Copyright © 2011 Maeryn Lamonte – All Rights Reserved.
The hall was deserted, most of the other students having long since gone home. I emptied the books from my extra study session into my locker and turned to leave.
Shoes rang out harshly on the stone floor – half a horse tripping into half a gallop.
She caught me up, grabbing my arm and leaning her full, if insubstantial, weight against me.
She was kind of cute in a bubbly, bouncy sort of way, but had no concept of subtlety. One thing about Charlie; you knew who she was into by the way she went bounding up to them like an excited puppy, all breathless eagerness and effervescent energy.
“So, what d’you have planned for Halloween?”
It was immensely flattering, of course, to have such a beautiful girl showing me this kind of attention, but I wasn’t sure if it was fair for me to respond. I mean, jealousy isn’t a good basis for any kind of relationship.
“I don’t know. Since the banks screwed up the economy, nobody seems to have any spare money. I’m not sure I can afford to do anything this year.”
It wasn’t much of an excuse, but it was good enough for me. As usual, I really didn’t feel like trying to enjoy myself – unresolved issues getting in the way. Any time I let friends talk me into ‘having a good time’, all it did was highlight the things that were missing in my life, which made me feel worse.
“Oh come on!” She tugged impatiently, and ineffectually, at my arm. “It’s times like these that you have to do something, if only to remind yourself that things can get better. I mean what’s life without hope?”
Talk about hitting the nail on the head. What is life without hope? Pretty much what I faced in the mirror every morning. The only thing that would make life worse right now would be for other people to know what I was struggling with. Ridicule or pity, either way it would just add to the weight of the world.
“I don’t know. I was just going to stay in and watch TV or something.”
“Well, I’m not going to let you stay in and mope by yourself. If you won’t come out with me, maybe I’ll come round and visit with you instead.”
There was a bullish disregard to her bright cheerfulness – she was determined I was going to have a good time whether I wanted to or not. Misery loves company they say, but I think it would draw the line at chirpy, chipper Charlie. Pretty much the only thing I could imagine handling less well than going to a party in my present state would be having to spend an evening alone with Miss Bouncy McJoyful here. Nothing against her mind you, I have a great fondness for Charlie, but a whole evening in the presence of such irrepressible good cheer, with nothing to distract me, or her…
“What did you have in mind?” I sighed.
I’m a coward, I know.
“Did you see that new notice on the bulletin board? The one from the castle? You know, ‘Doctor Francescanstein cordially invites you to a night of terror and self-discovery’ or something like that?”
There was something about the castle that really creeped me out. I mean I knew it had been there for hundreds of years, but I couldn’t shake the nagging feeling that it hadn’t been there for hundreds of years last week.
“I don’t know, Charlie. I mean, what are the chances they still have places? That notice has been up, what, a couple of days already?”
“So what’s the harm in trying? We could get lucky. Come on! we should do it!! it’ll be fun!!!”
There’s no arguing with her when she starts talking in exclamation marks. I nodded my reluctant assent and was rewarded with a little squeal of excitement as she let go my arm to rummage through her bag for her phone.
“Hello? Is that the castle? Yeah, I was wondering if you still had any spaces left for the night of terror and self-discovery. You do? Excellent! Yeah, two please? Charlotte Mattesson and Brandon Phillips. Yeah, two L’s, and mine has two T’s and two S’s. Yeah, do we need to bring anything? You know like a costume or something? Really? That is so cool. No that should be fine. OK, see you tomorrow night. Yeah, thank you so much. Bye”
She jumped up and down on the spot, causing parts of her anatomy to jiggle in disconcerting ways.
“We’re in. She said since we’re the last, we’ll have to be the victims, but that’s alright isn’t it? I mean they’re providing costumes and everything. This is going to be so cool.”
She grabbed hold of my arm again. Her enthusiasm was so infectious that even I couldn’t help smiling. Maybe this wasn’t such a bad idea after all.
It was a dark and stormy night.
No really, it was. I mean the setting couldn’t have been more perfect for Halloween, not even with a Hollywood special effects budget.
Dark, pendulous clouds boiled overhead, illuminated in brief flashes by occasional, distant lightning. The ominous silhouette of the castle appeared through the driving rain as we eased our way up the drive. There were three other cars parked opposite the main entrance, all of which I was sure I would recognise given the time, but the rain was relentless, soaking us to the skin even in the short dash to the front door.
An old fashioned bell pull connected to a distant jangling inside and we huddled under the eaves, awaiting rescue from the excess of weather. The giant oak door creaked open and we ducked into the large entrance hall without waiting for further invitation.
“You poor things.” The sultry voice came from a figure on the stairs. She wore a full length cloak of some unusual dark material and, if the brief, tantalising glimpses of pale, naked flesh were anything to go by, very little else. “Welcome to Castle Francescanstein. But you’re drenched. Please, allow Riffraff to show you to your rooms. You must take off those wet things and change into your costumes.
“The other guests are already here in the dining room,” a long, slender and completely bare arm emerged from the folds of her cloak to indicate a door to our left. Somehow the iridescent black material shifted to hide the rest of her. “Join us when you are ready.”
Riffraff, it appeared, was the small and balding servant who had opened the door for us. His smile was obsequious, and the way he seemed to bow from the shoulders vaguely suggested some deformity in his back. He led us up the stairs and down a short corridor to adjacent rooms. He ushered Charlie into the first and indicated I should go into the second.
Like the rest of the castle so far, the floor and walls were dressed stone, covered only in places by rugs and tapestries. Wind and rain assaulted the leaded glass windows, causing them to rattle in their frames, and cold drafts eddied about the room, bringing a renewed chill to my sodden form. Despite the friendly fire chuckling in the stone fireplace, I was freezing.
The room was well furnished with wardrobe, dressing table and chair. A four poster bed stood against one wall, and laid out on its covers was my costume.
I pulled the door open to be greeted by the butler’s blank grin.
“There’s been a mistake,” I explained through chattering teeth. “You’ve put me in the wrong room.”
His smile broadened and took on a measure of vacuous malevolence. He pointed to the door where my name was clearly printed on a label, then pulled it shut on me.
I turned back into the room and made a closer examination of the clothing on the bed. There was no doubt everything was considerably too big for Charlie. In fact it all looked just the right size for me, right down to the size eleven shoes. I was freezing in my soaked clothes, otherwise I wouldn’t have considered changing, but the choice seemed to be this or pneumonia. I stripped naked and made use of a convenient towel to rub some warmth back into my body.
It had been a long while since I’d done anything like this, but some things you don’t forget. The knickers were soft and seemed to have space for my extra bits. I’d never worn a suspender belt before, but the principle behind it wasn’t that challenging. I gathered up the stockings and slid them up my legs. Hairy as they were, the sensation wasn’t as sensual as I remembered, but the sheer, silky garments would provide a little added warmth in this icebox of a place. Again the clips that fastened them in place were obvious, though having so much elastic under tension so close to my tender parts was a little unnerving.
There was no bra, the dress being backless with a halter neck. I stepped into it and tied the straps behind me into a tidy bow, arranging the generous folds of the skirt until they settled neatly about my calves. The shoes were, mercifully, no more than two inches in the heel, but a precarious balance to the unpracticed even so. A silver necklace and cross, along with silver clip-on earrings and long silk gloves – white to match the dress – completed the outfit, and a fur stole gave my back some protection against the cold.
There was a full length mirror in the corner of the room beside the wardrobe, and I marshalled enough courage to look at myself. It was pretty much as I suspected, broad shoulders and well-muscled arms, ruggedly good lookingish face, hair short on the head and sprouting pretty much everywhere else. I looked exactly like Marilyn Monroe just before that famous photograph of her over the heating vent – that is, of course, assuming she had been born a gorilla. I felt warmer in the dry clothes, but I was damn sure I wasn’t ready to appear in public like this. From the number of cars out front, there were only three other couples here tonight, but it would only take a moment’s indiscretion from just one of them back at school to destroy my reputation utterly. I sat down on the bed, determined to wait it out.
There was a gentle knock on the door, and before I could react, it opened and Charlie stuck her head in.
“Brandon?” She caught sight of me and struggled to suppress a smile. “Shit, I thought I had it bad.”
She came in all the way, top hat in hand, tailcoat over silver-grey waistcoat, matching bow tie over starched wing collar, loose fitting grey trousers and shining black leather brogues to finish. She even had a walking stick in one hand.
“I can’t go down looking like this, Charlie. I look a complete and utter pillock.”
“We both do, Brandon. Don’t forget, the others will have costumes too. Maybe they’re dressed the same as us, maybe that’s what the night of terror and self-discovery thing is all about – getting in touch with the other side of our sexuality. Come on, I’ll bet they’re just as self-conscious as us.”
As usual with Charlie, I allowed myself to be persuaded and climbed unsteadily to my feet.
“Here, don’t forget this.” She picked up a clutch bag from the bed and handed it to me. “You know, you probably wouldn’t look so bad if I put a bit of makeup on you.”
“Not a chance. I look enough like a gay baboon as it is. I can’ t believe I’m doing this.”
I transferred everything from my pockets into the bag then took her hand, more for support than anything. Taking a deep breath, I followed her out to meet whatever doom awaited us.
“Arrrroooough.” The howl collapsed into helpless laughter as Pete ‘Wolfman’ Wilson caught sight of us making our entrance.
The rest of the guests turned, displaying different degrees of mirth, although none quite so unrestrained as Pete’s. Even Drusilla, Pete’s girl of the moment, managed a hint of a smile – in my experience, the Goth equivalent of unrestrained hysterics.
To my acute embarrassment, Charlie and I were the only ones cross-dressed; the others all had costumes far more in keeping with the Halloween theme – and, oddly, with their own personalities.
Pete wore an ordinary jacket and tie, but he also had on a wild wig and whiskers which, along with a pair of amber contact lenses and some very realistic extended canines, gave him a distinctly Lon Chaney wolfman look.
Drew – well Betty really, but what kind of Goth name is that? – Evans wore the lace trimmed long black dress of a Victorian Governess which, along with her usual pale makeup and jet black hair, left her looking more ghostly than usual.
“Well Brandon, don’t you look lovely tonight.”
The new voice came from Damien Bradley, school smoothie – or at least he would be if I ever found a big enough blender. He rarely opened his mouth without saying something snide and hurtful, and he wore a perpetual, self-satisfied smirk which almost everyone I knew wanted to wipe off his face. No surprise then to find him with his hair slicked back, sporting a pair of fangs and an old fashioned dinner suit.
Amy Jennings – bitch queen and long term significant other to Damien – stood next to him, controlling but not hiding her own amusement. She complemented his vampire look in a tight, dark, ankle length sheath dress that might have given Morticia Addams mobility issues. Her long dark hair was brushed back to give her a distinct widow’s peak above her pale features.
