Phantom Pact: The Bearer’s Burden
One more day, Cade Elegy thought as the hills before him screamed of battle. One more day to keep the dream of hope alive, or one more day until the dream vanished for good.
They assembled the last of their remaining army to bear upon Gigan’s Hill. Just beyond lay a great structure known as the Thread—the bastion in which the mysterious enemy known as the Wraiths had taken refuge.
Hulking soldiers of the Wraiths, humanoid yet possessing an exoskeleton like a great mantis, swarmed the battlefield. While they looked like giant insects, they also bore a striking resemblance to humans—walking on two feet, and articulating finger-like appendages on their hands. Within seconds, the enemy surrounded their entire legion. There were thousands more than reported. Their intelligence was wrong.
“What are you waiting around for? Move!” Commander Jord Black of the 12th Bearer Corps led the mission. Cade didn’t need to be told twice. The unit advanced, rushing toward the enemy line.
They were the tip of the spear for the assault. The mission was simple in order, but not in execution: kill the Wraith scouted in the area—a message to the world the Wraiths were mortal.
Cade fought, taking down one creature after another, as the rest of his dwindling unit fought alongside him. The smell of gunpowder and smoke hung thick in the air. The clash of weapons and the cries of agony bled together into a nightmarish cacophony. “Get down!” A voice pierced through the chaos. Jord’s voice. Cade felled another creature as he turned to find a Bearer-class grenade hurtling toward their position.
Time slowed to a crawl. Jord snatched the grenade with both hands and threw himself down on the ground.
Cade reached out—a futile attempt to halt the inevitable. A dark, metallic color spread across Jord’s body as the man attempted to harden his body against the blast. As the grenade detonated, the concussive force tore into Jord’s body. Cade looked away.
Selfless to the end, Cade thought. A wave of grief swelled within him, outmatched only by the rage following in its wake. There wasn’t time to mourn; he had to keep moving. He knew Jord, and Jord’s determination to finish the mission. “You will, my friend, you will.”
Cade afforded himself a moment to close his eyes, searching for the phantom Jord left behind in death. It was there, faint but recognizable to Cade amongst the discordant sounds of combat. Cade spoke the words, the ones sealing a pact with his former commander.
Cade, bolstered by Jord’s phantom, fought with renewed vigor. They needed to cut straight through to the camp with their dwindling force. It would be suicide, but it was the only option left.
“Incoming!” a corporal wailed as the body of a soldier hurtled past him.
“Hells,” Cade spat.
A gigantic creature, one Cade had never seen, lumbered toward him and the remaining men. Exposed sinewy muscle and dark metallic plating covered its body in overlapping segments, like the scales of a reptilian beast.
He continued to fight—fight for Jord, fight for the phantoms he bore, fight to live to sing the songs of those who had passed.
His zeal got the best of him. As he struck at the massive creature, he felt the last of the power granted by his phantoms drain from him. The creature lunged at Cade. His vision went dark as excruciating pain enveloped him.
When he came to, Cade found himself hoisted on the shoulders of the soldiers from his unit. He felt his sidearm against him, hot as if discharged, though he had no recollection of firing it.
But it did not matter. They had won the battle. They had defeated the Wraiths.
They could go home.
Countless black motes swirled from Cade’s sight as the waking vision ended and he returned to reality. It’s over. It’s over, he thought again to calm himself, his heart still pounding. The war was over.
The drug the military issued to members of the Bearer Corps still brought him these unbidden visions. They called the side-effect “veiling”. Cade was glad he no longer needed the vile stuff.
Protector of the Realm, they now called him. Cade tried on the honorific as the vibrations from the railbus he rode rattled his tired mind. The title didn’t fit. He shut his eyes as he sat in the seat of the passenger car and tried to control his breathing.
He was almost home. His mind raced, still trying to process the end of the war. The king himself had heralded Cade a hero. And his prize, the only one that mattered, lay at the end of this track.
The old metal railbus slowed, and his heart beat faster. The car was near bursting with passengers eager to return home. He was thankful they left him be. The newfound celebrity he gained in Toltaire, the capital of Chalice, was unnerving. He preferred the quiet comfort of his simple home, and above all else the company of his wife and children.
The thought conjured up memories of them, waiting at the table for him. His youngest, Jessa, unable to sit still, bounding from the table and running circles around the kitchen, wooden spoon in hand. Etan, just shy of ten years old, leafing through an archaic tome from the library, one he had already read at least six times before. Cade smiled.
