1298 DR: the Holly Ghost's first appearance, or When I thought I had lost a friend, but true friends never leave us
The ceremony had been very touching. The elves around me were showing solemn and austere expressions while paying their last respects to their loved ones.
Those people were not my clan, but we were tied by a distand kinship, by the affection that grows naturally when you spend much time together with someone, and now we were also united by the cameretic sentiment that arises from fighting an epic battle side by side.
Some of those elves had risked life for me and myself for them, but I knew little more than their names. All the elven clans of the Dragon's Neck Peninsula had joined the fight against the orcish horde, and we had established our lines of defense in a place we knew to be quite defensible. Hundreds of wood elves were present on that day of mourning, when we had to bury our dead.
Countless corpses of orcs and goblinoids were laying abandoned in the forest, on the trails, on the narrow mule-trackers that climbed into the Peninsula's steep and wood-covered hills, some of the corpses left stuck between the rocks, others forgotten in the underground caverns.
The underground caverns.
Our people love the sunlight and the rustling of the fronds, we weren't aware of the underground caverns that could have allowed the orcs and their ogres and goblinoids allies to sneak past our lines of defenses and to catch us off-guard.
Luckily we had someone among us who came to foresee that eventuality too.
So my friend had gone alone to explore the caves, finding the weakness of the enemy's army: a passage too narrow for more than a few orcs (or a single ogre) to pass. There were other caves, but they were too dangerous, too narrow or too tangled; they would have considerably slowed down any army, so it was unlikely for the orcs to have chosen those paths; their way would have much probably led them into the sole narrowing that my friend had discovered.
Good to know, but the discovery had come too late. Too late for my friend to come back to report. Had he abandoned his position, the orcs would have passed beyond the precious defensible bottleneck, storming in the wide caves and labyrinthine tunnels that stretched beneath the Peninsula as capillaries. And so, while we were busy fighting on the surface defending the valleys and the paths, a single elf was fighting in the caverns, holding back nearly a quarter of the enemy's army.
I did not know where he had gone. I was fighting for my life near a dry creek when he had had the idea of looking for an underground trail, and by that time we had already been apart hours. The battle lasted nearly half a day. Once that massacre was finally over, I didn't know where to start looking for him. The tracks were confused by the passage of thousands of feet, everywhere in the woods. How to distinguish its light traces from those of any other elf?
As much as the thought grieved me, I had no doubt that he was dead. He would have already been back, otherwise. Simple wounds could not have stopped him, he'd always been determined; had he been still alive, he would have shown up. Otherwise...
We spent the next three days in buryin the bodies. We had had relatively few losses, for the battle it had been. Meanwhile I had been exploring the tunnels in the wrong area. I was about to give up (for that day) and to come back to the surface, when I sensed a disgusting smell coming from a crack in the rock. Blood, putrefaction: the smell of death.
That slit was too narrow for me to pass, and the tunnels I searched didn't lead me to anything. I came back to the surface and tried to get my bearings, so to locate the cave I was looking for.
It took me almost a another full day, but I found the right cavern eventually.
The narrow tunnel had been the scene of a massacre. A stack of dead bodies of orcs and goblins obstructed almost the entire gallery, some of them seemed to have been trampled, perhaps by their own companions who had tried to overtake the mountain of corpses to continue fighting their frantic battle. It was clear that, of the hundreds of enemies which had entered this cave, not all of them had to be dead here: when the pile of corpses had become an insurmountable obstacle, the rest of the troops had to turn their backs to return to the surface, renouncing this strategy.
I found him under the corpse of a particularly large orc, maybe an ogrillon.
You might have already heard the phrase "it's dirty job, but somebody's gotta do it"... but I doubt you can fully understand it if you never had to move a half dozen of rotting corpses with your bare hands, so to recover the dead body, equally wasted, of a dear friend.
He was barely recognizabile and his body was covered in wounds, many of which should have been fatal, although I knew very well that his fighting style made him a master in avoiding strokes.
Only the thrill of battle might have driven him to give himself over to it, not minding his own protection. That, or resignation. But that did not explain how he could have continued to fight with such wounds and with a likely broken leg.
I kept thinking about this and other things as I wrapped his body in his cloak and did what I had to do to bring him outside. I needed to keep my mind busy so that I wouldn't have succumbed to the horror and sadness for what I was doing.
The first time I had seen him, nearly fifty years before, it had been after a battle who had nearly wiped out my patrol. I was awaking on the side of a dirt road, badly wounded, and he was burying my travel companions. He did not know them, but he was burying them because even somebody ignorant to our customs understood that it was not respectful to leave bodies to the scavengers.
