by Dan Hiestand
The Scalywagons of Ozymandias
The Scalywagons of Ozymandias
“This is no place for me.”
10 Years Earlier
Diamond (April) 1
Screaming laughter rose like a tide from the beautiful woman seated across from Jace. Relic could see her clearly from his position perched in readiness a dozen paces from the wagon’s open door. It was solid mahogany ... much too extravagant for some itinerant con-artist.
Her violet eyes were trained on Jace.
“Trimalchio in West Egg?” she managed between breaths. “Shut up.”
Jace was laughing, too.
“No, I’m serious.”
A lantern sat between them, painted just so with a watercolor vision of another world. Earth.
It threw light in every hue across the cozy little space; it was alien, yet comfortable, and endlessly furtive. Relic could not have said why, but he did not wish to shatter the delicate companionship he saw in that moment.
Thunder grumbled in the dark night beyond.
“True story,” Jace went on. “He almost called it that.”
Relic thought that, amidst the laughter, he heard the woman say: Le convoi maudit.
The words made his mind race – or at least, it would have. In the depths of this strangeness, it was fairer to say it sludged. The words reminded Relic of something, a half-dozen languages rotating through his mind until he recognized the odd similarity to a single phrase: Déjà vu.
Try as he might – and he did try – he couldn’t recall enough to trace the etymology back.
“He really did have issues ...”
“I blame the priest side.”
The lady was arrayed in gaudy crimson-and-clover robes, her skin deeply bronzed from the sun. The light that haloed her was golden and luscious, yet powerful; as strong as the light of Luna Scarlet, but far different. The sound of her laughter, too, was as infectious as it was familiar—
Between them, floating amidst the rainbow glow, an ashtray studded with seashells sat on a table. Heavy bolts secured it to the wagon's floor – strange when one considered this wagon was never meant to move.
“Something tells me you didn’t come here to talk trivia from another world.”
The woman was trying to pretend she wasn’t taken with The Kid, but she was. Relic read it plainly on her face, the same as he read it in everyone. It was a phenomenon he could never define, or even understand.
“No,” Jace said. He leaned forward, resting his forearms on the edge of the table. “I didn’t.”
There wasn't a self-conscious bone in Jace Dabriel’s body; he had nothing to be self-conscious about. Yet, in that moment, he sighed and bowed his head a little, and the beautiful woman laid a comforting hand on his shoulder.
Some people just have all the luck, Relic found himself thinking.
Crickets were chirping a chorus in the deep, muggy night.
Fireflies danced in the recess of every corner—
—and their little lights in the darkness fought back the shadows, which should have been mighty and ancient. The forest around them seemed sacred, a song of warmth where the moon and the sun, gentle as lovers, would make the fruit hang fat from the trees.
Relic wondered why he had been so hesitant about coming here, and he wondered what he had been doing before this.
A mirror sat behind the lady, kept to its own pool of shadows, and Relic sensed something just behind it as he risked another step closer to the wagon’s opening. The dark iron frame held within its fingerwork the strained silver of melted candlesticks.
Mirror, Relic’s mind whispered.
“Yes,” he said to himself, nodding—but didn’t have the first clue why.
The lady said: “You have to do this, honey. It’s the only way—you know that.”
“But ... Mirror Lake ... I mean ... actually killing him, Jaden.” The self-consciousness Relic swore Jace could never feel glowed bright as the lantern as he paused. “I honestly don’t know if I can do that.”
The lady laughed again – an ethereal sound Relic was no more prepared for from having heard it before. There was somewhere else he had to be, wasn’t there? He had a brief vision of tending a lawn.
In a fairer lawn ...
“Your friend thinks a lot,” the woman said.
Relic gave in to an urge to look down at his hands, and found it strangely difficult to pull his gaze away.
They were solid, and in the wake of it, so was everything.
Yeah, that’s just how he is, he heard Jace say.
The woman sat upright again. She crossed her arms and leaned back, narrowing her gaze on Jace.
“You’re going to be okay, I promise. You’ll be better than okay, when it’s over.”
