Chapter 1:

Devil in the Morning

Otherworld Ego

“Please don’t kill me,” Arlo said. “I just died.”

The knight leading Arlo turned and scowled at him, but it was the one behind them, with the crossbow aimed at his back, that he’d been talking to. Neither said anything, so he walked with the disconcerting feeling that at any moment an arrow might lodge itself into his back. After having gone well out of his way to die painlessly, he wasn’t eager to tempt a do-over—but he had questions.

The hills around them sank lower and lower until they were shuffling through open plains. The earth was hard-packed and rocky, immensely uncomfortable on his bare feet, but he was doing his best not to look at them. They were, after all, pink now. Not sun-burned—but properly pink. Reddish-pink, sure, but decidedly not the pallid, peachy skin he’d died with. His hands were the same, and he had a feeling it didn't stop there.

There was no sign of his dorm, or really the campus at all. Salter University was deep in the Midwest, but there wasn’t a single cornfield around, and the horizon was jagged with mountains, which he had assumed were illegal in the heartlands.

“Are we in the Appalachians?” he asked.

“What’s he saying?” said the one behind, in an accent that was more cuppa tea than howdy pardner.

“Don’t listen to him. I seen one of these ones at Lorthos, they’re fuckin’ mindhumpers.” The one in front yanked on the ropes around Arlo’s wrists and snarled. “You. Shut it. Either of us feels so much as a tingle in our heads, we’ll gut you.”

“I just want to know where I am!”

The knight whirled on him and Arlo shrieked, tripping backwards onto his ass. The bowman cackled. Plated hands hauled him roughly back to his feet.

“Listen to me, you sulfur shitstain,” the knight growled, holding him close enough to smell the yellow on his teeth. “I hear one more word come oozing out your mouth, and I’ll pulp you ‘til you can’t speak no more. Do you understand?”

He almost said yes, but that would have gotten him pulped. Instead he just nodded. Enthusiastically. The knight let him go with a shove, and the bowman prodded him onward with the bolt of his crossbow.

No questions, then.

They passed into the shadow of a meager mountain range, and what remained of a forest ravaged by some kind of wildfire. Blackened stumps stuck up like pimples in the dirt, barricades of toppled trunks lay scorched and shattered. The ground sagged beneath them, they waded through ankle-high ponds of ash and bark. Schools of insects swam across his feet and he tried to ignore them.

More trees still stood further on, their branches seared off and their boles whittled thin by flames. Every minute brought dozens more, packed them closer and spanned them further, until they were walking through the heart of a ruined crescent of woodlands.

Crows heckled them from above. The bowman shot one from a treetop and a panicked mass of them took to the skies, only to alight again not far ahead. The knight watched Arlo while his incorrigible partner reloaded, hand on the sword at his hip. Even in the shade the man was sweated hard, red-faced, hair stuck to his forehead. Was it hot? Arlo wouldn’t have minded a sweater, all told; it must have been the armor.

Eventually they broke through the tree line, and Arlo stopped so suddenly the bowman’s bolt poked him in the back, and it took another shove to get him moving again. Only the promised pulping kept him from asking where the hell they were, again.

They’d come to some kind of camp, pitched in the ruins of a town that seemed to have suffered the same fate as the forest. Remnants of stone buildings, most toppled or collapsed, were sprawled out purposelessly like a corpse of whatever community had been here. Tents were sprung up in its bones, roughshod shacks made from canvas and debris, more organized post-mortem, more structured.

Knights hung about in hundreds—more than could be squeezed into the makeshift blockade surrounding the town. They ate gruel on logs or on the ground around cooking pits, buffed out their armor and whetted their blades at the furnaces of buildings repurposed as smithies. Dozens upon dozens busied themselves in the rubbled yards, sparring or exercising while men walked by with their hands clasped behind their backs, shouting orders and insults.

Troubled, angry gazes and hushed voices followed them as they made their way towards the center of town. Arlo might have risked asking someone for help, but from the way they all looked at him, he got the feeling everyone was just as eager to thrash him as his captors, who, frankly, seemed to love the attention.

In the courtyard of the town square, a massive tent nearly the size of a house stood out from the rest of the dilapidated camp. Its fabric was bright white, trimmed with gold, and embroidered upon the flaps of its entrance was the image of a seven-pointed star.

A man emerged from within, another knight in armor that was as white and gold-trimmed as the tent, but weathered almost to gray. His hair was dark and swept back, and an old, faded scar ran across his nose from cheek to cheek. He looked younger than the captor or the bowman, but they snapped to attention and saluted him with a fist over their hearts.

“Captain,” they said together.

The captain waved them at ease. Sharp, green eyes found Arlo’s, but they lacked the same kind of malice he’d found everywhere else. He didn’t look kind either, but sturdy caution was welcome over outright contempt.

“Care to explain why you’ve brought a demon here?” he asked.

“Found him out past the forest, sir, towards the Bulwark range,” the bowman said.

“At Camp Xeol?”

“No, not even close.”

“Then what of the warcamp?”

The knight-captor shrugged. “Didn’t reach it, sir, had to bring him back.”

“Your mission was reconnaissance, not capture, ” the captain sounded disappointed. “We’ve been in the dark for weeks, we need information.”

“But that’s him, sir.” The bowman prodded Arlo’s shoulder with his crossbow. “He’s a scout I wager—and he’s one of them…uh…” he glanced to his partner, snapped his fingers. “Mindhumpers. Big deals, right? So he probably knows all about what’s going on in Xeol. Figure all we gots to do is start peeling fingernails and—”

“No!” Arlo yelped. “No! No peeling! No—sir, mister, you need to listen to me, I have no idea what’s going on here. I just—”

His vision swam and he was on the ground before he even realized he’d been struck. Blood pooled in his mouth and he spat a glob of it onto the dirt. Arlo had never been in a fight, he’d had no idea what to expect. In hindsight the answer was obvious: being punched in the face hurt.

Well, they had warned him.

Someone hauled him up again, this time he was too dazed to put up his hands. However, the beating he’d evidently earned didn’t come. The knight and the bowman backed away, the captain held Arlo on his feet with a single arm.

“That’s enough,” he said. “What do you expect him to tell us if he bites his tongue off?”

“Sorry, sir,” the knight said, flexing his fingers. He smirked at the blood on his gauntlet. “Just wanted to tell everyone I punched a mindhumper.”

The pair saluted again and shuffled away. The captain held Arlo steady while his world swerved back into focus. More soldiers were watching, clustered but keeping their distance. They all looked eager to throw a few swings of their own.

“I’m taking you in to see the general. If you try anything—”

“Pulped, gutted, I know,” Arlo mumbled, rubbing his jaw, wiping his lip. “Look, mister, I don’t know if this is some kind of cult thing, or what, but I’m not...I’m not a demon! I don’t know anything about a camp, I don’t even know how I got here—I died!

“Not yet,” the captain said gravely. “But if you don’t know anything, you will.”
Nika Zimt