Hey guys! Thanks for supporting The Living God Campaign! As a thanks for being such great supporters so far, I thought I would treat you to a dark fantasy story I started a few years back while I was taking a break from his project. I plan to continue it one day, as I really like the concept. Enjoy!
Nina learned many things when she died and woke in Argaros. The first was that Death was dead and the delicate balance of Purgatory had been destroyed. The second was that she had been there many times before.
25 years since awakening in Argaros, Nina has settled in the capital city Mourning, acquainting herself with the art of theater and thievery while working at Orthen’s Solace House. One day, Aris, ruler of Purgatory, summons the Solace House to entertain the Seven Kings. It is there that the curse of Nina’s many lives surfaces and sets her on a quest to bring Death back. A quest she’s failed every time before.
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 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 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 large 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 are complicated, Nina thought.
She tapped it 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 four 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.”
“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. 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 the Fifth Realm, Wrathport. No need to worry about that. No one goes to Hell anymore.”
“Where are we?” asked a man. “I was choking on a bone.”
The short man snickered. “Terrible, terrible way to go, bones.”
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 in 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. It was hard and her inexperienced legs 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!”
“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 her savior to the ground. The short man sank his teeth into the back of the man’s neck, ripping flesh with a great sigh. Nina stumbled and more of the creatures loomed over the hill.
“You can’t die. You’ll be fine,” she cried to her savior, falling backwards 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.
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. 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 a 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.
“Wake up,” a tiny voice muttered from the pile of clothing, much too small to match the size of the person wearing it.
“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 over 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.
“I care not.”
Nina stomped harder into the sand. She’d never stomped anywhere in her 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.
“Walk fast. Keep up. No stopping. No matter what you hear, no stopping.” The black clad man brushed passed her, bumping her with his shoulder, before staggering down the slope to the smooth plain of earth below.
Nina took a moment to stare bewildered at him before following close behind. They marched silent 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 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 swam in her old life, she immediately panicked. The black clad man reached into the water elbow deep and dragged her out.
She inhaled deeply, though it seemed silly to as the dead do not require air. Habit told her she needed to take great gasps of it to make-up for the momentary lost.
“Walk, don’t stop. No matter what you hear.”
“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, you see. I don’t even know how I’m walking right now. It all feels so–”
Keiden through up his hands. “What-what?”
“You called my name, so you tell me.”
Keiden paused, his black form going as still as a statue. “I did not.” He turned, looked down at a pool of water near his feet and a frown tugged the fabric over his face down. “Run.”
“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 it, 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.
* * *
A red sky hung over Mourning, as it had every day for the last twenty-five years that she resided there, and as it would for all the years to come. It was the type of red the sky turned on Earth when the sun was nearly set, but it never moved passed that into night. Instead, it hung like a bloody curtain over the half-constructed city lurking around a massive black tower stretching high enough that its spire disappeared into the red froth of clouds.
Mourning City proper was surrounded by a black quartz desert on three sides and a placid black ocean on the other. The city was filled with metal framed buildings, once meant to be finished skyscrapers. They were now nothing more than hollowed shells that residents finished in patchwork fashion with scraps they found littering the Undercity.
Nina looked out from her bedroom window, watching steam waft up from grates in the streets. It clouded the alleys and roads as thick as fog, but every few feet, where the grates were clogged with rags, it cleared enough to see.
The Undercity, the ground level of Mourning where Nina lived, had some semblance of order and civilization. This was the oldest construction, so its buildings, although shorter than the rest, were complete. The affluent, the Pure or the Gray lived here, while the Uppercity and its unfinished high-rises housed the poor, the rejected, and the Corrupt.
That was not to say that the Corrupt did not leave their towers to venture to the Undercity. She saw one as he slithered out of the alley, covering his deformed head and heading to the front door of the Solace House. She felt the heavy knock under her feet, and opened the window to hear Pock turn him away.
“I’ve money,” he said, his voice as rough as sandpaper against stone.
“No one will take your money.”
Nina peeked down at Pock’s bald head and the hooded mass in front of him. Pock was a tall demon with pale skin and black eyes. If you could look past his grumpy disposition and constant hunger for human souls, he was a rather likable guy. He was also very protective of the Solace House, as it was his main source of food, so Nina didn’t have to worry about him feasting on her while she slept.
The Corrupt gave a throaty growl, a gnarly hand pointing at Pock. “You shut up… I’ve got good money.”
Pock laughed. His voice always sounded like two different people with very different octaves talking at once. “No one would entertain you, foul Soul. If you wanted to be pleasured in the afterlife, you should have thought of that in your living one.”
The Corrupt hissed, jerked a step back, and turned his eyes up to the window. Nina shrank back out of sight. When she thought him gone, she leaned back out and pulled the window closed to start her morning routine. She slipped out of her silk robe, down to the thin nightgown, before sitting at her vanity, where she brushed her long black hair.
