Chad Grayson

Blade of Shadows, Wings of Light Preview

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There was no safety to be had. Weaving in and out of the struggling mass of people were two tall figures. They were dressed in dark armor, with spiky helms fitted to their heads. They looked like refugees from a fantasy movie. They seemed unaffected by whatever was causing the violence, but that didn’t mean they were safe to approach. In fact, he had the sense that they were very much not safe. Jack turned and ran in the other direction, his smooth shoes slipping on blood. He went flying into a parked car, righted himself, and took off running again, hoping to leave this insane scene behind.

What had caused everyone to go so violently psychotic? He needed to find a safe place to sit this out, until whatever the fuck had happened passed. To do that, he needed to get off the street. Traffic was at a standstill now, in both directions, blocking most of the paths between him and safety, wherever that was. But he kept running, slipping into any size gap he could find for himself.

The two armored figures spotted him and were now running toward him. They were impossibly tall—at least seven feet—and their long legs rapidly shrank the distance between them. When the people around them didn’t move in time, they withdrew long dark swords, slicing through any human obstacle. As Jack watched, he saw them slice the head off a woman wearing a business suit. She didn’t even have time to scream.

He ran. They ran after him. They were going to catch him. And then what? They weren’t fighting, he sensed they were on a mission. And right now, that mission was him. Why?

Jack took a second to look behind him, and as he did, he slammed into the side of a parked car. He rebounded and hit the street painfully. He tried to ignore the scrapes and bruises, getting back to his feet, but as he did, a new figure leapt on top of him, pushing him down.

“Stay down,” the new figure said, then stood over him, drawing from his side something that looked very much like a sword. But it couldn’t possibly be a sword, could it? This was not a movie. The newcomer leapt in front of him, sword out. The two armored figures rushed him, their own swords swinging. The newcomer blocked them easily, then fell back, crouching next to Jack.

Jack got up on all fours, trying to rise to his feet. The newcomer was wearing armor as well, but it was a combination of red and grey.

The two armored figures attacked the newcomer, but making a hand gesture, conjured some sort of shining barrier in the air between him and the assailants. Sparks flew off the barrier as the Spikey Ones – that’s what Jack had decided to call them – attacked with their swords.

Jack’s rescuer, if that’s what he was, grabbed hold of Jack’s shoulder and pulled him up onto his feet. “We’re going to need to run, do you have that in you? You look pretty banged up.”

Jack nodded. He could run. He could run forever, the way his heart was hammering. He had a million questions he needed answered, but for now… for now, running was good.

“Okay, I can get us out of here fast, but you have to stay really close to me,” the man said. He pushed Jack forward. Jack started running, the man running alongside and a little ahead of him.

The man was fast, impossibly fast, weaving nimbly through obstacles that should have slowed him. And Jack stayed close enough to feel the wind of his passage. Jack realized he was running faster than he ever had before, faster than he’d ever thought possible. But that couldn’t be. Surely this was his imagination, the stress fracturing his brain. A couple of times, he started falling behind, but his rescuer would reach back and grab him; then he would find himself racing again. His body felt like it was being pushed to the limit and beyond. He thought his heart might explode, but if he slowed down at all his rescuer would be gone, and the Spikey Ones would have him.

Jack didn’t know why, exactly, but he knew he couldn’t let that happen.  That’s why, with everything in him, Jack tried to keep up; he really did, but his rescuer had gotten a few steps away. He felt the force that had been pumping through his muscles start to dissipate. He poured on as much speed as he could, drawing on his many years on the cross-country team, but he was out of juice. Jack surged forward, into an open space in the middle of the street. As he did, he tripped on something he couldn’t see, and went skidding across the pavement, catching himself with his face.

His rescuer was there in a moment. “Sorry,” he said, in his electronically modulated voice, and he helped Jack to pick himself up. “I didn’t mean to leave you behind.”