“And there was me thinking I would win the booby prize for costumes tonight, but then you don’t even have any of those do you? And that dress so needs a bit of cleavage to make it work.”
This last from Lucy Langdon who was known for her pre-emptive strikes. The theory was she was overly self-conscious of her alliterative name and constantly afraid of ridicule so chose to fight back before being attacked. She was also a bossy, control freak who appreciated muscle over mind in her men. She was wrapped from neck to toe in bandages, leaving only her hands and face free. The mummy costume was indirectly ironic of the way she treated the people around her.
Beside her loomed Steve Buckley, her own personal monolith, dutifully laughing his slow laugh. Everyone called him Brick after the proverbial shithouse he resembled, which made him the perfect candidate for a Frankenstein’s monster makeover, complete with neck bolt and scars. Mind you, he didn’t need much else to complete the illusion.
“Good,” our hostess said cheerfully, ignoring my evident discomfort and the barbed comments flying around the room. “Now we’re all here, we can start. You’ll find your places are labelled.”
Damien took the lead, holding a chair for Amy. It was a necessary courtesy given the tightness of her dress, and I still have no idea how she managed to find enough freedom of movement to fold herself into a seated position. Pete did the same for Drew, but the subtle nicety escaped Brick and earned him a dirty look from Lucy as she struggle to shuffle her own heavy chair under the table. There was a moment’s awkwardness between Charlie and me, but she won out, taking the stole from my shoulders then helping me into my seat as I arranged the pleated skirts under and around me.
“Brandon doesn’t really work does it?” Damien asked through his habitual condescending sneer. “I mean Charlie can get away with her name, but I think we need a new one for you you. What do you think guys? Brenda? Brandy?”
Chuckles rippled around the table, and even our hostess smiled as Riffraff eased her into her chair at the head of the table.
“Brandy sounds just right,” she said settling any argument before it could start. “Riffraff, would you please serve the soup.”
And so started one of the most awkward meals of my life. Conversation was stilted and infrequent. Charlie did her best to raise neutral topics, but the others – Damien, Amy and Lucy in particular – kept finding ways to twist them round into cheap insults levelled against me and my ridiculous appearance, so each new effort choked and faltered almost as soon as it was introduced.
For my part, I ate in silence, keeping my eyes down so I didn’t have to suffer the amused looks that bore down on me. Charlie’s hand reached across to squeeze my leg in sympathy and apology, but it was small succour in the grand scheme of things.
The food was excellent, and I ate with deliberate slowness, partly out of fear of spilling something on what was still an exquisite dress, even if I wasn’t shoing it off to best effect, and partly because the gloves made my grip so much less sure. I only wished I could have felt more at ease. The silky feel of the dress was a delight, but also a source of deep shame which, when added to the reaction of the other dinner guests, took away any enjoyment I might otherwise have felt.
The storm continued to rage outside, building in fury but muffled by the heavy drapes. Frequent lightning flashes leaked from behind the curtains, with the near instantaneous crashes of thunder that followed sounding subdued and distant enough not to startle anyone. A large fire roared in the fireplace behind me, the flames drawn up the chimney by the vicious wind outside. I was grateful for the warmth on my back and did my best to focus on each new flavour and texture, ignoring the less pleasant distractions around me.
From time to time I would glance up to see our hostess scrutinising me like a mouse in a maze, a knowing smile playing about the edge of her lips. Her gaze would drift around the rest of the group, maintaining an expression of supreme satisfaction. There was something predatory about her look which only served to increase my unease.
The meal dragged to an eventual conclusion. The aftermath of the last course was cleared away and we sat around sipping at our coffees. The sport of Brandon baiting lost its appeal after I adamantly refused to respond to even the most hurtful remarks. The others went through their lists of friends and acquaintances, but eventually ran out of characters to assassinate, and lapsed into silence, seeking, but not finding, inspiration in the bottoms of their coffee cups. I still hunched in and kept as low a profile as any well-built young man in a pretty dress could manage and Charlie kept quite beside me, conscious and regretful of my misery in what she had hoped would be a fun evening for both of us.
The silence endured long enough to become uncomfortable. Our hostess took her cue and stood. It was only then I realised she hadn’t eaten with us, or indeed offered much to the conversation. Her presence had been simply as an observer and sometime mediator when comments – towards me in particular – turned nasty.
“Well ladies and gentlemen, since we seem to have exhausted all pleasantries” – was there a slight emphasis on that word? – “for this part of the evening, perhaps we should get on with the real fun.”
Eyes turned towards her with renewed interest.
“I promised you all a night of terror and self-discovery, and up until now there hasn’t been a great deal of either, except perhaps for poor Brandy here.” An appreciative chuckle rippled up and down the table at the gentle dig. “In any case, you have all enjoyed being fed by me, and the time has come now for you to return the favour.”
With a sudden hiss, she leapt up and back, her cloak billowing outwards to form large, bat-like wings. She landed on the chair back, gripping it with prehensile toes, displaying a nakedness that was only vaguely human. Unblemished skin stretched across bone. She had breasts but no nipples, and the area between her legs was smooth and featureless.
I looked up into her face, perhaps one of the few at the table not drawn to her unusual, but oddly alluring, physique. Her eyes flashed with an inner fire, and her grin held way too many teeth. Panic gripped me and I tried to climb to my feet, to flee, but my body refused to respond.
She chuckled quietly as other faces around the table mirrored the same alarm I was feeling.
“Don’t be concerned,” she said, equally quietly. “It’s just a little something Riffraff added to the coffee – quite harmless, quite temporary. You see I have to explain my plans to you before we set about starting the evening’s entertainment, and it wouldn’t do to have all of you running about in an unseemly panic, at least not yet.”
The grin widened, the eyes burned with a deep hunger and the teeth seemed to sharpen somehow. I couldn’t speak for anyone else, but my own fear threshold was fast approaching. She turned to Riffraff who had been waiting for her signal. He was standing next to a handle in the wall behind her, and at her glance, he started turning it. With a gentle clanking, what had seemed to be ornate, wrought iron chandeliers started to lower from the high vaulted ceiling, a long vicious spike extending from the centre of each one to hang with a Damoclesian threat directly over each of our heads.
The spikes lowered to within a foot of the tops of our skulls then stopped. There was a sticky, metallic taste to the air and sparks crawled over the surface of the ironwork above us. Eight pairs of fear-widened eyes turned towards the head of the table. Struggling had achieved not the slightest movement in my limbs, and from the panicked expressions about me, I hadn’t been the only one to try and fail.
“What delights me the most is how naïve you all are,” our demon hostess continued. “You didn’t even stop to wonder how someone like me, with no connections or involvement in your school, would be given permission to post an invitation on your bulletin board. You thought that since the notice was up there, it would be alright to respond.
“But you see, no-one else could see the invitation but you. For tonight’s entertainment to work, I needed eight very specific individuals – people whose personalities fitted the costumes I had prepared. It took some doing, because I can only influence minds, never control them, but with a suggestion here, a nagging feeling there, I guided you all into making that call. And now here you are, dressed and ready to play out my little drama.
“In a few short moments it will be midnight, and the storm I have summoned will reach its peak. At the last stroke of midnight, science and mystery will marry to transform you into truer representations of personalities I see inside you, and the fun will begin. You will be released to do as seems natural to you, your only limitation being that you must remain within the confines of the castle grounds until dawn.
“Brandy and Charlie will have a small head start, because let’s face it, it won’t be much fun otherwise. Then the rest of you will have your freedom. Be warned though, when this night is over, only two of you will leave here as yourselves. Do what you must to make sure it’s you.”
Her timing was perfect. Seconds after she finished speaking, a clock in some distant hall rang out the hour, ending with twelve long, drawn out, ponderous chimes. The last was lost in an almighty crash of thunder, and brilliant blue sparks of lightning arced across from the spikes into each of us. The pain was excruciating, overriding the paralysis and causing each of us to writhe in our seats. Changes were happening, I could feel them, but the pain was everything and I ran from it to a place of empty blackness deep in my mind.
“Brandy!” I felt someone shaking me harder than anyone should have been able to. “Brandy, wake up. We have to move.”
I forced opened heavily lidded eyes and clawed my way through the curtain of auburn curls hanging in front of my face.
A pair of brilliant blue eyes gazed into mine from beneath a brow, creased in concern. As the dreamy fog lifted from my mind, I took in sensuous lips and a strong jaw, short hair, broad shoulders. I felt my body responding to the hovering figure in new, disquieting, but oddly delicious ways. It was a stranger’s face, but somehow familiar.
“Yeah, weird, I know. Now come on, we have to get out of here.”
Strong arms pulled me effortlessly to my feet. I felt strange; disorientated and different, but oddly right. I didn’t have time to explore the new sensations though, as pandemonium was breaking out all around us demanding our attention.
To my right, Damien and Amy were circling each other, hissing like two cats in heat. There was something otherworldly about them. Their pallid features seemed more naturally corpse-like than any makeup should be able to achieve, and there was a deep brooding menace about them that hadn’t existed before.
Directly across the table, Brick struggled to control limbs that jerked and spasmed as though they belonged to someone else. The scars on his face seemed real, and the bolt through his neck looked like it genuinely pass through his skin. Beside him, I caught the briefest glimpse of Lucy’s face and hands before writhing bandages obscured them. For just an instant it seemed that her flesh shrivelled and tightened across the underlying bone, taking on the desiccated appearance of old papyrus. Her eyes widened in horror, but it was me who gave voice to her scream.
Everything was becoming real. My former classmates, were being transformed into the creatures represented by their costumes, and the sight of it released some deep seated horror within me, bubbling up from my darkest, innermost depths and pouring out of my mouth in a terrified shriek.
“Yeah, like that’s going to help.” Charlie wasn’t impressed and yanked at my arm, pulling me off balance and into a stumbling run, and not a moment too soon. The voicing of my terrors seemed to grab at the attention of everyone else in the room. Everyone that is except Pete, who was tearing at the heavy curtains, staring intently out of the wide window behind them. The storm clouds parted to reveal a silvery disc. A beam of moonlight transfixed the wolfman, and drew from him a howl, more primal and terrifying than even my scream. The hairs on my back and arms rose in response, but they felt different somehow…
Malevolent eyes, so recently focused on me, turned towards Pete; all except one pair. Drusilla’s appearance was the least changed of anyone in the room. Her face and hands were no more or less white than usual, although her eyes seemed to have sunk deep into her skull, and there was something ethereal about her; I almost imagined I could see though her. Shit! I could see through her.
She opened her mouth, displaying grey teeth and blackened gums in a grimace of rage, and raised clawed hands towards me. Charlie pulled me through the door leaving me with one last fleeting glimpse of her advancing rapidly towards us through the table.
Charlie pulled the door shut behind us and leant on it, more than a hint of panic showing in his eyes.
“That’s not going to help.” I told him. Somehow, having someone to boss about helped me push my fears away. “Drew’s after us, and I rather suspect she can walk through doors.”
