My master was a mighty man. He slew devils with a sure hand as none other did, finding them when no other could and striking them down with a great strength. They say if he had prevailed, our land would be free of devils. I doubt this very much. Though my master was a great man, even if he had by a miracle found and killed the last devil that walked among men, surely others would have arisen from the bowels of the earth.

The master and I sought the strange ensnared she-devil, held in the grip of some enchantment of old and hidden deep among the twists and peaks they call the wolfhound crags. Yet we sought to slay not only a devil but a legend, made so by some glib-tongued prophet in ages past who said she in the mountains, when slain, would be the last of her kind.

The first gentle slopes of foothills made a barren landscape. Stone-filled earth prevented any kind of farming and the grass grew too thin to graze, except perhaps for sheep, though the legends of the wolfhounds kept most shepherds away. I had no true horror of the hounds, for we had met before and I judged them mortal creatures. Still, I had not much more wish to die by a mortal creature than a cursed one. I assured myself that the master would have caught scent of any that dared draw near, but still I kept a sharp eye.

So it was that I first saw, a half hour or more behind us, a black speck just coming up a rise as we fell behind another. When we climbed again I looked behind and saw nothing, but on the next ascent I again caught sight of the figure, no nearer and soon dropped from view, but still following our trail.

The master strode in the way he would when his thoughts were turned inward, and I concluded not to disturb him. Perhaps if left alone, the follower might find his fate in the teeth of a wolfhound without any interference of ours.

Finally, as dusk grew close as a wet fog, the master turned, his eyes bright and distant a moment before seeing my face. “Kem, we’d best bed soon.”

“Yes, Master,” I said. Dropping my voice, I said, “We’re followed.”

“Yes.” He looked up beyond me, and though the dark figure could only have been one shadow among many, even were he out of the valleys, still the master nodded. “Light a fire and warm the meat. We’ll have a visitor tonight.”

“But Master, the beasts?”

He shook his head. “They’ve not touched him, so they’ll not touch us.”

“Yes, Master.”

I built a fire of the few wood scraps we’d packed with us and propped the roast mutton over it. A seeping damp crawled over us and added to the chill of late-harvest air.

The master sat some short distance from the fire and fingered his saber, the bright-polished knife that had freed the world of a great count of devils. As he turned it over, the curving blade gleamed in the firelight, flashing like another flame. The fancywork glittered black against the shine. What the fancywork meant, whether it was words in some foreign tongue or sorcerous symbols or even a family crest, the master had never said.

Finally, he looked up and spoke into the darkness. “Join us at the fire. No need to skulk with the shadows.”

And then some shadow to my right stepped away from its brethren, into the light. It was a hunched, sour-looking man I remembered from the last settlement we’d left. He’d whispered fiercely against the devil-slayer, Saman of the Dales – my master. A fool’s hero, he’d called him, just a man with a sword who knew more of devils than any right man should. But he’d whispered only, for if my master were a fool’s hero than the land held a great quantity of fools.

“Have a meal with us,” said the master.

Without any rustle of his black cloak, the man sat near me before the fire. “I am called Candrin.”

“And I Saman, which you doubtless know.”

“Of course,” the man said, and I tensed.

The master nodded to me. “Now the meat, Kem.”

When we each held some of the warmed mutton, the master turned to Candrin. “You follow us – a weary task, I’d guess.” Underneath his voice’s warmth there was a sharpness like a saber blade.

“A weary task indeed,” Candrin said. “You wonder, why in the name of plowed earth have I tramped after you all this day? Through lands ravaged by wolfhounds, what’s more. It’s a fair thing I’ve still all my limbs.”

“It’s no wondrous thing,” said my master, all the humor gone. “You stink of disease, like a rabid cur.”

Candrin peered closer. “Indeed.”

I sniffed the air, but with a nose full of woodsmoke I could smell nothing else.

“They say you seek the she-devil,” said Candrin.

“Do they?” said the master.

“Aye, the serpent-woman trapped in crystal, high in the mountains where no man treads.”

“They say many a strange thing, as you surely know,” said the master.

