The camp's last remaining healer had died two days before, infected by some foul colony of demonic parasites. Learning further details prompted Zae to add "never pray barefooted" to her list of life lessons.
Leodar, the knight who had greeted Keren, led the way with confidence through the broken landscape, while Carom and Saric, two young but weathered knights, brought up the rear. Strange geysers dotted the ground, some swelling like pustulant wounds, others rising and falling as if the land was a breathing beast. Above, beyond churning black clouds, the sky glowed the sickly color of rust, giving off just enough light for gnome eyes to see by. Under the cover of night, things clacked and slithered and grunted, distracting Zae with hints of movement in her peripheral vision. The others didn't seem to notice.
Leodar rode unerringly toward an outcropping of stone—the crumbling ruins of an old smithy, barely sturdy enough to serve as an outpost. A clash of swords rang out from beyond the building, followed by a blaze of firelight.
Leodar lowered his visor. "Seems we're not too late."
Keren took a deep breath and nudged her horse forward. "Ennis! It's Keren. I've come from Lastwall."
A burst of fire bloomed above the smithy, leaving blinding afterimages in Zae's vision. The knights charged toward the fray, and Zae nudged Appleslayer to follow the horses. They rounded the structure in time to see a half-dozen cloaked and hooded figures, all chanting in unison, surrounding a single knight in mismatched armor.
Ennis Rhinn might once have looked very much like his sister, before the demonplague. Now he looked barely human—gaunt as a corpse, face mottled purple and red with bruises and open sores, and just a few thready strands of greasy, ash-dusted hair.
"Ennis!" Keren shouted again, and circled around to charge one of her brother's attackers.
"Begone, demon!" he shouted, hurling something as she passed. Keren deflected a jagged rock with her shield.
"Foul hallucination!" he screamed. "Do you lack the stones to face me in your own form?"
Keren cast a worried glance back at her companions. Leodar lifted his shoulders, as if to say This was your idea. Zae nudged Appleslayer forward to join her.
"Ennis, it's truly me. I'm here with Leodar, and others from your camp." She rode down one of the sword-wielding cultists, then turned Eridem and charged another. "Ennis, by Iomedae, I swear to you..."
A wordless scream interrupted her—one of fury, not agony. "I'll hear no more! I'll bash out my own brains before I let you defile my goddess, or the memory of my sister! Go back to the Abyss, demon!"
Zae sighed. "Well, at least he still cares about you."
At a signal from Leodar, the other knights rode in, blades drawn. They ignored Ennis's shouts of challenge and focused only on riding down his attackers. All the cultists were armed with sickles and other blades, and there was something about that which wasn't quite right.
"Wait!" Zae called. "Weren't there—"
A burst of flame exploded in Carom's face, setting his mount's mane ablaze. The horse panicked and reared, throwing its rider and trampling him before bolting away into the night.
Ennis slashed with his longsword at anything within reach, armored knight and robed cultist alike. Keren and Saric rode down cultist after cultist, beheading them or hacking off limbs with long sweeps of their swords, while Leodar took off after a sorcerer attempting to circle around and flank them.
Anticipating Zae's command, Appleslayer bounded to where Carom had fallen from his horse and lay unmoving on the ground. Zae tugged off one of his scorched gauntlets to reach his skin and explore the extent of his injuries.
The broken ribs were worse than the burns. Calling on Brigh, Zae pushed healing warmth through her fingers and into him, steadying him, then fished into the satchel still slung over her shoulder for a salve for the burns. Hail began to fall from the roiling clouds, small crystals pelting Carom's armor like pebbles. Zae pulled up her hood and ignored them, sheltering her patient with her small body while she repaired the worst of his wounds. Appleslayer stood vigil over them both.
Presently, Zae became aware that the annoying chanting had stopped. Instead, under the clash of battle, she heard human voices.
"Why do you aid me, demon?"
"I'm not a demon, Ennis. I'm your sister."