Jace remained motionless a moment longer, then sat straighter in his chair as well.
“What makes you so sure?”
It was then that Relic could see something different about his friend, revealed in glimpses by the strange light as he leaned back into it; or in the absence of light, like a negative – shadow puppetry all around them.
Outside, the glare of lightning made it all the harder to gaze out, penning them into the comfortable stillness. The wind was howling; it wanted in. The lady turned her cheek, pointedly paying it no mind.
“Because you don’t know how to fail.”
But then, in the unexpected light of fireworks – launched, Relic thought, from the Fairlawn Thoroughfare
– the shadows broke and Relic saw true for the first time he could recall: His friend Jace was younger.
This Jace wasn’t The Kid – he was a kid.
Relic’s eyes watered, but he fought to stay focused—
Sixteen ... at the most.
A twig cracked behind him, and Relic whirled to face the shadows.
Citrine (November) 5
The green light was intense.
Soon, it would be blinding.
“It’s a riddle, Relic. You like riddles.”
“What is it?”
“Just this—if you died and went to Hell, how would you know?”
Watching Relic depart into the wagon was like seeing an image and its afterimage crashing together; but not just two.
Dozens, hundreds; more than anyone could count. The last look on his face had been consternation, followed by fear—a look of betrayal that faded into the air as he did.
Jace knew that it didn’t matter.
By the end of the night, if he was still alive—
He won’t remember.
At least, the Relic who’d gone into that wagon wouldn’t.
His mind would stitch something together:
A few seconds of action.
That’s the least of his worries now.
Jace stood there a moment, thinking; remembering the day he’d endured this same test. It was no Outrider ritual; he would have been better off if he hadn’t remembered it, didn’t even know a thing about it.
Until so recently, he hadn’t—
And then things began to change.
Jace slowed his breath and widened his eyes, letting his peripheral vision go wide. At the edges of that vision, atoms of pure white ghost-light arose from every blade of grass, every ghastly hanging-tree.
They are rising.
The lights are utterly featureless, yet he can sense them looking his way—
Then turning their alien thoughts to the place where the wagon should have been.
There are more motes of light than stars in the sky.
They wash over him and over the clearing.
Jace’s memories are beginning to fade, to merge.
His knowledge of the past becomes instinct.
He knows what he must do without knowing how.
And so, without thinking twice, he does it.
Kicking up great plumes of dust in his wake, Jace rode across the landscape in a blur.
He ignored Hobson’s body rotting in the cold.
Never surrendering his breakneck pace, he soon saw mile markers yield one by one. The Fairlawn Thoroughfare was thronged with extinguished road lamps, creaking on the chains that bound them to steel posts.
He gave them not a glance.
The road stretched to the horizon, poles rising evenly into the darkness beyond.
Jace willed himself to think nothing – to focus and follow his breath. Each exhalation stoked the fire of absolute certainty that burned inside him, making it pulse and glow. All he had to do was stay on the path it illuminated—experience without question, trust and believe and do.
But one thought would not release its talon-grip:
No twenty-fourth chances.
Within moments, Jace found the railroad tracks that cut like a long scar across the Republic. Before the Civil War, when this forest stood within the Tri-State, crossing the continent could be the work of days. Now, his horse thundering past the half-forgotten rails evoked the spirits of forgotten steam engines.
The Outrider felt their echoes in his mind—
How many had died before this nameless threat?
How many times?
The thoughts haunted him, and soon, the enemy gave its silent answer—
A ghoulish light burbled up in the distance, crackling over the horizon and consuming it like a slip of old parchment. It was a massive fireball, twice as big as those that pummeled Fairlawn into the long twilight of half-death—
The ground shrieked beneath Jace, and he knew something had changed.
The comets were bigger than before, bigger than they’d ever been—
Contemplating the difference might be fatal.
He could find himself riding alone with no memory of why or how he had gotten there. He could find himself elsewhere entirely. He could stop existing. He did not know how he knew this, but it was certain—as certain as he was Jace Dabriel.
No. Much more certain than that.
