If you’re just now tuning in, you’ve got a little catching up to do! For a proper introduction to EclecticMasque, check out Ali’s home post. For the first entry in my adventures with the Masquerade, start here. But before we get back to me, a little side trip to check in on my favorite writing partner, Cait…
I’ll admit, I was hardly listening when Raev began telling me about Ali’s masked ball, let alone when she told me I could attend. I nodded and smiled, and firmly intended on not bothering. I was glad she had something new to be so excited over, but it sounded like work to me. I have quite enough to do on my own without having to figure out a costume and details like whether I would go alone… I still have 80 hours worth of video to watch for my thesis, there’s hardly time for all that.
Of course, I should have seen the interference coming.
It started with dreams, like it always does with him.
There was one in which I was chasing someone down a corridor, past rooms of laughter, finery and the faint sheen of glitter. The heaviness of my skirts kept me from ever catching my target. Everything seemed heavier, slower than it should have been. No matter how I lifted my skirts, they caught on everything and I could barely breathe to run.
Another where I was trapped in a waltz with a masked man – even his eyes were a mystery to me. Held tightly to his chest, he gave me barely enough room to move, let alone a chance to get away. All that was left to me was to try to unravel his identity. He seemed familiar enough and his height gave me an idea, but as soon as that thought crossed my mind…
I was standing on a dressing room dais. Like another dream, I could hardly breathe, even though I was doing nothing more strenuous than standing. In the mirror, my figure cut a strong hourglass, aided by a corset that seemed to be laced as tight as it would allow. The corset boning cut strong curves into where I was sure I should have a ribcage. The white lace showed more skin than it hid, but at least the cups were solid satin. Trying to breathe over the top of them seemed indecent enough. The caging of the corset kept me from turning or even looking down. Fortunately, the mirrors gave me a good enough view of both myself and the room behind me.
My dark hair was twisted up and out of the way, leaving my neck and shoulders bare. My pale skin was flushed, which made me wonder if whoever had tightened this corset had ever read about a thing called circulation. The rosy glow did set off all the white lace and satin though. The bottoms were also white, simple drawers that ended about my knees with a soft gather. I was barefoot.
The mirrors in front of me were angled, reflecting back a riot of color. Behind me were clothing racks as far as I could see, haphazardly set against one another to create a dizzying maze. I had the feeling I wasn’t alone, but I couldn’t quite make out anyone other than flashes of movement among the racks…
With a jolt, my eyes opened to darkness. For a moment, the dissonance from the previous scene made me wonder if I’d actually blacked out from the tightness of the corset. Then the faint scent of lavender filtered in and I knew I was in my own bed. I sighed. Dreams.
There was a sudden heaviness behind me, over me, and a wash of warmth. Where I had previously been comfortable, now I felt as if I were sunbathing on concrete.
I wiggled against the suffocating feeling and the weight on top of me lessened, allowing me to create a small opening in the cocoon of blanket. The cooler air pooling in was a relief.
A short lived relief. An arm wrapped around my waist, pulling me back against that solid wall of warmth. Trading one kind of trap for another…
“Mhmm…” The answer was more of a rumble against my back than a proper sound.
I resisted the urge to sigh again. Any signs of annoyance would either be ignored or taken as encouragement. I settled for poking at his arm through the blanket. “Why are you here?”
“I’m here to pick up my date.”
I froze, then poked him harder. “Date? What date?” Nothing quite like a rush of adrenaline to wake me.
He squeezed me tighter in response, rubbing his face against my hair as he did so. I could feel his smothered laughter shaking the bed.
“You didn’t think I’d let you miss out on the ball, did you?”
“ Lark – I am deliberately not go-“
Before I could finish my protest, I was blinded. Everything was suddenly too bright after the dark bedroom. I held a hand up to block the worst of it as my vision tried to adjust. At least the music was in another room, it eased the potential disorientation.
There was a click and blessed darkness again. While I still couldn’t see, at least I wasn’t in blinding pain. That gave me time to try to figure out what going on. I was standing and… Dressed in a corset? At least I could breathe easier in this one. I ran my hands down my body, feeling the rough and silky contrast of fabrics. The bodice was some sort of lace and a heavier silk, but the skirts… They felt like they were just layered organza or something equally light and fluffy. My hands went up, feeling the elegant twist and curl to my hair. There were ribbons laced in. Some of the ribbons came around to my face and I realized there was a lightweight mask over my eyes.
“Well, while I would have enjoyed it, I didn’t think you’d appreciate going naked.” I didn’t have to see the smart ass smirk, I could hear it.
