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Rated: E · Chapter · Action/Adventure · #2190475
The Ghost and the Darkness
CHAPTER FOURTEEN

The Ghost and the Darkness

“The storm is what we call progress.”

AVERY
Divider (2)

Relic was standing on a slope.

For the first time he could remember, he could see the forest.

He felt the heavy light of the Red Moon spilling down from a crack in the dark sky above. But, instead of blinding him, it outlined every needle of the trees that rolled out in an endless sea. As before, as always, there was but one route he could follow—

But now he could pick out, just as clearly, the dozens of paths time had nearly erased.

The forest floor glittered like broken glass.

In the boughs of the trees, he spotted pairs of ghost-lights hanging, half-hidden, above the mist: Like lighthouses, they searched the blood-dark gloom with lamps that barely pierced the shadows.

Again and again, they passed over him – white and red, white and red.

Relic cast his gaze this way and that, and the wind followed his attentions. A thousand pairs of footprints entered the forest, but he could not find a trace of any that journeyed more than a few steps.

Some were thousands of years old, others fresh.

The waving branches scrubbed at them with every shift in the wind.

The wind ...

As a cold gale pressed his back, Relic realized he could smell rain coming up fast.

Red sky in the morning ...

Luna Scarlet wasn’t rising – it was setting.

It struck Relic that, somehow, this was important. But as soon as he started to think about it, he felt the ground beneath his feet crumble. He shifted his weight, but the wind gave another push.

The forest opened wide to accept him—

“No!”

With all his strength, he threw himself to the ground. The wind cried louder and the tremors went on and on, but from here, it could not shift him any closer. In the end, the earth stood calm again.

But the wind continued to shriek louder and louder—

As the ringing in Relic’s ears began to fade, it was replaced by whispering voices. Relic looked back to where he had been, but all his footprints were gone.
Divider (2)
Westwood Forest
Citrine (November) 5, 2012

“Yes ... Jace,” Treinen was saying to Jace’s back. “As a matter of fact, I do. Maybe you should take a look around. The greatest road in your Republic is a no man’s land. Fairlawn is burning, you’re surrounded by an enemy that can burn you to ash while you ride full speed in the dark ...”

Far from upset, Jace was nodding along to each point.

“And now this—”

“What’s this?” Jace asked.

Slowly, Treinen removed his helmet and held it down at his side, but Jace did not face him.

“It’s not a game anymore, Dorsey. I know ... I know that what happened with Kerrick screwed you up, alright? And who. Could. Blame you? But now, the war is at hand. The winds of change are blowing.” Treinen drew closer as he spoke, circling from one side of Jace to the other.

“About time,” Jace said evenly, keeping his gaze straight ahead.

“Hiding in Veil’driel is one thing. But dragging it into this conflict—”

“If you’re not pleased with the conflict,” said Jace, “feel free to take it back with you.”

“You ...” Treinen’s eyes widened with anger; he stood fast, nostrils flaring – only emphasizing the once-broken nose that never quite healed, marring his handsome face. The great cape streamed behind him in a snap of whistling wind. “You—!”

“Me ...” said Jace, finally turning his head to fix the shadow of a smirk on him. Treinen forced a great, gasping breath down a throat that was suddenly dry. “You’re just screwing with me, aren’t you?” he concluded glumly.

“No,” said Jace. They stood only inches apart, gazing at one another across an impassable distance. Jace’s voice was steel: “But if you call me Dorsey one more time, I promise you will swallow your teeth.”

Treinen thrust out an arm, striking Jace on the shoulder – painlessly, with just his palm. His words came slow, each with forced enunciation:

“You’re really going to do this.”

Jace shrugged.

“I am.”

“Dor ... Jace ...” Treinen took his arm and turned it, long and slow, like a scarecrow, back down the road toward Veil’driel. “If these people find out who you are, they’ll kill you. Your partner doesn’t stand a chance tonight. And without him, neither do you.” Jace turned slowly and peered across the road, eyes fixed on the tall grass. “Even if he does come back, he’ll do it knowing exactly who you are.”

Jace moved not a twitch.

Treinen almost believed he’d caught sight of something.

Almost.

But there was only one reason Jace would turn his smirking face away. He wasn’t smirking anymore.

And Treinen took advantage.

“The best you can hope for? Relican Avery kills you himself.”

Treinen heard the shift in Jace’s breath, even under the wind.

The Outrider answered: “I don’t believe that.”

“It doesn’t matter what you believe! I’m trying to tell you! You belong with us!” Jace shook his head silently, but Treinen went on. “I don’t know how you figured out you were caught up in the time loop. I assume Kerrick had something to do with it. Maybe he left you some kind of message. Maybe he pierced the Veil himself. Hell, maybe a little bird told you – but listen to me, you have to understand ...”