I tugged at his arm, dragging him into the large entrance hall, looking around at all the doors and, picking one at random, I pulled us through it. It wouldn’t give us much of a reprieve, but the few seconds it would take Drew to check all the rooms might give us the time we needed to come up with a plan.
I looked around at the room we were in. Leather armchairs faced a fire burning in the hearth, brandy and glasses were laid out on a silver tray ready for after dinner refreshments. I searched frantically for something – anything – that might serve as a weapon, but what could you use against a ghost?
An unnatural chill settled on the room despite the fire, and I spun to see Drew’s ghostly form drift through the panelled door as though it were so much smoke. She directed a spite filled grin at me and I couldn’t help letting loose another scream as I scrambled backwards into the corner of the room.
She darted forward, reaching with ghostly hands for my neck, clawing at my flesh, cutting off my air. Terror welled up in me out of control. I tried screaming again, but all I managed was a hoarse, choking whisper. I grabbed for her hands, trying to pull them away, but it was like grasping at cobwebs. Drew’s fingers continued to claw at my throat and I felt myself growing faint, the room darkening about me.
“Get your hands of her you freaking… Aargh!”
Charlie had recovered his wits and launched himself at the sepulchral figure, swinging a fist wildly at the back of her head. It passed through and smashed into the panelling beside me, barely missing me. Charlie turned away, gripping his hand in agony, but it had been enough. The shock of the blow, both the sound and the near miss, had been enough to distract me from what else was happening to me, and in the interruption, the sensation of Drew’s claw-like fingers on my throat diminished.
I stared at her in surprise and sudden realisation. She continued to scowl at me and tear at my throat, but the spell was broken. Even with the terrifying apparition in front of me, I felt my heart easing and my breathing return to normal.
“You can’t do anything to me can you?” I asked the ghost calmly. “You need me to be afraid for your tricks to work. You weren’t actually strangling me then, but scaring me to death.”
Drew renewed her attack, but to no effect. I stepped through her towards my injured companion.
“Let me have a look at that, Charlie.”
I took his hand in mine and moved the fingers gently. He winced and looked warily at the ghost which was still trying to attack me, but she was no more than the slightest distraction now, butterfly shadows flickering at the edge of my vision.
“Don’t mind her, Charlie; she can’t hurt anyone she can’t terrify. It looks like you might have broken this, let me see if I can find anything to bind it with.”
Drew continued to flail frantically, but she was fading fast. None of the room’s furnishings would serve as bandages, the curtain was too heavy and nothing else had any fabric to it. It seemed a shame to ruin such a nice dress, but I had long since lost any sense of obligation towards our hostess. I tugged at the seam until it gave and tore up about a hand’s width. I then worked at tearing off a strip from the bottom of the skirt. It didn’t want to give, but the distraction helped me to ignore Drew, and by the time I had my makeshift bandage, there was nothing left of her.
“What happened to her?” Charlie asked as I wrapped the strip of cloth around his fingers. No safety pins, so I tore the last bit down its centre until I had enough to tie it off. Charlie flexed his fingers gently and winced slightly. “It’s better, thank you. I’ll make do. Now what happened to Drew?”
“She was a ghost, probably as much in real life as she was here. Pretty much the worst thing you can do to a ghost is ignore it and pretend it doesn’t exist, because it doesn’t except that we believe in it.”
“You’re kidding. That’s it?”
“Well, it seems to have worked.”
“I guess so, but I doubt the rest will be as easy.”
“Easy! I was nearly strangled and you’ve messed up your hand.”
“Even so, I don’t think the others will disappear just because we don’t believe in them. We have to figure out how to fight them. You know, like vampires are easy. All we need is a sharp piece of wood and stab them in the heart.”
“Charlie! They’re people. Whatever this weird place has done to them, they’re still human beings underneath. We can’t kill them.”
“And just what do you think you did to Drew? I mean granted, technically a ghost is already dead, but whatever you did to make her disappear destroyed her. If we want to survive the night, we’re going to have to deal with the rest just the same.”
My subconscious had been trying to hide the fact from me, but realisation now settled on me like an icy fog. I had just killed Betty Evans. OK, she wasn’t the most likeable girl in school, and I had never had any time for her, but just because she was weird and unpopular wasn’t a reason to end her life. Granted she had been trying to kill me at the time, but there had to be another way.
“Brandy!” Charlie grabbed my shoulders and shook me. “Look, get with the program. This is live or die, for real. I know you feel badly about Drew, I do too, but we don’t have a choice. Those things will tear us apart given half a chance, and the only way we’re going to stop them is if we do it to them first. Now what can we use for stakes?”
I reluctantly agreed with him and started looking around me. Again, nothing in the room seemed suitable. The logs in the fire were too big to sharpen down easily, and all of the furniture was too bulky.
“What about your cane?” I asked.
“What, oh my stick. You’re a genius. If I break this in half, then we’ll each have a weapon.”
“Wait. What’s the handle made out of?”
“What’s the what?” He examined the cane more closely. It had a large handle shaped into a wolf’s head and made from a shiny, silvery metal.
“It looks like silver, check for a hallmark.”
It only took a minute to find it. Solid silver, and large enough to make an effective club.
“You’re thinking wolfman I take it?”
“Yes. It’ll be a better weapon if it hasn’t been shortened. You can break it down into stakes when we’re attacked by the vampires.”
“OK, three down. How are we going to deal with the other two?”
But we’d run out of time. Pete chose that moment to let out his second spine chilling howl of the night, and it sounded like it was just outside the door.
We both froze, hoping against hope that he hadn’t heard or scented us. A second later there was an almighty crash and the thick oak door seemed to leap in its frame. It would hold for a few seconds, but not many if his first assault was anything to go by.
Charlie swung his cane experimentally, the silver wolf’s head outermost. Left handed wasn’t ideal, but his right was too damaged to grip the weapon effectively.
“Get out of here, Brandy. I’ll try and hold him back.”
Shit. Why do men have to be so macho and stupid? Hang on, Charlie was my girlfriend; but he was a man now too. Crap, this was so confusing. No time to think right now. I ran over to one of the leather wing armchairs and dragged at it ineffectually. This should have been an easy heft for me, but I could barely shift it.
“Charlie, help me get this against the door.”
“Get out of here, I said.”
“I know what you said, you idiot, but for one thing there aren’t any other doors, and for another, I doubt either of us will survive long if we split up. We’re better off sticking together. Now help me shift this thing.”
There’s a certain type of man that’s easy to boss about, especially if you’re a good looking woman. Fortunately it seemed that Charlie was that kind of man and I was that kind of… Shit, I was a woman. This wasn’t just me wearing a dress, this was really me, how I’d always felt inside. The jiggling feeling I’d felt on my chest running out of the dining hall, that strangeness about the hairs on my arms… Charlie had to drag the chair over to the door single-handed. Realisation finally sunk all the way through my thick skull, and I stood, dumbfounded, checking through an internal inventory.
Boobs, check – nicely filling the cups sewn into the dress.
Nothing between the legs, check – or at least nothing that had been there earlier.
Smooth skin, check – no sign of a five o’clock shadow, and only a light fuzz elsewhere.
Slender arms and legs, no strength, long hair, finer features, narrow waist, broad hips, high pitched voice. All there. I was smaller too, and the clothes had adjusted to match. Another crash against the door shook me out of my stunned stupor. The door didn’t move as much with the chair in front of it. It would buy us a few extra seconds.
“Come on, Brandy. What are we going to do now?”
I realised Charlie had been calling me that since he’d shaken me awake in the dining room.
“I’m a girl,” I said, somewhat redundantly.
“Yeah, and a pretty hot one at that,” Charlie responded. “Can we deal with that later when there are fewer teeth about?”
My brain stuttered into life again. For the umpteenth time, I scoured the room for anything that would help. Instinct took over and I grabbed the decanter of brandy and threw it at the door. It smashed with the kind of expensive sound reserved for fine lead crystal, spraying its contents all over. I ran for the fire and used the tongs to launch one of the smaller logs in the same direction. Flames flared, engulfing both chair and door. Chances were it wouldn’t spread through the stonework of the castle, but if Pete had any normal animal instincts it might keep him back a while longer.
“Great,” Charlie said. “Now we’re trapped in a burning room with the only exit on fire.”
You just can’t please some people. I glanced around the room again, hauled at the heavy drapes to reveal the same sort of leaded glass windows we’d seen in the other rooms. I picked up the table that had recently held the brandy, spilling the tray and glasses onto the floor. It wasn’t as light as I had hoped, and I struggled to lift it. The throw was the epitome of girlyness, barely reaching the window and bouncing off it without making much of an impression. Charlie got the idea though, and swung the table with considerably more force.
The windows were genuinely leaded, not the modern lead lined effect over a complete pane of toughened glass. The lead strips tore away and diamond shaped shards scattered outwards into the garden. Charlie offered me a hand up onto the window sill. I wasn’t about to object given the awkwardness of my shoes. It would have been easier to move without them, but leaping barefoot onto the remains of the window seemed the height of stupidity.
Another crash and a panel in the door gave way. A howl of pain quickly followed as tongues of flame licked at the furry face that appeared in the gap. I leapt, landing on the balls of my feet and managing to turn my excess momentum into a stumbling run. Charlie was close behind me, grabbing my hand as he sped past, leading me towards the cars.
We reached my trusty – no make that rusty – old runabout and I fumbled in my bag for the keys, passing them to Charlie. Yeah, I know it was my car, but at such a time it seemed sensible to have someone with strength and focus behind the wheel. Besides, I didn’t trust myself to drive safely, either in heels or stockinged feet.
The car roared into life with a second twist of the keys. Charlie jammed it into reverse and swung out onto the gravel drive. A quick gear change and we sped off towards the entrance, leaving a spray of stones to discourage anyone chasing us.
A winged shape swooped past us through the rain, so fast I almost missed it. On another night, I would have dismissed it as overactive imaginings, but after what we’d seen and experienced in the last few minutes…
The gates loomed in the headlights as Charlie sped on. A figure swooped out of the sky to land directly in our path, folding bat wings into a cloak and holding out hands as if to stop us. Charlie jammed his foot down on the accelerator; this was one game of chicken we couldn’t lose.
We were wrong. The car hit our demon hostess, but instead of running her over or knocking her out the way, she managed somehow to grab hold of the front of the car and force it off the drive into a low hedge. We skidded to a halt without causing much damage to either the vehicle or ourselves, but the car was wedged tight and wouldn’t be going anywhere without the help of a tow truck.
“I said you were to remain within the castle grounds.” She hovered over us, bat wings flapping furiously to hold her more or less in place. “Try and leave again before dawn and I won’t be so gentle.”
As if to accentuate her words, a brilliant bolt of lightning arced out of the sky, crashing with deafening thunder into the wrought iron gates behind her, melting them into twisted confusion.
