To Catch Bluebeard
“I wish for our supplies to be replenished in full!”
The bags hanging off the back of each horse promptly got heavier and bulkier. Jennifer opened hers to see a fresh loaf of bread and new dried meats staring back at her. “You know, no matter how many times I see it, that trick always amazes me,” she admitted, closing up the bag again.
“Useful as hell too,” Marty said. “Keeps us from spending all our money on food.”
“Yes, because it’s likely we’re going to run out of gold anytime soon,” Victor said, staring pointedly at Marty’s sack of money.
“Perhaps not, but we never know when we might need funds for an emergency,” Doc pointed out. “And most of the time, we can afford to use my watch to fill up, so why not?”
The group was traveling through another little wood, on their way to the next little town dotting the kingdom. Everyone was in fairly high spirits, helped by the sunny day. “Seems almost wrong to think about why we’re on this trip when the weather is this nice,” Jennifer commented. “How about we stop and have a picnic lunch in a little bit?”
“I’m in favor of that,” Alice nodded. “We haven’t had a truly pleasant meal in a while, have we? We’re always just cramming the food down our throats as fast as possible. Sometimes without even getting off the horse.”
“We have had to consider that we might be wanted men – and women,” Doc added as Alice, Jennifer, and Emily all gave him looks. “I didn’t trust that fellow back at the ball not to try and cause further trouble if he could. But yes, it’s been long enough that I would say we’re out of danger. Stop around noon?”
“Sounds perfect, Doc,” Marty smiled.
They continued riding, watching the sun get higher and higher in the sky through the branches of the trees around them. As the noontime hour approached, the forest around them thinned, then opened up into a clearing. In the clearing sat a magnificent white house, tall and imposing. “I get the feeling we’ve done this before,” Marty commented as they stilled their horses and looked up at it. “Anybody see a rose garden anywhere?”
“If we’ve somehow looped back around to Caliban’s, I’m going to be very surprised – and annoyed,” Alice said.
Victor, however, had his eyes fixed on a window high above them. “Is that a flag coming out of the side of the house?” he asked, pointing.
The others looked. There was certainly something poking out of the side – what seemed to be a long dark stick with a tiny flag attached. Doc rode a little closer, squinting. “It looks like – a fireplace poker with a handkerchief tied on?”
“That’s – odd,” Emily said, blinking.
“Yeah – so let’s ask and see what it’s all about,” Marty said, dismounting and jogging up closer to the window. “Hey!” he yelled, cupping his hands around his mouth so the sound would carry farther. “What are you doing?”
There was a moment of silence, then a figure came to the window. “Marty McFly?!”
“Victoria?!” Victor gasped.
“What – whoever knew we’d run into you out here?” Alice said, similarly stunned. “It’s been almost three weeks now – if we were to see you again, I certainly didn’t expect it to be so soon.”
“What are you doing shoving fireplace pokers with hankies tied to them out your window?” Marty asked, all innocent curiosity.
“Oh God, you have no idea how happy I am to see all of you!” Victoria said, pressing herself up against the window. Now that they were taking a better look, the group was shocked to see bars set up across the aperture. “I need help! I’ve been trying to get out, but the lock on the front door is just too hard for me to break with this!”
“Are you in jail?” Jennifer asked, looking from the barred window to the pristine white wall below. “Or in an asylum?”
“No, though I think either of those places would be safer than this! Please, help me escape! I’ll tell you everything once I’m out of here! I fear for my life!”
“All right, all right, keep calm,” Jennifer called up to her. “I’m pretty sure we can bust open the front doors – and with your AXE, Alice, not the blunderbuss,” Jennifer quickly added, frowning at her friend.
Alice rolled her eyes. “I am capable of knowing when something is overkill, my dear princess,” she said, sarcasm dripping off every word.
“I know, but I’ve seen the way you’ve been eying that gun. You’ve been itching for another chance to use it.”
“Perhaps, but I don’t want to demolish the house with Victoria inside either.” She pulled her axe free from its holder. “As you said, my axe shall be more than sufficient for the job.”
“Just hurry,” Victoria begged. “I don’t know when he’ll be back!”
“Who?” Marty inquired.
Victor frowned. “Sir Christopher? Was he not the gentleman we thought he was?”
“It’s not him,” Victoria moaned, looking near tears. “As I said, I’ll explain once you’ve got that door open. I just – I’m so frightened. . . .”
“We’re on it, Victoria, don’t worry,” Marty promised with a grin. “Alice’s axe and my sword should take care of that front door. Just around the house, right?”
“Yes – I’ll go and meet you there,” Victoria said, pulling her poker back in.
“See you in a bit!” Marty jumped back on his horse, and the group rode around to the other side of the house. The front proved to be just as magnificent as the back, with wide windows and a pair of ornate oak front doors, carved with a pattern that reminded one of a spider’s web. The huge iron lock on the doors and the thick bars across every pane of glass marred the image of perfection, however. “Somebody really wants to keep people out,” Marty noted.
“Or in,” Alice said as they dismounted. “This may take a bit, even with my axe. I’m certain those doors are as thick as you can get without being unable to open them.”
“Well, you’ve got my sword too,” Marty reminded her.
“That’s not really made for chopping wood.”
