Azalea: Chapter 2 – Welcome to House Alighieri
Azalea had once read ‘if you stare into the void, remember, the void will stare back’ and the ominous outline of those words harkens in the back of her mind as her eyes trail the property harboring the mansion, scouring every brick, every edge and every inch of it. The mansion which had previously sung the ballad of emptiness, now strings the melody of life, Azalea swearing she could hear music, beckoning her to the entrance encased in dark wood, the sound barely a whisper at the very edge of hearing, yet no resonance had ever been as clear. The very logic of nature is in a battle with the reality Azalea faces, her rational mind searching every cavern of knowledge for a plausible explanation, yet none will surface as reason stands no chance in a place like this. The invitation provides no additional clues, the old parchment contained within simply extending a sincere invitation, the curtesy written in ancient cursives.
The estate is encased within an iron fence, its skewers soaring to the sky, yet the main gate has no intention of keeping visitors from entering, its broken locks providing nothing but broken promises of safety from unwanted visitors, or perhaps, salvation for escaping victims. Azalea had done her research prior to her congenial visit, the mansion had previously been a mental asylum, however, once abandoned, an unknown buyer had acquired it and turned it into the luxurious mountain that she gazes upon. No names were provided in the article nor pictures, only an omen of the misfortune that befell Rutledge Asylum, the slaughter committed by one of the inmates. Azalea discards the thought before the fright can stifle her courage, her hand instinctively going towards her neck in an attempt to grasp her resolve, yet momentarily forgetting she surrendered it to Dahlia, only the chilling air greeting her trembling fingers.
“Why am I scared?”
This thought continuously rings in her mind.
“Why am I shaking?”
An ominous aura lurks in the air, stifling whatever courage remains. Hesitation seizes her, as the roots of fear coil around her legs, or perhaps it is the aiding hand of caution? Before her body becomes a stump rooted by ambiguous nature, she hears the bell toil.
Dahlia’s warning rings in the back of her mind. Midnight is approaching, and even during her brief time in the town, she had learned that midnight was synonymous with unknown danger. She still recalls the grim look of the hostel clerk, the dark rings underneath sunken eyes a testament to a sleepless waking, the unwashed shirt proof of negligence and fingernails filled with dirt, despite the lack of a garden and plants. If only Azalea had dug beneath the false platitudes, she would have realized that the dirt was from all the digging. From ashes to ashes, dust to dust.
Azalea grabs her bag, the little container embroidered by houndstooth swinging in motion as she hastily scurries across the ginormous forecourt, hoping to arrive upon the doorstep before the utter collapse of her determination.
She rings the doorbell, not knowing that a looming danger inches closer with every ring. If she knew, politeness would have been left at the threshold and she would barge in. Yet in ignorant bliss the act of civility is prudent. Once a first impression is molded, it proves hard to reshape, not handling the effortless clay, but sculpting stone.
As the twelfth chime echoes into the distant, devoured by the emptiness and fog seemingly gathering around the outline of the town, the giant door opens and grants her passage. Just as it closes with finality behind her, it obstructs the sound of the thirteenth strike, and she is spared a terrible fate.
What meets her, is a confirmation of her previous suspicion. The entrance hall is filled with hundreds of burning candles, the wax slowly dripping onto the golden plates they reside on. What had previously been dull and broken wooden panels plaguing the flooring are now sparkling parquets, practically mirrors in their shine and decorated with lavish and crimson-colored carpets leading to two doors and a staircase. From the outside, Azalea guessed approximately three floors, her initial visit neither confirming nor denying her theory as the first-floor stairway was broken upon her arrival. Yet now, it is fully intact, a gorgeous sight as it leads to a stained-glass mural depicting a garden with a tree in the middle, a mountain looming in its background. Azalea’s stare follows the multitudes of luxuries and peculiar objects, oozing of rich cultures from across the world, and some which she has never seen the likes off.
“Excuse me, Miss Azalea?”
