…Or Be Forever Fallen by A. Merc Rustad
The raven’s ghost follows first. It’s not a surprise, if I’m honest. I killed a raven once—intentional, cruel—some time ago. (I don’t remember why.) At first I saw it in the distance while I prowled the ruins of the once-majestic forest, hunting the men who robbed me. Yet the ghost never approached until now.
It perches on a petrified tree stump. The light from the campfire shimmers against its glossy feathers, blood etching razor-edged plumage. It should be indistinguishable in the night, banked in shadow. I only know it’s a ghost from the hollows of its missing eyes, how its shape bends in unnatural directions at the corners of my sight.
“I’ve naught for you.” I say it to the knives laid out on oiled canvas before me.
The raven’s ghost makes no sound. Its unnatural muteness tightens the muscles in my neck. Ghosts are never silent. Death is neither gentle nor kind.
I must act quickly, before the ghost destroys me. I don’t know why it’s waited, since it must have come for a reason. There’s no dawn in this land—a ghost can wait forever, and I can no longer endure its presence. I haven’t slept in…well. I don’t remember that, either.
The bandits who stole my name left me savaged but alive, my memory no better than moth-chewed rags, loose threads, the narrative of who I was scattered between holes. I remember cold plains that aren’t home, a familiar-soft touch on my neck, planting grape vines in summer, pain (maybe mine, maybe not), and great pools of emptiness between.
The raven cocks its head.
I will find the men who wronged me and I will unmake them. But I can find no solace if the ghost interferes.
I pull the map from my satchel and spread it before me. The map is old: vellum lined with a substance neither blood nor ink, but darker, older; the viscera from the other side of heaven.
Shall I show you what happened to your name? the map whispers. Its voice bends thoughts sideways, echoes of madness etched behind each word. It only shows you what you pay it to find.
I kneel on the edges of the map and lay a knife blade against my palm. Steel grounds me, the one thing I always remember. “Leave me, ghost, or I will let this map destroy you.”
The map purrs in anticipation and hunger.
“You would be unwise to do that, man,” says a voice from the darkness.
A wolf prowls into my camp, the firelight pooling its eye sockets. A faint line of red circles its neck, but its silver-black pelt is thick, glossy as the raven’s feathers.
I stiffen, sharp fear salted in my belly. I’ve never killed a wolf (cruel or not). I haven’t earned a second ghost.
The wolf must have once hailed from the southern mountains: it’s bigger than a pony, jagged white stripes splashed across its back, clay beads sewn into its ears and braided into the long fur along its chest and shoulders.
The wolf dips its chin to the raven, who nods its head in return.
At the corners of my eyes, the wolf’s shape warps and stretches into the darkness. Its scent is heavy with old memory.
The mountain wolves served only their land and their people, refusing to pay homage to Sun or Moon. Instead, they sought the dark between the stars (they said First Wolf was born in those empty spaces, when heaven was not looking)—they were building great ships in the mountains’ bellies, built of bone and shed fur, sealed with pitch. They would sail into the dark in search of First Wolf and leave the world for the Sun and the Moon to squabble over.
The Sun tolerated no other predators in heaven, and neither did the Moon.
That memory doesn’t belong to me. I shake my head, startled and unsettled.
“Good evening, man,” the wolf says at last.
“Evening,” I reply, humoring the ghost. “You have no purpose here, lord wolf.”
“We may disagree on that point.” The ghost’s voice is charred where the wound across its throat digs deeper. “You hold one who is mine.”
I glance toward the raven’s ghost. “I never claimed it.”
“You lie beautifully,” the wolf says with an appreciative nod. “Did you have much practice?”
That, at least, I can answer fairly. “Yes.”
I don’t remember what rituals shaped me. There were more important pieces stolen: my past, my purpose, my name.
I sink the tip of the blade into the ground, away from flesh. The map will eagerly lap up even a drop of blood. To destroy one ghost, perhaps I might endure the price—but not two. The map drives a hard bargain.
It is nothing you cannot bear, the map says. You may not even remember what it is you will lose. Forgetting costs you nothing more.
