In the Absence of Light

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Chapter 9: Burial

The next morning I awoke to a pounding headache and a crick in my back. I was on hard packed dirt, in a bedroll, and there was a rock under my left shoulder, and another poking into my lower back, and… let it suffice to say that I was not comfortable. That sounds weak. I was in pain and grouchy.

I pulled myself up into a sitting position and looked around groggily. I rubbed my eyes trying to see the camp better in the early morning mist. There… I could just make out the bodies moved and piled up off to the side. And, there… was that... I think those lumps were horses.

My head felt like a hammer was pounding behind my eyes, and I allowed it to collapse into my waiting hands. “Lady save me.” Did I say that out loud? A groan, my groan of pain. I heard footsteps, and lifted my head up slightly to see who was coming. My eyes strained and I could just make out the shape, and then they were closer, and then it was Darin.

“Oh good, you are awake. I thought I heard something over here. It’s your turn to take watch. I’ll bring you some food. I’m not much for sleep after I’ve woken up. Are you there?” He suddenly stopped noticing my blank look.

“I hate the ground. What was that you were saying?” So, maybe I wasn’t all there… Maybe mentally my head hurt. Since when did the head of a Lady’s host hurt. Head. Hurt. Lady.

The Light Lady! Would Kyra be able to help? Would she have enough strength?

“You look miserable. I guess you’re not a morning person, or you aren’t used to sleeping on the dirt. We used to train sleeping on the dirt.” He squatted down next to me, and starred into my eyes. His eyes were a beautiful warm brown color. They were so soft. His face wasn’t as sharp as some of the warriors I’d met. It was softer, the angles wider, gentler, easier on the eyes. DEAD DARK LADY, what was I thinking! I had to focus. Focus… Focus on what?

He smiled quite suddenly and jumped up, my head slowly followed. “Come on, get up. Once you’re up and ready for your watch, come and see me at the camp fire. I might have something that will help you wake up.”

Then he walked away, back to the campfire. I was tempted to just lie back down and fall back asleep, but the ground was so sarg hard. I rolled myself out of my bed spread, made a couple attempts at standing, and finally managed to stand. I made my way over toward my bags slowly, and slightly weaving, but I made it.

I slowly and laboriously changed into the tunic and leggings for under my armor, and then into the black tinted armor. I fumbled with the straps, and eventually just used some magic to finish buckling everything which made me even more tired.

“I hate camping,” I grumbled upon making it to the fire pit where Darin was waiting. Darin didn’t reply, and instead he pushed a cup into my hands. I stared at the murky brown liquid in the cup, and cautiously took a sip of the scalding liquid. I kept myself from yelping. The stuff was violently bitter! The heat didn’t bother me, but my tastes buds did not appreciate the bitter flavor.

“What is this stuff?” I turned an accusatory glance at Darin before staring back down into the cup.

“It’s a foreign drink called coffee. A lot of the men I used to know bought it to help them wake up in the morning. It might be bitter, but is works. Come on, I’ll sit you watch with you.” I looked up in surprise, and saw Darin looking me over. “Don’t look so surprised, it’s for everyone’s safety. You aren’t in any shape to take a watch right now, but you wouldn’t admit that.”

I didn’t reply to such a comment, and instead stood up and stumbled over to a log that I could watch the camp from. I would have to use my senses other than sight. I took another sip of the nasty brown liquid. Darin was right. It did seem to wake me up.

Then Darin came over and sat next to me. I was tempted to just stand up and walk away, but I remained seated. It wouldn’t do any good to move elsewhere; he would just continue to follow me.

“You claim you cannot love anymore, but was it not a weaker version of that emotion that moved your heart yesterday to be kind to the brigands?” Darin was insisting on being annoying.

“It was not love or kindness, it was simply the fact that people have a right to their lives. A balance of life is kept this way. It was not compassion that moved me. I’m too tired to answer these questions.” Maybe, maybe I would be lucky and he would just leave me alone.

“You claim that you have no love left, but how do you know?” I sighed. Apparently he didn’t take a hint.

“Do you really want the story of how I lost my humanity?” I glanced up at him from my coffee, and saw only curiosity.

“You haven’t lost your humanity or you would have killed all the brigands outright. But tell me the story.” His voice changed from slightly chiding to eager. He really wanted that boring story.

I looked up, my eyes caught in the distance and old memories, “Four years I trained to become a host for the Lady of the Absence of Light, but on that day, I was not ready. My training kicked in though, and I did the proper action even though I was afraid of what I would become. She came in, and took over my mind, and before I was forced into being locked away in my own mind, I remember the pain of her burning away everything that was love in me. I remember going through all my memories searching for an answer to the horror of what was happening. She gave me a choice, to continue to stay separate or to combine with her and stay sane. I was a trial, something she had never done before. All of her hosts went insane and eventually killed themselves. I didn’t. I just longed to be with her again. We were right together, we were one. Even after she left, I was left without love. It is gone, burned out of me.”

