*Magnify*
SPONSORED LINKS
Printed from https://www.writing.com/main/view_item/item_id/2190673-Chapter-Eleven
Printer Friendly Page Tell A Friend
No ratings.
Rated: E · Chapter · Action/Adventure · #2190673
It’s Only a Paper Moon
CHAPTER ELEVEN

It’s Only a Paper Moon


“You can’t twist the fabric of reality without it snapping back.”

JADEN
Divider (2)

Kingdom of Sindell
Capital City of Hamon

Bells were ringing out on the morning Jace was called to Sinowa Castle.

​Up a dozen wide steps railed with polished bronze, he found himself standing beneath the shady portico before a set of great, golden double doors. Masked guards with halberds propped in their arms stood on each side, but none approached him or spoke a word, well aware of who he was and his appointment.

Through the great doors was a wide courtyard, enclosed by the white walls of the keep and dotted with ornamental fountains that sprayed high into the sky. Delicate windows with sinuous golden frames looked in on a dozen lavish rooms, but Jace was more interested in the people. A few adults chatted quietly on benches, but the clearest sound above the trickle of water was the whoops and cheers of children who raced from place to place, playing and tossing coins into the fountains, even as the king’s servants swept the stones quietly.

​Through a crimson door, Jace passed into a long marble hallway that looked on other gardens. Small, fuzzy creatures skittered and hopped about, chasing one another in a great impression of the children, and he recognized them at once. They were the strange cat-rabbits he had known as a boy and hadn’t seen since he was a teenager under the tutelage of Donovan Kerrick. They seemed to have been given the run of the grounds; one or two lazed in every pool of light beneath a window. A few regarded him curiously, but same as the guards, none approached.

​At last he came to an antechamber adorned with a great floor-mural of the entire Ciridian continent, encircled by a large serpent that swallowed its own tail. Now he could see where he had been and where he was.

And the serpent was encircled further with the motto:

Dum vita est, spes est.

​This was the place where the main corridors of Sinowa Castle converged; a hub of activity where the frenzy of urgent business was all around him. Pilots passed to and from the Royal Hangar which lay beyond a large door not three or four paces away.

​“Jace!”

He smiled immediately at the sound of the voice that had screamed his name. It was small, but also excited, and it echoed up and down the great hall. By the time he turned to face it, the little blonde-haired girl he expected to see was already running towards him full speed. Her ​coming was further marked by a ceaseless tide of small shoes slapping marble, which stopped abruptly as she jumped headlong up into his arms.

​“Hello, Casey girl!” Jace yelled, grunting a little with the exertion of catching her weight. But then he winced at the sudden reminder of his ribs, and the handiwork of Hazel Lien.

​Casey Lang remained blissfully unaware of this, too busy choking the Outrider with a hug around his neck. Two blue ribbons tied her hair into pigtails, and they matched her sky-blue dress. Jace closed his eyes and hugged her tightly, rubbing her back a little as he sighed.

​“I’m so glad you’re back,” she whispered directly into his ear. Her breath smelled like peppermint, and this made him smile again.

​“Me too, buddy,” he said, transferring the girl to the crook of his arm. He winced again as he did this, and then bounced her a bit into a more tolerable position. ​“How are you?”

​“Good,” she said, distractedly reaching up and touching his cheek. “You shaved all the hairs off your face.”

​“I did,” Jace said, and he leaned back to give her a better view. “What do you think?”

The little girl shrugged.

​“I don’t know. You just look normal again.”

​Jace smiled again as he shifted his focus back to the bustling activity all around them.

​“I’ll take normal. Where’s your mom?”

The question was barely out of his mouth when he spotted Danielle Nash surrounded by a large group of people near the mouth of the hallway called the Corridor of Kings. She was deep in conversation with Constable Thean, and while she barely acknowledged Jace, she glanced towards him just long enough to track where her daughter was.

Then Jace’s attention was jerked suddenly back to the task of holding Casey when she leaned back hard in his arms. A maneuver that required his focus turn completely back to her so that she didn’t fall out of his grasp. This had no doubt been the intended result of the maneuver. She never could have known how close he had come to actually dropping her, or the intense relief he felt that it didn’t happen. And this blissful ignorance seemed to be the epitome of what it was to be a child,

​“Talking to daddy’s big boss,” she said, giggling at the fun of the dip. “See?”

​“Oh yeah? Is that what she’s doing? Huh? Talking to your daddy’s big boss?” He started to tickle her and she squealed with uncontrollable laughter that echoed off of the walls. “Your daddy’s big boss?” he repeated and she howled on.

Constable Thean, dark and lean,” Casey started to sing, but then stopped at the upside down view of him standing with her mother directly beside them, having apparently started over when she was distracted.

​Jace rocked her back to a sitting position in his arms and then lowered the little girl down, lightly hugging Danielle Lang and kissing her on the cheek as he did so.

​“Hello, you,” she said. There was relief in her voice, but Jace thought he detected a certain tension there as well.

​“He shaved his face,” Casey pointed out.

“Yes, I can see that,” Danielle said, glancing down to her daughter standing happily beside her leg. “You clean up good, Dabriel.”

