“The prognosis is death, I’m afraid.” The pointy nosed doctor spoke in a quiet tone as he adjusted his beaked mask. The man addressed the pair through foggy lenses adorning the headwear as they considered the idea, the very thought, as ridiculous. They were young, years un-lived cried out as they flickered away in one spoken sentence. It was a simple mistake, the old woman had been wearing a long cloak and hood as she strode down the barren street that day. She had fallen and they, being kind souls, had come to help. The hood fell upon her back and her red spotted skin glistened in the waining light. They knew what the affliction had been but that revelation had not stopped the blood from spewing from the woman’s mouth and coating the both of them. Joseph knew what it had meant but even now he could only look at his Elizabeth’s soft face grow ever the more rigid with the news, fear shook her from head to toe. Joseph was powerless to save his beloved from death and the mask it wore. “But I have something here that will help.” The man said, his elongated snout standing out white against his black robes and gloves, his brown satchel being the only other color on his monochromatic person.
“Can it cure us?” Elizabeth said, hope dangling by a string.
“No.” The doctor’s razor words sliced away.
“But it will give you more time to get your affairs in order for those you will leave behind.” The man’s voice was muffled beneath the aperture on his face, still his words came to them clear in meaning.
“Oh.” Elizabeth’s voice fell to a whisper. Joseph coiled his arm around her gentle frame and pulled her close. She, in turn, faced towards him and buried her face in his shoulder. Her back moved with silent sobs.
“I am sorry, child.” The Doctor said, folding his hands over his belly in a sign of sympathy. “It may be a false hope but perhaps you two will outlast the plague. Miracles do happen.” He said, his voice soft yet cold. Elizabeth did not turn, but her breathing eased some.
“Thank you Doctor. For everything.” Joseph said wrapping his other arm to envelope his darling. The Doctor proceeded to reach into his satchel and remove a small vial of pink liquid, which he handed to Joseph, careful as to not touch him. With the vial delivered, the Doctor nodded curtly and walked off to other victims of the plague lining the street.
The plague worked fast, usually within hours the infected would succumb to the “Red Death” sometimes the effects took the victim over the course of but one hour, others it took nearly a day, but never longer. Joseph had once heard that those who’s livelihoods were paid for in sweat and blood held more of a resistance to the sickness than those of privilege (but that would most likely be the ravings of the envious commoner). The young usually lasted the longest, but it would be a fools hope for any more than a few hours difference.
The pair made their way down the long melancholy road as the light of dusk washed over the cobblestone and dirt highlighting the rolls of fog that lazily wafted along side them. Houses dotted the walks and alleys of the small town set at the foot of the castle where the Prince and his court hid in sanctuary. The Lighter came through, his body covered from head to toe in thick cloth and a mask with glass windows over his eyes as he lit the lamps of the street with a long rod, housing a small flame at the end. At his hip Joseph could see the gleaming leather sheath of the man’s dagger. He gripped his Elizabeth tighter and kissed the top of her head. She pulled tightly at his waist. She had always told him that she felt safer in his arms. He wasn’t a particularly large man, but he had worked the fields and, for a time, the mines. She had been from a family of maids and servants called to serve the Prince and his company from time to time. Only now, the Prince had only need for the servants that lived in his fortress, no call came since the plague began. She had told Joseph stories of the Balls and elegant parties to be found in the estate behind the walls. As a young girl she would make any excuse, carrying any refuse or complete any degrading chore, to be able to spend time with the party guests. She loved the food, the drink, the laughter, the gayety of these festivities. But times had changed. The parties grew fewer, fields corrupted, the mines entombed. Work was scarce and they had made their living in slow turmoil as caution gave all pause to accept any wage, job or supply. Work had been the cause for their traversal of the streets that day. Word of the need for a man to labor and a woman to clean. But then the old woman fell in the street.
Their house was a humble one, outside of town. Though Joseph was considered of handsome disposition and Elizabeth a beauty in her own regard, neither was afforded the privileges that other, of similar titles, were handed by birthright. But they contented themselves in their lives of lack and without luster. For they were not alone.
Opening the door to the shack with a cloth, so as not to touch the handle, the couple observed their darkened home. Elizabeth had torn at the hem of her dress and fashioned them each a mask to hide their breath. Adorning gloves, Joseph lit a well used candle and disappeared into the only room outside of the entryway, reappearing with a small haul of clothes heavy in linen and wool. The two sifted through the garments and pulled on various articles until nearly every inch of them was covered to contain their sickness from their work. As Elizabeth worked herself into a long pair of winter trousers Joseph stared at her in the dim candle light, soaking in her beauty, miming her face as she struggled with the garb. It was then that he noticed what appeared to be a rash forming on her neck, beneath her left ear. His heart fell to his belly.
Their was a sudden, yet apprehensive, knock at the open door. Turning to see, the two could make out the shadowed figure of a man. Joseph assumed him an attempted robber and clutched a thick branch that he kept nearby. Only then did he notice the crutch and the hat of a man he knew.
