(The Returned Dead) Chapter 1 – Breach – 5,150 words

Semt slipped back into his uniform, redoing buttons and fastening clasps.  He breathed in the forest air, lifting his face with closed eyes to feel the few rays of sunlight that made it through the leaves.  It was important to stop for things like this, he had learned.  Sometimes you just had to slow down.

He opened his eyes to look at the woman he shared the clearing with.  Dae‘s bare back was exposed to him, her crimson hair falling down the pale surface of her skin.  Black tattoos swirled from her upper back down her left arm, leaving circular spirals and complex glyphs.  They disappeared under the midnight jacket of her uniform as she dressed.  Semt watched with little embarrassment.  The grace of her movements was mesmerizing to him.

This was their clearing.  They had put up a canopy between the trees, holding up a cloth which kept the rain and sun from their tangle of blankets and pillows below.  The lanterns, unlit and unneeded in the daylight, hung from branches around the clearing and swayed softly in the breeze.  Their fire pit was nothing more than cold soot in a circle of stones.

“They’re going to notice we spent a bit too long hunting,” Dae said, retrieving the two rabbit they’d killed before coming here.  Neat, precisely burnt holes in each of their necks.

“It was worth it,” he replied, eyes turning to the mess of sheets where they had been a minute before.

“I’m definitely not complaining.”  She gave him a sideways grin and drew close to him, pressing her body into his and meeting his lips with her own.

The fire in him that ignited with the kiss spread warmth up his spine and through his blood.  It was these moments with her that let him get up in the morning.  Life didn’t have anything else to offer him.  He wondered how he ever survived without this.

Dae parted from him, eyes fluttering open as she kept a hand resting on his arm.  He met her gray eyes and smiled.  “I love you.”

She made a face and stepped away, turning to pick up her satchel from the ground.  “I don’t know why you keep saying that.”

“Because it’s true,” he said, not letting himself feel the disappointment. 

“You shouldn’t.”  She paused, looking at the ground.  “It’s not a good idea.”

“It’s okay.  These quiet days with you are all I need.  You’re worth it.”

“I’m not.”

“Well, too bad.  I think you are.  Tell me to stop.”

She groaned and jabbed a finger at him.  “You are insufferable.”

He just smiled at the ground.  She didn’t tell him to stop. 

Semt slipped on the jacket of his uniform, which covered the dark skin of his arms, unlike Dae’s which was more like a vest and flaunted her marks.  His dark skin was relatively unmarked–  with only tattoos on his palms and another hidden by his uniform over his heart. 

He reached out his right hand toward the mess of blankets, and the mark on his palm burned icy-hot.  A foot-long cylinder of black metal flew from the ground, tumbling in the air and landing neatly in his hand.  The burning sensation faded as he stored it in the horizontal holster on his lower back. 

She rolled her eyes at him and picked up her silvery sword, stowing it on her left hip.  “Come on,” she said, carrying their kills and beckoning him on.  “We can probably still get these back to camp before noon.”

He opened his mouth— a flirty line on the tip of his tongue— when he heard the Hum.  It was low and chilling, vibrating within him down to his bones as it seemed to emanate from everywhere at once.  His heart pounded in his ears, an inexorable Pull appearing within it that made his chest ache.  Chills and heat flowed from inside of him, wiping any traces of exhaustion or hunger that he felt.  His Well had awoken.

Dae’s look of frozen surprise mirrored his own.  It wasn’t the first time they’d felt this, but it wasn’t a sensation you got used to.  The intensity of it leveled off after a few moments, but Semt still had to catch his breath before he could speak.  “Guess it’s not going to be a quiet day after all.”

14641

They followed the Pull.  It was what they did.  No question or hesitation.  They knew their purpose.

The day slid into the afternoon as they walked through Postrem’s forests, heading straight for the border in the east.  They knew every landmark, and with the new energy flowing within them, the journey was easy.  Dae had already disappeared into her head, walking ramrod straight with her eyes forward and her head raised.  Her hand rested on the pommel of her sword.  To her, the fight had already begun.

