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Rated: E · Chapter · Action/Adventure · #2190484
The Color of Midnight
CHAPTER TWENTY-TWO

The Color of Midnight

“If you believe your own hype, it ain’t true.”

THEAN
Divider (2)
Westwood Forest
Three Months Later
Amethyst (February) 14, 2013

Relic had ridden hard from the city, but he reined back to a sedate canter as he reached the road that almost killed him months before. It was not the first time he had spent the ride reflecting on the events of that night – but in many ways, it felt like it.

Deep in Westwood, he could hear voices.

In his first few trips along the Thoroughfare, he had found himself unnerved: Half-expecting a minotaur, a golem, even Raven to come screaming from the trees. Today, for the first time, he realized those feelings were all but gone.
It had been weeks since any unusual activity broke the peace of these woods—

And those voices?

Members of the restored Westwood Sentry, their tones light.

Relic’s pace slowed as the pale grayish-purples of night transitioned to the copper shades of dawn. His breath—and Midnight’s—rose and vanished into the thin morning mist that danced on the air. The grass and roadside brush glistened with the imminent promise of spring.

Above them, the sky’s lightening was blunted by the thick canopy of trees. But the bright glow of the road lamps was already fading away with the first fingers of sunlight. Relic’s eyes drew upwards, searching – then, in a flash of instinct, he halted.

This place would not be familiar to anyone else alive. Relic found himself stroking Midnight’s mane and dropping from the saddle, then circling where he and Jace found Hobson’s fallen body. He knew the very spot where he had stood when he beheld minotaurs for the first time – and where he emerged from the wagon. He indulged himself, standing in his own footprints at each station of the journey.

But those footprints were gone.

They had already been gone for a long time.

Relic lifted his gaze slowly, as if he could catch from the corner of his eye the roadside lamp right there, one he could swear should have been broken.

He remembered both timelines, still, despite what Jace had told him would be the case.

When he closed his eyes, he could see it shatter against Jace’s shoulder.

Yet, as he opened his eyes again, there it still stood – resolutely intact. He wondered if he could say the same for himself. Sometimes the memories he felt here were absurd, sometimes fearful, often dreamlike ... but whatever their mood, they would not release their grip.

In a few more minutes, twilight would slip away into dawn. Unbidden, a voice deep inside Relic counted the moments until it would be too late to make a decision. At the last instant, he braced himself and reached down into his pouch, drawing out a now-familiar weight.

It was a cool, rough object, small enough to be dwarfed in his slender hands; he cradled it carefully for a moment before raising it in his palms. There: A crude, carved figurine.

Only his memories gave it color and heft enough to reveal its subject: Dabriel.

When he held it now, it didn’t stir his thoughts or clear his mind. There should have been a green glow—

But power it once had was gone.

Still, he could not let it go. Not after what had happened.

Slowly, as if it weighed much more than it did, he put it away.

A sound had broken Relic’s reverie, something unexpected. He recognized, even at this distance, that a rider would soon be upon him, and he raised his chin to sight the shadow emerging far down the road.

For an instant, he thought he saw a pair of great wings.

Blinking the thought away, he realized who it was.

And with that, Relican Avery finally smiled.

When Isabelle saw him, she slowed.

He plunged his hands into his pockets, miming nonchalance.

No doubt she could tell he’d been lingering here a while.

Perhaps she could even imagine why.

He was grateful when she only glanced to the road lamp for the barest instant. She hadn’t smiled much the last few months – but it was coming to her. More and more, day by day. And that was all either of them could ask.

“Hey, you,” she said, blowing a warm breath into her hand.

“Good morning.”

“I didn’t think you’d be on your way back yet.”

“Hmmm.”

“They sent me to make sure, though.”

“The city survey went a bit faster than I had planned. And I relayed the new order to my legion—” He let his face go sour, prompting Isabelle’s smile to grow just that bit brighter behind her hand.

“They didn’t take it any better than mine, did they?”

“Oh, I don’t know ...” Relic said, finally letting himself turn slowly in a circle to observe the road. “Some of them are pretty fired up about getting to sit things out in the city, I’d bet. They can ... take up basket-weaving, or woodcarving.”

Isabelle laughed a little.

“They’re gonna miss you.”

“Not as much as yours will miss you.”

Isabelle started to say something, then sneezed.

“Bless you.”

“Thanks.”

In the moment of distraction, Relic lifted himself back up into the saddle, then fished around in a belt-pouch for a handkerchief – which he handed over.

“Truth is, they’ll have plenty to do to rebuild. And it’ll be better than waiting around for us.”

He realized he wasn’t sure who he was trying to convince.

But Isabelle spared him again: “The reconstruction is going well so far?”

Extraordinarily well, yes,” Relic said, raising his eyebrows. “Work’s started on the Bazaar – way ahead of schedule.” He let his gaze trail down to her hands, trying to figure out where the handkerchief had disappeared to, but it was gone without a trace. “The truth is, they’re all talking about ... us.”

“Oh, yeah?” Isabelle asked, gently snapping the reins to start the journey back. She let her question hang in the air a while, but Relic seemed distracted— “What are they saying?”