From underneath the stairway, emerging from a tiny door, a stark contrast to the being dwelling within, a robust, young man appears, a butler’s outfit draping him, the buttons on his white shirt in constant battle with his chest, and a well-tamed jungle of brown hair sprouting from his head. His sudden appearance causes the ball of nervousness planted within Azalea’s gut to implode, sending a jolt of shock through her system, dropping her bag in the process.
“Ah, I’m sorry, I did not mean to startle you! Here let me help you!” he excuses as he rushes to the bag’s aid.
“No, I’m sorry, I was lost in my own trail of thought, you don’t have t-”
“You’re our esteemed guest, the first in a while actually, of course I will help you!”
Azalea studies Eric, studies his body, his movement, his features, as he swiftly moves to aid her. In her mind, veiled in a thick fog, something is trying to reveal itself, but is lost to the gray sea, sunken into its depths, but its shine penetrating the transparent surface. Had she met him before? In her quest for remembrance, she had forgotten civility, blushing at her own discourteousness.
“Yes. To your prior question I mean. I am Azalea. You don’t need the miss part though,” she smiles between blossoming cheeks.
“Perfect! As I’ve said, we’ve been expecting you, or well, Mister Alighieri has been, the entire family actually, but me too of course! So I went ahead and prepared-!”
“A dinner party. How many moons have passed since our last visitor? Not even the grandest of banquets could celebrate this tremendous occasion.”
Obscuring the stained-glass mural is an outline of an adult, clad in darkness. But as he inches closer, the darkness is revealed to be merely a black suit. He walks so elegantly and effortlessly down the staircase, one could easily confuse walking with levitating, a black cane adorned with an emerald snake coiling around it, its jaws wide, ready to gnaw at the red marble residing comfortably at the top. His face provides no features, all tucked away and concealed by a black mask, yet what the chiffon fabric can’t shroud are two piercing, lavender eyes, measuring up every ounce of Azalea.
“I hope to remedy the lack of courtesy our butler exudes, do excuse his lack of manners, I partially blame his lack of experience in our house. My name is Adam Alighieri, I am the head of House Alighieri. And our easily excitable help here is Eric, no last name needed, he is merely a spectator to tonight’s grand spectacle,” Adam explains softly. Despite never sounding monotone, no his intonations carries not a single emotion, only the intricate semantic web communicating his intentions.
Eric himself blushes at his own indiscretion:
“Oh my gosh, so sorry, I did forget to say my name! I’m Eric, so nice to meet you!”
He sticks out a hand, but before Azalea can even consider returning the civility, Adam smacks Eric’s hand with his cane.
“Do not sully our guest’s hand. Need I remind you of your position here? You are not to interfere, you are merely here out of necessity, nothing else. This is my house, my home. You will play your part if needed, if not, we’ll have a vacant position to be filled, won’t we?”
Azalea quells a surprised yelp, then a bubbling desire to comfort Eric, red marks trailing the outline of the cane’s impact on his hand. However, disrespecting her host upon their first interaction would not bode well, especially one which may aid her in her quest. Manners taught through harsh fashion is not uncharted waters to her, yet she hopes that it is a dying tendency, seeing the repercussions of austerity.
“Mr. Alighieri, I’m Azalea. A pleasure to meet you. I believe Dahlia has informed you of my situation?” Azalea bows.
“Ah, indeed, her words of your predicament have reached me. But let’s not dawdled with trifles, come, you must meet the family. I have informed them of your arrival and they’re all ecstatic to meet you,” Adam replies.
Adam claps his hands and its echo reverberate through the halls, underlining the mass of the mansion, its many endless halls, corridors, and passages.
“Eric, carry Azalea’s luggage to the guest room, Azalea, follow me to the dinning hall please. Eric will arrive shortly thereafter with the food.”
With her bag tucked neatly beneath his large arms, Eric leans in and whispers to Azalea:
“You don’t have to do this. You can wait until morning and leave. Never forget, retreat is not the way of the cowardly and in acceptance there is courage as well-”
“Do you seek the fury of my cane once more, Eric? A whisper is but a suppression of guilt, yell loudly the truth or forever remain silent.”
Before Azalea can question the meaning of the warning, Eric scurries quickly into the door on the left. The feeling that had been brewing for so long in her gut is softly coming to a boil. She hadn’t found a tangible word to describe it yet, however, the burning sensation could not be anything less than bleak.
