by Dan Hiestand
Shades of Phantasm
Shades of Phantasm
“You’re not out of the woods just yet.”
Jace felt like he was flying, drawing even with Relic in two breaths.
As another volley fell short behind them, he heard their foes beginning to reload. Instinctively, he applied pressure to the reins, signaling Highfly to open up some distance from Relic. As he’d hoped, the next shot never came – the golden riders were waiting for a better opportunity.
But it would never come—the Outriders were too fast now.
And only getting faster!
“Let’s take to the woods!” Jace shouted.
“Too risky!” Relic answered. “There’s bound to be minotaurs!”
“I thought you said they weren’t guarding the road any—”
With that, a gigantic hammer spun across their path, speed blurring it into a saucer.
One of the golden riders sounded off, and Jace felt the cadence of their thundering hoofbeats change as a dozen or more retreated to the sides.
An instant too late:
A resounding clatter told Jace one had fallen, but there was no tell-tale crash or satisfying scream.
Jace dared to glance back—but none of them returned his look.
They were focused on the path ahead; the lights they bore shifted in strange patterns as they went. Jace gaped, feeling he could understand the rhythm of it if only he forced himself to watch. He knew you should never stare at what you were fleeing from, but—
Just as the distraction grew unbearable, he realized what he was seeing.
“The minotaurs are attacking them!”
Even as Jace spoke, the minotaurs broke free of the trees. A vast line of them lurked along the roadside – their enormous girth half-concealed in darkness, outlined by moonlight. Jace could pick out each one by their wide, dark eyes and the fog of their breath.
With countless riders streaming down the road, they did not step into the path—
Instead, they raised boulders, stumps – anything they could get their hands on.
Jace observed, intrigued beyond all sense, as the minotaurs on one side of the road regarded their opposite number on the other – tails thrashing as they awaited a signal known only to them. Then, a rider who was but an inch out of formation passed all too close.
That was all they needed.
The nearest minotaur chopped downward with the stone it bore in both hands, crushing the rider’s skull with a sickening snarl of twisting metal. Even as the unconscious body jolted from the saddle, a forearm as large as a battering ram caught it out of the air and pulled it away.
Jace did not see the victim’s fate, the broad bulwark of a back standing in the way.
As he refocused on the road, he knew the process was being repeated over and over— And then the missiles began to fly.
The minotaurs lashed out, pelting the riders with found weapons as heavy as the men they fell upon. In the back of his mind, Jace expected roaring – but there was no time for any of that. The monsters had a single-minded focus. Their captivity had changed them.
And he wasn’t sure he could’ve heard roars and growls over the crunching.
The Outriders navigated the chaos in a ballet of twists, turns, flips, and jumps. Each echoing crash confirmed the minotaurs were not interested in them, at least for now – but even they could not have withstood a direct assault like this one.
“Jace!” Relic shouted.
“What in the hell—”
“—did they do to these cows?”
Jace shrugged one shoulder, a faint gesture even Relic could have missed.
He didn’t know the answer, but he could imagine it.
Jace saw Relic pump his fist as the opening into the Tenzan Plains rose into view. That sight was bleached from Jace’s eyes as one of the crystal lights flickered back and forth across his back – a sure sign of another golden rider struggling to maintain control.
Then the lights began to vanish.
One by one – then in droves.
Jace looked back, imagining he might see a fumbling enemy he could strike down. No such thing greeted him: Instead, a single rider had broken from the pack and was close on his heels. The Outrider’s eyes focused instantly on the faint pattern of marks decorating the foe’s forehead.
The slightest difference, but one that filled him with wordless dread—
The rider closed the distance with marvelous speed – but to Jace’s wonder, he did not strike. He only nodded – as a mentor might to an apprentice. Acknowledging a hard lesson learned ... Thean had done the same countless times. But never had Thean done this—
Jace was two feet from the burning crystal on the foe’s steed – then one, then less. He had fallen so far behind Relic that his friend was but a waning dot in the distance. There was no time to get away, and it all happened so quickly he had no way to atone for his misjudgment.
He could not even draw a weapon – only snap the reins and shout and run.
After everything he’d survived—
All the odds he had beaten—
Now, Jace knew that his overconfidence would kill him.
