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Murder at the Manderly Estate

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Not so long ago, in a land closer than you think, there stood a mansion at the end of a secluded dirt road. This, my dears, is the scene of our twisted little tale. Enter darlings, but beware of what awaits behind the oak wood doors. For secrets and greed run rampant here, and the price of silence far too steep to pay. If you dare partake, take heed. A dinner party with seven fine guests awaits. Each holds tight to their own dirty little secret. Willing to kill and willing to cry to keep their tale in the darkness and lies.

So, join us for a little treat. Mind your manners and your stakes. Leave dignity and modesty at the door. There is no room for the prissy and the profligate in the Manderly Estate. Who among them will survive in this game of win or die? They will pay the twisted little game, and reap the rewards or suffer the pains.

Our guest are fine and attractive souls. But no one is safe from our Host, you see. In a suspenseful showdown, the guests will find out who among them are Kings and Queens. Is it Dr. Marina Hyland with the Knife, or perhaps Dame Agatha Casterly with the axe? No one knows what lays hidden behind the double doors. Seven people at the table, take note:

 

Miss. Carmilla Hoáng, the Shadow Queen. A woman of the night, with piercing eyes.

Dame Agatha Casterly who has seen it all. A tale of treacherous deceit and anguished cries.

Madame Anita Brown, refined and dark. Her bloody secrets shall not end well.

Mrs. Lyanna Stanford, who survived. She once sent a man straight to hell.

Dr. Marina Highland, redeemed at heart. Come and hear her world of strife.

Mrs. Wisteria Hollingsworth, meek and mild. A slight of hand and a trick of the light.

Ms. Theodosia Rivers, an unfortunate mistake. Nothing will save her from these games.

 

Nothing can stop what will happen tonight. So, come along for the ride if you must. But do not dare to interfere. It is their job to solve the crime. Pick the poison and tell the lies. Soon all will learn that nothing is ever what it seems in the Manderly Estate. Tricks and turns lay around each bend. No one quite knows who is foe…and who is friend. A thief, a Madame, a doctor dear. Each one playing for the grand prize. Loves lost, secrets revealed. Only one may win the game.

The guests must destroy each other, or die in the process. This is a game, you see, of death. A game of clues, if you will. A Cludoesque tale with a dash of sex, a hint of blood, and a smattering of murder. For, this is no place for the faint of heart. But it is far too late to turn back now. One does not simply leave the game. This will be their legacy. A shameful movie that all will see. Unless they solve this crime, my dear. That shall make it all disappear.

One simple solution, one ending in all. Surely it must show how even the mighty can fall. Choose a path, and stick to the plan. There is not stopping us now, sweethearts. An ending song of death and greed where no one follows any certain creed. When you die in the game, you die for real.

I hereby decree this game has commenced. Our players must all line up at the starting gate. Learn the trade and learn the game. Learn the rules and make them pay. On with the story, on with the play! Who dares to play this little game?

 

Residing in a secluded mansion, the Lord and Lady Manderly kept to themselves. Traveling to this country to escape the harrowing duties and social events that plagued those of their status, the Lady much preferred to dream the days away. Never the lives of the party, Lord Manderly saw how his wife withered under the strain of society, and whisked them both away to the Manderly Estate. Though ancient and decrepit, they soon had the mansion in top shape. A perfect residence. And a perfect stage.

This house was to be the meeting place to quite a cast of peculiar characters. Meet your heroes and villains all rolled in one. After all, how does one tell good from evil, and is there truly a difference at all? Evil is the one we are told to steer clear from. Good is what we must strive to meet. Yet, evil is profitable, and good unreliable. You must choose which person is destined for heaven, and which for hell. But be warned, my dears. The world is not nearly so black and white. Black may not be bad, and white is not always right. May I introduce your subjects, and who they may be. Remember their words, and believe nothing you here. Choose a person and take heed, for nothing is ever what it seems.

Miss. Carmilla Hoáng, a thirty-two-year-old writer and self-proclaimed recluse. A southeast Asian immigrant who prefers the company of women, she knows better than to parade around in the light. Women of her…preferences were far from the norm, and everyone else quick to condemn. They called her the Shadow Queen, though few who did knew her true identity.

Dame Agatha Casterly, a war veteran and wealthy woman. An expert marksmen, and respected general. Why, the Queen of England herself had granted her a damehood for her valor and bravery. Or, so she says. Now, the fifty-five-year-old woman spends her days at the billiard tables, and besting her war mates in poker. Famous among them for never smiling, and rarely speaking, she earned her title as the Wordsmith in the war. Though, call her that and there will be hell to pay.

Madame Anita Brown, a black woman in her thirties in a constant battle against the rest of the world. Called the Wicked Witch as a young girl in the south of France, the name stuck. Now, if they want her to be wicked, she would gleefully oblige. This country, though far from ideal for her kind, nevertheless has a certain profit surrounding it. And the witch is nothing if not lucrative.

Mrs. Lyanna Stanford, a survivor before anything else. Not looking to raise herself up, instead she just wishes to be left alone. Her husband, an evil man, used to take out his aggression on his Mexican wife. Once upon a time, he’d been the perfect gentleman. They talked about literature and poetry. And then, everything changed as they wed. But this is not a game of survival. In the game of clue, you win, or you die.

Doctor Marina Highlands, a respected member of society. Clawing her way up to the top, she’d left those she cared about far behind. Her mother, always too involved in her own work, hardly noticed as her dear daughter departed from her side. By day, she heals the sick and cares for the infirm. But by night, she slips into the shadows to dance the night away with women of her type.

And finally, Ms. Wisteria Hollingsworth. An unassuming, good southern woman in her late forties, Wisteria had the talent of fading into the background, unnoticed and unconcerning. Unmarried, much to her mother’s chagrin, she is a woman unable to afford being tied down. Her little secret could cost her dearly, as she herself had cost many before.

 So, there you have it. The player of the game will all soon arrive to meet what brings them to this house of lies. Within these darkened halls, their worst nightmares shall soon come alive. They know not the other players in the game nor the way to win. Seven people from across the lands with nothing in common but the secrets they hide. It’s time to play the calling game.

 

On a dark and stormy night, because of course clichés never rested, the guest gathered. After receiving ominous letters containing thinly veiled threats and condescending remarks, no one could refuse the invitation to this fancy dinner party. The Manderly Estate sat thirty miles outside of the nearest town with at least five acres of empty land surrounding it. No one could help should danger come a calling.

Miss. Carmilla Hoáng arrived first on the scene nearly half an hour early. Misliking social interaction, she planned to be the first to arrive, and first to leave. With heels as high as her body count, lips the color of the blood that ran through her veins, and a dress as dark as both her past and future, Carmilla Hoáng intended to win this little game.

Making it inside just before the rain hit, she tossed her long hair over one shoulder, nodding politely to the butler. Though he did not speak, he took her coat and led her to the library. Carmilla did not question his strange behavior, but she did vow to keep a close eye on the silent gentlemen. Left alone save for a young maid named Liat, Carmilla ran her fingers over the worn books. Though she graciously accepted a flute of champagne from the woman, she did not drink. No, better to remain alert on this night.

Carmilla had just cracked open one of her favorite stories when the door opened, and Doctor Marina Highland stepped inside with an air of regal dignity surrounding her tall frame. Accepting a glass from Liat with a small smile, she quickly introduced herself to the other woman in the room. Carmilla, unable to stop her eyes from roaming over the tall woman’s form in appreciation, took a deep breath. The good doctor, clad in a dark red dress just a shade deeper than her hair, towered over both oriental women. Her skin, so very pale looked, to Carmilla, deliciously bitable.

Recognizing the look of desire that flashed across Carmilla’s face, Marina smirked. Brushing up against the smaller woman as she passed, Marina saw Carmilla’s eyes darken.

“With such a beautiful lady in the room, what is a twilight woman to do?” Carmilla mused. Marina laughed quietly, whispering that perhaps once this whole ordeal was over, they could have a more…intimate dinner. Carmilla tucked a stray curl behind Marina’s ear, smoothly saying that it would be simply divine. Enjoying the way the supposedly-suave doctor blushed, Carmilla continued brushing her fingers across her reddening skin.

They didn’t notice the door opening until a delicate cough rang though the air. With widening eyes, they sprung apart. But the woman who stood in the door looked only mildly amused at best. Clad in green silks that contrasted beautifully to her dark skin, Madame Anita Brown had just enough arrogance to know she looked appetizing. That was, of course, entirely the point. A lady did not simply bare her considerable cleavage unless she had a mission.

One by one, the other guests made their entrance at the Manderly Estate. Ms. Wisteria Hollingsworth, clad in pale blue with little pearl earrings, slipped by almost unnoticed by most. Madame Anita certainly held the room’s attention well enough. Dame Agatha Casterly arrived, having swapped her medals and pins for a fitted pantsuit. Her poker face betrayed nothing of why she was here, and what she would do. Finally, Mrs. Lyanna Stanford came into the library, her long skirts brushing the floors. And when Madame Anita caught sight of her beauty, she froze mid-sentence. Carmilla and Marina shared amused smirks.

