December 26, 2021

Demon

Demon

WARNING: Spoilers for A Sword Named Vengeance below!

YOU'VE BEEN WARNED!

The train car wobbled, bodies tilting left and right in unison, as the monstrous engine pulled them away from the city. Tomas opened his window and leaned out as the train traveled along a long bend.

The engine came into view, black steel belching black smoke into the cloudless sky.

Tomas hoped the city choked on the smoke. Three months he’d lived here, and each was somehow worse than the last. Why anyone chose to live in such a place was beyond him.

He closed the window, closed his eyes, and dreamed of open spaces. Of places where authority was but a distant memory. Where the factories didn’t poison the air and water spitting out goods no one needed.

“You’re particularly cheery today,” Elzeth observed.

“I want out.”

Elzeth knew. It was why they were on this train. One last job.

The conductor came by.

Zac, sitting next to Tomas, handed over two tickets with his most charming grin. The conductor gave them a cursory glance, then punched their tickets.

Once the conductor was safely out of earshot, Zac turned to Tomas. “It wouldn’t kill you to smile, you know. You look like you’re here to rob a train.”

He laughed at his joke, but Tomas didn’t join him.

After today, he and Zac would part ways, and that alone was worth all the money they were about to steal.

The city gradually faded away to farmland. Taller buildings became houses, and houses became larger and larger fields.

Once they were well beyond the limits of the city, Zac stood. He nodded once to Tomas.

It was time.

The two of them walked toward the rear of the train, picking up two more friends in a separate car. Tomas tugged once on the hilt of his sword, ensuring it slid smoothly from its scabbard. They came to a stop between passenger cars. Track blurred beneath Tomas’ feet. “Any questions?” Zac asked.

Everyone shook their heads.

The day would be a bloody affair, but also straightforward. Zac was never one for complex plans, especially not if they could just kill everyone and be richer for it. He was the only man Tomas had ever met who had more hate for the world than him.

Zac gestured to Tomas, who leaned out and grabbed the metal rungs welded to the side of the last passenger car in the train. The wind blew at him, but the train wasn’t moving much faster than a galloping horse. He climbed smoothly to the top of the car and waited for the others to join him.

The car rocked gently under his feet, but with Elzeth burning deep in his stomach, balance was no problem. He stepped forward, walking slowly, heel to toe. He didn’t really worry about anyone inside the car hearing him. Trains were anything but quiet. But caution cost him nothing. While he waited for the others to join him, he looked out across the prairie.

For as far as his eye could see, there was nothing but farmland. Small homes dotted the landscape, but fields of wheat dominated his vision. His shoulders relaxed the farther he put the city behind him. The wind blew his long hair back, and he imagined riding a horse through the fields.

Nothing to do, and no one giving him commands.

Soon.

When the others had all climbed to the top, Tomas led them across the car. Below them, passengers read their newspapers, stared out the windows, and spoke to their traveling companions.

And four guards sat, completely oblivious that Tomas intended to steal the very reason they were on the train.

Tomas reached the end of the car and smoothly dropped into a prone position. He pulled himself forward, one slow inch at a time, until the space between the final two cars came into view. No guards stood on the platforms on either car.

They were too confident.

So far, Zac’s information had been perfect. If it continued to be true, there would be another four guards in the next car, where an enormous vault of government gold rested, just waiting for someone to take it and put it to better use.

Tomas could kill four guards before any of them even had a chance to draw their swords.

Zac and the others counted on it.

He turned to the gang and made a series of gestures. Their plan needed no adjustments. Zac nodded.

Elzeth burned brighter, and Tomas rose to a crouch. He jumped, dropping between the cars onto the platform of the vault car. The door burst open as he kicked it, and Tomas strode in, sword already in hand, a conquering hero looking for his loot.

One glance told him he was in trouble. There were four warriors within the vault car, but they wore civilian clothes, not the drab green uniforms of the government. They all held daggers and looked like they had been waiting for him. As he watched, two of them let the daggers drop from their hands. Thin chains connected to the daggers’ hilts stopped their descent, and the warriors began to spin the weapons.