“Stop talking.”

“Even if all of your plans come to fruition, and everything plays out exactly as you hope ... you won’t remember what got you there. Neither of you would. No one would. You wouldn’t be just pretending to be one of them anymore.”

“Shut—”

“You would really be one of them. Forever. Are you prepared for what that means – Jace?”

The ruin beside them, a few feet away, was a half-seen silhouette in the waving grass. All but untouched by whatever titanic force had passed by, there stood the building’s naked foundations. Jace could not tear his eyes away from it.

He knew the events that had brought him here were fading like a once-vivid dream after waking.

He knew Treinen was right.

But all he could say was: “It isn’t what you think, man.”

“Isn’t it?” Treinen said bitterly. “I think,” he began, and then stopped again. For a long moment, they stood together in silence. When Treinen took a last look at Jace, the Outrider’s attention was back on him. “Gods above and below,” he said. “All this over a girl.”

An angel, Jace wanted to say.

But all he could do was nod.

Divider (2)
Mirror Lake
Tri-State Commonwealth
Citrine (November) 5, 2002

Jaden’s voice roused Relic from his thoughts. Her hands were loosely hooked around his wrists, and she gazed into his eyes from across the table. The rain outside had grown into a single, senseless murmur without the wind to separate one note from another.

“—a man is drowning,” she was saying, voice measured and even as if she’d been talking some while, “it looks for all the world like he’s still swimming for the shore. The truth is, he’s not in control at all.” She tilted her face down as if to think.
Or to listen, Relic thought. Something was demanded of him. But what? Jaden went on: “It looks that way until—”

“Until he’s pulled under,” Relic said suddenly, tongue moving faster than his mind. It didn’t occur to him to be embarrassed. “There’s nothing left of who he used to be. Only a grasping instinct. And then ...”

“Then he’s gone,” Jaden said with a nod, and the wind raised its voice again, hammering the window. Jaden glared at it this time—as if to say quiet, you. Then told Relic: “You must answer the question.”

“Question?” he asked warily.

“Yes. Listen carefully. Who are you?”

“Relican Avery,” he responded, without thinking.

“Who raised you?”

“My – my father.”

“Where were you born?”

“Saddle Creek, in Bridgewater—what’s the point of this?”

“Listen!” she said, shouting over the shrieking wind. “When did you lose your sense of smell, Relic?”

“I-I don’t—”

“Who is Jace Dabriel?”

“Jace is – Jace is ...”

My friend, instinct pushed him to say.

But the words died on his lips and he felt his throat close around them.

Who was Jace Dabriel? His mind raced ahead, thinking of everything he’d seen and everything he’d read about the other man, his so-called partner.

Looking for the true answer, the demanded answer, in a constellation of a thousand dry facts— Relic’s mind was in motion – so quick, he didn’t realize for a long while that he wasn’t listening.

Divider (2)
Westwood Forest
Citrine (November) 5, 2012

As he took the slow steps back to his horse, Jace clapped Treinen on the shoulder and then – as if they were scoping out a beautiful woman from across a crowded room, caught his eye and directed him where to look with a pointed glance.

Just down the road ...

Jace mounted his horse languidly, stretching his limbs with every move.

For there, just down the road, something breathtaking stood:

A colossal figure, every inch of its stony form ribbed with ridges of steel. Its eyes blazed with an ever-roiling fire, burning but not consuming, as if comet-light billowed inside it. Its shoulders spanned as wide as men’s ambition.

From long ago, a half-remembered image blazed in Jace’s mind: The Tower.

It saw them, raised its fist, and began to roar.

“So,” said Jace, “you’ve been stalling me all this time.”

Treinen replaced his golden helmet.

“You could have been one of the greats, Dorse. A legend in your own time, instead of just your own mind. And now ...” Treinen cocked his head to the side. “For your mistakes ... all of them ... at long last, you will die.”

Treinen stepped back until he disappeared into the trees beyond the road.

And if you survive, we will meet again.

Jace held on to the sensation of warmth from his horse’s corded flesh. A clammy cold had suffused him; his skin burned with it; lightning sprang across his nerves with each movement of his fingertips. And the voice in his head – Dorsey’s voice – would not stop.

“What are they?” Jace asked out loud, shouting over the roar.

There’s a legend,” said Dorsey’s voice, “but it can’t exist.”

“Oh yeah?” Jace shot back. “Tell him that!”

It’s not really a legend. More like a nursery rhyme.”

“What?” Jace said, snapping the reins to begin moving.

