Tegan in wonderland.
The ground was soft and a little wet against my back.
I rolled onto my side and pressed my cheek into the softness. It felt nice and cool against my face, making my skin tingle lightly.
I could hear music somewhere, drifting in and out and wrapping around me in a warm melodious embrace. With my eyes closed, it felt as if I could see the music; a brilliant gold dust floating around behind my eyelids. The music looked beautiful. It was thick and vibrant like dew drops of honey.
I wanted to touch the music. I wanted to run my fingers through the chords and feel the silkiness against my fingertips. I reached out my arm in anticipation but all I felt was thin air.
That disappointed me. The golden dust must feel amazing and surreal. I’m sure of it.
Something landed on my nose and I sneezed, my eyes flying open in shock. My vision was blurry at first and I flinched at the flickering spots of white and black. Then everything because sharper and I watched in awe as the dancing white patched of colour transformed into a delicate butterfly that fluttered away from my sudden movement.
How strange. A white butterfly?
I rolled onto my back and stared at the dark sky.
An unfamiliar expanse of black stretched out above me, speckled with tiny stars that were dimmed by the soft cloth of grey clouds that almost obscured them from my vision.
Where was I?
With reluctance, I sat up and looked around me. My fingers dank into the soft earth beside my thighs and I shivered against the cold. The ground was a little too cold to be normal. It was too cold and wet and sludgy.
I looked at my hands and realised that I was actually sitting in snow.
But it never snows in Fishbowl…
To my right was a wild forest of tall trees that seemed so dark and thick that I wondered if sunlight could even penetrate the folds of shadow. There was a coating of white snow on the tree tops. It made me think of icing sugar on a chocolate cake or a gingerbread house at Christmas.
To my left was nothing but rolling hills covered in frosty white snow, stretching out as far as the eye could see.
It was like I was in some sort of winter wonderland.
I looked down again and saw that I was still wearing the dress I wore to the dance.
What shocked me even more was the state of my body.
Everything was the way it should be. My leg wasn’t broken, my left arm was fully functional and there wasn’t a spot of blood anywhere.
I raised a hand to my face and prodded my forehead, waiting for the familiar ache of pain where my bruises should be.
However, I felt nothing. I was perfectly healed.
A seed of doubt began to creep into my mind and I let my hand fall to the ground with a dull thud.
This wasn’t right. Something strange was going on. There was an awful foreboding feeling that seeped into every inch of my body and made my stomach churn.
I had to find Jess.
The music grew louder and I looked over my shoulder. At first I couldn’t make out what it was; that strange mix of dancing lights and vivid colours.
Then I could only stare in disbelief and awe.
Almost mechanically, I stood up and turned around so that I could see it properly.
It was amazing. I couldn’t believe my eyes.
What the flip?
In front of me, just a few metres away, was an enormous gothic cathedral. It was like something out of a fantasy novel. I actually felt like I had been temporarily transported back in time.
It was the biggest church I had ever seen, reaching so high into the sky that I had to bend my head right back just to see the top of the pinnacles. There were three large arched doorways right at the base of the cathedral, each at least 4 meters tall and lined with decorative tracery carved into the stone. Above each pointed door were a serious of narrow stained glass windows that displayed beautiful men and women in flowing, colourful robes. Above these were three even bigger windows: two arched ones and an enormous circular window in the middle. The circular window was made of mosaic glass, arranged into the pattern of an intricate flower while the other two were simply checked squares of red and blue. The roof of the cathedral consisted of a series of flying buttresses that branched off ornate battlements and sharp, pointed pinnacles that sliced into the sky like sharpened knives.
It was old; very old. The formidable building spoke of an age lost long ago. The large sweeping archways on each of the large windows were crumbling and covered in grime. The gargoyles lining the roof were so weathered by the wind that their faces were almost indistinguishable from my vantage point so far away. Even the sandstone blocks of the cathedral itself were stained and fading from a bronzed yellow to a dirty grey.
It didn’t matter though. The windows were beautiful. I felt breathless as I stared into the vibrant reds, greens, yellows, oranges and purples that were illuminated by the light flickering from within. The mosaic of angels seemed to almost move and come to life before my eyes, the light creating strange optical illusions from behind the stained window.
