Sarah gasped and stumbled backward, bare feet on dirt? She grabbed at her chest, a chest that was not covered in blood or . . . clothing for that matter.
She yelped and covered her breasts with an arm, only to then discover that her nakedness extended all the way down to her purple-painted toenails.
A flush of heat ran up her neck and into her ears and cheeks. Her heart—an enraged wrecking ball of a thing—continued to slam against her ribs despite the total lack of the robber or librarian or . . . library for that matter.
What just happened!
In some miraculous twist of fate, she stood outside in a small alcove, sunlight glinting on morning dew. There were walls made of twisted branches; long penis-shaped yellow flowers; a flat stone platform, or was it the world’s most terrible bed?; and an archway covered in hanging ivy, blocking the view.
She was completely alone, naked, and . . . alive? But that made no sense! She was shot. She was very, very clearly shot. It had hurt so stupid much she hadn’t been able to breathe.
She touched the point where the bullet had entered. There wasn’t so much as a scar, a bruise, not even a red blotch.
“Hello!” said a squeaky feminine voice.
Sarah tensed and looked around.
The voice came from a tiny person, a really tiny person, maybe five inches tall. She hovered in the air, flapping blue monarch butterfly wings, wings that were shedding flecks of sparkling dust.
She had short baby-blue hair, green skin, antennae, and was wrapped in white petals that formed a sundress.
“What on earth?” Sarah whispered.
“You not on Earth.”
“I’m . . . dreaming.” She must have dozed off in the library, reading about some fantasy world with fairies in it. Or she was in a coma. Of course!
“You not in dream,” the fairy said. She landed on the stone platform and smiled a mouthful of jagged teeth. “You dead.”
“I’m not dead,” Sarah said, incredulous.
“You dead,” the fairy said again, matter-of-factly while nodding.
“Yes yes! Dead. I sorry you dead. Now wear cloth. You naked—ugly. Sorry you ugly. Cover with cloth?”
“I’m not ugly!”
“So sorry. Pale skin ugly, green pretty,” she said, motioning to herself.
On the stone platform was a nicely folded brown robe. Sarah quickly dressed, not to hide her ugliness but for the mere fact that she didn’t appreciate being naked in the first place.
“Where am I?” she asked.
The fairy flapped her wings as she walked across the stone, each step a leap like she was on the moon. “This!” she said, spreading her arms and spinning, “Olindale. Heaven. I your Apology. Apology Thirteen. Temporary Interface.”
Heaven. . .? Interface. . .?
None of this made any sense whatsoever. Dozens of questions were bubbling to the surface, demanding to be asked while fearing the answers.
Before Sarah could appease her cautious curiosity, however, a horn bellowed, filling the alcove with its low and long sound.
“Time!” Apology Thirteen said, launching herself into the air and smiling.
“Great new game. You compete. I help. Follow follow!” She zipped to the archway covered in ivy and swiped the hanging vines to either side, draping them on stone hooks and revealing a pathway beyond.
Sarah followed the fairy out from the now-familiar alcove to the unknown. The twisting branches that formed the walls curved down a winding path covered in moss.
A few minutes later, she crossed a stream that trickled between flat stepping stones. The sounds of gurgling water mixed and merged with what only could be voices. Others!
This prompted her to pick up the pace. They hurried down the pathway until it opened to an enormous circle enclosed in high stone-brick walls with archways every twenty or so feet.
Dozens upon dozens of people were stepping out from their archways, confused and cautious, following fairies of all different wing colors.
And . . . wow. At the center of the circle grew a gargantuan tree. It hadn’t been there a second ago. It stretched so high the branches disappeared into the sky. The trunk was like a hundred giant redwood trees had been smashed together to form the impossible.
A perfectly circular pond submerged the base of the tree. Jagged, crystalline rocks ringed the shoreline, teeming with countless fairies, their voices a chattering of excitement.
Set above the water on the backs of four giant unicorn statues—each rearing on two hooves—was a platform and a long stretch of stairs that led up to it.
Apology Thirteen waved, then shot off toward the platform, giggling. She spread her arms as if she were an airplane and crop dusted random people with shimmering fairy dust.
A guy ran up yelling, “Hey . . . hey!” He had sepia-brown skin, short curly black hair, and looked to be in his early thirties. “You know what’s going on?”
