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Siggard startled awake, the sounds of battle still ringing in his ears, as though he had just been in the midst of the bloodshed.
Exhausted, he lay on the bank of a road, the trees on both sides obscured by a light mist illuminated by moonlight. He tried to sit up, only to have his back explode in pain. For a moment he rubbed the sore muscles and kidneys, and then he struggled to his knees.
Blinking, he wondered where he was and how he had gotten there. The road did not look familiar at all, and there were no visible landmarks. He scratched his head, trying to think, and winced for a moment when his fingernails ran over a tender spot.
Siggard was a large man, well grown, with a full brown beard. But now his usually placid gray eyes were haggard and his beard was in a tangle. He shook his head; he knew he had been at the field of Blackmarch, a shield-man in the army of Earl Edgewulf. And they had been fighting someone, but who he could not say.
Groaning, Siggard gained his feet. He would first have to find his way to the battlefield and try to rejoin the army, but what he truly wished was to rejoin his family in Bearís Hill. That would have to wait until the fighting was done, though.
Taking stock of his gear, he noticed his sword was rather more notched than the last time he remembered, and his leather jerkin and trousers were ragged but intact. Where his coat of mail had gotten to, he had no idea. His wide shield was also missing.
Cloaked in a mist drawn eerie in the moonlight, Siggard tried to get his bearings, but no matter which way he turned, he couldnít tell where Blackmarch might lie. Finally, he picked a direction and began walking.
How long he walked before he reached the gallows, Siggard could not say, though it seemed hours. Regardless, he found himself facing a fork in the road. To one side of the road there was a three-way sign, but it was too dark to read it. On the other side stood a gibbet, a decaying corpse dangling from it by a worn hemp rope.
Unbidden, the words of one of his comrades in arms came back to him. "Hanged men have angry souls, you know," old Banagar had said. "Thatís why they hoist them at crossroads. That way they canít find their way back for vengeance." Banagar had always been rather morbid, he reflected.
Siggard shook his head, trying to ignore the stench of putrefying flesh. The road had to lead to a town somewhere, even if it was in the twice-damned underworld itself. So all he had to do was pick a direction and follow it.
He looked up at the corpse and smiled. "I donít suppose youíd know the way to Blackmarch, eh?"
The corpseís rotting head turned and glared at him.
Siggard leapt back in shock, drawing his sword and staring at the gibbet. The body dangled, lifeless, as it had before Siggard had spoken, and as it no doubt had long before the soldier had even arrived.
Siggard felt a chill go down his spine as he looked at the corpse. He prayed silently to the gods to let him see his family again, just one more time. He didnít want to die here, trapped among lost spirits.
His sword still drawn, Siggard backed down one of the paths, finally turning once the gibbet had vanished in the mist. The ethereal fog curled around him as he walked, Siggard mouthing a silent prayer with every step.
The path twisted and turned among the trees, and the dirt crunched under Siggardís boots. For a moment he wondered if he wasnít in some endless forest of the damned, forced to wander a haunted woodland for all eternity. He shook his head; if he was to find his way out, he would have to stop thinking like that.
Faint shapes appeared in the mist ahead of him, and for a moment Siggard could make out a horse and rider, standing under a large oak tree. He blinked hard, but the figure remained. He pursed his lips; whatever it was, it wasnít a figment of his imagination, though it did seem ghostly.
As he walked forward, he saw another figure appear in the mist. The newcomer drew a blade and, before Siggard had a chance to shout a warning, plunged it into the rider. Siggard rushed forward, his sword at the ready, praying he would not have to fight, yet as he ran the two figures faded into the swirling fog. Finally, he stood under the oak, but not even a footprint suggested that anybody else had been there that night.
"If this keeps up much longer, Iíll go mad," Siggard muttered. "I might even start talking to myself." He moved away until he had a respectful distance between himself and the oak, and then began to gather deadwood. After a bit of work, he reclined under an ancient elm, watching the flames dance on his small fire until he drifted to sleep.
Siggard stood in the shield wall at Blackmarch, watching the horizon. Earl Edgewulf walked from man to man, complimenting each on their standing and promising glory ahead. For his part, Siggard just wanted to see his family again. But he knew that the bloodshed was necessary; if they werenít stopped here, the enemy would be able to roam freely in Entsteig, spreading terror and destruction.
He closed his eyes for a moment, visualizing Emilye and his newborn child. His wifeís golden hair had glittered in the sunlight when they had last spoken, and her crystal eyes had been unable to contain the tears she had been trying to hide. He had told her that it would be fine, that he would be back soon. Thunderclouds scudded above, lightning arcing between them, followed by blasts of thunder. "It looks like itís going to rain," old Banagar muttered. Siggard grimaced at the elder man, running his eyes over the gray stubble surrounding a faint mustache on the wrinkled face. Siggard mouthed a silent prayer that the rain wouldnít turn the ground into a slick wasteland.
He stood on the bare hill, an army around him, like something out of a legend of the Mage Clan Wars, with every soldier clad in a shining coat of mail. They had taken the high ground, and had cleared some of the trees from the bottom of the hill. When the enemy charged, they would be completely exposed.
"Here they come!" one of the lookouts shouted. Siggard squinted and watched the treeline, looking for any sign of the enemy. Even after Earl Edgewulf had put them into formation, he still didnít know what enemies he would be facing. From the corner of his eye he thought he could see glowing eyes staring out from the shadowy woods, but when he looked directly at them, all he saw was darkness.
