by Dan Hiestand
The Woods Out Back
The Woods Out Back
“Feverlew is very. Very. Dangerous.”
From the watchtower, Jace watched.
He watched Relican Avery streak down the road. He watched how, though Relic passed within a dozen feet, the minotaurs failed to even glance his way. It was not his scent they followed, but Jace’s. He watched them splinter one tree and then another against the gates.
Grunting and growling, they crowded close, heaving a third tree from the ground. It bent like a blade of grass, shaking the earth as its roots were shredded. Jace slowed his breath and did not move until he was sure Relic was long gone.
The battering ram smashed to splinters and the imposing inner door of the sentry house fell in one crumpled piece. The minotaurs never stopped to survey what lay ahead before they plunged onward. Their heads were low, horns leading.
Steel clattered and crunched beneath their hooves. One let out a roar of triumph—
Jace saw the first group enter; then clenched his teeth as those on the threshold stopped short.
A sludgy, rust-colored tide rushed across the metal. The leading minotaur was bowled over and crashed hard into the one behind it. The roars stopped, replaced by a keening scream. The leader thrashed helplessly, its meaty hands pulling at the others until they, too, fell.
As they hit the floor, poison frothed over them.
Jace’s nostrils flared in an unconscious echo of his enemy.
He could not smell— But somehow, he could sense—
The overpowering reek of rust-red water boiling away the flesh of the minotaurs’ advance party. Where the water dribbled off their flanks, the ground stained crimson. Those who tried to press forward, relentless, were thrown back by the choking fumes.
The few things they could ignite would soon be soaked, but not before a great pillar of holy smoke blinded the invaders. It rolled over the fallen predators, obscuring their writhing bodies. Jace felt hope rise in his chest as the snarls gave way, hoping the things would drown.
Now it was his turn to act.
The sacred oil for the candles was the only fire-starter left in the sentry house; what little wood there was, meant for the bonfire, was rife with reddish scabs that wept something awful. In any other situation, Relic would have argued against what he was about to do.
At any other time, Jace would have listened.
He faced the grand torch of the sentry house watchtower.
Between his palms, he rubbed the small, waxy pouch he had filled with the oil. He stared out into the great, empty beyond, the metal outlines of the torch towering head and shoulders higher than him. Once, not long ago, it represented all the hopes of Fairlawn – and it would again.
His hands had been cupped; now, he overturned them. The oil snaked through the air, glittering as it fell. When it had pooled just so, he struck his lighter and coaxed the beacon to life. It flared hungrily with the first spark. In that light, Calloway’s mad handiwork was revealed.
And it began to run ...
Red ink pooled and eddied at Jace’s feet, sliding and sliding until it sluiced into the trenches along the edge of the floor: Trenches that had absolved the room of wretched refuse for centuries. The light flickered, guttered, then blazed.
Beneath Jace, the minotaurs had gathered to search around the side of the complex, looking for any sign of their quarry. Now and then, one stopped to smash its fist against the stone walls, but neither they—nor the fists—gave way in the least.
When the signal beacon was lit, they stopped.
Their gazes rose as one, and they stared.
Jace did not wait to savor that look; he stepped nimbly, dancer-like, to the very edge of the watchtower, looking down on the plains in the direction of the enemy camp. He bounced on the ledge twice, held his breath, and jumped.
He felt suspended in the air for an instant – then, as he landed, bounded up with a cat’s grace.
Jace stowed the lighter in his pocket. Beside him, Highfly whinnied in what could’ve been concern. Without thinking, the Outrider raised his hand, palm down—a one more minute gesture even his steed wasn’t smart enough to understand.
All his fear had melted away.
He peered up to where the mighty torch of legend challenged every shadow. Burning courageously against the night—
Jace forced himself to look away and grabbed Highfly’s reins. The world around him was frozen in an instant, crystallized in strange new light. He rode onward into the night, and the shadows made way for him.
The Sentry had returned to Fairlawn.
Outside Fairlawn City
The screaming lasted only seconds, and once it stopped, Alarick Dale couldn’t tell where it had started. The silence after that was stifling; he could swear no one was stirring in the whole camp.
He had run toward it at first; but then it ended so fast, leaving him cold and jostled and bereft of direction. He could have gone to one of the watch patrols.
Could have said something—
Gods have mercy, I just want a smoke, he thought, but then duty plucked at his sleeve. He would go and report whatever he could, even if it made no difference. He had just resolved to do it, blowing a long breath from his rosy cheeks to steel himself—
When he heard that voice.
