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       The Secret Seekers Society and the Beast of Bladenboro, p.1

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The Secret Seekers Society and the Beast of Bladenboro


  The Secret Seekers Society

  And the Beast of Bladenboro

  By J.L. Hickey

  Copyright© 2012 by J.L. Hickey

  All rights reserved by the author. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system or transmitted in any form or by any means electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, without the prior written permission of the author.

  Dedicated and written for my niece and nephew Hunter and Elly.

  A special thank you all for the support! Without your help, The Secret Seekers Society would have never been finished!

  Justin Granger

  Shanni Renay Fry

  Tesia Badgero

  Comic Book Dave

  Symphanie Estell Hernandez

  Jonathan Burden Jr

  Kayla Lynn Ricklefs

  Liz Theile

  Adrian Nidia

  Scott Ferguson

  Liza Walker

  Tone Miller

  Chance McKimmey

  Jim Lannin

  Daniel Kettler

  Nikki & Chad

  Jess Haley

  Matt Kris

  Debra Lafond

  Dakota Smith

  Michelle L. Shaltry

  Jeff Leppert

  Elizabeth Baldwin

  Krystan Wheeler

  Hanna H. Blake

  Alyssa Harris

  Timothy Harris

  Steve Ward

  Jeff. R. White

  Angela Emala

  Monica Whitburn

  David Dunn

  Francis Barbeau

  David & Elaine Vlassis

  Heather Rinn

  Chapter 1

  A Mansion Full of Secrets

  Hunter Glen pushed back the bridge of his thin-framed glasses tightly against his nose, a nervous habit he had picked up from his mother. He had sat in the back of the old musty taxicab for nearly three hours not muttering a single word to the wrinkled face cabdriver who smelled of burnt cigarettes and coffee. Alongside him sat his younger sister, Elly Anne, who was equally as quiet, which in her case was a rare oddity. Elly had a fascination with attention, especially when she was at the center of it. Any normal day would see the two siblings arguing over who deserved more of the back seat, or who got to choose what radio station to listen to. It was very unfortunate for the children, from that moment on; there would not be any more "normal days."

  The children were two years apart, Hunter the eldest of the two at thirteen years old. He was small for his age with a slender frame. He had messy unkempt dark brown hair with eyes just a shade darker. His mother always told him he had the most beautiful and mysterious eyes she had ever seen, just like his father's. Elly was the polar opposite of her brother when it came to looks. She took much more after her mother with fair skin and auburn red hair, and a few sparse freckles spread across her cheeks.

  The taxicab weathered its way through a thick storm down the country road. Raindrops the size of quarters fell onto the windows as Hunter peered out the passenger side lost in a daze of melancholy. The rhythmic splashes created natural harmonic sounds that their father would say it was Mother Nature's way of creating natural musical harmony. Lightning streaked through the dark pale sky, briefly illuminating the overcast roadway, the thunder making Elly jump slightly. She never did like storms…

  The ominous weather was fitting for the siblings' current mood. Despite its treachery for the cabdriver, who tried his best to safely navigate through the intense rain and howling winds. Hunter and Elly welcomed the raging storm; if anything, it was a small distraction from the current dark reality that summed up their lives.

  "Well," the cabdriver spoke once again, trying to break the awkward silence, "not sure where it is you two are going. These directions they gave me sure aren't taking us down the beaten path. I don't think there's a paved road for miles down this way."

  Hunter didn't reply to the friendly gesture. Elly also ignored him, quietly humming an old tune her mother used to sing her to sleep with, making it apparent she wasn't interested in any type of conversation with the strange man. It had been a long drive already, and the only thing keeping the cabdriver awake was his trusty coffee mug filled to the brim with the bitterest coffee imaginable.

  "Most kids I know never want to shut up." The man chuckled to himself, taking a cautious sip. "I have two kids of my own about your ages. They go on about everything… You kids haven't said squat in over three hours."

  "Our parents are dead…" Elly said with a straight tone, void of all emotion.