Relic sighed, but when Isabelle looked over, he was smiling.

“Everything. We can thank Senator Bren for that.” The Outrider pivoted forward. “The first shipment from Telminster: Ten cords of lumber, a ton of quarried stone, forty pounds of tea, and five hundred copies of Valiant Notions. Not enough for everyone, but enough to reopen the library. They even sent one of those library cats along.”

“Well, you are the Librarian,” Isabelle said with an approving nod. Relic let out a huff, but Isabelle went on: “What’s this I hear about a new motto?”

“Oh, yeah ...” Relic dragged the words out, but Isabelle wasn’t going to let him off this time. Her gaze never faltered. “They’re calling us Liberty’s Watchdogs.”

He turned slightly in the saddle to catch her reaction: Nothing but a blank look.

“Actually,” said Isabelle, “I kind of like that.”

“Like I said,” Relic went on, “Bren’s doing.”

“No, Rel,” said Isabelle, and he looked up sharply. “It’s not just propaganda. What you two did that night ... it was incredible.” His eyes caught hers for a moment, surprised, before looking away – hiding his sudden flush. But Isabelle would not be deterred: “You gave the Republic its first victory. Put a face to the enemy. Stopped the invasion. Don’t ever forget that.”

Relic let out a low whistle, though he still wouldn’t meet her eye.

“The entire Republic, saved by the Outriders of Veil’driel,” he mused. He looked over to realize she was still staring at him. “That’s what they’ve been saying,” he clarified, clearing his throat.

“The tide started turning that night, Relic. No matter what happens from here... it’ll be remembered.”

Relic looked away along the side of the road – only his frown showing the weight of unspoken words he bore. Especially here and now, in the light of day, the things he alone knew would be too heavy even for someone as strong as Isabelle.

Cedwyn had been the one to debrief him—and to warn him. The others would forget Mirror Lake. Forget how they’d fought and sacrificed. And Relic? Relic envied them their innocence. The two of us have to honor their sacrifice, Cedwyn had said. We’re the only ones who can.

At the edge of the road, beyond the tall grass, Relic swore he sensed movement.

But all he said was: “You’re an Outrider too, Iz. And we haven’t saved anything just yet.”

Reaching across the unbridgeable distance between them, he clasped her hand.

Divider (2)

At the edge of the road, beyond the tall grass, Cedwyn Knight was pacing.

Some might even say lurking.

All at once he stopped, gesturing with open palms to the empty space before him. Where once there’d stood a supply shed, now there was nothing but an open field.

“To think, this is where it’s going to be.”

Damien Calloway’s footfalls had been quiet as could be. But he already understood, down in his marrow, that no one was quiet enough to escape Cedwyn’s notice when the man was in his element. They’d had plenty of time to get to know each other these past few months.

His own breath condensed into fog in the air, but Cedwyn’s did not.

Calloway wondered how long he’d been standing, waiting for the right moment to speak.

“Right here,” Cedwyn said, more empathically – and Calloway took the last steps to join him.

“Here?” He asked gamely.

“Indeed,” said Cedwyn. As Calloway joined his side, he put his arm around the other man and gestured out with the free one. “A statue is planned for this spot. Call it a test run for the Memorial in the city ... where every one of the Heroes of Fairlawn will be immortalized for good.”

“Every one,” Calloway repeated, his voice distant.

Releasing the sentinel, Cedwyn turned to him with a serious expression.

“It’s up to you whether your name belongs on that marker, soldier.”

Damien Calloway felt his breath catch in his throat.

They both expected him to wink out of existence – but no; there he remained. He gazed out at the empty expanse that would soon bear witness to the sacrifices made during Fairlawn’s siege.

Then he looked back to his mentor, noticing as he suspected few others did, that the Outrider’s eyes were different colors; one dark green, the other nearly black. One eye sees the future, he thought, but it was elbowed aside by a far different thought: In the land of the blind ...

“No, sir,” Calloway said at last, his words hitching only a little.

“How’ve you been feeling?” Cedwyn asked, voice softer now.

“It’s getting better, sir,” said Calloway. “Sometimes ... sometimes everything still hurts, even though there’s nothing there. But the nightmares are starting to slow down. And ...” He searched for any reason to let a little enthusiasm into his voice. “I still know how to butcher things ...” His smile went waxy. “... lots of things.”

Without any warning, Cedwyn began to walk again. As he moved, he fetched up a fallen branch, which he dragged now, and then through the crackling blades of grass. Damien assumed he was marking the spot for the construction, but he knew better than to ask.

“Things will get better ...”

—in due time, Damien thought even as Cedwyn spoke the words.

“But, for now, the Republic would be gratified to honor your sacrifice by providing you with a much-deserved period of rest.” Crack-rack-crack went the stick as the Outrider glanced over his shoulder, catching his comrade’s eye. “In other words, a vacation.”

“Sir, there’ll be plenty for me to do in the rebuilding. I don’t think I can ...”

