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Rated: E · Chapter · Action/Adventure · #2190479
The Haunted Forest
CHAPTER SEVENTEEN

The Haunted Forest

“Instruct all other commanders to prepare their troops to march.”

CREED
Divider (2)
Ezru Plains
Beyond Westwood Forest

The last thing Jace saw as he settled behind Relic was the minotaur—

Its mouth agape, it hardly had time to stretch its arms before Relic shifted sideways, he and his horse turning a hair’s breadth out of reach. The monster broke into a snarl as it dropped into the low stance so familiar to Jace, preparing to lunge.

Jace raised his face to the road, peering over Relic’s shoulder—

As, with a satisfying crash, the beast’s bulk was left harmless behind them.

From the corner of his eye, Jace saw Relic in profile, strain reflected on every inch of his face. With so much weight, his maneuverability would be hindered—yet his gaze remained fixed, his breathing steadier than Jace ever remembered.

Just a few paces away, the dark-cloaked figures were spilling from the remnants of their camp and onto the road. Some had been battered to within an inch of their lives, drifting with uncertain steps that left them veering here and there.

Others bore their staves high, and were falling in line to block the Outriders’ escape.

“The minotaurs turned on them,” Jace screamed, voice high and low with Midnight’s pace.

“I know! I can’t explain it!” Relic answered.

Then it was Jace’s time to move, digging in the saddlebags as a robed figure crossed beyond the dark underbrush and hoisted its staff in challenge. Relic could imagine it flaying the horse’s flank to shreds, even though it might be crushed to death.

It never had the chance—

Jace had retrieved a bolt, loaded, fired in the space of four steps. The enemy’s neck snapped, the shot catching it under the hood. Hands still clinging to its staff, it collapsed to the ground an instant before the Outriders heard the crunch of bone splintering under iron-shod hooves. He found himself peering down, but saw only ichor splashing sinewy legs—the details cloaked by speed and night.

Relic shouted: “Get that thing, Jace! Get it!”

Instinct launched Jace into action – leaning to the side and sliding nearly vertical to snatch the falling staff out of the air. He felt the heel of his hand rub against a knot of spiny blades and realized the handles of the weapon were knotted with wire, too.

The only way to hold on is to let it cut into you.

Jace had no time to let the thought numb his mind—

“Relic, bank right!”

Relic complied, and Jace levered on the momentum. With his weight on his forearms, he swung a reversal in the saddle, landing back-to-back with Relic. Pain roared through his shoulder; an instant too late, he wondered if he would tear it from the socket.

The robed figures simply watched, their opportunity lost in a split second—

As they fell behind, Relic could’ve sworn he heard Jace snarl at them. But no; Jace had pulled a small blade from his belt and was sawing into the wire on the staff’s handle. Relic glimpsed the tight set of his jaw, mistook it for determination—

As Midnight leapt over a rock in the path, Jace at last screamed in pain.

“Are you al—”

“Right as rain, brother,” Jace howled, his voice disturbingly gleeful.

“Those robed things,” Relic said. “They’re some kind of – of warlocks!”

Overshadows, actually!” Jace chirped, a strange and pained smile frozen on his face.

Relic raised his head to focus on the sounds in the distance.

“What In the hell’s a—“ The minotaurs were roaring again, but from far further away. As he listened, the chorus grew to dozens, then suddenly fell silent. “Sounds like they found something. Or someone ...” As he sat back again, he realized something subtle had changed in the air— The sound of Jace’s breathing. “Jace?” he yelled,, a note of concern creeping into his voice.

His work with the staff done, Jace leaned heavily against Relic. With every shift, more blood soaked through his sleeve at the shoulder. It took a moment before he regarded his friend, heavy- lidded eyes swiveling up with effort.

After a thready breath, he wheezed, “Yeah?”

“Jace, the road is clear now – there’s nobody guarding it!”

“That – that’s good,” Jace confirmed, propping his chin on Relic’s shoulder.

Relic scanned the darkness ahead of them.

They had lost precious time circling the enemy base, and it would still be minutes more before they were on a straight line back to their own. But at least it seemed no one was attacking th—

“Dabriel, you still with me?” Then more forcefully: “Jace!”

Yes! Yes, I’m with you!”

“What are you lookin’ at?” Relic asked.

“Nothing. I just thought I saw—”

What?”

“I don’t know, it was like a white ... deer or something!”