It’s not really a legend. More like a nursery—

Sensing the voice was going to repeat itself all over again, Jace snapped his fingers to stop himself from hearing. The pale, familiar face boiled in his mind, taking on definition with each passing instant.

“How do we fight it? What do we do?”

The golem – for that is what it was – eased forward with a terrible creak of stone on stone. Its every step encompassed leagues: Its shadow blackened the earth, outlined by the purplish comet that was gurgling past.

The earth groaned beneath its tread.

The creature was not running.

It did not need to run, for it would never need to stop.

“There was once a great empire ... they say it fell under the sea. Those who were born ... empty, missing something, nothing good and good for nothing ... they could be made into creatures like this. It was the only way to r-restore their ... their ... honor.”

“But it’s just a story ...” Jace said. “If it was real—”

“If it were ...”

Jace nodded, his vision blurry with panic. Dorsey’s voice, nailed to some point a few inches deep in the center of his skull, was getting louder. But there was no time to fret about that—not while it seemed to know what he did not.

“If it was real, then what?”

Then it would be made of solid stone.

Jace bent low in the saddle, imagining once more that he was chasing the comet overhead.

“Fighting it is impossible.”

You don’t say!

“We have to run.”

Now, Jace dared to steal a look back over his shoulder, fearing he would see Dorsey there. But what he saw ahead of him was even more incredible—

The horizon was rife with monsters:

Massive rooks marching inexorably across the board.

Divider (2)
Mirror Lake
Tri-State Commonwealth
Citrine (November) 5, 2002

The word roused Relic, sending a pang of fear through him—

His hand whipped down, searching for the pocket-watch he always brought with him. But it was not there, and as his vision cleared again, he remembered what he was supposed to do.

Watch.

The strange woman – Jaden, his memory slowly supplied – was laying out a game board before him. Four pale pieces, carved of ancient bone, stood in the center. They were surrounded on every side by black-clad foes, all identical, who put him in mind of a masked mob.

She’d been talking, he knew, up until a moment ago.

He struggled to recall the words.

Watch.

“—ace is turned toward the past. Where we see a chain of events, he sees a great catastrophe casting ruin on top of ruin. He wants to stop, to awaken the dead and to piece together what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise, so strong the Angel can’t close his wings.”

Relic’s eyes watered unceasingly. He felt certain he had a fever, yet when he reached up to put the back of his hand on his forehead, he felt nothing. He looked down at the board to steady himself, and after a moment, inspiration bubbled up from deep inside him.

He struggled to make his tongue work in his mouth—

“The storm is what we call progress,” he said.

Instantly, the world around Relic took on color—

And he saw the lady smile for the first time.

She asked: “Why history, Relic?”

“He who does not learn from the past—”

“—is condemned to repeat it,” Jaden said, cutting him off the instant she heard the note of schoolboy recital in Relic’s voice. “Where I come from, that phrase has changed a little bit. We say: Those who have learned from the past—”

“—are condemned to watch as others repeat it,” said Relic, realization in his eyes.

“You’ve never heard that phrase before,” Jaden told him.

I don’t remember, he started to say, raising a finger—

But then, he lowered it in silent certainty and shock.

“Relic, why do you think you’re here? Why now?”

“Jace is going to die,” Relic blurted, then composed himself: “There’s something he needs me to do.”

What? There’s something you’ve always searched for in history—what is it?”

Divider (2)
Westwood Forest
Citrine (November) 5, 2012

The ground shattered into splinters beneath Highfly’s hooves.

In his mind’s eye, Jace could see himself in the guise of Dorsey Trent, and observed the future fight with devastating clarity. His swords would bounce off their flanks.

His crossbow bolts?

Nothing but a handful of sawdust would be left.

Wire garrotes would snap like clothesline.

Each gambit, each feint, each parry ended the same way—

With a flick of one forefinger, they’d crush him.

Jace wondered vaguely how far he would fly.

About eighteen feet,” Dorsey said.

“Further than that,” Jace mumbled.

No – that’s how tall they are. What were you thinking of?

“How do you know?”

Circumference of the shadow.

“How can possibly you see that in the dark?” he asked—but Dorsey did not answer. Jace focused on his hands on the reins, looking down at them until Highfly launched into a full gallop. Despite the shuddering earth, he knew they were opening precious distance against the enemy. Jace’s grim expression was an echo of Treinen’s mask made flesh. “I know there’s something you want to add,” he said out loud.

It came to him an instant later—

The Thoroughfare’s sentry house has thirty-foot walls.

“If it’s still standing!”

That’s a risk we have to take.” Jace spurred his horse, springing through the night in a russet blast no mortal eye could follow. “The only way out—

“—is through,” Jace concluded.

