I stepped out of the taxi over puddles formed from a mid-day shower. “Alright then, yeah, have a grand night now!” Shouted the taxi driver as he rode off. I stood in front of the Richmond Tower with its iron gate marking the entrance to the Royal Hospital Kilmainham.
Erected from the earth in 1684, once home to retired soldiers, it is a site that is no stranger to ancient burial grounds, early Christian monuments, Vikings, and a medieval monastery. Now home to the Irish Museum of Modern Art and for just one night, the Shapeshifter’s Ball on the Bram Stoker Festival weekend.
The light of day was transforming into shades of blue, and the clouds overhead were beginning to weave a blanket to cover the distant and diminishing sun. Just as the taxi turned off the road, I could hear it, silence.
Broken only by the ravens that perched inside the tree beside me. Never one to turn down occasions of nature I stopped to photograph the onyx feathered creatures, bound by myth, slaughter, and storm.
Just as I snapped my shot, I heard a rustle of leaves behind me. Was it another larger creature in the bush? I peered over the gate wall past the blackberries and into the bushes. I could see nothing. So I continued through the iron gate and up the hill. Still, I felt like something or someone was there.
Arriving at the Shapeshifter’s Ball
The blue light began to transform into the night as I approached the grand entrance to the Royal Hospital. My eyes met a massive courtyard that seemed to go on for miles. There was no one there. Had I arrived at the right place? Was I just too early?
I was cold but not too cold to jump on another photo opportunity and so I snapped a few shots and started through the courtyard for the grand hall. As I walked towards a door guarded by rows of pumpkins I thought I heard footsteps behind me, but there was no one when I turned around. I knew little about this event, just what the invitation I clutched in my hand offered,
“Join us for an evening of immortal proportions with Gothic tales & dark veils. We are stirring up plans for an intimate, slightly twisted, Gothic-themed soirée. You are encouraged to arrive in costume, and those that don’t, will be able to rent something suitably ostentatious from the expansive, on-site wardrobes of the Abbey Theatre. Get ready for an evening of a more macabre, veiled mischief, in a darker season.”
Being the Fairytale Traveler has its perks. One of them is having the tourism board arrange for your theater costume fitting before a Shapeshifter’s Ball. Mindful, since there’s no way I would have flown one from the states. I was incredibly early and eager to meet with the wardrobe department from the Abbey Theatre. For I was being fitted for a Gothic vampiress costume of my own.
I made my way to a room furnished with vanities and racks upon racks of costumes. It was like I had stepped into the backstage area of a Broadway show. Finally, there were people, bouncing around the room doing this and that.
Some were getting fitted, others were getting makeup. I was growing with excitement. After all, how often does a travel writer get to be fitted in theater costume and makeup?
Then I saw him. Peering over one of the costume racks. His smiling eyes dark and warm beaming at me through a masquerade mask. Suddenly I heard a soft Irish voice. It was Saileóg, Costume Coordinator from the Abbey Theater.
“Now we’ve got ya sorted, we’ve picked out a few fairytale gowns here. Tell me what you think and we’ll get ya dressed. Do you mind a corset? It will be tight but we’ll squeeze ya in there.” I had to laugh, she’d be squeezing me in there alright! Lord knows I’ve had a horrible diet since I started writing full-time.
I stepped behind the fitting room partition taking one glance over the racks to try to spot that mysterious man. He was nowhere to be seen. I set down the bagged gowns Saileóg handed me. They had to weigh fifty pounds!
Understandably so, they were the most intricate and beautiful gowns I had ever seen, plucked from a Victorian Gothic dream! The first was the deepest turquoise, like the bluest blue of a peacock feather, the second crimson, like fresh blood. Both bustled and round, tight in the waist and fitted with a tight corset.
The kind of corset that leaves little to the imagination. I chose crimson followed by a deadly makeup transformation. Before long I was a Victorian Gothic Vampiress and I had one thing in mind, to find that mysterious man who had been watching me.
It had been a good hour since I first arrived. By now I could hear the music of the most haunting ensembles. The baseline rattling my bones. What was lurking beyond this fitting room? Would there be vamps and ghouls? Would there be twisted tales? Would there be blood? And where had that man gone?
I made my way through the crowd past a half nude snow-white vampiress chained in pearls, and into a magnificently ornate grand chapel. Beasts, vamps, and ghouls were dancing together to the sound of an eerie songstress. I scanned the crowd for the man in the mask, determined to find out why he had followed me, but again he was nowhere to be seen.
I heard there were a cellar and a vault beneath the chapel. Perhaps he had retreated there. Just as I approached the winding staircase I saw him, the man in the mask. I picked up my pace enough to keep his insight. It’s as if he knew I would be there.
He turned around and locked his eyes with mine again, baiting my chase. He was vanishing deeper into the crowd within the vault. What was I doing? This was crazy! Chasing a complete stranger into a vault was absurd!
But I kept on until he vanished. My hunt defeated by the masses. I was starting to think this whole ball had run its course and then he appeared. Just like that! Right next to me, close, as if he had been there the whole time.
“You’re not from Ireland. You’re alone. Most ladies don’t show up to a ball alone. Why are you here?” asked the man in the mask.
