There had never been a more beautiful bride, never a more picture-perfect wedding. The weather had bowed down in honor of the occasion, and there was a slight cooling breeze. The night was neither too warm nor too cold, and the time had been carefully chosen; the sun was just setting in the western sky. The bride had longed for a castle, and they had found an ancient cathedral perched atop a hill within an old fortress town.

The groom was gallantly trying to be everything the bride's fairytale prince should be. He had spent his adult life trying to live life by his own code, which demanded decency to his fellow human beings. He didn't bend easily to anyone's whim, but he had learned the importance of compromise, and of being compassionate. He knew himself capable of error and had learned to admit it. He could honestly say he was ready to battle for the downtrodden or the underdog, and he had lived through enough battles to see many of the errors made around him. More than anything, as he prepared to wed his stunningly bride, he could say that he loved her dearly, more than life itself.

Thus...this wedding.

Whatever she longed for, a castle deep in a land foreign to him, an elegant horse-drawn carriage, or anything that could possibly complete the fantasy wedding of her heart, she could have. It helped that events had recently turned in his favor; where for many years he had worked to support what he prayed was a talent, he had suddenly discovered himself a rich man, almost overnight. And though the bride hailed from this part of the world, they had met in the United States. She had heard him playing; he had looked up and met her eyes. Life hadn't been the same from that moment on. But since many of their closest friends were still struggling financially, he and his bride had-very tactfully, they hoped-managed to treat their friends who couldn't afford the trip, providing an enjoyable respite from the rigors of life, as well as the pleasure of the wedding itself.

A lavish runner extended the length of the cathedral aisle. The groom, elegant in a black tux, stood next to his identically attired groomsmen. As the music played and the priest cleared his throat, they all looked to the rear for the entry of the bride and her party.

The flower girl was adorable, tossing petals with a somber appreciation for the great duty entrusted to her. The bridesmaids followed, lovely in glimmering silver offset with black trim.

And then the bride...

So beautiful...

Her hair, long and lustrous, as red-gold as the sunset, fell to her shoulders, haloing her face in beauty. She wore a modern gown, but one designed in a Renaissance style, and his heart caught in his throat at the sight of her. Beneath the sheer flow of her veil, he could see her eyes shimmering, touched by a mist of tears. He smiled in return, and his heart thundered.

She moved gracefully down the aisle.

And then...

The spill of blood appeared on her dress, beginning as a tiny dot at her heart. Then it widened...widened to cover her breast, the entire bodice....

She stopped walking.

She stared at him.

There was horror on her face. Her eyes pleaded.

He started to run to her, but he couldn't reach her. A sound was rising in his ears. A storm, a siege, a rush...

The blood came then, like a tidal wave. A rush of it, as if a crimson river had exploded, broken a dam, surged down a hill...

He blinked.

He saw her face her eyes...pleading for help.

Then the blood washed everywhere, along the aisle, up the ancient lichened walls of the cathedral. It rose higher and higher.

He was drowning in it.

Choking on it.

Far away from the distant mountains, a man awoke from a nightmare. He let out a hoarse cry and jackknifed to a sitting position. The scene in his mind had played out so realistically that he was momentarily convinced he was covered in blood. He was coughing, as if he had been fighting for breath in his sleep.

He cast off the sweat-soaked sheet that had covered him, rose, and strode to the doors to the balcony, quickly casting them open. Reality rushed in with a breath of magnolia-scented air.

Would it never stop? Would the nightmare never cease to haunt him?

It was the end of spring, the beginning of summer. Heat rose by day, and yet, by night, there was a breeze that touched his skin like a gentle hand.

He looked up at the sky. Eerie clouds veiled the moon, giving it an unearthly tinge of color.

He gritted his teeth, his features hard and determined.

It looked just as it had then....

At the blood wedding.