An animated GIF banner made by me, with the help of Adobe Photoshop, for the Danse Macabre universe.Happy Halloween, All Saint's Eve, Samhain, and all the other holidays and celebrations going on this October 31! I bring you a spooky story from an ongoing project called Danse Macabre, a roleplay universe written in collaboration with the fantastic Jay B. I'm not entirely sure how well the story stands on its own, as it was written as a prequel to the main roleplay, but we'll see how it goes.
They didn't want her lingering at the graveyard. Sable Kfir had been so dysfunctional at the funeral they'd had to end it early, and watching her parents' burial was sure to trigger another breakdown. But she'd insisted on seeing it, and on being alone, so the DSS workers waited outside the cemetery gate as the eighteen-year-old approached the two coffins.
The undertaker came to rest at her side. He tipped his hat as a way of greeting. Sable did not look at him, and he did not stop looking at her.
“Just do it,” she said.
“Sa k’genyen, pitit?” asked the undertaker, raising an eyebrow.
“I don't speak whatever language that is.”
“Kreyòl ayisyen,” he corrected. “Haitian Creole.”
His eyes flickered in the edge of her vision and registered as something unsettling. Evolutionary instincts kicked in. She jolted away from him and toward the ground being prepared for the burial. Fight, or flight, or both. She chose to close her eyes and let the adrenaline out slowly, in the tapping of her fingers against the side of her leg. It briefly crossed her mind to buy a knife.
“Who the f— are you?”
“Be respectful, pitit. This is no way to honor the memory of your loved ones.” He approached her once more, this time stepping directly in her path. Sable saw immediately what had startled her: his eyes were a shade of blue that she had never seen before, almost black but still bright and alive as he looked her over. “Would your fathers have wanted you to swear at me? To make a scene purely because a black man looked at you askance?” He clucked his tongue.
She hadn't even registered that he was black. His reproach, however, made her stomach churn. “Shut up. You didn't even know them.”
“Did I?” He turned his gaze to the coffins, side by side. “Tim and Ryan Kfir, 35 and 36. Car accident, killed by a drunk driver on the wrong side of the freeway. They were coming back from a high school reunion. Adult party, you weren't invited.” He paused. “The drunk, Richard Ladd, also died. An uneven exchange, but that's how these things are.”
Sable glared at the undertaker. She tapped her fingers faster and faster, but she could not close her eyes or try to forget the man. “Who are you? More importantly, who the f— do you think you are? Is this some kind of joke I wasn't let in on? Or do you want to seal my one-way ticket on the f—ing crazy bus?”
The man laughed. He. Laughed. “Pitit—”
She slammed her fist into his impossibly-blue left eye and gave the rest of him one hard push. Without waiting for his reaction, she stomped on his foot for good measure and stormed toward the gate.
A dark hand wrapped around her waist, pulling her back. “Someday you'll feel more comfortable in graveyards,” the undertaker murmured in her ear, and then let go.
When she turned to face him, he was gone.
She sat on top of a crypt and watched the actual burial from the other side of the graveyard. All the while, her fingers drummed a frantic rhythm into the stone—tap tap tap tap, tap tap tap tap—as if to remind her of her own heartbeat.
She was in the graveyard again in her dreams that night. So was the undertaker, though dressed more finely this time, in a black and red waistcoat and tails. Sa fè lontan, Sable, he said without speaking.
“I still have no clue what you're saying.” Sable crossed her arms. “What do you want with me? Why are you following me?”
You called me, pitit. You were wondering how I knew about your fathers, why I spoke the way I did about the exchange.
“It wasn't an exchange, it was murder.”
The undertaker sighed. He held out his palm and an hourglass appeared, the same impossible blue as the man's eyes. People don't understand death. They think it's caused by events that are under their control—sins, accidents, murders, medicine. You all think that if you follow the rules, it won't be as cruel to you. “Thou art slave to fate, chance, kings, and desperate men”—wrong. Human and wrong. My friend La Mort is not the slave, but the mistress.
“You have a friend called Death?” A pause. “You called me 'human'. But you're... not. What the f— are you?”
Such language. He shook his head. Someday I shall have to delete that word from your mind, replace it with something more appropriate. I am L'Ordre, pitit. I am your—remind me, child, what deity you worship, so I might choose the right word?
In the dream, Sable's limbs grew restless. She began to run away, and was almost at the gate when a too-familiar hand pulled her back. I have infinite time, said L'Ordre. You do not have the same luxury. I would suggest that you not waste it.
She made the mistake of looking into his eyes again. The glow of them was as good as a hundred-pound weight in anchoring her feet to the ground. “Did you kill my dads?” she asked, voice suddenly very small.
Insofar as I kill every child's parents, and every parents' child. For a moment, Sable thought she saw a scythe in his free hand. It was gone the next second, then back again. It is not a matter of blame, but of inevitability. Remember that you are nothing but dust. And to dust you shall return.