“Haymitch?” Joseph said, lowering his arm.
“My God.” The man said in a breathless voice. “It is true, you’ve caught it.” Haymitch stood in the entryway for a time.
“Don’t come in.” Elizabeth said. “We need to keep the house clean, for my mother.” It was well known that Haymitch had contracted the plague early this morning but he was a stubborn man, even unto death.
“Joseph.” Haymitch said. “If I may have a word.” Without an answer he turned away to walk, allowing the couple a view of his skin; festering with red sores about his face and neck. Joseph turned to his beloved, her eyes showed fear but Joseph smiled with his own and took her gloved hand in his in a promise of return and strode towards the door.
Outside, Haymitch was seated on a stump of an old tree that Joseph had cut for firewood last winter. The aged man sat with his hands crossed over the top of his cane, his eyes were cast on the ground about his feet. He spat a glob of blood on the ground that congealed with the dirt. Joseph stopped just beyond arms length of him.
“I stayed away until I was sure you were home.” Said the man. “How did it happen?”
“An old woman fell in the street, we tried to help.” Joseph said solemnly.
“Chivalry isn’t lost on your generation, it seems.” Haymitch began. “But when the return for such kindness is this, I am not convinced that it will survive this plague (if any of us do).”
“Why come see us?” Joseph said “Should you not be with your family in such a time?”
“Oh, they’ve all gone.” The old man adjusted himself on his stump and stared off at the distant sunset. The red on his skin seemed to only heighten the resolve that Joseph saw on his grave face. “They said their “goodbyes” from far off and left. I know not where.”
“I am sorry.”
“It is as it should be.” The old man said. “But you and your lovely wife are the reason for this visit.” The weathered eyes found their way to meet Josephs. “I suspect that you were given a vial.”
“We were.” Joseph said. And wearily reached his hand for the pocket in which it hid.
“Worry not, I don’t want the medicine. It is only given to those who can make the most of their time. Keep it.” The old man said with a sad laugh. “I am an old man, well passed the point that I can escape death. No, I have come to deliver unto you a whisper of a rumor of a secret.” The old man said, deep dramatic eyes locked with Joseph’s, reflecting the dire nature of his words. “For word has escaped about the Prince and his court of nearly one thousand (without count of the servants).” Haymitch turned himself, only slightly, allowing his chest to face Joseph. “Have you ever had the inclination to ponder the circumstances that would allow the Prince to keep such a troupe safe from the ravages of this plague?” Haymitch turned the rest of himself to face Joseph as well. “A safeguard must be in place to prevent any such catastrophe from entering into his home. But what protection could be in place to protect from a villain that hides in the very air that we breath? How do you protect from such a monster unless the very presence of the beast was ineffectual to you?” The old man spat another large glob of red at the ground, kicking up a cloud of dust. “I speak, of course, of a cure.” Haymitch said, his mouth hang open, showing his teeth stained crimson. Joseph said nothing for a time and Haymitch sat, his breathing heavy, waiting.
“A cure?” Joseph finally said. “You come to my house as we are at Death’s door, as you yourself are almost fully in his embrace to spin these tales of Fairies?” Joseph said, face contorted.
“Tales!” Haymitch said, too loud, causing him to convulse violently and spat in fits of coughing. After a moment of heaving, the eruptions subsided and Haymitch, once again calmed. “You believe that, with my last breaths, I would speak tales of falsehood?” The old man’s chin was slick with red slime. “I have come with a message of hope, oh doubting youth. I have long since passed my prime and it is true when you say that my end draws near but you have a chance.” Haymitch pleaded.
“Well then.” Joseph’s mind cooled. “If there were to be such an antidote in the keep, how would I go about requesting it?” The doubt in his tone, evident.
“You fool.” Haymich said. “If it were so simple, I would be delivering it unto you as we speak. No, the supply must be limited and the process of concoction slow. Only those within can tap the source. My young friend, the task at hand can only be accomplished by heist.” Joseph looked the man over.
“I had never heard of the plague’s delirium setting in so…vehemently.” Joseph said.
“It is not madness that arrests me, only urgency!” Haymitch said, his retching beginning once again only to be quickly calmed by his hand over his lips. “There is a road that the supply caravans travel under armed guard twice per week and I have word that tonight another train of cars will pass into the castle by nightfall. If you were to somehow stow away you may just reach the inner walls.”
“Old man, that is a ridiculous plot!” Joseph said. “How would I be able to reach the caravan if the train is under the watch of guards and cavalry men at all times?”
“Along the road there is a stretch that is too narrow for the horses to ride along side of the carts, if you were to wait on the incline near there you may just be able to board the caravan without arousing attention. Once inside the keep there is a tunnel, a drain beneath the inner wall. If you were to leave the caravan as the guards inspect the supplies brought forth…”
“Enough!” Joseph interrupted the old man. “I will not squander another moment of what time I have left chasing down some phantom remedy. I will spend my remaining time with Elizabeth. Begone old man! Away with you!” Joseph said, spinning about and marching back into his shack before slamming the door.
