Death wasn’t all that bad. Living had been harder. Dying hadn’t even been painful. Every pain from the battle had stopped as soon as the world had gone black. Now there was nothing left but darkness and quiet.
The screams of her friends echoed in her mind with nothing in the silence to block out the unending wails. Were they lying in the dark, too, free from pain and fear? Were they still fighting, alive and in danger?
Maybe they’d won. Maybe there was someone left to know she had died. Did they leave her in the woods? Had there been a funeral? A hearse and a casket? Flowers with bright blooms? Did it matter?
She knew only darkness. Unrelenting black.
It did seem a little unfair that death should be so boring. If this was how it was going to be, perhaps existing wasn’t worth it. Being alone with nothing but her own thoughts forever? Maggie had never expected much from death, but oblivion would have been better than knowledgeable nothingness.
Days passed in the darkness, or perhaps it was centuries. There was no way to know without anything to measure the passing of time. The blackness was maddening. It wasn’t until Maggie clenched her fist in frustration at the absolute endlessness of it all that she realized she had a hand. Two hands actually. And a back that was pressed into a hard floor.
Slowly unclenching her hands, Maggie ran her fingers across the ground. It was cool. How had she not noticed how cold the floor was? Carefully, Maggie rolled onto her stomach, feeling the darkness in all directions, stretching her toes out to see if the ground encased her or if she was lying on the precipice of a deeper blackness. But there were no walls to run into or holes to tumble through. Pushing herself onto her knees, Maggie crawled a little ways forward, expecting to find something to tell her the size of her dark prison.
But still there was nothing. Only endless darkness that she could crawl around.
“Why?” Maggie asked the darkness, finding her voice as she pushed herself to her feet. “Why should I be able to move if there is nothing to see!” She had expected an echo, but her voice drifted away as though her cage were endless.
Recklessness surged through her. She was already dead; what was the worst that could happen? Maggie took off at a run. Sprinting through the darkness. After a few minutes her legs burned, and her breathing came in quick gasps.
“Couldn’t get a nice breeze for the running dead girl, huh?” Maggie shouted.
Before the words had fully left her lips, a breeze whispered past her. Cooling the back of her neck as she ran, kissing her face and pushing her to run faster. The air even had a scent, like the ocean right after a rainstorm. The tang of salt filled her lungs. She could be running on a beach, an endless beach, but the floor was hard and maddeningly flat. And there were no sounds of crashing waves.
“I wish I could see,” Maggie whispered.
With a scream Maggie dropped to her knees, covering her face with her hands. Her heart racing in her chest, Maggie slowly opened her eyes, blinking at the bright light that surrounded her.
It was as bright as the sun but didn’t come from a fixed point in the sky. Rather it was like the air itself contained light.
The ground wasn’t the hard stone Maggie had imagined. The floor shone a bright, pale color, like it was made of pure platinum.
“It’s better than darkness,” Maggie muttered.
Now that there was light to see by, the idea that this place went on forever seemed absurd. The floor had to lead somewhere. There had to be an end to it.
“Right.” Maggie ran her hands through her hair. It was gritty with dirt and ashes and caked with blood at her temple. “Gross.” Maggie moved to wipe her hands on her jeans, but they too were covered with dirt and blood. “I couldn’t have clean clothes for eternity? All I want is a hot bath.”
As though the air had heard her words, the light around her began to shimmer, twisting and folding into a hundred different colors. Coming closer, and growing solid, until, as quickly as it began, the air stopped moving.
Maggie swallowed the bile that had risen into her throat as the world twisted, blinking to adjust her eyes to the dim light of the tent. Her arms tingled like she had just tried to do a very long spell. Maggie gripped her hands together, willing the feeling to stop as she looked around the tent. And she was standing in a tent. It was small, only large enough for the little cot that stood at one end and the tub at the other.
The tent was made of deep blue fabric, which colored the light that streamed in from outside.
“Spiced Ale for sale!” a voice bellowed right outside Maggie’s tent. She covered her mouth to keep from screaming. Slowly, she crept toward the flap of the tent.
Voices answered the ale seller’s call. Bargaining and shouting came from off in the distance, too.
She pulled back the flap of the tent just far enough to be able to peer outside with one eye. In the bright sunlight just outside of her tent was a street teeming with people. And not just wizards. There was a centaur at the end of the road, laughing with a group of witches. A troll sat not fifteen feet away from the tent.
Maggie took a breath. Centaurs and trolls existed; she had known that for years. If she were dead, then why shouldn’t she be with other members of Magickind? She gripped the tent flap, willing herself to walk onto the street and ask someone what was going on. How had death moved from eternal darkness to a crowded street?