I shift my weight on my heels. If it stays, I fear what else the wolf’s scent will bring.
Ghosts are wrought from sorrow and carnage; they carry each as a weapon. The wolf can tear apart my flesh with fangs or crush my heart with grief not my own. So could the raven, but it hasn’t bothered yet. I own no knives for killing ghosts.
“Leave this place, lord wolf.”
“Not until you repay us for what you stole,” it says.
And what is that? I took nothing. I know the words trapped and helpless, but they’ve been empty of context until now. There is nowhere to run in a forest as dead and cold as the ghosts before me.
“Man,” the wolf says with the edge of a growl. “Will you pay your debt freely?”
The raven spreads its wings and its body flickers as it glides through the campfire, blending with smoke. It circles once until the tip of its pinions graze my cheek. Sudden and unbidden memory fills my mind—
The raven found the wolf, wounded and far from the mountains now cold and empty. The raven nursed the wolf to health, to strength, to vengeance.
There were no other ravens; they had flown swift and silent, slipping behind the Moon, gliding between the stars. On each star they passed, they hung a black feather on a silver string to guide whoever followed. The last raven stayed for the wolf.
The raven found the man, too, in the petrified stump forest where it was never dawn.
The raven said to the man, “If you would make amends and have the darkness embrace you, be no more.”
And the man said, “I will, lord raven.”
I jerk my head back, my heartbeat too fast—the sound will spill from my ribs and betray me. “What do you want?”
The raven lands on the wolf’s broad shoulder. Both ghosts wince, white-blue light crackling between talons and fur. The raven nuzzles its beak against the wolf’s ear, and the wolf leans into the caress.
“When you killed him,” the wolf murmurs, “you left your blood upon his eyes.”
The sharp-edged accusation dances like an errant spark in my throat. With living blood blinding the dead, a ghost cannot find its way to rest. It will follow the one who blinded it, helpless and lost until the living cleans away the blood or consecrates the bones. I left the carcass nailed to a tree so the roots would not swallow it and trap its ghost in a cage beneath the forest forevermore.
“I’ve never blinded the dead.”
“You don’t remember your own name,” the wolf says. “You don’t remember what you did. Should I show you?”
I flinch backwards. “No. Forgive me, lord wolf.” I owe them; the knowledge of that sits heavy in my bones, sudden and weighted with a grief I don’t understand. “If I did, it was not by choice.”
Muscles ripple under the wolf’s pelt, its fur liquid silver and sky-dark by turn. The white on its back glows like the moon. “Unite our bones so we may be at rest.”
I dare not move.
The ghost’s hollow sockets burn with firelight. Its lips curl back, smile or snarl—one and the same. “Or you will never be named again. Your map will not help you. I know what they did with your name, Man. I will help you, but only if you redress the crime you have committed against us.”
I let my breath out slowly, controlled. It’s possible to take a new name. But it would have no history, no purpose; it would only mean defeat. I’ve resisted the map’s seductive offers, but my strength will fail, in time. I cannot go on forever not knowing who I am.
I sheath the knives. “Agreed, lord wolf.”
Both ghosts smile.
First, I must find their bones.
I light a cigarette in the campfire. The heat never burns my skin nor singes the graying stubble on my chin. I don’t remember if my hair has been anything more than ash-colored, tied into thick ropes. (It’s an odd detail to take irritation with: hair color. I’ve never thought myself vain.) I inhale smoke, the perfect balance of opium and tobacco, and brace myself to bargain with the map. Then I cut open the scar tissue on my elbow where there isn’t any pain and feed a trickle of blood to the vellum.
You won’t get what you seek from the dead, the map says.
The ghosts scare me more than the map, and I’ve owned that map a long time. (I don’t remember how long.) “Where are the bones of the wolf and the raven with me now?”
The map’s surface is dark. Inversed, paler lines unravel like a detailed woodcut: the three of us in the forest of petrified tree stumps. A line snakes to the east and stops against a picture of the Woods, still living, thick with shadow and lost voices.
