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Rated: 13+ · Chapter · Action/Adventure · #2190468
Welcome to Westwood

Welcome to Westwood

“Come on ... this isn’t over yet.”

Divider (2)

The drooling grin on the minotaur’s face curdled at Jace’s gesture; but in surprise, not concern. This was not how the other victims had acted; yet if there was a mind there capable of fear, it was alien. The creature gnashed its teeth in recognition of the scent it’d caught—

Jace let his bolts fly, and they cracked into the monster’s chest.

His mind was far away, hands dancing without thought in their exquisite reloading: Always ramming his empty crossbows downward so the spring recoil snapped into the bolts on his belt. Again, he would aim and fire; one after another, over and over.

An instant later, his ammo was almost spent ...

When Jace felt the last bolt lock, he unfastened the belt, then spun to whip it around his waist where it snapped back in place, bringing forward the bolts that had been strapped across his back. It was pure instinct, the pause it demanded barely there.

The minotaur was driven back, arms raised to guard its leathery flanks. The rain was growing stronger, stinging Jace’s eyes—

Suddenly, Jace realized he was within ten yards of the beast.

He’d expended two belts—sixty bolts!—and still the titan gaped at him.

Seeing it from afar the first time was stunning; up close it filled Jace with a terror he had never known. The minotaur’s stare was angry hellfire. Even with the knowledge that he was about to die, some part of Jace marveled at its horns.

He wondered in his delirium who was screaming.

Then realized—

It was him.

Jace forced himself to take a step backward, then another. All the minotaur had to do was lunge.

But as the beast lumbered forward, an expression of shock distorted its grotesque face. It stopped its massive bulk short and canted its head to the side, perhaps expecting some sort of answer.

It looked down to its body and got one.

Jace saw it realize for the first time the countless bolts spread over its abdomen; it was scored with a dozen killing blows. Whether it was the sheer speed of the attack, or its own lust for the kill that had numbed the pain, it could tolerate no more.

The minotaur’s eyes locked onto Jace, and the start of a roar rose from deep in its chest.

The sound was drowned in a wave of blackish-yellow bile that surfed up from its mouth and down through its snout. As it sniffed again, the air was blocked. With a jerk, the creature shifted its weight to its hind hoof to leap—

Then it sprawled into the dust of the road.

Jace’s arms hung limply at his sides as he stared, transfixed, at the fallen beast. It didn’t seem possible he could have killed it. He didn’t even notice what was going on behind him until, with a sudden start, the breath was torn from his lungs and his legs kicked the empty air.

Great job, hero, said the voice of Thean in his mind.

Jace hit the ground hard as he was thrown, arms guarding his face, and he winced at the hollow sound of the horn hitting the road. He pulled his legs under him, making to spring out of the way while he could; there was no time to wonder why he was still alive. But—

As Relic rose like a striking snake, Jace realized what had really thrown him.

As Jace scrambled back to his feet, he saw Relic flowing through the fight, masterfully dodging hammer-blows a few steps up the road. On the other side of the road was a great hammer, no doubt thrown at Jace while he was distracted.

Relic had saved him—

And what’s more – Relic, too, had taken down a minotaur.
Jace looked back, remembered his last belt of crossbow bolts and strapped it into place. Relic’s acrobatics were a sight to behold, but he was on the defensive and losing ground.

With every near-miss, Jace’s hands wanted to shake—

But when he rose to fire, he was steady as a sea-cliff, landing four bolts in a neat line down from the minotaur’s forehead. The beast slapped them as if warding off insects. But then, the motions grew clumsy, and the monster corkscrewed, tumbling awkwardly out of sight.

Half-cloaked by roadside brush, its chest rose and fell once before it heaved a sigh and expired. Relic had saved Jace’s life, and Jace had returned the favor in the span of three heartbeats.

A glance of understanding passed between them as each one tried to steady his breathing. Relic pointed frantically for Jace to turn ar—

Before he could, Jace was hoisted into the air like a ragdoll.

