The screeching of demons pursued Rozen as she and her horse thundered across the featureless plain. Corroded chainmail slapped against her legs, knocking off bits of rotting leather and her own decaying flesh. She glanced over her shoulder, squinting through the grey drizzle. The distance between them and the red-eyed roiling blackness was growing.
“Keep it up, Shadow,” she yelled over the hoof beats. “You’re losing them.”
“Of course I’m losing them,” the horse said. His deep-chested baritone sounded not in the least winded; being dead meant neither of them needed to breathe. Being dead also meant that Shadow could talk, which had taken some time for Rozen to accept.
“But why,” the horse continued, “did you draw their attention in the first place? If I lose a leg because of this gallop, it will be your fault.”
“How was I supposed to know they were spying on the Seer?”
The horse snorted wordlessly. Rozen hunched her shoulders and glowered at the spot between Shadow’s ears.
“Fine, I should have checked behind the shack, okay? Are you happy now?” She sighed and took another look at the receding cloud behind them. “Just keep the mountains on your left. The Seer said the firefall is in this direction.”
They galloped on, and eventually the demons’ screeches faded away. The Seer had not been able to tell Rozen how far the firefall was. Time had no meaning in the Dead Lands, with its perpetually overcast skies and lack of seasons. So they galloped. Rozen began counting hoof beats: thubbity-one, thubbity-two. At thubbity-eleven-thousand-twenty-one, Shadow spoke again.
“Something is glowing ahead of us.”
Rozen blinked to clear her boredom-glazed eyes. Shadow was right: a red glow tinged the horizon. Excitement and apprehension flooded her. This was it, her way to return to the land of the living. It had to work this time.
A looming monolith emerged from the dreary rain. Shadow danced to an abrupt halt, Rozen frozen on his back. Towering hundreds of feet into the air, a stone dragon spread its wings, its neck curved and mouth gaping to expel a torrent of flame into a boiling pool of melted stone. Clouds of smoke and ash billowed around the pool and rose to mingle with the ever-present clouds. A hot wind wafted over them, carrying the smell of brimstone.
“The Seer said….” Rozen’s voice broke. She cleared her throat and tried again. “The Seer said we have to go through the firefall.”
Shadow snorted and tossed his head. “You have to be joking.”
“Let’s get closer.” Rozen urged him forward with her heels. “Maybe there’s a cave or tunnel or something.”
Cautiously, Shadow stepped toward the firefall. As they drew near, a surge of flames splashed into the lava below, sending a shock of blazing heat over them. Shadow reared with a loud whinny and bolted into the opposite direction.
“Stop! Shadow, stop, turn around!” Rozen sawed on the reins until the horse stumbled to a halt, trembling. The scent of singed hair clung to them.
Rozen slid from the saddle and ran to Shadow’s head, taking his muzzle in her hands. Hair and skin had burned from the right side of his face, revealing charred bone and teeth.
“I’m sorry, boy,” she choked, brushing away flaking bit of ash with gentle fingers. Pain did not end with death.
“That Seer tricked you,” Shadow rumbled, nuzzling her hands. “We can’t go through there.”
“No. No, it has to be true.” Rozen dropped her hands and turned to look at the firefall. “The demons believe it’s true. Why would they have tried to stop us otherwise?”
“Because they don’t like anyone talking about escaping the Dead Lands.” Shadow shook his mane, sending bits of ash drifting around them. His voice had an odd slur from the missing cheek. “Let’s go back. You can talk to the Black Cabal again, accept their offer and become a revenant—”
“No!” Rozen cut him off. “They wanted me to sacrifice you. I won’t do it. We’ve been together since we died in the war, and we’ll find a way to return together.”
“Then we can go back into the dimensional labyrinth,” the horse said, nudging her shoulder.
“And wander lost forever this time?” She shook her head and gripped the cracked binding on the hilt of her sword. “I believe we can return this way. I have to believe,” she whispered.
A piercing screech broke the stillness, reverberating off the dragon’s wings. Rozen spun, searching for the source of the sound. The echoes made it difficult to determine where it had originated. A second screech tore the air, followed by a third. Disembodied red eyes flickered open around the lava pool, the demons’ cloudy forms obscured in the smoke from the firefall.
“I cannot follow you this time. I dare not go into the fire.” Shadow’s voice was low and calm. He dropped his head to rest on her shoulder. “Is this where we part ways at last? Or will you come with me to find another path?”
Keeping one eye on the demons, Rozen looked into Shadow’s large black eye. “I’m sorry. I have to try. I took an oath to protect my family, no matter what. Not even death will stop me.”
The horse nuzzled what was left of her hair and whickered softly. “Safe journey to you then, little two-legs.”
“And to you, old friend.” Rozen laid a hand on his peeling flank, remembering the once-glossy black coat that had covered him. “Have a good afterlife.”
She gritted her teeth, pulled her sword from its rotting sheath, and lunged at the demons. Though rusted a solid reddish brown, the steel drove back the demons, which retreated with howls and snarls, opening a path to the lava pool. Rozen heard the sound of hoof beats fading away into the expanse of empty plain behind her. Without a backwards glance, Rozen made a running leap and dove into the firefall.