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Rated: E · Chapter · Action/Adventure · #2190471
Half Past Midnight
CHAPTER ELEVEN

Half Past Midnight

“It’s not how the battle ends, but how it’s fought, that makes a legacy.”

BRIGHT
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Mirror Lake
Tri-State Commonwealth

In Calloway’s dream, he is the butcher’s apprentice.

The slaughterhouse is slick with dark, fresh blood. His master is soaked in it. The heavy thwack of the long knife resounds over scarred wood. It sounds off again, and Calloway’s sinews tremble as he recognizes the tiny differences each time.

Squish—thwack!

Yet, the animals that have gone to slaughter will not die and they will not stop screaming.

In the lone mirror, his reflection is stretched and alien. He holds his hand in his hands, first figuratively, then literally. When he dares look at his master, the man is licking blood from his fingers.

Don’t look, or it takes you.

He hears his heart pumping in his chest, a sound that fills him with fear and then with loathing.

The air is humid with blood and bleating. There is a sour-sweet wind caressing the window, even a hint of rain, but it will not open no matter how he forces it. It would not matter even if it did. Once he does, the rain won’t fall and the wind won’t blow.

Now and then he could swear he sees himself pass beneath the window, carrying a rope or a rock. They are headed for the lake, he realizes. The thought enrages him. His hand slams against the window; it will not yield, but it leaves a bloody print.

A girl on the street below sees him—she screams. He is disgusted, but relieved; there is still something, anything he can do in this world that makes some tiny bit of difference. Thwack. The sinewy neck-bones of an ox fall asunder beneath the butcher’s thundering blows.

Calloway thinks of leaning into the falling blade. But even if he did, he would not die—

And he would still have to work.

His attention ticks to the master for an instant, but when he turns around, that luckless waif is still in flight. When he chuckles at the thought, blood spurts up from between his cracked lips. He wipes it away, but still it writhes on his arm, forming words as bright as fire.

Calloway’s blood whispers terrible truths in his ears.

Out in the square, the clock tower begins to toll for the first time he can remember. The sound is more terrifying than any other he has heard here. He looks to the master, but the man will not return his gaze; he is busy gouging pink slime from a fresh carcass that still struggles to press its hooves to the ground.

The beasts he has beheaded caper at his feet.

Calloway thinks that perhaps, when the clock strikes eight, he can at last leave.

He counts down the ringing of the bells.

Five, six, seven.

Stung by sudden longing, he searches feverishly for spoons. But there are never enough spoons. They slip from his hands when he grasps for them; they disappear the moment he turns his back.

Eight, nine, ten.

There is one creature, only one, whose green eyes are bright. Its fur clean. It calls out to him with its
unspoiled beauty; its deft black ears are more than he can bear. He wants to break its scrawny neck.

He lurches forward. The butcher’s scream goes unheeded, and the heavy crack of skull-bones thudding on the slaughterhouse floor follows as the big brute slips in ichor before he can give chase to either of them.

It is very satisfying to hear.

Even moreso than the bell continuing to cry out:

Eleven, twelve, thirteen.

Only the greenish spheres of light in the trees break the perfect darkness—

Calloway follows the beast and the smell of the gathering storm toward the empty, silent horizon.


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Tenzan Plains
Outside Fairlawn City

There was no place to gather to mourn the dead; Creed had seen to that long ago.

But Calloway was dead, that much was certain. And when she came across the circle of legionnaires who were staring at the squalid smear that was his body, it was none other than the general’s page who stepped through the press of men to learn what had happened.

Few of them even knew her name; but, though she could scarcely bear to look at the mangled corpse, she saw the need and acted. With quick gestures and quiet words, she soon had men gathering the materials for a shroud. An agile little cat followed like a gray cloud at her feet.

Every now and then it would sit up and scent the air, nose working diligently.

Just beyond the edge of camp, the grave was dug.

The page—her name was Cleo—pulled her red cloak tight against the wind. Calloway’s body was lowered carefully; his back was shattered in a half-dozen places as if from the blows of a hammer.

Yet, in the days to come, they would speak of it as suicide.

There were no monks—there was no one left to give last rites.

Silent eyes turned to her.

Her fingers were trembling. She looked out over the men—many twice her age, like Marcus White, whose face was ashen. Others, just months her elder, if that.

She stepped up on a stump.

She spoke.

“Every man and every woman is a star.”

Her voice quavered beneath the wind at first.

Then, she found strength.

“What we see of their light is distant. It comes to us from a forgotten past. Most of those we meet will be a mystery to us—the arcs of their lives go far out of our sight. Today, we lost a friend whose light helped guide and protect us. In that loss, we all must burn the brighter. To remember him as he was is to remember the lesson of life: That everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle. For everyone, the battle someday ends. It’s not how the battle ends, but how it’s fought, that makes a legacy.”

