by Dan Hiestand
“What has hooves like an ox, but only two?”
The Fairlawn Thoroughfare was thronged with whispers.
The Outriders’ passing was marked by a ghostly chorus of creaks—murmurs coaxed from the extinguished road lamps lining the abandoned road. Chains held each lamp to its steel post: With no one to maintain them, the bindings had grown weary with rust and filth.
Now, they gave voice to their displeasure with every shift in the breeze.
To Relic, at least, they sounded like angry spirits piled heavy with burdens.
The first great curve in the road was hard to spot, even in daylight, for those not familiar with it. But Jace knew it – knew it was the first place for an ambush. The pair slowed a while, scanning the darkness for any sign of the unknown.
But there was nothing Relic could see – just the road stretching on, posts rising like watchmen.
Jace leapt from the saddle and started to move off to the side of the road. He made no signal, so Relic merely waited. His stead was tense. The horse longed to run; on any normal night here, they would never have the space to break a simple trot.
No, on a normal evening the high road would have been packed with travelers—
Merchants in rich silks, farmers, brigands ... each one jostling to be the first to see Fairlawn. Even in the recesses of night, the wind should have been alive with the songs and scents of their travels: Here they stood, on the doorstep of a city that had welcomed so many home.
Relic’s fist clenched at the thought that any of them should die beneath the magic onslaught.
Even outlaws deserve better.
Out here on the road, the sky was an inky abyss, unleavened by stars. Relic saw a shift in the clouds and braced himself, expecting the Red Moon; but the murky crimson glare that would have desecrated every shadow did not follow. As he glanced down, the lantern glass reflected a small, crimson comet instead. When he saw it, he cursed himself for feeling a moment of relief.
Indifferent to the men below, the crimson ember arced over the trees and plunged into the city. Relic’s hand found his water skin, and as he drank deeply, he looked to Jace.
Dabriel was hard at work pulling one of the lanterns from the long metal pole on which it sat – or trying to, at least. It screeched in protest as they realized, simultaneously, that the lantern's casing was still riveted securely in place.
Jace returned to his horse, scouring the darkness as Relic produced a map. “What are you looking for?” Jace asked.
Jace spotted something about a dozen feet ahead and urged his horse forward. Bending down, he ran his hand over the thing until months of grime gave way. It was little more than a shard of weathered stone, engraved with the proud crests of Veil’driel and Fairlawn.
Beneath was a number – faded, but legible to Dabriel’s keen eye. Quick as a flash, he struck his lighter, holding his other palm over the flame to conceal and direct it. “Twenty-seven,” he announced, snapping the lighter closed.
“Nine miles from the other side,” Relic observed, marking his parchment fastidiously with his charcoal. As Jace joined him, Relic was still examining the map, searching for some clue or bit of inspiration that had eluded him.
“I say we ride out to marker thirty-five and leave the road,” Jace said.
Relic stabbed at the map with a finger; Jace waited for an explanation.
“White and Calloway’s old sentry house is in that area. Assuming there’s anything left of it.” “Good,” Jace said, mischief lighting his face. “We can go and ask for directions.”
The Outriders cantered on, lost in their private thoughts as the landscape rolled by – disclosing mile markers one by one. The thundering of their steeds held back the heavy silence, but even so, Relic heard the shriek of rotting steel whenever a gust blew up.
Now and then, the comets sailed by: Choking gray; eye-watering blue; gravid, coruscating gold. Each burned brighter as it touched the horizon, throwing an unnatural pallor for miles. Only a few scant seconds after they yielded to the shadows at last, another would start the cycle anew.
Jace snapped his reins—
He couldn’t shake the strange, oppressive feeling that he and Relic were fleeing.
In seconds, Jace was bent in the saddle, riding like hell without a thought for his partner. The speed caught Relic off-guard; he made to shout, but knew it would be no use. It took him a moment to realize that Dabriel hadn’t merely lost him, but spotted something ahead.
When Relic caught up, Jace was rearing Highfly beside a blackened outcropping. “Jace!” Relic yelled, his own voice echoing in his ears. “What is it?”
Jace was already out of the saddle, moving at a sprint. Relic dismounted as well, and the instant his feet touched the ground, his crossbows snapped into his hands. Jace muttered: “Dead—”
Relic reached Jace’s shoulder – and what he saw forced the Night Mare to move over.
Eric Hobson’s neck had been broken so his remaining eye stared at his own mutilated body.
