The man had wandered into the village a couple days ago. Bardo watched him closely. He was an outsider. Looking ragged and hungry, nevertheless he was inquisitive. He asked around the village, looking for information and anything he could trade for. Most would have nothing to do with him, but old Yeerba spoke to him for quite a while. Bardo had asked her about it later. She said he was the most oblivious man she had ever encountered.
“He knew nothing of his surroundings. He didn’t seem to know how to keep himself fed and clothed. He kept asking for directions to a city in that strange accent of his. When I told him that Innswood had been overrun more than forty years ago, he seemed confused. He was lucky to have found me in the first place. Most people around here are too young to know about that. After the stranger heard that, he started looking around a little differently. There was a moment of panic on his face, and then he settled on this quiet suspicion instead. He stopped asking about the area and wanted to know more about me now. I told him what there was to tell, but he was persistent. He wanted to know the shape of my house, who built it, what the dirt was like under the boards. At this point, my better judgement took hold of me and I shooed him off. We’ve had enough difficulties already this year without some vagabond creating more mischief. He scurried out of town after that. If he’s headed to the Innswood ruins, he’ll never make it. It’s a ten day journey, as I recall, and he’ll be dead in four if he can’t hunt.”
Bardo hoped this stranger was indeed on his way elsewhere, but he knew better than to rely on hope these days. He couldn’t stop thinking about it. There were too many peculiarities surrounding this starving fool. Desperate men were known to wreak havoc in their petty search for food. Perhaps the village would wake up one morning and discover a ransacked house, a murdered family where a home once stood. Bardo shook his head. “No more.” he muttered, resolving his plan of action. He went home to gather his equipment. Tomorrow he would search the forest around the village for traces of a camp.
He trudged through the woods, keeping an eye out for any sign of fire or shelter. He carried his old bow with him, the one he meant to give to Merk when he was old enough. If that stranger was still around, this was where he’d be. A thick forest nestled in the hills. Close to the mountain, but not too far away from the village either. It was easy to get lost in here. Easy to hide.
Bardo remembered the times when Merk would hide out here, waiting for someone to find him. He tried not to dwell too long on that thought or the thing that found him.
Clearing a thicket, he stumbled upon what he was looking for: a sad, crumbling camp. No fire. No tools. Just a few piles of sticks and rocks. Looking around, he couldn’t see any signs of fortification. Poor fool must be sleeping in the trees at night. It’s amazing he’s lasted this long considering how many of those creatures wander through this place.
There was a sudden yelp and a crashing of sticks on the other side of the clearing. Damn. That was careless, Bardo thought. The stranger must have spotted him standing in the middle of his shoddy campsite.
Bardo heard the flush of snapping branches and rustled leaves. The stranger was fleeing as fast as he could and letting the whole forest know. Bardo pulled an arrow from his quiver and carefully chased after him.
He could see glimpses of the man, little patches of exposed skin amongst all the green of the woods, but the undergrowth here was too thick. There was no way his arrow would hit its mark here. All he could do was chase him into open grounds. He knew there was a gulch up ahead, just below the mountain. He just needed to push him in that direction. He fired an arrow. It missed the stranger, but the man saw the blur of motion and heard the thunk when the arrow sinks into a tree. He let out another cry and ran right.
Bardo was close now. Biding his time. All he had to do was keep an eye on the panicking, pink flesh amidst the swarms of green. Yet suddenly the pink disappeared.
Bardo was shocked momentarily before he realized it: they’d already made it to the gulch. He slowed down to a walk and stepped through the last vestiges of forest. Before him lay a rocky, dry basin and the stalwart Mount Bras just beyond it. Some twenty feet below him lay the stranger. Must have lost his footing and tumbled down into the gulch. He looked stunned. His leg was bent out of place.
Bardo remembered this place. Remembered looking down on a young man here, no longer writhing in the dust. This was where he’d found Merk.
What was he doing here? Why was he chasing this poor fool? What good would more death bring? Enough of this nonsense. You can’t bring back the dead, Bardo thought. All you can do is take care of the living.
He slung his bow over his shoulder and began his descent into the gulch, stepping carefully and looking for footholds. The man needed help. Guidance. Perhaps he could be useful to the village. Perhaps he could be a friend if he was given proper care. He heard the stranger scream.
“Calm down, I’m not going to—”
“No!” the stranger cried, “Them!”
