Book Three: Redemption, Chapter Eight-
"Did you see something move?" Shade asked, lifting the torch higher. "Is something out there?"
"No," replied Rei, "it was nothing. Just the shadows." At that, she turned back to their campsite, Shade following close behind.
"You are really getting paranoid, you know that?" he pointed out on the way back. "Do you honestly think you're in more danger now that your quest is near completion? No one knows that its almost over," he commented, adding with a laugh, "except the dead." She fell awkwardly silent at that point. Any attempt of his to dispel the quiet only pulled her further in until he finally drove her away. Upon reaching the site, he found that she had taken a place next to the dying fire, prodding it with a stick. Unsure on how to deal with the situation, he felt it best to leave it alone.
"I'm a lot like a fire, you know," she called out, stopping his escape. It was not necessarily to anyone, but he took it anyways and sat by the embers as well. "Its entire existence is based on destruction, of things, of people, or anything it can drain the life out from. Indiscriminatory devastation solely for the purpose of its own being. I am as rapacious as the flames, but at least they do it without a will to guide them. I... I am worse by far."
"Rei," Shade tried to intercede, "that's just not true. You-"
"Shut up," she snapped vehemently, "it is!" Palms in her eyes, she leaned forward. "My entire life has been fueled on death. Blood runs through the path I have chosen, and I have followed that trail to its end." Another silent intermission occurred. Dropping her arms, Rei's gaze was fixed upon the dark soldier. The intent of her stare unsure, it nevertheless shivered his spine. "Shade, dear," she continued in blank expression, "I want you... to do me... a favor."
"Oh," he responded, neither surprised nor disappointed, or even sarcastic, inquisitive, or confused. It was merely an "oh." He tagged on after, "You wanted to make that you had my full attention, didn't you?" Her eyes adverted.
"That's not important," she dismissed his question, "my task is. I want you to finish my journal."
"What?" he exclaimed. "But... shouldn't you be the one to do that? You've written every page of that thing."
"I just need you to end it," she easily explained. "It needs to be complete. I want my saga to be remembered, by time if not people. I want the hardships I endured to be known, the pain I caused understood. Some people actually think that I am a hero. Can you believe that? A hero! I am nothing... nothing but a cold-hearted murderer. I don't want anyone to ever repeat what I have. I have to know that it will be concluded, and I have a bad feeling about the days ahead..."
"If you wish me to do this, then I shall," he agreed, disgusted with himself.
"That's not good enough," she told him. "You need to promise this to me.'
"What? Are you serious?" Her blazing stare was serious enough for him. "Fine then, I promise that this will be done. I shall finish your tale if you die."
"'If' has nothing to do with it," she told Shade, eyes set upon the fading sparks.
"No," he refused. "No! You will not die!" he ordered, thinking as though he could command her mortality. She stood up.
"Oh, Shade," she said, turning her back to the fire as it extinguished. "I already have." As she walked away, he begged for some answer.
"What has gotten into you, Rei? You weren't like this earlier tonight..."
"Earlier..." The thought bounced around in her head. The events of before flooded back to her, too much for her to comprehend, so she settled on simply accepting them.
When dusk had not yet settled, a bundle of wood clattered on the earth.
"That's it? We're in the middle of a forest, and that's all you could find?" Rei protested. "This isn't enough to get through the night. I'm not even sure if a meal could be cooked with that."
"There's just not much good firewood around here," Shade blamed. "Besides, I don't see why I have to gather the wood, you're the one who wants it. We should just-"
"For the last time," Rei interjected, "no! Now, stop asking, stop complaining, and get some wood." Before his mouth could even fully open, she stopped him. "Get! Don't even think about saying it and just get!"
Shade's venture took longer than expected and nightfall arrived by surprise. The clouds had swallowed the moon. The forest was dead, absent of all signs of wildlife for the longest time, but the wind swept through the branches, causing faint rustling noises. The unsettling situation would grind down even those of iron wills. When Rei was about adjusted to the ominous surroundings, it came. A sound, far off in the distance, almost too low to be heard. It was too quiet to distinguish from any other sound. It could have just been the wind, but Rei had come too far to leave chances be. Arming herself, she ventured out to seek the source.
After a short time, she found no trace of what could have made the sound, and heard no more signs of it. Deciding that it was all in her head, it came again as a sharp creaking noise. It came from a location no where near its initial. Pistol raised, she sought after it once more. Creeping through the trees, it sounded from far behind her, a metallic squeak. It did not fade this time, though, but continuously rose and fell in an erratic fashion, like a rusted wheel due to fall from its axle. It was too close to escape her this time. Slinking behind tree to tree, she sprung out at the cause, gun aimed, ready for anything except what she was about to see.
