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Chapter One: The Masquerade

Thirty Years Later...

The night is only just beginning, a hint of light still lingers at the horizon,  painting the clouds with a pink and orange glow. The City of Santa Marta will be full of parties tonight, full of mirth and laughter and excitement as jazz babies flock to masquerades, drinking illicit hooch and dancing until the sun comes up.

A vampire sleeps in the darkened bedroom of a small apartment in Vista Rosa -- an up and coming neighborhood full of artists and bohemians. A mane of copper curls, much longer than the current style, fans out around her. Her soft, curvaceous form covered by a dark red bedspread, embroidered with bright red roses. She is utterly still -- were someone to enter this Haven, they would be unable to distinguish her from a corpse, even her lips and the tips or her fingers are the pale blueish-purple of the recently dead.

Slowly, Morgan Kendrick rouses from her death-like slumber...The first few moments of consciousness are still strange and frightening to her -- the stillness of her chest, the silence of her unbeating heart. But she shakes the chill away, forcing the blood to flow through her veins once again as she rises from her bed.

Her unnaturally bright, silver eyes glance around the small bedroom. She jumps as for a moment, her world is covered by a veil of blood and gore. The furniture is rotting away, the curtains ragged and moth-eaten. Somewhere in the distance, someone is screaming in horrified agony... But the vision fades quickly as Morgan brings herself back to reality. Nothing is rotting, there is no blood, there are no screams. Just echoes of the nightmare she had been trapped in just before waking.

The sounds of life float from street level up to her apartment; passing cars, the chirping of birds  as they bid the day farewell and the sounds of people talking -- bustling about the city, living their lives.

Morgan heaves a heavy sigh as she strides across the room towards a small vanity near the window. Not all the conversations she could hear outside were happy but they were all beautifully, vibrantly alive,something that she would never be again. How she envied them, envied their brief but dazzlingly bright little flames... they could grow, they could change but she would forever be the same. Stagnant and barren.

She stares at her reflection in the mirror; the dark shadows that lay eternal beneath her eyes, the red that permanently stains her lips... the slotted, catlike pupils of her gleaming silver eyes and her sharp, elongated canines. These things that marked her as inhuman, these monstrous details made her sick.

But, she has to prepare for her night. The city's vampires, or at least the Nightingales, were throwing a massive party -- which she was, as a member of the court, expected to attend. The party would be held in a massive mansion in the woods outside of town. Morgan applies her makeup expertly-- disguising the dark circles with heavy black kohl, brushing mascara onto her already heavy lashes. She finishes with bright red rouge and a deep cherry lipstick, creating that perfect bee sting pout. If she didn't know any better, she would think she looked alive again.

She lets her hair stay down that night, flowing down to her waist in a glorious cascade of copper curls. Morgan didn't care if the style today was short, cropped close to the face, she's always been proud of her long hair, always loved the way the light catches every curl and makes it look like fire.

She chooses a very stylish, pale rose dress and dark red t-strap shoes. Piling on necklaces and a lace choker, she finishes off the look with a glittering headband,  worn low over her forehead. She takes one last look at herself in the mirror, looking at the way the dress skims her curves with distaste. Thirty years ago, she had been the ideal, her body coveted and pined after...but in this art deco world of slim, boyish figures and sharp edges, she's a throwback -- old-fashioned and out of date.

It doesn't matter...she tells herself. I can still pull mortals with the best of them...

At long last, just as the last of the light drains away from the sky, she steps out -- making her way to the party in haste.

• • •

Damn it all, it's the same as usual... The ballroom is full of smirking, preening Nightingales, doing battle with backhanded compliments and thinly veiled insults. The mortals are all blissfully unaware -- either charmed or drugged and having the time of their lives...most of which will likely be ending that night. The waste of it disgusts Morgan -- as much as she envies mortals for their vivacity, she would never truly harm them if she could avoid it. Her bites were gentle, the blood she took always an amount they wouldn't miss... Which made her something of a joke. Why care about the mortals? They're only cattle, after all. Lesser beings fit only for consumption, they said -- all forgetting that they too were mortal once...

She clings too tightly to that past, to her humanity to be able to truly blend in... and her woeful lack of mental powers didn't help, either. It seems that every where Morgan turns, another vampire is snickering behind her back -- having telepathic conversations that she cannot hear. A few make whispered comments...

"I'm surprised she showed up!"

"Who bothered to even invite her?"

"Do you see the way that dress clings? You would think she could afford something that fits properly!"

