by Dan Hiestand
“I don’t believe in your hocus-pocus nonsense.”
Alarick had been lingering by Jace’s tent for one reason or another in a way he would have recognized easily on any other night. Yet, the Outrider’s gaze was pinned firmly on the single-shot crossbow – the Order’s standard issue – the giant artilleryman had just handed over.
The tools Alarick had set on the table rattled as a brief tremor shook the ground—
Jace waited it out before he gave his verdict.
“I don’t know, man,” he said, then hesitated. He held the weapon straight ahead, squinted an eye and tilted his head. Just like that, the intensity on his face was replaced by a thoughtful frown. “There’s something about the weight.”
“Aye,” Alarick said, taking it back. He withdrew a small silver rod and started tinkering with an apparatus near the front. He pointed it to the ground, absently shooting a bolt into the floor before resuming his careful work. “Ain’t been quite right since the Gladstone mission.” After a moment of pointing it forward just as Jace had, he handed it back. “You know – when ya dropped it.”
Jace rolled his eyes as he took it.
“For the last time, I didn’t drop it.”
Alarick studied him – seeing how he held the weapon, yes, but more than that. He knew full well that Jace would say it was better, even if it wasn’t. Without a conscious thought, he watched the Outrider’s face closely enough that words weren’t necessary.
“I know ya dropped it.”
Jace’s reflection smiled back. With his free hand, he adjusted a strap near his neck. The depths of the mirror were cloudy, but they would have to do; they turned Alarick and all that was behind him into a fogbank menaced by twisting shadows.
“You don’t know anything.”
Alarick nodded to himself, satisfied.
A smile broke slowly over his face.
“Avery told me.”
“Traitor bastard,” Jace mused, regarding his weapon’s reflection as he did; waving it as if to be sure it was true. Then he froze—an unfamiliar silhouette at his tent flap seizing his attention in a heartbeat. His muscles went taut, ready to react. A dark crimson specter. One of the Luna Scarlet monks had let himself inside, then stood still. As still as Death. “Alarick,” he said, incredulous gaze passing from monk to man. “What is this?”
Alarick raised his hands as if to say don’t shoot – whether he meant the monk or himself was not so clear.
“Alright, lad, now look ...” His gaze followed Jace’s in reverse. “Our anointed friend is here by my special request.” Jace groaned, but Alarick was relentless. “Just this once, kid.” Jace closed his eyes and took a breath, hooking his crossbow back to his belt. “Just for me, will ya?” Alarick pressed.
“Traitor bastard,” Jace mumbled again, but his calculated sigh missed its mark— Alarick had already hurried into the night, leaving in a pious flutter.
Only the canvas flapping behind him announced he had ever been.
The Outrider pointedly ignored his unwanted guest, focusing on his reflection as he pulled the first of his bracers to his left wrist. When this was done, he picked up the other and slid a cigarette into his mouth, turning back to the mirror.
The dark glass made his cheeks too soft and his smile as thin and sharp as a switchblade.
“Listen, nothing personal, but just being straight with you? I don’t believe in any of that reincarnation stuff you’ve got going on, so ...” He waggled his hand dismissively. “If it makes Alarick feel better if you say a blessing or whatever, then go for it, but ...” The second bracer was in place. He flexed this hand to test it. “I kind of have this whole up the Republic thing I gotta do in a while, so ...”
The faint sound of bells riled the still evening air.
Jace’s eyes flicked over from the arsenal he had been putting in place to scrutinize the monk’s reflection; it was closer, a dark bronze thurible swinging in sweeping arcs in the space between them—jingling with each pass. There should have been incense burning; even he knew that.
His nose worked despite himself, expecting the smell of rust and the savor of blood.
But there was no smoke, no scent.
Perhaps, after all this time at camp, the incense had run out.
Silence threatened to swallow him up, and he made to fill it.
“Don’t suppose you got any coffee in that thing? You know, I coulda sworn ...” Suddenly, the monk stretched up on tiptoes, and Jace was forced to meet his own eyes in the mirror to avoid seeing whatever lurked within the cowl. “Not sworn,” he corrected himself sharply, eyes downcast. “But I thought ... I mean, it was my understanding ...” His words came to nothing as a chill ran up his spine: Looking one of the Luna Scarlet Monks in the face was a fast way to have the spirits see what you'd done in your eyes. And as much as he could say that he didn’t believe— “... that the last of your kind left weeks ago.”
