Everything was dark for a long time. Quiet. She didn’t know when the lights had gone out, or if they’d ever existed in this place at all. Where she was, she didn’t know. The world around her was pitch black, empty. It felt like she was underwater, but not quite; there was no pressure in her ears, no feel of a living current dragging its hands along her cool skin. She was weightless, floating in a void as if nothing but a feather drifting on the surface of an all-too-still pond, any ripples she might’ve made long since settled. There was no noise, but there wasn’t silence either. True silence, away from the radiant hum of fluorescents, or even the dissonant breath of nature, came with a ringing – a high whine in her ears. Here, there wasn’t even that, only peace.
She didn’t know where the thought came from or what caused it, but her entire body was relaxing in an overwhelming feeling of safety. Comfort. Nothing could hurt her here – that she somehow just knew. Nothing would ever hurt her here, and that made the all-consuming nothing of this place a touch less scary. Instead of a gaping mouth, the darkness was a friend. A guardian.
Was this place even dark? She let the thought settle lazily on her mind like a snowflake staining glass. Was she just blind? Was she really even here? Her eyelids seemed almost transparent, her limbs phantoms of what she remembered them to be like – how she remembered them to feel.
Before she could dwell on her questions, a small light began to glow faintly in the distance, increasing in intensity as she stared at it – stared into it. She lost herself in its beauty.
It called to her, a small tugging in her chest encouraging her to walk toward it, to reach out. Whatever it was, this light, it was anything but a threat to her. Somehow she knew that within that soft glow was peace, understanding, freedom. She wanted to hold it, walk into it, but to do that she had to let go.
Her body didn’t so much move in its direction as float, legs lagging behind, unopened eyes still wide and blinded. She didn’t need them to see this – didn’t need anything, not anymore. The closer she got, the lighter she felt, until she herself was barely a thought amongst thoughts and the light started to consume the dark. She bathed in the waves of energy pulsing out from its center, setting her soul at ease, to rest. Without much care she noted that it was pulling her into itself, her body floating up, and she was okay with that. It felt nice. Warm. Right.
She flinched, thinking she’d heard something off in the distance, but the light disagreed. Flecks of white, shimmering like snowflakes, fluttered down from its blurred edges. It was nothing.
Are you there?
Okay, there was definitely a voice that time. The pieces of her mind that had floated off began to groggily click themselves back together, barely able to function. It was hard, as if the air had been replaced with syrup, but she found that she’d turned her head slightly toward the sound. Looking away from the light left the world around her tinged a dull grey. There was nothing out there, but whatever the voice was it was still behind her, calling. It was pleading for her to do something, but what?
The tugging in her chest intensified, urging her not to listen, to turn away, but the voice was more persuasive. It rang in her head like chimes, so much louder in this soundless void. She felt her bone-deep connection with the light waver for just a second, its glow fading from importance. Who was that? Where was the source? Could she find it? Could it help her get out of this place?
From out of the darkness came a single thin chain that snaked through the air as if alive. She watched it move toward her, feeling disconnected, as if it was happening to someone else. When it reached her the closest link didn’t wrap around her wrist so much as melt into it, becoming one with her arm. It stung, like touching an open flame, but she wasn’t totally sure if the pain was real or only in her head. As far as she could tell, the pain had always been there. The grey of the world darkened back into a thick, oppressive black around her, and all she could think was that she wanted to be rid of this place – be anywhere but here. It was starting to feel like an open mouth again, ready to swallow her whole at any moment. She felt that by staying here she would soon cease to exist.
At that thought, the glittering chain pulled taut where once it had been noticeably slack, making weak attempts to pull her toward its origin.
Behind her the light suddenly began to shine bright as the sun, trying to consume the void again; it wordlessly begged her to turn back, to ignore the voice. She found herself wanting to do so in some capacity; the small chain surprised her in how much the pain from it gnawed at her arm, but soon more metal snakes pierced the black. They shot out, sinking themselves into her body wherever they could find purchase, and with each new chain their pull got stronger. With each new chain the pain lessened, until they didn’t sting anymore – they were just there.
Once they were all pulling, first meekly, then with greater insistence, she found it hard to resist their sway. Something was at the other end, and she wanted to find out what. Who.
Steadily she was being dragged away from the light with no real concept of distance; the further away from its glow she got, the clearer her mind became. It was like the light had coated her brain in a white fog, and her removal from its sphere of influence set the light into a visible and ultimately violent panic.