Inquisitors.

Understanding hit him as hard as two trains crashing together. He risked a glance behind him, where the rest of his gang was supposed to be.

No one stood there.

There had never been a government vault.

Tomas swore as daggers flew toward his heart. He batted one aside, careful not to catch his blade in the chain trailing it. He sidestepped the other.

The daggers returned to their masters, and two chased after him. The inquisitors spread out, keeping lines of attack open. Tomas darted toward the nearest one, a man maybe ten years older than him, the first hints of gray in his hair. But the inquisitor was quick. He kept ahead of Tomas’ blade and waited for the others to attack.

Tomas retreated before an onslaught of daggers, and as one passed in front of his face, he saw it glistened.

His breath came fast and shallow. The inquisitors had prepared for him. He’d heard of the poison some inquisitors coated their blades with. He’d suffer temporary paralysis. He backed up, searching for an opportunity to break away. He slid away from one dagger, then dodged a thrust from a small woman. A gap opened, a heartbeat when none of them were in position to attack. He retreated through the door, then stepped to the side as another dagger lashed out at him.

Tomas leaped between the cars and pulled open the door of the passenger carriage he’d just walked on top of minutes ago. He needed to run, to flee in whatever direction the inquisitors were not. Several passengers turned to examine the new arrival.

A dagger stabbed his calf. He screamed, drawing the attention of every eye in the car. He looked back. The man with graying hair held the chain connecting them in both hands.

The other three inquisitors swarmed around him.

Tomas didn’t have time to pull the blade out before the others reached him.

He parried the first two attacks, the long reach of his sword a detriment now that he was in a carriage filled with passengers. The inquisitors were less hampered with their daggers. He almost lost his balance as the older inquisitor yanked on the dagger embedded in his leg.

He roared in agony but was still in time to bat away a dagger whipped at him by the short woman.

Tomas watched, horrified, as the redirected dagger darted toward a young girl, huddled with her parents near the window of their seat.

Without Elzeth, he never could have reacted in time. But Elzeth burned bright, and Tomas reached out and twisted his blade in the chain attached to the dagger. The poisoned weapon stopped in midair and dropped, just inches short of the family.

But it gave the inquisitors precious time. The two free daggers both hit him in the chest, one a moment after the other.

He kept his feet for another few heartbeats, but the blackness that closed in at the edges of his vision was relentless. Then he could no longer balance against the rocking of the train, and he fell to the side.

He was unconscious by the time he hit the floor of the car.

Tomas woke in pitch darkness. Even with Elzeth burning brightly, he couldn’t see anything. He was naked, chained spread-eagled to a heavy table. He tested his bonds, but not even Elzeth’s strength could bend steel.

This was the inquisition, after all. They knew what he was. Depending on how much Zac had told them, they also knew who he was.

He swore and fought the rising wave of panic that turned his insides to jam. Death on the battlefield, he’d prepared himself for. A battlefield death wasn’t guaranteed to be quick or painless, but it would certainly be quicker and less painful than what was in store for him.

He pulled at his chains. Tried to break bones so that he might slip from the shackles. But nothing worked. They had restrained him too tightly.

When the first light shone through the cracks in a door, it was enough to burn Tomas’ eyes. He squeezed his eyes closed against the glare. The door opened, and two pairs of footsteps entered. They shut the door behind them, and Tomas heard the bolt turn in the lock from the outside. Should Tomas somehow escape his bonds, they still wouldn’t let him out of the room. The inquisitors hung the lanterns on hooks set in the walls, and Tomas found the courage to open his eyes.

He recognized both. One was the older man, the one who had trapped him with the dagger through the calf. The other was the smaller woman. The graying man took position near the door, and the woman stood next to the table, running her finger up the side of his torso. There was a smile on her face that sent a chill down Tomas’ spine.

“Is there anything you want to tell us before we begin?” she asked. Her voice was low, almost sensual.