“Do you know how to find her?”

“I’ve never failed to find those I seek. So the ale-songs say.”

The man leaned nearer. “And do you know the way to free her from her prison and drive your dagger through her heart? It’s cunning knowledge – not just any know it.”

“I know well enough.”

“The she-devil is imprisoned in such enchantments that you will fall prey yourself before you’re near enough to catch sight of her! No unstudied man—not even you, champion—could unknot that tangle. None but a devil could, or a mage. Which do you claim?” His eyes glittered in the firelight.

“The devils I’ve slain are claim enough. And you, stranger, what is your claim? You threaten and cajole all at once. Would you hinder me? Do you favor the devils?”

Candrin hunched nearer. His eyes sparked like cinders. “The devils must die, every last to the smallest hatchling still feigning to be a human babe. They curse the earth and set disease on the wind.” He spit at the ground. “It is by their sorcery that I am before you, a man set rootless by misfortune.

“But I’ve no faith you can end this devil, hero. Unless I journey with you, you and your manservant will die some tormented death in the mountains, and you’ll be mourned as one more champion too foolhardy for anyone’s good.”

The master sat back, the tension I’d seen before eased to watchfulness. “And what would you care to do about this, murmurer, meddler?”

Candrin shrugged. “I am a magician, in a small way.”

“I’ve little use for small magic.”

“You’ve use for mine.” He laughed softly. “I’m a day or so older than I might look, hero, and that’s old enough. Since devilish sorcery withered the crops of my village and the people drove me away in distrust, I’ve rooted among heroes and witches, magicians and medicine-women and lone shepherds to find the secrets of the devils. I know more of the she-devil you court than you could know if you circled her with your nose to the air for the next fifty years—if you lived that long.”

“You offer some hidden knowledge in return for journeying with us? Why not tell me now and save yourself the danger?”

Candrin shook his head. “You’ll never find your way. You need me to cast the spells. She’s encased in crystal, did you hear that, hero?”

“So the legends say.”

“You’ll need magic to break her loose before you can even think of stabbing her with that shiny knife of yours.”

My master sat back until shadows masked his eyes, the stray of his glance hidden. Candrin returned to the remains of his mutton, gnawing at it with ivories that, though somewhat yellowed, appeared too strong for the age he claimed.

The master leaned forward again and looked at me. “Kem, how do you judge his offer? Is there malice behind it, or is it only the man’s slinking ways I mistrust?”

Candrin smiled faintly, but he did not speak.

I glared towards him and said, “I cannot see his motive, Master.”

“No more can I. What say you to that, magician?”

Candrin shrugged, a long, slow sweep of the shoulders so studied as to belie the calm he pretended. “I have told you, I wish the devils dead. Perhaps she is the last, eh, as it is said? I’ve peered into deep mysteries that I might lend aid to such a quest as this, hero.” He looked the master in the eye. “I’m old enough a man for superstitions. I believe the tales. On this quest, the last will die.”

But hadn’t the master heard him in the settlement? He called him murmurer; didn’t he know what he’d said?

The master nodded. “Candrin, if you care to travel with us, you may. I warn you, any harm you intend to us will haunt you instead.”

Another shrug. “I wish only the devils to die.”

These words ought to have comforted, but something in Candrin’s voice left me so uneasy I kept watch that night while they slept each on his own side of the fire.

Near dawn, cloud and fog joined in a drizzling rain, not hard but long, so that any fire we might have wished would have drowned in wet fuel before it ever drew breath. We wrapped our cloaks around us, burdens at our backs, and turned again to the mountains.

We walked until the hills we strode began nudging the foothills, which grew always steeper and stonier, with little plant growth save the rare scrub bush. We broke for a rest while the master and Candrin growled about paths and maps, just low enough that I couldn’t tell what the argument was, or even whose way we finally chose.

Candrin gradually slowed, dropping from his place just behind the master until I drew even with him.

“Tell me, Kem, why do you follow this man?”

