If malevolence had the power to manifest itself in stone and mortar, then Rag Castle was its purest embodiment. It bespoke, with its sombre grey walls and stagnant putrid moat, a clear warning to stay away -- or else. A warning that seemed to have prevailed upon the wildlife of the area to perform a mass exodus many years ago. Doom-laden and desolate, its enormous bulk cast a pall of deep unease upon the land.
As Malone and Abigail drove across the drawbridge into the courtyard their first impressions were radically different.
Malone felt pleased with himself for having discovered such an abysmal pile, and was looking forward to exploring the interior.
Abigail felt violated. She had the oddest sensation that someone had just probed a finger into her vagina and was exploring her insides. She wriggled involuntarily and experienced a sudden uprush of tearful emotion. Her head felt hot and vague, and then icily cold and unpleasantly clear. Vivid tableaux of medieval abasements and cruelties shot through her mind like an obscene slide show. It stopped after a second, and left her feeling low and crushed and stained.
'Abigail! What's the matter?'
'Oh God, I've just had a funny turn. I feel foul, and acutely conscious of badness -- people have suffered horrible tortures in this place. Such wretchedly sick things have been done here. Don't worry, I'll be okay in a second.'
'A strong cup of tea will settle your nerves.' Malone was generally at a loss with women, and psychic women were light years beyond his comprehension.
'Nerves? Nerves! Arrrgh! For God's sake Malone, this is like Hades' antechamber, what the bloody hell possessed you to book us into this place?'
'I booked us in here because you said the television people wanted a place that exuded an authentic atmosphere of evil.'
'Yes, I know, but I didn't mean this authentic, this makes Dracula's Castle look homely.'
'Women,' muttered Malone, absolutely convinced that nothing in all creation could be so capricious.
'What?' she asked amusedly. 'Indulging in misogyny again? You sexist thug! Well, mister, I can feel a spell of premenstrual tension coming on, so you'd better try and be nice to me, dear.'
'Yes dearest, I'll be niceness itself,' he bantered, 'wouldn't dream of being anything else. Now let's go and check in, then we can take stock of the place.'
Malone and Abigail were quite a double act. He was forty-four, Irish, well built, and an ex priest. She was twenty-seven, Nigerian, petite, shapely, and an ex nun. The Church had condemned them both and expelled them from their vocations for sins of the flesh. That is, they had committed the sin of fornication together. They did not accept expulsion quietly however, and caused a furore in the Church by mounting an eloquent public defence of their liaison. The media loved it. Their notoriety paid dividends in terms of celebrity and wealth, and afforded them the opportunity to pursue their passion for spiritual exotica.
The owner of Rag Castle felt he had rather too much spiritual exotica, and had invited Malone and Abigail to investigate. A television documentary about the recent bizarre happenings, and perhaps a televised exorcism, might do something to retrieve his fortunes and prevent imminent bankruptcy.
Frank James had bought the castle three years ago with the intention of cashing in on its ghastly appearance and haunted reputation. At astronomical expense he had carried through his plan to convert the place into a hotel. He had been confident that his guests would be thrilled and delighted by the prospect of encountering spooks and poltergeists -- he had been wrong. Initially people booked with him, but most didn't stay. Those that did tended to become psychologically disturbed, and five of his guests had died of heart failure. Thus Frank James was a dejected and woebegone man when he welcomed Malone and Abigail in the lounge bar at Rag Castle.
'Thanks for offering to help,' said Frank, 'I really am terribly grateful, but I'm not optimistic that you'll succeed in evicting whatever's blighting the place. Three exorcists have tried, and each was stricken by an extremely virulent bout of diarrhoea -- one nearly died.'
'Tell us about the people who died of heart failure, did they have anything in common?' asked Abigail.
'Well, er, yes, as a matter of fact they did. They were all men and each was found completely naked. And...well...er,' Frank stuttered in embarrassment and redirected his gaze from Abigail to Malone, 'they were all erect.'
'What? You mean they were all found standing up!' exclaimed Abigail, repressing a fit of the giggles at Frank's quaint sense of propriety.
'No, no, I mean...er...'
'She knows what you mean Frank,' growled Malone. 'Abigail delights in mischief, and believes a light heart and levity are undervalued panaceas. She was also educated in a convent, so what can you expect? I know it's irritating, but try to grin and bear it, I have to.'
