The weather had turned sour in the last hour or so. Like the creature had said it would.
His thoughts drifted back to the small cabin where he had met the strange little thing and how cosy and warm it now seemed in hindsight. Then his thoughts turned to the reaction when the creature had seen it. And how the creatures demeanour had soured immediately. Whatever it was, it had that effect on everyone the man met.
There wasn't much here. A few small villages, creatures of all kinds; some he knew, some he didn't. The moors he trod through, on his unknowable journey, coated his feet and clothes in mud. He tried to avoid people where he could. It made it hard to have any kind of serious conversation.
He felt something for the people he passed. At first it was sympathy. He knew what omens he portended. He knew that it was not the worst thing that followed in his steps. In fact, if he were to be given a chance, he could tell someone that it wasn't real. It was a shade. Ephemeral. Feeding on something that he couldn't talk about. It would follow him until someone worse crossed his path, or all the guilt and shame and hate had been sucked out of him. He knew which was the more likely outcome and so he took his penance. His exile.
He skirted around the edge of villages. Waited in the trees for people to pass by. He knew how it would go if they saw him. The friendliness of strangers who had not yet felt the touch of Death, the comfort of offering someone a warm bed for the night, and then the anger at the betrayal that someone would bring something like that down upon them. He didn't blame them. Couldn't. It wasn't their fault. So he avoided them as much as he could. Only suffering through the inevitable when he was surprised, like that little creature before. It would not let him experience comfort again.
And in his heart, he knew he deserved it.
He arrived at the castle just before dawn. He hadn't noticed it until he was right on top of it. There were no lights, no noises. There were no people. An abandoned town. He looked around as the orange glow of the day peered above the horizon some distance off and didn't see it. That didn't mean anything, though. It had a habit of dissipating sometimes. When the guilt gave way to something else. But those feelings would return at some point, and with them, whatever that thing was.
He called out, loudly, as he walked the tightly cobbled streets. Birds, rats, other creatures of that kind scrambled in all directions, disturbed. He ignored them, even as an emaciated raven swooped at his face from the gables of one of the dilapidated buildings.
As he peered through the filth encrusted glass, he could only guess at what happened. Everything looked as if it had just been abandoned. There were no signs of fighting. No signs that anything bad had happened. The people had just left.
But the castle. It stood atop a hill on the far side of town. He had seen places like this before; a strategic outpost. A warning system for a larger city nearby. The local leader, whatever kind they were, lived in the castle where they could see for miles around. They would have seen him and it the night before had anyone been here. For a moment he felt a pang of guilt that him and his travelling companion had been the reason they left. Immediately he felt the icy cold wind that meant it had formed itself again behind him. He sighed, but didn't turn back. He couldn't face that shape again. That form. The weight of his deeds staring down at him. Grinning. Always grinning. That was the worst part.
The guilt passed quickly when he realised that this town had been abandoned years ago. He couldn't have been the reason. Everything here was so old that it might have even been before. When the world was safer.
Then the thought occurred to him. Something that flooded him with emotions other than guilt. A sense of relief flooded him and he felt the slow shudder of it struggling to maintain its hold on a defined form.
He could stay here. Rest. Recover. Not for long. Not forever. But maybe, if he was lucky, long enough. He wouldn't find his salvation here. There was nothing, nor anyone, who could assuage his guilt here - or anywhere, he suspected. Even if there had been someone, how could they relieve him of these burdens?
What was worse was that he knew what followed. What was bearing down on them with every passing day. Something worse than the face that it had. Something worse than anything they had dreamed of.
Except this town, this small abandoned outpost had seen something. It was the first sign of anything out of the ordinary he had seen. A small vein of antagonism. Something malicious had swept through here. It may not have been as bad as what would come, but it was something. And perhaps it was something he could use.
Like the town, the castle was empty. He had imagined someone still existing there. Someone like him. Maybe even someone who didn't, or couldn't, feel the terror that came from seeing it. Someone who understood.
But there wasn't anything. No bodies. No messages. No explanation. There was very little of anything. It looked as if everyone had just left. Left without taking any of their belongings. And if the castle was in any way representative, left in the middle of a meal.
He nudged the plate on the table and watched in morbid satisfaction as the small white wormy things wriggled in annoyance.
He spent a few weeks exploring the castle. He had imagined that he could have a comfortable sleep in a large bedroom. But, like what had used to be the food, the beds were full of maggots and rats.
It, whatever it was, didn't cross the threshold. Didn’t come inside. He caught glimpses of it through the windows. It didn’t leave. Didn’t make noise. Just existed. Most of the time it didn't even pay attention to him.
The high points of the castle, as he expected, gave a long view of the moors. Off to the east stood the forests. Dark and thick, he knew that they would hide him. To the north, the direction he had been travelling in, was nothing. No cities, no farmlands, just everlasting moors. Although there was a dark smudge on that horizon. Another omen he reasoned.
He saw it, standing on the western side of the castle, not moving, not reacting, not looking for him. Staring to the south.
He followed its gaze and saw what it saw. It wasn't fire. Not in the sense he had always known it. It was something like fire, though. An evil, malicious burning. It rolled over everything in a deliberate wave. It swallowed anything that crossed its path. It wasn't natural. It wasn't stopping.
Ahead of it, foretelling its arrival, a band of shades. Immense and terrifying. They swayed gently in the breeze. Something worse was here.