The inquisitors had a gift for recruitment. Somehow, they always found the ones who enjoyed inflicting pain.

“It seems I’ve taken a wrong turn somewhere,” Tomas said. “If you’d be so kind as to show me the way out, I’ll be on my way.”

The woman laughed. “Oh, a funny one.” She leaned down so that her lips were almost brushing against Tomas’ ear. “I like the ones who think they’re funny. When they break, it’s just. So. Sweet.” She put emphasis on every word, hissing the long s sounds.

Then she stood up. A dagger appeared in her hand. “We’ll be leaving you now. I just wanted to check to see if you were awake yet. And I wanted to leave you something to think about. I’ve found the anticipation makes what comes next so much better.”

In one quick motion, she stabbed her dagger down in Tomas’ thigh. She pulled it out just as quickly, then rubbed the blood off on his chest.

He groaned in agony as they grabbed their lanterns and left him once again in pitch blackness.

Tomas had no way of tracking time. He knew only darkness and hunger. Struggle was pointless, but he struggled anyway. Somehow, he believed that if he stopped, if he resigned himself to the inevitable, even for a moment, he’d lose something he could never regain.

From his hunger, he guessed they left him in the room for at least a day. Maybe more. They were in no rush.

His words with Elzeth were spare. The sagani didn’t feel Tomas’ pain, not directly. When the inquisitors began their bloody work, Elzeth would be another observer. Tomas hated the sagani for it. Not that it was Elzeth’s fault, but Tomas wasn’t in the mood for reason.

His stomach was growling when the lights came again. The door opened on silent hinges and the same two inquisitors once again stepped through. The woman led the way, although there was something in the way the two regarded one another that made Tomas believe the man was in charge.

The woman smiled when she heard Tomas’ stomach rumble. “Hungry?”

“I think I missed breakfast.”

She laughed, and the sound sent a shudder down his spine.

She never offered food.

They introduced themselves. Her name was Ruth, and his was Killan. Ruth did most of the talking. She asked most of the questions.

The longer they spent in the room, the more Tomas was convinced of his initial guess. Killan was in charge. Ruth, if anything, seemed to be an inquisitor in training. Somehow, he didn’t think that would make her any less effective at what came next.

At first, the conversation was almost amicable. Ruth’s first line of inquiry was about Zac and his gang. About Tomas and his illicit activities. They knew more about him than he’d guessed. For the last three years he’d been trying, in ways big and small, to sabotage the new government.

The war was over, and the treaty signed. But Tomas couldn’t let the fight go.

It would mean the men and women who’d died by his side had died for nothing.

They knew about his previous incarcerations. They had a decent timeline of his travels from city to city.

Given how much they already knew, he had little problem answering their questions. He told them, freely, everything he knew about Zac and his small gang. The information likely wasn’t too useful. Zac wouldn’t have told Tomas anything vital, knowing he was about to betray his strongest fighter. But Tomas wasn’t about to suffer pain for a man who’d betrayed him.

He also answered every question about his anti-government activities without hesitation. If the church turned him over to the government, Tomas would consider it a mercy. Nothing the government could do would match the skills of the inquisition. He didn’t have some great plan he was afraid of revealing, either. Mostly he fed his rage by small acts of terrorism. Killing all the soldiers in a small garrison. Blowing up train tracks. Again, nothing that would get him in any more trouble than he was already in.

Eventually, Ruth complained. “He isn’t much fun.”

Killan didn’t even crack a smile. “He will be. You just need to ask him questions about things he actually cares about.”

The exchange felt rehearsed. A conversation these two had held before. Perhaps over the restrained figure of another host.

“But demons don’t care about anything,” Ruth said, her tone petulant.

“Sure they do,” Killan said. He walked to the door and knocked the day’s code for leaving. “Themselves.”

He let himself out, and Tomas’ heart began to pound in his chest. When the door closed behind Killan’s departing figure, Ruth’s smile grew until it stretched from ear to ear. She leaned over him, resting her head against his chest. “Tell me about the demon you hold inside you,” she said.