But Jace wasn’t looking up ahead, where he might have glimpsed such a thing. He had set that strange, half-lidded gaze at the reagent wagon. It was still visible across the growing distance, fearsome gouts of fire burning many feet over the tallest point of its crackling frame. Where its glare touched, all the color was sapped out of the world.

The Overshadows, and even the minotaurs, were tiny silhouettes dancing around it.

As Jace observed one featureless figure furiously pounding another over the head, he couldn’t help thinking of the children’s puppet shows they used to hold in Fairlawn. Sure enough, the robed figure vanished into the shadows beneath the stage on the third whack.

Jace’s smile loosened by a degree—

Then it happened, what he’d been expecting all along without knowing it: The hoods started to flee from the horns. This was no orderly withdrawal – they ran with abandon. Centered in Jace’s vision, one hood fell, then stumbled backward—
—until it slammed into the horns waiting patiently behind it.

And then began to rise.

All around, the scene was being replayed in countless ways.

The Overshadows were terrified. But why?

The hue of the flames changed – from yellow and orange to deep purple, then blue. Ah, yes. It was the end of act one.

“Jace, what are you looking a—”

A massive blast dissolved the wagon to nothing but a sketchy outline inside a blazing starburst – half the size, but surely ten times the magnitude of any comet that blighted Fairlawn. Among hoods and horns alike, there was not even enough time to turn toward it.

The flesh was shucked off those luckless onlookers in an instant.

Jace imagined he could see their forms still standing there, each outlined in green.

The blast began as a thousand-pointed star, but it soon started to collapse inward, a perfect sphere swirling smaller and brighter. A rainbow-bright shockwave hissed forth: It vaporized everything green, turned each stone into a glittering hunk of glass. It set upon the trees and flung them into the air, wooden missiles that hurried across the moon before crashing to earth.

Even the Outriders, now many minutes from the epicenter, felt a warm backdraft rush past them.

Jace reached up to steady his hat against it.

Relic glanced back and their eyes met.

Yeah!” Jace yelled, laughing into the wind.

Relic’s eyes widened—“Jace ...”

Jace watched, fascinated, as an entire troop of riders streamed through the wreckage, leaping without hesitation over the burning bulk of wagon debris. Minotaurs that still stood dazed, their enemies dismembered at their feet, were cut down beneath brilliant lances. In seconds, the last minotaurs in sight had joined their jailers in a common grave.

They didn’t even have to make a second pass.

“Riders on our tail!” Jace reported.

“How many?”

Jace watched these silent riders form lines of three abreast, preparing to enter the woods.

“A lot,” he answered.

Divider (2)
Tenzan Plains
Outside Fairlawn City

From his customary place on Chapel Hill, General Creed observed the last of his troops moving to high alert. The sight filled him with the heady anticipation of being a commander in deed, not just name. Constable Thean sat on horseback beside him; a pair of young forerunners stood by.

“Instruct Captain Talabray to move her legion to the front,” Creed said, his eyes never leaving the woodline. “She must conduct patrols. I’m not sure where our boys will be coming from, but they’ll certainly be coming fast. Her task is to rid them of ... unwelcome parties.”

“Sir!” the forerunner acknowledged with a salute. As quick as that, he was ready—

“And Reese,” Creed said, waiting for the boy to turn to him again.

“General?”

“Only from here to the road. Neither she nor her men are to enter Westwood.”

Yes, sir,” the forerunner said, saluting again, and he was off down the slope.

To the second boy, Creed said: “Instruct all other commanders to prepare their troops to march.”

“Yes, general,” the kid replied, saluting.

And then he, too, was gone.

Once he and Thean were alone, the general turned back to the woods, staring at the jagged pillar of smoke rising into the distant horizon. Thean was watching the two boys as they thundered down to the camp.

It could have been Relic and Jace.

It seemed like only yesterday that it was.

Only yesterday they were boys, delivering messages and cleaning stables.

The smoke-smudged sky reminded Creed of something, too.

In one meaty hand, he toyed with the cigar he’d prepared for Fairlawn’s liberation; that day would come sooner than he ever dared hope. He settled for bracing the thing in his mouth and chomped on it unlit.

“It was not in their orders to terminate the threat alone,” he said. Creed blew out a long sigh, perhaps imagining the taste— “How is this even possible, Fenlow?”

But there was no response—and when Creed looked over, the sight left him puzzled.