The Spikey Ones still pursued, but there were several wrecked cars between them now. He had a moment to catch his breath. There weren’t as many people around, but the ones who were there were trading blows like the others. Screaming and snarling into each other’s faces, as they pummeled each other with fists, or whatever objects they could find.  He watched a sixteen-year-old girl slash a grown man’s face with the glass from a broken bottle. Blood fountained everywhere.

Blood dripped from Jack’s forehead, into his eye. He wiped it away with the sleeve of his shirt.

“We need to get out of here,” his rescuer said.

“Yeah,” Jack agreed, getting ready to run again. But instead of running, the man emitted a low whistle, and a few moments later a wedge-shaped object emerged from the crowd. It was silver, with a set of handlebars protruding from its front end. The top was cushioned like a motorcycle. But this was not a motorcycle. It lacked wheels and was floating in the air, travelling under its own power.

“What the fuck is that?” Jack asked.

“My Steed,” his rescuer said, pulling Jack along as he went to meet it. In one smooth motion, he straddled the thing, then indicated that Jack should hop on behind him. Part of Jack wanted to do no such thing, wanted to sit down in the middle of the street and cry. But the Spikey Ones were close now, so fear made him follow his rescuer’s request.

There came a slight buzzing sound as the Steed lurched into motion. The streets had more open space here, and his rescuer took advantage of it, steering them down the street at incredible speed; his reflexes were unnaturally sharp as he navigated around obstacles.

“Hold on to me,” the man said, as he leaned forward, and unbelievably, accelerated more. At this speed, death would be inevitable if Jack fell off. Blood was stinging his eyes now. He needed to get a good look at himself and see how much damage he’d done to his face, but that was a problem for later.

Jack had no idea what was going on, but at least the Spikey Ones had vanished behind them. “Did we lose them?” he asked.

“Those two, yes, but there is an entire hand of Vrith here, so we’re not out of the woods yet,” his rescuer said.

“Who are you?” Jack asked.

“My name is Ser Griffin Salazar,” the man said. “And I’m a Paladin of the Way.”

“A Paladin of the Way? I didn’t think that was really a thing,” Jack said. “And the Vrith?”

“They’re real too,” Griffin said as they rounded a corner and headed down a narrow alleyway. “They work for the Reaper of Strife, which explains why people are acting the way they are. Yes, Reapers are real too.”

After some effort, Jack voiced his most immediate questions. “Why are they here? And why are you helping me?”

“For some reason, the Reapers want you. I’m here to make sure they don’t get you.”

“Why the fuck would they want me?” Jack asked.

“That, I don’t know,” Griffin said. “But trust me when I say I’m here to help you.”

They were through the side alley and rocketing away toward a calmer section of the city. Here, traffic flowed as normal, and the people weren’t stopping to beat the shit out of each other. For the first time, Jack started to relax a bit.

He had no idea if Griffin was who he said he was, or if he was actually trying to help him. But he had no choice other than to trust him, at least for the moment. Without Griffin, he would already be in the clutches of his pursuers.

Griffin slowed and found another side street. Though they were rocketing through traffic on an eye-catching device, no one seemed to notice them. That was odd in and of itself, but it wasn’t the oddest thing he’d seen that day, so Jack tried to put it out of his mind.

Soon they were among the trees and meadows of Carthage’s central park. Griffin slowed again, then came to a stop in the middle of a copse of elms. Griffin dismounted, then helped Jack down. Jack tripped coming off the mount and fell on his ass, his back slamming against a tree trunk.

“Are you okay?” Griffin asked.

Jack laughed. It was a nervous impulse, a reaction born of stress, not mirth, but he couldn’t help himself. Through the matte grey of Griffin’s helmet, Jack couldn’t see his expression, but he hoped he wasn’t laughing too.

“So, those spikey things… they’re not human?” Jack asked once he’d gotten control of himself.

“They’re Vrith,” Griffin said. “They live in the under realms and serve the Reapers.”

“Are you human?” Jack asked, the question occurring to him suddenly. It seemed very important to know the answer.

“I’m human,” Griffin said.

“I’m going to need you to prove that,” Jack said, using the tree trunk to pull himself back onto his feet. Griffin let out an electronically modulated sigh and gripped his helmet with both of his hands. He fingered a latch on the side, causing his helmet to break apart into two pieces, revealing his face.