From that moment forward, everything changed.

In a sense, the pair of inquisitors had been right. Tomas didn’t care about much. But he was loyal to Elzeth. The two of them had been together, day and night, for years. And the purpose of the church was to destroy the sagani. They didn’t say so, at least not publicly. They claimed benevolence.

But the inquisition proved otherwise. They hunted hosts in the shadows, seeking answers about sagani. They answered to no law, and they were the sharpest blade the church wielded in the quest to destroy the creatures. If the inquisition succeeded, Tomas and all the other hosts would be dead, and an entire species would be wiped off the face of the planet.

At first, Tomas tried to deceive. He told half-truths and lies. Claimed to have forgotten events that were burned into his memory. Ruth played along for a time, but Tomas knew he wasn’t fooling her.

Inquisitors weren’t just experts in delivering pain. Any child with a blade could do that well enough. They separated truth from lies like wheat from chaff.

And Ruth went to work on him.

Tomas thought he’d known pain. He’d gone days without food while running from enemy troops. He’d been stabbed, cut, and beaten more times than he could count. Frostbite, dehydration, and exposure were frequent companions on his journeys.

He thought he was ready for whatever the inquisition could do to him.

He wasn’t.

Ruth had a collection of tools on a table she wheeled into his room. Knives, scalpels, hammers, needles of various gauges, bone saws, and so much more. They were all terrifying enough.

But it wasn’t the tools that Tomas grew to fear.

It was Ruth and her imagination.

The inquisition had been after Tomas for years. Sometimes, in the darkness of night, he’d allowed himself to imagine what it might be like. He’d imagined the worst tortures he could and wondered if he could withstand them. Whenever he’d done the exercise, the results had always been inconclusive. But after a few hours with Ruth, he realized his mistake.

At heart, he wasn’t an inquisitor.

There were tortures he couldn’t imagine. Places his mind had refused to go. The places Ruth found endless joy.

He held out as long as he could, but Ruth broke him, and eventually, he told her everything.

Though he answered every question, she didn’t stop. Once she started, it was as if a dam had been broken. He wondered if his torment would ever end.

She did take breaks.

Her knowledge of his healing revealed how much the church had already learned about the hosts. Ruth knew how far she could take him, and then she let him heal. They fed him just enough so that Elzeth had the strength necessary. What was broken was repaired. Cuts were stitched back together. Damaged organs were given enough time to be made whole.

Even his healing was another source of information for them. Ruth measured everything, recorded it all.

He knew Ruth didn’t consider him human.

Hells, there were days he’d wondered himself.

Though his body healed, his spirit and mind did not. He couldn’t string together coherent thoughts. Recent memories of his time with Ruth slammed into him whenever he tried to remember better days. Waves of rage would wash over him, uncontrollable fits worse than anything he’d ever experienced. Then the wave would crest and pass, leaving him dark and depressed. Death was better than living.

But the church denied him even that.

It was while he was in one of his dark moods that Killan came to him.

When the door opened, Tomas hoped his deliverance had finally come. Ruth hadn’t left that long ago, and his body was still healing. It was too soon for another session. Perhaps they’d finally learned enough and were done with him.

He longed for his end.

When Killan came through the door alone, Tomas wasn’t sure what to think. The older inquisitor had been present for several of Ruth’s sessions, but he’d said and asked little. Though, when he did ask a question, it was usually the last one Tomas wanted to answer. The man’s observations peeled away Tomas’ defenses better than Ruth’s sharpest scalpel.

Occasionally, Killan would suggest different paths to Ruth. He criticized her technique, or provided alternatives even more diabolical than Ruth’s plan. Ruth might be the one who most often wielded the instruments, but Killan was the one in charge. And Ruth was an eager student.

Tomas stared at Killan, but couldn’t even summon his rage. He couldn’t control his emotions at all.

He brought in a chair with him. He placed a lantern on the hook, then sat down, watching Tomas like a hawk hunting over open prairie.

