Ruin charges after the long-tailed, bird-like lizard twice his size, setting the ground under us on fire, and I laugh, savoring the thrill of the hunt. Scattered trees fly past us, blurred by the speed, as the open plains reluctantly give in to the woods. The treeline rushes closer. Our prey knows the horses won’t be able to pursue it under the canopy. Its survival instincts are honed by predators both agile and stalwart that stalk the steppes, relying on quickness. But few creatures, on this world or others, can outrun a spectral steed.
With the corner of my eye, I see Death on approach from the right, intent on flanking the beast before it reaches the trees. I spur Ruin on, though he needs no encouragement. It’s always a competition, with Despair and Rampage. Only Mayhem he is content to follow.
The lizard jumps over some obstacle hidden in the grasses, makes a poor landing, and in seconds, it’s within my reach. I lean out of the saddle to clip its hind leg with Chaoseater—
And that is when the pain strikes again. Like lightning! Like doom. The green haze of the world darkens. I hear Death bellow. All I can do is grip the reins, hoping I won’t fall, this time. Then, for a while, everything is silent, and the sickening whirlpool behind my eyes sucks in the last vestiges of light.
I start. My vision pulses. Cold sweat covers my skin and I can’t seem to get enough air. I’m still in the saddle, though. “I’m fine.”
“The hell you are.”
Our prey is nowhere in sight, but I smell blood. Chaoseater hangs from my hand, dripping. I put it on my back. “The beast… is wounded. Let us find it… and finish it.”
“You need rest.”
“I can ride.”
To prove it, I drive Ruin to a light canter. It is a mistake. The world spins and the blood spilled over trampled grass comes into sharp focus as the ground rushes at me.
Death grips my arm and sets me straight. “That wasn’t a question.”
“Go. Slay it. I will wait here.”
“It won’t get far before it bleeds out. We’ll find it later.”
He makes a disgusted noise. “Get off the horse.”
I slide out of the saddle with a groan. At least my feet hold me. But I keep a hand in Ruin’s mane just in case.
“Dust? Keep an eye on him.”
Death rides off, leaving me in the wake of Despair’s stench. My stomach flips and bile bubbles up my throat. Helpful as always, Dust lets out a plaintive caw from above before settling on the saddle horn in a flurry of black feathers. He inclines his head and studies me with a clever, beady eye.
I lean my forehead on my arm and wait.
Death returns, I know not how much later. He rouses me from a shallow slumber twisted with fever dreams. The carcass, with a gauge in its long neck so deep I can see its spine, lies at the end of a smeared trail in the grass. Despair is gone and Dust is nowhere in sight.
“Show me,” Death says.
“It is nothing. Just an ache—”
“Stop fretting. What are you, a child? Show me.”
I heave a heavy sigh and set about taking off my cape. “It is just exhaustion.”
“That’s what you said the last time, and the time before that. What will it take for you to learn?”
He helps me out of my vest. Even before I crane my neck down for a look, the whiff of decay tells me what Death and I both knew already. The cursed wound has reopened once more and the flesh around it is dying.
“You are as a child. If you spoke sooner—”
“I felt nothing.”
“Is that so? No chills, dizziness and sweating?”
“When did it start?”
I grit my teeth. I hate it when he’s right. And he’s always right. “At the outpost.”
Two days ago. Death shakes his head, and no mask can hide the magnitude of his disapproval. I’m almost grateful for the thudding ache of the necrotic wound, as it covers the sting of shame. “Better hold on to something,” he mutters, placing his bony hand over my chest.
Damn it to Abyss and back! It is like no pain I’ve ever experienced before the blighted angel shot me. I clench my jaw. The corruption spreads through the flesh like barbed tendrils that coil around muscle, bone, vessel and nerve; Death’s magics can pull it out, but it’s as if he’s ripping out a piece of my soul. A whimper escapes me. His eyes flash upwards to meet mine and in that moment of agony, as sharp and pure as the climax of pleasure, I know he shares my suffering. He blames himself for my failure. For my fall. For all this, and more. Just like he did when I succumbed to Chaoseater. Oh, yes. I’d wager he blames himself for my stupidity and immaturity as well.
In fear I might stumble, I grasp his shoulder, only vaguely aware of the dark incantations carried on the quiet rumble of his voice. His hand no longer rests on my skin. It hovers above it, as if pulling on something unseen, and the corruption issues from the wound in filaments of oily smoke that dissipate with a hiss.
