Kagur's legs turned soft as dough. She collapsed to her knees, banging one on a stone. Eovath dropped beside her, and the ghouls raised a hissing snarl to see the foes who'd humbled them brought low.
But by the ever-thirsty blade of the Lord in Iron, Kagur refused to be helpless. With a rasping snarl of her own, she pushed chill and weakness—well, the greater part of them, anyway—out of her body by sheer dint of will.
Which was good as far as it went, but instinct told her the improvement would be fleeting if she kept looking at the demon's batlike face. Somehow, it was the fiend's gaze that had debilitated her, and with that still linking them, she sensed the creature focusing its mind for a second assault.
With a fierce twist of her neck, she broke eye contact. She scrambled back to her feet even as Eovath did the same. The demon hadn't succeeded in slaying or crippling him, either. Poised to launch themselves forward, the ghouls balked at their prey's sudden recovery.
Kagur laughed. Her brother spat.
With a scream, the demon clenched its fist with such vehemence that the long claws surely stabbed into its flesh.
Kagur felt as if the air was thickening and sliding around her. She tried to spring clear of what must be some sort of supernatural attack, but she was too slow. Her limbs froze, locked in place as if her whole body were encased in ice. She couldn't even make herself bellow in rage as the demon, wings lashing the air, swept down from its perch toward them. Eovath swung his axe, but the demon jinked nimbly out of range, then curved back to sink its filthy talons into the meat of Kagur's shoulders.
Again, Kagur tried to shout something—anything—but still her jaws betrayed her, leaving her to silently suffer the pain of the intruding claws as they lifted her off the ground and up into the night sky. Below her, Eovath roared curses, and in her mind Kagur matched them.
Yet now she had bigger problems. As the ground retreated beneath her, she felt a sudden surge of mingled rage and fear. Once the creature had lifted her high enough, it need only drop her to kill her. And in her current paralyzed condition, she wouldn't even be able to resist, just fall as placidly as a dropped stone until the impact splattered her across the rocks of the canyon floor.
Yet as the demon sailed over the ridge of the canyon's wall and down into a defile on the other side, she felt a brief flare of hope. If it was descending, then perhaps it meant to set her down safely—no doubt to better enjoy the pleasure of killing her slowly.
Inwardly, Kagur smiled. All she asked was that the demon's plans force it to release its spell over her before killing her. Then she'd show it what a warrior of the Blacklions was made of.
Yet though the demon did deposit her on the ground, in a section of twisting gorge little different than the one from which it had extracted her, it didn't land as well. Instead, it released her from her magical bonds as soon as her feet touched the soil, then flapped back up out of reach.
Quick as a hunting cat, Kagur drew her sword and threw, sending it lancing up into the sky after the creature. Yet the fiend only laughed a grating laugh and rose higher, wings snapping, and the sword passed harmlessly beneath its trailing claws. Within moments, the beast had disappeared back over the canyon wall.
Kagur had no idea why the creature hadn't killed her, but she assumed it had removed her from the battlefield so Eovath would have to fight alone. She ran, retrieved her sword, and then peered about, seeking an opening that would allow her to pass through the wall at ground level.
There wasn't any. There was no way back except to climb.
She did so, without hesitation, finding handholds and ledges to aid her ascent. But despite her resolve, she was no experienced mountaineer, and the darkness further slowed her progress. It immediately became obvious she'd never reach her brother in time to help him.
Still, panting, fingers aching, denying herself all but the briefest of rests, she struggled upward. Dawn found her atop the wall.
She peered down the other side and made out a scattering of ghoul bodies. But Eovath was nowhere to be seen—not from the ridge, and not when she completed a laborious descent.
Her jaw clenched as fury welled up inside her—an admittedly familiar sensation. But it was different, too, because this time she was angry with herself.
Borog had warned her and Eovath not to enter Red Rune Canyon, but she'd been certain she knew better. And here was the result of that brash overconfidence: her brother was lost. It made her want to scream, or pummel her own body.
She took a long, deep breath instead. Now was not the time for self-recrimination. She had to rescue Eovath before the demon had a chance to do whatever it intended to do to him.
She stooped beside the creek, scooped frigid water in her cupped hands, and slurped away the raw, parched feeling in her throat. Then she strode to retrieve her bow and quiver. Her path took her near one of the fallen ghouls, and the emaciated, gray-white thing startled her by hissing.
She drew her sword to kill it, then reconsidered. Last night, a ghoul had spoken. Maybe she could persuade this one to speak to her now.
