Hunters of the Dead

Laurie Tom


Jan read the simple markings carved into the hunter’s post outside the tavern. They told him a dark pocket had been discovered three days’ journey southwest, and a month ago a hunter answering the call had scratched their mark into the post.

Old news then. Someone was already hunting here. Jan would not stay long. He’d ask for supplies and a place to rest for a few days.

The tavern door opened with a weary creak. A small man stood at the entrance, squinting into the harsh morning light at the rare stranger outside his establishment. The tavernkeep shaded his eyes with a hand and looked at Jan’s boyish face, then down to the crow’s head symbol around his neck.

“Good morning to you, hunter.” The man smiled.

“Thank you,” said Jan, bowing. “I hope you and your family are well. I’m afraid I will have to impose on your village for a short while.”

Food and shelter were a hunter’s privilege. A hunter did not have to wish anything regarding the health of his hosts, but Jan could not imagine asking anything of strangers without offering basic courtesies. Yaleth had told him to always be grateful.

“Not at all,” said the tavernkeep. “If not for you we’d never survive.”

And by “you” he meant all hunters. When the wild magic meant to the win the war backfired over a century ago, the king had abandoned the borderlands to the wandering dead. Now its people depended on hunters for protection and reclaiming lost territory.

“I see another hunter responded to your call,” said Jan.

“A pair — master and apprentice.”

That was rare. The edge was no place to train a novice.

“How are they faring?” Jan asked.

“We haven’t heard from them since they left.”

That was bad. The tavernkeep knew it too.   Though friendly, there was an earnestness, a fear behind his congenial smile.

Hunters died in dark pockets. Yaleth had drilled that into him, when she tried dissuading him from becoming her apprentice. Only the very good or the very lucky lived to retire. So hunters were few in number, no matter how sorely they were needed.

“I will hunt there,” said Jan, and the tavernkeep’s shoulders sagged in relief. “I’ll need food and water, and a place to stay for the night.”

Though food could not be plentiful this far west the tavernkeep bobbed his head. “Of course. Of course. Whatever you need.”

A hunter could not ask for money Yaleth had told him. It distinguished them from the king’s soldiers. Left unpaid in the wake of the Ravaging, they’d abandoned the people of the wild, rolling borderlands.

Jan saw a young boy peering out from the kitchen. He smiled at the child and waved.

Hunters fought so others didn’t have to.




In the morning, Jan carved the date and his mark into the wooden post. If his luck held, he would return to cross out the notice for the pocket and mark the job done.

Tec was near the Edge, the boundary between land recovered by the living and land still scarred by the wild magic. No soldiers guarded the western border, there were only hunters between the living and the wandering dead.

Past the village fields, the land withered from pale green to brown, even red where the soil turned to clay. The ground was spongy in places.   Jan had heard that soil was crumbly and fresh, moist without the touch of clay, in regions unharmed by the Ravaging.

He reached the pocket late on the third day. The countryside was withered, with scraggly trees and skeletal scrubs amidst sharp gullies and swelling hills. And there was the smell; the dry, acrid musk that covered any land corrupted by the old magic.

He hadn’t traveled far along the dry riverbed before finding signs of human passage. Tracking a hunter was not so different from tracking the dead. The dead hadn’t the wit to cover their tracks and a hunter didn’t care.

Common practice was to hunt the dead to thin enough numbers that they regrouped in the pocket’s center, which the hunter would then neutralize. This hunter and apprentice would have spent most of the past month doing that.

On his second morning into the pocket he found evidence the hunters had crossed their own trail, and on top of the clear booted footprints of a man were softer impressions. He couldn’t make out the number, but from the shape they made on the yielding ground he knew not all of them had properly formed feet. He brushed the disturbed earth lightly with a gloved hand, watching for how easily the grains of dirt crumbled at his touch. Still fresh. Not days. Hours. Maybe less.

Jan absently rested a hand on the hilt of his sword. Both sword and dagger hung from his belt, but his real weapons were the small, thin blades strapped in sheaths around his forearms. The dead could not be stopped by steel unless it had been forged into the proper shape — tapered and slightly longer than a finger, without hilt or handle — by one who knew the ritual.