“I know,” Jace said absently.

She shook her head and rolled her eyes, but smiled as she did both.

“I know you know.”

A team of pilots took Jace’s attention, and he followed their path to the giant door. In doing so, he saw the tension again when his eyes scanned back to her face. He recognized the expression.. Or rather, what lay beneath the thin veneer of strength maintained for her daughter.

“He’s fine,” Jace said. “Everything’s fine.”

​Danielle nodded and sighed a little.

​“I know. The constable was just telling me, it’s just…” She paused. “It just like back home. I can never really believe it until I see him, you know? Until I hear his voice.”

“Yeah,” Jace said. “I do.”

“He and Darvin are expected back this afternoon,” Thean confirmed. “All is well.”

Jace turned to him and nodded.

​“Sir.”

​And the constable nodded back.

​“Dabriel.”

Danielle read the meaningful pause between them with all the learned deftness of an Outrider’s wife.

​“I think that’s our cue to get going, little one,” she said, and reached down to take Casey’s hand. “See you at the ball, though, I’m sure.”

​A line of confusion wrinkled Jace’s brow.

​“The wha—?”

​“I got a dress!” Casey chimed in.

​“Oh … yeah?” Jace said, still confused.

​“A green one!”

​Danielle put her hand on Jace’s arm, squeezed lightly, and smiled at Thean that conveyed full understanding of Jace’s reaction. Then she took a step back, winked at the Outrider and started away.

“Thank you so much for your time, constable,” she said.

​“A pleasure as always, Danielle.”

As they continued to move away, Casey looked back and waved at Jace who waved back.

​“Daddy’s boss is always grumpy,” she said in a not-so-quiet voice, and in the echoing hallways it came back to them clearly.

Danielle Lang shushed her loudly, glancing back to Jace to make an exaggerated, mortified face. He watched after them until the throng of crowded activity swallowed them up.

Then he turned back to Thean, looking calm, cool, and collected.

“It’s true,” he said. “You are.” A throaty grumble emanated from the Constable but other than that he didn’t respond. “Ball?”

​Thean sighed.

​“Walk with me,” he said, and they started together down a short corridor leading north.

Together they ascended a small flight of stairs, the Constable noticing all of the stray glances directed his protégé’s way, but pretending not to. It made him think of their walk on the morning in the camp when all of this, everything they had accomplished, everything that led to this had been set in motion. Something deep within the older man wanted to tell the kid he was proud of him, and he was worried about the final test to come. The final test, he understood now, he had secretly thought would never come. Or at least he never consciously believed that it would. But now here it was. A moment as bright as the sun. A moment he couldn’t have imagined only a year before. Not even a year. Yet here it was. A genuine moment of truth. The moment that everything had come to.

He wanted to say I’m proud of you.

He wanted to say I can’t believe you have led us to this moment, but now I’m afraid.

Instead, he said: “That was good work on the Zarponda mission, Jace. Damn good work.”

​“Thank you,” the Outrider responded, and it was clear he was very tired. His words were carried on a sigh. “Most of the credit belongs to Malcolm.” He risked a glance to his mentor as the reached the landing and veered off into another lavish hall. “And not for the first time.”

Thean nodded.

“Indeed. The boy has proven to be as valuable an asset as you purported.”

There was something in Thean’s tone that agitated Jace enough to make him stop and turn fully towards him.

Purported. How many months does he have to prove himself to you before you finally give him the credit he deserves? That was the fifth major mission we’ve run for you since I got here. I mean, I … I don’t even know what you could possibly have against him.”

Thean didn’t so much sigh as breath out slowly; controlled, measured, as was his way. He rubbed an errant hand back and forth across his mouth and glanced around as if pondering whether or not to respond to Jace’s question. To submit to the kid as an equal.

It was a refreshing sensation. One that acted as a salve to the feelings of emotional vulnerability and sentiment he had felt the tinge of not seconds before. Once more he was on the job. Once more he could focus his thoughts.

And when he spoke his tone, and he spoke, his tone was as even as that breath that carried the words.

“What do I have against him? Nothing. Why does he give me pause? Because he’s an addict.” Jace sucked his teeth and glanced away at the assertion, but Thean held up a finger that pulled more than just his attention back. It seemed to pull his very soul. “He is anaddict. A tremendously talented addict I’ll grant you, but an addict nonetheless. It is my business to garner reliability in the face of unfathomable danger. It is my duty to not take chances, and every time I send him out with you and your team that is precisely what I am taking. I wasn’t there for the Bryce Valley mission, but I’m aware of what happened on it.”

“He was awarded the Veil’driel Star for what he accomplished. That’s what happened on it … Constable.”

“Oh, the Veil’driel Star,” he snarled, as if the mere mention of the republic’s highest military honor caused him pain. “Every recipient of that cursed medal is either mad, dangerous, or both. Present company included.” At last he lowered his finger, holding on to his Outrider’s gray gaze with his own. “I said I knew what happened on that mission. At the end of it in particular. Why he’s here. How he survived. All of it. You want to believe in the fairy tale version that old bleary eyed idiot of a senator wrote up in his Valiant Notions? Well that’s just fine. You go ahead and do that, Dabriel. But I have neither the luxury, nor patience, to do the same.”

