The story reaches its conclusion as the two boys venture onto an unnatural battlefield, trapped in a single moment of time.
Here in Cloverbow Field, even the starlight had frozen into countless silver drops. As Ben and Curtis navigated across the barren meadow — between whorls of barbed wire, trenches, and the craters of artillery shells — the drops burst against them, leaving luminescent trails in their wake.
There wasn’t a sound, except a faint grating of bone on bone. Disregarding common sense, the boys followed it, drawn to anything that broke this unnatural stillness.
The first body they found poked its head from one of the craters, clutching a bolt-action rifle. Its bones defied gravity, and appeared poised to charge the enemy lines at a moment’s notice. Ben scrambled on hands and knees for a better look. Curtis followed, his comically oversized robe billowing.
The peculiar light of the Glancing Hour had washed out the uniform’s color, and if it ever bore an insignia of allegiance or rank, it did not now. Bones gleamed starkly white without sign of injury. The soldier had simply stopped and withered, without even the dignity of a fall.
“Can you tell who it is?” asked Ben.
Curtis prodded the bony shoulder with his walking stick. “Was he even one of ours?”
It hadn’t occurred to Ben that the soldier could be anything else, but he didn’t know how the battle lines had been drawn. “He was just a grunt. It couldn’t be my father.”
Curtis brushed his knuckles across his eyes and sniffed. “Yeah, not mine, either.” He didn’t sound very sure.
Something twisted inside Ben’s chest. It was his loss that mattered. His father was a hero who hadn’t received his just due. Maybe if Curtis’ father had been a better soldier, his own wouldn’t be…
He blinked several times and realized he was staring at Curtis, lip curled into a savage snarl. Curtis wore a similarly hostile look on his round face, as if reading Ben’s every thought. When Curtis reached for his shoulder, Ben’s hands came up in tightly bunched fists and he nearly threw a punch.
“We shouldn’t stay here longer than we need to,” said Curtis quietly.
“…Yeah.” Ben fumbled with his canteen to quench his suddenly dry throat. This place was all wrong.
Exhausted, they staggered onward, their steps increasingly clumsy. The bone-crunching noise grew louder. Once or twice, Ben teetered on the edge of a crater, only to be pulled back by his friend.
After a time, they arrived at a long, deep wound in the ground. A hazy crimson glow filled the trench, cast by lights unseen. Moving automatically, Ben slid down the steep wall of dirt and landed hard. Then, he helped catch Curtis, who still clung to the magic staff.
Many more skeletal bodies filled the trench, paralyzed in the midst of action. A soldier stood with his jawbone dangling and bony finger pointing, barking silent orders. His striped epaulets marked him an officer.
“Is he one of ours?” asked Curtis.
“Hm.” Ben circled the man, ducking under the outstretched arm, careful not to touch anything. “I sort of remember their uniforms looking like this. Don’t you?”
Curtis shrugged. “I guess.”
“What do enemy soldiers wear?”
“I’ve never seen one.”
“Well, neither have I.” Ben stopped circling and shrugged. “These soldiers are probably ours. They don’t look evil, right? This one’s a lieutenant, though, so it’s not my father.”
They trudged through the trench, slowed by ancient, foul-smelling mud. The red glow surrounded them, yet didn’t illuminate them.
Ben sought a captain’s insignia, but he didn’t know how Curtis intended to identify his lowly father. It didn’t matter; only Ben’s grief mattered. He got so wrapped up in repeating those thoughts, he belatedly noticed the horrible noise had grown quite near. Just around the curve ahead.
“It’s funny,” said Curtis.
The light around Ben faded, ever so slightly. “What is?”
Curtis sat down in a messy heap. His robe had collected an incredible amount of earthen material from the trench: a hem of dark soil, a smattering of sandy dust along the waist, a sleeve stained red by clay deposits. “Our conscripts traveled across the country, to train for months at the fort, and fight in far-off battles. They went all that way, only to come back here and die almost within sight of home.”
Ben sat beside his friend, anger and selfishness receding. He threw his arm around Curtis. “I remember the artillery echoing all night, for five nights straight. The sky flashing outside my window.”
“It’s not fair. I can’t do this.”
“If they went all that way, we can go a little farther, right?” Ben leapt to his feet and yanked the reluctant Curtis up.