We climbed out of the car, the driving rain soaking us in an instant as it had before. Lights from the castle appeared dim and diffused through the downpour. We needed shelter, even if it was filled with ravening, B movie monsters.
I leaned against the car to remove my shoes, and an instant later Charlie grabbed me round the waist and pulled me away. My protesting cry was cut short though, when an enormous arm came crashing down on the roof of the vehicle, crumpling it like so much paper.
I scrambled to my feet, pausing only to throw my shoes at Brick’s hulking figure, looming out of the rain. They bounce ineffectually off his chest. Charlie grabbed my arm and pulled me into a run again, across the gravel drive – sharp stones cutting into my unprotected feet – and back towards the shelter and comparative safety of the castle.
We found a servant’s entrance in the side of the building. It was locked, but not that secure. A couple of shoulder barges from Charlie’s well-muscled form and the door gave. We staggered into the dry, feeling about for a light switch in the gloom. A flash of lightning showed stone stairs leading up, but otherwise bare walls. Charlie had been looking back towards the door when lightning flared, but had no better luck then me. Far worse luck in fact.
“Get behind me,” he said with an urgency that brooked no dissent. I did as instructed, feeling my knees weaken at the low growl that came from outside. Charlie still had his stick with him, and was brandishing the silver end at the menacing silhouette in the doorway.
Another flash of lighting – thunder crashing simultaneously overhead – gave us a brief glimpse of singed fur and an evil look that went far beyond simply predatory. I clamped my hands to my mouth to hold in yet another scream, and backed up the stairs.
Slow careful movements. Pete followed as we retreated, becoming harder to see as the shadows deepened, his glowing amber eyes the only clue to his whereabouts. I backed into a door and turned, fumbling for the handle. It was open and I tumbled out into a well-lit, but bare, corridor. Pete winced away from the light giving Charlie his chance to turn and run. He slammed the door and grabbed my arm, towing me along behind him.
A door to our left. Grab the handle, barge. Locked. Run on. Noises of pursuit from behind. Don’t look, it’ll only slow you down. If it’s going to get you, looking will only make it happen quicker. Another door to the left. Unlocked. Charlie pulled it open and dragged me through, hauling it closed as our pursuer crashed into it. No key. It wouldn’t hold him for long.
Another corridor, but this time lined with carpet and tapestry. We were back in the main living quarters. Half a dozen doors to choose from. Don’t take the closest; that’ll be too obvious. The third one on the right led to a large room lined with suits of armour and swords, maces and muskets, rifles and revolvers. The weaponry becoming more modern the deeper into the room we went. All of the blades and spikes seem to be made of iron or steel, but then silver isn’t an ideal material for weaponry; not unless you’re fighting werewolves. I grabbed a revolver off its bracket and slid out the cylinder. Empty. Hardly likely to be that easy, but worth the look even so.
The door flew open to reveal the menacing figure of Pete the wolfman. Muscles rippling, teeth bared, claws extended.
“How did he find us so quickly?” I yelled at Charlie. He had already taken position between me and the snarling creature.
“Your feet,” he shouted back. “Footprints in the carpet, you’re bleeding.”
I lifted a foot to check, and sure enough the tiny cuts from the gravel were oozing blood. Maybe that’s what guided him to us so swiftly when we returned to the castle. No time to do anything about it now.
Pete threw himself at Charlie, only to receive a solid blow in the side of the head from the silver tipped cane. He yelped and spun off to land on all fours, facing his quarry. With a snarl, he launched himself again, this time too fast for Charlie to react. They tumbled onto the floor, the stick between them the only protection from snapping jaws and swiping claws.
“Get out of here. Run while you can.” Charlie’s voice was desperate. He had given up fighting for himself and was trying to buy me a few seconds.
Adrenaline coursed through my veins and I fought the panic that sought to overwhelm me. I wasn’t about to run. Not courage you understand; there was no way I would survive the night on my own.
A small display table caught my eye. Flintlock pistols and a powder horn. Now what were the chances?
I grabbed the horn and felt something shift inside. I pulled the stopper and poured out a few grains of course black powder. No way this should be here, but maybe the demoness felt we needed something to give us a fighting chance.
I grabbed the nearest pistol, pulled back the hammer all the way. The pan was closed so I took a chance, moved in close and squeezed the trigger, eyes closed, head turned away.
The action released, but there was no sound. No explosion, no smoke, no ball. The damn thing was empty. Well I’d half expected it, and this was marginally better than having the whole thing explode on me with a double charge.
I stepped back and poured in what I hoped was an appropriate amount of powder. Bullets, bullets. Where were the bullets. Come on Brandy, where would you find silver bullets in a place like this? I spun my head from side to side feeling unfamiliar weight on my earlobes.
I pulled off one of my earrings. It was roughly spherical and just a little smaller than the barrel of the gun. No time to check, just hope it really was silver. Another strip of delicate fabric from my dress served as wadding and the piece of jewellery fit neatly into the barrel. Ramrod out, tamp it firmly down. Fumbling, glove encased fingers dropped the rod as I pulled it out. Forget it; no time to pick it up. Charlie was struggling and shouting for me to run still, and managing, just, to fend off his attacker. He was weakening though, I had to hurry.
Half cock. Powder into the pan, not too much. Flip down the cover and pull back to full cock. Move in close. Pete looked up and snarled as I aimed. Close eyes, turn away. I didn’t want to, but I couldn’t help it. Squeeze the trigger. This time there was a response. A flash of heat, an explosion and the gun bucked violently in my hand.
Silence, but that may just be temporary deafness after the explosion. I was shaking and I couldn’t open my eyes. Strong arms took hold of me, pulling me into a gentle embrace. I started crying uncontrollably, leaning into Charlie’s firm chest, his soft murmuring and gentle stroking of my hair coaxed the tears into full flow.
It wasn’t long before the tension and the terror faded and I twisted around in Charlie’s arms to look. Pete lay sprawled on his back, all signs of the wolfman gone from him and a small round hole in his forehead. Blood and brains were sprayed out behind him where the makeshift bullet had shattered and blown out the back of his head. I buried my face back in Charlie’s shoulder, gasping and fighting back the tears.
“You had no choice.” Charlie’s voice was gentle, soothing. “It wasn’t Pete who attacked us. It was a monster, and it would have killed me, and you too, if you hadn’t got there first.”
All my nervous energy was seeping away. The gun slipped from my weakened fingers and I shivered as I became aware of how cold I was, soaked through and leaning into an equally soaked embrace. My teeth started to chatter, prompting Charlie to action.
“We need to get out of these wet things again,” Charlie told me as he tore more strips of cloth off my ever-shortening dress and used them to bind my feet. “I don’t know if the things we came in are dry yet, but even if not, there has to be something else we can wear upstairs.”
I let Charlie’s strong arm to guide me out of the room and away from the gory remains of my latest victim. The worst horror of tonight wasn’t the monsters that were chasing us, but the realisation that I had killed. Not once, but twice now. A hollow deadness settled inside me and a listlessness took over my mind.
Outside in the corridor, we were greeted by a low moan, like a dry wind through a deserted graveyard. At the far end of the corridor, Lucy’s mummified body stumbled slowly towards us
“For crying out loud,” Charlie exclaimed, “give us a break!”
It took a few moments to realise just how slowly Lucy was advancing towards us. We glanced at each other and burst out laughing. It was more hysteria than humour, but it was a much needed release.
“You know,” I managed through chattering teeth, “if I weren’t so cold, I’d suggest we wait a bit, give her a sporting chance.”
Charlie had to bite back a smile. By no stretch of the imagination could it be said that Lucy was terrifying. She did had grown somewhat, though that may have been largely a perspective shift due to my diminished stature. Whatever the case, her unsteady gait wasn’t likely threaten anyone who could manage a brisk walk. On the down side, she was between us and the stairs up to our rooms. I tried to gauge the gap between her and corridor wall; maybe we could slip past her.
“I wouldn’t recommend that.” The voice came from behind us, prompting us to turn. Our creepshow hostess from hell stood quietly, wrapped in her cloak of wings and smiling at some private joke. “You see, like you, I always thought the mummy was a bit of a pathetic monster, so I gave her a little bit extra. She may be slow, but you saw what those bandages did to her when they wrapped up her face and hands. They’ll age anything they touch by ten thousand years, so however slow and uncoordinated she may be, you’d better make sure she doesn’t touch you, even briefly.”
My blood turned to ice at the thought. One touch and whatever she came in contact with would fall to dust. The stones were safe, and possibly some metals, but anything organic, from doors and furniture to arms and legs would crumble into nothing at the least stroke.
No prospect of dodging past her then; the risk was too high. I turned to grab Charlie’s hand and led him in the opposite direction, pushing past Lady Freak-show and trying doors as I went.
They were all dead ends and next to useless to us. The first was a music room which had, amongst other things, a silver flute that might have offered some protection against Pete, had we still needed it. Next was a dress fitting room with garments in different stages of completion hanging on tailor’s dummies. Rather incongruous given our hostess’s preference of wrapping herself in her own skin.
A few of the dresses were near enough finished, with a couple in what looked like my size. Lucy was still some way down the corridor, so I dragged Charlie into the room and stripped out of the soaking tatters I was wearing. Of the two in my size, I took the one nearest. The bodice was tight fitting, with long arms, meaning I could finally get rid of the ridiculous gloves. The skirts were long and full, most likely intended to be worn with crinoline petticoats, but at least it was warm and dry. There was a larger dress which looked like it would fit Charlie. I offered it to him, but he declined.
“Why not? You used to be a girl until earlier this evening. Would you rather catch pneumonia?”
“Yes I would. For one thing, I’ve already been transformed once this evening by the clothes I was given to wear, and I don’t want to risk whatever that thing might change me into. For another, I never was a girly girl. Never did like dresses.
“Come on, the walking train-wreck is catching us up.”
He grabbed my arm and hauled me out into the corridor again, Lucy was just ten feet away. Too close for comfort. I threw the dress I had offered to Charlie at her and sure enough, it exploded into a cloud of fine dust on contact with her bandaged hands.
The next room was a study, with desks and a few shelves of books. The next was a library, filled from floor to ceiling with shelves of reading material – everywhere except the doorway we had opened, the window and an adjoining door into the study.
Next and last was a bathroom, complete with toilet, sink, and Winchester bath, standing on cast iron feet and hidden behind a full surround shower curtain.
“We are screwed,” Charlie said to no-one in particular, but looking at the tiny window I could see his point. Even my much reduced frame wasn’t going to fit through there.
An idea sparked. “No we’re not,” I said grabbing a double handful of shower curtain and yanking.
“What are you doing?”
“Shower curtain. Made from vinyl. Not going to decompose very quickly. Throw it over Lucy, it’ll give us a few seconds.”
“Great idea.” He grabbed and pulled with me ’til it came loose in our hands.
