Deathfire ran his lips along Dana’s soft cheek, breathing in her sweet scent, so foreign, so human. He clutched the knife beneath the rough bedcovers. His lips found hers, and he cursed himself, knowing the pleasure of her company might make him want to live, though for so long he’d been seeking death.
She ran a finger playfully from the point of his ear to the base and pressed her body tighter against him. He jerked away from her, angry. He’d lived a hundred lifetimes and seen more suffering and misery in the world than Dana would ever know—whole civilizations slaughtered by war, cities ravaged by plague, children mutilated. He’d made up his mind to save her from the tortures of this world—tortures he could never escape.
“What’s wrong?” Dana whispered, rubbing his cheek.
He slapped her hand away and drew the knife, a six-inch blade with a point dipped in poison that would send her out of this world quickly and without pain.
Dana let out a small cry. Her deep brown eyes stared at him in shock.
End it, his mind screamed. Free her from this world now before she had a chance to taste any more of its horrors.
Dana reached for him. Her fingers wrapped around his shaking knife hand. “What’s wrong?” she asked, taking the knife from him. “I haven’t seen you like this since the day I found you.”
Deathfire shuddered and closed his eyes. She’d discovered him dying in the forest not far from her house and had bound his wounds while he was too weak and helpless to stop her.
“Deathfire.” Her voice was smooth and warm. “Tell me what happened to you.”
She gave him an encouraging smile and set the knife on the rickety wooden table beside the straw bed. Wind moaned through the cracks in the broken-down shack that Dana called home. Deathfire could smell the blood-splotches on the walls from when her father had beaten her before he drank himself to death and freedom.
Dana rubbed her hand across Deathfire’s chest, and he shuddered, unable to muster the resolve to pull away again. “Tell me what’s wrong,” she pleaded.
“Dana, I—” He snapped his mouth closed. How many lifetimes had it been since he’d known love? Love always ended.
“Is this about your people?” Dana whispered. “Are they the ones who hurt you?”
“No.” He’d shunned elven society this time, from the moment he’d first regained his long memories. He rubbed the red flame-shaped birthmark on his arm. It was the only physical trait that remained with him from one lifetime to the next. His hair color changed—black this time. His face never looked the same.
“Dana.” His tongue felt thick, clumsy. “Maybe it is because I’m an elf, but not in the way you’re thinking.” His heart raced, screaming out in objection to his sudden resolve to explain everything to her.
“Tell me.” Dana kissed his neck. “I love you, Deathfire. Help me understand.”
“Elves can’t die.”
She looked up at him with a dubious expression.
“Yes. You can kill us, but it doesn’t do any good. Our spirits are sent back to be born again. I wish I knew what heinous crime we committed that some spiteful god would damn us to this existence.”
Dana’s brow wrinkled in a frown like she didn’t understand. Of course she didn’t.
“Humans die,” Deathfire spat. “They live and they die and they’re free from this world. No more pain. No more suffering. No more war or sickness or betrayal. Dana, don’t you see? I have to find a way out.”
Understanding lit her eyes. “You cut yourself.” She rubbed the bandages on his wrists.
“I hoped if I died slowly enough and with clear enough thoughts, I might learn of a way out. Humans die. There has to be some way for us.”
She sucked in a long breath. “Is life really so horrible?”
Deathfire traced a finger down Dana’s arm where her father had broken it during one of his beatings. The improperly healed bone stuck up in a lump beneath her flesh. “I know your father hurt you.”
Dana flinched away from him, and tears sprang into her eyes.
“I’m sorry,” Deathfire said, caressing her tangled hair. “Don’t you see? This life is evil, but the world beyond is different. There is no pain, no suffering, only peace and joy.”
“How do you know?” She struggled to speak through her tears.
“I know because I’ve seen it. A hundred times, for the briefest moment before being flung back into this world, born once more to suffer over and over again. If only I had more time. If I could just get a better view, I might be able to find some way to stay there.”
A tear from his own eyes splashed onto Dana’s cheeks, joining hers. How could he be crying? He thought he’d run out of tears long, long ago.
Dana glanced over at his knife, sitting on the little table. “C-can you send me there? I mean . . . is it really as wonderful as you say it is?”
“Yes. It is.” Deathfire picked up the knife. The hilt felt cold in his hands. A single prick would be all it took to free Dana. At least she understood now. She wouldn’t think he’d betrayed her.
