She didn’t know what to do and often never did. The night creatures stirred: crickets chirped, owls hooted, and possums and raccoons held dominion over trash heaps and chicken coops. She was scared, fear gripping her like a living thing with icy fingers of terror. What she was about to do was wrong. She knew it to her very marrow, but she had no other choice. The Other One had given her instructions and she knew she must obey.
The battlefield was open wide, empty but for the uncollected dead and the night-things that feasted upon them. The smell of death was overwhelming, but she knew she must continue. Corpses of strangers littered the land, the detritus of mankind’s never-ending fight against itself. Blue coats, red coats, no coats—they all lay equally in the indignity of death. But there was something else here, something that should not be, making her shake and sway and nearly dissolving her nerve. THEY were here. The Other One had told her they would be. They were but pale shadows in the moonlight, hunched over the remains of the fallen. They saw her, their pale red eyes taking her presence in, deciding if she was foe or feast. She felt their eyes upon her, and her blood went ice cold. These things, ghouls, would they take her flesh and blood? Or would they spare her life, an insignificant morsel not worth their trouble?
They moved toward her, silent shadows among the moonlit dead, the light reflecting on long claws on even longer finders. Their cold grey skin stretched over too many bones made her skin crawl. But it was their faces that truly horrified her. Facsimiles of humanity distorted and stretched, their mouths wide in a mockery of a smile, dripping with the remnants of their macabre feast. They approached on all fours, like animals. They were coming for her.
The Other One had come to her in her dreams, promising her he could bring her brother back. The Other One was a dark and powerful entity whose power she could not comprehend, but she agreed without hesitation to do his bidding in order to bring back her brother, slain in a struggle she saw as pointless and unnecessarily bloody. She was to come to this battlefield in the darkness with his symbol, which he instructed her how to craft. She need only place the symbol upon her brother’s chest, utter an incantation the Other One taught her, and her brother would return.
The ghouls surrounded her, their soft growling a susurration of menace. She held up the symbol—the Other One had told her it would protect her. The ghouls growled and shied away like beaten hounds. She was safe.
She crossed the battlefield, the rustling of her skirt seeming incredibly loud in this silent, dead place. She had to find her brother. Pale, bloated faces stared up at her with blind eyes, ignorant of her trespass and of anything else. Their stiff coldness disconcerted her, but her mission could not wait. The Other One had promised and she had given her word.
She found him at the edge near the trees. He lay with men she didn’t know, all clad in the blue of the nation they swore to die for and the dulled scarlet of the wounds that made that promise true. He was cold and gray and stiff. She barely knew him, his face was so bloated and strange. She laid the symbol on his breast and spoke the words the Other One had taught her in her sleep, an incantation to bring her brother back and fix what war had wrought. She began the litany and felt the power gathering around and within her, the intoxicating rush of Magick. She was nearly finished with her chanting when she saw him.
He was clad all in black, shapeless garments that seemed to absorb the meager light. A large hat obscured his features and he stood very still and was very close. She stood up startled and scared. She could not see his eyes, but she knew he was looking at her; through her, into her.
In a voice like rain falling on a gravestone he said, “Child, what do you here?”
She thought her voice had fled, the fear was so great, but she said, “I’m bringing my brother back.”
Everything was silent for a moment, nothing moved, neither of them spoke. Then the darkly clad stranger approached her.
“Child, who told you the dead can rise again?”
“The…the… the Other One,” she stammered. “He told me if I just did one thing he’d bring my brother back.” She was scared, but not of this tall black-clad stranger. It was something more, some fear of her own actions, some terror of her own failings.
The stranger spoke again, kindly, gently. He was so close, but she could not see his face. “Child, the Other One is a liar. None can bring back the fallen. Not as they were, not as they were meant to be. Not even me. Put away this symbol and accept that all life will end even as your brother’s did. Even as yours will, one day. Leave this thing and trust in Providence. Go home. Weep if you must. Mourn if you will. He is in good hands, I promise you. Never speak to the Other One again. He has no sway here unless you let him. Go home, grow old and leave visions of those who promise you the impossible behind.”
She stood. She looked deeply at his face beneath the large black hat. Tears streaked her face but she was no longer afraid.
“Who are you?” she asked, quaking.
“I am someone you shall meet again, but not for a long while. One day, I’ll take you to your brother. But not today. Go to bed child. I will always be close and I will see you again. Take comfort in me.”
She would never remember his face, but she would never forget looking back as he walked away, her dead brother, now a shade of blue light walking alongside him. The Other One’s symbol was cold and awkward in her hand. She cast it away, and walked quickly back to the town.
She never dreamt of the Other One again, but she did see the darkly clad stranger again, many, many years later. And just as he promised, he took her by the hand and led her home.