It liked the color blue, because it was a regal color. To many it was a sad color, but there was nothing sad about the little spider pacing in the dirt outside the castle walls next to a pile of pink goo. It was not pacing with anxiety, but rather anticipation. The bloodbath was to begin, and the appetizer had been served.
“Ol’ buddy, don’t be down. It’s a perfect night,” the blood-soaked paramedic said to the man in a police uniform with his head down.
“You, you’re the medic who got out.” Constable Gordon Keith said to him.
“Mitch he was, dead he is. Didn’t like the sight of blood. Sad for a medic. But it’s okay. I’ve an idea for you.”
“Piss off,” said Keith. “Sorry; it’s been a long night. It was Mitch?” the constable asked.
“The pet got your buddy. It wanted to play. You should go play. Ill show you,” Mitch said. He was holding William’s gun.
“Old…Roderick, Sheila’s…Sheila’s dead.” Benny said while running.
“What are you going on about? It’s not funny…”
“Sadie, too.” Tobit said while catching up.
“Tobit…she was in the fire…”
“And something threw her out the window. After she…flew and trapped Benjamin here in a spider web.”
“It’s all real, Roderick. I’m such a…it’s real. There are ghosts here, and I want to get the hell out.” Benny started to cry. It broke the image he projected of himself.
“Benny, get ahold of yourself!” ordered Roderick.
“Boss, it was unspeakable what I saw with Benny. He’s right. We need to leave,” said Tobit.
“We’ve got it on video, at least what we could…and it ain’t pretty.”
Ian was sitting in a dark hallway with an iPod plugged into his ears and a rolled-up joint plugged into his mouth. For all the Freddy Kruger films he had studied and all the found footage laugh-fests he got baked to over the years, they didn’t scare him like today had. So he lit up.
The music became different, trippier than before, and he noticed a detail he’d never heard before: a woman’s voice singing in the background. “Go forth, go forward, the room ahead is waiting”, over and over in a deep Scottish accent. He found himself humming, first along with the Nick Cave song in his ears, then the chant of the woman buried underneath. His eyes glazed over, and he stood up and walked forth, forward, to the room ahead.
Inside was a suit of armor standing on display, and for a moment it seemed to have glowing red eyes. He found that strangely funny. Ahead of him was a coat of arms on the wall, and under it were two swords.
The song had changed, and so had the chant. “The sword is sweet in the warrior’s hand,” it sang. When he approached, one of the swords fell off of the wall after a small tremor. Ian picked it up. The groove down the center began to bleed, the blood pouring down toward the tip like a stream. The music was over, so there was no sound at all. But he kept thinking how sweet the sword was, and what it would taste like. He was so consumed with a need to taste the blade that he couldn’t see the blue blur running from it, leaving a trail of thin silk in the red.
Then, as the spider descended toward the back of his neck, he felt a surge go through him. The sword fell from his hands. He wasn’t sure how he got there, but he wasn’t eager to stay in there another second.
The spider moved back up, now afraid and angry. It wasn’t alone with him anymore.
“It’s my honor to relieve you of your duty,” Constable Keith said to Inspector Mawson.
Mawson turned to see Keith and Mitch with guns drawn. Mitch was wearing a blood-covered badge.
“Gordon, what’s gotten into you?” Mawson asked.
“The truth. Why would a good guy like William end it? Then I got to thinking that he didn’t. So why did you kill him?” Keith responded.
“Kill him? Gordon, stop this…”
“Oh, I will. This is for William!” He said, and pulled the trigger. Daniel Mawson fell to the ground.
“Good job, ol’ buddy! The other killers are inside. We’ve got to deal with them, too.” Mitch told him.
Tobit, Roderick, and Benny were preparing to watch the video, although Benny wasn’t thrilled with the idea. It was difficult to explain the video’s scenes as they played it. It showed the goo spreading, but everything else was obscured and blurry. They heard the gunshot outside, and jumped to their feet to investigate, when a voice and a blurry face appeared on the video. A man’s voice.
