Wednesday, 28 August 2013

Skeletons in the Closet: Part 11

Yo! So, this is the final part of Skeletons in the Closet. Here are the links to all the other parts (which are also available from the first instalment, if you haven't read any of it yet!): 1234567,  8,9 and 10! Thanks to all who have been reading, I hope you've enjoyed it; as always, feedback very appreciated! 

Grey warriors lay strewn across the rough stone floor of the Tunnicliffe wine cellar, their prone forms intermingled with heaps of empty green bottles which clinked and rolled with every drunken, slurred motion of the warriors’ limbs. Inane smiles were plastered on the faces of most of the warriors, although one or two, who had not been able to keep gallons of centuries-old wine in their stomachs for too long, were looking decidedly unhappier. The occasional shards of broken glass shimmered like tiny stars in the large pools of spilt wine which formed deep shadows in the gloom of the cellars, shadows which joined with the flickering darkness surrounding each of the inebriated undead. Even the most casual observer could deduce that this had been one hell of a party.

Maxwell, Lydia and Crichton, however, were not casual observers. On the contrary, for them, the party atmosphere had been somewhat disturbed by the necessity of their manic flight away from a group of bloodthirsty warriors intent on ending their lives in the most violent ways possible, and after finding a method to combat these monsters the trio were intent on repaying the favour with Wonga-high levels of interest. The speed and strength of the hellish grey creatures would, usually, have provided a considerable barrier to these intentions, but happily for the courageous threesome, these advantages had been impaired by the insidious influence of alcohol, which can ruin even the most successful afterlives. This is not to imply that the fight would be one-sided; the warriors were still dangerous opponents and vastly outnumbered our three heroes, yet the consumption of the majority of the Tunnicliffe’s ample wine stores had evened up the competition somewhat, so that, when the trio hurtled down into the cellars, frantically hurling their missiles at all and sundry, they were not summarily dispatched but instead accounted for about half of the creatures before any of them had realised what was happening.

The element of surprise, however, lasts for slightly less time than an eager virgin, and soon the battle between the living and the dead was fully joined. Lydia, Crichton and Maxwell weaved through the throng of struggling, alcohol-imbued bodies, frantically dodging the powerful swings of grey fists, knowing that any direct hit was liable to severely incapacitate them, and at every opportunity lashed out with their divinely anointed weaponry, breaking bottles on limbs, torsos and heads and sending their owners back to the hells that spawned them. It was akin to a brawl in a Northern bar, but with a slightly cleaner floor.

Lydia’s sleeve was torn clean off as she wrenched herself from the grasp of a long-dead warrior, Crichton smashing a bottle over its head as it stumbled, pulled off-balance; Lydia returned the favour, taking out a warrior behind Crichton who was about to deliver a crushing blow to the butler’s immaculately coiffeured head; Maxwell was slightly too slow in avoiding the attack of another warrior, whose sharp and dirty nails carved out a scar on the Reverend’s cheek before dissolving into dust as Maxwell retaliated with a wild swipe of a water-filled wine bottle. Panting, dishevelled, the trio fought as hard as they could, forcing back the creatures who had defiled the Tunnicliffe’s home and, judging by some of the rooms they’d passed as they made their way to the scene of the fight, quite a lot of the Tunnicliffe’s furniture, the fiends apparently not familiar with the difference between a caquetoire and a commode. Holy water made dark patterns in the dust of the floor, dust that was being augmented by the rapidly decomposing bodies of the fallen warriors; and then, with a last smash of breaking glass and a cut-off shriek of pain, it was over. The trio stood, breathing heavily, in the centre of the floor, surrounded by broken glass and piles of off-white dirt, the last of their supply of holy water spent, but their enemies vanquished. Scarcely daring to believe their victory, they straightened up, shoulders relaxing, and began to smile at one another.

Their smiles proved to be short-lived, disappearing from their faces as a terrifying apparition appeared, shrieking, in the cellar entrance, its long, dishevelled hair playing wildly about its head, crimson liquid running from its mouth, clothes muddy and torn. The trio whirled around, ready to fly into battle once more, but were shocked into stillness by the swaying, crazed-looking figure in the doorway. Then Lydia flung herself forward, arms outstretched, and seized it around the middle.

“Louise! Sister, you’re alive!” she shouted gleefully, before burying her face in Louise’s shoulder.

Louise, for it was she, did not seem to notice her sister’s embrace at first. “Where,” she said, enunciating each syllable slowly and carefully, “has all the wine gone?”

Lydia looked up at her, a slight frown passing over her face. “Sister, you’ve never drunk wine before, what is...”

She was cut off before she could finish her sentence. “I desire more wine!” Louise announced, disengaging herself from Lydia’s arms and taking an uncertain step towards Crichton, who stared at her inscrutably, and Maxwell, who stared with far more obvious puzzlement. “And why has my party stopped?” Louise demanded. Lydia tried to grab at her arm, but Louise swayed away, staggering a little from the force of her movement. Her foot caught one of the few wine bottles that had remained intact during the fight and she fell, feet flying up into the air. She began to make strange spluttering noises.

“She’s choking! Oh, Louise, what have they done to you?” Lydia cried, hurrying forward to cradle her sister in her arms. She clasped Louise’s head in her arms as her sister shook on the floor, still making those strange spluttering noises; then Lydia realised her sister was not choking, but laughing. She had never seen her sister laugh before.

“Lighten up, dear!” Louise cackled. She tried to rise to her feet but couldn’t quite manage it; as she fell back, laughing even harder, an empty wine bottle slid from her sleeve and smashed on the floor, adding to the debris of the battle. The concern vanished from Lydia's face, and she left her drunken sister to giggle on the floor as she stood up. Maxwell walked over to her, extending his arm for her to take.

“It’s over,” he said, smiling. “Let’s wait until she calms down a tad, then Crichton and I will help her upstairs and we can all get some well-earned rest. Right, Crichton?”

Crichton nodded, smartly. “Certainly, sir.” He took a half step towards the reverend.

Lord Achan appeared from the shadows behind the butler and, before he had a chance to turn, dealt him a tremendous blow that flung him across the room. He hit the wall with a sickening crunch and slid, unmoving, to the floor.

There was a moment of perfect stillness as Achan’s red eyes burned out of the darkness at the speechless Maxwell and Lydia, with Louise still incongruously giggling on the floor; then the undead lord leapt across the room, shadows flying out behind him like a ragged cloak, and landed directly in front of Maxwell, unleashing another devastating blow with his right fist.

A pool of spilt wine saved Maxwell’s life. As Achan had sprung towards him, he had taken an involuntary step back, his foot slipping in the puddle of liquid, and he stumbled, Achan’s fist flying through the air where his head had been mere milliseconds before and missing him by inches. He rolled as he hit the ground, and Achan’s left fist cracked the stone where he had so briefly lain; the Reverend’s hand came up holding a bottle, and he flung it at the monstrous figure attempting to deprive him of his life. It smashed into his chest, coating him with liquid. The fiend stepped back a pace, eyes turning down with horror to look at his grey, sodden torso.