Elizabeth was standing near the table in the center of the room, folding clothes and arranging them into piles. Wordlessly Joseph strode to her and began folding clothes as well.
“Sunset is almost upon us.” Elizabeth said. “Our last sunset.”
“Yes.” Joseph said. “We could go to the lake and watch it, we still have time.”
“We could make it.” Elizabeth said. “Once inside, I know the castle well.”
“If we reach the sewer, I know where every drain leads.”
“It has been sometime but I even remember where the prince’s room is, at the far end of the grand hall!”
“Elizabeth!” Joseph cried, arresting Elizabeth’s arms.
“Joseph!” Elizabeth echoed his cry and tore her arms away. “What would you have us do? Go, bare witness to our final sunset. Close our conclusory day and wait for the blood to pool around us as we breath our last in each other’s arms?” Elizabeth said as tears carved slick rivers along her cheeks before soaking into her cloth mask
“Elizabeth…no, that is not what I want.” Joseph said, defeat weighing his words. “I only wish to be with you until I am at my end.” Elizabeth stepped to her man, arms heavy from the linen and wool and took his face gently with one gloved hand stroking the covering of his mouth.
“But that does not have to be this day.” She said, pulling the mask from her face, revealing still more sores about her cheeks. Her mouth, yet untouched, smiling. She pulled him in close, and pulled away his mask, they kissed as Joseph’s own eyes filled with grief.
“I see them.” Elizabeth said as she crashed down on the hill next to Joseph. No argument came from Joseph when she argued to join him. Her tongue was silver and the man knew there was no objecting. So they each shared the contents of the vial and hatched a plan. A plan which first began with the train of horse-drawn carts that, even now, made their way along the winding pathway. True to the old man’s word the guards had positioned themselves at either end of the line of wagons. Joseph readied the iron hook he had stolen from the ruined house of a Butcher. The Butcher and his family had long since abandoned their lives in this wretched town after their boy fell ill. The home of the Butcher had been raided time and time again since that their departure. Elizabeth had known them quite well and knew a secret trove of old tools that the paranoia of the Butcher had hidden away.
The horses drew closer and with the sun light nearly vanished from the field the carts lit lanterns to keep them from the tight edges of the road. Elizabeth and Joseph dressed in dark attire as they watched men on the opposite side of the road moving about in the dark. The group of four were perched a ways down the road. The carts would be upon them first.
Elizabeth had found these men. They were beggars, vagabonds, and street refuse, filling the alleyways and the roads with themselves like rodents searching for a crumb of food. Elizabeth had used her honeyed words to convince the men that there were riches onboard the crafts that now made their way towards them. Joseph, standing behind her as the “muscle” holding his branch, was in awe of how her stories and first hand accounts of these falsehoods had nearly convinced him of their truthfulness. And now the hooded figures, dressed in black, hovered the slope of the road as reapers, calm and collected, awaiting the inevitable.
That inevitability came with the sound of rolling thunder as the horses hurried their burdens along the snaking route. Cavalry, like bookends, as they rode passed the men. The cloaked figures sprang out and attempted to latch themselves to the hull of the first wooden car. Two were successful, the others bounced from the shell. One of those being thrown back into the surrounding darkness and the other was pulled beneath the second cart and its horses. The caravan, of what Joseph now could count as three, continued to gallop along the street as the two men climbed the open-top of the vessel and gazed upon their bounty (Neither Joseph nor Elizabeth could tell it’s contents). At this time the driver of the first cart tied off the reigns and climbed back from his covered seat to where the cloaked figures had begun throwing parcels and mixed goods from the trove housed there. The man made his presence known with the unsheathing of his short blade. The two men prepared themselves with whatever tools they had brought with them. The Cavalrymen were shouting at the men and cheering for their brother as they rode, unable to interfere. The horses never stopped, just as Joseph had predicted. All eyes were on them just as the cart approached Elizabeth and Joseph. Joseph now had his part to play. With Elizabeth strapped to his back he bided in their hiding place as the first troupe of horsemen rode by, soon after, the cart where the men now clashed in pitched combat. The second cart came and Joseph hurled himself to the side of it and grappled with the hook of iron. The point embedded in the side easily and Joseph held firm. Elizabeth climbed from him and latched herself to the underside of the coach and clutched to both the cart and the man beside her, who tied himself as well, bringing the hook with hiim. A scream came from ahead. Turning, as best they could, the pair witnessed the fall of one of the cloaked men. Another cry and the other could be seen soaring over the side, clutching a parcel to his chest. Cheers ensued from the calvary men having repelled the invaders. The stowaways cheered silently as, they too, were victorious this night.
