The door clanging shut behind me squirted adrenalin from my stomach to my fingertips, setting my limbs on fire and shutting off the sounds of the festival as suddenly as if I’d died. The only sound I could hear in the pitch black of the Tower was my own panting gasps – until I stopped to wet dry lips and realised someone else was breathing too.
I scrabbled backwards against the door, but the long, rattling breaths drew closer. Something touched my foot. I screamed, flinging myself at the foot-thick block of spelled wood that separated me from life. I dug at it, long splinters tearing off in my fingertips, nail beds – and something touched my shoulder.
I froze, eyes screwed closed, little panicked breaths my only movement.
The whispered voice scraped over me like bones rattling in the wind, and I pressed against the door. “Please,” I whispered as my chest heaved. “Don’t hurt me.”
Cold fingers trailed down my spine and wind fluttered at my cheek. “We will not hurt you, so long as you bear the wreath.”
My fingers convulsed against the splintered door. The wreath. I’d dropped the wreath.
I whirled around, slamming my back against the wood. Where was the wreath? It could be anywhere in the dark, it could be—
Against all odds, the wreath lay right at my feet, and I could see it in the dark. Orange flowers bound into a circle with bright orange ribbons, glowing faintly against the Tower’s pitch-blackness. I glanced to where I’d last heard the voice, then snatched the wreath from the ground and hugged it to my chest. “I’ve got it,” I said, voice barely tremoring. “You can’t hurt me now. You promised.”
A susurrus of voices crested around me, whispers buffeting me from all sides. “Cannot hurt you… Will not harm… The wreath… The wreath! … Lead us on…”
I clutched the wreath tighter. “Who… Who are you?”
The susurrus rose again, but before I could make it into words the first voice spoke. “You know who we are, and what we require. We are the dead. You will lead, and we will follow.”
Licking my lips again, I nodded. “Yes. Lead you.” My shoulder blades dug against the gouged door and my chest still heaved. I scrunched my eyes closed against the eternal darkness. Lead the dead. Why me? Why now? A sob strangled me as I thought of the sky blue dress tucked away in a closet at my mother’s house, a dress I’d never need wear now.
One day. Just one more day, and I’d have been safe.
I swiped furiously at the tears that breached my eyelids. “Yes,” I said, more strongly this time. “Yes, I am here to lead you.”
I was here to lead them, and lead them I would, because I was part of the Tower now, and no one ever came out of the Tower.
“What… What happens if I lose the wreath?” I asked, eyes still closed.
Soft breezes swept my cheek, my forehead, my hair. “Feya,” the voices whispered. “Feya.”
My heart hammered in my chest. “What will happen to me?”
The first voice, the loudest, replied. “If the wreath is lost, then you will not see the way. You will wander among us until you become us. Then you will hope that the next Wreath-Bearer succeeds where you will have failed.”
I swallowed. Nineteen years. It had been nineteen years since the last successful Wreath-Bearer, and the spirits of the dead had been collecting in the Tower all that time, unable to find their way to rest without a Bearer to guide them. Nineteen years. Chances were not great that I would succeed where many stronger had failed.
Something niggled at my subconscious. I clenched my jaw and hugged the wreath to me, burying my face in the uppermost flowers. They smelled like sap and honey and death. “What do you mean, I will not see the way? How can I see anything in this confounded darkness?”
The breath against my cheek this time was almost warm. “Feya.” I could hear the smile in the speaker’s voice, but I still clutched the wreath over my heart like a shield. “Open your eyes.”
The air hitched in my throat, suddenly too dry to pass with ease. Open my eyes? But… Visions of dry, desiccated corpses filled my mind’s eye, corpses that shambled and hobbled while strips of decaying flesh hung from their bones, and suddenly to open my eyes was far less horrifying than keeping them closed. I opened them, and gasped.
Silvered figured danced and swirled in front of me, long hair flying, mouths open wide in silent, delightful laughter. The moment they realised I could see them, they turned, crowding in on me, hands outstretched in welcome. The breeze fluttered against my cheeks again and I heard the susurrus.
“Come,” they whispered. “Come dance with us. Lead us in the dance.” They whirled off and away, smiling, laughing, eye bright and shining, and as they divided I saw between them a path, gilded and silver, insubstantial as moonlight, threading between them.
My heart still hammered, but what other choice did I have? With my shoulders I pushed away from the door that had been gouged by fearful hands innumerable before me, and stepped onto the shining path. The wreath exploded into light in my hands, warm and bright like a phoenix. It swirled around me, then moved forward. I followed, and the ghosts of decades past came with me.