A frail man, bent with age, wearing a dingy overcoat, that appeared to once have the color of brown or gray but now too stained to be determined, dragging behind. The man wore a tall, black, shaggy top hat, once probably very fine in quality, now appeared to have been trampled one too many times, its verticality interrupted several times, to where it rests at a slump. Its frayed, wide brim shadowed most of the man. One of his arms hung lifelessly at his side, dragging an ancient spade, with no portion free of tarnish, splattered with mud and... things better left unknown. The other held a strap over his shoulder, connected to an aged, rickety cart, comprised of rotting wood, in desperate need of oil. In slow, pounding footsteps, he trudged onward, paying no notice to her.
"Stop right there," Rei demanded, gripping the revolver tightly in her hand, "and tell me what you are doing here." The man heeded her not. "I said, stop!"
"Aye, chile, ah heard ya," he wheezed in a raspy voice, cold and empty, yet strong and defiant. "Ah was a'wondahin' when ya be a'comin'. Been a long time a'waitin'."
"What are you talking about, you old coot?" she rhetorically asked, utterly dumbfounded by the mans behavior. Slipping back into reality, she thrust her weapon forward. "I told you to stop! Don't think I won't shoot!"
"Shoot?" the shaded figure asked. "What good would it do ta shoot a dead man?" As he spoke, the veil of night was cast off by the moons glow. The silvery light shone through the trees' branches onto him. All was revealed. His skin, aged and worn from a life too long spent in hardships, had grown to near black. Upon his face, a crude paint of white made the shape of a skull over its actual form, wrapping around his eyes, mouth, and nose, all of them sunken and black. A similar design persisted over his body. On his hands and bared chest, they blazed in the moonlight. As grim and disturbing as he was, little attention was given to him, for light was also shed on what he bore in train. A mess of odors and flies, that before went unnoticed, now buzzed madly. In the cart itself was an overwhelming heap. By all right the barrow should have broken under the weight long ago if not at least the man have been unable to move such mass. Its cargo was rotting heap of bodies, some freshly picked up, others with weeks worth of decay. Corpses of beasts and men alike tangled together, all within this abominations possession.
"What the hell are you," she demanded, "you... you... freak?!?!"
"Ah know ya have come a long wee, lass," he tried to sooth her while his advance continued, "but yer troubles ah ovah now. Ah'm hee." In dire panic, she pulled the trigger. A bullet sailed from the barrel into his exposed chest, striking him straight in the heart. Still standing, with choked gasps, she fired a pair more with similar targets. The black holes, bored into his flesh, emptied no blood. The man still stood. "Youngun," he beckoned, "wha's ye mattah?" Smoke fumed out from the wounds. Consumed in dread, Rei bolted with all her speed from his presence.
"Whee ya off ta, ya fop?" He cried from far behind her, beginning to chase after her with his wheels emitting their cyclic squeals, never stopping. "Don think ya can escape meh," Rei heard, looking back. "Tha'd be like escapin' death," the voice shifted to coming from right before her. The sound of the wheels never ceasing, he was somehow before her, approaching with steady gait. "Thee nevah get awee," he declared, raising his arm with the spade. "Nevah." Striking the side of his gurney thrice in succession, a low grumble grew from the collection. Tattered bodies filled with maggots began to roll off from the top, but what is more abhorrent is those that got back up. She tried to keep them at bay, but it came to no use. They were already dead. Finally paralyzed with terror, they surrounded her, the decomposing, reeking minions. "Why won ya come? 'Tis past yer time, a'passed a long while 'go." As they lurched forward, Rei was unable to control herself and let out a blood-churning shriek that reverberated throughout the emptied forest. A short quiet followed before it was retaliated.
"Rei," a voice boomed "is that you?" A dim glow appeared among the trees as the calls grew closer. "Are you out here?" The man was confused at Shade's arrival. The grim warrior entered the clearing unaware of the other one's presence. "What's the matter with you? Why are you so far away from the camp-" Not letting him finish, she threw herself around him and began an incoherent, high-pitched ramble. "Um, ooh... kay," Shade poorly reacted. "What's gotten into you?" Rei was prepared to bite of his head about the terribly apparent horde of zombies, but before she could point to the ground, they were all missing, returned back in the cart to their original positions. The keeper of the dead was oddly confounded by Shade, thrown into a daze, but then smiled, shaking his head.
"Oh, ah see how 'tis," he said, tipping his hat. "Mah mistake, missus." Turning away, he added, "See ya real soon, kid," and continued on his way, creaking into the night. As Rei watched his departure, Shade traced her gaze, trying to see what she was so intently observing.
"What is it? Did you see something move?" Shade asked, staring blankly through the retreating figure. Lifting the torch higher, the fire's rays passed through the strange man, dispelling his image, like light through the darkness. "Is something out there?"
"No," replied Rei, parting from him, "it was nothing. Just the shadows." At that, she turned back to their campsite, Shade following close behind.