“T’was nae us, God help you all. T’was nae us…” Calum said. “My Bonnie…”
“That was our ghost!” Roderick said.
“That’s not what held me in that room,” retorted Benny.
“No, that’s what it said. So it’s more than one,” said Tobit.
“Who are you, spectre? What do you want?” Roderick asked, to no answer.
Bonnie wandered the halls in a daze. What had happened left her dizzy for the first time in the afterlife. She wondered who the guardian was that saved her and the boy, what had brought him here. She wondered how to find Calum, now that she was weakened. She knew she had been used, and the Takers weren’t done. And she wasn’t going to let them best her.
Meanwhile, Daniel Mawson was keeping pressure on his wound outside the castle. It was painful, but he wondered if he just might make it. And he wondered what he would do if he did.
Ian shook his head vigorously and scrubbed at his scalp, his fingers rumpling his thinning hair. "Jesus jumpin' Christ," he muttered, "could this blasted assignment get anymore screwed up??" As Technical Director, Ian's place was with his darlings, the hi-tech TV equipment, but when the cast, crew, and various crashers appeared to be set on going to Hell in a collective handbasket, there wasn't much point in putzing around with a video editor.
"I gotta get outta this feckin' overgrown hoose for a bit! They can just all gang and hing." With that, he and his thundercloud of a brow stormed up the nearest flight of steps. As he shouldered his way through the iron-bound door of the castle tower, he caught the sound of an acoustic guitar getting its strings softly bent. Looking about the roof in the dishwater murk of dusk, he made out the silhouette of what appeared to be the castle handyman, who was employed by the foundation that managed the grounds.
He had seen this gentleman on occasion, who unobtrusively puttered about his business. Letting the battered old instrument fall silent, the craggy shadow of the "Keep's Keeper" turned his head toward Ian. "What brings ye out of yon stonepile with such a keek on yer face, laddie?" But before Ian could spin his tale of electronic woe and technical tumult, they were disturbed by a loud scuttling, like that of hundreds of scorpions across a field of skulls, carried to the roof on a fetid exhale of breeze.
Ian’s face turned pasty as he turned toward the musical shadow. "What in hell is that?!" he croaked.
The faceless musician replied, "aye lad, that reek can only come from ONE thing. If you have a want, take ye a daunder to the parapet and see if the view dinna scare you out of yer simmet!"
Ian hesitantly edged toward the inner curtain wall, and as he stood on tip-toe to peer into the gloaming, he gagged in horrified awe as three ancient crones tottered out of the gloom. He glanced over his shoulder at his companion. "What are they?"
"Night hags, me young friend! They are what's left over after a witch is hanged - the witches’ shadows, ye ken. If they were not properly doused in holy water and holly berries, they will rise up and haunt the night, eating whatever they can find in hope of filling their emptiness."
The crones scuttled and crawled about the ground in front of the castle, cramming grass, field mice and dozens of the blue spiders into their maws, constantly chewing. They were like wood-chippers. "That manky lot is a bunch that I widnae go within a screwball Irishman's reach of. But mayhap they may serve a purpose yet."
Ian tried to process this latest assault on his senses. The castle keeper faded off into the murk, with one last bit of wisdom gently thrown over his shoulder. "Mind ye ken your lesson very well. Class is out now, but remember: every day is a school day.”
“Round two will begin shortly,” an announcer called. “If you were late to today’s game, we are in half-time with the Shadow Hags cleaning the field. The score is close, folks, 43 to 45; it could be anyone’s game. We have the ever-enchanted Ian and Tobit on the Human Team with only one nip between them. Sheila has had two possessions and Sadie’s been nabbed by the Takers. Good attempt by the Home Team and its player Bonnie to seduce human Benny, but that costs her time in the penalty box,” continued the announcer.
