The demons hadn’t made it past them, but it wasn’t really correct to call the battle a victory. Their lines were ravaged, more dead on the ground than those standing. They would get back up, but it could take days to heal from some of their injuries. It left them vulnerable, and those who experienced real death didn’t come back right every time. It weighed on a person.
It was still possible for them to die permanently, and Semt had never seen a battle so full of it. Dae had only been one body that the Pawns had tried to pull back through the Gatewall. But it looked like they had succeeded with many others. Paladins and Warlocks alike were missing, dragged away in the confusion and aftermath of the Knights’ attack and deaths. There was no way to tell how many, but their numbers were thinner.
Nobody who went through the Gatewall like that ever came back. They were beyond Telas’s domain, and beyond her ability to refill their Wells. It was death, or the closest thing they could get to it.
Reja was still standing, but his eyes were distant as he shuffled past Semt, something lost inside of him. Not that Semt was much better, clinging onto Dae like she was the only solid ground in an ocean. As always, she was the more put together of the two of them in the aftermath, but he could tell her death hadn’t left her yet. In theory it was like waking up from sleeping, but nobody really came back that clear, even if they didn’t remember why.
The breach had closed after the battle, returning the Gatewall to its mirror-like appearance. The only sign left of the demons was the piles of pale marble that covered the black ground and their golden blood, which evaporated in small, visible streams in the afternoon sun. The air had turned acrid amongst the smells of sweat and metal and magic. He was eager to get out of there. Away from the somber silence of the survivors.
They had lost so many.
Dae joined him in walking through the field of corpses and putting them back together. It was difficult for downed Returned to collect their missing limbs or getting the swords or spears out of their bodies. Semt had made it his habit to do this, even as the rest of the listless survivors headed back to camp through the forest. Dae always helped him, without saying a word. It wasn’t something they talked about.
The sun had just started to dip lower in the sky when she placed a hand on his shoulder, gently pulling him away. “Come on,” she whispered to him, “let’s go home.”
Semt noticed how hungry and thirsty he was in that moment; the way exhaustion hung on his every movement. A good portion of his wounds had healed in the hours he’d spent at work, but the pain still hadn’t gone away. He looked into her eyes, then to the field of scattered marble and bodies, then back at her. “Okay.”
The long trek through the forest was different on the way back. They were both exhausted and wounded, holding onto each other as they walked back. She anchored him and he anchored her.
“Dae? Mind if we just go to our camp?”
“If we don’t go back to base camp they’re going to mark us as dead,” she said with a wry smile. “And I’m not going to argue with the people in the Lodge about that again.”
Walking into camp after a breach like that? There would be Ungifted’s greeting soldiers as they came back, eager to see their loved ones. Returned looking for friends or loved ones they would never see again. Briefings discussing what went wrong, how it went wrong, how they could be better. Just the thought of it all made his throat close up and he said, “please?”
She caught the haunted look in his eyes. “Of course. But you’re cooking the rabbits.”
Semt couldn’t keep the relieved smile from his lips. “Well yeah, I want to eat something edible tonight.”
“They’re still edible after I cook them,” she bit back.
“Just not very good?”
“Exactly.” She punched him in the arm, smiling in her genuine way that made his face feel warm.
They slipped away from the main path back to base camp and slinked off toward their camp. It was a scenic route, passing softly bubbling brooks and ancient mossy trees. There were even a few Nightroot trees. Tall, thin, and impossibly glossy black. Some called them Telas’s Hair. They were made of metal, yet somehow still lived like any other tree, though there wasn’t a place that they couldn’t survive in.
Their camp was situated in the best location they could find. Far away from a river to avoid bugs but not so far as to make getting to one unreasonable. Their grotto of trees shielded their camp quite well, carefully maintained undergrowth hiding its location. It wasn’t strictly forbidden for Returned to live away from the base camp, but it wasn’t encouraged. Besides, they liked their privacy.
They’d left the rabbits somewhere cool and dry, out of the sun, so they were plenty fresh as he laid them out on a stump by the fire pit and got to work with his Nightroot. It was a skill he had even before he became… this. Dae watched him appreciatively. Once he had finished, laying out the pelts to dry in the sun, she held her hand out to him. “Axe, please?”
