Dance to the end of life

Submitted into Contest #117 in response to: Set your story at the boundary between two realms.... view prompt


Adventure Fantasy

Sasha listened intently to the wind in the trees. The hush-swish sound pounded against her ears, making her pulse race. She felt like a tightly strung violin, responsive to the slightest disturbance around her. A distant crash of thunder made her jump, and she sternly reminded herself that she'd been preparing for this moment all her life- there was nothing to fear.

But deep down, she knew that there was everything to fear. Her family's life hung in the balance. Her pace quickened at the thought.

It had been a long and arduous journey to this forest. She'd spent an entire day trudging through it, her only guide a map she'd constructed from old-wives' tales. Her destination- or was it destiny?- lay at the very heart of this remote woodland. Sasha had lost count of the number of times she'd invoked the ancient song of her house, calling upon her ancestors to guide her steps. She was exhausted and numb, but that didn't stop her. She had to find the gatekeeper, she thought desperately, or all would be lost.

This was her chance to plead to the ancient spirits to lift the curse that lay upon her family. Tonight she would break the curse, or join her ancestors. Tonight, if all she'd learnt was true, the forest floor would open, unleashing the souls who lay beneath into the world of the living. On other days of the year, the spirits roamed the realm between the living and dead, embracing neither, yearning for either. The gatekeeper of the realm whom Sasha sought was lost to memory, and only lived in whispered tales. He alone could open the realm for her and give her the Sight, to see the spirits for an hour.

A little poem from an old tale stirred in her thoughts, and she bit her lip as she scanned the skyline. She should be able to see the gatekeeper soon.

Those who seek shall recognise,

my eternal darkness born of light.

Speak your prayer in seven breaths,

and I shall release a thousand heads.

A chill ran up her spine. The forest was thinner here, and she'd reached her destination. The gatekeeper stood tall and terrible in the midst of fallen trees, like the sole survivor of a vicious battle. Sasha slowly approached the gigantic, silent silhouette engulfed in blackness, sharp and eerie against clouded skies. Few living souls had been in its presence and lived to tell the tale.

In front of her was a tree that had been struck down by lightning. Its stony roots formed curious pillars that towered above her, giving the tree the appearance of an upturned umbrella. Its seven naked branches were flung upward to the everlasting night in eternal prayer.

For a long moment, Sasha couldn't speak, overcome with excitement and fear. Then, she raised her arms to the gatekeeper and intoned her prayer, once in each direction of the seven branches.

Almost at once, the ground beneath her heaved. Sasha screamed and fell, trying, and failing, to catch herself on one of the root-pillars. But before her flailing hands could reach them, she was caught by a phantom hand and thrown up into the skies.

For a breathtaking, heart-pounding, horrifying moment, Sasha was suspended in the air, looking down at the forest below which had come to ghostly life. She glimpsed a sea of winking blue against the dark forest-green before she plunged back to her certain death. Her screams were lost in the inhumane screeches that filled the air, and nothing could save her- certainly not the dancing sprites and dervishes- hadn't the gatekeeper reached out and caught her. She was set back ungently on her feet, and she immediately dove behind one of the pillars, staring with wide, terrified eyes at the mayhem she'd unwittingly unleashed.

Thirteen ghosts were dancing around one of the fallen trees, singing a song that sounded like wind whistling through reeds. There were spirits who flew about, tossing up clods of earth and throwing rocks and stones at each other. Others crooned over sprouting mushrooms, breathing a stale breath over them that instantly turned the mushrooms a dark, earthy brown. Sasha watched hundreds of sprites as they swished up into the branches of nearby trees, tearing down twigs and leaves.

'What have I done?' Her eyes filled with tears. These spirits were merely destructive!

Patience, a voice resounded in her head. They have been chained for centuries.

The gatekeeper shook its branches, and the spirits fell silent.

Heed my voice, the gatekeeper commanded. A young soul has set us free.

A low murmur swept across the clearing. Sasha felt a sense of foreboding, and tried to suppress it.

We must pay our debts.

The spirits twisted around to look for their benefactor. Sasha straightened her shoulders and stepped around the gatekeeper, coming into full view.

A deathly hush fell upon them as they stared at each other. Their bluish faces glowed menacingly in the dark, their mien in stark contrast to their previous glee.

'I wish they'd go back to laughing,' Sasha thought in terror. 'Their silence terrifies me.'

"I come to beg your aid for my family," she pleaded. The unnerving stillness persisted and she hurried on. "Many years ago, my mother was crossing the sea to the northern islands when she caught a fish. She was shocked to find that he could speak. He asked her to let him go, but she refused, thinking he would fetch her a fair price to put a roof over her head. He was angered, and cursed her that she would only bear daughters who were half-alive, half-dead. In terror, she released him, but it was too late."

Sasha stopped, out of breath. The spirits were listening intently now.

"I was born on Hallow's Eve. My earliest memories are those of darkness in a world of light. Doctors call it many things. My sisters are consigned to the darkness of asylums. I alone escaped, heeding my mother's warnings to hide myself.

I come before you now to beg clemency. I am prepared to do anything for my sisters, anything at all. Please, tell me what I should do to break this curse!"

Curses cannot be broken. A voice sighed. But we can help.

Sasha's heart leapt in her chest.

The spirits linked hands, and formed a circle around her.

Dance with us. They cooed. Dance the dance of death.

Bewildered, Sasha found that she was being lifted into the air, again. This time, it was on the wings of a gentle wind, and she was spun gently around, like a fairy.

Dance. Dance the dance of life.

Sasha tried, she did, but the wind was too strong. She merely followed its movement, and allowed her body to weave with the pulsing beat.


Was it her fancy? Or did she see her sisters' faces flash by?

Dance our dance, they sang. The wind was a howling gale now.

Sasha closed her smarting eyes. The last thing she saw was the gatekeeper, with the seven arms raised in eternal dance.

October 29, 2021 16:32

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