“I’m sorry it’s come to this, Mr. Dale. Very sorry.”
One moment, Cedwyn was nowhere to be found; the next, he had emerged from the shadows. Alarick could have sworn he had appeared from thin air. And he was right sure of it when the captain thrust a pouch at him. One suffused with the smell of rust—
He caught it with one hand, and the cigarette bumbled out of his mouth.
“What do you know about this, Mr. Dale?”
Cedwyn Knight’s foot came down on the last ember of the fallen cigarette.
“Why, I’m sure I don’t—”
“Grave dust. Feverlew. Is this what Jace sent you to pick up at the Fairlawn Bazaar?”
“After a manner of speaking, yes,” Alarick muttered. “In fact, the monks had left some be—”
“How could he have known anything about this?”
“Can’t say I know for sure, captain,” said Alarick. “Should do for a bit of pain relief on his mission, though, shouldn’t it? Without gettin’ all groggy—” He ended in a squeak at Cedwyn’s glare, and he raised his hands in the start of a silent apology. “Just meant to be a bit of help, sir.”
“Feverlew is very. Very. Dangerous,” Cedwyn said, and at that moment, so was he.
The two stared at each other a while, both calculating in their way. Not that dangerous, Alarick wanted to say; or else I’d not have brought it here. But then, despite all the years of service he had on the captain, he wondered if Cedwyn knew better than he.
“No plan survives the battlefield,” Alarick murmured to himself, but Cedwyn’s gaze had trailed off to the side. The Outrider stood with his hands behind his back at parade rest, awaiting more. Alarick offered it: “Beggin’ yer pardon, captain—you ought to know who else asked for it ...”
Now Cedwyn turned and took a meaningful step forward.
“Do tell, Mr. Dale. Do tell.”
“Damien Calloway. He can’t sleep without it.”
“Mmm,” Cedwyn answered, his lips tight. “It’s not exactly a sleep aid, though, is it?”
“Tell him that,” Dale said without thinking. “You’d think he would take it before his shift, but no – always after, and then he’s out like a light.” Cedwyn’s knowing look was like stone “And ...” The artilleryman’s wide eyes darted in the half-light.
The screaming started again, and Cedwyn was off like a shot.
The contour behind the sentry house was a labyrinth of crevices and slopes. Jace wove around trees, leapt over stones, and slid down hills as he ran. He was closing in on the wood’s edge, for now he could see explosions of color through the trees.
Blue, orange, red and green drenched the world—
Jace dropped in rhythm with the light, using it to search for minotaurs. He knew he was closer to the enemy camp than anyone had ever been—and more alone than any man in the Republic.
Relic was gone, and Jace’s own mount lay concealed at the base of an outcropping a quarter mile behind him. It was time ... and the thought sent pinpricks across the back of his neck.
With a steadying, resigned breath, he reached into the horn that had waited so long on his belt.
The long ride had shaken its secret contents; only Relic could have missed the overpowering stench of rust that clung to it. Or perhaps it wasn’t that strong, and simply never left Jace’s mind. As he laid hands on it, his whole body started to shake.
It took two, three tries before he could get his hands to obey him—
Then, at last ...
He poked a generous pinch of feverlew behind his lip, where it sat against his gumline until it started to sear. The pain was soon replaced by the greedy savor of blood, his own. An intense, manic energy began to uncurl from the base of Jace’s spine.
The lone Outrider thrashed, on the brink of losing control. It would last only a few moments, this feeling of the sun rising in his body, until it connected with the flames in his mouth.
When the two came together, the spasms down his arms and hands stopped.
He spat a long trail of blood on the ground, knowing the wound was already sealed.
A dreadful smile coaxed its way onto Jace’s lips, and he was off again. He felt like he could go on all night. Yet there were only a few miles to go: As the comets rose, they felt close enough to touch. So close, he had to duck and close his eyes to keep from going blind.
He timed them with the staccato beating of his heart.
Dodging one, two, three, four—
Don’t look ... he found himself thinking. Or it ...
Jace had only taken a few steps when a violet flare dissolved the whole sky, dropping him like a sack of stones. He pressed his palms against his eyes, trying desperately to blink the starched afterimage away. Just like that, he was sprawled on the ground.
No lying down on the job, said Thean’s voice in his mind.
The man never smoked, but in Jace’s mind he always seemed to rasp.
Every half-blind second stretched on forever as Jace awaited an ambush that never came. As the world swam into focus, he found himself imagining that at any moment, Isabelle would saunter from the treeline, leading his horse.
Somebody got you this time, I see.
