Semt came awake with a gasp to complete darkness. He gulped for air, like he had been completely empty moments before. Icy cold pain enveloped him and he shivered violently under its force. He had never been this cold before, this starved for air. His body felt overwhelmed, every movement sending painful aches through his bones. It felt like he had been torn from… something to be here. That he had been in nothingness before this. It took a while for him to even think, pushing the pain and fear away into the back of his head.
But he was completely blind. This was the most complete blackness he’d ever seen. No matter how much he strained to see any light, he couldn’t make anything out. He forced his arms to move, reaching for a blindfold, but walls halted the motion. Every motion causing agony, he used his hands to feel out the blackness, testing the space, defining its shape around him. The walls were made of coarse wood, but a few splinters didn’t compare the pain of just moving his body. They surrounded him. He was boxed in wood.
The air was stale and still, uncomfortably thin. Cold. Like the rest of him. Where the fuck was he? How the fuck did he get here?
He jolted with the realization, cracking his head against the ceiling a few inches from his face. A coffin. A fucking coffin.
The thought seized his lungs and he choked on nothing, coughing as panic activated his adrenaline and he screamed. “HELP!” He slammed his fists into the lid above him, but it didn’t have any give at all, if anything sagging down toward him. The only sounds he heard were his loud, desperate breathing and his heart hammering in his ears.
Semt tried to get a hold of himself. He only had so much air. Flattening his shaky hands against his thighs, his heartbeat slowly relaxed until he wasn’t hyperventilating anymore. “It’s okay,” he said, feeling the wood above him. It didn’t feel like it was anything too tough. “Think.”
His hands still trembled as he felt around him, checking the clothes he was wearing and the floor around him for anything he could use. He wore something that was closer to a shift than real clothes. A funeral shroud, he couldn’t stop himself from thinking. His thoughts were fuzzy, memories vague. Remembering wouldn’t help him out of this situation anyway.
There wasn’t anything close to being useful. The only way he was getting out was with his hands. The terror gripped him in a vise, but he refused to hyperventilate. He refused to give in to it. Inhale. Exhale.
He struck the lid above him, right above his chest. Immediately he gasped in pain as the wood tore into his hand. He could feel warm blood oozing down between his fingers but it didn’t stop him from frantically striking the same place over and over. His knuckles broke in his hand and his head spun but he kept punching. When the pain became too unbearable in his right arm, he switched to his left and started again, pounding the wooden lid over and over until his hand was ruined.
Sobs started in his throat when his left hand gave out, the muscles too ruined with shattered bone to even clench a fist. With both his hands broken the last bit of his will left him and he let them both slump onto his chest, the warm blood soaking into his shroud as he stared into the blackness. He was going to die.
The air was really thin now. Semt slowed his breathing, for all the good it would do. A flash of a memory nudged his head, inviting a splitting headache on top of his other pains. He focused on it. A scream. A flash of steel. A crowd. Someone screaming his name. He reached for his neck, feeling a jagged scar over his jugular. Maybe he hadn’t really been buried alive.
His thoughts started to cloud between the blood loss and the lack of air in the coffin. It didn’t matter how he wasn’t already dead. It wouldn’t be long until he was again. He started to feel sleepy, his adrenaline fading. His eyes closed.
It felt like a sucker punch. A hard thrumming started in his chest, like his heart was hitting the inside of his ribcage with a mallet. The sleepiness faded and his thoughts sharpened, even in the thin air. Cold fiery pain erupted his hands, but the pain was so standard at this point that he only jolted. He felt the blood on him slowly slide across his skin, gathering back toward his knuckles as the bones within them recombined. The discomfort and tightness faded, and he could suddenly flex his healed hands easily.
The sound in his chest kept humming. It vibrated through his bones, filling the space. With his hands healed, he realized his chance. Forcing away the strangeness of it, he viciously attacked the wood, tearing and punching. It didn’t hurt any less, but the icy feeling started back up each time, healing his hands before they could even bleed.
The lid gave with a resounding crack. Dirt trickled down onto his face, but he wasn’t done yet. He forced his fingers through the crack and took a deep breath of the thin air. With as much as strength he could manage, he ripped the wood apart and shoving himself upward.
Wet soil enveloped him completely, pressing against his eyes, his nose, his ears. Semt fought for his last bits of will to push away the panic before it could freeze him. He clawed his way upward, kicking and struggling as his lungs begged for release. The strange beat in his chest faded, but he felt a Pull on his being that reminded him that to stop fighting was to die.