During the ride to the Castle the two were silent. They had boarded the train at the closest juncture to the castle. All the same the two had a difficult time holding on as the cart jostled and swayed. Joseph looked into Elizabeth’s eyes and she in his and in the darting light of the lanterns above and around them Joseph could see the hope and the joy in her. He only wished that his reflected the same. For he had not been swayed by Haymitch that the cure existed. He had not even been convinced by Elizabeth and her wondrous words. He looked into her eyes, as he had done when she had kissed him, and mimicked his previous routine: a heart-felt smile for having seen her and the convincing nod that she was right. But in his heart he only agreed where they would spend their last night together.
When the horses were finally ordered to slow, the pair tightened their grip and readied the strings on their knots to be loosed at a moment’s notice. They came to a stop just before the first gate. From below Joseph could see the disembodied legs of a guard approach the first cart and speak with the driver. Their words were distant and unintelligible but their tone was serious and grim followed, shortly, by laughter as the driver told his tale of the ill-fated thieves they had encountered. The wagons were then ushered into the opening doorway. “This it it.” Joseph thought. “No doubt when we reach the inside of the outer gates they will inspect the caravan and find us.” Joseph looked at his sweet Elizabeth as she watched the guards around them closely. “They will find us and discover our sickness. Then it will be death, instant and cruel, like dogs.” Joseph looked at his bride and wept at the thought of her not receiving her wish, of finding that this voyage was for not and only succeeded in quickening their doom.
“There.” Elizabeth’s hand jolted Joseph from his thoughts. Upon reeling from the waking voice of Elizabeth, he noticed her outstretched hand and followed her finger along it’s invisible line to a large depression in the soil near the inner wall, just by the gate. “The sewer.” Elizabeth confirmed. Joseph allowed the old man recognition, he had been correct in his description (this far at least). Joseph was not convinced that the rest would prove as accurate. But when he witnessed the face of his beloved illuminate with the sight of that sewage entrance, his heart melted. Anywhere that she would go, he would follow, even unto death itself.
The guards were at the first cart now, their boots and their pants visible beneath the underside of their hiding place. Four guards, two per side, searched the first cart, top-to-bottom. Joseph’s eyes scanned the perimeter of their wagon for a hole in their lines or gap to be exploited. Armed men strode about either side as the brigade of searchers cleared the first in the train. Untying themselves, Joseph and Elizabeth noiselessly met the dusty ground. Joseph made his way to the rear of the vehicle, Elizabeth’s hand in his. They waited as the men reached the head of their cart. Joseph grasped Elizabeth’s hand tightly. Soon after he realized he was hurting her and eased his hold. They waited for a trigger, anything that could mean their time to pass. Anything to give them a sign.
A horse whinnied, loud and long and the uproar was accompanied by hoof steps and the shouts of the guards. The couple bolted from their cover. Without looking and without thought, they made their way from the cart. The guards attentions were distracted for a moment but a moment long enough for the pair to soar to a patch of vegetation hardly a knee’s height on a regular man. Laying flat on the ground, Joseph waited for the alarm to be raised but all was quiet. The guards had not seen them. The cloaked couple watched as the squadron of investigators finished with the cart and move along to the third. Joseph was in awe once again, what type of benevolent figure watched over them now, he was not sure but thought only: where was this sight when the woman fell upon the street!
“Hold for the gate.” Joseph whispered to his prone love and she bobbed her head in acknowledgement. Their hands embraced forcefully as anticipation grew. A sudden sound of grinding chain and gears jolted them each as the gate slowly climbed the high wall. The guards, who had walked the grounds of this checkpoint, now lined along either side of the road to see the train off. The noise made light of their footfalls as the man and woman made their way, crouched, along to the metal and stone opening of the sewers. The ground around the mouth was wet and a small stream of water could be seen glimmering in the moonlight as it spilled over the edge. They squeezed through the bars and entered the castle.
The darkness was the only thing the two were not prepared for, Joseph had been too overcome by doubt that they would fair so well as they had and Elizabeth had forgotten about the all consuming pitch that the night put on this place.So, without any light to speak of, the pair resolved to touch to guide them as they each took to gliding their hands along the wall to either side of the long tunnel. The water had steadily grown deeper as they trudged on in the slime and filth. Eventually the foul water had reached waist high as Elizabeth called over that she had found a way out. Joseph stopped where he was and crossed the canal over to her, the water weighing down his steps until suddenly he lost his footing and sank into the black swamp around him. His cry for help was short as the cold water swallowed him. Elizabeth gasped as she attempted to follow the sounds to her beloved. After a moment Joseph reemerged from the filth spitting and cursing as he flapped his arms in his sodden sleeves. Elizabeth found him and seemed to have been worked into a frenzy over his plight. Joseph had heard her shushing him but it wasn’t until he heard a vicious snort from her that he found that she was…laughing. She tried to silence herself but her humor had been too tickled by the situation that befell Joseph to stop. Joseph worked his way from the pit that he had fallen into and took hold of his wife. She laughed and she smiled as she was swept up in his arms. He soon found himself overcome by her infectious laughter and cradled her in his grasp. Her fits coming and going as she twisted in his grip. And in a display most unlike himself Joseph raised his wife high into the air and dropped her into the very pit that he himself had fallen. She came up from the depths in a short shriek, flailing and spitting. She swam her way toward her husband. Upon finding him in the darkness by the sound of his own bouts of hysterics she proceeded to slap him playfully on the torso and face. Joseph, in retaliation, took hold of her wrists and drew her in close to himself. Slowly they calmed in their embrace and faced each other. And there, in the dark sewers of the castle, the husband and wife, bound by both matrimony and by curse, kissed. The two locked in an embrace for what seemed like days in what had become the most passionate moment the two of them had ever felt in their short time together.
