Shadows for Supper
“It's perfect,” Darling cooed.
In all of Alsabeth's years guiding tours through the old, abandoned mansion her agency liked to call a “property,” she had never seen a response so enthusiastic. In fact, she had never seen a positive response at all. If the rotting porch, tangled yard, and broken windows didn't discourage potential buyers from touring the building, the dust-covered floors and cobwebbed doorways inevitably did. But Darling, an eccentric Striped Scorchio in what Alsa could only presume were ludicrously expensive garments, seemed to think the entire motif was just, well, “Charming.”
“I don't understand how this place hasn't sold yet,” she babbled on ecstatically. “It would be the perfect autumn home! Imagine the dinner parties that could be held in these gorgeously large rooms! And the cobwebs, the dust, the half-rotted carpet... You wouldn't even have to put any effort into developing a theme! Haunted mansion, Halloween supper, Spooky ball... Why, this place is absolutely fantastic!”
Alsa coughed, moving a Biscuit-coloured pincer to her face in an attempt to hide her surprise. “Yes, it is,” the Ruki choked out. “I'm sure the deed could be drawn up in your name with no trouble at all, if you're this enthusiastic. I take it you'd like to purchase this home? We should really go back to the office if that's the case...”
“Oh, could we spend a little more time wandering around?” Darling practically hopped as she asked the question, her red lips nearly breaking her cheeks in half with joy.
“I'm afraid it's getting late. The office will close before long, and then you'd have to wait a whole day to sign the papers.” Alsa brought out her warmest, most patronizing smile as she placed her pincer gently behind the Scorchio's back. “I'm sure you'd rather get all those messy details out of the way first. After we finish, you can spend all the time you like here.”
Darling's lips fell into a spoiled, sulky pout, but she acceded to the Ruki's suggestion. As Alsa guided her quarry out the door, she couldn't restrain herself from letting out a silent sigh of relief.
For once, the house had stayed quiet during a tour. No movement, no whispers, and best of all, no music. Finally, it looked like the sale could go off without a hitch.
While Darling wouldn't have said the day was quick or easy, it was far from the worst day she had ever experienced. Long hours were spent sitting at desks, signing papers, yelling, and stamping her feet to enunciate just how much she Did Not Care about any of the petty details that seemed so important to everyone else in the room.
She wanted her house, and she wanted it today. Everything else was idle paperwork and worry that should be the sole province of other pets. Not her. As the sun was setting from the sky, and after much protest on her part, they took her neopoints and handed over the keys to her new home. Having those keys made the day not-so-terrible at all.
Now she was twirling the keys in her hand, walking towards her newly-purchased home in serene anticipation. She was the proverbial cat with the cream, and she intended to savour every moment of it.
When Darling reached the path before her home, she stopped to survey her new property. The yard seemed to have once been a rambling, almost anarchic garden that had fallen much further into the latter category thanks to years of neglect. Vines, flowers, bushes, and trees seemed to all blend together in one tangled mess. There was a cleared, winding path to her home, but the rest of her estate resembled a briar patch more than a manicured lawn. Darling loved it.
She took a few steps along the path, looking up to admire the faint patches of starry sky that peeked through the vines and leaves that adorned the trees above her. She smiled, inhaled the scent of wet moss and tree-sap in absolute bliss, and finally set forth with purpose. As much as she adored her new yard, new forest of enchantments, she had a whole house to explore and enjoy.
Finishing the last turn on the path granted Darling a very welcome sight. Her old, green, rambling Neovian home loomed before her, its high parapets half-shrouded in the darkness of night. The Scorchio's smile widened, and her steps became the tiniest bit faster, the tiniest bit lighter. Her wings were beginning to flutter, as though they too intended to propel her more swiftly towards the house.
But when she put the key in the lock and cracked open the door, she received quite a shock. After leaving the quiet stillness of the outside air, she was greeted with music. Music emanating from her supposedly empty home.
Darling Carisha was no fool. She turned around, locked the door behind her, and plopped down loudly on her creaky porch steps. The way she figured it, she had several options.
1: Run away. Clearly unacceptable, however appealing. This was her house.