Semt knew not to bother her.  He just enjoyed the peace while it lasted.  The power of the Well honed his senses to a point, and he embraced the warmth of the sun and the songs of the wind with a completeness that he couldn’t without the Well.  The forest came alive.  He could see every animal and motion in the trees, smell the sweetness of flowers from meters away, hear the songs of far-off birds.

It was almost enough to make him forget where he was going.

Eventually they began to cross paths with others following the Pull.  Men and women with tattoos spiraling up their arms and silvery weapons on their waist.  Others had fewer tattoos and black cylinders on their person.  Some looked forward with the same resoluteness that Dae held.  Others looked terrified.

But nobody refused the Pull.

They joined the quiet procession as the lush forest abruptly ended.  Within a mile of the Gatewall, life survived precariously, if at all.  The air was dry and hot.  The ground was black and dead, as if scorched sterile.  The few plants that lived here were squat and shriveled. 

Without trees, it was easy to see the Gatewall from miles away.  It stretched upward as far as he could crane back his neck.  The surface of it was reflective, but it warped the reflection into an abstraction of shifting colors and shapes.  His stomach turned at the sight of it.  Its existence felt unnatural.

The reason that they were here was clear from a distance.  A section of the wall had lost its reflectivity, turning it into a rippling pool of light several meters across.  A breach.  And it looked like they had made it here before anything had actually crossed through.  That was good— it made what followed much less chaotic.

He turned to Dae, an “I love you” on his lips, but she was already hurrying toward a group of similarly tattooed men and women in formation away from the Gatewall.  He ignored the pang of loneliness and forced himself to not drink in the sight of her while he could. 

Semt retrieved his Nightroot— the metal cylinder he stored on his back— and went to join the rest of those armed in such a way.  Paladins.  He received a few nods from familiar faces, but no one spoke in the worried anticipation.  Most of them wore the simple midnight and gray clothes, but many of them sported steel helmets or pieces of plate armor.  Semt had never taken to it.  In the end it wouldn’t do much good.

Behind the Paladins, the Warlocks gathered.  He caught a glimpse of Dae’s crimson hair in the throng of Evokers.  Conjurers stood directly before them, single tattooed eyes on their foreheads marking their status.  It was the standard formation, the best way they had found to stop the breach in its tracks before it could become too big.

The fight still looked messy before, finally, the sound of horses echoed through the battlefield.  Three crested the hill behind them, their robed riders dismounting.  Sorcerers.  The final piece to their motley army.

Altogether, there were maybe a few hundred of them, split near evenly between Paladins and Warlocks.  The Returned.  The only force standing between the Gatewall and the rest of Postrem.  It was thankless and unending work, but at least he could know what he was fighting for.

The breach shuddered.  The ripples intensified as it bulged inward and outward, glowing brighter and brighter.  Black flames poured from it.  Semt felt the heat as if he was feet from the fire and not half a mile.

The Well within him flared.  They’re almost through.  Ready yourself.  It was difficult to tell whether those were the Well’s commands or his thoughts.  Every Paladin around him seemed to have the same thoughts, tightening their grips on their Nightroots.  Behind them, a sudden cool wind fought back the heat, disturbing the still air of the dead land.  The three sorcerers had raised their hands upward, their skin beginning to glow as dust and dirt blew away from them.  Then, faintly, gradually, a translucent barrier formed around them, trapping their army in with the breach, but creating a second wall to contain it.  The wall wasn’t as strong as the Gatewall, but it would keep the demons trapped with them.

Screeching split the air.  The breach suddenly exploded outward, stretching farther and farther until something made it through.  The demon was like a living statue.  Made of white ivory or marble that was as mobile as flesh.  It was twice the size of a man, with massive wings of marble that stretched out from its back.  Its body was humanoid but featureless, save for two black sockets on its face.  That is, featureless until its mouth formed and unhinged, showing massive sharp teeth as it screamed.  Golden liquid spilled from its palm, falling into the shape of a massive lance which it raised in challenge before diving for them.  A Knight.

It didn’t close half the distance before silver beams shot from the lines of Evoker Warlocks behind them.  Its wings vaporized under the attack, sending it plummeting into the ground and shattering into rubble.  He glanced back to see the Warlocks lowering their arms, the silver light fading from their tattoos.  If only that was the end of it.  Now the breach was open, even if it still looked opaque.  The link through the Gatewall was weakened. 

