Graphic by Olivia Abeyta / North by Northwestern

“It is perhaps the nature of the modern man to search ever inward as the outward becomes known and quantified. We expected to find truth, rationality, and something of natural, intrinsic elegance. We hoped to elevate a sublime beauty into physicality, but the ones that went the deepest, the ones who looked the hardest – they only found monsters.”

Internal Archive, History of the Undertakers, Volume 1, Inaugural Address of Pierre Monroe, first head of the Undertakers.  

The call comes at 3:37 p.m., on a cloaked Sunday on the eve of the winter solstice. The sliding garage door reveals that already, it is turning dark. Ms. Bella’s monotone voice announces the details of the case over the phone as I drive over.

Address is the intersection of Park and 43rd street, deep within a quiet residential district. Victim is a family of four. Two children. One age 23, one age 12. Unraveling occurred just before the passing of the hour. Domain spans fourteen hundred square feet, limited to the immediate walls of the apartment. Borders are rectangular. Thought density is regular and stable. No measurable signs of imminent metastasis. Textbook C-class nightmare.

Expecting the end of the debriefing, I start to numb my mind for the coming affair – nullification as named by the Undertakers. Breath by breath, the world compresses into shapes and colors. Streetlights flatten into lines. Cars melt into rectangles sliding forward and backward as I place my attention on the geometric pattern of their amber trails. At the base of my vision, my hands on the steering wheel shear away into geometric patterns adorning a black ring. My body navigates the city traffic while my mind slips away into a comatose state. Priests like me practice nullification as an application of apathy. It is a way of becoming invisible, invincible to the nightmares we face. It helps with the pain – supposedly.

“Madame. Madame! Madame Anna, are you listening?” The unexpected sharpness in Ms. Bella’s voice wakes me up from the trance. I sigh as the world focuses once more.

“What’s the matter? I heard the details. I know the drill,” I reply dreamily.

“It’s been relabeled to A-class, madame. Mr. Thomas and Ms. Emily have both entered the domain. Ten minutes and twenty minutes respectively. I need your acknowledgement.” The voice coming out of the phone is calm again.

“I see.” I pause for it to sink in. Veterans. “I acknowledge the case.”

“Affirmed. Madame Anna, you have permission to enter the domain.” Ms. Bella’s voice trails off. “Anna, will it be ok?” I hear the unsteadiness of fear in her question.

“I promise I’ll make it ok, dear.” A heavy silence settles into the car. I find it difficult to slip away again, and I can’t help but wonder if I can bear to keep my promise this time.


The first recorded case of acute exo-neural disembodiment (colloquially known as unraveling) was 26-year-old male Adam Carver, who had been laid off from his place of employment four days prior. Subsequent metastasis terminated two city blocks. The incident was covered up as a gas leak by the acting government, and the Undertakers were formed under the acting Chief of Domestic Security, Pierre Monroe, in response to the salient existential threat.”

-Internal Archive, History of the Undertakers, Volume 1, Introduction

I arrive at the scene at 3:57 p.m. The entire block had been evacuated with the pretense of a bomb threat. A makeshift fence of traffic cones and police tape marks the perimeter of the scene, and firemen standing atop their cherry red engines blast instructions through oversized megaphones for pedestrian traffic to loop around. All personnel wear the six-pronged cross of the Undertakers. With a trained eye, one can spot them engraved onto the sides of wedding bands, tattooed onto napes, imprinted onto the soles of shoes – hidden in plain sight, so to speak.  

The scene is fully under control, save the matter of the nightmare itself. I spot Mr. Robin in his black and white suit at the edge of the apartment’s dim shadow, nervously panning his head upward and side to side, then upward again. With small, round sunglasses obscuring his vision and a sturdy build that put him a full head above me, it is naturally hard for him to spot me. I’m within four strides of him when he finally notices my presence and begins awkwardly pulling himself into a half-bow.

“No need for that, dear,” I say to him with a half-smile and flippant wave of my hand.

“You are ever humble, madame. We both know the value of a priest like you,” he replies, standing back up. I chuckle a little as I walk past him towards the open door of the apartment.

“Well, it is certainly not a pleasant job, for one. But I’m just a human. Nothing more.”