“In a sense,” Cedwyn interrupted easily, though he never raised his voice, “you and I and almost everyone else here have served the same few short, tedious months. All thoughts to the contrary will someday fade. But in another sense ... just as real ... you’re nearing retirement age, soldier.”

For a split second, Damien felt old wounds smiling across his ribs, mocking his mouth.

Cedwyn stabbed his stick down and leaned on it, as if punctuating his work with a period on the ground. Damien let himself breathe again, and the memories that haunted his nights drew back into the recesses of his mind. Still, they were not gone—

Their bulk was hidden, but he could see their teeth glinting in the shadows.

“There’s no place for me here,” Damien Calloway said at last.

“On the contrary. Someday, perhaps, you’ll continue my work.”

“Sir, I don’t even ride.”

“Be that as it may,” said Cedwyn, “the surest path, for you, lies over that horizon.”

Damien wasn’t sure how long the Outrider had rested his hand on his shoulder, but now he lifted it to point behind them. As Calloway looked toward it, he felt something reaching for him—

No. Reaching to him.

Cedwyn waited to see it in his eyes, then continued to speak.

“Soon, nobody in this Republic will remember a place called Mirror Lake. It will sink into the swamp until it’s nothing but a fading scar. But those who suffered as you did will still need help. And, though the gate is closed, people will still find ways to climb over the wall for their own misguided reasons. When they do so, they’ll need you, too.”

“But – what about ...” Fairlawn? The legion? Damien could see all these objections were expected. “... my friends?”

“I’ll see to it Marcus and the others are well taken care of,” said Cedwyn, turning suddenly to bring the two face to face. “And after you complete this mission, you’ll do the same. Until then, go out and learn.” He reached into his pocket, grasping a silver chain. “Take this with you.”

Damien pried open the steely clamshell to see a pocket-watch with no hands.

“It’ll tell you when to be on your way back.”

“A due timer, sir?”

Cedwyn gave a short nod.

Damien knew better than to ask if it was another obscure joke—

Or something else.

When his steps disappeared into the distance, Cedwyn looked down at what he’d created. And he smiled.

Calloway still had one more watch shift left ...

... and he was already late.

Divider (2)

Far on the other side of Westwood, there was no elevated terrain to be found.

That was an odd change of circumstances for a general revered for wresting control of the high ground from his enemies ...

Even when that high ground was the sky.

General Thaddeus Creed shifted his unlit cigar to the other side of his mouth.

“Yes, very good,” he grunted.

“—ry good,” Sebastian said, and raised his head to focus on Bren’s ongoing narration.

For his part, though, the old senator held up his hand to pause his scribe’s work. One bushy eyebrow perked at the young man, a conspiratorial glance passing between them. Certainly, they had proven their point. If they went on any longer, Creed might delay just to spite them.

And the meeting they would soon witness was a fateful one.

The inside of the command tent had changed remarkably over three months. Where once it had been filled with somber evidence of their grueling march to defeat, now the maps they regarded were mostly of Fairlawn itself and the deployments around it.

The delay would have been unthinkable in a different campaign. Here, it had refreshed souls.

Alas; all good things ...

“If our poet laureate would finish his reading,” said Creed, “decorations will now commence.”

Indeed, Bren’s still-keen eyes spotted shadows twitching ever so slightly beyond the canvas walls, young men and women awaiting the award of commendations and promotions. They were poised in anticipation of his words—and even Creed deigned play along.

After all, he grudgingly acknowledged, Bren had waited for this as long as anyone else.

Bren met Thean’s dark eyes for a moment and waited for a nod. Then he plunged on:

“Dawn breaks, three months and seven days after what has become known as The Night of the Outriders. Three months and seven days after the intrepid trailblazers turned back an enemy that had known no defeat. Three months and seven days all leading to this very moment.”

Creed looked to the tent flap, and the guard there gave a signal.

Instantly, two men and a woman entered, crisply saluting their senior officers even as their eyes adjusted to the dim light of the tent. Unnoticed, Senator Bren nibbled on one arm of his glasses as he contemplated each face in turn.

The words had to be right – by evening, they would be recited on every street corner in Fairlawn. They would sweep over every city in a week; reach even the most remote hamlets in a month. He knew better than anyone that the wave, once unleashed, could not be stopped. Despite all that, he relished the responsibility: Knowing mere whispers to his scribe today would change how the Republic understood itself – and the world – tomorrow.

“Each one of you,” Thean was saying, “assume a command that could determine the future of the Republic.” The three stood before him like statues: Each unaware that they’d been hand-picked through a dozen deliberations and put through a dozen secret tests stretching back for years. A trill of excitement ran over Bren’s spine at the next words—

“And each of you is stepping into shoes you have no right to fill.” He stopped on each one in turn, his eyes boring into theirs – testing them still, even now. “Isabelle Talabray. Relican Avery. Cedwyn Knight.”

Thean nodded slowly in secret satisfaction; the names did more than anything else he could say.

“One day,” the general went on, “perhaps, you will be the ones responsible for revolutionary discoveries. Discoveries that save nations. Your duty now, however, is to honor the sacrifices those before you have made. Be the beneficiary of those discoveries, and keep your troops alive.”

