Water ran into Tristan’s shoes, and he cursed under his breath, lifting his foot out of the puddle he had stepped in.
The sky overhead held the barest hint of light, the trees around him nothing but silhouettes. It was the time of treeblack, the last tinge of twilight before night truly took over, and Tristan was most definitely lost.
He carefully tried another step, wincing at the answering squelch of mud under his shoes. He could turn back, but it was miles to the road. Besides, he hated backtracking. He hadn’t become a pilgrim just so he could get in the habit of going back and re-doing something he already did. If he was lost, at least that meant a new place to explore. And soon enough he would be at the final stop of his pilgrimage—the First Temple, near Mairen.
Even if getting there meant getting through this muddy mess. He grimaced at the mud beneath his feet, lifting his robes, as he walked through what must be a marsh. He focused on the stars overhead, doing his best to ignore the unpleasantness. Judging from their positions, he had to head northeast to find the temple of Diamort. He would keep the constellation of the bells to his right, and then—
Instead of the squish of mud, something crunched beneath his foot. And then a familiar chill swept down his spine, freezing him in place, as a voice spoke.
“Hey. That was my head.”
Tristan turned, clutching his hand-made bell in one hand. Through the growing gloom, a faint wisp caught his eye, like the glimpse of a shadow in a mirror.
The ghost didn’t move, and soon enough was gone. If he hadn’t trained for nearly five years now in tracking and Sending the dead, he would almost have chalked it up to a hallucination brought on by the dark.
But when he looked down, it was unmistakable. He stepped away from the skull, and the bones that lay next to it. A skeleton.
“Sorry,” he said to the silent darkness, to the ghost who he had disturbed. “I didn’t see you there.”
He waited, but there was nothing. The ghost must have gone quiet. It was either very old or very faint, as some ghosts were. But at least it didn’t seem angry.
With a sigh, Tristan set down his pack, pulling out flint and a torch. A bit of light always made Sending ghosts easier. And light was calming for the dying, too. He had learned that early on.
He struck the flint and sparks caught the torch. He held it aloft, illuminating the marshy ground and the bones beneath his feet.
It took him a moment to realize that the pale sticks that lay strewn around the first skeleton weren’t sticks at all, but more bones. More than he could count, and they stretched on beyond the range of the light.
And then the ghosts appeared.
Wisps of light formed into human shapes, some easy to discern and others warping, as though the person had forgotten their form. Some shimmered like blue cloths in darkness, their glow as dim as starlight, and others were brighter, like will o wisps Tristan had seen and Sent before. They thronged around the light.
Tristan tightened his grip on the torch in one hand, and the bell in the other. Ghosts were usually drawn to light and the living, like moths to a flame. Sometimes they were jealous. Sometimes they re-lived their violent deaths. And in numbers like this…clearly something horrible had happened. Hundreds had died. He had to be careful.
“Hello,” he called out, heart pounding, and some of the ghosts blinked away, as though his voice shook them out of existence. Others drew closer. “I am Tristan, a Pilgrim of the Bell Priests. Stay back!”
More shapes drew closer, and he rang his bell, using the sound magic to put up a ward of light. It would drive away violent ghosts, restraining them just enough to be amenable to a true Sending.
But the ghosts didn’t move. They hovered just outside the ward, so many they blocked out the stars. And one ghostly hand reached out, the ghost’s face appearing for a fleeting moment. Sad and confused.
Tristan paused, a memory flashing through his mind. The first person he had Sent, with his tiny handmade bell.
Sometimes, even the dead were afraid of the dark.
He took a deep breath. He would be a full priest soon, no longer a pilgrim. He couldn’t show fear. “Tell me what happened here,” he called out. “I will not hurt you.”
The wisps and lights milled about, and then one finally drew closer. The same shape he had seen before—the once owner of the skull he stood next to. The shape condensed, and Tristan could almost see him. A man in armor, of a kind he couldn’t recognize. Some sort of hunter, Tristan guessed.
“Do you know what happened here?” the ghost asked, the voice a whisper.
Tristan blinked in surprise. The bones were old. This person had likely been dead longer than Tristan had been alive. There was no way Tristan could know. “How did you die?” Tristan asked. “What killed all of you?”
“I don’t know,” the ghost replied.
“You don’t know?” That was unusual. The cause of death was typically a salient memory among those who knew they had died. Some of the Unsent Dead re-lived it, over and over, until they could be Sent. Even those who died having forgotten everything…their ghosts remembered.
“Was it an attack?” Tristan pressed. “Were you fighting something?”
“We were?” the ghost asked.
“You’re wearing armor,” Tristan pointed out. He held the torch lower, illuminating the ground where the ghost’s body lay. Ancient armor, mostly rusted, could be seen among the bones.
