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Copyright 2018 Elle J Rossi
Today's Macabre Mini is THE GAMES OF MIDNIGHT HOLLOW by yours truly. My story was inspired by the fantastically creepy image below. Quick recap of the rules: I give the writer an image to inspire them. The story must be dark or odd in tone and be no more than 5,000 words long.
Image from Larissa Kulik via Shutterstock
Mirrors never lie.
That had to be the biggest line of rubbish Willow Livingston the Seer had ever heard. The speculum she stared in now reflected nothing but deception and half-truths. More than three centuries old, and her father still controlled her life. Everyone’s lives, if truth were to be told. Another cycle had come and gone, possibly the most gruesome to date. She’d warned him. Times were changing, but as always, Sebastian Livingston refused to heed her warning—dismissed it the same way he dismissed the screaming pleas of his prisoners. Without care.
Only this time, he hadn’t come out unscathed. Losing a leg would have destroyed a weaker man. Papa, on the other hand, had used his tragedy as a symbol of leadership and strength—a show of how he, too, could get his hands dirty right along with the commoners. The residents of Midnight Hollow revered him as a hero rather than the murderous persecutor Willow knew him to be.
Willow swallowed and leaned in close to the tarnished looking glass. Reaching out with her right hand, she tilted her head, touched finger to glass and traced the shape of her pale face. Her hand shook like a quivering white flag begging for mercy, but she managed to complete the circle before dropping her arm to her side with a sigh.
Transfixed with her distorted image, Willow blinked several times before her vision focused on her assistant. Georgie stood behind her wearing a simple white dress. She had a matching scarf tied around the top of her head in a lopsided fashion to hide her thinning tresses. Her bright blue eyes stared at Willow, calculating yet innocent at the same time. Georgie’s piercing gaze reminded Willow of a child with a secret, giddy and eager to spill the forbidden. Except Georgie wasn’t a child, though her mind often drifted in that direction. Other times, she was quite a genius. She fiddled with Willow’s hair, her bent fingers rapidly wrapping the intricate blond braids into a complex pattern befitting someone of Willow’s pedigree. Or so she’d been told. The braids were wound so tight Willow’s head ached as if giants were tap dancing on her scalp.
Willow forced a smile and smoothed the folds of her skirt into place. “Yes, Georgie. I’m sorry, what were you saying?”
Georgie curtsied as if she’d just remembered her station and Willow struggled not to cringe. As much as she liked Georgie personally, she didn’t care to have an assistant—especially one who invaded her space more often than not. When Willow had come of age, all privacy had flown out the window quicker than a colt leaving the starting gate. And she’d been left with nothing but dust and blood. Not to mention the weight of the world on her shoulders. A deep breath helped to muddy the horrid images, but no amount of meditation could erase all she had seen . . . All she had yet to see.
What Willow needed was a friend, but when one saw the future play out like a silent movie, slow motion one moment, rapid-fire snippets the next, fledgling friendships melted away faster than a vampire’s skin in the sun. No one had dared confide in Willow in more decades than she cared to count. Fighting the crippling effects of loneliness was nearly impossible. The edges of Willow’s heart had long ago blackened, no doubt turning as hard as cold charcoal. She rubbed her chest with her fist in an attempt to loosen the tightness that threatened to strangle her sanity, if not her very life.
Georgie cleared her throat, placed her hands on each side of Willow’s waist and spun her around. Willow teetered before stepping down from the wooden stool.
“I was saying we must hurry. The selection board will be assembling at any moment.” Georgie swept her crooked hands down Willow’s arms, inadvertently smoothing the perpetual goose bumps. “The humans are already lining up at the gates,” she said, then clapped her hands and giggled.
Of course they were. Midnight Hollow was the place to be after all. The humans wanted in while all Willow wanted was to get out—wanted it more than she wanted the air she breathed. Willow crossed to the window and threw back the thick brocade drapes. The weighty material barely swayed before settling into place. Intense, natural light illuminated her bedroom and lifted a modicum of the oppressing doom from her heart with its magical effervescence. She squinted into the bright sun as heavy, bass-driven music wafted in from the streets below. The party had begun and Midnight Hollow’s board elect hadn’t yet chosen the lucky one hundred from the masses dressed in clothing styles running the gamut from club and gothic-chic to preppy and fashionably wrinkled.