A second announcer commented, “Calum will need to make his move quickly once the game begins to get Bonnie released from the isolation bench. Home Team has shown great defensive moves in the first round, but how will they save their space in the next? The Takers are aggressively moving through the castle, searching for any opening to boost their score,” he continued. “Let’s review some of the highlights while we wait for the bell:
“The Takers have two human deaths so far. Crispy Critter by fire and one by gunshot during a possession, which gives them an additional point,” he remarked.
“Don’t touch that goo, folks, as we know it is a quick slide to the penalty box,” said the first announcer. “Clever of the Home Team to build in safety zones where the humans can be protected from the Takers’ assaults,” said a different voice.
“Big score for the Home Team as JD Keeper materialized to provide moral support for Team Captain Ian MacTavish!” said the second announcer. “He also provided him with a valuable clue - if he caught it,” said the first announcer. “Many worlds other than these…it’s a classic statement”.
“From an execution standpoint,” began a third voice, “the Takers have been aggressive from the start, exploding the vehicle, taking possessions, snatching souls, and attempting harm upon the humans, while the Home Team has reacted to protect them by defense.”
“I’m not seeing the innate malice for the living shown by the Takers in the Home Team,” quipped the second. “Annoyance, irritation, playing with them like cats with mice…they are enjoying their human interactions and seem to be having fun during the first round. We’ll see how they make out in the second.”
“Elder human Roderick scored a point for sensing spirit activity in his arm hair, as did the young Benny with his residual bloody vision of the Home Team’s death on the stairs while descending,” the first commentator said, “although he didn’t connect the dots, so that’s a lavender flag on the play.”
“It was a creative use of a visual trigger on their pinnacle spot for the Home Team,” said the second. “The energy level was extreme, as permitted by game rules, because Calum and Bonnie were climaxing as the scythe fell from its hallway holder, killing them.”
“Takers’ Captain Legion Flagg argued with the Commissioner’s Board to disallow that pinnacle spot, but lost his case in the ruling,” said the third voice. He continued, “the minutes reflect Takers have a moving mascot, some kind of glow worm, that secretes slide glue, keeping the plays fair for both teams.”
“Takers also have a murder spot, so we don’t know why Flagg would argue the pinnacle spot unless it’s a real threat to the offense,” the second sportscaster said.
“Who will be the deciding factor in this game? The scores are close,” said the first commentator. “Although with Bonnie in the penalty box, it costs the Home Team time till she can rejoin,” said the second. “Good play adding gardens and ivy growing on the outside walls and castle sides,” the voice continued. “You know nature expands the human safety zone.”
“Calum scored big in human protection by pushing Benny from the bed. Bonnie helped Sadie by providing back force as the Takers tried to burn her in the kitchen, and we still have the responders’ possession to contend with,” the speaker added.
“Folks, the score is once again 43 to 45, it’s anyone’s game, and we have the green play flag being hoisted up the pole. Let’s go back down to the arena, where the Shadow Hags have tidied the playing field,” boomed the first announcer.
A group of vultures materialized, first circling the castle, then alighting in the tops of nearby trees and on the castle walls.
Inside the castle, gilded frames held pictures whose occupants began to blink, watch, and hold poses. Spectators and game officials took their spots as the starting bell rang.
And there's someone in my head, but it's not me
And if the cloud bursts thunder in your ear
You shout and no one seems to hear
And if the band you're in starts playing different tunes
I'll see you on the dark side of the moon
Pink Floyd (written by Brian Damage)
Dark Side of the Moon
Outside the castle walls, the night was calm. The air, still wet from the storm, had cooled. Most of the clouds had cleared, turning the sky into a canvas of glittering stars. The moon hung low, casting a dim light over the castle towers.
Inspector Schwann, a lanky man with broad shoulders, stood by his cruiser. Holding his cell phone above his head for better reception, he tapped its screen. When the battery died, the screen darkened. With a frustrated grunt, he threw the phone to the ground, cracking the screen. He kicked it across the gravel. It slid under his squad car.