He was flung through the air, careening into one of the metal-cane light fixtures with a crash that made Relic wince. A vision of Alarick in the lane snaked across his watering eyes as pain bolted through him.

The minotaur ignored Relic, stomping after Jace with impossible speed.

Relic couldn’t stop it in time.

He raised his arm across an impassable distance—

Jace heard the beast stomping towards him as he lay beside the fallen road lamp. The cane's base had shattered against his shoulder and now lay pinned beneath his weight. He started to reach for his crossbows only to realize he had no time.

Reaching down to his belt, Jace withdrew the flint box lighter instead.

He struck it and held the flame out in front of him.

A smattering of bolts thudded into the beast's back. Above Jace, the creature’s terrible form was blurred through pain and exhaustion, and he could tell only from its moonlit silhouette that it had loped sideways ever so briefly, distracted by the flicker of fire.

That was all the time Jace needed.

Rolling onto his side, Jace lit the large lantern, grabbed the cane pole and staggered to his feet, his body outlined in the golden glow of the road lamp. The blaze seized the minotaur’s attention, a vicious snarl emptying into confusion as it canted its head at the strange assembly before it: Metal staff and dangling lantern and wounded Outrider, all.

What it saw was not what Jace saw.

Jace swung the ball and chain so the lantern struck the minotaur on the side of its massive head. As it burst in a hissing ball of fire and oil, Jace shielded his eyes. The beast’s matted fur was alight: Soon followed the fetid crackling of flesh searing black.

Then the savor of burnt steak and a bloodcurdling roar—

The beast was no longer a beast, but a shadow shifting in a long smear of crackling flame. It took a few aimless steps before collapsing into a heap, its hair letting off darker-than-dark smoke. Jace had only an instant to wonder if they had just released a morbid smoke signal—

Three more minotaurs burst through the trees, furiously circling the makeshift effigy.

Jace whistled frantically, wincing and leaning as he pressed his hand against his injured ribs. Once, twice – Relic let out an uneasy sigh as, on Jace’s third call, the horses crashed through the brush and onto the road. They raced side by side as if phantom riders sat in the saddles.

Jace readied himself for the pain that was sure to come, then turned his attention on Highfly, timing his leap for his boot to catch onto the stirrup. With a grunt and a swing of the legs, Jace catapulted himself up.

As they rode side by side, Relic let himself feel relief for the first time.

They rode without speaking, hard and fast at breakneck speeds. Miles ticked away like minutes with no sign of the minotaurs, for neither dared to look into the trees. Soon, the sentry house came into view.

“There it is!” Relic bellowed.

They had just begun to slow when a minotaur crashed from the treeline and shouldered into their path. If it expected to frighten them, it was disappointed: Without hesitation, Relic slid two copper cylinders from the side of his saddle.

Wrapping his hand around one of them, he held the apparatus at his side.


After a quick glance, Jace took the other cylinder in hand.

The minotaur steadied itself with a crouch, its arms raised to snatch them with its bare hands. When the riders suddenly spread out of reach, it bellowed frustration. It did not see the razor wire coiled from the cylinders ...

Strung tightly across the gap.

The horsemen whipped past on both sides. The minotaur twisted in their wake, but only its torso turned as the tree trunk legs and hooves remained planted on the road. Crimson spots sprinkled the dust, turning to pools, and the upper half of the minotaur sluiced away.

Its lower half stood in place, a monument to a long-lost tyrant.

Jace released his cylinder and it recoiled to the one Relic held.

As the copper clinked together, Relic slid the device back into its holster.

They skidded to a stop before the sentry house, and the riders silently mourned the quaint beauty it must have held when all was at peace.

A short. black gate lined the perimeter, and the iron joined in an archway over a cobblestone path leading toward the entrance. Relic and Jace leapt from their saddles, striding to the door as if daring anyone or anything to stand in their way.

But nothing did.

Nothing, at least, that they could see.

The main gate opened slowly, revealing complete darkness within.

A few steps closer and Relic saw that the inner doors had been ripped away, leaving gouges where they once stood. Only the outermost door could still be secured; the bolts for the rest were gone without a trace.