Bren saw Creed cross his massive arms and continue to watch with great interest.

“We are fighting an enemy none of you understand and none of your subordinates can begin to appreciate. You may have read tales of minotaurs and golems as children. You may have aced all your exams at Firefly Farms. But, I assure you, there’ll be many battles before you overcome these threats, not merely endure them.”

When Thean paused, the only sound was the frantic scratch of quill on parchment.

“Over these last months, your legions have learned new tactics to deal with this threat. Under your leadership, they will refine those tactics and again become a world-class fighting force, equipped to stand eye-to-eye against myths and legends. You are replacing commanders who were revered, and that will be hard. You must earn the legions’ respect, and that will be harder.”

Thean eyed them all, looking for something only he could recognize.

“And even if you accomplish all this, another foe – still greater – will be waiting.” The general saw his opportunity; he took the floor, rising like a monolith.

No. A dragon, Bren thought, and he had to bring his fist up to his mouth.

For Creed was gigantic, having lost nothing to age, and today he wore bronze armor that was a nod to the Republic’s long history. He held the attention of all in the room, but he was not quick to begin; instead, at last, he took a match and lit his cigar. Smoke seeped from his nostrils—

Only then did he hold forth.

“Throughout all this, we must be ready to fight at all times.” He puffed at the cigar a few times, letting the smoke swirl around him as he shook out the match. “To be called on at any moment.” He held his gaze on them. “This is what it means to be a commander in my legions. Survival is our mission. Our own, and most importantly, that of the Republic we serve.”

Creed watched the replacements for any sign they might buckle under these words. He saw nervousness. He saw traces of fear. But he saw, too, the flicker of determination, and knew that his trusted constable had chosen candidates who might yet rise to the challenge.

With a nod to Thean, he turned his attention back down to the giant map.

“Dismissed,” said Thean, to an immediate trio of simultaneous salutes. Moments later, the new commanders were gone from the tent.

“It is no small task to retrain an entire army,” said Creed.

“Small is irrelevant, general. Necessary is what concerns me,” Thean answered. For a moment longer, he stared at the tent flaps the three prospects had just passed out of. As he turned back to Creed, he let his gaze linger on Bren a moment, too. “The cigar was a nice touch, I thought.”

Creed took a second to savor the tobacco—

“Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, am I right?”

Bren didn’t get it.

His scribe didn’t get it.

Thean, however –

Thean smiled.

“Indeed.”

Bren asked: “So you have faith they will succeed, then?”

Thean turned towards the table.

“Yes,” he said. “I will see to it that they do.”

“And so, that’s the end of the preparations,” Bren said. “It’s on to the next phase.”

The general nodded, more to himself than anyone else.

“You’ve sent for him?” he asked Thean.

The constable nodded.

Divider (2)

The unmistakable scent of bacon saturated Relic’s senses long before the sentry house rolled into view. As the Outriders rode closer, eggs and cinnamon joined the culinary fray. It was the lovely smell of life: The sentries’ breakfast, another indication that some normalcy had returned.

But the road was bare – no merchants to be seen, no long lines.

Peace would return to Fairlawn, yet the outer provinces still lay in the mysterious enemy’s shadow. There were minotaurs and golems and still worse prowling the highways, and it might take a hundred Nights of the Outriders to reckon with them all.

Relic would not be satisfied until all the road’s destinations were safe— Until all Veil’driel is free.

He didn’t even realize how far they’d traveled ...

Or that Isabelle was staring at him.

“What are you thinking about?” she asked.

“I don’t know,” he mumbled, and reached for the now-repaired sentry house door— Like the Thoroughfare, the sentry house had been transformed.

Nothing remained of the nightmare landscape, churning under surreal darkness, that had served as the halfway point in their journey. The mood, the lighting, the familiar company Relic found himself immersed in within a heartbeat – these things made it different altogether.

He was about to cross the threshold when a clang seized his attention.

“Again!” someone shouted.

Relic looked off to the side, towards the training grounds.

Isabelle could have slipped by, but she joined him, her gaze following his own.

“Again!” went the voice, and Relic finally recognized Caulurn.

Graceful despite his stupendous size, he easily turned back the blows of a young man.

Relic found himself smiling—

For indeed, the one who attacked and parried with unflagging determination was Arthur Sayre. No longer in the ragtag garb of the Unicorn Brigade, he wore the uniform of a full Westwood Sentinel. It suited him well. The months had begun to give him strength to match his height.

Huffing and puffing, the young Sentinel turned his attention to Relic. The Outrider exchanged a bare nod with him and held up one finger.

Arthur smiled.

—and just that quickly, it all passed.

Arthur raised his sword to parry another blow, and the clashing blades cried out. Caulurn hadn’t stopped to acknowledge Relic, but he knew – as sure as he knew anything – that Mac was aware of him.

Sure do ring when they're out of the sheathe, though, thought Relic. Guess it's time to go to work.

He turned back to Isabelle, addressing her question with a little shrug.

