Midnight was drawing near.
Within the stone-cladded chamber I now called my bedroom, I shivered as I felt the coolness of the air upon my body. Outside, the wind whistled as it blew between the granite gravestones.
As I sat there upon my bed, my head still reeling with the revelations of the day, I found myself questioning again and again how exactly I'd come to be here.
My name is Amelia Zara Livingstone... and I wasn't always the mysterious gothic maiden you now see before you. My transformation into that person was very recent indeed. Why, only that morning, I would have considered myself a very vibrant and outgoing woman.
I had gone down to my local gym for my morning swim. I was a regular there, and as I lowered myself into the cool water, I saw a few familiar faces paddling and doing lengths all around me. I was a bit more exhausted than usual, and my muscles were somewhat sore. I'd been rushing around like a greyhound at the office all week, helping with a big project: dashing to and fro constantly, and carrying big piles of paperwork here, there and everywhere. In truth, I could barely keep my eyes open... but I thought a quick dip in the water would wake me up a bit and do me some good.
It was a stupid mistake.
After swimming a couple of lengths, I could feel my eyelids drooping as the exhaustion really hit me. I did my best to push through it, but my arms and legs rebelled - seizing up with painful cramps, refusing to move... and causing me to sink slowly into the deep water.
Desperately, I tried to scramble back up to the surface, but by now, the tiredness had utterly consumed me - essentially rendering me a helpless ragdoll.
As I bobbed up and down in the water like an apple on Halloween, with the water completely closing in above my head, I felt the last of my ever-weakening breaths leave my lips... everything around me being consumed by a bright white light...
As I slowly stirred awake, I found myself in a vast, empty space - stretching endlessly as far as one could see. It wasn't a room, a landscape, or like anything I'd ever known. Rather, it was a complete absence of anything... the definition of the middle of nowhere.
Panicking, I frantically looked around for anything recognizable - my head whirling like a spinning top. Then, I spotted it. A thin, tall black shadow a few yards away from me. It wasn't the most reassuring sight in the world, but at least it was something in this horrific endless void.
Rising awkwardly to my feet, I hurried towards it. But then, as it came into focus, I stopped in shock: my blood running cold as I realized what - or rather who - it actually was.
"Oh, God," I choked in horror. "Did I...? Am I...?"
"Greetings, Amelia Zara Livingstone," the Grim Reaper replied - his deep, sinister voice echoing in an ethereal manner. "I have come to take you to the next world."
No. No, this couldn't be happening. I was too young. Far too young. I was only twenty-one years old - little more than a teenager. In my prime.
My knees buckled as the reality of the situation hit me at full force. Looking up into the Reaper's face - or rather, the empty space beneath his hood where a face would have been - I clasped my hands together in a gesture of supplication, tears rolling down my cheeks.
"Please, sir," I pleaded. "I don't want to die. Surely this has happened before my time?"
"Fate decides your time. Your own thoughts on the matter are of little consequence."
Falling forward onto my hands, I allowed myself to crumble into a weeping, crawling mess.
"Oh God - this can't be happening! There was so much more I wanted to do with my life!"
"Such as what, mortal?"
"You know... find love. Motherhood. A family. A big family. I wanted that more than anything in the world. Now, I'll never have the chance!"
I risked a glance up at the Reaper. To my surprise, he appeared to be listening to me - a hand raised to his non-existent chin in thought.
"A big family, you say?" he cooed. "Well, if that's the case... then maybe we can make some sort of arrangement, after all. Postpone this... trivial little matter."
Reaching down towards me, he clutched my shoulders - his touch as cold as ice - and pulled me gently up to my feet.
"I can understand your feelings about this whole "death" thing," he went on. "But you mortals never take mine into consideration. Collecting all of the souls in the world is a very tough job, you know. Long hours, with little reward, and certainly no gratitude. In all honesty... I could use a little help. And perhaps you could provide it."
"How do you mean?"
"Helpers," he said. "About... 20 or so. Heck, let's call it 26. One for each letter of the alphabet. Won't that be droll?"
"Surely," I stammered in alarm, "you're not suggesting... that I should go out and kill 26 innocent people?"
The Reaper laughed - his loud, low chuckle booming like thunder.
"Goodness, no!" he told me hurriedly. "I have no wish for you to take life. Rather... to give it."
"I don't understand."
"You want to experience motherhood?" he said. "Well, here's your chance. I'll restore your life to you, but in return... you must live in a residence of my choosing, and have 26 children, all by different men. That's plenty of romances to fulfil your desire for love. You name each one after a different letter of the alphabet, all the way from A to Z. When they grow up, and leave home, they will come straight to me - "
"My God, you can't - "
"No, mortal. Not to die... but to become wondrous beings. Fellow Reapers, to work at my side. To lighten my load. They will become eternal. Immortal. All-powerful. Exist beyond the realms of life. And you, as their earthly mother, will receive great rewards when your own years are at an end. A first-class ticket to the highest sphere of Heaven... guaranteed."
My eyes widened.
"26 children?!" I cried. "Surely that's... that's impossible!"
"Not at all. I will give you plenty of remaining years on Earth so you can complete the task. When I offer a deal, I always give a mortal a fair chance. But, of course, if you don't meet your quota - there will be a price to pay."
"This place - this absence of anything - will become your eternal prison once you leave your life behind. No hope of heaven, nor of hell. Just existence in a vast, never-ending void for the rest of time."
I shuddered. Even Hell would be better than a fate like that. At least there, there would be things to see and do - horrific as they were. Not to mention other lost souls.