Relic fought a gasp as he first beheld the man lying shattered, as though thrown from a great height. Jagged shards of his knees poked through his clothes, and his blood had dried in a vast, ugly swath around him, the color of rust.
Memory supplied a smell since his body could not—rotten fruit, though he couldn’t say why.
“What could have done this?” Jace asked. He searched Relic’s eyes for an answer, but none came. Relic stepped closer. Even now, Hobson’s sash was recognizable: Forerunner of Veil’driel, third degree. A man on the threshold—
One mission shy of starting the training that would forge him into a full Outrider. This could’ve been his story, Relic thought, and he almost retched.
Instead, he said: “Coins.”
“For his eyes.”
Jace had pulled off his cap, holding it against his chest. He screwed it up in one hand as the other patted his pockets. “Haven't got any,” he said. “When’d you start believing in all that, anyway?”
Gingerly, Relic dropped to one knee, pushing aside the dead man's cloak to reveal his belt. From this, he pulled off knives, a canteen—then he flinched as his fingers found something slick: A wineskin. He frowned down at it, even as he snatched the dog tags from Hobson’s rancid neck.
“Nice,” Jace said. “He might as well have done this to himself!”
“Maybe we should conceal the body,” Relic said
Jace snatched the wineskin from Relic’s hand, then dumped it over on the thirsty earth. “There's no time for that,” Jace said. “Not tonight, and not for him.”
“Isn’t it the least we can do?”
“I’ll show you the least we can do,” said Jace. “Have you been drinking?”
“No! I’m just saying—”
The wineskin now drained, Jace dropped it through the air and punted it.
“Saying what, Relic?”
“He's been chewed. We shouldn’t leave him like this!”
Jace was pacing now—replacing his hat, at first crooked, upon his brow.
“Yeah, and mysterious comets shouldn’t be pummeling Fairlawn into oblivion. Creed shouldn’t have sat on his hands for a month repeating the same mistake over and over. And just one cup of coffee shouldn’t have been too much to ask a bunch of hermits to leave behind for us!”
Relic bit his lip to silence himself as Jace stared daggers at him.
“When it’s a perfect world, let me know. Meanwhile, let’s get going!”
Halting suddenly, Jace went to secure Hobson’s knives to his belt. For a long moment, his gaze lingered on the great horn he’d brought with him, as if wondering where and whether to move it.
Relic looked up. “Isn't that bad luck?”
“What, taking this crap? He won't need it where he's gone,” Jace said, turning. The horn rattled gently at his waist and Jace steadied it, his hand shooting out like a striking snake. Relic looked, noticing the weird artifact for the first time; before he could ask, Jace said: “Come on, Relic!”
“Wait.” Relic said. “Just a minute!”
Relic turned away and began to examine the ground. Moving with crabbed steps, he was careful to keep his distance from the corpse. After a while came the mumbling – a sure sign, known to all the other Outriders, that he was deep in concentration.
Jace could feel anger boiling up in him again, twisting his stomach into sickly knots.
What's left in the box behind the shoes?
“If you want me to read your lips, bookshelf, you'll have to turn around.”
Relic pivoted toward Jace, still crouching, frowning ever more intently.
"What. Has. Hooves-like-an-ox? But-only-two?" he repeated through gritted teeth.
Jace didn’t understand. He had turned and taken a few steps back toward the horses before he suddenly spun to face Relic squarely. His eyes were wide, the whites visible even in shadow.
“Relic. That'd better be the start of a terrible joke.”
Relic reached down and touched the imprints in the dusty dirt. He rose. “Not unless you think minotaur is a funny punchline.”
The cold vanished into unnatural heat with the first tingle of sweat on Jace’s brow. Without looking, he knew the same feeling had taken hold of Relic, too—a scorching certainty that seemed to pulse out of his body with each heartbeat, only to settle in the strangest places, like fingertips and ears. Jace tried to speak, but could not hear his own voice.
His mind was a straining dam, filled to bursting with lectures from half-forgotten professors— Each offering some sliver that might save them, but all so loud Jace could not hear a thing. Highly dangerous, sledgehammer blows, not above biting, horns aren’t just for show ...
Jace was lightheaded when Relic hit him hard in the arm.
Like other predators adapted for the hunt ...
“He was left here to lure us,” Jace said, his eyes focusing and the last rambling thought— Like those others, they can smell your fear—
—echoing away. With that, Jace knew what to do.
Or at least where to start.