I took a sip of the coffee and did a sweep with my senses. Nothing. The annoyance was silent. Maybe I had finally caused him to shut up.

But no, he began to speak again, “I don’t think you can’t feel love, I think you have an aversion to it. I think you are afraid of love.”

I almost stood up and left at that stupid comment, but he would just claim that I was afraid of the truth, so instead I sat there holing in my anger, and at last I spat out, “I am not afraid of anything. I am a creature of war and I do not feel love.” Damn the man. Why was he so obsessed with my feelings? They were mine and mine alone!

“Do you not fight beside those you can brothers and sisters in arms? Do you not feel camaraderie with the people you fight beside? Is that not a form of love? Doesn’t fighting next to someone build a bond with them? I would disagree with your belief that you cannot feel love,” I felt like he was taunting me with his words, trying to find a loop hole.

“It is a fighting bond. It is not a bond of love but necessity. It is the knowledge that the person fighting next to you just saved your life, and that you saved theirs. It is a bond of mutual gratitude and mutual need. The human want for someone to protect your back so that you will live another day. Ido not care if I live or die, so I do not feel a need for the protection, but as a fighter I do understand gratitude for someone saving your life. It leaves a mark of debt for me to pay back. One day though, I will die, and I will be welcomed into the absence of light,” I tried to explain to him as best I could my understanding of debt of honor. I definitely did not feel love. He was a fool to try and twist my words.

His lips quirked upward in a smile, “So you admit there is a bond. You are connected to someone who fights next to you. A bond is love.”

“You turn love into a useless general word if you make it that broad. If love covers debts owed as well, then it means nothing of deep feelings for people. That in turn means I cannot feel deep feelings for people,” if he want to ply the word twisting game; I was quite willing to play definitions back.

His features frowned, the expectation of success left his face, “you are twisting the meanings of words. You can’t just change a words definition because you feel like it.”

I starred past him into the forest running another sweep of the camp, “and you twisted my words to begin with. You tried to make what I said cover more than it does. “

He laughed suddenly, and completely surprised me with his laugh. “One day my dear, you will understand, but you look more awake now, so I’ll go make breakfast.” He stood up, and then bent down as if to check his shoe. With a sudden movement too quick for me to stop he stole a peck on the lips from me and ran.

For a second I was so shocked I didn’t react and then the utter horror at his display of affection overtook me and I missed slapping him and resulted to projecting curse words at him with my voice. What a jerk! Did he have no respect at all?

I sat back down on the log to finish my watch and plan my revenge. Oh I would get revenge. Revenge was a dished best served cold.

I watched as the fog lifted and left behind a web of fine dew on everything. The world was sticky, and I wished I could be just slightly direr, but that would mean I would still be in the city of corruption. Sometimes compromises had to be made.

I could tell Darin was quietly approaching and without turning to look at him, “If you get close to me, I am not afraid to see how good your hand to hand combat skills are. In fact I would quite enjoy it right now.” I would enjoy beating the hell out of him. I would enjoy hearing him curse me and swear that I was an evil bitch who couldn’t feel love.

“Umm, can’t you just forget about that? I brought you breakfast. Doesn’t that make up for my past transgressions?” His voice sounded nervous, and I could smell his sweat from fear of me. He was right to be afraid. I could sense him, just at the range where he thought he could run away quickly. If I wanted to get him I could.

“If I leave it for later, the revenge will be a dish served cold with much planning. If you approach me now with the food, I will wait. If you set the food down a little ways away, it will only be a simple training round. It will be enough for me to not want to kill you,” food was good, and my earthly body needed the nourishment. I wouldn’t kill him, but he didn’t need to know that. It was helpful to have another fighter. I would just teach him a painful lesson he wouldn’t forget. I might sound calm and collected, but I was still angry.

He set the food down and then cautiously approached me. I let him get about 4ft from me when I suddenly jumped up from where I was sitting and struck out with a flurry of kicks and punches right into him. He was so surprised he didn’t defend at first, and then he desperately started trying to defend. He tried to curl up into a ball, and I wouldn’t allow that. This was training. I hissed at him, took a break long enough to yank him up, “Fight back you idiot.”

Cautiously he began to row out his own punches which I easily blocked, “You know you’re a wimp. Didn’t anyone ever teach you hand to hand?” I was enjoying changing my moves and hitting just hard enough to hurt slightly and leave a small bruise.

“Umm a little, not much,” he whispered from behind his desperate defense. The rumbling started deep in my core and burst out of my mouth as laughter.

I hit him one last time, and this time I struck at his face which I had been avoiding, and left a nice mark that would turn into a black eye. I wanted him to remember this punishment for a little while. He needed lessons, and it was wrong for me to beat up on someone who didn’t know what they were doing, but it felt good.