Tendrils of light tore themselves from its sizable form and shot out to grab her, to shatter the chains, as a rolling, hollow scream echoed in the darkness like rippling water. She felt its cries rattle her very core, as if some part of her was screaming in pain along with it. Maybe she was screaming too. For a second the tip of one tendril brushed against her arm, but instead of peace it pierced her with its fear, its anger, its sorrow. The stab to her gut, the overwhelming bite of such unbearable pain, almost broke her and she recoiled at its touch. It did the same, fear winning out over all else. Her vision flashed white for a second just before the connection broke, and she saw an unfamiliar face bordered by an angry, grey sky. Those lips smiled at her, a familiar feeling blooming in her chest before the figure rose like an angel, arms held out to her, for her, and then – nothing. The image turned to smoke before her eyes as she was pulled further into the void.
The light didn’t follow; it knew that she was already out of reach, and there was nothing it could do. But it wouldn’t give her up, of that she could be sure. The place on her arm that it had touched softly sizzled, the surface looking dry and flaky until it began to repair itself. Soon she could barely see the damage or the light, both fading from sight and from memory.
As it finally blinked out, perhaps never having existed at all, she found herself stranded in an endless darkness again. She was alone, but not afraid. The chains gave off the smallest glow, still soundlessly pulling her along, and she let them. It made her feel better to have a destination, a guide. Anything was better than aimlessly floating, at least. Whatever, or whoever, was waiting at the end seemed to wish her no harm. However, that didn’t mean their plan was entirely painless.
Out of nowhere she found herself pressed up against an unseen force: a wall. Energy rippled from it, dancing like electric sparks across what should otherwise have been open air. She stared straight through this barrier and out into the darkness, noting vaguely that the chains led nowhere. Just beyond this invisible obstruction they disappeared, dissolved back into the void. With her palms pressed firmly to its surface she pushed, but was immediately met with the resistance of solid concrete.
I can feel you. The voice resounded in the air around her, soft but impatient. You’re close. Follow the sound of my voice.
She didn’t know what to say, if she could. What did it expect her to do? There was nothing she could do about a wall.
The chains pulled at her once more, forcing her up against the barrier again. It felt like being crushed between two steel plates; its surface now burned her skin, stung her eyes. She didn’t understand what the voice wanted her to do about this. It hurt. The wall was impassible, impenetrable.
Until it wasn’t.
Without warning, she felt the barrier take on the consistency of a woolen blanket under her fingertips, relenting where once it had been hard as stone. She couldn’t tell if she was pulled in or simply fell forward when it gave way, but soon enough the black curtains were drawn back before her eyes. She blinked hard once as the vertigo hit, and when her eyes opened again her palms and bare calves were pressed to cool wood. A breathless gasp escaped from a throat she’d forgotten existed as she violently shuddered, suddenly finding herself in a place drastically different from the void she’d floated in for who-knows-how-long. Her eyes were glued to the round table beneath her, to the stiff legs tucked under her body and two surprisingly-steady arms that seemed almost translucent in the wavering glow of nearby candles. Silver chains ran off her body like water, their ends digging into the corners of an intricate drawing that covered the entire tabletop. The whole situation was far too overwhelming for her senses, and her consciousness seeming to flicker as a result – as if she was on the verge of passing out.
At the sound, her eyes immediately shot up to a figure sitting before her – or at least they tried. Her head was slow to follow orders; it was still underwater, still full of cotton. Once the person was in view, she found that their face and body were obscured by a deep blue hood. Ornate golden stitching decorated the sleeves and chest of the robes, keeping them from blending in fully with the dark of the room. That voice…it was the same as the one she’d heard in the void!
“Is it really here?” Another, smaller voice spoke up on her left, and she craned her stiff neck to look at the four others seated around the table, faces all hidden by similar red robes. There was no gold stitching for them, though; instead, the fabric swallowed their figures until they looked like little more than human paint splotches. All of them were holding hands, creating an arm chain around her as if that would fence her in, keep her from getting off the table.
Where was she? What was going on?
“Quiet! I told you not to speak out of turn,” the blue-robed figure hissed, drawing her attention back to them. “You’re only going to confuse it.”
The living red robe shrunk down in its seat and nodded, killing any chance of a second outcry from the group.
She didn’t understand any of this, but the strong draw she felt through the chains to this place was pulling her toward the blue-robed figure even now. It was like a magnetic tug, an incessant and instinctive itch in her brain, but when she tried to lean forward the chains held her back. They wouldn’t let her get too close, though she didn’t know what she’d do even if she could. Who was this person, these people? Where was this place? From the tarp-covered furniture at the edge of her vision and the windows shrouded in dark curtains behind the blue robe, she couldn’t tell much about the room. It was almost as if that was the point. Her breathing grew more ragged at the implication that things were being hidden from her. Every candle in the room seemed to flicker in time with her every shaky breath; the effect was mesmerizing.