  "Er… oh…" The driver stuttered for a second, tripping over his words and slightly choking on his coffee. "I'm sorry… I didn't know."

  "So now we're being sent off to some stranger we've never met-to our new family," she added harshly.

  "Well…" The driver stumbled… A sudden flash of lightning illuminated the dreary sky, and a thunderous boom sent vibrations through the dusty old cab. The driver jumped in his seat, spilling his coffee mug all over his lap.

  "Ouch!" he yelled as the steaming hot coffee soaked into his jeans. "Son of a…"

  "Shut up, Elly," Hunter interrupted, shifting his body away from hers and towards the window. His eyes watered up as he stared blankly at the passing forest.

  "It's the truth," she shot back. "They're dead!"

  "Well, how about some music, aye?" the driver interrupted, trying to calm the mood. His chubby fingers quickly turned the radio knob to on. He fiddled with the tuner until some old-fashioned music chimed in. The children went quiet and didn't say a word.

  It was another hour down the stony dirt road, deeper into the thicket of the woods and farther away from any signs of the city. The taxicab crept up a rather steep hill, and through the dense overcast mist the storm had left in its wake, there stood a large eerie-looking building. Hunter's eyes widened as he peered at its immense size.

  "Elly, what is that?" Hunter asked, baffled at the colossal sight.

  "It looks like a creepy castle," she replied.

  "That, children," the driver answered back, also a bit taken aback by the building, "I'd wager is our destination."

  The structure sat in the midst of the large forest, which they had driven through for hours. It appeared that the stony dirt road leading off the main interstate-hours back-was its only entrance, for the rest of the surrounding grounds were covered in thick, impenetrable foliage. The main complex stood seven stories high with windows decorated with elegant stained-glass designs on every level of the building. The children were too far away to tell what they were designed with, but they could tell, even in the damp and dreary mid-afternoon, that the windows were gracefully constructed.

  It was bigger than any building the children had ever seen-even larger than the local hospital where Hunter had stayed two summers ago when he broke his arm playing street ball. The estate didn't just house the one giant gothic building either; in fact, it was an entire estate with numerous sub-buildings placed within the confines. To the right of the main building sat an in-ground swimming pool that had been drained out and was now overgrown with vines and shrubs. Hunter imagined what the pool had looked like at one time with bright blue water that would have been crystal clear for swimming, now it was practically empty with small murky puddles littered with soggy brown leaves.

  Beyond the pool was a vibrant greenhouse that looked desolate and abandoned from the outside, but peering through the glass structure would show it was beaming full of flora inside. In all honesty, that is what the entire estate looked like from the outside looking in, abandoned, and overrun with weeds and
vegetation. Even the giant main building had let Mother Nature overtake its once-magnificent stone structure. Long ivy vines twisted and curled all the way up to the seventh-story windows. Large brush overgrew the mansion's approach, and the leafless trees had decorated the massive lawn with their autumn leaves.

  "We're living in an abandoned castle?" Hunter asked. "Who's going to take care of us?"

  "Well, I don't know about it being abandoned," said the driver. "But I assure you whatever that building is, it ain't no castle. I bet you it's some old rundown mental institution. Ya know, back in the late sixties, they'd send crazy old coots and serial killers to these types of out-in-the-middle-of-nowhere places," he went on, growing more excited as he spoke. "About three hours' drive south of the interstate, there's that famous penitentiary that's haunted. Yep…" the driver was completely ambiguous to the fear in the children's eyes, "…bunch of crazy stuff happened in those ole buildings back then. I'd put my life savings on it, this building has some dark history. Electric therapy, lobotomy, they did crazy things to those people. I guarantee it!"

