This is the sixth round of The Alphabet Challenge mentioned in THIS post. As a refresher, the Broxson twins, Gary and Perry, and I will each write one story for each letter of the alphabet. Meaning, a story whose title begins with the given letter. For these submissions, it’s the letter “F”.
Readers have until the publication of the next round of stories (about two weeks between rounds) to vote for their favorite story in the current round. Points will be assigned to each writer based on total votes received.
In each round, the story with the most votes gets three points. Second place gets two points, third place gets one point. In the case of a tie, the points for the tied rankings are added and then split equally among the writers who tied. At the end of the year, we tally up and crown the winner with the most points.
Long or short, each story will appear on its own post and the trio will be followed by a fourth post where readers can vote.
Here we go. Presented anonymously, the third of three stories with titles beginning with the letter “F” as submitted by its author.
Masque of the BAT Death
Copyright 2020 — Perry Broxson
(1,730 words – approx. reading time: about 7 minutes based on 265 WPM)
The BAT Death was devastating the metropolis of Gotham. No pestilence had ever been so fatal, or so hideous. Blood was its avatar and its seal. Death was its objective and its climax. Reliable lore alleged that the plague was bred in the craggy countryside, where brutish men devoured unspeakable beasts – to include vultures, vermin, and bats. Clever and cavalier urbanites crafted the lore to bespeak the disease’s three phases of operation: Blood. Agony. Termination. Hence, the plague became known almost exclusively as the BAT Death.
Upon contact, the virus immediately manifested its mission: Profuse bleeding from the pores and orifices; sharp, cramping pains; and then, to the relief of the victim, death. All of which transpired in mere minutes.
Garner Prince, a larger-than-life real-estate magnate, prepared to defend himself, his family, and a select contingent of elite peoples from the pestilence. Additionally, there was staff – fortunate workers and performers spared from the plague, but not from the grind of servitude. Prince gathered the three-hundred souls into the top tiers of his Golden Tower. Once secluded, Garner Prince ordered minions to secure the doors, windows, elevators, and stairwells with brazier torches. His goal was that there would be no ingress or egress, save a single door. The door, quite magnificent, was an appropriated relic from Bavaria’s Neuschwanstein Castle – built and inhabited by the late King Ludwig II, affectionately known as the Mad King. The door was black and massive, composed of ossified German spruce and ornate iron banding. Within the Golden Tower, it was the sole portal to the external world, and there was but one key. Garner Prince wore the antiquated key around his neck, a symbol of his soterial, Petrine powers. Those enclosed, were saved. Those excluded, damned to the sanguinary fate of the BAT Death.
It was on the fortieth day that Garner Prince called his courtiers to the ballroom for dining, waltzing, and reverie. The theme, he announced, was Triumph: Triumph over virus, triumph over mortality, and triumph over the cruelty and caprice of hateful Nature. The costume de nuit (costume of the night) would be, simply, a medical mask. The mask, he explained, would aptly symbolize the barrier between bedlam and bliss, all the while obscuring the identity of the wearer; hence, adding mystery and titillation to the festivities.
Masks were delivered to each apartment, along with an assortment of art-making paints and inks. “Adorn your mask,” he encouraged. “Be brave, bold, and imaginative. Think of the mask as a canvas.”
Despite misgivings, the guests felt compelled to attend the ball. After all, Garner Prince had boarded them in the luxury and security of his magnificent Golden Tower. Yes, it could be said, that the man was megalomaniacal, that the man was imperious and unstable and unbothered by the anguish of others; but he was their savior. Were it not for him, they thought collectively, fate might well consign them to the yawning graves prepared for commoners – those outside Ludwig’s door.
Upon entering the Great Hall, the courtiers were gob-smacked. The opulence of the hall was like nothing they had ever seen. Prince, they agreed, had out-Heroded Herod. No detail was left attended. No extravagance left to chance.
There were minstrels and jugglers and magicians and bards and a full symphonic orchestra, replete with woodwinds, brass, percussion, and strings. There were dancers, both lewd and balletic. There were fountains of fine wine, tables laden with rich treats and savory meats, and a doting wait-staff to do all that was bidden.
Above them was a dome. To the person, each agreed that the heralded Dome of Saint Peter’s Basilica paled in comparison to Prince’s dome. They craned their heads and marveled at the baroque art, at the Tuscan sculptures, and at the crowning feature: a stain-glass window that allowed a prism of dappled moonlight.
Moonlight! It was the first natural light they’d seen in forty days, for Prince had fortified their apartment windows with iron plates to avert suicidal ideations. They had forgotten the moon’s pearlescent, pagan allure. As if from under a waterfall, they bathed in the cascading moonlight as it splashed onto the marble dance floor, its hues filtered through the magnificent colored panes of the glass grotto.
Garner Prince shoved the maestro aside and quieted the orchestra with his hand. With no microphone, he addressed his guests. Everyone, even the aged, heard his booming voice.