It was then that the Lord and Lady Manderly descended into the library. When Liat announced their presence, all talking ceased. No one believed for a moment that the harmless elderly couple had been the ones to send the letters. Having stayed far, far away from civilization for so long, they couldn’t have possibly known any sort of dirty little secrets.

The guests did not mingle any longer. They all knew why they were here. It was no secret, though talk of blackmail and secrets was more of an after-dinner topic. Just as Liat began to lead them through the foyer and into the dining room, the bell rang. Everyone turned, confused. They were supposed to be the only guests at the Manderly Estate tonight.

The butler opened the door, revealing a travel-worn Ms. Theodosia Rivers. Certainly not dressed for such an elegant dinner party, Theodosia self-consciously adjusted her thick glasses.

“I’m terribly sorry to interrupt your party, ma’am. My car broke down at the end of that road there, and with the storm and all...” Theodosia Rivers trailed off, uncomfortable with the amount of people staring at her. Quickly recovering, Lady Manderly ordered Liat to set another place at the table for their guest.

“Do not worry,” Madame Anita said, sliding over to him with practiced grace. “We would be glad to ‘ave you for dinner.” Though, her tone made it unclear whether she was glad to have her for dinner, or have her for dinner.

 A small crash brought their attention away from the new guest. Wisteria Hollingsworth blushed, backing away from the broken glass. In her soft Southern-American accent, she profusely apologized as Liat scurried in, quickly cleaning up the mess.

Well, Carmilla though, this looked to be quite the crowd. A Lord and Lady, a Frenchwoman, a Latina, a Southern Bell. From across the globe, they’d converged here to settle a score they did not even know was being kept. As they all filed into the dining room, no one saw the study door close. No one knew one of them would die in that room later that night.

How would they all fare, dining among the vipers and snakes? A dinner this delicious would surely be remembered for years to come. Enter the dining room, my sweets. Promise you will keep my secrets? For, though scrumptious, nothing is ever what it seems. Take a bite and wash it down. Who will eat in the supper games?

 

The guests all gathered round the table, some too anxious to eat. Others too polite to decline. Madame Anita couldn’t help but smile slightly at Lyanna Stanford’s delicate manners as she methodically sliced through her chicken.

“Zis is quite zee party, no?” she asked Lyanna dryly. “I ‘ave no other place to be so, ‘ere I am.” Lyanna turned to her, smiling slightly. Inquiring about her heritage, Madame Anita smoothly spoke of her childhood growing up in Lyon. Then, almost hesitantly, she inquired about Lyanna’s past.

“Oh, no. I live here,” Lyanna said. “But I did immigrate over from Mexico as a small child.” Having been listening in, Carmilla remarked that this country had not been kind to immigrants, as she well knew. And everyone knew never to bring up politics at the dinner table, or religion for that matter. But what does one discuss at a table of women with questionable morals? But, sensing an argument brewing between Carmilla Hoáng and Dame Agatha Casterly, Lyanna swiftly changed the subject. Arguing reminded her painfully of her late husband.

Though ready to disagree, Carmilla merely nodded in agreement, catching the look Marina Highland sent her. Well, no matter. Carmilla Hoáng had better things to focus on rather than the patriotic propaganda of a war hawk. She watched as the butler disappeared into the kitchen and Liat nervously twitched in the corner. Something was very wrong with the help at the Manderly Estate, and she wanted to know what.

Remembering her southern manners, Wisteria Hollingsworth politely thanked the Lady of the house. The Lady Manderly graciously accepted while smiling uncomfortably. Whether it was because of social awkwardness or something else was yet to be seen.

Muttering that she could hardly call blackmail an honor, Carmilla ignored the stern nudge Marina sent her way.

“Tell me, Dame Casterly,” Marina said, easily making conversation. She knew how to play the society game. “You were in the war. As a woman, you must have had quite a different experience than your fellow soldiers.” Dame Casterly nodded sharply. Madame Anita batted her eyelashes at the stoic woman, coyly asking for her to regale them with stories from the trenches.

“War is not a game, Madame,” Dame Casterly said, gruffly. “I will not indulge in glorification of such a tragic event.” Madame Anita pursed her lips, but looked unaffected at her brusque brushoff. Dame Casterly sat rigidly. She’d served in the last war. Seen things no person should. It was not a picnic, and not a game. Having borne witness to more death in one day than most in a lifetime, she’d done things any person would blanche at. War was not a game she cared to play again.

They continued making small talk, each conversation dying out as quickly as it came on. For just a few short moments, they’d allowed themselves to be swept up in the fantasy of just having a simple diner party with nothing shady just waiting around the corner. But Carmilla knew they had to move this night along if they ever wanted to settle things.

“As enjoyable as this has been,” she began. “We are here for a specific reason. I am not fond of social events, and would prefer we handle the matter at hand as swiftly as humanly possible.” Fork hovering in midair, Theodosia Rivers blinked. Sheepishly, she inquired whether or not she was interrupting anything.

“Not at all, Mademoiselle,” Madame Anita purred. “It is not bother. We are not vipers and snakes ‘ere.” Her smile convinced no one. Theodosia was about to reply when Lord Manderly, who thus far had kept silent, slammed a fist on the table, making the silverware jump. He began to choke violently. Wisteria Hollingsworth screamed in horror as both Dame Casterly and Marina Highland sprang up to help. But the Lord had already tumbled to the floor, his breathing stilled. Lord Manderly was dead.

Lady Manderly did not scream. She did not utter a single word. She couldn’t. For, as her husband drew their attention away, the Lady of Manderly Estate slipped quietly away into the night. Marina knelt over the deceased woman, checking her pulse just to be sure.

Within minutes, two people were dead, and no obvious cause could be seen. Hesitantly, Marina sniffed the Lord and Lady’s food, recoiling in horror. Bitter almonds. Cyanide. They’d been poisoned. Well, the good news was that no other plate seemed to have been tampered with. They, at least, were safe.

“In what world is this situation safe?” Wisteria demanded. “Two people just done dropped dead, and someone here killed ‘em.” In her hysterics, her accent became more and more pronounced. Glaring at the shrill woman, Marina snapped that there was nothing she could do for them now. Horrified, Theodosia proclaimed that they had to call the police.

“I think not,” Carmilla said, looking to the kitchen. When the commotion began, neither the butler nor Liat had come rushing out. They didn’t come then, and they weren’t coming now. She stood, moving towards the door. Not daring to speak, the others quickly followed, leaving the corpses on the dining room floor.

“What happened here?” she wondered, entering the kitchen and seeing nothing. Not the butler, and not Liat. A nondescript manila envelope sat on the countertop addressed to the guests. The only instructions were to proceed to the study immediately after dinner.

“Suppose this means no dessert,” Lyanna said, peering over Carmilla’s shoulder. “Sorry, too soon.”

Proclaiming that things just got rather interesting, Carmilla asked whether they should do as it said. Though a few put up feeble protests, they knew there was no other option. This was, after all, the main event. Though, why the Lord and Lady had to die remained a mystery.

Not much longer not until the games truly begin, and with two already dead, how many more will fall? The guests are wary, and rightly so. The Host is ready, even if they are not. Who will begin the lying games?

 

No one wanting to be the next corpse to hit the ornate rugs, the guests entered the living room with trepidation. Despite how eager the Host was to meet them, only Liat and the butler waited for them. They showed no emotion as Liat passed around a tray of drinks. Only pawns in the great game of chess. Then, they left, shutting the door behind them. They all could hear the lock click into place.

“Welcome,” said a disembodied voice. “I am the Host.” Harshly, Dame Casterly demanded the voice show themselves. The Host complied, walking into the light. The woman standing before them was not what anyone expected. Giving off an almost ethereal aura, her eyes flashed the most vivid blue anyone of them had ever seen.

“I’ve called you all here on this dreary night to discuss matters of great importance,” the Host said. “You see, my attention has been drawn to some of your more questionable antics. You are all, as you’ve gathered, being blackmailed for your actions. Each and every one of you has a little secret that would be your ruin should anyone find out. It is for this reason that you all decided to make an appearance at the Manderly Estate.”

“I want no part of whatever this is,” Lyanna said. “I’ll pay what I can to buy your silence, but I will not stay here to decipher riddles and witness murders. Why did you kill the Manderlys? They were no threat to anyone.”

“This is such a lovely old house, is it not? Sets the mood perfectly,” The Host said, by way of explanation. Upon seeing their faces, she continued with a roll of those captivating eyes. “The Manderly Estate was the perfect place to gather you all here. I convinced the Lord and Lady to let me borrow it for the night. Of course, they couldn’t know of the games, and so they had to be disposed of. Don’t be so sad, now. There are billions of people in this world. Those two were insignificant reclusive idiots. We’ll all survive without them.”

