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Rated: E · Chapter · Action/Adventure · #2190478
The Blood of Cu Chulainn

The Blood of Cu Chulainn

“Wild conjecture gets us nowhere.”

Divider (2)
Westwood Forest
Citrine (November) 5, 2012

Comet-light outlined Jace’s foes and glinted now and then upon blades and teeth—

The stink of whatever they’d been burning lingered in his nose, and he snorted—

The high ground behind him, his spyglass useless, he waited.

Only seconds went by before he saw the hooded thing, the one that had the vaguest idea it might have seen something, halt by the bush where he was hidden. As it stood so close to him that the hem of its robe nearly brushed his arm, something truly bizarre happened.

The Red Moon coasted out of the clouds and into the open night sky, transforming the landscape into a gloomy red ruin. The light bathed everything, as heavy as a foggy sea. The clouds became remorseless black reefs; the fires of the enemy camp burned cold.

The sorcerous thing beside Jace covered its face and then threw itself prostrate on the ground. And the Outrider knew—

With true, calm clarity—

That he was seven minutes early.

Timing is everything, he remembered.

And he remembered something else: Overshadow.

The creature never saw him or heard him slip closer. He slit its throat in an instant and it began to melt away in the moonlight like dry ice hitting open air. Soon, there’d be nothing there at all. No; Jace narrowed his eyes on a faint, pulsing glow and realized there was something more.

Hidden amongst its earthly wreckage was a remnant of another life— An emerald necklace, its gold chain already pooled on the ground.

And sitting atop the faint smear of ash that was the dissolving corpse—

A butcher’s apron: Battered and covered in dull, years-old stains, rotted all black and purple.

Jace reached down and pulled at the necklace, breaking open the clasp before the fast-dissolving head fell back to earth with a thud. The glow faded instantly; to Jace’s horror, the once-human face fell apart in a breeze of bone and ichor—countless years passing in seconds.

The necklace went into his belt—

The cloak around his shoulders—

Hood up, head down, he walked into the enemy camp.

Dozens of minotaurs paced back and forth around him.

Always alone, they dragged carts behind them. Each one weighed as much as three Jaces – but the beasts lugged them about with no more care than he would need to sling a sack of potatoes.

In the carts, he glimpsed tons of vegetation, all green and bright.


Jace clenched his teeth against a sudden bark of laughter that threatened to boil up in his throat. He had imagined this moment again and again, imagined the power he’d craved for so long finally welling up in this very instant:

The power to strike off the enemy’s head.

A power all the great statesmen and generals of history – including those he knew – wished for.

Now that it was here at last, he let the thought pass over him and disappear.

As Jace watched, the horned beasts moved the carts into the chalk circles, obscuring the sinuous patterns drawn inside. Moving carefully – almost delicately – a hooded figure strolled along each finished circle, spreading the plant matter with the end of a cane crowned in barbed wire.

The Red Moon would peak soon – and it could fade just as quickly, he knew. With his eyes narrowed ever so slightly, Jace noticed the hooded beings growing sluggish in its heavy light. Then the minotaurs suddenly stood stock still, their joints locking like bolts.

A crash off in the distance alerted him to where one of them had simply dropped its cart.

Jace let his peripheral vision widen as far as he could, never looking straight on at anything—

And he spied dust rising where the load had fallen.

In its wake, he finally smelled what had been there all along: Nightshade. His body screamed to get away from it, but a deeper instinct told him to draw close. He passed a few steps with his back to the fallen cart, turned—

And found himself face to face with one of the hooded figures.

For a while, they simply stared. Then Jace realized—

It can’t see me. Not really.

He didn’t have time to wonder just what the creature did see. Instead, he raised the emerald from his belt and pressed on as if he belonged. As he passed, the creature sent the barest nod his way; then there was a thump as it bowed down in the dirt.

The Red Moon reached its apex – and Jace Dabriel felt his mind stretch in every direction.

Every moment had a pulse; a sound, a smell, a color—

Jace kept going, letting the emerald pull him gently forward; he cupped it in both hands like a sacred artifact. The warlocks were only faint smears of shadow around him. Under feverlew, he would have plunged into one without a second thought, crossbows in hand—

But here and now, he felt the way they drifted off or turned their backs— Pushed away, as if by a subtle current: The light streaming between his fingers. He could not imagine why it was so, but he knew.

Going deeper into the camp, he turned a corner into a square where tents had been set up. They were black and purple, and the greensward they outlined looked to Jace like a dark mirror image of the ring of fire. As he entered the space, the hem of his robe brushed dark, bristly fur.

Fear gripped Jace’s heart, and he made instinctively for his crossbows—

—but then stopped short, truly looking up at the towering bull-beast before him. The creature’s eyes were open, but it stared into the middle distance. There was no life in its gaze; not even tension in its mighty muscles. Jace wondered for an instant if it wasn’t his own fear he had felt.