He followed the footsteps of the dead into the tangled shadows of the hills. They were not running parallel to the pocket’s perimeter as they should have been if they were patrolling. They were following the hunters.

The soft, rotted earth sank beneath his feet, ready to swallow him whole. When a dark pocket formed, not only did the dead walk, but the land itself twisted and decayed the closer to the center one went.

Jan loped in light, measured steps along the careless path of the dead. Corpses did not worry about brambles, slicing rocks, or gullies that could break or twist a man’s limbs. Occasionally he discovered desiccated flesh or shards of bone, and he could tell that these dead were old. Scavengers had eaten their innards long ago and the acrid surroundings had mummified what remained.

The tracks ended at a steep slope so rocky that only the hardy skeletons of a few shrubs squatted on its side. The air was stale and dry, and Jan stopped to drink from his flask. The musk was growing strong.

Jan heard sounds of a fight above him, the human grunt of exertion and the thump of a body collapsing to the ground. He crested the rise to discover a man, worn and weather beaten, perhaps in his late forties, a sword and dagger at his side, and in his hands the hallmark throwing blades of a hunter. His crow’s head pendant was out of sight, tucked away so as not catch on anything in the middle of a fight. He threw blade after blade. As they struck, corpses fell to earth, the magic that sustained them undone..

When the last of the dead fell with a crunch, Jan said, “You fight well.”

The other hunter pivoted shockingly fast, then relaxed as he laid eyes on Jan. “Thank the Phoenix. I didn’t dare hope another hunter would come in time.”

Jan noted a particular absence. “Is that why you brought your apprentice?”

A pained expression crossed his face. “No. Corde’s not ready yet. But when I’d gotten the message it had already been two months. If I’d declined, how long would that village have had to wait for another hunter?”

“Then is your apprentice out scouting?”

“No. We got separated four days ago. Our supplies are running low, but she should still have food and water.”

Jan felt a chill in his gut. “You should head back to the village. I’ll finish out here.”

“I’m not leaving without Corde.”

The chances of an apprentice surviving four days in a pocket without her master were not terribly high. Her odds would be better the closer she was to finishing her apprenticeship.

“Is she almost fledged?” asked Jan.

“She’s in her first year.”

Nothing more needed to be said.

“We can handle an ordinary pocket,” the hunter said, “but this one has a sower.” He looked at Jan. “Come on. I need to find Corde.”




The hunter’s name was Bort. When he was young he’d survived a raid from a fully matured pocket. His entire family had been killed. It was a common story among hunters.

All hunters are hurting inside, Yaleth had told him when she finally took him under her wing. When there were more dead than hunters could handle, villages were raided. Of the anguished survivors, the strongest and most determined became the next generation of hunters, the fight so important to them that they did it in exchange for no more than food and shelter.

The borderlands were once battlefields, and for the dead, the battle had never ended. All the corpses raised by the land’s corrupted magic had a single unbending purpose — to kill the living. The dead were set on winning a war long over, and used any means to do it.

Any stretch of the borderlands could become a dark pocket, as long as it held the bodies of the forgotten dead — an old battlefield, a lost village, the site of a massacre — and it did not have to date back to the Ravaging itself.

“I’ve never fought a sower,” said Jan.

“They’ve only been found on the edge. Nasty piece of work. It takes many dead together to have wits enough to plan, but a sower has intelligence all on its own.”

The dead were sluggish in small numbers, but as their numbers grew their reactions improved, they made decisions, picked targets based on vulnerability rather than proximity. If allowed to grow into the hundreds they sought out targets beyond the pocket’s borders, and that’s when raids happened.

“Worse, a sower can expand a pocket using the bones of the inanimate dead or of its victims; bones untouched by magic. This one separated us on purpose. It drove a pack of corpses between us and chased after Corde. She panicked and we weren’t able to regroup. I’ve been following her tracks since.”


The question slipped out before Jan could reconsider. Yaleth had made it clear that if they were ever separated it would be on his own head to find her.