For a moment, Maxwell’s heart leapt; then Achan looked up again, fixing him with those burning red eyes. His face was cold, his expression completely blank apart from the faint traces of a sneer caressing his lips.
“Waste of a fine vintage,” he said drily. Maxwell hurriedly shuffled backwards, still prone, as Achan took a menacing step towards him. His back hit the wall, and as his foe loomed above him, he knew this was the end.

Then Lydia leapt, screaming, onto Achan’s back, arms clasped tight around his neck.

“Leave him alone, you monster!” she shrieked.

Achan snarled, his snide sneer gone. He whirled around, reaching a long arm behind him to wrench Lydia from her precarious perch. He grabbed her around her neck and lifted her furiously struggling form into the air.

“I tire of this pantomime,” he said. She grabbed furiously, futilely, at the fingers that were clasped around her throat. Her skin began to turn white as he squeezed out her last breaths, his red eyes expanding to fill her vision, twin flames burning her away. Twin flames that flared up as he savoured his kill, growing into raging infernos as she struggled and choked.

Flames that disappeared, as Achan screamed in sudden pain and impotent fury. He released Lydia, who collapsed onto the floor, coughing and retching as tears flooded from her eyes, and his hands flew to his chest. Maxwell’s face appeared behind his shoulder.

“And here’s the curtain,” he said into the undead lord’s ear.

 Achan grew rigid, face horribly contorted and shadows frantically flickering across his grey skin, and dissolved into chalky, off-white dust. The last thing to fade was the red glow from his monstrous eyes. Darkness fell once more.

Lydia looked at Maxwell as he knelt down to help her. “How...we were all out of water... How did you...?”
He put his left hand in hers, and with his right he held up the chain around his neck, a chain from which hung, suspended, a small silver cross. “I thought, if holy water worked, then, well, a holy symbol might be worth a try,” he told her, half a grin on his face. He let the cross drop and put his hand to her cheek. Louise had fallen silent; there was no sound, now, except for Maxwell and Lydia’s breathing, no sight for either of them except for the other’s face.

“I’m just so glad you’re – ” he began, and her lips met his. For a moment, songbirds trilled their sweetest songs  and the sun shone brightly down on the pair; then a sad little coughing sound bought them back to reality. Breaking the kiss, they hurried over to Crichton, who lay in a spreading pool of blood in the corner of the cellar. They knelt on either side of him, Maxwell supporting his head; Lydia pulled back his black jacket and then stopped, recognising there was nothing she could do. Crichton saw the look in her eyes.

“Well, milady, it appears as though my tenure is coming to an end,” he whispered, each word an effort. He started to cough again, weakly. Lydia replied, her voice almost as halting as his as tears closed up her throat.

“It’s OK, Crichton. Don’t try to talk. It’s all going to be...”

Crichton’s mouth quirked, though the rest of his face remained stoic as ever. “I hate to disagree with you, milady, but I fear that will not be the case.” His eyes fluttered, and Lydia raised her hand to his cheek; Maxwell looked on, unable and unwilling to intrude on their private moment of farewell.

“You’ve been the perfect servant, Crichton, for as long as I can remember. I think that Lydia would be appropriate at this moment in time.”

Crichton smiled, properly this time. “Lydia,” he said. His eyes closed for the last time.

Maxwell held the woman he loved as she sobbed in his arms.
We have, dear reader, at last reached the end of our tale. Now it remains only to tie up loose ends, to create the finality that can only be found in stories and in death. Lydia and Maxwell, liberated by their shared experience and their newfound love, eloped to Vienna, where Maxwell got a lucrative job as supernatural adviser to the King of Austria, and Lydia opened a small art gallery with a studio overlooking the canals where she could sit and paint for as long as she wanted. Louise, having discovered the delights of parties (and free-flowing alcohol), soon became famous for hosting the most lavish, and most fun, social gatherings in the whole of Surrey; and the local builders, plasterers and carpenters received a timely and substantial boost to their income for the year after making the necessary repairs to Tunnicliffe Manor. Louisa was buried in the local village church, as per Tunnicliffe tradition; Harold’s body was donated to science, where it was studied by a young Genevan named Victor Frankenstein. No-one ever found out what happened to it after that.

Crichton’s body was buried in the grounds of Tunnicliffe Manor, in a small plot of land that was, on Lydia’s orders, to be kept well-tended for as long as the Tunnicliffe’s lived at the manor. The epitaph on his headstone read: “Here lies Crichton, the greatest butler there ever lived. Rest easy, for your duty is done.”

In the deepest and darkest depths of Hell, Lord Achan once more awaits his chance to rise up into the world and gain revenge on those who have wronged him.

Sunday, 25 August 2013

Skeletons in the Closet: Part Ten

It's the penultimate part of Skeletons in the Closet! Here are the links to parts1234567,  8 and 9! I hope people have been enjoying it so far (and if you have, feel free to say so, because I'm very needy, and if you haven't, feel free to say so, because I want to get better and could probably do with being taken down a peg or two); anyway, here's Part Ten!

The butler did not mention the impoliteness of their open-mouthed stares, but with the selective discretion common to the greats of the butlering profession turned instead to his primary objective: the font. He took a swift glance towards the door, checking that it was holding; the wood was by now creaking ominously, and the beasts behind it were beginning to howl with bloodlust as they sensed they had nearly achieved their goal. Noticing the bottles on the floor, he picked one up and, his back to Maxwell and Lydia, dipped it into the foul-smelling water of the font. Luckily, the bottle was already green, so at least the trio were spared the unedifying sight of holy water staining clear glass.

Presently, Lydia found her voice. “Crichton...”

“Yes, milady?” Crichton answered, busy  filling up another bottle.

“Crichton... what the hell is going on?” Lydia asked. Maxwell decided he would let the blasphemy go, this time, since he himself was thinking a similar thing.

Crichton turned back towards them, a bottle in either hand. He still, they noticed, had the rope tied around his waist, and he proceeded to untie it and let it fall to the floor. His voice, as ever, remained smooth and even.

“Well, milady, as you have no doubt observed, the manor is under attack by the newly-raised dead, which is, of course, most undesirable. As the chief member of staff, I feel it is my duty to rid the manor of unwanted guests, and so I have proceeded here with all haste to procure some holy water, which I believe can be used as effective weaponry against the gentlemen outside, however ancient it may be; and I am using these glass vessels in order to transport this water to the other parts of the manor that have been occupied by the acquaintances of our... ill-mannered visitors, if I may use so impolite a term, milady.”

“Sorry... newly-raised dead?” Maxwell asked apologetically. “Is that what they are?”

“I believe so, sir. Raised, if I am not mistaken, by our late gardener, whom I have suspected for some time of having certain immoral depths which the eye could not readily see. His employment, fortunately for us, has already been terminated. I do not wish to be rude, sir, but would it be permitted for me to continue filling these vessels whilst we converse? I fear there may not be much time.”

