The moonlight painted the darkened world with strokes of shimmering silver. Hand in hand, Lincoln and I walked across the same beach we had tread all those years ago. The waves rolled in and out, as they always did, a clockwork machine of crystal-blue water and white foam. Our footprints lay still in the sand, waiting to be washed away like the ones we had left behind long ago, waiting to rejoin the memories we had made.
“Shall we dance?” Lincoln asked, pulling a music box out of his pocket.
I remembered that music box, small and white with jeweled flowers. It played a familiar, haunting melody, a waltz. Ever since we were children, we had a tradition of going down to the shore every few nights and letting the music and the waves sweep us up into a dance. Back then we didn’t understand what love was. Over the years it had grown from a mild crush into a true romance. I was his princess, he was my Prince Charming.
“Of course.” I took him by the arm as the music box began to play. It was a beautiful feeling, the waves around our feet, the gentle sea breeze, the song that would live in our hearts as long as we were together. I had memorized the steps now: one, two, three, one two, three. But no matter how well I knew them, I still clung tight to Lincoln, as if I needed him in order to keep my balance.
I would never let him go. Ever.
Ravenwood is a mysterious town, filled with shifty characters. One wrong turn and you could be swept off your feet by a criminal. Hundreds of black-cloaked con men lurked in the dark alleyways. Assassins perched on the black shingled rooftops. It was a shame that I was going there to window-shop with my good friend Emma.
Soon we approached a run-down building. The sign said it was called the Cave of Wonders Curio Shop. When I walked in the door, I couldn’t help but stare at the beautiful items on display. Bejeweled animal figurines, necklaces inlaid with marbled gemstones I’d never seen before, and exquisitely detailed boxes lined the shelves. Wire birdcages hung from above, each with a strange, colorful bird or two inside. The air smelled of frankincense and cinnamon and a thousand different spices I couldn’t name. It was a scene straight out of the Arabian Nights.
“No wonder they called this shop the Cave of Wonders,” I heard Emma whisper.
But the item that really caught my attention was not an item available on the shelves.
“Marisette? Hello?” Emma said, frantically shaking me by the shoulders.
I couldn’t hear her. I was too focused on the strikingly handsome shopkeeper.
He was as flawless as a Roman god, with not a scratch on his unnaturally pale skin, not a single tangle in his shoulder-length, blonde hair. But what really got me were his eyes, cold and heartless on an otherwise flawless face, penetrating my soul as if they were daggers. I almost couldn’t hear Emma’s constant cries of “Marisette? Hey! Snap out of it!”
“Hello, treasured customer. What brings you here?” His voice was a melody in itself, smooth, silky and sweet, like caramel, yet with a hint of venom. I could almost taste his dark thoughts.
I tried to speak to him, but all that came out was, “Nnnnnnghhhh…”
“What? I can’t understand you.”
The words finally came out: “Gosh, you’re pretty.”
What? Why did I say that? This man could be the devil!
“Oh, really?” he purred. “What a pleasure. In fact, Marisette, I made something for you.”
Before I could ask him how he knew my name, he handed me an ornately decorated invitation in the shape of a black mask, with silver embellishments. An invitation to a masquerade, I could tell. I looked down at the invitation and noticed letters embossed into it, in elegant script: M+J. “Pray tell,” I asked, “what does the J stand for?”
“Oh, that reminds me, I never told you my name,” he said, brushing a jewel-encrusted dolphin to the side. “I’m Joseph. Joseph Roth. And you are?...”
I thought he already knew my name.
“...lucky to have me as your love, Marisette.”
Ah, Joseph. Charming AND witty. All of that gloss painted over a smoldering pile of ashes and sins.
“So, what do you say?” he asked me.
“Can I trust you?” I asked him.
“So that’s a yes, then?”
“But what about Lincoln? Will he notice?”
“Oh, don’t worry, love. He’s invited too, so if you get tired of me, you can dance with him.”
“Are you trying to take his soul?”
“Of course not, my dear girl!”
I took the invitation. He would probably kill me if I didn’t.
Night fell. Somehow, Ravenwood looked more welcoming at night. The street lamps cast their warm orange lights on the cobblestone road. Standing in the light was Lincoln, the one I had almost lost.
“What were you doing back there?” He seemed panicked.
“I-I was just doing a little window shopping, and the shopkeeper gave me this,” I managed to squeak out, showing the invitation.
“Joseph? You don’t want him.”
“I know, but…”
“Shhhhhhh. Stay with me for a while.”
As soon as I touched him, he faded into smoke. The lights grew dark. I heard whispers. My head hurt. The whispers grew louder. It’s only a nightmare. It’s only a nightmare. It’s only a nightmare. It’s only a nightmare...It’s all in Joseph’s voice.
As I closed my eyes, the last thing I saw was his cold, soulless eyes, blazing silver in the night. Joseph’s eyes. The very eyes of the devil himself, I’d bet.
He must have been the one controlling this twisted dream.
Days passed. Over and over I caressed the invitation. Emma would sometimes come over and sit by my side, telling me it was okay. She had bought me a dress and a mask while I sat in my room, pondering my choices.
When the night of the masquerade arrived, Emma was all smiles.
“Isn’t it exciting, Marisette?” she would chirp. “We should get you all dressed up and ready for the masquerade!” I didn’t want to, but I followed her to the mirror.
Soon I didn’t recognize the reflection, dressed in a gown of gold satin and royal-blue velvet, with my hair brushed into a flowing waterfall of jet black and decked with a golden tiara, the top half of my face obscured by a cat-eared mask made of the same blue velvet as the dress. The perfect attire for a sacrifice.
Tentatively I stepped outside, careful not to damage the white satin slippers that had come with the dress. A carriage had arrived at the doorstep, all shiny and black, driven by four black horses. I knew this was a bad idea.
