My first breath in the land of the living was a painful one.
As was the second.
And the third.
It did not take me long to realize that all my breaths were painful, and likely to remain that way for the foreseeable future. Had life always been this painful? Or did it have something to do with the giant gaping hole in my chest?
Involuntarily, against my better judgment, I felt my hand searching for the wound the sinheart knight had inflicted on me. To my surprise, I could not seem to find it. I looked down at my chest and found a large, blood-stained hole in my leather armor, but no matching hole in the flesh below it.
I should not have been surprised, but I was. At least it was a happy surprise.
I had a feeling the rest would not be.
Because I was a dire man now, I knew that. A true dire man, not the misnamed sinhearts who we were fighting. A creature transformed by a dire spirit into something…different. It had been just a guess, but the girl’s reaction had confirmed it.
I did not feel any different, however. Other than the rather welcome lack of a lethal wound, I felt exactly as I had several minutes ago. I did not have any extra limbs or eyes that I could tell, nor any strange and unexplained aggression.
In fact, I felt calm. Almost unnaturally calm, actually. Was that normal? Was I supposed to be just lying on my back in the ash and dirt, content after being killed and resurrected by an entity that might be a demon?
It did not take long for that particular illusion to be shattered.
I heard screams, the war cries of sinhearts, the whistling call of Jack, and the constant clang of steel on steel.
The sound of battle.
I was needed.
There was a sword at my side, lying in the ash and the dirt. I picked it up, and used it as a walking stick to leverage myself to my feet. Everything still hurt. But I was getting used to the pain, pressing it down. By the time I was upright again, I did not even need any assistance to stand.
The war camp was largely empty, to my surprise. Most of the sinhearts appeared to be south in the grasslands, fighting the hunters and the shield wall. That was a good sign, at least. If they had slaughtered them already, they would have returned.
But while it was mostly empty, it was not completely empty.
Perhaps two dozen more of the enemy monsters were scattered around the camp. About half were clustered around something, one large clump hooting and howling at something in the middle. I had no idea what that was, but they did no appear to be fighting, so I had to leave them alone for now.
The rest were chasing after my subordinate, Jon Norn.
He was doing an admirable job. He knew he could not fight all of them at once, so he used cover, dodging around piles of supplies, the steel framework of the fortifications, and anything else that might give him the slightest advantage over his foes. Speed was not his strong suit, but he was doing his best, dodging in and out with a slash from his scythe here and a chop from his axe there.
But he still needed help. He could not keep this up for long.
I gripped my sinblade in one hand. I had no time to find my shield, and I doubt it would have been any use at this point anyway. I needed to reach my friend as soon as possible; he was already tiring.
And then I was there.
It was so fast, I was not even sure it happened. One moment I had a vague impression of running across the scorched earth, and the next I was blocking a sword that would have taken Norn’s head.
I batted aside the blow. The beast howled and pressed the attack, putting his full and considerable weight behind his blade, using a two-handed downward strike to make absolutely certain to cut through everything in his path.
I held him off.
It took me two hands as well, but I held him off.
The sinheart blinked in surprise, then roared in rage and pushed harder. I could still have stopped him with sheer strength, but that would not have solved anything. Instead, I stepped aside, letting the beast stumble forward at the sudden lack of resistance, and sliced off his head with a single, casual one-handed strike.
“Wreth?” Norn blurted in surprise. I turned to see him just staring at me. “But, you—”
I whispered past him and skewered the sinheart who had been about to stab him in the back. “Not the best time, Norn.” I smiled thinly. “I think we should save this conversation for later, do you not agree?”
I cut through the small horde of sinhearts like a hot knife through butter, my subordinate following behind as closely as he dared.
It was all so…easy. Fighting dozens of inhuman monsters just seemed like the simplest thing in the world. I felt twenty years old again, standing against an enemy army, but even better. My reflexes, which had slowed with age, were faster than ever. My weak and tired muscles were strong and rejuvenated. Everything was easy.
And then all the sinhearts Norn had been fighting were dead.
And I was close enough to realize what the other group was doing.
They had formed an arena using a circle of living bodies. I could barely see inside the press of black flesh, but their hoots and howls, the clang of metal, made it clear that someone was fighting inside their little Colosseum.
Just like before, when I felt the need, there was no effort. No worrying about how to get past dozens of human-shaped abominations, or what I would do once surrounded by them. I simply was suddenly there, in the center of the crowd, and I knew I had jumped over their heads like a gazelle. It was so easy I could not even remember it. Did you remember every time you drank a glass of water?