Only a few steps later, a sickening crack split the air. Its cause stretched over the trench above on six spindly limbs.
The creature was pale and hairless, with black veins pulsing visibly beneath its translucent skin. Its pupils glowed white beneath heavy eyelids, and they seemed to regard the boys with calm curiosity. With long, delicate claws, it snatched off a soldier’s arm and pulled the sleeve from the bone, like it was peeling fruit. A lipless oval mouth, full of pointed teeth, snapped the bone in two.
Ben watched, horrified, wondering why they’d ever followed that sound. And whether this damn thing had already eaten his father’s remains.
Curtis was more inclined to action. Fearlessly he advanced, wielding the magic staff above his head. He mumbled an invocation.
The creature merely watched, going slightly cross-eyed as the staff neared its face. Very gently, the staff pressed against the creature’s forehead. It left a small, circular impression in the spongy skin as it withdrew.
The creature’s heavy eyelids made a squeaky noise as they blinked.
“What are you doing?!” said Ben, finding his voice too late.
Neck craned upward, Curtis looked expectant. But nothing happened. After a moment, the creature slowly raised the arm bone and took another noisy bite.
Curtis stamped his feet. “Stop it!”
The monster finished pulverizing the arm and plucked the soldier’s skull from its neck, flinging the steel helmet away.
“Stop it!” Curtis hefted the staff like he might swing it. “Stop it!”
Ben finally regained his senses and ran to his friend’s side. “You stop! It could kill you, you know?”
“So why doesn’t it?!” Curtis yelled, eyes brimming with tears.
Before Ben could answer, Curtis took the crystal ball from their traveling sack and flung it at the monster. It knocked the skull from the creature’s grip, and its teeth snapped shut on air. Curtis ran to collect the skull and the soldier’s remaining bones, which still hadn’t fallen despite their desecration. He gathered them all up in the hem of his robe.
The creature heaved up and down. It didn’t exactly have shoulders, yet Ben felt certain it had shrugged. And why shouldn’t it? There was no shortage of food for it in Cloverbow Field. What difference did it make if Curtis carried away a single skeleton?
Claws swooped toward Ben, and he was painfully aware of how easily this thing could kill him. However, it only snatched up the soldier’s rifle. Then, held the weapon out to Ben. Vacant eyes studied him. Not knowing what else to do, he accepted this offering.
The rifle was well-maintained, and the years in this frozen field hadn’t harmed it. Still loaded, too. Good, Ben thought. Why not take it with him? The village was short on good tools and supplies, and if he couldn’t find his father, it would be fine consolation. Or maybe he should shoot this ugly thing dead right now and check its belly for his father’s remains.
He glared up at the creature, which studied him in silence. A single claw pointed over the lip of the trench behind Ben. Curiosity won out, and he scrambled up, clutching the rifle, to take a look. The crimson glow swirled around his heels. Fewer than a hundred yards away, a dark figure led a mule between the battlefield’s craters.
“A traveler,” he said to himself as much as Curtis. “When’s the last time we had one of those?” He put the rifle to his shoulder and peered down its sights at the stranger. It only seemed natural. “A foreigner, by the look of him. Ignoring our signs, trampling our dead.” He breathed slowly, centering his aim on the man’s torso. It was surprisingly easy. “I’m never going to find my father. But I could do this. I can do this.”
“Ben?” Curtis called softly.
He grit his teeth. “What?”
“This is my father.”
Ben was forced to look down. Curtis held up his robe, cradling the one-armed skeleton. That only made Ben more angry. “How can you possibly know that?”
“This is my father.” Curtis drew himself up taller, fierce resolve in his eyes. “It can be your father, too.”
Ben opened his mouth for a nasty retort. Before it could escape, he bit down on his tongue until he tasted blood. Tears stung his eyes and washed the red haze clean. His throat convulsed as if trying to stop his next word, but he managed a strangled, “Okay.”
He dropped the rifle back where it came from and helped Curtis up. The creature regarded him, indifferent as ever, before heaving and shuffling down the trench on its six limbs. Soon, the terrible gnawing resumed, echoing behind their backs.
The boys took a different path than the traveler, who never noticed them, busy with his mule. A ride would have been welcome to their weary legs, but they needed to take the long way home. They needed to bury their fathers.
Thanks for reading!