Her eyes were closed and her hands clasped when she finished. Tears bobbed on her blonde lashes.

“Amen,” said one man. and another echoed it.

The smattering of prayers that followed warmed their atom on the Westwood vanguard; it flowed over her and she knew, for what little she could do, she had their support. But when she opened her eyes, it was Captain Talabray she saw first.

The anger in the fallen angel’s eyes shook her to the core.

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Ezru Plains
Beyond Westwood Forest

The enemy horde was many, but nothing was as fast as Jace Dabriel.

By the time he reached the perimeter, the grunts and roars of the minotaurs clashed in his ears with the rattles—and shrieks—of the wizards.

A pack of three sorcerers burst from the trees ahead of him.

Their robes seemed to swallow the last fading light of their comets, leaving Jace’s grin the brightest thing in the night.

They stood side by side, silhouettes merging and mingling in shadows, and he could sense the malice in the shade of each hood.

“’About time,” Jace told them.

He thrust up his short sword to parry the first attack. The mage had reach and leverage, but it fell back as the clash reverberated through its whole body, hitting a half-crouch as it turned its staff defensively.

The Outrider saw his chance.

Boot slicing the ground, he launched a clod of dirt into the thing’s face. As it staggered back, he plunged the blade into those same shadows and was satisfied to feel meat and sinew grinding beneath his hand. As he sawed the blade back and forth, barbed wire kissed his back.

The dead thing fell away, and pain launched Jace toward his second enemy—

The crown of the barbed wire rod fell across Jace’s collarbone, just missing the throat. Jace screamed with pain, fury, and terror—a sound from the depths of his soul. He heard some of the minotaurs join their voices to his in a strange display of bravado.

Hearing the sound, the dark thing twitched its gaze over its shoulder and Jace punched it viciously behind the neck. For a split second, he saw it pivot against its weapon, but that was all. Jace had already turned to flee.

Jace was unsurprised to see the dead wizard gone, dissolved to a handful of ash at his feet. The cloak it had worn was a damp, midnight-colored slick, a puddle of malice.

But its staff had rolled some distance, intact and eager for use. Ducking, running, cartwheeling low against near-miss attacks behind him, Jace ran to seize it.

“Well?” he hissed, turning fearlessly on the enemy. “What do you have to say for yourself now?”

But Thean was not the one to answer him.

He faced two more attackers—

Dozens upon dozens more lay beyond, lurking at the edge of his vision. His escape route was cut off; in the distance, just on the edge of seeing, the horizon melted away to an unnatural greenish glow. It was getting brighter, a tide coming in across a dark, uncharted shore.

In its glare, he fought like a demon.

At last, a knife found his back—then a second one struck his wounded shoulder.

Your limitations ... murmured Thean.

Only one still stood before him now.

One between him and the open road.

“I hope to the gods,” Jace breathed, so he’d be sure Thean could hear him.

What?

“That these things aren’t eunuchs—”

Bracing against the pain, Jace brought his knee up against the foe’s body. It dropped like a stone.

He’d only run a quarter mile or so when he had to stop.

There were no patrols on the road, but he was covered with gashes; more than he’d realized. Tourniquet, he thought to himself. His partner usually carried them, but he’d brought a few. He went for his pack, fingers fumbling.

The staff he’d carried fell uselessly to his side, too heavy for him to carry even one step further. He crouched along the road’s edge beside a great, seething hole in the ground where a comet had fallen.

Above him, the terror that had been Westwood Forest started to recede.

He was just wrenching himself to his feet when he saw what waited beyond.

At first, he could’ve mistaken the robed figure for any of the others. But when he raised his face toward its own, he realized that he recognized it. Flesh hung from its body in ragged clumps as if it had tried to tear out its own eyes—but the eyes were still there, madly searching.

He could have imagined the thing was dead, but it was fighting for every breath.

A pang of hunger twisted Jace’s gut as he looked down, firmly wrapping the tourniquet over his worst wound. Yet, the enemy did not press forward. It stood still and waited for him, waited until his stormy eyes rose.

Its eyes – burning green – met the challenge without fear. As bad as it looked, Jace knew something far worse was buried inside it.

It’d taken root

Jace Dabriel,” said the voice inside Calloway. “You can’t escape your destiny.”

—and now it was ready to burst forth.

“Neither can you,” Jace told it, and he pressed the attack.

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Mirror Lake
Tri-State Commonwealth

The world of Calloway’s dream is a green-lit path pulling him deeper into darkness.