Bort, however, misunderstood. “The sower’s chasing her, and sowers don’t return to the center of the pocket when enough of its fellows have been killed. We can’t neutralize the pocket until we slay it.”

A pragmatic hunter’s answer, but Jan noted that this man had said he wouldn’t leave without his apprentice, not that he wouldn’t leave until the pocket was finished.

Bort should have known better than to bring an apprentice here.




By late afternoon they still hadn’t found his apprentice’s corpse. She was apparently smart enough to stay alive. Jan was impressed, but didn’t expect she could last much longer.

For the first time he wondered how it was with other hunters and their apprentices. Though he was now the same age as Yaleth had been when she had taken him on, he did not consider himself well versed enough to train another.

Yaleth hadn’t wanted to train him. His village had been saved, his parents and siblings were still alive. She’d said she had no use for a boy who wanted to be a hero and he’d had to beg for her to take him. She couldn’t see the scars he carried, from seeing his friends torn asunder, from running for his life like a coward, so terrified that he only stopped when he collapsed from exhaustion. Of the six village boys who had the misfortune to stumble upon a dark pocket, Jan had been the only one to survive.

It was Yaleth who had purged that pocket. Jan had led her there, watched her fight, and after she’d rested and was ready to leave his village he asked to come with her. He’d worked hard to overcome her reservations, and her praise was sparse, but he learned.

Jan raised his hand to his chest, where the crow’s head pendant was tucked away. Yaleth had never mentioned any pride in him before she left. She’d only given him the pendant, to let him know that he was ready to be on his own, and even that had been left with no words at all.




The stale air parched their throats and stung their eyes as they climbed. This wasn’t the direction Jan would have chosen if he’d been running for his life, but up in this mountainous terrain, there would be places to hide.

Corde’s tracks lead to a rocky depression beside a shattered wall of stone. There were footprints before a narrow crevice, barely more than a slit in the rockface. The tracks were layered, as of someone pacing, even hopping, but the corpse that had left those prints was nowhere to be seen.

Jan could see the irregularities in the shape of the foot; a missing toe, the impression left more by bone than flesh. The tracks led away, moving in an odd, irregular gait; their maker having perched on splayed fingers and the balls of its feet, suggesting more of a four-legged beast than a human being. Had it heard them coming? Jan didn’t like this one already. The dead were easier to fight when they were predictable.

Bort sprinted up to the rocky crevice. “Corde!” he called, peering inside.

“Pa? Pa!”   The voice was a girl’s, dry and croaking, coming from the crevice. “Ow!” She hissed. “I’m stuck. I had to wedge in really deep so it couldn’t reach me.”

“Relax. I’m here.” Bort’s shoulders sagged with relief. “Can you lay down? Push yourself forward a bit. Just turn a little and lift your left shoulder. That’s it.”

“I can’t stay like this. A rock’s jabbing my side.”

“Extend your arms. I’ll pull you.”

“Hold on. My bag’s stuck. Can you reach me now?”

“There we go,” said Bort, and Jan saw a pair of thin arms emerge from the crevice, then a dirty face with a mop of dark hair.

Behind him, he heard the grind of gravel against stone and spun around. Hairs raised on the back of his neck and he jerked to the side as something whistled past and clattered against the rock beside the other hunters.

Jan caught a glimpse of a withered face disappearing below the ridgeline and waited, listening, for its return. He backed up against the shattered hillside and glanced at the thrown object. It was a crudely sharpened blade, carved from bone.

“Testing you,” said Bort. “Sowers use tools.”

Corde leaned heavily on him. Her lips were chapped and bloody, and dark rings circled her eyes. She was alive, but certainly not in fighting shape. She was also, by Jan’s estimate, horribly young to be out here. He’d started his apprenticeship at sixteen. He wasn’t sure she was even that.

“I know, I look bad.” She took a deep gulp of the parched air. “But I’ll get better.”

“I can give you food enough to you get back to Tec if you’re careful,” said Jan.

“We’ll take the food,” said Bort, “but we’re not finished here. Until the sower’s dead the pocket’s still a danger.”