“I’m an addict, too.”

“I’m aware.”

Jace leaned in a little closer and lowered his voice. Before speaking he glanced up and down the hallway in similar fashion to how Thean had before this conversation began.

“Not everyone has the luxury of being magically cured of it because of some time skip in the woods,” he said through gritted teeth.

“You’re sleep deprived,” Thean said. “And it’s lowered your inhibitions to the point where you’re on the verge of forgetting yourself. And more importantly, who you’re talking to. So I will advise you not to say what you just said out loud. Ever again.”

“Look. I apologize, alright? I just don’t know—”

“Ever. Again.” His finger was back up and he waited until Jace’s shoulders sagged. “I want you to ask yourself a simple question: Does Constable Thean usually escort me to Jaden’s chambers?

“No,” Jace said, a familiar note of recognition in his voice.

“No,” Thean affirmed. “In how many sessions?”

“Twice a month since I got here.”

“Mm. That’s right. Minus the last month you’ve been off preparing for Zarponda. That feat now accomplished, well, it would seem you’re overdo. Fair to say?”

“I guess.”

“You guess?”

“Yes.”

Again Thean lowered his finger. Again his eyes held Jace’s.

“Right.” Then, without another word, he turned back in the direction they had been headed before their impromptu sidebar had stopped them.

Jace sighed and squinted as he watched Thean depart from behind.

“I haven’t been summoned by Viceroy Cory, have I?” he surmised.

Jace could hear Thean’s scoff as clearly as if he were still beside him.

“Speaking of old and bleary-eyed. No. Now come. Walk I said, not stand and talk.”

It was at that moment that Jace seemed to notice the spectacle he and Thean had been for the masses passing by, around, and between them. Self-consciousness gripped and pulled him back to reality, and this compelled him to smile awkwardly at a woman passing by when he incidentally met her glance. He felt an overwhelming urge to follow the Constable in the moment, a sensation like being on a leash, and he thought of stepping out of street light when he took his first steps to catch up.

“So that’s where we’re going then?” Jace asked as he came back up beside him. But he already knew the answer was yes before Thean’s nod confirmed it.

Jaden’s chambers was located in the most secure region of the castle, and up ahead of them, where the hallway forked in two separate directions, there was no more public activity to the left. Two more masked guards flanked the way, halberds in hand, but neither so much as flinched as the two titans passed.

​ “This Ball. It’s been called by royal decree. In celebration of the Zarponda victory, and in so doing, the retaking of the south and the port.”

“Tomorrow night?”

“Yes.”

As Jace looked away he rolled his eyes. And in the split-second they took to refocus he saw a flash of an alley. And again he thought of shadows.

But then he huffed out a steadying breath.

​“What the hell is wrong with these people?”

​They came to a double door that was an exact reflection of the one Jace had passed through from outside. Thean was the first to stop, his rock-steady silhouette perfectly outlined by a thread-thin line of light before a stained-glass window.

​“A lot. Be that as it may, everything of a military nature came with us,” the Constable said, though he looked annoyed now himself, either at the Ball or that he had once again been drawn into the necessity of explanation. “Everything. That includes dress uniforms and I expect you to be in one, understand?”

“Yes.”

“Yes, what?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Good. It is our business to represent Veil’driel to the fullest, and to do so in the best light possible, and that is what I intend to do. If the King of Sindell says we’ll have a Ball, we’ll have a Ball. Even if it is the most asinine thing I’ve ever heard of.” Jace laughed a little and nodded. “And by the God, if we’re to look like jackasses having a Bal, in the middle of the apocalypse, then we’ll look like sharp jackasses.”

​Jace didn’t laugh again, but the shadow of a smile was still on his lips when he locked eyes with Thean again. The constable was not exactly known for his sense of humor, and even now it was difficult to tell if he was being humorous on purpose. Somehow he felt like he was a teenager again whenever he was in this man’s presence. No matter how old he got, how strong he became, no matter what he accomplished he could not get out of his shadow. He could not feel strong or accomplished. This interaction felt like it embodied their relationship as a whole, encompassing the entire historic fulcrum on a pendulum from light to heavy to light there was a sentiment—

—that had returned to Thean’s mind like a flash of lightning. He felt protect again, he felt …

​“Good luck, boy, you hear? Remember everything I taught you. Remember what I taught you to feel.”

The smile on Jace’s face had vanished completely. On the front sheen of confusion remained there, and he twitched his head.

​“Okay?” he said, but that confusion framed it more as a question. He thought Thean seemed oddly nervous, and that seemed a frightening thought.

​“This … stunt ride of yours. The Sword, the Spear …”

Jace’s smirk winked back into existence, but again he couldn’t tell if Thean was doing it on purpose.

“Gauntlet,” he said.

“Ah. Right. It’s at noon? That gives you …” He stopped to check his pocket watch but Jace answered him before he had to look.

