She didn’t know what to do and often never did. The night creatures were stirring, crickets chirped, owls hooted, raccoons rooted through trash heaps, and foxes raided chicken coops. She was scared. The fear gripped her like a living thing; she could feel the icy fingers of terror on her shoulders. What she was about to do was wrong. She knew it to her very marrow, but it had to be done. 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 was overwhelming, but she knew she must continue. Corpses of strangers littered the land, the detritus of mankind’s never ceasing 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, something that made her shake and sway and nearly dissolved 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 truly felt terror. These things, these ghouls, would they take her flesh and blood? Or would they spare her life?
They moved then, silent shadows among the moonlit dead. Long claws on longer fingers frightened her. Cold gray skin stretched over too many bones made her skin crawl. But it was their faces she could not bear. Facsimiles of humanity distorted and stretched, their mouths wide in a mockery of a smile, hungry, searching, dripping with the remnants of their macabre feast. They approached on all fours, like wolves or broken men transformed into beings of pure terror. They were coming for her.
The Other One had come to her in her dreams. He promised her that he could bring her brother back if only she came to this place in the darkness, placed his symbol upon her brother’s chest, and he would return him. The Other One was dark and powerful, a being whose power she could not comprehend, but she would do his bidding to bring back her sibling, slain in a war she neither understood nor cared about.
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, her skirt rustling seeming impossibly loud in this silent, dead place. She had to find her brother. The Other One had promised. 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 would keep her promise. She began to lay the symbol on his breast and speak the words the Other One had taught her in her sleep, words to bring her brother back, to fix what war had wrought. She began the litany and felt the power gathering, the intoxicating rush of Magick. She was nearly finished 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 this Man in Black was looking at her, through her, into her.
In a voice like rain falling on a gravestone he said, “Child, what is it you do here?” She thought her voice had fled, the fear was so great, but she said, “I am bringing my brother back.”
Everything was silent for a moment, nothing moved; neither of them spoke. Then the Man in Black came closer.
“Child, who told you the dead can rise again?”
“The... the Other One said if I just did one thing he’d bring my brother back.” She was scared, but somehow not of this tall black-clad stranger. It was something more, some fear of her own actions, some terror of her own failings.
The Man in Black 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 when alive, once the light of their candle is snuffed out. Not even me. Cast away this symbol and accept that life ends when it must, as your brother’s did. Even as yours will, one day many years from now. Leave this thing and trust in Providence. Go home. Weep for him and mourn his passing, but know his spirit is in good hands. This I promise you. Never speak to the Other One again. He has no sway here unless you let him. Go home, grow old, and turn away from those who promise you the impossible.”
She stood quietly, the symbol still clutched in her hand. She stared down at the lifeless body of her brother. She looked up at the Man in Black, toward the hidden face beneath the large hat. Tears streaked her face but she was no longer afraid.
“Who are you?” she asked, quaking with sobs.
“I am a friend but we will not see each other again, not for a long while yet. On the day we do meet again, I’ll take you to your brother. But not today. Go home, child, and go to bed. I am always close by and I will see you again. Take comfort in that thought.”
She looked at the symbol the Other One had instructed her to make. It was cold and awkward in her hand. She threw it in a nearby stream. The Man in Black nodded at her and once again said “Go home, child, and go to bed.” She nodded and began to make her way from the battlefield back to the nearby town.
Although she never saw the Man in Black’s face, she would never forget his voice. And she would always remember that, as she looked back to watch him walk away, her dead brother, now a shimmering shade of blue light, walked alongside him.
She returned home and never dreamt of the Other One again. But she did see the Man in Black again, many, many years later. And as promised, he took her by the hand and took her to be with her brother once again.