Dana swallowed and leaned back against his chest, her muscles tense with fear. Humans were so afraid of death. They couldn’t understand the boon the gods had given them.
“It won’t hurt,” Deathfire said. “I promise. The blade is tipped with a numbing poison. You won’t even feel the cut. In seconds you’ll step into a better world.” He edged the knife toward her bare arm.
She grabbed his hand, stopping him. “What about you?”
He let out a slow breath. “I’ll still be trapped here. I’ve tried killing myself dozens of ways. Nothing works.”
“But you thought if you’d died slowly enough you might be able to see a way.”
Deathfire nodded. “I’ll try again after you’re gone.”
“Deathfire.” Dana’s eyes glittered with tears as she pressed her lips against his. He returned the kiss, savoring one last moment with her.
She pulled away, her face only inches from his. “What if I go slowly? Maybe I can see a way for you to escape this world and tell you before I’m gone.”
Deathfire’s mind flashed to a slower killing poison, the painful kind he saved to use on people like Dana’s father. “No. I don’t want you to suffer.”
“Let me go before you and find a way. Whatever suffering it may cause me will be short in comparison to what you have been through.”
Deathfire hesitated, ashamed at the hope that bloomed in him. Appalled that he would even consider letting her suffer to save him.
Dana rose and reached for his pile of things beside the bed. He owned only his clothes and what he could carry with him in his travels—a short sword and several knives tipped with the painless poison. His bow and arrows. One knife with a red hilt, tipped with the slow, painful poison.
“Deathfire,” Dana said. “You’ve been kinder to me than anyone has ever been. I want to help you. Please.”
He laughed. “I think you’ve gotten things turned around. You’re the one who has been caring for me.”
She gave him a grim smile. Before he could stop her, she snatched up the knife with the red hilt and danced out of his grasp. “This one is different, isn’t it?”
Deathfire froze. “Dana don’t.” He kept his voice low and steady.
“If humans can get out of this world, elves must have a way out too.”
“Dana, please.” He took a step toward her, his hand outstretched.
Her wrist moved a fraction. That was all it took for the blade to sink into her flesh. She screamed and dropped the knife as the poison spread into her.
Deathfire snatched her up in his arms, already knowing it was too late.
Dana’s screams filled the night. Deathfire held her convulsing body to him. His swifter poison now would only magnify the slower one, prolonging her pain. That left only the more bloody option to end her life quickly.
He held the tip of the knife over her chest. Her skin sweated beneath the sharp metal. A single thrust into her heart would finish it.
She tried to push his hand away. “Let me do this.”
Her panting agony twisted up inside him. He cursed the world for all its cruelty and yet hesitated. Guilt at letting her suffer warred with the hope that she might find a way through her pain to help him.
“Dana. I can’t let you hurt like this. Not for me.”
“My choice.” Dana’s body jerked in his arms, and she screamed again.
He buried his face in her bosom and let her suffer.
Just before dawn her screams subsided, and she rested calmly in his arms. Her eyes stared up at him, but did not see him. She looked into some far off other place.
“Dunasby,” she whispered.
“What?” He could hardly hear her.
“Dunasby,” she rasped. “Fire and ice. The human door.”
Then her eyes closed, and her spirit slipped off to that place where he could not follow.
Deathfire eased her empty body onto the bed. Straw rustled and clung to him as he pulled his hands away. He’d been in palaces with gilded bedstead and mattresses filled with down. They could not compare to the comfort he’d found here with Dana in the rotting straw.
His hands shook as he dressed. The last words Dana had spoken swirled through his mind in a senseless turmoil. Only one of them made any sense. Dunasby was a small town at the edge of the frontier.
Deathfire lifted the lamp from the table and emptied the oil across Dana and the straw. He didn’t dare leave a body behind. One of the people from the nearby village could easily have heard her screaming. They knew she’d been caring for him.
Though they’d ignored and neglected her in life, they would surely pursue her murderer to avenge her death.
He lit the straw on fire.
“Dana.” He stroked her lifeless arm once before the flames reached it, then hurried out of the burning shack into the woods beyond.
Entering the overgrown forest, he moved away from the human village. His light steps blended with the rustle of wind through the dark trees. Fallen leaves scrambled around his ankles. He carried his weapons with him, nothing else.
