Inexplicable, my commanding officer called him. He dared not repeat the whispers echoed by his subordinates, as if speaking made the unkillable man into a reality. In a trench packed with soldiers counting their remaining minutes, my rations sat heavily in my stomach, and there was nothing I wanted more than to be rid of the place. Dirt, ash, and gunpowder built a home in my lungs with each staggering breath, and the tips of my fingers were numb through my gloves. Our uniforms were not constructed with the Northern Territory in mind. I’m lucky that my wife thought to send me off with a care package. She knit my fragile mittens herself. Their pattern is uneven, and there are stray bunches of fabric where I am certain she grew frustrated, but they do the job. When I am particularly hopeless, I picture how she waits for me, belly swollen with our second child.
This should be an environment with which I am well acquainted; My first war was fought against the Eastern Territory a few years prior. It’s due to the efforts of my brothers that my children will not find it on a map any longer. The Eastern Territory, consigned solely to historical texts, could make any opponent appear invincible. Their men were lavish creatures; concerned more with the sun on their skin than the bullets in their guts. The Eastern Territory is where I took my first soul. Besides rabbits and the occasional fox, I was never one to kill for the sake of killing. If not for the draft, I would’ve continued the rest of my life without blood on my hands. It was a messy ordeal, but my commanding officer ordered our weapons be drawn, and he took my shot. There was a period after that where his muffled agony followed me. The bullet hit his left lung, puncturing his airway and assuring he would never again see the sun rising upon the shores of a new day. What a shame to deprive him of that luxury, one he certainly took for granted. I had thought it a pity at the time.
The stolen lives to follow were inconsequential in comparison. I remember not their bloodshot eyes or wails of fear, only that I fired, and they fell. My brothers felt the same rush in the salty sea air. The Eastern Territory, once a mighty capital of trade, was reduced to the past. Our celebration lasted six weeks. We took to their beaches and drank until the sun crested what was now our horizon. Orange, yellow, red hues that I cling to in my darkest hours were seen that morning. I brought my family as soon as I could assure the bodies on the street had cleared. My daughter walked the shoreline from dusk to dawn, exploring our land. How delighted she was to discover we had been granted a piece of it for our personal use. My wife wasn’t much for waves, but the eastern spring coated her so perfectly that I needed only her company to satisfy my every want. I am grateful that I had the foresight to do so.
Unfortunately, with the festivities came a looming demise. Our king grew haughty with his victory. The papers spoke of his army’s formidable poise, and how wise he must be to direct them the way he had. His greed could not be squelched with the sunny beaches of the Eastern Territory. Two years passed hesitantly, and in that time, he promised his people an empire. From my quaint home, I could hear the drums of war sounding again. Overcome with love for my kingdom, and my daughter’s chiming praise, I thought it best that I rejoin my faithful battalion. There was no draft this time around, only a misplaced sense of loyalty. I kissed my wife goodbye as summer faded into fall.
The Northern Territory was a speckling of crude alliances. Our king turned up his nose at their infrastructure, calling it weak and on the brink of collapse. He swore that the townsfolk were barely held together by a thread, and that their royal family showed no interest in change. We would be helping them advance in the world, giving them a trustworthy hand. I cheered alongside my brothers at his speech, believing my monarch to be a firm stone of truth. I ignored the hecklers that shouted on street corners about the gall of the king while we meandered towards the warfront. We were brimming with confidence, cocky from our past achievements. My commanding officer briefed us the night before the first battle. “Their weapons are ancient,” he told us, “Close to rusting in their hands. They don’t stand a chance.”
The next day, we lost three hundred men. They cut off our supply route, trapping us within their frigid borders. They fought without rhyme or reason, without logic or order. They didn’t hold defensive lines, preferring to throw stones from the foliage. I nursed a bruise on my right arm from such an attack, and I prayed to every god I knew that a stray stone to the skull would not be how I died. Our commanding officer stayed in his tent for two days out of shame. No one was entirely sure how we had lost so devastatingly, but with our exit blocked, we had to proceed.
The ensuing fight was just as much of a massacre, if not more. For each man I downed, three of my brothers fell. A grenade struck the earth beside me, and within that crater I stayed until the bloodshed ceased. Though I am not proud of it, my cowardice kept me alive. I coated myself head-to-toe in the stiff mud of the northern ground and whispered prayers to Our Lady of the Dead. From my spot, I witnessed him for the first time. In the beginning, I believed him to be draped in scarlet robes. A sprinkling of rain led me to a horrific realization that the cloth had instead been dyed by the lifeblood of my allies, and the fabric beneath had once been a stark grey. I might’ve wretched if not for the fear occupying my throat.
He shot a pistol twice the age of my favored weapon, but he didn’t stutter or pause to reload, and he certainly never missed. An opponent would charge him, and they would die in the same breath. There was a single man who managed to fire at him, as point blank as a shotgun could get, but the bullet disappeared with a cough of gunpowder, and soon too did the assailant. Mortifyingly, I recognized a splattering of faces as they joined his legion of death. That night, my bunkmate’s mattress was left empty, and I remembered his fate among the many.
Nightmares were fueled by the rumors that man created. We gossiped as we bathed amidst freezing rivers, desperate for any cleanliness possible and pretending the burn of the frost was worth it. My friend from the previous war, Joseph Wright, claimed to have seen the mysterious man up close. “He has eyes like coal,” Joe said, a whistle to his tone, likely the result of a missing front tooth. “And he’s got garments of scarlet.”