Jace forced himself to his feet and began the clumsy climb up the hill, using roots and rocks as footholds and braces. Stones and clods of dirt fell under his boots, ricocheting loudly behind him. As he reached the summit, he looked away for a blink before gazing through the thinning trees.
There he saw, for the first time, the phantom enemy spread over the plain, laid bare in formations that appeared to be ... séance circles?
Ah-za-ka-ta-oh-rem-di ... ah-za-ka-ta-oh-rem-di ...
They had no clue they were being watched.
Ah-za-ka-ta-oh-rem-diiiii ... ah-za-ka-ta-oh-rem-diiiii...
Jace felt tightness in his temples, then pain, as he squinted his eyes. Every detail was clear now, as if he were an eagle soaring overhead.
Ahzakata-ohremdi ... ahzakata-ohremdi ...
He liked that feeling very much.
Without turning his head, he retrieved his logbook from his cloak and began to write.
Each cart was filled to the brim with twisted leaves and roots; some dark and ruddy, others wonderland-bright. He did not know why they were there—but still, he wrote down every detail.
Faster, boy, Thean’s voice came, louder than before. Write faster.
There were no Night Mares within Jace’s sight, no Titans or even minotaurs. Just humanoids in cowls. He couldn’t see their faces; long hems and sleeves covered them head-to-toe. But he could imagine men of flesh there, and that brought a sharp grin to his face.
Jace’s quill flew across the page:
Here a cluster of notes, there a quick sketch.
His hand moved so fast, the writing splattered against the page. Lines melted into illegibility before he even finished them. But, in his mind, each drawing was a consummate work of art; each scribble pregnant with transcendent meaning; the whole thing, a masterpiece.
As he finished the third page, the fourth, the fifth, the words raced together. They oozed. Boundless strength rocketed through Jace’s bones as he imagined his logbook in a museum. This wouldn’t only save the Republic – the people would revere it, and him with it.
His grin curdled when he spied a team of minotaurs pulling a massive cart between them. They hardly acknowledged each other, and the robed figures darted out of their path. Muscles heaving, the minotaurs dumped the carts into the chalk circles, obscuring the patterns within.
At a wordless sign, the humanoid things bore aloft tall canes crowned with barbed wire. In Jace’s eyes, their dark cloaks seemed to transform them into the bare branches of frostbitten trees – caught up in a wind that grew ever more dire ...
A gasp caught in Jace’s throat.
Handfuls of leaves and roots rose from the center of the circle unaided, twirling together into a funnel of flickering sparks that burned the plants to ash; what was left stretched into a dark, gristly spindle. It didn't extinguish—
Instead, it expanded.
The sparks continued to burn and swirl, gaining strength, yet never penetrating far into the shadows. At the edges of each circle, Jace saw minotaurs as still as statues. Their backs were turned to the gathered groups, their eyes staring straight ahead.
At last, he beheld—
Within the foremost circle, the mingling sparks grew, consumed each other, and grew again, building and spreading like a cancer of fire. It began as a sort of liquid, hot as magma: Then, it twirled and spread and hardened in the air. As the wind howled, it coalesced into a monstrous, roiling storm before tightening once more – becoming solid, spherical, and impossibly massive.
Finally, it became a comet.
Up it screamed, a dread omen of gold—
Jace closed his eyes, but the light burned against his eyelids as if they weren’t even there. The comet was screaming hot in the intense clarity of feverlew, and only fresh blood in his mouth kept him from crying out. His logbook fell as he pressed the heels of both hands to his face.
When he dared look again, the world was washed out and formless. As the pain faded, the eagle-eyed sight he relished so dearly went with it. His enemies now seemed to sink into the darkness, details that had been so clear fading with every breath.
He wanted more, of course. Should have brought more.
Perhaps there was one last dose left—
But there was no time.
Jace searched the ground frantically for his logbook, pressed its filthy cover to his chest when he found it. If only he could get back with it – they would bury it beneath the tallest tree and raise a whole city around it to capture its blessing.
The Republic of Jace.
The thought gave him new strength, and he might have left right then. But, as his gaze fell on one of the mystics raking calmly at one circle, a strange glint from below teased his eye. His jaw clenched as he considered for a moment; a distant voice, perhaps Relic’s—
You’re on the high ground, Jace. A single glimmer up here and you’ll get caught.
It was true, but he had to know. He pulled the spyglass free, extended it, and focused it on the leader—whose gestures had arranged things so precisely while the others merely followed along. Yes: He wore a necklace hung with a great jadeite stone.
