His name was Rel.
Harsk found him in Angel Town, where there were no angels, and wasn’t even a town anymore. A group of kids on a dare had decided it would be funny to try and summon a demon. The demon thought burning everything down was even funnier.
When Harsk and his Riders rolled through, Rel was holding himself upright in the center of town. He stood in ashes. The demon was already gone; Rel had beaten it with a club until it thought the Pit was safer. But things didn’t just get better because the demons were gone.
If anyone but the old Rider had walked up to Rel, he would have beaten them to death with his bare hands. Demons were everywhere, anything. Even the ground was suspicious. But Harsk was safe, and his Ride was legend. Demons feared to walk the earth when the Ride started to roam.
Best of all, they were looking for recruits.
Harsk spoke a long time with Rel. It took a while for Harsk to trust someone enough to offer a position in the Ride. They were the best. They could fall into the darkness without becoming it. Too far gone to be called normal, yet whole enough to understand the need to fight on. Rel qualified.
And so he was taking his final test.
Carson checked Rel over. The new man was in his late twenties, his face was still very young. Still seemed brash. He looked like he had a chance to heal into something.
Carson stepped back, a smirk on his face. Rel just couldn’t stop fidgeting. Understandable. The last test was never exactly explained. It was safer for everyone if astonishment was allowed.
Another Rider strode up. Young, younger than Rel was, auburn hair kept long and tied in a bun on the back of his head. He glared ahead, mouth taut.
“What?” Carson asked.
The Rider pointed at Rel’s pockets.
Carson frowned. He reached between Rel’s legs, and pulled a knife out of a sheath hidden in his pants-leg. He raised an eyebrow. “Appreciate the usefulness, but not tonight. Gotta give me everything.”
Rel nodded, and shook his hair. Dust glinted in the night, the specks landing in Carson’s hand.
“Iron dust,” Rel explained. “Fairies.”
“True,” Carson said. He glanced over at the second Rider. He stared back for a moment, then walked out of the firelight.
“Don’t worry about him,” Carson said. “He doesn’t talk to anyone.”
“What’s his name?”
“He doesn’t talk to anyone,” Carson said. “How am I supposed to know his name?”
Rel couldn’t suppress a smile. “So who am I facing?”
Carson stripped Rel of his shirt. “Who said anything about facing someone?”
“If it was an obstacle course, you would be looking at my pants, and not caring what I carried,” Rel reasoned. “And I don’t think the Ride has a written exam.”
Carson smiled. “Not really.”
“So it’s a duel, then.”
“One on one?”
“To the death?”
Carson slammed the knife to the ground. It sank to the hilt. He stared at Rel. “No. To first blood. Remember that.”
Rel nodded. He stood up, bare-chested and already starting to sweat against the firelight.
Harsk walked into the camp light. He stood next to Rel, and nodded to Carson and the Rider. They departed.
“You’ve had a bad shake so far, Rel,” Harsk said. He took a glass bottle from one of the other Riders, uncorked it, and took a swig. “No one disagrees with that.”
Rel nodded, and waited for the end of the thought.
“Having to watch friends and family torn apart by a spawn of the Pit,” Harsk offered the bottle to Rel. Rel declined. “I wish that were less common.
“We’re different, you and I.” Harsk finished the bottle in a few swigs, and set it down on the ground. “Normal people see what you’ve seen, it breaks them. They become like sheep, like reeds on the riverbank. Blowing where the wind takes them. You stand, and damn the gales.”
Harsk pulled out a new blade. “To replace the knife,” he explained, and tossed it to Rel. The young man caught it by the handle, and ran a finger over the edge. It did have a certain heft, enough to put a bit of weight behind a blow. The edge was rough, and Rel noticed the blood still stuck in the grooves. The blood was composed of…what seemed to be murk and gloom, and peeled away underneath his fingernail.
Harsk offered a whetstone to Rel, and watched the boy start cleaning the weapon. “You’ve seen some of the worst to offer, from this world or any other. You’re still alive, which is good.”
Rel placed the knife in his lap, and shrugged. He didn’t enjoy talking. It didn’t help, it went nowhere, and was too often a lie. Not with Harsk, though.
“You’re moderately sane, even better.” Harsk’s hand darted forward. Rel grabbed the knife, swinging it up to reach the hand. They met over the fire, Harsk disarming the boy with a superior grip. Harsk adjusted his grip so as to hold the boy still, but not hurt him.
“And you have reflexes.” Harsk looked again. “Those will save you more than any other talent.”
Harsk let go of the boy, and shook his head.