Snapping that she had no money to pay, Wisteria demanded she tell them what she wanted. The Host laughed. She knew, of course, that they just didn’t have the money to pay the price she wanted. But there was another way to ensure her secrecy. But first, she said, she believed they should all be on equal footing.

Immediate protests filled the room. The idea of others knowing what should never have been revealed unsettled even the most unflappable of them. But the Host ran the show. She scanned the room, asking just which of her lovely guests wanted to be the first. Her eyes homed in on Miss. Carmilla Hoáng. Carmilla met her gaze head on, her own eyes flashing just as dangerously. But she did not try to stop the Host from the inevitable.

“Little Miss. Carmilla Hoáng,” the Host addressed smugly. Carmilla shot her a murderous look, but said nothing. “Known as the Shadow Queen, Little Miss Carmilla is a…oh, what is the modern term these days? Well, no matter. Carmilla enjoys the intimate company of women.” Horrified, Wisteria gasped loudly. Carmilla rolled her eyes, waiting for the Host to continue her humiliation.

“Now, the newspapers have deemed her the Shadow Queen. In addition to being a regular old carpet muncher, the little queen is a profession assassin for hire.” A notorious killer that the newspapers loved to vilify, Carmilla earned her wealth by doing in men of shad reputations. The people who hired her did not know her true identity. But once she got the hit, they were dead within the week. Killing efficiently and cleanly, no one ever discovered the Shadow Queen. Until, that was, that night.

“As for your little dinner with Doctor Marina Highland,” the Host continued, turning on the tall redhead. “She should have no issues with your nighttime activities considering her own dark secret. They called her mother the Dragon. The good doctor is the daughter of a notorious mob boss. Working alongside her mother, and learning the ropes, the Dragon’s hatchling was personally responsible for upwards of twenty murders before she left the life to become an upstanding citizen of the community. But, you cannot outrun your past forever, darling.”

“Watch me,’ Marina snarled. She did not take kindly to being threatened in such a manner, or any manner for that matter. “It was foolish of you to threaten someone like me. I may not be part of that life any longer, but when I was, I could make grown men thrice my size cower before me. Any one of them would be more than willing to bring me your head.”

But the Host just laughed. She was not, she said with an airy disregard, at all concerned with her own life. Why else would she take it upon herself to blackmail an assassin or mob boss’s daughter. Should any one of them attempt anything, their secrets would be released on every mainstream media available. The Host smirked, seeing Marina back down. For now. She stopped in front of Mrs. Lyanna Stanford.

“The White Widow,” she said. Lyanna kept her gaze stubbornly fixated on the table before her. “Your husband died under rather suspicious circumstances, wouldn’t you say? Such a fine, upstanding public servant. You can imagine the public outcry when he turned up dead, and his wife left town before the body even cooled.”

“You are a vile woman,” Lyanna hissed, finally looking up. Her dislike of confrontation evidently ended with the Host. “Yes, I killed him, but I had to. I had no choice. He was a horrible man who kept me locked away. Every single blow I withstood meant another sleepless night lying awake. You judge me just as everyone else did, but none of you knew what he was like. So, take my money if you want. I killed him, because it was either his life or mine. I haven’t got much anyway. The bastard never gave me a cent, even in death.”

But the Host wasn’t finished with Mrs. Lyanna Stanford just yet. Lyanna claimed, she continued, that she took no pleasure in his demise, and yet his death was most gruesome. Dismemberment was not merely self-defense. Lyanna flinched.

Satisfied, the Host turned to Madame Anita Brown. The Madame was most successful in her entrepreneurial activities. Having been in the business for many decades – it was at this point where Madame Anita made sure to correct her on the number of years – Madame Anita was not in fact her real name, but rather a pseudonym.

“I ‘ave a perfectly fine business,” Madame Anita said, haughtily. “I run a drug cartel in zee south of France. Zee only reason I came to zis odious country was to, ah, obtain zee necessary items. After all, allez dans le monde. Come now, Madame, it is ‘ard enough for a black woman to make a living. Do not add to my burden.”

As the secrets and lies came to light, Theodosia Rivers shifted uncomfortably in her seat. She should never have made the trek down the dirt road to the Manderly Estate. The murder of Lord and Lady Manderly had been shocking enough, but now she knew she shared the same room as an assassin, former member of the mob, and a drug lady. Gods only knew what the others had done to be brought here.

The Host continues scanning the room, looking eerily reminiscent of a vulture. Neither Wisteria nor Dame Agatha wanted to be the one the Host set her mark on. And to Wisteria’s relief, she homed in on the Dame.

“As for you, Dame Agatha Casterly. You were in the war. And you are quite a wealthy woman for someone who has not held any job other than that of a soldier. We all know that veterans are not given much of anything. So, the question is where did your money come from? I have the answer to that. During the war, you turned traitor and sold information to the other side,” the Host revealed. “Because of your status, you were privy to things crucial to the other side’s successes in the war. Unfortunately for you, they did not win the war and you were not given any honors. Even so, you still retained the blood money given to you, and are still collecting more as we speak. For someone who claims patriotism, you certainly don’t show it well.”

Dame Agatha at least had the good grace to look ashamed at her actions. It wasn’t as though she wanted the other side to win. Not really. But they’d given her an offer she couldn’t possibly refuse. She hadn’t exactly gone looking to sell her secrets to the highest bidder, but it happened, and what was done was done.

“Well, they didn’t win the war,” Dame Agatha defended. “At least I haven’t murdered anyone in cold blood.”

“Your bought information probably cost millions of lives,” Carmilla said. “We may be murderers, but your death toll is far worse than our could ever be. Do not pretend to be just as damned. Now, I’m interested to know exactly what the little Southern Belle is hiding. I think I know.”

Wisteria inched away, squirming under Carmilla’s smirking gaze. The Asian woman stalked towards her, seductively straddling the thin blonde.

“The little field mouse has been silently gathering for the long winter and hiding quite the nest egg.” Carmilla snickered as Wisteria indignantly declared that she’d never stolen a thing in her life and that she wasn’t like the rest of them. Scoffing, Carmilla rolled her eyes. “I never did say anything about theft. Now, I do apologize for this.” And ignoring the startled squawk, she reached down the bodice of Wisteria’s dress. But the blonde was instantly silenced as Carmilla withdrew a sapphire hair pin from her girdle.

“I think zat is mine,” Madame Anita said. “Just ‘ow did you get it?” Carmilla answered for her, stating that’s she’d taken it just before breaking her glass in the hall. Defeated, Wisteria admitted her crimes. Still, she believed herself above the likes of murderers and druggists. And while perhaps she may have had a point, to the Host they were all to blame and all had to pay the price.

There was one person left. They all turned to Theodosia Rivers who tensed visibly. Raising an eyebrow, the Host asked if she would be going to the police with this riveting information. Assuring her that if she so chose, no harm would come to her.

“I- I’d have to,” Theodosia stammered. “What they’ve done, what you’ve done, it’s illegal. The reason does not excuse the conduct.” The Host nodded, expecting this outcome.

Gliding to the front of the room, the Host whisked a sheet away from a table, revealing six boxes done up in bows. Handing them out one by one, she instructed the guests to open them.

Madame Anita, always happy to receive a present, was first to work the bow off. She stared down at what appeared to be three syringes, each with a different colored liquid inside. Careful to avoid the needle, and not wanting to end up an accidental Sleeping Beauty, she withdrew the green colored one. The Host did not elaborate on just what she held.

Lyanna Stanford withdrew what appeared to be a knife from the Renaissance age. Lightweight and slim, its handle was painted in twenty-four carat gold. She turned it around in her hands, adjusting to the weight. This was not a weapon to be used lightly.

Dame Agatha, not at all anxious to see what sort of present she received, took her time working off the ribbon. A hatchet, small enough to be thrown with at least some accuracy if one was proficient enough, but not small enough to be useless in a time of crisis. She ran her cropped nail over the edge.

With narrowed eyes, Wisteria held up a braided ribbon resembling a fancy sort of rope. The fact that they were brightly colored and looked as though a little girl might plait them in her hair did nothing to placate her ire. But the ribbons, she had to admit, fit. Unassuming and underestimated. Just like her.

But it was Marina’s box that they all stared at. She’d drawn a gun. A multi-barreled pistol, small and easily concealed. A former member of the mob with a gun who’d been a crack shot in her prime. This did not bode well for anyone. She curled her hand around the handle, her red nails standing out starkly against cold metal.

“I prefer revolvers myself,” Phaedra said, taking one out of her own box. They were far less likely to misfire than a pistol. So, two guns in the game. Two guns given to two women who were no strangers to a trigger. They would not miss.

“Let’s play a game, shall we?” The Host smiled, showing off teeth too white to be considered human. “Here I have provided you will all the necessary tools to commit murder. This should not be a problem for most of you. After all, in order to make these threats to your reputations and freedom disappear, I propose you dispose of the one person who will go to the authorities. Yes, Ms. Theodosia Rivers. Kill her to play the game. If you win, you all walk free with treasures beyond your wildest imaginations. If you do not, you’ll be seeing yourselves splashed across the front pages.”