Clearly, it was the work of the sentinels, Relic thought. A convenience to have the passage unobstructed as they withdrew. Relic’s gaze darted to Jace as he nodded to himself. Yes. Clearly, that was it.

“See the hinges?” Jace asked as they approached. “Bad sign, bro.”

Relic sighed.

An adjoining shed rounded off to the right; gear storage for the 305th Fairlawn Sentinels and the Timberland Highway Commission. Skirting this was a hedge of knee-high shrubs, and it was there Jace paused when he spied a glint in the dirt.

Relic only noticed it when – much to his annoyance – Jace started over.

“What is it?”

“Don’t know yet.”

Relic glanced to the bend up ahead, where the wind blew a tall yellow weed back and forth like a wagging finger.

“No, jackass, I mean why are we stopping here, completely exposed, when more minotaurs could follow at any moment?”

“I thought I saw something. For just a second ...”

“What do you mean?” Relic said warily.

“It was like a green glow ...”

For an instant, it occurred to Relic to turn, right then and there, and flee up the road. Back to the camp; back to that place where the two of them, and the Republic with them, had been clinging to life by the very tips of their fingers.

Instead, he forced himself to take a deep breath—

He wasn’t about to wait for any green glow.

“We split up,” Relic said. “Stay low, and check the windows. See if there’s anything inside.” Jace opened his mouth to protest, but the seriousness in Relic’s eyes stopped him.

“Don’t slow down,” Jace cautioned. “We can’t afford to get separated for long.”

But Relic was already moving.

Within moments, they were alone.

Divider (2)

Down in a half-crouch, Relic crept quickly from one window to another. The leaded glass turned all within to vague, purplish shadows. It seemed certain nothing and no one had been there in months; yet something drew his eye, off in the distance among the wildflowers.

They had been trampled – he wasn’t sure, at first, how he knew. It was like seeing a picture superimposed on itself; an image and its counter-image in an instant of double vision.

Yet, when the strange sensation passed, he was certain something was out of place.

There was only one set of clear prints in the dirt—badly bow-legged, one foot dragging behind the other as if injured. Relic tried to follow it for a while, but it looped along the grounds in no clear pattern, and he soon realized it had doubled back.

A sudden crunch beneath his feet drew his attention down—

A vision clouded his mind’s eye—a scout, delirious with pain, unsure where to flee.

But it wasn’t human gore he’d stumbled on: Just flowers, flat and faded. They crumpled apart under his feet, and he knew instantly they were dead. Looking around, he confirmed with his eyes what his nose couldn’t tell him: They were all dead.

Here and there, a few petals glinted like broken glass – shadow blossoms, still glowing purple in the dark. It would take weeks for them to turn transparent for good. But that could only mean they had died recently ... far more recently than the sentry house had been abandoned.

The destroyed flowers led Relic in a wide swath around the property—toward the only well. As he glanced over the rim and into its depths, he saw it was as red as rust.

Impulsively, he cast a rock into the depths – but it didn’t plunk.

It slurped.

Then, a few seconds later, it started to hiss.

He knew he had to return to Jace. Yet, he had barely turned the corner before they nearly ran into each other.

“Did you see anything?” Relic asked.

“No, nothing,” said Jace. “It’s empty ... nothing’s been up the road.”

“I’m not so sure. The well water ... it’s a weird color.”

“Well water is always weird. You’re lucky you can’t smell it.”

“No ...” Relic shot a glance back to the well as if something could’ve followed him from it. Cold, clammy sweat sprang over his body, and he only feared Jace wouldn’t listen. “The well’s been poisoned. The enemy’s been here. Recently, Jace. Why would they just abandon it?”

Jace’s answer was cut off by a roar that warbled far in the distance— It was a minotaur, but there was something strangely personal about it.

“I think they found their friends,” Jace said with a crooked grin.

“Sounds like it. Jace, we’ve gotta—”

“Look, Rel,” Jace cut him off, raising a hand. “We don’t have a choice. We can’t go back. We can’t move on ‘til we check this out. We go deep enough into the sentry house, they’ll think we kept going. They’re too dumb to look for prints, right?”