But there was no time to ponder that ...

Under the triumphant Red Moon, the square was a hellscape of tormented shadows; but as Jace looked around, familiar shapes resolved themselves from the gloom. There were tracks here, not only from wagons and carts, but horses.

There were archery targets, plain and functional.

Dozens of arrows stood out from them, each shaft banded with something he couldn’t make out. There might be thousands of troops.

Slowly, Jace began to understand that the enemy camp stretched on further than anyone knew—

No, gentlemen, Jace mouthed. I fear these attacks are but an elaborate form of bait.

And if Creed had taken the bait, the Republic itself would have fallen.

Jace shivered; not with fear or the cold, but with the fresh, searing realization of what he had to do. He retraced his steps, backtracking to the fallen cart. Across from it was a massive wagon, filled to the brim with twisted leaves and roots; some dark and ruddy, others wonderland-bright.

In one instant, all the world froze to a crystalline halt—bathed in a clarity it had not seen before and would not see again. Jace marveled at it: In his empty, silent mind, all existence served just one purpose, and it was the task before him.

The one he executed as precisely as he imagined – just as he felt it in his bones.

He spun on his heel, shucking the cloak from his shoulders and drawing his crossbow— The crimson glare began to fade; his foes started rising slowly from their worship.

The first thing they saw when they did was Jace Dabriel—
Burning with the last light of the Red Moon, cloak spread behind him like great wings.

Before they could react, he raised his face defiantly. Perhaps if they had half his training – or half his luck – they could have seen what he did before it was too late. But as the night resumed its normal colors, there was only the briefest glint of metal and a single, climbing spark—

As the warlocks took their first steps toward Jace, the reagent wagon at his back exploded in a whirlwind of multicolored fire.

Divider (2)
Tenzan Plains
Outside Fairlawn City

“I understand that, Mac,” Captain Talabray was saying, her eyes retracing the one-page report he’d just handed her. “What I’m asking for is a description beyond ... a possible shadowy object along the wood line.

“I apologize, captain,” Caulurn offered. “But that is all the lad saw.”

Isabelle sighed, dismounted, and crossed her arms with the report still in hand.

“We need the facts. Wild conjecture gets us nowhere.” She paced as she spoke, letting her hands do the work of carefully folding the report. “All the scouts we’re left with hardly recognize Westwood, triplicarius. If only I’d had the chance to take care of it myself, I—” A flicker of sympathy broke Mac Caulurn’s impartial facade. “I ...” Isabelle said again—and stopped when she saw that look.

“With all due respect, ma’am, you’re most needed here.”

Hearing it aloud arrested Isabelle’s thoughts as sure as a splash of water to the face. She pushed her chin down to gaze, for a moment or two, at her boots – perhaps dreading what she’d see when she was done. But when she looked at Caulurn again, there was no judgment in his eyes.

There never was.

It was enough for her to start over, and for the tense moment to pass.

“So you could be going to the general with reports of a deer ... or a bear.”

“Actually, ma’am, no.”

The Outrider turned with a stern, expectant expression.

“There are no species of bear this far east of the capital.”


“Disappeared from Westwood about a decade ago. No one’s exactly sure why.”

Isabelle’s eyes narrowed a moment, almost suspiciously, but the man only smirked under her scrutiny. She smiled suddenly, shaking her head before tilting it back up to him.

“You’ve been hanging around those two idiots too long, triplicarius.”

“Maybe so,” he admitted – his smile subtler, but no less honest.

Isabelle turned and placed the paper against the saddle of her mare, signing her approval.

“Well,” she said. “I doubt much will come of it, but you have my authorization to proceed.”

Isabelle didn’t think anything of the man’s silence until she turned to see him staring at the sky. The flurry of activity all around them had halted, and every living thing seemed lost in the heavens. Finally, she looked up, and the report fell from her hand.

There were no blazing comets.

No choking trails of roiling, black smoke.

There was only the moon, with Luna Scarlet fading beneath it.

Twinkling stars shimmered like frozen sparkles in the crystal clear night. Isabelle couldn’t even hear the alarm bells anymore.

“That was fast,” the mountainous man said.

Isabelle tore her gaze away and aimed it at Caulurn, who was still staring upward.

“On second thought, trip,” she said. “You should get back to the Unicorns.”

“Way ahead of you, captain,” Caulurn said, and was gone.

The world around them had changed – even those who’d been in fitful sleep before were starting to stir. Against protocol, against sense, rumors were circulating. Isabelle did not need to see the signals from the watchtowers to know messages were being exchanged.

She did not need to say a word to know hope had returned.