He leaned against the passenger door, lit a cigarette, took a drag off it, and exhaled through his nose. His scalp tingled as the nicotine calmed his nerves. The night had been a disaster. What had started as a routine investigation had turned into what seemed to be a bad acid trip. He had no qualms or second-guesses about investigating the explosion. It was tragic, but he considered it routine. However, William’s death, and the ghost whisperer with his crew of delinquent scientist raving about evil possessions, had added the human equivalent of Everclear to the castle cocktail.
Drugs were the only explanation for their crazy hallucinations. This case had become too intense, and he couldn't handle it. Mawson would have to deal William’s death and the clan of acid loving hippies. He didn't want to know how William really died, or what was happening inside that wretched castle. For now, he wanted to clear his head before he radioed headquarters.
He lit another cigarette. As he smoked, his eyes shifted to the castle. The front entrance was an archway between two towers. To him, it was a black hole that led from the world of the living to hell. He dismissed the thought. He started to look away from the castle, but his gaze shifted back to the castle entrance, just as the moon suddenly brightened to a dirty, unnatural orange glow. Schwann’s face slacked into an unintelligible stare. His eyes were glued to the black archway as his hand went to his neck, clawing at the skin under his Adam’s apple.
He carved deep scratches into his flesh that overflowed with blood as he started to float on the path toward the castle, as if in a trance. Spiders crawled out of the black archway, covering the entire front wall, turning the stones blue. The castle resembled a black funnel twisting in a blue ocean.
As he reached the archway, he looked into the castle close, where he had every intention of ripping the skin from his throat and eating his own flesh until the Takers took ownership of his soul. He was about to meet his fate when he heard the strains of Pink Floyd. "Dark Side of the Moon" drifted to him.
The lunatic is in my head
The lunatics are in my head
Floyd's lyrics seemed to flow from inside Schwann, soothing him. He thought it was quite ironic that Brain Damage played while he was trapped in this telepathic trance.
It’s the Takers, he thought, they've infected my brain like a parasite.
There’s someone in my head but it’s not me.
As the instrumentals progressed, time slowed until it stopped. He felt his strength return, and blinked his right eye. It was then that a force pulled his shoulder, jerking it back, causing blood to spill from the gaping hole in his throat.
Suddenly, he was sailing through the air backwards. He crashed into the squad car, denting the door with a pop as he slid to the ground and landed on his shoulder.
He lifted his head to the castle. The outer wall glowed red with fury, and a steamy wind blew heat through the air. They’re angry, he thought.
As consciousness abandoned him, the world faded to black.
Even in the darkness, the lyrics echoed.
And if the band you’re in starts playing different tunes
I’ll see you on the dark side of the moon
When he stirred, he was confused. He was lying on the ground, with his eyes on the castle. A cloud drifted over the moon, darkening the towers. When he saw the dark archway, terror flooded his mind. He cringed as he recalled the vision. Bringing a hand to his throat, he expected to feel hot pain form the gashes, but the wounds had disappeared. He breathed a sigh of relief, and dismissed the whole episode as a dream.
“It’s not a dream, lad.”
It was the keeper, leaning against the squad car. Schwann climbed to his feet, and held out his hand to greet him. The stranger didn’t return the gesture but tipped him a nod instead.
Schwann, a little offended and embarrassed, pulled his hand back.
“Don’t look so bleak,” he said, “I saved ya, didn’t I?” His color lightened as he started to fade. “But next time I might not be able to,” he added, displaying his hands to show them and his arms lightening to smoky white.
“Who are you?” asked Schwann.
“A friend,” said the man. Now he was completely translucent, but Schwann could see his eyes were smiling. “I’ll be back,” said the keeper, “but until then, stick with Benny.”
Schwann watched as the man vanished in a puff of white smoke.
As he watched the last tendrils of smoke float upwards and disappear, he felt desolate. “If I don’t find the kid, I’m on my own,” he said, starting toward the castle.
As he made his way to the front archway, a gun fired. Drawing his weapon, he ran into the courtyard and skidded to a stop. There was Daniel Mawson in the castle close, lying twisted in a pool of blood.