As Jace urged his horse on, he felt heat on his face, his forehead.
A sun straining in its sky to scorch the unwary.
In a few seconds more, the grim spotlight passed over his shoulders, his back. Away it went, continuing on a dead shot to the besieged Fairlawn City. He made himself watch it, imagining that he had to catch it.
But, in the darkness of his mind, a lone thought smoldered.
In the shadows behind his eyelids, he could imagine the monstrosity Relic would soon see—the one that had swept the ancient tyrants aside with a power unspeakable. Relic would witness, as Jace once had, what truly dwelt inside him.
That single thought was a mote of ghost-light blazing in his mind—
Illuminating a pale, familiar face he struggled not to remember—
Jace gasped, drew his hands up to his face, ordered himself not to think. Not about the past, or the future, or Relic, or the Republic, or—
A different face swam into his vision now—
The mote became overpoweringly bright, bleaching all color away and subsuming everything into itself.
Jace could bear no more.
When, at last, the glare of the comet had subsided in the distance, he halted beside the tracks. He plucked his hat from his head and mopped at the sweat pouring down his face as he caught his breath. He shouldn’t have stopped, he knew; it was the last thing he knew.
But it was too late:
The dam was breaking, and as the thoughts poured through, the light of sublime certainty was smothered in its muddy tide. It had not been enough to think of nothing. He remembered, as the last instants slipped away, that he should have been thinking of Nothing.
Then that, too, was gone. Jace felt frozen ... like a statue.
The tremors he’d barely felt beneath Highfly’s crashing hooves returned with a vengeance—
10 Years Earlier
Diamond (April) 1
Through the moor grass surrounding the wagon, Relic saw children dashing with sparklers held high, leaving trails of light behind them – something he was sure Fairlawn’s 305th Sentinels would be just thrilled to know about at a time like this.
A time like—
Relic reached to his hip to grab something, but there was nothing there to grab.
The forest he thought he remembered was gone.
He and the wagon were elsewhere.
“We found it, Martha!”
Half-bowed, a bald and portly man tromped through the brush.
Relic turned on his heel to stare at the man with confusion and alarm. He wasn’t sure where he’d come from—then it jostled back to mind: The man who had cracked the twig.
Relic could imagine those words in marquee lights, the fellow’s greatest achievement. Something he could re-enact again and again.
THE MAN WHO HAD CRACKED THE TWIG.
—or maybe it was his wife, instead, who was following close at his side.
“Want my help with one more sale?” Jace asked the Madame in a whisper. It was so quiet, Relic was surprised he had heard it at all; it resounded in his mind, centering him.
“For old time’s sake ...?”
The boy-Jace winked as he turned back toward Madame Rogette, the woman he had called Jaden. Their chubby visitor continued on, taking slow, tentative steps towards the back of the wagon. He’d showed no sign of seeing Relic, yet there was something familiar about him.
There was something familiar about all of this.
“Oh, for the love of St. Lucie, we found it!”
The man handed the map to his wife without looking. She took it and forced a wan, weary smile onto her apricot lips.
Off in the forest, music was playing.
There in the caravan, Jaden shot bolt upright.
She beckoned to Jace.
“The hat, the hat,” she said, then snubbed out a cigarette Relic had not even realized she’d been smoking.
Pay attention, he heard his own voice whisper in his ear. This is the last piece of the puzzle.
Jaden cleared her throat and reached behind the mirror to draw out a ridiculous hat: A floppy silver thing, easily recognizable as part of her wardrobe thanks to the giant glass ruby in its center.
It’s the last thing you need—
“Come on, come on, come on!” Jaden went, tossing tarot cards on the table between them.
To be complete.
It all had the air of the preparation Relic did with Caulurn before a speech. Getting on the same page of a script before a performance.
A performance like the one he had given earlier that ...
“Wait,” he asked himself. “When was that?”
Jace smiled and offered his forearms, closing his eyes when Jaden laid her hands lightly over them. She settled the hat, adjusted it, and took a deep breath. Outside, just a pace or two from Relic now, the tourists were nodding meaningfully at one of the murals along the carriage’s side.