Abigail beamed an arch smile at Malone and resumed her questions. 'Is there much poltergeist activity: footsteps, doors opening and shutting, things moving of their own accord, that sort of thing?'
'All the time, and its getting worse, especially at night.' Frank winced and shuddered as he spoke. 'Things have intensified over the past few nights, even with medication I've found it impossible to sleep, so I'm moving out. After 6pm you will be the only people in the castle apart from Virginia Tate, my deputy. She will be leaving tomorrow morning. Most of the staff left yesterday, and the few remaining will go this afternoon. I'm sorry if you expected company, but no one will stay after what was seen on Sunday.'
'An apparition?' Malone asked.
Frank's face whitened, he took a deep breath and said: 'Well, I suppose it must have been, it appeared at the end of the bar, just over there, in front of everyone, stayed for about five seconds and disappeared. It was a monster, a horrible, squat deformity. It stunk to high heaven as well -- something akin to rotten eggs and the stuff you find in a cesspit. There was pandemonium, people were violently sick, absolutely traumatised. Everyone was utterly bewildered and shocked. I don't blame them for leaving.'
Abigail's pulse quickened, she felt anxious and disturbed. 'I don't like this, Malone. Frank is describing an elemental; a demonic thing conjured up from wickedness and hate. The men who died in a state of sexual arousal could have been the victims of a succubus. The atmosphere is charged, it's positively rancid with ill intent. As Frank said, things are escalating; a storm is brewing. We could be stepping into danger, you more so than I.'
'What's a succubus?' Frank asked.
'It's a female demon of the night, devoted to having sexual intercourse with men whilst they're asleep.' Abigail answered. 'If there is a succubus at work, it would seem that she's developed a taste for murder as well as sex,' she added.
Malone pondered for a moment before speaking. 'Yeah, you're quite right, Abigail, it would be stupid to hang around with a serial succubus on the prowl, and fatally stupid to fall asleep. But all this is speculation; we have no solid evidence that such a thing exists. And the thing that was seen in the bar could be a case of mass hallucination. The dead men may have been done to death by someone or something this side of the grave, not by a sex-mad ghost. The alleged poltergeist activity could be anything. No. We need to verify what Frank has told us for ourselves. We can't commission a T.V. documentary on the basis of hearsay and hysteria. No offence, Frank.'
Frank appeared leaden and fatigued. 'No offence taken, Mister Malone, I'm a pragmatic man myself, or used to be. Well, I sincerely hope your scepticism is not myopic, and you find enough material to justify a documentary. This place has damned near finished me; it would be a small triumph if I could wring some recompense out of its miserable neck.'
'We'll do our best,' said Malone.
At 6.10pm Malone and Abigail were alone in the castle. There was a hushed expectancy about the place. The halls and passages, noiseless and still, had a thick atmosphere of brooding coldness. The pair had retreated to their rooms as soon as Frank had taken his leave, feeling a need to establish their own private space. Their apartment was plush and spacious -- one of fifty-three similar suites. Abigail had just showered, and was drying herself in front of Malone as he lay with his feet up on the bed.
'You like me naked, don't you, Father?'
'Yeah, Sister, you saucy little wench.'
She was right. Malone was captivated by her nakedness. He adored her black silky skin, and the beautiful thrust of her firm little breasts. And now she was responding to his gaze with teasing little gyrations of her hips and bottom. Her eyes met his and she danced an African dance, sinuous and flaunting; an erotic invitation that has enticed men into breathless captivity since time out of memory.
They made love. At first slowly and languorously, savouring and touching each other with quiet pleasure. Then with heightened passion, acutely alive to their excitement, building and intensifying their needs with each kiss and caress. Finally, intercourse became a compulsion; an urgent, sharp, surging drive to satiate their senses in a burst of warm, delicious pleasure. They came together, and laughed like children.
The castle sensed their pleasure. It detected their bodies - their skin, sweat, organs, bones and sinews. It wanted their pleasure. It wanted them.
In the castle floorboards creaked, walls shuddered, ceilings flexed and shivered. Elements warped and fused into strange contortions. Atoms and molecules spun into unnatural forms. The castle pulsed with malefic creation. Agonies caught in stone, blood, unbearable torture, all its deep resources of pain and malevolence bodied forth playmates for Malone and Abigail.