There was a long silence. Then: “My therapist is going to have a field day.”
You should listen to your therapist. She's right more often than you'd think.
Sable felt the earth underneath her begin to shake. She balled up her hands into fists and struck at L'Ordre, again and again, and each time he only laughed louder. She kicked his gut. She dug her fingernails in his face to gouge out those hypnotizing eyes of his. But there was never anything but laughter from the undertaker, so she screamed herself awake and spent the rest of the night sobbing, in fear of going back to sleep.
They found her in the graveyard the next morning, having searched for hours before checking the last possible place they thought she'd be. Sable was curled up in a ball next to the headstone marked Timothy and Ryan Pearson Kfir.
Tiffany, her therapist, approached slowly. “Sable?”
“Get away from me!” The girl threw her hand out, clutching a pen knife in her grip.
“Sable, where did you get that? Sable!” Tiffany gave a panicked glance back at the others. “Sable! Will you give me the knife?”
“Will that get you to go away? Take it!” She flung it aside and began breathing rapidly, working herself up into a frenzy.
“Sable, what happened?” The therapist's voice was tender, but her brows furrowed in confusion. “You were doing so well yesterday, at the burial. Come on. Let's get you inside, I'll get you some hot tea, and we can ta—”
“Just leave!” Sable spat out. “I'm dead! You're dead! We're all just running away from the inevitable and there's nothing we can do! E-except lie here and wait for L-L-L'Ordre—”
“We're dust! Ashes to f—ing ashes! I can see the sand in the hourglass and it's falling so fast...” She squeezed her eyes shut. Slowly, her fingers started moving. Tap tap tap tap. Tap tap tap tap. After a moment, she asked, quieter, “Do you think they're at rest?”
Tiffany crouched down next to her patient. “Do you?”
“I think—I th-ink they're—they're at more rest than I am.” Sable ran her fingers through her hair, pulling it down over her face. It had been blonde, but it was growing gray. Why was it growing gray? Why?
“Sable.” The girl could hear Tiffany's breathing, so much calmer than her own. “Do you think you can come inside now?”
She did. As the party left the graveyard, Sable's pen knife lay in the grass, unnoticed. The handle turned and lengthened, until the weapon took the form of a miniature scythe—then a snake—and then disappeared altogether.
She played cello in the graveyard, in her next dream. She was atop the crypt, watching the burial once more, and playing “Nearer My God to Thee.” She had never set foot in a church—all the churches around here were uncomfortable with her dads' marriage—and sure as hell didn't believe in God's goodness anymore, but she'd learned the tune at school.
L'Ordre came from behind her. You dropped this. He lay the pen knife beside her. I didn't know you played.
Sable responded by bringing the note she was playing to a screeching stop. “I haven't played in forever.”
Pity. You're very good. The sounds of eight other cellos joined in with a counter-melody to the hymn. Sable started to pick up the melody again, then stopped just as abruptly. “What do you want with me?”
A blade began slicing its way out from inside the cello bow. Sable stared at it, then at L'Ordre. The immortal undertaker smiled. Sable. Sand, in my language. Black, in yours. There are desert storms in the hourglass of your time. Eske ou vle danse?
Her eyes widened. “Why do I have a scythe?”
Those at rest need protecting, what weapon is more suitable? The immortal raised an eyebrow. Sable, I do not choose these things. I only understand them, and my place in them. We have a year, perhaps two, of safety. But everything is stirring. All creation that should have been asleep, awakening. The agreement we gods have created is crumbling. La Diablesse is creating her strongest mortal vessel yet, and La Mort is blind to the treachery of her own. I need a champion. For a moment, it looked as if his skin had disappeared and the blue-black eyes were staring at her from a bare skull. I need you, Sable.
“That’s great.” Her voice shook even as she formed her retort. “But I don’t want to play.”
You have no choice. When the gods move our feet, we dance, do we not?
“You think we’re… dancing.”
That's all we’ve ever done, pitit.
“Don’t call me that. I looked it up and it’s condescending. I'm not a child.” Sable stared numbly at the god’s skull-head and its dark, fascinating eyes. “What if I just refused to acknowledge you? Where would you be if I weren’t your mortal vessel?”
Burning. The eyes flared, beginning to glow. Burning with you and the rest of the world, in Chaos’s grip. Millennia of civilizations—gone. Destroyed in a single instant by the anger of the living dead.
There was no change in Sable's eyes. She let go of the cello bow and watched, passive, as the scythe clattered onto the stone base of the crypt. “I don’t think you understand,” she said. She glanced briefly back up at L’Ordre, but he had returned to human form, the allure of his eyes lost. “I don't care.”
With that, she awoke, though she felt no difference in waking than in being asleep—or in being dead.
“Different people process grief in different ways.” The teakettle whistled. Tiffany walked over to the stove to turn off the burner. “This—nightmare of yours, this immortal character your subconscious has created—your dialogues with him may be an important part of how your mind heals.” She poured some tea into a Map of Oregon mug and slid it across the table toward Sable.
