Suit of Swords

Won "silver" in the Death & Co writing competition.

*

Kara Smith Mason is dead.

She doesn't know how, and she doesn't know why. After waking up in Purgatory without any memory, wearing only sopping wet clothes with a bloody hole on her head to prove that she is indeed dead, Kara feels an irresistible drive to walk through the dead land she's found herself in. But when she arrives at Black Castle, greeted by a beautiful woman who calls herself Catherine, Kara finds out the afterlife may not be quite so bleak as it looks. Kara and twenty-nine others, all of them killed brutally, are faced with a competition known as The Suit of Swords, which, should she win, may be her second chance at life. But how far, and how hard, will Kara have to fight for a new life - a life she should not have had in the first place?

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1. Purgatory

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I decided to hate the world on that lonely, rainy day, my jacket soaked through, my hair dripping, my tears lost in the mix of water on my face.

            Ambient light filled the small, dingy neighborhood, the sun barely cracking over the surface of the world; rain consumed the holes of would-be quiet, filling them with noise and activity. Puddles dotted the dirt road, the yards in which wood and brick and concrete houses sat. When I looked up, I couldn’t even see the fading echoes of stars, dark rainclouds consuming the sky.

            I wish I’d never taken that ride.

*

There were two things I was aware of. They were facts, irrevocable truths that I didn’t have to face, for I already knew they simply were.

            One: My name was Kara Smith Mason.

            Two: I was dead.

            And yet my eyes still opened, steadily, without a single blink or moment of hesitation as I stared at the black-red sky above me. It was a swirling mass of red clouds, covering a depthless black sky—or it might have been the other way around. I watched the movement, the constant swirl, with wide eyes, for there was movement without wind. I didn’t feel a hint of breeze on my face; I didn’t hear my heartbeat in my ears, rushing with life and adrenaline; when I swallowed, I tasted no hint of copper or tanginess, the sensations I’d expected without knowing why.

            Blood. There had been blood in my mouth, but now there was nothing. Not a whisper. Nothing to tell me what had become of Kara Smith Mason, because I knew for a fact that girl was dead.

            So who was I now?

            Slowly, I sat up, again expecting my head to be filled with fuzziness, for my vision to dance with black and white stars. But my head felt clear; nausea did not grip my stomach. Gently, I reached to feel the back of my head, and I was surprised to feel a bump within a wet mass of tangled hair. When I drew my hand back in front of my face, it was to see my fingers slick with blood.

            What is this?

            I stood on strong legs, looking down to notice the familiar clothing. The shoulders of my jacket and the front of my shirt were stained with dark blood; everything I wore was soaked, and I knew I should feel cold, but I did not. Not hot, not cold, not comfortable…but an absence. Of feeling.

            With hair dripping and rain boots squeaking, I started to walk forward. All around me was a vast nothingness, a red plain filled with red ground and black, dry cracks in the earth. Here and there a dead tree sprouted—larger than any trees I’d ever seen in my living memory—though they gave no shadow, no hint of shade. I felt as if I should be hot—scorched, even, to the bone—but the red-black sky made me feeling nothing.

            I was in an abyss. An abyss of nothingness.

 

            Is this how I will spend eternity? Walking forever? In this damnable place?

            Red. It’s everywhere, all I can see. Black interrupts everything. Every speck of red. And for every speck, there is a dot of black.

            I should be hot, maybe even cold. My clothes are wet. But I don’t feel it. I can’t feel the song in my veins. I never realized it was there…but now it’s not, and I feel that hole, that hole where the song should be. That sweet blood. But there’s nothing to keep it singing. My heart is in my chest, but it doesn’t work anymore.

            Maybe that’s the true meaning of death. Unfeeling. Nerveless. Nothingness.

            That’s death. And I’m in it.

           

            There was no night, no day. But if there had been, I knew this would be the fourth day.

            The desert ended abruptly a mere five feet in front of me. Dead, withered grass popped up from the ground there, as if some invisible line allowed plant life—however pitiful or non-living—to exist. Along with the grass, dried, shriveled trees popped up in larger numbers, clustered together as if I stood on the threshold of a once-green orchard. No leaves grew here under the red-black sky, boiling high above, but I felt more relieved than I had since death.

            Relief. I hadn’t expected to remember that emotion, as my mind was blank on how exactly I’d died. My clothes were still soaking, along with my hair; blood still leaked painlessly and numbingly down my neck, my shoulders, my back, stemming from a nasty gash on the back of my head, so deep I swore I could feel bone when I probed back there. But as I walked into the dead orchard, I realized that was the emotion I’d felt at death. Relief.

            But why?

            “Is it your fourth day, too?”

            The voice was flat, uncurious despite the question. I stopped and turned, realizing for the first time that someone stood beneath one of the dead trees, their pale white hand resting on the bone-like trunk. The girl was young—twelve?—with a blank look on her small, forgettable face. The medical gown she wore was clean except for a small bloody patch on her left shoulder.

            I hadn’t used my voice since I’d died—how could I think about that so calmly?—but now I cleared my throat, stretching my weak, frail vocal cords. “What?”

            The girl continued to stare at the tree, trailing her hand up and down the trunk. “It’s my fourth day. I think. The sky is so different here, it’s hard to tell. But I remembered something…how I felt, before I died.”

            Me too.

            She looked at me then, revealing the other side of her face, wrapped in bloody bandages, stitching peeking through the underside of her jaw. I realized the sunken socket where her eye should be was darker, more thoroughly soaked in blood, than the rest. “I think you did too, right? It’s nice to know I’m not alone…but I think I’m going to go now. I’m supposed to go back. But they won’t see me again. That’s what the voices are saying.”

            The voices.

            She had lost me. I blinked, confused; by the time I’d made up my mind on what to say, opening my mouth dumbly, she was gone, carried away on a breeze I couldn’t feel but that I could see as her body dissolved in smoke.

            Death, it seemed, didn’t leave you alone even in the afterlife.

           

            Seven days. I knew life after death was infinite, but I never imagined this vast, red-black wasteland. Desert to dead forest, without a single breeze to speak of.

            The little girl is gone, and I can’t help but wonder where she went. Perhaps it’s better than here, warmer, colder. Anything. If she can feel anything, I envy her.

            I think any place would be better than here.

            This isn’t death.

            This is Hell.

           

            It was the tenth day, and there was a castle.

            I stared at it from where I stood on the edge of the cliff I’d miraculously discovered I was on, miles of dead grass and trees stretching between the valley that separated the cliffs from the castle. It was a great big, black thing, with sharp, spiraling towers and an ominous presence even from this distance. I knew, without wondering how I knew, that I had to be there.

            Looking down, I took in the steep drop below. Had I jumped in life, there would be no question on my chances of survival: none. But here, with the red-black sky and the dead grass and my silent heart, I didn’t have to think twice as I jumped, closing my eyes.

            When I opened them, I was on the ground, sprawled on my stomach, staring at the vast stretch of land between myself and the black castle far in the distance. I stood, feeling nothing but the wet drip of water from my hair and the constant rolling of blood down my neck and shoulders. And, not dreading the walk ahead of me, I started forward.

            I could walk forever, I realized, only slightly disturbed. I could keep walking like this for an eternity, and I wouldn’t care. I would count the days, know the number of hours, and still it would feel like a minute.

            I wasn’t sure if the thought was reassuring…or terrifying.

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