He reforged the knife into a lumber axe and handed it to her. She walked off into the woods to get firewood, and he dutifully gathered some kindling and prepared the rabbits over the fire. Dae hadn’t lived her life like this, but she made sure not to ever feel useless, taking up every task she could do that he would let her. It wasn’t something that he would ever hold against her anyway. They didn’t choose this second life.
The two of them made a strange pair. Dae Ashwood, heiress to the Ashwood fortune, and Semt Nineston, third son in an extended family of farmers. One of them was used to soft linens and expensive wines, and the other lived under the hot sun with calloused hands. In their past life, they wouldn’t have ever met each other’s eyes, let alone fell asleep holding each other every night.
It almost made him feel grateful to be here.
Dae returned, shaking him from his thoughts, and they readied the fire pit for cooking, setting up the split logs and kindling in comfortable silence. She had picked up woodsman skills like this quite quickly for someone raised in a city, which made her transition a lot easier on her. Other Returned seemed determined not to learn new skills in this second life, even if they would make life easier. To them this was a prison sentence. Semt tried to see it as a second life.
Once the firewood was ready, he called the Nightroot to his hand and made a small molten tip of metal on the end. Dae stopped him with a hand. “Let me.”
Never being one to get sick of seeing magic, he let the Nightroot go cool and he stepped away.
As a Warlock, she had chosen her non-dominant arm to carry her tattoos. They snaked up her arm, going as far as her shoulder. Up to her elbow, she wore the standard prepared spells of a Warlock. These were the simplest, glowing a silvery white when primed. A little higher, however, were the marks of Elemental spells. These were more detailed, depicting flames or waves or swirls of wind in place of the geometric shapes and spirals of the basic marks.
Dae pointed her arm at the fire pit, and one of these tattooed bands on her upper arm came alight with reddish orange light, smoking softly as flames rose from it. She squinted, focusing in a way that told him she was stemming the power flowing from her Well, and pushed her hand forward. A soft jet of flame erupted from it, lighting the wood perfectly and starting the crackling fire. A giddy smile reached her face as the glow faded from her Elemental band. Semt hid a relieved sigh. She was getting better, like she always did, but they’d lost a few meals that way.
He got to work, slicing vegetables and putting a pot of water over the fire. His attention disappeared completely into cooking, but her kiss on his cheek still made him grin. “I’m going to get washed off in the river while you’re busy.”
“Sure you don’t want to wait for me?” he murmured back.
She chuckled. “I do actually want to clean off this time. I’ll hurry back.”
Semt watched her go. She was beautiful, no matter how much sweat and blood covered her. Her hair still caught the sun, even sullied with soot.
He put his attention back to the stew. Cooking was another skill that he had that she didn’t. In his past life, his family would’ve lined up eagerly for whatever he put together from what food they had. Being a resourceful cook turned him into a good one. From how Dae gushed over his food, he probably could’ve give some city chefs a run for their money.
The stew was done by the time she’d returned. Dae grabbed a bowl and sat beside him, thigh to thigh as they ate. She was dressed in civilian clothes now, and in their proximity he could smell flowers on her. Her bowl was empty before he made it halfway through his.
“Telas’s Grace,” she swore, “you have a gift.”
He glowed under the praise. “Only the best for you.”
Dae rolled her eyes and got to her feet. “I have a gift for you too.” She walked to their little hidey-hole in a tree and withdrew a bottle of whisky. He could tell it was expensive with a glance at the intricate bottle.
“How did you get that?” he asked, genuinely shocked.
She returned and sat across his lap, holding him with one arm and the whisky in the other. “Got in touch with a friend in Avoniv. She was more than happy to send me a bottle of her family’s vintage just for hearing from me. It’s almost enough to make you miss high society.”
“Almost?” He was sure she would’ve preferred a night in her warm manor to be drinking this on.
She met his eyes, and he lost himself for a moment in their stormy gray. “This is better,” she said with finality.
Semt smiled and helped her unscrew the bottle. She tipped back a mouthful of the amber liquid eith her eyes closed, swallowing it without even making a face. “Expensive,” she said, opening her eyes. “Want a taste?”
