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Obscurity, The Twenty-Seventh Chapter
In which the mercenary discovers a rather unsettling scene.
The mercenary stepped into the residence where he was met with the most discerning silence, the kind left behind once an intruder has left. At first there was only the sound of his breath, the step of his shoe, the rustling of his cloak, and then there was a feeling to it. A creeping sensation that bled into his skin, just as the sound of a cello stirs cloyingly into one’s bones.
The strike of a match did nothing to abate it, save light the candle in his hand and illuminate a room that was not quite as he left it. Nothing was moved, and yet nothing remained as it was. There was a lingering sense that someone else had been present, had touched a finger to the brocade walls, had left an indentation on the velvet furniture, had read the widow’s letters at her desk, had smelled the scent of her perfume.
And then, there was a drip—a soft padding of condensation upon his shoulder. As he held the candle before him the darkness receded as a curtain to reveal a most troublesome tableau. Above the mantle, black with mourning, the Virgin Mother was now obscured with red. Thick blood dripped demurely down her face, seeped down her gold frame, and fell onto the hearth where it pooled in vibrant shades of crimson before cascading in rivulets to the floor.
There was another drip, and with it the sensation of an over rosined bow screeching across cello strings, plucking the sanity from one’s chest. The mercenary turned his gaze upward as another drip touched his face. He felt the blood at his cheek as his eyes rested on the chandelier, a constellation of candles now dripping with blood.
At first, he thought he witnessed a crow perched amidst the chandelier, its tiny feet scratching at the brass, its beak pecking at some matter unknown. But just as quickly as his eyes had seen it, it was gone—a flicker of imagination perhaps, a play of light. His mind attempted to rationalize away the image, to find some reason for its entry into his thoughts. Alas, that reason was dissipated by disquietude.
Perhaps it was some danger left behind by whatever malice occupied the room moments ago. A reminder that the widow was not safe, that her aliveness was in contention. Perhaps, she was the victim of that avarice already, the mercenary thought darkly, taken by the birds to unseen afterlife, her blood remaining to drip obscurely into the night.
The mercenary stood before the Virgin, her eyes now opaque with blood, falling heavily from her lashes in an unholy miracle. Then he heard Séverine’s breath exhaled into the silence.
Immediately he took her in his arms as relief flooded him. He was grateful that her breath still moved in her lungs, that her heart still beat in her chest, that there was still existence suspended in her veins and animation still pulsing through her extremities.
The mercenary embraced her, the blood from his hands streaking her cheek and drying upon her skin. She was cold as ice, her cheek as stone, a drop of blood upon her lips as they trembled with dread. Remy looked down at her hands where she held a blade within her skirts.
They heard a sound then. Some movement. A clunk upon a floorboard, the creaking of a shutter from another room. They held their breath.
The drapes fluttered eerily into the room and the mercenary stepped to the balcony to peer into the courtyard. A young maiden with rose colored skin lay asleep in the morass, her body as though asleep in a meadow, her negligee fluttering from her corpse in the breeze, her neck gashed through with blood.
Séverine inhaled, and the mercenary watched her lips as she did so. She appeared beautiful and strange. Almost otherworldly—as though her skin glowed incandescent in the dark, as though she were part of some beautiful dream. As though she slept, and yet was awake.
Another sound of a crow, and the mercenary turned to find the chandelier littered with them, the flickering candlelight obscuring them in darkness one moment and illuminating their raven eyes in the next. They pecked at their feet in their lust for blood and Séverine shivered as they clawed at the metal, her skin so sheer the mercenary could see their screeching crawling beneath it.
Another sound, glass clanking against one another. The birds cawing madly in their disturbance. The mercenary drew around the hallway and into the boudoir, his gun concealed in his hand. The bed had been mused, as though someone recently slept in it. Blood stained the bedsheets and dripped across the floor. At her vanity, every huile de parfum had been opened, every oil sopping into the aromatic wood.
Another sound, this time a crash. A waterfall of metal.
Turning around, the mercenary drew his weapon only to aim it at an empty window frame, its drapes bellowing in the breeze, and below it, the copper bathtub filled with a scattering of brass keys, still clanking where they spilled. Moving to the window he saw the last remnants of a cloak dissipating into the darkness. Their pursuer lost to the night.
The mercenary returned to the salon to find Séverine awakened by the clamor, spell broken and bewildered as the blade fell from her hand and clattered to the floor. The mercenary took her in his arms and held her close, her fingers shaking as she was severed from her hypnosis.
Sheer exhaustion flooded them, and they fell to the settee in flickering bouts of reality. She lay her head upon his shoulder, his arms around her, as cascades of shadow, of love and darkness consumed them. Leftover terrors wept from their eyes. Violent visions overcame them. They could no longer hold back the darkness when death hovered so near, when it touched them and taunted them. When it followed them into their dreams.
In their delirium, they fell into a fitfull sleep, as enveloped by one another as they were by the woman who haunted them. Who wrapped them in her blood and shrouded them with her possession. They awoke in bouts of distortion, the feel of her hands reaching for them, her sweet breath upon them, her rose perfume intoxicating them.
The night folded into itself into layers of illusion until reality could no longer be discerned from the madness.
The Comte watched the light flicker from his wife’s apartments as he left. The cabaret below still languished with the drunk and ornery—the last remnants of sea merchants lost to copious amounts of spirits and consoled by the love of purchased women.
The Comte was no stranger to pleasure—to whores who offered their bodies so desperately to him at night and yet regretted their very birth by the dawn. Hungering for what was not in his possession, he purchased from them the very light of their souls, feeling it dim as he held his hands to their throats, their gurgled screams smothered into their pillows as he ravaged their bodies from behind.
There was a moment, thereafter, when he would come to regret his vulgarities—but it was brief. Less the pangs of regret and more an existential sadness that was left unsated—an intense spiritual apathy consigning his soul to a purgatory in which he could understand the reason for his existence no more.
How he had wished that day in the cemetery, to bend his wife over the grave and press her face against the stone. How he would have bloodied her cheek against her friend’s crypt and enjoyed the last taste of her obedience. How he would have split her body with a blunt blade, slicing it open from the bottom to the top. How that would have satisfied his soul at last and rid him of the hateful fixations of his soul. How that would have admonished his obsessions and spared him henceforth from the disease of dissatisfaction.
Alas, his wife’s lover had been in attendance and obstructed her husband’s attempts at salvation. The Comte avowed that would occur no longer, then he dissolved into the shadows where only one would find him.
Those of us with wellness of mind might see in these tortured thoughts the whilings of a mad man, and indeed we would be correct in our diagnosis. But those with illness of mind cannot escape from their demons. Instead, they are consumed by them, their thoughts rotting their bodies away from the inside like a corpse at last meeting its end against the beetles. And all the while, they remain living among us.
Without a cure for what ail them.
We next read The Twenty-Eighth Chapter, in which a rose wilts.