The night did not pass easily or quickly, though it did pass in silence. The dead have no voice. They speak no word, nor utter a sound, but he knew they were down below him. He could hear the shuffling of their feet, the sound of small branches snapping off as hands and fingernails tore at the bark of his tree. Hours passed painfully slow as he shivered in the night air. He wanted to shout at them to go, to leave him in peace, but even if death had left them a spark of intelligence, he knew they would not leave. They were drawn to him.
So he was surprised when after three, maybe four hours had passed, they suddenly left en masse. Something had called them away from his tree, and while he was grateful for the respite, he hoped that they weren’t drawn to some other poor traveler, caught out in the night as he was. He wondered what had called them away, but didn’t dare descend to find out. In the tree, he was safe.
Instead, he closed his eyes and breathed out his relief. He was exhausted from his ordeal but it still surprised him when he drifted off. He jerked awake, terrified that in spite of having lashed himself to the tree, he would fall, breaking his neck. Lurid images of his body animated by the Darkness kept slipping into his mind. Sleep took him several more times in the night, but never for long. Sitting on an uncertain perch while cold and naked were strong arguments against it, but it was his fear that kept him awake.
When the sun finally lifted its brow over the horizon to view the world, Jan greeted it with sleep weary eyes. He was tired, and his body ached as he untied himself and made his way down the tree and dropped to the ground. He unwound his makeshift rope, untied the pant leg from the shirtsleeve, and dressed himself. His clothes were rags, seams ripped open, and great tears in the fabric meant they barely covered him, but they offered some warmth against the morning chill. His mother would not be pleased.
He searched for a few minutes before he found his boots and pack, untouched by the dead, though it looked like the fox he’d seen had worried at the leather of his left boot for a while before going off to hunt for more promising food. He pulled them on and made his way back to the road.
His father would be angry that he had stopped to take a nap, or hadn’t stayed in Miller’s Down for another night. He was somewhat angry with himself, but he also felt a sense of pride. He had survived his First Night and he’d done it without runes or wards. Not many men could say that.
He tasted the word on his lips. Today, he was a boy no more. His heart swelled in his chest, and the thoughts of his father’s anger faded. He relished the idea of telling his father and brothers how he had braved the night, of his cleverness at using his clothes as a rope to climb to safety. They would call him foolish for stopping to nap so late in the afternoon, but they would also slap his back and congratulate him on becoming a man.
The fear of the night was fading in the light of the morning sun. He felt full of life as only a man can who has spent the night in death’s company. A rabbit, seeing him coming, dashed into the underbrush by the road. He felt a strange kinship with it. He had been prey last night, and survived. He understood somewhat how the rabbit must feel.
Tired from the long night, he was tempted to lie down again in the morning sun and sleep. But though he was exhausted, he wanted to hurry home to his family and put the safety of Sommerstone’s walls between him and the world. His village was two hours away at a brisk walk, and his family would be worried that he hadn’t returned yesterday. They would fear the worst.
Rummaging through his pack, he found some cheese, hard biscuits, and an apple Ilita had packed for him before he’d left. How the fox had missed them he didn’t know, but he was grateful. He ate the cheese and apple, saving the biscuits for later, and set off at a brisk pace. The sound of wildlife and the wind in the leaves and grass were a strange contrast to the night before, when he’d wakened from his nightmare. They were the same sounds, but now they filled him with hope, not fear.
The nohetka that had hunted him were gone. They eschewed the light of the sun, which would boil the Darkness from their flesh. The Darkness sustained them, and without it they were powerless and lifeless. He was safe.
Jan walked for several hours, his long strides devouring the landscape. His clothes fluttered in the breeze, flashing tanned skin through the dozens of tears and rips, but for all his bedraggled appearance, Jan was in high spirits. He crossed the terrain quickly and soon came to the Brookwater stream that angled past his village. He was maybe fifteen or twenty minutes from home now, and he paused a moment to kneel and drink. He pulled his shirt off and luxuriated in the feel of the warm sun on his bruised and scratched skin. It felt good. He splashed cold water on his face and then his arms and chest, washing the stink of fear and sweat off his body. He still looked wretched, with his clothes torn and stained, but he felt much better for his quick bath. He pulled his boots off and waded across the stream. On the other side, his boots back on, Jan put speed back into his stride, whistling tunelessly. He was almost home, and the night of terror was nothing but a bad memory.
It wasn’t until he rounded the last bend, and saw the tumbled walls of his village, that he realized he had not heard the sounds of children playing, or women gossiping, of men shouting in mock anger at one another over a game of dice. Sommerstone was as silent as the tumbled stones that had once been its walls.
Moving slowly, his steps hesitant and faltering, he climbed over the tumbled rocks. He refused to believe what he saw as he moved into the streets. Though his eyes saw the devastation, his other senses lied to him. The mournful howl of the wind was the crying of a baby. The slam of a door blown shut by that same wind was the bark of a dog… but he knew… knew beyond denial, as every child of the world knows, that death has no mercy, and death had come to his village. The shattered walls that had once protected Sommerstone, now lying in ruin, meant that no one lived.