​“About an hour,” Jace said ““The irony of you setting this up. I thought you didn’t impart those skills for this reason or whatever it was …”

Thean hesitated, but only for a moment. He brought a hand up to his hip, and glanced past Jace’s shoulder into the colored glass of the window identical to the one behind him: a broken ship on stormy seas. His expression was that of a man reflecting, a look Jace had never seen him have before. Not, at least, like this. And then, in the space of the resulting awkward silence, the Outrider understood why. In a moment that drew out to feel much longer than it could have been, Jace realized Thean had never been so … present with him.

Present in your presence he heard Jaden’s voice say in his head. That’s funny.

Jace may have reacted to the sound of it, but when Thean went on he had his full attention back in an instant.

“Morale is important. And for that I did impart those skills.”

​“Yes, sir,” Jace said. “I’ll be there.”

​“Noon.”

​Jace nodded.

​“Noon,” he acknowledged, then he turned, opened the door and passed through it. Thean stood by a little longer and looked at it. Then he nodded to himself, turned on his heels, and started back toward the guards who would not react when they saw him.

Divider (2)

As Jace took his first steps into the room, it looked as if it had been abandoned for centuries, nothing more than a ruin.

Then, as he continued, it was as if time itself were reacting to his movements, rippling as lake would after a stone was thrown at the surface.

His surroundings shifted now to a more modern appearance, only dusty and worn, exactly as the library in Lornda Manor had appeared to he and Cedwyn upon their arrival. The room seemed unused in its current state for months, not hundreds of years. And then Jaden appeared and all was back to the present.

“You’re getting good at that,” she said, sitting back in a large alcove and looking relaxed. Her backdrop was an immense, ornate window that looked out on some of the roads behind the castle. Jace could see the bustling marketplace out near the southern gate, alive an active with the busy commerce of the capital city of Hamon. From this comfortable perch of the wide stone ledge, Jaden narrowed her violet eyes on the kid with whom she had met like this many times. “But be careful. Bending temporal prisms and walking through them is a very thin line.”

Jace sighed and slid his hands into his pockets.

“Literally or metaphorically?” he asked. But then he smiled as he finally made eye contact with her. “Or let me guess … both.”

She smiled back at him.

“Both,” she said softly, and the subtle nod that followed seemed the perfect complement to her tone. “You can’t twist the fabric of reality without it snapping back.”

The light of the beautiful late-summer day outlined her slender body like an aura that made her shine. She was so beautiful that Jace actually found it distracting sometimes, having only experienced the phenomenon with one other person before, and he wouldn’t let himself think about her at the moment. That would have made him vulnerable, and that was something he old never let himself become in these sessions.

Still, she just continued to stare at him. To the point where he started to feel self-conscious.

What?” he asked through an awkward chuckle, and he looked down at himself as if he were missing something. Jaden didn’t answer him, nor did she relieve the tension by allowing the intensity of her stare to waver. “Seriously, what?”

“I’m assessing you,” she said.

“Yeah?”

“Mmhm.”

“Assessing me for wh—”

“On whether or not you’re ready for what I need to show you. What I … what Ciridian needs to trust you with.”

Jace pursed his lips. He thought about rolling his eyes, he wanted to, but didn’t. Instead he just moved slowly to the sturdy oak chair he usually sat in during these meetings and dropped himself into it with another sigh.

“You do that a lot,” Jaden said.

“Do what?”

“Sigh.”

Birds were chirping pleasantly outside the window an the breeze carried the scent of freshly cut grass and flowers. He felt relaxed when he came here. He felt like he could rest in a way he couldn't anywhere else. When he sat in this room, with Jaden, he felt at home. He felt content.

He felt ...

"What are you thinking about?" she asked him, and when Jace came out of his thoughts his eyes flicked back to hers.

"Nothing," he said, and his tone sounded more like an admission than answer.

Jaden laughed.

"This place has never felt like home to you, has it?"

"Not really," he admitted.

"I gather you met with Neville Katic."

At this, Jace suddenly stopped his fidgeting.

"You'd think I'd be used to that by now," he said, looking at her again. "You knowing things you logically shouldn't."

"There's nothing logical about Cygnus," Jaden said. She moved over to the large alcove in front of the window and sat, crossing her arms. The beauty of the morning seemed somehow to accentuate her own in a way that couldn't be described. Not with words, at least. Maybe in feelings. "The questions that need answering now have to do with if there' any logic in you."

Jace raised his eyebrows, finding the statement odd and confusing.

"I might sigh a lot," he said. "But it's better than talking in riddles a lot." The Tear laughed again, but it faded into a smile and then nothing at all. Her expression turned reflective. Maybe even a touch regretful. "What are you thinking about?"

Her eyes turned on him and caught the sun the same way the jewels on her fingers did. Two amethysts glittering in the sunlight.

"Of how much you remind me of him," she said, and the amethysts narrowed. "Of the future ... and of whether or not you're aware of the hope you engender."

"Yeah," Jace said. He crossed his arms and leaned back in the chair. It was an effort to appear relaxed, maybe even convince himself he was relaxed, thought he was anything but and had a feeling Jaden knew that. This meeting was already far different than those the two had in the last few months. And now even the air felt heavy with the weight of wherever this was going. The truth was he was never comfortable when he was here, not in the strictest definition of the world. When he was around this woman, he ... and yet ... that restful, comfortable feeling was real. Still that comfort now was chaotic. A strange, indefinable contradiction, like Jaden herself. "Remember that whole talking in riddles thing I was talking about?"