“Yeah, but it’s solid as a rock and might be able to loosen the lock some.”
Alice shrugged. “Any and all help is appreciated. I assume the rest of you will be standing lookout?”
“About all we can do, sadly,” Doc said. “Though if you think of any way we may assist, let us know.”
“Of course I will. Come on, Marty, we have wood to smash.”
“Right beside you.” The two marched up to the doors and started their attack.
The others stood in a semicircle around them, keeping an eye out for Victoria’s mysterious husband. “This is the girl you met before me, right?” Emily had to ask. “Miss Victoria Everglot?”
“The very same, though it seems she has a different last name now – and not the one we expected,” Doc said with a frown. “I wonder what happened?”
“I just hope she’s all right,” Victor said, wringing his hands. “It seems a horrible shame that we keep needing to save her from people who should be treating her well.”
“Amen to that.”
It took some time, but eventually there was a loud crack and bang as the lock was severed from its moorings. “Got ya!” Marty cried in triumph. “We’re in, guys! Or, well, Victoria’s out. . .however you want to play it.”
The others crowded around as Alice gave the doors a great shove. Revealed inside was a fine hall, done all in blue. The ceiling was painted midnight blue, the walls the blue of a summer’s day, and even the marble floor had a blue tint to it. Beautiful and no doubt expensive tapestries hung on the walls, and a grand marble staircase swept up near the back of the room to the upper floors. Victoria was seated on the lower steps, fiddling with her poker and handkerchief. She sprang to her feet though as she saw the doors open. “Oh, thank you! I tried using the fireplace poker on it from this side, but the lock was just too strong and heavy. . . .”
“Don’t worry, Victoria, we do believe you tried,” Alice said with a smile.
“Yes, and we’re here to help you now,” Victor said, stepping over the threshold.
Only to instantly recoil back, eyes wide. “Victor?” Alice asked, spinning to face him. “Are you all right?”
“Oh damn it, don’t tell me this place is like my castle,” Jennifer said, grabbing his arm so she could pull him further away. “Don’t fade out on us, Victor!”
“No, no, I’m fine,” Victor assured her, shaking his head. “I’m still here. It’s just--” He looked into the hall again. “It’s not the whole house. . .but somewhere in there, there’s a room filled to the brim with death.”
“My husband’s study,” Victoria said, hurrying up to them. “He’s – I’m married to a murderer!”
“How did you end up married to a murderer? The last we saw you, you were gonna wait for Sir Christopher to find you,” Marty asked, leaning on the hilt of his sword.
“Unfortunately, someone else found me first – my parents,” Victoria said bitterly. “You remember that man you left me with? Lord Bittern? He decided that, in addition to showing me around, he was going to try to woo me. I did my best to let him know I was in no way interested, but somehow he managed to send word to my parents, who rushed to where I was staying and told me I would marry him to restore the family honor. I argued and even tried to run away, but they were resolute. When Sir Christopher didn’t appear before the day of the wedding, I finally had to capitulate. I told them I’d marry the man so long as they never spoke to me again.” She sighed, fiddling with her fingers. “That was rash of me. They may not have liked me much, but I have trouble believing they wouldn’t have sent help if I had been able to contact them. . . .”
“It seems they were determined to arrange your marriage for better or worse,” Alice said, not without sympathy. “I’m very sorry, Victoria. That seems awful enough on its own. Although I can guess things are going to get worse, judging by what you’ve already said.”
“Much worse,” Victoria nodded, swallowing. “After a brief honeymoon, Bittern brought me here and told me he was going to have to leave for a while on business. He said I would be safe here, that everything was reinforced and barred to keep out intruders. Then he gave me the key ring to the house and told me every door was open to me – except his study. I must never use the key to that room, on pain of severe punishment. Then he left me.” She pushed a lock of hair out of her face. “I confess, I was curious about why I was barred from the study, but I made no attempt to get in. If he wanted a private room away from me, he was entitled. I certainly relished my time away from him. But just his morning, as I passed by the locked room, the key suddenly leapt from my pocket and opened the door all on its own! And inside I saw – I saw--” She began to tremble. “I saw dead women hanging from the walls, and the floor coated with blood. I swear, one was looking at me with her eyeless--”
And right then, for the first time, she caught sight of Emily. She screamed and stumbled backward, landing with a bump on the floor. “Oh God!”
“No, no, she’s nice! She’s not from around here!” Jennifer rushed to reassure Victoria. “She – she’s not one of the women come to drag you away, if that’s what you’re frightened of!”
“Yeah, she only drags you away if you’re a guy who proposes to her by accident,” Marty joked.
“Har de har har,” Emily said, frowning hard at him. Her expression softened as she looked at Victoria. “But yes, I don’t have any intentions of hurting you. I’m a murder victim, yes, but I have no designs on anyone else’s life.”
Victoria nodded, swallowing. “Forgive me,” she mumbled. “It’s just – seeing you after seeing those girls. . .that image will haunt my nightmares for the rest of my life, I’m sure.”
“I’m sorry,” Emily said. “And I don’t blame you. I know I must look horrible.” She gazed down at her skeletal hand.