“No, not really,” Sarah said, relieved to finally be talking to a real person. “How did you get here? Are you”—she reached out and pinched him—“real?”
“Ouch! Quite real, thank you.”
“What’s the last thing you remember?”
The guy scrunched up his brow. “I . . . was in a rush to get back to the courthouse. I slipped on the ice and—”
“Did you die?”
“No! I’m not dead,” he said in a voice as incredulous as when she had said the exact same thing. The only problem, she was beginning to lose that incredulity.
But she wasn’t ready to die! She hadn’t read any books on death, hadn’t studied the subject. It was always something to be considered one day when she was old, frail, and eager to discover what came next.
This was all happening way too fast. She never got to say goodbye to her mom and dad and two sisters, all of whom she couldn’t seem to remember anymore. The memories of them were there, but their faces, their voices, their sense of familiarity . . . gone.
Panic would be an acceptable emotion in such a situation, but instead, there was only a blooming sense of not caring. Her past—all of the adventures, the pursuits, the good times and bad—drifted into the distance.
“Hey,” the guy said in a soothing voice, “are you alright? You’re looking a bit despondent.”
“I’m . . . fine,” she said, realizing she was perfectly okay with being dead. The only alarm ringing loudly in her head was why.
The answers to her multiplying questions were not here; they were there at the platform where everyone was gathering.
Sarah pushed forward to join the others.
“So what about you?” the guy asked.
“Shot,” she said casually.
“Shot!” he yelled from behind. But what did it matter how she had died: gunshot or decapitation or evil teddy bears come to life? Death was death.
The stairs were carved from the same crystalline stones that jutted out from the shoreline. They rose a few hundred feet. The vertical sections of each step had wooden doors, tiny windows, mailboxes, and address numbers.
A fairy, this one with red wings, flew down to a step. He opened a door, and, before stepping through, his wings vanished into shimmering dust.
“This is fairyland,” the guy from before said. “Shit! What did grams always say? Don’t . . . don’t . . .”
“Eat the food?”
“Right! Or you’ll be stuck here forever.”
“It’s not fairyland,” she said, shaking her head. “We’re dead. Can’t you feel it? I didn’t want to believe it either, but now it feels normal. This is where we’re supposed to be.”
“No, that’s the fairies’ doing. They’re making us forget and accept this new life. Soon, we’ll be frolicking in the fields buck naked.”
“Alright . . .” Sarah said with an uneasy half-smile, “then what do you plan to do about it?”
“We have to escape. Now. Before it’s too late!”
“No no!” said a male fairy with purple wings. “You dead, dumb head.”
“Stop calling me that!” the guy yelled and swatted at his fairy. “I demand you release me. I-I’m not going to let you take my virginity!”
“Ewww! Dumb dumb, dummy dumb. I no do that! I no take you from world, neither. I help great game only. Understand, dumb head?”
Others started to watch the confrontation and the exasperated fairy who was now pointing up the stairs and saying, “Go now, go go! Stay, you die.”
“Die?” the guy asked, crossing his arms. “I don’t believe you.”
“No care!” the fairy shouted. “You die, I lose. No game for me. You no stay here.”
The guy grinned and stood his ground. He seemed to be thinking that anything the fairies didn’t want was a good thing.
“Come on,” Sarah said. For reasons beyond reason, she hated the idea of leaving him behind. Maybe it was because he was the first human she had spoken to in this unearthly place. Or it was her eccentric need to protect idiots from themselves; it was, after all, what made her a good team manager. “What if your fairy is right?”
“I right. No what if!” the fairy screeched, hitting a higher pitch.
“He’s not,” the guy replied. “This is all an elaborate scheme to pull us into their world. Look around you. The evidence is clear. Do you want to be trapped here forever?” he asked, then raised his voice for everyone. “Don’t you want to get back to your real lives?”
A few others—much to the irritation of their fairies—slowed their trek up the stairs. Some even decided to abandon the task completely and joined the guy.
Sarah considered the stairs and the now gathering group of unwilling participants. Was this all trickery? Had she been kidnapped by the Fae, her memories erased? But she clearly remembered being shot in the chest.
She shook her head. “We’re dead,” she said again, this time with more confidence. “There’s nothing to go back to.”