But for her – her alone – it meant a whole new kind of fear.

Divider (2)
Ezru Plains
Beyond Westwood Forest

The blast took Jace off his feet, but he scarcely felt the pain shooting through his back, his arms, his shoulders. He was up again in an instant; his crossbow secured, lighter back in his pocket. The dark wizards looked up as he passed; he could imagine bleary eyes under the hoods.

In the corner of his eye, he saw the first group of them bracing to charge at him ...

They made it only a step before another gout of blue-white flame rose from the cart Jace had ignited. Those who were not blown to ashes fell to the ground sizzling and screaming. A massive cloud of greenish smoke mushroomed behind Jace..

Yet, he did not look back.

He did not see it at all until it had risen overhead, staining the sky. As it towered ever higher, the greenish tinge faded until it was a veil of purest black. The Red Moon’s light had been choked out by something even worse.

Thanks to him.

Everything and everyone in the camp was working against him. But, the very instant he would see them, would feel the stroke of barbed wire across his ragged and bleeding back, they would tumble beneath a geyser of fire. And that left him free to bolt for the road.

Jace ran from one burning cart to another, keeping low and hidden until, at last—

He emerged into a narrow, weed-choked byway where a dozen cloaked enemies lurked.

They engaged Jace without an instant of hesitation, their barbed wire staves carving the air as they swept forward with dance-like steps. They wove elegantly from side to side as they went, a chain of silhouettes carved from the night—embodying a lethal grace Jace had never witnessed before.

Then, as he was surrounded on all sides, it happened.

With a comic finality, one of the minotaurs that stood shoulder-to-shoulder with the dark wizards glanced over to the one in front of Jace, let out a steamy huff of contempt, and backhanded it with such force that it shattered twice—once against the blow and the second time on the ground.


Jace spared only a quick glance for the corpse. There was no blood, but just as he’d come to expect, the limbs were long and spindly and inhuman. In the instant when the minotaurs fell on their masters, he snatched up a fallen staff, then turned and ran.

Behind him – all around him! – a host of thousands began to follow. Everywhere he looked, poison was spewing into the sky—

Far worse, though, were the blood-curdling howls from the minotaurs.

They’re angry, someone had told him.

He couldn’t remember who.

“No kidding,” Jace muttered to whoever it had been.

As he looked over his shoulder, one heaved a whole cart at a group of mages, crushing them instantly. But, still, there were enough to hound him. Even with his face down and mouth covered, he could feel the sting of sulphurous smoke pouring into his eyes and down his throat. But he had won, he had done it—

Every crash, every screech gave him the strength to go on—

As sweat stung Jace’s eyes, one of the minotaurs’ battleaxes thudded into the road just a few feet behind him. He heard fresh screams, and could only imagine the enemy was evacuating. There wasn’t enough water to douse the flame for miles in any direction.

The thought made Jace smile despite himself, but his lungs shrieked pain with every step.

Geysers of smoke were everywhere as reagents from the burning wagons melded as one vast, unholy smog. The brew crackled and burned from a dozen makeshift pyres, dousing Jace with reeking pain. As he stopped for breath, covering his mouth all the while, a seething bastion of crimson smoke called out to him. He plunged the end of the staff into it, and it ignited with a whoosh.

Invigorated, Jace launched himself against the throng, whirling the fiery staff before him. Where it collided with his enemies, they fell like shadows breaking against a valiant dawn: Beyond the flame’s halo, he saw them scurrying away.

At last, the charred splinters of the staff collapsed out of his hands. Fire was everywhere in his wake, and there was nobody left to stop him.

Bent double at the foot of the ridge, Jace risked only an instant to catch his breath. He looked down at his hands, blinking once, twice. When had he burned them? They were sore, blackened, soaked with blood. Yet, through it all, the lucky ring he wore was spotless.

Jace tried to laugh, but only a dry rattle reached his lips.

Maybe he’d been closer to the fire than he thought.

Behind him, he could see the flailing silhouettes of wizards who had ignited like straw in his wake. Spirals of purple and black smoke gushed into the cold night air as if some fell beast with thousands of tentacles was burning from within. Yet, sure enough, dozens of enemies were still just behind him. After each handful of stumbling steps, he’d turn and fire into the dark mass—

Always unsure whether he hit anything at all, and with his bolts quickly running out.

Jace was in full retreat, running for the road he feared he would never reach.

The bloody taste in his mouth was getting worse as the cold tore his throat raw. His chest was a racking throb; so was his shoulder. With every step, he felt the press of more bodies closing in. And then, just as he felt his legs would fail, the screaming grew louder.