It took me a moment to realise that the music was coming from this very building.
The three colossal mahogany double wooden doors were wide open and golden light spilled out, down the stone steps onto the snow at my feet.
There we people dancing gracefully inside, twisting and turning so elegantly that it made the dancing at the teambuilding dance look like teenagers having a seizure.
For a second I was captivated by the long, flowing dresses and smooth movements. The reds, indigos, purples and blues all blended together as they moved in and out and round and round like an image in a kaleidoscope.
I walked forward slowly, mesmerised by the music and the colours. My flat shoes made a soft crunching noise in the snow and with each step, I moved closer and closer to the church. My toes became bathed in the glowing rectangle of light in the snow and a few seconds later, I was proceeding up the stone steps.
Were Jess and Raith and Lucas in there somewhere? Hidden from me by the swarm of dancing?
I swallowed nervously as my feet brought me to the final step.
I could see the interior of the cathedral now and it was beautiful. If the outside of the church was falling apart, then the inside was the exact opposite. The walls were a beautiful rich golden colour, adorned with carvings of strange creatures from mythical lands and ancient battles between races of people I’m not sure even existed. The floor was some sort of polished white marble that seemed to glow with a weird inner light, illuminating the feet of the dancers as their long dresses and polished shoes swished against the stone. The ceiling was too high up for me to see from my vantage point but I could glimpse a massive crystal chandelier dangling precariously above everyone’s heads, the thin suspending silver chain looking way too fragile to be able to tether such a ginormous object to the ceiling.
However, despite the wonders of the building, what really surprised me were the people themselves. All the women were dressed in beautiful long evening gowns complete with sparkling jewellery and intricate hairstyles. The men were all decked out in tuxedos and some even wore top hats or white gloves. It was like a classy ballroom party only on a much bigger scale.
It was hard to take in any more details because every single person was dancing, moving so quickly that my eyes could only pick out things like hair and clothes but not faces or features.
I looked down at my own gown and was glad that I was still in my long blue dress. At least I wouldn’t stand out in this place.
I tried to take another step forward but I hesitated.
Could I really do this? I didn’t even know what this place was. What if something awful happened? I was basically a stranger in this world and the smallest mistake could result in disastrous consequences.
I watched the flurry of people for a moment longer, concentrating hard on my breathing so I wouldn’t faint from and onslaught of sights and sounds.
It was now or never. I didn’t come all this way for nothing. If I had to go looking for answers then I might as well start with the massive church in the middle of nowhere.
With my heart beating so fast it almost flew out of my chest, I stepped into the blinding light and the throng of dancing people.
The instant my foot touched the floor; someone grabbed my hand and spun me around, leading me through the dance in one fluid motion.
I stifled a cry as I was thrown around and around through the circles of dancing people, barely avoiding collision as my expert partner swung me left and right.
Everyone was moving so fast, their bodies weaving in and out in a choreographed dance that everyone seemed to know. Everyone except me.
My partner put one hand on my waist and grabbed my other hand in his own but I resisted, trying to tell him that I didn’t know what to do.
However, as I faced him, the blood froze in my veins.
He was slightly taller than me, with cropped orange hair and lightly large ears that stuck out of the side of his head like a monkey’s. However, where his eyes, nose and mouth should have been, there was nothing but blank skin.
My dance partner didn’t have a face.
I looked around at everyone else and felt my stomach drop.
None of them had faces.
Everything else seemed perfectly normal; their bodies, their clothes, even their fingers and hair. It was just that instead of eyebrows, eyes, a nose and mouth, they just had nothing.
My partner didn’t say anything as he pulled me around the room, circling and circling in a strange kind of waltz. Well of course he didn’t say anything. He had no mouth!
For some reason, my feet seemed to know exactly what to do even though my mind was having a panicky fit.
What the hell is going on? What twisted reality is this?
I kept twisting my head to look at everyone else and every now and then, I saw people who did have proper facial features.
I was more confused by the second. Why could I only see some people’s faces and not others?