By morning he’d left the village far behind and come into a low marsh that extended for miles ahead of him. He pressed forward, making his way from grassy tuft to grassy tuft, slogging through thick mud or waist-high water when no other way presented itself. The wet soil was cold and the air colder.
Dunasby, fire and ice. The human door. Dana’s last words haunted him. He could gain no meaning from them. He could only hope that he would find the answer at Dunasby.
Few elves—content to live in their sheltered forests—ever ventured into the frontier. The restless humans conquered it one homestead at a time.
Deathfire headed for Dunasby, to the frontier, to freedom, he hoped.
On the far side of the marsh, the snow-covered Beartooth Mountains shouldered the sky, marking the frontier’s edge. He pressed on through the marsh, anxious to reach the foothills before dark.
Evening caught him before he reached his goal.
The cold numbed his hands and feet, making him clumsy. He cursed it as he stumbled over a hump of grass and splashed into an icy pool, soaking his tunic.
He scrambled up the sandy bank on the far side, stripped off his tunic and wrung the water out of it. He had it halfway back over his head when the ground shifted beneath him. His boots sank into the sand up to his knees and kept sinking.
“No!” He jammed the tunic down so he could see and struggled to pull his legs out of the sand. His jerking movement only worked him in deeper. His breath frosted in front of his face as he breathed hard, clawing at the ground to pull himself out of the sink hole.
He couldn’t die yet, not when he was so close to finding the answers. Not after Dana had suffered for him. He fought harder to free himself from the earth’s hold.
“Stop moving,” a firm voice ordered.
An ancient elf, wrapped in a brown fur cloak, stood on firm ground several feet from Deathfire.
Deathfire struggled harder. He wouldn’t give this arrogant elf the pleasure of watching him sink to his death without a fight.
“I said stop!” The elf made his way toward Deathfire, testing each step before moving forward.
“Be my guest. Come out here and die too,” Deathfire yelled at him. “It won’t do you any good.”
“If you stop moving, you won’t sink as fast.” He reached the edge of the sink hole and knelt, unfastening his cloak. “Here.” He clutched one corner and threw the cloak out for Deathfire to catch hold.
“Go away.” Deathfire pushed the cold sand back from his chin. The edge of the cloak sank in front of his face.
“I’m trying to help you.”
“I don’t want your help.” Deathfire took a deep breath. Dunasby, fire and ice. He’d been so close this time.
“You’ll die!” The ancient one shook his corner of the cloak in frustration.
I know that. Deathfire closed his eyes as the grainy sand covered his face. It was stupid to go like this, but he didn’t want the help of someone who’d put up with the world for so long.
Dunasby. The human door. Dana’s last words whispered through his mind.
Fighting against the numbing cold, he groped for the cloak, caught hold of it and wrapped it around his arm.
The ancient one responded, pulling him inch by inch out of the sink hole.
When he was free, Deathfire sat on the ground with his arms wrapped around his legs, too cold and exhausted to even wipe away the mud that caked his body.
“This is not the time of year to go out onto the frontier with just a tunic.” The ancient elf shook the mud off the cloak and wrapped it around Deathfire.
Deathfire wiped the muck from his eyes to get a better look at his tormentor.
The ancient one had long blond hair which he had plaited and tied back out of his eyes. His face, though not lined as a human’s would be, held the traces of countless centuries. His right cheek bore his birthmark, what looked like a golden sheaf of wheat. He had on a heavy shirt, fur-lined brown tunic, and gloves. A well-used sword hung at his side.
“Where are you headed?” he asked Deathfire.
“Dunasby.” Deathfire considered flinging the cloak back at the old elf, but kept it instead. He needed the warmth, now it looked like he still had some chance of pursuing his quest.
The older elf smiled. “My name is Laratis. I’m going to Dunasby as well.”
“Why?” Deathfire forced his numb legs to stand and started for the mountains.
“To find transcendence.”
Deathfire stopped and faced Laratis. He’d never met another elf who professed the same quest he’d spent so many lifetimes pursuing.
“Could it be we seek the same thing?” Laratis said.
“Perhaps.” Deathfire drew the cloak tighter about him and resumed his walk.
Deathfire paused between the two log buildings on either side of the narrow, snow-covered road—one a cabin and the other a barn. He and Laratis had followed a canyon up into the mountains until it opened into a forested valley. Smoke curled from the cabin chimney, filling the air with the scent of burning pine. Their breath hung as white clouds in front of their faces. Deathfire shivered.