Jace shifted to the next circle along the way:
The leader’s stone was amber.
The next: Malachite.
The colors, so familiar, were the ones that had tormented the legions for weeks.
You never were good at listening, Jace.
“Shut up, bookshelf,” Jace murmured. He could feel the disapproving gaze on his back. It didn’t matter now—now, on the verge of a great discovery.
Ten attacks per hour?
It had to be so.
He wanted to laugh; the urge boiled up so fiercely he clenched his jaw to fight it off. Even after he did, his body heaved. His work was done; he knew he had to flee. But he had to look again. There had to be more.
One more thing could make all the difference!
Don’t you even think about it, boy, said Thean.
It was so loud that Jace almost shushed it.
Your partner is back at camp. I suggest you join him.
“That so?” said Jace.
But he longed for something else, anything to keep him there a little bit longer, and so turned his attention to the carts.
Under heavy magnification, he could see each plant and root and leaf, each reagent, speaking them aloud as he wrote.
“Ginseng, mandrake root, sulphurous ash, nightshade ...”
His glass eye wheeled one way, then the other.
He was nearly finished when he saw one of the cowl-clad things rise from its circle and stride slowly toward the woods.
His breath caught, but he let it out in a hazy half-gasp, then took another deep breath. A cold fire burned inside him, numbing his aching lungs.
You knew this would happen, Thean accused.
“Let it happen,” Jace answered. “They deserve it.”
His hands condensed the spyglass idly.
This close, the magic-thing didn’t look human at all.
It was too tall, too ... slender.
It passed into the trees, never breaking its menacing stride.
Then it raised its head slightly, scenting the air.
The featureless darkness beneath the hood was searching for Jace. It peered up—
Boldly, fearlessly, he looked it in the eye.
Jace reached back slowly and slid one of his short swords up from the back of his cloak. His adversary waited a half-second too long; he pivoted forward to send the weapon spinning. The robed figure backed down a single step before the sword disappeared into its hood.
As the body twisted in on itself, Jace was sliding down the hill towards it.
His arm shot out, grasping the corpse’s waist in a morbid waltz that steadied it in the last instant before it would have tumbled down the hill. Limp legs and feet danced like a marionette, and a dark fluid spilled out over the Outrider’s hands—
Blood, Jace realized with relief, and his breath spilled out in a milky haze.
But he was not done ...
Jace stood over the corpse, feeling his body boiling with anger that finally had an object. Anger so strong it nearly blinded him. A perverse thought pierced him and turned the rage cold again. This time, he protested. No! I have to go—
But it was to no avail.
He was kneeling, then stripping the robe from the carcass.
The Other Jace was awake, rising and pacing within him. It was the Other Jace driving him; the part that kept Thean up late at night. There was a necklace around its neck, it had a green stone on it, and without thought, Jace ripped it free and hung it absently from his belt. He watched helplessly as he laid his cloak over the body of whatever he’d just killed and wrapped its own garment around himself.
Before that Other Jace, in his mind’s eye, was the red, hazy hell that Fairlawn City had become. Children running through the streets, hiding under beds and in closets as terror rained on them; heroes doing their best to save lives and stop fires.
Death without meaning; war without end.
Until that moment, he'd never had a name for that thing coiled inside him— Resting at the bottom of his spine like a snake ...
When he smiled, it was both him and not him; and he had never felt so alive.
Because tonight, the hero Jace Dabriel would rain destruction on the enemy—
And then, who could say what would be next?
Even in the midst of all this danger, the thought exhilarated him..
Jace County, in the Jace Steppes.
It made him feel invincible.
Jace, the father of nations.
Jace, the greatest hero to ever live.
It made him feel ...
As he prepared for his first step out onto the plain, he knew without looking that the corpse was standing up behind him. Just the same as one can sense the motion of a hand before their closed eyes, he felt it: A spiral of darkness unwinding at his back. Like the feeling of swearing someone just called your name, only to turn and find nobody there.
Only something was there.
What’s behind you?
The mission every child dreams of, Jace found himself thinking— As the spiral stretched into a line, the chorus inside him fell silent. There was more silence inside him than he ever could have known.
His mind, his body, the horrendous oaths of his blood—
“You’re seven minutes late ...”
“I’ve slit men’s throats for less.”
He had expected Thean’s voice, somehow.
But this was not Thean.
“And what have I told you about wearing that god-damned hood?”
It was more of a ... not-Thean.
“It’s cold,” Jace answered—
... and for the life of him, he could not have said why he was smiling.