As the dark room lapsed into silence at her swarm of thoughts, the blue-robed figure spoke. Their crisp, low voice was nothing special, but something behind their words, the power hiding underneath, enraptured her. She pulled on her chains again.
“You may speak with us, spirit. You are safe here. Please, be calm and take my hand.”
She noticed with a vague interest that the red robe on their left in this circle had a hand gripping their shoulder instead, the blue-robed figure’s free hand presented palm-up before them on the table. It lay just out of reach of her knee, offered and inviting. With one more hesitant look around the room, she tried to reach out and let her right hand fall into theirs. It was much harder than she expected, her limbs even less responsive under an invisible but all-too-real weight. It couldn’t be the chains – they were far too thin to weigh her down this much. Whatever it was, it felt like her arm was half-asleep as it dragged her numb hand slowly across the table to lay on their palm. She could feel a warmth in the hand immediately as skin met skin, a wamrth she didn’t feel in herself, and at the touch something clicked into place within her mind. It fizzled just beyond her ability to comprehend it, like her brain was full of seltzer water; the itch in her skull increased tenfold.
“Who are you?” she asked, but the words didn’t come out of her mouth; they came from the figure’s. The voice was different though this time: rougher, but somehow more familiar.
The red robes around the table all jumped in varying degrees at the words, but the figure remained completely still other than their offered hand curling to seemingly grip her own. Protective.
They stared up at her, dark eyes just barely peeking out from beneath their cowl along with unfamiliar features; this time, their voice was as it was before. “My name is Ava. And who are you?” Ava…
“I don’t know.” She hadn’t even meant to speak, but her thoughts fluttered out past the figure’s lips, sounding just as uncertain as she felt. “Who am I?”
It was weird for these people to hear her thoughts like that, but they didn’t respond as poorly as she’d expected. The calming aura that flowed from the connection the two of them shared put her at ease. There was trust.
“You don’t know who you are? Where were you just now?”
She wanted to shrug, but she was too stiff. “I don’t know. It was dark.”
This seemed to cause a stir amongst their red companions.
The blue-robed figure, Ava, coughed to clear their throat of the strained voice that bubbled up whenever she talked through them. “How dark was this place? Empty, dim, or just pitch black? Was there any light? Could you see anyone else?”
“There was nothing…I don’t think. I thought I was alone.” She hesitated, suddenly unsure of herself, unwilling to share unintentional lies. “I wasn’t looking for other people, if there were any to find. It was really dark. The only light was…”
Her body rippled for a moment, fading in her vision, but it returned to its normal translucent sheen a moment later. She barely registered it, her mind wandering back to the void – to the light. What was that? Should she have put off following the voice to see what that thing’s whole deal was about? Could she go back and find out? Should she? It seemed to be alright, but you never know. That second of contact she had with it, of its intense emotions, made her shiver at the thought. If that was it showing its true colors, then she was afraid of what it wanted from her. It terrified her, that face…
A wave of energy washed over her mind, drawing her out of her thoughts and back to the blue robe. Their presence was keeping her focused, keeping her from drifting off. It kept her from drifting away.
“Stay with us, please. You were telling us about a light.”
She blinked, realizing she’d zoned out. The light. Right.
“It doesn’t matter. There was a light, but it didn’t show me anything. I still couldn’t see. I couldn’t see…”
“Alright, a different question then,” they pressed, noting that dead end of an answer. “Do you remember anything from before the darkness? Anything that could help us learn who you are? It’s alright if you don’t.”
Sitting, kneeling, on this table, dripping in chains and holding hands with a stranger, she tried to think back on what she had been doing before the dark. Was there really a “before?” It felt like there should be, but she was drawing a complete blank. She tried to concentrate, to retrace her steps. What was she doing just before the lights went out? She racked her brain, but got less than nothing to show for it. There must’ve been something, at some point. She knew that wasn’t born there. But whatever it was, it was gone – lost to the static at the back of her mind. Lost to the void. Perhaps she was lost too, at some point. Maybe she was always lost, but for right now at least she was here, with them. Grounded.
“I don’t think so,” she muttered through their lips, letting her eyes wander away from them and toward the glittering antique chandelier dangling above their heads. “Everything is fuzzy. It’s all just…smoke. I can’t. Maybe an image or two? I don’t know.” Birds? She could hear a flock of birds somewhere, hundreds of them cawing, though that could just be coming from beyond the dark curtains. There were so many of them, though – hundreds, all of them screaming. A rush of startled wings. “But what is this place? How did I get here-”
Another flash of energy drew her gaze back, and her eyes locked with theirs, piercing through her with their natural intensity – the life in them. The birds all stopped, and a word slipped through her mind: Ava. Another tug on her chains.