Hunters work alone, Yaleth had told him, but Bort had experience. The problem was Corde.




They camped for the night on the bank of a muddy stream. Nothing moved in it. The water was dead. Rivers turned wretched when they ran through a pocket, but the water could be drunk after boiling, if one could put up with the horrible aftertaste. Corde boiled some of it in a small tin, separating water from dirt so she could give herself a meager cat bath. She looked much healthier once the blood and grime were washed away.

Corde’s complexion was ruddy, being one of the borderfolk, but her figure reminded Jan of Yaleth and how she might have looked when she was younger. There weren’t many female hunters and Yaleth had been a foreigner besides, hailing from the mountains in the far north. Her appearance was so different from what he’d expected, pale like she had never seen the sun, long black hair that fell straight like blades, but as a hunter she’d been even more than he hoped for.

Nighttime in a pocket should have been still, silent, but they’d started a fire, which Jan would never have done on his own. Every snap of the flame set him on edge. He was certain the sower was watching them.

“You didn’t say earlier that she was your daughter,” said Jan, when Corde was out of earshot.

Bort took a swig from a flask. It smelled faintly of spirits. “I figured you’d protest less.”

“I can’t imagine her mother’s happy to have her out here.”

“Probably wouldn’t be.” Bort shrugged. “But Corde’s mother has been dead for a couple years now.” He grunted and ambled out of the firelight.

“You actually settled down?”

Jan had never heard of a hunter giving up the fight while still sound in mind and body. Settling down was for when muscles and vision began to fail, when fighting was no longer practical despite anything brought by wisdom and experience. Hunters didn’t settle down. They didn’t form families. They didn’t even keep track of their apprentices after they fledged them.

Certainly not Yaleth.

“Of course not,” said Bort. Jan could hear his contempt. “There was a village I saved when I was your age. The pocket near them was fully matured. It was a hell of a fight, but I purged it and then enjoyed the company of one of the grateful village lasses.”

Bort glanced at his daughter. Corde was curled up a short distance from the fire, eyes closed and head pillowed on a bent arm.

“I didn’t find out about Corde until years later. Came back to the village and found her working at the tavern and checking up on every hunter who came through town. She was looking for me.” Bort paused, then his teeth flashed in the firelight. “I wasn’t sure at first, but damn if she doesn’t take after me.”

“And you took her as an apprentice?” Jan couldn’t imagine any father allowing his daughter to trudge into a pocket.

“A parent’s got to teach their child a trade, yeah?” The smile was gone.

“She was working at a tavern. She had a trade, a safe one.”

Corde had potential. But Phoenix above, bringing his own daughter into a dark pocket? She wasn’t even that old.

“The borderlands always need more hunters, and she was eager to come with me.” His voice was quiet. “I’m the only family she has left. I can’t stop hunting. You know how it is. There’s not a whole lot I can share with her, but there is this. And she’s going to be the best damn hunter she can be.”




The next morning they found fresh tracks from the sower. It had circled their camp multiple times during the night. Knowing the intelligence of their prey, they did not expect to catch it easily. They split up, Jan running ahead alone and leaving Bort and Corde to drive the sower towards him.

Bort had an ambush spot in mind, a narrow canyon. The walls were sheer, and the sower, agile though it was, should not be able to climb out. If Jan was on one end of the chasm and Bort and Corde on the other the sower would be trapped.

From what Bort had told him, the sower was warped beyond the standards of most the dead, a sinuous monster at home on four limbs as well as two; a corpse that valued its own survival to further spread the influence of the pocket that had birthed it.

The sower should chase the lone, more vulnerable hunter, but Jan hoped to be able to hold it off until Bort and Corde arrived.

As he pressed on, he watched for signs of pursuit. He did not often have to consider the methods of the dead, but what if the sower had made plans of its own?   It had already gone after Corde once, and it had prowled around the camp all night without making a move. The sower had not found it favorable to attack while both he and Bort were present, but now that Jan was gone…

He remembered the wasted, emotionless face that had thrown the bone blade at him. Testing him, Bort had called it.