It was not long before Schwann located Benny. He found him along with what remained of the motley crew that included Sheila, Roderick, Ian and Tobit.
They had taken shelter in the great hall of the castle when they realized that there was little else for them to do other than to regroup and stick together, at least until they had thought of their next play. They each heard voices in there, but that was all. It seemed calm but for the sound of what seemed like a television news broadcast in another room. Ian laughed when Benny suggested it sounded like football game announcers. Ian agreed and quipped that he wondered who was playing. They knew, however, that it was no TV. They had gone beyond looking for rational explanations for why things happened in this place. They had accepted that it was some paranormal thing that would have to be explained some other day, but for now they needed to find a safe place to figure out how to get out of this alive.
Schwann's shirt collar was black with blood and he was pale as the moonlight had become. “I don't know what's going on here,” he said as he entered the room, relieved to have found living beings. “Can one of you people tell me what the Hell is going on here? I have been seeing and doing all kinds of crazy things and-”
His knees buckled before he could finish speaking and he was kneeling on the floor as if to pray.
No one answered him, no one could, until Sheila spoke up, her voice barely above a whisper, her hands palms out in front of her as if to push something away. “I can only call it spiritual madness. I think it's killing us all from the inside out, literally killing us, I think." She did not realize that tears were streaming from her eyes. She rested her hands in her lap.
"I feel it too, Sheila,” Roderick agreed. “I feel it to the very center of me, and I can't think of a better thing to call it than madness, a killing sort of madness. This castle is insane, it's...” he trailed off. “Maybe it's more spiritual poison than madness, but madness is all around us." He looked to her and nodded with what looked like a great effort. He was drained and nearly done.
“Spiritual chaos,” Tobit said. “There is an imbalance, yes, and we are witnessing phenomenon only few have seen. I know of only a handful of people who have survived being in the midst of this sort of demonic infestation. It is quite rare indeed, at least one prays it is. We must keep close to each other and keep our faith that we can survive this.”
Tobit helped Schwann up from the floor, offering him a hand and leading him to a chair where he'd be close to the group. “We must keep our focus on revealing the truth of what has happened here tonight.”
An idea occurred to Benny right before he gave up hope of leaving the castle intact. It felt like the best idea he had ever had in his whole life, a real eureka moment. "Why don't we just get the hell out of this place? I don't know why we don't just leave!"
Everyone who had gathered there for the feast of fear and who had been fed past full looked at Benny in stunned silence. He raised his arms in the air in a “why not” gesture.
Ian laughed a great belly laugh that rang in the hall. “Why the feck not?” he said, his laughter now booming. “We have all the video we need, we have half the local bloody constabulary here shooting each other and bodies - we have bodies! Dead ones, half dead ones. Melted ones at that! We have enough proof; now let's get the feck out of here before we cannae go!”
Sobs, mournful and distant, came from somewhere. Everyone looked at Sheila but she was silent. She looked up, as she sensed she should, and saw an iridescent drop begin to form from the great distance that was the ceiling of the great room. It glowed silvery shimmers.
“What now? Dear God, what now?” She now began to cry in earnest.
“Please help us.” It was the voice that had made itself known to be Bonnie. “You cannae leave us here!”
Roderick stood up and faced the ceiling as the shimmer turned into fog, then arranged itself as a form: Bonnie, who was now hovering only feet above their heads. He gathered strength as he spoke to her. “I'll cross you over, you and your Calum. Sheila and I we can do it. We can do it if you let us.”
“We really can't leave them here trapped with these...these abominations,” Sheila spoke up to the small group. “I'll send you home, Bonnie,” she said to the spirit that remained of the Scotswoman.
“I can help, too.” Tobit stood also, facing the crying ghost.
“Then let it be so. Please make it so,” Bonnie pleaded, now standing in front of them, her feet not quite on the floor. She appeared almost as solid as flesh and blood but for the wisps of what looked like fine webs that floated around and through her. “Calum and I cannae stay here anymore. I am done and done with this deathly hollow shell of a hellhole!”