“Ouch.” Elizabeth said as she pulled away from her man.
“What is it, have I hurt you?” Joseph said, not letting go of her, only taking her cheek into his hand.
“My lip. It burns.” Elizabeth said holding his hand to her cheek.
“Perhaps it is the water.” Said Joseph.
“Or something in it.” Elizabeth said. At the thought, the two moved quickly to where Elizabeth had first made her claim of escape and found a series of steps leading to a shallow opening where small beams of light crawled through the cracks of a loose circular stone above.
The shallow openings along the sides revealed the stone as a sewage entrance. With a great heave, Joseph lifted the block with his back. Slowly, as to make as little sound as possible, the stone slid away from their tunnel. Joseph poked his head through the opening first. The room he found himself in was dark and as large as the shack the two of them shared only the walls were made from solid stone, seemingly engraved and polished to serve as a decadent closet (as the supplies and tools lying about attested). There were crates and sacks carelessly lining the walls and much of the floor was covered in various oddities that, in some cases would fetch a high price for, and others, would have demanded blood be spilled in payment. The only light came from a half-way opened door at the far end of the room that spilled illumination in so well that Joseph had half a mind that dawn had come.
Joseph climbed from the hole and assisted Elizabeth to do the same. Their clothes dripping from their time under the castle, they set about to find something to cover themselves, or at least to dry, when there came a sound. The two froze where they were and waited, listening. Then the sound again and it was unmistakable; a giggle. Not only laughter but the gay sort of laughter that comes from a man and woman as they dote over one another in drunken revelry. The teasing came from the room just outside of their closet as two shadows passed by the doorway causing them both a start of fear only to be replaced by curiosity. Joseph was the first to approach the door and peer out. Soon after, he signaled for Elizabeth to join him. They both settled into a place to see. There was, before them, a man and woman dancing about without music. They each had a glass of wine in their gloved hands and moved about the next room without allowing the other to leave their side, or their touch. Their room was tall and slim, lavish candles and torches burned along the wall and long colored strips of cloth draped along all but the floor. At either end of the room were a set of double doors, ajar enough to allow access to the rooms beyond but still obscured the view to the other side. At the center of the space were a set of conjoined columns surrounded by small tables and large couches that matched the surrounding decoration. But further distracting than the lavish doors and indulgent furnishings were the two bodies infatuated with one another. The two basked in each other’s company as they danced. Hardly able to hold themselves upright as they teetered this way and that. But the most distinguishing feature they both shared were their costumes complete with masks that swayed with their queer movements. A luxurious gown billowed out as the woman spun around her man, his trim suit of dark complexity. Together they had the appearance like that of colored leaves ruffled by the wind about the trunk of a darkened tree. They danced until they, at once, were seated in a large sofa. They lay there for a moment reaching and touching one another as they sat, laid, and, eventually, slept. All the while Joseph and Elizabeth watched, motionless. When the frivolity had finally ended the hidden pair slowly turned toward one another and smiled.
“A costume party.” Elizabeth whispered. “A masked ball!”
“How long you have waited to attend such an event.” Joseph said as he watched her face now, red sores covering even her lips as they spread along her features.
“May we stay a while and attend?” Elizabeth asked.
“My love, I would give all the world for you to attend, but how will they not see us?” Joesph asked.
“Them.” Elizabeth said, finger outstretched. “They have clothes and even masks.”
“They are asleep, indeed, but to unclothe them as they lay?”
“Wine sleep, is a heavy sleep love, they will awaken and only assume their night had been a rousing yet forgotten time for them.” Elizabeth said her smile bright as the stars.
“If that is your wish.” Joseph said, pushing the door open to its fullest. The pair approached the sleeping two cautiously. Their sodden clothes not aiding in their sneak, they stepped quickly to the sets of doors to either side of the lean room and closed them. Joseph could hear music faintly begin to play. Violins sounding so sweet. It had been ages since his last song. By the time he closed his set of doors and returned, Elizabeth had already begun to undress the woman on the cushioned seat (as the drunken couple had chosen the seat nearest to the door that Elizabeth had closed). The woman’s shoes were off and Elizabeth was hastily working at her gown. Joseph began on the man’s attire, stripping him carefully. Several times during the process Joseph could hear gentle coughs coming from Elizabeth, Joseph would see her wiping the corners of her mouth, her hand coming away red and wet, she would look at him and he would turn, pretending not to have seen. He, himself felt a tingle in his chest and knew that the time was soon approaching.