I grunted. “A devil, sir, slew my father some years past.” It had saved me the trouble, though I doubt now I would ever have killed him myself. More likely I would fled some desolate night than repay the man the bruises and deep-cut sores he’d often given me.

Candrin’s glance flicked to me before again staring ahead. “Aye?”

“My master slew the devil.”

I had watched from among the gathered crowd. Yellow eyes, the devil had, and a hide of scales glistening black. Even when the foul thing had fully turned, its hands still grasped at the air while the twisted mouth shrieked fearful things. It would have seemed only a beast, powerful and deadly, were it not for those hands and eyes, so like a man’s but not, a living sacrilege. They gave the true dread of the thing.

“And so you offered yourself to him in gratitude?” Candrin asked.

Still stumbling and sore from my father’s last beating, I had stolen into the champion’s room at the inn the night of the slaying. I had nearly made away with the fabulous saber he had wielded when he, walking silently, drew up behind me. In one movement he wrested the blade from me and struck off the small finger of my lesser hand. Did I prefer the whole hand to follow for thievery, he asked in a voice of quiet thunder, or would I sell myself to him for the price of a finger?

I nodded. “Aye.”

Candrin hummed. “A noble tale.” There was likely a sting in his voice, but I did not notice. I was rubbing the seam of the finger where the master had joined it again with my hand. Were it not for the faint scar, none could tell I had ever lost it.

In his lore Candrin knew trails that the master could not smell out for the rain, which plunged steadily to earth and to us standing in its path, lingering upon our caps and down our necks and in our boots until even the memories of dryness and warmth were faint. The earth was drenched, the stones we climbed slick, though there appeared continually less earth and more stone.

When I woke the fourth morning plagued with aches I guessed them to be from the climbing. We scrambled down into a narrow valley and mounted the heights on the far side. The way was hard, and I grew hot, though a breeze blew cool. My clothes grew sodden beneath my cloak. I was glad to sink onto a stone when we paused, for the mountains were blurring and swaying before my eyes.

“Your man has fallen to devils’ ills, champion,” Candrin said, from a great distance. “It haunts these regions, killing those who draw too near to devils’ haunts.”

“Have you a cure?”

“No, Master,” I cried, my voice thick in my throat. “Heal me yourself.” Always he had before, when I was wounded by an animal or fell foul of unclean air.

There was some murmuring, then, though I could no longer hear the words. The murmurs brought darkness.

When I awoke, the gray-veiled sun had nearly dropped below the distant peaks. My thinking seemed slow and my head ached dully, but I breathed well. “Master?”

“Kem.” Then I saw him, seated not far away. “Candrin has healed you. He is not such a charlatan as he appears.”

The mage, also nearby, hunched his shoulders a little more and said nothing to this.

“But, Master—”

“You will be well by tomorrow, Candrin tells me, and you’ll not fall ill again. We bed here tonight.” He stood and walked away, towards the long view of valley and stone. Candrin looked as though to speak to me, but I turned on the cloak where I lay to face away.

My mouth stung bitter with some herb or potion drunk while I was ill. Before my closed eyes I saw the village healer again, the first devil the master slew after I joined him. The healer had smelled of the same bitterness, shedding it in sweat and fear as the master closed upon him against the sloping wall of a stable dug from the earth. The healer flung his gnarled hands before him, and his fingers were stained with the juices of pain-easing roots.

When the master drew his saber, the healing man shrunk into the wall, trembling, until he dropped to earth with a screeching cry that gurgled to nothing as he turned. His body lengthened, his worn leather footings bursting as his legs, now fused, spiraled behind, scaled and glistening black.

The master circled, watching the devil’s face to ready for the strike.

When it came, the master leapt aside and slashed deep across the chest. The devil howled and struck again, frenzied, and the master thrust his saber deep into the belly. As the devil writhed, the master struck off the head with a last swing of his blade.

I edged towards the prone form, for even dead the devil was fearsome. “Why should a devil be a healer, when they wish us harm?”

“Devils are foul things, and if they do not do us harm, it is not for virtue. It is only the stifling of their nature, for a time.” His voice fell lower as he spoke, and when I looked to his eyes I saw some depth of grief there that I did not understand. “They call great evil upon mankind, with a power they’ve neither wish nor will to control.”

