I'm totally not procrastinating chapter 10, totally not at all... And if anyone asks, you heard nothing about a month of consecutive posting of weekly survival saga chapters for the rest of the arc once I finish writing it. And I'm totally not sorry. And super special thanks to my beta Silvercheers. I don't know how I'd survive without her.
Bury Your Sins
Bloody hands, bloody conscience.
Guude stands alone, the crunch crunch of steel parting earth echoing through the night. The weight of a rusted spade leaves his shoulders hunched. The darkness weighs also, but not as heavy under the pinpricks of light that peek between the clouds. Guude breathes in— breathes out, and the shovel drops to the dirt with a thud. The weight is not lifted.
The lights of the meeting die in the distance, an orange haze succumbing to smoke and darkness. Voices and bodies trickle from the town hall, the final details of tomorrow pieced together in hushed whispers. Guude watches as they weave their way between engraved stones in haphazard groups. Lanky shadows follow at their heels and they come to rest just beyond the edge of the pit. Silence falls. Guude's shoulders hunch further.
A presence appears beside him. He dusts his hands on his pants and gives the man a cursory nod, not looking his way. "Is it done?" the man asks, voice hollow and gruff.
"As best as I could," says Guude. He kicks at the dirt and slowly turns to the gathered crowd, his eyes cast to the earth.
"It's not your fault," the man—Etho—adds.
Guude lifts his head, green eyes flashing in the darkness. "But it was my duty." His head falls again and he slips his hands into his pockets. "It still is my duty," he says, softer. The words meld with the wind: an argument no-one can win. Etho shrugs, expression guarded, and goes to join the crowd who huddle together against the cold. They wait, the silence sickening.
Guude gathers himself and turns to face the crowd. With the lighting of a torch, the ceremony begins.
Faces grim and words hushed, those gathered leave quiet words and fond trinkets at the bed of the freshly dug grave. A book, a sword, a well-worn hat: the memories gather until the shallow grave is scattered with artful colours to hide the dreary brown below. The familiarity of the process aches their bones and wearies their limbs. Some weep openly. Others sit in pensive silence. Guude stands to the side, green eyes dulled with shadow and a crumpled piece of paper held in his hands.
A single edge is tattered where the page was torn from a book, and the yellow paper is stained with smudged ink and messy handwriting. Guude holds it under the torchlight, and when the last of the group retreats from the grave, he begins to read.
Day 82, Entry 1.
Yesterday I was out in the field marking out the lines for the compound expansion when someone wandered in from the forest. His name is Shree and he's far too young to have been landed in this mess. He's a smart one too—fixed up my measurements and everything. If his sense of humour has anything to say about it, I think I might like him already.
Nebris ran him through the basics with a sword, and while the darn kid needs a bit more meat on his arms to work with any sort of grace, he's got potential. Nebris called it natural talent. Shree said it was a basic understanding of momentum. It's safe to say that Nebris went ahead and thoroughly kicked his arse in a sparring match far beyond the level of arse-kicking needed for a newbie. Shree was a good sport about it, though.
I talked to him about the nightmen and the rampant memory loss we all suffer from here. I also told him my 'home' theory. He took it well. To quote, 'I think so too. It's an odd thing to say but I feel it in my bones.' I get that as well: this indescribable feeling of something missing; like there's this place we used to be and all of a sudden we're not. His hope actually gives me a bit of confidence in my search. Me and him, we'll make it home, even if some of them doubt there's even a home to find again. I believe it. He believes it too
By the end of the last passage, the words come hoarse and stilted. The paper trembles. Guude smooths it over mechanically and neatly folds it in half. With a shaky breath, he says his final words. "Shree, dearest friend and fellow, you will be missed. No matter where we are or where we go, we will remember you. Rest well."
With leaden limbs, he picks up the torch and holds it to the paper. It smoulders and flakes apart into a flurry of ashen snow. Guude watches the remnants drift away in the wind. He blinks away the stinging wetness at the corners of his eyes and turns his face to the stars. They glitter freely, unharrowed by the tragedy struck upon the group.
Guude lets out a stilted laugh, caught on the edge of a muffled sob. "We'll find it," he says. "For you, for me, for everyone. We'll make it home someday. You just keep on believing."
Slowly, the group disbands, sans a few volunteers who remain behind to fill the grave. The clear night succumbs to a haze of grey, and the whispers of the wind taunt those left to listen.
Guude watches, still and silent, leaden feet weighed to the ground. Ice pricks at his skin, but still he remains. Bdubs appears beside him and places a steady hand upon his shoulder. Guude takes a fortifying breath before offering his friend a weak smile. "How are you holding up?" he asks.
"As well as you might expect," Bdubs says with a thin-lipped smile of his own.
"Like absolute shit?"
"Like absolute shit," Bdubs agrees sullenly, letting his faint attempt at a smile drop.
They spend a good while simply standing there, faces taut and eyes to the stars. A solemn silence fills the space between them, too many things stuck on their minds. Eventually, the cold digs deep enough that the fire-warmth of home beckon the two inside.
"What now?" Bdubs asks, settling into a heap of blankets.
Guude wanders into the room, a steaming mug in hand. "Honestly," he says with chagrin, "I'd like to just sit here for a while in self-pity and do absolutely nothing."