“I know what you’re thinking oh husband of mine.” Elizabeth’s voice crept from behind. Joseph felt a hand slide over his shoulder and cover his chest. Soon another snaked its way beneath his opposite arm and locked onto her first.
“We’ll find it oh wife of mine.” Joseph said.
“You never believed in such a thing. I know that.” She said. “But I did and you came. You’re a good man for that Joseph. You were always a good man.” Upon looking down Joseph saw that her hand was as pure as it had been that morning. He was relieved, as the plague only showed upon the limbs as it entered it’s final stages. Elizabeth only bore the red mask, by which the plague had assumed it’s own name.
Joseph was the first to dress, the grave colors of the suit seemed to go well with the equally grave mask which pictured a very well defined human appearance. It was life like really. Well placed nose, accurate mouth and painted skin looked like that of a corpse with it’s dull colors and wide, almost sad, eyes. Joseph tied the Mask to his waist and looked to his woman. Elizabeth was still dressing in her new gown and gloves when Joseph began to feel his stomach tremble with uneasiness. Feelings of paranoia swept over Joseph and he traveled to check the doors at the far end of the room.
It was a ridiculous idea. A simple mistake. Joseph had reached the door, its well crafted frame and carved surface mirrored his reflexion back at him in the polished wood. A sound, as another door opened. The door that opened had been just as equally well defined as the one in which Joseph now twisted the knob and pulled. It could have easily been the door that Joseph was inspecting. The door that opened just happened to be at the opposing end of the room than Joseph. And on the other side of the incredibly detailed and beautiful door, there was a man, an armed man. His day, perhaps, had been long, his duties tiresome. He may not have been prepared for what had been waiting for him on the other side. For when the door that he opened, it revealed a face within. A face adorned in red splotches and sores, the type of face one learns to hate in this day and age. The man had no other reaction than to clutch at the sword at his side. He did not think of the woman who was in a mid stage of dress. He did not think of the man on the other side of the room. He did not even think about where the sharped blade would find as a target. He simply reacted, to the fear of the mask. And as the saber plunged ever deeper into the woman, her screams were cut short as her mouth filled with blood. The screams of the man on the other side of the room from the guard, however, were deafening.
Joseph had heard the door open just as he pulled his free. The startled gasp of the guard caught his ear and the sound of unsheathing metal gripped his heart. The sword had already buried itself in the bosom of Elizabeth when he turned around and spied them through the tangle of tapestry and stone that made up the center piece of the lounge. She stood there, frozen in time, blood dripping from the cold metal and her chin. It seemed to him like an eternity as the room and all that was within began to spin about in a vortex of nothingness, every detail and peripheral object painted a twisted tunnel of imagery that centered about the two enraptured in the delicate dance of life and death at the epicenter. He screamed. His voice carried with it the thunder of the heavens as his feet carried him towards the two at rapid progression of heavy laden steps. The guard, alerted to Joseph’s approach, attempted to pull the blade from the red faced woman and set it upon the stampeding figure. But the metal stuck. Twist and pull all he could and the thing would not budge. Joseph saw the hesitation, remembered the hook that had still been on his person since the cart, catching it from his discarded clothes Joseph brandished the iron and quickened his pace to the man that only now noticed the small hands holding firm to the blade jutting from her own body. He turned his gaze to Joseph just as the point of the crooked weapon pierced the side of his neck. The patrol released his hold on the sword and pressed his hand to his wound, blood poured and spilled over his fingers. He fell to the ground, Joseph looming over him. The guard pulled another, shorter blade, from his waist but he was too weak to steady his hand. Joseph arrested the man’s knife-wielding arm and twisted it so the point was now facing the grounded man’s chest. Applying his own weight, Joseph pressed the knife. The struggling of the man only helped to slow the knife as it found it’s way into his chest, into his heart. Feeling the heart pulsing through the handle begin to slow, Joseph waited until the final strokes had left the man before releasing his lifeless vessel. Joseph looked at the man awash in his own blood. It had been a simple mistake, a chance happening. The wrong door, like a woman falling in the street.
The abrupt coughing caught Joseph’s ear. Twirling on his toes, Joseph faced the now lying body of Elizabeth. Her face had lost all color, save for the spots, those damned spots. Her hair was matted with blood that she wheezed with each breath. Joseph swept her up in his arms, gripping her tight to himself. His chin quivered as his eyes, then his cheeks became laden with tears.
“Please don’t…cry…my love.” Elizabeth said, her voice gasping and wheezing like a woman well beyond her years. Her hand reached for his face, Joseph caught it and held it close. It was cold.
“Elizabeth, my love.” Joseph began. “I…I’m so sorry.”
“I much prefer crying to apologizing.” Elizabeth said with a smile. A droplet of scarlet falling from the corner.
“Then what would you have me do?” Joseph said. “Tell me.”