We had gone then, collecting supplies from the village as payment and journeying towards the town where rumor called us next.

The memory seemed strange to me now, and it rolled in my mind without rest. I lay long on my cloak before sleep came again.

It was only when the skies finally emptied and the mountain trails wound beyond Candrin’s ken that the master led once more. We were deep in the mountains then, crags and cliffs at every turn. Our pace was the same, yet there was a tenseness in our step. Candrin and the master agreed it would be only a day or two more.

I met Candrin with distrust when he slid behind to me again, our second day after the rain had stalled.

“Your master knows these mountains well, does he not?”

I scowled. “He is wise in the ways of the devils. He catches their scent. That is how we follow the trail of the she-devil now.”

“He is indeed very wise in their ways,” said Candrin, scrambling over a low stone that he might stay at my ear. “How is it, I wonder?”

I shrugged. “He is champion of the Dales, and now all the greater plains. He is a mighty warrior against the devils.”

“Aye, indeed, but you do not catch my meaning. How does he know such things—the methods of seeking the devils, of slaying them?” He peered sidelong at me.

“He is very wise.”

“Has he studied, then, as I have studied?” growled Candrin. “I must weave a costly sorcery to seek out a lone devil, yet he finds tens of them without any sorcery at all. How? Has he spent long years in search of the knowledge of these creatures?”

“He has not said.”

“Can it be he knows their ways for some other reason?”

I turned to him, tired of his questions. “And what reason would you have?”

“He is one of them.”

Before thinking, I had thrust him against a boulder. “How do you slander my master? How dare you?”

“Think, man. He has the nose for them, smells them like only one devil can smell another. He knows their ways. They reveal themselves to him. Think on it.”

“I think we’ve no more need of you,” I said, a hand to his throat as I reached for my knife with the other.

Before I’d drawn it clear of my belt, I was pulled roughly back and slammed into the rock beside him.

“What is this?” asked the master.

“Master, he slanders you,” I cried. “He dares say —”

“I’ve no wish to hear what he dares say,” said the master. “Leave him. Mage, bear your tongue well in your mouth. We’ve yet long to travel today.” He turned his back to us and continued up. Candrin glanced at me, searching, and then followed the master.

I took the rear, and in the hours until dusk imagined thrusts of my knife to the throat, the eyes, the belly of the cloaked man climbing ahead of me.

As the last light in the gray sky dimmed on the edges of the horizon, we stopped and prepared for sleep. Candrin drifted behind the nearest boulder for some preparation of his own devising, and as he did, the master was suddenly at my side.

He dropped close, his voice hushed and tinged with strain. “Kem, you are my manservant. We go tomorrow to hunt a she-devil, and perhaps you’ll sorrow to see a woman die, even one such as she. Look to me, Kem.” He clutched my cloak. “Swear me an oath that if any devil crosses your path, you’ll slay it. Swear it!”

“Aye, Master, I swear it.”

He let go my cloak and I tripped back.

“But Master—”

He turned away and knelt by a rock across the clearing, where he pulled his cloak about him and lay down. Candrin, returning just after, seemed not to see either of us, but lay at another edge of the clearing. I went and took my place near the master, between him and Candrin.

I slept ill, fitfully, and some time before dawn I crept away to the edge of the long, stumbling slope of stone that fell away from our path. Far across that expanse of edges and shadows, at the peaks spearing the horizon, I watched for the sky to lighten. How I could have wished for a glimpse of the natural sun through the close-hanging fog that had dogged us all through the mountains. At that dark hour even a pale, weakened glow would have been most welcome. I could not judge the time to know how long I must wait, but there seemed no chance of sleep again.

Candrin’s accusations angered me, but the master’s command, that I prepare to slay a devil, left me far more uneasy. In my years serving him carrying baggage, keeping watch, bearing witness to his fatal duels with the devils, I’d never had need to strike one. Always the master had slain them. I mean him no dishonor when I say that the slaying was no difficult thing, for when they have just turned devils are sluggish and slow to strike. The master’s greatness was in the finding and the knowing of them, not the slaying.

