The title is at the end

I’ve had this written for some time, but was waiting to be able to afford art for it, something that was taking a LONG time. Finally, a friend, as a birthday present, paid Lady Kraken (who has a DeviantART page here https://www.deviantart.com/ladykraken and is on Patreon here https://www.patreon.com/ladykraken and she does wonderful work) to do art for this story. Be warned, this is a DARK story. And, please, forgive this poor author’s attempt at an accent in the story.

As she took her seat next to her friends, Loretta felt the excitement building inside her.   Her parents would not approve, she knew.  But here she was, seated in the basement of a pub, barely lit by candles.  The place smelled of sawdust, stale beer, and — was that mold?  She grasped the hand of Fred, seated next to her.  She glanced at Frieda and Rupert on the other side of him.  Elsewhere in the basement were others, some respectable, some not so much.  But then, no respectable person should be here.  That’s what made it such fun.

A girl walked out in front of the stage.  She was gaunt, might have been pretty once.  She was dressed in what looked like a maid’s uniform, someplace upstairs in a household, Loretta guessed.  The outfit was clean, though threadbare in places.  It was still presentable, if faded.  Loretta began think of her as a maid.  She had some freckles on her face.  She carried herself with dignity.  But she was sad.  Unbearably, heart-breakingly sad.

“Thank ye, everyone, fer coming,” she began, speaking with an accent.  “I call meself Niobe.”

“Niobe?” said Loretta.  “Like the woman in Greek Mythology?”

“Aye.  I went by another name in th’ household where I worked, a household th’ name o’ which ye would recognize.  It is a name I no longer use to spare th’ reputation o’ the family I worked for. 

“I was maid t’ th’ youngest daughter o’ the house, a position I filled wi’ pride.  This daughter, Maisie, loved me ‘n’ I her.  The lady o’ the house was devoted to her elder daughter, Lily.  The lady trusted me t’ focus on Maisie, which I was glad t’ do.

“Not long ago, the lord o’ the house passed away.  T’ the dismay o’ us all, he left behind debts, sizable debts.  Many o’ th’ family’s possessions were taken away.  Others in service t’ th’ family left fer payin’ positions. I stayed on out o’ love for me charge ‘n’ loyalty t’ th’ family.  But it got t’ where th’ home itself were in danger o’ bein’ taken from us, unless a source o’ money could be found.

“That was when Lily began t’ attract Alexander — not his real name. Alexander’s mother were great friends wit’ milady, ’n’ they had been so since their own childhoods.  When milady married, Lily ’n’ Alexander grew to be close.  Alexander were was goin’ t’ visit wit’ his mother toward arrangin’ a match.  Th’ mother, Francine, knew o’ milady’s situation, but she approved o’ the match.  There was only th’ visit t’ formalize everythin’. 

“But first, we had t’ prepare th’ house fer th’ visit.  Milady, Lily, Maisie, ’n’ meself did all we could.  Everythin’ was dusted, windows were washed, floors, even stairs were swept.  Maisie even helped me clean th’ chimney ‘n’ make sure it was in workin’ order.  Maisie ‘n’ I laughed when we looked in th’ mirror t’ see our faces covered in soot.  The visit was just days away ‘n’ we inspected th’ house from top t’ bottom.

“It was when I entered th’ pantry that I screamed.

“There, on the pantry shelves, counters, ’n’ floor, were rats.  Big, fat, black rats.  I grabbed a broom ’n’ swatted at ’em, but that only made ’em scatter int’ hiding.  We’d seen at least a half-dozen ‘n’ knew there had t’ be more!

“The only thing fer it was t’ call the rat-catcher.  But how t’ pay him, t’was the thing.  The rat-catcher for our neighborhood was Guiseppe.  We knew his fee, but, after pooling our money together, e’en wi’ mine, we still were short o’ the required amount.  We called Guiseppe, ne’er th’ less.  He came and stayed in th’ house fer two days, usin’ traps, his little dog Snatcher, ‘n’ hisself.  By the end o’ that time, he assured us th’ rats were gone.

“Milady had put t’gether a purse tha’ she hoped would be equal in weight t’ what was owed Guiseppe.  At th’ bottom, she put a note explaining th’ circumstances ‘n’ promisin’ an additional sum, double his normal pay, after th’ wedding.

“Uneasy t’was I a’ this subt’r’fuge, ‘n’ I let milady know it.  Guiseppe would want ‘is pay now, I said.  But milady went t’rough wit’ th’ lie.  She placed all hope on th’ weddin’.

