Black. Pitch. Ember. Ebony.
It cradled Nina for eons. Hours upon hours of lying in a grave. Madness set in as time droned on until she screamed, begging to be let out.
Then, a miracle.
Her eyes opened and the world grew brighter. It was only a fraction brighter, but nothing could be as dark as that casket. Stars, joyful and luminous, filled a midnight sky. Never had they seemed so bright.
Her senses flourished in ways she’d never known, not in many years. Her arms and legs rested on pillow-soft sand. The strangest part of it all was that Nina could feel it. Her arms slid over the grainy surface, her flesh reveling in the soft brush of texture against smooth flesh.
She dug her fingers into the earth and reveled in it. MOVING FINGERS! Then, her toes. YES! She wiggled them until tears of joy rolled down her cheeks and she broke with a gasp, sitting straight up.
Nina flopped back down almost immediately, closed her eyes, and prayed for the blackness of her grave because a grave would not lead to disappointment once she woke.
Minutes passed and the wind blew cool across her form. Naked? She felt naked. Yet, when she ran her hands over her body she touched the softness of a gossamer dress, loose and ruffling around her form.
It was a quiet world. Not even the wind made a sound. When she finally gathered the courage to sit up again, she held her breath and took in the endless white sand and black sky. Desert dunes went on for miles until they disappeared against the dark. Behind her stood a large arch, half buried in sand, and built from giant polished quartz blocks. The white sand and arch glowed, lit only by the light of stars.
Nina collected herself from the earth, shedding sand from her clothes as she stumbled towards the arch. Legs – walking is complicated, Nina thought.
She tapped the arch with her hands, cautiously at first, and then heavy just to make sure it was real. The wind blew up with a gust, swirling dust devils in droves until it uncovered five other people lying in the sands around the arch. Three male and two female. They all wore the same gossamer white robes. Each one rose from the sand in their own way. Some like herself, all wary and frightened, and then others with a start, as if they couldn’t wait to be free of the dark.
"Come on, come on," a cracked voice said from just behind a pillar.
A very short man with a humped back hopped down the steps and danced over to the newly uncovered. He was nothing short of hideous, with his skin a dead-gray, and eyes like two dull nuggets of coal. "Come on, we haven’t got all day. You don’t want to be here at feeding time."
"I’m sorry, I... Where am I?" one girl asked, wiping tears from her eyes. "There was a car... I didn’t see it in time."
"Yes, yes," the short man laughed. "That happens. Dreadful. Come on."
"I was shot," a man added, lumbering up from the sand. "I was shot."
"Come on," said the short man, this time more urgently. "Others are waiting. We haven’t got all day. Feeding time will come if you don’t hurry and we’ll miss it."
"I’m sorry," said Nina, following after the short man on unfamiliar legs. "But, what is feeding time, and who is eating?"
"Aren’t you a calm one," said the short man with a laugh.
"I’m not calm," Nina said. But, no, really, she felt oddly calm. In the back of her mind, she was cautious enough to be concerned with her lack of fear. "I’m just... Confused."
Down a dune and over another, the short man led them to a line of people. There were hundreds, all meandering through the white desert in lines. Some sobbed while others passed in dull-eyed bewilderment.
"Is this hell?" asked a girl.
"No, no," the short man said. "The door to Hell is in Wrathport. No need to worry about that. No one goes to Hell anymore."
"Where are we?" asked a man. "One minute I was choking on a bone and now I’m here..."
The short man snickered. "Terrible, terrible way to go, bones are."
Nina froze in the sand. "Car, shot, choking... We’re dead." She turned her eyes down to her working arms and legs. "I’m dead."
"Yes. Truly dead."
"If this isn’t Hell, and it isn’t Heaven. Where are we?"
"Argaros. Purgatory. Get in line. In line. Feeding time is come."
Nina turned her eyes to the hundreds of people shuffling across the desert and watched as they exploded like ants from a burst mound with panic. Screams erupted as dark figures loomed up from the sands and chased them.
"Feeding time!" cackled the short man. He turned to them, his face contorting with a fierce grin, showing filed teeth. "Hungry!"
He pounced on Nina, but before he could sink his teeth in, one of the men in her group kicked him off.
Nina gathered up the layers of gossamer tangled about her legs and ran across the dunes. Running across the dunes was hard work on its own, but more so on her inexperienced legs. They fumbled like a newborn deer. In her panic, she watched as the others were picked off, one at a time, by creatures much faster than them.
"We’re going to die!" someone screamed.
"We’re already dead!" shouted another.
"Hello!" said the short man as he bounced up next to Nina. He saluted her before he gave a great leap and tackled the one who had kicked him off her. The short man sank his teeth into the back of the man’s neck, ripping flesh with a great happy sigh. More of the creatures loomed over the hill.
"You can’t die. You’ll be fine," she cried to her savior, falling backward as she tried to run. "I’m sorry!"
Her savior reached for her, pleading as she turned and fled.
Nina fell down the next dune, rolling to the bottom and jumping back up. She ran up and down, up and down, for as long as her legs would take her until the sound of screaming stopped. She cowered in the sand, half-burying herself in an attempt to hide and listen for the beasts over her hammering pulse.