He passed his stick to me and gathered up the curtain, preceded me back out into the corridor. Limping Lucy was already past the library door, so this was our only chance. Charlie threw the curtain and yelled at me to run. It worked but only just. Some plastics have quite a short half-life and vinyl, it seems, is one of them. It took no more than five seconds to break the curtain down to shreds and a further five seconds for the shreds to crumble to dust. It was enough time, but only just. I felt Lucy’s hand make contact with my shoulder as I dashed past, and just managed to duck and twist out of her reach before the plastic protecting me from her fingers broke apart. That was too close.
Charlie pulled open the door to the library and ducked in. I was only seconds behind slamming it closed behind me.
“That didn’t go quite as planned,” Charlie said, breathing a little too heavily.
“Yeah,” I replied. “Oops. Still it worked.”
“Yeah, now what?”
“Through into the study.”
We charged for the joining door. I let Charlie go first in case it needed a bit of brute force and ignorance, but there was no need, it was unlocked. We ran through it just as the seasoned oak behind us began to warp and rot.
Door closed, we crept over to the door back out to the corridor and waited. Mummies aren’t known for their intelligence, perhaps as a result of having their brains scooped out and placed into canopic jars, but there was nothing to say whether Lucy still had her smarts after her unusual transformation. Apparently not; the adjoining door behind us began to buckle; she was following us blindly.
We rushed out into the corridor and ran as fast as we could. All the while I was terrified of meeting one of the other horrors. I still had Charlie’s stick, so we still had access to stake material. The corridor was clear though, as were the stairs. Charlie bounded up them three at a time, leaving me behind to struggle with the voluminous folds of my latest costume.
I caught up with him outside our rooms, trying to make up his mind about something.
“Look, I think we should swap rooms. I don’t know if there will be any more clothes in the wardrobes, but whatever’s there, the stuff in my room will fit you better and the stuff in yours will be more my size. I don’t mean to be weird about this, but…”
“No, it sounds like a good idea. If my clothes aren’t dry, you may find yourself wearing a dress even so.”
He grimaced at the thought, and I couldn’t help but smile.
“You’re really into this aren’t you? Being a guy I mean?”
“Yeah, same as you’re loving the whole girl thing. I mean here we are being chased all over the place by monsters and you’ve already managed one change of clothes.”
It wasn’t the greatest joke, but we needed some relief from the stresses the night had brought us, so we shared more of a laugh than it deserved, leaning in close to each other until a distinct kissing opportunity presented itself. I looked up into his deep blue eyes and felt myself melt inside. I was about to kiss a guy, as a girl. Not just any guy either; one who until all to recently had been my girlfriend. He was gorgeous, and I bit at my lip as I allowed myself to feel attracted to another man for the first time in my life. No, not another man, a man. I no longer fit the category. This felt so right, but then he stepped back and moved his head to one side, refusing to meet my eyes.
It hurt that he would turn away from me like that, but I guess the situation was more than a little confusing for both of us.
“I-I’d better go see if there’s anything dry to, er, wear.” He pushed open the door to my room and disappeared inside. Noises from downstairs reminded me we were still on the clock, so I slipped into hers – his – whatever.
Charlie had been wearing jeans and a sweatshirt when we arrived. They were hanging over the back of a chair and still damp enough for me not to want to put them on. I was glad, as I preferred the feel of the dress, the way it swirled around my legs, the way it looked, enhancing my newly feminine features.
A quick look in the wardrobe confirmed it to be empty, which meant Charlie’s only option next door was my damp clothing. There was a good chance that my shirt and chinos had dried out better, being made of thinner fabric, and they would most likely be better than the soaking suit he was wearing.
I caught sight of my reflection in the mirror and sauntered over to give myself a closer examination. The dress did need petticoats; the skirt hung all wrong. Apart from that though, everything else looked good. I cupped my breasts and weighed them in my hands. They were a little small, but I was just glad to have them at all. From there, I traced out the curves of my waist and hips, enjoying the feel of soft skin under soft fabric. My hair was a mess of tangled curls, soaking from the rain, and my eyes were puffy from crying. With a little care and something to take the red and the shine from my nose, I could be quite pretty I thought. The discovery excited me, turning my insides into jelly. I smiled, nibbling absently on my lip as I examined each pore, getting used to my new face.
A hand settled onto my shoulder and I spun round.
“Hi Charlie, that was qui…”
I didn’t finish the sentence, because it wasn’t Charlie. In retrospect the lack of reflection ought to have been a clue.
“Damien?” I stepped back nervously out of his reach, then found my courage. “Where’s your bitch queen?”
“There is no Damien.” The voice was languid, hypnotic. Despite my initial fear and fighting spirit, I felt my will draining away. His eyes were violet, intense, commanding, and I fell under their spell in a moment. It wasn’t like it had been with Charlie, but there were some similarities. I felt myself giving into the will of this creature. He was right, this wasn’t Damien. It wore his face, more or less, but deep within was an intensity of purpose, of hunger that leached at the will. “And my queen, she is next door seeing to your friend. We have an understanding. I like my meat soft and tender,” he moved in close, breathing the words into my ear, “she prefers a more lively meal. So she allows me my pleasures, and I allow her hers.”
A soft, well-manicured hand stroked my jaw, dropped to touch the high lace collar on the dress.
“But you have such exquisite skin. Why would you hide it beneath such mediocre trappings as these?”
“Huh?” It was the most intelligent thing I could think to say. My skin was beautiful. I shouldn’t be hiding it. I reached behind my neck to undo the clasp, to push the zip down a few inches then, twisting around, I reached up from under my arms to pull it down even further. He smiled his encouragement, showing such glorious white teeth and fangs. There was nothing of love or affection in his eyes, just hunger. And I was to be his meal. How glorious to be given such a privilege.
I tugged at the sleeves and let the dress slip to the floor, tilting my head to one side, allowing him free access to my jugular. I breathed deeply and sighed in anticipation…
There was a sharp hiss and he shied away from me, covering his face and eyes with his cloak. I snapped out of my trance to see, not the beautiful and masterful being that had so drawn me in, but a cowering monster, a self-serving evil, shrinking from some ancient power that even it couldn’t master. I stared down at my chest, at the silver cross nestled between my breasts. Had that thing just saved my life? Not yet.
Charlie’s stick was leaning against the chair next to her damp clothes. I darted for it, grabbed it in both hands and brought it down hard across the back of the chair, breaking it cleanly into two sharpened lengths.
The creature had moved – impossibly fast – to stand between me and the door. Trying to prevent my escape, but I was done with screaming and running. Anatomy class don’t fail me now. Just to the right of the sternum as I was looking at it, and just below the level of the nipples. I hurled myself forward, brandishing one sharpened sliver of wood in two hands, yelling my defiance.
I must have caught him by surprise, because he stood transfixed as half a cane pierced his clothing and skin to slide between two ribs and bury itself in the muscle beneath. How I found the strength to drive it home, I have no idea, but I did. He hissed defiance at me as he fell backwards. I fell with him, driving the stake even deeper as I landed on him. He spasmed, back arched, fingers clawed, then lay still.
I stood slowly. There was no neat explosion of dust, instead, Damien lay there in his vampire costume, very real blood soaking into his shirt. More death. More life blood on my hands. But I couldn’t stop there. I grabbed the other half of Charlie’s stick and ran for her door.
She was poised ready to strike, Charlie kneeling in front of her, head leaning to one side, that familiar, dreamy longing reflected in his eyes. I grabbed my cross and held it up for her to see. She hissed and shrank away. I threw myself at her as I had her partner, brandishing my makeshift stake, but without the element of surprise, she was too fast. She turned away and rushed with superhuman speed at the window, shattering it as she leapt through. From somewhere, she grew wings and flew off into the dark.
“Charlie, are you alright?” I knelt beside him, supporting his considerable weight as he snapped out of his own trance. He wavered a little, then his eyes turned straight for my cleavage, proving once and for all his underlying maleness.
“Whoa, a little under-dressed for the weather aren’t we, sweetheart?”
I looked down at myself. Bra and panties, torn stockings and strips of my earlier dress around me feet.
“I guess I can’t blame you for your reaction then.” We fell back on our haunches, laughing out the renewed tension.
A noise from the doorway drew our attention and we turned to see the door buckle and break under Lucy’s touch. Once again there was no way out, unless we fancied jumping twenty feet onto broken glass.
I should have been scared, but I’d had enough of being chased. Instead a I felt a blood red rage well up inside me. I jumped back to my feet and grabbed the quilted cover from the bed, throwing it with some hidden reserve of strength clear across the room. It burst into a cloud of dust the moment it touched Lucy, but I was already running for the fireplace. Most of the logs from earlier in the evening had burnt down to glowing embers, but a few flames still danced on charred branches. I grabbed one with my bare hands, ignoring the searing pain, and hurled it across the room.
The dust from the quilt ignited and the room erupted in a fireball, like an explosion in a flour mill. Charlie had been close behind me and threw himself on top of me, protecting me from the worst of the flames, his own sodden clothes providing him with some protection in turn.
The flame was short lived, but it left behind a keening, desperate figure, staggering back and forth as it was engulfed in its own private inferno. Charlie continue to hold me tight to him, sparing me the sight of Lucy’s last moments, and clinging to me still for some minutes after she was gone.
A slow hand clap from the broken window brought us back to ourselves. Doctor Francescanstein, or who or whatever she was, stood just inside the shattered frame, wings outspread, flaunting her nakedness, and radiating sheerest delight.
“Bravo, this is truly a most excellent evening. I have never known victims to compete so well. Less than two hours gone and you’ve already dispatched four of your nemeses. You shall have to slow down or we’ll have a whole night to while away.
“I like the new look by the way, très risqué.”
I grabbed the towel I’d used to dry myself earlier, and wrapped up my modesty as best I could.
“What is this?” I yelled at her. “You turn our friends into monsters, force us to kill them. I mean, what kind of sick perverted joke is this?”
“Your friends? Really?”
“They go to our school. We know them. OK, so their idiots, so what? It doesn’t mean they deserve to die!”
“Interesting too, how you talk about their transformation and not yours. I picked you well, Brandy, I really did.”
“Well it ends now. No more killing.”
“Is that so? I wonder if you’ll feel the same when you come across a vampire sucking the last drop of blood from your boyfriend’s veins, or when the greatest creation to emerge from the realm of science tears this castle down stone by stone to get to you. You have very little choice in this matter, Brandy. Only two of my guests will share tonight’s prize. All you get to decide is whether those two are Charles and yourself, or Frankenstein’s creation and a recently widowed vampire. There will be a deciding confrontation between you, you have no control over that, though you may yet have a say in when and where.”
“What is your purpose here? Why are you doing this?”
“I am here to observe, my dear, and to enjoy. The answer serves both questions.”
She dropped through the window and disappeared, much as Amy the vampire had done. It was still raining and cold, and a towel was barely enough protection against such elements. I headed back to Charlie’s room in search of warm clothes.