A certain half-forgotten memory crept up close.
In the old stories, the only ones who’d faced a Red Moon Monk on purpose were tyrants—
Jace turned his face carefully, compensating for the too-loose straps around his shoulders. He stretched his neck this way and that, but he knew he’d given away too much already. And now the nattering voice – Relic’s voice – wouldn’t forgive his transgression.
—blinded by hubris, they never realized that moment created a better them, a Not-them ...
The monk glided toward him, and Jace forced himself to stand pat.
Radiant and faultless, whose maddening visage they would someday face.
Instinct kicked in and Jace’s hand shot out to wrangle the monk’s wrist like a vice. He might have struck further, but he found himself staring into the dreaded shadows of the cloak.
He knew in that moment he had been tricked.
His hands shot up, holding both of the monk’s wrists in his iron grip.
“I don’t believe in your hocus-pocus nonsense. Lucky for you, I do believe in karma.” A sharp hiss of breath spurted from his mouth like steam from a forge— “Because if I didn’t, I’d knock you on your ass right now!” Jace’s voice boomed; he pressed the advantage, raising the intruder’s arms higher. “So, good for you! You know all my secrets now. Just do me a favor, alright? Pick up your stuff, turn yourself around, and keep it all to your thrice-damned self. We’ll all be better off that way.”
With that, he released the monk’s wrists, throwing them roughly into its chest.
Jace turned a pitiless gaze back to his reflection and lit his cigarette. It smoldered on between his fingers; the coral glow turned to strange purples and blacks against the aged glass, illuminating his blank features.
“Try that again and I promise you, you will swallow your teeth.” When he felt no movement, he took the cigarette between the tips of forefinger and thumb. “Now get out.”
The monk dropped the thurible with a clang.
For an instant, Jace imagined himself pressing forward, seizing the wraith with his bare hands and throwing it out; putting a stop to one secret, one mystery, one shadow over the camp.
But then he stopped again.
And bent slowly to pick up the dented thurible.
“Look, I didn’t mean to threaten you, alright? I’m just a little stressed out right—”
“Outrider Dabriel,” said the voice—aglow with authority that stunned even him. Jace hardly moved. His mouth opened briefly to speak, but no words came out. “That's what I thought,” Isabelle said slowly. She lowered the cowl and stepped into his arms. Slower still, she rose to her toes to bring her mouth beside his ear. “What about my ass, again?”
Alarick had just finished rolling a cigarette for what promised to be the first truly enjoyable smoke in ... however long they’d been out there. He was loitering near a rack of halberds he should have inventoried hours ago.
Luckily for him, his pocket-watch had long stopped working.
There was a crash from a nearby tent; he shot it a knowing glance.
Belatedly, he realized there was a senator staring at him: Bren.
Alarick should’ve had a thousand questions. Here? Now? but most of all: Why?
He lowered the half-rolled cigarette and spoke without missing a beat.
“Lad’s got lots to confess. Bears the hopes of us all, he does. A sob or two’d be understandable.”
“Of course,” said Bren knowingly.
Alarick had the sinking feeling he was sure to say more— There was a sudden, high-pitched yelp from the tent. The light danced and swirled within.
“Gods be with him,” Alarick said, sketching the same pious gesture he had an hour before.
“With all of us, soldier,” said Bren. Yet, there was a smile on his face, so thin it might have been a mirage. In one hand he clasped a little leather book, bound to him by a chain and wristlet; he carefully held out his free hand. His eyes were riveted to Alarick’s, but his smile suddenly encompassed the world. Slowly, but with commendable grace, Alarick turned over the half-rolled cigarette. “Carry on,” said Bren, the tapping of his fine boots heard long after he passed out of sight. When he was alone, Alarick’s gaze passed for the briefest moment toward the shadow-play ...
Jace was taking longer to arrive than Relic had imagined—
But, although he would hate to admit it, that was fine with him.
He’d fallen asleep without realizing it, and the instant he woke up, he felt the old tightness in his chest. Have I overslept? What time is it? Leaning over the little desk in his private tent, he snatched up the heirloom pocket-watch he always carried.
He checked the time and took a deep breath, willing himself to feel relieved.
But relief didn’t come, just as he knew it wouldn’t.
For one minute, two, three, he slowly and carefully wound the little timepiece. Its rhythmic ticking merged with the growing rustle of his breath, freeing his mind into the space between worries—
The space the monks had introduced him to years earlier.