"Why, even a corset couldn't smash those curves. How art nouveau, how gauche!"

Emotionally exhausted, she steps out of the ballroom and onto the grounds. The trees loom ominous in the distance, their dark shapes blotting out the lowest hanging stars-- though the rest twinkle brightly. The night is silent, save for the sounds of the party in the room behind her. Morgan welcomes the silence, grateful to be free of her fellow Nightingales. The darkness and quiet is calming, enveloping her like a blanket. A faint winter chill is carried on the breeze as it ruffles her hair.

And that's when she hears it: singing.  Deep within the woods, she hears a gentle, lilting mellody. Beautiful but somehow ominous, dangerous. It tugs at her heart, urging her forward.

Morgan takes a brief look back at the french doors that lead into the ballroom-- she watches the dancers, watches a mortal fall to the floor like a broken doll only for the vampires to ignore him, stepping over his bloodless body without a second glance. The singing continues and she can just barely pick out the words...

They come to me, beyond the mists,
The aching hearts who shan't be missed,
Their screams they fall upon deaf ears,
Come to me, come my dears...

She knows she shouldn't listen. Suddenly her heart is pounding and the predator within her is screaming. Don't go! Don't listen! Danger!

But the sound has already mesmerized her, her feet are already moving towards the singer. She floats forward as if in a dream...

The forests here are dark and deep,
Come join me here, give in to sleep...

Morgan barely feels her feet make contact with the earth as she's drawn forward by the haunting melody. She hates this city so much, she hates the people, she hates the vampires. God, she just...she just wants to run away.

The trees welcome her, swallowing her up and she's surrounded by the scent of pine resin and dead leaves. The stars overhead disappear... she keeps walking.

I'll welcome you, I'll hold you near,
I'll erase your pains, erase your fears,
Come to me, oh lonely one,
Come to me, your suffering's done.

She sets off,  running into the woods towards the source of the voice -- toward what suddenly feels like freedom.

• • •

She has no idea how long she's been wandering through these woods...Mist filters in around her feet but she hardly notices until the fog is so deep and so thick that not even her keen vampire sight can penetrate it. The woods are eerily silent -- the singing has gone and the only sound is that of her ragged breathing.

Morgan stands still in the gloom, desperately trying to make out her surroundings but...there's nothing. Just the faint outline of trees. She turns around in a circle, her mind just as foggy as the world around her. Where had she come from? Which direction lead back to the mansion? If she got lost in the woods, she might not be able to find safe-haven before the sun rose.

Worse, the mansion is out in the country -- all manner of dangerous supernatural beasts wandered the woods, many of which despised vampires, either because they were competition or an abomination. Why on earth had she left the party? Why had she gone wandering in the woods? Somewhere, a wolf howls in the distance and another -- much closer, answers it.

Panic settles on her suddenly, the iron bands of fear tightly gripping her heart. She had to get back to the mansion, she had to return to the masquerade! Which way?! Nothing is familiar and she realizes with a start: these aren't the pine trees that had surrounded her at the start. The trunks around her are thick and gnarled, their bark swirling into strange patterns she's never seen on a tree before in her life.

Another howl. This one sounds like it's right behind her, spurring Morgan to start running. She knows she shouldn't run from a predator, but she can't help herself as the animal inside her flies into a panicked frenzy. The trees fly by in a blur. Voices filter through the mist as she runs.

This way! cries a soft, feminine voice that's thick like honey and slick like oil.this way, lovely one, let me hold you! Something grabs the hem of her dress but Morgan doesn't stop. She hears the fabric rip and a rage-filled wail rises up behind her.

Tasty, tasty, tear you apart, crack your bones and eat your heart! Snarls another, thick with menace. She feels a clawed hand swipe at her -- blood rises up sluggishly from three deep gashes on her arm. She doesn't stop running.

In the distance, a light penetrates the gloom. A soft golden glow somewhere ahead of her. Morgan runs faster, flying over the ground in a blur. She stumbles into a clearing -- the faintest twilight glow peeks through the mist. Is the sun rising already?

Her heart leaps into her throat as an ancient cottage comes into view. Light pours from its windows and smoke rises from the stone chimney.  A thatched roof sags in the middle, moss and mushrooms sprouting from the decaying straw. Someone is in there but...she doesn't care -- a cacophony of voices cry out for her from the mists at her back.

Anywhere, any shelter is safer than these woods, any haven from the rising sun welcome.  She sprints across the clearing, running up the cobblestone walk leading to the weathered wooden door. Strange symbols are carved into the wood, signs and letters that are entirely alien and unfamiliar to her.

