Phantom Race

By: Gema J. Gall

Trees passed outside the window in a blur, too fast to be identified. They were slowly thinning out, giving way to overgrown meadows ripe with autumn blooms. The wind rippled through the golden grasses like gentle waves on the ocean. The breeze wafted through the cracked window, carrying scents of alfalfa, wildflowers, and hay fever. Clouds drifted lazily passed the sun, making it hard for a shadow to appear. It was cool but not cold, warm but not hot. It was the perfect day for a race.

Senka leaned further back in the back seat, trying to calm the butterflies that danced in her stomach, threatening to escape from her throat. The car traveled down the country road taking them closer to the fateful race. Tsifiria was sitting to her left, her dark eyes staring straight ahead without blinking. Her hands were gripping her warm-up pants just above her knees, her knuckles white with tension.

Only Amily in the shot-gun seat seemed unconcerned. She chatted lightly with Coach Wallace about how easy it would be to run through such a lovely countryside. Senka secretly wished she would be quiet so she could be alone with her thoughts. The radio was already drowned out by the wind rushing through the window. Tsifiria's black, violet-hued hair was whipping around in it, but she didn't even brush it out of her eyes. Senka glanced at her feet and nudged her small dufflebag with her toe half out of nervous energy and half out of boredom.

She propped her right elbow on the arm rest and watched the scenery pass without taking any of it in. Senka scratched around the base of her left wing, pushing the thoughts of the trial that lay ahead out of her mind. Having her wings intangible like this meant having them rest inside the seat cushion behind her. This caused them to itch ceaselessly.

Tsifiria noticed her twitching. While she couldn't see Senka's wings once she made them invisible, she still knew they were there. Tsifiria didn't have wings, but they still belonged to the same world—Novaura, in their tongue—the spirit world. Amily and Coach Wallace were normals; they didn't even know Novaura existed.

Senka's stomach flipped even more as Coach Wallace charged down a rolling hill. She nearly felt weightless them moment the car started its descent. It wouldn't be long before they arrived at Penton's Field. The hills were getting steeper, a prelude to the small ridge of mountains that shadowed the distance. The car came out of the next dip and as it loomed poised on the top of the next hill Senka got a brief view of the entire surrounding area; a small town to the left nearly flooded by rolling meadows and farmland, a single, large lake sparkled in the distance with a dark, scraggly forest behind it coating the mountainside.

At the bottom of the hill Coach Wallace turned left. The curves of all the hills briefly smoothed out, giving them their first view of Penton's Field. Cars, buses, SUVs, and minivans were already parked off to the side in the grass. Yellow, red, and blue flags flapped across the field, marking each turn of the course. Coaches monitored stopwatches while clusters of runners in the same colored sweats jogged their warm-ups. Some were stretching, pushing against saplings, stakes, and each other to flex their muscles. Officials wearing black and white stripes wandered from coach to coach, making small check marks on their clipboards.

The car stopped besides a green minivan and they all got out, Coach Wallace giving perky words of encouragement that Senka didn't fully hear. He directed them to a dry patch of grass. Amily spread out a blue tarp while he pounded their banner into the ground. It read "Crestview Academy CC" in maroon and gold letters with a gold arrow through the CC. This would be their "camp."

One of the officials came over and started speaking to Coach Wallace. Senka noticed a large, green tattoo of a cockatrice on his left bicep. As she watched, the tattoo writhed, the snake tail thrashed from side to side while the chicken claws scratched at a non-existent ground. He was one of them; a Novaurian. Most, if not all, the officials were. They had to be.

He turned to leave, giving Tsifiria and Senka a brief nod of acknowledgment as he passed. He slid a piece of paper out from under the clip and handed it to Tsifiria. Senka dropped her dufflebag on the tarp and glanced over her shoulder. It was a map of the course, with each turn labels and the distance between written in red felt pen. "Hovanic Annual Memorial 10K Fun Run" was typed across the top in bold. Senka frowned; this would be anything but fun.

"Do you see this?" asked Tsifiria, trying to control the waver in her voice. That caused Senka's stomach to flip again. Tsifiria was always so confident that it was out-right alarming to see her unnerved.

"Let me see!" chimed Amily, leaning over her shoulder. However, even on her tiptoes she was too short to peer over. That, also, was due to Tsifiria's height.