My mystery partner suddenly held me in a drop and I let out a squeak as I was thrown backwards and ended up staring at the beautifully painted ceiling. I was shocked by the grandeur of it all. It looked like it belonged in the Vatican or something.
The pristine blue of the painted sky was so clear that it felt as if I truly was outdoors. The fluffy clouds looked as soft and real as cotton candy and in the corner, I could make out the rays of a brilliant gold sun that reached out and touched my soul in a way that made me feel so warm all over. It was so breathtaking that I forgot for a moment where I was and what I was doing. It was all I could do not to give in to the temptation to let my mind fly with the beckoning cherubs who promised me paradise and luxurious beyond anything I could ever imagine.
Then I was swung back up to my faceless partner and the spell was broken.
He spun me around some more and just when I was getting used to his literally blank face, he was pushed out of the way and someone else grabbed my wrist and pulled me towards them so fast I slammed into his chest and felt winded.
“What the hell are you doing here?” my new partner hissed in my ear.
I froze from a stunned paralysis took over every muscle in my body.
“Keep dancing, people are staring.” He hissed again, putting his hands on my hips and swaying back and forth.
I choked at the sudden, intimate touch, the warmth from his fingertips sending little shock waves through my skin.
My face started to heat up and my heart rate accelerated so fast that I could hear the thumping in my ears.
Reluctantly, I raised my arms and put them around his neck, my fingers brushing a bit of his soft dark hair.
I couldn’t look at his face. Not yet. This was too weird.
Instead, I stared straight ahead, my eyes glued to the crisp white collar and tuxedo jacket.
He wasn’t wearing a bow tie or any tie for that matter but I could imagine he still looked amazing.
His hands felt really warm on my waist. I didn’t think he’d be this warm. It made me feel safe. Safe and kind of weirdly comfortable.
“Seriously, what the hell are you doing here?” Raith whispered in my ear again. His breath moved a few strands of hair out of the way and it tickled. I pretty much forgot how to breathe.
Then Raith pinched me on the hip and I flinched, stamping on his foot.
“What was that for?” we both said at the same time.
Raith shifted so I was forced to look at his face and for a second, it was like I was staring at the hypnotising painting on the ceiling.
I couldn’t look away.
As I stared at that pale mouth, straight nose and deep green eyes, I was hit with the realisation that as long as I lived, I would never meet anyone who would mean as much to me as Raith did at that very moment. It felt as if I needed him as much as I needed air to breathe and it was that sick, hopeless dependency that I knew I had to resist if I was to have any chance of saving my sister and facing my own demons in this place.
“Snap out of it!” Raith suddenly said with narrowed eyes. He pinched my waist again with his thumb and forefinger and I looked away quickly, going red and feeling extremely shy.
There was no way I was ever going to tell Raith how nice it felt to finally touch him.
“How did you get here?” Raith asked seriously as I pretended to be interested in the scaly, two headed monster carved on the wall behind him.
“Morgue helped me out.” I said bluntly.
Raith swore and his grip tightened around me.
“This is bad.” He said to himself, looking over my head at the crowd of people.
I took that as an opportunity to sneak another look at his perfect face. I had never been this close to him before I wasn’t going to let the chance pass me by.
“What is this place anyway?” I asked to distract him.
“Hmm?” He said, only half listening to what I was saying as other thoughts jumbled around in his brain.
“Where are we? Why is everyone here dancing?” I clarified.
“It’s the Dance of Souls. Almost every soul passes through here to get to heaven or hell.” Raith said quietly.
I tore my eyes away from his face and looked around at the people dancing near me.
“Why can’t I see their faces?” I asked as a faceless couple passed me by.
Raith also watched the couples near us, his expression thoughtful.
“They’re faceless because the more of the soul that is taken to the Beyond, the less of an identity they have and so you only see what is left of them. Most of the souls here are almost ready to leave completely.”
“Am I going to be sucked away?” I whispered, feeling a prickling of fear in the back of my mind.
“I think you’re fine. You resisted the ceiling right?” Raith met my gaze and I looked away quickly, the intensity a little too overwhelming. It felt as if his gaze was burning through my skin and into the very core of me.