“The future, maybe,” he said.

Divider (2)

The sun had climbed higher by the time Senator Bren was putting the final touches on his latest – and most detailed – correspondence to the people. In the dim recesses of the command tent, however, his smile was the brightest thing in the world. It was the same one he’d flashed to Sebastian when he informed the boy that he would take care of this last piece personally.

The events around camp had changed even such a level-headed presence as the young scribe —he’d gone weeks calling himself Bastian, saying it sounded more solid ... more like an Outrider. Bren had permitted the affectation, so long as the quality of work remained constant.

As the report grew, Sebastian had returned—for this, Bren impressed on him, was vital work. And now, at last, the senator had everything he wanted:

The heroic Outriders ready to embark on a continuing mission ...

Check.

Their replacements in command and the reasoning behind it.

Check.

Updates from the front, presented with just a little spice.

Check.

He was ruminating on a title when something else occurred to him— An oversight that, at a time like this, could be truly dreadful.

“The monument!”

Thean and Creed were busy reviewing the map, but Sebastian turned instantly.

“Your Grace?”

“We haven’t all the names for the Fairlawn monument,” he explained – the thought filling him with shame. “They’ve given their lives for this country and we must report their loss with all the honors due.” Bracing himself, he looked to the table. “Excuse me, general, but if you would pardon one final interruption ...”

Plucking one of the lead lions from the map, Creed stubbed out his cigar on it.

Having done that, he looked over the top of the thing to fix his eyes on Bren.

“Senator, as much as I enjoy replying to your final interruptions, I do have a war to manage.”

“Yes, sir, you’ve been very generous, and I assure you this is my fi—my last order of business.”

The general sighed.

“What is it I can help you with?”

Tillian hesitated.

“Well, general,” he began delicately. “This is terribly embarrassing, but we have only three of the names for the Fairlawn City monument. I would not dare send this report lacking such crucial details.”

Creed’s stern expression wavered. Unlike the senator, he could see each and every face of those Veil’driel had lost. He heard their voices in his sleep, and felt the pain of their loved ones in his heart. As he listened to the names read, he dreaded the toll of the confrontation still to come.

It would not be long before an army of ghosts haunted his nightmares.

When the senator stopped, Creed knew immediately which name he was missing—

Hobson,” came a voice from the entryway. Along with everyone in his company, Creed looked up to the silhouette against a backdrop of fresh daylight. The sun was snuffed out as Jace Dabriel stepped inside the tent, letting the flaps fall back into place behind him “Forerunner Hobson,” he finished with a salute.

Creed and Thean returned it immediately.

“At ease, boy, at ease!” the general said, walking out from behind the table to the young Outrider and shaking his hand. “You look fantastic! How do you feel?”

“Much better, sir,” Jace said, and could not fight back a smile in response to the general’s mirth—one that widened when he was slapped hard on the shoulder. Just behind Creed, Thean was staring at him.

Jace nodded a more personal greeting his way.

The senator hastily recorded the name, swearing under his breath that he would not forget it. But, though there was venom in Jace’s voice, The Voice was not about to let something like that deter him.

This opportunity meant far too much.

It was something he’d been waiting for since that day at the gauntlet.

He asked: “Would you care to say anything to the people of Veil’driel, captain?”

Jace thought about it for only a second—

It was strange that he took no great satisfaction from the question, or even in his so-called heroic status. It was far stranger that the new expression around camp – and even in the streets of the Republic beyond – was “fight fire with Jace.”

And yet, despite it all ...

He found that he couldn’t care less.

There was an ache, like the burn of feverlew, he knew he would never experience again.

It was simply gone.

But Jace himself was only beginning—

“Yes,” he said. “For the record, it’s too early to be thinking about memorials in Fairlawn.”

The senator frowned.

“The people need their heroes, lad,” Tillian said. He looked down to stop his scribe from recording Jace’s answer before adding: “In these times more than ever.”

Something in the politician’s reply softened Jace. He was just another bureaucrat, but hurting his feelings had not been the Outrider’s intention. He searched himself for a different reply, but he did not need to look far:

“Relic saved my life out there.”

The senator’s eyes flashed wide with delight.

There was quiet for a moment as all three men mentally reviewed what they knew—and as expected, it was Bren who broke the silence.

“If you’ll pardon me, son, Relic’s account said only that he, well ... just waited on the road.” Thean raised his eyebrows in interest for a moment, but his face remained an enigma. Senator Bren bumbled to find more words, but there were just too many questions— “So just ... how—” he managed to get out, but the constable stepped between them.

“Another time, perhaps, senator,” he said, guiding Jace out of the tent.

Before anyone could react, the constable was gone with his Outrider.

Leaving the senator with a stunned expression, and the general smiling in their wake.

Divider (2)

Thean walked slowly with the young man he had trained from the earliest turbulent days after his defection. There were times, he had to admit, when it was difficult not to see him as that boy. But he noticed a difference as soon as Jace walked into the tent.

Subtle changes in the way he moved that belonged to him alone.

Subtle changes in the way he spoke that no one else could see.

