearts a little heavier. The inescapable feeling that they had just felt the first pangs of loss due to this adventure hung in the air. But they kept going.