Jan glanced up at the bleary sky. The sun was a bright smear in the heavens. If he moved quickly, he might reach them by midday. He knew the path they planned to take to flush out the sower.

He started back the way he had come and found the sower’s tracks before those of the other hunters. It hadn’t chased after him at all, but neither had it run for Bort and Corde. The sower had gone somewhere else entirely.

Its footprints led to an abandoned village, little more than a few foundation stones and gnarled trees. The air here was the most oppressive yet and the footprints of the dead canvassed the broken earth around what must have been the cemetery.

Gaping holes marked the places where bodies once rested. Not every grave had been desecrated yet. It took time for the pocket’s magic to seep into every corpse. At a rough guess, fifty to sixty had been opened, but there was not a corpse in sight. The village was empty.

Any other time he would follow the footprints of the dead in hopes of finding the pocket’s center, but something was terribly wrong here. He had followed the sower’s distinctive loping tracks into the cemetery, but its departing trail was completely obscured by the footprints of the other dead. The other corpses were following it. All the other corpses.

Was this the center? How many had the sower gathered here? Surely some of the fifty to sixty had been patrolling the perimeter, and had been destroyed by Bort and Corde’s earlier push. There shouldn’t be more than thirty left.

Tracking such a group was not difficult, even at a brisk pace. The mass swung east to where Jan had begun his day. It would be a hard fight even if the two hunters and apprentice were together.

You’re completely unsuited to being a hunter.

Yaleth’s words came back to him; biting harsh. He could still remember her critical eye, sizing him up the day he’d asked her to take him as an apprentice. He knew what Yaleth would do in a situation like this. There was no need to uselessly throw one’s life away. Better to fall back and plan, to strike again under more favorable circumstances.

Why? he’d asked.

You care too much.




He could hear the fighting before he saw it, and at that point he broke into a run. The hateful air burned in his lungs as he pushed himself harder. He had to catch up. Their lives depended on it.

The primary way of defeating the dead was the throwing blades, so hunters carried many of them. Once a blade was thrown there was no way to retrieve it in the heat of battle, so Jan carried sixteen blades in his forearm sheaths. He reached for these as he ran, and as soon as he was in striking distance he hurled the first.

It struck a corpse in the back of the skull and it collapsed; once again inert.

Jan dispatched a second and a third. He could see Bort and Corde in the mob now. It was bad. They’d let the dead get too close, where it was not easy to use their blades. Both had resorted to swords.

Worse, the sower was nowhere in sight.

Jan’s instinct was to rush in. There was still a score of corpses left, and with Bort and Corde in melee range, only Jan could fight unhindered.

Two more corpses fell to the earth from Jan’s blades. Another crumpled from Bort’s sword, but the mummified husk kept moving, crawling.

The mountainous country worked against the hunters here. Rather than trapping the sower it had enabled the dead to hide out of sight until the hunters were too close to escape.

This was the sower’s doing. The dead did not ambush. Nor did they isolate targets. Now they pressed forward like a wall, pushing Bort and Corde away from each other and against the shattered hillside.

Jan couldn’t pick off the dead fast enough. There were still over a dozen left.

“Bort!” he shouted.

The other hunter met his eyes, but turned immediately back to the dead he fought. He didn’t see the problem.

If the sower was where Jan suspected, hiding on the rock above them, the two were about to be ambushed a second time, and they would have nowhere to run.

“The sower!” he shouted. He clenched a blade in his gloved hand and rammed it into the shoulder of a corpse. The weapon was not intended for melee, but its touch was enough to cause the dead to collapse. “It’s going to-“

He saw it. For the first time he saw it clearly. It perched on all fours, shoulders hunched and head low like a savage beast. The arms were long, too long, and when it moved with a feline strut he could see the thick cords of its tendons stretch and contract in a way that should not be possible, extending the length of its arms beyond their natural limits.

Bort saw the sower as well, but did not make the mad drive towards his daughter that Jan expected. Jan didn’t understand. He’d refused to leave the pocket without her, and now that she was just steps away, granted steps crowded with corpses…

Jan barreled into the midst of the dead. To her credit, Corde had managed to ground at least three corpses before they’d forced her against the hill. She was pressed hard. Her shoulders heaved with every breath, her hair was plastered slick around her face. Corde’s eyes darted from left to right, watching for incoming attacks.