Then, they crept on in a hoary pantomime of stealth—another part of their adventure.
Relic looked back inside for himself.
Cigarette smoke still swirled around Jaden and Jace, tracing thin gray claws over the mirror behind them.
The tourists stepped in front of Relic, blocking his view.
No doubt they couldn't see him; but he could see – and smell, he realized, nose scrunching – them well.
They had been on a long journey, at least by their standards.
The lady's shoulders slumped; her husband's chest puffed out like a rooster’s. He could imagine how they complemented one another in ordinary married life. For them, this was anything but.
“Mmmm,” Jace mused. “Yeah, you were right.”
His face twitched vaguely, like the shadow of clouds over the sea. His eyelids betrayed scant movement beneath; perceiving something on the mind’s edge.
“The incense really does enhance the vision.”
“Yesss, very good. Madame Rogette always knows best.”
“Well, maybe not always, but—”
Jace smiled at the feeling of her squeezing his arms.
“Yes, mistress ... as you say.”
“Fascinating!” the tourist exclaimed, as loud as a whisper allowed. His grip tightened on his wife’s forearm, a mirror of Jaden’s identical move. Both were just a shade north of forty, standing on what they would have deemed the eastern edge of the world. In the Tri-State, no less! “We found it!”
He glanced conspiratorially Relic's way, and Relic returned the look— Only to feel his face flush when he remembered he could not be seen. Perhaps he was not there at all.
Perhaps there was no there.
He looked back to his hands, then up when Jaden spoke.
“Enough, young stranger!” she shouted to Jace. The same way Relic might have said: Does that make them cowards? ... Caulurn’s response would have been: Hell no, Captain!
Jaden said: “Now you must go!”
Jace’s eyes flew open as if jarred from a deep sleep, playing the role of wide-eyed innocent perfectly. Even Relic, the one man alive who should have known better, could appreciate the artistry.
“What? ... please, no!” Jace leapt up – straightening as high as the wagon’s roof let him. “Mistress, I need more information!”
Jaden opened her eyes and shook her head.
As she did, Jace leaned in—nabbing the cigarettes beside the crystal ball.
“No! The spirits will have no more tonight! Madame Rogette is tired.” She let her head slouch forward, but only for an instant, certainty burning in her eyes. “She must ... rest now.”
She held up her right hand.
Jace huffed as he walked toward the open doorway. When he spotted the tourists, he stopped and cocked his head back with feigned surprise.
“Turn back,” he said. “Turn back, I beg you.”
With that, he jumped off the wagon and breathed deeply of the fresh night air—
... his hand gliding ever so gently over the pocket where the cigarettes were hidden. The tourists never saw a thing, Relic’s own voice narrated.
Jace brushed past Relic, who made to reach, but faltered.
You’re meddling in affairs you cannot possibly fathom.
Jace had said it. But for a moment, Relic had thought—
Had thought ...
The husband’s frantic plea broke his reverie:
“Oh, but please! Please, Madame Rogette! Tired as you may be, I beg you take one more customer. I beg you! You see ...” He stepped slightly to the side and jostled his wife forward, as if presenting evidence. “It’s our anniversary!”
His wife had not known when she started holding her breath; it came in a puff with the first words she found.
“We came for the Harvest Festival and ...” She handed her husband the map, and he, in turn, displayed it with such urgency that it almost flew out of his hand. “And we found this!”
Jaden cast a sidelong glance, the tips of her fingers pressing her temples until she saw it.
She lowered her hands to the table and folded them. Her eyes sold slow revelation.
The words purred from her throat at first—
“Very well.”—before turning urgent: “Tell me your names ...”
“We’re the Minches,” the wife said softly. “My name is Abigail ... and this is Tyrus.” Thinking back a moment, she added, “The map – it was in the bushes just outside the Red Lion ... a pub in the city. It was spotless, just as you see it, though it’d been there for who knows how long!”
And slipped the map back into her robe.
It would return to the bushes soon enough – and the Red Lion’s publican would have his fee.
