by Dan Hiestand
The Old Forest
The Old Forest
“Either we’re still alive, or heaven’s disappointing as hell.”
If it had been a training exercise, Thean would have been furious.
As the Outriders crashed through the thick foliage bordering Westwood, Jace could imagine the man popping up out of nowhere, darting from behind a tree or a boulder to scream about—
How quickly you’d both be dead—
“If this were real,” Jace concluded, mouthing the words he heard so clearly in his mind.
But it was real, and the cheers still echoing in their ears had driven them into a heedless charge. Adrenaline seared their veins with every clap of their steeds’ thundering hooves. In that moment, Relic and Jace were the greatest hope of the legions. Of the Republic.
The mission every child dreams of, Jace found himself thinking—
But the clash of fantasy and reality was swift, cold, and full of dread.
They had made a terrible mistake – and it was easy to imagine being instantly cut down in a hail of enemy fire. Their mangled bodies found days later, trampled and putrid, by whoever drew the short straw among Creed’s few remaining scouts.
Would that scout even live long enough to report their humiliating deaths?
Jace doubted it—and part of him hoped not.
The twisted forest canopy above them was gnarled together like tentacles, the husk of some sea-tossed leviathan who withered with the first touch of open air – only the occasional shiver of its entwined limbs giving some sense of the life left within.
All beneath it was a dense labyrinth of darkness.
The Outriders veered around immense stones and stumps half-hidden by moss, their efforts coaxing snaps and crashes from their tenuous path. Many times, they never knew exactly what they had dodged before passing seamlessly into their next maneuver.
Relic found himself barely leaping a fallen tree Jace had cleared easily—
Beyond it, opportunity suddenly beckoned: They were coming on a broad, empty glade.
It seethed under the sickly light of the Red Moon, visible one day in thirty on a schedule no scholar could discern. At the best of times, that moon was a distant pinprick of fire – at the worst, a wound that would not stop bleeding.
Finishing their run, the two made no shout, exchanged no sign, just dropped out of sight. Their mounts fell as one – each a reflection of the other – behind a wall of tall, concealing grass.
The maneuver was called dead man’s drop.
Yet here they were: Safe beneath the blood-burning moon.
For a moment, anyway.
Relic breathed out as the world slowed; assessed everything coolly, testing his limbs. Legs, arms, joints – no pain. Luna Scarlet retreated behind a tattered cloak of clouds, leaving only its pallid twin staring alone like a bone-white eye.
Slowly, Relic’s gaze drifted downward, fixing on a bright, gray-green strand. “This is moor grass,” he said out loud, astounding even himself.
“What?” Jace whispered harshly.
Relic sat up, the carpet of grass crunching under him. A blade of that grass no thicker than thread sat between the tips of his forefinger and thumb. Though Relic may not have seen his face clearly, he felt the heat of Jace’s incredulous gaze.
“I’m just saying, this stuff doesn’t grow out here.”
“So, someone had to plant it.”
“Fascinating.” Jace shook his head, forced himself upright with only a twinge of soreness, and got his first look through the foliage. Once he was as sure as he could be that there was no threat, he turned his attention back to Relic. “You alright?”
“Think so ...”
Unveiled, the wavering moonlight made Westwood a cauldron of shifting shadows. Even in near-silence, the panting of their horses could bring an enemy down on them without warning. Jace moved cautiously, carefully balancing the weight of the big horn he still carried.
One false move and he could crush it—a sound even louder than his pounding heart. “Yeah, I’m good,” he reassured the horn.
Relic’s face was blank as he scanned the gloom.
A passing comet painted the darkness, leaving each man a washed out, crimson silhouette in the other’s sight. But even that light was subdued: Not far beyond, they wouldn’t even glimpse the blasts passing overhead, no matter how ghastly or magnificent.
The shadows were thirsty. Soon, they'd drink the moon.
“See anything before we went down?” Relic asked.
“Yeah. My life flash before my eyes. Other than that ...” Jace paused a moment. “No.”
From somewhere far away, reeds whistled like wind chimes on an abandoned storefront.
“What are you looking at?” Relic asked Jace.
Jace motioned out with an upward nod. “You didn’t see that?”
Relic shot a glance his way.
“See what? No; I don’t see a thing.”
Jace’s sweat was burning cold. The light twinge in his shoulder grew, seeping slowly through him and outlining the places where wounds he couldn’t even recall once lay. Yet, when he flexed his hand before him, the phantom pain vanished.
“It was like a green ...” Jace closed his eyes tight against a sudden, throbbing pain in his temples. “No,” he said. “Nevermind.” There he stood, pinching the bridge of his nose and waiting. The pain started to fade. “You know,” he said idly, “maybe ... just maybe ...”
Relic hadn’t realized he’d been holding his breath, but now he let it out. It felt like something impossibly vast had passed over them. Whatever it was, its absence left a space of relief even in this terrible place. His face went blank with concentration.
Jace knew what Relic was thinking, even only seeing the vaguest outline of his form.
“Take another look,” he whispered. “I’ll cover you.”
But there was no time—a loud snap made them both take cover.
When it seemed safe to move again, Jace asked: “Dismounted reconnaissance?”
Relic listened a moment longer to the nothing. Or perhaps the Nothing.
There were hours of riding ahead and no telling how long the horses could hold their unnatural positions. Midnight and Highfly’s breath made the air thick as soup; each rider could imagine their powerful legs snapping like matchsticks if they weren’t paced.
Of the two of them, Relic could imagine it much more clearly.