  The taxi finally came to a slow stop at the end of the winding path. A large stone fence surrounded the estate's land and blocked them from driving any closer to the mansion. It wasn't as much of a fence in the traditional sense; it was more of a huge, thick stone wall that stood an astonishing fifteen feet high with razor wire running atop of it. This was the only entrance into the estate's grounds-one way in, one way out. A large thick iron gate blocked off the group's entry into the compound. Alongside the thick gateway stood two giant gargoyles perched atop ten-foot-tall monoliths. Etched from granite, the winged creatures looked vicious, with bright ruby-red eyes that sparkled brightly when the sunlight hit them just right. They shot a sense of fear into the children's hearts. They looked all too real, as if during the moonlit nights they magically turned to real, living, breathing gargoyles.

  "Yep," the driver shifted his taxi into park, "this here's the place." He looked back over the driver's seat with a smile.

  "Seriously?" Elly responded in disbelief, her lip curled in anger.

  "A mental hospital?" Hunter questioned.

  The wrinkled-face driver stepped out of the taxicab directly into a large puddle of mud. He groaned and cursed under his breath as the cold water soaked through his shoes. He slammed his door shut with a deafening thud that rattled the entire cab. He walked around to the rear of the vehicle and popped the trunk open. He then gathered the children's things together and tossed them onto the roadside.

  "There is no way he's serious," Elly shot a frightened look at Hunter.

  "I don't think anyone even lives here. He must be pulling a prank on us," he replied.

  "Well, it's not funny," she added. "I'm not getting out of this car."

  The driver opened the back door, letting the cold damp air hit the kids' faces; it stung their cheeks for a split second. Their bags sat out in the rainy driveway awaiting them. The driver smiled, holding out his hands to help the kids out. Hunter brushed the man's friendly gesture aside and stepped out, tightening his long scarf around his neck. Elly frowned at the man, crossed her arms defiantly and looked the other way.

  "Come on now, you can't stay in my cab." He had a stern look on his face that didn't sit well with Elly. She let out an annoyed sigh as the man helped her out of the back of the musty cab's seat.

  "It's gettin' close to winter, at least the snow held off. I'd hate to make that drive back on this dirt road in the middle of a blizzard." The man slammed the car door.

  "What do we do now? There's no one here." Hunter picked up his two large suitcases, not knowing what to do next. He didn't feel comfortable sitting and waiting in the freezing rain outside of a scary-looking castle.

  "I miss Mom and Dad." Elly's eyes watered. "I want to go home."

  "I don't need this," the driver moaned, feeling inherently bad that he was angry at having to take care of the two lonely children. "I don't get paid enough as it is; I don't want to sit around and babysit you two," he murmured under his breath, knowing he didn't have the heart to actually leave the children out in the rain alone in the midst of a forest.

  "You can't leave us out here… right?" Elly barked.

  "I'm not that coldhearted, kid," he shot back. "I'll stick it out for a little while, but if no one comes soon, I'll have to drive you back and charge you double."

  Hunter groaned and dropped his luggage back down onto the muddy earth, making a large splash. He took a seat on a large stone in front of one of the gargoyle monoliths and waited impatiently. At least the rain had subsided to a slight drizzle he thought to himself.

  "Did they tell you kids who you were meeting up here?"

  "Our godparent," Hunter replied, tossing a stone into a nearby puddle.

  "Professor Calenstine," Elly added. "We've never met him."

  The three of them waited silently for some sort of sign, anything at all that told them the creepy mansion was inhabited by someone… anyone. They spoke no words, just emitting random sighs of annoyance. A half-hour passed before the wrinkled-face cabdriver was about to give up and drive the children back.

  Suddenly, the loud thundering noise of a helicopter broke the silence of the forest. The kids stood up quickly from their stony seats as a jet-black helicopter hovered over them. It was quite low to the ground; so low that all the wet leaves littering the ground around their feet blew forcefully from beneath them. The cabdriver quickly held on to his musty old hat as the helicopter made its way over the large stone fence and into the estate, where it finally landed.

  "Well, it's about time," the driver yelled over the loudness of the rotor blades. Even being a little ways off, the noise of the helicopter was still quite deafening.

  "I have never seen one up close before," Hunter said. "Cool!"