With growing horror, he realized what had drawn the nohetka off the night before.
Standing, staring at the street filled with bodies, all he could think of was that these dead would be rising at sunset, friends and family who would hunt him with the same relentless silence of the nohetka he had escaped only hours ago.
He moved at random, or perhaps his feet carried him down remembered paths that he could no longer recognize, until he found himself where the North Gate had stood. He stopped then, looking at his home, his village, through eyes that should have been filled with tears, but were instead filled with dust. He did not know how long he stood there taking in the devastation. It might have been hours. Gradually he came to his senses. He couldn’t stay, but he couldn’t leave his people like this either.
The entire village needed purifying with fire, but it wasn’t possible. The funerary kiln was in ruins, and there were too many bodies. The Sanguinal had been pulled down, and the columbarium had been broken in to. Urns lay scattered on the ground, the ash and bone fragments mingling with mud and dirt.
He would have to set the village on fire, burn every home, set fire to every body, and even then, the Darkness would take up their bones, jerking the charred skeletons through the night to attack another village, but at least they would be robbed of their flesh. No one could feel the allure of the dead when they were nothing but charred bone, even though in time the Darkness would build their flesh up again. For a while at least, they would be loathsome.
Dimly, through the shock, he realized it wouldn’t be enough. He could never purify the dead the way they needed to be. There were too many, and he didn’t know any of the seals to bind the funerary jars, assuming he could find any jars intact. Overwhelmed by the scene before him, he could think of nothing to do, and for a moment, he thought of leaving, of running back to Miller’s Down, but then what would become of his family? He couldn’t leave them here, waiting for the night and their bodies to be violated.
If he could do nothing for Sommerstone, he would at least find his family and make a pyre for them. He would break their bones and scatter them if he couldn’t find any jars in which to place them. He felt a little guilty at giving his family such preference, but pushed the emotion aside. If he couldn’t feel grief, he decided, he wasn’t going to feel guilt. If there was time afterwards, he would set the village on fire.
He made his way to where his home had been, to search for the bodies of his family. They should all be there, but he had to be sure. He did not know how long he spent sifting through the rubble, hoping that he wouldn’t find his brothers or sister, mother or father… hoping that not finding them meant they had fled and survived… dreading that not finding them meant the Darkness had already taken them. Hours passed that seemed like days, but couldn’t have been because the dead would have risen and taken him to his own death. Eventually he found them all. Anna, Lile, Tams, Stephan, Juke, and his parents, dead and undefiled.
He did his best, but it wasn’t a proper funeral. With the kiln smashed, he was hard pressed to make the fire hot enough, though there was plenty of wood. The sun mercifully seemed to stay its course, waiting for him to do what he needed before moving its way across the sky.
In the ruins of the kiln’s basement, he found some bottles of sanguis left unbroken. The viscous fluid used by the Tair to burn the dead was pungent, and ritual required the bodies of the dead to be immersed in the liquid a full day and night. Kept in the Sanguinal, protected by seals that kept out the Darkness, the fluid seeped into the bodies through small cuts made by family and friends, tokens of love and respect. There was no time for that, so he made the cuts and rubbed the honey thick fluid into them, and then drenched their clothes in it. He doused their bodies before setting them on fire. His hands were sticky from blood and sanguis, his clothes stained with it. The sharp smell of it filled his nostrils and stung his eyes.
When he finished and lit the fire, he stood numbly watching his family burn. The flames were a brilliant white tinged with orange and red. They roared and hissed loudly, the last sound Sommerstone would ever make. Smoke curled up to the sky even as it washed over him, a final embrace from his family. It stung his eyes, drawing forth the tears that he had been unable to shed earlier. But they were unreal and devoid of sorrow. He breathed in the stench of burning flesh, pulled it deep into his lungs even as it choked him. The smoke danced about, filled with shapes, ghostly wisps too ephemeral to touch. Through his tears, he could make out other shapes, blurred but more solid than the smoke. He didn’t know if it was his imagination or the ghosts of Sommerstone.
They probably weren’t real, he thought. Why should the ghosts of his family linger when he felt no sorrow or grief? Numb and alone, he watched while the bodies of his mother and father, brothers and sister burned with an intensity that cracked bone and turned flesh to ash.
And then, without conscious thought, he moved forward, toward the flames. The heat from the pyre poured into him like a white-hot agony, until it stirred some kindred emotion from his numbed senses. His flesh wanted to pull back from the flames that scorched him, turning his skin red, blistering it, and sending smoldering wisps up from his tattered clothes. But something terrible and powerful stirred deep within his soul, and pulled him forward.
They were leaving him, going where he could not, and leaving him here in this hellish world. His soul keened in harmony with the pain of the fire as it scorched him, driving him into the flames, to join in one last embrace with his family. Unthinking, He moved toward the flames and oblivion.