Recognising this, Maxwell and Lydia picked up some bottles of their own and rushed to join Crichton in scooping the fetid water from the depths of the font. As they filled each bottle, they tucked it away into one of the folds of their clothing; Lydia, of course, found this the easiest, arrayed as she was in her highly impractical dress, whilst Crichton and Maxwell, as might be expected given their various uniforms of office, had any number of pockets in which to secrete items of this shape and size.

“Well, at least we know what we’re facing now,” Maxwell said. Lydia did not reply, as she was trying not to breathe, but Crichton nodded politely.

“Indeed, sir.” They hefted the last three bottles in their hands as they turned back towards the door. The howling from outside rose in intensity as small clouds of stone dust rose from around the now twisted and deformed hinges; the moment was almost upon them. They stood in a line facing the door, bottles held ready to throw as the old wood finally started to splinter under the blows of the reanimated dead. The howls grew still louder, joined now by the sound of tortured wood and the screech of breaking metal. Maybe five more impacts, four...

“Are you sure this will work, Crichton?” Maxwell asked out of the corner of his mouth.

“Well, sir, if there is any place where a miracle might happen...”

The door gave way. The first three screaming corpses leapt through the newly created gap, shadows trailing around them as they bounded towards the three companions. Crichton, Lydia and Maxwell aimed carefully at the approaching monstrosities, cocking back their arms as they prepared to hurl their blessed if foul-smelling missiles. Each fought a battle with their own fears as the howling, bloodthirsty fiends from the nether dimensions  sprang forward, ever closer, until, as the beasts bent their knees for the final violent lunge, the trio let fly.

The crazed howling swiftly turned into screams of agony. The three bottles flew straight and true, smashing into their intended targets with as much force as their owners could muster; each broke apart on impact, coating the three monstrosities in shimmering green fluid. Where it was touched by the water, their grey skin turned brilliant white, the shadows that played over their bodies chased away by the purity of the liquid; and then, with a strange sucking sound, it sank into their skin, and the monsters seemed to crumple into themselves, imploding as the fabric of their hell-forged being was destroyed by the blessed substance. The two warriors behind, seeing the demise of their comrades as they themselves began to sprint through the door, halted, their surprise mixing with their sudden terror and stopping them dead in their tracks; two more missiles from Crichton and Lydia meant their hesitation was fatal, as they too were dissolved by the holy water, leaving behind only streaks of off-white dust that mixed with the broken glass and dirt on the chapel floor.

Exultation swept over the trio. Maxwell and Lydia leapt, breathless, into each others’ arms, causing the bottles concealed in their clothing to clank and clatter; Crichton, of course, remained impassive, but if one watched very, very closely one could see even his mouth quirking ever so slightly. At length, Lydia and Maxwell released each other, and turned towards Crichton, ready for further action.

“So, what are we to do next?” Maxwell asked. Before Crichton could answer, Lydia jumped in.

“We kill the rest of these fiends, of course,” said Lydia fiercely, her eyes flashing. “They deserve everything that’s coming to them after what they did to Mother. And we need to find my sister, as well.”

It was clear from her tone she would brook no argument; not that Maxwell or Crichton, in their present triumphant state, would have wanted to disagree in any case. Smoothly, Crichton said “Certainly, Milady. May I suggest that we proceed to the wine cellars? On my way here I ascertained that the majority of them had congregated around the alcoholic beverages; I believe we have an ample supply of the font water to clean them out.” With a firm nod, Lydia swept out of the chapel, dress billowing behind her as Maxwell and Crichton followed, ready for any possible trouble on the way.

There was none; the only other people they saw were Berenice and Bridget, sprinting, or at least rapidly waddling, after a pair of grey warriors who had run past the trio too quickly for them to react. The trio shared a swift glance of disbelief but, after the events of the day, nothing would surprise them too much; and so, courage bolstered by their success and their desire for revenge on the creatures that had caused them so much heartache. 

Friday, 23 August 2013

Skeletons in the Closet: Part Nine

Hey everyone! So, here's part 9; there are two more parts after this, with the last part a special extended edition in the traditions of serials everywhere. Here are the links to parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7 and 8! Enjoy! 

As many of us have found to our consternation, even the most intimate moments never seem to last long enough; and soon the shuddering impacts on the chapel door shook the reverend and the youngest Tunnicliffe from their dual reverie. Releasing each other from their embrace, they noticed, with some alarm, that the door was starting to show the strain; the hinges, sunk into the stone around the one barrier saving the pair from a horrible and messy death, were starting to buckle with the force of the monsters’ blows, and both Lydia and Maxwell knew that the end was near.

They rose, and stood facing the source of the crashing beats that were measuring out the last minutes of their lives. Lydia’s hand found Maxwell’s, and gripped it tight, not seeming to mind its clamminess. This would usually be a good omen for their future relationship, but such concerns did not seem particularly applicable at the present time.

 “What… what do you think they are?” she asked him, her eyes fixed firmly on the door. Her mask had slipped back over her face as she strove to hide her fear, but Maxwell fancied he could still make out some of the softness that lay beneath her carefully crafted countenance.

“I have no idea. I’ve never seen anything like them before,” he answered. He tried to keep his gaze on the door, too, wanting to keep an eye on the situation, but he found it kept sliding back towards Lydia, her hair, the lines of her face…

They say the course of true love never did run smooth. In this case, what with social differences and the group of murderous fiends outside, love was having to run an assault course made of sandpaper and broken glass; but despite this, as you have no doubt been able to tell, Cupid’s arrow had found both Lydia and Maxwell’s hearts.

It was a shame that those hearts seemed shortly to be placed in a separate geographical location to the rest of their bodies, but every relationship has its teething troubles.

Lydia spoke again. “What are we going to do?”

Maxwell had no idea; his priestly training hadn’t prepared him for anything like this. The demons of Hell’s pits were, he had been told, insidious and persuasive, capable of altering the alignment of a man’s thoughts and feelings without him even knowing; but these were fully and obviously capable of permanently altering the alignment of a man’s limbs without caring if he was aware of them or not. Still, and though Maxwell, as has been said, was in many ways wetter than a glass of water, one of the duties of a vicar is to administer comfort in times of need. He glanced around the chapel, seeking something he could use. The windows were far too high for them to climb out of; there was no other exit from the chapel save the door which seemed soon to give way; and Maxwell knew that he and Lydia would be no match for the slavering fiends outside the door, even if they were to somehow fashion weaponry from the sparse materials inside the chapel. There was only one thing, then, that they could do; and they were, after all, in the perfect place to do it.

“We pray,” he said. The solemnity in his voice made her look away from the door for a moment; she nodded, and they both closed their eyes, ready to perform their last actions on the Earth.

Neither Maxwell or Lydia, it had to be said, could see this prayer having a great deal of an impact on their present situation. After all, words can only go so far; and if God had allowed events to carry on this extent, it was unlikely that he would suddenly change his mind. There is no prayer in the Christian religion specifically designed to cover impending death through dismemberment by unknown supernatural beings; perhaps the founders of the faith did not realise such a prayer might be needed (if so, they must be kicking themselves right about now).