The map continues drawing. The line curls lazily through the Woods until it reaches a half-moon clearing. Six shapes, perhaps men, stand in the empty space, and then the map washes the depiction clear.
You can see where they have hidden your name, for a price, the map says.
I grunt in dismissal and roll it up. If you stare too long at the darkness, you’ll get a glimpse of the void trapped within vellum. Other men, more curious, have burst at the seams when they looked; some tear out their eyes and go mad; some are simply eaten.
The wolf tilts its head. “You wear pain as a cowl and regret as a shroud.”
“Do I?” I haven’t looked in a mirror in…well. I don’t remember forever, so I’ll settle for years.
I kick out the fire and sling my satchel over one shoulder. There’s no moon tonight, but I’ve wandered in the darkness a long time. It settles like a worn, tattered jacket around my shoulders.
“Come,” I tell the ghosts. “I’ll put your bones to rest.”
At the edge of the Woods, whippoorwills coo minor lullabies while owls sing dirges. Magpies whistle happily of coins in eye sockets and silver in broken teeth. Swallows warble on the taste of ghostly bones.
There are no raven voices.
I crouch, fingers splayed against the ground. The gouged, raw-peeled wood of the tree on which I impaled the raven’s carcass stands visible in the night. (How long ago?) The Woods are dense with thick-bodied yews, ancient birch white as bone, buckthorn laden with overripe berries black as liver-blood.
The pungent smell of old, rotting bones under roots fills my nostrils. A shade of half-remembered detail flickers in broken memory: a hand, cool fingers twined with mine, a beautiful face leaning down for a kiss. I can’t grasp the context, or find the missing pieces that would make it whole. I grind my teeth in frustration.
The wolf sits at my side and the raven settles on the other flank.
“We cannot enter,” the wolf says.
“I can go alone.”
“No.” The wolf bends too fast and stands before me. “You will not leave us here.”
As the ghost’s teeth graze the skin of my throat, memory follows.
“Don’t,” he begged the Sun. “Just let them go. They are no challenge. They only wish to be left in peace.”
“You would defy your God? I have created you. Obey.”
He had no self or honor to claim as reason to defy the Sun.
That one was mine. It carries my scent, hot as smelted metal. I swallow, trembling as my vision clears. For a moment, I wish the wolf’s ghost would clamp its jaws around my neck, shake its head until my bones snap and memory fills the holes to drive me mad. But the cold dread holds me still.
When I find my voice, it’s coarse and raw. I keep my knives sheathed. “We’re not going to waste the night in argument. If you can’t enter, I will.”
“Where you will be devoured by the dark?” The wolf’s eye sockets burn in the dark. “Where you may slip away into the lands beyond and forsake us? You owe us peace, man.”
“And I will honor that debt. But not unless you let me pass.”
“Give us your eyes,” the wolf counters.
I don’t blink, tempted as I am. “Why?”
The raven stretches its head back in silent laughter.
“The living may enter the Woods,” the wolf says with a smile. “With your life in us, so may we. We will give them back.”
They can take what they want without my consent, if they choose.
“Fine, lord wolf,” I say, teeth gritted. I brace my arms, fingers curled into the loam.
The raven flaps upwards, hovering on silent wings, and opens its beak.
It hurts. Of course it hurts.
I curse as the raven’s ghost plucks first the one eye–given to the wolf—and then the other, which it swallows; the eye resurfaces in its socket.
Ghost-memory doesn’t follow, this time.
My vision spins in two opposite directions. Bile sears the back of my throat; blood crusts my cheekbones. The raven cocks its head, spilling half my vision sideways. Slowly, I adjust to this dual sight. I’m staring at my own back with the wolf-eye and my bloodied face with the raven-eye.
Brands knot my back. I’ve never realized how tattered my clothing is: the shirt barely more than collar and strips of sleeves, trousers sliced into decorative ribbons about my thighs. The brands on my flesh coil in intricate patterns. Bandits didn’t mark me like that, yet the sight sends my heart quickening. There’s a tug in my gut, a hook threaded on a chain.
