By Christine Rains
Bloody footprints marked each step of her dance. Reisa spun on her toes and lifted her hands to the darkening sky. With the next dip and sweep, the magic finally filled her. Her lips parted with the rush of power as it raced from the soles of her feet to the tips of her fingers and nose. The scent of burning wood was her cue to make her bow.
She bent low and her long hair brushed over the rocky soil. When Reisa stood, she toppled over backward. Her Guardian caught her with swift hands. She tilted her head back to look at him and laughed. The hoarse voice didn’t seem like her own.
“Fire this time. Finally a fire summons.” Her feet throbbed as if she had been walking on hot coals. “Perhaps a dragon or an Ifrit.”
Sunder scooped her up and carried her out of the stone circle. The menhirs still hummed, whispering a good-bye song. He set her down on a blanket at the camp they had made nearby.
“It best be a big beast with how long you were dancing.” Sunder handed her a waterskin and gave her a particular expression. She knew that look very well. “Over six hours, Summoner. I thought you would fall over dead before you stopped.”
Ah, it was back to her formal title now. It was as if the previous night hadn’t changed everything. Reisa wouldn’t let his scolding ruin her mood. Having fire to battle the undead scourge was a victory for all the people of Nor and Zu.
“You know not to doubt my stamina. I would have danced through the night if I knew this summons would be my reward.” Opening the skin, she took a deep drink. The water cooled her throat and crept out the sides of her mouth. She wiped her chin once she finished drinking. Hardly lady-like, but after months of traveling together, they had seen the worst of one another, and he was still by her side.
Sunder fetched one of the packs and removed a kit of herbs to mix a slimy concoction he would slather onto her feet. He said nothing as he worked, and she sighed inwardly.
“I don’t want it to be like this.” Reisa leaned forward, trying to get him to look her in the eyes.
“Like what?” Heartache flicked over his face, but he reined it in. His long red hair framed his face as he turned to tend to her feet. His touch was gentle as he washed them and applied the healing salve.
“Sunder,” she said and reached to cup his face. He didn’t need to say what he was feeling. She knew him well. His inner struggles were written in the cerulean skies of his eyes. “You didn’t break any vows.”
“I’m suppose to protect you from every threat, especially from my own crude desires. I shouldn’t have taken advantage of you. I’ve dishonored you.” His head dropped and squeezed his eyes closed.
“You didn’t take advantage of me. Not at all.” She inched closer, leaning in. “In fact, if you do remember, I was the one who—”
A movement to her left cut her off.
“Your right!” Reisa released him and ducked as her Guardian drew his sword to sweep it through the space her head had just been. His movements were a blur as he fought with the revenants. A sickening crack made her cringe, but it was more terrifying that no splatter of blood accompanied the strike.
They’d found them.
Reisa crawled in the opposite direction to grab her staff. Growls and grunts accompanied the sounds of fighting. Her hand closed around the decorated wood just as something snatched her ankle and dragged her toward the woods.
She twisted and swung her staff, smashing in the side of her attacker’s face. The revenant was undeterred. Screaming, Reisa whacked it twice more. Decayed flesh ripped, but it would not lose its prize. There was no way she could get to her feet to dance a spell.
Behind her, a soul-chilling screech ripped through the woods and then there was silence.
Sunder. Please, no.
A small cry escaped her. So close to finishing their quest, thousands of people relying on them, and she’d let herself be taken. She failed because she’d distracted both of them. Her selfish heart wanted the man she loved to say he loved her back.
A glint of steel toppled the revenant’s head off its shoulders. Its grip didn’t relax, but the thing was now well and truly dead.
A sob accompanied her smile as Sunder sheathed his weapon and pulled her to her feet. Before she could throw her arms around him, he squatted down to pry the revenant’s hand from her ankle.
“We need to travel fast. I can carry you.” He stood a good head taller than she. His chest heaved and his eyes darted from side to side. Ever vigilant in white unstained by blood.
Except in those moments when she distracted him.
“No.” Reisa leaned on her staff and stood on her own. “If you can carry the packs, I can keep up. They know where we are now. We must get to Edgewater as soon as possible.”
Sunder paused, as if considering picking her up anyway. It seemed to pain him as he silently agreed. He jogged back to their camp and hastily gathered their things. She hobbled after him, putting more weight on her heels than the front of her feet. They hurt enough to make her want to cry, but she uttered not a sound.
“Are you ready for this? Truly ready?” He held out her soft skin boots to her. She took them and sat on a rock to slip them on.
“I can summon a fire creature now. This is as ready as we’ll ever get.” Reisa wished her words held more confidence. She wished he would look her in the eyes again.
