In Light There is Hope, In Darkness, Salvation
There is a town, its name lost to the tidings of time, whatever its inhabitants decide to call it, the town will accept, fearing its existence might fade into oblivion if a name is not prescribed, the continuous furnace of fear extinguished before the Rapture. In the daylight it buzzes with life, from shops to vendors, children to elders, despite the blood-soaked, dark underbelly of the deceivingly clean streets, feeding the ever-hungry heart of the town. The history which taints this town has dwindled along with its name, yet the malicious nature of its presence lingers in the air, like a cloud of poison. Remain in it too long, and Death will descend upon one’s mortal vessel. The townspeople know not to walk the streets as the coat of night drapes the evening sky, blacking out the last light of safety. The streetlamps, not soldiers against the darkness, but casualties in a lost battle. In the square, a ginormous clocktower looms, warning the inhabitants of the coming danger. It strikes twelve times, each ring resonating through every street, every drain and every cobblestone, striking fear in every living thing’s core. However, what frightens the people is not the twelfth strike, but the one that follows:
The thirteenth strike.
The tale which circulates is that if one hears the thirteenth strike, it is too late. The originator of the legend has yet to come forth, yet the inhabitants know not to doubt the warning which might save them. Despite lacking evidence, a malicious aura lingers in the air, it reeks of danger, an unfathomable terror lurking at the very brink of existence, and the shackles of night might release it from its prison.
Behind the withered park, crunched in between the abandoned church and a supermarket, stands a desolate block, housing an accumulation of human knowledge and imagination. The locals refer to it as ‘the library’. Housed within are a plethora of books, wilted by negligence, reflecting the townsfolks carelessness and ignorance. Or perhaps, their dread, not wishing to confront the dark truths which may be hidden inside the dusty pages. The keeper of these insidious epiphanies is a crooked, old woman named Dahlia. If one were to cast a glance towards her, the initial impression might be of a young girl, her hair, a lavish brown color, flowing gracefully down her bosom, her features not carrying a hint of age. But for what the head hid, the body could not, her crooked limbs barely carrying her fragile body as it wobbled slowly back and forth between the rows of books, her shadow resembling the appearance of a monster from a child’s nightmare. No one spoke with Dahlia, yet everyone knew, that if someone in this town knew of its real name, it was her.
But no one dared ask. They live peacefully in ignorance.
Yet, on this day, another shadow joins Dahlia in her dark nest, one rejecting ignorance and embracing knowledge, a girl. Her pearly hair a juxtaposition of the drab interior of the library, a clash of not simply colors, but something far more sinister, as she gently and nervously makes her way through the rows of books towering over her small figure like giants, threatening to crush her with the smallest tumble or stumble. The books whisper amongst themselves, the sound of their pages rattling as the girl passes them, unsettling her and ushering her deeper in, wherein somewhere, Dahlia sits by her desk stirring over a prophecy foretelling of the girl’s arrival. She flashes a rotten smile as her lips hums the shape of the words written on the ancient parchment, finding comfort in their sound, in their promises. She whispers a prayer to what sounds like God, but no God would accept her utterances, no, they must be for someone else, something else even. As the last syllable leaves her mouth, somewhere in the elementary school down the road there is a locker, and within the metal encasement the body of a creature implodes, decorating the boring gray in a layer of crimson, pieces of flesh floating in an ocean of blood, depicting the continents of the world it once inhabited, but no human lips remain to whisper its origins.
Dahlia’s grin widens.
Once the girl arrives in the heart of the library, she finally lays eyes upon the woman who promised her hope, surprised by Dahlia’s youth. But once Dahlia flashes her a grin, the teeth which house maggots and vermin crawling to the rhythm of Dahlia’s tapping finger, the illusion shatters, the girl recoiling not merely by the sight, but the stench that’s released by her mouth, a rotten foundation which may never heal, a memoir to the empires she’s seen rise and fall, yet crumbled beneath the weight of their own ambition, and tyranny.
“The library is closed…but you already knew that. Azalea, is it not?”
The young woman bows as Dahlia mouths the last syllable, a courtesy almost forgotten in the town, most certainly by Dahlia. She stifles a chuckle, civility may be a discarded tradition, however, the girl’s courteous nature is not to be ridiculed, but nurtured. After all, what was more delicious than finding that glimpse of darkness buried in an avalanche of light? Truly, Dahlia and her kin’s hope rest not upon the harbingers of dark, but the champions of radiance.
