“I know.” Her mother called back as she started away from the door. Dainty steps carried her with surprising speed away towards the banquet hall, and Esreiella could recall all the rearranging that had been done a few days prior. “I feel the same, and after we’ve talked about it for so long…” She paused and looked back at her daughter with a reassuring smile. Warmth and elegance flowed from her, and every silver streak through her dark hair added to her refinement. “I’ll hurry ahead. Take deep breaths, my darling.”
Esreiella gather her rich emerald skirts in her hand and pushed on. It was her debut night, and she had so many accomplishments to celebrate. Her heart pounded knowing all eyes would be on her, and her mind became so occupied with what could happen in a night that she had hardly noticed when she arrived to the staircase.
“And at last,” her father called loud enough to strike the attention of their peers in the room below. He smiled, making deep crags of the laugh line in his face. “I present my youngest for a night dedicated to her coming of age and the gorgeous life she will lead. A woman who will bring pride to our family and nation, Esreiella Antoinette Caldwell.” His hand raised, and instinctively she descended the grand stairs to the waiting eyes below.
Her face grew hot with the attention focused on her, and the many eyes drowned out the words of praise from her father.
A hand stretched toward her as she settled on the floor. They bowed to each other and the quartet began to play.
As she took her first steps to dance, the others began as well in time to a waltz. However, the music was off. The strings seemed to screech oddly with the notes that gave an eerie feeling to the room despite the golden light. Perfumes and lavish foods filled the air with a pleasant scent, but the longer she danced the more the stench of rot filled the air. Jovial voice turned to snide whispers in the air around her, and suddenly she had no eye for her dancing partners.
Champagne had passed around on serving trays, but the newest one was darker and almost red. A platter of finger foods had sprouted mold and the quartet’s instruments emitted sounds too akin to screams.
Esreiella took panicked breaths, but her dancing partner spun her faster. Another cut and again, she spun faster. The room became too quick to focus, and surely they must have been hallucinations. She pleaded to see the faces of the men she might court one day, and perhaps the horror was in her mind. Some terrible doubts that twisted the world around her, or a spell?
His face was stretched, but not in any natural way. His features were distorted, warped at the center line of his nose. Her eyes snapped shut and another set of hands took her.
“My darling.” His honeyed voice was soothing, and coaxed her to open her eyes once more.
It felt like everything sank into her stomach and the color bled from her face. A wagging tongue moved freely from an upper jaw showing the signs of decay. She felt herself start to scream as she changed hands once more. A man with bony prominences so sharp that his cheek bones had pierced through his flesh.
Esreiella tried to pull away, but his gentle hold became a vice on her limbs. His body twisted and skin stretched with deep purple and red crags forming until they split. Old blood seeped from each line and tatter in his formal clothes until he looked the part of a nightmarish taper that had been half melted.
She found the strength to pull away only to fall into the arms of another. Insects and larvae were still clinging to their eaten flesh, and the crowd in the ballroom drew in closure. Her eyes squeezed shut while she breathed so quickly that the world began to spin even faster. Slowly, she sank to the floor uselessly with her hands clamped tight on her dancing partner’s arm. It withered in size but became rigid as the groans of the dead mingled with the screeching of instruments.
And then it was silent.
Esreiella took a deep breath, and dared to pry one eye open.
Fires raged in the distance and around her, the estate’s grounds had gone dark. With just enough moonlight, she glanced to her hands. Where there had once been an arm was now the wooden shaft of a shovel and dirt caked up to her elbows.
The Scourge had been through, she knew, and Lordaeon had fallen.