Benny, now the truest of believers, agreed that they should help Bonnie and Calum, but he was also determined that the team would leave this place, the sooner being better than later.
Yes, they would leave, and soon, but it appeared the only way out was through. There was to be no easy escape. So Benny did something he would not have thought possible just a day ago: he spoke to a ghost. "Bonnie." The spirit turned to look at him. "If it isn't you doing this, and it isn't your--Calum, then what is it?"
At first, she didn't seem to hear the question, but instead whispered, as if only now realizing, "Ye see me," slowly taking in the whole group, eyes open in shock--though she could get no paler. It was a question as well as a statement. After all this time, she'd broken through.
"Aye," Benny said, not realizing he'd slipped partway into the old speech. "We do."
Sheila spoke up in answer to Bonnie's implied question: "Sometimes if several natural mediums are gathered together, the collective energy can assist a ghost who desires to be seen in the physical realm if the ghost is not old and experienced enough to do it on her own." She looked puzzled for a moment. "Generally it takes at least three, though ... you must be especially strong, Benny."
Benny (who would if need be accept that he was a latent psychic or medium or whatever you wanted to call it, but who was still practical, impatient Benny) simply nodded, then returned to his question. "Bonnie. What is doing this?"
A little of her natural tartness returned to her then, and she tilted her head at Benny in a way that suggested she thought he was a bit daft. "Takers." She didn't add, "of course." She didn't need to.
Tobit groaned. "Takers? That explains a lot."
"What," Benny asked, his patience beginning to fray around the edges, "are Takers? What do they take?"
Tobit sighed. "Takers are ... they are the leeches of the spirit world. Rather, they exist somewhere between the spirit world and the physical world, and they have some control of both. In certain circumstances, they can influence the actions of ghosts that have lingered longer than they should, for example. They can also cause mass hallucinations among the living," and he looked at Sheila, who despite what they'd seen, had obviously not dissolved into a pile of goo. "And they can possess the living, completely taking over or driving insane those who cannot withstand them. They take life force. Negative emotions. Pain."
"Okay," Benny said. "How do we stop these Takers? What's their weakness?"
This time Ian spoke up. "Ach, lad. Ye been watching too much TV. Not everythin' can be stopped."
"I don't believe that," Benny said. "Everyone has a boss, and everything has a weakness. How do we kill them, Tobit?"
Tobit looked thoughtful. "I don't know. I don't know that anyone ever has killed them."
A sigh, not ethereal in the least, escaped Bonnie. "Ye cannae end them," she said. "Least, no man nor spirit I know of can. But ye can make them go." She had their full attention now. "They'll not stop in a place that has no spirits. They must have the living and the dead."
"They have to have both?" Benny asked. "So, if we help you and Calum move on, they'll just disappear."
It cost Bonnie something to say what she said next, because she knew it put her freedom, and Calum's, down one more notch on the list of priorities. But they were trying to help her, these living. They deserved to know. "Nay, laddie. I wish that were so, but we're not the only spirits about the castle."
* * *
Outside, Chief Inspector Mawson lay where he'd fallen, but he wasn't dead, though an onlooker might have been forgiven for assuming otherwise. He'd managed to staunch the flow of blood using a dishtowel he'd absentmindedly shoved in his overcoat pocket that morning. Amazing things, towels; nearly endlessly useful, really. He'd bound it around his midsection with his belt. It had been slow going, because he was in pain, and he didn't want to lose more blood than necessary, but he'd finished the guerilla first aid several minutes ago and had been slowly gathering strength ever since. It was quite likely, he thought, that he would die here this day, but he hadn't gotten to be chief inspector by giving up or being stupid. He'd been using his time wisely, pondering everything he knew about what had happened here. The main thing he knew is that men he'd worked with for years had suddenly begun acting wildly out of character, to say the least.