  "Who's getting out of it?" Elly asked as both she and Hunter pressed their faces tightly in between the iron bars of the gate with excitement.

  Three well-dressed men in black suits came out of the helicopter first, distinguishing between the three was impossible for the children at that distance-they seemed to be faceless suits. The three men didn't rush off; instead, they waited as a fourth elderly man was lowered from the aircraft's side door in a wheelchair. The elderly man had a small dog with him resting on his lap, covered by a blanket to protect it from the fierce cold. One of the men pushed the wheelchair away from the landing pad and toward the house. The other two men helped a woman down from the helicopter before rejoining the pilot and swiftly lifting off once again. The helicopter flew off into the distance, its loud rotor blades slowly fading off into the horizon.

  By this time, the suited men had maneuvered the old man and his dog completely into the comfort of the giant mansion, and the woman was rushing towards the children.

  "I wonder if that's the professor," Elly said.

  "Maybe," Hunter replied, but it wasn't who he had pictured as his godparent. He thought of a man his father's age, strong with big shoulders, not some woman.

  "She has red hair like me!" Elly smiled brightly as the woman drew nearer, allowing the children to make out her appearance. She was in her mid-fifties with a round friendly face that beamed a friendly smile towards them. She was still a few yards away from the iron gate, but the children could already tell that she seemed quite happy to see them. She had a full figure but walked with prominence in every step. She wore a bright green overcoat and a matching pointy hat with a long circular brim. Hunter thought she looked like a colorful witch, albeit a friendly one.

  "Children!" she yelled now only a yard away from the gate. "I am so very sorry for the wait! I do hope it wasn't too long?" She smiled as she pulled out a large rusty key from the bulky turquoise purse dangling at her side. The children had never seen such a key; it was a solid foot in length, and when she inserted it, they could hear the gears turning inside the old iron gate, making a loud mechanical churning noise. "You can never be too safe, am I right?" She grunted softly for a brief
moment as she put her weight into swinging the gate open.

  "Oh heavens," she panted. "I forget how heavy this blasted door is; we don't use it much you see."

  "Well it's about time, lady," the driver said as he tipped his hat to her. "I was about to drive off with them; we've been out here in this murky weather forever."

  "Well, that will be all then, kind sir." She handed the man a few folded up bills and waved him off, barely paying attention to him.

  "Nice to meet you too," he grumbled as he pocketed the cash. He cursed once again under his breath and made his way back to the cab. His tires squealed noisily as he drove away.

  "You must be Elly?" The lady gave an elaborate bow. Elly smiled at the gesture.

  "This is my brother, Hunter."

  "I have heard much about you both. I'm very pleased to meet you." She waved her hand towards the mansion. "Oh, where are my manners? My name is Patricia Ellingbee."

  "You're not Professor Calenstine?" Hunter asked.

  "Oh heavens no, I am merely the caretaker of our lovely mansion." She stopped for a second amidst the long walk towards the entrance. "Welcome to the Belmonte Estate!"

  "It's kind of scary," Hunter added as they passed by a large eerie oak tree that seemed to be alive.

  "Yes, we get that a lot," Ms. Ellingbee chuckled. "Our estate is not without its wonderment, for those who know we exist that is, and I assure you, that's not many." She winked at the children.

  "This is really weird," Hunter whispered to Elly, making sure he spoke low enough that the friendly Ms. Ellingbee couldn't hear.

  "At least she's nice," Elly whispered back.

  "It's a bit of a walk from the entranceway, I know. The estate is rather large."

  "Is the giant castle where we'll be staying?" Elly asked.

  "Oh yes, Belmonte Manor: constructed in 1886 with renovations ongoing for the last century. We're constantly upgrading; a lovely and warm place it is. I think you will like it."

  "Does Professor Calenstine live here?" Hunter added.