Relic blinked owlishly in the pale moonlight.

“Yeah, that’s right,” Relic said. “Guess you didn’t sleep through all the lectures.” Another roar joined the others.

Jace clapped Relic on the shoulder, then turned.

“Come on ... this isn’t over yet.”

But Relic felt the heat of his grin; felt something awful stir on the edge of knowledge.

Divider (2)

Jace and Relic crept into the sentry house antechamber back-to-back, their crossbows drawn, sweeping the circular room in wide arcs.

“All clear,” Jace said, and Relic vanished outside without a word. When he returned, he was leading both horses by the reins.

The halls were wide, big enough for them, Highfly and Midnight to walk abreast.

All around were tables piled high with scattered paperwork and half-eaten meals. Spigots, still polished to a high sheen, stood out from the walls. Some were running: Pinkish well-water gushed and foamed down the drains, gurgling and snarling.

“I thought this was an orderly withdrawal,” Relic said quietly.

“That’s what Calloway said,” Jace answered, his tone low.

He was still scanning, searching ... nose upturned at the stench of rust and rotten fruit. When he met Relic’s gaze, the same thought passed between them, but Relic gave it voice:

“He said a lot in those last few days. But not what it was that swept down on this place so fast.”

Relic let the horses’ reins go slack, giving Midnight’s mane a calming pat.

“Hungry?” Jace said, gesturing to one of the tables where a dagger was still buried in a hunk of putrid meat floating in congealed juices. But Relic, too, had continued on; along the far wall, there was a sleek stone ledge.

And upon that

A massive book with heavy metallic covers, held down by a chain. It was worn and battered, yet they could still spy flecks of gilt along the pages. Relic raised his eyebrows; brushed his fingers over the edges, too ancient to cut flesh. Jace stared a moment, then realized what he was seeing.

“It’s a work log, Relic,” he said, his hands on his hips.

His friend didn’t notice.

“Yeah. But not exactly. It’s the work log ... it’s as old as this place is.”

“Cool,” Jace said, his tone idle. “What’s up with the big chain?”

“Believe it or not,” Relic said, not looking up, “there was a time when the sentry on duty was expected to carry this whole thing for their entire shift, connected to his wrist ... in fact,” he said as he read, “all Outriders used to wear a special bracelet for just such an occasion.”

“Hm,” Jace mused—then, when Relic didn’t answer, went on: “What’re you reading?”

“The last entry ...” Relic noted. The words spilled out in a rapid-fire cadence: “In accordance with orders of Sapphire 11 by Gen. Creed, bonfires will be kept burning on departure. Command request to seal the well delayed by loss of contact with Fairlawn City. No masonry deliveries.

“Why would they be worried about keeping a bonfire going if they were getting ready to run?”

But Relic didn’t answer him. His voice slowed:

Sixty of seventy men report exhaustion, sleep disturbances and other symptoms. With command approval, withdrawal is to begin right away.

“Symptoms of what?” Jace asked.

“Sounds like overwork to me,” Relic said, licking his thumb to turn the pages. “These guys were the first to come face-to-face with all this.. They had overlapping shifts, aggressive recon in the woods ... and no idea what was coming for them.”

“Anything on the cows?”

Relic’s brow knit tightly before he said: “No ... not a word.”

“Then what are you staring at?”

Jace coasted up beside Relic to look over his shoulder.

“It’s Calloway’s last entry, but ...”

Dabriel let out a hiss of impatience, and that was the only warning Relic had before he stepped up. Reaching down, he gave the page a sharp yank; a gasp lodged in Relic’s throat as he heard it tear slowly out of the book, which rattled mournfully on its chain.

Most of the entries were arranged in neat tables:

Time and event.

But this one ...

Jace turned the page over in his hands.

“What the hell? This doesn’t make any sense.”

“It’s mirror-writing,” said Relic absently, punctuated by the flick of pages. “Every event is the same. But the time is different. After midnight, it starts running backwards—”

He was already frowning as he spoke, but now genuine worry creased his forehead.