"You don't have to take this deal, of course," the Reaper went on. "Just come with me now, and we'll say no more about it."
I thought everything through carefully. I certainly didn't want to die now... but was such a mammoth task really achievable? Then again - it was a chance.
The only chance I had to go on living.
"All right!" I told the Reaper sharply - summoning all the confidence I could muster. "I'll do it. 26 children, to serve at your side."
Raising his hood to meet my face - almost as if he was trying to make eye contact - the Reaper offered me his skeletal hand. Grasping it tightly, I shook it... sealing the deal.
"Pleasure to do business with you."
Suddenly, out of nowhere, his other hand darted towards me, pushing me violently in the chest - a burning sensation breaking out upon my skin within milliseconds.
As I tumbled backwards onto the ground below, shrieking in pain, the whiteness around me began to fade away. I had but a moment to look up at the Reaper, his hooded "face" glaring down at me, before he too melted away before my eyes...
"Is she dead?"
"No, look - she's still breathing!"
"Her eyelids are fluttering - I think she's waking up!"
Gradually, I regained consciousness as the chattering voices grew in volume. Beneath my back, I could feel the slippy wet coolness of the poolside tiles. Sitting up, I opened my eyes... and there, stood in the spot where the Reaper had been moments before, was the lifeguard - a gaggle of fellow swimmers having gathered around me.
I had been saved.
"Are you all right, Miss?" someone asked.
"Yes," I replied. "Yes, I'm fine. I just had a funny turn, that's all."
"Hey!" some punky teen piped up. "Cool tattoo!"
Tattoo? What was he talking about? Glancing down, I stifled a horrified gasp as I noticed the bizarre marking that had appeared upon my upper chest - my hand racing towards it as I stroked it timidly with my fingertips.
A skull, attached to a pair of bony, fossil-like wings... reminiscent of a fallen angel.
The Reaper's mark of the covenant.
As the lifeguard continued to ask me questions, I found myself unable to answer them: my heart racing in my chest, my head whirring and my thoughts muddled. Excusing myself, I hastily scuttled back to the changing room - longing to just get out of there and hurry home.
God knows how many cups of chamomile tea I drank this afternoon. Normally, one was enough to soothe my nerves, but this time, I was glugging down a whole pot's worth, and it wasn't doing the trick. I had never felt so anxious in all my life.
I tried to convince myself that this was all some crazy dream - that I hadn't even got out of bed yet that morning. Or, that I had drowned, and this all some crazy coma hallucination I was having in the hospital. But that did nothing to explain the tattoo that was now branded across my chest. A good scrub with soap and water had proved to me that it was here to stay.
By sunset, I was feeling so exhausted from everything, I just wanted to lay down and get some sleep. But, as I headed into my bedroom, I spotted a familiar figure stood on the lawn outside - watching me through the window.
He was waiting for me.
It was then, for the first time, that the magnitude of what had I done truly dawned on me. I had sold my entire fate and future for the privilege of a continued life. Everything - even where I lived - was now in the hands of the Reaper. What's more, I had sworn to bring 26 children into this world. A painful process, no doubt, and raising that many kids on my own would be far from a walk in the park.
Well - one thing was certain. If I had to go live at some unknown location and spend my remaining years perpetually pregnant, then I sure as hell wasn't doing it without packing a few essentials first.
Ten minutes later, I stepped out onto the porch with my suitcase, ready to leave my current life behind. The Reaper looked me up and down curiously - clearly examining my new Gothic attire.
"I... I like your outfit."
"Well - I figured I ought to look the part," I replied. "You should see what I'm going to wear when I meet the men. Anyway - where am I headed?"
"Forgotten Hollow. There's a little place there that I believe is fitting for you."
He walked with me to the bus station, and then sat beside me on the passenger seat as I boarded the outbound shuttle from Willow Creek. I was rather concerned that people might panic when they spotted the Grim Reaper sat twiddling his thumbs on board the 241, but he explained that no-one aside from myself was able to see him. A couple of people attempted to sit down next to me in what they perceived to be an empty seat, but reconsidered after a moment or two. He might have been invisible, but clearly, my new acquaintance was still making his presence felt.
Within the hour, the Reaper and I were walking together through the front gate of my new abode. It was a small stone shack surrounded by gravestones - two dead trees planted upon the dry, unkempt lawn.
"I did think a penthouse suite was a long shot," I said drily.
"This building is known as The Old Mausoleum," the Reaper told me. "Its history is in the name... but since then, it has been converted into a little house. It's a bit drafty, and the floorboards creak, but it has everything you'll need to get by. Kitchen, bathroom, bedroom - even a large empty room for you to redecorate."
"Well, with so many children... you're going to need a nursery, aren't you?"
As I walked towards the front door, I heard my "employer" call from behind me.
"I wish you luck in your task," he said, with an unusual sincerity. "I'm looking forward to meeting my helpers. And remember... I'll be watching you."
As I turned back to face him, I saw that he had vanished into the night.
Well, here I am. Alone in my new bedroom, living in a shack in an old graveyard in a neighbourhood I'd never even visited before today. I'm going to get some rest now, but from tomorrow, I've got to spend the rest of my days seducing men to produce children for the Grim Reaper. Even now, as I say it back to myself, it sounds simply too bizarre to be true.
Life has taken a very strange turn for me.
But still... at least I still have my life.
This work is going to be a mix of occasional storytelling, and more relaxed, report-like challenge writing. Storytelling sections will be written in italics, which is why I've chosen to use them here - to set the standard from the very start.
In the next part, Amelia will begin her mission!