  "You could say that," she replied. They finally made their way up to the large stone steps that led to the giant main doors of the mansion. "You will meet your godfather soon enough, but until then, I have been given the honor of getting both of you set up and comfortable with your new living quarters. The room we have saved for you is quite spacious, and I am sure you will find it very accommodating."

  Elly stood before the giant doors in bewilderment; she felt like an ant as she peered up at the towering threshold. The large oak doors were over twenty feet tall, made of thick wood and dense iron.

  Hunter was in awe as well, he stared at the peculiar doors with his mouth gaping open in wonderment. They were no average doors indeed, delicately decorated with elaborate designs. There were pictures of wild animals, some Hunter could recognize like wolves and gorillas-although both animals were strangely standing upright-but the other animals were a bit more mysterious to him. Like the half-man, half-horse figure guarding a chest filled with treasure, and even a large bat-like creature with the head of some sort of horse wielding a trident. Both of the doors were filled with similar designs like this from the bottom all the way to the very top. Hunter could have stared at those doors for hours and never grown bored.

  "We don't use the front door often-a bit tricky these buggers are; they feel like they weigh a ton too." She felt around the left-hand door until her hand covered up one of the many designs; this particular one was of a five-pointed star about that stood about waist high from the ground.

  "You'll come to learn all sorts of secrets here," said Ms. Ellingbee. Each of her fingers now covered one of the points of the star. She pushed on it hard, and it magically sunk deep into the door. Hunter thought it was like some sort of secret switch. She turned the sunken star design to the left while it sat inside the thick door, releasing a smaller door about eight feet tall. Hunter was amazed, a smaller door hidden inside of a giant door.

  "Here we go, a bit easier to open and close when the door doesn't weigh a couple of hundred tons." Ms. Ellingbee held the door open for the two siblings.

  They entered into a large room completely void of any light with the exception of the little bit of daylight creeping in from the entrance. That little speckle of light quickly vanished as Ms. Ellingbee closed the smaller door tightly behind her. The children heard her lock the mechanism, and they now stood surrounded in darkness, their hearts racing a mile a minute.

  "Sorry, madam!" a friendly woman's voice echoed from deep inside the mysterious depths of the castle's shadows. "I need to flip the master switch for this floor still."

  Hunter and Elly heard the loud flick of the switch, followed by a strange buzzing noise coming from all around them. The main corridor of the mansion's first floor flickered quickly for a few seconds, allowing the children a brief glimpse of its mysterious decorations. "Just needs to warm up a bit. Stay put!" the voice yelled again from afar. Soon the lights quickly turned on, almost blinding the children from the sheer brightness.

  "There we go, children. Is that better?" Ms. Ellingbee asked.

  Hunter didn't answer, he found himself at a loss of words as he peered around the mighty room. The room was quite large and fully decorated with a myriad of strange and interesting things. Hunter's eyes transfixed on the northern wall, where a collection of mounted animal heads hung brilliantly from their crests. Except Hunter couldn't recognize any of the animals on display. He would have expected to see the regular game he was familiar with-he had a friend back home whose father was a big-game hunter. He figured he would see a couple of deer heads, maybe a bear, perhaps even something more exotic like a lion. However, Hunter could only surmise that these were some sort of fake decorative animal heads-they had to be. They were far too strange to be anything else.

  There were a dozen or so all together, a reptile head with thick dark skin and sharp teeth, which wouldn't be any cause for concern except for the fact that it was the same size as the saber-tooth tiger's head sitting next to it. There was also what Hunter thought was the head of a Big Foot sitting in the center of them all. The head was very large, bigger than any of the other strange creatures alongside it. The ape-like face looked like it was growling, its mouth wide open, showcasing its teeth, and its brown beady eyes staring back at Hunter. Hunter didn't feel comfortable looking at the display. In fact, it somewhat frightened him. Even if they were just decorations, they seemed very life like.