A day later, Joseph Wright was dead, and someone else spread fantastical information. The finer details changed from telling to telling, but I never corrected anything. They said he was tall, muscled, godlike, with eyes of the deepest black and skin charred by the fires of Heaven. I kept to myself. Though the whispers fascinated me, I couldn’t bring myself to speak of the horror that had me staring at a vacant bed each night. My prayers grew more frequent. Our Lady of the Dead heard from me with every spare hour that She gifted to me.
My wife would keel over if word reached home of my habits. For all our years together, she had been trying to drag me to Church. I called her superstitious then, but I knew better now. There was an overarching presence on the battlefield this time around, something more than a mortal soul could produce. The entire affair felt like a ritual, a dance in Her esteemed honor. Not for the first time, I considered that it might be exactly that. A fellow soldier told me how the Northern Territory worshipped Our Lady of the Dead carefully. She was the patron of their kingdom, regarded beyond any other being. What did the gods think of our war? If my wife were with me, she would be able to recite some passage from scripture that would provide exactly the insight I needed.
Instead, I rotted in grave-like trenches. They were favorable to the wasteland above ground, where a carpet of the fallen padded the feet of our enemies. Still, none could argue that they wouldn’t rather be home in their soft beds. Our tents were swept away by the throngs of battle days prior, and we could find no excuse to leave our posts. There were no breaks from the war, save for the times chosen by the North. Our ranks were dwindling alongside our pathetic rations. A truly wise king would’ve called us home, struck up a treaty, anything to return his loyal troops to safety.
I slept with my weapon clutched to my chest. The hours I could manage were brief, but I found myself dreaming all the same. My mind brought me peace in the form of a woman. She was cloaked in shadows, always smiling as though in the midst of a joke. The first time, I thought She was my wife, but the woman I married was not one for dark colors. My bones told me that this stranger was suited best when light could not touch Her. I would wake with tears in my eyes, and my brothers snickering about my fragile feelings. After several repeated occasions, I grew accustomed to seeing Her within my dreams. We talked, although I couldn’t remember what about by the time the world returned to me. Certain details shifted throughout the experience, but a constant remained that the woman never revealed Her eyes to me. Despite Her being a figment of my imagination, I had no influence over Her actions.
The morning it went wrong, I couldn’t tell you what was different. The rumors grew like a garden out of control, inflating as soldiers became overcome with boredom. Unkillable, they called this man, with wings as dark as his eyes and claws longer than the blade of any knife. The trenches helped prevent extreme massacres, although it wasn’t predicted to last long. The scouts hadn’t returned yet, and my commanding officer visibly got antsy. He fidgeted with his hat, and anxiety pooled in my gut in turn. I was not as surprised as I should’ve been to hear the beginnings of an eternal chorus, screaming and begging for mercy. I stood with my limited space, but the ensuing chaos set a similar idea into my brothers’ heads. They jumped to their feet with the intention to flee, the trench cramping considerably. My boots were stomped upon, and my body shoved aside in the clamoring.
There were only two directions within that shallow dirt hallway. The crowd flowed from one end to the other like moths to a flame. My commanding officer sensed the trap before I could, but it was too late. The rush of people skidded to a stop, frozen in terror at the sight of a figure. He wasn’t as tall as they described, or half as monstrous. Perhaps the most intimidating thing about it was his humanity. His garments were clean at the moment, but I knew it wouldn’t be long before that changed. I remained unmoving while he slaughtered my brothers. Whether by blade or bullet, everyone bowed to him. Counter attacks aimed in his direction were swallowed by a force unseen to the eye. Foot by agonizing foot, he grew closer to me.
My daughter was probably still in bed, judging by the sliver of light that snuck over the walls of the trench. Her mother would wake her shortly, cursing at the strain of her pregnant belly on her lower back. They would eat breakfast and go for a walk by the seaside. The king would spin a story of brutish indecency. He would sneer towards the northern horizon, and that would be the last word they’d receive of my condition. I would be lost to my family in the same way the Eastern Territories were washed away by our victory. It was bitter upon my tongue, and I bowed my head in a last-minute prayer.
The shouts were nearly upon me now. The body of my commanding officer crumpled at my feet. I raised my gaze reverently away from him, and I was left staring into the eyes of my murderer. There weren’t rumors abundant enough to describe the pits of his irises. Vertigo overtook me, and my stomach rose in disgust. Neither of us moved, but inertia threatened to topple me. I was forced to look away or meet my end by the power of his presence alone. It was then that I noticed her. Standing on the edge of the trench, towering above us all, was the woman from my dreams. Her shadows melted into the landscape, but Her smile shone.
She opened Her arms to me, and I hardly felt the blade strike my heart. She took my hand and led me out of the disarray of the war. There was a forest on the edge of my vision where thousands of my brothers waited for me. In the tranquility, I allowed myself to focus on the spot above Her nose that wasn’t visible in my dreams. In Her eyes, I found an endless, inky black. She didn’t strike me with an innate need to escape, but the fierce connection to my fateful killer was not one I could ignore.
I glanced back into the world of the living, and caught a glimpse of him. He was crimson from head-to-toe, bathed in my blood, a pair of wings weighing upon his back. A soldier fired at him, and I watched the woman next to me extend a hand and snatch the bullet out of the air. She crushed it in Her fingers and let it clink onto the ground. I looked between Her and the forest of friends inviting me closer. She squeezed my hand, and I understood.
“You called to me, and I am here for you,” Our Lady of the Dead promised. She tucked me into the canopy of familiar souls, and I felt myself fading. With my last bit of consciousness, I could only watch as my savior returned to Her angel, and I knew I would not be the last.
Lauren de Wet is an LGBTQ student writer from the University of Kentucky. She enjoys creative writing and obnoxiously long games of Tetris. Stories about fantastical deities interacting with the mortal realm is her favorite genre.