Off in the distance, Relic realized Jace was hardly in sight—
There was nothing he could do but watch.
The golden rider overtook Jace effortlessly. He matched the desperate Outrider hoofbeat for hoofbeat, riding alongside him for what felt like an eternity – close enough to touch.
Every nerve and muscle in Jace’s body was screaming, but he steadfastly refused to look.
Maybe then it won’t be real, he told himself.
Any moment could have brought cold steel to his flesh—
But the omen of gold beside him never made to pass him or end his life. No matter how Jace watched in the corner of his eye, it never turned any attention his way: It was a specter, a bolt of light from the endless inferno, its mind and will utterly alien.
So, Jace did what he imagined anyone would do:
He tried to smack it.
There was a gentle, hollow thump, an ever-so-slight tilt of his adversary’s head.
“Get—away—from—me,” Jace said with a grunt, pushing as hard as he could.
Now the rider moved back slightly, but even Jace Dabriel could tell it had nothing to do with him. As he tilted forward to gauge Highfly’s stamina, wondering what could drive them on faster for even a moment, he didn’t see what came next.
He didn’t see the pouch being pulled free—
He didn’t see the fistful of reagents withdrawn in a golden gauntlet.
It wasn’t until he heard the crackling, felt the splash of emerald warmth on his cheek— That’s when he knew.
And it was already too late.
“What the hell are you?” Jace screamed.
The foe raised a hand, and the emerald orb soared across the distance.
Jace gritted his teeth in anticipation; closed his eyes tight.
When the light faded, Jace found himself staring up at a stained glass window.
At first, he couldn’t place what the scene was – the glass was heavy and dark, like the kind in old pubs built back when a looking glass was a luxury for the rich. As the clouds outside shifted, misty moonlight spilled across the ridged surface, a sepia tide as slow as molasses.
Jace tilted his head minutely to the side.
Whatever else was in this world with him, he sensed in his bones that it could not intrude so long as he kept his mind on the scene directly before him, balanced as if on a pin. With the grudging aid of the light, he could make out shapes that had been hidden by their sheer size: The prow of a galleon buffeted with frothy waves, its mainsail proud yet battered.
A bright, twisted symbol stood in the center—
It felt familiar and desperately important. Jace’s world rocked from side to side as he struggled to recall more, delicate concentration threatened with every shift. He knew that symbol, and knew he could spare himself great suffering if he put a name to it.
But it was dark and distant, like the grim shadow-shapes half-cloaked by the waves—
He could only imagine he knew, like he could only imagine it was the moon behind the glass.
“A full moon, in fact,” a familiar voice said.
It was the same one he had heard many times.
Thean, and yet—
Jace turned slowly to the silhouette beside him, and it was by the glow of that silhouette that the table he was seated at swam slowly out of the dark. Now he was haloed within an island of eerie light – a ghost-light that subtracted color from whatever stood around it.
Slowly but surely, the whole room was revealed one little detail at a time.
Before it was half done, Jace already knew ...
Everything stays just as you left it.
The glow was a spot of blood peeking, the first sign of a killing wound: That moment, over all too soon, when you still think it’ll be okay. As it spread, the greenish-blue of it made an almost imperceptible shift to golden illumination—the familiar light of the familiar world.
A bar could now be seen, but no one was seated at it.
The light swept out further, to where a glassy-eyed bartender wiped down the wooden surface, paying no mind to Jace or the featureless thing beside him. And just as the light reached the first suggestion of a door beside an enormous, empty hearth ...
—but it still changes.
Jace felt a feather-light tickle across his stomach.
When he turned back, the Outrider saw the strange shadow-shape had hardened into an older man dressed in fine, dark leathers. When Jace’s eyes rose to his, he gave a big, satisfied wink. For a long moment, neither one of them said anything.
Then the Outrider managed: “What?”
“Nevermind,” the man said, relaxing. He leaned back in his chair and crossed his feet at the ankles. “It’s really not that important anymore ...” He cleared his throat, then leaned forward to drop what he’d just been holding against Jace’s stomach.
It clattered on the table with the sound of eggshells.
“I thought that was going to be a knife,” Jace said.