  In all honesty, nothing the children had seen outside or inside the mansion was anywhere near ordinary. The children didn't move from the mighty entrance, as they were still too taken aback at the overpowering sight of the inner castle. To the left and right of the children were two staircases, both winding upwards and connecting to create a fancy balcony that housed a few elegant couches and tables, and the doors to a large elevator. In front of the children, quite a ways into the mansion, sat a very large desk where a woman sat, presumably the woman who had powered on the lights. The desk itself was enormous; fitting for the simple fact that everything the children had seen thus far on the estate was massive in stature.

  Hunter poked Elly with his elbow and motioned towards the mysterious mounted heads, but she had already been caught up in her own amazement. Next to the dual staircases stood two life-sized unicorns. Much like Hunter and the weird mounted heads, she knew they couldn't be real unicorns; she assumed someone had created them from stuffed horses as some sort of artistic expression. She knew unicorns didn't exist. Despite that fact, their beauty was still unmatched by any living animal she had ever seen. She felt a momentary sense of happiness looking at them, for just a brief moment forgetting about the quarrelsome troubles that plagued her and Hunter's young lives.

  Elly could only guess that whoever had spent the time changing the horse's bodies into the unicorns must have spent years perfecting the craft. Even though they were surely the results of a clever taxidermist, Elly felt she could see the unicorns prancing about the woods outside the
estate's protective gates. Their coats shining brightly, almost as if they sparkled from the lights above. The unicorn on the left was much like the traditional unicorns she had read about in many fairy tales as a child. It had a beautiful solid-white coat with a long thick golden-white horn resting midway on its snout. The opposing unicorn was much different though and had a light shade of yellow for its coat, and a smaller, pure white horn. This was Elly's favorite of the two.

  "Children, meet Margot Merrymen," Ms. Ellingbee said as she led the way towards the desk.

  "Hi, kids," Margot said, smiling. "I'm so excited to finally meet you both!"

  "Hello," Hunter and Elly both replied in unison, paying half attention to Margot. Instead, their attention was still drawn to the mansion's weird decor.

  Margot was a younger woman in her early twenties. Youthful in mind and spirit, she was always full of energy. She had dark black hair and fair skin. She captured her youthfulness with a piercing on her lower lip, something that made Elly like her right away. Elly had wanted to pierce her lip like her favorite singer for her last birthday, but her mother had told her she was far too young for such a thing. Elly had locked herself in her room for two days in protest to no avail.

  Margot was also quite keen on fashion and wore a dark bohemian sweater and black leggings with long black boots. Elly loved her outfit, especially the black boots, which were decorated with a big bow. Even though Elly was only eleven, she too had a love for fashion and clothes. Her mother would always sit in bed and read fashion magazine with her until she fell asleep. She dreamed of one day becoming a designer for a European clothing line.

  "I see you're quite interested in our décor," said Margot as she walked out from behind the desk and met the children with energetic hugs.

  "You have your mother's red hair," she said to Elly. "And you, Hunter, you have those dark brown eyes just like your dad!"

  "You knew our parents?" Elly asked.

  "I sure did." Her bright smile faded a little. "We knew them well, and miss them dearly."

  "Ms. Margot, we will discuss that later," Ms. Ellingbee interjected in hopes of not dwelling on the sad subject.

  "Yes, sorry, kids. I apologize…" She pointed towards the mounted animal heads that Hunter had been eyeing. "My favorite one is the lycanthrope."

  "The what?" Hunter replied.

  "The lycanthrope. It's probably more often known as a werewolf around these parts." She walked over to the werewolf's mounted head. It sat on the bottom row just below the Big Foot. Margot ran her fingers across the creature's grizzly teeth as she continued, "I know it's sort of cliché with the current popularity of werewolves and vampires running rampant here in the states, but I've always had a special place in my heart for them. They make for great love stories," she said with a laugh.

  "Those aren't real, right?" Hunter added, a bit baffled by the conversation.

  "I don't know, you tell me," Margot added slyly. "Are you a believer?" she asked.

  "In what?" Hunter replied.

  "Of the unknown, of course," Ms. Ellingbee joined in. "Of fairy tales, legendary creatures, magical items, and of course all those wondrous little things in between." She smiled.

