The widow was suddenly distracted by the loud, ominous ticking that showed the last of the hour counting down. Instead of fear, she looked genuinely disappointed. There was no malice in her stance and no sense of anger as she walked before the fire. The darkness of her black dress had faded almost to grey and when she walked before the flames, there were cool breezes about her but the sharpness of the chill was gone. When she walked in front of the flames, they could see the crackle of the fire right through her like she was made of nothing more than the same fabric of her veil.
“If you just tell us your story, even just where it was heading, we can stop this from happening,” Dolly said, watching as the shadows were starting to evaporate.
“Do we really want her to stop fading out here?” Matt said, slowly. Lydia looked at him. “She did just admit to killing her husbands.”
“Characters aren’t always meant to be good people,” Dolly sighed, watching the widow move around. “If they were, there wouldn’t be any memorable horror villains.”
“The thing is that she’s really not a horror villain,” Will said, thinking. “Not that she couldn’t be with some kind of work but it’s not really in keeping with the genre. I mean, if you don’t count the shadows of the dead husbands.”
“There are still some of them here,” the widow said but frowned immediately after. “I suppose that doesn’t much help when so many of them have dissolved. With so little time left, I can’t see any option to find them again. Very disappointing, really.”
“Well, we’re not out of time yet,” Dolly said. “There’s got to be more that we can do. Something to at least give us a little extra time or even just to stop this from happening right away. Come on, guys, there’s got to be something that we can do, isn’t there?”
“I don’t know, Dolly,” Stuart sighed. “Matt does have a point about her killing people. I know that this is part of the story building stuff but she did kind of freeze us. That and if she stays here, the people that she’s most likely to take out are the two of us and Will.”
“No she wouldn’t,” Lydia scolded. The two boys looked at her funny. “Don’t be like that. She wouldn’t!”
“Lydia’s right,” Will said. “This is her story, or what’s left of it, in a way. It’s only a fragment but it’s something.”
“What’s that, Will?” Dolly pressed.
“We were so busy shivering before, we weren’t paying attention fully but I get it now,” he replied. “She only kills her husbands, if I am getting this correctly. If that’s the case, unless one of us was planning to get engaged, I don’t think that’s going to be a problem.”
“And she wouldn’t get engaged to you guys anyway,” Dolly added, nodding. The widow brightened up, even as another shadow around them dissolved. “No offense meant.”
“And that’s because we know her secret?” Matt said. “Because she could still kill us for that alone, you know.”
“She wants us to know her secrets,” Dolly said. “And the reason that she married these men was for their money. She said so herself. The one lying on the bed was an older man who was already dying. Why else would she marry him?”
“And she even used his hand to sign away his fortune,” Lydia added.
“Oh you did figure it out,” the widow said, delightedly. “Now, all you have to do is connect it to something more tangible and we can pull out of this last five minute spiral that we’re in!”
“No pressure, Dolly,” Matt muttered.
Before she could reply, there was a burst of warm air that came from the fireplace, banishing the cold air around them. Dolly saw the deep red velvet curtains darken to their normal purple and the floorboards were replaced by the regular stones of their familiar Safe Haven. The widow was still visible but she was getting fainter still. There were eight distinctive shadows around the room now but they were getting lighter.
Suddenly something dropped into her lap and Dolly was confused to be staring at a small, white round object that had a red mark in it. When she picked it up, she saw that it had delicately crafted legs attached and that the mark wasn’t just red but also it happened to be a very distinctive shape. She looked up to see Toby perched above her looking down at his work. It was still hard for her to understand the spider’s expressions but she could kind of gather from the way he shook the web that he was proud of this one. She also couldn’t help but smile when she realized that their resident spider had figured out who the widow was before any of them had.
“Thank you, Toby,” she sighed. “I wish you could talk so you could have helped before this.”
“Our visitor would have hardly allowed such an interruption to her game,” a new, accented male voice said, calmly.
The group turned to see a man standing next to the clock. He was taller though he leaned on a cane for support. From the dark of his hair and his eyes, they could immediately tell that this man was related to the widow, even though her features had been mostly obscured. When Dolly looked to the widow, she could see shock fading to indignant anger in her expression. She huffed and looked him over.
“Really? You would come to ruin my little party and wreck the ambiance that I worked so hard to establish?” she pouted. “Truly, this is a step too far, Victor! This was to be my story and here you are again!”
“Ah but I have so much to thank you for that I thought it would be uncouth to allow my only surviving sister to leave without so much as a parting shot,” the man replied. She glowered but he only smiled. “Consider it a parting gift, my dear Charlotte.”
“Charlotte, the black widow,” Dolly sighed, mostly annoyed with herself that she didn’t think of it sooner. She looked to see Charlotte was still faded but it had slowed. “Why isn’t the fading stopping?”
“It will,” Victor said, holding the minute hand as it moved to the last minute before midnight. “Once you give her the gift of your little friend, she will have the chance to transform.”
Dolly looked to the others and realized that this honor was going to be hers whether she liked it or not. Getting closer to the woman now, she saw the eight shadows taking their place like witnesses around her and suddenly, this figure before her felt quite intimidating. Charlotte wasn’t impatient as she moved forward and as Dolly came to stand before her, she removed her veil. She didn’t know what to say so she silently handed over the little trinket that Toby had made as the spider cowered behind her and climbed onto Will’s back. Charlotte looked it over in her hand for only a second before suddenly she shivered and the trinket disappeared. Victor let go of the clock hand and it chimed midnight, as the shadows around them shook. As the last chime sounded, Charlotte gasped and clutched at her chest. Her dress was now darker than it had been before and far more glamorous. When she looked at Dolly, she blinked her dark eyes but briefly, they were both startled when two more tiny eyes in her forehead briefly opened before closing again, leaving no trace of their existence. The eight shadows stretched out, long and thin, and became shadowy legs. Charlotte looked at them moving, unable to speak at first. She cleared her throat.
