Stef felt her body twisting and turning, bending in non-Euclidean shapes, through itself and around itself.
And then there was nothing.
She opened her eyes – but it wasn’t the sights that got her attention first, it was the stillness. Everything was so still – the electric instant before a thunderclap. There was no breeze, no sound, no…nothing.
The world around her was grey – there was fine, grey silt beneath her sneakers; grey skies above – storm clouds rushing in high wind that didn’t seem to reach the ground. A hundred feet away was a tree line, leading into a regimented forest of identical, winter-dead trees.
Just before the tree line were a couple of logs, a red ball lying between them.
The ball stirred a memory that the rest of the silent, grey world didn’t.
She walked to the ball, staring at it, trying to make the memory crystallise.
There was a happy scream from behind her, and a sudden weight on her back as someone leapt on her.
She fell forward, managing to catch herself with her hands before she face-planted into the silt. She twisted her head, but only saw grey fabric.
‘Don’t you know how to play the pony game?’ a small, high-pitched voice asked from her shoulders.
There was a giggle, and the weight disappeared from her back. She stood, wiped the silt onto her black pants, leaving handprints, and looked down at the person who had wanted to use her as an easy form of transportation.
A tiny, little grey girl, in a grey monk’s robe – complete with a rope belt around her waist.
Do the math, Spyder.
A grey girl in a grey world. Death had said she was going to Limbo. Death was a function and a person and-
‘You’re Limbo?’ she asked, kneeling in the silt. ‘Sorry, I-‘ she faltered, looking for anything not completely stupid to say. ‘Aren’t you a little short for an anthropomorphic personification?’
Limbo stared up at her with black eyes, then reached out a hand and lightly touched her hand across Stef’s forehead. For a brief moment, she saw an infinite greyness – she saw a billion copies of the world she was standing in, each with a different person waiting, each person about to make a choice.
The pressure built as she saw more and more – in the corner of each world, playing at the edges, running between both of her sisters, was the little grey monk.
The hand slipped away from her forehead, and the pressure in her head dropped so quickly, she was sure she heard thunder between her ears.
‘Okay, okay,’ Stef said, ‘sorry. I didn’t mean- Sorry.’ She fell backwards, landing heavily on her butt.
The red ball appeared in Limbo’s hands, and she threw it to Stef.
Stef stared at the ball, and weakly grabbed for it as it rolled past.
Her head snapped up, and saw Ryan standing beside.
She tried to say “hi”, but all breath was crushed from her lungs, as he bent and scooped her up in a car-crushing-bear-hug. Her legs dangled in mid-air as he held her against his chest for a long moment, before finally releasing her, and lowering her to the ground.
‘Hi,’ she said, trying to suck air back into her lungs.
He was crying, and so was she.
Stef hurriedly wiped the tears away – they were weird tears, happy tears. It was weird to cry because of happy, instead of sad. Weird to have positive emotions that warranted such a reaction.
She threw her arms back around him, and held onto him.
It was stupid. She’d known him for less than a week. It was stupid, he had no reason to care about her. It wasn’t stupid, because he was already more of a dad than James had ever been.
She felt him sigh, and she slowly pulled away. He ruffled her hair slightly, then took out a handkerchief, and offered it to her. She took it, dried her eyes, then handed it back to him.
‘I…I don’t even know what to say,’ he said, faltering over the words. ‘Hello?’
She brushed her hair back behind her ears. ‘Okies. Basics. Basics are…good. I died, I pretty much figured that part out. Something fscked up happened with the mirror, and I’m- I think it’s here now?’ she said, tapping her chest. ‘I’m sorry, I’m so sorry,’ she said, guilt overwhelming her for a moment. ‘I didn’t think it would- I wasn’t careful- I wasn’t-‘
He put his hands on her shoulders. ‘It’s all right. You’re all right. That’s all that matters.’
A woman cleared her throat, and Stef finally look in more than just the angel in the suit. Death stood there, her hood up, just her nose and chin visible from Stef’s point of view. In the weird not!Dajulveed world, Death had seemed tall, but here it was obvious that she was just as tall as Ryan was.
‘You have a choice to make, Stef, and you need to understand all of the factors in the choice.’
‘But- But I’m here, so that means I’m okay, right?’
Death shook her head. ‘Can we take a walk?’
Stef immediately looked to Ryan, who took a polite step back. ‘I am…not impartial in this,’ he said. ‘You’re best hearing it from someone who won’t sway your decision.’ He quickly stepped towards her, and straightened her tie. ‘I will respect whatever decision you make, Stef.’