Almost immediately, it pushed again, and shapes began to emerge from it.  These were the size of normal humans, but carried the same vague and ivory features, minus the massive wings on their backs.  They stayed low to the ground, golden weapons spilling into their hands, and sprinted toward their lines.  They shimmered and blurred, and it was hard to tell whether they were actually stepping on the ground or hovering.  Pawns. 

The Warlocks couldn’t even start with them as more Knights ripped their way through the breach and dove for them.

Semt steeled himself, losing his slump and spreading his legs into a stance.  The Well hummed in his chest, and he felt the power and tried to take comfort in it.  The charging line of Pawns loomed.  He swung the Nightroot downward and shut his eyes.  Immediately, molten white-hot metal poured from both ends, forming the shape of a pike that cooled rapidly in his hands into a dull and dark metal.  It was light but it held enough weight to build some momentum.

“Telas shield me,” the Paladin on his right breathed, eyes wide at the sight of the Pawns.  He was a white man who looked five years younger than Semt and a whole head shorter.  The Nightroot he held was a simple short sword.  The fear was clear in his eyes.  This was the first time he’d seen this.

Semt tapped his shoulder.  “What’s your name, kid?”

The boy was too scared to be scandalized.  “Reja,” he said, eyes not budging from the demons.

“Telas has already shielded us,” Semt said, tapping the Well in his chest before gesturing to the kid’s chest.  “She is with you.  Don’t forget that.  And stick with me.  A man shouldn’t have to face his first breach alone.”

Reja looked at him gratefully but still looked terrified when the line of Pawns crashed into them.

The first of the line leapt meters into the air, screeching and lunging into the Paladins, golden light erupting from their legs.  Semt brought up the pike and caught one on the tip, impaling it through the stomach.  Golden ichor rained down onto him, burning his skin as the demon screamed and convulsed, cracks spreading through its ivory skin as it bled out.  When it finally stopped moving, he reforged the Nightroot into a sword, dropping the Pawn to the ground. 

The new Paladin watched him with awe. 

“Focus,” Semt snapped, bringing the saber up.

Most of the first attack had been caught on spears and pikes, but they were still coming.  Pawns crashed into the front line, barely held at bay by Nightroot blades.  Semt was halfway back in the force, but he readied himself for when the first ones made it through. 

Reja cursed beside him as they saw a Pawn spear a Returned through the throat with a spray of crimson blood and fling her back into the horde. 

“Stay strong,” Semt instructed, but couldn’t stop the wince from reaching his face. 

“Right—“ Reja said before a Knight descending from above drove a lance straight through his right shoulder and down the length of his torso. 

Semt moved without thinking, bringing his saber hard into the Knight’s neck, freeing the demon’s head from its shoulders with a stream of golden blood.  It collapsed, crushing Reja beneath it.  “Shit!” he swore, grabbing the Knight by the shoulder and hauling it off of Reja. 

The boy’s eyes were distant, his uniform ruined and bloodied.  Semt grabbed the lance and wrenched out of his body, blood drenching it as he dropped it and smacked Reja across the face.  Immediately the boy gasped, eyes gaining focus as the wound on his shoulder closed and his blood drained from his clothes and the ground around him.  He choked and coughed on air, grasping at the ground desperately.

Semt pressed a hand against the boy’s Well.  “See? Telas shields us.  Now get up.”

14641

The Paladin ranks were divided as those that were cut down got back up and fought in the center of the horde of Pawns, turning the battle into a chaotic massacre.  Golden and red blood painted the ground, joined by crushed marble that filled the air with particles.  Knights fell from the sky, pierced by silver missiles that erupted from the Evokers. 

Semt met them fury for fury, his Nightroot flowing from shape to shape as he cut down Pawns and Knights alike.  A gold knife opened a cut in his shoulder that healed before it could even bleed.  Ivory claws split the skin on his abdomen but the blood retreated beneath his skin before it could even reach the ground.  His thoughts disappeared beneath reflexes and determination.  Each of his wounds burned like ice and healed before they could slow him.  It didn’t stop the agony.  The Well in his chest thundered like a drum, slower than his heart but twice as strong.  But it wasn’t endless.  Each regeneration sapped at it.