He looked relieved that I wasn’t using him as a punching bag anymore, but he also looked in pain. I sighed, “We will begin training on hand to hand combat tomorrow night, for now, go see Kyra and get the worst taken care of, except the black eye. I want you to have that for a little while as a reminder. If Kyra heals it; I will make sure to give you another one.” He started to turn away already exhausted before the day began, and I decided to give him a little credit, “and Darin, “he turned back toward me, “Thanks for the food. It’s the reason you are still live.” He just left his pained gaze on me a second longer before turning back to go wake Kyra. It was mean of me, but I felt better. He was lucky he’d escaped that lightly.

I turned away and went to pack up the saddlebags. Behind me I could hear Darin crunching through leaves and then the rustle of cloth as he gently shook Kyra. I heard him mumble something to her as she woke up, but I didn’t sharpen my hearing.

I sent out my senses and found that what was left of the brigands were up and packing. They had two horses hitched a rickety old wagon, and they had a bunch of stuff piled in there. I could also sense that they left things like spare tents, clothing, and even some of the rustier armor. They were being smart and taking what they needed. I wasn’t certain bout their cart idea, but with a cart the invalids could travel easier, and so could the non-riding members of our now larger party.

I brought my senses back to our camp. We needed to move. The dead bodies would start to smell awful, and would freak the children out. If we met the brigands a little up the road, then I could go back with one of them to bury and label their dead.

In fact, I could go ahead, dig the holes, put the bodies in, and then leave them like that to wait for identification. I walked over to the pile of bodies that was downwind and slightly away from out camp, and I looked around, trying to figure out what to do with the bodies, and how to bury them. It really would take a long time to bury each of the bodies.

Suddenly, it came to me. I could burn them. After burning them we could write their memorial on a tree. I walked back over toward where the others were packing, “We need to move slightly farther up the road to meet up with the others, and after we meet up I will go back with one of them to write a memorial.”

“Dyrana, why do we need to even go back for the bodies? They were brigands and were robbing people so that they could have a better life.” Daren’s dissent startled me. Wasn’t he all for the kind and sweet act?

“It is not my place to judge people’s lifestyles. They live the life they lead, and they died for that life. Is it wrong to grant the final wish of peace?” I didn’t look directly at him, but instead focused my attention on the entire group as a whole. Was I really fighting for these people now? No, I was fighting for justice and fair treatment. It was similar to the reason Zedigrivikonola chose to allow my mind to combine with hers.

“If Dyrana wants to act kindly it should not be fought,” the too sweet words of Kyra made my teeth grind; self-control, it’s an amazing thing. Maybe they didn’t realize how often I kept myself from smacking some sense into their thick skulls.

“It is not kindness, but justice and honor that are proper in the death of a warrior. No matter what they fought for, the dead should be respected,” I could see Darin starring at the dead soldiers with hate. I could see it in the straight, hard, proud carriage of his body and the way his jaw was set as if he was desperately forcing his mouth to stay locked. I allowed myself to appreciate how strong a warrior he was, to notice the muscles caused by the sword and accompanying workouts. Strong backs muscles showed practice with the longbow, and the strength in his face, the hardness in his eyes; he was born a fighter. Everything about him spoke fighter at this moment, but somehow I had to convince him to let his enemy find peace. I, who didn’t really care about sentimental attachments and killed without fear of reparation, would have to preach not on love, but justice. Yes, I preached justice. Death without respect was wrong, but death itself was not wrong, but in fact was the only sure track.

“Everyone dies, but it is how you die that matters. Most people won’t die in their bed surrounded by their family. Our world is volatile and our lands are covered in war. We live off that war like vultures feed on the dead left by the battle. The only thing left to use is to die in the best way possible, fighting for a cause. These men were fighting to feed their family. Are they any less honorable than us who seek to sell our swords to the highest bidding city? When we die will they spit on our bodies and leave us to the vultures because we sold our blades to the wrong people, or will they give us a proper burial because we fought honorably and bravely? Will they laugh at us because we aren’t actually fighting for a cause, or will they respect us because we are fighters and healers? I’m rambling, but the lady does not like her followers to desecrate those who died in her name. These men and women died in her name, and should be treated with the respect of fellow warriors,” I paused, but then left it there. I had said everything I needed to.

I sensed the others were at the road ahead. “Actually, why don’t you guys just get ready to leave, and I will go get one of them. Then you guys can have more time, and you can get the invalids up the road to the wagon that our new recruits have.” I left my group gibbering at me still, and ran up ahead to where I sensed my new recruits. They weren’t brigands anymore. There, I could see the first horse just around the turn, and there, there was the wagon, and some of the rest of them.