I swatted blindly, and was pleased when I struck a solid wall of warmth and fabric. He chuckled and took my arm to tuck it tightly against his body. I didn’t know if he was doing it to avoid further violence or so we’d be closer, but knowing him, the answer was likely both.
“Now then, shall we?” A door opened ahead, a rectangle of light that wasn’t nearly as garish as before. The hallway beyond was lit with ornate lanterns along the walls.
I glanced back out of habit and had to bite back my own disbelieving laugh. “Seriously, Lark? A broom closet?”
“Nevermind.” I shook my head. “Just… Let’s get on with this, alright?”
“I’m so glad you’re being so enthusiastic about being my date…” He started to move us down the hallway, but had to stop when he realized I wasn’t following.
Now that we were in the light, I had a chance to get a better look at my escort. Lark looked good in the finely tailored black tux he’d chosen. It was carefully draped open to reveal a green vest, which bore intricate embroidery in gold. The white collared shirt gaped open at the top to reveal tanned skin and a golden medallion at the base of his throat. His eye mask was black, but trimmed in a twisted green and gold cord that really made his green and gold eyes stand out. His tawny hair was combed back from his face haphazardly, matching the roguish grin I suddenly realized he was turning on me.
I rolled my eyes, trying to cover my mistake by quickly examining… The walls. Not that interesting, they weren’t even wallpapered, just painted a light beige.
Damn it, his ego was big enough without me accidentally inflating it.
But his outfit did remind me that I could look at my own… My theme was apparently black and dark purple, though there were flecks of gold trim hidden within the seaming and trailing down in fine ribbons that vanished in the dark clouds of my skirts.
“We match.” My tone was still flat with annoyance at being caught staring.
“But not in a matchy-matchy way.” Apparently my grim statement bore no effect on his pride. “Hey, it could have been worse – if I could have convinced our wolf to come along, I was thinking of a Little Red Riding Hood theme.”
“And now I know why Frost skipped out.”
He tugged on my arm, restarting our journey down the infinitely long hallway. Lark sighed dramatically, squeezing my hand for sympathy. “Betrayed by my best friend…”
“Not attending a party is hardly a betrayal.” Despite myself, I could feel the beginning of a smile coming on.
“To you maybe. He doesn’t know what trouble might occur, I might need him to back me up. He left me high and dry.” He genuinely did sound a little upset. Which definitely meant he was putting on airs. Or that he was actually upset that his primary drinking buddy was sitting this party out.
“I can’t fathom you ever being completely dry. Nice suit though, I can’t even guess where your flask might be hiding.” I managed to keep my voice droll. I wasn’t going to encourage the whining. If I indulged him once I’d never hear the end of it all night.
He gave me a sour look, but the playful glint in his eyes ruined its sincerity. “And that’s another thing – we’re on the cusp of his season of all work and no play. After this, it will be all cold, all the time, and every night it’ll be the same.” His voice took on a higher note. “ ‘I can’t participate in drunken debauchery, I have to work tonight. And tomorrow morning. And tomorrow night. And every second until the seasons change again. Because I’m always working and no fun.’ “
I hid my laughter behind my free hand. “He’s going to kill you.”
“Bah, he’d have to find me first and he’s too afraid of fun to risk that.”
He grinned down at me, steering me into one of the rooms I hadn’t realized we’d been bypassing as we spoke. “Speaking of…”
I barely had time to take in the floating bubbles and dizzying wall of mirrors before I was swept along into a waltz. Despite the fact that I didn’t know how to dance it, Lark’s hand on my hand and his hand about my waist kept me moving in the right direction at least.
It wasn’t until I looked past him and saw the goblinesque masks that I realized what this room was mimicking. The out of place music had kept me from recognizing it at first. My gaze shot up to find he wore a similar mask now as well. And his tux had changed to something much darker and glitterier. “Seriously, Lark?”
“As serious as a fic can be.” I wished I could say his grin ruined the mystique, but that would be a horrible lie.
I shook my head, but kept looking around now that my curiosity was piqued. Not to mention it kept me from staring up at him – that felt a little too much like fawning in this place. “So is this all you or is there actually a room like this at the ball?”
“Well, this is a ball, is it not?”
“You know what I mean. You’re a DreamWeaver – could you not resist throwing one of my dreams in here or are you just taking advantage of something already in place?”