“I was?” the ghost asked.
Tristan’s stomach twisted. It was too much like his first Sending. Or more accurately, the time before his first Sending. When his grandfather had forgotten him, had forgotten everything. A slow, horrible death.
“You must remember,” Tristan said. “Tell me your name, at least?”
The ghost blinked transparent eyes. “I don’t remember.”
Something awful had happened, something he needed to report. Talking to these ghosts was the only way he could figure out what it was. “Does anyone know what happened here?” Tristan called out. “Who were you all? What were you fighting?”
His shout seemed to ripple through the ghosts, who moved and swayed. Voices rang out, resonating with the bell in his hand so he could hear them.
“Who were we fighting?”
“We were fighting?”
“Who are you?”
“Who am I?”
“Are we dead?”
“Where are we?”
And one more voice, one that combined many times over, the most common words.
The ghost who had formed near him turned, blinking once again. “I’m sorry. We forgot,” he said, the voice full of frustration.
His grandfather’s words echoed in his mind. “I’m sorry. I forgot.”
Tristan gripped his bell tighter. This shouldn’t be. In all his travels, he had never encountered ghosts like this before. Angry ghosts, sure. He could Send those after some slick spells and a way to talk to get the information he needed. He had known what had killed them, had given them peace.
And he had Sent so many dead, helping grieving families as he Sent them off with the last words of their loved ones. His grandfather had been his first Sending. An old man, having forgotten everything as his life came to an end. He had been content as a spirit. He had remembered Tristan again, remembered his parents. He had been able to say goodbye.
But these ghosts…it was wrong. They were confused, afraid.
He couldn’t leave them. There were hundreds, but he was a bell priest. He may not know their names, or how they had died, or what they had fought for, but he knew his duty.
“It’s alright,” he said to the ghost. He stepped away from the skeleton, lowering the ward he had put up. The mass of ghosts seemed to sway in response to the absence of magic. “I can help you.”
All he really needed was his bell.
He held it up. The ghost stared, confused. He wondered if the ghost remembered what a bell priest even was.
He rang it, the tone clear, infusing the peals of the bell with his magic. “Go and rest now” he said. The same thing he told every ghost, the last thing he had told his grandfather’s spirit. The same thing his grandfather had used to tell him when he put him to bed as a tiny child.
The ghost blinked, confused. Then he disappeared, the aura gone.
Tristan sighed. One down, hundreds to go.
It was days later when he made it to the final temple. He had spent all night Sending the ghosts, until dawn broke over a marshy field full of bones, and had traveled slowly since then.
“Greetings, pilgrim,” the head priest said. “I see you’ve traveled far.” The same greeting every priest at every temple gave to pilgrims like him. “This is your final stop.”
At least that last part was different. But right now, Tristan didn’t care about traditions.
“What happened in the marsh two days from here?” he asked. “It was full of the dead. Of ghosts. And none of them—”
“None of them remembered anything?” the head priest finished for him. “Not even their cause of death?”
Tristan nodded. “So you’ve seen them?”
“Not in the region you mentioned. I didn’t realize they were there.” The head priest sighed, crossing her arms. “But there are pockets of places like that all over the world. Peaceful, but tragic ghosts who have forgotten their names, their lives, everything. Some thought it was an illness.”
“It’s not,” Tristan said, thinking of his grandfather.
“Others think it may be some sort of Unwritten,” she said with a nod. “Something horrible that kills en masse, and strips a person’s very identity, even in death.” Tristan shivered. “And others? They have no guesses. No one truly knows.”
“What will happen to them?” Tristan asked. “How many are there?”
“That, too, no one knows,” the head priest said. “If we knew the cause, perhaps we could guess.”
Tristan just nodded. He was exhausted after Sending so many, and then traveling so far. But the wrongness of it churned in his mind.
“Are you prepared for your final test?” the head priest asked. “Afterward, you will be a full priest. Able to live and work wherever you please.”
“I’m ready,” Tristan said. He wasn’t afraid of the test. He was sure he would pass.
And until now, he had been prepared for full priesthood. To settle in one spot, to bring comfort to the dying and the dead. Just like that first time, when he had Sent his grandfather, bringing him peace after a long, slow death. His grandfather had slowly forgotten his family, but had gotten them back in death. He had died surrounded by those he loved.
It may be more prestigious to work as a leader of a temple, or to stay in town and attend to the funeral rites of those that lived there. There was honor in that, and comfort, letting spirits move on while reassuring those that had loved or cared for them.
But Tristan knew what he would choose. Once he was a full priest, he would keep traveling. He would find and Send all the forgetful, forgotten ghosts, one at a time.
Those lost spirits needed someone too. And they had no one else.