Two birds with secrets to hide and a vengeful ghost arrive in a basement at midnight. It sounds like the beginning of a bad joke, right? Except that’s exactly what happened, and there was no humor to it.
Dead Bird Studio at night was quite the anomaly to behold. Much in contrast to the studio in the middle of a busy day, during the nightly hours, the hollow halls were silent. Undisturbed. Tranquil, almost. And always polarizing to those lucky enough to experience it. Without the endless buzz of the lights and electronics and the screams of the Conductor, one could say that Dead Bird Studio at night was a ghost town. A shell of what it was during the day.
On this particular night, a creature took up a home in this shell. The echoes of footsteps reverberated off the walls of the basement as someone made their way to the elevator. Quiet thoughts murmured in their head, whispering speculatively about the meaning of the note held tightly in their wing. Of course, they didn’t know what they were walking into, nor did they know who’d be there to greet them. That would come later.
On the other end of the studio, another bird was making a similar trip. This one was not quite as content with the paper crumpled in their fist, and they stomped the entire length of the way to the elevator. Similarly to their counterpart, this one was equally unaware of what kind of trap they were falling into, nor what kind of repressed memories such would unearth.
Now, back to the former…
DJ Grooves sighed in relief as he finally reached the elevator. The walk from his room to there had not been a short one, and when taking into consideration the hour of the night it was, it was easy to see how he might have been tired. Pressing the ‘down’ button, the moon penguin leaned against the wall. He reached into the inner pocket of his signature red coat and extracted a neatly folded note, opening it up and rereading it carefully.
It had been a written message from his assistant lighting director, Marianne. She had requested a meeting with him in the deepest floor of the basement at exactly midnight. Written at the bottom of the note in his friend’s familiar curly handwriting was the explanation: this meeting was something that she couldn’t risk anyone finding out about. DJ Grooves folded back up the paper, stowing it away. Sure, the meeting was clearly suspicious in nature, but he’d known Marianne practically ever since DBS opened its doors. He equally well knew her handwriting. It’d be hard to sneak a forgery past him.
The elevator’s doors opened, and DJ Grooves stepped inside. Whatever this meeting was, whether it be dubiously planned or not, he was ready for it. Moving a flipper back to the inside of his coat, the penguin checked for one last thing. His switchblade. DJ Grooves always kept a switchblade on him for self-defense; it sometimes came in handy for opening boxes of props as well. He knew he’d never take it off of him, but the need to always check for it fought the unmovable object with an unstoppable force.
And it was there. DJ Grooves was sure he was ready. Positive.
The elevator doors closed.
The deepest room of the basement was a storage area turned party room. Complete with its own disco floor, DJ Grooves had remodeled the room to be a call-back to his club days, satisfying the wishes of the moon penguins who missed those. It wasn’t used as often as he would have liked to, but it was still a complementary addition to his side of the studio. About now, it made for quite the isolated meeting spot. Just as Marianne had described in the letter.
DJ Grooves made his way to one of the tables in the rafters. He pulled out a chair gently and sat down, looking around at the dimly lit scene before him. He huffed. His lighting director was not the kind of bird to be late or to not fulfill her promises. Yet, she was not there, and the DJ sat alone in silence. His anxious thoughts of a more dangerous visit only became louder and louder.
Maybe she lost her way, he thought. It’s easy to get lost in the basement. Even if you’ve been practically living here for 40+ years.
He sat in silence for another few minutes until the very distant yet familiar sound of the clunking elevator disturbed his thoughts. DJ Grooves eagerly stood up. She’s a little late, but she’s here. He sighed in relief; the bird had just about begun to panic for his old friend. DJ Grooves made his way out of the rafters to the side of the dance floor, where he twirled his microphone in his flipper while he waited.
It took awhile for the elevator to reach the floor. When it ultimately did, however, the doors opened to reveal something — or rather, someone — unexpected.
DJ Grooves’s eyes narrowed in dismay. “Conductor?!”
The Conductor’s head snapped up at the sound, and his expression immediately folded into itself in anger. “Oh, OF COURSE!” the bird hissed, his voice seething with rage.
As the Conductor stomped his way from the elevator to where DJ Grooves was standing, the latter sighed in defeat. Why did he have to be there? Where was Marianne? This was supposed to be their super-secret meeting, and yet — of all birds — the Conductor was somehow there.