Jack could not help but stare. Griffin’s skin was the light brown of a Bajaran, his eyes a rich, chocolate. His long hair was dark and plastered by sweat to his head, sweat that was also running down his face. He was the single most attractive human being Jack had ever seen; Jack blinked a couple of times to make sure he wasn’t having some sort of weird out-of-body experience.

“Satisfied?” Griffin asked him, wiping away the sweat that was dripping into his eyes.

“You could be a demon,” Jack offered. “They can look human, or so I’ve heard.”

“I can bleed for you if you’d like, that should prove it.” But he was smiling as he said it.

“Okay, you’re human,” Jack said. “That still doesn’t explain… anything, really.”

“I don’t have much information about what is really going on,” Griffin said. “A few days ago, I was sent here to watch out for someone who’d drawn the attention of the Reapers. I was to make sure they didn’t get their hands on them. That turned out to be you.”

“How did you find me?” Jack said. “It’s awfully convenient, you showing up just as they struck.”

“I’ve been watching you for the last couple of days,” Griffin said. “I was waiting for this, actually. So, no, it’s not a coincidence.”

“You’ve been… watching me?” Jack had a sudden sense of violation. “And you didn’t warn me what was about to happen?”

“I didn’t know exactly what was about to happen,” Griffin said. “I was just supposed to protect you. Whoever you are, I can’t let the Reapers get you.”

“Why? Who am I that they’d care so much?”

“I don’t know,” Griffin said. “I don’t even know if the Guardians know.”

“Do you have friends here? Other… what did you call yourself?”

“There are no other Paladins in the area,” Griffin answered. “You’ve got me, and that’s it. Unless I can call for help. But for now, I’m not sure more Paladins would be helpful. We need to avoid attention. Do what I say, and I can keep you safe.”

Jack thought about that for a moment. He wanted to trust this man, even if he didn’t want to examine his reasons for that too closely. Regardless, he needed more information. “What’s our goal, then? Kill the Reaper and the Vrith? Take me home?”

“I want to take you to Greywall. That’s where I’m from. We can figure out why the Reapers want you and keep you safe for the long term.”

Jack sighed. “I have somewhere I’m supposed to be this Triday,” he said. “My, uh… my friend’s birthday. I really can’t miss it.”

“I’m sorry, Jack. I really am. But you need to come with me.”

“And I have finals next week! Shit! I’m going to fail everything if I’m not back by Nisday.”

Griffin shrugged apologetically. “I’m not sure you understand how serious this situation is.”

“Oh, I understand,” Jack said. “I’m just… I’m going to whine about it for a minute.”

Griffin gave him a lopsided grin. “I can get behind that. But we need to keep moving. The Reaper is going to know where we are soon.”

“Can I at least call my parents and tell them what is going on?” Jack asked, pulling his cell phone out of his pocket.

“No, give me that!” Griffin yanked the cell phone out of Jack’s hand, threw it against the ground, then pulled out his sword and speared through it several times. Jack stared in shock. When it was in several small pieces, Griffin fished the battery out of its casing and made sure it was far away from the rest of the debris.

“Why did you do that?”

“That’s a tracking device. The Reapers can track you just as easily as emergency services.”

“Shit,” Jack said, sitting down at the ground once more. “So… I’m just going to, like… disappear, and no one will know what happened to me.”

“When you’re safely in Greywall, we can let you make contact with your parents. Maybe.”

“How far away is Greywall?” Jack asked.

“About five hundred miles southeast, on the border between Meridia and Antheam.”

“You have phones there?”

“My people are the ones who invented cell phones—not that we get credit. So yes, we have phones there.”

Jack sighed and rested his forehead against his knees. “I guess we’d better get going, then.”

“It would be for the best,” Griffin said, fastening his helmet once more around his head. Jack was sorry to see his face disappear behind the metal. Griffin helped pull Jack to his feet, then together mounted his Steed and took off into the city.

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