Tillie felt like her chest was going to explode from running, but an echoing howl spurred her on. Neither she nor Grayden looked behind them, too tired and scared to acknowledge the Wompus Wulf’s call. They ran on for what seemed like hours in silence. Just when Tillie approached the point of dropping to the dirt – as spineless as one of Mrs. Goodfelter’s infamous lime jelly desserts – Grayden suddenly stopped in his tracks.
Tillie followed suit, placing her hands on her knees, doubling over, and gasping for breath. “Do you think that was a good howl or a bad howl?”
“I don’t know,” Grayden said puffing. “But I don’t think those owls will keep the Wompus Wulf busy for long.”
“You don’t think they killed it, then?”
“I was hoping that they had,” Tillie admitted, sitting down hard on her backside. “Is it terrible to hope that a creature has been killed, I wonder?”
“Not when that creature is a monster like the Wompus Wulf.”
“You’re probably right,” Tillie agreed, silently noting that the difference between “probably” and “definitely” was quite a wide margin.
“Why did those owls help us?” Grayden asked, sitting beside her on the path. “I thought they tried to kill you and Eve.”
“I don’t know,” Tillie admitted. “Maybe they were trying to kill just Eve with the vanishing powder – and who can blame them for that?”
They laughed, forgetting the Wompus Wulf for a second.
“We can’t rest for long,” Grayden said. “We must get moving again.”
“Oh no!” Tillie cried.
“I forgot to grab the supply satchel!”
Grayden smiled. “That’s okay.”
“But without that satchel, we won’t have supplies. We won’t have any food!”
“We won’t need any food if the Wompus Wulf catches us.” Grayden stood and brushed the dirt from his kilt. “We better go.” He reached out a hand to Tillie.
Tillie let him pull her to her feet, shoulders slumped at the thought of missing a meal. “I’m ready,” she said, “but let’s not run this time. Let’s just walk fast.”
“Okay,” Grayden agreed.
After an hour or so, Grayden stopped and pointed at Tillie’s leg. “Look at the fringe on your chaps,” he said.
Nearly half of the once-black fringe dangling from the sides of her legs had turned green – and the other half looked to be following suit. As Tillie watched, the remainder of the black strands faded to the same green shade as the others.
“Well, that’s that, then,” Tillie said, her arms dropping to her sides.
“The last bit of black that we had with us has now turned to green. As far as we know, everything in the world that was black now isn’t. And if everything black is now green, who knows what the next phase of this strange curse may bring.”
Their spirits dampened, they continued walking.
As the blazing sunlight began to fade to the pale yellow glow of evening, Tillie spotted a familiar outline on the horizon.
“Do you see what I see?” she asked Grayden, pointing.
“It looks like some strange sort of structure,” he said, “all squares and triangles.”
“Strange?” Tillie asked. “It just looks like an average, everyday house to me.” Then she remembered the rounded walls and conical roofs of the huts in Grayden’s village. “Average for a still-giant dwelling, that is.”
“Do you live in a place that looks like that?”
Grayden made a grunting noise deep in his throat.
“What does that sound mean?” Tillie asked.
“I just have trouble picturing you living in a house with such right angles. You seem more like a round person than a square person to me.”
Tillie thought about this statement for a moment before deciding that it was a compliment. “Thank you,” she said at last. “I have always preferred round people to square ones.”
“Me too,” Grayden agreed.
“Maybe whoever lives in that house will offer us some food! A steak dinner, perhaps. Or a fruit and cheese plate. Or a nice spinach salad. Or at least some gruel in a dirty mug. I am so hungry right now that I could even eat a whole platter of Uncle Quentin’s offal surprise.”
“I’m not sure that heading to that house is wise,” Grayden said. “We have no idea who lives there, after all.”
“If we always did what was wise then we’d be old.”
“Oh,” Grayden said. “Let’s be young, then.”
The travelers reached the solitary dwelling before the sun had fully set.
“Hello?” Tillie called. “Anyone home?”
There was no answer.
“Maybe they are home and they’re just not very friendly,” Grayden said.
The two of them circled the house, calling greetings and peeking in the windows. Although the house was just a standard square building, Tillie did notice something odd about the ground on which it sat – there were no flowers, bushes, trees, lawn ornaments, or walkways surrounding the building. In fact, there were no indications that the house belonged in the center of the grassy plain at all; it was as if the building had only recently been moved to this remote spot.
After several minutes of shouting from both Tillie and Grayden, no occupant appeared to greet them.
“Should we let ourselves in?” Tillie suggested, standing by the steps that lead to the back door.
Grayden looked a bit unsure, glancing from side to side as if checking that no one was watching.
“The place does look kind of abandoned,” Tillie rationalized, placing one foot on the first step. “Maybe no one lives here?”
“Alright,” Grayden said. “Let’s try the door.”
Tillie rushed up the rest of the steps and pulled open the screen door. “Door number one is unlocked,” she declared. “That’s a good sign.” Not waiting for a response from Grayden, she turned the doorknob of the solid wooden back door. It too was unlocked. She opened it, shoving it inward and hitting the wall.
Tillie stood on the edge of the top step, holding the screen door open for Grayden. “After you, sir.”
Grayden climbed the steps and made a slight bow to Tillie. “Thank you, madam.”
The interior was darkening with the evening light, so Tillie paused in the entryway to let her eyes adjust. As the room came into focus, she realized they were in a kitchen; cupboard cabinets ringed the room, a large wooden table stood in the center, and a deep porcelain sink clung to the outer wall directly beneath a window. A trickle of water ran from the faucet and onto a pile of dishes in the sink.