The golems rose like mountains in the distance.

Their faces were impassive, locked in featureless expressions of identical disdain. No effort had been made to stylize any part of them; they were force distilled to its essence – inevitable, yet empty of meaning.

A vast shadow descended on Jace—

But he didn’t even need to look, skirting the edge of the great hand that fell from above to crush him. Where it struck, the land split open for miles. There were four, five, six, seven – lines of them beyond count, leading back and back.

“Guess we know what those tremors at camp were now.”

Jace leapt over a spiky outcropping that rose from the earth like a tumor of spears, forced upward by the golem’s attack.

He had lost sight of where he was, his way to the future illuminated only by the searchlight-glare that told him when a golem’s gaze was on him.

By that warning only, he eluded death a dozen times in a mile. Then two. Then three.

With the size of them, he could not see or imagine an end—

He could pass out of Westwood Forest and reach the Hezlin Sea and still never escape—

The end is never, Dorsey whispered, satisfied.

Jace winched his eyes shut in fear and shock.

Across the long years, their gazes met.

Divider (2)
Westwood Forest
Tri-State Commonwealth
Diamond (April) 1, 2002

The years performed their terrible dance ...

Relic had walked some distance without realizing it. The crunch of leaves shook him out of dreamless reverie, where he could not name a single landmark he had passed by. He stood in the forest’s heart, but not one tiny animal stirred.

The wind was howling, and the storm was still on, but not a drop of rain crossed the canopy. On any other night, Westwood Forest would enclose Relic in darkness: Tonight, the Red Moon’s light would abide for as long as he did.

This is the place where children disappear, said the wind.

A jolt of panic pricked Relic’s spine.

He breathed in wild, burning gulps.

“That’s ridiculous,” he whispered back. “There’s no historical record of such a thing.”

Once upon a time, the wind sneered.

Rain buffeted the treetops in mighty sheets, blown sideways by the gusts. When he felt the touch of droplets on his cheek, Relic realized the storm was worse than he ever suspected.

He plunged his hand into his cloak to find the pocket-watch he knew was there—

Tick-tock, tick-tock, it went, spreading its solidness and certainty all through him.

Tick. “If I know how long I’ve been here ...” Tock. “I can always go back ...” Tick. “If I can always go back ...” Tock. “I can never get lost.”

He took another deep breath: The pocket-watch in his hand was as warm and vital as an egg.

Tick. His other hand searched for moss on the trees.

Tock. But found none.

Tick. He searched for any hint of the stars beyond the trees.

Tock. They were not there. No light passed the Red Moon.

Minute after minute fled – until Relic had exhausted every recourse. The forest was trackless, a featureless expanse in every direction, void of life except for the sniveling and crying of lost children who bayed in his ears with every shift in the wind.

The rain began to pelt him, and carried their voices with it—

Lost ... lost ... I’ll get lost ... get lost ... forever.

A labyrinth of unknown darkness hemmed Relic in on every side.

It reached into him and began to pull him apart piece by struggling piece.

Divider (2)
Westwood Forest
Citrine (November) 5, 2012

The golems did not roar again. Now, they hissed.

Jace only caught glimpses of their faces; the smallest distraction would have been enough to end him. But the sound enticed him long enough to direct his gaze upward – and if he survived, he knew he would remember.

Not the blank, fiery gazes ...

No; the empty stretch where there should have been a mouth would haunt the rest of his days.

Jace!” Dorsey called out again.

Each time, it was harder and harder to ignore.

He rocketed past a fourth rank of golems before he felt sure that those at his back would not turn to follow him to the ends of the earth. Ahead of him, their numbers were thinning; he glanced over his shoulder again and saw nothing more than standing stones blotting out the night.

We’ll have to regroup at the sentry house.

It was his last mistake.

Your limitations ...

Jace felt himself torn from the saddle and pinned, his arm exploding with pain the instant before it went numb. From the corner of his eye, he saw a spiky steel icon buried inches deep in his flesh, but he could not turn his head. He made to flex his hand, but it wouldn’t obey.

Two iron-shod fists exploded into his chest, forcing him to look up.

Jace knew he was looking at another golem, but it was like none he’d laid eyes on. Instead of a great slab of stone, its face was a mask of milk-pale steel. The shape of its cheeks, its eyes, its lips – its mouth! It had a mouth! – were unmistakably feminine.

Its brow burned with coils of bronze: A crown.

Over its left shoulder hung a wooden frame patched with old raven feathers: A wing.