He had no idea if he was getting close, no idea if he was really making any progress at all. Was he really going to die here? Without anyone ever knowing? Suffocated in dirt. His strength began to fail him as his mind darkened. With one final exertion of will and adrenaline, he pushed himself upward—
Semt shot up in bed in a cold sweat, throwing the blankets off of him. But there was no coffin here, no enclosed space. Only the warm night air and the sound of crickets and wind. He struggled to catch his breath, his heart— his actual heart— thudding in his chest. His Well was silent. The fear still clutched at him, holding him tight in his memories of that night.
He remembered the final break through, the relief of air, the terror. Alone. So alone.
Dae wrapped an arm around his shoulders and her fingers gently touched his chin and turned his face toward her. “I’m here. It’s okay.”
He stared into her eyes, tears sliding down his face. “It’s okay,” he repeated. The panic in his chest subsided at her touch, and he breathed her in like she was the only thing he could breathe. Sweet flowers and grass.
“I love you,” he whispered.
Conflicted feelings crossed her face before dropping behind her guard. She opened her mouth to speak, but he interrupted her.
“You don’t have to say it back. I just wanted to say it.”
She shook her head at him. “Why do you stay with me when I’m not able to give you that right now?”
“It’s… because I want to. Because I want you.”
She paused. “You want me? I… I don’t think I’ve heard anyone say that to me before.”
Dae kissed him, leaning into him as her arms slid around him. “I want you too.” She seemed deep in thought, clinging onto him as her mind went elsewhere. He held her, feeling the last talons of the nightmare loosen from his skin.
Faintly, they could see the horizon begin to lighten through the trees, the forest beginning to wake up. The first birds began their songs. Yesterday seemed like a dream in the still peace.
“You hungry?” he asked.
“Starved,” she smiled.
Unfortunately, they didn’t keep much in the way of food at their camp, which meant they had to head all the way back to base camp unless they wanted to hunt for their own food. These forests were gifted to the Returned for hunting, and that made it easy to find game when so few hunted. But this morning neither of them felt up to it.
The journey back to base camp would take a couple hours, so they gathered their things and slid back into their gray and black uniforms. Thankfully they had extra sets that weren’t too damaged. Base camp was an easier trip than going to their private camp. There was an actual trail that led there from the Gatewall, made for carting supplies to the front. A short walk to it and they could follow it all the way to the camp.
A doe foraging on the edge of it fled into the forest at they stepped on the trail. They weren’t the only things out looking for breakfast. He watched it skitter off a little mournfully. Dry rations were easier but they weren’t exactly the best tasting. The Returned only got the scraps.
Dae still seemed a little off today, but the pressure of her death had eased a little. She caught him watching her and smiled at him. “I’m okay.”
“I was just—“
“It’s okay, really. I’m getting used to someone actually worried about me still. It’s not bad.”
It was things like that that reminded him that growing up in high society hadn’t been completely smooth for her. She might not have gone hungry like he had, but her childhood must have been a far cry from his own’s comforts. She clung to his affections like she’d never felt them before, and he had reason to believe that she hadn’t.
“Semt…” she said, “was it the same nightmare?”
His lungs felt tight. He nodded. Memories of his Return were just as fresh as they had been when it had happened nearly three years ago. Most Returned were lucky enough to be called before they were buried, but his story wasn’t uncommon. On the other hand, upon Dae’s early death, her family placed her on a slab in the basement of their estate. Her Return was expected with her early death. Nothing else but excellence.
She placed a hand on his arm. “I… I can’t imagine. I don’t even know what to say, even now.”
“It’s alright. You were there when I needed you.” She really had no idea how bad it had been before her, in the barracks back at base camp. Nights waking up screaming and retreating into the forest to shake and gasp fresh air like he had just surfaced again. The looks he had gotten the next morning.
Trauma wasn’t uncommon in the camp. The Returned had always been young when they’d died, as it made the ripe age for soldiers. It meant there wasn’t much to be choosy with. Anyone who died young had a chance to become one of them, giving the camp a wide variety of people from all walks of life. Anyone older than their thirties usually had had military experience prior to their death, and he had yet to see anyone older than forty.