I glanced back in time to watch his grin turn to something darker and I felt my own smile slip away. I both hated and enjoyed when he reminded me that he wasn’t all bawdy jokes, light hearted teasing, and drinking games. It was disconcerting, which was precisely why he did it. Even knowing this, knowing that he held this side, somehow having known him all my life, I still forgot that he wasn’t human. That he wasn’t harmless.
“Lark…” I didn’t know who I was warning.
He pulled me closer and the music began to fade, the first strains of a more familiar tune beginning to drift over it.
I gritted my teeth. I wasn’t going to buy into it. I wasn’t. And my heart wasn’t beginning to pound contrary to the new slower tune.
“Lark, my name isn’t Sarah, and I’m not into OC fics. You know better.” That would have seemed a better chastisement if it hadn’t come out so breathy.
He bent down, bringing his height closer to my own so his mouth was by my ear. “No fics, but the games are just beginning…”
Abruptly, he pushed me away and I fell into a dizzying twirl. That wasn’t a dance move I’d been expecting. When had Lark begun to support so much of my weight? I was spinning, the room was spinning, then I was tripping over my own feet, unable to reorient myself – when had he put me in heels?
There were too many people pressing in, my arms brushed them as I tried desperately to catch my balance. Before I could find my feet, I felt arms wrap around me as someone caught me. Breathless, I glanced up, expecting to find Lark again.
He wasn’t nearly tall enough, and narrower in the shoulders. His hair was too blonde, too wild… And that jacket and mask were now identical to the movie… What the hell kind of game was he playing? “Damn it, Lark, this isn’t funny, shift back or –“
“Who’s Lark?” The voice was definitely wrong. If it was really Lark, he would have taken on that dark purr he was so fond of. This was a touch too high in timbre and the rhythm was off.
The wash of recognition was followed closely by relief and I exhaled, trying to regain my senses. Even before the mask came off, I knew who I would really find beneath it.
His quizzical look earned a weak smile from me. “Zig.”
That easy going, lopsided grin confirmed it. “Your line’s supposed to be ‘You’re him, aren’t you? You’re the goblin king.’ And more swooning. You’re not nearly swoony enough.”
I gave a half laugh, pushing away to stand on my own still heeled feet. Lark and I were going to have words about randomly switching out a girl’s footwear while dancing. “Yeah, that’s so not happening.”
The third story is much quieter, the music from below filtering up like a distant dream. The lighting, too, is subdued, as if perhaps this part of the house was not meant to be open to the public. For the first time, I think to wonder about the potential owner, but I let it go. I have a phantom to chase.
I realize suddenly that he is nowhere to be seen. Nor is there anyone else about. The hallway stretches out impossibly long before me, the end of it lost somewhere beyond in shadows. Just like the floor below, doors and hallways line the walls to either side, but as I move down the hall, I see that some of them are simply painted on. I try a door, just to be sure, but indeed, it is nothing but a doorknob stuck to the wall, surrounded by detailed molding but ultimately leading nowhere.
I think about searching for a trick lever or something, but a flicker of movement catches my eye and whirl on the empty hallway, heart climbing its way up to my throat. For the first time, it occurs to me to be afraid. This is a Halloween Ball, after all, full of fiction and fantasy. For some, that includes horror, and there’s no guaranteeing that I won’t run into someone else’s party guests…
I suddenly wish I’d had the sense to go as something practical and badass, like Rachel Morgan, or Anita Blake. Too late now. I smirk, congratulating myself on at least not choosing down. That’s something, right?
As I make my way through the house, I walk past a halfway full of …bubbles? Perfect crystals, almost, seeming to hang in the air, drifting slowly out into the rest of the house. The faint sound of a distant saxophone draws me into the hallway, and despite the niggling feeling the back of my head, I take a few steps down the hall.
The saxophone is joined by the distinct sound of 80’s synthesizer, though different from the one playing on the underground water way. Still, it is unmistakable, and I have to smile as the mournful saxophone gives way to a music box waltz. I stop and watch the crystalline bubbles float by, toying with the idea of losing myself to one of the images within.
A loud crash breaks my reverie, followed by high pitched yips and growls. Eyes wide in surprise, I step closer to the door at the end of the hallway. The light that pours through the slightly open door glitters and twinkles like stars. I can see now that the hallway is covered in glitter, and I scowl, knowing my velvet cape is undoubtedly covered in sparkles by now. Ah well.
Back in the main hallway, I’m rewarded with another flash of red. I feel a little guilty, chasing this fan candy instead of giving in and following the bubbles, but he did take all the trouble to separate my from my group, I can’t abandon him now.
The last fluttering tatters of cape guide me down to the next alcove, and I gather my skirts as I rush to catch him.