“N-not nearly as horrible as those poor girls in the study,” Victor whispered. “I slammed the door shut and locked it again once I got my wits back, then began searching for a way out of the house. It quickly became apparent, though, that all the ‘protections’ Bittern said were to keep intruders out were meant to keep me in! I thought about lying to him, saying I’d never looked inside, but the key now has blood all over it, and all the washing in the world won’t get it off! I don’t know what sort of black magic he cast on it, but it’s obvious he means for me to join those other women!”
“Well, you’re not going to,” Alice said decisively, holding out a hand to help her up. “We’ve got fast horses – so long as you don’t mind riding with someone, we can be out of here in minutes.”
“Oh, thank you,” Victoria said, taking the offered appendage and pulling herself to her feet with a relieved smile. “You can’t know how happy I was to hear your horses come around. . .and then to hear Marty’s voice! It’s like a miracle!” The smile faded. “I just – I wish I could stop him. I don’t know if he’ll chase after me if he discovers I’ve gone, and if he does, I know I’m safe with all of you. But – what if he lures another young woman to her death?”
“Well, we can wait around, and I can stab him if you want,” Marty offered. “We were going to have a picnic anyway.”
“. . .The offer is appreciated,” Victoria said after a moment. “I’m just worried that – well, if he can enchant the key to open the door without me even touching it, he might know other magic that would make him hard to fight.”
“Always a possibility,” Doc agreed. “And we’ve used up my wish for the day on supplies.”
“Yeah, but I’m also sure I’ve fought worse than him,” Marty said. “If worse comes to worst, we’ll have Alice use the blunderbuss on him.”
Alice smirked. “He has a point – I don’t think even the greatest of dark magicians would survive that.”
Victor shook his head. “I – I might be able to see if he uses magic to kill people,” he offered, hesitantly.
“We are not letting you go into that room,” Alice said immediately, folding her arms. “Once was enough.”
“No, I don’t need to – I can get a general impression just from being in the house,” Victor assured her. “Nothing that would make me – well. Vulnerable, let’s say.” He looked around at the others. “Wouldn’t it be better to know beforehand?”
“Yes, but not at the expense of your sanity,” Doc said.
“I’ll be fine, I promise. I just – I want to be useful. And I want this man stopped from hurting any more innocent women just as much as you. Maybe more, given my – talents.”
There was a moment of silence at that. Finally, the others nodded, though not without reluctance. “All right. But make it fast,” Doc said.
“And I’m going to be right beside you all the while,” Alice added. “In case you need some help pulling away from it all.”
Victor smiled at her. “That would be wonderful, thank you.” Victor swallowed, then took a deep breath and stepped back over the threshold.
The assault came immediately – images of young women, all venturing into the study, some curious about their husband’s secret room, some compelled to go in by the magic key. . . . The first, a brunette with a round face and eyes like storm clouds, being puzzled as to why she had been barred from a room that seemed so perfectly ordinary. . .then screaming in fear as her enraged husband promised to teach her the meanings of ‘private’ and ‘obedience,’ a shove, and a long fall down a flight of stairs, staring up into first a startled, then an uncaring face. . . . The second, a blond with delicate features and eyes like the bluest sea, unable to help herself in the last moments of the trip and opening the door. . .and being horrified by the corpse of her predecessor, before her ‘love’ beat her head in with a cudgel. . . . The third, a redhead, with eyes like the deepest brown of a tree, being pulled in by the key, and nearly losing her breakfast as she saw the corpses and blood. . .running to try and escape, only to be caught and have her throat slit. . . . The fourth, another blond, but this one with eyes like new spring leaves, also forced to see her sister wives thanks to the magic of the key. . .hiding in an old closet, hoping against hope not to be found. . .and then the sound of a gun –
He felt Alice’s fingers tight around his wrist and used them to anchor himself against the horror. Four girls, all murdered and –
His eyes went wide. He knew that face. At least, he thought he did. He darted back over the threshold, pulling Alice with him. Before anyone could ask him what he’d seen, what he knew, he seized Emily’s arm.
A shadow over her – a face that she had once loved, twisted with greed and cruelty – the large chin, the black eyes, the curled hair now like devil’s horns –
Emily pulled away from him, regarding him in bafflement. “What – why did you do that? I thought touching me--”
“I’m s-sorry, I had to check something.” Victor swallowed again, then turned back to Victoria. “Lord Bittern,” he whispered. “Lord – Barkis Bittern?”
Victor blinked, tilting her head in confusion. “Yes, that’s his first name. Why – what’s the matter?” she suddenly asked, noticing Emily had put her hands over her face.
Emily stared back at her, looking as if she would have gone pale had she still had the ability. “With a big c-chin and a barrel chest?” she whispered, the end of her question coming out almost like a squeak.
Victoria and Victor both nodded. “The same man all five times,” Victor said, voice so quiet you had to lean in to hear.
“Five--” Now it was Victoria’s turn to clap her hands over her mouth. “You too?”
Emily nodded, tears glistening in her eyes. “Perhaps I was his first victim,” she said, lowering her hands to reveal her trembling lips. “Because my father wouldn’t grant his permission, he couldn’t take me here and kill me like the others. Or maybe he didn’t even have the house then. Maybe he built this horrible place with my family’s gold and jewels.”