The official line would probably mention forcibly administered hallucinogenic drugs, and practically speaking that was the most likely, but Mawson realized they'd left practical behind as soon as they stepped on the castle grounds and had come to the conclusion that really, his dear old Nan had been right after all: there were "sperits all 'round us." And now it was time to face them.
Slowly he rolled onto his belly and began to crawl toward the doorway, where he could pull himself up. Nearby, hidden in a planting, a blue spider of enormous girth watched. Waited.
"What do you mean by that?" demanded Benny. "Who else is here?"
Bonnie shook her head. "I dinnae ken for certain. Only he is much older than me or Calum. Much stronger. He is ... a friend. I think he calls himself The Keeper."
Constable Schwann and Ian started--nearly jumped. Somehow, both had forgotten all about The Keeper until that moment. "She's right," Schwann said. "I saw him. At first I thought he was a person, but he's not flesh. He told me to stick with you," he said to Benny.
"Aye, I saw him as well," Ian said. "But he didn't seem trapped or desperate. He belongs here, like as not, and ye'll not be 'sending him on' so easily as all that."
* * *
Mawson finally managed to make it to the doorway and pull himself upright, despite the pain. His wound, which didn't seem to involve any important organs but which nonetheless had bled rather more freely than he'd have liked, began to ooze again, seeping through the towel. He was strong but severely wounded, so when he felt first a tickling and then a sharp pinch on the back of his neck, the fight he put up for control of his body and brain was not so fierce as it normally would have been.
Nonetheless, the spider was surprised--and delighted--by the unexpected tussle. This one would be worth riding for a while and would make a deliciously satisfying meal in the end. First, though, it would take her to the others. They began the slow, lurching walk down the hall.
* * *
In the great hall, Benny sat with his head buried in his hands. The rest of the group, including Bonnie, had fallen quiet. If there was an answer to their current conundrum, none of them could see it. Something was pricking the back of Benny's mind. Finally it came to him. "Where's Calum?"
Bonnie looked puzzled. "I'm nae certain. When I felt ye all gathered here together, somethin' took hold of me and pulled me in. My love was near me, but when I turned back, he'd gone." Suddenly she was fierce. "I'll not be leavin' him, mind. I'd rather stay here and face the Takers wi' him than to go on and leave him alone!"
"Ach, love. Ye do care," said a translucent figure at the doorway.
"Calum!" Bonnie cried. "Of course I do, ye blatherin' idiot, ye great pillock. How many times must I tell ye, no one else will do for me?"
"Ye make my cheeks burn with such sweet words, dearest."
Bonnie's next words were somber. "Calum. Sweet. We can finally go on, but we have to help the living first. The Takers are preying on 'em, and we cannae move on without their help. They see me. They see you. They need us."
"Help them?" Calum asked. "Help ye?" He asked again, looking around at the group, not as surprised as Bonnie had been to find himself visible to the living. But then, he'd never been the thinker of the two. "How are we to do that? The Takers ... they are stronger than anythin'."
"Ach," a voice replied from everywhere and nowhere at all. "They're not such as all that." And with that, The Keeper was there with them, as if he'd always been. And perhaps he had. "And Miss"--this he directed at Bonnie--"I hate to be the one to say a lass has got something wrong, but as we are in a bit of a rush here, I must tell ye, I am not one the likes of ye two."
At that, Ian spoke up. "Maybe so, but ye aren't human. Livin' human, anyway."
"No, lad. Ye've got that right. Mayhap I was human some time ago, but it's been ary so long, if so, I no longer recall for certain. I'm ... else. Like the Takers, I suppose. One thing I know: I'm here because I belong. I keep the castle safe."
Bonnie saw what that meant. "Then," she said, "if they send us on, the Takers will go as well."
"Aye, lassie," The Keeper said. "These fine folks could send ye on, and the Takers would be quieted for some time. If ye can stand it just a wee bit longer, though, if ye can take a chance, we could bind the Taker forever. She'd never be back."