2: Presume some old piece of abandoned furniture, a gramophone perhaps, was misbehaving and walk straight in. This seemed a bit more acceptable. Proceeding as normal certainly seemed to be the sanest approach. It did not, however, seem to be the safest approach in the slim probability that her house was overrun by mischievous minstrels. And Darling was very worried about that.
In the end, she decided upon another, final option: Arming herself with a tree branch and walking in slowly on her little Scorchio toes. That way, she could examine the house and be certain she was alone without risking being seen first.
Darling nodded her head, resolute on her course of action, and stood very straight before heading off in pursuit of a stick. When she returned, she felt determined. She would find out what was going on in her own house. Nothing would frighten her away.
Her hand was calm and stolid as she pulled on the door handle and silently slipped into her home. She gripped her stick, prepared for the worst, until she noticed that her home was silent once more. Darling huffed, presuming some trick of the night caused her to imagine the former song, and flipped on a light.
The house certainly appeared empty. She walked through the rooms, cursorily surveying the kitchen, dining room, and even the upstairs bedrooms by poking in her head and looking for movement.
No one was here. That was certain.
Darling shrugged, set down her stick by the front door, and decided that it was time for bed. The day had apparently been too much for her, if she was imagining music coming from an abandoned house.
The sound of metal hammering on metal marked her awakening, and an early awakening it was. The sun was far from rising, but Darling was finding it quite impossible to sleep through the CLANK, CLANK, CHICKA CHICKA of metal trying to rip apart and shape metal.
“That's it!” Darling shouted into the night air, unthinking. Her proclamation was met by a different clatter, that of a metal implement being dropped on a stone floor. Clatter-clank, it went. Darling covered her mouth to conceal a meep, reached out for her bedside candle, and slid into her Kreludan Grundo Slippers. She was going to find whomever was making that terrible racket, and ask them a thing or two about their musical habits as well!
She held her candle in front of her and shuffled along as quietly as she could. Soon enough, the noises resurfaced, and Darling finally recognized that they were coming from below. She passed over a grate in the floor, and noticed the sound suddenly magnify. Upon leaving the grate, the clattering dimmed once again. She took a few more steps in an attempt to confirm the source of the noise, and then knelt beside the gated hole in the floor. Setting her candle down carefully, she peered through the square openings of the heating vent, and paid close attention.
CLANK, PER-TLOOEY, CLANK!
Yes. That was definitely the source of the noise. “To the basement then,” she murmured to herself, suppressing a shiver. Even for Darling, with her new-found love of cobwebs and darkness, basements were places to be avoided. Damp, dark, full of creepy-crawlies... Not like upstairs, which, while certainly a bit grim and dusty, was mostly free of insects and water damage.
Darling shrugged, standing up. Well, I couldn't avoid it forever. It's about time I really start appreciating the creepier side of life. After all, it's why I moved here. And with that, she made her way downstairs.
The basement itself was every bit as short and damp as expected – there even seemed to be a small stream running along one side of the room. The floor was dingy, and its colour alternated between brown and grey in splotchy patches. Note-worthily for Darling, however, was that in spite of the now less-frequent clattering noises being louder here, there seemed to be no living soul in the room.
The young Scorchio was very close to losing her patience, and decided to do something rash. “Hellooooo?” she shouted into the darkness. As if in response, the clattering ceased and the room became the tiniest bit darker to her left. There must be a passage, she thought. Either that, or my voice has magical light-dampening powers...
She turned to her left and began examining the dingy, neglected walls, looking for any sign of a movable bookcase or false wall. Before long, she found a set of shelving that was not only movable, but took a suspicious patch of “wall” with it when moved. She propped it open for herself, took her candle in hand, and plunged into the darkness.
Before much time had passed, the descending, water-lined path led her to an open room. The walls were hard stone, and hand-carved with intricate filigree. At first glance, she would have supposed that the walls were covered in grey wallpaper, but her fingers told the lie of that particular assumption. Within these glorious walls was a workshop, a rough-looking gramophone, and all manner of bronze-coloured clockwork devices. There was a bed covered in velvet hangings, there were a few sets of tables and chairs, and there were books piled everywhere. For a moment, Darling was too overwhelmed to think that someone could be living here, and simply walked forward in amazement. It was then that he appeared.
“If I were you,” a soft, disinterested-sounding male voice whispered in her ear, “I wouldn't walk any farther.”