All about this quest was strange. Never had the master allowed any to accompany us, surely no sly magicker like this man Candrin. And why would he not listen to my worry?

He had not trusted me less since we first journeyed together, when he’d bound me hand and foot each night and kept my boots near him as he slept. It was wise he did. I cannot think now what I would have done had I freed myself, for I had little skill but the thieving my father had taught me. It was this that the devil, still a man, had murdered him for. But the master gave me no such chance for escape, taking me far across barren wilds and past lonely clusters of huts in search of the devils. On those long roads between the dwellings of man, the master showed me the throwing of the hunter’s knife, the earths the healing herbs love, how one may sleep in deepest cold and not die. Perhaps some of these things might be called magic by the unknowing, but they are not, for I know them and I am no mage.

I might still have taken my own way, then, but there came a time when I was shown two roads, and I bound myself by my choice. We traveled near these same mountains, though further north, across the same wildlands ranged by wolfhounds. My master had a rumor of devilry in a village in that direction. We rested by turns, the waking one tending the fire while the other slept. I woke to a cry, and saw the master wrestling a hound, its teeth snapping at his throat.

Acting without thought I spun to the fire, grabbed a burning limb, and clubbed the hound with it, swinging with the strength of all my fear and my courage woven as one.

As the wolfhound howled, the master found the knife he’d been reaching for and plunged it into the hound’s head. With a weak moan, the hound fell to the ground, its teeth still bared.

The master took the pain from my burned hand, though the rippled flesh never healed smooth. He gave me a knife, as well, and did not again bind my feet. There was no need.

Thinking these things, I watched the eastern sky until it began to pale. The others arose. After a quick, silent meal from our packs, we set out again, the master leading with a long stride that I hurried to keep up with.

The way grew treacherous, for we followed no path. The stones we climbed were still damp, and slick under our feet. As we were slipping between the walls of two peaks whose stony heads were not so far above ours, the master drew to a halt, his hand in the air to call silence.

Staying us with a motion, he passed through the crevice and was gone.

“In your years with such a champion,” Candrin rasped, “I am sure you know the one sure way of causing a devil to reveal its nature.”

I drew away from Candrin’s rasp in my ear. He followed. “Has he never told you why they always turn as he attacks?”

I glared at him. “I know. It is because they fear to die in human form.”

He nodded his cloaked head at me. “Indeed. Remember that.” After a pause, he said, “I wonder why it is. It does them no good in the fight. Perhaps some final hunger for the truth. Eh? Knowing their lives short, they wish to spend one moment not skulking, not hiding. Doubtless they have some less noble reason. Some twisted mysticism, maybe fear for their souls.” He shook his head slowly. “Yet I cannot but give them honor for such honesty, be it selfish or foolish or noble.”

“You’ve no honor to give any creature.”

He twisted to look at me, and his eyes narrowed. “How do you think I found your master but by the spells that find devils?”

“You lie.”

“Fool.” He spat the word in my face. “Two devils will die this day, whether I’ve your hand or no.”

Wearily I turned away to watch the passage. Behind me Candrin shuffled and murmured under his breath. I could have struck him then, turning to him on a pretense and crushing his skull, if only to still his fidgeting and his foul mouth. But the master would not want it, and besides, Candrin had not yet freed the she-devil we sought.

The master came some time later, his face pale but his features set. “She’s there. Candrin, come break the enchantment, that I may slay her.” He turned back the way he had come, and we followed. The way was thin in places and the stone walls stretched above us, seeming to flatten us as we went.

From the darkness of the passage, we broke out onto a plateau, studded with stones and grown thick with weed. Opposite the passageway, across this strange meadow, stood the devil, trapped in her prison of crystal. Had the sun broken through the clouds there, the great crystal would have shone like a hundred lamps, like water set somehow afire.

“What must you do to free her?” asked the master.

“I must look closer,” said Candrin, his eyes on the devil.