Laratis stared at the rough map he held in his hands. “It says this is Dunasby.”
“Two buildings, that’s all?” Deathfire glared at the offending log structures. “They’re calling anything a village these days.”
Laratis folded the map and pressed the creases. “I was so sure I was meant to come here.”
“Well, here we are.” Deathfire went to the cabin and pounded on the thick door. He’d come this far with Laratis only because he couldn’t avoid him, and Laratis had supplies Deathfire had been unable to acquire after Dana’s death.
A burly man pushed the door open and stared at Deathfire in surprise. He was middle-aged, as humans went. A thick beard covered his face, and his hair stood up in a tangled mass.
Laratis stepped up beside Deathfire. “We’re looking for a town called Dunasby.”
A woman’s voice called from inside the warm cabin. “Who is it?”
“Elves,” the man said. His bulk blocked their entrance into the building.
“Elves?” a chorus of children drowned out the woman’s response. Three little faces peeked around the man, two girls and a boy.
“Is this Dunasby?” Laratis said.
“This is Dunasby.” The man answered. His voice was deep and gravely. “But if you’re looking for a town, you’ve come to the wrong place.”
Laratis sighed. “Town or not, it is Dunasby we set out to find.”
“Why?” The man scowled at them.
“Let them in, Drake.” A woman came up behind and nudged him aside. “It’s cold out there. You can ask questions once they’ve settled.”
The smell of hot bread filled the cabin and clung to the woman. Her brown hair was pulled back into a bun, and she wore a white apron over her distended belly.
Deathfire reached for a knife he had in his sleeve. The woman was due to bring another soul into this world to suffer, and he could stop that before it happened.
Laratis bowed and stepped into the warm room. Deathfire stayed where he was. If he killed these people now, he might not find what he’d come for. It galled him—three children already, and another on the way.
Deathfire backed away from the door. “I think I’ll wait out here.” If he went in, he might not be able to stay his hand.
“It’s awfully cold out,” the woman said, “and I have supper already on the table. There’s plenty for two more.”
“Maybe later. I’ll just stay in the barn, if that’s all right?” Deathfire crossed the road before she could answer.
“He’s young,” he heard Laratis say before the door thudded shut.
A freezing rain began to pour down on Deathfire. He let himself into the barn and stood there watching the rain turn to ice as it hit the log cabin. So this was Dunasby. There was no shortage of ice, but what about fire? Shifting gray clouds covered the sun. The air smelled like death.
Deathfire’s heart pounded. A feeling came over him, like he was only breaths away from touching the beyond and leaving this world forever. But he had to act. Fire would not start by itself.
Pulling the hood of Laratis’s cloak over his head, he left the barn and circled the cabin. Those inside would join him in death and walk free of this world.
It was a small cabin with a lean-to shed in the back stacked with fire wood. That would do. Deathfire carried a load of straw from the barn to the shed, keeping it covered under his cloak. The fine dust from it made him sneeze when he tossed it on the wood pile. He found an unlit lantern in the shed and added its oil to the wood and straw. Then he set to work with flint and steel.
His numb fingers fumbled to get a spark. Little puffs of gray were followed by a flash of white, then another. At last a red ember burned in the straw at the base of the wood. Deathfire huddled around it, shielding it from the wind and icy rain with his cloak.
He blew on the ember until a finger of yellow fire licked the straw and caught hold. The flame spread, leaping tall, eating into the wood.
Deathfire hurried to the barn and pulled out a cart meant for hauling rocks and dirt. He rumbled it up to the front of the cabin and wedged it against the door.
Then he stood back and waited. The fire would consume the cabin and its occupants. But what of him? What guarantee did he have if he burned with them that he would be freed from this prison world?
Black smoke billowed from the cabin’s rear wall. Deathfire waited, ready to throw himself into the blaze, but unsure now. Dunasby, fire and ice. The human door. The place and events were right, but how could the humans be a door?
A cry of surprise came from inside the cabin, followed by screams from the children. Someone tried to force the door open, but couldn’t budge it.
Deathfire stood in the cold rain that turned to ice as it struck his face and shoulders. Fire and ice. The flames spread to the cabin’s roof.
