Night had already fallen by the time Chris arrived at Delmore Manor. He had driven for hours and all he could think about was how badly he needed a slice of toast and a good night’s sleep.
His Aunt’s manor struck a fearsome figure against the dark sky. The windows were empty and bare, and the acres of land that surrounded it seemed vaster than he remembered from his childhood visits.
He parked the car and sat on the driveway for a moment, staring up at the huge house with a nervous smile. It was all his now. He had no idea what to do with the sprawling estate, and truthfully, no idea why an Aunt he had barely visited since he was a child would give it to him, but he had decided that it was better than the cramped flat he had been living in, so with one last look at the towering manor, he opened the car door and stepped onto the gravel of the driveway.
It crunched under his feet as he walked towards the front door, dragging his suitcase behind him, the wind whistling in his ear as he recalled the dread he’d feel every summer as he walked towards the large door of the manor. As a child, he would imagine that the door would spring forward, jaws snapping wildly, set to devour him. He never knew why, but the huge house had always unsettled him a little.
He laughed to himself as he reached the door, pushing the keys into the lock and scorning his childhood self for being so silly. It was just a big, old house. There was nothing to be afraid of. It was just a big, old house.
He let himself in, coughing and spluttering as the dust of the old manor rushed at him, circling his face as he doubled over, his throat suddenly tight. Chris wasn’t sure why, but he began to panic, falling to his knees and clutching at his throat.
It felt like more than dust.
It was almost as if hands had reached around his neck, spiky, spindly claws that wrung his neck and choked the life out of him. His chest began to tighten and he gargled, trying to call for help but simply fell to the dusty, dark wooden floor, waving his arms and praying for a miracle.
“Master Christopher!” Chris raised his head a little, reaching his arms towards the voice. “Here, have some water.” A hand reached down with a glass of water and Chris clutched it, pouring the water down his throat and finally breathing a sigh of relief. “There. Isn’t that better?” Chris nodded as the voice got closer. “Let’s get you some supper, hmm?” A man knelt beside him, he had a pale, gaunt face but a kind, almost paternal smile. “You probably don’t remember me, Sir.” The man said, helping Chris to his feet. “We haven’t seen each other since you were a very small boy.” Chris racked his brains but couldn’t quite place the man in his memories. He felt a little embarrassed, in a way that he only felt when he was around his family.
Chris, despite living in a cramped flat and working a normal nine to five job, came from an alarmingly wealthy family. As he grew up, his cheeks began to flush with every extravagant and ridiculous show of financial flexing from his family, but Chris had now reached a point in his life where he was tired of trying to be normal, and was willing to take the easy way out, regardless of how red it made his cheeks.
“Your mother sent some groceries to help you settle in, and I was hoping to have things a little more presentable for your arrival, Sir, it’s just…” The man sighed, gesturing to his obviously ageing body. “Nevertheless, I will endeavour to make sure that you are as comfortable as possible, and you have my word, I will do something about the dust first thing.” Chris smiled gratefully as they approached the kitchen.
“Thanks.” Chris mumbled with a glance around the hallway.
“I’m Mr Mitchell, your Aunt’s erstwhile butler, in case you don’t recall.” Chris blushed, certain that Mr Mitchell hadn’t meant to embarrass him, but feeling embarrassed all the same. “Your Aunt left a trust in her will to allow me to continue working, so that I may assist you in your new home.” Mr Mitchell held the kitchen door open for Chris and the younger man walked through, wishing that his Aunt hadn’t made such a gesture.
“Have we got any bread in?” Chris asked, his cheeks crimson as he glanced around the rather empty looking kitchen, his stomach grumbled impatiently. “I fancied a bit of toast.” Mr Mitchell nodded, walking towards the sideboard and beginning to prepare supper for Chris, who thought he ought to stop the older man and do it himself, but was far too deep into a cyclone of embarrassment to do so.
The toast satisfied Chris’s hunger and he headed off to bed, falling asleep almost as soon as his head hit the pillow. His sleep was pleasant and dreamless, until it was interrupted by a rough, scratchy cough. He sat up in his bed, his chest tight as he continued to cough, his throat beginning to ache from the uncontrollable coughing, and once again, feeling like it was in the vice like grip of a pair of hands he could not see.
He reached for the bedside table, clutching the glass of water that Mr Mitchell had helpfully insisted on leaving and drank it down as quickly as he could, sinking back into the pillows with a sigh as the coughing subsided. He rested for a moment before getting to his feet, deciding that he’d feel a lot safer with another glass of water, ready for the next attack from the house;s seemingly endless supply of dust.
As he reached the top of the stairs, he spotted Mr Mitchell down by the front door. The older man was seated on the carpet by the front door, a weary sigh leaving his lips as he placed a plate of biscuits before him.
“You’ve got to give the young master a chance.” He pleaded. Chris knelt by the bannister, trying not to be seen as he watched the strange scene unfold. “I know that you all miss our Mistress, but I’m sure that if we work to persuade him, the young master will be just as accommodating.” Chris gasped, clutching his hands across his mouth to silence his shock. Slowly, one of the biscuits began to lift from the plate, seemingly on its own, and little bite marks began to appear in the biscuit before it vanished into thin air.