The release is so sudden that I stagger back. Death curses under his breath and shakes the hand he used for the spell like he has burned it. “Cauterize it,” he orders in a haggard voice.
I don’t know if I have the strength. Still gripping his shoulder, I look down. Fresh blood flows from a round hole no wider than the tip of the little finger. It no longer hurts.
“Are you certain… there is no more?”
“As certain as I was before.” Absently, he wipes the trail of blood trickling down my abdomen with a finger, then licks it clean under his mask. “This was a tiny fraction of what I pulled out earlier. Perhaps it is the last of it. Either way, there’s nothing more I can do now. Cauterize it.”
His words do little to reassure me. I do not wish to burden him further with… taking care of me… any more than he wishes to be burdened; of that, I’m sure. The very idea disturbs me to the core. It is enough that I have come to depend on Strife for my happiness, rare as I get to enjoy his company. Shall I now depend on Death for my health? Even life?
He pats my arm. “Don’t let it trouble you. You will heal in time.”
“And until such time?”
“I’m not going anywhere.”
I let go of his shoulder with a dissatisfied grunt. More blood has trickled from the wound and once again, he scoops it with his finger and pushes it under his mask to suck on it. The bleeding will stop on its own in minutes, but I’m in no shape to argue. Better just do as he said. I close my eyes. Summoning the inner fire brings some pain as well, but it is a familiar, comforting pain, like a stretch after a good workout. When I look again, the wound is covered with a thick black crust.
Just as I’m about to suggest we move on, I realize I’m too exhausted to stand unaided. Death has thankfully turned his attention to our catch, so he doesn’t see me cling to Ruin’s lead like a drunkard. He lifts the head of the lizard by the upper jaw, then hacks it off with his scythe in two savage strikes.
Dust descends from the heavens in an almost eagle-like dive and lands on the severed head, digging his claws into the shiny hide. He plucks out an eye, shakes it free and, finding it too large to swallow in one gulp, takes to the branches of a nearby tree, where I lose sight of him.
“Soon you’ll be as fat as you’re lazy,” Death calls after him, but there’s no real reprimand in his tone. Dust replies with an exasperated squawk.
Death opens the lizard, skins it and pulls out the entrails, then cuts it into pieces small enough to roast over a fire. Although he goes about it in a slow, methodical fashion of a man in no hurry whatsoever, the scent of charred flesh from my wound is still fresh in my nostrils by the time he’s done. My stomach rumbles. It’s been days since we’ve eaten.
“Do you wish to keep the skin?” he asks.
“Yes.” The hides of these lizards are astonishingly durable, and, what’s more important, fireproof. I can use it to cover the floor around the firepit in my yurt.
He gazes at me a moment longer. “Why are you still standing there? Are you going to sleep on your feet, like a horse?”
“Sleep? While the Council awaits?”
“They can wait a bit longer.”
He said the same when, instead of riding from his home directly for the Charred Plains, we made a detour to hunt down a rogue fiend on a rampage on the borders of the Forgelands; and again, when we made another detour to take its head to Vulgrim. In return, he gave us the location of a group of angel youths kidnapped from a half-deserted outpost far outside Heaven’s borders. We found them, gagged and caged, on a convoy headed to the halls of Malgros the Defiler, with a quarreling band of mercenaries, not unlike those that Raciel commanded, as escort. We dealt with them swiftly and returned the children to the outpost. Only then did I realize it had been no random act of kindness that set Death upon this quest, but some artifact the Archon was willing to part with in exchange for our service.
But we didn’t ride for the Charred Plains then either, as Death wanted to see the world I’ve called home for these past few centuries. When in jest, I said it seems almost as if he’s delaying our return on purpose, his mood darkened. “This dubious honor, of leading the Horsemen, is a thankless chore,” he replied. “I’m entitled to a few perks.”
My thoughts were, Strife has been leading the Horsemen—in his own, curious way—longer than you have, brother; and never complained. I suspect that meeting him again, after their fallout, might be the reason Death is in no hurry to return. But I was wise enough to keep my mouth shut. Or too tired to argue. I may have already been feverish from the infection. I pat Ruin’s neck, walk gingerly into the shade of the nearest tree, and sit. The grass is pleasantly cool, the ground under it moist and soft. For a while, I watch Death as he gathers kindling and starts a fire, then sets out to build a spit. Nestling my back between the roots, I drape my good arm over my eyes and let out a long sigh.