Bardo swung his head around, looking for the source of the man’s terror. And there they were, stomping past the treeline on the other side of the gulch. Those gray, wormy horrors. It had been some time since he’d last seen them. Large, hunched shoulders. Distended spine. That heavy, stomping gait and, worst of all, that lifeless hole where their faces should be. They were looking, if they could indeed look, at the stranger now. All the noise must have attracted them.
Bardo reeled. This is just like—
He stopped, grit his teeth, and shook his head, “No more.”
He slid his way down the rest of slope. The stranger looked at him in confusion and desperation. It seemed his fear of Bardo had been overruled by his fear of the creatures.
“Give me your hand”
The creatures were getting closer. They were running out of time.
The man reached out and Bardo lifted him onto his feet. The stranger grimaced, but held on.
“My leg…” he said, “I can’t move on my own.”
Bardo had expected as much.
“We have to go”
The stranger held onto his shoulder and they began climbing back up the slope. Each step was a struggle. The dirt gave way below them when they moved too fast, and each time that happened the stranger would lose his balance and fall. Bardo looked back. They weren’t moving nearly fast enough. They had only gained a few feet, and the gray horrors were closing in. He could hear their stomps now. Could taste the strange metallic scent they carried.
They weren’t going to make it. It was clear they weren’t going to make it.
Bardo threw the man off his shoulder, watched him slide back down the hill in pain.
“What are you doing?” he yelled.
Looking down on him from his perch, he knew the monsters would go after the stranger. This was Bardo’s chance to run. But no, there would be no more running.
He pulled the bow off his back—Merk’s bow—and took aim. There were eight of them now, maybe fifty feet away. He let loose an arrow. It caught the leading monster in its pale neck. The creature paused momentarily to absorb the impact, then pressed forward again. Another arrow. Another wound. Again and again, he fired upon them. The first creature fell to the ground, snapping arrows with its weight.
They were twenty feet away now. More arrows. Bardo cursed them with each release, desperate to make an impact. The second creature fell, but now they were here.
The stranger was crawling up the gravel, trying to gain any kind of distance from these nightmares. They would be on him in moments. There was no more time for shooting. There was no more time to worry. Bardo took a deep breath and let his bow fall to the ground, watching a small cloud of dust form around its impact. He raised his eyes back to the task at hand. Pulling one last arrow from his quiver and clutching it in his hand, he charged the closest monster.
He sank the arrowhead into the monster’s gray chest, aiming for the heart. He was sure he had hit it, but the monster just swatted him to the ground. Broken bones. Couldn’t breathe. Despite everything, he could only think of how truly uncaring these creatures were.
There were on him now. Him and the stranger. Well, Bardo thought, I tried, didn’t I? I did what I could.
“Why?” the stranger demanded, his face against the rocks and the creatures tearing into him. His eyes begged for an answer.
Bardo could only grin.
Can you forgive me now, my son? Can I be forgiven?
Yeerba walked along the outer edges of the group. There were about thirteen of them that had decided to take the trek up to Mount Bras and pay respects to the newly fallen. Yeerba was assigned to sentry duty. Although she was getting old, her vision was still respected amongst the village. She could still point out any threats to the escort.
Despite the importance of her task, her mind wandered. Bardo had been a troubled man, but never a fool. What could he have been thinking? What could have happened between him and the wanderer that would lead to such a grisly conclusion for the both of them? The search party had found only their bloody remains. She could only see it as a pity, and a sorry end to a man who experienced more than his share of pain while he lived.
The group was nearing the mountainside vista. Soon the elder and the priest began the ceremony, addressing the light in the air and dark in the ground, the grand system in which all life turns, and the brave, kind deeds which Bardo had accomplished. Of this last topic, the speakers seemed to stumble. The old hunter had not been well-loved in recent years.
Yeerba turned her mind away from that and back to her duty. When she did so, she noticed something in the distance that made her freeze and interrupt the ceremony. Soon the whole congregation was gathered around her, all gazing upon the cause of her agitation.
Down below in the gulch could be seen a small, tired young man. Even from this distance, Yeerba could clearly recognize this man. It was that stranger who had walked through their home, begging for answers with wide eyes. The same man whose body was found two days ago in that same gulch. What was he doing? Her curiosity drove her into silence, and the silence spread to the rest of the group.
He seemed calm. Perhaps contemplative. He held his hands together and lowered his head. Before him stood a collection of rocks, neatly arranged into a mound. He’d built it himself, it seemed. Yeerba couldn’t understand the significance of this scene, but she recognized a solemnity in the man’s posture. It seemed he had his own ceremony to fulfill.