The owl in question was in front of DJ Grooves now, stiffly pointing a feather at him accusingly. “You…!” He proceeded to fling a couple of swears at him that he had never heard before.
Slightly confused, the moon penguin dusted some lint off of his coat, not shifting his gaze from the other bird. “Yes, me.”
The Conductor sputtered. “Oh, you PECK NECK!” DJ Grooves winced a little. His rival continued. “Sending me down here on the basis of some kind of meeting at an ungodly hour of the night — for you, at least — and for what?! To play some kind of prank on me? To pull off a joke? Well, I’m here, so do what you will!”
“Darling, I didn’t send you down here.” DJ Grooves’s brows furrowed. This was strange. Definitely strange. “And assuming I would to play a prank on you? I’m almost appalled.”
“Appalled?! The peck are you on about?” The Conductor tapped his foot irritatedly into the ground. “We both know you sent me that blasted letter—“
“Letter?” A couple of the puzzle pieces connected. “Did you get a letter?”
The Conductor reached into one pocket of his blazer and pulled out a crumpled piece of paper. “From one of my Express Owls, telling me to come here at midnight. Forged by you, I assume. Speaking of, you never answered my question! What do you want from me—?”
“For the last time, I didn’t send you that letter, darling.” DJ Grooves repeated, the exhaustion evident in his voice. “In fact, I received a letter, too!”
“Oh yeah? Show it to me!”
“Gladly.” The moon penguin reached into his jacket pocket and pulled out the neatly folded note, handing it to the Conductor and watching as he unfolded it.
The owl read over the note for a second. As DJ Grooves watched, he noticed how his counterpart’s expression softened. Where there once was a menacing scowl, there was now a confused frown. And for a moment, there was a good silence. Quite the surprising thing to come by when around the Conductor. DJ Grooves very much enjoyed moments like these, where his rival slowed down and loosened up a bit. He was so used to the constant yapping and yelling that mere silence when around the owl was a gift to behold. It was one of the few things that the moon penguin had always wanted from the other bird.
And maybe, if the Conductor had slowed down more often, DJ Grooves wouldn’t have had to give up his-
The Conductor’s puzzled frown turned into a snarl. “Oh, that dirty note-givin’ peck neck!”
And there it goes. The moment of fleeting silence left as soon as it arrived.
The owl tossed both notes to the ground, looking around furiously. From seemingly nowhere, he pulled a gleaming steel knife. Similarly to DJ Grooves, the Conductor kept at least one knife on him at all times. Most often, he’d carry two: one for self-defense and the other for other purposes, like uncorking bottles and tinkering with his train’s motherboard. The one held in his talons now was the former. “Come out here and fight us yourself, you shadow-wearin’, midnight-arrivin’…”
Distantly, DJ Grooves heard a shuffle. Though he didn’t look the part, the moon penguin had excellent hearing. Where his great hearing usually helped with sound design in his movies, it now helped in identifying the culprit behind the notes. He looked over the Conductor’s head into the shadows behind him, seeing nothing. The short yellow bird angrily rambled on, swaying his knife back and forth.
There was another shuffle. It sounded clear as glass to the DJ.
“Conductor.” The moon penguin spoke up above his rival’s ramblings, which only continued. He growled lowly.
Yet another shuffle resounded, this time followed by the sound of something being knocked over. Something is definitely here.
“Conductor,” DJ Grooves hissed, “will you please shut up for a second?”
The owl in question flinched at that comment, clearly offended. He whipped around to give his rival a piece of his mind when another, much more thundering crash interrupted him. The sound had come from the tall stage adjacent to them, where on a livelier night the moon penguin would have DJ’ed. Silence once again gripped the duo, but this time, it wasn’t calm. Their nervousness crackled in the air like static. The Conductor and DJ Grooves were frozen in place.
The latter snuck a glance at his counterpart, who looked nowhere near as confident or bold as he was just a moment ago. The owl warily eyed the stage, knife slightly lowered. The feathers on his neck were fluffed out in fright, and his ears were pricked straight up on alert.
Just as DJ Grooves was about to look elsewhere, something just beyond the Conductor caught his eye. Something somewhere deep in the shadows.
He made solid eye contact with a glowing pair of golden orbs.