Theodosia Rivers sprang up with a sharp cry of alarm. She needed to get out of this house. Now. But the door stayed locked in the windowless room.

Carmilla ignored the woman, instead focusing in on the Host. Wanting to know just what sort of game she spoke of, she asked how killing the woman would mean they were all willing to play the game.

The Host seemed just waiting for someone to ask. If, she explained, one of you does kill her, the others have no choice but to go along. After all, no one would know who the true murderer was. With a wave of her hand, she ordered everyone to place their weapons on the table. Once Theodosia Rivers was dead, the games could finally begin.

Counting down from ten, the Host leisurely walked to the light switch. When she reached one, the power cut out. Silence greeted the guests for perhaps ten seconds at most. Then, a flurry of unseen commotion erupted. Shuffling and mild cursing filled the room as they all stumbled blindly about. A table overturned, and a woman yelped in alarm. Then, a single shot rang out followed by a piercing shriek.

“Shut up!” A voice it the dark cut through the commotion. Carmilla. “Everyone stop moving immediately!” Too scared to disobey, silence fell over them. A single match sliced the darkness in two for just a few moments. Eyes darting about the room, Carmilla ordered Wisteria to move towards the wall and flick on the lights. Still whimpering, the southern woman groped for the switch, bathing the room in light once more.

As their vision returned, everyone looked wildly around. The Host had vanished. Lyanna lay sprawled across Madame Anita’s lower half, having collided in the mess. A gun lay inches from the Madame’s leg. Quickly, she gracefully rose, hiding her slight blush behind her dark hair. Wisteria stood with her back to the wall, fingers still on the switch. Dame Agatha stood just behind the couch, the axe hanging loosely from her left hand. Carmilla held the revolver in her hand, perched on the arm of a chair. Most of the other weapons lay scattered about the floor. She glanced at Marina who stood inches behind her with a syringe dangling from two fingers. They were alone.

There, mere feet from where she’d stood, Theodosia Rivers lay in a pool of her own blood. A single bullet wound to the chest effectively ended her life. The games had officially begun. Instinctively, Marina felt for a pulse, wondering if perhaps there was a chance. But she found nothing.

Shrilly, Wisteria demanded that the killer reveal herself. The body lay far too close to her for comfort, and she quickly edged away, looking queasy. Rolling her eyes, Madame Anita snapped that it could just as easily have been her, having been the closest and with the best shot.

“Well, who had the gun?” Wisteria snapped. “Whoever had the gun shot the poor woman.” She looked accusingly at both Carmilla and the Madame. Looking offended at the very thought, Madame Anita turned up her nose. Marina picked it up from where it lay, checking the cartridge and finding it full. Nearly squealing in delight, Wisteria turned on Carmilla who flippantly displayed the gun with all the bullets still inside.

“Which means,” Carmilla mused. “Someone brought a gun to a dinner party. Well, I doubt they’re idiotic enough to have it on their person, so we have a mystery on our hands. How utterly delightful.”

The other guests all exchanged pained looks. As much as they all hated to admit it, Carmilla was right. They could not place the blame on any one party definitively. Just as the Host said, they couldn’t possibly know. It wasn’t as though just one of them had tried to kill Theodosia Rivers either. Many of them had potential murder weapons in their hands.

“I still say you’re the guilty one,” Wisteria said. “You’re the trained marksmen. That was one hell of a shot.”

“Dame Casterly was in the war,” Carmilla replied. “I’m not the only one who can handle a gun in this house.” As the blame circulated around the room, no one noticed the gas slowly seeping into the room until it was too late. Tallest and closest to the ceiling vent, Marina was the first to fall. But the gas wouldn’t hurt them. Meant to simply knock them all out, the Host waited until the last of them collapsed to start the next phase. They had begun the killing games.

 

When Marina woke, she did not open her eyes right away. It was much better to acquaint oneself with their surroundings first without alerting anyone of their consciousness. Wherever she was, the air felt stale and damp. Weight, though entirely unobtrusive, lay across her midsection. She guessed it to be either the frightfully thin Wisteria or the petite Carmilla. As she ran her fingers though long hair, she got her answer.

She could hear faint breathing around her. As gently as she could, she easily slid out from under the light woman. Feeling as though she were moving though molasses, Marina crawled forward, nearly sprawling over another prone figure. Running her hands over the woman’s short hair, she gathered it was Dame Agatha. The woman groaned, tensing. Quickly, Marina recoiled just in time to avoid Dame Agatha’s fists.

“It’s Marina,” she hissed. Though Dame Agatha did not apologize, she did relax slightly. Sitting up, she blinked in the darkness. Feeling her way around, her hand collided with someone’s ankles. She heard a soft whimper, and tentatively moved towards the sound. Lyanna, clutching her head, slowly sat up.

“What the hell was that?” She asked, feeling lightheaded. Marina, having retreated back to an unconscious Carmilla, replied that it was some sort of gas that rendered them unconscious. Dame Agatha shook another shoulder lightly, saying that she’d located Wisteria. The woman whimpered weakly. Unlike the others, she could barely pick up her head.

“Madame Anita,” Marina called softly, squinting as her eyes slowly adjusted. To her left, Madame Anita made a noise of assent. Sitting up, she harshly cursed, her accent gone. Then, knowing the others were looking at her in suspicion, even with the darkness, she huffed audibly.

“Yes, fine,” she said. “I exaggerate my accent to mask my identity. Zo it comes out on certain words, it is mostly zee ‘th’s’. You would not be surprised to find how many men underestimate zee black woman with zee accent. Now, onto something actually important. Where zee hell are we?”

Dame Agatha fumbled inside her pocket for a match. The small flame cut through the darkness. Marina quickly took another match, having spotted a torch along the wall. Then, brandishing the light, she cautiously moved along the walls, lighting up all the nearby torches. She then retreated back to the worn rug they’d all be laying on.

“Catacombs,” came a nearly inaudible voice. Marina knelt down next to Carmilla who hadn’t moved. “Need to- ugh.” The redhead could see Carmilla’s muscles strain weakly to move to no avail. Then, murmuring what sounded like an order to start moving, Carmilla managed to pick up her head.

“Right,” Marina said, turning to the others. “We’re going to have to move out soon. Can everybody stand?” On shaky legs, Lyanna managed to pick herself up, grabbing a torch off the wall. Madame Anita followed suit. Wisteria, however, barely managed to get her balance before faltering. “It’s whatever drug she put into the gas. I’m assuming your body weight has something to do with why you and Carmilla are still affected. Dame Agatha, are you able to carry her? We can’t stay here much longer, and I’m not leaving either of them behind.”

Dame Agatha nodded, easily lifting the light woman. Though Wisteria protested weakly, she wrapped her arms around Dame Agatha’s neck all the same. Murmuring that if there happened to be walls of skulls anywhere, she’d lose her mind, Wisteria let her head fall onto Dame Agatha’s shoulder.

Marina looked towards Carmilla. She had a feeling the assassin would rather be shot than carried around like a helpless child. But they didn’t have a choice right now. So, scooping the other woman into her arms, she started walking, choosing the left path. Carmilla hung limply, not having the energy to even hold onto her neck. Marina decided that if she didn’t regain her ability to move in half an hour, she’d have to do something about it.

They moved slowly, sluggishly. Still not fully back to their full strength, the women inched along. Lyanna and Madame Anita kept in front, lighting the torches along the walls. The flickering flames cast eerie shadows in their wake. Marina, the tallest of the lot, had to hunch her neck ever so slightly to keep from scraping her head across the ceiling. With her heels, she almost came to six feet. The ceiling couldn’t have been taller than just under that. Dame Agatha wasn’t wearing heels, leaving her enough room to move, and the others weren’t nearly tall enough.

Eventually, Carmilla grew strong enough to hook an arm around Marina’s neck. She shivered, her bare arms covered in gooseflesh and Marina unconsciously held on just a bit tighter. No doubt feeling useless, Carmilla gave them a rundown of exactly what a catacomb was, and why one might be below the Manderly Estate, if, that is, they were still below the same place.

They must have continued walking in the same direction for at least fifteen minutes before anything different occurred. Reaching another fork in the road, Lyanna and Madame Anita paused, glancing back at the others.

“There’s an old rumor that keeping your left hand on the wall will get out of any maze,” Lyanna mentioned. “Not sure it applies here, but…” Deciding they didn’t have any reason not to try it out, they continued to head straight. Marina’s arms were starting to ache when she saw an archway ahead. Hesitantly, Madame Anita thrust her torch into the room, stumbling back in shock.

“Well, it’s not exactly a wall of skulls,” Lyanna quipped, looking back at Wisteria in concern. The southern woman trembled, staring at the room in terror. The room wasn’t particularly large, which, they figured was some sort of blessing. Lining each and every wall, skulls stacked up perhaps twelve high. Even in the cramped room, barely big enough for the six of them, there had to be hundreds of them. Even Marina, who’d seen far worse, felt uncomfortable.

