A lone arrow flew against the backdrop of a dull grey, cloudy sky. The sky, empty at first, quickly filled with countless more arrows joining the first. They arched, flying upwards from the hands of the archers, reaching their various peaks above the field of battle. The first arrow, leading the others, slowly began to turn and set its sights on the ground below.
Beneath the arrows men charged at each other across a flat expanse in a narrow valley. With weapons drawn each army set their sights on the other heading towards them. Their cries of rage, fury and terror combined with the steel clanging of their armour to create a cacophonous echo off the mountains rising up either side of the valley. The mountains, like the sky above, appeared a dull, lifeless grey.
The arrow having reached its peak and now facing earthwards continued its descent. Its fellow arrows all whistled through the air as they fell, yet the sound could not penetrate the clamour of the armies below. Gaining momentum they sped towards the ground, each arrow seeking a target below. Like a king leading his knights into battle the first arrow fell, leading hundreds more behind it to bring a rain of death.
A soldier, indistinguishable from the countless others in the valley, ran with his comrades towards the opposing army. The only thing on his mind was survival. There were plenty of other soldiers ahead of him in the charge, familiar faces to him as well as strangers amongst them. He was sure that, at the very least, he would not be among the first to die.
The first arrow struck its target. Moments later, hundreds more arrows slammed into the charging army. Soldiers fell and were either shoved aside or trampled over as the army advanced. On the other side of the valley, a seemingly equal number of soldiers fell to the other side's arrows. Both armies charged onward and met in the middle of the valley, erupting into a maelstrom of death and violence.
Back in the valley the soldier lay on ground trampled by the boots of thousands of charging men. He was dying, the grey of the world around him slowly giving way to darkness.
The arrow that had led the charge lay embedded in the soldier's body. With his life bleeding out of him, and slowly losing consciousness, he grasped at the shaft, struggling to pull it free.
Before long, the soldier was dead, both his journey and the arrow's having ended together. The world became black, and that was that.
I see now. It makes sense. I understand. The moment has come. Truly, death is timeless…
The words pierced the silence, travelling through the blackness. They reverberated in the soldier's head.
Truly, death is timeless…
Thoughts returned and with them, a concept of time. How long had he been drifting through this darkness?
Death is timeless…
The soldier attempted movement and succeeded in lifting his hand. He placed it against the ground, and clutched at what felt like grass.
So he was still in the valley? The battle! He had to move, had to get up. He needed to do his part. He struggled to open his eyes.
His eyes shot open. The soldier remembered the arrow. So sure had he been that he wouldn't be the first to die. Yet, when that arrow had pierced his chest, he most assuredly had been amongst the first. Yes, the soldier was sure of it, he was no longer amongst the living.
The first thing he looked at was his chest. Where the arrow had pierced him there was an empty hole. Yet there was no arrow. It seemed that the sharpened metal that had ended his life hadn't followed him to…
To where? Where exactly was he now? He looked ahead of him and saw he was most definitely still in the valley. Still as grey and dull as it was in life, it now seemed as though the world was also blurry, slightly off focus. Where he looked there were no clashing armies, just dead bodies. As he watched more appeared as their lives were ended.
Movement to his left caught the soldier's attention. He glanced over and saw a figure moving amongst the dead. The figure was covered from head to toe in a hooded cloak of glossy ebony. The hood was up, obscuring the figure's face. The soldier watched as the figure leaned down to each of the dead he came to. Each time words were exchanged yet the soldier could not hear what was said.
A few times, the cloaked figure would stand up after this brief exchange and move to the next soldier. More often though he would stand, holding his arms out to the dead. They would walk into his open embrace and lean in against him. The figure then held them in an embrace as, slowly, the dead seemingly dissolved into the dark cloak, vanishing.
The soldier watched, equally in horror and fascination, as the figure walked repeating this exchange among all the dead soldiers. To the soldier, the figure seemed almost weary in the way he walked. After what may have been minutes, or possibly days, the figure approached the soldier. Time no longer seemed to hold any meaning. In the valley, only a handful of dead remained. All had been spoken to but him.
