Fire sprung from his hand and caught quickly to the wooden house: his own creation from years ago. The heat burst eagerly into the dark winter forest, fire plundering the plentiful stores of fuel with ravenous hunger. In the twinkle of the night sky and the emblazoned light ahead, he unburdened himself from tension and weight. Slowly, what had happened sunk beyond his aged, leathery skin. Slowly, he felt himself accept the unconscionable reality before him.
While he had been gone with the king on a war-time trip to the north, three hordes of barbarian wretches came through. The armies and he were leagues away, too far to hear the screaming of the skeleton guard left behind as they were among the first sliced to the ground. The king’s guard had delivered him the letter after a blood-soaked battle of their own, and he’d left with all haste back to desolation itself.
The remaining handful of the warlord’s finest were feasting upon the flesh and form of the defeated when he arrived. His serrated shield and chained kusarigama made an inelegant sight of them in a flash. The path between the main village and his cottage was dark, giving birth to a grey bloom in his chest – realization of the solitude of his journey. The winds solemnly waltzed between each bare tree as he saw the first string of char across the stone exterior and a massive gash across the wooden front door. He could see the splinters protrude from the large, heavy latch he’d built, and could hear the tinkering of life not of his name from inside. He’d braced with his shield and shoulder first while tapping his blade across a single stone as a dinner bell.
Two men the size of a boulder and large child respectively emerged with weapons brandished, exploding the door with a heavy swing of the brute’s sword. He dodged to the right, smelling the rotten chunks of extinguished life along the chipped butcher’s blade, while raising his shield against a flurry from the smaller barbarian. Both snarled in the only fully still moment of the confrontation, and it was the sight of his wife’s necklace around the smaller man’s neck that sent him into a writhing rage of furious retort.
He’d darted with the smaller man in tow and snapped three poison knives from his belt, shooting them to the brute’s leg with a massive growl coming after him. His main weapon had hid behind his shield he let the smaller man strike, either of his knives coming as lighting but not piercing his mail. With a wide shot incoming, he’d slapped hard away and shot out his kusarigama to empty the man’s body of blood at the throat just before he’d felt his shield explode from the massive brute’s powerful follow up. He’d staggered back with his arms wide with a stabbing strike coming to end his struggle, but the large man’s stance weakened severely with the poison finally taking hold. In a blink, the stab sparked against the stone wall, he was forward and behind the aching butcher, and his hooked blade was jaggedly slammed into the base of the man’s skull.
What he’d found inside afterwards was all the worst, all the screaming, yelling terror his campaign with the king was meant to prevent. Emptiness took him, making him rigid and uncaring of obstacle as he wandered from place to place until now, where he stands inside the engorged glow of flame.
From his shoulder sloughed his weapon and shield, then quickly his furs and mail. He was naked and thin, his vulnerability meaningless before the fire that he shambled ahead to meet.
“Do you seek it,” he heard from behind and over the fire itself. “Do you seek the flame?”
He turned quietly and slowly with his eyes loose and sunken, but his mouth asked back, “What flame?”
“The flame to soothe your soul. To lift your curse.”
“My curse…is life. There is no more for me here.”
A short, echoing trio of voices took to cackling so hard it shook the birds from the trees around him. “Undead, there is more than life and death in this world. Walk into the past and find water. There, you may begin to understand.”
Despite his pain, despite the ash in his throat and eyes, he shambled ahead. In nothing but his sparsest clothing, he pushed his feet to obey through the sharpness of the brambles and branches. He wasn’t entirely sure why, but he knew that he simply had to keep moving ahead to the past, and then to the water.