“No, no, no,” Wisteria whimpered, burying her face in Dame Agatha’s shoulder. With no trace of judgement or sarcasm in her voice, Carmilla told Dame Agatha to take Wisteria out. She didn’t have to see this. Marina walked closer to one of the walls, leaning forward. Carmilla, still in her arms, reached out a shaky hand. She traced one of the skulls in fascination. They had to be old. Ridiculously old, and probably harmless.

Spotting a skull that looked just a bit less desecrated than the others, Carmilla asked Marina to bring her closer. Whispering an apology to whoever’s skull it was, Carmilla placed her fingers in the eye sockets and tugged. It tumbled forwards, cracking on the ground. Behind the skull, six envelopes saw inside a small niche. They were addressed to each of the guests.

“Hey,” Lyanna called, standing on her toes to get a better look. “There’s something in that one. Here, Anita can you-” she passed her torch off, before straining upwards. Her fingers hooked onto a thin chain and a key tumbled out, nearly smacking her right in the face.

Carmilla shifted, shooting Marina a pointed look. Though hesitant, she carefully let Carmilla down, grabbing onto her waist as the smaller woman crumbled slightly. Carmilla shook her off, steadying herself. Between the four of them, they searched the room thoroughly in record time, but came up empty.

Grateful to be rid of the skull room, the four women quickly exited, meeting up with Dame Agatha and Wisteria. The blonde, standing now, still had her face buried in Agatha’s lapels. The older woman had her arms wrapped protectively around the thin woman, looking torn between confusion and sympathy.

“There’s a letter for you,” Carmilla said, gently patting Wisteria’s elbow. Wisteria nodded, blowing her nose in a lacy handkerchief. Blocking out the sounds of paper tearing, Wisteria read her note, huffing in frustration. All it contained was a clue about who the murderer of Theodosia Rivers really was, and a warning that should she share this clue with anyone prior to her potential demise, she’d regret it.

Tucking her letter in the belt of her dress, Wisteria followed the others back down the path. Subdued, she listened to Carmilla and Marina shamelessly flirt with each other with only a minor queasy feeling. This alone was enough to keep her shocked into silence. She should have, by all accounts, felt abject disgust, but just…didn’t. After the room of skulls and triple murder, she just couldn’t bring herself to care.

“If we do get out of this alive,” Marina said. “I’ll buy you that dinner.” Carmilla winked, saying that she’d make sure to hold Marina to it.

“Oh, lovebirds,” Madame Anita called, interrupting them. “While you two were making eyes at each other, we’ve been walking in a circle for zee past ten minutes. Now, what exactly should we do now?”

Carmilla sighed, stepping away from the tall redhead. Casting her torch along the walls, she peered down one of the tunnels. Was, she inquired, there any chance anyone would want to split off? Just one hundred paces before converging at their current position once more.

The thought going alone scared Lyanna more than she would have liked, and she quickly shook her head. Not looking happy about it, she suggested they pair off and each take one of the three paths. If one of them got killed, well they’d have found out who the killer was. She’d risk it. Dame Agatha nodded, knowing sacrifice was necessary in war. And this was as good as any war. She looked towards Wisteria, tilting her head to the right tunnel. Cringing, Wisteria nodded, starting to walk. She trusted Dame Agatha just a tad more than the others.

Counting, Lyanna and Madame Anita took the middle tunnel, leaving Carmilla and Marina to take the leftmost one. These tunnels were narrower, forcing the two women to walk in a single file rather than side by side.

Marina’s foot collided with something causing her to stumble forward. She flung out her arms, bracing herself against the wall. Carmilla stepped back, trying not to light the other woman on fire with her torch. Cursing hotly, Marina hiked up her skirt, kicking at the metal box she’d almost tripped over.

“So that’s where the guns went,” Carmilla commented, opening the box. She shrugged, offering Marina the pistol, handle first. Marina took it, tucking it down the bodice of her dress. Then, making a face, she quickly withdrew it, instead slipping it into the sash of her dress. Her breasts were not nearly large enough to pull off the cleavage gun. Carmilla laughed, not even bothering to try stowing her gun in her corset. Instead she tucked it into a boot, before pulling her skirts back into place. Marina’s eyes snapped up, catching a glimpse of tanned thigh.

They continued walking the remaining fifty paces, reaching a dead end. Carmilla ran her fingers along the walls, tracing the many cracks. Then, just under her fingertips, she felt it. The subtle rumblings.

“Run,” Carmilla ordered, pulling Marina back down the tunnel. The rumbling grew louder. Yelling out that Marina had longer legs, Carmilla shoved the taller woman forward. They stumbled out of the tunnel just barely making it back to the meeting place before the walls crumbled. Marina yanked the smaller woman forwards, both of them spilling onto the hard floor.

Lyanna and Madame Anita dashed out of their own tunnel that mercifully held. They all looked down the right tunnel, listening to the walls crack.

Dame Agatha urged Wisteria forward, telling her she had to keep up. They ran, Dame Agatha clearing the opening. She looked back, Wisteria just a few paces from- and then she tripped. Carmilla lunged forward, trying to pull the blonde out, but Marina caught her around the waist. It was too late, she knew, staring at walls as they fell.

Everyone instinctively shielded their heads from the falling debris. Madame Anita pulled Lyanna and Dame Agatha to the ground, and Marina curled protectively around Carmilla. Then, nothing.

“Clear the rocks,” Marina ordered, starting at the top. They worked quickly, breathlessly. Carmilla could just faintly hear a frantic whimpering. Wisteria was alive somewhere in there. What seemed like hours later, they managed to remove most of the rocks from Wisteria’s upper half. Agatha and Lyanna using their newly acquired weapons to pry stubborn slabs away. Tugging at the next layer, Dame Agatha immediately stopped.

“We can’t move anymore,” she said, voice strained. “Wisteria, I’m sorry.” The southern woman could barely speak. Spasming pitifully, she desperately sucked in a breath. Marina gently brushed her hair out of her face. She knew there was no hope. Even if they could dig Wisteria out, her lungs were as good as crushed, not to mention her splintered bones in her legs and pelvis, most likely shattered completely.

There was, Madame Anita said sadly, a staircase leading up down their tunnel. But Dame Agatha shook her head, sitting down next to the dying woman.

“Go,” she ordered. “I’ll wait until she…I’ll catch up.” Patting her shoulder, Lyanna started down the tunnel. When at last their footsteps receded, Dame Agatha took Wisteria’s head in her lap, trying not to hurt the woman any more than she already was.

“Sorry,” Wisteria gasped out, voice catching. She convulsed, blood gathering in her mouth. She could feel her heartrate racing as her body began to shut down. “Can’t…sorry…stole…sorry…not…killer…”

Dame Agatha hushed her, stroking her dust covered hair. With tears in her eyes, Dame Agatha murmured empty words of comfort, knowing nothing would ease her pain. “I know, sweetie. I know. I’m so sorry.”

“Clue…” Wisteria choked out. “Killer…another…secret…sorry.” Her breathing became more and more ragged. She didn’t have much more time. Agatha squeezed her hand, feeling it grow limp. Wisteria slumped, no longer convulsing. No longer breathing. She’d fallen victim to the killing games.

Agatha clamped a dusty hand over her mouth, muffling her soft cries. Wisteria didn’t deserve this. She’d been right, Agatha though hollowly. Wisteria just stole things that didn’t belong to her. She just stole things. She wasn’t a killer. She should never have been in a game with murders and traitors. She should never have died.

Giving Wisteria’s face one last gentle stroke, Dame Agatha slowly stood, clutching a braided ribbon in her hand. With a heavy heart, she slowly stepped towards the stairs. With one last glance back, she turned away forever. Wisteria’s lifeless, pale blue eyes would haunt her for the rest of her life.

“I’m sorry,” Lyanna said. They’d waited for her at the foot of the staircase, not wanting to leave anyone behind. Dame Agatha gruffly nodded, wrapping Wisteria’s ribbon around her wrist. She’d kill the Host if it was the last thing she ever did. Angrily climbing up the rickety old staircase, she didn’t bother trying the knob before rearing back and kicking the wooden door down.

The good news was that they’d been underneath the Manderly Estate this entire time. Emerging from the basement door, they squinted in the bright hall lights. Everything remained as it had been before. Lyanna poked her head in the dining room, sadly looking at the bodies of Lord and Lady Manderly. Madame Anita peeked into the study, quickly shutting the door as the smell of blood made her gag.

Exhausted and covered in dust and grime, the five remaining women trudged into the library. Wordlessly, Madame Anita held up a decanter of whiskey in question. Marina nodded, holding out a glass.

Carmilla went over to the pitcher of water on the desk. Scrubbing at her face and neck, she managed to clear off most of the dust. She then did her best to brush most of it out of her hair before tying it up with a bit of string. Marina paused mid-drink, staring. Madame Anita nudged her, rolling her eyes as she took a long swig. Straightening, Marina blushed slightly. Carmilla handed the wet rag to Lyanna who gratefully took it.