“What’s it say?”

0000,” Relic recited. “Midnight. Don’t look, or it takes you.

There was a long pause.

Relic had stopped turning pages.

“We let that kid man our watchtower,” Jace said, but the humor in it was sour.

“Jace ...”

Relic stepped away from the book, clenching his hands as he took long, slow breaths. The air was musty and tepid, but he was sure he was breathing in poison. Jace snapped a look over his shoulder, almost asked what was wrong, then looked down for himself.

The last entry was no entry at all—it was a drawing.

A monster as tall as two men, cloaked in ragged, patchy garb. A great smile split its skeletal face. The children it held by the hands were smiling, too; but theirs were not happy smiles. One of the monster’s legs was poised to leap forward, the other twisted at a weird angle behind it.

Its eyes burned with a fierce, feral light.

Jace scraped at it with his fingernail. At length, it started to chip off—dried blood. Suddenly, he had his suspicions about what, exactly, had attacked this place.

Divider (2)

Marcus White had taken his turn to sleep – two hours.

It shouldn’t have been long enough for a nightmare, but it was; when he jerked awake, he was only thankful that he couldn’t quite remember what had been behind him—the memory of its uneven footsteps, pursuing everywhere he went, faded with blissful quickness.

But the relief was short-lived.

“Wh-what are you doing, bro?”

Damien Calloway should have been at his post, watching the perimeter all the more closely without his partner. But instead, the man was crouched a foot or so away, staring at Marcus through unblinking, red-rimmed eyes.

“I ... was just making sure you were okay.”

“What do you mean ... okay?”

A cold spike of adrenaline replaced the last dregs of sleep—

“You were thrashing,” Calloway said slowly. “You sounded ...”


The last word was barely a whisper; Marcus had to strain to hear it.

“Sorry,” he muttered, standing up to pace back over to his post.

But Calloway didn’t follow.

“Have you ever wondered ...” Calloway whispered—

“What?” Marcus turned; his instinct was to be annoyed, but he stopped himself. This was the first time his friend had tried to say what was on his mind in weeks. Maybe months. He didn’t even realize that he was holding his breath to hear.

“Have you ever wondered ...” Calloway didn’t rise, but he turned on his heels; like an animal ready to pounce. “If you died and went to Hell ... how would you know?”

“I don’t know, man! Fire and guys in red pajamas—you’re creeping me out, okay?”

Calloway smiled, but it was not a happy smile.

“You’ve got to let me go,” said Calloway.
“What do you mean?”

“Something terrible is coming – if I don’t go, you’re going to get hurt.”

Marcus raised his hand – the gesture half-comforting, half-wary.

“Look, man – if you’re not feeling good, I ...”

“I think the answer is suffering,” said Calloway, and he finally stood up. He was looking out at the camp, his head canted just slightly to the side, as if he didn’t quite believe the sight. “We’re all suffering – but I’d like to think that in Hell, it’d be different ... you’d at least know.”

How could you know?” Marcus found himself asking—

Calloway turned.

His eyes were rimmed with red, as if he hadn’t slept—

In months.

“You’d know,” he said, and with that he stepped sideways off the watch tower.

Divider (2)

They could hear the minotaurs’ roars in the distance, joined by the sound of hunting-horns.

Now it was Jace’s turn to freeze, but Relic was insistent:

“You’re almost out of bolts.”

“Same as you.”

“In the war, this area traded hands half a dozen times. Even now, they would’ve left a cache of weapons for liberators to use later on. Hidden out of sight. Somewhere where people – wouldn’t want to disturb—” And then he had it. “Down this way, Jace ...”

Now it was Relic’s turn to lead, moving deeper and deeper into the strange silence of the sentry house. They passed under great blank spaces where maps or tapestries had been hastily pulled from the walls, and their boots crunched broken glass.

This had been no orderly withdrawal.

They scoured disused barracks where dummies were torn to shreds under a hail of blunted arrows. They kicked the locks from the stables and walked through it quickly. The hiss of water was everywhere, and the acrid mist stung their throats.

