The rain was pouring down. A single flash from a lightning tore the clouds apart and shortly illuminated the forest path spattered with puddles and withered leaves. The treetops were drawn against the sky like black, calligraphic lines, ink dissolving against the dark canvas. Footsteps were heard cracking the fallen branches on the ground. Out from the wilderness two girls stumbled onto the path, shivering and shaking. Their clothes were torn and muddy, the shoes soaked with water from the rainy woodland ground.
“See?! I told you there was a path!” the one girl said and looked at her sister.
“Well, Claire, then tell me what that is!” the other girl said and looked ahead of them. In a new flash of the lightning they saw the silhouette of the mansion. The girl in front, Claire, choked on a gasp. She bit her lip and glanced sideways at her companion.
“Come on, Betty,” she said, trying to sound brave and adjusted the backpack over her shoulder, full of books from today’s lessons at school. “We can probably ask for shelter until the storm is over.” She started trotting down the path, her sneakers sliding in the mud. Betty closed her eyes, thinking this was the only way they would get some heat and something hot to drink, and followed her elder sister down the track.
They had been walking across the fields when the storm had surprised them. They had decided to take a short-cut to the village by the hills, because their bus had been late, but they had gotten too far north and had headed straight towards the forest. Newcomers, as they were, they thought they were on the right course heading through the forest.
The rain had started pouring and they had sought shelter under the trees after finding a hole in the dark granite wall. As night had fallen, Claire had found her iPhone and lit the road with its flashlight, but gradually the battery had died out and they were left in the middle of the rainy forest with no sense of direction at all. Heading as straight as they could in the direction they thought was south, they went north-west towards the middle of the forest, unaware of the inhabitants of the grounds they had trespassed. Betty had already lost the new hair ribbon she had gotten just yesterday by a local boy from school.
Now, as they blundered down the path, eager to reach the mansion ahead, they felt an unexplainable fear settling in chills running down their spine and the hair rose on their cold arms. The human instinct of fear is a strong sense, and usually it takes a strong man’s will to fight it. The fear implored them to turn away and leave the premises, however, neither of them did.
The trees opened up and they glanced across what seemed like a courtyard, however, it was a long gravelled car track running around the grassy plain with an angel statue in the middle. Foreboding and dark as it was, they both stopped dead upon noticing the eerie marble figure. It looked old and weathered but still no wines crawled on it and the grass at its pedestal was well-tended. Claire and Betty exchanged glances.
“This is crazy,” Betty said and looked at the mansion. White rays of light streamed out from the white curtained windows, illuminating the raindrops outside.
“It seems inhabited.” Claire took a deep breath, ignoring the water dripping from her nose tip and chin.
“Should we?” Betty looked inquiringly at her, who nodded, slowly but firmly.
“I really need some warmth.”
Side by side, they walked up to the front steps. The mere look of the front door was almost enough for them to leave the place. Betty turned around at the first step.
“Claire, I really don’t think we should be here,” she said. Claire rolled her eyes.
“Come on, Betty, I promise we’ll never take a short-cut again, ok?” she patted her little sister’s shoulder and went up to the front door. The door hammer was heavy and her cold fingers had a hard time trying to grasp it, but she raised it high enough for it to drop with a loud “bang”. The sound rang out in the silence accompanied by a sudden, loud crack of thunder. They both jumped startled by the rumbling overhead. Claire frowned as her eyes caught a shadowy movement by one of the windows above. However, the movement was gone just as quickly as it had appeared. A tug on her sleeve called her attention back. Betty nodded at the door, and they noticed it was slightly ajar. Claire put her hand on the door and tried to push it open.
“Give me a hand here, it won’t budge,” she said and Betty helped her open it. At first the sight of the dark entrance hall had an uninviting atmosphere to it. The dusty chandeliers ahead were unlit, cobwebs dangled lazily in a draft. They strained their eyes to get used to the dark in there.
“H-hello?” Claire stuck her head inside. “Anybody home?”
“I don’t think there’s anyone,” Betty whispered anxiously, trying to pull Claire away. “Let’s get outta here before we end up getting lost in this creepy place. Look,” she pointed behind them, “we can follow the track back to the edge of the forest and get home!”
“Listen, I’d really like to get some warmth before moving on,” said Claire. “At least we can get a bit drier.”