“Or at least got the place locked up so tight with them,” Marty agreed. “So, he’s a murderer five times over?”
“At least,” Victor said. “Who knows if there’s anyone else like Emily about.” A shudder traveled the entire length of his body. “Those poor girls. . . . The one good thing I can say is that he seem to rely exclusively on mortal weapons. I don’t think he bothers using his magic to kill. Yet.”
A thundering of hooves coming up along the path to the front door caught all their attentions. “Looks like we’re about to find out,” Marty commented, holding his sword out in front of him.
The source of the thundering soon became visible – a great carriage, being drawn by a pair of large white horses was racing up the path. In the driver’s seat was a man with a large chin and white hair slicked back and curled into horns, looking quite smug. That expression faded, however, as he neared the house and saw the large crowd waiting for him. He slowed the horses to a stop right in front of the group. “I don’t buy anything from trades--”
He stopped dead as he spotted Victoria, standing slightly behind Doc. He stared for a moment, then looked at the house. His eyes narrowed as he caught sight of the ruined front doors. “Well, well,” he said, voice dark. “What has happened here? What ruffians have you allowed to defile our fine home, Victoria?”
“They’re friends of mine,” Victoria said, glaring at him. “And fine home indeed. More like a prison.”
“The bars and locks were for your own protection, my love,” Barkis – for it could only be him – said smoothly, sliding down from the seat. “You never know what sort of people roam these woods. These people might be bandits, or worse.”
“And you’d know all about that, I’m sure,” Emily said, stepping forward.
Barkis turned to glare at her – only for his face to lose all color as his eyes registered just who it was he was looking at. He staggered backward a step, eyes wide with shock. “Emily?” he breathed.
Emily glowered at him, arms folded tight against her chest, mouth a thin line. “Hello, my love,” she hissed.
“What – how--”
“There were a couple of guys in the woods on their way to meet one’s fiancee, and they decided to practice on this stick that looked like a hand, and they woke her up,” Marty supplied with a grin. “And then they all met us, and she told us what had happened to her. And then we stumbled upon your house, and Victoria, and she told us all about your weird secret murder room – why do you even have one, anyway? Wouldn’t it be a better idea to throw the bodies off a cliff, or get a vat of quicklime?”
“Marty, please do not give the murdering, thieving asshole ideas,” Alice said, slipping her knife from her belt into her hand.
“Sorry. Anyway, we’re not exactly fond of the idea of letting you go around and kill more girls, so instead of just grabbing Victoria and getting out of here, well--” Marty shrugged, smiled, and lunged with his sword.
The stunned Barkis woke up from his stupor just in time to dodge the blade. “Well well,” he said, glaring at all and sundry. “I suppose I should be more upset that I’ve been found out, but it’s been a while since I’ve had the chance to be truly myself in front of anyone.” He ran back to the carriage. Marty pursued him, only to have to raise his sword in self-defense as Barkis produced one of his own. “And that will make killing all of you all the sweeter.”
“You’re vastly outnumbered, Lord Bittern,” Doc said, grabbing his modified rifle. “And while we know you have magic, you never seem to use it to kill anyone.”
“That’s just too easy,” Barkis replied, parrying a blow from Marty’s sword. “However, using it to protect myself. . . .” Darkness descended over the man’s form and formed a sort of armor around him. “Well, that’s just sense, isn’t it?”
“You loathsome abomination,” Alice growled, and threw her axe at Barkis’s head. It bounced off the black helmet now shielding his skull. “Murderer! Five women, all killed, and for what?”
“I’ve seen what you did,” Victor added, hands clenched into fists as he watched Marty’s sword glance off the shadowy breastplate. “Killing those women one by one. . .and you didn’t even mean to start, did you?”
“What?” Victoria and Emily asked together, looking at Victor.
“The first girl I saw – Barkis shoved her down a flight of stairs,” Victor explained, not taking his eyes off the lord. “But I don’t think he meant to. He looked surprised.”
“I didn’t,” Barkis admitted, in between doing his best to parry Marty’s blows. “Suzanne’s death was a fortunate accident. It showed me the path to riches – well, one path. Lucille showed me the other.” He grinned evilly at Alice. “Your count is wrong, my dear girl. I’ve killed seven.”
“Seven?!” Emily cried.
“Did you really think you were the only one, my dear?” Barkis laughed coldly. “I suppose I can’t blame you, given my talent at plying my craft. Four lovely wives – Suzanne, Amy, Wendy, and Renee – and three hopeful brides – Lucille, Claire--” He dodged a blow by Marty to bow to the corpse bride. “And sweet Emily. Tell me my dear, can a heart still break once it’s stopped beating?”
Emily didn’t reply, but her stricken look said more than words ever could. “Wow, I haven’t met anyone who’s as much as an asshole as you,” Marty admitted, shaking his head. “I’m hoping some girl’s managed to kick you in the balls at least once. Actually – hey, Victoria, get over here and help me test how strong the armor is around his crotch. I’m pretty sure I’m denting it in some places.”
Barkis sliced at Marty as the teen danced away. “Impudent peasant! I’ll have your head!”
“Better fighters than you haven’t gotten their paws on it. Seriously, though, anybody you target ever get away? You might as well tell us – either we figure out how to kill you, or you kill all of us. Hopefully the former.”