Therefore, Maxwell decided to fall back on an old standard. He clasped his hands together as, standing beside him, Lydia did the same. “Our father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy...” he began.

It was a sentence that was never to be finished, as at that moment, there was an almighty crash, and their eyes both snapped open so they could see what they were sure was about to hurl itself through the door. A door which remained, miraculously, intact.

“Good evening, sir and madam,” said a smooth voice behind them. They looked up to see a man standing in the tall frame of one of the now-shattered stained-glass windows, silhouetted against the glow of the sun. He had a rope tied around his waist, which played out through the window behind him. Taking it in his hands, he now used it to shimmy down from the window to the ground, delicately picking his way through the shards of broken glass that now covered the floor.

“I am most dreadfully sorry about the mess,” he said. “I shall, of course, have it dealt with the moment our current crisis has been happily averted.”

Lydia and Maxwell just stared at him in amazement. It was Crichton.

Sunday, 18 August 2013

Skeletons in the Closet: Part Eight

Well, here we are, Part 8; by my reckoning, only between 2 and 4 parts to go! This one's a little shorter, but hey, it's Sunday, right? Here are links to all the other parts, if you've missed them: one two  three four five six seven
And also, links to all the parts of Skeletons are available from the first instalment, just for your convenience if you're just starting out!

It is the job of a butler to be, at all times, better informed than his employers. Whilst the other members of the party had no idea of the enemy they were facing, Crichton had immediately recognised them for what they were; the moving corpses of those long dead, reanimated by the foulest of foul magics. Hence, when he had escaped from the conservatory, he had not, as the others, simply fled without purpose; it is not the butler’s way to ever perform superfluous actions. Crichton knew exactly where he was going, and what he needed to do.

He was currently very near his destination, deep within the east wing of Tunnicliffe Manor. He carefully peered around the corner into the corridor beyond, a model of decorum despite the heady flight he’d undergone mere moments previously. The coast was clear; as he had suspected, he had evaded his pursuers, who had in any case seemed more concerned with chasing the female members of the party than the besuited butler. He calmly adjusted his small black bowtie and smoothed down the front of his jacket to remove any creases that might have crept into it, before stepping into the corridor. He glanced again from left to right as he swiftly crossed over to a portrait of the Virgin Mary berating Onan, smoothly taking a tiny golden key from an inner pocket as he did so. Having ascertained that there was indeed no one watching, he inserted the key into a tiny crack just below the right hand corner of the painting, and turned it sharply.

A six foot section of the wall slid aside, revealing a neatly furnished room with a thick red carpet, a varnished mahogany desk and accompanying chair and, arranged on the back wall, row upon row of thick leather-bound books on long wooden shelves. Upon the desk were three large candles, and a pile of neatly stacked paper with a quill and ink perched upon them. The baize finish to the desktop, and the slightly musty smell which emerged with this sight, spoke of the storage of aeons of knowledge seen only by a select few, carefully hoarded and accumulated without the knowledge of any outsiders.

A small mouse emerged from a hole in the corner, scampered up the leg of the desk, saw Crichton and relieved itself on the tabletop before scurrying back to its hole. Such was Crichton’s unflappability, however, that he did not even sigh, just carefully stepped into the room. He lit the candles to flood the room with waxy light, then pressed a switch on the wall so that the sliding panel which had revealed the room once more hid it, and the butler, from the outside world.

The story behind the secret room was this. Given that the upper classes, in general, could not find their backsides with both hands without the aid of a map and a servant to read it for them, it had long been the custom of butlers everywhere to look out for threats to their families on their masters’ behalf, a custom that they accepted with exasperated indifference. The Tunnicliffe’s butlers had taken this custom a step further, making sure that every dilemma the family had faced, and the circumstances of its solution, were carefully catalogued as advice and instruction for future generations. Not in the leather-bound books that lined the walls, books of history and philosophy written by some of the greatest minds that had existed in the known world; they were mere trifles compared to the tome Crichton had come to find. No; the book that Crichton now took from the bottom drawer of the mahogany desk held far more important information than these. It was a large and ponderous volume, thick with pages inserted by previous incumbents of Crichton’s position detailing their travails and triumphs, their wisdom and their warnings. It was like the Bible, only without all the fake hocus-pocus.

Crichton turned to the section on necromancy, and began to read.

Wednesday, 14 August 2013

Skeletons in the Closet: Part Seven

So, it's time for Part Seven; thanks so much to everyone who's been reading so far! If you've missed them, here are parts one, two, three, four, five, and six, and as ever, any and all feedback is much appreciated! Hope you enjoy...

When Maxwell was six, his father, Maximillian Maxwell Senior, had given him some advice, which, given that it was the only time he could remember his father being sober whilst talking to him, had stuck with the reverend through many of the trials and tribulations of his life. He could remember the occasion clearly, even now. His father, also a vicar, and his mother, the housekeeper, had been having another of their intermittent arguments about the older Maxwell’s womanising behaviour, which had culminated in Maxwell senior having to be treated for third degree genital burns from a skilfully wielded kettle. As the doctor administered to him, he had looked over at his son, a thin, pale youth already well on his way to developing his own list of social and behavioural problems.

Maxwell still remembered the look in his father’s brown eyes, that strange mix of melancholy and mischief that he had not seen before or since. He remembered leaning in close to hear his father’s words.

“Son, don’t worry about all this. We’ll make up, don’t you fret. It’s like I always say, you should always try and make the best out of a bad situation.”

His mother had left the next day, never to return, but Maxwell had never forgotten the optimism in his father’s tone, despite the leeches the doctor was administering to his most delicate area, and had at that moment decided to live his life by this one and only counsel he’d ever managed to wrest from his parent. He saw no particular reason not to apply it to his current situation; after all, it was certainly a bad one.

He turned his head towards Lydia and said “Well, worse things have happened at sea.”

If Maxwell’s father had been more concerned with him and less concerned with the contents of the next bottle and pair of knickers, he might have given him some more advice. When a woman looks at you in the way Lydia was now looking at Maxwell, like a lion with a thorn in its paw and quite ready to devour the next poor fool who comes along and tries to pull it out, it is time to stop talking and remove yourself from the vicinity post-haste. The old adage, “let sleeping bears lie”, indeed, might have been sufficient, and would certainly not have hurt. Unfortunately, as has been mentioned, Maxwell’s father had not been concerned with Maxwell (indeed his only legacy apart from this one sage piece of counsel was the small silver cross that Maxwell still wore around his neck); this explains why, instead of letting Lydia lie on the floor and keep her thoughts to herself, he kept on blithely trying to make small talk, an act akin to prodding a hornet’s nest with one’s unprotected genitalia.

