She sat on the bed, ramrod straight, staring blankly at the wall opposite. The evening sun cast orange rays through the tall windows behind, disturbed only by the shadow of a passing airship. An ornate brass clock, a wedding present from her father-in-law, was ticking above the teak-oak doors, occasionally puffing out little wisps of steam. She ignored this however. Still she stared at the wall, looking but not really seeing as she became oblivious to any sign of life or movement around her as she sat and waited. Waited for word that he had returned. Waiting for an end to her misery.
Even as she thought of him, she turned her head to look at the brass and teak bedside cabinet. A number of objects lay on its shining surface. Each told a story. A red leather-bound notebook with a brass spine and lock had been given to her by Maxlain as he had left. She had used it many times since his departure, mainly as a journal of her depression. A record of her feelings of isolation and abandonment, her undying love for her soldier-husband, and the intense hope she harboured that he would return to her, safe and whole. And it was nearly full now. The book lay next to a small compass that Max had acquired as a souvenir from his first tour of duty. Both of their names were inscribed along the outside. The hand never did quite point north however, but it was in any instance a beautiful piece, covered with intricate markings and patterns which they believed to be of elvish origin. However, between these was a pendant on a slim brass chain, one which Maxlain had made himself. Fashioned from a small brass cog, with a small emerald embedded into the heart, it was closer to her heart than anything else she owned. A simple creation, maybe, but it was a symbol of his devotion to her. Even more so was the fact that he’d made two, one for himself as for Isellen. They were part of a matching set, and the day they would be reunited was the day Maxlain would return to her, for good.
Isellen’s eyes scanned to the dominating feature of the cabinet. A black and white photograph set in a carved ivory and brass frame, showing Maxlain as a slightly younger man, beaming triumphantly as he posed for the camera. A memento from his graduation ceremony, upon his acceptance into the Aether Fleet, where he’d passed with flying colours. He looked so handsome in his blue uniform, shako tucked under his arm, one hand resting on the hilt of his sword. The look of pride and joy at his acceptance seemed to light up the whole picture. There were other pictures too, from sharing a drink with his commanding officer, to pictures of him standing on parade with the ship’s company. In every picture he was wearing his confident, cheerful grin that made him instantly recognizable amongst a sea of faces. But of all the pictures, the graduation was perhaps her most favourite. Not just for the memories of that day, but because it made her remember just why he was gone, why he was fighting, and in some way, that helped to make it worthwhile.
From outside the room, a high-pitched shriek of a steam whistle echoed through the hallway. Isellen was on her feet and through the door in a matter of seconds after the sound had broken her reverie. The hallway was a virtual rainbow of colour, as the evening sun filtered in through the great stained-glass windows that lined one side of the corridor, casting multi-coloured light over the rows of tables supporting ornaments and the portraits of past family members that seemed to cast disapproving looks at Isellen as she dashed to answer the screaming brass telephone. Waving the excess steam away, she grabbed the receiver.
“Yes?”. The ancient voice of the butler wavered through the earpiece.
“Ma’am, Lieutenant Trennan has just arrived, and requests to see you immediately. Shall I call the elevator?”. Isellen fought to hold her composure. Maxlain had returned. After near endless months of waiting, of constant worry and never-ending yearning, Maxlain was finally returning.
“Yes Barnabus, please do”.
“Very good ma’am”.
Isellen brushed her long dark hair backwards as she gazed into the hallway mirror. A pair of anxious green eyes looked back at her, scanning her face for any imperfection. At the same time, her heart hammered a beat like a steam locomotive, and the mirror even began to mist over as a result of her close, rapid breathing.
“Control yourself”, she muttered. She returned to her room, satisfied, and closed the door. As she did so, she could hear a distant rumbling from outside, which grew louder and louder with each second. Maxlain’s elevator was arriving. The tremors might have only been slight, but to Isellen, each beat was as loud and tremulous as an earthquake.