“Can’t fix stupid,” a girl said, stepping down from the stairs to stand next to the guy. She had powder-white skin and black lipstick on lips that curled into a smug smile.
Someone in the forming group laughed, another pointed a mocking finger, and yet another—a slim Asian girl—looked quite conflicted with her decision to stay behind.
Another horn sounded from above. The fairies that were partnered with the obstinate people were now frantically trying to convince them that they must must must ascend the stairs or something terrible would happen to them.
“Hurry, hurry!” Apology Thirteen yelled. “You no help dumb people. They eliminated. But we compete en win. Hurry. No time. Dangerous!”
A ticking sound cut through the commotion of people debating the merits of staying or going.
The girl who had looked conflicted about her decision ran out from the group, leaving behind jeers of ridicule at her lack of a spine.
Sarah followed, taking the steps two at a time.
The ticking increased in tempo and volume. Each strike of sound ricocheted off the surrounding stone-brick walls, echoing what could only be a countdown timer.
She was so very not in shape for this. Stupid body! If only she had gone to the gym more and perhaps ate fewer doughnuts, she’d be a StairMaster champion.
Halfway to the top, the ticking stopped, replaced with a deep grinding noise. Vibrations buzzed up from the steps through her bare toes and up her legs.
The steps started to move! They were sliding toward the platform, narrowing by the second.
Sarah pushed herself to climb climb climb. Her heart and lungs and legs had already been pushed to their incredibly limited limit. Everything burned. She couldn’t breathe enough to quell the scorching, scratching sensation in her lungs. And something sharp was pressing into her brain.
The simple knowledge of being dead wasn’t panic-inducing. But falling from this height? Down to the rocky shoreline that was way too stinking far below? Yeah, no question about it.
The guy—the one who had very intentionally and with great confidence stayed behind—just passed her. He was in far better shape and taller. Genetics was totally unfair!
She used her hands, pressing herself up against the forming wall, each step a narrow ledge, more a ladder than stairs.
The people at the top were yelling for her and everyone else to hurry. They were helping people over the edge.
Someone screamed below. A guy. His body rolled and tumbled down the steep incline until it slapped the far below ground with a sickening thud.
Shoot shoot shoot! That’s going to be me!
The thought cycled in her head. It was a loop of those words mixed with the constant visual of her broken body on the rocks. She had already died once today, not again, and not like this!
Before the steps vanished entirely, she shoved three fingers through a tiny wooden door. The other doors had fairies sticking their heads out. They pointed and watched, unalarmed by her dangerous display of hanging from her fingertips.
“You break door!” a fairy said. He was standing on her white knuckles, his face contorted in rage. “I just fixed it, poop-snot!”
She slid her other hand around, feeling for doors or windows or anything she could get a finger into, doing the same with her toes that kicked and slid across the smooth stone.
Tiny hands pushed against her fingertips. “Get out!” the fairy inside yelled. “You no guest. You no welcome. Out, out of my house! Oh no no no, you ruin favorite rug, too!”
There was another door two feet higher. She shoved her fingers against the wood, and the itty-bitty hinges broke free. She was Godzilla scaling a skyscraper, the residents both afraid and upset at the destruction.
Apology Thirteen landed on her hand and shoved the other fairy back. “You no Interface. You no interfere with my Chosen!”
“Grab the robe!” the guy from before yelled, leaning over the above ledge. He had removed his robe and now swung it down to her.
Sarah most certainly, not-in-a-thousand-years, wanted to release her very firm grip on the very firm wall. But her arms were now shaking. Her wrists were being stretched like tearing LaffyTaffy from a hot sidewalk.
There was no hanging on the wall forever. Her strength would give out eventually, then it was a short skydive down to an abrupt splattering.
She grabbed the robe, gritting her teeth, eyes watering. Two or three people above pulled and pulled on the other end.
A seam popped!
Threads started to snap. . . .
Without another breath, her jaw achingly tensed, she did her best to walk up the vertical wall, unable to worry about the mailboxes and windows she crushed along the way or the fairies who yelled profanities.
Hands grabbed her wrist and forearm and robes. They hoisted her over the side where she now lay, sucking in deep breaths, unable to stop her body from shuddering.
Everyone collapsed into sweaty, heaving heaps. The guy who had obstinately stayed behind until the last second—the very same one who had, no doubt, just saved her life—quickly redressed, covering brawny shoulders and strong biceps.