The raven scrapes the backs of my knuckles with its talon, unspooling another piece of my own memory, unwanted.
He knelt before the Sun, silent, for he couldn’t say he had fallen in love with the darkness. That smooth face made of shadow, the hands curled around his fingers, the caress of lips against his.
But the Sun saw into his heart.
“You would turn from your God?”
He dared not be honest, so he kept his silence. The Sun branded him in punishment—all the words of his blasphemy—and sent him into the mountains.
“Stop this!” I’ll crack, fall into pieces, if I must see any more. It could be lies. I long for it all to be lies. “Or our deal is forfeit.”
The raven preens its chest plumage.
“You have no weight to bargain with,” the wolf says. “We have no wish to wait eternity to see our bones to rest.”
Trapped, again. If I hesitate, they’ll force memory into me until I obey. I’ve gotten used to the empty spaces like I’ve grown fond of the darkness. Perhaps it’s better to forget.
You can forget everything you don’t want, for a price, the map says.
I step into the woods with the ghosts.
The owls quiet first, and one by one, the whippoorwills and magpies and swallows fall silent.
The wolf’s fur ripples, peeling back to show brutal wounds, jagged splashes of bone-white, purpled-red entrails spilling against the ground.
“I died amidst these trees,” the wolf murmurs. “I tried to take him home, back to our mountains. He wandered far ahead of me into these lands. I followed, but I cannot run as fast as my love can fly, and when I caught his scent again, you had murdered him, Man.”
I turn my face away as sudden pain in my chest I can’t name flares bright. The raven-eye watches the wolf, unblinking.
“Who killed you?” I ask finally.
“The same ones who took your name,” the wolf says. “They overwhelmed me, in time.”
I wish the wolf would make itself as silent as the raven. “We need to keep moving.”
The wolf-eye glances at me, but the ghosts make no protest as we stalk deeper into the Woods. The raven flaps languidly at my shoulder, and the wolf prowls at my other side, so, in a manner, I can still see as I once had.
Moonlight lies in congealed puddles like old blood. Broken pieces of starlight glitter sharper from where they hang caught on dark leaves and dead branches. The air itself is heavy, blue-black as it holds the night close.
Between the trees, I catch sight of a face made of darkness, smiling at me. I jerk my head uselessly, but the shadow melts into a formless void once again and is gone. Why is it so familiar?
A glimpse of light at my feet attracts the wolf-eye, welcome distraction.
It’s a lone sunbeam, shivering under a tree and cornered by shadows. Dawn is far off, not even a whisper in my bones. The pinch of regret startles me as we watch the forsaken sunlight. It will die here.
The most I can do is offer it a warmer burial than the cold ground and damp leaves where the dark curls. A mercy, underserved, that I desperately need to give it. I kick the shadows aside and cup the sunlight in both hands. It’s weak, lukewarm and dimming into ember-red.
“Rest,” I whisper to it, and its radiance flickers in a sigh. I tuck it into my vest pocket, a droplet of warmth over the scars along my skin.
“Do you ever question why?” the wolf asks.
I’m tired of riddles. “Speak plainly.”
The wolf’s shoulders are level with my chest, and the ghost tilts its head to make me stumble, my vision at my own feet. “Why you came to these Woods,” the wolf says, “why you have wandered the petrified land of stumps and bones where it is never dawn.”
“It doesn’t matter.” The lie comes with the practiced ease of sliding a knife between sleeping ribs.
“Our pasts matter,” the wolf replies. “Would you be here if it did not?”
I won’t concede truth to the ghost.
The Woods are tranquil as a newly dug grave. There, against one of the birch, a gash where an ax split the bark. Here, a skeletal bush where a net stripped it of foliage. And there, at my feet, a footprint: my own, bloodied, old. This is the path.
My breath quickens, anticipation braided around dread. I won’t turn back now, though some buried instinct begs me to flee, to let the ghosts keep my eyes so long as I escape these Woods.
I scatter the coward’s impulse and push forward. Ahead, the trees fall back and we reach the half-moon clearing.