Abigail felt the hate gathering around them and shook with a sudden surge of apprehension. Malone felt nothing -- congenitally impervious to anything beyond his five senses.
'Malone, I think we should leave, I'm really worried, I think this place is evil and dangerous.'
'We don't know that, we have no evidence to...'
'Dunderhead! Lack-brain! You know nothing, priest-man!'
Malone shivered at the force and strangeness of the utterance. The voice and words had come from Abigail, but they were not hers.
'Abigail, what's wrong?'
'What? Oh, I don't know. I remember speaking but not what I said. How odd. What did I say?'
'Well, you said I was a dunderhead, a lack-brain and a priest-man who knows nothing. And your accent and intonation were different -- very precise and Nigerian.'
'I wouldn't say such insulting things. And the words are old-fashioned; they're like the words grandma used to use.'
'What was your grandma like?'
'I have very little memory of her -- she died when I was four -- but the family speak of her only in terms of extreme respect and deference. Apparently, she was a Juju priestess of awesome reputation. Men of power from every continent craved her blessings, and woe betide anyone who provoked her anger. It is said she could congeal the life-blood of her foes with a mere word or glance. As you can imagine, people generally tried to stay on her good side.'
Malone was about to adopt his usual sceptical attitude to such things, but thought better of it. 'Perhaps you subconsciously remember her words and utter them when you feel stressed. Anyway, this place is getting you down, so let's have a bite to eat, a quick look round to satisfy the company, and then we'll put up at a pub somewhere.'
Six miles away on a lonely forest road Frank James stopped his car, reversed into a sidetrack, and turned back. His mobile phone was still in his room at the castle. His stomach knotted at the thought, but he had to return, he needed the phone. What an unbelievably stupid thing to do, he thought. How could I be such a dummy! Such an absolute fucking dummy! Frank berated himself as he drove, trying to replace his sense of fear with self-anger. But it wasn't working. He was scared. Nevertheless, it was still light, and if he hurried he could retrieve his phone and be on his way in no time. He accelerated. Soon be there and soon be out again, he told himself, again and again, like a mantra. But his fear grew, virtually to the point of panic, as he drove across the castle drawbridge in the gathering twilight.
Frank decided not to disturb Malone and Abigail, checking with them would take him in the opposite direction to his room, and he simply wanted to get his phone and go. Darkness was deepening in the passage as he quickly strode towards his room. The place seemed different, and he felt compelled to keep glancing over his shoulder. Behind, shadows appeared to be forming and moving, Don't lose it, he told himself, night is closing in, what can you expect? But the shadows unmanned him; they seemed to hold darker shapes within them. Frank quickened his pace to a run. He reached his room, stepped inside and felt a soft squelch underfoot. He flicked on the light switch, and froze.
The room was a turmoil of squirming worm-like creatures. Each was about a foot long with a bulbous head and a mouth set with small needle-like teeth. They covered the floor and wriggled up and down the walls, excreting long strings of viscous slime. Several had gained purchase on the ceiling and were dangling cords of this sticky ooze beneath them. Many of the loathsome things were writhing, convulsively flexing and licking their dirty sides. The stench was unbearable.
Frank recoiled in disgust, his bowels desperate to evacuate. He lunged towards the door, but staggered and fell, his feet adhering to the carpet in a coagulated mess of the creatures' excrement. His knee hit one of the things and it thrashed violently. Instinctively, he shot to his feet and leapt for the door again. Again he fell, his fingers scratching frantically at the doorjamb. Something was crawling up his leg inside his trousers. He screamed in abject terror. It was moving up the back of his calf. He kicked his leg to try and dislodge it. It stopped for a moment, and then, as if with stronger resolve, slithered round to his shin and touched his kneecap. Frank lashed at the thing with his fist, pounding, wild with hysteria. It was counterproductive. The thing squirmed up his thigh with a spasm of muscular energy, moving inexorably towards the warmth of his groin. Adrenalin propelled him to his feet, his hands ripping furiously to remove his trousers. Something plopped onto his head from above and promptly wriggled down the back of his shirt. Frank wailed and soiled himself, his mind and body dominated by stark terror. Intense pain in his groin caused him to vomit. More of the creatures dropped on him from above, clinging to his neck and ears. One bit into his lower lip. He grabbed at it and tore it from his face, taking his lip and a strip of flesh with it. Blood spurted from the wound. The creatures liked the blood and squirmed towards its source. Frank died in a demented frenzy, his screams turning to a gargling rattle, as his face was torn apart and devoured.