She slid down to her knees and spread the map out on the tarp. Senka and Amily crowded close, all three heads nearly touching; thick brown, violet-black, and raven black. The course looked simple, a curvy line through fields, forest, around the lake, with the finish labeled with a big red X at the mountains. However, another line was written in glowing blue-green ink; it ran close to the red course line, but diverged at several points. Only Senka and Tsifiria could see that line. It was the course for the Novaurians; the red line was what the normals would follow.

Coach Wallace slowly got down on his bad knees and wiggled his way between Senka and Amily. Senka nearly fell backwards as she shifted her weight wrong and her wings nearly unbalanced her. Even though they were intangible and invisible they still had weight. The black father tips on her right wing were now resting inside Coach Wallace's back. She tried not to think about that.

"No pressure girls," he said. "Just enjoy this one." He started to point to places on the map with the back of his pen. "You can really gain distance here if you hug the corner. Watch out for mud holes around the lake right here. The hills at the end will be hard, but you're going to have to push through them."

While he spoke Senka let her thoughts and eyes wander. The whole race was a set-up for something much bigger; a Novaurian traditional run to the Mouth of Truth. Normals were present only because it gave the Novaurians cover, a means to hide within a crowd, and authenticity in the modern world. By setting up this race as an invitation-only fun run it allowed them to invite small numbers of runners from the local cross country teams to participate; naturally it was manipulated that the Novaurians were among those selected. For them, the rest of the Crestview team was competing at Lakeside today. Senka knew it was a brilliant cover-up, even though she did not fully understand the details. She tried to work out the finer points of that scheme instead of thinking about the race itself.

A pack of four runners walked by and Senka couldn't help but glance them over. One had green skin and another had a long tail invisible to normals that twitched with each step. Their companions, however, were normals. Every team had been required to bring at least one along.

"Let's go, warm-up time!" said Coach Wallace, struggling to his feet again. His smile seemed terribly out-of-place to Senka. "And don't cheat the warm-up lap. Cheaters never prosper and prosperers never cheat unless they are cheating the non-prosperous cheaters who aren't prospering in the first place." He had a weird sense of humor that frequently surfaced.

"The first half mile, right?" Senka asked and was answered with an energetic nod.

The three of them started out, lightly jogging to prepare their muscles. Tsifiria and Senka couldn't help but glance around at the others like them. Their eyes could see what was kept hidden from normal eyes; insect wings, bird wings, tails, horns, fangs, claws, green skin, blue skin, golden eyes, black eyes, snake eyes, no eyes, moving tattoos, embedded amulets, charmed jewelry, familiars, fox ears, dog ears, cat ears, and more. Some, like Tsifiria, even looked normal, but the way they carried themselves, they way they moved, and the way their expression changed when a tail got close gave away their race. All of them were in jerseys and sweats, which did looks strangely comical on some of them. The Novaurians all had one of two expressions; extreme nervousness or ruthless excitement. Senka truly shuddered when she considered what some of them would do if they won—and the lengths they would go through to ensure their victory.

Senka managed to get through the warm-ups and stretching in a mental blur by keeping herself distracted by observing those around her. The time seemed to pass quickly, and soon Coach Wallace was giving them their last words of encouragement as they did sprint-outs at the start line. The other teams were grouped around them like an out of order rainbow. Sweats were being cast off revealing shorts and more abnormalities. Senka could feel her stomach tightening, closing in on the butterflies inside. Tsifiria looked grim and even Amily was quieting down as the race neared its start.

The flags fluttered in front of them, marking their way far passed what they could see. The first five hundred yards were straight then a red flag waved, signifying a left hand turn. Senka remembered they would continue that way for a long time, allowing the slow runners, the normals, to fall behind so the Novaurians could turn off without attracting suspicions. That had been another part of the planning; the normals brought along had to be the slowest on the team.

The official with the cockatrice tattoo stood of to the side of the course ahead of the line. He blew a whistle loudly to attract attention and quiet the talking. Tsifiria cringed at the noise; it was painful to her acute senses. He raised both hands and blew his whistle again, then dropped one blowing the whistle twice. The remaining arm held a gun pointing high into the air. He blew one more long blast of the whistle. It was still and silent, nearly a painting as everyone waited, poised and taut with energy.

BANG!

The race had begun.