Charlie knocked on my door and came through at my beckoning. I wore the dress from the fitting room again, only this time with my cross outside the collar. A search of drawers in the room had unearthed a pair of scissors and I was busy putting them to use, cutting away the tattered ends of the stockings and the DIY bandages he had put on my feet. I had hung Charlie’s socks and trainers in front of the dying embers of the fire, close enough to absorb some of the heat, but not so close they would burn.
Charlie had changed into my old clothes and they fit him pretty well. They were still a little damp, but better than the suit he had been given, the back of which was seared and tattered from the eruption of mount Ves-Lucy-us.
I retrieved the socks and shoes from their place by the fire and slid my unbound feet into them. The fit was surprisingly comfortable, even though the overall effect was a bit Lily Allen. I stood as Charlie approached, a little closer than normal.
“Outside the door earlier,” he started, then faltered, the words stuttering to halt. “It’s just that… This is all so new to me, like it is to you, I’m sure. I didn’t know what to do, whether you wanted me to, whether I wanted to even… But now, I – I – I er…”
I’d seen this before, been on the other side of it sometimes. It was going to end badly unless… I reached up and kissed him. Not for long, but enough to answer some of the uncertainty he was feeling. He took me in his arms and pressed his lips against mine. You’d have thought that someone who’d spent their entire life as a girl would understand the value of gentleness in a kiss. I had to push him away, then pull him more slowly into my own embrace. My lips weren’t too bruised from his exuberance, so the next kiss was much more enjoyable.
When we were done, I held myself close against his broad chest and allowed myself to feel safe for a while. I needed it. No words necessary. It seemed strange that Charlie had been as envious of me being a man as I had of her being a woman. Now things were right and it felt so good to be held in his strong arms. I wondered if he felt as good holding me. I hoped so.
“So what do we do now?” he asked, easing me away from him so he could look into my eyes.
“I don’t know. I’m not sure I can face any more death tonight. I’d like to find somewhere we can barricad
e ourselves in and wait out the dawn, but I doubt there’s anywhere in the castle where we can do that.”
“We could try to reason with them.”
“If it were Brick and Amy, maybe, but it’s not them. We’re up against a near mindless killing machine with the capability of tearing down this entire castle with its bare hands, and a vampire widow who’s most likely looking to avenge her significant other’s death. I doubt there will be much dialogue possible with either of them.”
“So what does that leave us?”
“We can go out looking for them, or we can sit back and wait for them to come to us. Either way we need to be prepared.”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean we’ve had our encounters with them both. Brick is immensely strong, but seems to be a little slow, both in the head and the limbs. We can maybe use that against him. Amy’s the tricky one though. She knows about my cross and she knows we have a stake we’re not afraid to use. For our part, we know she can put either of us in a trance if she catches us with our guard down, and we know she can fly. Now that we’ve exchanged blows for the first time, I doubt we’ll be able to get the drop on her any more than she can on us.”
“So where does that leave us?”
“Well for one thing, sooner or later the lady vampire is going to realise that she doesn’t actually have to drink us dry in order to kill us, at which point her strength and speed are going to become a serious problem for us.”
“Any good news?”
“We need to get creative, and we need a few extra bits in our armoury, for which I think we shall need enlist the help of our friend, Riffraff.”
“You seriously trust that snake? He’s as much a part of this mess as the demon lady is.”
“I know, but he has a few bits of information that we need.”
I grabbed the bell pull by the fireplace and gave it a solid tug. The distant bell had barely stopped jangling before the door creaked slowly open to reveal Doctor Francescanstein’s oddly misshapen servant. He was holding a broom and a large dustpan filled with a course grey ash.
“You rang, miss?” He smiled at me, very slightly emphasising the female title. His expression held something subtly subversive, like that of a waiter who spits in the coffee of customers he dislikes. The warfare of the conquered, fighting back in ways imperceptible to their masters, feeding their own diminished courage and dissent without prompting a response from those they were forced to serve.
“Hello Riffraff,” I ignored his gentle rancour. “Do you know where there is a map of this castle and its grounds?”
“I do, miss.” Again the slight emphasis as though he felt he could upset me by pointing out what had been done to me. He bowed and turned to leave. I knew this game.
“Would you please show it to us?”
He paused, stiffening slightly. “Of course miss.”
He led us through deserted corridors to a room filled with display cabinets. He indicated one which held a hand drawn map in medieval style, mixing two and three dimensional drawings, and almost totally lacking in accuracy.
“Is there nothing more recent?”
“No need, miss, the castle hasn’t changed in a great many years. Now if you will excuse me.” He bowed – little more than a nod in all truth – and shuffled off with his broom and dustpan full of ash.
I remembered being good with maps, but this one was confusing. Charlie eased me gently to one side, staring at it intently.
“OK, it looks like we’re here.” He pointed at a spot on the map that looked like pretty much every other spot. “What are we looking for?”
I told him, and he spent a few minutes more scouring the chart before pointing out the places I wanted.
“Can you get us to them?” He nodded. “OK, kitchen first.”
We set off to make our own preparations.
Our exploration of the castle took us back to the armoury where, being less pressed than last time, I made a short detour to the fitting room. A brief search uncovered a drawer full of crinoline petticoats and I took what I needed to make the dress I was wearing bell out and sit right. The heavy material of the skirts had been tangling my legs and slowing me down, so the added undergarments made movement easier as well as improving the look of the dress.
It took us a while, but we found everything we were looking for. I still wasn’t ready to go hunting for our former schoolmates, and neither was Charlie. Instead we set up a sort of defensive camp in the central court of the castle – a large open space with a covered well at its centre. The rain had stopped, and the clearing skies overhead all but invited an airborne attack from Amy. Arrogance has always been a weakness of vampires and I hoped Amy would be overconfident. As for Brick, I didn’t expect the surrounding stonework to keep him out, but it would at least slow him down a little and provide us with some warning of his arrival.
Charlie and I sat down on the raised wall around the well and settled in to wait. The night was turning cold and I shivered despite the warm dress. Charlie took it as an invitation to shuffle closer and put his arm around me. It wasn’t much warmer, but I was grateful for the comfort it provided and I leaned in on his shoulder.
“So,” Charlie said, “who’d have thunk it? You and me pretending to be what we were on the outside and all the while wanting to be each other.”
I snorted by way of a laugh. There’s a difference between being big and strong enough to protect yourself and wanting someone big and strong around to protect you. I’d hated the loneliness of being a guy, acting tough while all the time I was crying a little inside – dying a little. Feeling strong arms around me fulfilled a need in me. I missed my old strength, but only a bit. Having to rely on Charlie drew me closer to him, made me appreciate him more.
“You don’t mind being a man then?” I had to ask. If this was an exchange, I needed to know that he was getting a fair deal.
“Are you kidding? All that bright, bubbly, bouncy stuff? That was just a show, me trying to fit in as a girl and probably overcompensating, because it was so far from what I wanted to be. I’ve never been attracted to guys, except you that is, and I could never figure that out before tonight. I never realised you were playing for the other team, like me.”
Sports metaphors. Well that settled it. If he was going to ogle my breasts any time I gave him the opportunity and try and explain things with sports analogies, then there could be no doubt he was really a guy inside. I resigned myself to a future standing on the side-lines of some pitch watching him and a couple of dozen other guys chase after a pig’s bladder in some form or another. It would be a small enough price to show my love and support.
Yeah, for real. I loved this guy. I’d had a fondness for her as Charlie-girl, but had been too wrapped up in my own sense of wrongness to appreciate it. Now I felt drawn to him in a way I’d never experienced before.
“So I take it you don’t mind being a girl?”
I shook my head and snuggled closer. “This is what I’ve been missing all my life. I fit into this so much better, especially with you here.”
He kissed me on the top of the head. All the reassurance I needed.
“Wait till your monthly visitor comes along; you may feel differently then.”
“I don’t think so. I mean, sure it’s not nice, but it’s part of being a woman, and that’s all I’ve ever wanted to be, right from my earliest memories.”
We lapsed into silence, sharing the peace of the moment as distantly grumbling clouds gave way to an increasingly clear sky. The moon was high and full, outshining all but the brightest stars and painting the castle walls in pale shades of grey.
The shadow of a pair of wings raced across the ground.
“I think we’re up,” Charlie said, continuing with his pseudo-sports speak.
We stayed still, waiting, tension building. How do you track a creature that has no reflection, that can move in complete silence? She would find it difficult to attack through the well structure, and we were counting on her arrogance to move around into our direct line of sight, to taunt us with our helplessness before she took her revenge. I dipped a hand into the bucket beside me and splashed water on Charlie’s neck, then did the same to myself, soaking the high lace collar. It was cold, but I had my reasons.
“Are you ready to die?” It wasn’t quite Amy’s voice – too devoid of emotion, even for her.
We stood and turned to face her, Charlie brandishing a large brass cross we had found in the castle’s chapel.
She hissed, but more with anger than fear. “You know those have little enough effect on us if we are ready, and the garlic is a laughable myth.”
The garlic we’d found in the kitchen and it had seemed worth the effort of hanging a few bulbs around our necks. Garlic has antiseptic properties and probably gained its reputation as a ward against evil from its medicinal uses, so I hadn’t been counting on it as more than a distraction.
She dashed forward, so fast neither of us could see. I caught a glimpse of her gleaming fangs as she brought them down on Charlie’s exposed neck.
An instant later, she jerked her head back, hissing in surprise and rage. I swung the bucket up and doused her with a face full of water, causing her to stagger back further, screaming as her skin bubbled and burst. Charlie picked up the sword from where it had been leaning in the shadows beside the well and I ducked out the way as he swung it round in one long, vicious arc.
A moment later we were looking down on Amy’s decapitated body.
“I was worried there for a moment,” Charlie said, the false nonchalance hiding the growing horror that was evident in his eyes.
“Yeah, me too. I didn’t know if the bucket would defile the holy water or something. Let me look at your neck.”
Blood trickled from two tiny pinpricks, but the bite hadn’t penetrated deeply enough to puncture the artery. I kissed the tiny wound, there being little more necessary to fix it.
“I never realised…” Charlie was still staring at Amy’s corpse.
“Yeah, I know, but like you said to me, you didn’t have a choice. It wasn’t Amy when it attacked and it would have killed you if you hadn’t killed it first. It doesn’t make it any more right though. Being responsible for someone’s death kills something inside, even if she attacked you, and you acted in self-defence. Her blood’s on her hands though, and those of the creature who started all this. She wouldn’t be dead if she hadn’t tried to kill us first, and she wouldn’t have tried to kill us if she hadn’t been turned into that thing.”
“It’s not much.”
“I know. I’m sorry, love.”
“Yeah, me too. I wish I’d never thought of coming to this party.”