“Yea I did. But why must the souls dance here? It’s a little random.” I said, watching another couple weave in and out of the dancers.
“I suppose it gives them something to do while they wait for judgement. Not all souls come here. Those who have done extraordinarily good or evil deeds are visited by a Reaper at their time of death and become an angel or a demon. The rest of them, who are more or less ordinary people with an almost balanced good and evil quota, must wait while their deeds are weighed for or against them. The longer they wait, the less of a face they have as the good and bad portions of their soul are taken away. Eventually, when their entire soul has been distributed between heaven and hell, the place where the majority of their soul lingers becomes their eternal resting place.”
“So in the meantime, they dance?” I asked, sounding a little incredulous.
Raith laughed softly and the sound made my stomach do flips.
“Pretty much, yea. They dance the dance of life that is ingrained into every soul. That’s why they all move in such unison.” He looked across the dancefloor with something akin to envy in his eyes.
“So why are we just swaying here in the corner?” I wondered, also watching the others dance.
“Because I don’t have a soul. I don’t know the dance.”
I turned back at Raith and saw that he was looking at me with a sad smile.
“You know how I said that while you wait, parts of your soul to go heaven and hell?” Raith said softly, like he was sharing a secret with me.
I nodded, leaning closer so I could hear him.
“Well because my good deeds were exactly equal to my evil ones, my soul was split in half and since there was no majority in heaven or hell, it came back here to this place.”
There was a sorrow in Raith’s voice and his eyes took on a faraway look like he was seeing something other than the cathedral and the people and the bright lights and dancing.
“In that case, you should still have a soul right?” I asked timidly.
Raith shook his head but offered me a soft smile.
“It’s been sliced in half. What I have now isn’t a soul. It’s a tattered thing that keeps me going but it will never be whole again.”
His voice made my heart break and I pulled him closer so I could rest my head on his chest and close my eyes.
He stiffened at first, his whole body tensing. Then he relaxed and let his arms circle my waist so he was pretty much hugging me to him.
“We’ll find Jess, won’t we?” I said quietly.
“Yea. I won’t let Lucas do anything to her here. She should be safe at the moment. Her mortal wounds don’t affect her in this place and Lucas can’t hurt her here. It’s against the rules.”
I knew I should be out there looking but I wanted to stay like this a while longer. It felt nice with Raith’s arms around me like this. It made me believe that nothing would hurt me as long as I stayed here in his warm embrace, as corny as that sounds. He also smelled really good, like vanilla and something else.
“Were you eating something sweet just now?” I asked, smiling with my eyes still closed.
Raith shrugged but I knew he probably had a big, goofy grin on his face.
“You know me too well.” Was all he said.
Then we were silent and let the music weave around us, shielding us from the horrors that lay ahead.
I used to think Raith didn’t have a heart.
I’m not sure why. I suppose that when he told me he was a Reaper, I assumed he wasn’t alive and that he’d just be a hollow shell. After all, he doesn’t age, or get fat.
But he did have a heart. I could hear it beating right here in his chest.
Ba-dump. Ba-dump. Ba-dump.
I wonder what it was pumping, thundering away like that.
The sound tickled my ear and made me smile. A lot of what Raith did made me smile, but that’s not the point. I’ll be damned if I turn into a sappy romantic. It was just the atmosphere of this place; the enchanting music, the lure of the dazzling lights and the mesmerising dancing of the souls.
It wouldn’t be too bad if death was like this, an endless dance until we were brought to rest in the divine.
In fact, the more I watched the dancers, the more I realised how happy they all seemed. Even though I couldn’t see their faces, I saw it in the spring in their step and the way they held themselves. It seemed like they didn’t care about what happened or how they died. All they cared about was the music and the movement.
Is that how Megan felt? She must have passed through this very hall on her way to heaven. Did she also exert this carefree miasma that was seeping from the souls around me? Did she not give a second thought about how much her death was destroying me?
It was as if my dark thoughts were bleeding into the open. All of a sudden, the room felt colder and darker. The light didn’t seem as golden or wholesome and even the music started to take on a shrill edge, the violins becoming screechy and the pianist striking the wrong chords.
