I was dying.
Cold, hungry, thirsty, and weak, lost in the mountains, with no stars to guide as the rain fell, and fell, and fell.
I slipped, staggered, stepped into mud, cut my fingers, wrists and arms fighting for life on the sharp crags that seemed determined to defeat me.
When night came, I was blessed with a shallow ledge that had some cover above it, and I rested, sure that this night was to be my last, hoping too, that the indifferent god I served heard at least this one prayer, and granted me leave to depart.
He did not.
I woke before the sun, and the rain had stopped.
Not in a hurry to start another weary journey to get nowhere, I took a moment, in spite of my dire needs, to admire the grim, sodden beauty of the view.
Mist was everywhere, gray and somber, moving across the valley like spirits in purgatory, neither light nor dark, trapped in a slender slice of the bleak void where nothing laid claim to anything.
It wrapped around the mountains too, like soiled white banners, and as I rose and stretched, something cold seemed to touch me.
A patch of skin on my forearm grew wet from the contact.
I gasped, and turned, and there she was, insubstantial as the wind, and present as the rocks all around me.
I dared not move, lest it shove me from the ledge.
I am no ‘what’, but ‘who?’
I could see the shape of her, white in contrast to the gray, but there was no face to speak of; I could see through where the eyes should have been, and what would have been her hair kept bunching and dropping across her what would have been her shoulders, all of mist, all rolling like the banners and spirits, spreading apart, and gelling together in a rhythmic cycle, as if hands were moving it, as if in tandem with a heartbeat.
Human shaped, but nothing close to human.
“Has my rest here disturbed you, spirit?”
No. Indeed, it has given me company through the night. You are far from home.
A hole again, where the mouth was, but the mist moved around it like living flesh, in the manner of a woman speaking.
“I do not know which way my home lies.”
Then I will guide you.
“I am too weak to descend, now. I won’t survive the journey down.”
Then I must make you strong.
“How will you accomplish that?” My voice grew annoyed; I just waste
If you but follow, I will make you strong. Come.
“Very well. You said that you were ‘who,’ not ‘what.’ May I know the name of my savior.
I am called Eri. It has been long since I last saw men here. They passed through in days of old, with instruments of harm. We did not let them cross, and they rest below these paths you trod.
“The mist in the valley below…”
The shape gave a single nod. “They are the souls of men, unable to find respite, desperate to attain peace, but their many victims pursue. The valley is ever shrouded with their hunting.”
I shuddered at the thought.
How many? How long?
The sun rises, and I will leave you then, despite my will to stay. I cannot fight the sun. Will you follow?
“Yes, Eri, I will follow.”
She engulfed me, and the coolness of the droplets that made her refreshed me; my bones were free of pain, and my muscles of stiffness. My vision sharpened, as did the contrasting shades of pewter and silver, iron and lead, metal and steel, and she appeared again in front of me now, and began to glide over the narrow path.
The sun began to glow on the eastern horizon.
I could feel my mouth smiling in amazement.
“Follow. We don’t have long.”
And I followed her.
© Alfred W. Smith Jr. 2015