Naturally, Darling's only response was to jump, meep in horror, and accidentally drop her still-burning candle. The force of the fall extinguished its flame, but that didn't prevent her recent acquaintance from grumbling about her incompetence and returning the candlestick.
“You, young lady,” he said with a judgmental glance at her night-gowned form, “are foolish.” He pressed the candle into one of her hands while placing his own hand around her other wrist.
“No-o,” she responded, stuttering from fast-fading fright. “I'm Darling, actually.” She swallowed and tried to force her eyes to narrow and her heart to slow. After all, if this Draik had seen fit to return her candle, he couldn't be all bad. “What's your name?”
“Darling,” he muttered in response. “Of course.” He shook his head, released her wrist, and walked into the darkness. His Shadow-coloured scales blended in perfectly with the shadows of the room. Darling's view of the stranger was now restricted to the bone-white reflection of light from his mask. “But I remain unconvinced. You are foolish, particularly if you believe me naive and accommodating enough to share my name with an intruder such as yourself.”
“Intruder?!” Darling was angry now, and quite capable of forgetting that this masked Draik was much stronger than herself. “This is my home! I bought it just today! The deed is upstairs! You can see it if you don't believe me. If anyone's an intruder here, it's you!” Darling huffed, little bits of flame curling out of her nostrils as she glared at the mysterious man.
“Deed?” the Draik laughed, a soft sound that barely left his throat. “And do you believe that such above-ground niceties as deeds matter to one such as myself? I have built this place. I have made everything that you can see, even carving the walls to fit my taste! This place has been my home for many years, and it would take many more to create another home that would suit. You, Darling, are the intruder. Make no mistake about that.”
Darling smashed her lips shut and let out a deep, only slightly-fiery sigh before responding. “Fine,” she said. “You can stay. But we have to talk about how we're going to live together peacefully. You can have your underground lair – I prefer living upstairs in any case. But I need sleep, and I need to know when you're going to start randomly playing music or putting together--” she looked around, finally seeing the half-assembled clockwork bird that appeared to be the night's project, “toys?”
The Scorchio shook her head, mildly surprised that this fellow was interested in such things. “In any case,” she said upon recovering herself, “we need to talk. And unless you want constant intrusions into your privacy from this day forward, I suggest you agree to that talk.”
The masked Draik stood silent.
“Fine. Don't talk. But I'll be throwing the two of us a dinner party tomorrow evening. Show up an hour after sunset if you reconsider your silence.” Her voice had grown hard by the end of her proclamation. This fellow was stubborn, that was certain, but she could be just as stubborn. She lit her candle, swished her tail as she spun about, and started on the long journey upstairs.
That night, the house was silent.
Encouraged by an unexpected good night's sleep, Darling awoke smiling. If her accidental roommate was content to stay quiet through the night, that must surely mean he was planning to drop by for dinner. At the very least, she hoped it was some sign that he was considering coming up.
A flurry of activity filled Darling's day from dawn to dusk. Unlike usual hosts, she left the dust and cobwebs, but the necessity of rearranging furniture and adding a few decorations to her dining room was more than occupation enough. When she finished, the room was lit by fifty half-melted candles and the occasional jack-o-lantern. She had plushie spyders and meowclopses sitting in the chairs that would be unoccupied, with little plates of plushie foods in front of them.
After that, running out to pick up some Spooky Food from the local shop was quite simple.
When the appointed hour came, she set the table with Ghastly Stew, Cadaverous Cola, and Chocolate Graveyard Cake. Once her tasks were completely and truly finished, she sat at one end of the table and stared at the candle flames. All that was left was to wait. And so she did.
And she waited, and waited, and waited some more. Finally, when she felt she could wait no longer, a familiar voice emanated from the gloom beyond the opposite table edge.
“I don't believe we've been properly introduced,” intoned the familiar voice. “My name is Mita,” he said with a step into the light.
Darling's initial response was nothing but a brilliant smile. Ultimately, she responded by sounding out his name: “Mee-taaah. I'm truly glad you came. Please, have a seat.”
When the Draik obliged, Darling felt even more relieved. It seemed that this mysterious stranger, this unexpected roommate, might truly become a friend. She couldn't have hoped for more.