When he didn’t ask a question, Tomas closed his eyes. If the man wanted to look, let him. Tomas didn’t care anymore.

“Why did you save the family on the train?”

Tomas opened his eyes. The train seemed like an impossibly long time ago.

Killan repeated his question. “You could have continued your escape. But by saving the girl, you doomed yourself. Why?”

“Not their fight.”

Killan didn’t respond to that for a long time. He looked deep in thought, considering questions Tomas couldn’t begin to guess at. Just as Tomas was about to close his eyes, Killan spoke again. “I don’t believe you. You don’t care about them. You’re a demon, who only cares about continuing a war that ended years ago.”

“I’m done fighting. That train was supposed to be my last job,” Tomas said. “Enough money to leave everything behind. To travel out west.”

Killan shook his head. “You don’t need money to travel out west. Hundreds of people, if not thousands, do it every year. People who have less than you, especially when you consider your training. If you genuinely wanted to go out west, all you had to do was turn your face toward the setting sun and start walking.”

Tomas blinked.

He needed money for train fares. For food, and for buying land when he got out west far enough. At least, that was what he’d believed.

In his months of dreaming, he’d never considered a different way.

Always a fool.

Killan continued, “You say you’re done fighting. But if I freed you, right now, and put a sword in your hands, what would you do?”

“Kill you all.”

Killan snorted. “You think you could?”

“Without a single doubt.”

“Doesn’t sound like a man who’s done with fighting to me.”

“I doubt all you inquisitors would let me just walk out.”

“And if we did?”

Tomas frowned. There was something in Killan’s voice. A meaning, hidden underneath the surface, he didn’t understand. He considered the question. They had tortured him. Put him through a living hell.

He couldn’t summon his rage. His chest felt dark and empty. He couldn’t bring himself to care. “Then I’d walk out without spilling a drop of blood.”

“And the demon living inside of you? Elzeth? Would he summon control of your body and unleash his rage?”

Tomas let his eyes drift from the ceiling down to the inquisitor. “You know that’s not how it works. I’m certain you’ve read Ruth’s notes. We avoid unity at all costs. But even if we didn’t, you’d have nothing to fear. He’s less inclined to violence than I am.”

“Is that so?”

“He finds human behaviors and adherence to ideologies irrational.”

Killan raised an eyebrow. “Truly?”

Tomas nodded.

Killan studied him for another minute, then took the lantern off the hook and left the room without another word.

Ruth came again as soon as Tomas was healed. He screamed as she worked, and she had more questions about Elzeth. She’d spoken with Killan.

And Tomas talked. There was nothing for him to do but talk. It was the only way he could avoid the pain, if even for a few minutes.

She left him, broken and empty, as she always did.

Elzeth began the now-familiar routine of healing his wounds. It always took him a few hours, but one favor in his advantage was that Tomas wasn’t using energy for anything else. Tomas slept.

Tomas woke to food.

It wasn’t food like he was used to, though. They’d been feeding him some mixture that barely qualified as gruel.

This was an actual meal. Chicken and potatoes. Neither had been prepared well, but after days of near-starvation and slop, Tomas considered it a feast fit for royalty. An attendant fed him, one of the church believers responsible for cleaning the blood from the room after Ruth was done.

When he finished, Tomas felt better than he had in days. Certainly, the best he’d felt since waking up in this room.

Elzeth spoke what they were both feeling. “Something’s happening.”

Tomas agreed. “But what?”

Neither of them had answers. All they could do was wait.

Killan entered the room, alone again.

Tomas watched him, his interest piqued by the meal.

This time, Killan brought in no chair. He paced back and forth, a nervous energy in his step. After a full minute, he stopped and turned to stare at Tomas. “You say you wanted to go out west. Then why keep fighting? Why keep stealing? Why work with Zac and his gang?” The questions came out as one long string.

“I thought I needed the money,” Tomas said. “But I also wanted to hurt the government one last time before I left.”

“What would you do out west? Terrorize settlements? Attack the armies exploring the wilds?”

Tomas shook his head. “Just live. I don’t want anyone telling me what to do.”