“My dear, do not take his words to heart. Eric is but a wolf in sheep’s clothing, luring you to the path leading to his jaws. Heed not his words. Now, leave the gloom be and let us meet the family, shall we?” Adam says while gesturing towards the right door.
Apprehension still lurks in Azalea’s mind, warning her of the trickery that seemingly is afoot. However, it has been screaming to her since she first found the article and since her first contact with Dahlia, it is too late to give into its unease now. Once more she clamors for her vial for an infusion of bravery, yet she meets and old friend once more, the empty air. Especially now, it is too late.
Adam leads her into another room, containing the same Renaissance styling, from the marbled wall ornaments to the sleek furniture, an enormous wooden table planted in the middle, two chairs at each end and six in the middle. Adam takes his seat at one end, gesturing for Azalea for her to take the opposite. She had expected to see the rest of the family as she walked in, yet the only semblance of any other guests, is a picture placed by one of the chairs, of what, Azalea could not guess by the staring at the frame’s backside. A dissatisfied sigh escapes Adam, the first sign of any emotion Azalea had seen him utter.
“I strictly instructed them to be here by 12 o’clock. I hope you do not take this delay as a bad omen, I ensure you, we, the family Alighieri, could not be more thrilled to see you after what Dahlia has told us of you and your plight,” Adam says.
Azalea’s hopes upon arriving in the town were that she would find enlightenment to all these burning questions, yet instead, they keep piling, the flames of uncertainty constantly fueled. It is time to put it out before the inferno engulfs her.
“Mister Alighieri, you truly have my gratitude for taking me into your home and even consider helping me. But Dahlia has told me nothing besides the power your family possess and your willingness to lend it to someone who proves themselves worthy. What is this power and how do I prove myself to you?”
“Curiosity is what led the plants to abandon water and embrace land. It is inevitable really. But it will all be clear in due time, now let’s call for the slothful.”
Azalea’s polite nature did not allow her to rebel against the dismission, it seems the fire would burn just a bit longer, but she would soon extinguish it. Adam lifts a tiny bell and with the flick of his wrists it rings thrice, its resonance traveling through every wall, every corridor, ever nook and cranny, and the family knows, it is time for dinner.
In pits of hellfire and despair
Two flies gluttonize on the feast of the hopeless
Their banquet disrupted
By the bell ring.
Dissonance of wrath screams
An audience entranced by rage and hate
The concert cancelled
By the bell ring.
Laying in a garden of skin
A flower is lustfully plucked bare
The ripening stopped
By the bell ring.
Surrounded by putrid death
A seething envy seeks a justice unfound
The quest paused
By the bell ring.
In the comfort of a bosom
A drowned corpse cling to life and sloth
The slumber disturbed
By the bell ring.
Azalea closes her eyes for merely a second, attempting to quell the steam hammer in her chest, but as she opens them, she is met by five probing eyes and a dinner table filled to the brim with delicacies. Once more, when meeting the adversary of reason, logic stood no chance of winning the battle and seemingly the war waged against fantasy loses momentum with every defeat. When she had first heard of the power of the Alighieri’s she had thought it sounded like a legend, a fairytale even, but in her recent encounters with the peculiar, what seemed like reverie became reality.
“Ah, wonderful, everyone’s here. Shall we start with introductions? A face needs a name. But you are a shy bunch, so perhaps a mere ‘hello’ will suffice. We’ll begin with you, Elisabeth.”
Closest to Azalea sits a young girl, approximately the same age as Azalea, with keen eyes manically measuring Azalea. A smile is plastered on her face, not one of friendliness but of personal pleasure. She taps her feet and hands, one of the hands being covered by a black glove, the other indiscreetly attempting to touch Azalea. Azalea politely retracts her hand.
“Sitting beside Elisabeth are the twins, Gaab and Gabriel.”