“Focus, if you would,” they almost snapped, but reined in the bite of their words when they felt her try to shy away, to take back her hand. “No, don’t go. Please, we aren’t here to scare you, I promise. We just want to help you find peace.”
She went to speak, wanting to ask what they meant – how they thought they could help her find something so vague, but somebody else spoke first.
“Alright, I think that’s enough with the interview segment,” a red robe said, its words lined with impatience. “No offense, you know, but we’re obviously only gonna have its attention for so long, and we all have our own questions we want to ask before you lose the ‘connection’.”
“Yeah!” the smaller voice chirped again, confidence freshly bolstered. “It doesn’t need us to figure its own stuff out. Maybe it forgot for a reason. I just wanna know what it thinks of the afterlife, if there is one. What happens when we die?”
Ava glared daggers at them both, a scowl carved into an otherwise youthful face. “I said wait your turns, all of you! This is serious – and spirits aren’t your own personal death search engine, Jules. You can’t just-“
“What do you mean ‘afterlife’?” She took control of their voice mid-sentence, to their shock, the words urgent and croaked. “Afterlife. Am I dead?”
If Ava was angry at the interruption, they didn’t show it. Instead, they let the frustration drain from their partially-shrouded features, replaced with sympathy.
“Yes, spirit, you have left our world behind. Does this upset you?”
Did it? She couldn’t really tell. The concept felt unreal, like they’d just told her she had three heads. How could she be dead when she was right here, talking to these people? But, then again, how could she be alive and not know who she was? Amnesia existed, sure, but the pieces weren’t adding up. Her translucent body, this unnatural situation, the darkness of that void – it all told a story. What were these chains? What was the void she’d just been trapped in? And what about the light? It couldn’t be.
“Please, spirit, tell us what you’re thinking.” Ava was trying to gently coax her out of her spiraling thoughts. “We only want to help you to pass on.”
“Ghosts don’t exist,” she stated, and one of the red robes actually snorted at her unseen panic. “I don’t understand.” The fear rose from deep within her, refusing to be soothed; her form rippled again. “Explain it to me, please.”
“I-“ they tried to cut in, but she somehow overrode them – yanked control away and hoarded it because it was all she had. What else could she do? Her thoughts were scattering to the corners of the room, disjointed and unhelpful. Her body was unresponsive. There was nothing she could do. She was nothing?
“I don’t understand. What happened? Am I dead? I can’t be dead. How could I be dead? Why? I don’t understand, I mean, I’m here. I’m me. How would I have even died? I just don’t-“
“May…I speak now?” Ava breathlessly took back the reins of their own mouth with a sharp tug, the effort put forth to keep from being smothered by her thoughts a great sum. “I can’t answer your questions when you’re talking.”
She bristled at their words, wanting to pull away her hand but was equally afraid to lose the connection. She was afraid of her own curiosity, afraid to get answers, afraid of going back to a wordless nothing, afraid of the void and its light – just afraid.
“I don’t have questions. I’m not a ghost.”
“But you are,” they replied calmly. “You are speaking through me because you no longer have a voice of your own. You exist here only because you answered our call to return to the land of the living. And once we are done, you may continue on your journey crossing to the other side.”
“I want to go home.” A few of the red robes shivered at a sudden drop in temperature. Home. She remembered what that word meant to her. It was important, the warmth behind it; she wanted to curl up and close her eyes, to fall asleep there. It was someplace that wasn’t here, someplace safe. That was her peace.
“And where is ‘home’? Do you remember who you were?”
“I don’t know! I just wanna go home!”
The chains attached to her body began to rattle as she strained them to lean forward, pushing harder than she ever had. The birds were screaming again in her mind, all around her, as her tears spilled, unnoticed, from the blue robe’s eyes. The candles in the room seemed to tremble at the strength of her fear. She was panicking, but it didn’t feel like how she thought it should, nor how she remembered. Instead of her emotions raging inside her like the heat of an oven, they seemed to spill out and seep into the room itself, growing a physical presence – growing a will of their own.