Jaden seemed more serious now. More focused. And she didn't react to his comment.

"Mmhm," she mused, and while Jace could not recall her moving, she was suddenly directly before him. Hovering over him. "That whole thing," she mocked, making her voice absurdly deep with a peculiar expression of someone trying not to laugh.

Jace swallowed hard and didn't even try to hide it. There was a tightening in his chest, and he felt cold, as if this beautiful summer day was turning to winter in the blink of an eye.

"What's happening?" he asked, and as he spoke he could see his own breath. The walls started closing in. He felt the floor begin to shake. The glass in the window was breaking.

"The calm before the storm," he heard her say, but she was faded. He tried to stand but his body was no longer his own ... at least ... it wouldn't obey him.

"That came without warning," Jace said, yet there was no thought behind the words. And he heard the echo of his voice come back as: ... or what we call progress." The air was getting thinner with every frosty breath, and he was struck with sudden, seemingly random thought of riding the gauntlet in front of his men.

Then in an instant everything faded to black and every sound was an echo like the voice he had heard.

The echo he heard now, he thought, was the rumbling wheels of a wagon and then that empty void of blackness was replaced with a blinding flash of green, followed by the sensation of being sucked through a straw made of light.

And when it faded there was the almost deafening squawk of some far off, nocturnal bird.

A raven, a voice said and that was the sound of wind over bleached bones.

He was staring at himself in the reflection of an abandoned storefront, wind chimes jingling just beside him. He stared at his own semi-transparent reflection for what felt like a long time and then another sound drew his attention. A sound that drowned out all the others. The sound of a sign creaking on rusty hinges. A sign that read: Viktor's Arms & Wares.

Thunder rumbled and the wind chimes fell from its hook, crashing down at his feet in a discordant heap. But it was what it fell next to that was the far more curious thing. He had never seen anything like it. The flickering orange glow splashed over his boots. He tilted his head slightly sideways to improve his vantage, but when this was not enough, he stepped back off the rickety porch so that he was standing on the ground. A couple more steps back and he could see the object in its entirety.

It was a hollowed out pumpkin with openings cut to represent human eyes, nose, and mouth. There was a candle placed in it and it seemed to grin at him.

"It's called a jack-o'-lantern," a familiar voice said behind him, and while that sudden sound had startled him, Jace did not turn around. Instead he looked back up to the window reflecting only his shoulders and above now with his lowered position off the porch. What he saw behind him was not a surprise. Another reflection had joined him, with fireflies all around like when he had seen him Westwood. "In Ireland, people started to carve demonic faces out of turnips to frighten away Jack's wandering soul. Of course, here he's known as ...

"Papa Bones," Jace said. He instinctively slid his hands into his pockets to find he was wearing a heavy black cloak. Beneath he felt the shape and bulk of his miniature crossbows.

Kerrick's reflection nodded.

"When they moved to the U.S., they began carving jack-'o-lanterns from pumpkins, as they were native to the region."

Jace finally turned around.

The shadows seemed to melt away from the man, but only just so, leaving him ensconced in darkness. The leather he wore were dark - dark as his eyes, which peered soft and approvingly into Jace's own.

"I have no idea what you're talking about, but I'm fairly certain you know that."

Donovan shrugged, and he crossed his broad, weathered arms.

"I warned you to leave this place while you could, but now that particular ship has sailed. Now intrigue is the name of the game. And as confused as you’re sure to be, be sure not to confuse our roles. A little intrigue never hurt anyone and it's fine to be fairly certain.” He hesitated when the squawk of the bird came back from the fields behind him, but never turned to face it. A tension came over them like cold water. Squelch, squelch. It was like the sound of some lonely, ambitious man slowly going mad. “When a fairer life is what we're fighting for after all." He cleared his throat, still sounding like it was touched by too much tobacco smoke. Just the way Jace remembered. "Anyway, death will do that to a person. Just because you can't understand yet doesn't mean it's intrigue."

He nodded down the road.

"Come on. Gatekeeper’s up ahead."

Jace stepped from the island of flickering pumpkin-light, without hesitation, to match his mentor's stride into the shadowy sea beyond. As they walked, Kerrick kept watch ahead of them, his gaze always scanning the streets, the alleys, the windows, and doors.

What is he looking for?

Was it all just a test?

Even after all these years it was hard to know.


Jace found himself growing tense, an electric feeling dancing all over his skin. A familiar, heavy mist lingered in the streets and he could see road-lanterns in his peripheral vision. In his memory, when he had walked this same path as a kid, those lamps had been green. But tonight they glowed a traditional yellow; hardly seeming capable of penetrating the fog, let alone lighting the way.

Jace was starting to know this place like the back of his hand. Like a recurring nightmare he couldn't stop having. And yet it also felt safe somehow. Something about it felt right.

He peered down the alleys, each one a ragged gash in the night swallowing up even the suggestion of light. The glowing gazes of stray cats, and now he knew them to be Mazhiran Hunting Cats, looked back at him here and there. The alleys were mad with them, infesting half-tended shrines.