"So, I'm dead, and this is the afterlife?" the soldier asked of the figure as it stood before him.
"Yes, you are dead," the figure answered, the muffled voice coming from within the hood of the cloak. The soldier couldn't make out any features, as no light seemed to penetrate the hood.
"Yet this is not the afterlife. It is what comes between," the figure continued, "I am here to move the dead on to the next world."
"Why do some remain then? Do you only take those that are worthy?" the soldier asked, indicating the other lost souls sitting around the valley seemingly lost in thought, or just void of motivation to move.
"They are not ready to move on yet. In time, they will be and I shall return for them then. Who they are makes no difference to me," came the words from the cloak.
The soldier sat in silence thinking things over before continuing, "So I suppose you'll be taking me next then?"
"No." was all the figure answered, his flat voice betraying no emotion.
This caught the soldier off guard. If he was dead, he didn't want to hang around. He was ready to move on so, by all rights, the figure should be taking him as he had the other dead soldiers.
"But, you must. Can't you tell I'm ready?" the soldier pressed.
"It's not your time. One day, you shall understand why. For now, however, I cannot take your soul," the figure said. The soldier thought he almost sounded solemn, sorrowful, in his answer.
The figure turned and began drifting away. The soldier stood and called out, "Wait!" The figure hesitated. "Please, this is nothing here. It's a shadow of the world. You cannot leave me here. Let me move on!"
The figure hung its head before responding, "I know. I truly am sorry, please believe me."
The sincerity of those last words stayed with the soldier as the figure vanished, leaving him alone with the other dead.
Time lost all meaning to the soldier. Days came and went in this world between worlds, yet they all blurred together in his mind. Months could have passed for all he knew. Yet they held no relevance for him. No longer did he need to eat, drink or sleep. There was nothing to mark the passing of time.
He was left with nothing but his own thoughts and memories to keep him company. All the dead soldiers kept to themselves. Some, like him, sat catatonic in the one spot while others aimlessly wandered about the valley. The soldier didn't know what they were hoping to find, and suspected they didn't either.
By day, his thoughts were of the past. He remembered growing up with family and friends. Fond memories of the woman he loved, the home they shared, the daughter they were raising together. Darker memories as his king called for all able men to pick up arms to defend their kingdom against invaders from across the oceans.
During the nights, as he stared at the spectres of stars, he imagined travelling. Exploring this ghost of the world to see what else he could find. As day drew near, however, he shoved these thoughts aside. There was no point. No matter where he went, it would still be the same prison, just different scenery.
On rare occasions the monotony of the days was broken by the arrival of the ebony cloaked figure. Each time he would approach each of the soldiers in turn as he had originally. Every visit, a couple more fell into his embrace, moving on to the next world. Yet, the soldier was never approached on any of these visits.
The figure did however seem to spare him some attention. The soldier would, for periods of time, become an object of intense interest to the figure. From a distance it would stare at the soldier, as though scrutinising him, trying to answer some internal question.
The first few times this occurred the solider tried getting the figure to talk to him. He pleaded, demanded and even begged to be taken away. He insisted he was ready, that he no longer wanted to be stuck here. Each time, the figure would just shake his head and vanish. Before long the soldier gave up on this. It seemed a futile effort and so he sank deeper within himself.
As time passed the number of dead remaining grew less and less until, one day, the soldier stirred from his thoughts. The figure was once more among them, embracing one of the dead. The soldier looked around, seeing how many others were left. To his surprise, there were none. He was the only one left.
His last companion was consumed into the cloak and the figure turned to face him once again. "Be patient, be strong, soldier," muffled words were uttered through the cloak. The soldier said nothing.
As silently as it had come, the figure vanished, leaving the soldier well and truly alone. As the nights and days once more passed by in a blur, the words he first heard on waking in this world once more ran through the soldier's head.
Truly, death is timeless…