The blazing light of the sun beat against my eyes, slowly dragging me back to consciousness. My whole body ached and I could barely breathe. I coughed, spitting old blood onto the ground. I reached up and touched my nose, feeling the smashed bone still sitting sideways on my face. I grunted and grabbed hold, wrenching it forward again with both hands. My head reeled with the sickening pop and blood streamed freely down my face. I coughed hard, the world spinning into the void again as I vomited onto the ground and passed back out.
I woke groggy and disoriented. The pain in my head was fading, but the world still threatened to spin out of control if I moved too quickly. Snapshots of the world began to filter in through the pain. I was in a dense thicket surrounded by heavy thorns. My dress and cloak were muddy and torn and long shallow scrapes covered most of my exposed skin. I blinked blearily around the thicket, my heart growing cold at the memories of the night before trickling to the forefront of my mind.
I stared straight ahead, blinking slowly with the mounting horror. The sun was warm and bright but I could feel myself shivering. I looked around gingerly, marking the torn path through the thicket where I’d been dragged inside. My eyes locked on the path, my mind praying for escape.
I leapt to my feet, lunging into a run, throat constricting like a hand cutting off the air I was frantically sucking in. Something caught my foot and I fell screaming in terror. I twisted sharply. Bony fingers held my boot tip, a skeletal hand protruding from the ground. I screamed again and yanked my foot free. The ancient flesh holding the bones together snapped, sending fragments of fingers through the air. I scrambled backward on all fours, wild-eyed and panicking, burying myself deep into the bushes of the thicket until I couldn’t move. I froze, barely noticing the thorns pressing into my skin, waiting for the horrid ghosts to rise and come for me.
I waited for what seemed like an eternity, my breath coming in shallow gasps and my heart thudding in my chest, but the forest remained quiet. The only sound was my own panicked breathing. With an effort of will I started crawling, moving forward slowly through the dense brush and ready at any second to bolt.
My hand landed on something rough and small and I froze, staring downward. It was a small bone, a piece of one of the dead fingers I’d scattered in my panic. I swallowed hard. The dirt of the thicket was torn and loose, half the skeleton had torn free of the ground when I’d yanked my foot free. I whispered a soft prayer and moved forward, gathering up the small pieces of bone from the thicket floor. I shivered and shook, but I quickly moved to the skeleton’s side, apologizing endlessly and hoping any insult could be undone. Old stories screamed through my mind. I had to rebury him quickly. Skeletons unburied at sundown could be possessed by evil spirits or move on their own, hunting down whoever disturbed them.
I worked quickly, whispering the few prayers I could remember over and over again while I pulled at the ground, slowly uncovering the rest of the body. Tears of panic ran down my cheeks, but I kept moving, working as fast and as carefully as I could until I’d opened the rest of the shallow grave. Remnants of sturdy clothing still hung from the bones. The rusted metal buckles and tarnished buttons of a wealthy man clanked and fell away into the dirt. The skeleton lay at an awkward angle, wedged crookedly around a heavy saber buried in the dirt beneath. I pulled the sword free and the body rolled, the skull tumbling free of the thick weeds into the sunlight. I gasped in horror, leaping to my feet, feeling a presence suddenly appear behind me.
I spun around, clumsily raising the heavy sword in wide-eyed panic. The air on the far side of the thicket shimmered, solidifying into the ghostly silver form of the restless. My heart thundered in my chest and I dropped the heavy sword, backing into a wall of branches. The featureless silver face watched me silently for a moment before turning to gaze at the body on the ground. I blanched as the air rang with the connection between them and I suddenly understood they were the same person.
“I didn’t mean it.” I said. “I’ll make it right I swear.”
The shimmering silver face turned toward me and my jaw dropped in understanding. The restless were damned to wander for their time or until their bodies were found. Somehow one of the restless who had dragged me from the fight had enough strength to pull me through the thicket to where his body lay.