The castle fed on his pain. It welcomed his death-screams like triumphant symphonies. His baneful shrieks were oratorios throbbing with pleasure and promise. The sounds cascaded underground to remote dungeons and forgotten chambers. Other screams were awakened. Earthbound souls, shades of the torturer's gloating murder, howled in outrage at their unavenged deaths. Scream amplified scream, piercing and bombinating in a shockwave of unresolved hate and agony.
In their rooms Malone and Abigail sensed that something unwelcome was about to enter their space. They paused in their preparations to explore the castle and listened apprehensively. Then it hit them.
Supercharged with the pain of centuries the scream attacked their ears like a hand grenade. A self-protection reflex dropped them to the floor with hands clamped over their ears. Fear and shock paralysed their minds and froze their bodies into the foetal position. Then it stopped abruptly, as if someone had thrown a switch.
Its cessation triggered them to action. Both flew to the door with the same impelling instinct -- escape. Malone reached it first, and like a man possessed, wrenched it open and turned to the left.
'Come on girl, move it!' he bellowed, glancing quickly behind him at Abigail and charging full tilt down the passageway.
Abigail followed for several paces and then stopped, realising that he was running in the wrong direction.
'Malone! Stop! You're going the wrong way!'
There was no response. Malone's ears were still ringing from the scream, and Abigail's cries failed to reach his brain. He continued to charge down the passage, convinced that she was right behind him.
Abigail, realising that he was oblivious to her cries, started to run after him, but was immediately wrenched backwards. Something had seized her collar and was dragging her back to the room. Her heart clenched with terror, and pounded like a pneumatic drill. She squirmed, mad with fear, arms flailing and lashing out in blind panic. But to no avail, she was hauled back into the room and flung against the far wall, the back of her head striking it with a sickening thump. For an instant, just before she lost consciousness, Abigail saw a monstrosity.
She came to with a start, and gazed with bewildered horror at the scene gradually resolving into focus. She was lying naked on an elaborate four-poster in a dank, stone chamber. Gloomy and vast, with archways opening onto chambers beyond, the place had an air of numbing oppression. Under the archways people suspended by chains and manacles were being subjected to hideous cruelties, their piteous screams and cries availing them nothing but scorn from their tormentors. The torturers, naked and sexually aroused, were laughing deliriously with sadistic excitement. And then suddenly the people became hazy and insubstantial, and faded into nothingness. Everything was silent, except for the spit and crackle of a fire and a deep guttural moan of pain.
Twelve feet away to Abigail's left was a large open fire. Above it, impaled on a spit, turned the body of a woman, her face contorted in agony. Occasionally, fat would flow from her body onto the coals beneath, causing the fire to flare up and illuminate the roasting flesh. Turning the spit was the monstrosity Abigail had glimpsed before she was knocked out.
'Oh isn't she merciless! What a grand creation.' The speaker emerged from an archway to the right of Abigail and sat on the edge of the bed. She was completely naked. Tall and beautiful with long jet-black hair, her movements were hypnotic and dance-like. She turned to Abigail and introduced herself.
'I am Lilith, wife of Belial, queen of chaos and misrule. Yonder is my pet, a creation of dark rage, bones and flesh vomited up from the bowels of this place. She is man-hater and man-killer, a succubus of infinite delicacy.'
Lilith slid lazily alongside Abigail and entwined herself around her body. She placed her lips close to Abigail's ear and began to whisper.
She whispered soothing enchantments, words of honied dreaminess. And all the while she caressed and kissed Abigail's naked body.
'Open your legs my sweet, I wish to warm my hands.'
Abigail obeyed. Her will was dissolving, dying as the seductive whispers captured her mind.
The whispers continued.
'You are my dearest darling, my beautiful angel of pleasure. We will play together and bewitch the world. Your body is for me, you know it, and want it so. See there the body of Virginia Tate. Behold her undignified ending. What a miserable, frail being, unfit for nothing but ridicule and contempt. Would you like to join her over the fire? No, of course not, you are for me, you know it, and want it so.'