Sarah glanced away and pushed herself to her feet, her legs no better than jello. But the burning in her lungs and the piercing spike in her head were magically gone.
She felt—if not a little winded and a lingering zap of panic bouncing through her neurons—good. Good. . .? An ordeal like this would have normally taken a scalding hot shower, hours in bed watching Star Trek, and a half-pint of ice cream just to feel remotely human again.
Perks of being dead?
The people below didn’t appear so thrilled now that their one and only option to ascend the stairs had been taken from them. They gazed up, arms stubbornly crossed. While they had—with no small amount of pompous arrogance—made their decision, it probably felt uncomfortably final.
“What’s that!” a lady shouted.
Seven curving lines, one for each remaining person below, shifted beneath the moss and dirt. The gothic girl pointed at one, yelling something. The others started to run.
A tentacle or vine or tongue? Something alien. Something not right in the world burst out of the ground, red and fleshy. It wrapped her legs and waist, then dragged her flailing body. Her fingers clawed the dirt. Her shrieking voice silenced the moment her head was pulled beneath the surface.
It lasted a handful of terrible seconds.
The ground stopped moving.
No one remained.
“Shit shit shit!” the guy whispered, blinking back tears, hands shaking. “It’s my fault—again. I’m such a fuck up. . . .”
Sarah placed a hand on his arm, preparing to offer some consoling thought. But the words were stuck in her throat, stuck within a disgusting sense of relief that she was not among those idiots.
What a horrible thing to think. . . .
Those people died!
B-but it was their fault, right? They were warned, over and over, begged not to forfeit their lives, told that a terrible thing would happen and a terrible thing did happen.
“Welcome to Olindale.” The crowd of restless bodies turned to find an elderly white man leaning forward on a cane at the far edge of the platform. He was bald except for the disarray of white hair that grew from the sides of his head and combined with a long beard down the front of him.
He wasn’t wearing one of the brown robes that apparently marked the unlucky many as disposable. No, he wore a black doublet beneath a high-collar red cape.
“I am Gameus,” the man said, “god of games and of this realm. Yes, you have died. Yes, this is one of the many heavens. And no, you were not kidnapped by fairies. What an idiotic notion.
“Who came up with that, anyway? Raise your hand. Come on, don’t be shy. No one? Hmm. Fine, be that way. Just understand that your fear of fairies is misplaced. They could hardly kidnap a butterfly, let alone a hundred Cycle-bound souls.
“Now, normally, I would buy a handful of you from the Soul Watchers—a dozen at most!—but Black Friday came early this year. How exciting! ‘Buy one, get one free,’ gets me every time.
“Unfortunately . . . it would seem I got carried away and went over budget. I must return a good many of you or risk the ire of my accountant. Heavens are not easy to run these days.
“Lucky for me—as a VIG: Very Important God—you came with a 100%, no interrogations, money-back guarantee. And no restocking fees. Brilliant!”
Gameus waved his hand, and swirls of purple smoke shot out from him. They looked like thick transparent ropes. One such rope wrapped around Sarah and lifted her up a few feet.
She grunted, legs kicking the air, fingers digging into the impossibly dense material that wrapped her waist. And she wasn’t the only one. Most others found themselves to be in the same predicament.
It was at this precarious moment of floating—so very unconnected to the solid platform, the view of endless nature in all directions—that she noticed how the ends of the ropes had heads.
Heads. . .?
They weren’t ropes.
She froze and held her breath. Fear pooled in her stomach. Of all the magical, fantastical creatures she had read countless books about, it just had to be a snake.
The transparent scaly creature tightened around her. Its head inched closer to her face, watching, flicking its ethereal tongue.
“We have options!” Gameus said. “I can toss a random lot of you back into the Primordial Sea of Souls and let the rest of you into my heaven.
“Or,” he said, raising a finger to silence anyone’s premature vote, “you may all compete in a set of games I have devised to test your worthiness. Please decide.”
Immediately, the people not strung up by giant flying snakes voted to toss the unlucky lot. There were a few exceptions, but they were in the vast minority. And, unsurprisingly, those wrapped up in the air wanted a fair chance.
Sarah slipped through the snake—which had become incorporeal—and crashed to the platform way too close to the edge. The others who had shared her fate were also released.
