He decided to set his watch alarm for half past three as he climbed up the staircase, so he put the Coke bottle down to adjust the settings. There was no sound at all in the atrium as midnight approached, but outside the wind moaned as it gusted around the stone walls and beams creaked as the old place resisted the elements. Oz finished adjusting his watch and reached down to pick up the bottle when a noise made him start.
Oz looked up suddenly. Maybe Ellie wanted something else from the kitchen. More likely it would be Ruff. But there was no one there.
He started to climb the stairs again. Must have been his imag… Oz stopped and stood stock-still.
Soft and deliberate and sounding very near, the footsteps came again.
The hairs on Oz’s arms stood instantly to attention. He swivelled around. The atrium was empty. Except for the faint moaning of the wind, the only other noise he could hear were the hammers of his heart pounding out a drum roll.
Then they came once more. This time they were distinctly louder.
Oz tilted his head to try and pinpoint exactly where they were coming from. Not above. Not below. Suddenly Oz realised he was standing on the step below the first floor landing. Whatever was making that noise was behind the wall separating him from the rooms beyond. Someone or something was walking across the floor in one of those rooms, rooms that had been locked up for years. He craned his neck to listen. The noise had died. He took another step forward just as something tapped on the wall right next to where he was standing.
Oz jumped and almost dropped the Coke bottle. His pulse took off like an Atlas rocket and he had to stuff his fist in his mouth to stop from crying out. He leapt up the remaining stairs and through the oak door into the dorm. The shock must have shown in his face because Ruff frowned the minute he entered.
“What’s wrong with you?” he asked.
Oz put his quivering fingers to his lips and tiptoed across to where Ellie and Ruff were sitting with the Xbox switched on.
“What is it?” Ellie asked.
“Turn that off and listen,” Oz commanded in a whisper.
“O-oz,” Ellie said with an accusatory stare.
“Shhh. This is not a wind-up, honestly,” Oz whispered again. “Just wait.”
They did. For a very long thirty seconds until…thud…thud…thud…thud.
Ruff’s eyes became instant dinner plates. “What the buzzard…?” he whispered.
“Sugar! Are they…?” Ellie asked.
“Footsteps? Yes, they are,” Oz said.
“Whose?” breathed Ellie.
“Dunno, but they’re coming from downstairs. From rooms that have been locked up for as long as we’ve been here.”
Oz, Ellie and Ruff stared at each other in speechless wonder. It was Ellie who broke the stalemate.
“Sounds like Hidden Haunted Houses of Britain got it right, then,” she said in a whisper edgy with excitement.
Ruff shook his head but he, too, kept his voice low. “There’s probably a perfectly normal explanation.”
“Is there?” Oz asked. “Like I said, as far as I know those rooms have been boarded up for years.”
“Maybe it’s your mum playing a trick on us,” Ruff said waveringly.
“Mum? You heard her. She was more nervous than anyone about us coming here. She’s on emergency standby to come and rescue us, remember? No way is that my mother.”
“Then who is it?” Ellie asked.
“Or what is it?” Ruff mumbled.
Ellie shook her head and rolled her eyes.
“Well, there’s only one way to find out, isn’t there?” Oz said finally.
“You’re not going to go looking?” Ruff asked, horrified.
But Ellie’s face lit up at the suggestion and she reached into her pocket for her mobile. “We totally should. I’ve got three megapixels on my camera phone. We’d make loads of money if we got a picture of it.”
“Wait a minute,” Ruff said. “If it isn’t someone trying to scare us, then maybe it’s burglars.”
“What’s there to burgle?” Oz said with a scornful laugh.
“Okay, but we don’t know, do we?” Ruff pressed on. “I don’t think it’s a brilliant idea to just barge in like a cow in a crystal maze.”
Oz explained. “He means bull in a china shop.”
“It could be really dangerous,” Ruff went on. “In Spirit World Three, there’s this ghoul and…”
“Xbox games again, Ruff?” Ellie said, her head tilted in a scathing glare.
“Loads of these games are based on real legends,” Ruff said defensively.
“I’m sure they are,” Ellie said, “just as I’m sure that you’re just a little bit scared.”
“Don’t tell me you’re not a bit scared, too.” Ruff glared back.
Ellie just smiled at him.
Ruff shook his head. “All I’m saying is that we ought to be really careful. Maybe I should stay outside on watch, just in case.”
“Okay, fair point,” Oz said. “But there are three of us. What could possibly happen to the three—”
The muted thud of more footsteps filtered up from somewhere beneath them once again and Oz never finished his sentence.
“So how do we get in?” Ellie whispered, her eyes glinting with anticipation.
Oz grinned. He took a couple of steps back the way he’d come before turning back to the other two, who were staring at him questioningly. “I know where the key to the padlock is,” he said. “Stay here.”
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