“Milady handed Guiseppe the purse, ‘n’ he held it in his hand.  I knew he was weighin’ it.

“‘Signora,” he said softly to milady. “You know, don’t you, not to cheat the rat-catcher?’

“‘I promise,’ she lied, ‘Tis all there.’

“He made a smile that chilled my soul, bowed, and left.

“Alexander ‘n’ his mother came later that day.  Not long before they arrived, a package was delivered, a box o’ choc’lates fer Miz Lily, undoubt’ly from Alexander.  She smiled at th’ thought, but set th’ chocolates aside.  She were deat’ly allergic t’ chocolate, somethin’ she’d have t’ explain t’ Alexander later.  We had tea, with th’ best cakes I could make could make under th’ conditions.  Masterpieces, they were, if I say so meself.  I served ‘em, they loved ‘em, especially Maisie.  I had dressed ‘er so pretty, ’n’ she sat in ‘er chair like a goo’ girl, and keepin’ so quiet.  She clapped, as did all o’ us, when Alexander took t’ his knee to offer Lily a ring fer her hand in marriage.  Afterward, all o’ us left so Lily ’n’ Alexander could be by themselve fer a few minutes.

“I cleared th’ dishes ’n’ took ‘em in t’ wash ‘em.  Milady ’n’ Francine talked about plans fer th’ nuptuals, when, suddenly, there was a piercing scream o’ ‘‘Mother!’  I knew right away t’were Maisie.  I ran t’ th’ pantry, gettin’ there th’ same time as everyone else, followin’ th’ cry.  There on th’ floor, all spilt out from the box, were th’ chocolates.

“‘Those are the chocolates you sent me!’ says Lily.’

‘I sent you no chocolates,’ said Alexander.

“‘Guiseppe — th’ ratcatcher,’ says I.

“’N’ there, next t’ th’ box o’ spilt chocolates — was THIS!”

Niobe went behind a curtain at the back of the stage. She came back out, holding a long chain of thick links, using it to lead a bizarre, terrible beast. On the other end of the chain was something the size of a young girl.  It was clothed like a girl, though in a dress that was filthy, soiled with dirt, a little blood, and — the audience preferred not to guess.

The back half of the creature was made up of, not legs, not human legs, but haunches.  A skirt covered them, but poorly, and, out from under the skirt, was a long, ropey tail that curled out from behind and ended in a point by the pitiful creature’s side.  Near it were— hands?  Paws?  They were covered in fur with long, unkempt nails at the end of the fingers-toes.

Most awful to look at was the head.  The hair was tousled, almost looking like the nest of some foul creature of the shadows.  The cheekbones were pronounced, moreso beside the all-too-still-human nose.  A pair of sharp incisors protruded beneath and above the lips.

The eyes were haunting.  They had sunken into the sockets, which created a hooded effect that made them seem luminous, but with an intimidating red glow. 

At first terrified, but unable to look away, Loretta stood up, as if to get near the cage.  She was startled back into her seat when the rat-girl lurched forward and hissed at her.

“Don’ approach her!” said Niobe.  “She has turned mean t’wards all save meself.  Her mother — th’ mother who ignored her, was going to love her fully one day after the older daughter was wed ’n’ saved th’ fam’ly — t’is b’cause o’ the mother that Maisie — is now this!

“Th’ engagement was canceled.  No one wants t’ add — Maisie — to their family.  Milady was found th’ next day, hangin’ from th’ bedframe, too ashamed at what her mach’ nations had done t’ Maisie.  Lily fled t’ country, ’n’ is tryin’ to make a life fer herself overseas.  Fer meself, I would not abandon my Maisie, not leave her by herself.  We still love each other and do what we can to support each other.with her.”

“But, can Maisie not be changed back? Is there anything we can do for her?” asked Loretta.

“There is a tin when you exit where you can leave money, if you wish.  But, no, Maisie cannot be what she was again.  The power contained in the chocolates was meant fer Lily, an adult, not a child.. It cannot be undone.  I should put Maisie out o’ her misery, I know, but — she is still me love, me girl, ‘n’ — I can’t do it!

After studying Maisie as closely as they dared for long minutes, the audience stood and prepared to leave, all of them taking out money to leave behind.

“And, remember this,” said Niobe. “Take this lesson with you as you leave here tonight ‘n’ take it t’ yer graves —

“Never Cheat the Rat-Catcher!!!”

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