The harsh scent of gunpowder tickled Michael’s nose. Boots stamped through the night. Whispered voices carried across the air. The weight of a hundred eyes fell on him. Squinting, Michael peered through the dark woods, down the hill, at the moonlit valley before him.
And saw no one.
“Halt!” a voice boomed.
“Advance to be recognized!”
Just in front of Michael, a man peered around a nearby tree—and aimed a rifle at him.
Michael took one step forward, slowly raising his hands.
“Easy there. I’m a friend,” Michael said.
“Are you asking for a password?”
“I don’t have the password of the day—”
“Then get out of here. Quickly. This ain’t no place for civilians.”
Another step. “Listen, friend, I’m not a civilian. You recognize my uniform jacket, don’t you?”
“Anyone can wear a uniform,” the man sneered.
“I’m not your enemy. I can prove it to you.”
“Let me reach under my shirt.”
“Do it. Slowly,” the guard warned.
Michael deliberately brought his hand to his collar. Found the fine steel beads of his necklace. And the cross hanging from it.
He held the cross up to the pale moonlight.
“See this?” Michael said. “I’m not one of them.”
The guard heaved a sigh of relief, lowering his weapon.
“It’s been hard on you, huh?” Michael said.
“Yeah. There’s no end of them.”
“But you held the line.”
“It’s what we do.”
“Your dedication to duty is commendable. What’s your rank and name?”
“Corporal Tom Lee. And yours?”
“Just call me Michael.”
“I don’t need one.”
Lee pointed at Michael’s hip. “Is that a sword? Not exactly standard issue, is it?”
Michael laughed. “It’s served me well. Listen, it’s kind of hard to talk like this. Would you mind stepping around that tree?”
Lee stepped out. Under the moon he glowed a faint, spectral blue. His uniform was torn and faded. A ragged wound consumed his belly. His mangled jaw hung loosely from his face, and his left eye socket was empty. The faint moonlight pierced his translucent skin, illuminating the tree behind him.
“I’m a mess, aren’t I?” the ghost asked, his voice issuing from an open mouth that could never close again.
“Don’t worry. We can fix you right up.”
“I’m dead. I can’t exactly be fixed.”
Michael’s eyes twinkled. “Never say never. Tell me, how long have you been here?”
“I don’t know, sir. Time gets kinda… fuzzy. I… we’ve been standing post here since… well, you know. I only remember the seasons. The sun, the rains, the occasional snow…”
“You’ve been here for seven years.”
“Seven years? So long?”
“It’s all right, corporal. Your job’s done. You can go home now.”
Lee pointed downhill.
Faint blue figures meandered across the valley floor. Some were tiny balls of light, others resolved into the shape of men with shouldered rifles. By their light Michael saw blackened grass and salted fields, burnt-out husks of war machines, broken and discarded weapons, and bones. Miles of old bones, stretching as far as the eye could see.
Michael saw enormous ribs, larger than elephants. Crumbling skulls of strange beasts that sprouted massive horns and tusks. Femurs as massive as oaks, wickedly curved claws twice the height of a man, piles of too-large hands and feet with too many digits, skeletons of neither men nor beasts.
And, at the far end of the boneyard, was a closed door leaking infernal red light.
“We have to stand watch,” Lee said. “When that door opens…”
“Don’t worry. We’re ready for them.”
Michael thumbed behind his shoulder.
Behind Michael, a brilliant white light blazed to life. Lee squinted, peering into the second sun. And gasped.
Michael nodded. “You kept the faith and stayed true to your duty, Corporal Lee. Your work is done. We’re here to relieve you.”
Tears trickled down his cheeks.
Michael patted Lee’s shoulder. “It’s time to go home.”
Lee’s throat bobbed. He looked at Michael. Looked behind him. Looked back at Michael.
“I stand relieved,” Lee said.
A pillar of starlight cut through the sea of clouds above, bathing Lee in gentle light. His stomach wound closed over. His jaw closed, returning to its proper place. Light issued from his empty eye socket. A moment later, it subsided, revealing a fresh eye.
Lee blinked. Worked his jaw.
“Thank you,” Lee whispered.
“Go into the light,” Michael said.
Lee looked up. And floated.
The light drew him up, higher and higher, lifting him into the skies. Lesser lights ascended from the valley and the forest, following Lee’s flight. By the ones and twos, then dozens and hundreds, the lingering ghosts left their posts and patrols and soared to the source of the light.
The smell of gunpowder gave way to fresh grass. The sound of boots faded. There were no more voices, only silence. Michael’s jacket and cross vanished in a puff of ethereal smoke, revealing a suit of glowing plates. He drew his sword and turned around.
Before him, a great host of warriors awaited in formation, armed with brilliant blades and clad in radiant plate. They stood at attention, awaiting his command.
“It is time,” Michael said.
Two wings of dazzling flame unfurled from Michael’s back, extending to their full length. Flapping his wings, he took to the sky, rising above the forest, above the valley, above the boneyard.
The army spread their wings and followed him, arraying themselves in a massive flying armada. Their light banished the darkness below, laying bare the valley of death. The last of the lost souls had departed. Now there was only dust and decay and the red door.
And the door cracked open.
“Brothers, to war!” Michael commanded.
Raising his sword, he swooped down on the red door.
For more long form fiction by yours truly, check out my latest novel HAMMER OF THE WITCHES.