When they came within sight of Edgewater, the undead captain had already come to meet them. It still wore the ragged uniform it had died in, and the absence of flesh on its skull that gave the impression it was grinning. The horse it rode was horrifying with its decayed muscle falling off in slabs from its bones as the captain spurred it forward. Behind it were arrayed its warriors in rows, at least a hundred strong, but with others still pouring out of their camp.
The city no longer sparkled like a gem beside the sea. If any bit glistened, it was grisly and would soon settle into a dull rot. The revenants had surrounded Edgewater. Thousands of people were trapped within its walls. People meant to be the undeads’ playthings, slaves, and food.
Reisa glanced once toward her Guardian, seeing his grim but determined face as the dust and the sound – not to mention the stench – of the approaching army threatened to overpower them. The revenants were in various stages of decay. Some raced forward, but others limped or dragged themselves. Not one less dangerous than the others. There were so many.
Reisa slipped off her boots. Her feet were numb and hadn’t had time to heal properly. She could still dance and that was all that mattered.
“It’s lovely how gracefully you walk to your doom, my lady Summoner. I will enjoy peeling off your flesh bit by bit, savoring each tasty morsel.” The hideous voice came from the captain, but its jaw didn’t move. Its undead mount huffed as if bored.
She shuddered, unable to stop herself from doing so. They had heard horrific tales of this creature and the lives it had stolen. Glancing at Sunder, she found strength. He stood glorious and ready by her side. Never once had he doubted her. Ever since he knelt before her and vowed he’d protect her from all harm and see her through this quest, he had never wavered.
There were too many to fight, but she could do something else. Reisa held up her staff. “I challenge you, fiend, to a duel for the lives of the good people in the city of Edgewater, for all those in Nor and Zu.”
“No!” Sunder hissed and stepped in front of her. “Don’t be foolish. I won’t allow it!”
The captain held back its warriors, cocking its head in a curious manner. The whole world was holding its breath.
“It’s not for you to decide.” She then lowered her voice. “It’s the only way. There’s too many.”
“No.” Sunder shook his head, refusing to budge.
“I accept.” The captain didn’t allow them any more time to argue.
“Trust in me.” Reisa stepped away from her Guardian. She swept out her left leg, pointing her toes, and began the dance to summon her newest gift. Each step was precise and fluid. Her feet kicked up the dry soil. Short as the dance was, it evolved into furious abrupt movements, and ended with the scent of something burning tickled her nose.
She bowed and threw up her arms. There was a flash of light, and a giant bubble that appeared to be made of liquid flames lowered to the ground in front of her. Holding her breath, she nipped her lower lip. This was it. Here was what would destroy the revenants.
The bubble popped with a quiet plip.
A star-skinned lizard that could fit into the palm of her hand blinked up at her. It shook its head, stretched, and scurried to sit upon her right foot.
No dragon. No Ifrit.
The lizard coughed and a tiny puff of smoke blew out.
The undead captain laughed high and hysterical.
This wasn’t right. Reisa had danced for hours to earn this summons. She and Sunder had traveled the continent seeking out the menhirs for this one alone. They had to save Edgewater. They had to rid the world of this unnatural taint and the only way to do it was through fire.
A torch contained more fire than she summoned. Her heart crumbled.
“Kill the man, but bring her to me!” The captain roared, and his mount reared up, pawing at the air. The revenants surged forward.
“Run. I’ll hold them off as long as I can.” Sunder stepped in front of her again. His great bastard sword held ready.
“I’ll not leave you.” Reisa’s voice trembled. She scooped up the lizard and put it on her shoulder.
“There’s no need for both of us to die. Run, please.” His words quivered. His ‘please’ coaxed out her tears and determination.
“We’re in this together to the end.” Without him, life wouldn’t be worth living. Reisa took a few steps back and prepared herself for another summons.
Sunder glanced over his shoulder at her. His smile was sad and true. “I wouldn’t have it any other way.”
Her Guardian moved forward to meet the first two undead fighters. He cleaved through them with little effort, but was fast surrounded by four more.
Four he could handle. Yet near a hundred still came for them.
The captain’s hollow eyes were fixed upon her.
Tears burned her eyes. She had brought a match to this battle when she needed a volcano of fire. The lizard clung to her shoulder, pressing to the side of her neck. It coughed with its displeasure and puffed smoke into her hair.
A revenant snatched her arm. She wrenched free, darted back, and swung her staff. She bashed it in the head, and when it fell to the ground, crushed its skull with the butt end.
A ring of bodies surrounded Sunder. A few of the creatures still writhed with undead life in the pile. His white clothes speckled black from splattered rot and growing redder with his blood. She wished she could tell him again that she loved him.