“Heya!” I yelled out to keep them from startling when I came upon them. They turned swiftly, saw me running up, and relaxed, though only slightly. They still didn’t completely trust me. “I need someone to go back with me for identification.”

“I will go,” it was Ollarin’s deep voice that responded, and it made sense. It was his fellow fighters that were dead.

“Come on then,” I called out as I spun around and ran back to the camp. Speed was necessary to stretch our resources out enough to reach our final destination.

He was on the horse he had ridden up to the camp, and quickly came up beside me. The horses that the brigands owned were connected to the wagon. Where had that wagon come from? It hadn’t been in the camp the night before, and the trail didn’t seem like the type to support a wagon… oh well, it didn’t matter where it came from.

“Need a ride?” It was a friendly offer, but I wasn’t a weakling, and the running was good for me.

“No, I’m good at running. Need the exercise.” I do have to breathe, and running this fast made it hard to talk. Of course I could slow or stop time so that could easily beat him, but I would have to tap the Lady’s energy, and this was simply a matter of pride. I would only use my own personal energy. I sent my energy coursing down through my body and into my legs so that I could run faster.

I was keeping up with his horse, though he wasn’t going that fast yet. He sped the horse up, and I pumped more of my energy reserves into running. I was still keeping up! I might even win this race!

“It’s not a race Dy!” I ignored his voice. It was a race. Everything is a race. Life is a race to death.

“Come on Dy, you’re wasting your energy,” HAH! What a laugh. I wasn’t wasting anything. He was wasting his breath.

“Alright Dy, I’ll see you there.” And his horse took off, and he passed me. He was leaving me. He was going to beat me!

Come on, let’s beat that loser on a horse. I found myself laughing as the energy of the world became open to me. I slowed the time around me, and I easily passed him. I made it back to the camp site, and let time slip back to its normal state. My tap into the power of the world disappeared, and I knew she, the Lady was gone again. She was with me, and left me, though she left me with the gift of my energy stores restored.

Ollarin came galloping into the camp and slammed into a stop right before me. “You cheated.”

“It wasn’t officially race, and who said there were any rules.” Laughter bubbled out of my mouth at his open mouth. I was superior. The power was intoxicating, and I felt strong, powerful, and strangely happy. “Good race though. Great try.” I felt my face muscles twitch into a partial smile, and I couldn’t stop it. I felt good, cheerful.

Ollarin shook his head and gruffly, “whatever makes you happy sweetheart. Alright, can we get this finished; I don’t particularly like having to see my friends dead again.”

“They’re over here. I’ll make a marker for them, and then burn their bodies. It is an honorable way to take care of the dead, and we don’t have time for graves,“ I turned away, feeling the excitement drain away. It was time for business as usual again.

He walked over toward the bodies and stared at them. I could see his eyes become glassy before he scrubbed at them with his hand, “Are they happy where they are now? Is the Lord and the Lady taking care of them?”

I searched for the knowledge, and I felt Zedigrivikonola slip into my mind and let me touch the knowledge of the place where they were. As a human I couldn’t fully wrap my mind around the place of the gods and goddesses, but I could feel them, and there peace, “They are peaceful, happy to be free of life. Death is just another step, and it frees us from the confines of our mortal bodies. They have simply made the leap before us. I would welcome death, but Zedigrivikonola tells me that it is not yet my time, and there is work to be done.”

Then she was gone and I was alone again inside my simple human cell. “Tell me about them, about your friends that lay here, and remember, when I am finished light the pyre.”

I walked over to a tree near the bodies and gently placed my hands on it. Under my hands the words “Here a battle was fought and noble warriors died”. I stood there and listened as he told me a story for each person. Most were stories of people without prospects in life, without food, and without hope. Some were stories of kids looking for adventure and finding the world was a much crueler place than they realized. All were stories of poverty and despair, and a noble end fighting for Zedigrivikonola.

All that was carved into the tree was a name, but the story of each person was bound into that name, and anyone who touched the name would share the memories of that person. It was a lot of power, but the Lady’s recharge seemed to be holding out.

Finally he came to the last body, the woman Sarhea. When he finished her story of almost being raped and running away with another of the men I killed, I bound the tree into time, and I turned it proteins to rock. The leaves fell away, and all that was left was the fossilized tree standing there with it bare branches proudly raised upwards in a salute to the dead whose names it would bare for eternity.

For a second I could see all the people that would stop and marvel, the temple that would arise, the people that would come and gawk, the tourists, strange things passing it by, and things I could barely understand came and left. So many fragments, so many futures, so many shadows cast by us, but in the end they all ended. I saw non-living creatures and strange floating things. I saw a world so advanced I couldn’t begin to conceive an idea of it, and then it ended. A flash of light, and then nothing.

“Till the end of the world,” I might have said it out loud, I might have said it silently, but when the power suddenly released me, I felt all of my energy leave me. I slipped away into darkness.

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