“There’s a hatred in your eyes. It will make you focused, make you sure. I will hone that, make it something you can understand as another tool.”
“What’s the test, sir?”
Harsk stood up. “Carson pretty much explained the rules. You’re just the first to try it out.”
Rel frowned. “Why me?”
“Had a death.”
“Young boy, name of Adin, turned on us. Didn’t like what we were doing. He thought we were weak, that we couldn’t hold to the truth.”
Rel didn’t understand. The statement just struck false to everything else the Ride foretold. Harsk’s Ride was legendary, in part because of its ruthlessness. They would kill possessed villages, they would slaughter any who got in their way. Who could argue with their convictions? With Harsk, of all people?
“He pulled a blade on one of our own, and that was the end of that,” Harsk leaned forward. “A man draws on you, assume he’s going to use whatever he’s holding. He’s forfeited negotiations.”
Seeing the boy nod, Harsk whistled. A horse whinnied…no, growled back. It trotted into the light, and Rel almost recoiled. He had known some scarred and disfigured horses, but this one was the first he considered ugly. Its fur was matted and mane grease-stained, a short and stocky torso held up by legs that could kick a barn in two. Those eyes, though, those blood eyes just glared at him, daring any comment.
Straddling the horse was a vision. A woman, barely older than adolescence. She had a kind face, weathered with far too many worry lines for one her age. Golden curls were bound up in a braid, rested on one shoulder. And blue eyes peeked out, measuring him. Rel could see worry, anger, and doubt in her gaze. Was he fighting her? The horse?
She rode the horse with confidence if not poise. A sword rested on her hip, a small crossbow rattled against the saddle. Armed, then probably not. Harsk would have made the fight more fair.
The other Rider walked up, and extended a hand to the woman. Rel couldn’t remember when he came back. He was always quiet, and ever present. The woman took the offered hand and slipped down.
The horse clopped over to Rel. his hand reached out towards the horse before he thought better of it. The horse stepped closer, daring him to try.
“Clari-Ann,” the woman said. “You’re not to interfere.”
The horse, Clari-Ann, looked back at her rider, and snorted.
“Not this time. He’ll follow the rules.”
Clari-Ann stared at Rel, before trotting off into the distance.
“Nettie,” the woman said. She stuck her hand out to Rel. He took it lightly, and let it go in an instant. She smiled, and stepped back.
“The boy’s name is Rel, and he seems to forget manners.”
Harsk bowed to Nettie, and Rel had to stop himself from jumping. He had completely forgotten the leader was there.
The woman leaned in close, kissing Harsk on the cheek. The old man reddened, and backed away. She grasped his hand.
“It’s too soon, Harsk.”
“We’ve been over this.” Harsk pulled away. She held fast. Rel could see her grip tightening.
“She’s a child, Harsk.” Rel could see the pleading in her eyes. If Harsk responded to begging, he knew she would try.
“And there have been deaths.” Harsk said. “It’s time.”
The woman bit her lip, and nodded. She turned away from the firelight, and walked away.
“She’ll want you here.” Harsk said.
“That’s why I’m fetching her.” Nettie called back. “Unlike the men, I face what disturbs me.”
Rel stood up, and winced. A child? He was to be fighting a child?
Carson stood next to him.
“Don’t do that.” Carson muttered. Rel looked back at him. “Don’t think too much on it. Surprise can turn to hate fast. If you fail, Kait might kick you out of the Ride before you’ve even had a chance to sit a horse.”
“Who you’re fighting.” Carson said.
Carson nodded. “Kait has been with the Ride since birth. Grew up on Harsk’s knee with us bastards as brothers and uncles.” Carson smiled. “And she can be a real snob about it, too.”
Rel wrinkled his face. This still didn’t make sense. Why would someone’s kid be dueling? Was she trying to prove how she could handle all the boys and men? Or was Harsk trying to keep the new Riders humble?
Carson looked behind Rel. “Here she is now.”
Rel turned around. Drew his knife, and charged at the thing. Carson tackled him to the ground. The new Rider thrashed, adjusted his grip, and slammed his head back into Carson’s face. Nothing, he was still held firm.
“Wait,” Carson whispered. “Just wait.”
Kait stared at Rel. Red horns, speckled with black, peeked out of raven hair, cut short and tucked behind her ears. Her blue skin glinted orange next to the flames of the campfire. A tail trailed out behind her. It swished back and forth, the only movement Rel had seen so far.
She met his gaze, liquid black eyes staring with nothing. No empathy, no hatred, not even a sense of superiority. He hated it.
