Applewood scented soot particles lifted by a chill autumn breeze further darkened the twilight sky by extinguishing the first few weak-lighted stars that dared to peep their heads above the horizon. Bats swooped over guttering torches, gulping down insects. The age range of the sea of masked guests astounded the young man- Nanti. There were glittering young debutante butterflies fresh out of their entitled cocoons. Gnarled, old coffin-dodgers with a hardened glint to their otherwise watery eyes and a stiffness to their age-mottled fingers clutching gilded canes as if they might have to fight off a throng of boot-licking heirs at any moment; plucked sparkling glasses of golden champagne off silver trays with as much aplomb as if they were picking blackberries.
Nanti felt out of place. He could feel the beat of butterfly wings against the walls of his stomach despite his efforts to drown them with liquid stars. For the hundredth time that night, pale, slender hands unused to labor smoothed down his silk waistcoat and straightened his silver and blue mask that so complimented his flax-flower eyes. A quick glance in the rain barrel’s shimmering surface revealed wine flushed cheeks and perfectly mussed gold hair atop a slender neck. A peculiar scent caressed his button nose as he reminded himself that this night, this one night, was what he had prepared for his entire life. All those hours of etiquette training and money his family had scrounged up; why, his sister had practically starved herself so that they could afford the quarter-inch strip of velvet he now wore for a tie. He had sacrificed too much to turn back now because of nerves. His friend had passed away this morning, and if he hadn’t quit at that, then he certainly wouldn’t quit now. Well, he said friend, but he hadn’t spoken with this ‘friend’ in years. Friends just wanted to leech off the good fortune his looks afforded him, or worse; they wanted to cuddle. Nanti wasn’t much of a cuddler...unless the cuddlee was young...and beautiful...and rich. No! Nanti would persevere as he had persevered. He would last this night where Marchioness Lamia would finally pick-
Wham! A black, cane- with veins of silver- landed on the bracket of the torch right above Nanti’s fair head. A shower of yellow iridescent dust wafted off the demolished butterfly’s carcass as a glorified geezer hobbled off swiping irritably at his cataract shaded eyes muttering something along the lines of, ‘pesky moths.’ Just as Nanti leapt up to pursue the departing man, the grand oak doors of the Marchioness’ residence opened.
Nanti was a bit disappointed in the lack of grandeur the ballroom exhibited. Only one carriage sized ice-sculpture, really! All the stories his mother had told him as a child had implied there would be at least four. The rest of the room was oddly sparse in terms of decoration as well; the deplorable claim of a few corners was the draping of moon-shunned shadow and wispy spiderwebs. Nanti was on the verge of boredom induced tears, there were no ladies around worthy of his company, when the gilded doors opposite those leading to the outside opened.
The room silenced itself in waves as hushed commands and exclamations threaded through the air. Nanti’s eyes sparkled as they caught the sight of a distinctive glint in the doorway. Shrouded in smoke though it was, the marchioness was notorious for overly dramatic entrances and now was no exception- was it dry ice that she was using to make this special effect-, a glimmering gold hem of an equally stunning skirt proceeded the woman into the ballroom. More whispers were aroused from the occupants of the room as the marchioness was fully revealed. Her skirt was a pristine, blinding white overlaid with silver thread- spun in the likes of a spider’s web. Its golden hem jumped up and down at various intervals almost as if to mimic the way mud splatters on the dresses of ordinary women when carriages pass too close. A form-fitting riding coat cinched to her wasp-like waist flared out again just over her hips. Its velvety sheen seemed a bit worn, the red an uninspiring shade of a bad wine. The gargantuan butterfly wings sprouting from her back, also of golden hue and material, more than made up for the ragged covering of her torso. However, the true center piece of her ensemble, was her odd choice of mask. A long, hooked beak sprouted over her own nose and mouth, hanging below her chin. The circular eye-openings were covered over with the glare of lenses, the silver glint of the glasses’ frames disappearing behind the woman’s ears. A doctor’s mask? How peculiar. Nanti shivered a little as the mask’s gaze seem to focus on him and jumped as the band pit- previously silent- started up at a wave from the marchioness. He let out a confused and outraged grunt as the woman left without greeting her guests. A firm hand clasped him on the shoulder, once again forcing an undignified sound from his mouth, before spinning him towards the refreshments table.