The red robes were all looking up, entranced and terrified by the violent tinkling and swaying of the dusty chandelier. They were worried that it would be sent crashing down on top of them, its century-old crystal shattering into a million pieces across the empty (she was nothing.) tabletop. They were afraid of it tumble down onto a table that was already creaking, as if ready to fall apart at any second. One robed figure let out a shaky breath and a plume of steam came out, showing her how cold it was because she couldn’t feel it. There was no feeling in her body where it wasn’t connected to the table or this blue-robed figure (Ava.) and she was terrified of (Ava.) losing those senses too. If she (Ava.) did that then she’d be nothing. Less than (Ava.) nothing. The void would reclaim her. It’d-
Through all the commotion, nobody seemed to notice that Ava had stopped talking; they’d stopped reacting to the localized storm brewing around them. Only she noticed, because it was clear as day to her what was happening to them, a certainty gained through their shared connection. As she stared into their blank, glassy eyes, she felt that the two of them were waging war in their head. It wasn’t a conscious one, not yet, but she could feel her control over their voice spreading. She smiled and their slack face gave an almost imperceptible twitch. Another and one corner of their mouth lifted for a second. Nobody stopped her. She laughed because she had no idea what else could release the pressure steadily building and building and building in her skull, ready to explode; their breath hitched in response. Ava didn’t seem to have any control at the moment, all of their energy being siphoned off in order to keep her out. But she wanted in, she knew that now. She knew the reason that she’d been attracted to them: they were her ticket to escaping the void, the light. She could understand it now, if not with her mind then with her gut.
“Ava?” One of the red robes called in the distance, sounding unsure. “Ava, what’s going on? Should we stop the seance?”
Yes! A voice screamed the word into her mind, sounding on the verge of total exhaustion. They were desperate, but they didn’t have control right now, she did. She had the power, and if they wanted this to stop, then she wanted whatever this was to continue. If it ended then she’d go back to nothing, being nothing. She’d be homeless, floating forever in that void.
“No…” she whispered through their tight lips, hoping the red robes wouldn’t be able to tell who said it. “Not…yet…”
She felt her body flicker out of the room for a second, the connection weakening as the final threads of consciousness began to slip from their grasp, threatening to drop the veil down on her once more. If Ava passed out then it was over. There was a moment of disconnect before she phased back in, catching herself midway through an ethereal, glass-shattering shriek as the feeling of being ripped in half swallowed her mind. She didn’t know where it came from, that immense pain, but it only lasted an instant, and whatever influence that scream had was enough to make every candle flame in the room double in size. One by the window managed to snag the curtains, barely setting the thick fabric alight. No one seemed to notice, however; there were more pressing issues.
“What in the-“ Another red robe yelled out behind her, confusion loud in their voice. “Guys, look: the mirror! Are those…birds?” All eyes shifted to what she couldn’t see.
The voices surrounded her.
“What’re you talking about? I don’t see anything!”
“No way, ha-ha…we’re all gonna die here, like some two-bit horror movie extras.”
“Shut it, Mels, nobody’s dying!” A shake of the blue robe’s shoulder. “Ava, you need to disconnect from it. Turn it off-whatever it is you call it. Right now.”
I’m tr-i-g, C—e! Their voice sounded muffled, tucked back behind a thick sheet of glass. The smaller the voice got, the further down she shoved their face under the water, the lighter she felt-the more real. A crystal got loose and fell from above to plink against the table, then two.
What an unlucky day for rain, you know? The one day I leave my umbrella at home.
The sound of something shattering in the distance was muted as dozens of birds took flight, rushing past her and whipping up her hair before disappearing through a film in the air, like stones thrown in a still pond.
There you go again, spooking them. What, just want to see something get away from here? Well, I can do you one better.
The smallest red robe leapt from its seat, breaking the chain of hands as well as those that bound her in an instant. They disintegrated, turning to dust as her knees lifted off the table, her body suddenly unaffected by the pull of gravity. Waves of long, black hair spilled out from behind her head to float weightlessly in the air around her. Her hand slipped free from Ava’s, but their connection was stronger now – not so easily severed.
“You idiot!” Someone was yelling, but it was too late.
Watch me, ———, I’ll send them all flying.
An immense force tried to drag her backward, to pull her away beyond the void’s curtains, but she refused to heed its call. She reached down and grabbed a corner of the table with one hand as a dozen candle flames leaned in closer to watch her demise, a red robe’s forearm coming up to be crushed within her fist. It was the one who’d been holding Ava’s shoulder, and they jumped at the sudden pressure, staring at the air behind her head.
“I’m not going back,” the blue robe spoke her words without her needing to touch them, their tone flat despite the growl it had in her mind.
Don’t make me go back.
The red-robed figure in her grip scanned the air, shuddering as wide brown eyes blinked rapidly. She knew that they’d heard her a second time – that they could feel her. “Hello?”
I’m never going back.
Not now. Not when I’m finally free.
Using their shoulder to keep from being blown away, she let out all the energy she had into a scream and threw herself forward, unburdened by the weight of metal or logic.
I’m never going back there!
That was the last thought she had before everything went black.