“Yes, and you must be Dahlia? Quite the lovely facility you have here, although I do wish we could have met somewhere outside this town. Something here just feels…off? Don’t you agree?” she politely responds.
“Ah, so you have noticed. Keep your wits about you, my flower, lest you wilt in the suffocating fog that envelops the town. But you have come prepared, have you not?” Dahlia says, her yellow teeth peeking through curled lips.
With a single glance, Dahlia burrowed beneath the innocent, skittering eyes of Azalea, an excavation into the caves of her pearls, into the core of her soul, just to grasp the resolve needed to endure the challenges lying ahead. In those tightly sealed corridors of Azalea’s heart, Dahlia heard screams for help, the beeping of a heart rate monitor, the wailing of a kitten, police sirens, static shimmering, vomiting, a momentary moment of despair and finality, confessions, moaning and one, desperate plea. Azalea shifts slightly beneath the scrutiny of Dahlia’s eyes, yet while Dahlia reveals Azalea’s soul with a single glare, Azalea stands no chance in piercing Dahlia’s impenetrable fortress, her eyes closely guarding the secrets they’ve harbored for eons, yet what Azalea does not realize is that the secrecy is not an act of hostility, but of mercy, sparing her visions of creatures who crawl at the brink of existence but have yet to breach the thin veil of the town. If she’d broken past the seal of Dahlia’s eyes, she would have seen eyes of flesh, teeth of crooked fingers bent in every direction, limbs cracking and rearranging in an unnatural order, silken skin burnt by festering pus, organs used as clothing to cover exposed insides of grotesqueries splooshing with every movement, voices whispering in unison all languages backwards in an orchestra of shrieks, and finally, the wailing of a baby.
“Yes, I have come prepared to persuade the family Alighieri to lend me their secrets no matter what. I have also brought the item they asked for, my most treasured object, correct?” Azalea interjects.
A sudden coughing fit sneaks upon Dahlia, and between burst of raspy air and germs, she exudes tremendous strength to ensure her tongue stays in place, not revealing its origin. Azalea stares as the coughing fit seemingly crumbles the woman before her, frightened that her only hope is about to bite the dust. But even Salem has not laid claim to Dahlia’s life, a mere cough will not prove to be her demise.
“Yes…yes it is. A formal invitation will require proof of your willingness. Your most treasured possession will suffice,” Dahlia responds through hacks.
“Certainly. I brought with me a family jewel. It has survived for many decades, even the World Wars. My grandma told me to never sell it, its value not measured in any amount of gold.”
From Azalea’s messenger bag, she pulls out an exquisite, crimson brooch, its dazzling radiance glittering in the flickering fluorescent light, the gems shaped in the motif of a glimmering heart, embedded in a pillow of white pearls. Dahlia catches it with a dirty hand, almost knocking her hand out of balance with the weight of it, speaking to the brooch’s heaviness, and her lack of strength. She begins scrutinizing it, uncovering not the value of the object but the history from which it came.
“By the by, I checked out the address to the manor that you sent me, just to have a look, maybe gouge what kind of people they are. Yet, when I came there, the manor looked practically abandoned. I had a look inside even, the few furniture remaining were covered in sheets and the rest in dust. No signs of anyone living there. Are you sure it’s the correct address?”
Underground, smells of sewage, feces, blood and sweat stirs, men in uniform barking orders in a foreign language, a row of patients, or perhaps not patients, a mere misunderstanding based on their sickly bodies and lacking garments, not patients, victims, their eyes filled with dread. They face an old enemy, or to them, an end to misery, yet in the face of their salvation, they still cling to fear as the fume of Him lure its way through their nostrils, and they take the final breath of life before returning to the bosom of Death. As Dahlia absorbs these impressions, a distressed grunt of disgust rupture from her throat:
“This, this isn’t yours! It’s someone else’s! If you want the invitation, your gift must be yours, your treasured possession, not some grotesquery you borrowed,” she barks.
She hurls the brooch back at Azalea, its ragged edges prickling her skin as it absorbs the impact, and in its blank surface, a thousand surprised faces of Azalea trapped within each edge blink in unison. There had previously been no doubt in her mind that her offering would be accepted, and upon hearing Dahlia’s dissatisfied rejection, a luring fear crawls into her, one which not invoked by the distant crying she continuously heard ringing in the back of her mind, but by the prospect of not meeting the Alighieri’s.