“Nope,” the man said, lighting a cigarette. He held the tin of them out to Jace, but the Outrider shook his head, eyes fixated on the horn now sitting between them. It retained the shape he knew – knew from what, he couldn’t say – but it was shot through with a radical web of cracks.
So much as breathing on the mouthpiece would surely reduce it to dust.
“What are you thinking about?” the man asked.
Slowly, like the expanding light, Jace looked up.
His gray eyes were glistening—glassy, faraway.
“Am I dead?”
“I like where your head’s at, kid, but no.” The old man gestured to the window with his cigarette, after taking a quick drag. “That up there, that was the flagship of the Beacon Fleet. Great piece of work. Terrible, though. That’s how things are, usually.”
Jace pulled his gaze away with great effort to regard the window once more.
“The Beacon Fleet. Bacon is magic, too—don’t get me wrong. But not relevant here.” At Jace’s look, he changed tacks. “Right, let’s start simple.” He flicked some ash. “You know who I am?”
Jace could smell stale ale on the floorboards. Bringing his eyes back from them, he saw the man now held a glass of bright orange liquid, but he had no memory of how it had arrived.
“No,” Jace said. “But I think that stuff you’re drinking is Orinel Lin.”
Donovan Kerrick nodded, raised the glass to swirl it around in the light.
“Then it’s not a total loss,” he said, taking a slow sip. “Made with lava rock filtration, y’know.”
He leaned forward just long enough to set his drink beside the horn. As he moved, a prism on the bottom of the glass reflected for an instant off the wood. He leaned back again in his chair, never quite comfortable with it.
Suddenly, the sound of other patrons – a tavern full of life – sprung up all around them.
The change startled Jace, but Kerrick was unflappable.
“Believe it or not – Jace – the fact you can’t remember is a very good thing. It means you’re getting to where you need to be.” He paused thoughtfully. “Where we all need to be.” And again. “Where we all need you to be.”
Jace turned from the activity back to Kerrick. A snatch of drunken song had caught his attention, but the old man observed with smoldering, silent interest as his gaze flicked here and there, resting all too often on those who should not have shared company with them.
An old man was telling a story to two devas of incomprehensible power. Their elegance and gamely attention to his every wild gesture did little to hide how the gloss of humanity fit them poorly – pulling tight here and hanging loose there, like badly-tailored suits.
In the corner, a drug-addled loon sat, snorting and bloodshot, wildly cursing the name of—
—his companion, whose silk half-mask shielded him from any notion of her true beauty. An actress, better than terms could give out, whose patrician mien was barely darkened by his next declaration: I don’t look at menus!
Kerrick cleared his throat, making no secret of his desire to draw Jace’s wandering mind.
—but the longer one looked, the more one saw, and now when the maniac sneered something about giant clams, about playing with fire, Jace found himself wondering if, perhaps, God was on the other side of that one-sided conversation—
“What happened to your friend?” asked Kerrick.
He was gratified to see Jace’s attention snap instantly back to his face.
“What do you mean?” Jace said, and his brow knitted in thought. “Relic?”
Mm-hm, went Kerrick.
“I, he—I guess we got separated.”
“He left you behind,” said Kerrick. “Again.”
“What is this place? Who the hell are you?”
“Good question ...”
For a while, Kerrick pretended to listen to the makeshift chorus that had taken up at the bar, appreciating the fact that some of the sots were actually on key. Of course, it wasn’t so hard to remember hi-diddily-do-ree, even in a place like this. They’d had plenty of time to practice.
They might last two, even three minutes—
Kerrick pinched the bridge of his nose and looked up to Jace.
“I’m sure you have plenty of other questions. But just try to relax.”
Now Jace was the one who looked amused.
“Indeed,” Kerrick said. “Pretend it’s a game. You might even have fun.”
He gestured, with the barest flick of a few fingers, back to the window. The world beyond it was revealed now: A twisting, writhing, endless sylvan mass – an ocean spanning from one side of a vast continent to the other. Yet somehow, Jace could see footprints: His own.
“As you can see,” said Kerrick, finally smoking his cigarette down to the end and then stabbing it out. “You’re not out of the woods just yet.”