Crossing the doorway, I hear Mr. Robin call after me.

“One more thing, madame!” he shouts. He is seconds too late. Inside the elevator, holding the door open with an outstretched hand, is a boyish figure donning the blank white mask and black robes of the priests. His other hand waves to me eagerly, and his high-pitched voice pierces through the open lobby.

“Master! You’re finally here! Let’s enter the nightmare. I could tell from Ms. Bella’s voice that this one is special. I wonder what slaying this one will be like.”

“David, as I have said before, we do not slay them.” I place a hand on his shoulder as I pass him. “We put them to rest.”

I make a mental note to file a complaint through Ms. Bella later. The higher-ups must have panicked and started assigning all available priests. I weigh the options. David has always been stubborn and headstrong. It would be difficult to convince him to leave now that he has permission, and I can’t afford to waste more time. A series of thoughts stream through my head. He’s not ready. And this nightmare. What if he – there’s no choice.

I press the button for the fourth floor. A deep sigh escapes from under my mask.  

Mr. Robin’s sad smile is mildly encouraging as the elevator door closes, and we begin our ascension. David seems to settle down in response to my silence, and when the elevator doors open, we step out into the hallway and walk to Room 424 on the left. It is dead silent save the echoes of our steps, and I am greeted with the familiar sensation of perfectly sterile air. I swing open the door to reveal a pure black rectangle. David blinks several times, still not used to seeing the exterior of a domain after working four cases with me. I do not fault him. It is naturally strange to stare into darkness so pure that it does not matter whether the eyes are open or not. Even after 37 years, my body is still afraid. Staring into the doorway, I become intimately aware of the pulsing of my heartbeat and the trickle of blood through my body and whistle of air being pumped by my lungs as every single instinct screams run.

It is a primal feeling of dread, standing at the edge of an abyss, knowing that the depths will swallow you whole. And yet, following the tradition of the priests, I spread my arms in mimicry of angel wings and lean forward into a fall, letting the darkness take away all sensation.


“In the first decade after the nightmares appeared, one hundred eighty-six cases of unraveling ended in metastasis, resulting in the deaths of one thousand two hundred seventy-three priests and eleven thousand three hundred forty-one non-priests. Victims disappeared, erased as if they had never existed at all. An unprecedented coverup operation was placed into effect to prevent mass public hysteria. The death toll was attributed to a deadly new disease, which was an accurate description to a certain degree. At the turn of the decade, a new name was universally adopted among the Priests and officiated by High Priest Pierre Monroe to describe the terrifying new phenomenon: Nightmares.”  

-Internal Archive, History of the Undertakers, Volume 1, The Long Dark

My eyes snap open, and verdant green blooms out from the billowing edges of my robed shadow. I look down from a hilltop at the picturesque meadow around me – a dense expanse of wiry fairy grass stretching out towards the distant horizon dotted with patches of voraciously colorful wildflowers. Spaced out within my field of vision, groves of willow trees reach their arms upward towards the lumbering clouds floating across the cerulean sky, letting their feathered leaves dangle like the sleeves of a loose dress. I feel it all around me – the soft, gentle breath of a living soul pulsating with the rolling motion of the foliage, the sweet scent of honeysuckle and lavender that saturates the breeze, and the vibrant color palette of a child’s eye.

I need one look to be sure. This is the most beautiful place that will ever exist in the world, and it scares me more than all the twisted beings and grotesque sceneries I have ever witnessed. It scares me because this cannot be the work of a slumbering nightmare. This domain feels alive. No, I tell myself. It is too premature to assume that it’s like her situation. I quiet the swirling thoughts and steady myself for the affair to follow.

By the time David blinks into existence besides me, toppling to the ground, my breath is silent, and I stare blankly down the mild slope of the hill.

“On your feet, child. We must hurry. That grove of willows between the two hills – it is far too intentional. That is the path into the domain,” I order. David’s gaze travels along my pointing arm as he readjusts his robes.

He nods, sensing the sharp urgency in my tone. We set off towards the grove, wading through knee height grass that seems almost to bow to let us through. In my peripheral, I observe David’s masked face. I pick up the subtle twitching of the jaw synonymous with a failing attempt at nullification, and stopping at the base of the first willow tree, I turn to face him.