Relic looked around the trees. He had no doubt they were being watched, now. When he spoke, his words echoed those resounding through Jace’s throbbing head. “They toy with their prey, wait for the right opening to get a spectacular kill.”
Jace looked away, but Relic grabbed him; they were eye-to-eye.
“They don’t even sleep like we do, Jace.”
“Oh yeah?” Jace said, his tongue heavy in his mouth. “What do they do?”
“They just ...” Relic waved a hand idly in the darkness. “They just wait.”
Jace let out a ragged breath. How they had gotten this far became clear all at once. Crystal.
“Alright, listen,” Relic said, scratching his nose. “There are several factors in our favor.” A wide- eyed Jace hung on every word, consumed with intense gratitude for Relic’s academic devotion. “First, we’re on the open road, so when they come at us, we’ll have some room to maneuver.”
Jace nodded enthusiastically. “That’s good! Face-to-face fight!” Relic looked down to his feet for a few seconds.
“Okay,” Jace prompted. “What else?”
Relic took a deep breath. He glanced off to the side.
“Well ... we have one factor in our favor, at least.”
Relic was just about to suggest a dash for the horses when he caught movement in the shadows over Jace’s shoulder. The silhouette on the road ahead of them was at least seven feet tall. Its body rippled with grotesque strength and intent, resembling an obscenely muscular man.
But the razor-sharp teeth that caught the suffocated moonlight belonged to no man.
It was motionless, staring. Then it saw, or smelled them—and its fang-filled mouth opened wide. “Jace,” Relic said. “There’s a—”
“You too,” Jace said.
There was flint in Jace’s tone again; seeing the thing took away some of its power. Its head canted this way and that, its impossibly broad shoulders supporting the neck and head of a monstrous bull. Each of its horns was longer than the Outriders’ forearms and wickedly curved.
“How far?” Relic asked
“Sixty ...” he squinted. “Sixty-five yards.” Relic nodded.
“Mine?” Jace asked.
“Same,” Relic answered.
“Will they go after the horses?”
“They’re not fast enough for that,” Relic said. Then admitted: “I don’t think so, anyway.”
“Any particular plan?”
“No short-swords. Hide’s too tough,” Relic answered. “You don’t wanna get that close.”
Relic turned to face the minotaur behind him. Even at a time like this, he found himself thinking the two were truly identical, that no human being could tell them apart. Perhaps on some distant day at the dawn of time, they had learned to smell fear so they could recognize each other.
“You know, buddy,” said Jace, “there’s something I always wanted to tell you. And, well—” “What is it?” Relic asked, standing as still as he could—as if to ward off a coming avalanche. “Your name,” Jace breathed. “It’s kind of funny. Always reminded me of – of – pelicans.” No sound passed between them.
“You know, like the bir—”
“Yes, Dabriel, I know what a pelican is, thank you."
The next sound was a gasp as if he had gone straight through terror and arrived at awe.
The minotaurs raised their arms – limbering up their impossible, mirror image physiques in preparation for the battle to come. The beasts shuffled like mountains in motion, each knot of their limbs a boulder in flesh. Greenish veins proved that blood ran within them, stretched over taut muscles with unimaginable strength. They dropped to a crouch, then slowly rose again.
For the first and only time, one minotaur regarded the other.
Its tail slapped at some fly – the turn of its arm matched its brother’s.
Booming roars chilled the Outriders to the bone, freezing their fingers numb in the span of a heartbeat. The ground rumbled as if it would tear itself to pieces as the two minotaurs bucked forward, hooves scourging the earth.
Relic knew the moment Hobson’s horse had gone mad, but he was no longer afraid. Even if he and Jace fell, they would certainly be far more of a challenge than these things were expecting.
More, perhaps, than they had ever known.
Jace spun about, shedding his cloak, and throwing it aside in a single, fluid motion. The arsenal underneath was laid bare: Short swords crossed over his back, three crossbow bolt belts – one tight around his waist, two crisscrossing his chest from the shoulders. Each bolt was evenly spaced, positioned delicately for the precise reloading only an Outrider could master.
He stepped forward, his crossbows in hand.
Behind him, Relican Avery smiled. The wind was soft now, sweeping the first whispers of rain before it. Only an echo remained of birds fleeing from the trees. He could have imagined there was no sound at all until the moment Jace disengaged the safeties with two simultaneous clicks.
“Alright, bookshelf,” he said. “Let’s dance with these messed up cows.”