A chance, he'd said. That meant they might not make it. "No!" Bonnie said. "I cannae do it! We've been tied to this castle ever so long, me and Calum, an' now's our chance to have done wi' it, an'--"
"Bonnie," Calum said, and Bonnie looked at him, and she remembered suddenly why it was she'd fallen for him in life. No, he wasn't the smartest, and he wasn't even the handsomest, but when it came right down to it, he was true as the straightest arrow, and he was brave. So brave. "Bonnie," he said again. "Think on it. The Takers, gone forever. None like us to go through this ever again. None like we used to be to go through it, either. If we can help stop the Takers for all time, we must try." And though it made her heart ache like it hadn't ached since before her body had been buried under six feet of soil, she knew he was right. Oh, but it hurt so. To come this close and yet have sweet release possibly snatched from her--it stung. It burned. Still, right was right. And they weren't innocent, her and Calum. They owed this.
She faced The Keeper. "What must we do?"
* * *
The Taker rode the man Mawson, or what used to be him, toward the great hall. Progress was slow, but the others--Taker-spawn and man-slaves--had served their purpose; this man-shell was the only one remaining. No matter; time didn't mean much to her. Soon she would feast on men and spirits alike, maybe even on that eternal infernal enemy that called himself The Keeper. Then she would spawn. And she and her spawn would wait until such time as man and spirits gathered together again, and then it would be time for a new feast. She could speed it along, of course, by simply walking to the great hall herself. But this man was so delicious, and she was not used to traveling without consort. So she clung to him, sipping his life force, and on and on they inched.
Slowly. Ever so slowly.
* * *
"The Taker has nearly come to the end of her cycle," The Keeper said. "Soon it will begin afresh, unless we end her. She'll cast off more unholy young, and she'll be strong again. But now she's weak, though she cannae see it."
"That's her weakness," Benny said. "That's it. She doesn't realize she's vulnerable. She won't have her guard up."
"Aye, lad," The Keeper agreed. And then he laid out the plan.
* * *
Now all that was left was the waiting. The ghosts, the humans, and The Keeper all assumed their positions, and Taker-Mawson crept closer. Closer. Closer. Finally, there came a skittery shuffling outside the great hall, and Mawson, looking more dead than alive, dragged himself in. Some time back, he'd starting leaving a trail of blood drops. He was weak. So weak. But not dead yet.
"Now," Benny said, nearly at a whisper, and that was the last quiet moment till it was over.
Howling a warcry he'd learned who-knows-where and who-knows-when, Calum swooped with one aim: possess the weak human. It was the last thing the Taker had expected, and perhaps because of that, it worked. Calum entered Mawson, and the Taker was pushed out. Just like that, Calum vanished, and an enormous pulsing blue spider crouched next to Mawson. She didn't have her brood. She didn't have human slaves. But she still had silk and venom in both realms. She was still a formidable enemy.
Echoing Calum's warcry and adding a chilling shriek of her own, Bonnie flew with as much force as she could muster toward the Taker. Suddenly she was in her. Without pausing, Bonnie forced the spindly legs to begin running, running, running, right out the window, where she flung both of them out and toward the ground, leaving the Taker at the last possible moment. She hoped that the fall had been enough to kill the Taker in her weakened state, but she needn't have worried. Calum-Mawson showed up in the window, pulled out a revolver, and fired six bullets into the giant spider. The spider never moved again.
* * *
Back in the great hall, after they'd made sure the Taker was gone for good, Calum and Bonnie stood clasping hands, waiting for the sweet release they'd been promised. The Keeper had vanished after performing what seemed to be some kind of healing magic over the now unconscious (but pinker) Mawson. The room was quiet. Sheila was about to begin the incantation when Bonnie said, "I dinna ken ye knew how to fire a pistol, Calum. 'Twas the best luck, surely."
There was a murmur of agreement in the room, and Calum almost shamefacedly replied, "och, 'tweren't me, my love. 'Twas the chief inspector himself took a notion to finish her off."