Then the sower leaped.


She turned, saw Jan, then followed his gaze. It was too late.

Corde disappeared, hidden behind the wall of the dead, as the impact of the sower’s dive pushed her to the ground. He drew his sword. The remaining corpses should have swarmed her, but swiveled eerily about to face him. Jan charged, sending limbs flying. Two of the dead fell, too damaged to move, but the rest pushed close, taking away any room to maneuver.

When using a sword against the dead one didn’t bother to aim for the vitals The sword was to incapacitate. They could not claw his eyes with no fingers, could not club his body with no fists, could not chase without legs.

A savage mouth tore through his coat and raked his arm just above the elbow. He decapitated the offending corpse and bashed the head free, but the ambulating body continued to flail.

The Ravaging of generations ago, the culmination of a stupid war that ruined the land instead of saving it, was still being paid for.   Now it was Corde’s turn, and Bort was not even…

You care too much.

Jan lunged. His sword swept low to catch the sower crouched over Corde, and he felt the blade connect just as another of the dead wrenched him by the shoulder. Jan spun around and shattered its ribcage. He looked back at the sower, but the wiry cadaver had bounded away, the torn half of its right calf flapping with every step. Its withered head tilted inquisitively at Jan.

“Don’t let it escape!” shouted Bort. The other hunter’s voice was tight, strained.

Corde lay bleeding on the ground in front of Jan, eyes wide in shock. She had a nasty gash on her right shoulder and her arm was twisted at a terrible angle. Her chest rose with rapid, shallow gasps. For now at least, she was alive.

Jan tightened his grip on his sword and braced for the sower’s next move. The remaining dead crowded close as the sower scuttled back, limping. He hurled a blade, but the sower jerked to the side and the blade missed. It watched Jan, head bent at an impossible angle as it retreated. The sunken face betrayed no emotion, but its eyes were bright with intelligence.

The dead were not so many now, and Jan beat them back with his sword. His stamina was wearing though. He was bleeding, and he could feel the pain, the blood trickling down his arms and legs.

Still, he needed to protect Corde. If he ever had an apprentice, never, ever, would he allow them to come to harm. Not if he could help it.

He dodged the swinging fists, and retaliated with sword and blade as the numbers of the dead thinned. Yaleth had trained him for fighting against unfavorable odds, against an unmerciful enemy.

Jan remembered the day she had told him he was close to fledging, how happy he’d been to realize he’d meet her standards, that despite her initial assessment he’d managed to become a competent hunter. It was high praise from her.

The dead fell around him, disabled if not defeated. Bort had worked his way closer. A short distance away, the sower paced.

“Can you help Corde?” Jan asked, without turning around.

“Doing what I can.” There was a crunch as Bort knelt on the ground.

“You could have gotten to her sooner.”

Bort growled. “And plow through twice the dead you did? That would have been the end of both of us. She knows that.”

Jan heard the remorse in his words and could not help but remember Yaleth. She would have understood.

All hunters are hurting inside.

Some nights she would stare into the darkness at a memory he couldn’t see. He thought he could have ended that loneliness and hurt, that when he became her equal she would accept him.

The sower circled, then darted, rabbitlike, for the brush. Its right leg flopped uselessly, dragging behind it. Jan hurled a blade, but the sower wriggled unexpectedly and he missed. He chased after it.

Two left. He had two blades left in his wrist sheathes. If he stopped now to dig more out of his coat the sower would get away.

The sower whipped its arms about, gazing at Jan as he closed the distance. It could not risk turning its back to him now. He was too close. If it gave an opening a blade would find it.

You’re too nice, Jan. It makes me worry about you.

Their last night together, Jan thought he’d gotten through to her, that she’d finally let her walls down.

The sower’s arms were lethal clubs swung from pliable shoulders. Jan sidestepped to avoid being grazed by them, and the sower pivoted, planting hands on the ground to sprint.