Almost as suddenly as it had begun did the sound of grinding cogs and straining cables cease. There was a loud hiss of steam and the sound of a bell being struck. It sent shivers up her spine, but not so much as the sound of footsteps echoing on the marble floor. The unmistakeable sound of Maxlain’s boots beating softly as they carried him towards her, and even now she could feel her heart beating even louder. She suddenly dashed to the bedside cabinet, grabbed the pendant and, fumbling with the chain, draped it over her neck, just as the footsteps ceased. There was an almost fearful silence, before three knocks sounded on the outside panel. They were soft and gentle, but to Isellen, each was as loud as a cannon blast.
“Enter”, she said, struggling to find anything more to say. The doorknob rattled, and the oak panel swung open on its brass hinges.
Maxlain stood in the doorway, his shako tucked under one arm, his other hand resting on the hilt of his sword. His pale blue uniform was as straight and well pressed as ever, and his face bore that youthful, winning smile that could light up even the darkest of night skies. Indeed, he looked every much the same as he had when he’d had his graduation photograph, except that his uniform now bore several new badges and medals, for service or valour, it was impossible to tell at this distance. But he was here. Alive, safe and well.
“Hello Isellen”, he said.
“Hello”, she replied in a voice barely more than a whisper. Maxlain’s face seemed to shine at hearing her voice as his blue eyes blazed and his grin shone as bright as a star. That same smile that had persisted her dreams for so long, and to see it once more was as gratifying as water to a man in a desert. Holding back her tears, she started towards him. Instinctively, and in the same fashion that had got him into trouble with countless superior officers, Maxlain tossed aside his headgear and spread his arms wide as Isellen leapt at him, flinging her arms around his torso and clinging with all her might. Burying her face in his uniform, she sobbed tears of joy into his tunic, breathing in his scent and gripping as tight as she could. She could smell pipeclay, leather polish, engine oil, and an aroma that could only be described as pure Maxlain.
“I’ve missed you”, she said, in a muffled voice. She felt Max’s strong arms grip around her diminutive form, gently squeezing her affectionately.
“And I you”. He kissed the top of her head tenderly. Her pressed against his chest. She was looking for the pendant. But she could feel no metal beneath the fabrics. Despite her emotions, this troubled her. Isellen looked up to ask Max about this. Her eyes, clouded with tears, took in Maxlain’s skeletal, decaying face, his blazing red eyes, and his fang-like teeth as they leered down at her. Blood was pouring down what remained of his face, as the room around them became engulfed in a firestorm. Petrified, Isellen could only stare into those evil eyes, before she found her voice, and let out a piercing scream that was riddled with sheer terror. But as loud as she cried, all she could hear was the sound of Maxlain’s cruel, malicious laughter as she blacked out.
She awoke with a start. Fumbling for a light, Isellen sprang clumsily from her bed and crashed to the floor. Dazed, her looked around her, blinking. She was in her room. The clock on the wall showed it was past midnight. It was only then that Isellen realised her eyes were moist with tears. Wiping her face on the sleeve of her nightdress, she climbed back into her bed. The nightmares were getting worse. She looked over to her bedside. The book remained there still, as did the compass and the pendant. And Maxlain’s photograph stood proudly and defiantly were it had always stood. The smile might have been a mere replicate, but it was enough to bring a small glimmer of hope in Isellen’s longing heart.
“Goodnight, my love”, she whispered. She then looked towards the latest, and most unwelcome addition to her possesions. A letter bearing the emblem of the Aether Fleet, written by Maxlain’s colonel and addressed to his ‘next of kin’. She had read and re-read it countless times. But whilst it brought no comfort to her, she could not help herself reading it. Even more than she could help being drawn to a particular sentence halfway through the colonel’s condolences. Three letters had been highlighted in red ink. ‘Missing’, ‘In’, and ‘Action’.
A single tear ran down her face as she turned out the lamp and lay down once more, dreading what horrors she must endure once again.
Something I've been working on for a while now, and to see it completed (but by no means finished) is truly a sight to behold. Perhaps horror isn't the best word, I personally described it as a 'steampunk-gothic mindfuck'. Here's hopeing I've achieved that. Also I hope I've acieved the 'gothic' sense of the description. I'll leave that for you to decide.
(As always, all characters, placenames etc, are copyright of me. Respect copyright).