By Aetre

The setting sun kept respectful distance; for all its glory, it faded behind a blood-red haze as a coward retreating when stricken. No birds flew this evening; they had long since fled for the rest of the year and would not return until spring. Trees and hilltops stood their ground, but only because they had no choice. No wind but minor eddies stirred: their whispers the loudest orchestra to tour this land in days.

She sat in meditation, facing west from atop one of the hills. On the outside, her silence and rigidity equaled that of the rocks beneath her, but within her mind, all was not so calm. In attempting, as the masters had taught her, to let herself be at one with her surroundings, she accidentally went too far... Something haunted this land, and the silent desolation was not merely the absence of activity, but the presence of something hidden.

Her hair lay limp along her back and barely touched the ground. Her face, expressionless, showed many more years’ age than were rightfully hers. Dry cracks, fissures, and wrinkles lined each cheek. Though no scars showed, the solemn aura about her suggested that, in truth, she wore massive internal wounds; it seemed as though something beneath her skin were stabbing at the flesh, trying to make it erupt. Her off-white robe was dirty from travel but not torn, the silver lining faded but not frayed at the edges.

She had traveled a fortnight on foot, following directions from village to village. Though she had never been here before, she recognized the place as soon as she arrived—the stale, latent stench of human decay was hard to miss. She sat, cupped her right fist in her left hand, and rested her arms on her lap. There she meditated, because if she did not concentrate, she would have cried.

The trick to effective meditation, she knew, was to remain active instead of passive. To be passive would be to lose consciousness, awareness. Sleep was passive. Meditation required much more attention. What her mind actively sought, what balance she searched for in the conscious mind of eternity, now stood out before her as an entire host of voices crying from beyond the veil of reality. Though her eyes were closed, she still saw shapeless figures in the distance, coming closer, over the hills and through the valley, as if to reenact the battle. When they rushed—no, flew—past the spot where she sat, their shouts seared her eardrums, and their charge shook the earth. Still, she reached out among these lost souls, searched through their ranks as they sped past, ghosts against the backdrop of eyelid flesh, through which no light traveled though she still faced the sun.

Even as her mind called out, her wailing voice drowned in the midst of the warring fury, one voice called out to her. It was calm and familiar... and somehow louder than everything else when it spoke. A ghost flew up the hill and stopped suddenly in midair before her.

He was but a pale outline of the man she once knew, but it was all she needed to see right now. He looked at her with pitch-black sockets and spoke.

“Why have you come here?” he asked.

But she thought immediately, “You know why.”

A silence passed between them then, though war still raged around. She had hoped she would get answers from him, not questions. He, however, simply stood, reading her thoughts, but waiting to give his response.

At last he said, “If you want to ask why I left, you might as well ask the sun why it leaves the day. If you want to ask why you can’t come with me, you might as well consider yourself in armor and try to find reason in that. Get up and go to shelter; the night will be colder than you know, and I did not die to watch you freeze.”

He flew over her head, and she opened her eyes. The sun was now fully below the horizon, and winter’s chill was setting in, despite a lack of wind to carry it.

The words hung on her lips as she stared at the horizon. She whispered them weakly, knowing there would be no reply:

“Why do you leave the day?”

The question hovered in the air and loomed over the battlefield, even long after she had left.