That fuzzy monster—he wants it.

His stomach churns. Its upraised paw beckons, but it is too fast. Before he can imagine doing otherwise, he is outside, every breath as thick as mud. He runs, bare feet slapping the cobblestones as his prey bounds ahead of him.

It is a gray blur.

His lungs burn.

He’s been holding his breath a long time, he thinks.

He is in the square.

Then he is in the sweetly-reeking fields.

Running, running, running.

Fourteen, fifteen, sixteen ...

Almonds scream for more water as they are smashed to bits beneath his struggling feet. Their voices are so loud that he leaps onto the train tracks, heedless of the danger. Every rail is jagged, and even the ones that don’t stab at his heels wither his skin with cold.

The creature is before him.

It perches steadily, tiny paws safe on the rails.

It looks delicious.

Calloway reaches to seize one black ear, his body tilting off-balance in unaccustomed struggle— His hand moves through the ether. At the creature’s back is the end of the road.

The end is—the thought enters his mind unbidden, but he can’t hear the rest over the bell.

Eighteen, nineteen, twenty ...

He is almost there – within inches of it, inches of freedom – when the man with great wings stands in his path. Calloway should be struck dumb with awe or fear, but those words are meaningless to him now.

Or perhaps they have acquired the same meaning.

Where others would see a champion who burns with the majesty of an angel, he smells only blood.

Its sword bites into his arm, and he grins as the sensation of pain buoys him. He dives under the next blow, and the blade swings over him harmlessly.

For the first time, he does not wish to lean into it.

The winged man hesitates, battering him again and again with an elbow or the pommel of his sword, but Calloway staggers to his feet each time. Suffering has hardened him; he shrugs off the feeble wounds. Not even God can do worse to him than what has already been done, he thinks.

For the first time in days, decades, centuries, he smiles.

That’s when he smells the fear blossoming in his enemy’s heart. He knows when the sword will bite for him again.

Calloway wills himself to sidestep—

His bones and sinews bend and snap, flesh melting aside an instant faster than the blade can fly. The winged man flutters, falters. The weapon is so heavy that it drags him along with it.

The first time, Calloway can feel his fingers searing with the urge to pounce, but he is too slow. The second time, foam spills from his mouth as he imagines fresh blood soothing the pain in his stomach.

He closes the distance in a split second and wraps his hands around the angel’s straining throat.

At the last instant, the winged man shifts; moonlight glints on the blade, Calloway’s only warning before the whole thing is buried in his gut. The pain relents in an instant. Blandly, he watches the angel flee, following the train tracks he had followed.

That’s where I was headed, he thinks, bile surfing out of his nose and mouth as he looks down at the sword. He is too weak to remove it after all. The pain is incredible, lengthening his smile until it aches.

Joke’s on him, thinks what’s left of Calloway.

It’s just another dead end.


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Ezru Plains
Beyond Westwood Forest

As Jace left the shattered ruin of Calloway behind him, he knew he would not last a moment under another attack. Not by a minotaur, one of the robed figures, or anything else. He felt something he had never experienced before:

Resignation.

He could keep going forward a while longer, but could not control what happened.

For once, he would not try.

His short swords were discarded, crossbows useless.

It was only by habit his hands found them at his side, running his fingertips over them. His hands were numb – how long had his hands been numb? – and if he looked down at them, he would pitch forward.

Everything was cold. Everything except one thing:

The horn.

The ground shook as minotaurs drew near.

Two? Three?

It didn’t matter.

Jace had ended the fight within himself.

The minotaurs would crash into view in a moment.

What will they see when they get here?

With no more fear, no more regret, no more anger, Jace’s head felt like a balloon floating a hand’s length above his body. The thought that someone – something – would end Jace Dabriel’s storied career should have brought him despair.

Instead, he decided, he would mark the occasion.

One last grand gesture, eh? said the rasping voice of his mind-Thean.

But Jace only raised one hand and pointed it in “finger-crossbows.”

“Bang,” he told Thean, grinning the grin of the sickle-shaped moon.

You have always had the mind of a cutthroat, Dorsey, but never the heart of one.

When the minotaurs arrived, they saw a young human, bloodied and battered, who even they knew should have been dead three times over. They sniffed at the air, vaguely aware that it might be a trap, though they knew no word for the concept.

Get out of Mirror Lake and don’t look back.

The expression on Jace Dabriel’s face was one of a man who had never known pain or fear. In the instant before they charged him, he closed his eyes.

If you don’t go now, you might never leave.

He raised the horn to his lips, and blew into it with all he had left—

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FOLDER
Part Two  (13+)
Act I: Outriders
#2190416 by Dan Hiestand
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