“I wanted to spend all of my days with you, dearest Joseph.” She said. “I wanted to be with my husband. And you have given it to me.” Joseph stayed silent. His mind searched for the answer, searched for purpose, searched for…anything.
“The cure is here, I believe it.” Elizabeth said. “If one of us should live, I am glad it is you.” Her words fell upon him, drifting through the air soft before laying cold, like snow.
“But…Elizabeth…I do not know what to do.” Joseph said. “Please, what can I do?”
“It is simple, my darling.” Elizabeth said faintly, like a whisper. “Kiss me.” Wiping his face, Joseph smiled brightly at his wife, bearing teeth and fostering a truly happy feature before her eyes. This would be the last thing she would see. She attempted to recreate the gesture but her mouth only turned slightly. Joseph leaned to her, their lips touched gently, as though it would shatter them. Warmth still flowed through Elizabeth’s face as her lips moved with his, she gripped his head, behind the ear, pulling him with new strength and not letting go. Joseph felt her lip wrinkle, her eye ran wet. Then, all at once, her hand fell, her lips ceased moving, and her mouth ran cold.
Joseph broke the kiss and stared down at the lifeless face of his wife before him. He waited, belief not finding a home in his heart for sometime. And then it did.
His eyes poured, and his mouth released a terrible wail akin to a curse upon the land. His hands gripped her cold face tightly and he pulled her in close, resting her head on his shoulder, as he had done so many times before, and he cried.
In the other room, Joseph could hear the band cretiendo into a thunderous dancing melody, joyful and happy. Rage boiled in him. He thought of his beloved’s last wish, for him to live. He thought about finding the cure, cleansing himself of his affliction, leaving this place, and returning home. But there was no cure. If one existed, Joseph no longer craved it. His life had been in his arms and breathed it’s last not two minutes ago. He looked at his hands, blood stained and battered. His bare palms glistened red in the rich light of the room. He remembered that neither of them been wearing gloves since they had envisioned their plan, removing them and the rest of their heavy garments for the sake of weight and stealth. They had touched the carts. They had touched the couple still lying on the chairs in their bare skin. They had touched the doors. Then Joseph remembered the masked ball in the other room. Elizabeth had always wanted to attend. Even as a girl she had served noble men and women at such events but only from behind closed doors, the celebrations were reserved for those invited, those who looked the part. He looked at her now, in her bountiful gown. She looked no different from the women in the other room, save for the stains of despair that this world had left her in. The cruelty that this place had enacted upon such a tender soul. The only legacy she would leave behind in this world would be the blood marks on the floor and her still lingering corpse. However, if the cure were true, then only a number vaccinations and a mop would wipe her away for all of eternity, as though she never was. These people would show her no sympathy, no care. Not even a name. She would only be that stain on the floor. Just as she was in life. To him, she was everything, she was life itself, she was Elizabeth. But she was nothing to them. He was nothing to them. Then the long echoing bell of a thought rang out in Joseph’s mind. A thought that took all of the blood that poured from his broken heart and bottled it together in one fanatical glacier of cold hatred and passion that simultaneously filled the vacuous hole in his soul where Elizabeth had been ripped away and, gave his life a meaning once more.
Joseph slowly rose up, the cold woman in his arms, and carried her to a love seat nearby and lay her there. Saber, no longer connected to her frame, fell to the hard floor with the clattering sound of metal. She seemed to almost be sleeping, wrapped in a silken blanket of red in all her gentle beauty. Her face shown of pale white amidst a field of red sores, her mask for the ball. Joseph crossed her arms over her wound and kissed her upon the head above the center of her eyes. Reaching to his waist, Joseph pulled forth his own mask. The face, near human, was a wash in Elizabeth’s blood. He did not wipe it away, simply dawned the face and strode back to the guard, still with the hook in his neck and blade in his chest. Joseph wretched the dagger from the man’s body and walked back to the door he had closed so long ago. He turned, looking back, one final time. Joseph saw his Elizabeth, still lying where he left her. And walked through the door as the music welcomed him.
Joseph strode into the next room. He palmed the knife, handle down, the point hidden in his sleeve. As he found the next room to be that of a hallway he took little care in observing his surroundings. Not a soul was in sight as Joseph walked the long expanse, the walls were draped in lavish tapestries and garments to match the previous room. Furniture was scarce and only appeared along the walls in small groups.
Blue light illuminated the end of the corridor where the room split off to either the left (where the blue imitated) or to continue straight (an identical hall as where he now trod). At the crossroads Joseph could see sparse figures swaying this way and that. Walking and dancing with the music that took possession of the very air as Joseph drew closer to the light and made his entry into the grand hall.
In all of Joseph’s life he had never seen anything so magnificent and overly effete as what his eyes beheld as he came into the marvelous valley of stone, bodies, and decorum. The hall seemed to have no end, being divided into separate rooms of color beginning with blue before evolving into purple, followed by green, then orange, white, and finally violet. Each themed abode housed various entertainers being: dancers, fools, musicians, and acrobats. Food was lined on long tables strewn about the expanse and wine was freely available where ever there was a glass and a hand to hold it.