The mission that night had been a short one – but even a novice forerunner would say the time a mission takes is the least important part. That maxim held a certain irony now only a few people in all the world could appreciate.

Fenlow Thean and Jace were among those few.

As they walked from the tent and through a frenzy of activity, the constable watched Jace with a mix of pride and sorrow. The Outrider ignored the glances and adoring whispers from the troops they passed, not even giving a wave in response.

Much of his youth had not survived the trial.

Some, at least, will come back in time, Thean thought.

“You remember what I told you in Fairlawn,” he said.

Thean was the only one permitted to see Jace during his stay with the healers in the city. The only one to observe the illegal work of the Luna Scarlet Monks, who still kept the vow of silence they had sworn.

The Outrider remembered it well – he hadn’t slept that night.

Little did he know that neither had Thean.

“About our demotion?”

Jace’s arms were crossed as he walked side by side with his mentor, gray cloak hanging loose in a breeze that smelled faintly of rain. As they continued their slow walk to the edge of camp, the interaction became a spectacle for the four legions.

“No,” Thean said, and stopped. Jace halted as well. “Not a demotion.” Suddenly aware of the attention on them, the constable started moving again—

Beside him, Jace’s face remained like stone.

“Not a demotion,” Thean repeated. “A reversion.”

“A reversion to what?”

“To a time when Outrider was not just a title, but a rank. When they existed outside the regular chain of command.”

“Why now?” Jace asked. “We can scout the provinces and still command our legions, can’t we?”

“Because there has been a drastic development. One that will require long range reconnaissance, multiple objectives, and what are sure to be ... extended absences from the vanguard. You’ll be going as far as Shadow, to the very edge of the map. A map not updated in hundreds—”

“What kind of development?“ Jace interrupted, tone full of defiance.

“Drastic,” Thean repeated, unable to pass up the chance. But he understood Jace’s worries – could see them as clear as day: Some pretentious fool trying to lead his men. Some disaster we’re sending him far away from.

There was only one answer to that.

The constable withdrew an object from his own cloak— It looked just like a plain emerald necklace; the gold chain glittered in the sunlight.

The bright glow so clearly burned into Jace’s memory was gone.

“Right,” Jace said, pointing at it. “I may have forgotten to mention that little trinket.”

Just a few months ago, Thean would have issued a stern reprimand for waiting this long to report such a crucial occurrence. Today, he said nothing.

Jace’s eyes never left the jewelry, as if there was unknown value still hidden in its facets.

“Relic told me what happened on the road. And I can tell you that this trinket saved your life.”

“The emerald?”

Thean looked up from the necklace, into Jace’s eyes.

“Yes,” he said. “But it isn’t emerald. It’s jadeite.”

Jace said nothing as they reached the perimeter of braziers and continued past them. “Do you know what they say about jadeite?” Thean asked.

Jace stared silently at the stone for a moment, then two—

“No.”

His mind raced with questions, but he sensed something from Thean he had never felt before.

“Ask Cedwyn,” the constable said with the slightest uptick of a smile.

Thean was treating him as an equal.

After a deep breath, Thean went on:

“The golden riders are the enemy’s equivalent of you. Luckily, the rest of their forces are limited in their ability to manipulate these precious stones.” Thean motioned to Jace with the necklace. “To create their magic.”

As the speech continued, it was all Jace could do not to press on— For the moment, with all his willpower, he let Thean take his time.

“You knew the enemy we faced even before we set out,” said Jace.

As they approached the watchtower, the constable looked over.

“I had reason to believe.”

They came to a stop at the edge of camp, where the terrain sloped downward to another plain.

Through the whisper-thin carpet of morning mist, an expanse of tall hills rolled on as far as the eye could see, the valleys between them dotted with lakes that glistened like pale jewels in the sun. At the crests of the furthermost hills, the gentle grass rose to a wreath of majestic red trees, their leafy canopies casting the shade from which a frothing river arose.
Past the forests, the glitter of a waterfall was almost lost to the horizon.

Beyond that, the Gap of Ezru opened out on the rest of the continent. On the rest of Ciridian.

“There’s no record of anything like this,” Jace said.

Fenlow Thean gave a little shake of his head.

“The missions of the Outrider Point Teams are rarely chronicled in the archives,” he said, and – reaching into an inner pocket of his cloak – he revealed a tattered record book. “And you’ll find there are quite a few in here.”

Jace cleared his throat. Sure, and yet not, of what he had just heard.

“Point Team, constable?”

Thean nodded, offering the logbook to Jace – who took it.

“Yes. You and your team are now the Republic’s foremost resource. In more than one sense.” Fenlow leaned in a bit closer, making sure the young Outrider fully understood his next point. “Every move we make will depend on your reports. And you report only to me.”

“Yes, sir,” Jace said.

There was sincerity in his tone; Thean clearly recognized that. Again, he thought of the boy Jace had been. He thought, too, of his best friend, lost to him so long ago. That memory sobered him. He told Jace:

“That politician is going to turn you into a living legend.”