Death reached for her hand, and slowly, Stef followed her into the forest.
Once past the tree line, the trees no longer appeared so regimented, or identical – and the deeper she looked into it, the darker it became.
‘Limbo is surrounded on all sides by the life and death,’ Death said. ‘They are the only two exits from here, aside from those few who choose to walk this forest forever.’
‘Some people are afraid,’ Death said, ‘from whatever their faith teaches them. ‘Some are afraid of punishment or pleasure, some don’t want to chance being lost to a greater consciousness, and some mull over the decision to attempt the path back for many times the length of your life.’
‘But- But if-‘
‘However long you spend in any of our realms,’ Death said, ‘it’s only a moment in the living world. Some that have wandered for what you’d call a millennium can still make the choice to return, and if they wake, it will only be the next moment of their life.’
‘That’s…cool and weird and cool. So-‘ Stef tried to work it out. ‘So, what, it’s still night-time out there? If I pop back into the world, it’ll just be a few minutes after the mirror fell?’
‘No,’ Death said, ‘not in your case. You weren’t wandering Limbo. You were…lost. Weeks have passed in the living world.’
Stef bit her lip for a moment, then nodded. ‘I- I’m not surprised about that. It felt- It felt like a long time, even if I didn’t know how long, if that makes sense.’
Death nodded. ‘And now that you’ve been gone so long, I don’t think you’ll be wandering my sister’s forest. You have two choices, both have their positives and negatives.’
‘Live or die,’ Stef said bluntly. She looked up. ‘Okay, tell me what the other shoes waiting to drop are’
Death touched her shoulder and they stopped walking. ‘If you come to me, you will die, and you will pass on to…whatever comes after this. I can’t tell you what there is, because I do not know. I am just the gatekeeper. I help people to end here, what happens past that…is beyond my knowledge.’
Stef nodded. ‘Okay?’
‘If you want to live, you need to understand a few things.’ Death took her hand away from Stef’s shoulder and pointed towards her chest. ‘The mirror makes things…chaotic, to use just the right word. If you choose to live, I cannot guarantee that you will be able to pass on later. You may just…end. That is your chance to take.’ Lightning flashed overhead. ‘That is if you make it back at all.’
The grey world of Limbo dropped away for a moment, and she saw the half-remembered memory of a suit, surrounded by darkness.
She lifted her hands, and for a moment, they were the hands of a toddler.
Stef blinked, and everything was normal again.
‘You were so young the first time,’ Death said, ‘I could allow him to carry you home. This time, however…’
‘I’ve got to make the corpse run by myself?’ she asked, then winced at making a WoW reference in front of Death herself.
Death gave her a kind smile, and lowered her hood, her head nothing but a skull for a moment, then her “human” face came into view. ‘If you fail, you’ll become a ghost, and that isn’t something I would wish on anyone.’
‘What’s a ghost?’ she asked, then slapped herself for how stupid the question sounded. ‘I mean-‘ she shook her head. ‘I mean, in reality, what’s a ghost? What’s bad about it?’
‘Ghosts are the people who try to make it back, and fail. They are caught…in-between, until the universe dies. Some have some coherence, others none at all. It is worse than a half-life, and it is a very real possibility, so I need you to consider carefully-’
‘I want to,’ Stef said, then slumped. ‘Sorry. I didn’t- I’m not trying to be rude. But- But I want to live, and that’s not a feeling I’ve ever had before. Even when I-’ She looked away, trying to focus on the bark of a tree. ‘Not that I need to hide this from you, but-‘
Death reached for her hand, and held it. ‘I know what you’re trying to say, little one.’
‘I want to live. I want to…do stuff. Some of it even outside! I have someone I care about, for, like, the first time in forever. All of it. Unless…Unless you can tell me for a hundred percent really for reals certain, then I’m going to try. Cause if I don’t-‘
-then I am the fucking loser I think I am.
Death touched her face, then a few strands of hair behind her ear. ‘It takes courage even to make the attempt, you should be proud of that.’
Okay, this is getting-
Stef felt her eyes widen.
Um…you can hear me, like, right now, can’t you? You can read my mind?
Death smiled. ‘Of course.’ She turned. ‘If this is your decision, you should tell Ryan before you make the attempt.’
‘Is he- Do you think he’ll try and stop me?’
‘No,’ Death said, ‘I think not.’
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