“No! Don’t go there. You had no idea this was going to happen. None of us did, which makes us all victims.”
The anger was a surprising new thing. Doctor Francescanstein was responsible for all of this. Her transformation of everyone, her taking away the will of those she’d turned into monsters. It was her fault. It would never assuage the guilt either of us felt for the killings, but it helped to ease the full burden.
We returned to our vigil by the well. There were no words to fill the silence now as we sat leaning against each other, holding each other’s hands. Death was something we shared in common now. Causing it, living with the consequences.
Riffraff limped into the courtyard, threw Amy’s body over his shoulder and picked up her head by its hair.
“Always some mess to clear up,” he muttered loud enough for us to hear. “Meddling kids, hah!”
The moonlight cast strange shadows on his face so it was hard to be sure, but his mouth seemed to be twisted into some semblance of a smile. It only added to the strangeness of the night, and the weight of the guilt we both felt. This transformation Charlie and I had undergone may have been an answer to an impossible dream, but the cost was too high, and it wasn’t all paid yet.
Silence descended and time passed, minutes blurring into hours. The moon and stars moved across the sky as we watched, huddled together for warmth. In time, the nervous energy which had been keeping us going drained away and we drifted into a light sleep. From time to time, one of us would jerk awake at some innocent night sound or, more commonly as we began to lose balance. After the third or fourth time, Charlie decided we needed to do something about it. He settled me on the ground, leaning against the well’s low wall, and covered me with his jacket. My dress was already quite warm enough, but it didn’t seem right to object, so I thanked him and made him promise to wake me in an hour or two if nothing else had happened. It wasn’t long after that I fell into a deeper sleep.
The next thing I remember was startling awake to a loud crash. I jumped to my feet and looked around to find Charlie brandishing his sword and facing the remains of the portcullis that guarded the entrance to the courtyard. In the deep shadows of the archway I could see an immense figure approaching.
“Charlie, don’t. He’s too strong for you.”
It was no use. He was either ignoring me or so focused on facing this last monster that he couldn’t register my words. The creature that had once been Brick Buckley stepped into the moonlight and paused to roar. It was fully two feet taller than Brick’s already impressive six foot something, and broader in the shoulders, arms, legs, everything.
“Charlie, please!” I yelled at the top of my voice, but he remained oblivious.
Voicing his own roar, he charged, swinging the sword with all his strength towards the monster’s neck, but he might as well have been hitting a tank with a stick. Brick grabbed the flashing sword by its blade and pulled it effortlessly from Charlie’s grasp. A second, equally nonchalant swing of an arm sent him flying across the courtyard to crash into a wooden barn like structure built against one of the outer walls.
The monster lumbered after its quarry, evidently possessing enough presence of mind to finish one victim before turning to the next. Having seen what Brick had done to the roof of my car, I knew Charlie wouldn’t survive a similar blow, so I ran at the creature, yelling a screaming.
It was enough. Brick turned towards me and charged with alarming speed. I turned and ran, almost tripping on the folds of my clothing, but grateful all the same for Charlie’s trainers. I could hear thundering footsteps bearing down on me and dived to one side just as the creature careened past me.
Cursing the long dress, I scrambled to me feet and ran for the opposite side of the well, putting the low structure between me and the monster even as it checked its headlong charge and turned to face me.
It circled the well as it approached, and I circled to keep it on the other side. It reached the well and, letting out a bellow of rage, it swung at the structure, tearing through the two solid wooden pillars that held the well’s roof in place.
We could see each other now, and I moved in closer so I could circle the well wall as fast as MT adversary. We danced around in circles for a while, first one way then the other. I had no idea what I could do to beat this thing, so concentrated on keeping out of its grasp. It wasn’t going to keep me alive for long though.
There was definitely something going on in that thing’s head, because it soon realised that it wasn’t going to catch me by chasing me round the ruined structure. Its first solution was to jump over the obstacle, which it did from a standing start. I was almost too surprised to react, but just managed to gather my skirts and run in close to what was left of the well while it was still airborne. We ended up on opposite sides again, the impasse continued.
Its second solution was a little more successful. It started to gather tiles from the destroyed well roof and throw them at me. Its aim wasn’t that good, but the projectiles were thrown with such force, it would only take one direct hit to floor me. I squealed and flinched as I dodged the makeshift missiles, then let out a wild scream as one of them struck me on the shoulder, tearing through my dress and leaving me with a deep gouge in my arm. It was the beginning of the end. I gripped the wound as tightly as I could to stem the flow of blood, but it would slow me down, weaken me. It was only a matter of time now.
Charlie later told me that it was the sound of my scream that brought him back to consciousness. I didn’t see him immediately as the mountain of scars and muscles started chasing me around the well again, pausing from time to time to throw more stones at me. It was as much a surprise to me as it was to the monster when Charlie appeared from behind it and swung an enormous length of two by four, striking it across the back.
The monster stumbled a couple of paces towards the well, then stopped and turned towards its assailant. I saw a desperate chance and took it before Charlie and I were both pulverised into dust. I ran around the well and threw myself onto my hands and knees behind its legs. Charlie saw my intention and advanced, stabbing at the misshapen face with the splintered end of his weapon.
Brick stepped backwards in surprise and tripped against me, falling further back, head first into the well. It was less than a second before we heard a mighty splash from the bottom. Would it be enough? I rolled over, leaning against what remained of the well wall and nursing my injuries. Charlie and I waited, breath bated. He’d gone in head first. The well would be shallow I hoped. There wasn’t a lot of room to squirm around in there. Surely there was a chance this was all over.
A roar of purest fury rose from the depths and giant arms began to beat against the sides of the well. Would it be able to climb out? Was there anything we could do to finish it off?
Charlie ran to the edge of the well and threw in his length of wood. I followed his lead, picking up the remains of the roof, or at least the bits my weakened, delicate arms could manage, and threw them down too. They did little more than enrage the creature even more. We stopped, looking around for better weapons. Nothing sprang to mind.
“The millstone!” Charlie yelled, and I followed his pointing finger.
Close to one of the courtyard walls was an old stone mill – the sort usually driven by a donkey. The top stone was separate and leaning against the wall. It looked small enough to fit down the well, but heavy enough to cause the damage we needed. We ran to it, Charlie reaching it first. His sword lay nearby, where the monster had thrown it, and he picked it up to use as a lever. Between us we rolled the stone across the courtyard, my contribution being more one of guidance than strength.
The cacophony of rage still poured out the mouth of the well. Given time, he would either bury himself in rocks as he tore the lining of the well apart, or he would punch handholds into the wall and climb out. Neither of us was prepared to wait and find out which and, with a final effort, we heaved the millstone forward with enough momentum to broach the already weakened wall and send it crashing down on the behemoth below.
It was too dark to see down, but the cessation of yelling and crashing was a good sign. We could hear groaning and laboured breaths from the depths, but they weakened and stopped after a few minutes.
It was over. The last of the monsters was dead and we had survived, but at what price? Charlie helped me to my feet and supported me as I almost collapsed from the pain in my ribs – Brick’s parting gift to me as he tripped over me. The last of my adrenaline reserves were depleted. The pain from all my injuries took over. The cut in my arm, still bleeding profusely, the bruised – maybe cracked – ribs, my burnt hand from the confrontation with Lucy, blisters now burst from struggling with the millstone.
“Come on, we’d better get you patched up,” Charlie said as he guided me back into the castle, sword still grasped in one hand. “I know where we can find the remains of an old party dress we can rip up for bandages.”
It was more relief than real laughter, but I started giggling, and might not have been able to stop if not for the pain in my ribs.
Charlie had his fair share of bangs and scrapes from being thrown into a building, so there wasn’t much left of the white dress by the time all wounds were cared for.
“So what now?” Charlie asked as I knotted a last bandage around his head. Blood was already soaking through the bindings making me wish for a proper hospital, but our hostess had insisted we remain until dawn and that was still some hours away. We’d have to make do as best we could.
“I’d like to see if your clothes are dry yet. I’ve had enough of this bloody dress.”
“Can I watch?”
That brought a smile to the surface. “I’d say you’ve earned that much, but I’d have thought seeing a girl in the mirror every morning would make that a bit of an anti-climax.”
“I never had a body that does what this one does when it sees naked, female flesh. I’d like to explore the feeling further.”
“OK, you can look but don’t touch. I wouldn’t want you to think I was easy.”
We made our way up to our rooms, where Charlie’s jeans and sweatshirt were just about dry enough to wear. I made something of a show of changing which, from the bulge in Charlie’s trousers, went down well.
“We could get some rest,” I suggested when all was done and I was relaxing into the joys of not wearing skirts.
“If you remember, you destroyed the quilt on my bed.”
“So I did. Still this bed looks big enough for the two of us.”
“You go ahead. By my count we still have at least one monster left to deal with.”
“That’s hardly a polite way to speak of your hostess.” We spun to find Doctor Francescanstein leaning against the doorway. Charlie must have been expecting her to turn up, because he responded rapidly. I’d been wondering why he’d insisted on keeping his sword with him, now I knew as he sent it flying, end over end, towards his quarry.
The blade buried itself halfway to its hilt, but for all that it had no effect on the pale figure. She smiled at Charlie, grasped the blade and pulled it out, letting it fall to the ground with a clang. A bloodless wound knit together leaving unblemished skin behind.
“And that’s just downright rude. Lucky for you I don’t bear grudges.”
“What do you want?” Charlie was quivering with a rage I shared. After what she’d put us through, she had the audacity to stand there making cheap jokes.
“Oh, just to remind you that we need to convene in the dining hall before sunrise. I must say, you two have provided most excellent sport and you deserve a little bit of a rest before we bring this evening’s entertainment to a close. I’ll send Riffraff to collect you when it’s time.”
“Sport!” Charlie spat out the word. “Six people dead and you call it sport? Just what kind of sick creature are you?”
“One that still possesses considerably more power than you can fight.” Her words turned suddenly sharp, as though her patience and cheerful manner were no more than a thin veneer over a twisted mess of less wholesome feelings. “Come to the dining hall in time for sunrise and we shall conclude our business.”
She spun on taloned heels and stalked off.
“Come on Charlie,” I tugged at his arm, pulling him towards the bed. “There’s not much you can do either to attack or defend against her, and nothing we do now will make a blind bit of difference to the others. I suggest we try and get a little sleep, and maybe bleed a bit on her sheets.”
He let himself be led, but with reluctance. Underneath the surviving quilt in what had been his room, I snuggled into the crook of his arm and settled onto his chest. Sleep eluded us both, for which I was at least a little grateful, vaguely remembering the problems with unconsciousness and concussion, and not wanting to lose Charlie too. Instead we lay in silence and watched the embers fade in the fireplace.
A gentle tap on the door was followed by Riffraff’s inane leer peeking through a gap in the doorway.
“The doctor requests your presence in the dining hall. Daybreak is in less than half an hour so it is essential you come at once.”