“I mean, this isn’t so bad, really, is it? Quite a nice place, by all accounts. And people have been in much worse spots before, don’t-cha-know. Rather a quaint old hole, really, all things considered. I must say, I’m actually feeling quite chipper about the whole-“

Finally, far, far too late, he noticed the look in Lydia’s eye, and shut up. Far, far too late.

She stood up, sweeping her dark hair from her eyes, and looked down at him with contempt radiating from every feature.

“Chipper? Well, sir, I am glad you are feeling so happy about the situation! From where I am standing, it hardly looks so – quaint, was it? No, sir, it hardly seems quaint to me; this, sir, seems like an utter hell-hole!”
Maxwell’s feeble protestations about blaspheming in a house of the Lord had absolutely no effect in dampening down the flames of her fury.

“I shall damn well say what I damn well want to say, sir! My mother has just been brutally slain, slain by fiends that I can only assume have been sent by Satan himself-“ she brushed aside his meagre whimper at the Prince of Darkness’ name- “and are now outside the very door you lean against, sir, clamouring to get in and administer the same treatment to both of us! Pray tell me, Mr Reverend, what worse situations have there been than this?”

Try as he might, Maxwell could not call one to mind just at this moment, as he lay wilting like a delicate flower under Lydia’s blowtorch of a tirade. In any case, he did not have a chance to answer; Lydia ploughed on, seemingly without drawing breath.

“And as for this room, sir-it is the worst room we could have selected! From hundreds of perfectly well-furnished possibilities, you have selected this foul-smelling, dusty cave! Yes, sir, cave! For that is all it is apt to be described as! A dark, dingy cave!”

“It has a strong door,” Maxwell blurted out. Lydia, red in the face and with her foot starting to stridently tap on the stone floor, seemed almost taken aback for a second, but she was made of stern stuff, and reacted to this unexpected riposte like a skilled fencer.

“A strong door! And if the door does, by some miracle, hold, sir, what then? What are we to do for food? For water?”

Maxwell glanced over towards the font at the back of the room. With a shrill, almost manic laugh, Lydia walked over to the appliance in question, and knocked off the wooden lid which lay atop it. Even at the other end of the room, Maxwell could smell the foul, decayed stench of long-stagnant water.

“I am no expert, sir, but I hardly think we can drink that. Though you are welcome to try.” She stepped away from the font, her heel sending one of the many dusty and discarded bottles which lay on the floor flying off into the corner. Her lip curled slightly. “Perhaps you could use one of these.” She bent down, picking up another of the bottles and, turning it around, brushed some of the dust off with her sleeve so she could read the label. “Bordeaux, 1634. A fine vintage. How very civilised.”

Maxwell had to make a kind of awkward sitting leap to avoid the bottle as it flew at his head. Shards of broken glass rained down on his by now very dirty cassock. Lydia stood trembling with emotions she was trying to suppress as he finally stood to face her.

As several of those at Louisa Tunnicliffe’s ill-fated tea party had privately noticed, Maxwell was something of a wet blanket, an observance not only directed at his perpetually sweat-soaked clothing. Years of neglect by his father, and being browbeaten by his mother and the band of gossipy old women she used to invite to their home, had indeed turned Maxwell into a man who was rather too polite and, to slip into vulgarity for a moment, drippy to ever truly impress anyone of his acquaintance; to be polite, he had before been described by a man he had known for several years as having “a backbone made of jelly, and a brain to match”. Yet as he watched Lydia standing there, red-faced and shaking, accusing him of leading her to her death as though he had not just saved her life, something snapped within Maxwell. Thoughts he had never allowed to reach the surface of his brain erupted, thoughts he had forced into the deepest recesses of his mind revealing themselves with a sudden surge of hitherto unexperienced anger. Sometimes, the heat of a situation can dry out the wettest of garments.

As Lydia looked on, he turned his face to the floor, eyes closed, and took three long, deep breaths. Then his head rose once more, and his eyes snapped open. He took a step forward towards her, and spoke. His voice was soft after the shrillness of Lydia’s, but there was a conviction behind it that made every word carry to her scarlet ears.

“Miss Tunnicliffe, you have neither the cause nor the right to assault me, verbally or otherwise. I acted only in the best interests of us both, only to keep you safe from those hellish creatures outside. Despite the fact that I have been treated with only disdain since I first arrived here, looked at as a figure of fun for you to flirt with and ridicule, I helped you away from those monsters and have done my utmost to keep you, and myself, safe from their demonic grasp. And, if you will excuse me, I have better things to do than to bandy words with such a spoilt, capricious creature as yourself.”

He strode past her, taking hold of the wooden lectern which stood opposite the font and taking it back to the door, where he propped it up against the jamb in an attempt to strengthen their only line of defence. As he did this, he did not direct so much as a single glance at her. He once again sat up against the door, pushing his weight back against it as it shuddered and shook, and put his head on his chest, keeping his eyes cast down away from the youngest of the Tunnicliffe sisters. For a few minutes were the thumping beats on the door produced by the monsters outside.

Lydia had not moved at all since Maxwell had said his piece. Not a muscle had twitched on her face, not a finger had flexed on her hands. But now, in a much lower voice than she had been using before, she spoke again.

“You think I like having to act like that?” Maxwell looked up at her, now. Her face had lost its expression of poised contempt, had lost the cruel sharpness it had possessed for all the time he had known her. Now, it seemed softer, more open, more scared and alone than he had ever seen a face look before. Maxwell realised he was seeing Lydia without her social mask, and with a jolt realised his anger had given way to compassion.

“You think I like having to constantly scrutinise everyone I meet for faults so that I can comment on them for my mother’s approval? To have to keep up with every single one of the latest fashions so that my sister will still talk to me? To have to constantly belittle my fellows, to always be cold and aloof, to be, as you put it, spoilt and capricious? Always, always spoilt and capricious, because it is what is expected of me!”

Tears were streaming down her face as she spoke, and Maxwell realised they were flooding out of his own eyes too as her words made her pain manifest. “All I ever wanted, from when I was small, was to be able to be myself, to make my own way, to be liked and loved by those around me. But I was never allowed to, no, no care for Lydia, only training in decorum and praise given for sharp wit and not soft-hearted concern. Taught not to care, but to disdain, not to enjoy but to criticise, not to love, but to hate. Taught so much that it became second nature, that it became part of who I am and stopped anyone from seeing anything else, so that I could never love or be loved, but even in crowds I am always alone.” She walked over to one of the pews and sat down heavily, her head in her hands. Muffled by her tears, Maxwell could hear her repeating “spoilt and capricious” over and over in little more than a whisper which cut to his core.

A few seconds passed as she sat sobbing. The Maxwell stood up and walked over to her. He sat on the pew beside her and put his arm around her shoulder.

“I’m so sorry,” he said. She leant into his chest, shoulders shaking, and he put his other arm around her as tears flooded down both their faces.

There they sat, clasped together in their own private moment of intimacy while the monsters of the world outside howled and banged on the chapel door.  

