Tossing aside her blanket, Kagur sat up and looked where Eovath was gazing, but though she had keen eyes, he generally fared better in the dark. "I don't see anything."
Eovath stood up. "Neither do I, now. It was just a shadow, and it's shuffled back around the next bend. But whatever it was, it had two arms and two legs and was bent over like it was hurt. Dron, maybe, if he escaped."
"Or the bait in a trap." Kagur smiled. "There's one way to find out."
Her longbow was of little use when she couldn't see targets at a distance. She left it unstrung and leaning against the canyon wall and drew her longsword instead. The straight steel blade made a faint hissing sound as it cleared the pewter mouth of the scabbard.
Meanwhile, Eovath likewise forsook his pair of javelins in favor of his battleaxe. Jorn Blacklion had pulled the enormous double-bitted implement from the grip of a giant he'd slain in battle, and it fit the hands of his adopted son better than any little human weapon could.
"Ready?" Kagur whispered.
"Yes," Eovath replied, and they advanced.
The night was as silent as it was dark. Kagur's pulse beat in her neck.
She told herself she wasn't nervous. She was a Blacklion warrior, well schooled in the use of the sword and tested in fights with orcs, wolves, and saber-toothed cats. Still, a ghost... or a demon...
She sneered her anxiety away. Her father had taught her that if something could hurt her, she could hurt it back. That only made sense, and it meant a warrior need never be afraid.
When she and Eovath stalked around the turn, it was only to behold another stretch of gorge that, as best she could judge with only starlight to see by, was as empty as the one behind her. But as she peered about, she caught a whiff of decay hanging in the chill night air.
"Smell that?" she whispered.
"Yes," Eovath replied. "You were right. This is a trap."
"Dron could still be here." Kagur raised her voice: "Dron! It's Eovath and Kagur! We came to help you!" The shout echoed away, the sound bouncing off the canyon walls.
In response, a dark form staggered away from the wall of the gorge. As Eovath had said, it was shaped like a person, hunched over, and had its back to the Blacklions. When Kagur squinted, she could just make out variations in the texture of it that might indicate the layered fur and leather garments of a Kellid hunter. She shifted her grip on the hilt of her sword, and she and Eovath headed for the shadow.
A second black shape plummeted down onto the giant's back.
Clinging to the giant like a child riding his father's shoulders, his assailant ripped at him, maybe with a dagger, maybe with something else. In the darkness, Kagur couldn't tell.
She sprang forward to cut at the attacker, but Eovath reeled around and inadvertently shielded the thing clinging to his back with his own towering body. He dropped his axe to clank on stones on the canyon floor, reached back over his shoulder, and yanked his foe from his perch, smashing it down onto the ground with a bellow.
Kagur's belly tightened in loathing, not because the creature was hideous—although it was—but because she suspected it had once been human. It still had the general form of a man and wore a man's garments. But it was so withered and shriveled that by rights, it should have had no strength at all, and its nails and teeth alike had grown long and jagged-sharp. The dark, slanted eyes in its pale face were featureless, without differentiated whites, irises, or pupils, and its ears were pointed. The carrion stench Kagur had smelled at the site of the massacre and at intervals along the trail emanated from its body.
To her surprise, the creature wrenched itself free of Eovath's grip and started to roll to its feet. She lashed out, cutting through the side of its neck until steel grated against spine. It flopped back down onto the ground, thrashed, and then lay still.
Eovath was swaying, and blood from his claw wounds stained his tunic. "How badly are you hurt?" Kagur asked him.
Nearly pitching forward in the process, he stooped and fumbled for his battleaxe. "Behind you!" he croaked.
She whirled. More shadows were rearing up from the creek. She hadn't realized it was deep enough to hide something the size of a man, but it evidently was.
The things rushed her. So did their comrade farther up the gorge, the lure that she and Eovath had hoped was Dron.
Hoping to surprise them, she charged the gaunt, pale things splashing out of the water. One surprised her instead by throwing a dagger, but she saw the gleam of metal just in time to twitch aside. The blade spun past her.
A creature sprang at her with outstretched claws, and she cut at its head and sliced half its face away. It fell, but as she pivoted to meet the next one, it started to stand back up.
No living man or beast could have shaken off the effects of a wound like that. She realized that if she and Eovath hadn't found ghosts, they'd at least come close. For the foes rushing at her were almost certainly some manner of undead, perhaps the skulking, corpse-eating brutes called ghouls.
She cut into the next one's chest, and it snarled and lunged, driving her sword deeper into itself in its frenzy to reach her. She tried to jump back and yank the blade free, but the ghoul was quick and prevented her from opening up the distance. Its clawed fingers grabbed her leather-clad forearm, and it leaned forward and opened its fanged jaws wide.
Using her off hand, she snatched a dirk from her belt and drove it into the middle of the living dead man's forehead. The creature collapsed with her longsword still embedded in its torso.
She yanked the sword free and cut in a single motion, barely in time to hold back another onrushing ghoul, this one discernibly female by virtue of its bouncing, withered breasts and swinging amber necklace. Without pausing, Kagur turned and slashed again at the one with half a face, which had by now regained its feet. It recoiled, and the attack fell short.
Kagur had always imagined the walking dead to be slow and clumsy, but the ghouls were nimble and inhumanly resilient. As she struck repeatedly, whirling and dodging all the while in an effort to keep her foes from surrounding and swarming over her as a group, she came to the uncomfortable realization that they might well overwhelm her.
