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Rated: E · Chapter · Action/Adventure · #2190512
The Alchemist and Barrister
CHAPTER EIGHTEEN

The Alchemist and Barrister


“When it comes to politics and war, timing is everything.”

FOY
Divider (2)
Provinces
Sandia
Aquamarine (March) 16, 2013

They walked for what seemed like a very long time.

Relic following closest behind Foy.

Until now, the caverns and grottos surrounding the Outriders seemed naturally formed. Around the final corner, that changed: Here was an area created, or at the very least molded, by human hands. Raw veins of mineral stood out above and around the visitors.

Uncovered, but not exploited. It was, Relic thought, not exactly the Republic way.

The walls were symmetrical and the floor was level. Ages had been spent in the wall carvings, creating decorative flourishes that wound around and over pulsing tides of stone. Relic’s eyes stopped on an opal so large, he thought he would be able to see his face in it if he leaned close.
The walls swirled and spiraled with tan and white and gray and gold all around the gems.

Relic stopped for a breath or two, lingering near that magnificent opal with its rainbow sheen—

But he had no time to think twice about it: Isabelle was stepping past him. She bent down to face the silvery stone, her smile reflected in glassy facets. It’s beautiful, she breathed to her reflection.

“Yes, it is certainly that. And much more, too.”

Gabriel Foy slowed, glancing over his shoulder at Isabelle. She bobbed up when she saw him, regaining her feet and taking up the space behind him. Foy’s eyebrows drew close, like two gray caterpillars, as he briefly regarded Relic.

In a sign both knew without speaking, he urged: Stay put.

“Naturally, it was the opal deposits that drew settlers here. There were thousands of miners at first.” Foy said. “Them in the so-called heartland can’t imagine the depth or scope of the veins here, even to this day. If they knew better, this settlement would be ten times the size.”

Foy waited to be sure he heard the right footsteps around him. Then:

“Even Artemus didn’t know it when he came knocking, mercifully. But the real story isn’t the stones; it’s what they’re embedded in. These tunnels, far as anyone can tell, are pure kaolinite.”

Isabelle was tracing her fingertips over the walls.

Glancing up, she asked: “What’s that?”

“Kaolinite is a rock-salt mixture found on every continent except Emren.” Foy turned slightly to Jace, as if he had asked. “Great deposits lie in places that, millions of years ago, were covered by the sea. The falling tides left behind these layers of salt.”

With his hands buried deep in his pockets, Jace nodded slowly.

“Awesome. I mean, I don’t care, but …”

But Gabriel Foy was still in the middle of answering Isabelle’s question.

“—and potassium, giving them vibrant colors. If you know where to look, you can find it even on the Glate Mountains in Winterwine. All things considered, it lends a lot of weight to the idea that the world as we know it was once no more than a churning ocean.”

“It kind of looks like an elaborate tapestry,” Isabelle said.
Gabriel reached up and adjusted the straw hat on his head.
“That is a far more apt observation than you could possibly know, young lady.”

Even when no more opals could be seen, that tapestry of endless color glittered bright enough to light their way, but only just. Each dozen feet or so, there stood a decorative niche – every one of them occupied by a griffon statue in a solemn pose. Some held theirs wings closed; others, out.

Their jeweled eyes glittered attentively as the Outriders passed. As Isabelle saw them, one word was in her mind instantly: Guardian. She thought of the similar statues on porches and window sills all along the streets of Sandia.

Relic finally spoke up:

“They say all precious stones were born of kaolinite the way all matter was born of stardust.”

Mmhm, Gabriel rasped in his throat – an utterly inscrutable little sound.