Demon-breed. Demons were not meant for this world, they had to scratch and scrabble out of the Pit to infest mortality. And some, whores, looked on the fiends as exotic, as lovely. They could not wait to see a demon. The demon was only too willing to oblige such base desire.
And this Kait, this thing, was what crawled out of that union. A part of this world and below. Rel could only look at it and hope he had an opportunity to kill it.
“You’re not killing her.”
Rel turned on Harsk in fury. Harsk walked past, knife in his hand. He offered it to Kait, who stood by the fire. It took the blade, and he placed a hand on her shoulder. Harsk, the greatest demon hunter of an age, let himself be sullied by this creature.
She bowed her head, eyes closed. She had the gall to even fake a tear. Rel looked up at Carson. He could throw his knife, perhaps. Maybe even catch her in the throat.
“Adin made the mistake of trying to martyr himself and take her with him.” Carson looked into Rel’s eyes. “Harsk nailed him to the ground with a crossbow bolt. His death gave you an opportunity to join.”
Carson crawled off him. Rel was back on his feet, knife in hand. A snort from Clari-Ann made him pause. Nettie was back, the savage horse by her side.
Nettie. The mother, Rel thought. She was the one who let it in. And was this horse another thing from the Pit? Was it going to toy with him before tearing him to pieces?
What had Harsk’s Ride become?
Harsk stepped back, and faced Rel.
“It’s a duel, Rel. To first blood. Only, first blood,” He clarified. “Afterwards, the winner can choose if the one bleeding has the right to stay.”
A duel. Right, this wasn’t a test for him alone. He could send her away. Maybe Harsk thought she had some usefulness in her ties, but she needed to prove her worth. He was blinded by misplaced love. There was only one thing the Pit was good for, and that was sending scum back.
He had the range, and the strength. Even demons had to be weaker as children. He could win easily. Just a nick would be enough to send her away.
Harsk stepped back. Nettie laid a hand on Clari-Ann, and Carson restrained the horse.
“When you’re ready.” Harsk said. The girl, turned to one side, held the knife blade up. She had technique, and a strategy.
Rel reconsidered throwing the knife. All he needed was a cut. And he could claim first blood was just a death blow. But he doubted Harsk would let him walk away with that. He’d never outrun the demon horse.
“Clari-Ann’s not a demon.”
Rel’s eyes narrowed. She dared to speak. Her eyes stared back at him. “She’s a goblin-bred horse. Still a bit wild, but she likes Mama and me.”
“That so.” Rel said. Stop it, quit talking. Just kill her. Scratch her, that’s what he meant.
“She likes turnips.” The thing smiled. “What do you like?”
Rel darted forward. Kait stepped back, and her tail lashed out from under her, kicking up dust. Rel squeezed his eyes closed and charged. He could feel movement around, beneath her. Strike! His hand went toward her. Hard edges clanged against each other.
The tail wrapped around his leg, and Rel was falling. His face stopped an inch from the fire, heat baking his face. Get up, get up, and get it. He rolled to his side, knife slashing every way.
But she had backed away, knife again at the ready. Coward, couldn’t even finish the job.
“I prefer carrots. And bluebell berries!” She smiled again. “Do you like bluebell berries?”
“Prefer apples.” Why was he talking? He stalked forward, and the his flashed. She spun, tail whacked his side. He caught the tail, flung her to the ground. She slithered away. Too fast, she was just too fast. Rel was reconsidering throwing the knife.
“Mama lets me ride Clari-Ann, and I’ve never had so much fun.” Kait said. “Do you like horses?”
“No opinion.” Rel said.
Kait rolled her eyes. “That’s silly. You’re joining a Ride. It’s like joining a swimming team and being indifferent to water.”
Rel threw his knife. Her tail lifted up, and caught the blade by the handle. She looked at the knife.
“That was even sillier.” Kait said. She tossed Rel’s knife across the fire. Then her own. “There. That’s fair.”
Idiot! How could she possibly cut him now? How could he cut her? She must be toying with him.
The rest of the Ride remained silent. The other Riders were away. Harsk had sent them off on errands of their own, Rel supposed. Or perhaps he didn’t trust that they wouldn’t take the chance to off a hated enemy.
Rel stepped forward, and another step. Kait adjusted her stance again, hands raised in fists. “If you want to fight, just ask.”
Rel felt blinded as he ran at her a third time. Fall into it, fall into the rage. He heard the screams again. The men and women dying around him. Friends, family, loved and hated, none deserved what the demons had done. It wasn’t fair, it wasn’t right, it wasn’t just.