Suddenly, a chill overtook him. Not only just him: the whole room became freezing cold in an instant. The owl clearly felt the change, too, and he glanced about confusedly. The shadows intensified, closing in on them. The air became stuffier and murkier. DJ Grooves shuddered. What’s going on?
From the accentuated shadows, a figure materialized. What appeared to be a long, snake-like ghost was now gazing down upon them. Their eyes and fanged smile shone, sinister and gold. They let out a mad cackle.
The ghost clapped their hands together. Their mad grin was unrelenting.
“You’ve done it! You’ve totally screwed yourselves! I didn’t think you two would actually be dumb enough to fall for the good ole’ letter trick, but you’re here! It’s hilarious how stupid you are!”
“HEY! Who are you calling stupid?” the Conductor fumed, stomping one boot into the ground and pointing his knife at the specter threateningly.
They laughed once more. This time, their chuckle was more breathy than hearty. “Oh, definitely you!” He reached down and plucked the owl’s knife from his hand. The latter squawked in disbelief. “Especially since you’re threatening a ghost with a mortal weapon!” Shortly after finishing that statement, he chucked the knife back over his shoulder.
The Conductor yelped something about it having been “one of his good knives” as DJ Grooves took a definitive step forward. He had many questions on his mind, yes, but they needed to take small steps. It was clear that they wouldn’t get through to this… apparition… easily. He started off simple: “I’m sorry, but who are you?”
The ghost’s amber eyes pierced into his, and the moon penguin shuddered. “Oh, you don’t need to know that. In fact, I’d like to know more about you.”
DJ Grooves frowned firmly. “No, if I recall, you’re the one trespassing in our studio. You can go first.”
The purple spirit’s expression didn’t flinch or waver, yet its malevolent energy seemed to intensify. “I don’t think I will.”
They remarked it with such veracity that the moon penguin was stunned into silence for a good moment. When the stun wore off, however, DJ Grooves quickly opened his beak to give a response…
… yet no sound came out. His voice caught in his throat, and he couldn’t speak. He tried again, and again. Still, no sound came out. It was almost as though the ghost had snatched his voice. The moon penguin shot a frantic look at the ghost, whose corrupt grin was still plastered to his face.
“I’ll take your silence as compliance!” they declared triumphantly. Horror seeping through his veins, DJ Grooves had an itch of fear that this confrontation was not going to end in his and the Conductor’s favor.
The latter turned to him. “Seriously? That’s pathetic — even for you, Grooves.”
He offered his rival a desperate glance, but the moon penguin’s act of helplessness was cut off by the specter speaking up again.
“So, since that’s been decided, I think it’s time I learned about you two! Which one of you would like to go first?”
Neither of them spoke up. It wasn’t like DJ Grooves could even speak in the first place.
“No one?” The ghost glanced between the two, almost looking disappointed. They shrugged. “Oh well! I guess that means we’re doing this the hard way!”
The golden grin returned to the specter’s face as they scooped DJ Grooves up by the collar of his red coat. Shock and dismay pouring through him, he squirmed and kicked in protest until he tired himself.
“Let’s see here… oh, I should probably give you your voice back. Sorry about that.” Nothing in his apology was genuine.
The moon penguin coughed for a moment before glaring, now eye-level, at the apparition. “Put. Me. Down.”
“Nope! We’re doing this the hard way, remember? Besides, this way, I can look into your soul! You don’t get to keep any secrets!” Their echoing voice contained a pure, sweet excitement that made DJ Grooves’s stomach plummet.
“Hm…” They glanced up and down him for several moments. “You know, a person’s shadow can tell you a lot about them!” His signature grin remained stitched on his face. “Let’s see… you and your friend down there have been competing for… wow. 42 years? And during that time, he forced a kind of rivalry between you two… ah. But you don’t like it, do you? You want to return to when you two were friendlier.”
The ghost resumed his examination in silence for the next few moments. DJ Grooves was glad that the Conductor didn’t make any snarky comments, especially since the spirit was definitely speaking loud enough for the owl to hear.
And then the specter froze. “Oh. Ah… that’s interesting. Very interesting.” His “very” was drawn out, slowly and meticulously pronouncing each sound and syllable. Their eyes met DJ Grooves’s own again, and the same shiver was produced. His voice lowered to just above a whisper. “But I’m sure you wouldn’t want me saying that one in front of your dearest Conductor, would you?”