“Mmm,” the Outrider mused, wary of what he heard lurking in Thean’s voice—

“Understand this: That process destroyed the last one. Bren knows that full well.”

“You mean Artemus War—”

Thean held up a hand.

“Let me finish.”

Jace nodded.

“Sir.”

“Just remember one thing. It is the only piece of advice I’ll give you, because I don’t have time for theatrics.” The constable placed a hand heavy as stone on the young man’s shoulder; leaned in so close his whisper resounded in Jace’s skull. “If you believe your own hype, it ain’t true.” He stood straight again. “You get me?”

“I get you."

Thean nodded. He gently slapped the side of the Outrider’s face, then went on talking.

“Everything we learned about the Overshadows is in there.” Jace started skimming the logbook. “Every entry dated before you were born, before even The Looking Glass War. Keep that in mind. As we’ve seen in the enemy’s capabilities, it may not be completely current.” A great bird wheeled across the sun, and Thean watched it as Jace looked down at the book. When it was gone, Thean concluded his remarks: “Still, it’s the best information you have.”

Paging loosely through the brittle leaves of Thean’s record book, Jace knew it could have sat in a museum alongside half the people – and many of the places – it described. Now it was easier to cope with the thought of losing his command, but his real worries had not been allayed.

“The new commanders of our legions. They’re competent?”

“I have chosen each one personally.”

Jace nodded. That was enough for him.

“Who have you picked to lead the Third?”

I will be your replacement,” the constable said, and Jace could only stare. A moment of understanding passed between them; true to form, Thean did not let it linger long. “It would appear our mysterious adversary is not accustomed to defeat,” he said. “And I have no doubt that heroic feat of yours has them seeing Outriders in every shadow.” The comment made Jace smile, but Thean went on: “That said, I believe their main motive for retreating is strategic.”

“They’re playing with house money,” Jace said. “At least while they occupy the provinces.”

“We have earned their respect, but it would seem they’re waiting for us to make the next move.”

Thean stared out at the distant horizon, highlighted elegantly by a shining apricot sun. He almost envied his Outriders, standing on the verge of its exploration.

“That next move is you. Cedwyn and Isabelle have deferred command.” He crossed his arms. “It’s your show.”

Jace didn’t know how long it would last, but the man standing at his side was no longer some enigmatic old master whose every word concealed hidden depths. Nor was he a superior whose concern for appearances would color every nuance that passed between them.

He was simply a fellow Outrider.

With that confidence, Jace could finally reveal his worry—

“I can’t figure out why they didn’t just attack our camp with their comets,” the young man said, and he turned from the view back to Thean. There were too many questions to express; he shook his head with a shrug. “What could they have been waiting for? It all just seems so ... unfinished.”

“The Outrider’s job always is,” the constable said. “Stay in the present. Trust yourself. Don’t get bogged down in yesterdays, accept that there is more going on than you can yet understand, and don’t get anyone killed. That’s all that you – or any of us – can do.” Jace felt Thean pat him on the shoulder again— “Good luck, greenhorn.”

But Jace had not heard – his attention was back on the logbook. On a section about acrostics, full of sketches depicting the enemy’s wizardry and its many sources. And, Jace was gratified to see, detailed lists disclosing the attributes of their stones.

More configurations than he imagined—

H.O.P.E – Hyacinth, Opal, Pearl, Emerald.

F.A.I.T.H – Feldspar, Amethyst, Idocrase, Topaz, Heliotrope.

The lists went on, depicting not only the mixtures of reagents, but the faint stirrings of far deeper lore. Jace sensed it was remarkably complex, more than he could fathom in a lifetime.

Bookshelf on the other hand ... that would be a different story.

“This is amazing,” Jace said. “How did you get so much—”

But when he looked up, he found himself speaking to empty air: Thean was passing back within the braziers. As Jace closed the book, he glanced around in confusion before noticing the three riders approaching him from the encampment.

Sure enough, Highfly was being led along beside them.

Jace took a deep breath of the fresh morning air; he longed to be in the company those galloping hooves promised. Things always seemed so much simpler when he was with them. And now, simple was precisely what he needed.

And he knew that Thean had planned just this sort of sendoff.

Jace inhaled again as the scent of rose oil hit him—the scent of only one person, burned into every fiber of his being. He closed his eyes without realizing it, and when the blissful moment passed, the first thing to break his reverie was Snow huffing beside him.

He was almost afraid to look up—

“Lose something, captain?”

Jace smiled wider than he had in months, sinking his hands deep into the pockets of his cloak.

“I did, captain,” he said, finally looking up to Isabelle. “We appreciate it.”

Jace swung himself into his saddle. Every night of his long recovery, he’d imagined what he might say when this time arrived at last – but now, he found himself at an utter loss for words. The weeks he’d spent away had been more agonizing than his injuries could ever be.

“I assume you’ve been caught up,” Relic said.

“Apparently not,” came the sarcastic voice of Cedwyn Knight. He was tilted over, fidgeting with the buckle on one of his saddlebags. “He still thinks we’re captains.”

Jace looked up at him with a cockeyed expression.