He reached for it, but she jerked it away, smirking. “Not from that.”
Her mouth collided with his and he tasted it in the frantic press of her body. It— she tasted like cedar wood and brown sugar, like salt and flowers. He chased the taste and the heat, holding her tight in his arms and pulling her closer. Her fingers delved through his hair and against his chest. He came up for air, breathless, with a pang of regret. Like a few moments kissing her were better than a lifetime of air and life.
“How’d it taste?”
He shook her head at her. “Irresistible.”
She laughed. “Poetic,” she said, sipping at the whisky again before letting him taste it from the bottle. He’d preferred the first way.
Dae pulled him off the chair by his jacket for another kiss and shoved him away. “Your turn. No more kissing till you’re clean. There’ll be some booze left when you get back.”
“You sure about that?” he called back to her, grabbing some clothes from a line.
“Ha ha ha. Watch it, Nineston.”
The horizon entered a reddish orange by the time he reached the river. Semt stopped for a moment to watch it, standing a few feet from the banks of the softly flowing river. In afternoons like these, it was easy to forget the breaches. But every time he closed his eyes he saw Pawns or Knights or blood on his eyelid.
He laid his tattered clothes out on the rocks and stepping the biting flow of water. A light dip into his Well made the cold more bearable, and he started splashing himself with water and washing the golden blood and soot from his skin. It was easy to see his scars like this. Not one was from this new life. The Well healed everything down to the scars, but anything he had before his death he kept.
That meant white nicks and cuts on his arms and legs from mistakes with tools. A life of work. A bad one on his shoulder from an incident with a fishing hook. Teeth marks on his upper arm from a wolf who had made it into the chicken coop. Then, finally, a crooked slash on the side of his throat. That one had never had a chance to close in his first life but it had scarred all the same.
It made him feel damaged. Dae, for all the times that she was hurt these days, entered her second life with nothing but a bad scar on her lower back from an incident in her washing room caused by wet ceramic. When they’d first met and he saw it she’d blamed a girl that she had gotten into a fight with over a book. Somehow that had seemed better than telling someone as scarred as him that her first life was free of conflict and violence. He wasn’t one to care.
This was their second life. He envied her. His very skin reminded him of his past. Each cut and mark a story. Hardly ever happy. It was hard to bury a life that was written on his body. He ran a finger along the scar on his neck— where it crossed the jugular. The violence had followed him.
Semt eventually climbed out of the river when the chill started to get to him. The walk back to camp was half in twilight, the nocturnal side of the forest coming to life. He got the feeling that he was being watched and he probably was. Even though he was supposed to be conserving his Well for the next breach, he leaned into it slightly and the forest snapped into focus. He could see deer and birds and mice and bugs. The half-light that the Well gave him cast them all into shadows, but he watched them scurry along. Blissfully oblivious while fighting their own battles for survival. They didn’t know a bunch of weird-looking two-legged animals were the only things keeping this forest from Hell.
This is what he fought for. The nature of this land, the good people, the innocent. He found that that thought calmed his nerves somewhat and he let the Well’s power drift from him, dropping the forest back into shadow.
Back at their camp, Dae was sitting beside the fire, a lit cigarette between her lips as she stared into the fire. That wasn’t a good sign. She’d worked to lose that habit awhile ago. Her death must’ve affected her more than she let on.
Semt hovered at the edge of camp, unsure. The smell of smoke and tobacco wafted over to him and he wrinkled his nose. His mother had always said that she hated the smell for how it smelled of pretentiousness and the bitter luxuries of the rich. He just hated the acrid smell. Tobacco was something for the stuffy parlors of aristocrats with real time on their hands.
The addiction had followed Dae into her second life. She could heal the damage the smoke did to her lungs but not the dependency. She had the same issues with alcohol. He couldn’t really blame her. If he had been able to bury himself in vices in his past life he probably wouldn’t have been able to stop himself.