“Welcome to my humble home,” he said. “I love your masks. So creative, so imaginative. I thought you’d embrace the idea. We’re very similar, you and I. That’s why you’re here and not out there. You are fortunate. You are chosen. You are . . . indebted.”
He laughed as he spoke the last word. The guests, with less conviction, laughed along.
“There will come a time,” he continued, “that I will need a favor from you.” He pointed to the crowd with his blunt, manicured finger. “When this time of turmoil has ended and normalcy is restored, Gotham will need a supreme leader. Your money, influence, and endorsement will be needed . . . will be required . . . to install me into that lofty office.” He toyed with the large castle key that depended from his gold necklace. “If anyone has compunctions about this . . . arrangement . . . speak now. The Mad King’s castle door swings both ways.”
Just then, a bell, housed in a niche, sounded out the hour. It was a bourdon, a type of Roman bell that exceeded nine tons in weight. It chimed ten times. Prince relished the brazen, booming chimes, his smile widening with each ringing. The courtiers, however, found each brassy crash more unnerving than the last. Some wiped their brows, some sickened, some laughed at themselves for imagined symptoms.
When the bell ceased its serial, the orchestra commenced, and the revelers remembered their revelry. The day of the favor was not today, not tonight. Prince was right; they were fortunate. While millions perished in the streets, they made merriment in Prince’s cloistered paradise. Tonight they would dance in the brilliant filtered hues of moonlight. Tomorrow was a lifetime away.
In one hour, the bourdon rang out, loud and unapologetic. Involuntarily, the revelers ceased their revolutions and contracted their bodies, bracing for each clang. Eleven chimes boomed from the niche. The noise filled every crevice of the cavernous ballroom; there was no place to escape its pervasive clamor.
Again, the revelers sickened and swore: Next time, they would not be caught off guard. Next time they would dance through the clamor and ignore its deleterious tone.
They laughed after the eleventh chime. It was only a noise. Yet, the noise did not altogether subside. A hum and buzz and an inaudible vibration lingered. The orchestra increased its volume to combat the sound, but it was to no avail. Something was amiss. The animal nature of man insisted it was so.
To dispel the subliminal dread, the people drank and danced and dulled their instincts. Before they could fully appreciate the three-thousand-six-hundred seconds of the time that flies, another hour was quickly coming to pass.
Toward the conclusion of those moments, clouds occluded the moon. Consequently, the much beloved light extinguished.
In the darkness, a certain man moved through the crowd. He was tall and misshapen and until now, unnoticed. He wore a sable cloak so long that it trailed behind him. Engirdling his head, was a sable hood, pulled close over his features. As moonlight slowly reignited, his presence became even more disturbing.
As the man glided through the throng, his hood loosened and his face shown. It was now perceived that he had taken the costume de nuit to an absurd and obscene level. His mask was not one of the prescribed fashion – nor was it inscribed with fanciful patterns and illustrations. The mask he wore was that of a bat.
People, repulsed, gave him wide berth. Women gasped and men intended to seize him, to assault him for his insolence. But their courage waned at the sight of his unblinking black eyes, gaping nostrils, and needled teeth. The ghoul in the sable cloak strode unrestricted toward the banquet table, where Garner Prince sat in his stately chair.
“Who is this?” Prince shouted, spilling red wine on white linen. He was outraged, for even he, a man comfortable with the risqué, knew that there were strings of the heart that should not be plucked. Some jests, he knew, were to be orphaned at the altar of propriety. The mummer before him had flouted and exceeded the measure of indecent decorum that he had established, and for this, he would pay.
“Seize him,” Prince ordered. Neither staff nor guests could muster the courage to comply. “Take off his mask so that we may see the first fiend cast from paradise.” Prince clutched the iron key and pointed it like a blade.
No one moved. No one complied.
The mummer in the bat mask moved closer to Prince. He opened his robe and extended the flaps. Within the lining of the sable robe was the undergirding of membranous webbing – the translucent tissue of a flying mammal.
“You mock me,” Prince seethed. “You mock us all.”
It was then that eye of the moon blinked and the bourdon sounded its recurring dirge.
Garner Prince, blinded with fury, leaped from his chair and charged the fiend. There was a short skirmish, and then Prince fell. When his red hands slid away from his chest, it was revealed that Ludwig’s castle key had penetrated Prince’s heart.
With this, the courtiers summoned sufficient courage. They grasped the masked man and handled him violently. However, when the mummer fell to the floor next to Prince, it was seen that there was no substance within the sable suit.
They stooped and marveled, viewing the vacant cloak, hood, and mask of the ghoul. As a body, they recoiled as blood gushed up from its dilated, leathery nostrils.
“The pestilence,” they cried in chorus, “it is here! It is among us!”
By the time the echoes had faded from the bourdon’s twelfth chime, the fortunate, chosen, and indebted guests of Garner Prince were fully infected with the BAT Death.
In the grey glow of midnight’s moonlight, each soul sickened and succumbed. First, there was blood, then there was agony, and finally, to their relief, termination.
For reference: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Masque_of_the_Red_Death
That’s it. This post has ended . . . except for the stuff below.
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