Already, some of the other Paladins weren’t getting back up, their Wells depleted.  The demons kept coming.  The Knights had reached the Warlocks, descending amongst light shows of magic that tore at them but couldn’t stop all of them.  Evokers were impaled on lances and flung up into the air, falling to their deaths.  Thankfully they had their own Wells, but their magic would’ve already drained much from them.  They weren’t getting back up so soon as the Paladins.  

The Warlocks were the last line of defense before the Sorcerers.  If they fell, the battle was lost.

Pawns began to break through the Paladins, their screeches turning triumphant as the evaded Nightroots and begin sprinting for the lines of Warlocks.  Conjurers finally stepped forward, throwing out their hands as the tattoos on their face and both their arms began to ignite with silver fire.  Whirlwinds of soot and dust formed between them and the Pawns, slowly shaping into armored humanoid Golems.  They were like living shadows, eerily silent and made of swirling soot.  Their massive shields and hammers kept the Pawns at bay, smashing several at a time and beating them back, but as more and more broke through, the lumbering behemoths began to be overwhelmed.  Semt watched as one fell under a dozen Pawns.

Around him, Paladins littered the ground, unmoving.  The remaining Paladins were being swarmed and cut apart.  Semt grabbed Reja by the shoulder and shouted so the group of Paladins around them could hear.  “Follow me!”

Semt spun on his heel and ran with the Pawns as they powered through the Paladin ranks.  Reja and the group he was with were close on his heels, mostly uninhibited as the Pawns had a new target.  Semt reforged his Nightroot into a heavy mace, but instead of letting it cool, he let the metal grow hotter and hotter.  Molten metal dripped down the length of it, but remained connected to the mass.  He began swinging it wildly as he ran, obliterating Pawns as he cut a path through to the Warlocks.  Reja copied his technique behind him with a molten greatsword, cleaving Pawns in two with singular swings.  Their small group of five were the only Paladins working back toward the second line, a dab of black in a sea of white.

By some miracle, the flow of Pawns had slowed, which did little to help stop the hundreds surrounding them, but at least there was an end in sight to the horde.

The mace grew heavier and heavier as he urged it hotter and hotter, until Pawns melted before he could even touch them and it was brighter than a blazing torch.  Somehow the Well’s or the Nightroot’s magic protected him, even as the air around him shimmered in the heat.  Some of the Pawns took notice of him, leaving the Golems and Warlocks to swarm him.  Not that it did much to stop him as they melted away by proximity alone.  He felt the strain on his Well— it could barely keep up— and he knew it wouldn’t be able to support him doing it for long.  But as the attention moved to him, he had no choice but to press on, even as the heat began to bite his skin through whatever was protecting him.  He could see the Warlocks fighting for their lives against the sudden influx of Pawns, their silvery weapons flashing as white light from their hands punched holes in Knights.

A flash of crimson hair— Dae.

The Knights noticed his fiery presence.  A lance stopped him in his tracks, piercing him straight through his abdomen and pinning him to the ground.  He screamed in pain and anger, the Nightroot falling from his hand and cooling back into solid metal.  The Knights descended on him, beating down the other Paladins and encircling Semt, the one they had deemed the most dangerous.  A flash of golden metal and his right arm came clean off his shoulder, blood and bone exploding into the air.  The pain was so unimaginable he couldn’t even scream, but the Well refused to let him go into shock.  Most of the Knights filed away to the Warlocks or the Paladins, but the one who had cut off his arm still hung over him, its massive wings blotting the sky from his vision as it leaned close to him, its massive jaw forming and creating horrific incisors that it brought down to his face.  He found the energy to scream. 

A white ray razed the Knight’s head from its shoulders.  It drenched Semt in hot ichor— painful, but there was a point where that it barely bothered him.  Semt spat the searing liquid from his mouth and grabbed the lance in his stomach, straining to pull himself up and off it.  The Well kept him conscious, but his performance with the mace earlier had nearly emptied it.  He could feel the last drops of it fizzle away, fighting to keep him awake as he bled out from wounds it couldn’t heal.