Then the woods began to boil, the trees themselves twisting and turning in torment. Siggard inhaled sharply as the enemy burst out from the tortured woodland with a shrill screaming, his gut churning in terror.
None of them were even remotely human.
Some were small and doglike, carrying bloodstained axes and hatchets. Others stood tall, their muscular bodies capped with the head of a goat, what little skin showing painted with demonic symbols. And in the background there were shadowy THINGS, defying any description.
Something shook him, and a voice said, "Would you mind if I share your fire?"
Siggard sat up, finding himself back beside the forest path. A cloaked figure stood above him, and Siggard could make out a sharp, but strangely kind visage in the shadows of the cowl. The fire crackled beside the man, and in the flickering glow of the flames and the waning moonlight, Siggard noticed that the man seemed to be clad entirely in gray.
"Help yourself," Siggard said. "Iím afraid I have no food to offer."
"That is not an issue," the man said, sitting down by the fire. "I have already eaten. Perhaps I can offer you something?"
Siggard shook his head. "Iím not hungry."
"There are many restless spirits out tonight," the stranger said. "As I walked, I saw several ghosts."
"I noticed that too," Siggard stated, scratching his beard. "For a while, I wondered if I had gone to Hell."
The man chuckled. "I can assure you, this is neither Heaven nor Hell. However, it is the Night of Souls, when it is said that in some places the restless dead will return."
"And what do they come back for?" Siggard asked.
"Some come for vengeance. Some come to see their loved ones again. And for some, they just cannot rest. Sometimes it is the earth itself that brings them back, remembering the life force that once was."
Siggard shuddered. "It is unnatural."
The man laughed, his voice strangely musical. "On the contrary, it is entirely natural! Life does not simply give in to death, and the soul is more than some abstract idea. These spirits merely walk their own path, most unaware of any others around them. But there are some, particularly in the forces of Hell, who would raise the dead, animating them so that they do not hold a spirit, but are merely an automaton. I think that is what you speak of."
Siggard shook his head. "I do not know if I should be terrified or awed by what you say."
The stranger lowered his hood, revealing eyes sparkling with life and a long mane of blond hair. "I think both would be appropriate. There are more things in Heaven and Hell than any mortal man could dream."
"And how would you know all of this?" Siggard asked.
The man shrugged. "I am a wanderer; I have seen more than most would ever imagine. That is merely my nature."
"Will you give me your name?" Siggard said.
The stranger nodded. "My name is Tyrael. May I ask your name?"
Tyrael smiled. "Your trust does you credit, but be careful with whom you place it. I am safe, a traveler sworn to the light. But there are others who are sworn to darkness, and they do not reveal themselves unless they are forced to."
Tyrael leaned forward. "Tell me, friend Siggard, what brings you onto this road on this of all nights?"
Siggard shrugged. "I wish I knew."
Tyrael raised an eyebrow. "I donít understand."
"The last thing I remember is the battle at Blackmarch. If this is the Night of Souls, then that would be two days ago. I canít remember anything between lining up in the shield wall and awakening earlier this evening on the ground."
Tyrael nodded sagely. "Sometimes one will see something so horrifying that the mind will block it out, as though the soul itself cannot bear to remember it."
Siggard suddenly recalled the strange shadows behind the treeline at Blackmarch, and found himself nodding in agreement. "I guess I just want to find out what happened at Blackmarch and see my wife and child again."
Tyrael pursed his lips. "I have heard fell things about Blackmarch. I would not go there if I were you."
"I have to know what happened."
Tyrael shook his head, and for a moment Siggard thought he could see a great sadness in the manís eyes.
"If you must go, then you must go. You are ten leagues south of Blackmarch as the crow flies. You can reach it in a couple of days by following the road north." He pointed back in the direction that Siggard had originally come. "If I were you, however, I would go south for one more league, and then take the fork west. It will take you back into Entsteig."
Siggard nodded. "I will consider your advice."
Tyrael smiled kindly. "That is all one could ask."
Siggard watched as the waning moon finally slid down under the treeline and the eastern sky began to brighten. "It will be dawn soon."
"It seems that the Night of Souls has come to an end at last," Tyrael mused. "All of the restless dead now return to their graves in the hopes of peace."
Siggard turned and stretched, wincing for a moment as his back ached. "I should begin my journey; I have a long walk ahead of me."
"May your feet be swift and take you into places far from harm," Tyrael said, still sitting by the dancing flames.
Siggard turned and looked at the road. "You have the tongue of a poet, my friend. I thank you for your good wishes."
But when he turned, he stood alone by the fire.
The mist was gone by the morning, burnt away by the autumn sun. Siggard carefully smothered the fire, trying to ensure that no billowing smoke revealed where he was. He still remembered the sights of the previous night with fear and awe, and wanted to ensure that he did not run into any restless spirits who did not respect the dawn.
Thinking back on the evening, he still wondered at some of what he had seen. He had never been a superstitious man, but the memories of the hanging corpse and the ghosts in the mist seemed too real to have been a vivid dream. And then there was Tyrael.
Was the stranger a ghost, come back for a friendly chat? Or was he something else? A figment from a dream, perhaps?
Siggard shook his head; at this point in time, it was useless speculation. Aside from which, he still had to find out what had happened at Blackmarch.
He checked that his sword was securely fastened to his belt, and began the journey north.