Its eyes were ember-hot, but it was the sadistic quirk of those lips that froze Jace’s bones. Scars stood out in the metal around its mouth—

“You ...” it said, letting out a snarl of hot steam that burned across him. “You are ...”

... as if it had once been riveted shut.

Though Jace was taller, he couldn’t shake the monster’s grasp.

Its knees rose to crush the breath from his lungs—leaving him paralyzed, helpless.

“You are ...”

Its voice was ebbing away with the steam that rose from its joints, its face.

I am, Jace thought numbly. I am ...

Without another word, it wrenched the jagged blade roughly from Jace’s arm. The pain made him scream. His good fist rose with furious vengeance, smashing hard enough against the side of the thing’s face to rattle it.

Something inside rattled and clicked.

Its hands, working separately like mad spiders, twirled the blood-soaked blade. Every edge was razor sharp, every surface spiked. No human could have wielded it—

As Jace’s in-breath burned in his chest, he heard something he hadn’t before. Something oddly comforting—

Ticking.

The thing’s mouth formed you are, but it could no longer give voice to the words.

Divider (2)
Westwood Forest
Tri-State Commonwealth
Diamond (April) 1, 2002

Relic fought to scream, but his voice was caught in his throat.

“Breathe, Relic! Don’t – let – anything – take – your – breath.”

He was no longer in the forest. He jerked out of the chair before Jaden. His legs, pounding with numb fear, carried him on a little circuit around the cramped room. But it was all for naught: The more he strove to recall what had come before, the harder it was to even try.

The memory was already gone – a pillar of salt swept away by the breeze.

When Relic looked back to Jaden, she was studying him intently—but that was not what he saw first. No – his eyes fixed on the bronze bracelet she wore and the chain that bound her to a book. Her gaze never left him, but she was writing non-stop.

The young Outrider drops back into his seat, a voice was saying. He clears his throat to speak.

“It’s time,” he told her.

“I’m sorry?” she asked – yet her hand did not slow its race across the page.

“Time doesn’t pass in this place,” he told her.

“We are in a time – without time – right now.”

She tapped her fingers slowly, each slender digit weighed down with a foreign signet ring. This was a new turn in Relican’s thinking, said the voice.

“Well, Relic,” Jaden said at last, “that kind of imagination at least proves you’re not a golem.” When he did not answer, she waited a beat, then canted her head to the side. “Aren’t you relieved to know you’re not a golem?”

But now – for once – he would not be distracted.

His mind passed from context to action faster than he ever imagined possible. The galaxy of facts and figures that had disappeared over long years into the steel trap of his mind was laid out before him; all glittering stars and planets and crisscrossing orbits.

All interrelated, all together.

“This is not possible—” He took a deep breath. “For a human.”

“What is it, Relic? What do you see?”

See?” He let out a choked little laugh. “As long as I stay right here, I can see everything.”

“You can’t stay here,” Jaden said sharply.

“What am I going to find out there? What—” He reached across the distance and laid his hands over hers, stopping her from writing. “What is it I’ve failed to do so many times before? Twenty-two times?”

With this, her shoulders shook against a sigh, tears threatening to break—

“No, Relic ... not before ...” She raised her hands from the page, took his – squeezed them. “No time means – every moment here is just one. I’ve seen you suffer and die – and I can still see it while I’m looking at you. I can also see how you’ve struggled to prepare for this. But sometimes, that just isn’t enough. You can fight hard and do everything right and still be destroyed.”

Relic willed his eyes to close, and he could see a single path leading down—

“I’ve wondered what I could tell you to make you ready ...”

With each change in his thoughts, the future shifted this way and that—

“But there is only one way to endure this.”

“Tell me!”

She rested two fingers on his forehead, poised above and between the eyes. From that point, she slowly drew a circle—and within it, a cross.

“The past is in your mind. The future – the same. Only one thing is yours.”

At those words, the wind began to scream and howl, buffeting the doors.

“What is it?”

“Find the one thing, but don’t look for it. It’s the one thing that’s always there.”

The windows rattled and then shattered—the wind ripped the pages from Jaden’s book.

Find the one thing—she said once more, before the wagon started to pull apart under the strain.

Relic leapt to protect her, but the table that had stood between them bore upward, the bolts that secured it tearing like paper. As it crashed into him, he had one final vision of her: Standing with her book cradled and her arm raised against a long, slender shadow—

Better get under cover, Sylvester ...

Great, golden wings stretched behind her—

... there's a storm blowin' up ...

And then the wind pushed her back.

... a whopper!

It sank its claws into Relican Avery and he knew no more.

Divider (2)
 
STATIC
Chapter Fifteen  (E)
Eye of the Beholder
#2190476 by Dan Hiestand
Divider (2)
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