“It scares me, though.” The teenager ran her fingers through her hair. It was practically all gray now. She would have to dye it not to look like an Obvious Trauma Victim. Platinum blond, maybe. “Can’t you give me meds?”
“That’s for your psychiatrist to decide, not for me,” said Tiffany. “What about the nightmare scares you?”
“Aside from a skeleton creep harassing me about my oncoming death?” Sable rolled her eyes. “Gee, I dunno. Guess it’s not a problem anymore.”
“I’m not doubting that this is a terrifying experience for you.”
“The closer you get to pinpointing exactly what it is that frightens you, the more you and I can work on conquering those fears and dispelling the nightmares.”
A long silence. “What are you thinking?” asked Tiffany.
“I just…” Sable began to drum the pencil she was holding against the table. Tap tap tap tap. Tap tap tap tap. “What frightens me most is… Sometimes, I can’t tell what's the dream and what’s life. Sometimes I think he’s real, that the apocalypses he’s talking about are gonna happen, that what he says about me… is true.”
“What kinds of things does he say about you?”
“It’s stupid. This is all just—stupid.”
“No, it isn't. Sable, this could help you.” Tiffany's eyes met Sable's. “Please. Trust me.”
Tap tap. Taptaptap. “He says I’m his champion, a Grim Reaper that makes sure the rested—the dead—stay at peace. Some unpronounceable French name lady wants to wake them all up, and I have to stop them.”
“Stop your parents from coming back to life?”
“Yes. No. Not exactly.” Sable frowned. “They would never really be alive. That's not something that can ever be done. It's more like a necromancer desecrating their corpses and twisting their images into things that they're not.”
Tiffany quickly wrote something down on her notepad. “Did he say this in the dreams?”
“No. I just understood it. When he talked about it, I understood it. But I don't want to believe it.”
“If it makes you feel any better, that's one of the signs that you're dreaming—suddenly knowing things without being told.” She turned to the computer, did a search, and printed something. “Here's a list of tests that you can try to see if you're dreaming. Sometimes, if you realize you're asleep, that what you're seeing isn't real, you can control the dream and control your fear. It's called lucid dreaming.”
Sable took the list and scanned it. See if you still have the sensation of touch. Make a mark on your hand before you go to sleep and see if it's still there. Spin an object, like a top, and see if it keeps going longer than normal. Look for sudden, inexplicable changes in written test.
“Just remember this for me, Sable.” Tiffany leaned forward. “Whatever you confront in your dreams, it's something important your subconscious is telling you to confront. Controlling it doesn't mean just ignoring it.”
“Fine.” Say something completely nonsensical and see how the dream-characters respond. Pay attention to large leaps in time that you can't remember experiencing. “Thank you.”
“You're not real.”
Am I? That depends on your definition of “real.”
They stood on top of a crypt surveying a graveyard Sable had never seen before. It was a graveyard she would go to, in the future—she knew that. How did she know that?
“You're not real,” she said. “This is a dream. This is my subconscious.”
Oh, are we in denial now? L'Ordre raised an eyebrow. Or have we moved on to bargaining at last?
“This is a dream!” Sable threw her knife up into the air. It hovered, lingering just a moment too long. “None of this is real. And it's time for me to move on.” She crossed her arms. “Time to wake up.”
This is nonsense.
“No, this is. I'm going to marry Bob Dole and raise penguins in Guam.”
You're trying the dream tests, said L'Ordre. Don't you know they don't apply when the gods come to call?
“You're not a god. You're not even a person. You're a dream, a symbol.”
The immortal sighed. Even if I were a dream—which I'm not—your therapist said not to ignore that I tell you. What I speak of, La Dissension and the army of ghosts—it is very real. The dead are waking. I need to make you strong—
“Don't toy with me.” Sable jumped from the crypt and fell onto a bed of grass growing over a grave. She looked up at the so-called god and spat at him. “I'm done with you. I'm so f—ing done, you hear me?”
“No!” She scrambled to her feet. Looking down at the grass, she could see hundreds of white snakes slithering where the grass had been. She squeezed her eyes shut. “This isn't real, this isn't real, this isn't real.”
Sable. You think I am destroying your life. But I am saving it. L'Ordre crossed his bare arms. Don't think I don't know what you wished. At your fathers' funeral. At the burial. You wanted to die. You wanted to jump in the grave and be buried alive. You wanted to be at rest, with the ones you love. He smiled—smirked, really—and the distinct sound of a snake's hiss escaped his lips. Then I came and you're full of life again. Angry, yes, and not without your fair share of trauma, but alive. I'm digging you out of your grave as we speak.
Snakes were slithering up her legs, twisting around her arms, but she could not feel them. “Stop making excuses.”
I will help you feel alive again.
“I think that's something I have to do for myself.” She looked up at him. “Goodbye. You're not real.”
She took her dream-knife, stabbed her dream-self, and woke up with a grim smile.