Killan resumed his pacing.

Tomas let him pace without interruption. Whatever was in the inquisitor’s mind was beyond Tomas’ influence.

Killan stopped again. “I want you to help me escape.”

Tomas glanced at his restraints. “I’m pretty sure I’m the one in chains here.”

“Don’t be a fool, Tomas. Inquisitors don’t leave the inquisition.”

Tomas stared at Killan. He didn’t believe the inquisitor. Not for a moment. Likely, it was just another torture, worse than the others. They intended to hold out hope, then snatch it away. But what did it matter? Anything was better than this. “Then free me.”

“Give me your word you’ll help me escape.”

“You want my word?” Tomas couldn’t believe it. The inquisition considered hosts nothing more than demons. Why would his word matter one bit?

But Killan just nodded.

“Fine. I promise that if you let me free, I’ll help you escape the inquisition.”

Killan produced a key from his pocket. “Then let’s get going.”

Killan unlocked Tomas’ ankles first, then moved on to his wrists. Once Tomas was free, the two men simply stared at each other for a moment. Tomas considered just killing Killan there.

He couldn’t bring himself to do it. He’d given his word.

More important, though, he had no idea what was beyond that door. He might need Killan.

The inquisitor went to the door, opened it, and reached out. He brought in Tomas’ clothes and his sword. He left them all on the table Tomas had been stretched out on.

It took Tomas a while to dress. Though Elzeth had kept his body whole, his muscles were still stiff from disuse. He stretched them out and tied his sword to his hip. Then he nodded to Killan.

The inquisitor led him into a long hallway. Thick doors were set on either side of the passage. Tomas stopped. “Are there other hosts in here?”

Killan shook his head. “Not right now. There was one, but he died a few days ago.”

“How long have I been here?”

“Four days.”

Tomas shook his head. He’d thought it was longer. It had felt like an eternity.

Killan gestured for him to hurry, and he did. The lantern bobbed as Killan hurried to a stair.

“Where are the others?” Tomas asked.

“Gone for now,” Killan answered, starting up the stairs. “Ruth is scheduled to return before long, but I arranged for a period of time when I was the only one here.”

He lifted a trapdoor above their heads, and Tomas followed him into a storage room. A rug was rolled up to the side. Shelves of food made Tomas’ mouth water, but Killan was already asking for his help. He shut the trapdoor, which almost vanished into the floor as it shut. It would take more than a casual glance to spot it.

Then they rolled the rug over the trapdoor. It was no wonder Tomas hadn’t seen any sunlight during his time with the inquisitors.

They left the storage room, walked down a short hallway, and came into a large room. Tomas knew at once where he was. The tall, angled roof, stained glass windows, and rows of benches made it clear enough. He was in a mission.

The room was quiet. The pale red light of Tolkin shone through the stain glass. He turned to Killan. “You work out of a mission?”

Killan shrugged. “We own the land.” He led Tomas forward. Together, they hurried toward the double doors at the back of the hall of worship. Tomas had never been in a mission before, and he was eager to put his first experience firmly in the past.

A familiar voice stopped them both in their tracks. “I’m disappointed in you, Killan,” Ruth said. “When the elders told me you doubted our cause, I told them it wasn’t so.” She sneered. “And now I see you here, walking beside that creature?”

There was movement all around them. Shadows appeared from under benches.

Two of the inquisitors were familiar.

But they’d brought help. A half dozen others stood, swords drawn. Not knights, though, thankfully. Tomas saw no insignia. Just believers. They looked like they weren’t strangers to the steel they carried. Soldiers, probably. Like him, looking for a cause to commit themselves to after the war.

They’d chosen poorly.

“Burn,” Tomas whispered.

He didn’t need to vocalize the request. Elzeth acted as soon as he recognized the danger. Strength flooded Tomas’ limbs. Everyone else slowed down.

A dagger, thin chain glinting in the moonlight, came for him. Tomas swatted it aside and ran.

