A thousand screams flew upon the song of war.
Arrows hurtled through the sky, a thousand pinpoints of flaming red. They arched through the air, trails of smoke following their wake. Below, a thousand souls marched through the cold waters of some unnamed marsh. Men, women, the young and the old – they trudged forward, their bodies bruised and battered, with a hellish light in their eyes.
On the other side of the field, the earth was blanketed in a layer of disease. Black clouds rolled across the water, sparks of sickly green flashing within them. The once-green grass protruding from the water withered, turning to ash when the miasma rolled over it. Trees hunkered, long bodies bowing under the strain of sickness.
Still, the souls marched with eyes sunken and dark.
Cold, icy water lapped at their sides. Children waded, dark liquid up to their shoulders. In the silence, there was nothing but their relentless march. Ahead of them, disease. Behind them, in the shadows and across the lands, lurked something worse. It crept after them, yet stopped on the edge of the marsh. It appeared to be nothing more than a looming veil of mist, white and curling. An impossible wall, hundreds of feet tall.
A thousand souls lurked between light and dark, disease and nothingness. Mothers held their babies to their chest, their skirts tattered and shirts in ribbons. Fathers walked before them, swords and pitchforks in hand. The elderly spread out, keeping towards the edge with their old eyes staring dreamily into the nothingness.
In the white, a guttural roar echoed. The trudging souls stilled, movements locked in a moment of unified connectedness. They breathed as one, eyes wide and backs hunched. At the edge, an elder was torn from the group without a cry. Another was drawn under the water, and a thousand souls clustered together.
“We must keep going,” someone whispered, her voice carrying through the air. It passed between the worn bodies as a nearby man choked on a sob, his teeth biting into bleeding knuckles. “They’re playing with us. We must move. They are coming.”
The group began moving again, the elders remaining on the edge of the group. Too many of them, their bodies slow and heavy. One small child looked into his mother’s face, eyes sunken and dark. He looked a bit like a raccoon, some small part of his whispered as he whispered, “Where did Elder Ji go, mama? Where did Elder Hu go? Are they coming back?”
His question was answered the same way every child’s question was. In silence.
He rested his cheek against his mother’s shoulder, closed his eyes.
Behind them, the white drew closer. Ahead of them, the disease curled around them. The two sides clashed, light and dark blurring into gray. Countless souls dunked their heads, kept their gazes on the water lapping at their bodies as a wave of disease and white rolled over skin and blood and bone.
“Keep moving,” countless whispered.
Others jostled, elbows knocking. “Don’t look back. Keep moving.”
The children moved closer together, holding hands under the water. It was colder, now. The darkness was whirling around them, flashes of silver cutting through the disease. A thousand inhuman howls tore through the heavy silence, calling them back to the land.
A thousand souls marched onward, jaws clenched.
“Don’t go into the light,” someone whispered. Others hummed low in their throat, trying to block the screams from their minds. A young man hugged himself as he walked through the water, eyes wide and unseeing as he whispered, “Don’t look. Don’t think. Don’t speak. Keep moving. Don’t look. Don’t think. Don’t speak. Keep moving…”
One-by-one, they fell. The elderly first, then the men. The women and children were all that was left, only a hundred of a thousand. They kept their gazes down, huddled close as they walked. The children were in the middle, small bodies pressed shoulder-to-shoulder as they walked hand-in-hand.
They were tired. They were slow, their heads lolling side-to-side.
Around them, a mantra. “Don’t look. Don’t think. Don’t speak. Keep moving…”
The children pressed their lips into a thin line, refusing to repeat the words. They held their stony silence even after their mothers vanished, leaving them with infant children in their arms. They waded through the marsh, a thick veil of disease and nothingness rolling over them. In the distance, a sweet song beckoned.
Their gripped one another’s hands tightly, thought of the cold water on their limbs and the lost souls fallen. They thought of why they walked, frightened in the water that was as black as the disease curling around them. They kept together, holding tight.
Then, towards the middle, the youngest began to sing a song without words. Just clear notes, starting low and ominous and oppressive. Then another added to it, a note higher. A flicker of hope. One-by-one, the children joined the first. Darkness surrounded them, but, just as it was with their song, there was hope. It was buried, beaten and bloody and cold and wet, but it, too, marched through the water. They were few, these children, but they would do what the adults could not.
They would resist the false promises of both light and darkness, seek the gray between. They would walk the water until it was gone, and they would press onward even after. There were a dozen souls, but they were young and they could see. The world was dark, but in the distance was a glowing sphere of violet and red and blue and green. A multi-colored sun, beckoning them out of the marsh into the vibrant searing warmth of life.
A thousand arrows rained upon them, the marsh set aflame. They tucked their chins to their chests, covered their noses with damp sleeves. The water sloshed as some unseen creature cut through the waves, sharp scales brushing against their sides. Ghostly figures lurked on the edge of their vision, reaching for them. The children did not answer.
They were resistance and the future, and they would not be felled by the unknown.