Pulse... Such a strange thing to have when dead.
Minutes passed with the only motion being the light ruffle of sand from the wind’s caress. When she was sure the world was safe again, she started over the next dune.
For hours Nina walked in the night, wondering why there was no moon and when the sun would rise if there was a sun at all. She lost count of how many hills she crossed or how many miles she went away from the arch and the monsters until she happened upon a black shape curled in the sand.
The wind whipped the mass of fabric around a still figure. Nina swallowed back what she hoped was fear, though it didn’t feel as strong as what she knew fear to be. Her mind filled with images of the short man and the other monsters that ripped through hundreds of dead people like they were nothing but cardboard cutouts. Her heart raced, but she could hardly call it fear. It only dawned on her that moment to be concerned with the vivid sensation of her flesh and the dullness of her emotions.
Nina crept forward. "Hello?"
"Wake up," a tiny voice muttered from the pile of clothing, much too small to match the size of the shape in the sand.
"What?" replied a gruff voice, and the figure stirred.
Nina jumped back and burrowed down into the sandy hill.
He rose up, towering tall and broad. He was clothed from the tips of his toes to the top of his head in black and cloth mask with a mesh screen covered his eyes. Not a single part of him could be seen, and just for extra measure he reached behind him and tugged a wide hood over his head.
"God, you’re so bright," he huffed in such an annoyed tone, like a man confronted with something boring and useless, before turning away and stomping off over the next hill.
Nina lifted her hands and admired them. Then, she turned her eyes down to the white gossamer robes. Bright? She was wearing white. Her skin was pale. But, what did he mean by bright?
Nina shook it off and jumped after him. "Hey! Wait!"
"You should talk to her," said the tiny voice hovering formless in the air.
"No, I don’t want to talk to her," said the masked man as she chased him.
"Please! There were these things. They were following me. I think I’m dead and they... ate people."
"Not my problem. Go away before you draw them here. You’re new and so bright. It hurts my eyes."
"What the hell does that even mean?!"
"Of course you can’t see it. I can see it. That’s all that matters. Now, go away."
"Okay, fine. I’ll go away. Just tell me where to go. Where do I go?" Her voice quivered, but it still wasn’t exactly with fear, nor sorrow. She felt dull and empty, like everything inside was muted while everything outside her body raged with sensation. Even the sand around her legs felt pleasurable... which was weird.
"I care not."
Nina stomped harder into the sand. She’d never stomped anywhere in her short living life and it was satisfying. "Asshole." The girl kept stomping until she passed him and went over the hill. Behind her, the man argued with the invisible tiny voice.
"Stupid asshole," Nina continued. "I can’t die, right? So I can just keep walking through this desert until I find civilization." Nina paused with a grim frown. "What if there isn’t any civilization? What if it’s just nothing but sand..." Scanning the world for hope, in the distance to the west, or east... maybe north, was a part of the desert that flattened out to hard earth. But, before she could make her decision to go there, the black-clad man brushed past her, bumping her with his shoulder before staggering down the slope of a dune until he reached the hard plane.
"Walk fast. Keep up. No stopping. No matter what you hear, no stopping."
Nina took a moment to stare bewildered at him before following close behind. They marched silently across the hard earth until the edge of a waveless ocean greeted the desert. The closer they got, the more the earth grew decorated with puddles of dark water.
Nina inspected the first one and then, while distracted by it, stepped off into a second. She sank well over her head and, never having swum in her old life, she struggled to the surface before a black gloved hand reached into the water, elbow deep, and dragged her out.
She inhaled deeply, though it seemed silly to do so as the dead did not require air. Habit told her she needed to take great gasps of it to make up for the momentary loss.
"Walk, don’t stop. No matter what you hear," her guide instructed.
"What is it I’m supposed to hear?"
The masked man said nothing to her but motioned with a harsh shake of his hand for her to follow.
"Could you at least tell me your name?"
"Keiden," he said curtly.
"I’m Nina." When he did not respond she forced a heavy sigh and turned her eyes to the ocean before them. She kept following behind Keiden, her eyes on the glittering water. "I just learned to walk today. I’m not sure I can swim. I’ve been paralyzed most of my life, I mean when I was living. I don’t even know how I’m walking right now. It all feels so–"
Keiden threw up his hands. "Yes, what?"
"You called my name, so you tell me."
Keiden paused, his black form going as still as a statue. "I did not call you." He turned and looked down at a pool of water near his feet, a frown tugging the fabric over his face down. "Run," he said, bolting for the ocean. He whistled, high and shrill, and it made Nina’s head hurt.
She ran as fast as her wobbly legs would take her, turning her eyes to the earth and the water at her feet. There was light in the puddles, flashing, following, and a voice called to her. It called so loud that she stopped, not of her own accord, and looked down into the murky blackness.
Her body felt heavy, weighted down by the voice that spoke to her. She sank to her knees, bent over the pool, and peered inside.
A shapeless gray figure swam up to crest the surface and a slick gray hand shot out to wrap around her throat. Then, it pulled and snatched her under.