Thean appeared lost in thought, as if he were contemplating that very question before it was asked—staring over an unseen distance that spanned time and space. Creed cleared his throat, but still Thean did not answer, immersed in reverie not even the general could understand.

And that was saying a lot.

“Fen?” Creed murmured, waving his hand with surprising gentleness. The constable heard his name spoken in some far, unimportant place. Words were beyond him. He was alone with a single thought—

It seems like only yesterday.

When Creed turned, he was not at all surprised to find Senator Bren waiting just behind him. One thing was not as familiar: He was smiling.

Creed’s jaw clamped more tightly on his cigar.

“I think it only prudent, at this juncture,” he said slowly, “that you will receive a full report.”

Bren only nodded—and rubbed his hands together.

There was already ink under his nails.

Divider (2)
Westwood Forest

“Arrows, Rel!” Jace was yelling. “They got arrows!”

“Yes! Thank you, Jace, I’m aware!”

Jace could only brace himself and ride low as near-miss shots whistled past, plummeting into the leaves beneath them with hammer-heavy blows. Every arrow was banded with something that glowed in the night, leaving flameless sparks where they struck the ground.

In the back of his mind, Jace could feel a foreboding presence—

But even now, plunged into the depths of Westwood’s unyielding darkness, Jace discovered he could not be afraid. He felt Relic panting beside him, could smell his friend’s sweat and imagine his heartbeat – but it was his enemies who truly captured his attention.

Whatever else they were, they were magnificent riders.

Jace watched in awe as they swerved together, entering the woods in flawless formation. How they anticipated and avoided each obstacle in a terrain they couldn’t possibly have known as well as he did.

There’s more to it than you see, a nagging voice told him—

But when he tried to follow that thought, it brought only splitting pain.

The silent riders could not overtake them, but Jace was close enough to observe them in earnest. They rode as if born in the saddle; it finally occurred to him that perhaps they weren’t human—

An idea lost in the sudden blast of light.

It burbled up from the barding of the enemy horses, gathering in gray-amber crystals centered on each tawny breast. In a flash, the beams laced together as a narrow bolt of light that shot through the heart of the road, beating back one darkness to serve another.

The whole world flooded with that invading light, transmuting the riders into mere silhouettes. Jace was more enthralled than ever.

It’s like being chased by shadows.

Straining to keep his eyes open, he saw the enemy move in unison— shadows miming the unmistakable action of loading another volley.

Jace’s bitter-cold arms suddenly obeyed him, finding strength to shift his stolen staff upward. One incoming arrow pierced halfway through the barbed wire and held fast; Jace realized he was face to face with the simple, yet fearsome carved visage of a snake.

It was wound completely around the shaft in a way that should have made the arrow useless. Yet, Jace knew it was not – before he could see it, he smelled the poison on the tiny fangs. He heaved the staff with all his strength at the onrushing horde—

—and the riders veered around where it stuck, wobbling, in the ground.

“Relic! I’m target practice back here!”

Relic turned his head to the side, shouting back.

“Maybe you should just tell them you’re sorry!”

Dabriel frowned, his eyes crossing a little.

Suddenly, they widened.

“How far are we from the sentry house?”

“It’s just around this bend!”

Annoyance splashed Jace’s features.

“I can’t see the bend!”

“We’re rounding it! I can see the sentry house now!”

Only their closeness let Jace register Relic’s next, whispered words.

It’s lit.

He had seen the sentry torch.

Astonished, he said again: “It’s lit!”

“Yeah ...” Jace’s eyes were closed now.

He let out a whistle. It rushed away on the winter air as he looked around, expecting an answer.

Then he looked down and received one.

A fresh barrage of arrows passed across the stream of light between the Outriders and their foes. This time, there was no way to dodge: Every shot was timed masterfully to pierce Jace’s center of mass. He felt himself screaming inside as the sentry house dwindled into the distance.

They were moving faster and faster, faster than any animal could endure for long—

“Relic, slow down!”

What?”

The arrows began to arc earthward, falling just short of Midnight’s thrashing tail.

But Jace was looking at something else—

It banked into shadow, and when it came into view again, he was sure it wasn’t his imagination playing tricks on him. Along the green-gray crest of grassy terrain running parallel to the great road, Highfly galloped toward them.

“Slow down now, damn it, slow down!”

“No!”

Jace waved frantically all the while as his horse hustled down the steep slope and raced beside the strip of road lamps, mane streaming. But all his enthusiasm was at last in vain – without an Outrider in the saddle, Highfly simply could not catch up.