Finally, they went up the main watchtower, a stone marvel.

As Relic pressed on, Jace fell behind him a pace or two.

For just an instant, he saw a flicker at the side of his vision—a green glow. Relic stopped before the supply closet, nodded back to Jace, and jerked it open. Then he gasped.

Eyes reverently downcast, Relic sketched a holy symbol in the air. Before him was a great bronze statue of a winged lady that blazed red in the guttering flames of a few votive candles. The shield-shaped mirror that should’ve stood above it was gone.

Someone had inked a weepy symbol on its forehead—a cross, a circle.

All around the statue was an oil-filled basin, its depths dark.

Beneath it, the base was ringed with a carving: An angel with vast wings being driven backward by a gale. There would have been no way to guess that the piece was not solid; but Relic knew. His lips curved into a beatific grin.

With a deft move, his fingertips found the gap to pry the secret compartment open. An instant later, he was tugging out handfuls of bolts; a moment more and he crawled in deeper to take out whole armfuls. Enough for the pair and a whole squad besides.

“Your lighter,” Relic asked.

”Be careful,” Jace said, looking down briefly at his reflection in the dark basin.

“When am I not?”

When Jace passed it over, Relic took its flame to the candles until each burned brightly. Jace found himself lost in the icon’s serene glow and a memory of Isabelle—

Only hours had passed, but it seemed like an eternity.

When the last candle was burning bright, Relic gave the lighter back and clasped his hands to pray. Yet, even he had seen there was something wrong; something wavered in the statue’s bronzy sheen that forced him to lift his attention to the walls. Jace followed suit.

For a moment, the stonework seemed to drip blood; then, as their eyes adjusted, they could see the truth. There were red scrawls everywhere, as red as the nightmare moon, so tightly wound together that it was hard to grasp where anything ended or began.

In the light—no, the heat, the first heat in months—they started to ooze.

Relic stood up with a gasp, and Jace put a steadying hand on his shoulder.

It was writing.

Calloway’s writing, and this time Jace understood it.

The Outriders were cocooned within these words, words that defiled the shrine like no other. Repeated over and over—

The end is never the end is never the end is never the end is


the end

is never the end


Divider (2)

Marcus White would never forget that sound—

But what he witnessed next was even worse.

The fall should have killed Calloway instantly. And, indeed, there was blood – a great, horrible crescent of fresh, crimson blood. At the bottom, his friend’s twisted body lay. One leg was shattered, turned at an angle that made White wretch.

He had seen death before—

But he’d never seen someone get up, stand, and walk after something like that. That’s exactly what followed: Calloway’s broken form was dragged up by some great outside force from above. He gingerly tried his leg, and when the foot snapped, he fell to all fours.

And there, like that, he scuttled into the darkness too fast for even White to see. For a few minutes, he stood there – then collapsed, sat still – paralyzed. Numb. Thinking only one thought: You were right, buddy. You were right. You’d know.

He had no idea how much time had passed before he heard the first screams— You’d know.

Divider (2)

“No sign of the enemy,” said Relic, writing in his own logbook.

“Mm ...” Jace had not spoken since the discovery in the tower. He and Relic now stood, finishing their final checks on the supplies they so recently looted. “Empty, sturdy, defensible ... this place’ll be a nightmare for the enemy when Creed gets done with it.”

Relic nodded to himself, but his thoughts flicked back to the walls.

To the well ...

“When do we leave?” he asked Jace.

There was another howl from the minotaurs out on the road, but this one was close. Too close. The two froze in place; in an instant, their world began to shake as hammer-blows fell on the grand gates. Both imagined the last door torn from its hinges—

“I thought you said they’d pass us by,” Jace said.

“They—they should have,” Relic said, face ashen.

“Why don’t you go out and tell them that?”

“Jace,” Relic breathed. “Even a young minotaur is as strong as ten men. Yet in all the time since the first one was witnessed, how many times have they gotten together to form an army? Launched an invasion? Done anything at all more ambitious than carry off pigs from a farm?”