Our combined mood was subdued and belligerent, but not openly rebellious. We had gone to bed with shoes on, so we were ready almost immediately. I caught a glimpse of myself in a mirror. My hair need some attention, but with no hairbrush and no time to spare, it would have to do.
Riffraff led us downstairs, opened the dining room door and ushered us in. The table and some of the chairs were a little worse for wear, having succumbed to the Mummy’s touch. Deep scars of rotting wood marked where her hands had brushed against the wood, but apart from being unsightly, both chairs and table remained functional.
Seated in their original places, the remains of our six companions were already at table. Brick’s squashed and blood body sat next to a pile of grey dust. Pete was sprawled in another chair, blood and gore dripping from the gaping exit wound in the back of his head. Beside him, dust motes danced, forming the faintest of outlines which only imagination and force of will could convince you took on the shape of a human being. Finally, Damien and Amy sat side by side, the silver headed upper half of Charlie’s cane still protruding from Damien’s chest, and Amy cradling her head in her lap.
Charlie was all for storming out of the room with me in close pursuit, when the voice of our hostess drifted across the room with a calm insistence.
“Come in. Thank you for being prompt. Please take you seats so that we can bring matters to a close. I would offer you breakfast, but I doubt you’re in the mood.”
Reluctantly – almost involuntarily – we stepped into the room. Charlie held my chair as he had done before, and we sat amongst our victims, feeling quite sick at heart.
“All Saints’ Day is almost upon us,” our cloaked hostess said, “and the few short hours allotted to us the night before for our dance macabre are almost at an end. I promised you a night of terror and self-discovery, and indeed that is what you have received.
“For six of you, what greater terror than to face your own death; what greater self-discovery than to embrace the monsters that lurk inside of you? I have power over this night, and the horrors that centuries of superstition and sick imaginings have brought to it. What better use for it than to draw from your sordid depths, the evil and ugliness that you nurture there.
“For you two,” she turned to face Charlie and me, “to face such danger, to fight your own fears, to see past the monsters you have confronted to the humanity beneath. Courage and compassion, guilt and regret over the deaths of even such unworthy souls as these. Many people possess the potential for such things, but few realise it as readily as you. You have faced your fears and mastered them, yet not allowed those fears to be replaced by hate, and you have my respect and admiration for your fortitude, as well as my gratitude for a night of such entertainment as I have not enjoyed in many long years.
“For that, I shall give you one final choice. On this special day, dawn’s first rays, properly directed, have the power to restore things to the way they were, to undo all the changes I have done. Your dinner companions can have their lives back if you wish, but the restoration must be absolute. What brings them back to their former selves must be directed onto you as well. You must choose swiftly though, daybreak is only minutes away.”
There was no choice. Charlie and I looked at each other sharing a profound regret, but knowing we couldn’t trade six lives, even of selfish losers like those sat around us, for the changes we had undergone. A thought nagged at the back of my mind; a memory caught my attention.
“I thought you said only two of us would leave here as ourselves.”
“I did say that, and the beginning of the evening did see you all transformed into truer representations of yourselves. There are winners and losers in any endeavour, and your survival tonight entitles you to keep the changes, to live out the rest of your lives as you are right now, but only at a cost to these others here.
“Charlie’s attack on me earlier, and much of what I have felt and heard from you throughout the night, indicate that you are not prepared to accept your prize at such a cost, so I give you the choice. Surrender the prize and your companions will live, restored to the way they were, just as you will be.”
There was malice in her words. This was her revenge on us for having the temerity to attack her. She knew how hard it would be for either of us to give up what we had only just started to accept and enjoy. Guilt or regret, neither would be easy to live with. I nodded to Charlie, feeling a deep sorrow at what we were about to give up. He nodded back, the same sorrow mirrored in his eyes.
“Then let us all be restored.”
An expression of vicious delight grew on our hostess’s face as she indicated for Riffraff to wind the handle again. The chandeliers lowered over our heads once more, only this time instead of spikes, silver mirrors emerged, angling towards the open window.
High clouds already banded the sky, streaked with tangerine and turquoise. One part of the horizon glowed brighter than the rest, then the brilliance of the sun’s first rays lanced through the window and deflected off each mirror to illuminate the eight seats around the table.
There was a warmth and a gentle tingling, and I felt my body swell and grow. For a moment I worried that I would tear my way out of Charlie’s clothes, but then hadn’t the dress changed to fit when I had transformed earlier? Hadn’t Charlie’s suit done the same?
Deep regret settled on me as I felt my breasts shrink back into me, my hair shorten, my shoulders broaden. A gasp next to me and a clatter of wood and metal indicated that Damien was back. I turned to look at his bewildered expression in time to see Amy’s head rise, spinning, from her lap and settle back on her neck, the flesh and sinew knitting together as though it had never been cut. All around the table changes were happening. Dust motes swirled ever more quickly, ever more thickly, until they coalesced into Drusilla’s Gothic features, Pete’s head filled out front and back until he was whole, Grey dust rose in a spinning maelstrom, rebuilding itself into Lucy’s familiar form, and Brick’s broken body inflated like a blow up doll until he sat there, larger than life as usual.
The costumes were gone. Everyone was dressed as they must have arrived, with even Charlie and me switching clothes, just as we switched bodies. Nobody spoke, but the looks we all exchanged bore evidence of the experiences we had shared. There was something akin to respect and gratitude in the eyes each of the others turned our way.
As the reflected first light faded, we turned towards the head of the table, but there was no-one there. Even Riffraff was gone from his place by the handle. We stood, looking around us for some sign of them, but all that remain was a deep, throaty chuckle, fading into the space between hearing and imagination.
All around us, the castle began to fade. Stone, furniture, everything, and before long we were standing at the top of a hill that had always been bare. Three cars were parked nearby, and a fourth a little way off, swerved off the road looking for all the world as though it had been hit by a meteorite.
“Sorry about that,” Brick said, following our gaze. “My dad runs a garage. I’ll get him to come up and tow it later. If we can’t fix it, we’ll replace it, OK?”
Brick had never been this nice before, but there was an almost pleading look in his eyes, as if he needed some way to express his gratitude. I nodded my head.
“You can ride back to town with us.” Amy the bitch queen speaking, but her expression was genuinely friendly, as was Damien’s. Pete and Drew stood behind them ready to offer their own transport should we decline the first offer.
I looked at Charlie who shook her head imperceptibly.
“Thanks guys, but if it’s all the same with you, we’re going to hang out up here for a while.”
“We’ll look for you when we come up with the tow truck,” Brick said. “If you’re still here, you can ride back down with us.”
Again I nodded my thanks and we watched as the three couples climbed into their cars and drove off, slowly, subdued and thoughtful.
Charlie shivered in the cold November morning air, so I put my arm around her shoulders and led her towards the shelter of a rocky outcrop, where we sat to watch the sun climb higher into the sky.
“We did make the right decision, didn’t we Brand… on?”
The way she corrected herself over my name added to the weight dragging on my heart. I had loved being Brandy and felt the loss keenly, even after having been her for only a few short hours.
“Absolutely.” I believed it, but couldn’t quite make myself sound convincing.
“Then why do I feel so bad?”
“It’s the nature of sacrifice, love. If it were easy, it wouldn’t be worth much.”
“I just wish…”
The thought didn’t need completing. I turned her face towards mine. She really was beautiful, more so even than I had been as Brandy. There was a deep ache in my chest, but not from the love I felt for her, more from the regret that neither of us could be who we felt we were inside. If only there were a little more magic to the day.
I leaned forward and kissed her – him. In my mind, I was the girl, and this delicate creature in my arms was the strong, dependable rock in my life. I lost myself in my imagination and desire, barely feeling the warm tingling that spread through me.
The kiss lasted a long while, and at the end, everything was different. I opened my eyes and looked up into a face I had seen in the mirror every morning of my life, brow creasing even as realisation dawned.
“Brandon?” my own voice asked me. Familiar, yet so very different for hearing it from the outside.
My heart skipped inside me, the heaviness lifting away so fast it hurt. “Actually,” Charlie’s sweet tones emerged from my throat, quivering with sudden emotion, “I think that’s going to have to be you from now on. But yes, yes it’s me.”
I threw my arms around his – formerly my – neck and pushed him to the ground. Straddling him, I leaning in with eager lips. Strong arms enfolded me, squashing my breasts into his firm chest.
“This so weird,” he said, once we were done exploring each other’s dentistry.
“I know, but in such a good way. I’ve always wanted to be you – physically I mean – and right now,” I stroked a firm pectoral, “I have never been happier that I took care of my body.”
“You and me both,” he looked down at the bulges under my sweatshirt, some small disappointment showing that they were not better displayed. “But isn’t this a bit narcissistic; like falling in love with yourself?”
“I fell in love with the person inside this hunk of meat,” I slapped him playfully on the chest, “even when you were inside this one.” I was gentler with myself. “It’s not what’s on the outside that counts, it’s who’s on the inside.
“Not that I object to the outside. Narcissistic it may be, but I’ve always thought I had pretty good looking bod. Now that I’m getting to enjoy it from a different perspective, I have to say there’s a lot to appreciate.”
He didn’t need to respond; his eyes shone like a mirror to my own feelings.
“What do you think happened?” he asked. “I mean it couldn’t have been that creepshow creature from last night. She was only too happy to see us suffer.”
“I don’t know, and I doubt we’ll ever know for sure. I’d like to think it’s the dawn light of this special day. I mean it had the power to put things right in the castle, to undo the horrors she brought into our world. Maybe someone somewhere thought that there was a little more putting right to be done.
“You know, she had us every which way. If we’d tried to make it as Brandy and Charlie from last night, if we’d chosen to keep the bodies she gave us, we’d never have been able to convince anyone of who we were. We would most likely have ended up being accused of six murders, possibly eight if you included our disappearance. This way is so much better. We just get to swap lives, and if you’ve wanted to be me as much as I have always wanted to be you, I think it’ll be an equitable trade.”
Charlie – no, Brandon – nodded. “Do you think it’s going to be permanent?”
“Again I have no way of knowing. I’m going to hope so though, and live my life as though it is.”
We settled back to enjoy the bright sunshine, unusual for this time of year, and to swap stories about the families we were to inherit from each other. As the morning grew old, the day turned uncommonly warm for November, but not quite warm enough to be comfortable, so we were both glad when Brick and his dad turned up.
We heard them first, chatting companionably as they attached cables and winched the remains of my – now Charlie’s, no, Brandon’s darn it! – car onto the back of the tow truck. I snaked an arm around his waist as we ambled towards them, his hand spent a moment on my shoulder, then drifted down to settle on my bum, slipping into the back pocket of my jeans. It felt good, so I let him leave it there.
“Charlie?” A shiver of delight passed through me at being called by my new name. I squeezed his waist in response. “Next year for Halloween, what say we just stay in and watch TV or something?”