Zae stole a glance toward the siblings. Keren, Saric, and Ennis were on foot, parrying and dodging a grotesque flying demon. It looked as if a giant, bloated snowball of phlegm had consumed a few stray humans and a bat, with only wings and the odd nest of misshapen limbs protruding from its mass. One of those limbs held a long, barbed whip.
The cultists, and their chanting—they must have either been summoning the demon, or protecting it.
"Why'd you come?" Ennis asked. "Did Father disown you, too?"
"Father's dead, Ennis. I came to find you."
Saric swung upward at the demon's underbelly, but it only flew up beyond his reach and lashed out with a flick of its slender whip, capturing the crusader's arm. It turned with tug that knocked him to the ground and sent his sword skittering away. Zae crept up toward him, praying under her breath.
Keren hacked at one of the demon's wings while its whip was entangled, but it rose out of range. Another of its arms was reaching for something. At first Zae thought it was feeling for damage to its wing, but instead it looked to be extracting a chunk of its own viscous flesh. As Saric struggled to his feet, clutching the whip to keep the demon from pulling it free, a burst of fire caught him in the chest.
There was the sorcerer from before—the one Leodar had evidently not run down. Demonblooded, with wicked, curved horns, and tiny motes of fire that hovered around her like moths. She flung them toward the three knights with flicks of her wrist. Keren dodged the flame, and charged at the spellcaster with a fierce battle cry.
Zae was almost to Saric. His grasp on the whip only served as another tool for the demon, which jerked away so sharply that the man's shoulder wrenched from its socket. He lost his hold and slumped to the foul ground, where Zae was instantly at his side. Before she could do more than lift Saric's visor, however, Ennis let out a shout and dove toward her, knocking the gnome onto the prone man and falling atop them both.
A thick, caustic rain splattered around them. Ennis jerked against Zae's back and screamed, his breath rattling in his chest like nails shaken in a cup. Face inches from the ground, Zae watched the acid carve tiny pits in the rocky terrain. It was doing the same to Ennis's armor, and to Saric—by Brigh's shiny eyeholes, she'd just exposed Saric's face moments before the viscous attack.
Ennis tried to rise and failed, slumping back heavily on top of them. From beneath him, Zae saw Keren approaching, silhouetted against the night, longsword gleaming with the sorcerer's blood. She took a fierce overhead swipe, splitting the demon's belly. A loud squelch—the sound of a stalk of celery stabbing through an overripe tomato—heralded a second deluge. Zae ducked her head, squeezing eyes and lips shut until it passed and all was silent. She couldn't twist around far enough to reach Ennis's skin, or Saric's.
"Ennis...?" she asked.
His weight on her didn't move, and a wave of guilt and nausea flooded her.
Keren's voice answered as Ennis's weight eased away. "Careful what you touch."
Zae rose unsteadily to her knees. The ground around them, everywhere that Ennis's body hadn't shielded, was pocked and still quietly hissing. She was dry, as far as she could tell, but Saric's helm was full of viscous acid. He had choked on it even as it burned through his jaw and throat, and though she had been right there, she hadn't been able to save him—either of them. Not the knight she'd been about to heal, nor the one who, already plague-ridden, had sacrificed himself to shield her... even without knowing what she meant to his sister.
They walked gingerly, Keren carrying her brother's still hissing and popping corpse, to the ruined smithy. There, Carom waited with two horses and Appleslayer. His breaths were shallow, favoring his tender ribs, but he was whole.
Ennis was not so lucky. Keren set him down with care, supporting his shoulder to keep him from leaning his raw back against the stone, then realized that she needn't bother. He was already gone. Keren set her face in a mask of calm to hold the pain away until there was time for it.
It was a somber ride back to the encampment, with Ennis's body draped across Keren's saddle. When they passed the wardstone that marked the border and Zae pulled back her hood, white crystals fell from the folds. On closer inspection, she saw that they were tiny teeth.