“Spirits writhing!” Jaden said, raising her hands. She gazed at the couple before her as if seeing something new and wondrous in them, just beneath the surface. “That's a horse of a different color!”
Citrine (November) 5
There were supply depots along this part of the Fairlawn Thoroughfare—at least, there had been.
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay.
The stations that once served the great railroads, were cut down to rubble by the Tri-State Civil War, with the weeks-long Battle of Westwood as their headstone.
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
Here, where Jace stood idle, they had never been replaced.
Like so many things – and so many lives.
Reduced, by history, into monuments of hubris.
Jace was sure he had read it somewhere – but not so sure where.
He was moving slowly, as if the Fairlawn Thoroughfare was safe and he was merely outside to enjoy the bitter cold. Long after the sight of mile markers had grown erratic, the shattered remnants of buildings still moldered in the shoreless depths of night.
One burnt-out husk bore a painted message, sloppy and recent:
Arkhelan Will Rise Again!
Jace passed three or four collapsed buildings by the time he reached one that spilled all the way across the road, its peak crowned by a massive, ramshackle cross. Two support-beams had come together in their fall and now ruled unsteadily over the metallic boneyards.
Everything of value had been stolen years before—
Anything worthwhile that could be plucked from the mangled wreckage, heavy with rust. Fingers of frost glinted on the knife-sharp edge of the cross, sure to spread across every inch and then recede. Sooner or later, even it would collapse.
Jace slowly formed words with silent, chapped lips.
Monuments of ...
Like a cork popping, what held him back was released.
“I ... should be going faster,” he said aloud, as if to convince himself. A little more and perhaps he would be able. “I need to get to ... to get to ...” Now, it was on the brink of his knowing; like the words he shouldn’t dare to think, like the purpose that drove him.
Like what he was doing before he got here.
“Hold it right there, Outrider.”
He should have been terrified, but Jace didn’t pause. Even Highfly, sensing his mood, did not stir; not until his rider dismounted and started to pace. Beneath Jace’s boots, the rubble crunched – decades of unspoken guilt given voice.
Jace, himself, showed none.
It was not strength or force of arms that gave Dabriel his confidence in that moment, but a beatific innocence – as if he had gone through fear and come out the other side. He regarded the darkness with curiosity, waiting for the source of the words to appear.
Thirty seconds passed.
Finally, he said:
“How’s it going, Treinen?”
A man walked, equally fearless, out of the shadows.
He was clad head to toe in golden armor. A red cloak and matching cape hung from his broad shoulders, hem falling to his knee. As he saw Jace, he brought one fist up into the other palm and held it there – an ancient gesture of salute that sent his mail-shod fists clamoring like thunder.
He waited, stock still, until the echoes died; his hands describing a circle over his solar plexus. The faceplate of his helm was all featureless scorn, betraying nothing. Perhaps he could have been mistaken for some long-lost roadside monument – to hubris – if Jace had not known better.
At last, the sentinel broke his silence – words tinged by a grim, unseen smile.
“How’s it goin’, Dorse?”
10 Years Earlier
Diamond (April) 1
A flash of green lightning blinded Relic.
The afterimages faded slowly; it felt like staring painlessly into the sun. When it was gone at last, the tourists were sitting where young Jace had been. Some time had passed, but gauging it was impossible. Jaden’s patrons looked thrilled, ready to believe whatever she told them for however much she asked.
Relic merely shook his head as he turned to focus on where Jace had gone.
He found the boy leaning against a tree, talking to a youngster he didn’t recognize.
Yeah, my life flash before my eyes, he thought he heard Jace say.
The other kid was calling him something—
Relic strained to hear.
That’s fair, I guess, Relic thought, but had no mouth to smile with.
When Jace answered, he clearly heard the other youth’s name: Treinen. Beyond them, Relic could see threads of dark cloud smudging the shimmering reflection of the Fairlawn skyline. The city was shining up beyond a barely-glimpsed horizon—haloed in brilliant, coruscating gold.