With cautious stride we approached the she-devil, as though at any moment she might break from her block of shining stone and strike at us. But finally we stood before the pillar, and she remained coiled within, her arms thrown up before her face, her black hair forever floating about her. Had any clothing been thrown off when she turned, it must have long since rotted away.

Candrin knelt and began taking things from his pack: thin-pulled leather scrawled with intricate symbols, a tiny dagger, a cloth filled with some pungent herb. Meanwhile the master circled the stone. He peered at the she-devil with a great intensity of some emotion I could not identify.

I had never been so near a devil still living, enchanted or not. Her great black tail wound several coils thick beneath her. I shuddered but could not look away. That line where the immense serpent form melted to that of a woman thrilled me with a horrified fascination. There the scales faded to skin, pale against the ebony. There curved breasts small, neatly shaped—I flushed, for in serving the master I’d had little experience with women.

She was terrified. Her eyes showed it, wide and white, around coins of yellow like brilliant gems with knives of black at their centers. Her mouth was open in a silent cry.

“Candrin, have you prepared?” The master’s voice seemed far too loud in that still place.

“It will not be so much longer,” said Candrin. The master drew back some distance away and sat to wait. As we watched, Candrin built a fire before the pillar, muttering strange words over it and finally throwing in the herb I had smelled. My eyes smarted and my nose stung at the odor. Beside me, the master sneezed harshly.

“Candrin,” he called. “What purpose has that foul stuff?”

“It subdues the devils,” Candrin replied. “They cannot abide the scent.”

The master sneezed again but said no more.

“Master,” I whispered, “Why was she caught in stone? What had she done?”

“Her fate was a warning to the others,” he said softly.

“She is very young.”

“Hush,” he said, his stare fixed upon her. I looked, but of course she had not moved. I asked no more questions.

Finally, Candrin called to us, “I’ll break it now.”

The master hastily arose with his saber drawn. As we approached, Candrin took the small dagger, heated in the fire, and pressed its tip into the stone. With a sudden crash, like that of water at the base of a falls, a great mist rose around the stone, obscuring it. When it had drifted clear, the stone was gone, and the she-devil lay gasping on the earth.

The master strode forward, choking on the smoke from Candrin’s fire.

He stopped just a stride away from her to look upon her as she lay. As her breathing steadied, she finally seemed to see his boots before her face, and she peered up to him. She stilled.

It was as though they themselves hardened to crystal. An air of silence hung about them like that at a grave after the mourners have gone.

Abruptly the master turned on his heel and came to me. “Kem, it is your time.”

“What?” I stared into his earnest face. The smoke had drawn tears from his reddened eyes.

“I am weak. Pity strangles me. You must slay the devil, Kem.”

“Master, I cannot,” I said, shocked. “It is yours to slay.”

“You must.”

“I am no champion, Master. I am only your servant.”

His breath was ragged. “Then serve me now. You’ve sworn to me your will.”

“But, Master—”

He fell to the earth, choking.

Candrin was at my side. “You see it, Kem? He is a devil, for only they suffer so under the scent I’ve brewed. Do you see it now? You’re not harmed by the smoke.”

I sniffed at the scent again. It stung, but it did not choke me.

“Now, go slay that she-serpent while I tend to this one.” Candrin shoved me towards the she-devil, still lying where she’d fallen. With shaking hands, I took the saber from the master and moved towards her, not even thinking what I did, for my mind whirled.

It could not be. He was a champion. He had slain tens of devils just before my eyes, and many more before I served him. Surely it could not be.

Some sound behind me caused me to turn. Candrin knelt at the master’s side with his dagger in his hand, raising it to strike.

I did not think. With one motion, I lunged and swung the saber at Candrin.

He howled a stricken animal cry of pain. I drew the saber from his shoulder and swung again, now at his side. Again, another bite in his shoulder. Again—

Something tugged at me, and I whirled with the saber raised above my head, nearly striking at my master, whose hand clung to my shirt.

“Leave him, Kem,” he whispered. A spreading crimson stain marked his chest. I glanced to Candrin and saw that his dagger was already blooded.

