Red Like Embers

“It’s okay. I’m here.”

RJ was curled up on the fur blanket of the floor of the shack. Adrastos had brought him back here after finding him outside Wolf’s Hearth. That was the only thing he had really paid attention to. He didn’t know where Adrastos was now, and didn’t care. His mind was still in Wolf’s Hearth.

“You have to let go. I’ll still be with you.”

Everything started to replay from the beginning again, from the moment that apocalyptic roar sent the village into a frenzy. Most of the people had never heard anything like it before, and were terrified. The few who recognized the warcry steeled themselves for death.

“It’s true. I knew the danger was tremendous.”

The ancient red embodiment of destruction flew once more. And it flew for Wolf’s Hearth.

“We had to try. There was more than our own lives at stake.”

“What am I supposed to do without you?” the half-orc whispered into the blanket.

“RJ, I’m still here. You have to–”

“But you’re not.” RJ turned his head upwards and gazed at the spectral form that kneeled at his side. “You’re dead.”

The ghost was a human woman. She was wearing dark brown leather armour mixed with green cloth, giving her the appearance of an evergreen in its prime. A wolf pelt adorned her shoulders, the right par resting on one shoulder and the head seeming to bite down on the other. Sleek black hair framed her sun-baked face, with intense eyes and a thin smile that spoke of love tempered by overwhelming loss. Astrid was her name. RJ had not forgotten the face of his mother.

“I am dead, yes. And I am sorry.”

RJ buried his face back into the blanket. Astrid lowered her head and rested one of her hands on her son’s shoulder. Warmth spread through RJ’s body. The touch of those who are not-quite-there is not always cold.

They sat there like that, for a time. Though she was careful to not let it show, Astrid was starting to worry. Where had the gladiator gone? She was limited by RJ’s senses, and even though his eyes were covered and wet with tears, his ears still gave a rough sketch of the small wooden hut and forest beyond. Besides the wind, all was still.

RJ mumbled something into the blanket. Normally, she would have no trouble deciphering what he had said; she knew from experience that ancestral ghosts were granted limited telepathy with their kin, granted that she was used to being the kin, not the ancestral ghost. However, her son’s mind was a storm of conflicting thoughts and emotions, and no particular phrase rose in his mind before being smashed apart by three others. She leaned in closer, and adjusted her hand slightly, subtly urging him to speak up.

“You promised.”

Astrid withdrew slightly. She already knew what RJ was going to say, but trying to stop him would only make things worse.

“You promised you would look after me. You promised you wouldn’t leave. You promised that you wouldn’t die!”

“I’m still here.”

“NO, YOU’RE NOT!” RJ pushed her hand away and raised himself into a crouch.

Astrid flinched, but her smile did not falter. She knew that his anger was misplaced, but anger was better than nothing. If it would get him on his feet, then it was worth it. RJ continued.

“YOU LIED TO ME! TO THEM! TO ALL OF THEM! THEY DIED, NOT KNOWING WHAT THEY WERE FIGHTING FOR!”

“It wouldn’t change anything if they knew. Their sacrifice–”

“THEIR SACRIFICE WASN’T THEIR CHOICE! IT WAS YOURS! THEY TRUSTED YOU, AND YOU LEAD THEM TO THEIR DEATHS!”

“They died as heroes.”

“THEY DIED LIKE FATHER!”

That broke Astrid’s weathered smile. There was a line, and RJ realized he had crossed it.

“Do not imply your father died anything other than a hero’s death. He saved the entire North from Orcus’ dominion, and died trying to prevent the Age of Giants.”

RJ struggled to collect his thoughts. He didn’t want to keep asking questions or feel this way, but he couldn’t stop himself.

“If he was the great warrior you say he was, he would’ve been on the Plains of Fire. You told me you were there. You told me you looked for him, looked for his body, but never found it. Where was he?”

“Ask him yourself.”

Darkness surrounded the mother and son. As RJ’s eyes adjusted, he saw he was surrounded by ancient stonework, in some sort of underground temple. Astrid pointed into the darkness, and a flash of light erupted from a dozen meters away. An enormous ball of fire grew from that flash, and standing silhouetted against the flames, RJ could see a tall half-orc wielding a greataxe. He had his back to their pair, facing the fire in front of him, weapon at the ready. It was a familiar scene to RJ. He had seen this vision many times before, enough to memorize it. He cherished the only glimpse of his father he had.

He blinked, and the darkness was gone, his father along with it. The vision had calmed him somewhat, but he was no less frustrated.

“I’ve told you, I can never talk to him. He’s always facing the fire.”

“I know. It has always been the same way for me.”

RJ let out a long sigh. He sat against the wall of the shack, head in hands.

“Why did this happen?”

“All the questions that I know the answer to, I answered when I was alive. You know why the Hearth was attacked. You also know that it doesn’t matter anymore. Wolf’s Hearth is gone. You must push it from your mind, and carry on.”

RJ shook his head. “It’s not that easy.”

“I didn’t mean to imply it would be easy. But it is necessary.”

“Why? What’s the point?”

“You must prove it can be done. There are others in this world who would gladly give up and accept the death that chases all of us. But no matter what those people say, no matter how they act, they do not deserve to die just because they have lost hope. You must show them that it is possible to continue. You must be their leader.”

RJ brought his knees close to his chest and hung his head.

“RJ?”

Slowly, he lifted his chin and matched Astrid’s intense gaze.

“I’m not like you.”

Astrid faltered. Her son’s eyes were full of sorrow and resignation. That wasn’t just some throwaway line. He honestly didn’t want to be a leader. Deeper in his eyes, just behind the layer of sadness, a dull emptiness had taken hold. She pried herself away, and for the first time in her afterlife, spoke with uncertainty in her voice.

“Maybe… maybe you’re right. I didn’t mean to… What I said is what always motivated me. I shouldn’t have assumed it would have the same effect on you.”

RJ nodded to himself and hung his head again. They sat there, not looking at each other, but not looking at anything else either.

“I’m sorry. I love you.”

“I love you too.”