Betty closed her eyes and wished she would stop listening to her older sister. “Fine,” she said and Claire beamed at her before she stepped into the entrance hall. In the flash of another lightning, the chandeliers lit, as if someone had been waiting for them to enter. A draft blew away dust and cobwebs, as if it had all been an illusion, and the magnificent entrance hall with polished marble tiles and pillars was revealed. The girls gasped astonished, marvelled at the sight; the lights flickered in their eyes. Slowly, they relaxed and smiled as they felt warmth return to them. The fear, however, remained in the back of their heads, no longer dominant but a taunting hindsight ready to declare its presence at any moment revealing danger.
“Wow,” Claire’s breathed amazed.
“But… where are we?” Betty looked around curiously.
“You have entered the Darklighter Mansion.”
A dark, soft voice floated towards them from above. They looked up and saw the grandiose stair leading up to the other floors. At the top of the stairs they could see the faint outline of a banister and a dark shadow behind it. Two hands clasped the banister, but the torso and head of the figure was out of sight, blocked by dark despite the light from the chandeliers.
“E-excuse me?” Claire stepped forward. “I’m terribly sorry we’re just entering on our own, but the weather outside caught us unaware and… we really just want some shelter until the storm’s over.”
A soft laughter reached their ears and mingled with slow, well-considered footstep. Matthew stepped into the light as he went down the stairs, his hand resting on the railing as he observed them closely. Betty stayed behind her sister watching cautiously as he came down to meet them. He folded his hands behind his back and came to a halt at the floor, his shoe-clad feet making almost no distinguishable sound.
“But the storm’s going to last hours, dear children,” he said smirking.
“But… we got lost,” Betty muttered. “We just wanna go home.”
“And you’ll both be going home when you’re well-rested and fed,” Matthew answered. He clapped twice and Arianna, head of the servants in the mansion, walked into the entrance hall, as if she had been waiting the whole time for her master to call her forth. “Arianna, take these two girls upstairs and give them something dry and appropriate to wear. Take them to the living room afterwards and make sure Rex has some hot soup ready upon their arrival.”
“Yes, my lord,” Arianna said.
“But, what about our parents?” Betty started forward but her sister held her back.
“What are their names? I can look them up while you’re getting dressed.” Matthew turned his head and looked straight at Betty, who lowered her gaze. She was stubborn and used to look people straight in the eye, attempting to display courage like her sister, but this man made her skin crawl. Claire, however, seemed less inclined to regard their host as threatening, quite the contrary.
“Lucy and Carl Preston,” Claire answered with a strange, drifting voice. “We don’t live that far away. I’m sure they wouldn’t mind if we stayed here for the night, as long as they know where we are.”
“Ah. I will call them and tell them that you’re safe and we’ll bring you home as soon as the weather is better,” Matthew smiled reassuringly. “Now, just follow the sweet lady here up the stairs and get refreshed.” He put a palm to Claire’s cheek and a hand on Betty’s hair. Betty froze. Never in her life had she felt such a hand, sleek and cold like ice. Claire seemed oblivious of this fact and merely followed the servant. They went to the right and through the complex where they ascended even more stairs and ended up in a long winding hall with doors on both sides. They were led into a room on their left, three doors down.
Two nicely made beds stood by each wall with a table between them, as if made for the occasion. A door on the left led into a little but comfortable bathroom, and on the right a door shielded the toilet from view. On the bed lay a set of towels and two small piles of clothes, beige and grey cotton shirts and dark trousers, thick socks, a dark cardigan and suitable underwear for girls at the age of ten and thirteen.
Arianna instructed them shortly on the use of the tub in the bathroom and then left them alone, closing the door firmly behind her. Claire and Betty undressed and threw the dirty clothes into a basket in the corner of the bathroom.
“I don’t like this place,” Betty muttered as she turned on the water. The hot steam hit her face like a gentle touch and slowly removed the memory of the cold hand on her head.
“I like it,” Claire said as she jumped down into the tub. Betty pouted and followed into the tub, sinking into the water. It was a large tub, with space enough for both of them. The scented soap smelled like lily of the valley.
“Well, that man was creepy,” Betty said with the foam in her hair exploding on her earlobes. “We never even got his name.”
“I’m sure he’ll tell us who he is when we get down to eat,” Claire replied and rested her head against the back of the tub. The heat almost made her dizzy after the cold wind and rain. She closed her eyes and sighed with a soft smile curling her lips. “He could see we wanted a bath more than a name.”
“Yeah, maybe,” said Betty.
They finished, talking about how good it would be to get something to eat. Just as they had put their clothes on, Arianna opened the door and asked them to follow her down to the living room.
Or rather one of the living rooms. They passed through several large living rooms and arrived at, as far as Betty was counting, the fifth or eighth living room or parlour, where they were received by Matthew. He sat in a couch when they arrived and rose to greet them with a smile.