DJ Grooves felt time stop. His heart was beating out of his chest, yet it nearly stopped pounding in that moment. He opened his mouth and spoke, his voice barely even a whisper. “You wouldn’t dare.”
“Oh, but I would! And I will. If you step over the line again, that is.”
With that, the ghost lowered DJ Grooves only slightly before dropping him to the ground. He hit the floor with a thud, landing on his side and almost definitely breaking something. The moon penguin looked up, wincing, to see the Conductor standing over him. Much to his surprise, his rival did not look angry or critical. Instead, his face was plagued with an oddly confused and conflicted look. Which, to an extent, was even worse.
Before the Conductor or DJ Grooves could say anything to one another, the spirit scooped up the former by his collar, similarly as he had done to the other. Astonishingly, the owl did not protest or squawk; he simply hung there and stared the ghost directly in the eye. He wasn’t afraid of any ghost! Surely, he’d be fine. That terrified look on Grooves’s face had to have just been from the fall. Besides, what did someone like his rival, who was so gaudy and excessive all the time, have to hide?
“Alright then! Let’s… see… huh. This one’s a mess. Your wife divorced you around your twenty-second year into this, which exemplified your growing alcohol problem… and not to mention your nihilism!” The ghost laughed, lifting a claw to his fanged smile to stifle it. The Conductor felt a nauseating bile rise in his throat. That wasn’t funny.
“Oh, but it’s all okay, right? No, of course! And you most definitely didn’t have a relapse of those depressing thoughts just six months ago, right?”
The owl felt sick. He felt so sick. He didn’t want to be reminded of that. He didn’t need to be reminded of that. He didn’t—
The ghost grinned, now, so brightly that they could have blinded the sun. He brought the bird in his claws dangerously close to his face, tightening his grip and digging into the Conductor’s flesh with his talons. When they spoke, their voice was soft yet venomous.
“And… just six months ago… you considered joining the ranks of Subcon.”
The Conductor paled. Every bit of his body went numb. His sickness before was nothing compared to what he felt now. He wanted badly to disappear. To no longer be reminded. He had been doing fine recovering; why did those memories need to be brought back now?
But the ghost did not sympathize with the Conductor. Instead, his grin remained there. Taunting him. Tormenting him. “Hey, buddy…
“...if you ever reconsider, we’d be glad to accept you.”
As soon as the Conductor processed the scathing words that were just spoken to him, he was lowered and dropped to the ground just as Grooves had been. And on the ground he remained for a solid few seconds, until the petrified moon penguin, who had been watching the scene from afar, rushed over to help him.
DJ Grooves didn’t know what exchange had just happened between his counterpart and the spirit, but he had never seen the Conductor so pale in his entire life. He looked pale and incredibly nauseated. The moon penguin had just helped his rival into a sitting position when the shadow spoke again.
“Now that you two effectively know who’s in charge here, let’s make a deal!”
“A deal?” DJ Grooves warily echoed.
“Yes, a deal!” The overly-enthusiastic shadow clasped his hands together. “You see, I have this rather… unruly contractor that needs disposing of, and I figured that you two could help me out!”
“But… why us?”
The ghostly figure stroked his chin in fake thought. “I heard that she was a friend of yours… both of yours, in fact! And also that you,” they pointed at the moon penguin, “have already tried pulling off this stunt before!”
His eyes widened in terror. Even the Conductor, who had been staring into nothingness for the past moments, snapped his head up immediately.
“Th-the hatted darling?”
“Yes,” the darker shadow brooded, smiling sinisterly, “the hatted child.”
Now DJ Grooves emphasized with the Conductor’s nausea. The owl in question had looked away once more, swaying his head back and forth in disbelief. The spirit had set up this whole meeting to arrange for them to murder Hat Kid?
“Well?” the ghost prompted, looking rather impatient. “What’s it gonna be? Your secrets and your lives… or her life?”
In front of the duo appeared two yellowed paper contracts. Written in perfectly printed purple ink, it outlined exactly what was to happen to them: they would forfeit their souls to “Snatcher” (presumably the name of the ghost) who would possess their bodies to kill Hat Kid. They would maintain partial consciousness in this state, and they were liable to any injuries sustained when the child inevitably fought back. There was no protocol outlining what would happen if she won, though, and DJ Grooves pondered what would become of them then.
