This story is by Evelyan Briar and was part of our 2019 Summer Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
One night a year. One evening spent in the moonlight. Centuries have passed, and it is still not enough time. There will be a night I move on and find my way to the Hallow Halls, but until then I will enjoy the time I have.
Every seam has been sewn, each button positioned just so, and a ribbon encircles my throat. One more check in the mirror and an extra swipe of lipstick and I am ready. I smile as I turn, looking over my shoulder, checking the line of my burgundy dress. Perfection.
I stride across the hardwood floor, finding great satisfaction in the sound that rings out with each step of my heels. My skirts billow out behind me, creating a wave of color in the otherwise gray room. A sparkle catches my eye, and I watch as thousands of rainbows glitter on the walls. The candlelight glinting off the large garnet nestled in the hollow of my throat.
What a glorious night to be alive. I spin once in childish abandon, enjoying the weight of my skirts as the fabric continues to flow as I come to a halt. It wraps around my legs, pauses, and unravels to settle in loose folds that drape from my hips. Nothing in the world can compare to this moment in time. The fading sun is streaming through the lace curtains, creating swirling patterns on the floor and walls. Polished silver gleams on the tables; platters, silverware, and pitchers — waiting to hold an array of tasty treats. Freshly pressed cloths adorn the tables, the slate color complementing the ash-colored walls. Gothic mirrors scattered throughout the ballroom multiply the towering vases filled with silver coated branches.
The staff enters and arranges pastries on the silver platters and fills the pitchers with wine and water. They straighten a tablecloth, polish a vase, and within moments, the few last-minute details are complete. I twirl again with a smile and, instead of focusing on my beautiful dress, I scan the room. Everything is in place!
A knock draws my attention. I can hear the door opening and another staff member helps the guests with their coats and parasols. Laughter cascades into the ballroom as the guests move into the space and the musicians strike up a lively tune. Dance cards are soon overflowing as guests pair up and proceed to the dance floor. Gorgeous gowns paint the chamber in a kaleidoscope of color as gentlemen twirl the ladies in the steps of the newest dance. Other guests move through the room, their chatter filling the rest of the space.
A whisper of silk is my only warning as a gentleman moves to stand beside me. He is an imposing figure; tall, with broad shoulders and a mischievous twinkle in his eye. His fitted black suit and expertly tied cravat add to his dapper air. A lapel pin in the shape of a raven adds an onyx shine that competes with the twinkle in his eye.
“Miss Finley, could I beg this dance of you?” He leans in and offers his elbow. “I would be remiss if I did not offer to dance with our remarkable hostess.”
“Sir, I don’t recognize you, and that means you weren’t on the guest list.” We have gained the attention of the other party guests. “I would like to know how you made it in the door and what your name is before I have you escorted from the premises.” I smiled at an older governess to dispel any concern we had gathered. I wanted my party guests to enjoy themselves and not worry about a gatecrasher.
“That, in fact, is what I wanted to discuss with you, Miss Finley. You seem to have the most exclusive guest list of the season, and I would like to gain entrance to it. Your parties are the talk to the town, and yet you only seem to have one each season. Could you tell me why that is?” The mischievous twinkle, which had been present at the start of our conversation, changes to something more sinister. “My dear, I believe you know why I’m here as well as who I am. Please remember to be respectful to your betters.” He leans closer to whisper in my ear. “I will be kind this time, as I have in the past, but I will no longer stand for your insubordination. I will give you tonight, and then you will come with me, you have far overstayed your welcome in this place.” He turns and walks away, leaving me breathless with fear and panic.
It can’t be him. He had been gone for years and to turn up tonight of all nights, this was a disaster. I had been looking forward to tonight for the past year, and nothing was going to ruin it. I cannot think of a way to stave him off, but maybe I can delay him until the sun rises over the skyline. The gentleman – no I can no longer refer to him as such. His true title has varied, but I like to call him Lord Ashen Ruine. The Grim Reaper, sovereign ruler of the Hallowed Halls, and my personal Angel of Death.
When I died years ago, he had asked me if I had one last wish. With my dying breath, I had asked to remain in my ballroom, unchanged, and unblemished for all time. I wanted to dwell where I was always happiest, with party goers and music, in a realm that always sparkled with the last rays of the sun. He had been specific when he asked: “And when should I retrieve you, my dear?” To which I answered, “When I have finally danced my last step and wish to leave and not a moment before.” I had not given it much thought as it was my standard answer to my mother or governess when I had been introduced to society as a young debutante. I never had enjoyed leaving the party before it was well past finished.
In years past, he had worn many different faces, each more handsome and tempting than the last. Each time he had found me, I had evaded him until the sun rose or traded tiny pieces of myself in exchange for another year. Those small pieces had begun to take their toll. Now I can feel the slight strain on my soul each time I come back from the Void to enjoy the one evening my dying wish had granted me. This year would be no different.
“My dear, please don’t think a few pretty words and a crowd will protect you. I will take you away from here tonight, witnesses or no.” He had snuck up on me again. “Did you truly think a few years could go by and I would forget about you?”
“No, my Lord Ruine, I would never fret you had forgotten me. I had perhaps wondered how long I could evade your grasp but, alas, here you are.” I quip, “What do you want this time? Would you care to bargain for another piece or part of my soul? A memory from my childhood? Or would you want…” He cut me off abruptly as he leaned closer. “No, Finley, this time I want you. Or whatever is left of you at this rate. No longer will you stay in the mortal realm. You should have passed into the Hallowed Halls upon your death, but I granted your dying wish to stay here in your beloved ballroom.” He straightened up to his full height. “This is your last night here, and I intend to have you firmly anchored to my domain.”
“You forget yourself, my Lord. I can only leave my ballroom under my power. That was the wish I made and which you agreed to.” This time it was my turn to lean closer, a smirk painting my lips. “Or do you fail to remember the pity you felt for a young woman struck down in her prime?”
“I remember, my dear. The young woman was one I had fallen in love with.” Lord Ruine takes my hand and pulls me out onto the dance floor, a soft look on his beautiful face. Spinning us into a close dance, daring to pull me closer. His hold is proprietary and inappropriate to the situation. He spins me around the dance floor, not so subtly moving the other couples out of our way until we were the only dancers on the floor. He is an expert leader, and I find myself enjoying my dance with Death.
All too soon, the last notes of music fade and the sun slowly rises. Its brilliant rays piercing the lacy curtains. Death’s form is swathed in shadows as mine fades from view. As I dematerialize, I hear him whisper, “Until next year, my love.”