When he’d woken the next morning, Yaleth was gone, and there was a crow’s head pendant beside him. He’d fledged and was ready to fight on his own. He understood that as a hunter, yet the feeling of betrayal, that Yaleth had never said good-bye, still haunted him as if to say that he had never been worthy at all.

But now…

He charged the sower. It had no weapons, no way to block his sword other than with its own limbs, which it raised to protect itself. Jan cleaved through its forearm.

He hadn’t understood why Yaleth had left him. But now, now that he’d seen Bort and Corde, how the father had to bear the agony of not being able to reach his daughter without dooming them both…

You care too much.

He gritted his teeth. But so had you, Yaleth!

The sower squirmed, turning its back in its desperation to escape.

Yaleth had pretended not to care, but that hadn’t been true. She’d made him self-sufficient so she would never have to put herself in the same position as Bort. When she realized he wanted to stay with her after he fledged…

I know why you left!

His sword came down, skewering the sower through the spine. It could flail all it wished, impaled on the ground. It was not escaping.

You… loved me!

Jan pulled out one of his remaining blades and jammed it into the writhing sower. It gave a final twitch and fell limp. Panting, he rose to his feet and pulled out his sword. He looked back at Bort and Corde.

Bort was sitting beside Corde in an odd position with his foot in her armpit. He pulled on her arm in a manner that made Jan’s stomach churn, and Corde groaned as the joint snapped into place.

“Better?” he asked. He brushed the hair from his daughter’s face.

“Yeah,” she breathed. “But the rest of my shoulder…”

Bort pulled out a long strip of linen from his bag. “I’ll get you patched up.”

Jan didn’t know how Bort could stand it, to watch a daughter he loved fall beneath the sower and not run to her aid. If Jan hadn’t been there, there was no way Corde would have survived.

He knew now why Yaleth had left, why she’d had to leave after the only night she had opened herself up to him. Sooner or later, if they had remained together, one of them would have done something completely against all their training to protect the other.

Probably him. Maybe he did care too much.

“We’re going to go back to Tec,” said Bort, as he bandaged Corde’s shoulder. “I hate to leave a pocket unfinished, but now that you’re here and the sower is gone, you can finish the job. I also need to thank you. If Corde had actually fallen-“

“Pa, I can thank him myself!” said Corde. She propped herself up with her good arm and managed a weak bow of the head. “Thank you.”

“Hunting isn’t going to get easier,” said Jan, memories of Yaleth still within him.

“I know, but I’ll get better, won’t I?” Her eyes glittered bright, and Jan remembered himself at sixteen.

He smiled. “You’ll make a good hunter.”

“I know,” said Bort.

“Do you need me to see you off?”

“We’ll be fine. With luck we’ll be out of Tec by the time you get back.”


“East or some such. Figure we’ll hunt closer to home until we’re sure Corde retains the full use of her arm. You?”

Jan thought about Yaleth, how he’d never encountered her after she left. “I think I’ll go west after this, and work the edge.”

Bort thumped him on the shoulder. “Brave man. Phoenix watch you.”

“And you.”

Though it was already afternoon, Jan took off, heading for the pocket’s center. His crow’s head pendant weighed heavy around his neck, but his footsteps were light and he moved with an ease he hadn’t felt in a long time.

He knew now why Yaleth had left, and he could accept that, knowing it had been for love.



“Hunters of the Dead” © Laurie Tom
Laurie Tom was terrified of the Haunted Mansion ride at Disneyland as a child, leading to in an interest in all manner of undead creatures, specifically so she could spend her time finding ways to slay them.  Jan’s creation was a natural outgrowth of that and spending too much time playing RPGs with internet friends in college.  Laurie’s fiction has appeared in venues such as Strange Horizons, Galaxy’s Edge, and the Mammoth Book of Dieselpunk.
About this story Laurie says:
“Hunters of the Dead” began as a creative writing exercise to get in character for an RPG.  Since that time it’s gone through multiple iterations, giving it a proper plot and a place in a larger world in which I plan to write additional stories.


Digital illustrations © Omnia

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