His answer seemed to satisfy her, and she turned back to look down the road, and paused. He followed her eyes. There were a group of people lounging around a quarter mile down the road. He could see the glint of steel weapons from here.
“Shit,” Dae muttered.
They hardly looked like brigands. “Don’t worry yet. Could be nothing.”
Dae gave him an incredulous look but he just marched on ahead of her, giving his best innocuous, unworried gait. There was always some tension running into others away from civilization. Most times both parties were just as innocent and afraid as the other.
The group noticed them, one of the men calling to the others. They didn’t really change their stance, a few waving as the others kept chatting. As the two of them drew closer, they saw the game bags and the doe slung across the back of one of their horses. “Hunters,” Semt voiced in a ‘see?’ tone.
“Poachers,” she disagreed. “Avoniv gave these lands to the Returned. They shouldn’t be here.”
“There’s enough to go around,” he said, but there were already flickers of anger on her face.
The group didn’t really react much to their approach. They had a fire started on the edge of the road, a man tending to some meat cooking over it, while the rest seemed to be checking equipment and chatting. One of the men, an older white man with salt-pepper hair and an axe on his hip, stepped out ahead of the group and hailed them as they drew close. “Hello! Certainly a fine day to be out, isn’t it?”
“That it is,” Semt said, stepping close and offering his hand. “Semt.”
The older man nodded. “Oso. What brings you out here?”
“We’re Returned. Do you know you’re in our lands?” Dae crossed her arms.
Oso looked at her up and down in a way that rubbed Semt the wrong way. “And who’s this?”
He nodded. “Heard one of your ilk made it into the Undead.”
Semt winced. They didn’t exactly love being called Undead, even if it wasn’t incorrect. It conjured images of horrific monsters before it conjured them. It didn’t bother him as much as it did Dae.
She clenched her fists. “You need to get out of here.”
Oso snorted. “Like you two can do anything about it. How’s it fair that you get all this land? You’re dead, after all. Do you even need to eat?”
They did need to eat, but the man’s lack of knowledge was hardly unique. The threat of the demons was warped and off by the time it reached civilization. Most people didn’t even know what they looked like.
“Really,” Semt placated, “we don’t need to escalate things, here.” He moved himself between the two of them, holding out his hands.
“Actually, I think it’s past high time for some escalation,” Oso said. He waved two fingers in the air. There was a flat thwack in the trees to his left, and before Semt could wonder what it was, he felt it. The crossbow bolt hit him right in his left knee, sending him down onto his good knee as the pain echoed in waves. The bone was shattered, and the bolt hadn’t quite made it all the way through, both ends sticking out, the tip red with blood.
The air hummed with sudden Well-magic but he threw back a hand to stop Dae before she could cast anything. He had had enough of violence for a while. He could heal the wound whenever he needed to.
Oso whistled. “Now that was a good shot, eh?” He knelt down with Semt. “And they say you people can’t be hurt. Doesn’t take much to stop you, huh?”
It took him a moment to speak through the injury. “…You still have a chance to walk away. There’s no need for bloodshed. There’s nothing to be gained.”
“But there is, my boy. Of course there’s something to be gained,” Oso said. He reached up to his neck and pulled a pendant from beneath his tunic by the chain. It was a golden sun, wavy lines coming off of the central circle. The symbol of a very specific sect. They were Sun Priests. They worshipped the very goddess the Returned fought against.
“See, your goddess has been our land’s patron for as far back as anyone can remember. And what do we have to show for it? The streets are lined with the hungry, the aristocrats wine and dine while the rest of us toil. Even the ever-so-humble Sanctum of the Stillness Clerics live comfortably off the tithes of the poor. Does that sound like the system of a benevolent goddess?”
“And this will help fix any of that?” Dae retorted from behind.
Oso frowned and struck Semt across the face. His vision swam for a moment, but it was easy to forgive that minor pain against the one in his knee. He stopped Dae again with a hand.
“No, this won’t fix that. But it’s time you abominations and your damn goddess learned a lesson.” He spat on the ground. “Now, Behm, come here.”
A skittish looking teenager stepped from the throng of armed men and women. The golden sun hung prominently from his neck, but he looked at Semt almost fearfully. “Yes?”
Oso handed him the lumber axe from his belt. “These undead are supposed to be hard to kill. Let’s see what happens when we cut them into little pieces.”
The boy paled. “You want me to—?”
“It’s why we came here,” the older man said with exasperation. “Just give a good swing at his neck.”