The face that looked back through the mirror at her wasn’t very recognizable. It was not the face she had while living, nor the face she had once she arrived, but it had some similarities. It was older, but still very young, as all people in Argaros aged to the point of adulthood, maybe to the age of twenty-five, and there they stopped and never went further. It was not age that made it different, not completely. All the flaws of her old skin were gone. The thinness of her paralyzed, malnourished, and under-muscled form had filled out into the fullness of a woman’s body. It was perfect in every way, and all blemishes, dark circles, and lines were washed from her face. She was beautiful. She needed no one to tell her, it was too hard to ignore. It was the curse of being Pure.
The longer one lived in Argaros the more the world took a toll. For Pure, the ones who had lived just lives on Earth, they grew perfect and beautiful. They reflected outwardly what they had contained inwardly on Earth. For Corrupt, it was the opposite of beauty. If they had done evil on Earth, their forms decayed to match the level of darkness their souls had performed while living. They became monsters.
When Nina had brushed her hair and pinned half of it up so the rest dangled around her shoulders, she donned a black dress of many layers, with a ruffled skirt and corset. She drew on black tights and high boots, made sure her sleeves were tucked into her leather gloves, and grabbed her metallic mask off the hook on the wall to cover her face.
The House had six floors and a very deep basement. Her room was on the second, along with others who did not serve the house in intimate ways, or any other specialty. Nina had often thought about going into such a field, as it did not carry the terrible stigma that it had on Earth. To work on the sixth floor as a Lady of Solace was to be revered and admired, but every time she mentioned it to Orthen, the owner of the Solace House, he quickly dismissed it.
It made little sense to Nina. She was exactly what the position required. She was Pure, not a blemish or imperfection anywhere. No matter what case she presented, or how much money she promised to earn, he would hear nothing of it. So, she was left to work on the first floor in the theater.
The lobby was busy that morning, with hundreds of customers waiting at the front desk to be lead to their respective areas.
“Good morning,” Nina greeted. “Welcome to Orthen’s Solace House.” She directed them, along with Pock, Siri, and Morgan, until the lobby cleared enough to move and the doors to the theater closed.
“You best get back there,” Siri said from behind the reception desk. “Jonah will not be pleased if the show starts late.”
With that, Nina took off down a narrow hall backstage, where she scooped up her violin resting on the table and hastily trotted out from behind the curtain to offer up pre-show entertainment.
She stood beneath the bright beaming lights and lifted the violin to her shoulder, bow in hand. The crowd beyond the light was nothing but a mass of shadow, and even if she could see them she wouldn’t have the knowledge to be stage fright. Nina found it hard to be nervous about much of anything anymore. When the world was full of so many unreal things, what was there left to fear?
The young musician gave a sufficient amount of time for a dramatic pause before putting bow to string and letting sweet notes glide into the air. She could almost feel the collective sigh of her patrons. Nina liked to pretend that the music was magic as it wove through the air, casting a spell and alleviating any worry or fear they had.
When she was finished the crowd rose from their seats and gave a great, loud round of applause. She bowed to them, low and sweeping, before scurrying off the stage to change into her costume.
Nina changed into a shimmering maroon gown and a copper-haired wig, then she changed her mask out for an opalescent one, and took the stage.
Under the harsh light, the deep ridges of the mask hid her soft features and exchanged them for a skeletal appearance. Her arms were painted so that the contours were harsher, as rigid as stone. When the curtain lifted again, Nina stood at the center of the stage with fog loitering around her feet.
“I am the Mother of Life,” she announced, stretching out her arms and turning her head to the sky. “I am the Ruler of Argaros. The Killer of Death.” Nina slinked forward, her dazzling gown scraping across the old wood floor. “You think you know my story, Souls?” She laughed. “You know nothing.”
The play recounted the tale of Death and Life and how they fought. Of course, millions of years had passed and the story was skewed. No matter how it happened and, to be honest no one really knew, Aris, Mother of Life, was always the savior in the end. Death had tried to overthrow God, and Aris had stopped him. But, it cost her and cursed her to live among the dead for eternity. She ruled them well, as best she could, though her body suffered. She shriveled up to skin and bones, while her magic, aided by death’s scythe, grew in strength.
Nina held the replica of the ancient weapon in her hand and looked down at the seven props at her feet. Seven pieces of the dead King of Purgatory. She turned her eyes up to the demon dressed as a Goil and watched him raise his fake-leathered wings. “Take these pieces and bury them in the six realms so that they can never be put back together. But, I will keep his heart and bury it here.”
Nina reached down and drew the heart from Death’s chest, lifting it so she could admire it in the bright light. “I loved you,” she said to the heart. “As you loved me… But, power and greed spoke louder than love.” Nina carried the heart, sobbing, to the center of the stage, where she knelt before the patrons of the Solace house and clutched the bloody mass to her chest. It dripped and stained the gown she wore.