“Ah, you sure do look refreshed,” he said. “Now, all you need is something to eat.” He gestured to the coffee table where two small bowls of soup and two goblets of freshly pressed orange juice were placed for them. There was also a tray with newly baked bread, still steaming.
The girls forgot about their parents and the cold, stormy weather outside as they rushed to the table, sat down and began to eat. The soup was delicious and hot, the bread tasty and the juice refreshingly sweet. Slowly, as their stomachs began to fill with food, they directed their attention to Matthew, who had sat down in an armchair in front of them. The fire in the fireplace flickered and crackled gently. The thunder outside seemed distant, as if they had entered a completely different world, safe and secure.
Betty put down her spoon. She had finished her second bowl of soup, emptied her third glass of juice and eaten three slices of bread. She looked at Matthew and tilted her head a bit.
“What’s your name, sir?” she asked. Matthew slid the nail of his thumb across his bottom-lip, the smirk never lessening.
“My name? I’m Matthew James Darklighter,” he answered. Claire coughed and had to put down her glass.
“The Matthew Darklighter?” she asked and her eyes widened. Matthew raised an eyebrow and looked curiously at her.
“Why yes, that is me,” he said. “You know my name?”
“I-I’ve read about you in the newspaper,” Claire stuttered. “We – I – in class, we had to read some articles about the government and your name was mentioned, but I never thought…” her eyes scanned him. “I mean, you’re supposed to be old!”
Matthew chuckled and shook his head grinning. “So, old is not a relative term anymore? Am I suppsed to have wrinkles and grey hair?” he asked. Claire looked down.
“No, no of course not,” she apologized quietly and tossed a strand of hair behind her ear searching for the right words. “I mean, I just… I didn’t picture you as being, y’know, that young-looking.”
“No, I guess the youth nowadays tend to imagine politicians as elderly people,” Matthew said. Arianna came in with a tray carrying a pitcher and a wine glass. She put it in front of Matthew, poured a glass of red wine and left the room, silent as a ghost.
“Are you from England?” Betty asked rather straightforward.
“Now, what makes you ask that?” Matthew leaned forth elegantly, grabbed the glass and took a sip of it. Betty curled up her fingers between her thighs and lowered her glance.
“I-I didn’t mean to offend you, sir, but your accent is not… I mean. We’re American-born, we’ve just moved here and… You just sound different than other Englishmen,” she mumbled. Matthew rose gracefully. He went towards the fireplace, put the glass on the mantelpiece and stood looking into the fire for a moment.
“I am English, if that’s what you doubt,” he said and turned around to look at Betty. There was something about her, something he could not penetrate or point out precisely, but she was definitely more mentally defensive than her sister.
“Of course.” Betty shrugged and tried to look away and change subject. “Did you talk to our parents?” She suddenly remembered the promise he had made.
“Yes, I did,” he nodded and sat down slowly beside Claire. “They said it was fine if you stayed. The weather isn’t going to change until tomorrow. You can have breakfast and then I send you on your way to school?”
“That would be lovely.” Claire beamed at him, apparently not minding the sudden intimacy as he tossed a strand of her hair behind her ear with a gentle touch.
“It would indeed.” Matthew smiled back at her and glanced at Betty.
“Does anyone else live in this house besides you?” she asked. Matthew leaned back slowly letting a hand rest behind Claire’s neck; the mere touch of his skin against hers sent pleasant chills down her arms. Betty noticed and could not disguise a frown, but held her protests at bay. Claire wasn’t usually inclined to let people get close, and definitely not strangers, but Betty observed a lack of her sister’s precautions, like a spell had made all thoughts of danger evaporate.
“The most of my family, yes,” Matthew answered. ”But they’re all asleep at the moment.”
“You must have a big family for such a big house. How can you afford it?” Claire asked absently, her eyes fixed on him.
“Well, being the man I am with all the contacts I have? I’d say, I’m very lucky with my friends,” he replied. “But that’s a boring tale. Now, if you’re finished, you should be off to bed. You must be tired after your long walk.” Betty caught his glance darting from Claire and to herself, but before she knew of it, she felt insanely drowsy and she yawned with a loud sigh. Claire looked sleepy as well, and they agreed that they should go to bed.
Matthew said goodnight at the door, and Arianna escorted them back to their room. They fell asleep instantly, still dressed even, too tired to even talk to each other. Betty was barely able to conceive a comprehensible thought, although she was wondering, during the walk back to the bedroom, how come they had suddenly become so tired, as if something or someone had triggered it. She suspected either the food or their host, that strange man. Her thoughts made no further progress, and she fell asleep as soon as her head touched the pillow.