A chime echoed through the halls and all was, suddenly, still as the grave. The band ceased their play, the fools froze in darkened reverence and the dancers held shallow gazes as the bell rang. Joseph gave the sound little thought as he pressed his way into the first crowd of guests adorned in their masks of all appearances and imitations. The ringing filled the room so that it and Joseph’s steady footfalls were the only sounds to be heard. As he passed by a table filled to the brim with mouth-watering treats and dishes Joseph only laid his hand upon the feast and stroked each plater as he passed by, knocking the final display of eatable elegance to the mirror-like surface of the polished ground. The grand clock stood along the wall at the far end of the expanse of colored abodes, black as onyx. It’s ebony wood hummed with the sound of the hour and held the attention of all in it’s company. Joseph, welcomed by the great time piece, continued his march across the floor. As the twelfth chime fell silent, the court regained it’s former frivolity and the music began again. Dancers danced and jesters flocked from one way to the other. They had been completely unaware that anything had been added to their festival. Until they saw him. A woman, attired as to a Fox, squealed and flung her glass high in the air. Joseph kept his steady march. Coming across a herd of Waltzers yet still in the blue room, Joseph crossed them without care. A great commotion began as his visage became visible to all that surrounded.
“Who Dares?” Came the booming voice of a single man against the throng of the celebration. “Who dares insult us with this blasphemous mockery? Seize him and unmask him, that we may know whom we have to hang at sunrise, from the battlements!” Joseph recognized the Prince, accompanied by courtiers as they stood many paces from him (as his mask was the only one adorned with a crown). The robust man stared at Joseph as though the look alone would stop or kill him. Joseph did not care for words. The man’s supporters had no weapons on their belts and no guard was in sight. Though Joseph now had drawn the attention of the vast court, he would reach his destination at any cost.
Any concern that a masked passerby would confront him were quickly dashed away as the populace of the court split and tore away from him like an old testament act of the divine. No move was made against him and Joseph continued his walk. Another comestibles table was passed by with the same act of Joseph’s befalling the cuisine adorning the buffet. Then, the Prince himself was just before him and, baring him no mind, Joseph passed by at almost arms-reach of the ornate man and his squires (who also fled from Joseph’s immediate path). The Shade of once-Joseph then passed into the purple room. From there the green room — to the orange — to the white — before making his way into the violet room. At each proceeding room, the activities within ceased when in sight of Joseph’s dark form as he stepped. All the while, Joseph’s phantom making a clatter at the proceeding gourmet tables along the way. At the far end of the room (which was the least populated of all) Joseph could see the looming figure of the grand black clock that had rung out only minutes before. From behind, Joseph could make clear the sounds of approaching boots on the violet carpet, heavy and angry. Twisting his lifeless face around Joseph could see the grimaced complexion of the Prince barring down against him. In the royal’s hand rested the gleaming point of a dagger as the leader of the consortium readied his aim for a killing blow. With deft step and clean motion, Joseph eluded the unpracticed blade with ease and drove his own hidden knife high above the man’s belly. The unused weapon fell to the ground, muffled by the carpet, and the Prince now looked into the eyes of the mask. The form the Prince witnessed there was without self made identity. It only bore the epithet that mankind had labeled it in the absence of name — Death.
New-found bravery took hold of the crowd surrounding the pair and bodies collided with theirs. Hands and arms reached for the destroyer of their chaperone, of their protector, and of their evening. Joseph could feel the fingers clutching at his person. Theirs ripped the Prince away from him and tore at him savagely. His arms were pulled, as well as his legs. Blows were felled upon him as the mob attacked their monster for a time. Then his face was taken, his mask revealed. At once the abuse ceased, the noise died away, only to be replaced with mute painted faces staring at his mask from beneath theirs. Petrification gripped them until fear overtook the lot as they, together, screamed and thrust away from the masked intruder. Joseph fell to the floor at the foot of the great ebony clock and watched as man and woman trampled over one another to escape. Sores already began to appear upon some faces. The consortium, as a whole, ran for their lives. Turning from frolicking joy seekers, drunk of wine and lavish depravity, into a stampeding hoard of terrified victims, they ran. The sight washed through Joseph’s mind. There was no cure here. To his left, the shade could see his destination; the Prince’s bedroom. But there would be no store of miracle vials there for him to destroy, no safety for even one man or woman in the keep. He, himself, now spat blood in heaps upon his visage. Wiping his mouth he took note of the sores along his hands.
The long corridor of colored rooms were quiet now. All that had not died outright were likely strewn about the castle or the streets around spreading their newly found affliction to the guards and any foolish enough to come to their aid. Joseph pondered the scene.
She had always desired to go to a Masquerade ball. Wished to be around others, to laugh and to drink. She had always wanted to be apart of the world in which she served. She had, at last, reached it. She now joined all of them, even Joseph, in the Masque of the Red Death.