I wasn’t the one doing this, was I?
“What’s going on?” I asked Raith with a frown.
Raith gently took his hands off my waist and looked around.
“I don’t know.” He said slowly, a frown on his perfect face. “But it doesn’t look good.”
The tempo of the music sped up and the dancers started to move around frantically, almost desperately as their bodies tried to keep up with the beat. The dance was no longer graceful. It was erratic and rigid, like the dancers had become wooden puppets with stiff joints.
I could hear rumbling in the distance. It sounded like a storm.
“Tegan, we need to get out of here.” Raith whispered urgently in my ear. He grabbed my hand tightly but there was nothing romantic in the gesture. Instead, it made me realise that Raith was scared.
I turned to him but at the stricken expression on his face, I decided to save the questions for later. Raith’s fear seemed contagious because I too had that sickening feeling in my gut.
With his hand still firmly around mine, Raith led me around the dancing souls towards the exit. I found it hard to keep up with his long strides in my constricting dress and I couldn’t help but collide with people as we walked past.
We were almost there when a hand closed around my free wrist and pulled me back.
“What the…” the turned and saw that my first faceless partner was tugging on my arm. I only recognized him because of his weird hair colour which looked to be a cross between orange and red.
“What are you doing? Let me go.” I snapped at him, trying to tug my arm out of his grip.
He just shook his head, unable to speak but determined not to release my wrist.
“Raith, do something.” I said as my eyes flickered around the room. All the faceless souls had turned in our direction like sightless spectators even as they continued to dance. I started to panic. “Raith?”
I turned to him quickly but saw that Raith seemed to be frozen, staring at something behind me. His hand was squeezing mine so hard that it was beginning to hurt and I couldn’t feel my fingertips anymore.
“Raith!” I shouted but it was as if he couldn’t hear me.
“They’re here.” He whispered and that’s when I heard it.
The thunder, which had been presently getting louder, interrupted into a massive boom that shook the whole cathedral. The music suddenly stopped and the souls froze, the dancers paralysed. Even my faceless partner was still and unmoving.
Then I felt it. A chill had entered the room.
Even though it had been cold before, this cold was different. It mixed with the air and sunk deep into my skin, right to my very core. There was a smell too, a rank, damp smell of mud and rot.
Tendrils of strange black mist rolled in from the cracks around the windows and settled near the floor, obscuring the room in a cloudy haze.
“What the flip?” I whispered.
“Time to go.” Raith suddenly said, snapping out of his strange daze and pulling my hand so hard that my other arm was ripped away from my frozen dance partner.
We walked through the rest of the frozen crowd quickly and all the while I could feel the beginning of a presence in the room. It was a prickling, ticking sensation on my back and no matter how many times I looked over my shoulder, I couldn’t shake the feeling that someone was right behind me.
“Why aren’t we running?” I hissed at Raith as I narrowly avoided knocking the head off a slender woman in the middle of a complicated looking turn.
“Because we don’t want to draw attention to ourselves.” Raith whispered back, shoving some skinny man out of our way.
I sensed a movement behind me but then it was too late.
I screamed as burning hot hooks sunk into my shoulder, the pain creating bursts of white light that blinded my vision.
The touch was burning. Claws that felt like razor sharp blades were sinking deeper and deeper into my flesh and it felt like I was on fire.
I grabbed whatever it was and shrieked even more as my hands came into contact with red hot iron.
There was laughter in my ears, a low rumbling laughter that seemed to come from everywhere at once, choking and suffocating me like toxic smoke.
Pain. Pain seared across my forehead as the thing released me and I fell face first on the hard, cold floor.
Raith grabbed my arm and pulled me roughly into a standing position.
I sucked in my breath at the sharp stinging from my wounds and held onto his arm for support. He was holding his black cane in his other hand, dark congealing blood dripping from the tip.
“Now we run.” He whispered.
We took off in an instant, my mind still woozy from shock at what had just happened.
A bout of dizziness made me falter and Raith barely managed to catch me as I stumbled.
He was cursing, his eyes flickering back and forth at something over my shoulder.
It was getting dark. Dark and misty.
“Tegan, snap out of it!” Raith was yelling in my face.