“I don’t know, Relic! I forgot to study for this quiz!”

They ran as they talked, leaping into the saddle, organizing what they could—

Never! Minotaurs can barely cross paths without fighting. And when minotaurs fight, one always dies. Yet, we killed three and there are at least three more outside, setting traps and searching for clues. Hunting us, Jace. I’d swear someone or something has changed them.”

“Focus, Relic. Can we stop them?” Jace asked.

“If we go deep into the command offices, set up ambushes, then ...” Relic’s gaze dropped, his shoulders slumped. “No. Not if we’re surrounded.”

“Then we’ll just have to split up.”

“No, that’s crazy!”

“It’s not, partner,” Jace said, and when he turned his gaze back to Relic, away from the distant carnage, the scholar froze in his saddle. “Creed needs to know what happened here. We need to put a face on the danger in these woods. And you need to be the one to do it.”

“I can’t leave you. You’re hurt.”

“I get hurt,” Jace said, and his smile made Relic’s stomach drop. “But I always come back. You’re faster than me, especially right now. Don’t worry ... I don’t plan on dying here.”

Relic knew what he meant in an instant.

“You’re going to head on,” he accused. “Try to scout out the enemy camp ...”

Jace pitched forward to whisper to Relic, roguish face long and lean in the shadows.

“Not a sound, all of a sudden. What do you think they’re doing right now?”

Relic knew what Jace was up to, but he couldn’t help himself; the instant the words were out of Jace’s mouth, his mind sped ahead of him as fast as greased lightning. He described each detail as he saw it painted vividly in his mind’s eye:

“There are trees outside. Fraxinus - that’s ash. Too heavy for one minotaur to lift. Not too heavy for three. If they coordinate, they can rip one right out of the ground, roots and all.” His eyes closed tightly, but this offered him no release. “A perfect makeshift battering ram. A-and—“

“How heavy are they?”

“Five or six thousand pounds each,” Relic said automatically.

“And the gates? How thick is the steel ...” Jace’s own mind raced. “At its thickest point?”

“Eighteen inches, maybe ...” His eyes popped open, wide and harried. “Jace, stop.”

“So, they’ll be inside in ten minutes,” Jace concluded. “And you’re arguing with me!”

Relic bowed his head in thought; when he looked up, Jace was pinching a hand-rolled cigarette, holding it out to him.

Relic accepted it, slipped it between his chapped lips, and started to puff. It was his first in a while—but not his first since Jace had introduced the habit to the others—and the unfamiliar vice was enough to steady his nerves.

Like old friends come to kill you in the dark.

“You’re right ... even the smallest victory will make a difference.”

“You go back,” Jace said. “I’ll see what the story is on the other side.”

“I could always just order you to go back,” Relic said quietly.

“You wish you could, you mean.”

“It’s called seniority, pal,” Relic said, tapping some ash away.

There was a long pause as each one strained to hear tree roots snapping— Jace’s grin softened.

“Yes, sir, Constable Shelf,” he said with a lazy half-salute.

“You’re not to do anything beyond basic recon ... is that clear?”

Crystal,” Jace said. “There a way out for you?”

“Two or three side doors,” Relic said, glancing off to the side as he thought about it. “They can’t watch all of them.” In each hand, he took the reins of one of the horses, leading them a few steps. Then turned to face Jace, clasping his forearm tight. “Be careful, man. I’ll see you in a little bit.”

They released their grasp.

“Just one more thing,” Jace said, almost an afterthought.


“Tell me something,” he said slowly. “Is there anything at all minotaurs are afraid of?”

“In the old histories, the only thing that works is a sword ...”

Relic glanced aside again.

Jace made a cockeyed expression.


“... made from the petrified phallus of a Titan.”

Jace’s cockeyed expression intensified.

Then he rolled his eyes.

“Seen any?” he asked.

“Not recently,” Relic said, “but there may be one other thing.”

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Chapter Nine  (13+)
The Woods Out Back
#2190469 by Dan Hiestand
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