He wasn’t sure who Mr Mitchell was talking to, or what they hoped he’d agreed to, but he had heard enough to know that he didn’t want or need further details. He slowly crept back to his bedroom and began gathering his belongings.
He was throwing his clothes hurriedly in his suitcase when a shadow appeared on the wall before him. Chris froze, his hands shaking as they held a jumper, motionless above the suitcase.
“Hello?” He called out, hoping for no response, but nervous that one would come anyway. “Who’s there?” There was silence, but Chris watched, mouth agape as the shadow seemed to grow, swallowing up the wall. “Mr Mitchell, is that you?” A chill gripped the air as the door creaked behind him.
“Will you help us Master Christopher?” The voice was quiet, barely a whisper, right in his ear. “We really need your help.” Chris was sure that it wasn’t Mr Mitchell, and Chris, too frightened to move an inch was certain that nobody else was in the house.
“Who are you?” He asked, his voice shaking as much as his hands. He felt the weight of a hand on top of his and yelped in shock, looking down to see nothing but his own hands. Panic melded with confusion as he turned around, his eyes darting around the room as more shadows sprang up onto the walls until the entire room fell into darkness.
“We will show you.” Chris felt around blindly in the darkness, his breath cut short as his mouth and nose seemed to fill with dust. “Just relax Master Christopher, there’s nothing to fear.” His throat began to close, the now familiar grip forced its way around him and the air was ice as he fell to his knees, coughing and spluttering, reaching out into the empty darkness with a strangled cry.
Chris awoke in a dim room, lit only by a single candle that lay before him. For a few moments, he watched the flame flicker and bend as he tried to recover his breath. His throat felt sore and scratched, and his whole body ached in a way he’d never felt.
“Master Christopher.” A whisper wrapped its way around his ear, soft and almost comforting. “Mr Mitchell said that we should wait, but we were just so hungry.” Chris recoiled, his eyes wide as he fell back against the soft carpet, scrambling to stand but clattering back to the ground, his aching body too weak to keep him upright.
“What are you?” Chris asked, breathless as he struggled to stand again, despite the futility of it. “What do you want with me?” His throat began to tighten again, the familiar feel of fingertips gripping his neck as he began to choke and splutter.
“Don’t be afraid Master Christopher.” The candle before him lost its flame and he was plunged into darkness, his mouth forced open by fingertips he couldn’t see as he writhed helplessly on the floor. “You won’t even feel it after a while.” The childlike voice chilled him and he felt the spiky, spindly claws enter his mouth, burning and scratching his throat as they moved further and further down.
“Children, no!” The room flooded with light as Chris felt his breath returning, his body free from the grip of the strange entity as he fell back to the ground with a deep breath. “He’s not ready yet.” Mr Mitchell strode into the room, blowing out the candle and kneeling beside Chris.
“I want to leave.” Chris whispered, his voice hoarse and his throat sore as he backed away from the man, blinking back the sudden bright lights of the room.
“Master Christopher, I’m afraid that’s not possible.” Mr Mitchell looked at him with a pity that unsettled Chris. He stared around the room, his breathing erratic, wondering what the old man meant. “They need you to survive Sir… Do you understand?”
Chris looked back at him, confused and speechless as he continued.
“The children don’t mean any harm, it’s just their nature…” Chris looked around the room, unable to spy the children Mitchell described. “They’re just a little hungry.” Chris’s eyebrows shot up and anxiety flashed through his body as he recalled the strange sight he’d seen at the front door.
“They want biscuits?” He asked, apprehensively. “Like the ones you gave them earlier?” Mr Mitchell shook his head, and Chris felt a grave chill wash over him.
“No Sir, the biscuits just kept them at bay until I could explain the situation to you.” The old man sighed, pulling Chris to his feet as the younger man groaned in pain. “They need your insides, Sir.” Chris toppled back, falling onto the bed, shock and terror filling his face as the old man continued. “I kept them sustained while we waited for you to arrive, and your Aunt before me, but I’ve nothing left to give, Sir.”
Chris had heard enough, again. His body was screaming in pain, but he tried to ignore it as he stood, pushing past Mr Mitchell and hobbling towards the door.
“You’re insane!” Chris cried, throwing open the door and stumbling towards the stairs. “I didn’t want this house in the first place.” He whispered, resentment rising just above the fear in his voice as he began crawling down the staircase, his heart pounding.
“They won’t let you leave Sir, it’s no use.” Chris didn’t look back, struggling down the stairs with a grimace. “It’s only once a day Sir, and they won’t take you all at once!” Chris froze in fright as Mr Mitchell appeared in front of him, a look of pity on his gaunt face. “You’ll barely feel it after a while, Sir.”
The lights began to flicker as a low growl filled the halls of the house. Chris gasped as the familiar fingers gripped his throat. He fell against the bannister, clutching at his neck to try and free himself, hurtling down the stairs as he felt the icy fingertips push his lips apart once more.
“We’re just so hungry, Master Christopher.” A chorus of cheery voices surrounded him as he fell into silence at the bottom of the stairs, with only a faint gargle to be heard, as the children began to feed.