It would be a temporary death, but it was a death.  He choked down another gasping breath and shut his eyes.

Someone pulled the lance from his stomach and he fell to the ground, the impact shaking some of the fog from his mind.  He opened his eyes to see Dae above him, tattoos smoking as the light faded from them, her hand offered out to him.  He took it. 

His blood seeped back into him and his wounds closed.  His arm even reattached when Dae shoved it back into place and the flesh reknit.  But the Well in his chest was empty.  Those were the last wounds he would be able to heal.  Semt scooped up his Nightroot, lacking the energy to even call it back to him, though it formed a saber easily enough.  “Thank you,” he gasped when he caught his breath.

Dae was covered in dust, the blood of both sides staining her clothing.  Her red hair was a tousled mess, heavy with sweat.  She looked at him with wild eyes, an unreadable expression on her face, too out of breath to reply.  He thought she was the most beautiful woman he’d ever seen.   

The Pawns around them had thinned out between the Golems and Paladins.  Reja and a few of the ones that had been with him were still standing, drawing the attention of the Pawns away from the Warlocks.  The air had nearly been cleared of Knights, the remaining Warlocks firing bolts of light into the sky to try and shoot them down, but they moved unpredictably at a distance.  Some Pawns took notice of the two of them.

Dae flicked her Lockroot sword, brilliant white light erupting down its length.  When they came at her, she was ready, their golden weapons warping against the light of hers as she knocked them away and buried her blade into each of them one at a time, their blood boiling out of their bodies under the heat.  For a Warlock, she fought as well as a Paladin with a blade.

He let himself recover, using every bit of power that dripped into his Well to slowly heal himself.  Telas was always refilling his Well, but the flow was almost too slow to notice when it was half full or so.  At the bottom of the barrel, though, he felt it clearly.  His arm went from simply being attached to gaining some feeling to letting him flex his fingers.  He worked on the muscles running up his arm as Dae worked her way through the Pawns.  Their number was dwindling, especially as the rest of Warlocks moved their attentions to them as the Knights left their range.

It looked like the worst was over.

A glint of gold caught his eye.  He turned just in time to see a javelin spear straight through a Golem, disintegrating it back into soot.  Looking up, his heart sank.  The Knights were forming the javelins in their hands and throwing them out of range, deadly accurate in a way that the Warlocks couldn’t easily match as they dove and spun through the air.  The gilded rain filled the sky like stars.

Semt noticed the first one just in time, diving off his feet as it struck right where he had been standing.  He scrambled to his feet using his good arm and stopped healing, instead reforging his Nightroot into a circular shield.  The javelins started falling into the Warlocks, and he froze in awe as a dozen fell in an instant.  More missed than hit, which only added to the panic and confusion as they closed the Warlocks in.  He rose his shield above his head at an angle moments before another missile reached him, bouncing off the tilt and clattering to the ground.  It was joined by more as the downpour intensified, beating Semt downward at the force of multiple striking his shield.  One pierced the metal instead of deflecting off, and he cried out in pain as it dug into his forearm. 

He was helpless.

Some of the Evokers tried to fire bolts of light into the flock of Knights, but they were too quick and the Evokers too inaccurate.  There was nothing they could do.  Conjurers sent winged Golems into the sky, but they fell victim to the javelins just as easy. 

Dae was still caught in a fight with the Pawns, unable to look away for a second to avoid the javelins.  The light had faded from her Lockroot, and a slash across her face bled heavily.  Her Well was as empty as his.  With his shield though, she had a chance.  He forced himself to his feet in spite of the sharp rain and trudged toward her, careful to stay covered by his shield.  Javelins came for her, but she refused to stand still, ducking and jumping between Pawns as her Lockroot flashed like quicksilver.  Some of the golden weapons even speared the Pawns, taking some of the work from her, but soon she lost room to evade amongst the forest of spears, even as the Pawns nearly thinned away to nothing.

Semt had nearly made it to her when the first one skewered her through the heart.  The next caught her in the shoulder, the third in the thigh.  She died in an instant.  But the image of her death was seared into his head.