And his wife, Serafina. Her smooth brown hair falling just past her shoulders, her soft green eyes melting him with a simple glance, and her smile. He could see it with perfect clarity, the same smile she would give him when he saw her again. His heart skipped a beat. It still did, even after all these years. She would busy herself with some trivial chore, awaiting his arrival. When she was nervous, she had to keep herself occupied with some task, no matter how menial it might be. She would look out the window, trying to glimpse him walking up the worn red-brick path that led to the house.
The once boisterous passengers settled down as the railbus slowed. Soon, the entire car was silent. Something is wrong, Cade thought. His eyes snapped open, and he rubbed the sleeve of his worn duster jacket on the dirty window. He could just make out the village coming into view. There were many long, colorful banners pulled taut from building to building, congratulating the returning soldiers. But something felt off. He looked at the houses and storefronts surrounding the humble train station.
“Where is everybody?” an old man said, clutching his hat to his chest as if it might fly away from inside the car. Cade continued to scan the village, but not a single person was in sight. It was not a large village, but there were always people roaming the streets, and there should have been a crowd gathered to welcome them home.
The railbus was coming to a stop, and while most of the passengers stayed frozen in shock and confusion, Cade leapt from his seat—not bothering to grab his rucksack—and threw open the door to the still moving railbus. He jumped, tumbling across the gravel ditch running alongside the tracks. He stood up, ignoring the rising pain from his fall, and cut a path through the center of town.
His head whipped from side to side, trying to glimpse someone, anyone who might have answers as he sprinted down the brick road.
“Was the city evacuated?” he panted to himself as he stopped to catch his breath. The sun was at its highest point, and his heart raced as sweat beaded upon his forehead. It didn’t make sense. The war was over. They wouldn’t have evacuated, not anymore.
The pit that had formed in his stomach grew like a rooted weed. Stay focused, Cade, he told himself. Don’t panic. There must be an explanation for this.
He turned the corner from the main road, down the street to his house. He could see the house now. The faintest bit of smoke trickled from the cobblestone chimney. There, you see? he thought. They must be there. But he did not slow his pace. Cade ran up the steps, trying to peer into the front window. He expected to see his wife poking her head out and then calling to the children, but there was no sign of her. The door was already ajar, and he could see the brass hinges of the front door had been ripped from the frame. He popped the leather strap securing his caster, a rare handgun of ancient origin, and drew the firearm from its sheath.
“No. No, no,” he said as he threw the door aside. “Sera? Etan? Jess?” he called out, going from room to room. No reply. He entered the kitchen, where all he found was a single white plate shattered upon the floor in front of the sink.
Cade wheeled around, frantic, his heart pounding. His right arm, still clutching his weapon, fell to his side. He closed his eyes and tried to control his breathing.
He listened, not for signs of life, but for the absence. His body trembled, not prepared for the answer. As the heartbeat in his eardrums subsided, he heard the music he did not want to hear. It was like the song of a music box, its notes spilling out one by one as the cylinder turned. It was the song of a phantom; of one who had passed on but remained with one ethereal foot planted within the world of the living.
It was the song of his family—gone.
Cade’s knees gave out. He collapsed to the floor, fighting back tears. His family…taken from him—murdered. The entire town, taken. The war was over. Who, or what, could have done this? He pushed his grief down deep within himself, and his face grew hot with anger. He had fought to protect his family, and now he was alone.
No. Not alone. He was a Bearer. One who could ally with phantoms.
He spoke the words his father had taught him long ago. “Song that lingers unfinished,” he said, his voice a hoarse whisper. “The one whose sigh has escaped to the stars…” He could feel the energy of the phantom grow as he spoke. “Allow me to sing your final verse.”
The song—notes drifting from an unfathomable instrument played as if hidden behind a divine curtain—became clear, grew louder, and swallowed him whole. He held his breath as the notes played within him, becoming a part of his own song.
A maelstrom of memories and emotions that were not his own crashed and roiled inside him. He clutched his head with his hands as if to contain the deluge. His mind shifted and transformed as the phantom became part of him, already adapting to survive within the shared space. The storm retreated, and Cade lowered his hands, breathing heavily.
A faint voice echoed
within him. “Pact accepted.”