Something about the glade opposite where he now stood felt like it should mean more to him. When he turned back to the wagon, Relic found Madame Rogette peering back at him.
“Am I dead?” he asked.
Jaden stood there a moment, just breathing.
Then, she glided toward Relic; her hand questing, half-decided, in the air.
He should have pulled away, but didn’t; her fingertips slid slowly over his face, taking in every nuance. Tentative at first, then sure and gentle. Her eyes were downcast, as if to spare his modesty, though there was no reason why that he could imagine.
“No,” she said at last, biting her lip as she let her eyes follow the path her hands had. Thunder rolled across the sky, terribly close at hand.
“Then ... what is this place?”
The beautiful woman smiled, crossing her arms. Like sands sifting backwards through an hourglass, the years were sliding off. Brilliant red hair; green eyes. The play of lightning made her loose sleeves hang like wings in the shadow behind her.
Relic raised a finger, his mouth hanging open for a moment.
He decided on: “You’re sure I’m not dead?”
She shrugged as she tied back her hair.
His eyes followed every move.
“If you are, honey, then heaven’s a bit disappointing, I’d say.”
“My friend said the same exact thing once.”
She looked past Relic to the clearing.
Jace was gone.
“Yes, I know,” she said.
Another lightning bolt scorched the sky, a spear of radical blue. In that flash, the woman was a corpse. A hideous, decaying shell; the vision gone in the silent space that should have been a heartbeat.
Or the blink of the Helix's eye.
Alive and well before him, she crinkled her nose and her sigh brought on a breeze that whisked the brittle leaves away. The crickets resumed their melody. Relic felt a sensation over his spine that gave him chills; he imagined this was what it’d be like to have the girl he always wanted blowing slowly on the back of his neck.
There was something about it that made his soul ache.
“Who are you?”
“Just a girl ... who makes potions ...” she said, striking a match on the door jamb. She lit a cigarette,
shook it out, and glanced at the sky. “... in a travelling show.”
She turned and started back inside, but just before the door closed behind her, he heard her laugh again.
Relic started to follow her in.
A gust of icy wind swept across him, the feeling from a different time of year. The feeling of ... Citrine?
It carried the scent of the trees and jostled a row of crystal necklaces swaying from a propped up sign. At first, it was all curves and crescents that resolutely resisted his eyes.
But on the third try, he found he could read it:
TWO FOR A PENNY
DON’T TAKE 2 MANY
Waiting is the hardest part ...
22 + 22 + 22 + 22 = 88
Relic bowed his head and closed his eyes tightly.
“This is no place for me,” Relic told her, and in that moment of dissonance he was afraid.
Until Jaden laid a hand on his shoulder – almost maternal – and guided him to face the mirror. The stolen silver fingerwork crawled at the edge of Relic’s vision as his eyes fluttered open. He was sure that if he let them close again, the whole thing would vanish for good.
Wordlessly, Jaden’s grip tightened and he forced himself to face his reflection. Chalked carefully around the mirror he could see immensely complex and powerful arcane symbols – the séance circle of yore, but each element sketched so big, so far apart, it could not be identified from up close.
Still, he cursed himself—
I should have noticed, should have known.
She took a deep breath, let it out slowly—
And with the instinct born of many years of training, Relic began to follow suit.
“You are not your thoughts,” she told him.
When the rhythm of their breath was aligned, he allowed himself, at last, to face the reflections that swam in the glass.
But his own was distorted; wan and weary and stretched.
Relic knew, without knowing why, that he could not leave until he found himself there.
His half-seen shade pressed a pale hand to the glass.
The woman lifted her hand from his back, but the warmth of her touch stayed behind. Her reflection was growing; burning bright, immense and terrible. The heat crackling across her silhouette writhed across the cold glass, spirits writhing, but it could not penetrate the darkness no matter how it struggled.
There was only one path.
For him, there only ever was.
Relican Avery stepped into the mirror.
The shadows rippled for an instant—
Then they pressed in all around and swallowed him whole.
He heard a voice before all faded to darkness—
My boy, this is no place for anyone.