The Masquerade: Chapter 1

Long thin shadows extended across the forest floor, running over brown pine needles and hiding behind the tall, thin trees and cover of night. The unease of these shadows’ presence was only accentuated by their usual lack of existence. Even during the brightest hours of the day, any shadow would find comfort in the gentle darkness that the thick forest canopy provided.

Tonight however, an unnatural glow permeated beneath the canopy that lit up the forest floor. This warm glow was the source of fear for any shadows unlucky enough to gaze upon it.

The glow was the reddish-orange hue one would see emanated from a fire, but the color was not quite right for a normal fire. The color was too red, as if the artist creating the blaze had not carefully mixed all of the appropriate shades to create  the complex hue of an open flame.

The shadows were not the only strange inhabitants of the forest this night. A small girl, no older than seven or eight, was running through the forest alongside the shadows. While the girl and shadows shared the same forest floor to run through, they did not share a fear for the blaze. Instead of running away from the danger the fire presented, the small girl ran toward it.

It would not be accurate to say she did so out of either bravery or foolishness alone, but out of reckless abandon for her own well being. She ran as fast as her little legs could carry her, at times even tripping over the undulating ground in her desperate rush to reach her destination.

The girl was still a fair distance from any danger presented by the flame. Even at this distance from the flames however, there were small, burning pieces of ash sparingly drifting down around the girl. One such piece of ash fell upon and seared the girls cheek under her left eye. The sudden, intense pain broke her away from her chase, pulling her to an almost complete stop. This abrupt change in speed had her stumbling over her feet, almost to the point of flipping end over end in a tumble.

She stopped and steadied herself as she wiped her cheek as well as her eyes which started to tear up from the intense heat and pain of the burned flesh. When she opened her still tearing eyes again, what she saw caused her to freeze in place.

“No,” she whispered to herself, caught in fear for the first time since entering the forest. “No!” She repeated in a shout as she hurled herself forward toward the light and the focus of her gaze.

From behind the trees further into the forest stumbled a tall man. The company of this man was not a joyful, comforting presence for the terrified girl however, as the man was completely engulfed from head to toe in the reddish flames. So well covered by the flames, it was hard to distinguish whether it were truly a flaming man or a man-shaped apparition born of the flames, if one believed in such a thing.

The girl continued to run toward the flaming man with all her might, as if she could save him if she could just reach him soon enough. In her haste however, the girl stumbled over the ground and fell to her knees. Unworried for her own state of affair, she reached her small arm out toward the man in a last, desperate hope to reach him.

“Daddy!” She yelled.

Page Break

Æstella bolted upright in her bed, tossing sheets off the bed in her desperate haste to be free from sleep. Her breaths were coming in short shallow bursts and her hand on her chest confirmed her heart was also racing.

“It was only a dream,” Æstella whispered quietly to herself in hopes that saying it out loud would make her believe what she already knew. “It felt so real, yet that girl was nothing like me,” she whispered as she continued pointing out holes that confirmed the nightmare was nothing more than a horrible fantasy.

While the girl within the dream only appeared to be seven or eight years old, Æstella was closing in on her 18th birthday, already an adult by the standards of the small mining village her family lived in. Thinking of the little girl from the dream screaming for her father unsettled Æstella. “I am an adult, everyone my age either married or committed to a life alone, and yet I would have no one to scream for except my father.”

Clang. Tink, tink.

Looking down at the sheets now tossed in a mess across her bed, she realized that her thoughts were not going to quiet down enough to afford her the luxury of returning to sleep. Even though the day had yet begun as the Sun still slumbered, Æstella stood up from bed, shed her nightgown and dressed for the long day ahead.

Clang. Tink, tink.

<– Prelude Chapter 2 –>
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