The inquisitor didn’t move, filled with confidence. After all, they’d captured him once before.

The fool didn’t understand how important his environment was. If the inquisitors had a weakness, it was that they didn’t think like warriors. Only a few even thought as competent hunters. On the train, they’d been surrounded by civilians, and Tomas hadn’t had much room to maneuver.

Here, there were no innocents. Despite his promise, Tomas didn’t care if Killan fell. Everyone was an enemy, and he had space to move.

Ruth’s dagger came from his side, low, hoping to either stab his legs or wrap them in the chain. He jumped, clearing the attack easily. The first inquisitor’s eyes went wide. His dagger was returning to his hand, but not fast enough. Tomas cut through his neck as he landed.

The believers came next. They were circling around Killan, who spun his own chain in a defensive circle.

His ally held back, apparently unwilling to use his skills against warriors who hoped to kill him.

Tomas had no such qualms. He fell among them like a tornado of steel. They had been soldiers, but they weren’t ready to fight a host. Their cuts were too slow, their reactions always a heartbeat behind his. Tomas felled one after the other, then spun one of them around to act as a shield against an inquisitor angling for a dagger throw.

Tomas kicked the believer toward the inquisitor just as the inquisitor released the dagger. It stuck in the believer’s chest, and as the believer fell, dragging the dagger and chain with the body, Tomas leaped over. His sword ended the defenseless inquisitor in a moment.

Then they were left only with Ruth. She spun her dagger warily, but she didn’t retreat. Because, like a fool, she believed in the purity of her cause.

Once, Tomas had thought the same. It had driven him deeper into a war he probably never should have fought. And it had kept him fighting even after it was done.

No more.

Whatever fire had driven him had been doused for good by the water of the church. Now, all he wanted was to rest. To live and die in peace.

“Tomas,” Killan said. “Remember what you told me?”

Tomas looked back at the inquisitor, who was sheathing his own dagger. He believed Ruth would just let them go.

Hells, it was the reasonable thing to do. She had to know she had no chance against a host.

Killan spoke, his voice soft. “I’m leaving, Ruth. We’re leaving. Feel free to hunt us if you want, but don’t lose your life here. Put down your dagger and let us pass.”

Ruth spun her dagger three more times, then let it drop.

Tomas was surprised. It was maybe the first time in his life he’d seen a believer behave rationally.

She pulled the dagger in, bringing it to her hand. Then she nodded.

Killan led the way. He walked around Ruth, and though they were both tense, neither struck at the other. Killan walked until he was out of Ruth’s range, then turned to check on Tomas. “Leave her, Tomas.”

Tomas looked at Ruth. He wasn’t sure he’d ever be able to forget the things she’d done to him. But she was also letting him walk away.

Ultimately, he didn’t care. Let her live. He sheathed his sword.

Killan smiled, the first time Tomas had seen it. It made him look several years younger than Tomas had expected.

Tomas followed Killan’s lead.

As he passed Ruth, he sensed the shift in her weight.

Elzeth still burned brightly. The movement appeared pitifully slow to Tomas’ eye. Her dagger came up, aimed for his kidney. She believed him to be a demon, and demons weren’t allowed to walk this land.

He turned, grabbed her wrist, and guided it up higher, away from him.

She was already thrusting that way, so it was easy. By the time she realized her blow had been redirected, it was too late. Her body didn’t have enough time to react. Tomas guided her wrist, driving the dagger up under her chin, the point slicing through the mouth and into the brain.

She died faster than she deserved.

But he didn’t care.

Blood stained the floor of the mission, reaching from wall to wall. Tomas joined Killan, who was staring at the scene, his eyes wide.

Tomas considered, one last time, killing the inquisitor. Freedom aside, he’d still tortured Tomas for days. No doubt, Tomas had been far from his first.

But Tomas couldn’t bring himself to do it.

He stopped, standing beside the stunned inquisitor. “If I ever see you again, I’ll kill you.”

He left the mission. The sun had set hours ago, but Tomas knew where it had fallen. He turned his face west and started walking.