by Eric J. Krause
The soldier stood alone in the forest, his sword heavy in his hand, his chain armor clanking from his shakes, no doubt alerting everything in the vicinity of his presence. Where his company had gone was beyond him. They'd marched through a thick patch of fog, and when he reached the other side, he marched alone.
A wolf howled in the distance, and something rustled in the nearby bushes. He wasn't sure which frightened him more. He gripped his sword tighter and took a few tentative steps forward. With his fellow soldiers, his brothers, he was fearless. On his own, he felt lost.
A weight surrounded him, hanging heavy in the air. He turned back to the fog. If he wandered back in, would he find his army? Would he find safety? It didn't matter. As more creaks and crunches sounded from the brush, he pushed back into the thick bank of fog.
As he marched through the first time, sandwiched in the middle of dozens upon dozens of men, every one of his senses had been overwhelmed. He saw nothing but gray, felt, tasted, and smelled nothing but damp air, and heard nothing but his brothers' footfalls. No, that wasn't quite true. Their footsteps echoed through the fog at first, but after a few paces, he heard only his own boots on the hard packed forest soil, his own mail clattering with every step, his own deep breaths. But nothing of his brothers.
This time, as he waded in alone, the fog didn't feel as thick, as dense, as damp. Arrows stuck in the ground and out of trees. On closer inspection, he found those arrows attached to soldiers. Soldiers from his company.
His breath caught in his throat. How had they all been massacred while he remained untouched? How had he not heard any of it? He wandered among these men who he'd been so close with over these past few months and confirmed none still breathed.
He fought back tears. The mass burial fell on his shoulders. No time for frail emotions. He had too much work to do, and no help in doing it. Everything, though, stopped cold when he reached the final soldier, likely the first to have died.
It was him. An arrow pierced his throat. Blood pooled around his upper body. His eyes were open, and his face registered no pain, only shock.
No, this wasn't real. How could it be? He stood here, as alive as when he woke this morning, alive as the day he was born. He reached down to touch the body, but his hand passed right through it. No, that wasn't right. It passed through his hand.
The air deflated from his lungs. He was the incorporeal one. He looked around in the fog, which had mostly dissipated, and found dozens of other soldiers standing over their own corpses. Their body language proved they were all in various stages of acceptance and denial.
He stared into his own dead eyes, not wanting to, but unable to look away. The late morning sun burned most of the fog away. Only a few tendrils lay behind, hugging the ground. When those, too, succumbed to the burning sunlight, he and the rest of the soldiers standing guard over their mortality blinked away, off to visit whatever realm greeted the dead.