She finished the cigarette, tossing the nub into the fire and pulling another from her pocket, lighting it with a small flame from her finger. It was pretty impressive for someone who had accidentally incinerated a pheasant last week but that was beside the point. He sighed and walked toward her from the edge of the camp. “Dae…”
She had the decency to look guilty but she didn’t put it out. “I’m sorry.”
“Are you okay? Can you talk about it?”
“You know I can’t,” she said. And he did. Dying broke something inside of you but you never knew how or why.
He sat down beside her, pulling her hand into his. “This is my fault.”
She looked at him incredulously. “How did you come to that idea?”
“I should’ve been fast enough. I could’ve gotten you out of the way in time. You wouldn’t have died.”
Dae took a drag. “You’re such a fucking idiot. You can’t know that. I can take care of myself out there.”
Semt had turned that moment over his head a thousand times since then. “I could have saved you.”
“And maybe you’re right. But it doesn’t matter.” She handed him the bottle of whisky, which, true to her word, was still pretty full. “It’s in the past.”
He looked into the bottle at the amber liquid, swirling it absently before setting it down beside him. He didn’t feel like drinking. It was completely dark out now, the forest only illuminated as far as their campfire reached.
He spotted a chessboard sitting on the edge of stump she was sitting on. “Were you playing?”
“I was,” she said, picking up a piece. “I was trying to distract myself but…” she waved the cigarette.
“Want to play a game?”
Dae made a noncommittal agreement and slid off the stump, pushing the chessboard toward him. She had already set the pieces up. The pieces were special, trendily carved out as demons and Returned. The white side held the demons, the black the Returned. This board had been a gag gift for him, but at that time he’d never even heard of chess, let alone that it had been the source of the demons’ names. She had had to teach him how to play.
The black side had Paladins as pawns, Evokers as knights, Conjurers as bishops, Sorcerers as rooks, and Telas herself as both the king and the queen. The king piece had her robed and hooded, holding out a handful of grain and a hammer. Telas the Creator and Provider. The queen piece showed her holding a shield and glowing orb, her hood pulled down. Telas the Protector and Power.
The white side had the demons carved out and painted white, making them look disturbingly lifelike. It wasn’t helped by how they were frozen mid-roar, golden weapons held at the ready. There were even the two rarer demon types— Bishops and Rooks. Behind them all, were the double depictions of the goddess Kaltena. She was the goddess of motion, the goddess of energy. She was the enemy. It was her envy of her sister’s lands that brought the demons. The King showed her robed and hidden, while the Queen had her armored and holding a sword. Vague on purpose. Nobody really knew much about her.
Boards like these were probably one of the few ways any Ungifted ever saw what demons looked like. He had to admit they captured them well. Sometimes painters or poets would come to the edge of the battlefield to witness the demons, and the few that made it back carried back the images and stories. Always inflated, always exaggerated. Only the Returned knew reality.
Dae sat in front of the demons, and she played a Knight first. He followed with a pawn. They had been playing chess for nearly a year now, and they still hadn’t been able to figure out who could win more reliably. Semt played slow moving gambits, setting traps and relying on defense to weaken her until he could move in. She played hard and quickly. Dismantling traps that she recognized, pushing hard at breaks in his defense that she could benefit from. She was ruthless, but he was patient and cautious.
The first game went to her, the second, to him. They played in focused silence, the fire crackling away beside them as they sipped at the whisky. He didn’t keep track of score, just happy to not have to think about anything else for a while. The bottle was almost empty when Dae’s hands started to shake.
“You know… they came up with a name for… this. Death Sickness. Like seasickness.” Her voice was as shaky as her hands.
Semt wordlessly got up and walked around the table, gently removing the whisky from her hand and setting it down. She grabbed a hold of him and buried herself in his chest, shivering as if she was on top of a mountain instead of beside a campfire. He wrapped her in his arms, gently directing her away from the fire and to their makeshift bed. The “Death Sickness” was always bad the night of the death.
He held her close in the blankets, her head hidden in his neck. Dae’s Well thrummed in her chest, trying to heal what couldn’t be healed. He wasn’t sure how long it was until her Well quieted and she fell asleep against him. For a while, he just listened to the breeze flitting through the leaves and the steady sound of her breathing. But eventually, even he sunk into the black murky waters of sleep.