Sunday, 11 August 2013

Skeletons in the Closet: Part Six

So here it is; the sixth part of Skeletons in the Closet. Hope you're enjoying it so far! Parts one, two, three, four and five for your perusal, because it's probably best to start with Part 1 whatever Star Wars may have made you believe...

Far away from the site of the twins’ new-found love life, Louise was flagging. She had managed to dodge her pursuers, her knowledge of the house where she had spent her entire life leading her down to the cellars, into the intimate and secluded areas of the house. She knew the vast bulk of the undead had followed her, enticed by her feminine form and their apparent affinity with travelling downwards, but for the moment she was alone in the maze of grimy passageways that ran underneath the whole of Tunnicliffe Manor. Her dress was strewn with cobwebs, her knees and hands were muddy and slimy from the numerous falls she’d had in the darkness of the passageways, and she had lost one of her new and very expensive shoes. Her cheeks were red and her lip had started to quiver. Anyone who didn’t know her could have been forgiven for thinking she was on the verge of breaking down.

But Louise shared more than just a nomenclatural similarity with her late mother. Her reddened face and quivering lip were not signs of despair, but rather of anger; anger at the precariousness of her situation, anger at her mother’s death, but most of all anger at the damage to what was now her property that those barbaric, frankly plebeian riffraff were no doubt doing. From this, it can be gathered that, not unlike her mother, Louise had her nose held so high in the air that birds were in danger of flying up her nostrils.

Rage can only propel a body so far, however, and now Louise was beginning to tire. She leant on the wall for a moment to catch her breath, and then realising what she was doing started away from the clinging grime, loosing forth a small, involuntary squeak. Then she froze, as it was joined by a deep, guttural laugh which reverberated round Louise’s head. She looked around, hoping that her momentary lapse would not constitute one of her final moments; the coast seemed clear. She took a deep, relieved breath, and walked around the corner, straight into cold, grey flesh.

As you have no doubt realised, Tunnicliffe Manor was not a place where fun was often experienced. The family’s tipple of choice was tea, and they otherwise subsisted almost entirely on cakes and the occasional strawberry; perhaps if they had known more about the extent and general fullness of the wine cellars below the mansion, this entire story might have been very different. The undead warriors, however, were certainly finding out about the extent of the wine cellars, and were doing their level best to reduce their fullness. Almost all of them had chased Louise into these passageways, and completely forgotten about the pursuit as soon as they had lain their glowing red eyes on the rows and rows of bottles that had been stored for centuries in the cool, damp air of the Tunnicliffe’s basement. Even the travails of the previous incumbent of the chapel had put hardly a dent in them; but they were certainly being dented now. After several lifetimes spent being dead, the grey-skinned warriors were determined to make up for lost time, with the added benefit that their carousing might also make them forget the torments they had been through for a while. Louise’s escape thus far had been greatly facilitated by the amount of alcohol they had managed to consume, although her realisation of this did not serve to assuage her anger.

It was also fortunate for Louise in the specific as well as the general, because the warrior who she ran in to may well have had quicker reflexes had he not partaken of rather too much Chateauneuf-du-Pape. As it was, however, with his hands occupied by two newly liberated and nearly empty bottles, and his motor functions badly impaired, Louise’s lack of attention resulted not in a swift grab and the end of Louise, but instead in the sudden loss of verticality of the warrior as he lost his balance and crashed down onto the floor. Louise, forgetting herself for a brief moment, immediately rammed her heel as hard as she could into the groin of her prostrate opponent, before stepping back and primly adjusting her dress as he groaned in pain. She noticed the wine bottles.

“That will teach you not to consume alcohol in the presence of a lady, brute. I assume your fellows are doing the same thing. Well, we shall see about that. Lowborn creatures, I will not allow alcohol in my manor!” She seemed pleased at this realisation that, with her mother gone, Tunnicliffe Manor was indeed Louise’s. “My manor!” she repeated to herself, glorifying in her new position and almost forgetting about the creature still moaning on the floor. She daintily stepped over the prone form, and began to move down the corridor once more. She was now the lady of Tunnicliffe Manor! And not before time, either, she thought to herself. Of course, it was a shame that Mother had to pass away for her birthright to be passed on, but then, Louise recalled, she had not been much of a mother; she and her sister had known the nanny far better than they had ever known Louisa, and indeed she’d only started taking an interest in them when they were old enough to start making snide comments to the carefully selected guests. It was regrettable, perhaps, but Louise could not bring herself to feel much remorse.

She ran down another corridor, away from the creature she had incapacitated, and found herself in a large chamber, so large, in fact, that the far half of it was shrouded in darkness so that she could not see what lay beyond. She ran towards it anyway, reasoning that it must lead somewhere and knowing, despite her anger, that being around when the creature managed to get back up would not be the most prudent course of action; she had seen what they had done to the gardener. Her heel caught in a hole in the flagstones of the floor and she pitched forward, gashing her knee on the rough ground and splattering her dress with foul-smelling mud. She shrieked in frustration, and the shriek gave way to hot tears of anguish, of fury and of fear.

Presently, a more pressing concern than her muddied dress and bloodied knee began to make itself known to her. In the flight from the conservatory there had not been time to consider who, or what, these men were; and there was something about their glowing eyes and the deep, disconcerting shadows which moved across their bodies without any change in the light which suggested they might not simply be ruffians from the village down the lane. She collected herself, and rose back to her feet. It was a quality of Louise’s, as it had indeed been of her mother’s, to be able to take large and unwieldy problems and focus on one tiny part of them, to pull apart one seam of the dress and direct all attention, thought and opinion onto this loose thread. No matter that these men had killed her mother, displaying an inhuman strength which fit well with their odd and disconcerting appearance; no matter that they had seemingly appeared from nowhere intent on bringing destruction, and no matter the terror they inspired or the horror they were evidently capable of. Whoever, and whatever, they were, they were behaving with an utter lack of decorum, and, judging by the brute she had left crumpled on the stones, had partaken of what was now her wine in an irresponsible and frankly loutish manner. Well, she was Louise Tunnicliffe, lady of Tunnicliffe Manner, and she would not tolerate that kind of behaviour! She would march down to the cellar, where these brutes were no doubt concentrated, and give them a piece of her mind! With her chin firmly set and a new sense of righteous purpose, Louise spoke into the darkness before her.

“I am the Lady of this house, and I will not allow this state of affairs to continue!”

A pair of glowing red eyes flared into life in front of her face, fires lit suddenly in the gloom.

“You really aren’t in a position to issue ultimatums,” an arrogant, amused voice said, the words floating out from the darkness. She screamed, and lashed out with her hand towards those horrendous eyes; but a grey and mottled hand tightly grasped her wrist before the blow could land. Lord Achan, still holding on to Louise, stepped forward into the light, though his face carried the shadows with him. He looked down at her as she struggled in his grip.

“You monster! Unhand me!” she shouted. He cuffed her across the face with the back of his hand and she fell, unconscious.

Two more warriors emerged from the darkness behind Achan. “Take her,” he instructed them, and they hastened to obey. Achan melted back into the thick, cloying darkness.