  "Oh…" Hunter paused for a moment, thinking of the question.

  "I do!" Elly jumped in, her eyes wide with excitement. "Those unicorns are real, right? They're so pretty; I want to ride one someday."

  "They're not real, stupid. They're fakes, just like the mounted heads," Hunter shot back at Elly. "Remember, Dad had that creepy-looking stuffed thunderbird that was bigger than us both?"

  "Yeah, I remember!" she shot back angrily. "And I'm not stupid!"

  "Well, Dad said he bought it when he went on one of his trips overseas; he said there are a lot of people who make these things and sell them, and they're fakes-all fakes."

  "Well now, kids, no need to argue," Margot interrupted. "Elly, it's okay to believe in extraordinary things; I do too."

  "As did your parents," Ms. Ellingbee added.

  "See, Hunter." Elly looked at her older brother with disdain. "I can believe if I want. Mom and Dad did."

  "Whatever." Hunter crossed his arms in annoyance.

  "What do you do here, Margot?" Elly asked.

  "Margot is one of our caretakers here at the Belmonte Estate," Ms. Ellingbee answered. "She has a very important job because our humble little abode is much more than just a place where we live."

  "You both live here?" Hunter asked.

  "Yes, we do. It's quite a large place. There are many of us who call this place home. You'll meet everyone soon enough," Margot replied. "We also get a lot of visitors who come and go for different reasons too, so I'm the one who keeps everything running smoothly, managing the books, answering the phones, and keeping an eye out for intruders. It's fair to say I love my job!"

  "Are their rooms ready?" Ms. Ellingbee asked. "It's been a long day for the kids, and they need some rest."

  "Of course," Margot answered. "Would you like me to show them now?"

  "Please," Ms. Ellingbee answered. "I've just arrived myself, and there's still quite a bit to put into order before our other guests arrive. The big day is coming soon; you know how excited I get."

  "Other guests?" Hunter asked, not really directing the comment at anyone. He was more quizzical than anything.

  "Yes, Claudio Calenstine is expecting quite a few people coming through this next week; it's exciting times here at the Belmonte Estate. But, please, don't worry yourselves over the other guests. In a few days, after things quiet down, we'll see about introducing you two to the professor. Until then, Margot and I will be taking care of you both."

  "Okay," Elly replied.

  "Then it's settled, Margot," Ms. Ellingbee smiled as she looked over to her, "please escort our new family members to their room."

  "My pleasure," said Margot. "Follow me please, children."

  The children followed Margot up the eastern staircase and to the balcony sitting above the mansion's entranceway. The terrace wasn't all that large; it did, however, have a small resting area with some dark leather armchairs that sat next to the balcony's ledge, overlooking the main entranceway. Behind the resting area sat the main elevator for the mansion, which Margot had already called for. If one didn't care for elevators, both the eastern and western staircases both continued upwards all the way to the seventh floor.

  "How big is this place anyway?" Elly asked.

  "Well, we have seven floors here in the main building, not including the numerous sublevels of the mansion. Each level houses different aspects of Claudio Calenstine's research. The second floor has our guestrooms, and that's where you'll be staying."

  "It's still creepy; I don't like it here," Hunter said uneasily.

  "Well, it isn't the most traditional place for children, I know. Some of the stuffed animal mounts can be a bit scary; I know, I was at first. But you get used to all the weirdness, I promise," Margot added.

  "I'm not scared," Elly added. "I think they're cool."

  "Now, remember, children, room 206 is yours, and you only get the one key, so make sure you don't lose it, okay?"

  "Okay!" Elly answered.

  Margot took the key off her large key ring, which rattled with every step she took. There must have been over two hundred different keys attached to it, but it took her no time to find the correct one to their room. She swiftly unlocked the door and opened it.

  "Well, we hope you like it," said Margot. "To the left over there past the bed, you'll see the bathroom door. You get your own shower and washroom, so you don't have to worry about running around at night and getting lost."

