by Dan Hiestand
Escape to Tomorrow
Escape to Tomorrow
“Sounds like you two had quite the night.”
Outside Fairlawn City
Isabelle’s heart pounded in her throat.
It was the strange feeling of knowing she’d been holding her breath, but not for how long, that brought her back to the world. It swam in murky gray-green shades around her, a muzzy vision marred by menacing, rotten brown.
She swabbed at her eyes to clear her vision—and saw what lay in the distance. A wagon, tilted to the side as if pushed over by some great force.
She blinked again, split images resolved into one misty whole.
It was just the supply depot she’d met Cedwyn in.
And when she blinked once more, the greenish halo oozing from it was gone. It was nothing more than it had ever been: An old, weather-beaten shack, its outside covered in scrawls of old camp graffiti.
A phrase caught her attention:
Whenever there is a meeting, a parting is sure to follow.
Isabelle closed her eyes tight, a grimace coming to her face.
When she looked again, she found her attention drawn down to her hands. There they were, marked with all the familiar calluses. A few flecks of reddish polish stood out on her nails.
She flicked her head to the side.
When was the last time I wore—?
She blinked again and it was gone; a trick from eyes that were still tearing a little.
Now her ears pricked on shouting in the distance.
Shouting to her, she realized the second time.
Isabelle turned in the saddle, her braid dancing over her shoulder as she felt it was loose. Seeing the man in the distance, her hand rose to her chest as if to say who, me?
It was Caulurn, but the look on his face took her aback.
Wordless, not daring to shout again lest he shatter the moment, Mac Caulurn pointed down the road. As he did, the purest expression of childlike wonder broke across his worn old face which, even under his bushy beard, would have looked at home on any Unicorn.
Isabelle turned toward Westwood, one hand working deftly to twist her hair.
The other tose to greet the sight Caulurn had spotted first:
The front line of Isabelle’s cavalry was parting.
With the eyes of a battlefield medic, she scanned her comrade head to toe; but Relic looked as unruffled as if he had just emerged from the library. Nothing was out of place or missing except his cloak.
“Hey! Iz, what are you doing out here?”
A second passed, two, three ...
... but Isabelle found she couldn’t speak.
To Relic’s eyes, she looked lost in a way he had never seen before. He took a quick glance over her shoulder, assessing the horsemen around her, then threw caution to the wind – bracing a hand on her shoulder, as much for her benefit as for her attention.
A scream she wasn’t sure she’d ever heard ceased echoing in her ears.
“Where’s the boy?” she asked him.
Whatever Relic planned to say died in his throat. Only the troops closest to him would have heard – and that didn’t include Isabelle. She was already racing past him to meet Jace, who’d just appeared at the end of the road.
Jace had lost his cloak and hat, and the little scar Relic once left seemed to burn a bit brighter. But he was there: Intact.
He lowered himself ever so slowly and carefully from his horse, and raised a hand to them to signal he would only be a moment.
Isabelle’s breath finally came easy again, and she turned to Relic.
“We’ve set up a perimeter from here to the encampment. Just before the comets stopped ... Calloway said he saw something. He wasn’t sure what.”
“Minotaurs,” Relic said without missing a beat. “Or golems. Or maybe something worse.”
“What?” Isabelle raised her arm to signal her men, brushing Relic’s hand off as she did.
“It’s okay, Iz – there won’t be any attacks. At least, not for now.”
Isabelle let her arm drop; her eyebrow quirked ever so subtly.
“Sounds like you two had quite a night,” she said.
Relic sighed, letting his shoulders relax as years of training had never taught him to.
“Girl,” he said, “you have no idea.” Instinctively, he let the back of his hand sweep across the cover of his logbook, finding it just where he left it. “But don’t worry: You’re going to hear all about it – right after Creed does.”
“You did it,” she said, a light kindling in her eyes that he hadn’t seen in—
“Actually ...” Words failed him; he blew out a breath, his cheeks reddening. —feels like years.
All thoughts of being angry at her evaporated. A few feet away, he caught sight of Mac, but the big man wasn’t looking his way. It wasn’t just Isabelle, he knew, but all of them – basking in a moment of victory he felt too numb to enjoy. But maybe, just maybe, he could learn to pretend.