Behm approached Semt, the axe hesitantly raised.
Semt met his eyes. “You don’t have to do this.”
“S-shut up,” the boy stuttered, lifting the axe above his head with two hands. Semt looked down. At least he’d tried.
Well-magic split the air. He looked up to see that the Behm had stopped mid-swing, the head of the axe sheared from the handle. It rested in the dirt a few feet away, smoking slightly. Dae stood a few meters behind Semt, glowing white glyphs on her left arm fading back into black as the steam rose from them.
Behm had lost his resolve, taking a few steps back, but Oso snatched the handle from his hands and stomped toward Semt. He prepared to drive the sharpened end into Semt’s neck. A moment late the entire handle burst into flames, engulfing it entirely. Oso dropped it, yelping in pain, and it was ash before it hit the ground. “Damned witch,” he said. “Kill them.”
But that small display of magic had been the first time any of the Priests had ever seen magic. Several of them suddenly began backing away at their leader’s orders, the idea of crossing such an unknown force seeming out-of-the-question. Only around half a dozen remained with Oso, but even they seemed reluctant to follow his orders.
Dae, never being one to miss a weakness, primed another of her Elemental bands— one which glowed a pale yellow. Her other tattoos began to smoke with it as she fed it more power and released it all at once. The explosion of wind ripped down the road, kicking up dust and disturbing birds from the trees. The force of it nearly knocked Semt over, and more than one of the Priests fell to it, others barely staying on their feet. The gust was gone as quickly as it had come, but it did exactly what they needed it to do. Most of the Priests turned and ran, leaving game bags and horses as they disappeared down the road or into the forest.
That left only five men, including Oso. He didn’t look too put out by this. After all, Semt was still on the ground. Five against one, no matter what she could do, wasn’t in her favor.
“Come now, men. Don’t hurt her too bad. She’s a pretty thing, isn’t she?”
Semt’s stomach turned. They weren’t going to get close to her. As the Priests walked around him, ignoring him in favor of the bigger threat, he reached down and snapped off the bloody tip of the bolt in his knee and ripped out the shaft by the fletching. The wound sealed in seconds.
Not one of the men saw him coming. Semt barreled into Oso’s back, knocking him to the ground by sheer momentum alone. That was all he needed to do to turn the attention back to him. The four other men formed a circle around him, their makeshift or rusted weapons held threateningly if a little unsteadily. A moment ago he had been very much crippled, and these men hadn’t forgotten that.
His Nightroot reforged in his hand into a metal staff, blunted and underwhelming. Semt wasn’t here to kill these men. He motioned to Dae to hold back. Her Well was probably already pretty depleted from those two displays and if he couldn’t handle this she would need every drop. He calmed his nerves through steady breaths.
This wasn’t his first time facing men. The reminder itched on his neck, across his jugular. But this time he was stronger. He wasn’t helpless. Ignoring the itch, he squared his shoulders and stared them down, waiting.
Oso climbed to his feet. “The fuck are you waiting for? Kill him!”
The two behind him moved first, coming at him with rusty swords. Semt ducked beneath the first swing and brought his staff into the man’s shin, sending him neatly to the ground with a crack of bone. The second came at him furiously, sword a blur of motion in the air. Semt avoided the flurry, catching blows on his staff and letting him tire himself out. The moment the opening came, he stepped into the man’s attack, letting the edge cut into his side and giving him the chance to snap the staff into the man’s jaw. Consciousness left the man in a moment.
It had been easy. Easier than fighting demons, at least.
The next one went for his legs, but he stomped a foot on the sword and smashed the staff into his arm. The crack and the scream were gratifying. He left that man to his agony and spun into the last one before he could move, the metal of the staff clanging into his temple with a brutal finality. In what couldn’t have been thirty seconds, he had four men out of the fight. Oso didn’t even look bothered by this. If he was nervous, he was a better actor.
With one of the swords from the fallen men, he charged toward Semt, steel flashing. Semt waited for the last moment and swung low. Oso had no chance to stop in time. He tumbled to the ground, sword sliding away in the dirt. Semt reforged the Nightroot into a long chain and whipped it around the man’s forearm. Oso immediately tried to untangle himself from it, but the metal was hot to the touch and he couldn’t even touch it without burning himself.
“Fucker,” the man spat. “You fucking abominations, thinking you can step all over us.”