The silent riders seemed to know it, too:

They took aim at the lone, exposed beast.

Look!” Jace yelled, desperately elbowing Relic in the side.

“Jace, I swear I’m gonna—!”

But then Relic saw it – and tugged on the reins. He held his breath and his animal steady— In an instant, Jace would live or die – nothing short of perfection could save him.

Relic heard him whisper: Timing is everything.

Propelling himself up with his forearms, Jace crouched on Highfly’s croup before jumping with a mid-air, sideways spin to his own horse, landing square in the saddle. He felt the hail of arrows whiz by—his pursuers were so horrifyingly close he could hear the shifting of their armor.

They looked almost like the Overshadows had—

Same flowing robes, same hooded cowls—

But from that moment, he would no longer think of them as the silent riders.

As the lead horseman locked gazes with Jace, he reached up to pull his hood back—revealing ornate golden armor that glowed with the fury of an avenging angel as the arcane light spilled over it. One by one, the others repeated the gesture.

Each wore a mask of identical, bleak disdain.

Their leader gazed at Jace with an intensity he could feel even behind the mask— Yet He only stared back, quirking one eyebrow in a quiet gesture of uncertainty. As quickly as that, the moment was over.

He registered, distantly, that Treinen had been wearing the same armor, but somehow knew, instinctively, that he was not among these pursuers,

His enemies flooded forth, a phantom tide with a thousand faces frozen in cold indifference. Their armor was surely five times heavier than anything Outriders had ever borne in the saddle, yet they flew onward with unflagging grace – their bows firing all the while.

They were nothing short of awesome.

It took all Relic’s skill to at last pull away—

And all of Jace’s to look away.

Divider (2)
Tenzan Plains
Outside Fairlawn City

There was no knowing what caused the aerial attacks to stop— But Isabelle knew it had to be something extraordinary, and the thought had never left her mind that soon, they must fight.

As she’d been taught long ago, she never let fear show on her face. When it threatened her, she descended into focused solitude—checking her gear from bottom to top, finishing by refastening her hair. Now, with all that done, she was untying and folding up her hammock.

Something was different in the camp—

No new orders had filtered down to her, but something had changed. She could hear it.

With each passing moment, she felt her strength restored.

The perimeter was forming around her, the world taking shape according to her will. Moments like these changed things: From Creed to the youngest forerunner, they became the blood and bones and muscles of the Republic itself.

As she tossed the folded bundle under her arm, Isabelle realized she was smiling. She could almost laugh – but she bit her lip to stop herself until the feeling settled.

The legion is powerful, so am I, and I love every one of them.

In the Outrider stables – one of the only truly private facilities around – she was glad to find her mare bright-eyed and waiting. She had insisted on brushing and feeding Snow personally, no matter how long the garrison’s work stretched on. The horse, in turn, adapted to her routines.

Her scouts had found nothing where the sighting had been reported, only tracks where Jace and Relic had entered the woods. A fair sprinkle of Outrider sunshine— Rain —since then had made it tough for even the best among them to pick up the trail, but Isabelle was satisfied.

More or less—

There was still one grating matter: The order not to pursue.

Isabelle rode along the camp’s edge, observing and inspecting. She wanted to be where she could be found easily; but just as importantly, she wanted to be seen. The camp was in an uproar, ready to mobilize any time, and the troops needed to know the Outriders were there.

She reached back to straighten the chain of her necklace, which trailed unseen into the crisp lines of her uniform. Her rising gaze caught a comforting sight, the first splash of indigo in the morning sky. The stars overhead would soon start to fade, but for now, they were welcome.

But at what cost? And when will we know?

”Maybe Mac was right,” she told herself, arms crossed.

Waiting is the hardest p—

“Captain Talabray!”

Isabelle’s attention snapped to the road, where one of her young forerunners was approaching. He reached her and saluted; Isabelle returned the gesture impatiently.

“What is it, Reese?”

Shouting, captain! From down the road!”

It was all Isabelle needed to hear.

“Tell Constable Thean I’ve gone to investigate.”

“Yes, captain,” Reese acknowledged.

Before he’d taken his first step back, Isabelle sped away.

Divider (2)
 
STATIC
Chapter Eighteen  (E)
Shades of Phantasm
#2190480 by Dan Hiestand
Divider (2)
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