“No,” he said. “Not yet, at least. We have no idea what’s out there ...” Relic rolled back onto his feet, crouching. “And whether we’re on horseback isn’t gonna change that one whit.” With that, he paused and sucked in a deep breath. Finally: “On three?”
Jace winched himself up to his feet and bounced in place, flexing his hands as he did.
“One ...” Relic began.
The screech of some far-off bird rang out.
In unison, the riders shouted Three! and shot to their feet.
A moment stretched forever under the moonlight as they held still, aching with the numb liberation only true abandon provides. The exhilaration was real—but fleeting.
“What do you think,” Jace asked, just above a whisper. “Feel like we’re being watched?”
“Yes,” Relic said, then shrugged. “But I always do. So, I guess that doesn’t mean much.”
Out of nowhere, Jace let out a whistle so loud and shrill Relic winced on the brink of real pain. At that instant, in a rustling shuffle of dead leaves and cracking twigs, both horses stood. It was a brash test, but certainly efficient.
Like pulling off a bandage in a single rip, Relic thought.
“Well,” Jace said, “Either we’re still alive, or heaven’s disappointing as hell.”
“Yeah. Let’s mount up,” Relic said, then walked over to Midnight, leaping into the saddle with Jace doing likewise. Relic reached in his saddlebag, taking out a rolled parchment. After unfurling it, he held it on his lap with his elbow and withdrew a sliver of charcoal. “Alright ... we’re here,” he said making a mark and taking a quick glance south. “Basically.” Jace accepted this with a faux-gracious nod. Relic slid the side of his hand to the south, stopping on a windy dark brown line stretching to the other side of the woods. “The road’s about four miles south of here.”
“The road?” Jace asked. “You’re sure that’s a good idea? Creed specifically said—”
Relic looked down at the scout paths of those that went before them. He’d traced them from memory.
“No,” he concluded after a moment, “It’s not. But there are no good ideas out here.”
“Hmm.” Jace knew better than to stand in the way of Relic’s thoughts as they gained speed.
“We have skills the scouts that came before us could only—” Relic stopped, reconsidering his choice of words. “We have skills they didn’t. If we really wanted to, we could sneak through the brush even if the Titans were out there listening.”
“Maybe that’s exactly what we should do, man.”
Relic took a deep breath. There was something here he wasn’t seeing—
“And how long would that take? Would there be anything left of Fairlawn by then?”
Jace sighed and nodded, rubbing his hand back and forth over his chin. He’d sworn he had remembered to shave, but sure enough, stubble stood out there.
“You’re right,” he conceded. “We have to—there’s not enough time.”
There was something unsettling in Jace’s tone; Relic watched him a moment, sensing unfamiliar, unspoken doubts. It was strange to see him like this—more unnerving to Relic than the silence, the danger. Without that confidence ... or arrogance ... that had grown so familiar.
“C’mon, man,” Relic said, throwing a light backhand into Jace’s chest to lure his eye contact. “What better way to draw them out than by riding in the open?”
Jace nodded, placing his palms on the saddle horn as he stretched his back.
“Relax,” Relic went on. “Or I’ll tell Isabelle you were acting like a scared little kid.” Relic’s mind froze in the instant Jace’s gaze snapped to him.
There was something in his eyes—
“You don’t have to psyche me up, Relic.” he said. A moment later, the smile Relic couldn’t see was reflected in his friend’s tone. “And you’re terrible at it, by the way.”
Relic smiled in turn, his concern fading a little.
“It’s just funny you mentioned her.” Jace was looking down toward his saddle again; fidgeting with the flat front brim of his cap. “You know that feeling you have right now? Right in the pit of your stomach?”
Relic took an instant to decide what Jace meant, but he knew The Kid well.
“The adventurer’s cocktail?”
Excitement, dread, spiked with a shot of adrenaline.
“I feel it whenever I see her,” Jace said quietly. “Sometimes just thinking about her.”
Relic listened indifferently—
What’s behind you?
Then, in an instant, he understood.
“You’re making it back, Jace.”
“If I don’t, you tell her ...” he said. “Tell her if we weren’t both Outriders, if she wasn’t my training officer—” He paused and cleared his throat, taking a reedy breath. “Just ... tell her that I would have said the words a long time ago. I wanted to. I just ...”
Looking frustrated, he paused to collect his thoughts. Relic waited, his attention unwavering.
“There are some people in this world – people who remember how to smile even when it’s hard. People who are strong enough to believe in the goodness of strangers even after they’ve been hurt. That’s the kind of person she is – and that’s why, Relic. That’s why—”
“You’ll tell her yourself, Jace.” Jace’s mouth snapped shut, but Relic could hear his quiet wheeze in the darkness. “Now stop talking like that. You’re scaring the horses.”
The beginning of a smile twitched across Jace’s mouth.
“I don’t know, bookshelf,” he said. “I don’t have the best feeling about this one.” He looked down again towards the cold, dead leaves, and the high, lifeless moor grass that blanketed the glade. “Just remember what I said.”
“I will,” Relic promised, resting a comforting hand on his friend’s shoulder. Then, after a few silent moments, he tightened his grip and joggled him. “When the hell did you get so dramatic?”
Jace smirked – and Relic could feel some of the tension leave his partner's shoulders.
“Four miles you said?”
“Yeah,” Relic answered. “I suggest we stick close.”
Jace leaned forward in the saddle a bit, squinting in vain to make anything out.
“No argument here,” he said, then he looked back over. “Lead on.”
Relic never looked away from the path, snapping the reins as he spoke.
“Gladly,” he said – his words trailing after him as he went.
They moved with masterful quickness, just two more shapes in the shadows.