We were right in front of the door. There was snow outside. Was it snowing? I had never seen it snow before. It doesn’t snow in Fishbowl.
It didn’t snow in my old home either. It was always really nice and warm in that city.
“Tegan! Listen to me!”
My arms felt sticky. I looked down and saw the coppery red was running down my arms. It was hauntingly beautiful, the contrast of red on white.
The world suddenly spun around and once again I was staring at the ceiling.
Was Raith carrying me? Why was he carrying me? What’s the rush?
My eyes were mesmerised by the painting on the roof again. Were those cherubs moving? Were they speaking to me?
I was moving fast now. I closed my eyes for a second and when I opened them again, I was staring into the ebony night sky. Flakes of white dropped from the heavens like the feathers of a dove, melting when they touched my cheeks and forehead.
But there was something missing.
“Where are the stars?”
“It’s snowing so it’s too cloudy to see the stars.” Raith replied calmly. His voice was right next to my ear and I remembered that for some reason, he was carrying me in his arms.
“What are you doing?” I asked casually, closing my eyes and letting the dark tendrils of mist settle around my mind.
“Getting us the hell away from here.”
“But why? There’s nothing wrong.” I said, taking deep breaths.
It felt like I had cotton wool in my ears and around my whole body. The sensation made me feel like I was a fragile vase packed in a box full of tissues so I wouldn’t break. But I was already broken. My shoulders hurt.
I couldn’t feel the snow on my face anymore.
I opened my eyes again and was surprised to see a dark canopy of trees above me.
“Oh, we’re in the forest.” I said blankly.
Raith wasn’t running anymore. Instead, he was walking slowly and as I settled my gaze on his face, I watched as he nervously glanced over his shoulder.
“What are you running from?” I asked.
“What kind of question is that? Did you not get attacked by that thing back there?” Raith snapped, his hard green eyes meeting my own.
“No, not that. What are you running from?”
Something changed in that steel gaze of his and he slowly knelt down and put me on the ground.
“We’ll talk about this later. First I need to see how much damage he did to you.”
Raith wasn’t looking in my eyes anymore. Instead, he was busying himself with something on my shoulders.
“Who did what to me?” I mumbled. I tried to sit up but my body felt heavy and even the slightest movement made me feel exhausted.
The mist in my mind was getting thick too. I found it hard to focus on what I was saying, or doing, or thinking, or…
“You’ve got pretty eyes.” I told Raith as he was doing whatever he was doing. There was blood on his hands now. That was gross. What was he doing?
“Did I ever tell you that you’ve got pretty eyes?” I said, feeling like I was talking to myself.
He was concentrating on something.
I couldn’t move my head so all I could see with his face and his hands moving around on my left shoulder. Was he stitching something up? It couldn’t be me. I couldn’t feel anything.
“I’ve always liked your eyes.” I continued.
Was he trembling? I wonder why he looked so upset.
He finished with my left shoulder and stepped over my body to start on my right shoulder. Because my body wouldn’t listen to me, I couldn’t turn my head so instead I stared at the place where he had been kneeling.
It wasn’t very interesting. I was just staring at the trunks of trees. Lots of trees.
It was dark too. Why could I still see everything so clearly in the dark?
There was something standing near one of the trees, something white.
It looked like a small boy.
Yes, it was a small boy. It was a small boy dressed in a clown suit.
Why was a small boy dressed in a clown suit watching me with those sad little eyes?
The shock pumped a bit of energy back into my system because the dark fog momentarily cleared.
What the flip was the little boy from my dreams doing in Purgatory?
“Okay done.” I heard Raith say and I managed to look over at him.
The sight made me choke.
He had taken off his jacket and had rolled up the sleeves of his white button down shirt. It was his hands that scared me though. They were covered in blood right up to his elbows.
Was that my blood?
Flashes of the incident rattled through my brain abruptly, leaving me speechless.
The hot pain, the fire, the feeling of hooks sinking into my shoulders and pulling me back.
Raith must have seen the panic on my face because he suddenly crouched back down.
“Sleep.” He commanded.
I tried to resist but against my will, my body obeyed.