If it weren't because my friends had dared me to touch the gravestones, I would never have set even one foot in the cemetery. The place was rumored to be haunted! I had a hard enough time sleeping at night, so I really didn't need to add worrying about ghosts to my insomnia!
They even dared me to go in the middle of the night. Only idiots would do that!
Here was one such idiot.
Stupid, stupid, stupid! Why had I let them goad me into this?
The cemetery at night was freaky. When a twig cracked under my foot, I nearly jumped straight into the air. My heart thudded heavily in my chest. The slightest ruffle in the trees made me snap my head up in alarm. I stared and stared into the darkness, the stormy clouds only letting through a sliver of moonlight.
Almost there. Just a few more steps, and I'd be at the circle of gravestones that my friends had dared me to touch. There were a total of eleven gravestones. All nameless. I only had to touch one of the graves, and my task would be done.
I surveyed the gravestones, seeking out the one closest to me. I gulped and stepped forward, willing myself not to make a single sound, but in the stillness of the night, my every step sounded like thunder to my ears.
Oh, why must there be so many dried up leaves?
There, just one more step.
I reached out my hand, arm shaking because I was still just a bit too far. I hadn't wanted to step any closer.
Just as I was about to touch the gravestone I'd chosen, the clouds parted, and moonlight streamed down eerily, illuminating the slab before me.
Like my friends had claimed, the gravestones were all nameless. At least, they appeared so. But upon closer inspection, I saw that they weren't actually nameless. There were words carved onto the stone, just not in a language I understood. The script was fancy. Even if I knew the language, I doubted I would be able to read the fancy writing.
I did, however, at least recognize the symbol at the top of this particular gravestone.
It looked a bit like a tornado, a whirling storm. I reached my finger out to it—
I jerked my hand back, head snapping up in the direction of the sudden voice.
"Don't touch it."
"I..." My voice died in my throat. I stared up at the trees, body rigid. Someone was perched on a high branch, feet dangling down. That someone had feet, so they couldn't be a ghost, right?
Just then, moonlight hit the figure in the trees. Bathed under the moonlight, I could vaguely see the outline of wings. Maybe I should have been scared. Maybe I should have been running. I'd always been fast, so maybe I could escape unscathed. Maybe I should have done any number of things. But all I did was stare, emotion coursing through me at the sight of the lonely figure perched in the trees.
I didn't understand my own reaction.
The wings extended, the span breathtaking. Shadows fell upon me. I couldn't see his visage.
"Scram," the shadowed figure said. "No one is allowed to touch those graves."
"What happens if I do?" I asked, not at all sure where my bravado was coming from. I just wanted him to keep talking.
"I will curse you," he said, voice flat. "Just like how I cursed all of your friends."
That really wasn't threatening at all! Did he think himself to be some fierce protector or something? This was why all my friends had returned screaming? I found it hard to believe. Perhaps his appearance was so frightening that he didn't need to put in extra effort to sound intimidating, but I felt my fear melting away. He didn't sound scary at all.
"From all the way up there?" I quipped. Then, fearlessly, or perhaps stupidly, I reached my hand out to the gravestone again. In a split second and a flurry of wind, a hand gripped my arm, like I had expected.
I looked up.
Maybe I really should have been scared. But I wasn't.
"I see you've finally decided to come down," I said.
The moonlight shimmered around him. His wings were even more impressive up close. Yet that wasn't what captured my attention. With my other hand, I reached out to touch the trail of black flames that ran down his cheeks like permanent tears never to be washed away. I thought I might get burned, but all I felt was cool moistness before he jerked away.
"Aren't you... afraid of me?" he whispered, wings drawing close around him. It was almost as if he was trying to protect himself.
No, I wasn't afraid.
I stared up at him, but it wasn't out of fear. How could I be afraid? He must have been so alone, always hiding in the shadows of trees.
"I'm sorry," I apologized. "I shouldn't have tried to touch the gravestone. These graves must be very important to you."
I glanced over at the circle of graves, ashamed that I had approached the place because of a dare. What a lonely existence, always guarding these graves by himself... Were these the graves of companions who had gone on before him?
He gave me a small nod to indicate that he'd accepted my apology. Then, he touched the gravestone that I had wanted to touch, running his finger across the carved symbol at the top. "They are very important to me, yes."
I couldn't help asking, "Who were they?"
"I don't remember."
He didn't remember? Did this mean... he'd been guarding them for so long that he'd forgotten who he was guarding?
Under the ephemeral moonlight, he walked from one grave to the next, head bowed as if in defeat. He touched each gravestone ever so gently, running his finger across symbols he must know by heart. From a curved leaf, to a dazzling sun, to a crescent moon, to a shield with a cross... There were eleven symbols in all. I trailed behind him, watching but not touching. Once we reached where we had started, he paused, reaching his hand out to that very first grave once more.
Eleven graves... the number didn't feel right, but another part of me was glad it was eleven and not... twelve.
The stillness of the night had bothered me earlier, but now, it made me feel like we were in our own world. Yet I could not help feeling uneasy, especially when he was so clearly upset.
"They're really lucky!" I blurted out and pulled on his sleeve. "They're really, really lucky to have you guard over their resting spots! They wouldn't blame you for forgetting at all!"
"How would you know?" he asked, head turning to regard me. But before receiving my answer, he abruptly leaned in closer. Words tumbled out of his mouth. "Your eyes... are very green."
I nearly burst out laughing. Seriously, how could anyone be afraid of him? He wasn't scary at all! Maybe his wings had frightened the others, and those dark markings over his skin might also be a factor, but he was more like a giant butterfly than anything!
He reached a hand out to my hair that I'd tied in a high ponytail. "Why isn't your hair blue?"
"That would require bleaching," I said, but now that he had asked, even I was wondering why my hair wasn't blue. Blue felt... right.
He scrunched his face up in confusion. It was really cute.
"What's your name?" I asked, still holding onto his sleeve.
He looked down at my hands. Then, he glanced back up and finally answered with a single word.
Roland. Roland, Roland, Roland!
"Roland," I breathed out. "Roland."
As if a dam had been broken, emotions surged within me. I couldn't even put a finger to them. I threw my arms around him and exclaimed, "Roland!"
Slowly, he brought his arms up to hug me back. "C...Ceo?"
I'd never even heard the name before, but I found myself nodding reflexively against his shoulder. Thank the gods that my stupid friends had goaded me to come to the cemetery tonight. If not, Roland would have continued to guard the graves, alone, for all eternity, solitary figure hunched underneath the moonlight.
Alone, even in his memories.
I hugged him tighter. "Come home with me."
My gut feeling told me he normally would have protested, but for some reason, he nodded.
And that was how I returned home from the cemetery with my very own creature of darkness.