The moon penguin hadn’t noticed until the next moment, but the Conductor already held the quill in his hand and was looking to him with uncertainty. DJ Grooves had never seen his rival in such a vulnerable state before in his entire life. He had no clue what this “Snatcher” told him to bring him to this, but whatever it was, the moon penguin quite frankly didn’t want to know. Taking into consideration everything that had happened thus far, it didn’t surprise DJ Grooves too much that the Conductor was more than ready to sign the contract.
Slowly, and with much shared uncertainty, he nodded to his counterpart. This was the only way, wasn’t it? And besides, he had faith in the little diva. If she had beat him so badly last time — and trust him, she had — then she should be able to beat them this time. Even if they were possessed by some eldritch monstrosity who liked to play God.
DJ Grooves picked up the quill in his flipper and carefully signed his name on the line at the bottom of the page. Next to him, the Conductor did the same, with slightly more haste in his scratchy handwriting. As they finished, their contracts disappeared into clouds of purple smoke.
The spirit looked pleased. “That seals the deal! Let me take these off your hands…”
The moon penguin wondered for a moment what the shadow meant when a bolt of purple lightning struck his chest. He stumbled back, dazed, and feeling a whole lot emptier. Meanwhile, the Conductor looked like he was on the verge of collapsing on the spot.
“Now, let’s see…” the snake-like shadow began, eyeing the duo before them up and down. “What would be the best way to control you two?” He paused, narrowing his golden eyes in thought. “My last contractor that I had attempt to kill that kid had his puppet strings around his wrists, and that worked out pretty well. I think I’ll do the same for you two!”
The ghost snapped their fingers, and long blue strings of the most vibrant hue wrapped themselves around DJ Grooves’s wrists. He felt his body go numb, and he collapsed to his knees before the shadow. The only thing he could control was his head, and even that felt constrained.
For a moment, there was silence. The purple spirit eyed the duo, his gaze dull and blank, as he was deep in thought. The silence lasted for too long, filling the moon penguin with the dread of anticipation. And then, abruptly, they burst out in a fit of booming laughter. Eventually, it fizzled into a quiet, almost childish giggle as they snapped their fingers again.
At first, DJ Grooves noticed no change. But not much later, a quiet, choked sound alerted the bird that the change had not happened to him, but rather his counterpart. He glanced over and his eyes widened. The strings had been released from the Conductor’s wrists, but they were now secured tightly around his neck. The expression on the owl’s face was one of pure, unfiltered horror.
The ghost’s giggles picked up again, and it took him a while to calm down.
“I’m going to leave now, but don’t get too cozy! That brat shouldn’t take long; she likes to do the contracts as soon as I give them to her. I’ll black you guys out when she’s ready!” They gave the duo a forced wave of the hand. “Later!”
With that, the darker shadow disappeared away into the ground. The dim overhead lights clicked back on, and most of the other, formless shadows skunked away into the corners. For a moment, neither director knew what to do. The glowing blue puppet strings still remained attached to them, but they could move freely now.
DJ Grooves was the first to move. He walked over to the stage at the end of the room and climbed up onto it, sitting on the edge. He feigned interest in the blue strings that were etched into his wrists — in reality, he couldn’t focus at all. There was so much that had just happened in such a small window of time… so much to think about… so much to worry about…
Not long after, the Conductor followed the moon penguin, climbing up onto the stage and sitting at the other end. For a long moment, no words were spoken between the two. DJ Grooves wasn’t sure if he preferred it to be this way or not until the other bird spoke up.
“What do you have to hide?”
His voice was low and scratchy, yet smooth, like sand. And there was no hostility to be found in his words, which was especially unusual. The owl instead sounded… tired. Deeply conflicted. Somewhere in between the state of being dead and being alive.
DJ Grooves looked up and over at his long-time rival, who in return only barely met his gaze. “A lot more than you might think, darling.”
The moon penguin knew that he couldn’t ask any questions back for now. The Conductor appeared to be far too nauseated — far too traumatized — for him to try and pry into what had just happened.
“What do you have to hide?”
If only he could ask the same question.
In that moment, the strings around the birds’ wrists suddenly tightened, and everything became black.