He had more work to do.

Thursday, 8 August 2013

Skeletons in the Closet: Part Five

Here's the eagerly anticipated (for its very select group of readers) fifth part... Again, any feedback, love or loathing, is perfectly welcome (and it's the internet so you can do it anonymously!). If you aren't part of the select group but would like to be, here are parts one, two, three, and four (I will find a better way of doing that at some point...)

Berenice and Bridget had no idea where they were going. After the confusion of the flight from the conservatory, they had simply kept running, propelled by sheer terror away from the grey-skinned warriors who had murdered their former host and her gardener. With a speed you would not have believed of them, they had outpaced all the others, fleeing deep into the manor without ever once looking back. Only two of the grey men had managed to keep up with them; now, with the twins’ pace slowing as they succumbed to the fatigue caused by their large, cumbersome dresses and large, cumbersome guts, they began to catch up. The twins managed to make it to a bathroom, panting and gasping; as they ran through the door, they managed to get their feet tangled together, and both ended up in a tangled heap on the floor.

Seeing this, their pursuers slowed, and began to grin evilly. It had been a long time, a very long time, since any of the warriors had seen a woman, let alone felt their touch; it had been a very long time since they had experienced any of the pleasures of the flesh, the taste of food or even the wonderful sensation of breathing. They had spent the last thousand years below ground before Harold, the now deceased gardener for the Tunnicliffes, had raised them from their torment and unwittingly set them loose on the world, and now they were determined to make up for lost time, starting with getting as much carnal pleasure as they could feasibly generate from the two women they had been pursuing.

These two particular warriors, it has to be said, were not of the brightest stock even when they were alive the first time, and a thousand years of conversing only with worms had hardly improved their mental facilities. Nor, for that matter, had it helped their ability to perform the carnal acts which they so craved; this knowledge might have saved them quite a lot of embarrassment, but they had no idea of the effects of their enforced incarceration, and were lustily looking forward to their fast-approaching encounter with the Chuffersleighs. They reached the door to the bathroom and looked down at the heaving masses of slightly cheap material which constituted the twins.

“Well, looks like we’ll be having a bit of... fun,” said the first, accompanying his words with his most evil grin. It made him look like a constipated ferret, admittedly one that had died and been reanimated by the most unholy of magics which played across his body like coruscating shadow. His companion merely chuckled, that low, almost asthmatic chuckle that only the most stupid of henchmen ever perfect and unleash whenever they think they have the upper hand. They stood leering in the doorway, flexing what remained of their muscles, as Bridget and Berenice slowly disentangled themselves and slowly rose onto their feet. Their eyes shone with anticipation.

The twins had led a rather sheltered life; in fact, the only times they left the house were to go shopping with their mother, whose incontinence and general bad temper made these excursions quite a chore, and their regular teas with the Tunnicliffes, where they put up being the objects of ridicule for the simple comfort of having some human contact outside of each other. As you can imagine, the chances of meeting men whilst either cleaning up excrement or having it verbally showered upon them were slim at best, a description that could not be extended to the twins themselves. Their only previous foray into this particular avenue was their previously mentioned courtship with an army captain, a match made for them by a mother desperate to have at least one male heir, and it would be as much of a disappointment to her as to the twins’ when she found out as they had that this particular captain fought for the other army, as it were. The Chuffersleighs had suffered lifetimes of not being wanted, of their instincts being repressed and their desires snuffed out. And now there were two almost naked men standing over them with lust in their glowing red eyes. Their terror at their situation gave to a far more primal emotion as years of submerged temptation all sprung forth at once.
The warriors’ leers disappeared as they caught the expressions on the twins’ faces. They suddenly felt very underdressed in their tattered loincloths, and wished there was more between them and the Chuffersleigh sisters. Judging by the looks of hungry anticipation on the twins’ porcine visages, several miles and lakes of cold water would have been a good start. As the twins rose to their feet, panting now for a different reason than their recent terrified exertion, the warriors glanced at one another, realising that a thousand years had not made them ready for what was about to happen. Berenice took a step forward, her body trembling with her efforts to stay in control, and the undead warriors’ nerves gave way completely. They turned and ran back the way they had come.

Without a second thought, giving way to their Bacchanalian urges, the twins followed them down the corridor, determined to satisfy their needs with the first men that had ever shown them any attention.

Sunday, 4 August 2013

Skeletons in the Closet: Part Four

Little bit shorter, but still-the next part of Skeletons in the Closet is here! In case you missed them, here's parts one, two and three. Hope you enjoy! 

Feet whirling over the polished floor, Maxwell and his companion fled as fast as they could go, five of the grey-skinned warriors at their heels. His companion almost stumbled, her heels not altogether suitable for a frenetic chase pursued by fiends hell-bent on destruction, but Maxwell held her upright and forced her onwards. They flew headlong through the nearest open door, and Maxwell slammed it shut and forcing his weight against it. There were thumps from the other side, muffled by the heavy oak, as the warriors slammed their fists against the door, making it vibrate with the force of their blows. Maxwell’s shoes began to slide across the floor.

“Help me!” he shouted to his companion, who had fallen to the floor as if waiting to be picked up. Her hair had fallen over her face, so all he could say for sure was that it was one of the Tunnicliffes. She did not stir, just lay still, one hand thrown dramatically across the floor.

“Help me, damn you!” he said, panting with the effort of keeping the door shut fast against the monsters trying to get in. He was only a slight man, and the slippery soles of his smart new black shoes could find little purchase on the stone floor. The girl seemed to realise that her sudden faint was not going to pay any dividends, and added her weight to the door, pushing it backwards just enough for Maxwell to fasten the heavy iron bolts and anchor it shut. The thumping continued, and the door kept vibrating; but they were safe, at least for now. They both slumped, panting, to the floor. Maxwell took his handkerchief from his front pocket and mopped the perspiration from his forehead. For the first time, he was able to take stock of his surroundings, and he sighed with appreciation and not a little released tension as he realised where they were.

Like many of the larger mansions in the grand old British countryside, Tunnicliffe Manor had been built around the partially ruined structure of a long-deserted castle. Not only did this explain the abundance of corpses under its grounds, but also the presence of the chapel, a throwback to medieval days when the Church had to be treated with respect rather than slight pity and mild disdain. Thick stone walls and a rough granite floor spoke of the age of the room; a thick layer of dust showed how much it had been used recently. Two stained glass windows on the left hand side of the chapel threw coloured light over the row of pews along each wall, positioned so that each worshipper would be looking straight at the person opposite to check if they were praying or snoring. A stone font stood in one corner of the room; in the other was an old and rotten wooden lectern, surrounded by empty wine bottles which testified to the jocular alcoholism of the last paid chaplain who called this his parish, over a hundred years before Louisa Tunnicliffe had inherited the house. To Maxwell, it felt just like home. If it hadn’t been for the army of fiends intent on his murder banging on the door, he would have been quite content; he felt as if he had been meant to come here, called by his faith to a place of safety.