The shapes in the smoke moved then, stepping between him and the flames. They weren’t ghosts after all, or his imagination. They were men, drawn by the smoke of his fire. They stepped in front of him. Half a dozen stood between Jan and the flames. They must have felt the heat of it on their backs, but did not move, did not touch him, knowing what a touch could do. They stood between him and oblivion. Between him and the Darkness that had taken his family and the darkness that threatened to swallow his soul. Not the same, but somehow, he sensed, they were related.
Anger, hatred, grief, and a dozen other emotions coursed through him now, but the flames that devoured his family scorched all feeling from him. All he wanted was to plunge himself into those flames, to have the fire scour him clean and purge his guilt until only ash and bone remained. But the men would not move, and Jan lacked the will to confront them.
He turned away, resigned to his fate. Picking up a torch, he moved to set the village on fire, but other men were there already. They were gathering the dead, marking them with runes, preparing his townsmen for the grave by binding their bodies to death. A dozen other pyres were burning now. There was nothing for him to do that the others could not do better, so he turned back to his family. The men were still there, but he no longer felt the desire to join the flames. He no longer felt anything. Though his despair had receded, it was not gone. He could sense it lurking on the edge of awareness. So he stood, as the flames devoured his family, and watched with dry eyes, unfeeling, as his world crashed down around him.
When the flames had done their work, he moved to tend the smoldering bones of his family. The men moved forward to help him, unspeaking and silent. They respected his loss. He suspected they were Tair, members of nomadic bands of men who hunted the nohetka. He had seen Tair before, when they’d come to Sommerstone trading their rune lore for food and supplies.
The Tair knew what it was to lose loved ones to the Darkness. Their tribes were composed of men and women who had lost someone they loved, and having lost were themselves lost to the world. They left their villages to hunt the dead, and the friends and family they left behind mourned them as though they too had died. But the villages where they visited respected the Tair. They brought safety from the night in the runes they set on village walls, and in the magical blades they used to fight and destroy the dead. No ordinary weapon could kill a nohetka or a Feral, and even the Tok blades of the Tair only sundered the flesh from the Darkness temporarily. If a body wasn’t destroyed, it would rise again.
Jan watched the men as they helped him prepare his family. Their hands were sure and confident as they worked. He did not speak to them, and they in turn respected his silence.
They helped him pour water on the smoldering bones, and gave him a small hammer carved with runes to break them into small fragments. Someone found enough jars intact so that he could place all the bones of his family in them, mingling them so that they could be together forever. Another dug a small pit to bury them, while a third man, tall and lean, placed a small, rune carved stone in each of the jars. When it was done, when he still couldn’t speak, they activated the bindings that would seal the jars against the Darkness, seal the grave so that the Darkness couldn’t find its way in. Then, and only then did they touch him.
One of the men, not the one who had spoken the bindings, this one was taller and looked more care worn, came to kneel in front of him. He met the man’s gaze. Hard eyes, cut from stone, met his soft moist ones. The world had shifted under Jan’s feet, was still shifting, so that he felt unsteady. He thought he was going to lose his balance at any moment and fall over, but the stone eyes held him. They were a point of solidity in a world that had become uncertain. Was it only last night that he had been caught out by himself, not yet a man? But though he had passed through First Night, Jan felt more like a child than ever.
The man spoke, his voice hard, but there was kindness in it also. “I am Eurich, of the Tair. I lead these,” and he nodded toward the men preparing Sommerstone for the torch. “We are the Lost. We are the Tair. All of us have lost to Malasephus and the Darkness, and so we are lost to the world of men. We hunt his creatures, things of Darkness and evil. You have our protection… do you understand?
But Jan only looked at him, unable to speak. The hole in his chest had returned, an open maw that swallowed everything, even his voice. Another of the Tair approached Eurich and asked, “What’s his name.”
Jan heard, understood, but the words swirled down into the void in his chest. The tenor of his despair had changed, no longer tinged with fear; this despair was calmer, milder. It promised numbness, a release from the pain. It was a thousand times more insidious and seductive than what had gripped him the night before, and he accepted its invitation blindly.
Eurich stood and turned to the man who addressed him, his hand never leaving Jan’s shoulder.
“His name is buried here, with his kin. He will find a new name when he finds his voice.”
Eurich bent down and whispered in his ear. “They are gone now, but they are safe from the Darkness, Malasephus will not have them. Tyre, my rune master, made the seals, and he knows well what his business is. Your family will never rise to walk the land, but you must say goodbye to them now, and come with us, do you understand?”
The boy who had been Jan of Sommerstone looked up at Eurich. He was hard like a pillar, strong, and determined, and Jan envied him his strength. His tears were dry now, swallowed by the hole within him. He had no more tears, and had no voice, but he could move his body. He nodded, and the man called Eurich squeezed his shoulder and nodded in return.