Next to the manic girl is a young boy, huddling in a black sweater, on his head a giant pair of glasses resides, the glass made up of a hundred tiny hexagons. He appears to be to have recently entered his teenage years. He smirks at Azalea with a mischievous smile. Right by his side is an adult man, in the same sweater, however, two hoods are additionally attached to it. Despite the massive size of the clothing, Azalea could at first glance see how anorexically thin he is by staring at his famished features. He does not meet Azalea’s gaze, instead staring into his empty plate. At first Azalea thought that Adam’s ‘twins’ remark was merely a joke in light of their similar fashion, but as she deciphers their features, she realizes they share overtly many.
“And then there’s Luc- no, my apologize, it’s Lilith today.”
Opposite of him sat a woman, draped in the most beautiful, blonde hair Azalea had ever seen. She is applying make-up, the lipstick viciously painting her plumb lips, and with a delicate finger, she erases the excess. Once her gaze is ripped from the mirror, she notices Azalea’s gaze and she winks at her.
“Of course, can’t forget our dear Ma-”
“It’s Wary now,” the girl interjects.
The final guest is a young girl, her hair a concoction of the blackest black and brightest red, matching her garments. Azalea could sense the adolescence of her, the girl’s attitude conveying as much, as she deliberately avoided Azalea’s glare, everybody’s glare for that matter. She plays with a suspiciously sharp pick.
“And finally, Sarah.”
The picture which previously was turned now stood in the empty chair atop what seems like a speaker. The woman in the picture has radiant, brown hair, braided in breathtaking patterns, tied with a pink bow. But for what her appearance radiated, her eyes did not, as they seem oddly lost, or rather, vacant.
“As you can surmise, she could not attend. She has…a condition.”
“I’m…here. Hello, whoever is…listening,” it sputters from the speakers beneath the frame.
At first Azalea thought the speakers were of suboptimal quality, then realized that the sluggishness is not caused by the transmission, but by the speaker.
“Now, let’s feast, for the night will be long, but the fruits we shall reap will be worth the labor,” Adam announces.
Awkwardness lingers in the air, as the family starts trading plates and dishes, exchanging bare conversations and empty platitudes with one another. The more Azalea observes them the less they appear to be a family, more so six strangers. No one engages with Azalea, except the occasionally pinch by Elisabeth or the kiss Lilith would blow. Gaab and Gabriel squander with one another, Wary attempts to burn her meat with a lighter and an occasional struggling moan erupts from Sarah’s radio. Finally, Adam claps his hand together:
“With full stomachs and full hearts, it’s about time to lay bare the answers for which you seek, dear Azalea.”
Azalea leans forward in her chair, before realizing the impolite implications and retreats back.
“We do possess the power which you seek. But, this power is not merely for resurrection, its power perhaps beyond your comprehension. And before relinquishing it, we, the family Alighieri must determine if you are worthy of it. How do you prove your worth? Simple. Everyone here keeps a precious possession, retrieve it from us, and I shall grant you passage to the resting place of the power you desire. If you want to resign from this trial, you are free to do so at any time. Have I made myself clear?”
The entire dinner table turns towards Azalea, a grin plastered on everyone’s faces. The boiling in her gut occasionally releases a sputter of searing pain, but she clenches her teeth, finding comfort in the description provided, as it solidifies her determination. Within those words is the reassurance she has sought to further fuel her hopes.
If she can overcome their trials, her mother can be saved.
“Yes, all is understood. If that is what you demand of me, I will do it, I promise,” she responds, some of her words shaking underneath the pressure of her counterfeit resolution.
“Perfect,” Adam says and with a simple snap, the family disappears.
All that is needed, is to retrieve the family’s possessions. She would persuade every single one of them. Suddenly, it all becomes more feasible, a goal which is obtainable. For what had once been obscure dreams and promises are now real objectives, all which Azalea is determined to overcome. Adam walks slowly around the table until he has completely closed the space between him and Azalea.
“You may attempt to persuade them, but some members of the family will not relinquish their possession with ease. Perhaps even coercion will fail,” he says.
Then, he leans in, closing any empty space between his face and Azalea’s ear:
“I will not judge your methods of retrieval, what matters to me is your acquirement of the possessions. Simply put, if you feel it’s the only way, I will not stop you.
Even if you have to kill them.”
To be continued in November…