When I arrived, I couldn’t help but stare. The masquerade was set in an open-air courtyard, surrounded by red and black rosebushes, beneath a curtain of those very same stars that I had known as a child. All the guests were unnaturally slender, with gray skin, each clad in black. As I looked I noticed the strange figures in black were all translucent, with empty black eyes. Among the soulless beings was Joseph, with that same slick grin on his face as when I first met him.
“Ah, Marisette,” he said, “Charmed to see you again.”
I didn’t have time to speak as he swept me into a two-step. As we danced, the strange people began to swirl around until they became nothing but a distorted mass of gray and black.
“Where’s Lincoln?” I asked worriedly. “Who are these people?”
“They’re the souls of the dead, my dear girl. It seems they like you,” he replied.
“The souls of the dead?”
“They’re friends of mine. I invited them all here.”
“Is Lincoln among them? Is he dead too?” I looked all around to find a spot of color in the whirling black and gray. Suddenly, out of the corner of my eye, I found a spot of green. It was Lincoln, waiting for me in that green silk suit his father had given him. He told me he would save it for a special occasion. I rushed over to him, arms outstretched.
The current song ended, and a new song began to play. It was that same, familiar waltz, the one from the music box, only played by a string quartet.
“Shall we?” He reached out a hand, just like all those nights on the beach.
I looked at him with eyes of fear.
“Don’t worry, Marisette. I’m here now.”
I took his arm once again. “Yes.”
As we started to dance, everything else didn’t matter. It was just me and him, and him and me, among the black and red and gray. He was by my side, assuring me that everything was alright.
“Stop!” Joseph shouted. The string players lowered their bows.
I turned around and let go of Lincoln’s arm. Joseph’s eyes were now glowing red.
“She’s mine!” he hissed, drawing a rapier.
“I’m afraid you’re wrong,” Lincoln replied, pulling a sword from the scabbard at his side.
I watched as the two engaged in a fiery, elegant display of swordplay. With every thrust one made, the other would parry. With every swipe, the other would dodge. The clashing of the metal brought sparks into the air. I tried my best to hold Joseph back, but he kept slashing at his rival.
“Stop fighting!” I cried. “Isn’t there another way?”
“You know, you’re right,” Joseph drawled. “There is another way. MY way.”
He rose into the air, his eyes still glowing. I watched him transform from the handsome shopkeeper into a different beast altogether. His skin broke into deep red scales. A pair of wings unfolded from behind him. His body became taller, more muscular, more fearsome. His teeth sharpened into fangs, and two twisted black horns sprouted from his head. I recognized him. The Devil.
From his fists he shot balls of fire, scorching the rosebushes and the grass, leaving instead of a courtyard a smoking wasteland. Only a single red rose remained among the charred foliage of the other bushes.
Lincoln handed me the sword. “Here,” he said. “You need it more than me.”
I nodded to him in reply, then I headed towards Joseph.
He looked down at me, not seeing how a normal human being could defeat an eight-foot-tall, pyrokinetic demon. When he saw me crouched in attack position, he laughed a cold and heartless laugh.
“You think you can defeat me?” he roared. “You’re just a human girl. You can’t fight.”
With that, I dug the sword into his chest, leaving a scar that oozed black blood. He readied another fireball, but I was quicker, giving him another slash to the bicep. I couldn’t stop. It served him right for stealing me from the man I loved. I made slice after slice, but they seemed to only cause minor scratches in his skin. But before I could land a hack to his head, he launched another fireball at me, burning me as I fell to the ground.
“Marisette? Are you okay?”
Everything hurt. Especially my left arm. It was a burning pain that I couldn’t choke down.
I got to my feet. Half of my skirt was singed off. One arm had a stinging burn scar. Lincoln held me in his arms, the sleeves torn and frayed.
Joseph lay in a puddle of his own blood, red this time instead of black. He had returned to his human form now. He blinked once. He once looked so confident, with his sense of charm, but now he looked bedraggled and pitiful, his hair partly burned and caked with blood and dirt. He was all scratched up from my scuffle with him, still bleeding from the scars I cut into him. One eye was injured and swollen with scar tissue; the other was crying.
Emma helped him to his feet, steadying his dying body. As I looked into the one bloodshot, crying eye he had left, I felt sorry for him.
“Joseph…” I said quietly, “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to hurt you.”
He let out a groan. “Marisette,” he whispered, “I love you. I never meant to hurt you either.”
“Go ahead,” he rasped. “You deserve him. I’ll only poison the blood of the children we would have had together.”
“But I thought the Devil couldn’t die!”
“I’m only a vessel for his spirit. It can only be freed if you kill the vessel.”
I looked down at him one last time. Tears started to well up in my eyes.
“I’ll miss you.”
With that, he closed his eyes and took one final breath.
I laid him under an apple tree outside of Ravenwood. Lincoln was there by my side, and for the first time, I was the one to wipe away his tears.
Ah, Joseph. Witty and charming, with a good heart underneath. If I had known, I would have found another way to free him from the evil spirit inside. Part of me hoped that he would make it to heaven. I wondered if I was even worthy of heaven.
At that moment, Lincoln pulled the music box out of his pocket.
“No thanks,” I said. “I don’t feel like dancing.”
“It’s not for me,” he said. “It’s for him.” He lay it down on Joseph’s grave, along with the last rose from the courtyard. “So he can remember.”
“You know,” I mused, “one last dance would be nice.”
“Oh, all right.”
He wound the music box for the last time, but he knew this wouldn’t be our last dance. He led me again into those all-too-familiar steps. One, two, three. One, two, three. One, two, three.
I would never let him go. Ever.