A soft laughter followed words, footsteps were heard and a door slammed shut. Betty opened her eyes and saw an enormous open space around her. The place reminded her of a spare-time workshop in a garage or basement, only this was a huge room. Tools were scattered on long tables along the wall on her left, old cabinets filled with strange instruments as well. By the door, an old sink hung slightly dislodged from its bolts into the wall, smeared with grease and dark blotches of unidentifiable substances, a small mirror placed above it. The room was cold; dark blue plaster was peeling off the walls to reveal grey concrete. However the rest of the walls consisted of large panoramic windows showing a magnificent view over the garden behind the mansion. It was still dark outside, twilight emerging cautiously as the sun crept closer to the horizon. They were high up, very high. She had imagined the view from the upper floors to be splendid, but this was almost like a tower reaching above the treetops.
How long had she been sleeping? Had she been awake at all? Was this just another part of her nightmare or was this real?
She tried to move, her entire body was numb and cold, but as she regained consciousness slowly, she realized why. She hung naked, her hands clamped together and cuffed to a chain which hung among at least twenty other chains above her; they were fastened to the ceiling and rafters above her. This must be the uppermost floor, but in the distance she could see a dark hallway with a stair going upwards. How was that even possible…?
She directed her gaze back to wherever the voices had come from: the other part of the room in front of her. There was an old operating table with a large surgical lamp above. Several smaller machines and a table with surgery instruments surrounded it. Her gaze was hazy and swam but gradually her focus returned, and a dark figure in front of her called her back to reality.
“Oh, look who’s awake.” Matthew’s face appeared clearer in front of her. She felt his hands on her cheeks, caressing them gently. She whimpered and tried to turn away but his fingers grasped harder at her jaw and her face was forced to stay put.
“W-what do you want from me?” she asked trembling and cold all over.
“I have a nasty sense of entertainment,” he explained softly, amused with her fear. “And that entertainment requires people of your,” he tasted the words, “age and appearance.”
She wanted to ask another question but never made it as the door swung open and Nathaniel entered carrying Claire in his arms. He looked almost like his master except slightly shabbier clad in black linen trousers and black long-sleeved shirt; his hair was shorter and slightly wavy, and somehow he seemed gentle, something which could not be accounted for on Matthew’s part. Although flawless, the sight of him in the entrance hall had told Betty that he was not a man to be trusted. And the present situation only emphasized her assumptions. The fear in the back of her mind surfaced ironically, reminding her that they could just have turned away before even entering the mansion.
“What have you done to her, you monster?!” Betty exclaimed and felt the panic strangle her throat, forcing bile to touch the roof of her mouth as she saw her sister’s limp body.
“What? Who? This one here?” Nathaniel asked indifferently as he put Claire down on the table and began restraining the unconscious girl with leather straps. She stirred lightly and her eyelids fluttered open. “Oh, she’s just been drugged. Nothing bad, don’t worry.”
Matthew gagged Betty with a dirty rag. She was pleading for mercy and started crying when Claire woke up and began protesting the best she could in her drugged state. She, too, was naked to the bone; Betty could see her eyes swam and the pupils were dilated.
Matthew began preparing the machines. Nathaniel helped fasten diodes to her skin. Synchronically they worked, like two twin brothers knowing exactly what the other was thinking. Betty had to watch as they plugged small tubes into Claire’s skin at her major joints such as the neck, elbows, hips and knees. An old electronic pump began pressing a dark liquid into her veins. At first she whimpered and her skin turned grey and ashen, and gradually, she went into a catatonic state, the pupil now covering almost the entire iris. Matthew stood beside her, observing the effects of the liquid as Nathaniel monitored the machinery.
“Her pulse is dropping, everything’s stable as expected,” he said as if overviewing the cardiogram of a patient in surgery. As the last drops of black liquid were pumped into her, they began removing the tubes. Matthew prepared a syringe with an amber yellow liquid in it. He turned his head to look at Betty, who was staring wildly at them, unable to speak because of the gag in her mouth. The taste of bile in her mouth was sickening; some of it trickled out of her nose and mixed with the tears at the corner of her lips.
“Oh, don’t worry, darling, your sister will be just fine,” he assured her. “In fact, she will be far better than she’s been in a long time when I’m done with her.” He turned around and stuck the needle into Claire’s throat. She gave a faint gasp but besides that, she did not seem to respond to what he did to her. Betty watched as he slowly pressed the liquid into her system; she could see his hands caressing her body, as if he tried to calm her.