“Any chance we could just…leave?” Lyanna asked once everyone had managed to get the worst of the dust off of them. Carmilla shook her head. The Host wouldn’t have planned something so elaborate only for them to just be able to get up and leave. The only way out was to play the game and win. Easier said than done.

Suddenly remembering, Dame Agatha recited Wisteria’s clue. Just as she’d thought, it was no help to anyone. They all had other secrets to bear, and no one wanted to add more fuel to the fire. Firmly, Dame Agatha insisted that Wisteria didn’t do it. The other four nodded in agreement.

“She just didn’t have it in her,” Carmilla commented, curling her legs under her as she sank into an armchair. Wincing, she sat up once more. “Right, I’m taking off this corset. If anyone has any objections, speak now.” Turning, she presented her back to Marina who, after a moment of surprise, pulled down the zipper. Smirking, Carmilla let the dress hang from her waist as she undid the tight stays. Then, tossing aside the offending garment, she tugged her dress back into place, letting Marina rezip her.

Enviously, Madame Anita eyed her before glancing down at her own heavy breasts. Going without support was out of the question.

Carmilla groaned in relief, finally sinking back into her armchair. No one moved for the longest time, just wanted a moment to process what they were up against. Marina absently reapplied her lipstick, knowing it would probably end up ruined soon enough, but needing something to do. Madame Anita slipped off her heels, wincing as she rubbed at her ankles. She was certain she’d turned it somewhere down in that dungeon.

A loud crash followed by a piercing scream shattered their moment of solitude. Reluctantly, Madame Anita shoved on her heels, before following the others into the hall. Immediately, she was glad she’d taken the time to do it. The floor was covered in glass and small metal parts. Cowering in the corner, Liat shook violently.

Gingerly navigating the glass while holding her skirts up, Carmilla approached her. Liat shrank back, pleading with her in broken English. Carmilla held out a placating hand, assuring the terrified woman that they weren’t going to hurt her.

“She killed Master and Mistress,” Liat sniffed. Though suspicious, Carmilla drew the poor girl up onto her feet, leading her back into the library. After finally calming herself enough to stop sobbing, Liat held out a crumpled envelope addressed to the guests. She was, she said, supposed to slip this under the door, but the clock just fell, nearly killing her.

Using Lyanna’s dagger to slice through the flap, Carmilla read through the straightforward clue. Go upstairs to find the second key. Three keys to get out. Carmilla growled in annoyance, only slightly thankful for the lack of nonsensical riddles.

“Right, Liat, stay here if you like.” Carmilla stood, headed for the door. “Everyone else, let’s go key hunting, shall we?” Liat nodded, hugging a pillow to her stomach. The remaining five women climbed the staircase, splitting off. They had too much ground to cover.

Marina headed to one of the bedrooms, flicking on the light switch. Unsure where to start, she just stood in the middle of the room, sighing impatiently. Then, knowing she had to move sometime, she headed to the nightstand.

Dame Agatha methodically went thought one of the bathrooms, even checking the pipes, but came up empty. Moving off towards the hall closet, she nodded to Lyanna who came out of another bedroom. Lyanna shrugged one shoulder, toeing off her shoes as she went into the next room. She could hear Madame Anita cursing to herself as she went through a bookshelf.

After banging her head on yet another cabinet, Marina was ready to scream in annoyance. She ran a hand through her hair in frustration looking around. Nearly jumping out of her skin, she saw Carmilla leaning on the doorframe of the conjoined room. Carmilla’s eyes looked glassy, and her breathing labored. Cautiously, Marina approached her, seeing the gas leaking out of the vents a moment too late. She groaned, feeling a rush of heat throughout her body.

“Marina,” Carmilla moaned, pulling the taller woman closer. Marina whimpered, all thoughts of the potential danger flying from her head in an instant. She dragged Carmilla towards the settee, straddling her. Sloppily, too aroused to worry about technique, Marina kissed the other woman. Carmilla made it her mission to smear the other woman’s lipstick beyond repair. Then, Carmilla pressed a knee between Marina’s legs, causing the redhead to jerk her hips frantically.

Losing her balance, Marina tipped off the small piece of furniture, spilling onto the floor and taking Carmilla with her. She yelped, feeling a sharp pain in her hips, but Carmilla quickly swallowed her cry of pain as she pressed their lips together once more.

Without breaking apart, Carmilla rucked up Marina’s red dress, dragging her fingertips over her satin underthings. Marina bucked up, gasping into Carmilla’s mouth. Then, wanting to feel Carmilla’s skin under her own hands, she slipped a hand up her dress, running her thumb over her slender hips.

Gracelessly, the two women ended up with their dresses pushed up, rutting up against each other desperately. Strained panting and grunts filled the room. Marina roughly pushed the straps of Carmilla’s dress down, palming a small breast. Carmilla left a dark bruise on the side of Marina’s neck. Wildly, desperately, the two women picked up speed, falling over the edge together at last.

“Gah!” Marina gasped, collapsing back onto the floor as Carmilla slumped on top of her, breathless. For just a moment they laid there, Marina’s hand still on Carmilla’s breast. Then, as the reality of their situation crashed over them, both women scrambled to sit up, tugging their clothing back into place.

Blushing furiously, Marina scrubbed at the lipstick smeared across her face. Carmilla quickly cleaned off her own face, trying to slow her heartrate. Looking utterly frazzled, Marina stood on shaky legs, grimacing at the uncomfortable wetness between her legs and across her thigh.

“I found the key,” Carmilla said, more dazed than she’d have liked. “It- um, it triggered the gas. Christ, that was a strong aphrodisiac.” Marina nodded in agreement, trying to sort out her mussed hair. Smoothing down her now slightly dusty and crumpled dress, Marina unsteadily walked towards the door. She sincerely hoped the Host hadn’t been watching them as they…well, as they needily rutted up against each other like animals.

Silently agreeing never to speak of this moment again, the two women exited the room, calling to the others. Holding up the key, Marina tilted her head, indicating that they should go back downstairs. The flush hadn’t yet receded from her face and neck, and the quickly darkening bruise stood out prominently on her neck. Seeing Madame Anita’s knowing glance, Marina quickly brushed her hair over the mark.

Liat lay on the couch in the library, evidently exhausted. Carmilla went to shake her awake when she saw it. Rushing over, she fell to her knees next to the girl, grabbing at the braided ribbon wrapped around her neck. She held it up, turning her mutinous gaze on Dame Agatha who stared at it in shock, before reaching for the ribbon around her wrist. It was gone. It was gone, and Liat was dead. She’d gotten caught up in the murder games.

“Wait, no,” Dame Agatha protested, holding up her hands. “I didn’t…I didn’t kill her. The ribbon must have fallen off me before when I was washing off the dust. I didn’t do anything to the poor girl. All of us had opportunity.” But even as the words left her mouth, she knew how weak it sounded. The murder weapon had been in her possession, and they’d all been split up. From the looks of things, Marina and Carmilla had solid alibis, being tied up with each other.

She heard herself protest that maybe Carmilla and Marina were in it together, and this was all just a frame job.

“Oh, please,” Carmilla scoffed, looking murderous. “She was just a girl, for god’s sake. A pawn in this game, and you strangled her while Liat waited down here just like I told her to. You just…you killed the poor child for no reason. Christ, have you no propriety at all?”

“Says the assassin who murders people for a quick buck,” Dame Agatha retorted. “You children are all fooling yourselves if you think I’m the enemy. Look around, little girl, we are at war with a psychopath. Blaming me will get us nowhere.”

Carmilla withdrew her gun, calmly pulling the safety. Marina looked anxiously between the two women. Then, she saw Dame Agatha tense. Without thinking, Marina shoved the smaller woman to the floor just as Dame Agatha withdrew a gun of her own, squeezing off a round. Carmilla scrambled up, taking aim once more. Marina stood to her right, taking out her own gun and aiming it at the general. Madame Anita grabbed Lyanna, pulling her to the side in alarm.

“Look at me, little ones,” Dame Agatha said leveling her gun. “I am not one of your targets for pay. You have no proof I even killed the girl. So, I ask you, can you live with yourself? Could either of you live with yourself with more blood on your hands?”

“I propose a firing squad,” Madame Anita said, withdrawing her own gun from her cleavage. Marina resisted the urge to roll her eyes. She appreciated the help, obviously. Lyanna looked to the four others before sighing dramatically and withdrawing her own gun. She knew better than to come to a dinner party of this caliber without a caliber of her own. Seeing that she’d lost, Dame Agatha raised her hands up, dropping her gun. She would face her death with dignity.

The four women backed the Dame against a wall. On three, they’d all squeeze off a round, lessening the guilt, and spreading the blame. One. Dame Agatha straightened her back. Two. She said a silent prayer to God. Three. Three shots rang out, and Dame Agatha fell to the ground, gasping in pain.