You are not your thoughts, they said.
For the life of him, he never understood what else he was.
When Jace didn’t appear, Relic took his time making tea.
Everyone had something to hoard in secret as the camp started to run bare of everything essential: Tea was his. There was one pot left for him to enjoy, and that’s what he resolved to do.
All around him was the ticking of the watches he’d collected over the years. He had hoped to wind them all before he left, but his unplanned nap ruined that ambition. As he busied himself, he could hear each tick out of place, no matter how subtle.
Despite all that, it was still comforting to know when he was. It always had been.
The tea turned out a deeper jade than he dared hope.
He slowly breathed in its steam.
For once—the first time in a long time—he lost track of the passing moments. Forced himself to savor and remember every sip. Ignored the paperwork stacked around him, the books he wanted to reshelf, the copious notes he’d taken since his first day in camp.
How he’d imagined, a hundred times, proposing this plan or that one to Creed—
In due time, as Cedwyn said. Now he knew, with ironclad certainty, he never would. Relic gazed into the wan, greenish reflection at the bottom of his half-drained cup.
What’s behind you? he asked himself, feeling the vague impressions of his last dream stretching their shadows, like tendrils of smoke, over his memory. But, try as he might, he couldn’t recall: And as always, there was nothing behind him.
“If you’ve finished your tea, wash your hands,” he told himself.
And so he did, just as he’d been taught. There went the last of the hot water, the last he was to drink here. A few minutes later, he finished his preparations in earnest: Assembling his gear and fastening his cloak to conceal all that lay beneath.
He and Jace had decided on their entry point before they parted: The section of woods directly before his legion.
The very stretch he had found himself staring into earlier.
And so, there he went, walking his horse at a leisurely pace to face the unknown together. But even with every delay he could think of, Jace wasn’t waiting as he arrived. Minutes crawled past. Relic closed his hand around his pocket-watch and felt each one of them go.
If Jace isn’t here soon, I might have to go on without him.
It was a truly absurd idea, and just as it entered his mind, he heard Jace approaching. But The Kid wasn’t alone: Isabelle and Cedwyn rode at his side. When the three of them reached his position, their squad was together.
Relic concealed his dark thoughts behind a smile, hopping into the saddle.
“This isn’t right,” Isabelle said, all but ignoring him. “We should all be going.”
“I guess you’ve heard the news,” Relic said, snapping an accusing glance to Jace.
“Hey, don’t look at me,” he said, pulling his canteen from the saddlebag as he spoke. “She was waiting at my tent when I got there.”
Isabelle shot Jace a look, as he met her gaze sedately over the rim of the canteen.
Cedwyn’s attention was on a little leather pouch on his belt, but he glanced up when he heard Jace’s words.
“It doesn’t take long for word about the summons of two Outriders to spread,” Isabelle said. Cedwyn nodded, looked down again. He was having trouble getting something out of the pouch. Isabelle went on: “Anyway, Jace filled me in—”
And with that, Jace started coughing uncontrollably.
Relic looked over: “The hell’s your problem?”
Jace lightly tapped his chest.
“Down the wrong pipe.”
Cedwyn cleared his throat to draw three pairs of eyes.
“No screwing around on this one, guys,” he said. “They’re sending you two for a reason.” His dark gaze held Relic first, and then—a bit longer, waiting for the young Outrider’s watering eyes to focus—did the same for Jace. “Just remember that.”
When Cedwyn was sure he had their full attention, he plucked a long, bumpy object from the pouch, holding Jace’s gaze as he bit into it with a mighty crunch. Isabelle wrinkled her nose as the smell of pickled sausages wafted through the huddle.
“You know,” Jace started, stowing his canteen again. “It’s been years since you gave one of these pep talks before a mission. So the fact that you’re giving one now is only making it worse.”
Cedwyn smiled despite himself.
“You’re such an asshole.”
Jace smiled back.
“But why?” Isabelle asked. Cedwyn turned to her, an implicit signal to go on— “We’re useless here. No one’s come back from Westwood. We should be going with you.”
Tears pricked her eyes, and Jace heeled his horse softly to step closer to her. When their shoulders were together, Jace ran his hand beneath Isabelle’s cloak and around her waist to pull her closer, whispering something in her ear so the others couldn’t hear.
What’s behind you? Relic found himself thinking.
