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If you were to die right now, would you have any regrets?
Cailean stands beneath a spotlight in a blinding snowstorm. She has no idea where she is or how she got there, but she senses something moving around her in the darkness outside the light.
When the ominous presence calling himself Sariel makes himself known, he declares that he is Death Incarnate. Cailean has died, and now she will be forced to face the sins of her past in exchange for twenty-four hours of life to try to right her wrongs. And what she must do in return for this precious time is unthinkable.
CIRCLE OF HELL
“Who are you and what am I doing here?” Cailean said, and stared at the thick, impenetrable wall of darkness that surrounded her. She tried to focus on something that moved inside the blackness.
A single spotlight that hung overhead encased her in a perfect circle of blinding luminescence. She stepped forward and was careful not to touch the obscurity. Something about it made her cautious.
“I demand that you come closer so I can see you!”
Absolute silence greeted her like a defiant slap to the face.
She cupped her hands around her mouth, drew a deep breath, stood on her toes, and shouted, “Now, you son of a bitch!”
Vapor from her breath swirled in the unnatural light and she coughed from the strain on her throat.
Snow started to fall and flakes spun around her in a graceful, mesmerizing dance.
“I know you’re there,” she said, and paused to allow her senses to work. Just outside the distinct edge of light she could hear faint movement. The flesh on her arms goosed and she resisted the desire to back away. “Tell me what this is about. I deserve to know!”
The snow fell harder and a powerful wind blasted it sideways. It pelted her face and forced her eyes away. The feeling of something that was close and evil terrified her. But the idea that it toyed with her fueled her temper.She clenched her fists and bared her teeth.
“Is this how you get your thrills, by scaring women?”
An intensifying tangle of white distorted her perception and the overhead light made her feel that much more vulnerable.
“I am not afraid of you,” she said, and no matter how loudlyor sternly she shouted those words, she knew how weak and unbelievable they really were.
A deep, menacing chuckle filled the lighted space and she hurried to the center of the brightness. She defied the battering onslaught of powerful squalls and tried to conceal her crumbling composure.
“I don’t see what is funny about this. What are you laughing at?”
The laughter faded and the storm tapered off as if it were a calmed response to her outrage. The moment of silence that followed exposed the crack in Cailean’s armor. She was alone, unarmed, and only had her fear and confusion to accompany her.
But yet the fading echo of his laughter reminded her that she was not alone in this place. There was something beyond the light that stalked her, preyed upon her, and all she wanted to do was run and hide, but she had nowhere to go. She was trapped in a ten-foot perfect circle with knee-high snow, wearing nothing but a turtleneck sweater, boots, and a pair of worn blue jeans.
“Please,” she said.
The sound of snow crunching underfoot diverted her attention. But the noise—like the laughter—seemed to come from everywhere but nowhere in particular.
“What do you want from me?” she said, panicked, as she continued to look all around. The shadows morphed and moved and gave her the impression that there was more than one of them beyond the light.
“Your life,” he said, and the sound of his voice was like a sudden crack of thunder that made her flinch. Deep and disturbing, it carried an ominous tone that filled her with certain dread.
“Who are you?” she said again, and turned around fast to see if he stood behind her.
“I am someone beyond your understanding.”
His whereabouts were confusing and she looked elsewhere with frantic, indecisive movement. Instinct told her to stay inside the light, that it would keep her safe.
“Why am I here?” she said. “And why do you hide in the dark?”
The sensation of being watched by that thing with nothing to hide behind made her feel unclean.
“I want to know why you hide in the dark!”
“The darkness is where I dwell,” he said. “Come, I want you to see what true darkness is like.”
She stiffened, but fought against her abnegation and took a step forward to prove her bravery. “No, I won’t go where you are, I’m not stupid. Besides, I haven’t seen you, and if you let me go I won’t tell anyone about this.”
A thunderous, diabolical laughter exploded all around her, and before it faded away, the hideous bellow of his gravelly voice bore down on her.
“There is nothing for you to tell. Everyone knows of me, but they know so little about me. And where you are now is a place you can’t walk away from. I have brought you here for a purpose and it starts with my stripping you of all your excuses and exposing you for who you really were.”
“For who I was? What do you claim to know about me?”
The silence came again and it was intrusive and heavy. Cailean had a need to fill the void but struggled to find the words. Instead, she tugged on her sweater and brushed away the snow that clung to her. She bunched the sleeves into the palms of her hands and folded her arms across her chest.
“You don’t know me,” she said.
“I know more about you than anyone, even you. Although I am from the darkness, I will bring your truth to light and I will expose you.”
His words were vexing.
“Now tell me,” he said. “What is the last thing you remember?”
She licked her lips and descended deep into the archives of her mind. She searched aimlessly for the answer to his question, but the farther she went in, the farther away the answer seemed to be.
“I asked you, what was the last thing you remember?” the foul voice roared.