“You attacked us first,” Semt said, a little bemused. “But you know better now, don’t you?”
“I’m going to be back. With more men, and this time you won’t get away with this.”
Semt yanked the chain tighter, and the man gasped as the hot metal dug into his skin.
“You’re going to have to kill me, you bastard,” Oso laughed. “I’ll never stop coming for you.”
“If you insist,” Dae said, drawing her Lockroot sword.
“No,” Semt said, “that’s what he wants. He wants to be a martyr.” He channeled more heat into the chain, and Oso doubled over in pain, desperately trying to shake himself free from the metal.
“I wonder if I could make this chain hot enough that it burns straight through your bone?” he said. “Unfortunately, I have other places to be today, but if you come back, we could always find the time for it.”
Real fear flashed in Oso’s eyes. “Just fucking let me go.”
“Fine.” Semt cooled the chain and pulled it from the man’s arm. The outline of the chain had been burned into the man’s arm. “Something to remember me by. Remember me and what I said.”
Oso stumbled to his feet, looked at his downed friends, and started down the road toward the horses.
“Sometimes, Semt, you can be a really scary person,” Dae said.
He remembered the way his anger had boiled in his blood the second they had threatened her. “Sometimes.”
She shook her head, dipping to yank a golden sun from one of the fallen men’s neck. “Do you really think they’re going to stay away?”
“I think so. Oso will, I’m thinking. But these aren’t the only Sun Priests.”
“Damn. Maybe next time we’ll have to kill them.”
“You know we can’t do that,” he said. These powers weren’t meant to be used against men.
“I don’t know, actually. No one said we couldn’t.”
Before he could say anything to that, the sound of a horse kicking into full gallop started behind them. Semt turned— fast enough to see it, not fast enough to stop it. A woman sat astride one of the horses, kicking it into full speed toward them. Judging by the heavy crossbow balanced in one hand, it was the same person who had fired the bolt earlier. She brought the crossbow down and pulled the trigger at full gallop.
Semt tensed, waiting for the pain, but the shot whooshed over his shoulder. Dae gasped in pain, the bolt hitting her right in the chest. The crossbow woman dropped the weapon and drew a longsword from her waist, pointing the tip like a lance straight at Semt as she ducked and closed the distance between them.
A single missile of silver light stopped her. The woman dropped from the horse, which steered off into the woods without direction. There was a hole straight through her throat. Her eyes stared sightlessly into the ground as the blood looked around her head.
He spun to looked at Dae. Her right hand was wrapped around the shaft of the arrow, while her left arm was still outstretched, the light fading from her tattoos. Blood dripped from her lips. He leapt forward, holding her up by the shoulders as she slumped. He eased her to the ground as she coughed up more blood.
The bolt had punctured her lung, leaving her to drown in her own blood. Semt took her hand in his own, then wrapped his other hand around the bolt and yanked it out with a spray of blood. The wound began to close immediately, the bleeding stopping and the blood receding. Her eyes regained focus.
“Fuck,” she groaned.
“Are you alright?”
Dae nodded, coughing and sitting up. “Just— just a little dry. I only had just enough left to heal up from that.”
He understood. An empty Well was never a great sensation. He looked at the corpse of the woman on the road. “Did you have to do that?”
“I wasn’t going to let her hurt you,” she muttered, reaching out and letting him help her up. “I wasn’t sure if I was going to survive that shot. I wasn’t going to leave you alone to deal with that.”
A worried look crossed his face. “Did you—?”
“It’s alright,” she said. “I didn’t die. Closer than I wouldn’t liked, but I didn’t get there.”
Thank Telas. He’d died twice in as many days before. It just got worse and worse when you didn’t have time to shake it.
Semt looked at the body. “What do we do about that?”
“Just leave it. They’ll come back for her if they care.”
This is what I was trying to avoid,” he sighed, turning the woman’s body over and closing her eyes.
“Giving them a reason to hate us.”
“They’ll hate us regardless,” she reminded him.
He gave the woman’s body a mournful look. She was so fragile. No Well. Could he even remember a life where every wound couldn’t be healed in seconds? Where blood spilt could simply be put back into his veins?
Dae urged him away softly— a kiss to the temple, her hand sliding into his. They started back down the path, still an hour away from the base camp. Semt pushed away the thoughts. This was his life now. He squeezed her hand, her fingers intertwined with his own. There was no point living in the past.