Six man-shapes stand with axes hanging limp in their hands. They aren’t ghosts, but they aren’t the living, either. Flesh sags from graying bones. Rotted leather garments hang in tatters about protruding shoulder-bones and jutting hips. Their mouths roil with maggots.
“You came back,” they say in unison.
Lichen ropes snap from the trees and snare my arms, pulling them above my head. A second forms a noose and snakes around my neck. The ropes heave me backwards, pinning me against a hawthorn. More lichen circles my ankles.
The ghouls lumber forward with axes raised. My heart beats in a panicked frenzy. I strain to lever one arm free as the noose tightens, dragging my chin up.
The ghosts sit back on either side of me and watch.
Pocked, dead skin stretches across the ghouls’ faces. Why do I not remember these details, the rotting teeth and ant-chewed eyes—
“We are stronger now.” The ghouls raise their axes. “We will not fail you again.”
Muscles strain in my shoulders as I pull one arm towards my chest. I feel the warm spot over my heart and hook my fingers inside the vest pocket—last hope. “Burn for me,” I whisper, a final plea.
The sunbeam has grown strong on my body heat. The sunlight expands and blossoms, brilliant, terrible, pulling light from high above until it’s a miniature sun incarnate. It bursts in a passionate supernova and the echo of a triumphant scream.
Both ghosts shut my eyes so I will not go blind.
The ghouls cry out, their axes dropping to the forest floor. The lichen shrieks and unwinds. Free, I draw my knives and fling myself into the afterimage of the sunlight. Blades meet unresisting flesh.
Pieces of my stolen memory unwind with the crunch of rib and rip of skin, weaving threads back into place.
He remembers the Sun, his God; his purpose is only to obey. He is the Avatar of the Sun, glorious in battle, fierce in peace, merciless in all.
He was once a man, but when he gave himself to the Sun, it burned away all trace of who he was. He is remade only to serve.
He takes the map from the body of his predecessor, who looked too long into the abyss stretched dark across vellum. He envies that suicide.
He stands in a cave, surrounded by wolves—eyes gray, teeth bared, bodies unmoved. Too late he realizes he stares not at living flesh but skeletons, with the ghost-images of life overlaid on bones.
And he remembers the shadow; the beautiful, cold darkness that soothes the burning in his veins and the unbearable light behind his eyes.
When the sixth ghoul falls, I wait for my name, surely caught like a fishbone within the woodsman’s throat.
Only the feel of old blood on my knuckles comes as reward.
I spin in a circle, though the ghosts now watched the clearing and see all. Six bodies. Nothing more. “Where is my name?”
“They destroyed it,” the wolf says calmly. “You asked them to, after all.”
My spine snaps rigid and I turn my head (sightless) until the wolf-eye looks me in the face.
The wolf’s ghost smiles cruelly. “Don’t you remember, man?” It prowls across the woodsmen’s bodies. “Did the dead give you back what you begged them to steal?”
Why would I ask for this? “Where are your bones? I will see you buried outside these Woods and at peace and you will leave me be.”
“Look down,” the wolf says. “You will see.”
The raven inclines its head, hooks the eye from its socket with its talons, and pops it back into my skull. The wolf does the same.
Again my vision reels, settles, and I blink against crusted blood on my eyelids.
The ghosts’ vengeance falls like an ax blade. Their memories and my own wrap together in my eyes and play out unflinching, unavoidable.
He feeds blood to the map so it will show him where the old huntsmen are buried, cursed into undeath for their failure to save the First Forest from the war between Sun and Moon. Crouched among the petrified tree stumps, agate-colored in the campfire, he uses his knives to dig through ancient soil until he finds the six huntsmen.
(High above, the raven watches him.)
“Why do you disturb us?” the huntsmen wail.
He pulls them from their graves and offers a simple bargain: Follow him to the Woods, which have grown on the blood and bones of the dead left from war. There their axes lie; they will pick up their tools again and kill him. Chop his name into nothing and make his body the same. His bones, full of sunlight, will burn them into ash and they will be free.
