There was dark.
It pooled freely over every corner of the quaint little road, in the quaint little neighborhood that was the suburban Neopia Central. To most, the dark was scary, oppressing. It settled over everything, building up its strength in shadowy corners.
Where others saw darkness, the Shadow Usul saw light. Darting from house to house, a shadow herself, she saw the light that made the shadows – the moonlight, the lamppost at the end of the street. She hugged the houses and slipped into nothingness as she tip-toed with her back against the walls; she was the only spot of complete darkness here.
The quiet houses suspected nothing. Nobody stirred. Nobody noticed the splotch of inky blackness that moved swiftly from shadow to shadow, darting across neatly manicured lawns and scaling straight picket fences. At least, not until the last house on the street.
A little yellow Kougra sat, wrapped in his covers, at the window, his face pressed against the glass. He was falling asleep, at last; the scary story he had been told before getting tucked into bed had kept him wide awake for most of the night. As his lids flickered tiredly, finally closing, a sudden movement jerked him back into awareness. He rubbed his eyes and wondered if he had imagined it, that streak of absolute blackness darting across the lighter shadows. He waited, holding his breath, stock still, for a solid five minutes.
But the shadow that was not a shadow did not reappear. The street was quiet, still. The lamppost stayed lit, and the moon – the sliver of it that could be seen in the night sky – cast its pale, pallid light on the ground. The yellow Kougra settled back into bed and fell asleep.
But he was not defeated.
The next night, the Kougra was back at his window. Candy wrappers and empty snack bags littered the floor around his chair, over the back of which his bedcovers were hung. His face was pressed against the glass again; every so often he would use his pajama sleeve to wipe away the circle of mist his breath formed.
It was quite late again when his peripheral vision once again caught the movement of the dark spot. He blinked, startled by its speed. He couldn’t be sure, but he thought it had darted across the street and around the corner.
He waited, for nearly a half hour this time, but, once again, it didn’t reappear. He went back to bed, but couldn’t fall asleep right away for the excited thoughts that buzzed around in his head. Surely he couldn’t have imagined the same thing twice? And so vividly? Just thinking about what he had seen sent shivers down his spine. It was a long while before the shivers subsided, and his long night of stakeout finally caught up with him.
He was at the window every night for nearly two weeks. After the first few days, he knew what he was looking for.
The Shadow Usul.
She was darkness itself, absorbing all light, identifiable as a deeply black, darting shadow. It was hard to see her if you looked head-on; as the nights rolled by, he got better at spotting her out of the corner of his eye, squinting and gazing out the window with his head tilted at an awkward angle.
He was not scared that she passed by his house every night – surely, because she passed it by, he was in no danger from whatever nefarious deeds could be attributed to her?
In fact, a totally different feeling than fear stirred inside him. He began to itch for something. Something adventurous – something dangerous.
There was a bounty on the Shadow Usul, he knew.
Instead of standing idly by, he would apprehend a criminal.
The night was cold, but brighter than it had been. A much bigger slice of the moon hung overhead, and it cast its pearly glow over most of the street. The yellow Kougra, swathed in black fabric in an attempt to hide his beacon-like fur, stood at the side of his porch, peering through the bushes. His Neohome was on the street corner were the Shadow Usul always turned; he figured he’d see her flit by and then follow her to whatever he destination was.
There was a backpack slung over his shoulders. He shrugged it off and anxiously checked through it one more time. There was a length of twine, an energy drink, and a large net he had salvaged from his big brother’s broken Meerca Mesh Net.
He zipped the bag back up and swung it around onto his shoulders again. He gulped. This was it – the Shadow Usul should be coming by any second now. He crawled into the bushes in a way he hoped was stealthy, so that he had a vision of the street only slightly obscured by leaves.
And there she was! The black figure darted swiftly in front of the Kougra’s face. He was startled into stillness for a moment, but then, with a quick shake of his head, he brought his thoughts back to the task at hand. He crept all the way out of the bushes as fast as he could without being too loud, then stood up to survey the situation.
For a moment, he was dismayed – the dark figure was nowhere in sight. Then he thought he saw a flicker of movement at the end of the road, out of the corner of his eye. He didn’t hesitate – he just started running.
By the time the young Kougra got to the junction where the Shadow Usul had turned, he was panting. He stopped to rest for a moment, for the first time realizing the flaw in his plan. How could he hope to keep up with the silent shadow? By the time he actually turned the corner, there would be no splotch of darkest dark to follow.
He was unwilling to give up, however. He walked around the corner – and was faced with yet another ordinary street. He might not have even left his own.