Ripped from her reverie she came out with nothing. “I don’t know! Being here, standing underneath this damn light, sensing you all around me, and then the snow.” She panted and a small puff of vapor escaped her mouth and barely stained the air. “I don’t know how I knew, but I did. I knew you were around, watching me. It was like I could feel you.”
A gentle chuckle came again and lingered with an ongoing echo. “That’s because we have met before, several times. You’ve had my attention since you were a young lady. I admire you for being so brave in the face of such tragedy.”
His words were tied to no memory of hers and meant nothing. She checked her position within the light, and said, “I don’t know what that is supposed to mean. I’ve already told you that I can’t remember a thing beyond waking up here underneath the light.”
“It will come to you, all of it. And it will make you appreciate this moment. I know what is said about ignorance and you will soon know that it is true. This moment is going to be the easiest of your time here because denial, anger, and blame will try to interfere with your ability to come to terms with who you were.”
“Who sent you?”
“I am not sent, I come.”
“Who are you?”
“I am everyone’s fear and wonder, ultimate desire and destination.”
“Stop it!” she said. “You speak in riddles as if this is some sort of a game to you. I demand to know what this is about!”
“I take demands from no one, and here, I obey no one.”
“You hide in the dark like a coward!”
“And you have made many horrible choices in your life, Cailean, and for that reason I have no sympathy for you.”
She ran a hand through her hair and came out with a fistful of snow. Suddenly the man beyond the light and the things he said didn’t matter anymore.
“You have affected people close to you in ways you could never imagine,” he said.
“What is happening to me?”
“Now I have your attention?”
She fell to her knees in a powdery drift of snow and pushed her hands into the mound.
“Why can’t I feel the cold?”
“You threw your life away so long ago and now you ask what happened to it?” he said.
She looked at the bleak partition. It was a wall of pitch-black nothingness that held many secrets.
“Something is wrong with me.”
“Yes,” he said. “Something has been wrong with you for a long time.”
She returned her attention to her hands. “Why can’t I feel them?”
The snowfall came again hard and fast; this time it created a whiteout.
“You need to calm yourself,” he said. “Your emotions are a tempest of confusion and can cause us great delays. You have a tough decision to make and it is going to require a sound mind. We have much to talk about and you will need to follow my instructions exactly as I give them. Now gather yourself and sit down at the table behind you.”
Cailean looked, and as the voice had said, a table and two chairs were behind her, covered in snow. She pushed herself to her feet, perplexed; she hadn’t noticed the furniture until now. She brushed the snow off of one of the chairs.
“You are in a large room with a door at either end,” he said. “Each door has a different fate for you. I am going to help you remember the decisions of your life, and once you have seen it all, I am going to ask you to choose which door you prefer.”
“What are you talking about? What door?” Cailean lifted a hand to fend off the continuous barrage of frozen pellets that obscured her vision. She scanned the white wall and wept. “I can’t see a damn thing. How am I supposed to know which door to choose?”
She sat heavily in the chair.
The quiet reigned, and with it, the snowfall thinned off. She stopped crying and her eyes widened as they swept over the pasty silhouette of a tall shadow man standing hunched at the edge of the black veil. He appeared darker than anything she had ever seen before—even the denseness outside the light she occupied.
“Who are you? And why don’t you come closer so I can see you?” she said, and mopped her eyes with the back of her hand.
“I’ve told you that the darkness is where I dwell. Besides, if you were to see me for what I am—”
“For what you are? What is that supposed to mean?” She stood up, took a few steps forward and tried to make out specifics. His form held many secrets and appeared as a stain on the blackness.
“Sit back down,” he said. “We have much to consider.”
Cailean looked at the chair and then back at the shadow man. “I’m not going to sit until you tell me what this is about!” she said, and grunted. She staggered backwards and fell into the chair.
“Did you do that to me?” she said, her eyes wide with surprise. She could feel where the hands had shoved her. “Did you just push me?”
“I will do what must be done to get you to follow my instructions while you are here. So much depends on it.”
She looked all around her, and to her dismay, she was certain that she alone occupied the light. There was no trace of him entering or leaving the circle.
“Please,” she said and continued to look here and there. She slid to the edge of her seat and worry softened her expression. “I just want to know what this is about.”
The man remained motionless at the edge of the light. And although hidden, she could feel his piercing stare.
“I need you to look at the light over your head,” he said.
Cailean thought to defy him, but she remembered the force behind the shove and her uncertainty as to how he had done that. She looked at the light.
“Now, exhale,” he said.
Unsure what this would prove, she drew a deep breath and exhaled. No vapor formed and she did it again with the same result. Her eyes widened and she jumped to her feet. “Please, I’m scared!” she said, and moved towards the shadow man. He retreated into the darkness.
“Cailean,” he said. “You are dead to the world you know and I am the one who brings death to the people. I am called Sariel, and I’ve brought you here, to an aperture. It’s a place I’ve created especially for you, and it is located between the living and the dead. I’ve brought you here to show you the sins of your past and to offer you a chance at redemption.”