"This feels safe to you," Kerrick said as he continued to walk. "Because it's the place of eternal past, and that's what the past is."

Jace didn't react to his mind being read by Kerrick. After what he had experienced at Lornda Manor and in his meetings with Jaden since his arrival in Sindell, he questionsed nothing like that. In fact he took it all as a matter of course.

"Safe?" he asked simply, sinking his hands into the deep pockets of his cloak.

"Yes," Kerrick said. "The past is in stasis. The same. Forever."

"Because it's the past," Jace said, feeling like he understood, as absurd as these circumstances were.

"No, greenhorn. Because it's dead.”

"So is this really Mirror Lake? Is this even real, or—"

"I told you in Westwood that the answers would only confuse you. Didn’t I?”

“You also told me my plan to attack the reagent wagon wouldn’t work.”

“And you think it would have if I hadn’t seen the horn into your grubby, arrogant mits do ya?”

Jace shrugged.

“Probably not.”

“Mm. Probably not. Well, what’s past is past. Perhaps …” He trailed off mid-sentence and took a deep breath. “Perhaps it’s time.”

“Yes?”

Kerrick narrowed his eyes. Over his shoulders, the cold and empty fields behind him started to fill with ghost-lights. At first, white as chalk, they transitioned to red and green and then blue and orange. He had once heard a Luna Scarlet Monk say that lights like those were old Outriders signaling their comrades. But as Jace stood staring at these now, he was convinced they were something … maybe Nothing else.

Mirror Lake. Some have called it that, sure," Kerrick said. "Others have called it Erebus. And speaking of the Luna Scarlet Monk, well, they call it one of their hells. And It’s because of them, and by way of one in particular’s recommendation,that we find ourselves here one last time. One way or the other. To see if it's time … or if this has all been for Nothing.

Jace felt a chill run up his spine like a finger of ice tracing its way to the base of his neck, and the sensation made him shudder before clearing his throat. He didn’t question how Kerrick, if this even was Kerrick, had read his thoughts. Through his experiences over the last year and subsequent sessions with Jaden, he was beyond such things.

That is … he thought he was.

"So ... this is a test?"

"It's a magical place," the master assassin said with a nod, but then he said no more. The only sound was the odd screech of that raven searchign for a nest. Sometimes they would hear one take wing from the desicated boughs of a tree bent low with frost. There was a lingering sickly sweet smell; the last testamet of dead fruit, withered on the vine when a storm had rolled up without warning. "We're being watched," Kerrick said. He paused before adding, "I wagered my soul on it."

Across the road, a suspended sign carved with the words Horns of Cambria for Sale creaked as it blew in the wind. The proprietor's wide, wooden smile was roted from rain. Windchimes jingled on the edge of Jace's hearing from somewhere deep on the night.

"I remember."

Kerrick raised his hand, commanding quiet.

"You remember nothing, boy. Memory has no meaning in a place like this."

"What do you mean?"

"I mean history is always being rewritten. That's how it works."

In a flash, Jace's weapons were out: single-shot crossbows, one in each hand.

"I don't see anything," he confessed in a whisper.

Donovan pointed of the road.

“Roll with the punches.”

Jace turned in that direction, but the voice came from behind them.

"In his blue gardens men and girls came and went like moths among the whisperings and the champagne and the stars."

Jace shot a glance to his mentor.

"I know that voice," he said.

"Yes, well, I should hope so," that voice responded. "It's only been a few days."

Kerrick turned toward his apprentice.

"You showed restraint on the docks. And becaue of that you're here.

"But ..." Jace stuttered, stunned. "I thought this ... I thought ..."

"I suggest you stop doing that," Kerrick said, and then he motioned around. "Thinking can drive a person mad here."

"We're all mad here," the still disembodied voice responded.

And Kerrick smirked.

"Touche."

"Zelda Sayre, case and point." Up and down the tone went, like an echo - the last word, a stab. "Released a pair of Mazhiran Hunting Cats on acount of it. And before you know it, people are praying to the cat-god, barely a generation since."

Kerrick turned away from Jace, staring into the darkness.

"If it's all the same to you, Cygnus, I'd rather just get on with this. You and the Illuinate say he's ready. So let's find out."

The reply drifted in from far down the road.

"As you wish."

In that instant, Kerrick's ruby ring sparkled crimson, and then faded. And when that light faded the ring was gone.

Out of the darkness came a Luna Scarlet Monk in a robe like Isabelle in his tent and when she was making her speech. To look in their eyes was to ...

"Not an ice-blood after all, I guess," Jace said.

"No," the robed figure said, and flicked the ruby ring to Jace.

"I believe this belongs to you."

Jace caught it, only registering in that moment that his crossbows had disappeared which allowed him to do so. He slipped his ring onto his finger without thought, and then continued to justt stare at his hands for what felt like a very long time. He felt transfixed by the sight.

"Ah yes. Symmetry. I like that. I do."

Jace heard the tightening of gloves as the first mentor he ever had balled his hands into fists.