He let a smile onto his face, as slow as the sun that would soon rise over the road. Took a deep breath and felt the muscles of his chest loosen without prompting. And gave himself permission to imagine today would be the first day of the rest of his life.
“What is he doing?” Isabelle asked, and he saw how she leaned forward in the saddle—
Gazing over the distance at Jace, her back turning into a whipcord of tension.
“Huh?” Relic said, following her eyes.
She has noticed something about Jace.
Something about the way he was moving.
Isabelle signaled one of her forerunners to go to him, then let her chin drop. Her gaze burning cold fire.
“He’s hurt, Relic,” she said quietly.
“What, are you sure?” He squinted, trying to discern whatever Isabelle had. He had been through the ringer, certainly, but there was nothing that seemed obviously, seriously wrong with him. “I don’t see—”
“I’m sure,” she told him, and broke away, urging Snow into a gallop.
How’s it goin’ tonight—
“—man?” Jace was saying, looking up to the kid practically bouncing in the saddle.
“Very well, sir,” the forerunner answered, half-shouting in excitement.
“Your name’s Lucas, right?”
“Yes, sir! Lucas Reese, sir! Looks like you and Captain Avery sure showed ‘em, eh sir?”
“Yeah ...” Jace rolled his neck to loosen it, but regretted it. The gesture ended in a wince as blood roared in his ears. His body clenched for balance as he caught a brief look at the sky, cloudless and dark. The Red Moon was gone – but he couldn’t see any stars. “We showed’em.”
Jace mopped his face, stretching the gesture until he could hear again. In Reese’s eyes, it was just another moment of effortless cool.
Fought a whole enemy army, probably, and now this!
Jace’s hand went down to his belt and he picked slowly through the contents; his fingers felt the cool surface of the emerald necklace he’d found before seizing on the edge of his logbook. This, he brought out to hand over.
“Also, you don’t have to call me sir, kid.”
Lucas Reese cleared his throat.
Took a deep breath.
From a child to a general, there were few in the camp who wouldn’t have traded everything they had to make small talk with Jace Dabriel in that moment. But it could not last forever. Jace held up the logbook a little higher, and his smile curdled into a grimace as he did.
“Are you okay ... Jace?”
Jace breathed out hard, feeling his arm go heavy the instant the book left his hand.
“Yeah ... I’m good ...” He gave an upward nod to the book now clutched carefully in the forerunner’s hands. “Take that to General Creed. Or Thean, even. Whichever one you see first. They’ll know what to do. Just keep it away from – what’s his name? – Bren.”
The forerunner saluted so sharply his hand thunked against his head. For his part, Dabriel raised his hand in a wave.
And just like that, the kid turned and was gone in a flash— Off to do his duty and tell his friends what had just happened.
And that’s where the story would end ...
“Probably for the best,” Jace murmured to himself.
The instant after Lucas Reese was gone, Jace slumped forward.. It was so sudden and so violent that it was a miracle he stayed on his feet.
Highfly shifted nervously beside him.
Blood. There’d be blood if he looked, blood from all the injures he’d been ignoring— And now my breath won’t even be fresh, he thought to himself, too tired to say it.
He should’ve been strong.
Should’ve been ready to pull himself together.
But the pain was everywhere, spreading through every inch of his body like the branches of a gnarled tree. When it at last grew too great to bear, it left nothing but cold in its wake. He should have been strong. Should have been ready. But something – something was missing.
And damn if I know what.
Gingerly, he took one step forward.
The world rolled around him and he fell to the dirt with a crash. He heard, rather than felt, that one of his ribs was broken, shifting under his weight.
He saw Relic and Isabelle’s boots as they dismounted beside him. He’d never noticed before, but she always wore the cuffed kind.
Isabelle was calling to him, but the words sounded like waves breaking against the shore. When her face dipped into his field of vision, he couldn’t even read her lips. He was vaguely aware of her skidding close to him as she balanced on her knees. Pulling his upper body into her arms – cradling him and beginning to take stock of his wounds.
He should’ve felt her fingers probing, no matter how careful she was. But all Jace was aware of was the warmth and heat he couldn’t feel.
Relic hadn’t crouched down; Jace saw him for a brief instant, frown fixed on Isabelle’s back— The way he was striving to make his breath even, but how he kept holding it instead.
“Tell me what hurts, Jace,” she said – her voice as level as a stranger. A combat medic.
It was just like that day so long ago.