A different kind of pain flared in him.  He roared a battle cry which caught the last few Pawns’ attention and leapt into the fray, cracking one across the jaw with his shield.  He scooped up her Lockroot sword into his left hand, dropping his shield, finishing her fight as even more javelins fell around him.  He let it fall from his fingers as the last Pawn collapsed with a burst of ichor on the black ground.

  She isn’t dead, he tried to remind himself, but the panic and grief still infested his chest, his throat closing up as he ran to her.  It was reaction that he couldn’t suppress.  Semt carefully removed each of the spears from her body, lowering her to the ground in his arms.  His heart— his actual heart— pounded in his chest as he desperately cradled her.  Maybe this time she won’t wake up.  Maybe this time Telas won’t revive her.

The javelins slowed, and the Knights fell from the sky.  Their weapons were formed of the same golden ichor that filled their veins.  It was their life and their weapon.  So when they spent their blood on that final devastating attack, they fell from the sky like rocks.  The resulting explosion of soot and ivory dust blanketed the battlefield, blinding him in the cloud.

He found the Well on her chest, smooth like a pearl, and pressed his palm against it.  He shut his eyes and visualized his Well draining into hers.  The cold immediately began in his chest, sliding through his chest and down his arm, leaving a tingling feeling as it left him. 

The wound through her heart closed first, but it wasn’t enough to heal the other two, let alone bring her conscious again.

He cursed and let his Well refill some, each drop coming painfully slow.  The cloud of particles didn’t fade.  He could barely see his hand in front of his face. 

A figure came closer in the gloom, illuminated by the sun hitting their back. 

“Your Well,” he said desperately.  “Can you help me?”

The figure made a high growl, stepping closer.  Semt eyes widened and he scrambled for the Lockroot sword, but it leapt at him in the same moment, slamming him to the ground and pinning him to ground.  The Pawn held him down by his shoulders, roaring in his face as its marble fangs formed.  He struggled and kicked, but the Pawn was made of stone, he couldn’t move it.

It lunged for his throat with its teeth, but he forced his dead right arm into its mouth, holding it at bay as it bit hard into his skin.  His blood gushed from where it sunk its teeth into him.  The arm still wasn’t completely healed, but it still made him scream in pain.  The Pawn growled and tore at him, but it’s arms were too busy holding him down to free itself. 

Semt threw out his left arm.  His Nightroot flew to his hand, the tattoo on his hand flaring lightly, but his Well was empty— too empty to reforge it into a shape.  All he had was a metal cylinder.  He smashed it against its temple.  It was hard to get any momentum, so he hit it again and again, cracking the ivory surface and spilling scorching ichor on his skin.  Every drop in his Well was precious, so he let the skin on his hand burn away.

More Pawns appeared, but they ignored him.  He watched in horror as they grabbed Dae by the arms and began dragging her away.  “No no no,” he groaned, thrashing with all that he had left.  The Pawn on top of him didn’t budge.  He could almost see it smiling around his arm in its mouth.  The blood loss was starting to reach his head.

Drip.  Drip.  Drip.

The Nightroot formed a dagger in his hand and he shoved it through the demon’s throat.  More molten blood showered onto him but he ignored it as he pushed the limp hunk of marble off of himself.

The two Pawns dragging Dae away hadn’t made it far enough.  Semt threw his Nightroot into the first’s eye socket.  It dropped like a stone.  The second dropped Dae, forming a gold short sword from its blood.  Semt punched it in the jaw, stunning it as he broke every one of his knuckles.  He grabbed the Pawn’s hand, ignoring the pain, and ran it through with its own sword.  It almost looked surprised as it fell.

Semt retrieved his dagger and her Lockroot and stood guard over her, continuing to give her every drop of his Well, only stopping his own bleeding. 

Just as the dust finally began to clear, Dae gasped and her gray eyes flew open.  Semt started crying.  He cupped her face and she reached up for his with obvious worry.  “Are you okay?”

“I’ll never get used to watching you die.”

Her face softened and she pulled him into her arms as he sobbed.

// Next Chapter //

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