"So whaddya think, you old ghost? You gonna give'em a chance to prove he what we all hope, or not?"

A rattling noise followed as Cygnus sighed and it made Jace think of the snakes he had been taught to capture and hold in his youth.

"You've passed every step so far."

The Scarlet Monk took another step forward and pulled back his cowl as he did so. So far the red moon could not be seen, ut the white one was right and illuminated his face clearly as if it were daylight.

"Ghosts are visions of the dead," he said, and as he spoke, his eyes never left Jace. Rather his gaze was so adamant it seemed to look through him, to the core of him. Add weight on him, like the air had felt in Jaden's room. "We are something more than that." Then some of the tension eased from his shoulders and a deck of cards appeared in his hands. And he casually started shuffling, so casual it was almost absently. "Umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu."

Kerrick simply shrugged, and squinted as he looked down the street.

"I guess," he said.

Never breaking his ceaseless shuffling, Cygnus flicked his eyes back to Jace.

"On the other side of the Veil, they would call you a son of Erin," he said. "On the side you know, you're an Outrider - a soldier. You’re an aristocrat from Sindell. You’re a hero of Veil’driel. And before any of that you were … well …” He paused in his shuffling and just stared at the cards for a moment. Or it could have been his hands he was staring at. And then he smiled. “I almost said gypsy there. And like wizard that carries a pejorative air. Roma people left India in the 11th century. On the other side, of course. Europeans mistook them as Egyptian and that’s where the slur originates.”

At this he started shuffling again and there was silence.

Or … not quiet silence.

There was a muted hiss, the wind reclaiming its voice, and Jace looked back to Donovan who he found already looking at him.

“Don’t look at me, greenhorn. I warned you about the answers.”

“Ignorance leads to narrow-mindedness. Always,” Cygnus went on, and Jace’s attention drifted back like the chill of the wind. “Any road, that reputation endears you to the Tri-State. So let me ask you … of which of these labels would you say you identify?”

At first it seemed Jace would say nothing.

But then he blurted: “I don’t know.”

“How about assassin? Hm?”

Jace frowned, but despite the urge to do so, he never looked away.

"Assassin," he said with something like contempt. "Sounds so exotic." He didn’t have to look at Kerrick to feel his burning gaze. "We were just murderers."

"That doesn't answer my question."

“Somewhere in between. I don't know."

Cygnus and Kerrick exchanged a glance, and while Jace never turned to see it, Donovan raised his eyebrows. Cygnus stopped shuffling again, nodding slightly, as in approval or concession or both. And then he was looking at Jace with his full attention.

There was none of the jovial spirit he had shown in Zarponda. Indeed, this man seemed completely different than the one who had beaten him at cards and taken the ring he had just returned.

Cygnus stepped so close to Jace that it felt like absorption. One was not supposed to look a Luna Scarlet Monk in the eyes. He didn't care. This wasn't like the first night he had arrived in Fairlawn, met Relic, saw Isabelle making her speech. This wasn't like when every instinct told him to look away. None of this made sense. But he wasn't afraid. He didn't care. He wouldn't look away.

He would not swim against the tide.

"No," Cygnus said, and his eyes flashed brightly through every color of the rainbow, reminding Jace of the comets over Fairlawn and in Westwood. The comets he still saw in his nightmares. "People like you can breathe the water."

Jace took an unsteady breath but never wavered.

"I'm not running from my problems," he said, and the words came as if they were scripted. As if he were meant to be thinking what he was thinking and saying what he was saying.

Cygnus took a step back and straightened a little.

The deck of cards disappeared and he crossed his arms.

"One thing you are for certain is unsure if this is real or a dream, that much is plain as moonlight. Yet the lens with which you see it all is focusing.”

"We call that seeing through The Looking Glass," Donovan said.

Cygnus nodded.

"You showed restraint on the docks," he said. "You stood in the presence of Neville Katic and never wavered."

"Katic is a backstabbing politician!" Kerrick suddenly boomed. "I don't trust him as far as I can spit!"

Jace was jerked from his thoughts by the echoing shout. It should have been enough to bring everyone in the community running, their heaviest tools in hand. But in the wake of it, there was nothing but the squawking of restless ravens and the occasional answering wail of cats.

The echoing was disorienting, so strong that it was like the noise of it had feel. Jace swallowed and hated himself for it. But what was worse was that he fell to his knees, down in the grave dirt. He felt small and pathetic as he looked down at his hands, fingers splayed against the ground. Feeling just as he did at the gates of Zarponda, at the Greywall - vulnerable, uncertain.

Afraid.

The Luna Scarlet Monk did not hesitate, and as he spoke, his words came from above him like thunder. And they fell on him like rain.

"The last person to stand before me here. Like this. To face this final test now holds existence hostage on the edge of a knife. Do you know of whom I speak?"

Jace balled his hands into fists and his knuckles scraped the road. It was painful but he like it. Felt like he deserved it.

"No," he liked through clenched teeth.

"I think you do. I know you do. You've been meeting with her since your arrival in Sindell, is that correct?"