“Fine, you talkative fool – one,” Barkis said, glowering. “A young girl by the name of Martha. I tried to elope with her, but she saw me coming too soon and managed to fight me off.” He tried to stab Marty in the ribs, and managed to nick the skin as Marty dodged the tiniest bit too slow. “A mistake I intend never to happen again!”
Marty glared back at him. “Yeah, well, it’s happening, you jerk,” he said, slashing with his sword. As before, the metal couldn’t penetrate the armor, but there was a distinct cracking noise as it hit. “And I’m not a fool!”
“You could have tricked me,” Barkis replied, bringing his sword down dangerously close to Marty’s head. “What kind of boy tries to fight a man who knows the dark arts as well as I do.”
“I emptied an entire castle full of ghosts once with a bread knife,” Marty replied, scoring another hit on the armor. This time, visible cracks appeared across the breastplate. “Dark arts don’t scare me. Nothing scares me!”
“I should expect such a boast from an arrogant commoner such as yourself!”
“It’s not a boast,” Alice said, circling around the back of Barkis, eying his armor for further weakness. “He genuinely has no idea how to be afraid.”
“What? Poppycock. While I’m certainly not afraid of you scraggly lot, I can admit to feeling fear once in a great while.”
“Yeah, well, it’s never registered with me,” Marty said, grinning as he managed to create a spider web of fine lines on Barkis’s helmet. “Never got why people were afraid of stuff. I mean, I can get people running away from dangerous stuff, that’s just smart, but being afraid of it?” He shrugged and jabbed his sword into Barkis’s breastplate, doing his best to widen the cracks. “Seems to make life a hell of a lot more complicated than it has to be.”
Barkis stared at him a moment. “You’re serious,” he finally said. “How is a man born without knowledge of fear?”
Marty shrugged again. “Happened. Granted, I’ve learned that not feeling it is actually more of a pain in the ass than feeling it, so I’m on a quest to try and learn what it is.” He smirked at Barkis. “You? You’re not doing a damn thing to help with that.”
Barkis snarled and waved his hand. The cracks vanished from his armor. “Allow me to give you a proper lesson then!” he said, kicking Marty in the gut. “Or, rather, allow me to assure you that you will never need to learn!”
Marty let out a loud “Oof!” and fell to the ground. Barkis raised his sword high, then stabbed down before anyone could move.
Or so he thought. Just before the blade fell, there was a blur of blue and white, and a horrible cracking sound as metal hit bone. Barkis jumped back in shock.
Emily glared back at him from her position in front of Marty. With one hand, she reached down and removed the sword from her rib cage, holding it out before her. “I don’t think so,” she growled.
Before Barkis could react to this, Alice leapt on him from behind, clinging to his waist with her legs as she hacked with her blade at his neck. “And I doubt you could ever make him learn fear,” she commented, almost too casually. “We’ve faced bandits, starving wolves, and monsters from the depths of your worst nightmares. He seems utterly immune to being frightened by any of them. One man with some minor command of the magic of Hell really shouldn’t even make him break a sweat. Doc, do you think your gun will be of any use?”
“I’m not sure,” Doc said. “I might be able to crack his armor, but I’m worried about possible ricochet.”
Victor suddenly threw himself at Barkis, nearly knocking the lord off his feet. “Then let’s try something else! We know his armor can be broken – maybe if we hold him down so he can’t get away--”
“I like this plan,” Jennifer said, jumping on Barkis from the side. This time he really did go down. Victoria, Emily, and Doc joined the growing dogpile as the lord squirmed. “How’s it coming, Alice?”
“It’s starting to crack again!” Alice said, seemingly oblivious to the way she was getting partially squashed under the weights of Barkis and her friends.
Barkis glared at each of them in turn. “So you wish to kill me? Does that really make you any better than me?” he spat. “Murdering someone?”
“I think we’re at least a little better than you,” Marty said, gently nudging Doc in the shoulder. “Move over so I can get my sword in there.” As his friend obligingly moved, Marty continued, “After all, the main reason we want to see you dead is because you keep killing innocent women – and apparently you do it just for money.”
“Judging by the way he talks, I think he’s developed a taste for murder,” Victor added, eyes narrowed down to raging slits as he stared into the lord’s face. “Do you enjoy coming up with more creative ways to slaughter people? To make them hurt and bleed?”
“Yeah, you see? We want you dead to save other people, and to get revenge for those girls you’ve already killed,” Marty nodded. “And because you’re a generally horrible human being who’d fit right in with all those other monsters I’ve killed. Justice, you know? I mean, if you really want, we could just hurt you enough so you can’t get away and then drag you to whichever sheriff is closest. . . .”
Barkis smiled. “Oh, I love coming up with ways to make people suffer,” he said. “Shall I demonstrate?”
With that, shadowy tentacles rose from the ground around them and plucked all the group off, slamming them to the ground and binding them there in a rough circle of bodies. Barkis rose, dusted himself off, and chuckled as he watched his former attackers squirm. “Now, just because I don’t kill with magic doesn’t mean I don’t know how to kill with magic,” he commented, walking around the circle. “I just find it – less than satisfying. But as you all are more of a nuisance that I’ve faced before. . . .”