Kait spun around him, tail nipping at Rel’s heels. He could feel his swings becoming more wild, arms exhausted… and yet, she was tireless.
There is only one justice for demons. Any of the bastards that came to this plane deserved to die.
He picked up a log from the fire, and tossed it over Kait’s head. It ducked, pausing just long enough for Rel to grab that damn tail. He pulled it close to his chest. Just crush the life out of that fiend.
Kait turned on him and bit down on his arm. He yowled, dropping the demon girl. He cradled his arm, and felt the warmth. He winced, and stood. When he pulled his hand back, it was red with blood.
The mother’s crossbow was up in an instant, pointed straight at Rel’s chest. “Don’t move.” She said. “Sweetie, come back now.”
Kait spat out Rel’s blood. She hung her face. “Sorry,” she said. “I didn’t have anything else sharp.”
Rel could feel the hatred rolling off his face. Fiend, bastard spawn of the Pit, everything he hated and feared. Kill it anyways.
No. They had fought, and she had won. He sat down at the fire for a second, and considered.
He lost. Damn it. He needed to kill demons, felt that urge within his soul. And yet, if he couldn’t take on a little girl, then he wasn’t ready. He was just lucky to be alive.
Harsk picked up the knives from the other side of the fire. “Well, Kait. What do you want to do?”
Kait thought about it for a moment. She sat next to Rel, just out of reach. Rel thought that was wise. He still wanted to kill her.
“Demons have killed around you, haven’t they?”
“Were you happier before?”
“Yes,” Rel said. “I had a family. A wife, a son. I was working for the blacksmith.”
He wanted to pour out his heart. Flowery language, trailing off the tongue in a fountain of soliloquy. Instead, all he could give were facts now.
“Are you happy?” And that question. He asked her back?
“Harsk is warm, and fuzzy.” Kait smiled. “And my mother, she tries so hard.”
Rell glance at the mother.
Kait watched, and shook her head. “Don’t do that.”
“Blame my mother for me.”
“I didn’t.” He trailed off. Of course he did. If he couldn’t blame this girl for being born, at least the woman who allowed such evil to walk was vile.
“You blame her. Blame her for having to be taken by both a demon and a man.”
Rel watched. “What happened?”
Kait shrugged. “She never had a choice. She had to have a demon, or her loved ones would die.”
Rel stood up. “You mean she was forced to, to.” He couldn’t finish the sentence. He gulped, and breathed. “How, how did you find out.”
“Riders talk.” Kait looked at him.
“Do you hate me?”
Rel stopped breathing.
“It’s okay if you do, I understand.” Kait smiled. “But if you want to stay you have to promise not to try and kill me again.” Kait giggled. “Clari-Ann wouldn’t like that.”
Rel breathed again, letting out a guffaw. The last one he wanted to face was that horse.
Harsk tapped the knives together.
“So, little one? Stay or go?”
Kait hugged Rel. “He’ll do.”
Harsk shrugged. “Thank you. Tomorrow we find you a horse, Rel.” He nodded to Carson. “Go find the rest of the crew, let them know they can make camp. Kait.”
Rel put his shirt back on, and lay down next to the fire. Just as he closed his eyes he was attacked by a pillow.
He looked up to see Nettie toss a blanket at him. “Get some shut eye.”
He stared at her for a moment.
“I don’t like what had to happen.”
Carson knew speaking to the Rider wouldn’t yield conversation. The two men looked at each other, and away. They had drawn second watch, and Carson watched the fire start to die out.
The Rider never seemed to begrudge Carson’s opinion. He stared away, off to where the women slept. Nettie would try to curl her arm around Kait, like it had always been before. Kait had taken to crawling a foot away, just out of reach. It had to be done.
“It was stupid,” Carson said. “Harsk having it done like this. Kait’s a girl, barely a child. Having her fight a grown man, one with training, that wasn’t close to fair.”
The Rider shrugged. Kait had won. The Riders were all together, and with a new member to replace Adin. Probably better than the dead kid, anyways. Adin was a challenge. Rel looked like he might follow orders.
Carson stood up, stretched for a moment. “I understand the reasoning. Just wish there was a way to let people know Kait before they had to see her.”
He nodded to Rel. “Maybe this fool will help us along with that.”
Rel, for his part, dreamed. He dreamed of cookies, of psychotic horses running down firelight. Of tiny girls that loomed like giants. His mind was still lost, a jumble that spun around itself to make some semblance of sense.
He didn’t dream of the demons, though. They were kept at bay. By a girl, a horse, and Harsk. And Rel would die for them in thanks.
copyright 2016 Jack Holder