But everyone on the street looked whole and healthy, happy even. She was covered in blood and dirt. She glanced back at the tub in the corner. Thin wisps of steam rose from the water. If she was going to spend the rest of eternity here, then she shouldn’t scare the locals looking like she had just come from a blood bath.
The dried blood on her shirt crackled as she fumbled the mud-caked plastic buttons. The water burned as she slipped into the tub.
“At least a dead girl can still get a bath.” Maggie sighed, leaning back into the water, running her fingers through her hair.
Her blood was in her hair, she knew that much for sure. And one of the wizard boys she had been fighting with, that was on her sleeve. If he had died, maybe he would be here, too. But there was more blood. She tried to think back through the fight to remember what had happened before she had fallen into darkness. But the more she thought, the more disgusted she became. There could be dozens of people’s blood on her.
“I wish I had some soap,” Maggie muttered. No sooner had she said it than a bar of soap was floating in the tub, right next to her hand. A tingle in her chest made her pause as she reached for the soap. It felt like she had done magic. Like a little bit of her power had drained away.
That part was normal, but the tiny little space that the magic had left wasn’t refilling itself. It was just empty.
Maggie scrubbed her hair and under her nails, washing her arms so hard they were bright red by the time she finally felt clean.
A soft towel waited for her next to the tub. It smelled of flowers and fresh air. Maggie breathed in the scent. Her clothes wouldn’t smell like that. They would never be clean again.
“I wish―” Maggie began, looking around the tent to see if anyone was even there to listen “―I wish for a clean set of clothes.” Her stomach rumbled. “And some food.”
Instantly, clothes appeared at the foot of the cot, and a platter of food appeared on the table, filling the tent with the scent of roasted meat.
A sharp tingling shot through Maggie’s fingers for the briefest moment. If she hadn’t been thinking about it, she might not even have noticed the tiny drain on the magic inside her. Her magic had always felt like a bottomless well before. She could feel it leaving when she did a spell, could feel her body channeling the energy, but it never seemed as though she might run out; as though there were a finite amount of magic she could access.
The scent of the food was enough to lure her from the warmth of the bath. Maggie took a shuddering breath and stood, wobbling on her shaking legs for a moment before stepping out of the tub. Maybe she wasn’t using up her magic; maybe she was just hungry.
Dripping on the grass that was the floor of the tent, Maggie sat in the spindly chair at the wooden table to eat.
She had always assumed, wrongly it seemed, that once you died you didn’t have to bother with things like feeling like you hadn’t eaten in a month. She had died only a little while ago. Or maybe it had been a hundred years.
A fresh loaf of bread sat on the carved wooden tray along with a hunk of roasted meat and a bowl of fruit. There was fruit that looked like an apple-sized blueberry that had grown spikes, bright orange berries, and a lavender thing the size of her fist that had a peel like an orange.
Maggie tore off a hunk of bread and stared at the bowl of fruit. Those weren’t normal. They weren’t real. But then maybe she wasn’t real anymore either. Her head started to spin. Not knowing what was happening was beginning to feel worse than being trapped in the darkness. Her stomach turned, and she pushed the tray of food away.
“A trip toward the sea,” a woman’s voice spoke so close to the side of the tent, Maggie could have reached out and touched her if the canvas hadn’t been in the way.
With a squeak, Maggie tipped out of her chair and fell to the ground.
“I’m tired of the streets,” the woman continued. “It’s too crowded. I want to see the Endless Sea!”
Another woman giggled something Maggie couldn’t understand, and then the two voices faded into the clatter.
Maggie lay on the ground, staring up at the blue fabric above her.
“Maggie Trent, you cannot lay here for the rest of your afterlife,” Maggie growled, digging the heels of her hands into her eyes so hard spots danced in front of them. “You are going to go out there, find a person and ask what’s going on.” She let her arms fall to her sides. “Because talking to a troll isn’t nearly as bad as lying naked in a tent talking to yourself. At least the grass is soft.” Maggie laughed. It started as a chuckle then turned quickly into a tearful laugh as panic crept into her.
She had charged into the woods knowing she might die. She had fought and killed. And then she had died. But being in a tent where food magically appeared was somehow more terrifying than fighting.
Maggie lifted her right hand, looking at the bracelet that wrapped around her wrist. It was only a bit of leather cord attached to a silver pendant. A crescent moon and three stars, the crest of the Virginia Clan. The last thing that tied her to her family. Funny that it should follow her into death.
Reaching up onto the cot, she pulled down the new clothes. A loose-fitting pale top, dark pants, and a wide, sapphire-colored belt were all she had been given. At least they were soft. Maggie pulled the clothes on, feeling a little like she was playing dress up. Not that she really remembered playing dress up. That had stopped when she was five. Twelve years before I died.
Maggie ran her fingers through her short hair and, squaring her shoulders, pulled back the flap of the tent.