“What exactly do you plan to do to me?” Emily demanded, thrashing against her bonds. There was a pop as the lower half of her skeletal arm came free. “In case you haven’t noticed, I’m already dead!”
Barkis grinned horribly at her. “Oh, I’m sure I’ll come up with something,” he commented. “How about being rendered as invisible and insubstantial as a ghost, being forced to watch as I claim new victims without being able to do anything about it?”
“You aren’t human,” Victor growled. “I look forward to the day when Death claims you – I don’t think you’re going to get a happy reception in the afterlife.”
“My, you do take this personally, don’t you?” Barkis commented. “Is one of the women I killed a relation or loved one of yours?”
“Actually, I was engaged to Victoria a few years ago, but it’s more than that,” Victor shot back. “I despise anyone who spreads death in the manner that you do. I’m already cursed to see so much of it. . . .”
“Really? Well then – I was going to do that fool last,” Barkis said, pointing at a glowering Marty, “but now I think I’ll save you until the end. Just because.” He grinned, then went back to his carriage and grabbed a bottle and glass. “First, though, a toast!” he said, pouring what looked like thick red wine into his cup. “To Emily – always the bridesmaid, never the bride! And to Victoria, who was the bride, and wished she were not.” He smiled at his wife, who was trying to get a hand free. “Til death do us part, my dear – and that will come sooner than you think.”
With that, he drained his glass in one long swallow, then tossed it away as he dropped the bottle on the ground. “And with that, I think that the young lady in the red hood should be the first to go,” he said, picking up his dropped sword.
“Uh, quick question first,” Marty said, looking curiously at the bottle on the ground, now leaking its crimson contents into the grass.
Barkis frowned at him. “What?”
“Is that bottle of wine supposed to have a skull and crossbones on it?”
Barkis froze, his face losing all color. Then he spun around and snatched the bottle up from the ground. He stared at the skull peering out from the weatherbeaten clay, then down at the ground, where the red liquid seeped into the dirt, killing every blade of grass it touched. “No,” he whispered, his former arrogance replaced with raw fright. “Not – not the Wine of Ages!”
“You know, that’s a really stupid mistake to make,” Marty commented. “Did you think to check to make sure you hadn’t grabbed poison?”
“Idiotic slime!” Barkis yelled, whipping back around. “I will--”
But what he would have done, none of them would know. Before he could say or do anything more, the poison did its work. He grabbed at his chest, gasping for breath. “Your godfather here, Victor?” Marty asked.
“Yes – what do you mean, only for a moment?” Victor said, blinking at the dark shade. Then a wicked smile – an odd look on his lean, friendly face – appeared on his lips as the Reaper answered. “Oh. . .I was right about his reception.”
There was a scream, and suddenly the area around Barkis (now on his knees and fading fast) was filled with ghostly figures of women. They were pale, and nearly transparent, but one could get a vague sense of hair and eye color, and what they’d looked like in life. They glared down at the dying Barkis. “You said you loved me!” one, a young brunette in a wedding dress, cried. Silvery blood streamed down from a cut throat. “You promised we’d be together forever!”
“You made me see a scene from Hell!” another, a blond with half of her face shot off, yelled. “I tried to hide, tried to beg for my life. . . .”
“You robbed me!” a third, another brunette with her neck at a funny angle, snarled. “You could have admitted that my death was an accident! But instead you chose to hide my body and take my jewels! All because I dared to open the door to your study!”
“All I wanted was to be happy!”
“You promised me a life together! I wanted to bear your children!”
“How could I ever have loved you?”
Barkis made no reply to these accusations, eyes wide with terror. His skin was now the same cold blue as Emily’s, his eyes a sickly yellow. He tried to scramble away from the women, but they leapt on him with a shriek and seized him in powerful grips. “Til death do us part, husband,” a redhead with a dripping throat hissed. “You’ll be wishing you could die again by the time we’re through with you.”
The girl next to her, with hair so blonde it was almost white and clad in a flowing white dress, nodded, then looked over at Emily and Victoria. Her eyes softened. “Be very grateful of your second chances,” she said in a voice like wind through the trees. “Especially you, Emily. I wish I’d had the strength to declare I’d stay.”
“T-trust me, I am,” Emily managed to reply.
The young lady nodded, then turned her attentions back to Barkis. Together with the other six women, they dragged him down into the earth, him screaming and clawing all the way. The first brunette gave them all a quick grin before her head disappeared below the grass. “New arrival. . . .”
Then they were gone, and all that was left before the group was Barkis’s dead body, face-down on the dirt. A moment later, the shadows that had served as his armor and their bonds dissolved, freeing them. “Well – that was weird, but rather satisfying,” Marty said, getting to his feet. “Everybody okay?”
“I think so,” Jennifer said, looking around. “Wow. . . .”
“At least he got what was coming to him,” Victor mumbled, getting up a bit shakily. “My God. . . .”
“So those were the others,” Emily murmured. “I wonder how long they’ve been waiting for this.”
“Longer than they should have,” Victoria said, hugging herself. “Especially considering they shouldn’t have been waiting at all. . . .” She looked at Victor. “The one who spoke to us?”