And just like that day, there was only one answer he gave.
Jace took a deep breath, and when he let it out, everything was numb.
No, not numb – relaxed.
Isabelle forced herself to her feet; turned back toward the horses.
“Relic!” she shouted. “Get—”
—but Relic knew, he always did. Isabelle snatched the gauze she wanted from his waiting hand. As she went back to work, Relic finally ducked down, his face floating in Jace’s vision.
Relic was pale.
More pale, perhaps, than Jace himself was.
Jace focused the spark of his consciousness, willed himself to follow what Relic said.
“—alright, man, you hear me? You’re gonna be alright. I promise, you’re—”
Jace managed to raise his hand.
Not knowing what else to do, Relic bowed closer.
“You’re a ...” His eyes focused. “... terrible liar.”
Relic had never felt so unnerved.
Not on this night or any other.
His hands were still trembling when he stood, turning to Isabelle and pointing to something.
Jace’s mind would not hold a thought. Each one slipped away like a fresh-caught fish, sliding beneath the velvet waves of a trackless lake. When his eyes closed, he saw a million motes of ghost-light screaming in the dark.
“... necklace or something,” Relic was saying to Isabelle.
Isabelle’s tight nod of acknowledgement was the last thing he saw before Jace’s head fell back against the ground. His heart fell in his chest – and, simply by being a half-step closer, he brought himself over to his partner and friend, reaching to check for a pulse.
For just a second, Isabelle almost lost her composure.
Relic could have sworn that Jace was gone. But he had scarcely found the spot to test when Jace’s hand closed around his wrist and pulled him in.
“The records have got to get to Creed!” Jace shouted.
“Easy, Dabriel. Easy—”
“He’ll know where to march now! You can’t tell him – don’t tell him about the time ... the time jump thing, though!”
“I won’t, I prom—”
“And the records! Don’t forget, the—”
But just as that strange strength had come ...
... Relic could feel that it was going.
Jace’s blood-soaked fingers uncurled around his collar as they gazed in each other’s eyes.
“They’re already on their way, partner,” Relic assured him. “You ... you did good.”
Relic’s gaze flicked down, tears pricking the corner of his eyes.
As Jace’s hands fell from his collar—
They closed anew around his own hand.
“So did you, man,” said Jace. “So did you.”
“Jace, I ...”
Relic lost his voice in a strangled gasp – but Jace never heard it.
“Hold him just like that,” Isabelle said. “Don’t lower him again.”
She saw what she was looking for – what she ... what all of them should have seen right away. Directly under one of Jace’s bolt-belts, long since spent, there was part of an arrow. It had struck a few inches below the left shoulder—
Isabelle’s heart fluttered, but she stood fast.
The shaft had broken off.
It could have been there for an hour.
“Jace ... hold still,” Isabelle said, and started the delicate work of removing those empty belts. Relic had drawn back; it was just them now, alone and haloed in a red light only he could see.
“Didn’t I just see you in a dream?” he asked.
“Shut up, idiot,” she said airily, but she would not look at him. She looked at the road, the trees, the horses, anywhere. “Relic, we’ll have to carry him,” she went on, as if he was not even there anymore. Isabelle took her position, but she hadn’t counted on Jace looking up—
Hadn’t counted on their eyes meeting.
She was helpless to look away.
And that sight of him glittered beneath her tears. That moment, over all too soon, when you still think it’ll be okay ...
Jace mouthed something, and Isabelle bent instantly to bring her ear to his lips.
“We are who we are now, right ...?”
“What are you talking about?” Isabelle asked, frozen.
A single tear rolled down her cheek and landed on Jace’s chest. But Jace would not have it. He blew a warm breath ever so gently into her ear, and her body shivered in answer.
She pulled away gently, then turned back to him.
Her eyes were glistening, but his were full of strange cheer – all come back in the space of his arrogant smile.
He reached up and touched her face, wiping away another tear before it could fall. In that moment, he looked just like his old, carefree self.
The Kid’s world was going dark.
The spotlights were finally fading.
Isabelle’s eyes, her soft breath, her sweet scent—
These things were the earth, the sky, the turning of his world.
“It’s funny,” he said, and she was struck by the purity in his eyes.
“What is?” Isabelle whispered.
“The padded ones hurt more,” Jace said.
And then his body went limp in her arms.