Slightly out of breath, but ever mindful of his manners, he turned to his companion to express his feeling of divine providence, and his heart sank as he recognised  with whom he was stuck, with whom he was to share his last few precious moments on  this earth.

It was Lydia.

Thursday, 1 August 2013

Skeletons in the Closet: Part Three

Well, here's part three! Rated 12 for slightly violent scenes. Here are parts one and two, if you missed them. Enjoy! 

The sad little tinkle of broken china had alerted the occupants of the conservatory that something was wrong. The shaking of the earth as the dead rose up did not worry them unduly; they had, after all, no idea yet what was going on, but most just assumed that one of Berenice or Bridget had moved position on their sofa. However, physics does not ignore what humans try to avoid; and in accordance with the laws of nature, the shaking had dislodged one of Louisa’s finest teacups from its precarious position on the arm of Maxwell’s chair, and what tea remained in it was now spreading across the polished floor.

“I really am most dreadfully sorry,” Maxwell feebly apologised as Crichton knelt to once more mop up his mess. “It’s this shaking, you see, it quite upset the apple cart, so to speak...”

Crichton’s measured expression singularly failed to show that in his opinion it would take little more than the slightest of zephyrs to upset Maxwell’s own very small and fragile apple-cart, which should come as no surprise; as has been said before, good butlers are unflappable and inscrutable, and Crichton was one of the best. Whilst Louisa, the twins, and Louise stared haughtily at the scene of Maxwell’s disgrace, however, Lydia had turned her face away from his shame and was gazing across the rich green grounds of Tunnicliffe Manor. Accordingly, she was the first one to see the scurrying shape of Harold the gardener motoring towards the conservatory, his face a horrid shade of purple and his trousers soaked. And behind him came a large group of whooping grey men, all naked except for small and tattered loincloths. They seemed to pull darkness into their outlines, deep shadows playing across their colourless forms despite the shining sun. The only light that came from them was the fiery red glow of their eyes.

Lydia was so shocked she almost forgot to scream. Almost.

Clutching at their reverberating ears, the others left the tea stain and crowded at the window, uttering polite exclamations of disbelief. Harold made a beeline for them, his breath coming in great ragged gasps; but twenty yards from the window, he stumbled and fell; and the grey men fell on him like wolves around a very old, tired sheep with pruning shears. Four of them grabbed his arms with unearthly strength, his struggles useless as they raised him above the ground. Then they started to pull, and his body came apart with a noise like a boot coming out of a patch of thick mud. He hadn’t the time, or the breath, to scream.

In the conservatory, polite exclamations gave way to decidedly impolite and rather more heartfelt ejaculations of horror. Only Crichton, imperturbably, and Louisa, rather more angrily, remained immune; for the others, a mix of terror and disgust turned them into sailors for a few seconds. Maxwell began to retch; but Louisa was made of far sterner stuff, forged in the heat of furious snobbery, and she was not about to stand for such uncouth behaviour on her own previously immaculate lawn. Vibrating with rage, and ignoring the warning mutter uttered by Crichton, she opened the conservatory door and strode over to the now bloodsoaked warriors, her dress once more fanning out behind her like the sea’s vengeance made concrete. The sight of her on her irate march caused silence in the conservatory, a silence broken by Crichton’s polite yet firm voice.

“May I suggest we remove ourselves from the conservatory? I fear the party has ended prematurely.”

Rapt with attention focussed on the blue figure stalking across the lawn towards the red and grey, the other occupants ignored him. Louisa reached the group, who seemed uncertain of what to do next.

“How dare you? How DARE you?” she shrieked. The warriors had seen the blackest demons in the darkest pits of Hell, monsters with flames for teeth and pus for eyes whose very breath was agonising poison; yet they were mere Chihuahuas to the Great Dane of Louisa’s incensed and still shaking shape. They edged away uncertainly as she advanced.

“You barbarians! You have defaced my property, defiled my lawn, you low-born brutes! You ill-mannered rapscallions! You, sirs, you, are uncouth!” With this last vehement syllable, she extended a finger towards the wilting group of warriors, who as one former man took a step backwards. To the onlookers in the conservatory it seemed that Mrs Tunnicliffe, owner of Tunnicliffe Manor and out-liver of three husbands, had won the day.

Then Achan came casually strolling behind the warriors at the same steady pace he had set since Harold had fled. He calmly walked in front of Louisa, who, recognising authority, drew herself up and launched into a fresh, if slightly more polite, tirade.

“What is the meaning of this monstrous act, sir? Pray speak!”

Achan, as barely clothed as his undead fellows, merely smiled a confident smile and folded his arms across his chest, staring down at Louisa’s strident figure.

“Why have your men deprived me of a member of my staff? Where am I to find another gardener in time for the annual Tunnicliffe Manor Ball? Answer me, sir! Your silence offends me!”

Again, no response was forthcoming from Achan, who merely stood there, a picture of menacing nonchalance, glowing red eyes staring at Louisa’s own reddening face. She took a step towards him, finger still angrily extended.

“Have you no manners at all, you brute?”

Suddenly, as swift as a striking adder, his hand was around her throat, choking off her words. Flickering blackness playing around the outline of his crushing fingers, appearing even darker against Louisa’s whitening skin. She was lifted up in the air, legs kicking under a dress that no longer played out behind her but trailed towards the ground.

“I am not a brute. I am a Lord, and you should show more respect.” The words were delivered without anger, even without threat, but with a chill calmness that was somehow more menacing. As the horrified audience in the conservatory looked on, Achan’s grip tightened. There was an audible crack, and Louisa’s pointing finger fell to her side. With a contemptuous gesture Achan threw her body aside, and fixed his eyes on the conservatory. There was a moment of utter stillness.

“Right about now, I think,” said Crichton. The six still breathing turned and fled into the manor proper, the butler bringing up the rear, as Achan’s warriors, snarling, hurled themselves through the glass of the conservatory towards them. There was a moment of confusion as six bodies tried to thrust themselves through an aperture designed for one modestly-sized woman to comfortably enter and exit from the manor. Maxwell, adrenalin coursing through his blood, found himself grabbing one of the ladies-he could not tell which one-and thrusting them through the door before following suit and haring down the corridor behind, still grasping his companion’s arm. Another lady squeezed through, then both the twins tried to push through together. All would have been lost if Crichton had not given them a mighty shove and forced all three bodies through the door, before slamming it shut behind him. There was a thump as a grey body slammed into it from the other side,  and muffled cursing as others stumbled over the now prostate body. The attendants of the sadly ended Tunnicliffe afternoon tea fled.

Achan looked on as his warriors forced the door and pursued them. He walked into the now ruined and empty conservatory, ignoring the shards of broken glass that dug into his bare feet. Bending down, he took a mashed and glass-strewn cup cake from the floor, and raised it to his lips. The tiny cake stand lay forlornly on the floor, smashed by the stampede of reanimated flesh. Achan took a bite, and smiled.

“Delightful,” he said.