“I’d say it was either Lucille or Claire,” Victor said. “I’m sorry, she wasn’t one of the ones I saw in the room, so I can’t be certain.”
“It’s all right. I thought that looked like a wedding dress.” Victoria looked at Barkis’s body, then down at the ground. “I hope they’re at peace now.”
“I don’t think they’re at peace quite yet,” Alice said, dusting off her dress and retrieving her weapons. “But I’d say that’s because they don’t want to be at peace yet. Being at peace means passing up a chance to give their murderer a piece of their minds.” She smirked. “So to speak.”
Victoria nodded, then looked at Emily. “Are you sorry you’re not with them?”
Emily shook her head. “No. Like Lucille or Claire said, I got my second chance. I’d rather have the ability to live – or, unlive, I suppose – up here.” She smiled a little. “Besides, I think the look on his face when he saw me was enough vengeance on my part. Not to mention helping to stop him from murdering you.”
“It’s very much appreciated, Emily,” Victoria assured her with a smile of her own.
“Yeah – I didn’t say thanks for helping save me, did I?” Marty asked. “Thank you.”
“You’re welcome,” Emily said, finally rising from the ground. She offered Victoria a hand up, which she gratefully took. “Out of curiosity, did that scare you at all?”
“Can’t say it did,” Marty admitted. “I was planning on rolling out of the way. But that doesn’t mean I’m not grateful for you taking the blow.”
“I just couldn’t let him do that. And I knew that, if I moved quickly enough. . . .”
“It was very good of you,” Victor agreed. “Especially since. . .well. . . .”
“It’s how I died?” Emily filled in. “At least this time I got to get the bastard’s sword away from him. And he didn’t get a chance to hit me over the head with a rock.”
“Too bad you didn’t get a chance to suggest that to one of the girls before they dragged him away,” Jennifer said, accepting Marty’s help up.
“Oh, I believe they have plenty of ideas on what to do to him already.”
Alice nodded. “May your imaginations not run dry for at least a decade, ladies,” she addressed the ground. Looking back up, she added, “Though speaking of the girls – should we take the ones inside the house and give them a proper burial? Or should we leave them for now, ride to the next town, and tell the sheriff everything so he can arrange it?”
“We should probably tell the sheriff,” Doc said. “Although we’ll have to figure out a way to do so that doesn’t cast suspicion on us.”
“Would they really think we killed those women?” Victoria protested. “I mean, perhaps I can understand killing Barkis, but wouldn’t it be clear he was the one to murder his wives?”
“It might be, it might not be. It depends on how well he’s covered his tracks.” He frowned down at Barkis’s body. “Having dark magic at his disposal probably helped with that, unfortunately.”
“Maybe we should wait a day?” Marty suggested. “That way your magic watch will be working again, and you can make a wish for us to be believed when we tell somebody.”
Doc brightened a little. “That’s not a bad idea. Why don’t we camp out here for the rest of the day and take some time to refresh ourselves? We haven’t had a real break since – well, since before the ball.”
“Inside or outside the – wait, dumb question,” Marty stopped himself, looking at Victor. “We can’t just leave him out in the cold.”
“I don’t think I want to go in that house either,” Jennifer said, shuddering. “Not if there’s a room full of dead bodies in there. And God knows what else.”
“The rest of the house seems fine,” Victoria told her. “At the very least, he made the effort to make everything look respectable.”
“I’m willing to go in, but only as far as the kitchen,” Alice said. “We can raid it for supplies and not have to worry about spending our money or wasting a wish on the watch.”
“That’s an idea I can get behind,” Doc agreed. He rifled through his packs slung on the back of his horse and produced a couple of large sacks. “Victoria, do you mind showing her the way there?”
“Not at all,” Victoria said with a faintly wicked smile. “There’s plenty of good food in there, I can assure you. I don’t know how much of it will keep, mind. . . .”
“I’ll go with you,” Marty said. “We’ll figure out what we can take with us, and we’ll eat the rest today. We meant to have a picnic lunch anyway, didn’t we?”
“I would think that running into and battling a serial killer would put a damper on such plans,” Alice said, folding her arms and rolling her eyes.
“No, actually, I’m for the picnic,” Jennifer said, getting a few surprised looks. “I say we have a little feast in celebration of Barkis getting his just desserts at the hands of those girls.”
“All right, that I can understand,” Alice said, taking a sack from Doc. “Come on, Marty – let’s see what sort of food killing women for their money can buy.”
As it turned out, very fine quality food, and quite a lot of it. Alice, Marty, and Victoria returned from their scouting trip with their bags bulging with tins of meat and fish, cans of vegetables and beans, and bottles of water. There was also fresh milk, bread and butter, a few steaks, pork chops, and fresh vegetables and fruits of all sorts. Victoria, Emily, Jennifer, and Doc cooked everything that needed to be cooked, and the group ate with relish. Doc also took some time to salt some of the leftovers and lay them out to dry. “Waste not want not,” he said. “We can also probably use some of those bones for soup.”
“Or to distract Terror Dogs,” Marty joked. He raised a glass of milk to Barkis’s corpse. “Thanks for the feast, buddy. It’s too bad you couldn’t figure out how to afford this stuff without murdering people.”