Then, the lights flashed, and darkness fell.
Nina quickly passed the prop away, gathered with the other actors, and bowed as the curtains opened and the lights flashed on. They did this two more times before the curtain closed permanently. They would do the show once more that night, and then start the process all over the next day.
She found her old clothes, the black tights, boots, and dress. She exchanged the opalescent mask used to portray Aris for her metallic one.
What little time Nina had between shows and at night, she spent running errands for Orthen. Sometimes the errands were simple, just to run and get him parchment. Other times they were complex and required weeks of planning. She had no errand today, as they had days of planning for his latest scheme.
Orthen sat at his desk in the basement, pouring over papers, books, and tapestries. He was always busy doing “research”, though he never bothered to tell her on what.
“Are you finished snooping?” he asked, glancing up. “Come out of the shadow.”
Orthen was a short, round man with dangling earlobes and a bald head. He reminded her very much of the small statues of Buddha in restaurants back home.
“I like shadows,” Nina replied, removing her mask and setting it on his desk. “I don’t have to wear this in the shadows.”
Orthen let out a heavy breath, taking the mask and admiring it. “It is for your own good, you know that.”
“Do I?” Nina said, an elegant eyebrow arching at him. “The other Pure don’t wear such things. Why must I wear one and skulk around like a fugitive.”
He tossed the mask back to her. “Because you are, though you don’t remember it.”
“And which one was the fugitive? All the names you call me when you forget I’m Nina, one of them must have done something very awful to require that I wear this thing around everyone but you and the House.”
He focused on his papers, riffling through them and ignoring her. He would do this, she knew, until she changed the subject.
Nina sighed and settled back in the chair just before his desk. “His majesty should arrive next week, according to my sources.”
The owner of the Solace House smiled, turning his hazel eyes on her. “Well, that’s pleasing to hear.”
“I don’t understand why it fascinates you so. He’s not friendly. There are horror stories about his bouts of anger that match the realm he governs. Anyone so close to Hell has to have anger management issues.” Nina stretched her legs out, leaning back in the uncomfortable wooden chair. “You haven’t told me what you want from him.”
“I do not know what I want from him yet,” Orthen said, smiling. “But, I’ll let you know when I do.”
The actress scoffed. “You’re like a teenage girl with a crush. Do you find the Red King attractive, Orthen?”
“Very much so, but it matters not. I’m not his type, nor is he mine.” Orthen’s grin grew big and his eyes narrowed with mischievous delight. “He might be yours, though.”
“How do you know my type? I don’t even know my type,” Nina said, drumming her fingers on the arm of the chair. “And besides, what would it matter? You hold me like a nun in a Monastery. The moment I get a hint of attention from a man I catch Pock stalking him home and I never see him again. He probably eats them.”
“He might,” Orthen said with such a dull tone that Nina knew he hardly cared what Pock did with her potential suitors.
“It would be nice if you stayed out of my personal life.”
“I took you in. I gave you shelter, protection, and a job that garners much respect –”
“Not as much as a Lady of Solace.”
“That is not in question. You will not be one, and we have made that final.”
Nina gritted her teeth and stared off at the dark corner of his office.
Orthen looked her over, frowning. He set his pen down before clasping his fingers together. “Why do you wish to be one so badly?”
“I don’t know,” Nina said, half smiling. “Maybe because you hate the idea so? Maybe because I long for affection, or even just attention. I hide behind a mask all day, every day, except for small moments of interaction with you or another worker in Solace. Other than that, I am alone and have been since that asshole of a guide dropped me off at your door. I am utterly, and awfully alone, Orthen. Maybe I wouldn’t be so lonely if I were a Lady of Solace.”
Orthen’s gaze fell to the table, and he looked guilty as he stared there. “It is not an option.”
“Of course it isn’t,” Nina scoffed. “But, at least stay out of my personal life.”
“That is not an option either.” Orthen picked his pen back up. “Hate me if you will. It’s for your own good and you’ll find out soon enough why. Just be patient.”
“Twenty-five years of hiding is a long time and patient isn’t really something I want to be anymore. I spent twenty years on Earth trapped in my own body, and now I’ve spent twenty-five trapped behind a mask. I’m tired of being a prisoner. I’ll leave Orthen, I will. Then, you won’t have anyone to steal your information or trinkets.”
“This is not the first time you have threatened to leave me.”
“But, it will be the last,” Nina said, standing from her chair and snatching up her mask. “Stay out of it.”
Orthen watched Nina stalk out of the room and slam the door behind her. Even the door’s jarring seemed to yell at him for being an ass. He knew that she meant it. She would leave him if he meddled in her affairs again. There was only so much meddling that sort of woman could tolerate. In fact, she tolerated him a lot longer than the other incarnations of her had. If anything her damaged body on Earth had taught her, it was obviously patience.
* * *