He was burying my comrades as well as the brigands who had attacked us, for he saw no difference between two groups he did not know and whose members were almost all dead.
At that time he knew nothing about our world, he could not tell who was right and who was in the wrong, and perhaps was too disgusted by concepts such as "right" or "wrong" to really care at all.
I, on the contrary, grew up knowing well who's good and who's evil, what the defenders and the invaders deserve, and I was glad to leave behind the smelly corpses of the orcs; the worms could finish them for all I cared.
My friend, however, was another matter. I wanted to give him a proper burial, as both the common decency and our funeral traditions dictates, especially as far as a Ruathar is concerned.
Someone had the gall to object. Some elves from the western fringes of the Peninsula, members of isolated and isolationist clans, kept looking suspiciously at me while I dug a grave for my friend, and somebody even dared to open their mouth. I would have closed those mouths with my punches if it wasn't for my relatives, the clan we had spent many weeks with in the last few years: they rose up and spoke out loud in my favour. After them, other elven clans close to ours also defended my right to bury my friend along with our dead. Some of those elves then helped me in my job.
Before filling the pit I put an acorn on my friend's body as the tradition wanted, and when the grave was covered I swung his bastard sword into the ground.
It was a matter of moments: an oak sprout emerged timidly from the ground and stood in its few inches of height beside the sword, feeding in the sunlight. That little miracle proved me right and did justice to my friend's heart: only the tomb of a true Ruathar would grow a protective oak. After that, no one raised any more objections.
The next day we started ridding the woods and the trails of the disgusting lot of orcs' corpses. By evening I had gone to a brook to wash the dust and dirt off, and there I decided to bring some water to the oak. Maybe there was no need, these trees are said to be magical, but I wanted to do something, a gesture of kindness or care towards what had remained of my friend. I found the sword stuck in the ground, but the young sprout that the day before was no taller than a span, that evening was already as high as I was. The trunk was thin and young but strong and lush. The sight really moved me and I wanted to say something meaningful, I really wanted to, something that was both poetic and solemn, but a voice behind me beat me to the punch:
"Here is what remains of an entire life: a tree. Something for the dogs to piss upon."
Said by anyone else, those words would have made me indignant, but I knew that voice. Heck, only he could ever say something like that.
Trembling with emotion, fearful of what I could find, I turned around.
He was there.
And he was a ghost.
And I was a ranger, one who's supposed to fight against unnatural creatures such as undeads, but I suddenly couldn't care less.
We left the clan later that night, heading south, out of the forest.
"How did you do that?" I asked him at some point, breaking the silence. "I saw how your body was, so... just how did you do that?"
"What, reappearing in perfect shape? I learned how to control my appearance before I showed up in front of you."
"No, I mean... the battle. I checked your body and it seemed to me that you were way too wounded to fight, perhaps you were dying already, but you did not stop until they retreated."
He passed a hand behind his head, uncomfortable. "I did not do it."
I looked at him with curiosity, not understanding his claim. Then, slowly, I got there. "Did you let Her possess you?"
"I asked Her to."
"But you've always sayd it's very dangerous, since if you don't stop the process in a short time all your life force would be consumed and..."
"And? I was facing a horde of bloodthirsty orcs, I would eventually have died anyway. I made a few dozens of them bite the dust, but then I had to admit that the task was far beyond my abilities and that I had no choice but to ask the Goddessto use my body as a puppet in order to finish the job."
I sighed. I did not like it, but I could not refute his logic. Then I let a smile spread over my face. I had my annoying friend back. There was really nothing to complain about.
"And so, how many orcs did you kill?" I poked him cheerfully.
"What kind of nonsense are you talking about?"
"C'mon, I can't believe you didn't count them. How many?"
"Oh, please! That's just so childish!"
"So you did count them."
The moonlight was shining on the sea, ahead of us, in the distance. It would have taken us some days of marching to reach the edge of the forest, and only our elevated position had allowed us to see our goal already, but we both knew we still had a long way to walk together.
Authoress' note: I'm not english mothertongue, I'm writing and publishing this same story in my own language (italian) and later translating it into english. Doing this takes me a lot of time, so I'm afraid I will not frequently update. Also, I'm not completely sure about the grammar (and when I'm sure of the grammar I'm afraid the text is too maccheronic), though I really do my best. So please be patient, I'll be glad if you point out my mistakes.
About the rating "M": the story's rated M for some non-detailed description of violence, oblique references to sex and non-consensual sex, copious swearing, and generally for touching issues that might be disturbing for 16- teenagers.