When he dared look over, there was nothing behind him but a crumpled pile of robed bodies. In their midst stood a towering claymore, thrown with such force it cleaved a dozen victims to pieces. The pursuers was forced to divert, breaking around it like a mass of fish—

Until they, too, heard again that horrible roar—

Jace watched, transfixed, as two dozen of those who meant to kill him turned and saw plainly the same sight he had witnessed hours ago, and in a different time: A minotaur, its hooves planted on the road and horns raised; its eyes wide with unstoppable killing rage.

He couldn’t see it clearly until the moment it pounced on them.

At his back, the enemy camp had dissolved into an inferno. Smoke billowed high into the air; the tents crackled; fire licked and scorched the earth. Soon, the enemy camp would be nothing more than a long scar on the land – there was no saving it now.

Now, at long last, the road grew closer.

That thought was no sooner in his mind than he sensed the minotaur behind him.

As he turned, Jace’s attention snapped not to the horns, not to the muscles – but to the burns and gashes that marred its body. The Outrider knew this thing had been standing in the middle of one of the great blasts he caused. Despite that, the blood coating its muscles was not its own.

The road, with its long shadows and concealing brush, was only a few feet away.

But as the minotaur paced toward Jace with the unnatural speed and certainty of its kind, he knew there was no escape; not even if he could sprint at his best speed. His feverish imagination wailed that maybe it knew he was the one who started the fire.

There was a magnificent, terrible anger to minotaurs – the same that rooted him to the spot and froze his blood the first time he saw one. Now, hours later, he knew it all too well. But this creature’s eyes were different: Careful, calculated.

Frosty breath rose in short spurts through its bullish nostrils.

It was measuring him in a way none of the others had.

Jace realized his crossbow was unloaded, and quickly swiped it across his chest. The bolts clicked into place – and his eyes grew wide as saucers. That sound was enough to break the stalemate, to goad the fantastic beast. And so it ran, closing the distance in seconds.

It swept its colossal claymore overhead—

The Outrider darted to the side, dodging and rolling as the weapon fell with all the force of a collapsing building. Rising to one knee, Jace fired, scoring hits that barely slowed the beast. It lunged for him, even as the other minotaur had when it scattered the enemy legion before it.

But Jace was too fast; he leapt back and steadied himself, firing twice more as he stood.

The sight of the minotaur’s unprotected flesh gave Jace a shot of adrenaline. Like the rest of its kind, it wore no heavy armor to shield its back. Its hide was already crisscrossed with weeping burns where it had borne poison and fire.

Jace raised his crossbow. It clicked uselessly.

The minotaur drove its meaty elbow into the dirt to winch itself up. Jace patted all around his body, but found not one single bolt.

The world around him – his past and future, hopes and dreams – fell away. Tunnel-vision, he might call it at a different time. But he knew it was something else: Certain death. All the wounds he’d been ignoring howled, and he could ignore them no longer.

The minotaur planted its other hand flat and jerked up to its feet.

Jace broke into a run, dashing to the minotaur’s fallen claymore. His ankle twisted, his knee gave way; it was all he could do to latch onto the massive hilt as he lost his balance and stop himself from being fileted by the blade.

Working the handle with both hands, Jace struggled to wrench the thing from the earth— It was no use; his legs kicked helplessly; he was dangling three feet above the ground. He heard the minotaur snort. Its tail lashed against its leg as it waited.

In the last seconds left, Jace threw himself down from the great blade and drew one of his short swords – now, for the first time, he was painfully aware just how puny it was. Yet, he was gratified to see the minotaur rear up.

“Take that!” Jace screamed, and threw the blade with all his might. The minotaur swatted it away with his forearm and it fell, barely louder than a pin, somewhere in the brush. “Oh.”

Once more, Jace made eye contact with the fiend, huffing and puffing from exertion, and with an almost embarrassed glance down to his hands, balled them into fists.

A dreadful smile plastered on his face, Jace took his best boxing stance. It was not very good, he realized.

The minotaur grinned, showing remarkably straight teeth.

It raised its fist for the final blow—

Jace had no means of defense, his weapons useless at his sides.

The last stroke, the last instant ...

It was only by habit that he reattached them to the belt around his waist.

... that’s the easy part.

Exhaling a long breath, the Outrider looked up to meet his fate.

Mark this well ...

And in that instant, the dwindling fire in Jace Dabriel’s heart exploded into a raging inferno.

... or someday soon ...

The pain all but vanished as Jace reached for the godsend hand he saw outstretched before him.

... you’ll wish you had.

“I thought I was the dramatic one!” Jace yelled, filled with joy like nothing he ever experienced.

“No!” Relic shouted as he snapped Midnight’s reins. “You’re the idiot!”

Divider (2)
Chapter Seventeen  (E)
The Haunted Forest
#2190479 by Dan Hiestand
Divider (2)
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