The permanent residents of the Hollow had organized a carnival befitting kings and queens. The elaborate booths were nothing more than a competition, each one striving to out do the other with sparkling flags and ribbons, gourmet cuisine and top-shelf liquor. Drunk humans were more pliable. The children of Midnight Hollow were awarded that golden nugget of information at a very young age. No doubt the humans would sober quick enough once they realized the festive community beyond the iron gates was nothing more than hell wrapped in a very pretty and tantalizing package.
Sickened to the point of dizziness, Willow dragged her gaze away from the merriment and turned to her giddy assistant while pulling at the high-collared neckline of the black dress her father had insisted upon. Sweat trickled down the length of her spine like an incessantly leaky faucet.
“I don’t want any part of this,” she said, her voice trembling faster than a goat’s bleat.
“Ach, don’t be ridiculous.” Georgie screwed up her nose, and slapped Willow’s arm as if she had just told the most hilarious joke. “This is tradition, and it's quite an honor.”
Willow unclenched her fists and pasted a smile on her face. What she wouldn’t give for a true confidant. Always having to choose her words with care straddled the line between exhausting and exasperating. “I’m aware. Perhaps this honor could be bestowed upon someone else.” Anyone else, to be precise.
“That’s not how it works, and you very well know it.” Georgie grabbed a tin of white powder and a puffer from the vanity. Lips puckered in determination, she moved in close and dabbed Willow’s brows and cheeks repeatedly, creating a cloudy veil in the process.
Willow coughed and stepped back from the fog, waving her hand in front of her face. “Stop.” As if she weren’t already pale enough from being sequestered to her quarters while other residents her age were permitted to attend university, roam the streets and soak up the sun. Her father insisted she cover her skin with that powdered mask. No one, save Georgie, had seen the true Willow in more than a hundred years. Not even Sebastian Livingston himself. Was she that much of a disappointment? Ach, indeed. She squared her shoulders and took a deep breath. “Tell Papa I am ready.”
Georgie squealed. “I knew you’d do it.” She spun on her heel and flew out of the room, barely managing to pull the door closed behind her.
Finally alone, Willow returned her focus to the mirror, counted to ten, and then twenty. Concentrating on her breathing, she managed to slow her speeding heart rate to a mere gallop while forcing her painted white lips to relax. Once slightly settled, she downed the bitter contents from the chalice Georgie had left sitting on the dresser. The thick liquid slid down her throat and pacified the hunger gnawing at her belly. Turning back to the window, Willow clutched the red and gold drapes in her fists until her knuckles grew as ghostly as her face.
They all knew she’d do it. Willow had only fooled herself into believing she could escape her fate. The gates creaked, bringing her head up with a snap. The humans were getting restless. She pitied them more than she pitied herself. None would ever see beyond the gates again, but at least they’d experienced life outside of Midnight Hollow.
Now, most of those humans would only experience death. The others would wish they’d been so lucky.
Willow turned away from the window at the sound of the church bell. One long toll resonated before utter silence fell. Even the humans had stopped their chattering. If only they’d heed the warning. Little did they know the bell signaled the beginning of the end. But Willow knew. She knew more than any being should be permitted to know. Before she'd made it two steps, the music played again and the crowd’s excitement doubled in volume.
Out of habit more than necessity, Willow opened the top dresser drawer and retrieved a black, crushed-velvet bag. The bag was meant to store and protect the family jewels. She idly caressed her mother’s initials and blinked back tears. Willow treasured the contents and the memories more than any of the diamonds or rubies in her possession. Taking care not to cut herself, she shoved several blade slivers between her woven braids before stowing the bag and leaving the safety of her quarters.
Her socked feet met plush carpet and she wrinkled her toes in defiance. Her father may force her to wear the restricting dress and concealing powder, but he had no control over her choice of footwear, or lack thereof. Since she was not permitted to step outside the walls of this fortress, shoes served no purpose other than discomfort.
The empty hall appeared to stretch endlessly. Willow knew this farce was nothing more than parlor tricks created by strategically placed mirrors. Her father had spared no dime when he’d resurrected the condemned southern plantation into a castle complete with two turrets and an expansive dungeon. On days like this, Willow often wished she were confined to the dungeon. Peering out windows and open doors, but never being able to breech the threshold was a far worse punishment than staring at iron bars and darkened walls.