Gradually, a change seemed to sweep over her sister’s body. Although the skin had previously turned ashen, it now grew paler and its texture into sleek porcelain. Her drowsy eyes became wider and the colour of the iris was exaggerated, more blue and clear; her hair became thicker and changed from ordinary brown to corn blonde. Generally, her physics reminded Betty more of a doll than a human. She didn’t know what Matthew had forced into her sister, but she knew that whatever it was, it had replaced her with something… artificial.
Matthew gave a nod to Nathaniel and they began loosening the restraints that kept the new Claire down. Matthew bent down over her scanning every inch of her as his fingers trailed up and down her body, his face so near to her skin that the tip of his nose now and then touched it. Very slowly, she lifted her right hand; her limbs seemed heavy like lead. Her fingers reached out and grasped his hair very lightly, careful not to tousle the strands.
“Am I awake?” she asked with an airy voice. Matthew straightened up and looked down at her with a smile, as gentle as a father waking up his child from a nightmare. His lips met hers, deeply affectionate, and Claire did not visibly resist. The vision of her still rather childish face and his so near, made Betty cry even harder and fought her own restraints.
“Yes, my love, you are awake,” Matthew replied and supported Claire as she sat up. He glanced at Nathaniel who went to a small cupboard where he found a light nightgown of soft rose silk and gave it to Matthew. He helped dressing her gently.
“I’m hungry, father,” she said as she sat staring into the air in front of her. He lifted her down from the table.
“Well, then it’s good I’ve prepared dinner for you,” he said and took her by the hand and they walked towards Betty, who began struggling even more than before. Claire’s eyes moved curiously over her little sister.
“Is she tasty?” she asked and looked inquiringly up at her “father”, who merely smiled at her.
“Have a try,” he said and gestured to Betty’s writhing body. Claire went closer and her lips contracted into a grin, which displayed her teeth, each of them was now sharp and pointy. She circled Betty before she lunged like a snake, and tore a mouthful flesh of Betty’s neck. The blood flowed violently. Betty screamed. She had never known such pain before and she felt life slowly drain from her as the blood spilled. She bit harder into the gag, trying to stay awake and not give in to the pain when Claire began tearing at her body, her nails scraping off the skin and her teeth gnawing and gnashing her flesh. She looked down for a second and realised that there was a bowl placed conveniently under her to obtain the spilling blood.
Her mind began to wander off, dizzy with pain and sadness. She remembered the spring in first grade, when she and Claire had been playing in their parents’ garden. She remembered when her mother had decided that they should move to England because of her new boyfriend. She remembered seeing the new house and thinking about how pretty the flower beets and the cherry trees were. She and Claire had challenged each other to crawl to the top of the tallest tree, and they had both been laughing when they were stuck up there. And then, only last week, they had been at a kennel to look at a little dachshund puppy and mother had agreed to buy it. For them, she had said. For my children.
And here she was, being eaten by her own sister, who was not her sister anymore. Shortcuts are dangerous, was her last thought before she passed out due to loss of blood.
“Nathaniel, could you please bag the remains?” Matthew asked.
The tap was turned on and the water splashed against the dirty sink, breaking the silence like an explosion in a national park. He held Claire’s hands between his as he washed away the bloodstains.
He looked up into the stained mirror above the sink and met his own gaze. There was never any regret, but, in case he one day experienced a bad sensation when committing the crimes he were best at, he always looked into the mirror before continuing. Just in case he ever felt something. This time, like always, he was unafraid of his reflection, and the mirror seemed equally unaffected by the monster in front of it.
“Sure. Where do you want to put it? Just the lake?” Nathaniel asked. Matthew reached for a towel on a hook and dried Claire’s fingers with gentle strokes.
“Well, don’t you need something for your dogs?”
“Oh, well, if you don’t need it anyway, I’d really appreciate it if I could…”
“Take it, Nathaniel.” Matthew smiled at his bodyguard and friend. A mangled corpse hung in a chain not far from there, flesh and skin hanging in shreds from the bones. Beneath it was a bowl full of innards and blood.
“What about the delicacies?” Nathaniel asked as he loosened the cuffs and bagged the corpse.
“Oh, send up Rex to fetch them. The kitchen is in need of supplies. Shade has had a long journey; he’s probably hungry when he comes home tonight.”
“As you wish.” Nathaniel left with the bag over his shoulder and not shortly after Matthew followed with Claire by the hand. She was still dressed in the blood-spattered night gown, but at least her hands were clean now. As were his. For now.