“This certainly isn’t quite what I expected,” she said, her tone still shaken but curious as well.
“This is a horror space,” Will said. “A very spider-centric one, apparently. I’m not sure if that’s my influence or just because Toby was the one to figure out who she was first, even though he couldn’t speak. In any case, I guess this means that you are renewed for another life.”
“But before we celebrate any kind of victory here, I must know,” Charlotte said, dismissively. “I’m still beautiful, right? I simply cannot allow myself to continue on in a form that doesn’t allow me to follow through with my most important quality.”
“As beautiful as you are wicked,” Victor said, moving forward now.
Dolly fell back with her group as the pair faced each other. They stood opposite of one another and for a second, Charlotte almost looked sad. She frowned as she looked over the man before her. Even now, it was clear that they were once brother and sister. She sighed and shook her head.
“There was a point at which I was going to get to kill you,” she said, frowning. “Don’t get me wrong. I’m not under the impression that I would have enjoyed it in the least. I would have had to suffer from the emotional ending of our sibling relationship and having to admit some kind of fondness for you or some rot and that would have been pure torture.”
“Truly, I’m devastated about it,” Victor said, in a dry tone. Charlotte crossed her arms. “If it’s any consolation, you did take away my ability to walk properly throughout our tale.”
“And how will that fare for you now that we are to walk away from each other like strangers?” she said. Victor smiled and looked to his cane before looking at their hosts.
“Perhaps a small sacrifice to mark the end is only appropriate,” he replied. “Something to keep the fires burning for our hosts who have so generously rid us of this unfortunate bond that we share.”
“Then we shall forget each other?” Charlotte laughed.
“Never,” Victor replied, throwing the cane in the fire and stretching out properly. He bowed to Charlotte and smiled. “May all your husbands be foolish and extravagantly wealthy, my former sister.”
“May your family survive on to haunt another tale, my former brother,” she said as she curtsied.
The pair turned and bowed to the group. The fire behind them grew bright enough to dissolve the remains of the old story and the Haven was restored to its former glory, this time with a few added bookshelves.
“Thank you for your generosity and your creativity,” Victor said. “May you enjoy the rest of your night and the gifts of our lost tale. May they bring you inspiration.”
Almost immediately his attention was drawn to the sound of children laughing somewhere else. The chill of their voices gave Dolly the shivers. Lydia was the first to spot a pair of young boys appear in the new doorway that had once been frozen shut. She motioned for them to look as the kids looked around the edges of the room, wondering where they were and curiously poking at the edges, unable to quite get in but able to make the veil that separated their world shudder. They giggled again. They were bathed in shadows but their eyes were bright and blue and staring at Victor. He looked at them affectionately. He moved forward towards the doorway where the boys laughed out loud now and moved away into the room that the door opened to. On his way towards the door, Victor paused again and bowed once more. He made a gesture of respect to Matt.
“To your eternal brotherhood, I pray for good health,” he said before moving onward to his waiting children. The door disappeared as soon as he moved through it.
“He knew that Matt is a Buck?” Stuart asked, confused.
“You guys said it didn’t show anywhere but the eyes,” Matt pouted.
“It doesn’t,” Will reassured him. “He’s a character, not a human. He can tell because he knows you belong in this world now like I do, even if you don’t show it yet.”
“Oh don’t be so dour, darlings,” Charlotte sighed, contently, moving to see how the phantom shadow legs moved along with her new outfit. “It’s a lovely snowy evening and I intend to make the most of it now that I’m not faded away to a shadow. There are more men for me to find out there so I must be on my way. You’ve been very kind hosts and I very much appreciate your help so allow me to offer a little gift that is far better than my former sibling’s.”
With a shiver, she sent one of her shadow legs over to where the clock was ticking and they saw the hour hands moving backwards. It spun back to the time before even when they had seen it for the first time and when the shadow disappeared from the clock, the hands crawled slowly forward, barely moving.
“The remainder of the root should take care of the rest,” Charlotte said, stretching.
“So does this mean we’ll never see either of you again?” Lydia asked.
“Oh, one can never tell what this place has to offer, love,” she replied, moving towards the door. “Sometimes surprises can come from the least expected places. But with that, I must go hunting for something more satisfying than a cozy night in front of the fireplace.”
Charlotte extended another one of her shadowy legs and after it passed over a part of the wall, a door appeared. She smoothed down her dress and primped her hair before moving forward. With a black lace glove on her hand, she daintily pulled on the ornate door handle and it slid open without any resistance. She smiled, her red lipstick now darker than before. When she looked at Dolly one last time, she flashed that wicked grin and her spider eyes opened up.
“Hail to the Queen and her court,” she said quietly before slipping away.
Charlotte quickly left them all to their looks of confusion as the door behind them closed and disappeared. After a few minutes, Dolly finally spoke.
“Well, that was a weird way to spend our holiday night,” she said. “But on the bright side, it seems like we have a whole night to enjoy trying to figure out what just happened.”
“Look, while we were trying to figure out who the widow was, Toby was making places for our ornaments,” Lydia said, pointing up at the webbing that now hung from the ceiling like icicles.
“And we have a lot more books here now,” Will said, eyeing the spines.
The group relaxed for the first time that night and soon, Will dug out his radio for them to listen to as they chatted about their old holiday memories. Toby continued to weave quietly in the corner of his web, making mitts for Will’s spider legs and little baubles for everyone else. The night passed slowly but sometimes, every now and again when she was near the fire, Dolly could faintly smell roses. Whenever she did, she saw the fire gleam off the handle of Victor’s cane, the metal gleaming as the last remains of it.