As she approached it, she saw it was the same ghoul whose fingers she'd sliced off and whose leg she'd crippled. Then she caught her breath as she noticed the blue and green beadwork adorning its deerskin tunic and the two copper rings in the lobe of its pointed ear.
The undead thing was Dron—or what was left of him. Fighting him in the dark, Kagur hadn't realized, but it was so.
Which meant there'd never been any hope of saving him. The realization brought another pang of self-disgust.
Pushing it out of her mind, she pointed her sword at the creature on the ground. "Do you know me?"
Squinting against the morning light even though little of it had as yet reached the floor of the canyon, Dron bared his fangs.
"Talk," Kagur persisted. "I know you can. Or I'll hurt you."
"Know you," the ghoul rasped. "Cut fingers. Cut knee."
"Yes. But do you remember me from before that? From before you... changed?"
The ghoul hesitated. "Kagur."
"That's right, and you're Dron. We hunted together. Tell me what happened to you."
Dron hesitated. "Can't. Master not like."
The living Dron had been loquacious and clever. Repelled by the undead version's ugly form and noxious reek, Kagur nonetheless felt a twinge of pity at his broken speech. His transformation had seemingly damaged his mind as well as warping his body.
But compassion wouldn't get her what she needed, so she set it aside and jabbed at the raw, spongy stumps of Dron's severed fingers with the point of her longsword. The ghoul hissed, snatched the maimed hand back, and covered it with his good one.
"'Master' isn't here," Kagur said. "The demon abandoned you because you were crippled and of no further use to it. I am here, and I swear by Gorum I'll keep cutting pieces off you until you answer my questions."
Dron hesitated. Then: "Killers come. Demon eyes kill some hunters. Make me... this. Other ghouls kill the rest. For meat." The undead creature lowered his eyes. "Not want eat. But did."
Kagur frowned. "So... every time there's an attack, the demon turns one victim into a ghoul. That's why there's always a body missing. But what's the point? What does the demon want with ghouls?"
Dron shook his head, apparently to indicate he didn't actually know. But he did have an opinion: "Little demon. Wants be big demon."
In other words, to be a leader like Kagur's father, or one of the Mammoth Lords who presided over the followings. To command a following, or even a single tribe, one needed followers.
East of the tundra was the Worldwound, a land teeming with demons. People said it was the wrongness of that place seeping through the earth that tainted Red Rune Canyon. Maybe "Master" hailed from the Worldwound and meant to return one day at the head of a war band of undead warriors.
Kagur caught her breath as a ghastly possibility occurred to her. "What about Eovath, then? Is he gone because the demon changed him into a ghoul? You were here watching. Tell me!"
Dron shook his head. "Giant strong. Not change yet." He smirked as though enjoying Kagur's distress. "But Master make him weak. Ghouls drag him off. Master will change him."
Him and me, Kagur realized. That was why the demon hadn't just dropped her from on high. Eovath and she had both impressed it with their prowess, and it meant to add them both to the ranks of its followers to replace the undead they'd destroyed.
She swallowed. "No. That won't happen because I won't let it. Now, you ghouls ambushed Eovath and me without Master's permission. Why was that?"
"Told you. Hungry. Too many ghouls, not enough meat."
"Hm." She took stock and decided she was nearly out of questions. "Where is Master holding Eovath prisoner?"
"You're going to take me there." It ought to be quicker and surer than trying to track the other ghouls, especially since, by all accounts, the blighted land called Red Rune Canyon was actually a confusing tangle of several interconnecting gorges.
Dron flinched. "No! Tell you the way!"
"And then what could I do about it if it turned out you told me wrong? I need you with me so I can kill you if you try to betray me."
"I can fix that."
Kagur trotted back around the bend, slung her bow and quiver over her shoulders, but left her pack where it sat lest it slow her down. She then planted her foot atop the head of one of Eovath's javelins and pulled up on the shaft until the steel point snapped away from it.
When she returned to Dron, she tossed him the length of seasoned ash. "Your crutch," she said.
Fangs bared, the ghoul struggled up with the aid of the prop. "Can't do this!"
"You can," Kagur said, "or I'll finish you off here and now."
Hobbling, the ghoul turned and led her toward the deeper recesses of the canyon. Alternately watching him for signs of treachery and scanning her surroundings from other dangers, Kagur unbuckled her belt pouch by touch, fished out the last few half-squashed bearberries, and popped them into her mouth.
Coming Next Week: A daring rescue attempt in the final chapter 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 Lindsey Wakefield.