"Sounds good to me," Bdubs says with honest warmth. He stretches out his arms and gives a hearty yawn for emphasis.
"I wish, though. We really do need to get some of this stuff organised for tomorrow first."
"Actually, a bit of a break might be good for you. Let me handle some of it. The rest we can save for tomorrow," Bdubs says, beginning to untangle himself from his nest of blankets, but Guude is quick to push him back down.
"No. No, I need to do this. I want to keep myself busy."
Bdubs gives him a stern look. He sits up straighter and crosses his arms. "Seriously, Guude. You should take a break. You've been working yourself non-stop ever since Madcow disappeared. You're just gonna burn yourself out."
“I'm fine," Guude protests. His fingers tremble and the green of his eyes stands out against the dark shadows underneath.
Bdubs rises abruptly. "No, Guude. You're not fine." His voice quavers, rising in cadence. He begins pacing the room, eyes flitting about hurriedly. "I think I know what this is about," he finally says.
Guude shakes his head but doesn't go to interrupt.
"You need to stop blaming yourself," Bdubs says harshly. "I've said it before and I'll say it again: you've done everything you can. It's not. Your. Fault."
"He was my responsibility, Bdubs! Do you know how young he was?" Guude lets out a ragged breath, a thick lump forming in his throat.
"I know just as well as anyone else. But that doesn't change the fact that he knew what he was doing. He made his own decisions. He chose to help protect us even though it put him a risk."
"I chose to help protect him."
"But that still doesn't make it your fault," Bdubs says with a harsh sigh. He rubs his eyes and falls back to the couch. "Why won't you listen to me?"
"I am listening to you!" Guude protests. He gives a huff of indignation. The tension in the air prickles at the back of his neck and the air feels too thick to breathe. He eyes the door off to the side before shooting his friend and confidant an electric glare.
"Clearly, you're not," Bdubs snaps back.
Guude gives him a pained look and places his forgotten coffee on a nearby table. "I'm going out," he snarls. "Don't try and stop me."
"Don't worry, I won't."
Bdubs watches silently as Guude trudges out of the room. The door closes with a dull crash and he pretends not to hear the crack of a fist against a wall from the other side of the door.
Out among the low-hanging trees and loose dirt paths of the graveyard, a single torch remains manned in the darkness. Guude wanders between the headstones, mouthing the names as he walks. Each name comes with a flourish of memories: some violent, others silent and cold—these the ones who never made it home. He approaches the light and sees Seth sitting by the freshly packed dirt of Shree's grave.
Seth doesn't stir when Guude sits down beside him. Guude breathes in the frigid air and briefly regrets abandoning the warmth of his home. Seth eventually looks up from his quiet contemplation. He looks to be faring better than most of the others, even if he does look a bit paler than usual. "Quiet night," Seth offers in greeting.
Guude picks up a stray stick and starts tracing absent-minded patters in the dirt. "Yeah, it is," he says. "Sometimes a bit too quiet though, you think?"
"I think I know what you mean," Seth says. He looks out past the fence where monsters hide among the darkness. It's a deathly quiet night in the wake of the recent thunderstorm. Silence smothers the night in a thick void. In the wake of the recent thunderstorm, silence smothers the night in a thick void. It's nearly suffocating,
Guude draws a skeletal shape in the dirt. A single rattle echoes from somewhere near the horizon. "I remember my first night here," he says. "The noise was unbearable. I could barely even sleep. Now, when it's quiet like this, I start to miss it."
"Do you miss him?" Seth asks hesitantly. "Shree, I mean. I barely even knew him and yet I've been sitting here still trying to comprehend that he's gone."
Guude looks Seth in the eyes and sees the tiredness etched into his features. He almost wants to punch Seth for bringing it up. Almost. He shakes his head and drops his stick back to the dirt. "Yeah, I miss him, too," he says, voice strained. "I miss every one of them. Even the ones I didn't like."
"Even the ones you didn't like?" Seth says with a soft chuckle.
"Yeah. You start to miss their annoying quirks after a while. Especially the ones always sticking their heads into trouble. Couldn't keep a leash on those ones. It's almost unsurprising that they ended up where they did."
'Nothing you can do about that, I s'pose."
"Yeah," Guude agrees after a moment of thought. He thinks back to those who stubbornly refused to listen to him when he warned them of danger. He remembers a time Kuroro practically threw himself into a hoard of mobs despite several attempts to hold him back. The memories of unmovable determination and cocky claims of prowess almost bring a smile to his lips. Whether by co-incidence or not, most of group seem to be like that. They all have an intrinsic drive to keep on fighting one way or another and that has landed them in trouble a near uncountable number of times. He looks back at the memories with solemn fondness. He chews his lip, deep in thought, and fidgets hesitantly. Finally, a decision is made. "You know," he adds as an afterthought, beginning to pick himself up from the dirt, "I came out here to be angry but I think I have an apology to go make."
Seth quirks an eyebrow. "Alright. I'll just still be here," he says, gesturing around him.
As Guude stands, he turns to Seth and says, "You'll come with us tomorrow, right?"
"Right," Seth answers without a hint of hesitation.
Guude stands straighter, a sense of lightness in the air. There's hope too, he thinks, and it finally feels like they may be getting somewhere.
~ ~ ~