Particularly if she had to go on fighting alone. Somehow, despite the incessant pressure exerted by the ghouls and the need to respond to the threat after threat, she managed to cast about and spot Eovath in the darkness.
His head bowed, the giant was down on one knee. Plainly not dead, thank Gorum! But why wasn't he fighting? Had the first ghoul wounded him that severely?
Suddenly, Kagur glimpsed a shadow, a ghoul apparently seeking easier prey than she was proving to be, darting in on the giant's flank. She couldn't have reached it in time even if she hadn't had her own foes blocking the way. She could only gasp in a breath and shout, "Look out!"
The frost giant lifted his head, cast about, and swatted the ghoul away with the back of his hand. As it fell and rolled back to its feet, he groped to reclaim his axe.
At the same moment, a charging ghoul forced Kagur to refocus on her own situation. She slashed the clawed white fingers from her assailant's hand and crippled one leg with a cut to the knee. When it fell headlong, she scrambled right over the top of it and cut at the undead brute behind it. The stroke ripped open the ghoul's neck, but that only made it bare its fangs and gather itself to spring.
Eovath fared better. Looming up behind the ghoul, he chopped down at the top of its skull and split the creature all the way down to the breastbone.
Freeing the battleaxe and dumping the ghoul's remains to the ground with a flick of his wrists, he panted, "Don't let them scratch you! It steals your strength!"
"I wasn't... planning on it." Kagur feinted high and cut low, but her target sprang aside from the true attack. "Let's fight back to back!"
Once they did, things seemed less frantic. Kagur had instants when she could consider tactics, not simply react, and her sword struck home more often. She had little doubt that behind her, Eovath's axe was chopping and smashing to similar murderous effect.
"Blacklion!" she shouted. "Blacklion!" Then her brother took up the battle cry as well, their twin roars reverberating off the canyon walls.
After several more exchanges, and another ghoul sprawled maimed and motionless in the sand and stones on the canyon floor, it became clear the undead were attacking less relentlessly than before. It seemed likely they would soon retreat, and, grinning, Kagur resolved to give chase when they did. She wanted to slaughter all the filthy things.
Then, however, two whistled notes, the first short and the second sustained, shrilled down from the sky. Whereupon the ghouls did fall back, but plainly not of their own choosing.
A signal! Judging that locating the ghouls' hitherto unsuspected leader was more important than cutting the creatures down from behind, Kagur held her position. Struggling to control her breathing, sweat stinging in her eyes, she peered upward.
Leathery wings flapped, and a shape swooped down from on high. For a moment, Kagur couldn't make out anything to distinguish it from a gigantic bat. Once it lit on an outcropping partway up one of the walls, however, it was easier to distinguish other features. Though tufted with bristles, its body was mostly hairless and scaly like a snake's, and it had arms as well as wings. Its legs were as long as a man's but bent backward like a goat's and ended in feet with three splayed toes.
"Well," Kagur panted, "you wanted to see a demon." She had little doubt they were seeing one now. The thing certainly looked demonic.
"I didn't ask for a flying one." Moving slowly, Eovath stooped and picked up a stone. Giants were notorious for their ability to throw rocks, and unless the demon descended to the canyon floor, they would have no other way of striking at it.
Although maybe they wouldn't need to, for the fiend appeared to be paying them little heed. Instead, it raked its gaze over its followers, the ones still whole—or mostly so—that had gathered beneath its perch, as well as the crippled ones struggling to crawl in the same direction, and the inert forms Kagur and Eovath had dispatched outright.
When it had glared its fill, it bared its needle fangs and hissed. "Disobedient!"
Most of the ghouls cringed, but one glowered back. "Hungry!" it growled. "Starving!"
The demon sprang from its perch. The defiant ghoul tried to dodge out from underneath, but it was far too slow. The fiend slammed down on top of it, smashed it to the ground, and, stooping, beheaded it with two sweeps of the dagger-long talons on the fingertips of its oversized hands.
Kagur watched to see if the other ghouls would protest the fate of their fellow. But even if they felt any such impulse, their master had them too thoroughly cowed.
The fiend then pivoted and glared squarely at Kagur and her foster brother for the first time. Eovath immediately flung the rock. The missile caught the demon just above its batlike snout, but despite the force with which the giant had hurled it, the stone glanced away without doing any apparent harm. Ignoring the attack, the creature locked eyes with Kagur.
Her vision shifted. Though Kagur could see that the demon was still crouching over the headless ghoul, part of her suddenly had the feeling that it was springing at her. Or perhaps she was plummeting toward it, falling sideways in defiance of nature, into eyes that yawned like pits to swallow her. Cold pain shot through her, and her heart stuttered in her chest.
Coming Next Week: Demons and the dead in Chapter Three of Richard Lee Byers' "In Red Rune Canyon"!
Enjoying this story? Check out the further adventures of Kagur and Eovath in Called to Darkness, available now!
Richard Lee Byers is the author of more than thirty novels, including the Pathfinder Tales novel Called to Darkness (also starring Kagur and Eovath) and the first book in R. A. Salvatore's War of the Spider Queen series. In addition, he's also the co-creator of the critically acclaimed young adult series The Nightmare Club, and the author of a new urban fantasy series beginning with the novel Blind God's Bluff. He's written one previous Pathfinder Tales web fiction story, "Lord of Penance".
Illustration by Greg Opalinski.