The snakes snatched those who had voted for no contest. These people shot into the air, their fear-filled voices yelling as they struggled.
Gameus waved a hand. Metallic beads formed and swirled out in front of himself, melding into a glossy surface that rendered a visual: Countless luminescent wisps churned within a great expanse of dark water, everything connected by millions of lines like a mycelial network.
Sitting upon a ledge were two indistinct figures holding what looked to be fishing rods, casting glowing lines into the sea of souls.
Those now bound by the oh-so-terrible-and-freaky snakes shouted their change of opinion. They wanted to vote for the competition.
The old god smiled. He had fierce blue eyes that seemed to pierce the physical, the flesh of each person he looked at, digging deeper and scratching at their souls.
“Ah!” he said, releasing his cane that stayed upright, and clapped once.
The glossy surface he had created crumbled to streams of color that brushed away in the breeze. The snakes popped! and vanished, dropping those they had held.
“Somehow,” he said, “I knew you would see it my way and vote for a fair—and, most importantly, entertaining—competition.”
A chorus of tiny voices cheered. Fairies had gathered at the platform’s edges and on the unicorn statues to watch.
Gameus twirled his fingers in the air, and a scroll materialized from flakes of gold. It unfurled to reveal fanciful lettering too small to read. He summoned a quill and signed it.
“I invoke the Right of Trial. The terms are simple and irrevocable. Complete my three challenges and win. The first challenge,” he said, smiling wider, “is one of survival. Those who live until the end may be granted the honor of choosing a divinity.
“Those who fail will rejoin the Great Cycle. Your memories, experiences, and everything that makes you, you, will be stripped away, as is the natural course of life.”
He paused to take in his spellbound audience. “There is no need to be so afraid. The process is entirely painless! You have, without doubt, been through it countless times. Of course, what you are reborn as is a matter of chance: a slug, a snail, a . . . maggot, perhaps?
“Will you roll the dice? Or will you succeed here and be granted eternal persistence? Break the cycle and begin the pursuit of an extraordinary life. Your fate—as they say—is in your hands.”
Gameus stroked his beard, standing in the thick silence. He nodded to himself, turned, and walked off the platform, feet and cane tapping along on something invisible.
No one spoke. They watched the god stroll across the emptiness between the platform and the enormous tree, his figure dissolving into tendrils of prismatic light.
Once the last flicker of color vanished, a glass sphere materialized where he had been. It slammed down against the invisible floor and shattered into thousands of shards.
The glass spread like a wave of chain reactions, expanding and melding to form a bridge, tinkling in its constant movement, slivers catching the sunlight and reflecting rainbow hues.
The completed bridge—a gorgeous display of pristine art and architecture—stretched across the emptiness and anchored to the tree.
Giant crystal arched doors stood waiting on the far side. The doors were open but revealed nothing except a wall of undulating darkness.
Gameus’s voice whispered from nowhere and everywhere as if carried upon the warm breeze, “Your first challenge awaits.”
No one seemed eager to be the first to step onto the frail-looking glass. Sarah happily counted herself among this group, especially given her recent experience of nearly falling to her death.
Her fairy, however, grabbed her ear and tugged her forward. “Time, important! Hurry. No waste time!”
“Owe!” Sarah said, stopping at the very edge of the platform where it met the bridge. It nearly blended with the air, only visible by how the curved glass distorted everything far, far below.
Seeing no alternative and feeling the gaze of everyone watching, she delicately pressed her toes against the cold, smooth surface. It didn’t move, sway, crack, or shift beneath her weight.
This reassurance—and the fresh memory of what happened to the obstinate group who had failed to climb the stairs—seemed to have convinced the others that they, most certainly, did not want to wait patiently for their turn.
They all clambered forward at once, a panicking mob of chaotic movement. Someone screamed as they were knocked off the side of the platform, which instilled a deeper sense of animalistic survival instincts and an every-man-for-himself mindset.
Sarah sprinted across the bridge lest she got stampeded upon. Apology Thirteen landed on her shoulder. “I good feeling about you. We win, we will! Step through door. First challenge!”
With no other place to go, Sarah did just that. She stepped into the wall of blackness like churning smoke. It parted for her, a sickly cold and damp texture running across her skin.
On the other side of the veil . . .
A new world.
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