The dead ruled the back roads. They had worn and weathered faces, eyes hard against the horizon. They were staring at that unwavering point, always visible, no matter which direction one was traveling. The horizon beyond the horizon and the sky beyond the sky. No matter where one looked, it was there, and the dead were always walking toward it, though they could never arrive at that destination. It was the land of the living, and they had passed beyond it.
Xue had as well, though he was not dead. Not yet, anyway. He avoided the dead, hiding himself along the roadside whenever he saw them approaching. Caution was his watchword in this place, for he had none of the powers of the inhabitants here. He was a mere swordsman, practitioner of those sacred arts, though no master. His failures were that of any man, and for them he had been punished—cursed—and now he found himself wandering this land, just as the dead did, hoping somehow to reach that point on the horizon and cross to the world beyond.
Xue stayed to the nether regions and the back roads, for beyond them were things far worse than the dead. If he wanted to return to the land of living he needed to stay alive, a difficult proposition in this realm, where ghouls, demons, and things not even imagined by mortals existed. Had he understood the terrible cost his actions would carry, the damnation he would incur for his wrongs, he would not have been so quick to act.
“Vengeance is a luxury only the rich can afford,” his master had once told him. He had been correct, but Xue had not been willing to listen. Now he rued his impatience and anger every day.
The road upon which he walked during this endless day—for evening never came here, just as morning never returned anew—was a trail worn by an unending multitude of walkers. Dust stirred with his every step. He was on a vast and arid plain, that seemed to cross all of the realm here, the sky above vast and incomprehensible. It was blue, though somewhat faded and drawn, with specks of clouds adrift within. They never seemed to move and the weather never changed. It was as though the sky was caught in an instant forever. And he was ensnared in it as well.
It had been hours since he had stopped walking, or encountered anyone, and so he stepped off the road when he spied a copse of trees nearby that hinted at a spring. He headed toward it, thinking to rest for a spell, more for a change than out of any need. He did not sleep here or even tire. But that was not something he had become used to as yet. Often, he would lie down in some secluded place out of sight of the road and close his eyes, feigning to sleep. His mind would go as still as the sky above him, but never once did he slip from consciousness. He could not. This place was a kind of dreaming.
The copse of twisted and gnarled trees, branches heavy with ugly leaves, more black than green, held a spring as he had guessed. The water he found there was fetid and stinking, a sickly color that reminded him of what was found in the intestines of an animal being slaughtered. Though it was repulsive to look upon and smell, he sat down beside it, putting his back against a tree. He closed his eyes and listened to the wind hissing through the trees. It sounded odd and a moment later he realized why. None of the branches were moving.
Soon they were. Xue’s eyes flashed open and he saw a girl standing over him, a dagger clenched between her teeth. He blinked, wondering how she had managed to get so near without his realizing. She had the drawn and haggard look all the dead had, in spite of her evident youth.
“What are you going to do?” he asked her, judging how near his hand was to his sword and how close she was to him.
She seemed taken aback by his question and froze for just a moment. Xue used that time to draw his own dagger from his belt and press it against her throat. Her eyes went very wide.
“Do the dead care about dying in this place?” he said.
“I’m not dead,” she said, spitting her blade to the ground and raising her hands in surrender. “I’m just here.”
Xue picked up her dagger with his free hand, never taking his eyes from her and not letting his blade slip from her throat. The dead were not to be trusted, not even one so young as this. This was their realm and it was a place of the damned.
“I imagine that’s what all the dead say. They all think they can cross back to the world. I can see it in the way they stare.”
The girl gave him a quizzical look. “You don’t want to go back?”
“More than anything,” Xue said. “But I actually can. I am here because of what I did, not because I died. I was cursed. Damned for eternity.”
The girl shrugged. “We all were. Why else would we be in this place?”
Xue nodded for the girl to sit down across from him. She did, moving cautiously, her eyes always upon him, careful to keep herself just beyond his arm’s reach. Xue kept his dagger ready in his hand and adjusted himself so that he would be ready to respond to any attack.
“How long have you been here?”
The girl shrugged again. “I don’t know. Time is not the same here. The days have no end.”
“No they do not,” Xue said. “I myself have only recently arrived.”
“It doesn’t matter,” the girl said, stealing a glance off to the fetid pool.
“What do you mean?” Xue said, not taking his eyes from her.
“You think because you came here recently that it will be easier for you to return. But time is different here. It doesn’t work that way at all.”
“What do you know of these things girl?”
“Girl,” she scoffed. “I’m not so young as I look.”
Xue was about to contest her statement, but studying her more closely he saw that she was not so young as he had at first believed. Her sleight stature confused the matter, as did the drawn skin on her face.
“So now what?” she said, studying him carefully. “Are you going to kill me?”
“What would be the point? You’re already dead,” he said, standing up.
He looked past her into the trees, thinking he had heard the trees rustling again. When he turned back to her she was gone, as was her dagger, which he had slipped in his belt. He whirled around, expecting her to be there with her dagger ready to plunge into his back. She was not there either. It was only when she whistled that he caught sight of her standing across the fetid spring.
“Space is not the same here either,” she said.
“So I see,” Xue said.
“You have a lot to learn, if you intend to return to the living.”
She put her dagger away in her belt, a gesture of peace. Xue followed suit, though he knew not to trust her entirely. She had come to him with a dagger in her teeth, with the obvious intention of doing him harm.
“And you propose a partnership I suppose.”
“Why not? These roads are dangerous. And to get to where we’re going, we’ll need to go to places far more dangerous.”
“Where are we going?” he said, his hands still tense at his side, ready to draw his swords.
She pointed to the spot of the horizon they both could see.
“You’re dead,” he said.
“None of us here is alive. Not in any way that matters.”
He considered what she said, realizing that she was right. About everything. “Where to first?”
“There is a town up ahead. We start there.”
Xue nodded and followed her from the swamp back to the road.
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