“Meddle much?” I replied with a crooked brow. “My apologies, it’s just that I saw you arrive by yourself, you seemed lost, and yet you have the theater girls at your fingertips. Forgive me, I’m just curious I mean no harm.” He pleaded as he removed his mask to reveal those smiling eyes.
“I am a writer. I am in Dublin for the Bram Stoker Festival, and you’re right, I am not from here, I’m from the States. I’m writing a story on the Bram Stoker Festival and this ball was on my itinerary. To be quite honest, I’m a little bored. While everyone seems to be having a great time, I am alone.” I explained. “You’re not alone anymore.” He replied, and just like that he vanished.
Okay, that was just about the right amount of creepy for me to make my way to the costume department of this ball and catch the next taxi back to my exquisite hotel in the city. I was staying at the Shelbourne, the most famous and luxurious hotel in Dublin, and one that Bram Stoker himself frequented in his time. I started for the stairs, my long Victorian gown chasing my feet as it crept over the stone steps leading to the main floor.
All of a sudden, this young girl tripped on my gown. As I tried to catch her the masked man caught my eye and I misjudged my grip. The poor girl fell, her face crashing into the edge of the stone step beneath her. I could see her head bounce like a ball at my feet as I reached out to help her.
I cried out, “Are you okay?” From the ground she lifted her head, her hands trembling towards her face as her fresh warm blood poured from her crown. A quivering whisper broke past her lips as I heard her say,
Just past her bleeding silhouette, I could see the masked man watching. In an instant, he vanished and just as he had disappeared, a mob of people lunged toward the injured girl in a feasting frenzy. Horrified at what was unraveling before me, I forced my human body through the crowd and up the stairs.
My heart racing, sending tingling pins into my hands as the blood drained from my extremities. I felt weightless in my flight to the pumpkin guarded doorway. The haunting sounds of the music receding into the distance as I ran down the hill past the shadows and to the iron gate tower at the end of the road.
“Had my eyes deceived me? Who would believe me when I told them I saw a crowd of people feasting on a young girl? What would become of this?” All of these restless thoughts were firing off inside my head. This made no sense!
I looked around for a sign of a taxi, a light, anything that would take me away from the grim truth of the Shapeshifter’s Ball. But there was nothing, only silence. The silence was far removed from the white noise of the city and broken only by the crow of the raven that perched beside me on the tower wall.
I looked into its glossy black eyes and just like that, I was back in my posh hotel room at the Shelbourne. No Victorian Gothic dress. No invitation to a Shapeshifter’s Ball. Just fresh flowers, my luxurious bathrobe, and a really annoying hotel phone ringing.
“Hello?” I answered, hazed still and a bit confused. “Hello yes Miss Thompson, there is someone downstairs for you, he says he’s with Tourism Ireland and he has a package for you. Should I tell him you’ll be down or would you like me to collect the package?” inquired the girl from the front desk.
“No, please tell him I’ll be down in just five minutes, thank you,” I replied. I quickly jumped into my jeans, fluffed my hair, brushed my teeth, and ran down to greet the man. My feet fled in haste down the ornate stairwell and past the Gothic candelabras.
My eyes scanned the room to the lofty crystal chandeliers and into the sitting room. There, standing next to the Halloween display of ravens was a tall slender man. He turned to me. Those eyes!
I couldn’t believe it. It was the masked man! He was dressed in regular clothes but I knew it was him. There was no way I could forget those smiling warm eyes. I took a deep breath and managed to fumble the words, “Hello, I’m Christa, you’re from the tourism office?”
“Yes hi, nice to meet you. I was asked to deliver this to you, it’s an invitation to tonight’s big event. I hope to see you there.” “Thank you,” I replied as he walked away. I broke the crimson red seal marked by a raven and pulled out an invitation that read,
Join us for an evening of immortal proportions with Gothic tales & dark veils.
This couldn’t be, was I losing my mind? Was this all just a dream? How could I possibly know what the invitation would say? Something wasn’t right. I glanced at the raven seal again, running my fingers over its crimson wax.
“Maybe I’m just being ridiculous, it would be terribly rude of me not to go.” I rationalized my thoughts as if what had just happened was merely left beside my pillow in a leftover dream. Then, just as I turned around to head back up the staircase I heard something in the street. It sounded like a drum.
I stepped into the revolving door the Shelbourne is so famous for and onto the sidewalk. I wasn’t the only one following the sounds. They were eerie, like something from a twisted horror movie.
Little by little the crowd grew, advancing in the direction of the music. By the time I got to the Leffy, I found myself in a mob. There was no turning back. How did this happen? Where was I going?
Pretty soon I was surrounded by monsters and marvels from drains, lanes, and street corners. Creatures of mischief danced around us. A Pegasus floated over the crowd. This was a summoning. There was no escaping the creatures that towered over me, taunting my every move.
As they picked and grabbed at my hair, yanked, and tore on my clothes, I started to fear the worst. I was brought there for a feast! Just like the girl at the ball! Terrified I forced out what little air I had left in my lungs and fashioned it into a scream. That’s when everything went black.
To be continued…
This short story is based on real-life events that took place during my visit to Dublin for the Bram Stoker Festival. Special thanks go to Limelight for the Bram Stoker Festival, the Shelbourne Hotel, and Tourism Ireland for making this story possible.
I’ll see you on the dark side…
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