The naïve bravado that had carried him thus far started to evaporate. It really was cold, and a nice warm bed would be heavenly. Fear was finally starting to creep into him, as well; he was just a little Neopet, all alone in the middle of the street, in the middle of the night.
He was just about to turn to trudge back home when something caught his eye. It wasn’t the motion of a spot of darkness, but perhaps it was just as good. A sign stood at the next intersection, quite unexceptional in size, shape, and color – but what was printed on it caught his attention.
“CEMETERY,” it read. A little arrow underneath pointed to the right.
Excitement once more dominated the little yellow Kougra’s thoughts, expelling the fear. Where else would the notorious Shadow Usul be going in this otherwise unremarkable neighborhood?
When he got to the sign, he turned right, just like the sign said. And there it was – the cemetery. A large iron gate proclaiming so faced him from the other end of the road. As he walked towards it, it began to dawn on him how dark and formidable those iron bars were.
The fear was back as he stood in front of him. He had to crane his head all the way back to see the letters at the top of the gate, but the thick padlock and chain that closed the gates was only a few inches above his head.
He didn’t know whether to feel disappointed or relieved as he realized he didn’t have the equipment to get through the padlock. Once again, however, as he turned to go back home, he saw something in the corner of his eye.
Scruffy-looking bushes lined the iron fence on either side of the gate, but one bush looked particularly disheveled, as if it had been pushed aside recently. The Kougra’s curiosity overpowered his fear, and he went to investigate.
He found that, once you pulled the bush away from the fence, the Shadow Usul’s entrance to the cemetery was revealed. A small furrow had been dug underneath the fence. It would be too small for an adult Neopet to use, but he figured he could just squeeze under it, if he left his pack behind.
He took the net out of his backpack before setting it down against the railing. Holding it in his teeth, he crouched down and wriggled under the fence. He felt the sharp ends of the iron bars scrape against his back for a moment, but then he was on the other side. He spit the net out into his hand and shook the worst of the dirt off his clothing.
The Kougra looked back at his backpack, on the other side of the fence. He bit his lip, wondering if it was really worth it to continue on. Who knew what dark deed the Shadow Usul was up to in such a depressing place? It would be much safer to just turn back and go home, while he had the chance.
Then he heard it. It was so low that, at first, he couldn’t tell what it was. But after a few moments of hard listening, he realized it was... sobbing.
Someone was crying.
That made up his mind. Someone could be in danger! It was his civic duty to capture one of Neopia Central’s most infamous criminals. Adrenaline canceled out his fear, and he crept forward among the gravestones towards the source of the weeping.
As the sound got louder, he grew more cautious, darting from the cover of one tombstone to the next. When it sounded like he had finally reached his destination, he slowly peered out from behind the tall gray slab of stone he now hid behind and tried to locate the source of the sobbing.
He was shocked to see the Shadow Usul herself sitting alone, in front of a small, crumbling headstone. A few rows of gravestones separated them, but it was clear from the slight, dark Usul’s heaving chest that she was the one crying.
The yellow Kougra, who had, up to this point, been holding his net up in preparation for capturing the Shadow Usul, lowered his paw to the ground. He was confused – shouldn’t such an evil creature be doing something... evil?
The Shadow Usul sniffled and the sobs subsided as she collected herself. Then there was silence, heavy with sorrow.
“It’s me again,” the Shadow Usul whispered at length. “I bet you’re sick of me by now.”
She laughed tonelessly. The yellow Kougra, hidden behind the tombstone, felt a stab of pity go through his heart like arrow.
“I just...” she sighed. “I’m still sorry. When Sloth... when he captured me, I knew it was because of my color. Our color. We were the only shadow Usuls in existence, sis. I knew he would take you, too – so I said I’d be a willing spy for him, just so he would take me for his experiments and leave you be. But you... You came after me. I didn’t think you would.”
She paused to sniffle and wipe her eyes with a paw blacker than night.
“They’ve all given up hope, but I haven’t. I swear, I’ll find you. You’re out there, somewhere. Maybe Sloth did take you – maybe you’re one of his experiments right now, and it’s all my fault. But I’ll rescue you, I swear I will. I’ll find a way. I promise.”
Then there was silence once again. The yellow Kougra was completely drained of his initial enthusiasm; he only had room for the sympathy that welled up inside him. As quietly as he could, he crept away, back to the hole in the fence. He wriggled underneath and grabbed his backpack, then walked slowly – pensively – back home.
The Shadow Usul came to the little crumbling headstone the next night, as she had done for many, many nights.
She found a bouquet of flowers there.