  The room was fairly large for the children's needs. They felt a bit luxurious standing in the well-furnished quarters. Hunter guessed it was the size of their old family room, which was exciting; it was the biggest room in their house. There were two beds on separate sides of the room. There was nothing fancy about them at all, but they looked cozy enough. The kids stood on a giant
colorful floor rug decorated with countless medieval knights storming a large castle that covered the majority of the hardwood floor. It would be perfect for keeping the children's feet warm at night when the flooring got quite cold. A giant bay window overlooked the front courtyard of the grounds, although Hunter found it quite eerie that the window was barred from the outside. Across from the window was a wall filled with a giant library of fine leather-bound books. Elly ran over to them immediately, filled with anticipation.

  "Look at all these books," she said.

  "Yes, Ms. Ellingbee remembered your mother said you loved reading, so we had that built into the room last week when we found out you would both be coming here to stay with us. We hoped it might make the transition a little easier on you."

  "There's no television?" Hunter looked around to no avail and flopped down angrily on his bed.

  "Well, no." Margot frowned. "We don't get much reception out here; we're kind of far from any cities, not too much makes its way out here. I feel your pain; my cell phone hardly ever gets service."

  "What do we do for fun then?" Hunter asked.

  "Read, write, do what you would normally do." She could tell Hunter wasn't amused. "We just have to ask that for this first week, you stay in your room unless we come get you."

  "What? You're locking us in here? What did we do?" Hunter asked, visibly upset.

  "I'm sorry. I promise it's no type of punishment." Margot sat down next to Hunter to put her arm around him, but he shrugged it off and promptly moved away from her embrace. "Look," she added with a bit of sternness in her voice, "not everywhere on the estate is safe for children your age. We need to keep you safe. The professor promised your parents if anything ever happened, he would take care of you both. It's just temporary until we can sort some things out."

  "What about school? Do we get to go back? All of our friends are there," Elly asked.

  "I'm afraid not," Margot answered, struggling to be the bearer of bad news. "You'll be home schooled here, though."

  "What?" Hunter's face grew red. "That's not fair! How am I going to see my friends?"

  "Look… I know this will be a tough transition." Margot stood up with an evident frown across her face. "Our heart goes out to you both, but it's up to us now to fulfill your parents' wishes… I'd better hold on to this key until you settle in a bit. Please make yourselves at home," Margot added as she took the key back from Elly's hands and promptly latched it back onto her large key ring.

  Margot walked over to the bedroom door but turned promptly towards the children to offer one last gentle smile. Leaving the children in the room alone would prove one of the hardest things Margot had ever done. Elly sat on her bed with a book open and off to her side, she only offered Margot a confused look. Hunter stood with his back turned, peering out the bay window with his arms defiantly folded across his chest, hiding his angry tears from both the girls. Margot solemnly closed the door, locking it firmly behind her.

  "Hunter?" Elly spoke up.

  "What," he murmured back.

  "There's a bunch of cool books about monsters and stuff; that's good, right?" she asked.

  "We're trapped in this room Elly," Hunter shot back. "It's like we're prisoners or something. They can't do that to us, they can't lock up kids in a room. It's not right."

  "Maybe they're just protecting us from something; they seem really nice. They know Mom and Dad too."

  "They ‘knew' Mom and Dad," Hunter bluntly corrected. "And we don't even get to go back to school, or say goodbye to all our friends. We're just stuck in this creepy old place forever."

  The thought of never seeing her friends again made Elly angry as well. These new living arrangements were proving to be more hurtful and confusing for the children than they could have ever anticipated. Elly had already lost her parents, now the thought of losing all her friends frightened her more than she could even understand at the time.

  "What are we going to do?" she asked Hunter.

  "Nothing, we just have to wait," he added.

  "For what?"

  "For the right time, then we break out of here. I don't care if they seem nice, something isn't right in this place, and I want to find out what it is."

 
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