I took in the scene in a glance. Sinhearts on all sides. The dire knight, still armed and armored, standing a few feet away. Jack, on the ground, a few shallow cuts on her arms and her swords out of immediate reach.
They were all staring at me like they had seen a ghost.
I grinned. I couldn’t help it. I felt like a boy again, playing pranks on the school bullies. “Something wrong, everyone?” I nodded in mock understanding. “Ah, I see, I see…” I saluted Jack, still on the ground, seriously with my sword. “Lady Grandsbriar, apologies, but I believe I am going to have to cut into this dance.”
She swallowed. “Sir Wreth, I saw you—you were—”
I smiled sadly. “I would honestly love to explain now. But I have more pressing issues at hand.”
“I can explain, little blade-dancer,” the dire knight hissed, in that same disgusting and friendly voice as before. “Your knight made a deal. His first deal. I had not realized it was this early.” There was that laugh again. “Perhaps your next death will be permanent after all.”
No longer in the mood for jokes and games, I stepped back into an attack stance, sinblade held before me in two hands. “Before I kill you,” I told the monster seriously. “I would like to know your name. Assuming you have one.”
Another deep, war-drum laugh. “Oh, if you only knew…yes, I have a name. I have forgotten most of them. But I remember at least one that will mean something to you.” The knight moved into his own stance, a copy of the one I had used earlier in our previous fight, shield forward and sword ready.
“And that name is?” I prompted.
Once again, I had the sense that the beast was grinning under his helmet. “Gerian.”
I blinked, for the first time since my resurrection knocked off guard. “What? But—”
She lunged forward, taking advantage of my confusion to launch an attack at my chest.
While I no longer had a shield, but I had reflexes honed by a lifetime of war, in a body that was seemingly beyond human. I sidestepped the powerful attack easily enough, but I was on the wrong side to launch a counterattack with my own blade. So I swept my foot around her leg, sending her stumbling farther than expected, and stabbing one of the watching sinhearts in the chest.
None of the watching monsters—except the dead one—seemed to care, and in fact hooted and howled even more enthusiastically than before. Gerian, for her part, placed her armored foot on the creature and pulled out her sinblade with the wet squelch of metal on meat.
And it was Gerian. My daughter might be two feet shorter and a hundred pounds lighter, but I would recognize her beautiful blue eyes anywhere. I had no idea how she had come to be in this situation, with the voice of a sinheart and the armaments of a monstrous knight, and I did not have time to dwell on it.
The dire spirit that had transformed me had said she came from the future. For now, I had no choice but to fight this creature to the best of my ability, and do everything in my power to keep the daughter I had left back home from becoming her at some point.
Gerian turned to me again, once more in the defensive stance she had watched me practice a thousand times in the courtyard when she was supposed to be asleep. It was not an especially rare or complicated style, but now that I understood the context, it was obviously something she had learned from me.
She lunged again, but not as fast or as far; she was testing my defenses. Rather than dodging this time, I parried the blow with my newly enhanced strength. Before she could recover, I swept my blade up from below in a two-handed grip, aiming not for her, but her sword.
I knocked it out of her grip, sending it flying away into the air, where it would land ten or twenty yards away. She cursed colorfully, nursing her hand even as she unbuckled her shield and tossed it aside.
“Language,” I reminded her, using the exact same tone I always had whenever she mimicked one of Norn’s drunken swears.
The knight growled, which sounded like she was gargling burning hot tar. “Oh, come off it, Wrath. You always did act like a mother hen.”
“There is that name again,” I mused, as Gerian raised a gauntleted hand in the air, and one of the surrounding sinhearts tossed her a blade without even looking. “Where did you hear that name, Gerian?”
She howled a war cry and charged like a bull, attacking me not with her blade, but with her shoulder. On a whim, I ran forward to meet her, then jumped up onto her shoulders, flipped down her back, and turned to stab her in the spine.
The armor turned most of the blow, but it still hurt enough to make her howl in pain. She turned swiftly, ripping my blade out of her back with sheer strength, and stalked forward, dire sword raised and teeth grinding.
Then a blade burst out of her chest.
“Never,” Jack hissed from behind her, holding onto the sword she had plunged into the gap I had made in the armor. “Turn your back on a Grandsbriar.”
Gerian stumbled to the ground on her knees, and looked up at me, murder in her beautiful blue eyes as I walked up.
“Call off your monsters,” I ordered. “And you can live.”
There was a dark grin of defiance in her eyes. “See you around, Father.”
I cut off her head with a single double-handed blow.