Sure enough, their legions were beginning to assemble in the shadows around them. It was not the raucous gathering, the song of metal on metal that it had been: No, there was more uncertainty than excitement.
Relic watched Jace and Isabelle uneasily, willing himself not to look at the gathering troops. Maybe then they wouldn’t be there. They enjoyed seeing all four Outriders together, and that was well enough—
But rumors were sure to follow, and what would they mean?
Relic held himself steady as long as he could stand to, feeling with each passing moment like a man buffeted by a storm. When he could bear no more, he raised a hand in warning—
But Jace had already broken the embrace. Whatever he had said seemed to work its magic, and Isabelle looked far calmer than she’d been. At least now she was resigned to what would happen.
That’ll just have to be enough, Relic thought.
“Be careful, both of you,” Isabelle said.
Cedwyn reached over and grasped Relic’s forearm in the
traditional Outrider fashion and Isabelle followed suit. Both were smiling at him all the while.
“We will be,” Relic said.
After turning with the same gesture to Jace, Cedwyn urged his horse away.
“I’ll see you guys when you get back,” he said, and then turned to Jace, pointing at him.
Jace pointed back.
“Not if I see you first.”
Cedwyn winked, and with a whistle and a snap of the reins, he was off.
Relic, too, began easing his mount away.
“I’ll alert the ramparts,” he said, and then turned back to Isabelle.
“See ya later, Isabelle.”
“I’ll see you soon, Relic,” she said, leaning over to kiss him on the cheek.
Relic nodded, then reared his horse around and rode out to one of the towers past the braziers. Raising his arm into the air, he waited for the sentinels to acknowledge him with a light signal. Just after, he balled his hand into a tight fist, held up two fingers, then chopped his hand forward.
Two riders, in the open, outbound.
In the night, it was often difficult to tell if a rider was approaching or riding away on an open plain, and the signs were put in place for safety. Relic had been told of times where the sentries fired on friendly riders or sounded false alarms at the sight of their own men simply because protocol had not been followed.
He often wondered if they were just stories told to reinforce the formality.
But he didn’t wonder enough to give it a try.
Beneath Relic, Midnight shifted restlessly, anticipating the charge across the plain. Relic felt a touch of that same unease, but reined the horse in; it was not yet time. In truth, he had only gone ahead to give Jace and Isabelle a moment alone.
A flicker of movement above mercifully drew his attention away from that—
In the dim glow of the tower platform’s torchlight, Calloway repeated the sequence he had just given and saluted. When Relic finished returning the gesture and looked back, Jace was already riding towards him.
Instantly, everything converged on the charge to come.
“Thanks for that,” Jace said.
Relic was leaning to the side. Whether he was making an adjustment to his stirrup, or something on his boot, was impossible for Jace to tell.
Likewise, it was almost impossible to see his smirk.
“No problem. Just save me a seat at the court-martial.”
Jace stood in the stirrups, stretching his back and legs, and flicking his head from side to side. When he finished, he sat and ran his right hand across the narrow front brim of his cap.
“Front row center, brother.”
Another moment passed, and the riders exchanged a meaningful glance. They had known each other long enough so that their wordless conversations were a luxury taken for granted. All around them was stillness:
To all who watched, they were inscrutable.
The tightness finally melted away from Relic’s muscles, his mind was clear. He balled his fist and held it up to his side, his elbow half-extended towards Jace.
“Bet I beat you to the wood line,” Jace said, and he tapped his fist against Relic’s before hunching forward in the saddle, ready to bolt. Their mounts were riled up, snorting and stepping in place, itching to be turned loose.
Just their riders.
“I hope so,” Relic said. “That way whatever’s in there will get you first.”
In the corner of his eye, Relic saw Jace smile as he rolled his shoulders in a nervous action, hands flexing. They stood motionless half a moment longer, like racers waiting for a starting horn. Then, fittingly, Jace was the first to break.
Relic snapped his reins an instant after, and a thunderous cheer raised up from the ten thousand cavaliers behind them. The noise mixed with the rush of the dash was intoxicating, spurring them on as Relic closed the gap to ride on Jace’s shoulder.
Despite their jokes, neither was racing:
Their charge was disciplined.
Together, they faced the night.
Far behind them, Isabelle’s dark silhouette was outlined by a fading crimson glow as the horizon burned. Balanced on her dauntless mare, she took a deep breath and closed her eyes. By the time they opened again, it was to see Relic and Jace vanish deep into the sylvan depths.