Another of the revenants lurched toward her. Reisa screamed as she knocked its legs out from under it and drove her staff into its head. Rage, terror, a desire to live. Those fueled her cries as she attempted to fight off another pair.
Suddenly she was yanked backwards by her hair and pressed to the rotted ribcage of the captain’s horse. The undead beast hissed fetid air at her, stomping its hooves.
Reisa shrieked as she was pulled off the ground. Dropping her staff, she tried to pry the withered yet iron-like hand from her hair. She kicked and braced her knees against the horse’s ribs to gain some leverage. Maggots squirmed under what little rotted flesh there was. That squiggly sensation alone made her want to vomit.
“You’re mine.” The captain chortled with its victory.
Her legs were strong, but not strong enough to push her away. Reisa’s head was twisted around and up so that she was forced to look at it. Screaming, she flailed, trying any way to get free. She wished she carried another weapon, even just a dagger. Not to try to kill it, but to kill herself so she wouldn’t have to suffer the fate it had in store for her.
The captain raised her up further, grabbing under her chin with its other hand. Where all the revenants were hideous, it was made of stuff darker than nightmares. She didn’t know why she didn’t go mad at the sight of it. Perhaps one last defiant act before it killed her. It could ravage her body, but not her mind.
Little feet scurrying over her shoulder and along her arm broke the hypnotic hold terror had on her. She blinked and spied the lizard running eagerly toward the captain. There was a rush of protectiveness, like a mother with a child, but there wasn’t a thing she could do. The revenant’s grip was so tight she couldn’t even say a single word like ‘stop.’
The lizard hissed as it leapt off her arm and onto the captain’s. It then jumped onto the thing’s skull and disappeared through a socket hole.
The captain paused, but turned its attention back to her. It brought her two hand spans from its face and opened its jaws.
There was a spark of flames from within it. The captain jerked. Fire lit up its insides and smoke poured out of its maw. The fire was hungrier than the revenant and didn’t bother to tease it with slow torture.
It dropped Reisa, and she landed on her side. The breath was knocked out of her, but she had enough sense to push herself away from it.
The captain’s screams were like an icy wind. Brittle and desperate. It clawed at its throat and chest, trying to dig inside to rid itself of the flames. The fire moved down its arms and legs, and onto the cadaverous mount. It screeched and reared, trying to throw the captain from its back, but they seemed one creature.
Within ten seconds, what was once a decayed rider and stallion was now a blazing replica. Nothing more than a frame, still screaming as they met Death once again.
The lizard climbed out of the captain. It was bigger than before and continued to grow as the flames licked at its scales. It scrambled to the horse’s rump and jumped off to wind its way through the legs of some approaching revenants. Every little touch lit a fire, and the undead were lit up like their captain.
Reisa crawled farther away. Her wee summons had a body now the size of a big dog and was as long as the horse had been. It was swift. No revenant could manage to catch it, even if they were inclined. The remaining revenants fled from it, but the lizard easily chased down every single one.
What charred bones were left of the captain and its mount clattered as they fell to the ground. They continued to burn while Reisa climbed to her feet.
She stumbled once before she found her natural grace. Even as she thought that about it, it dawned on her. Not a dragon, but a salamander. She wanted to laugh, but she couldn’t manage it. She walked toward the pile of now burning bodies where Sunder had been.
People crept out of Edgewater’s gates. A few brave souls at first, but then, seeing most of the revenants were annihilated, there were cheers and they ran out to help kill the rest.
Reisa searched the battlefield for movement. The salamander was thorough, lighting everybody in sight. Nothing else moved amongst the fires. A strangled cry escaped her.
“No.” She croaked and swallowed. Then she was yelling. “No! You vowed we’d do this together. You said you’d be with me at the end. You never break a promise. Never!”
“Never.” Sunder agreed, pushing himself up with his sword. He limped around the big pile. He was wounded and wore the dark crimson of war rather than white, but he was alive.
Reisa ran to him and threw her arms around him. The gesture nearly knocked both of them over.
“I always keep my promises, but now the one I made to you is complete. We completed our quest, and I am free.” His voice was low and rough and utterly final. She gazed up at him, blinking with her tears.
“What? You’re… going to leave?” Her tingling body went numb. Her traitor mouth refused to move with the protests screaming in her heart.
Sunder brushed back her hair from her face. As always, so tender whenever he touched her. A smile graced his lips. “I’m free to make new vows. Ones I wish to make only with you. To be together forever. Heart, body, and soul.” His lips brushed over hers. “I love you.”
“Forever.” Reisa repeated, melting against him. “I love you too.”
She recalled her salamander with a bow before they turned to the city and began the slow walk through the burning field. Their footprints left a dual trail through the ashes.