“From the look of those plates, someone has been here very recently,” Tillie said as Grayden headed through a swinging door at one end of the kitchen. “We better get out of here before the owner gets back.”
Grayden didn’t answer for a few moments. When he did, his voice was unsteady. “I don’t think you have to worry about him getting back.”
“How do you know the owner is a ‘him’ and not a ‘her’?” Tillie asked, opening one of the cupboards in search of food.
“Because he’s in here by the front door.”
Tillie froze. Suppose the owner is a cruel ogre? she thought. Or a wild man? Or a murderous thief who uses his own house as bait to catch other thieves and eliminate the competition?
“The owner of the house is dead,” Grayden said, re-entering the kitchen through the swinging door. His face was drained of all color.
Tillie remained frozen.
“He seems to have been attacked while he was outside. He managed to get into the house, but he didn’t make it far from the front door.”
“That poor man,” Tillie said. “What do you think killed him?”
Grayden hesitated. He did not want to think about the monster either. “I think there’s only room for one predator on the Plains of Wompusmeeste.”
“That’s what I was afraid of.” A chill ran the length of Tillie’s spine.
“Let’s agree to stay away from the front entryway,” Grayden said. “That’s not something I want to see again.”
“You won’t get any argument from me. In fact, I think we should get out of this house right now. I’ve suddenly lost my appetite.”
“I don’t want to stay here, either,” Grayden admitted, “but if the Wompus Wulf is still prowling around outside, we might be safer spending the night indoors.”
The idea of spending the night in a house with a dead body made Tillie feel queasy, but she couldn’t fault Grayden’s logic.
“And we really ought to see if we can find any food,” Grayden continued. “Who knows when we’ll have another opportunity to eat.”
“I’ve looked through most of the cabinets in here already,” Tillie said, “and I haven’t found any food – although there is a mop and bucket in the closet over there if you get the urge to clean.” She peered through an arched entryway that stood at the opposite end of the kitchen from the swinging door. “Maybe he kept his food supplies in the next room?”
Grayden continued to rifle through the kitchen as Tillie headed cautiously through the archway and into the adjoining room. She realized very quickly that the room was not a pantry. It was much too large and comfortable. A huge overstuffed sofa occupied one side of the room while a matched set of recliners bookended a coffee table on the other side. A picture window stretched the length of one wall, letting in the last dying embers of the setting sun. A ticking clock echoed around the room. This is definitely a living room, not a pantry, Tillie decided.
Tillie made a circuit of the living room, taking stock of her surroundings and stopping to gaze at a series of portraits along one wall. All of the paintings featured the same man dressed in hunter’s garb posed with a different wild animal in each one. Unlike other hunters who kill their prey, however, these portraits showed a hunter who befriended animals. In one painting, a lion licked the man’s face while he laughed. In another, he played gin rummy with an orangutan. In a third, he and a white doe shared a cup of hot tea. The pictures made Tillie even sadder to think that such a kind man lay dead in the next room.
Tillie suddenly realized that the rhythmic sound she had taken to be the ticking of a clock was neither a clock nor a tick. It was, in fact, a distinct lub-dub, lub-dub, lub-dub. She listened to the sound for a few moments, puzzled.
“Yes?” he called from the kitchen.
“Can you come in here for a minute?”
Grayden strode through the arched entryway, smiling. “I found some peanuts!” he exclaimed holding the cannister aloft.
Tillie shushed him. “Just listen for a second,” she said.
Grayden listened. A minute later he shrugged. “What am I supposed to be listening for?”
“You’ll know it when you hear it,” Tillie said. “Just give it another minute.”
They were silent again. At last Grayden spoke. “I do hear something. A kind of thumping sound.”
“It’s a heartbeat,” Tillie said.
“The man in the other room is definitely dead,” Grayden said. “He no longer has a heartbeat.”
“It’s not his heart we’re hearing,” Tillie confirmed. “It’s the house’s heart.”
Grayden was dumbfounded. “Do all still-giant houses have hearts?”
“No,” Tillie said. “Definitely not. This house must be one of the last of the creeping houses.”
“It is a little creepy,” Grayden agreed.
“Not ‘creepy’ – ‘creeping,’” Tillie corrected. “Uncle Quentin told me about them, but he said that they all migrated across the sea years ago.” Tillie looked around her, amazed. “This is a rare creature.”
“What is a creeping house?”
“A living house, capable of moving around under its own power. That must be why the house’s yard was so empty – it probably just traveled here. Unfortunately, no one knows much about creeping houses because no one has seen one of them for years and years and years. According to the legends Uncle Quentin told me, the way to tell if a house is just a regular house or a creeping house is to listen for a heartbeat in the living room. If you hear one, then you’re in a creeping house. That’s why it’s called a ‘living room,’ incidentally; because that’s where you can hear if a house is living or unliving.”
“Should the creeping house’s heartbeat be speeding up like that?” Grayden asked.
Tillie stopped talking and listened. Grayden was right. The creeping house’s heartbeat had doubled in the last 10 seconds – and seemed to be increasing even still.
“I’d say the house is getting nervous for some reason,” she said.
“I think I can guess,” Tillie said, her eyes grown wide.
“What do you mean?”
Tillie pointed to the picture window behind Grayden.
The young warrior turned and looked.
There, framed like a portrait, was the side of the Wompus Wulf’s head, its nose sniffing intently at the window frame.