“I-I don’t understand, I promise you, this is the most valuable thing I have! I-I can’t think of anything else…!” she fumbles.
Hobbling over her desk, Dahlia’s finger impatiently taps a rapid rhythm, Azalea assuming in dismay, but knows not the melody which has been sung by ruptured throats, beckoning rituals for revelations. Just as the final note is instrumented, Dahlia notices the light revealing a tiny spark hidden behind Azalea’s tightly buttoned top.
“What is that you wear around your neck?” she points.
The perceptive eye of the creature before her surprises Azalea as she clutches the vial hanging around her neck, as if to defend it against the greedy finger Dahlia is pointing, afraid that it might give in to its authority and demand, yet that is no magic Dahlia possesses anymore, yet her loyalty should have earned her its usage. Within the rose-tinted glass, supple cinders topple one another with every movement, each one, a memory encased in a gray shell.
“It’s…it’s the last remnants of her. At least, what I was allowed to take,” she replies.
“Yes…Yes, that is exactly what he wants. If you have no other offering, then relinquish that necklace, and I will grant you the invitation you desire,” Dahlia smiles.
Reluctantly, Azalea unbuttons her top, slowly dragging the vial’s entirety into the light, holding it in front of her, deliberating whether this sacrifice is worth the fulfillment of her quest, and, if this act would ever be forgiven. Relinquishing it would be to give up her compass right before the voyage into the unknown, the stars eaten by a ravaging guilt, and the crew abandoning her for the betrayal. Yet, only for mere moments did hesitation seize her heart, as she visualized her end goal, and with it, did the waves cease crashing at the helm of her soul, the waters bending to her willpower.
She hesitantly gives the necklace to Dahlia.
Dahlia’s hand is like a vicious beast, as soon as the vial hit her hand, she clutches around it like a jaw, feeling, consuming the content within, savoring every emotion, every tear shed over this object. Yes, he would simply love it, that she was sure off. Dahlia hobbles over to an envelope, slips the necklace in and proceeds to stuff it into a chute hiding behind several oversized file cabinets, the inscription on them faded, as to obscure the nature of their secrets, despite the symbols inscribed being beyond the capabilities of the human tongue.
From a drawer, Dahlia pulls out another envelope, this one sealed by a wax sigil, the shape too obscure to make out, the inscription as ancient as the envelope itself. She gently hands it to Azalea, the girl scanning it for any sign of significance.
“Here’s the invitation. Open it if you’d like, but what is required for entry has already been submitted. Consider this a formality. Head to the address I gave you, I’m sure you simply took a wrong turn last time. The Alighieri household is rather lively, you cannot miss it. However, get there before midnight, it’s 11 p.m. now so you have little time,” Dahlia instructs with her back turned to Azalea, the holes on her spine covered by mere patches, not revealing the sockets from which limbs of pride protruded, yet now were a testament to her fall.
Azalea bows slightly, unsure of what to come, not knowing the dark web in which she is now entangled. Yet her determination does not waver.
“I guess this is goodbye then? If so, thank you for all the help, miss Dahlia, truly, you gave me hope when I thought all was lost.”
Dahlia’s grin widens so that the fangs hidden behind her rotting façade shines in the shimmering light.
“My dear, I wish you the best of luck, it is not I who has given you hope, but you who has given me.”
And so, Azalea makes her way through the towering bookcases, still unsure whether they intend to harm or simply harbor books. Dahlia remains, whispering prayers for Azalea’s success. This town has imprisoned her for too long, her longing for her brethren the only light in this infernal hellscape. It will all end soon, the freedom she has sought for many eons in the hands of a mere child. She prays for her success, trusting her hope is not misplaced once more.
Azalea returns to the same address as before, still befuddled whether her mind was playing tricks on her or not. This town is strange, the streets utterly dead. But just on its outskirts, she stands in front of the same manor as earlier that day. But immediately upon laying her eyes on it, something feels different. Burrowing into her stomach, is an unsettling feeling, unlike anything she has ever experienced before, something primal roots itself in her very core, fear perhaps? Or something a lot more sinister.
To be continued in October…