Marina ran to her, ripping open her shirt. She looked to Lyanna who stood frozen, having been unable to shoot. Her face softened slightly as she turned back to Dame Agatha who stubbornly turned away even in horrific pain. Her hands stained with blood, Marina backed away. Dame Casterly would be dead soon enough. And they still needed one more key. Dame Agatha Casterly breathed her last, finally succumbing to the shooting games.

A single sheet of paper fluttered down from the ceiling, landing just on top of the freshly dead body. Hands already stained, Marina grabbed at it. One more key. One last floor to explore. Tiredly, the four women moved from the library, shutting the door behind them. They still had to tear apart the ground floor.

Marina went off the to the bathroom, first to scrub at her hands, then to retrieve Dame Agatha’s clue. Lyanna braved the dining room, tiptoeing nervously around the cold dead bodies littering the dining room. She just wanted to go home and forget this ever happened. Here she was in a strange country, with strange people. They’d all been willing to kill another woman in cold blood. Lyanna wasn’t. She couldn’t. Her desperation to leave increased tenfold as she glanced down at Lady Manderly. Still shaking, she continued her search.

Carmilla went off towards the greenhouse. Still reeling from both her undignified roll in the sheets with Marina as well as the five murders, she sank onto a metal chair in the corner of the greenery. And then there was the fact that Marina had saved her. She’d shoved her out of the line of fire even with the possibility of being shot herself. Carmilla knew she herself didn’t particularly value her own life. But Marina had so much going for her to want to throw it away for a morally corrupt assassin.

To the Host, Carmilla knew, Marina Highland and she were very much alike. They said that opposites attract, but birds of a feather flock together. They both could not be true, but could not be false either. And Doctor Highland and Miss. Hoáng were certainly alike in many aspects. A fact the Host was eternally pleased with. After all, whatever would kill one would certainly destroy the other just as easily.

Yes, the Host knew of this sort of scum. The kind of women who thought themselves invincible with the innate ability to get away with murder. These were women who pranced about in the shadows as they defiled themselves in the eyes of the gods. The type of women who had no place in civil society and would be executed just like every other of their kind.

Well, thought Carmilla, the Host was wrong. So very wrong. She and Marina Highland were not alike. They were a perfect pair of external and internal. Solitary and commanding. And the balance each other’s presence lent to the situation would keep them alive. Their type of woman, as the Host so cleverly said, were nothing if not survivors.

Carmilla pushed herself up, renewed with determination to have the Host’s head on a platter by the end of the night. Well, she’d get nowhere without getting her hands dirty, and with that, she felt among the greenery.

Madame Anita Brown went to the billiard room, checking each ball pocket, and tearing aside each curtain. She examined each bottle in the bar, surreptitiously taking a swig of gin. Hey, if she was going to potential die tonight, might as well lessen the blow. As she ducked under the pool table to see if a key was taped somewhere to the underside, she thought back to the others.

Though loathe to admit it, Madame Anita respected both the Shadow Queen as well as the Dragon’s Daughter, and genuinely liked Lyanna Stanford. Perhaps what they’d done wasn’t exactly the most decent life path, but who was she to judge? Still, just because she respected the doctor and the writer did not mean she trusted them any farther than she could throw them. She had a feeling that when push came to shove, they wouldn’t hesitate to end her black ass if it meant saving each other’s. As for Lyanna, well, she might, but it wouldn’t be nearly enough.

She and Lyanna were in a predicament. With only themselves to rely on, they could not remain in the games for much longer when up against the likes of an assassin and an ex-mob leader on the loose. A nagging voice filled her head, whispering that it would be so easy to just end them before it was too late. All of them. She did have three syringes of poison, after all. Poison. Some called it cowardly. She called it intelligent. And if she were to go down, she might as well take everyone she could with her.

Madame Anita sighed. All she really wanted was to return home. Return home to the one person in this world she truly loved. Having no time for this game, she redoubled her efforts to find the key. Before she could go home, she thought, first she had to survive the night. And she knew the Host would not make it easy on any of them. She gritted her teeth, cursing the wretched woman. They may have been disgusting and less than human in the Host’s eyes, but it meant nothing if they could win. The Host wanted them to turn against each other; expected it, really.

But the Wicked Witch did not live this long in her line of work by being predictable. No, it was so much more fun to shake things up a bit. And if that meant allying herself with a Widow, a Queen, and a Dagon, then so be it.

“I found something,” came an excited voice from the hall. Madame Anita sighed, abandoning her own search. Marina, looking even paler than usual, stood near the door of the study. She’d plugged her nose and took the dive, finding a secret passageway. The four women stared down the dark hallway, not at all looking forward to returning to a tunnel. Not after last time. But they had a game to play.

The White Widow would play out of fear. The Wicked Witch to keep her secrets safe. The Dragon’s Daughter to maintain her reputation. And the Shadow Queen would play to win. Not to live, but to taste victory. They all took the dive into the murder games.

 

“Her clue said that the killer was someone with her own gun,” Marina said, voice cutting through the silence. “Not helpful since- there.” She shone a heavy flashlight down the hall, the light catching onto a glittering key. Carmilla held up an arm, catching the taller woman in the stomach. Warily, she murmured that it might be a trap just like the other key. Lyanna and Madame Anita exchanged questioning glances, but didn’t press. Marina examined the key, eyes darting to the string it dangled from. Well, there was only one way to find out.

She reached out, yanking the key from its hook. Yelping, a shock ran through the key and up her arm. Dropping her flashlight in shock, she stumbled back. But she did not drop the key. As the flashlight hit the concrete floor, it cracked, fizzling out and plunging them into darkness.

“Of course, zis would happen,” Madame Anita muttered. “Merde. Nique sa mère la­- ah!” Gasping in shock, Marina caught the other woman as she fell.

“Anita!” Lyanna yelped, groping around in the darkness. Carmilla struck a match, cursing as she saw it. The syringe filled with green liquid. Well, once filled at any rate. She pulled it from Anita’s neck, moving the match closer. She locked eyes with Marina who shook her head slightly. Whatever was in that syringe, she had a feeling there was no cure. They managed to pull a quickly fading Madame Anita back though the passageway, past the blood-smelling study, and into the hall, avoiding the broken glass from the clock.

“Do you know what it was?” Carmilla asked, examining the syringe. Lyanna shook her head, cradling Madame Anita’s head in her arms. She stroked at her riotous curls, feeling the woman tremble beneath her.

“Please,” Madame Anita gasped out. “No time. My…my daughter. Please. Find her. Please.” Marina pressed a hand to her mouth and Carmilla squeezed Anita’s hand. Quietly but firmly, Lyanna reassured her that her daughter would be safe. They’d make sure of it. But even as she said it, she glanced at the other two, knowing they had no way to do so. There had to be millions upon millions of little girls in France.

“My baby,” Madame Anita breathed, no longer seeing Lyanna. “Maman is coming. Don’t cry, mon ange. Je vais chanter a toi, ma fille. Sil vous plait. Sil vous plait.” She gripped Lyanna’s hand tightly, tears spilling from her eyes. “Dis-lui que je l’aime plus que tout, et je suis désolé. Sil vous plait. Mon bébé.” But it was Carmilla who answered, brushing the dying woman’s cheek.

Oui, je promets, Madame Anita. Tant que je respire, elle est en sécurité.” As if she were waiting for that reassurance, Madame Anita exhaled for the last time, growing boneless in Lyanna’s arms. For a moment, Lyanna sat frozen in shock. Then, with a strangled scream, she lurched away. Sobbing, the widow angrily threw the offending syringe across the room using the last of her strength. Marina gathered the distraught woman into her arms, looking at Carmilla sadly.

But Lyanna flailed, shoving Marina away. Furiously wiping at her face, she turned her anger towards the two remaining women. They’d done this.

“You monsters,” she snarled, standing. “One of you just stabbed Anita in the neck with a syringe only to comfort her in her dying moments. You’re disgusting, you horrible, horrible women. I hope you never have another peaceful moment for as long as you both live! You-” She snarled, grabbing for the dagger at her belt.

Both Marina and Carmilla scrambled back, both holding out their hands warily. Trying to calm the hysterical woman, Carmilla stepped in front of the redhead, making sure to stay between them. But Lyanna was beyond reason. Neither Carmilla nor Marina knew they could actually shoot the widow in her current state. They both knew they could easily do it any other time, and didn’t need to dwell on what that said about them.

“Marina, stay back,” Carmilla said, cracking her neck. She moved forward slowly, maintaining eye contact with Lyanna who stared glassily back. Then, Lyanna lunged, brandishing her dagger. Carmilla side stepped, catching Lyanna’s arm. But Lyanna wrenched away, kicking. Carmilla hissed as one of Lyanna’s flailing movements made contact with her shin. She stumbled back, almost tripping over her long skirts.

Lyanna, blinded by rage, lunged again, tackling the smaller woman to the ground. Carmilla gasped as bits of glass cut into her palms. Behind Lyanna’s shoulders, Marina made to pull the other woman off of her, but Carmilla called her off with a jerk of her head.