She feels a tingle run down her spine, a moment of trepidation before she starts to bang on the door.

"Oh God, please! Please let me in!  Help me!" Morgan screams, her fists smashing against the door. She expected the wood to be soft with age but despite its weathered appearance, it's hard and smooth as though freshly lacquered.

Someone inside the cottage starts moving around -- she hears their footsteps, the beating of their heart, the rasp of their breath.

After a few tense moments, an elderly woman opens the door, a crone who looks as ancient and withered as the cottage itself.  Her hair is a dark, iron gray, shot through with silver, her mouth a withered pucker. Watery blue eyes gaze up at Morgan with an emotion that she can't quite place -- is it concern? Confusion? She isn't sure and she doesn't rightly care. She just wants out of these woods.

"Please, may I come in?" Morgan stammers, casting a fearful glance at the woods behind her. The fog is as thick as ever but...multicolored eyes glint and glimmer at the edges of the clearing, watching her with a barely restrained hunger. She shivers. An immortal vampire she may be, but even she would die if torn limb from limb and devoured by some strange beast.

"Why of course, dear one!" The woman says. Her voice is familiar, soft, warm and welcoming.  "What's a red-headed lass like you doing wandering these woods? Didnt your ma and da warn ye about the mists?" The old woman shakes her head. "Bah, no worry, no worry. Come in and warm yourself by the fire, you're as cold as ice!" She steps aside, welcoming Morgan into the space.

The inside of the cottage is every bit as warm and welcoming as the old woman's voice. Soft, plush chairs sit in front of the fireplace. A merry little flame crackles there within, a cauldron hanging above it. Dried herbs hang from the ceiling , making the entire place smell strongly of rosemary and mint.

The old woman closes the door behind her. "Sit, sit. Rest." She ushers Morgan to one of the chairs, forcing her to sit down.

"What's your name, dear one?"

Don't tell her.A voice whispers in Morgan's ear. A familiar voice -- her grandmother's voice. It had been decades since she had last seen her grandmother but every now and again, that voice would deliver a warning or suggestion. Morgan had quickly learned to listen to it. Don't give her your name, but don't lie.

Morgan frowns -- how the hell was she supposed to heed that warning? Giving her a fake name would be a lie but... she racks her brain, desperately searching for something she can tell the old woman...

"Call...call me Nightingale." Not exactly a lie -- her kind is called Nightingale, after all. Not quite a lie, but not quite the truth either.

"Nightingale, eh? You sure that's your name?" Something doesn't feel quite right. There's a sharpness to the old women's voice now, suspicion and maybe even malice.

"Yes, that's what they call me." Morgan replies,  fidgeting with one of the long beaded strands around her neck.

"A strange name then. You don't look like a Nightingale to me. Maybe a partridge, as plump as you are." The old woman laughs, puttering over to the cauldron and stirring whatever steaming, bubbling liquid lies within.

What a strange thing to say... Morgan thinks, her hands resting now on her soft, full belly. She watches the old woman as she moves about the cottage.

"Would ye like some tea, miss Nightingale?" The old woman asks, pulling cups out of a cupboard on the other side of the room... something makes the hairs on the back of her neck stand on end. Something is wrong.

Why is she afraid? She's a vampire and this? This is just a harmless littel old mortal woman, a candle with a sputtering flame that's about to go out. She could drain the life from this woman with ease, simply sink her fangs in and snuff that light.  She has nothing to fear and yet... Morgan is afraid. Deeply afraid.

"Oh um, yes! I would l-love some tea!" She stammers, thanking God that unlike some of her kind, she's retained the ability to consume mortal food. No reason to tip the little old lady off, after all.

"Good, good, it'll warm ye right up, it will." The old woman takes a kettle up from the ashes in front of the fire, pouring a warm amber-colored liquid into one of the cups, which she hands to Morgan.

The smell rising up from the cup is utterly divine -- like fresh flowers and honey, rich and heady. The steam fills her nostrils and Morgan feels her fangs extend, hunger rumbling through  her.

She doesn't even process how strange it is that mortal food could rouse her hunger like that before she takes a deep drink from the cup.

The taste of blood explodes in her  mouth and she can't stop drinking.  It courses, thick and hot down her throat. In a single draught, she drains the teacup.

As soon as it's empty, however, her head begins to spin and her stomach churns. The edges of her vision blur and then go dark. The last thing she sees before she passes out entirely is a glittering rictus grin of jagged yellow teeth looming over her.


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