The pain from his knuckles radiated through his hands up his arms and up to his shoulders. Settling where he was shot in Fairlawn. It rolled down his back and he felt heavy. Even the idea of looking up from the road felt like an insurmountable feat. Like a barbed-wire staff slicing his back on the Ezru Plains.

"Yes," he managed to grunt, and he was panting now.

"That man tried to imprison you here in Westwood, but you were rescued. Is that correct?"

"I ..."

"Is that not correct?"

"I don't know!"

"Is Dorsey Trent dead?"

At that moment the ruby in Jace's ring began to glow ...

"I don't know!" Jace screamed.

... and it glowed so bright that the crimson light consumed him. And when it faded he could feel cool air on the back of his neck again. He could feel. The heavy pain was gone.

And so was Cygnus.

Don't be afraid to fall because I won't let you.

Jace could no longer see the Monk's boots or the bottom of his robe.

You have my permission to find out.

Jace was suddenly aware of the sounds of the night slowly filling the well of silence Cygnus left behind. When the Outrider found he had the strength to stand, he di so with a grunt, and as he rose to full height, found too that his crossbows were back in his hands. Without thought, he hooked them back to his belt.

"Kerrick," Jace said. "What the hell is this?"

"Hell?" Kerrick curved his lips into a razor-thin smile, withdrawing a rolled cigarette from beneath his cloak. "No, not really," he said, lighting it. "I mean, not unless you make it that."

Donovan turned and started down the road toward the tavern. An inn: The Faraway Cry. On winter nights like these, an outland tavern was good enough to huddle in for warmth, even for travelers accustomed to better. None of them seemed to notice that the hearths were not hot enough. That the halos of light were short and all the shadows were far too long.

In that tavern, all the cliches were true.

And Jace stood motionless.

"Just tell me what's going on, can you do that much, at least? After all this time ..." He stopped and sighed. "After everything an you do that much?"

Kerrick kept walking.

"Kerrick!" Jace tried again, but his mentor didn't stop until: "Donovan, please!"

Kerrick turned his head to the side. The coral glow of his cigarette splashed his features as he took a long drag. His expression, revealed in that instant, was blank.

"When I first saw you in Westwood that night, I said you weren't ready for what you needed to see yet." He could have interpreted the silence to mean Jace had walked away. Somehow he knew he had not.

Could not.

"Yeah," Jace said.

"Well, we're gonna see if you're ready now. Just remember one thing."

"What's that?"

"No one should know where their dreams come from. And this will make sense just as long as you don't wake up."

Kerrick continued on, but Jace did not follow.

"So what do I do now!" he shouted.

Donovan did not respond, and Jace continued to watch him go until he felt a hand drop down on his shoulder. With cat-like reflex, without any thought whatsoever, he spun on his heels and had his crossbows drawn like a flash of lightning.

"You wanna get knocked on your ass, is that it?" the man who had grabbed him said, and Jace gasped - literally gasped when he saw him. "You better get your mind right, quick, cuz now you're starting to piss me off."

Jace took a step back and almost fell over as he did so. He tried to speak but the air from his lungs was too jagged, too stilted to fuel the words. And in the end, all he could manage was: Cedwyn?

“Around this ethereal, purgatorial backwater? I think I’m known more as Wolfwood. But Cedwyn will do in a pinch. Sorry about my introduction, but the way I figure it, a little flashback humor never hurt anyone.” He buried his hands into the pockets of his heavy gray cloak and motioned ahead with an upward nod. "Of all the Lin joints in all the towns in all the world, am I right?"

"Ced—?"

Cedwyn smiled and raised his hand from Jace's shoulder, then he tapped the side of his face.

"For the most part.”

“I feel like I should say this is impossible.”

“And you would be right about that. Although one might also describe it as quite the fatalistic encounter."

A feeling wrapped around Jace like a blanket. A sensation like warm water washing away any semblance of shock or trepidation. The green light that had brought him here flashed over everything and he basked in it. Even after it faded, it was still pulsating all around them. Everything was covered in it, outlined by it.

The scarlet moon turned pale and hung inert – nothing more than a prop in a stage play.

“More flashback humor?” Jace asked.

“It never hurt anyone.” Cedwyn bowed his head to the ground, and as he started walking again, he handed Jace a golden lighter. "You forgot this," he said as he passed. "It's time for your first steps ..."

Jace's heart hammered, and yet, he was calming. He moved as if lost in a dream within this dream and put the lighter in his pocket. He didn't realize or feel the tears streaming down his face.

“Life …existence … it’s really just a series of stepping stones. And it’s time to start your last ones.”

Have you heard of the Ghost of John?

"Last steps towards what?"

Long, white bones and the rest all gone!

Jace followed his friend without thought.

Oooooooh!

"The finish line, Dabriel."

Wouldn't it be chilly with no skin on?

The Faraway Cry was waiting.

Divider (2)
 Chapter Twelve  (E)
Stepping Stones
#2190675 by Dan Hiestand
Divider (2)
© Copyright 2019 Dan Hiestand (danhiestand at Writing.Com). All rights reserved.
Writing.Com, its affiliates and syndicates have been granted non-exclusive rights to display this work.
Printed from https://www.writing.com/main/view_item/item_id/2190673-Chapter-Eleven