“I wonder what would have happened if he’d never shoved Suzanne down those stairs,” Jennifer wondered, biting into a carrot.
“Hopefully he would have never even conceived of murder as a way to get money,” Victor said. “Although I can’t imagine Suzanne would have had a very happy life with him. With a temper like the one I saw. . .perhaps what happened was inevitable in some form or fashion.”
“A shame,” Victoria said quietly. “So many lives stolen, and for no reason at all. . . .”
“Well, he can’t steal anyone else’s now,” Jennifer said. “And those girls are going to be put to rest, even if we end up having to do it ourselves.”
“Amen,” Doc agreed.
The rest of the day was spent scouring the house and grounds for other useful items. Alice took the supply of firewood from every fireplace in the house, while Marty discovered a old, empty sketchbook in what might have been an art room and made a present of it to Victor. They also unhitched Barkis’s horses (which had borne the fight in front of their noses with surprising calm) and led them to the stable to be fed and watered. There was a brief debate as to whether they were justified in taking Barkis’s carriage for the storage space – it was eventually decided that, since it contained evidence as to Barkis’s evil doings, they ought to leave it where it was, at least for now. Victoria filled them in on some of the more pleasant things that had happened to her while she was away, including revealing the fact that she still had her single glass slipper. “I’m hoping against hope Sir Christopher might have picked up the match,” she said, cradling the delicate shoe against her chest. “I want to be absolutely certain he knows me should we meet again.”
“I don’t think you’re really gonna need the shoe for that, but hey, why not,” Marty said with a chuckle. “I really do hope you guys find each other again. We may not have known him long, but he was a good friend to all of us all the same.”
“Yes, anyone who helps us escape from an angry mob certainly qualifies as a good friend,” Alice agreed.
As night fell, they put their own horses into the stable to eat and rest, then raided the kitchen again for more goodies. Victor was particularly pleased when Alice came out with a little tub of chocolate ice cream. “I used to love this when I was younger,” he said, eagerly taking a bowlful. “Well, honestly, there’s no ‘used to’ about it.”
“Dig in,” Alice encouraged with a smile. “I was hoping to find something to make you a bit more cheerful.” In a lower voice, she continued, “After all, after Victoria and Emily, this day was probably hardest for you, wasn’t it?”
Victor grimaced and looked away. “Seeing all those girls, and how they died. . .frightened, in such pain. . .and knowing Emily had already gone through that, and it was Victoria’s intended fate. . .that it might have been the fate of all of you as well. . . .” He swallowed. “Today was one of the few times in my life I’ve been happy to see my godfather.”
Alice patted his shoulder. “Well, you helped save Victoria. That’s got to count for something, right?”
“Maybe. I didn’t do much except confirm he was the same person who killed Emily and jump on him once.”
“Which inspired the rest of us to take him down. It’s not your fault he had a counter for that.” Alice looked over at Barkis’s corpse, still where he’d fallen. “I know you’re almost certainly not going to want any of his weapons. . .but at our next stop, I think it would be wise if we got you at least a proper dagger. Having your as our medic is fine and all, but I think you’d be happier if you knew a bit more on how to fight, correct?”
“I wouldn’t be opposed,” Victor said.
“Then we’ll start lessons once you have something a bit more deadly than the fork.” She grinned at him, a dangerous glint in her eyes. “Don’t expect me to be easy on you.”
Victor started at her. “I’ll – I’ll remember that,” he stammered, turning back to his ice cream.
Alice’s expression softened. “I’m not going to try and hurt you, either. I just – I want you to be safe, you want to help more. . .and when we do reach the Queen, you’re definitely going to want to know some basic moves.”
Victor nodded, looking up again. “I know. Thank you very much for helping me.”
Alice smiled back at him. “I assure you, the pleasure is all mine.”
Nearby, Victoria and Emily couldn’t help listening in. “Look at them,” Emily whispered to her new friend. “How on earth did I miss that the first day? She never gives that smile to anyone but him. They’re mad about each other!”
“And they still haven’t said anything?” Victoria asked. Emily shook her head. Victoria let out a frustrated sigh. “She practically admitted to Jennifer and me that she was in love with him! What use is keeping it a secret?!”
“I don’t know. Marty and I have been trying to get them together a bit more, but it hasn’t really resulted in anything.” Emily ran her skeletal fingers through her tangled blue hair. “I don’t know what to do. I don’t want to force them, for fear of accidentally driving them apart, or making them resent us. I just – they’ve both got happiness so close, and after losing mine – it’s enough to drive one out of their head!”
Victoria nodded and patted her hand. “Well, I don’t think they can keep dancing around it forever. Especially if she’s going to be giving him weapon lessons. That’s going to necessitate some closeness.”
“Not the right sort, though.”
“Perhaps not, but right now, I think any closeness might be good.” She smiled at Emily. “And perhaps we can still encourage them to say what they’re feeling. After all, we need something to do while we’re waiting for our true loves.”
Emily giggled. “Of course.” She sighed, looking at Victor and Alice sitting side by side. “We’ll do what we can, and wait and hope for the rest.”
“At least you’re good at waiting?” Victoria tried to joke.
Emily smiled and shook her head. “Too good. And I just hope this doesn’t take as long as it took for someone to propose to me.”