(His death is what he promised the raven.)
The woodsmen agree. They take up their axes in the Woods.
(Far away, a wolf races across the land, a rippled blur of silver-black. The wolf raises his head and howls. “Wait, my love! Wait for me!”
But the raven does not hear. The wolf cannot reach the raven in time to save him.)
The huntsmen toss a net over the man, and he waits for the end, waits as they dig his name from his ribs with cold hands, waits as they cut it to pieces, waits—
But the woodsmen’s blades are rusted and they have lost the strength in their arms.
It hurts. Of course it hurts.
They fail to kill him, leaving wounds ragged to bone not broken, and they chop away memory. For the undead, memory and flesh are the same—privileges of the living. They cannot tell the difference.
He forgets why he came and who they are, but he never forgets his knives. He cuts himself loose and flees.
A raven flares its wings, blocking the man’s path. “Let them finish,” the raven says. “You swore to me you would be no more! You swore you would pay for what you did!”
(Far away, a wolf howls.)
He kills the raven.
The memory snaps my head back and the living trees of the Woods rear ancient and hateful above. I drop to my knees.
“You remember,” the wolf whispers. “How you, heartblood of the Sun, crawled far beneath our mountains and incited the earth to rupture in fire and ash. You turned our mountains into weapons. You burned our homes, our ships, our people into nothing.”
The ache in my gut threads like thorns through every vein. “Yes, lord wolf…”
I sought darkness afterwards so I could forget what I did. But when was I ever honest? I didn’t want to forget. I wanted the darkness to devour me, blot out my existence so even the Sun would forget. But the darkness failed.
No…no, I shied away, unable to ask. I fell in love with the darkness, with that face in the shadows, and could not beg for my end that way. The map would only send me back to the Sun. So I found the huntsmen instead.
With the holes in my memory now sewn shut with ash-gray thread woven by ghosts, I look up at the wolf and the raven.
“Your bones aren’t here, are they.”
The wolf’s muzzle crinkles in a sad smile. “You’re kneeling on them. The huntsmen buried us together when I was dead. The Woods cannot hurt us.”
“You needed no living flesh to come here,” I say, numb, the words coming in dull monotone. “And my blood was never in your eyes.”
The raven’s neck feathers shine blue-black and red. “No, it wasn’t.”
You cannot trust the dead, says the map.
“You did kill my love,” says the wolf.
“And my love died trying to bring me home,” says the raven. “Our bones are already together, in these Woods that will never forget.”
I kept my word to the huntsmen, then, who will linger no longer, burned by the sunlight and destroyed with knives forged in the Sun. I lift my chin, throat bared, raw hope no different from desperation. Kill me, I want to beg. Let me go.
“What do you want from me now, lord ghosts?”
Raven and wolf turn their faces together. There is silence between them.
At last, the wolf says, “Once, there was vengeance. But what does it matter to the dead? We only wished you to be held accountable. You do not deserve to live without remembering what you have done.”
The raven nods. “And now you will always know. It is why we took your eyes; so you will see forevermore. Even your map cannot take that away.”
I stare up at the tree canopy, at the unseen dawn. The sunbeam I freed will bring the Sun news of me. The Sun will wait, as it always does, its wrath unsated.
You can still have your name, the map says. For a price.
The map is honest, at least.
“You fled the Sun once,” the wolf says. “If you step within its sight again, it will destroy you, and it will not be quick.”
“I know,” I reply.
“We can find peace now,” the raven says. “It is your choice if you do the same.”
Wolf and raven turn, side-by-side, and disappear into the Woods.
I stay on my knees, shivering in the cold.
As I look into the Woods, where the ghosts faded, the shadows curl thickly. For a moment, I catch a glimmer of that face, the one I turned my back on the Sun to find. The darkness is here. It has a name for me all its own.
Will it take me back, even with what I have done?
(I was as bright as the Sun, once. The dark has every right to destroy me as I did the wolves.)
I ignore the map. I will find my own way now; the dawn will always be waiting.
I walk into the Woods in search of darkness.