“Master,” I cried. Dropping the saber, I reached for his cloak and shoved it to his chest.

“No use,” he gasped. “Poisoned.”

Beneath my touch, he writhed. I fell back. His face twisted and in long convulsions, his body swelled. He gave a low moan, and from within him burst a long black tail, shiny with scales. Shudders coursed through his body.

The poison was swift. Even as I watched, his breathing shallowed. His face, already pale, grew waxen. He looked to me with yellowed eyes. “Slay the she-devil.” I rushed to him and again held the cloak to his chest, but in a moment his struggling breaths ceased.

My eyes swelled with hot tears. “Master.” Kneeling there, not minding the seeping blood or the scales, I fell across my master’s body and wept.

When I had spent my first flush of tears, I looked stupidly around me. A few strides away Candrin lay curled in the grass, his hand to his shoulder as though to staunch the blood. It had done him little good, for the cuts were deep. Now he slept as one who would not wake again.

A gasp caught my ear, and I turned.

The she-devil was pulling herself upright. When I caught her eye she paused, her mouth open as she stared back at me.

Young, barely of marrying age. Wielder of a power no man could claim, a knowledge and a skill that worked so often for ill. Who could blame her if, in all those long centuries frozen in stone, she had nurtured a seed of spite?

I knelt to pick up the saber and wipe its curved blade clean on my shirt. When it shone again, I stood and looked to the she-devil.

Her scales were gone, and legs folded in place of the serpent’s tail. As she huddled with her arms about her, her slate-gray eyes followed my motions.

Under that gaze, I stopped.

She pulled her knees closer to her chest.

I had known villages where men died and women fell ill under devilish curses. Once the master slew a she-devil living as a birthing woman, and I saw the children whom she delivered, their tongues thick and their minds as weak as an animal’s. And here, curled in a heap in front of me, was another like the birthing woman.

I strode forward, raising the saber and tightening my grip on the hilt as my arm waited for the moment. As I neared, she dropped her gaze and closed her eyes. Her shoulders tightened, waiting for the blow to come. I stood to strike and as I readied, she took a last harsh breath.

She coughed.

Again, a deep, choking cough that clenched her frame.

Candrin’s smoke, caught on my clothes.

I dropped my hand. Tears washed across my vision, and I stumbled back.

Through a blur I looked to the master, so still, and to Candrin’s body curled in the grass. My breathing slowed. Finally, I returned to the master and set to work. I listened for the she-devil’s movements in case she should now choose to strike, but she did not come any nearer.

I took the master’s pack from him, but I returned him his saber. I had no wish to heft its weight again. His pack was light and held no provisions for the journey out. I laid the master straight, his tail coiled where his feet had been. Then I piled rocks around him, many and many until only a heap of mountain stone marked where he lay.

Candrin’s tunic and cloak were bloodied, but his pants were only travel-soiled. I stripped him of them, folded them, and laid them near the heap of stone. By them I left my cloak and my heavier shirt. I stood quietly there for a moment, and then took my knife, the master’s gift to me, and laid it atop the clothing.

I glanced once to the she-devil, still watching me with eyes like wells of shadow. I nodded to her. She was still for a moment, and then she dipped her head in return.

Turning away, I took up my pack and crossed that eerie plain to the passage by which we had come. I did not look back to Candrin’s body, left for the ravens.

My master was a mighty man, and more than a man. He slew devils with a sure hand as none other did, finding them when no other could and striking them down with a great strength. They say if he had prevailed, our land would be free of devils. I doubt this very much. When the last that turns is slain, still there remain the devilish creatures who do not turn, formed as men.

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Sarah L. Edwards writes science fiction and fantasy, reads a lot, knits (anybody need a scarf?), and wonders what to do with this math degree she just got. Her fiction has previously appeared in Writers of the Future XXIV, Aeon Speculative Fiction, and Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine.

Her stories have appeared four times previously in Beneath Ceaseless Skies, including "The Tinyman and Caroline" in BCS #17 and the BCS anthology The Best of Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Year One.

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