∗ ∗ ∗
Keren traced her brother's medallion with her fingertips, lost in thought. Zae came to sit on the tent's carpeted floor beside her, and Apple padded over to rest his chin in her lap.
Keren fished her necklace out of her tunic and set the medallions on the box, side by side.
"Is it killing you that I haven't opened it yet?" It was a pale attempt at teasing, but it heartened Zae that Keren was up to trying.
"You're apprehensive. I can't blame you. But the hardest part is over, isn't it?"
Keren pushed Ennis's medallion toward Zae. It was more weathered than Keren's, but its intricacies were still intact.
"Together?" Keren asked.
They each placed a disc to an impression on the box. There was no sense of anything clicking into place, but the lid opened smoothly at Keren's touch.
A parchment envelope nestled on cream-colored velvet lining. Keren took it and examined both sides, but it was unmarked. She took a deep breath and lifted the unsealed flap.
Zae could see that the thick page bore neat lines of writing, but she couldn't make it out through the back side of the paper. She rubbed Apple's head and waited, watching wetness gather in Keren's eyes.
"It's a peace offering. He accepts that Ennis went his own way, and he's proud of both of us for fighting for what we believe in. Here: ‘There are three of these rings, which I had forged. I will wear mine into eternity, and the others are for you, to mark us as family. You bear a piece of me, and my blessing, always. The people are more important than the cause, Keren. Victory is meaningless without the people for whom we fight, and the people we go home to.'"
Keren caught her sleeve and swiped her wrist across her eyes, then let out a trembling sigh and upended the envelope into the box. "He just wanted me and Ennis to be together again. And at the end, I guess we were."
Two rings tumbled onto the velvet, gleaming and, to Zae's eye, quite finely wrought of gold and platinum. Minutes ticked by, but Keren didn't reach for them.
"What will you do with them?" Zae asked.
Keren looked up. Stubbornly, she still refused to let her tears fall. "He wanted these to mark us as family, but I don't have any family left—except you. Will you wear one?"
Zae arched one thin blue eyebrow. "Are you sure he'd approve of that?"
"He'd want me to be happy, and I'm happy with you. Your cooking is dangerous, and you perform dog surgery in my house, and every moment with you is full of wonder and something new."
Zae stood and wound her arms around Keren. "I'd be honored," she said. "I wish I'd gotten to meet Ennis in health, or your father, or see more of the Worldwound."
Keren laughed weakly. "Sometimes I think your curiosity is a death wish in disguise."
Zae touched her nose to Keren's cheek. "Oh, but it's not just curiosity. It's informed curiosity. I know how big and complicated and dangerous the world is. What fascinates me is all that variety—how the world can be so full of parts that are so complex and weird and beautiful, and interconnected. I'm not fascinated by birds in flight because I think flight is mystical and impossible, I'm fascinated because I understand how it works, and how it works is fascinating. That's the kind of wonder I see in the world. But to your second point?" She grinned. "Yes. Probably."
Keren rolled her eyes. "You'll need me to protect you."
"Definitely. And you'll need me to stitch you up after you protect me. I hear some creatures think I'm a tasty snack. They might be relentless."
"Are you a tasty snack, pixie?" There was a gleam in Keren's eyes.
"Are you relentless?" Zae countered.
Though—or perhaps because—Zae knew that both answers were yes, she was glad to have a long voyage home in which to explore them fully.
Coming Next Week: A sample chapter of Howard Andrew Jones's new novel Stalking the Beast, featuring the return of Elyana and Drelm from Plague of Shadows!
Gabrielle Harbowy is an editor for such SF publishers as Pyr, Seven Realms Publishing, and Dragon Moon Press, as well as co-editor of the When the Hero Comes Home anthology series with Ed Greenwood. Her short fiction has been a finalist for the Parsec award, and has appeared in such anthologies as The Beast Within 2, Metastasis, Cthulhurotica, and more. For more information, visit gabrielle-edits.com.Illustration by Kelly Perry