“The marchioness is not seeing anyone at this time, sir. Please help yourself and enjoy the party,” a butler murmured reassuringly. Nanti forced himself out of the other’s grasp, smoothed himself out once more, and aggressively ladled himself a cup of punch. A peculiar, but familiar, scent emanated from said liquid. He took a cautious sip. A delightful flavor coated his tongue, and before long, Nanti found himself staring up at the underside of the table- giggling and clutching his empty cup. Strong stuff. Nanti attempted to get up for a second serving by clutching at the closest leg of the table. He started in surprise when the leg recoiled from his grasping arms. Odd, were table legs usually jointed like a human knee and clad in black silk? The leg, having successfully shaken him off, moved away- but not before it had dropped a fine, silver watch on his now aching head. Picking it up, Nanti frowned to see its glass face had shattered from the fall and its arms had stopped moving. He clumsily poked at it for a few seconds before a blood-curdling scream rent the air.
He jumped, hitting his head on the table- dropping the watch to cradle his head-, and staggered to his feet. A clump of people surrounded a form, prone in the middle of the dance floor. Nanti couldn’t tell if it was a man or woman, only their red garment peaked out through the mass of limbs and bodies surrounding them. Sobbered from the scream and resulting skull-bashing it had caused him, Nanti moved purposefully forward with a morbid curiosity. Before he made it more than three steps, however, the figure- a woman- rose off the floor. Nanti grimaced as he noted the hilt of a dagger adorning her neck. How could she still stand? Instead of steadying her should she fall again, the crowd surrounding her all burst into applause and cackling laughter. What was wrong with these people? Nanti could feel the blood drain from his face as the woman pulled the knife from her neck and swooped into the arms of her dance partner as the band started up again. There was no blood pouring from the wound. Had this been a part of some entertainment routine? Nanti could think no further on this as he was tossed off his feet and lay once more sprawled on the floor. From his new vantage point, Nanti noticed that the ground seemed to be...moving. Not to the beat of the band, but almost as if it was a creature breathing.
“Oooh, aren’t you a lovely one?” cried a voice above him. A girl’s face peered down at him, but the skin was peeling off around the corners of her smiling mouth. Scrambling back like a crab, Nanti felt a long object give way to his movement. He turned and found another woman stooping to pick up her leg, decayed and bone visible from where it had ripped away from her flesh, chuckling.
“He is that,” the woman stated as her leg gave an audible pop from being forced back into place, “I would give an arm and a leg if I could look half as good as him!” Her eye, jostled out of its socket from her chortling, was snatched up and tossed into her handbag- was that a set of teeth serving as a latch!- with a sigh.
“If you’re done wishing for the impossible, Vita,” a third voice chimed in, “you might move out of the way so that he and I can have a bit of a dance.” Nanti found himself in the embrace of an undeniably attractive woman, but something didn’t seem quite right about her. Still reeling from his encounter with the other two women, Nanti forced himself to concentrate on his dance partner. Her sleek, black hair cascaded over her delicate shoulders like a waterfall. Her gentle breath ghosted over his neck, and her slender hands rested on his upper arm and upraised palm as they glided over the floor. He was just taking time to admire her smooth face, unblemished like porcelain, and glassy, soulless eyes when- crunch! He looked down and saw that beneath her now upraised skirt, her bare feet could now be exposed to his scrutiny. One of them, her left, had shattered. On the inside, there was a small spider scrambling furiously on its web, maneuvering around the pieces of- yes, indeed- porcelain that had made up her foot. Nanti reeled back from the doll-woman, and tore blindly through the people around him. Ghoulish faces and ghostly figures swam in front of his terrified eyes as he ran. He made it to the doors leading to the outside, but they wouldn’t budge. Snarls and cackling laughter surged behind him, he turned and-
“Nanti, wake up!”