The crash of glass came from the side of the house, and a few moments later the children ran past, headed for the barn. Deathfire had forgotten that there might be a window. He growled in frustration.
The children were followed by the man and his wife. She was hunched over clutching her stomach, her face pale with pain. Her husband hurried her into the barn, barely noticing Deathfire standing like an ice statue in front of the house.
Laratis came last from the burning cabin.
His face was black from ash and smoke. He slapped at a patch of flame on his shirt as he ran for the barn, but he stopped when he saw Deathfire.
“You? You did this.” Laratis’s hand went to his sword.
“Just doing them a favor. Humans escape from this world so easily.” Deathfire reached for his own sword.
“They don’t want to die!” Laratis pointed back toward the barn. “They want to live.”
Deathfire shook his head. “You don’t understand.” From the fury on Laratis’s face, Deathfire knew it was true. Laratis had come looking for transcendence, but had no clue how things really were.
The fire had not worked, but Deathfire still had his sword and bow and knives. He’d kill them all anyway, starting with that wretched woman before she could bring another soul into this hell. Deathfire strode toward the barn door.
Laratis jumped in front of him and shoved him in the chest, pushing him back. “I won’t let you harm them.”
“Stay out of my way,” Deathfire said. “It won’t do you a bit of good to die.”
Laratis swung his sword. Deathfire blocked his blow. The impact stung his cold hands. Deathfire kept his grip on his weapon and fought back. The two circled on the icy ground, trading blows.
Deathfire’s arms burned, and his lungs ached for breath. He’d not wasted time with sword practice in this lifetime. It didn’t take Laratis long to slam the sword out of his hands and pin him to the ground.
Laratis’s blade pricked Deathfire’s neck. “I should kill you,” he said.
“Go ahead. It won’t make any difference. Believe me, I’ve tried.” Deathfire fingered the knife up his sleeve.
Laratis removed his sword from Deathfire’s neck. “Get out of here and don’t come back.”
Deathfire got to his feet and plunged the poisoned knife into Laratis’s stomach.
Laratis grunted in surprise and clutched at the blade. He caught hold of the handle and pulled it out, but the poison had already done its damage.
Laratis gasped and stared at Deathfire in shocked wonder. He fell to his knees, turning the ice and snow beneath him red. “I knew I was coming to die while saving someone else’s life, but I didn’t think it would be like this,” he whispered.
“What does saving someone have to do with it?” Deathfire leaned over Laratis. Anger burned inside him.
“Everything. Life is precious, a gift from the gods,” Laratis gurgled, then slumped to the ground, dead.
Deathfire backed away and headed for the barn. It was all a mistake. He’d find no escape here at Dunasby, but he’d do the humans a favor and send them on before he left.
Inside the barn, the three children huddled next to the woman who lay in the straw with the man kneeling at her feet. Her face was beaded with sweat, and she cried out as birth pains tore through her.
“It’s all right, Beth,” the man said. “The baby’s almost here. Keep pushing.”
Deathfire shot an arrow through the man’s back. Then he drew his sword. The woman and children would be easy enough to kill, but he wanted to take care of the baby first.
He walked through the straw and stood over the woman. She screamed at him. “Get away! Leave us alone!”
“Don’t worry,” Deathfire said, rubbing a gentle hand across her sweat-soaked brow. “I’ll make it painless for all of you.”
“NO!” The woman’s desperate scream pushed the infant’s head out into the open. The rest of the body followed.
The baby lay in the blood-soaked straw while the mother fought to grab Deathfire’s sword arm. He’d have to kill her first and then the children.
His sword arced toward her neck, then stopped.
Deathfire leaned over and wiped the birthing blood from the baby’s face. A mark like a golden sheaf of grain graced the infant’s cheek.
“Laratis.” Deathfire backed away. Laratis had been born again, sent back as a human instead of an elf. The human door.
Deathfire bolted from the barn and ran, tripping and sliding through the ice and snow, away from Dunasby. Away from the humans. Away from Laratis who had found a way out of this world. Transcendence, he’d called it.
“Everything,” Deathfire muttered to himself as he forged his way through the cold back down the canyon. “Saving someone else’s life has everything to do with it.”
He slid into a snow bank and clawed his way back out. Night was coming on, and it was getting colder. Too cold.
I can’t die now, he thought. Now he knew what he had to do to join Dana beyond. He just needed to stay alive long enough to accomplish it.