“It will not work, David. Stop and feel it. The nature of the nightmare has already touched our souls. There is no use hiding. It is far too aware.” David freezes, rattled by my words.

“Master, what do you mean? Domains are constructed out of the unraveling of the subconsciousness. Is it not the very nature of nightmares to be asleep inside their domains?”

His question carries an accusing edge, unsteady with fear. It’s the first time I’ve ever sensed it from him. David had been recruited from an orphanage, and with one glance at his hardened expression and rehearsed smile, I could tell he was no stranger to misery and pain. His intimate relationship with suffering made him a prodigy among the ranks of the Undertakers. David moves through domains with a surgical indifference, passing transparently through obstacles that veterans spent hours carefully navigating to execute the nightmare sleeping in the nodus. He is known among our ranks as the Reaper.

But that will not help him here. There are no monsters here for him to antagonize. I breathe deeply to relax the rising tension in my chest and take off my mask.

“Listen closely, David. Listen and understand or you will die a fool’s death like the others. A long time ago, I encountered a case of unraveling unlike anything else. It was as if everything in the domain was there to fulfill a wish. And the nightmare…David, the nightmare was—”

“Alive!” A high-pitched voice interrupts me. “I’m glad you guys have come to join me. I was getting a little tired of waiting. And yes, Mrs. Anna, I am very much awake, aware, alive. I have so much to show you.” A deep chill permeates through me as images flash by my eyes – a garland of daisies, empty hospital beds, a golden light, a little dimpled smile fading to mist.

A young boy walks out from behind the trunk of a tree. I turn to take in his appearance – black and white sneakers, light brown cargo shorts, moss green T-shirt with white etchings of pine trees, and his face – I stop there. Framed by a head of little brown curls and tanned, olive skin, brilliant blue eyes study me, and as they shift, little beads of sunlight seem to swim around like swirling stars. David takes a step back and the crunching of a stick under his boot brings me back to attention. I rush to grab his shoulder, letting out a yell.

“Stop, David! It won’t work.” My reaction is too slow, and my hand meets only the rush of air in David’s wake. I curse my lack of foresight. Of course his first reaction would be to attack. David breaks into a furious sprint towards the boy, and reaching five paces of him, he draws a wickedly sharp rapier from his side. There’s a glint as it slices through the air and slides forward in a deadly lunge aimed at the boy’s head. The movement is so fast and forceful that for a moment, I see it pierce cleanly through, and let myself swell with relief. The imminent moment is so clear but in every frame flashing through my head, the rapier gets further and further. There’s a sharp metallic ring, and I blink to see David’s rapier parried by a wiry stick in the boy’s hand. The boy throws his head back in playful laughter and begins slashing furiously at David.

“Let’s play! Let’s have so much fun together! You’re the HERO today, David!” screams the boy with a wild expression. Dancing around the boy, David continues to sidestep and lunge. The boy is full of openings but every time the needle seems to pierce him, it is parried perfectly one blink later. David grunts with frustration, which seems to excite the boy.

“It’s no fun if someone actually wins, David! The summer day is long!” jests the boy as he locks blades with David.

David grins as his left hand flashes. A second needle sticks out from the back of the boy’s head. For a moment the silence of anticipation fills the air.

“Now that’s not fair.” The laughter is gone from the boy’s voice. One blink later, two long twigs have replaced David’s weapons. He looks up at the boy’s eyes with shock and horror before falling over to clutch his throat. Bracing his hands on the ground, David retches out a mouthful of silver-tufted dandelion flowers. They continue to spill out, mouthful after mouthful, forming a growing pile on the grass. It is a silent affair, and the boy looks on with a sad smile. A soft breeze spreads the pile into a little white carpet, and the boy turns towards me.

“That’s unfortunate. I guess we have to talk now.”

I stare at the sticks beside David. His compass, his identity and will, gone in an instant, shattered against the force of a wish that could not simply be rejected by apathy.

Curled painfully around the handkerchief in my pocket, my hand tightens its grip. This time will be no different, I think. This time, it’ll be just like you, my Daisy, but don’t worry, dear, I remember our promise.

Thumbnail graphic by Olivia Abeyta / North by Northwestern