As she passed mirror after mirror, she avoided her reflection as if it were the plague, instead staring straight ahead with blurred vision and equally blurred purpose. Guards were posted at twenty-foot intervals. Dressed in sleek black armor, the metal clanged when Willow drew close and each one took a step back, pressing against the mirrored walls to put as much distance between the Seer and themselves as they could. Willow could have been insulted. Instead she was grateful. She didn’t want to seeeven less than the guards wanted to know what their futures held. Unfortunately, skin-to-skin contact wasn’t always necessary. Visions came of their own accord and Willow had no power to stop them or the words that would inevitably tumble from her lips.
One by one, the guards tilted their head and muttered a quick “Miss Livingston”, the required acknowledgment since she was technically their superior. Willow tuned those forced whispers out, choosing to focus on the sighs of relief that echoed in the halls when she pinched her lips together and hurried by. She considered squeezing her eyes shut, but that would shut out the present, and the present always had the potential for disaster.
Speaking of … the stuttered sound of her father’s gait had her slowing. Without turning, she waited for him to catch up. His reflection danced around her on all sides, mocking, intimidating. He wore a black turtleneck, black slacks and black shoes polished to a high shine. His tanned skin glowed with life, his slick black hair gleaned with health. Somehow, with one hand wrapped around the handle of a silver cane for support, he still managed to appear larger than life. “Hello, Papa,” Willow said, more out of habit than respect.
Unlike most, Sebastian Livingston was not afraid to touch Willow. He gripped her elbow with long, manicured fingers. “What do you see?”
That question never ceased to surprise her, though it shouldn’t have. He asked the same every time they were within two feet of each other. Willow unclenched her jaw, relaxed her face and turned toward her father. She lifted her chin to meet his eyes. “I see nothing.”
Nothing but death. So many deaths, and the one who deserved to die more than any other stood before her. Not a line marred his face, unless she counted his lips, which were drawn into a line thinner than a strand of hair. Papa wanted his future told and the fact that Willow had never been able to see anything about him had been the catalyst that fractured their already brittle bond.
Sebastian let loose her arm only to pinch her chin between two fingers. “Nothing at all, daughter?”
Willow held his gaze for several seconds before saying, “I see death.”
Sebastian narrowed his deep brown eyes even as his nostrils flared with what was either annoyance or excitement. “Mine?”
Willow was saved from answering by the melodic chiming of the bell. Her father grasped her elbow again and steered her around the corner. “We’ll discuss this later.”
She had no doubt about that. The future—his future—was the only topic Papa ever wanted to discuss. She saw so many deaths, but she'd never seen her mother's. Still, her gut told her he was responsible. She didn't know how, but Willow felt it in the marrow of her bones.
Sebastian Livingston cleared his throat and used the tip of his cane to push the door wide open. He stepped through with a sickening smile on his face, his arms spread wide. “Let the games begin.”
Willow clutched her stomach as dread churned and a vision sparked to life. The death she saw this time was so gruesome she cried out. This vision, this death, was of her own making.
“What do you see?” Sebastian whispered close to her ear. His breath tickled and she briefly wondered how something so warm could come from one with such a cold heart.
She turned her head, stared into eyes that looked so much like hers. “I already told you. I see death.” She didn’t tell him what else see saw. Amidst the blood and the horror and the broken parts lie something else—something that had been just beyond her reach until now.
Willow quickly pulled the slivers of black glass from her braids with both hands and plunged the make-shift weapons into her father's chest. Mouth wide open, eyes like saucers, he stumbled back. Willow advanced, hacking and slicing at his neck, cutting through tendons and muscles. She pulled back and plunged a blade straight into his heart, twisting the sliver, driving it deep enough to come out the other side. Blood gushed from his wounds, the sound more melodic to her ears than the music floating in from the open windows. Guards rushed into the room, but no one made a move to stop her. No one dared touch her.
Whether fear or relief caused their inaction mattered not.
Time slowed as the sands of the hourglass paused in a shocked hush as Willow finished off the one being who had tormented her and so many others for as long as she could remember. From this moment on, Sebastian Livingston was of no consequence. Her life would finally be her own.
Covered in blood, Willow turned and faced the members of the selection board, her breaths sawing out of her as she gasped for air and forced her nerves to calm. Horror-filled eyes studied her, assuredly trying to predict her next move. She pulled off her wig and tossed it to the floor. Her dark hair tumbled to her waist like a velvet cloak. Willow took a seat at the head of the table, folded her hands in her lap like the lady she was taught to be. "Now, where were we?"
Oh, yes, the games would continue, but now they would be played Willow's way. A knowing smile curled her lips. She doubted very much the residents of Midnight Hollow would care for her new rules. The hunters would now become the hunted.