She pushed the other woman off, brushing glass from her hands with hardly a wince. She’d had worse. And Lyanna still had the knife. Grappling with her, Carmilla managed to gain the upper hand, pinning the widow to the ground.

Her heart hammered wildly as the dagger slashed at her arm. It barely scratched the surface, but little beads of blood quickly welled up. Carmilla grunted, twisting at Lyanna’s wrist. She’d fought people thrice Lyanna’s size before. Killed men using her bare hands. But she’d never once fought someone without the intension of causing major bodily harm. And she didn’t want to hurt Lyanna, leaving her open to attack.

At last, Carmilla managed to twist the knife away. She fell back, clutching the dagger in her fists. For a moment, no one moved. Both Lyanna and Carmilla panted heavily as Marina cautiously edged closer, intending to restrain the still furious woman.

Lyanna lunged forward, catching Carmilla off-guard. Instinctively, Carmilla raised her hands, to protect her center. With a strangled scream, Lyanna landed.

“No!” Both Carmilla and Marina screamed at the same time, realizing what would happen before it even did. Quickly, Carmilla rolled Lyanna over, hand covered in blood. Marina dropped to her knees once more that night, ignoring how bits of glass cut through her dress.

“I can fix this,” she murmured, applying pressure to the wound. Carmilla placed Lyanna’s head in her lap as Marina tore at her clothing, baring the wound. Cursing, she pushed herself up and raced towards the kitchen, shouting at Carmilla to keep pressure on it. Grabbing towels and the first aid kit in a cabinet.

There was too much blood. Carmilla kept her hands around the wound, pressing down as hard as she dared. Blood seeped out. She looked up helplessly as Marina returned, swiftly taking over. If she were in her hospital, Marina knew she could have saved her in an instant. But here, with only a box of bandages and a few dish towels, her confidence plummeted. Blood stained her dress, making the red even darker. Cursing profusely, Marina threw the blood-soaked towel aside.

“Please,” Lyanna gurgled, fading quickly. “Just…end…it…” Defeated, Marina slumped back. There was nothing she could do. The long blade had penetrated deep into her left abdomen, gravity forcing it deeper than any thrust of Carmilla’s could have. Without her tools, and without any way to stop the bleeding, Marina couldn’t save her.  Carmilla stood, pulling Marina away. Then, taking out her gun, she shot. Marina flinched, looking away. Her eyes caught the green of Anita’s dress and she felt ill all over again.

Numbly, she headed back towards the bathroom with Carmilla following close behind. They washed the blood from their skin as best they could.

“Out damn spot,” Carmilla said humorlessly. Marina made a small noise in the back of her throat that could have been a laugh. “Right. I know who killed Theodosia Rivers.” She marched back to the hall, pointedly not looking at Lyanna’s body. Snatching Madame Anita’s clue from where it rested between her breasts, she scanned it, humming in agreement. Marina read it, furrowing her brow. She had her suspicions, of course. The killer, it read, had killed before.

“The killer has a secret,” Carmilla recited. “Unhelpful. We all have- had secrets. The killer brought their own gun. Equally useless. We all came to this little party armed and dangerous. The killer killed before. We’re all murderers. My clue. The killer is a woman. Riveting information. These clues were just red herrings. But I have a guess. So, Host. Come out, come out wherever you are.”

The Host emerged from the basement door, brushing off her hands. In her ears, she wore a set of pearl earrings. Marina narrowed her eyes in anger, but did not move. Crossing her arms, the Host impatiently tapped her foot.

“We win,” Carmilla said. “You killed Theodosia Rivers. Not any one of us. I didn’t kill her. I don’t kill anyone without looking them in the eye as the life drains out of them. Wisteria Hollingsworth didn’t have it in her. Madame Anita Brown didn’t have the angle from the floor. Lyanna Stanford couldn’t even shoot a gun in a firing squad. Dame Agatha Casterly’s cartridge was full. I checked. And as for Marina, well, she didn’t kill her. None of us could have done it. A shot in the dark. Even I wouldn’t be able to hit that. Too lucky, too staged. You meant for Theodosia Rivers to come here tonight. Maybe she knew she’d be killed, maybe not. Either way, you pulled the trigger.”

“Very good, Little Miss Carmilla Hoáng,” the Host taunted, sauntering past them to the door. “Place the three keys in the locks and you have officially won the game. Ah, ah. Not so fast. In this little game you win, or you die. And there can only be one winner. So, say your goodbyes now. I’ll even give you another whiff of that aphrodisiac that I cooked up. You both look so cute when you lose all control. Who knows? I might even keep the loser around a little bit just so I can watch that expression again and again.”

Marina flinched, stepping away from Carmilla. She looked at the other woman before raising her hands in surrender. Dropping to her knees for perhaps the dozenth time that night, she bowed her head. Wincing, she felt cold metal press against her temple. Taking a steadying breath, she glanced up. Carmilla stood over her, a head taller now.

Her finger twitched, pulling on the trigger ever so slightly. Then, she pulled it away, crouching down. Marina jerked her head up, shock on her face. But Carmilla shook her head, pressing the revolver into her hand.

“Take it,” she whispered before backing up. She stood, gritting her teeth as she walked calmly to the Host. Glaring at the woman with every ounce of rage and disgust she possessed in her small body, Carmilla grudgingly knelt, refusing to break the Host’s piercing gaze. The Host just laughed in delight. She’d placed her bets right from the start that it would end with these two. The others just didn’t have it in them. Not like the Dragon’s Daughter and the Shadow Queen.

“I must say,” she purred, harshly tugging at the bit of string that held Carmilla’s hair up. She dug her fingers into it, tugging. Carmilla hissed, but did not retaliate. “I’d have guessed that seven times out of ten, it would have been the little red who’d be kneeling at my feet. But you’re such a sweet prize. Now, don’t dally, Raggedy Ann. Go on, take your win and leave. I’ll wire you the money tomorrow. I might even include a picture of this one’s lovely face. But don’t worry, love. I think I’ll keep her around for a little longer. But if you do want to watch as I have a bit of fun, I suppose that could be arranged.”

Carmilla met Marina’s eye, silently begging for her to leave. She didn’t want anyone to witness her fall from grace. Especially not Marina. Roughly, the Host tore at Carmilla’s bloodstained dress, baring her breasts. Laughing, she commented on how thoughtful it was of Carmilla to have already taken off her corset.

Marina snarled, leveling her gun. The Host looked merely annoyed. Approaching the Host, Marina asked whether or not the Host wanted to know her other little secret. The Host tilted her head, waiting. Though she’d teased and taunted, she didn’t quite know exactly what Marina’s dirty little secret really was.

“I’ll be glad to tell you if you just come over here,” Marina said, spinning the gun around her finger nonchalantly. The Host shoved Carmilla aside, ignoring her pained hiss. She approached the tall redhead, waiting. Marina placed her mouth to the Host’s ear.

“I’m the Dragon,” she whispered, smirking. Then, she shoved the other woman to the ground. And Carmilla shot. They had won the blackmail games.

“Come on,” Marina insisted, helping Carmilla to her feet. “We’re going to have to change. And you are going to have to be declared dead. Any chance your prints are on record? Thought not. Good.” She dragged Carmilla towards the library, telling her to take off her dress. Grabbing the corset she’d tossed aside earlier, Marina started to peel the clothes off of Liat’s body.

“Marina,” Carmilla hissed, knowing exactly what she was going to do. “Seriously? We look nothing alike. Oh, yes, fine. To white people maybe.” Still complaining heavily, she shucked off her clothing. Marina blushed slightly, looking away. Together they managed to redress the corpse, fixing her up to look somewhat more akin to what Carmilla Hoáng would look like. Then, they darted back upstairs to the bedrooms.

Lady Manderly was about an average size, leaving her clothing to be too small for Marina and miles too long for Carmilla, but they would have to manage. Marina shoved her own bloody clothing into a bag before struggling into one of Lady Manderly’s dresses. Thankful for her small chest, it managed to fit well enough, though it came to a scandalous length on her thigh. Carmilla had changed into Liat’s little black maid’s dress with only some loss of dignity. She refused to part with her boots, saying she had too many things hidden in them.

“Right,” Carmilla said as they stumbled back down the stairs and shoved the keys in the door. Mercifully, it opened, and they tumbled out not the hazy night. “Do we torch the place?” Marina shook her head, saying how her people would take care of it. Right now, they just had to get far, far away.

“So, Shadow Queen,” Marina said as they clamored into Marina’s car. “Where to?” Carmilla sighed, leaning her head against the cold glass window. She shrugged helplessly. Then, she sat back up. She knew exactly where they needed to go. After all, there was a child who sorely needed someone.

“I’ve always wanted to see France,” Carmilla said. Marina smiled sadly, intertwining her fingers in Carmilla’s. She couldn’t save any of them that night. Nine people dead. And she couldn’t do anything about it. But she could save someone. One little girl. One single little girl in all of France. How hard could it be?