“I heard you deferred command of the Point Team to me.”

Cedwyn only shrugged.

“You think I want history remembering me for screwing all this up?”

Jace smiled again, nodded slowly and held up his hand to block the sun.

“Is this yours?” Isabelle whispered to him, smiling.

She held Jace’s hat on her lap, just far enough so he would have to lean in.

“Where did you get that?” he asked, laughing.

“It’s a secret.”

How did you get it?”

“I’m awesome, that’s how.”

Beside them, Relic sighed. He had expected this when the two got together. Things are getting back to normal, he thought. That is, as normal as things get.

“How bad do you want me right now?” Jace asked her.

When he tried to take the cap, she held tight, drawing his eyes.

“How bad do you want me?” she whispered back, biting her lower lip.

“Pretty damn,” Jace said.

Relic looked over just as Isabelle craned her head to be kissed—

And in that moment, he made to squawk a warning—

A shrill whistle made Isabelle jump in her saddle, and Jace broke away not an instant too soon, looking to the source.

“Great idea, guys,” Cedwyn said, and he motioned over his shoulder with a nod toward the ridge.

There, mounted on the camp’s furthest edge, General Thaddeus Creed, Senator Tillian Bren, and Constable Fenlow Thean were all watching.

It was a sobering sight—

But it didn’t keep them from smiling as Isabelle handed over his cap.

“Here ya go, bookshelf,” Jace said, tossing Thean’s record book over.

“What’s this?” Relic asked as he caught it, then after a quick inspection, added: “No way it’s what I think.”

“Well, as long as we’re throwing things ...” Jace looked up just in time to snatch the golden flint box lighter Cedwyn threw him. “Heard you lost your last one, hero.”

Jace tumbled it over in his hand, noting the inscription on one side: Let There Be Light.

“Thank you, man,” Jace said.

Cedwyn shrugged a second time, nudging Valerian with his heel to face the horizon.

“Don’t mention it,” he said, cracking his knuckles as he looked out toward the future. Relic slipped the book into one of his saddlebags and took the reins with both hands.

Isabelle, too, was ready, patting the lean crest of her mare like she always did.

She stopped to smile when she noticed Jace watching her.

Jace turned in his saddle to face forward, took a deep breath, then expelled it slowly as he fit his cap on his head. He looked up.

“Alright then,” he said, and spared one last glance to the side to catch Alarick watching in the distance. Slowly, knowing the other could see him full well— He plucked a fresh cigarette from his saddlebag and lit it, looking to each of the others in turn. “What say we get this show on the road?”

With that, Jace broke from the pack – his best friends and closest comrades just behind. As he did, a glint of sunlight caught his lucky diamond ring.

He raised his arm to signal:

Four riders, in the open, outbound.

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On the patch of scorched earth where the reagent wagon had been, General Creed sat still in the saddle, flanked by Senator Bren to his left and Constable Thean on his right.

Their preparations completed, they had ridden out to see the Outriders off.

It was – as Bren had been quick to remind them – a historical moment.

“So it’s done,” the general said. “The first Outrider Point Team in three decades. Thean showed no reaction as he watched his elite riders dwindle into the distance. “I wonder if they can truly appreciate the magnitude of what that means.”

Senator Bren pondered that very question.

It was astonishing to think that just months prior, he was ignorant to what the Outriders stood for, when he them the same as scouts.Now, he felt a part of him riding away with them. Indeed, he understood that wherever they went now, they took the whole Republic with them.

The people could not yet imagine what that meant, but they would.

By the Gods, with this latest report, they would know—even as he did.

Sebastian appeared then, as he had been instructed to do once editing was complete. It was high time for the report to be sent back to Fairlawn, where it would begin its long journey to the heart of Veil’driel and, soon after that, pulse through every corner of the nation.

“It’s ready, senator,” Sebastian said, huffing and puffing. In his time as Bastian, he’d learned riding was not his forte: He had run the whole distance. Yet, the three venerable men only smiled at his dedication.

Creed even favored him with a slight nod.

They each knew that all that remained was Bren’s signature.

Once that was in place, Sebastian could affix the wax seal and every word would become an official part of the Senate’s record, enduring so long as it did.

“Nicely done, lad,” Bren said with a nod, dabbing his thumb against his tongue as he flipped through the pages. He had learned to expect excellence from his scribe, and scribbled his signature without hesitation.

Bren was turning his bifocals thoughtfully in his hands when he heard the boy’s voice again.

“Excuse me, Your Grace.”

Bren looked down to see an outstretched arm holding the packet and quill back up towards him.

“What is it?” he asked before taking them.

“The title, sir,” Sebastian explained. “It isn’t official until there’s a—”

“Quite right,” the senator said with a smile, bringing his bifocals back to his face.

Outriders, he penned neatly, and then handed it back to his scribe.

Divider (2)
 
FOLDER
Part One  (E)
Act II: Whistlers
#2190423 by Dan Hiestand
Divider (2)
© Copyright 2019 Dan Hiestand (danhiestand at Writing.Com). All rights reserved.
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