“Huh,” Jace mused as he popped open his tin of cigarettes, selected one, and eyed it critically for a few seconds before slipping it into his mouth. The tin went back into his cloak as he glanced over at Relic “And who the hell are they, I wonder?”
Relic’s expression went blank, looking but not seeing as Jace shielded his lighter-flame from the wind out of pure habit and touched it to the tip of the battered hand-roll. It wasn’t until he heard the snick of the lighter closing that Relic snapped alert.
“I don’t know, man … they. Like … they say you’re an asshole.”
Cedwyn stepped up, still behind, but just between them now.
“They’re right,” he chimed in.
The three laughed – and Cedwyn looked up just in time to keep the others from running into Foy. The old man and Isabelle had suddenly ground to a halt, and the others hovered all too close for a few moments before they picked out the reason why.
There was a door up ahead.
A very ordinary-looking door, Relic reassured himself—
Yet, somehow, the first grumblings of anxiety only grew.
It was plain indeed, set with iron rivets along plated bars at the top and bottom, and a small, rectangular slit was embedded at eye level. Cedwyn, Jace, and Relic exchanged silent glances as Gabriel Foy leaned toward it.
A thin stream of smoke traced up from Jace’s cigarette as he took a wary puff. Isabelle pushed her way back past Cedwyn, rolled her eyes, and plucked it right out of his mouth ─ taking a drag of the stranger come back in the dark before dropping it on the floor and crushing it.
Jace stayed stock still as he was relieved of his cigarette—
But he touched her shoulder as Gabriel Foy pounded on the heavy oak door.
“Password,” said a muffled voice, quiet and serious.
Gabriel’s eyes narrowed. One – the green one – drew just an inch from the slit.
“Ah, yes,” he responded slowly. “The password.”
He looked down, sighed in what seemed deep thought for a moment—
And then snapped his fingers as it apparently came to him.
“The password is: Open this door right now before I reach in and pull you through that slit.”
He stopped to briefly clear his throat, and seemed to remember something more:
“Mr Brayden.”
“That is correct,” the unseen Mr. Brayden answered, his tone not a whit different.
The slit slid closed, and that quick squeak of metal was followed by the door groaning open on heavy hinges. Foy strode right in without the slightest hesitation, leaving the Outriders standing amongst themselves in a sort of collective daze.
“Outriders on me means on me, young ones,” Gabriel’s voice came back from the darkness. “Not on me until the end of the hallway, if you please.”
Jace stepped forward, the first to follow Foy past the threshold. Isabelle absently traced her fingertips over his forearm as he passed, a stolen moment that belonged only to them. When the others were gone, she lingered only long enough to look back.
In the half-dark there glinted the sunrise-colored eyes of a griffon guardian.
Isabelle straightened her back, took a silent breath, and followed the others.
***
It was a room, not another cavern, and that alone was enough for relief.
Jace’s lips quirked in a grimace as he realized it was, well, a cellar.
His eyes met Relic’s for an instant as they looked around, instinctively seeking trouble – though, in deference to their host, their weapons sat idle. What they saw was a chamber of cobblestone: Surprisingly cool compared to the still, warm air outside.
Not far off to the right, a stair led up to another door. Beyond it, they sensed a great commotion: Loud discussions, snippets of song, the clinking of glass. From the corner of his eye, Relic saw Jace jerk to a halt, every muscle poised, his full attention on the door.
The Librarian found himself drawing closer to watch his comrade’s back—
But before he could do more, Jace’s shoulders slumped and he let out a laugh.
“It sounds like the Last Chance Saloon in there,” he said. “Been a while since I’ve seen an inn.”
A thought prickled the back of Relic’s neck. He said: “Oh, yeah? How long, exactly?”
“You should know,” said Jace, briefly clapping Relic’s shoulder before turning to Gabriel and the two strangers who had stood up to join them as soon as they entered. One fellow was tall and young; the other, squat and powerful, graying, with a mustache nearly as big as his muscles.
A well-chomped cigar shifted from one side of his mouth to the other as he looked over.
But Jace was looking down: To where very familiar hand crossbows hung at their sides. The other weapons seemed to be whatever they could find: A butcher’s knife, tailor’s shears. They were merely a distraction compared to what even one of those crossbows could do.
And both men carried two – just like an Outrider.
“Then you’re in luck,” said Foy. “This is no ordinary inn, my boy: It’s a hideout.”
At that, the two men grinned – the elder of them added. “A legendary one at that.”
“I’m not one for long introductions, and even if I were, we don’t have time to make them,” said Foy. “This here is Brayden Scofield.” Foy motioned to the one standing closest to him. “The handsome young fellow is Irick. To be honest, I can’t quite recall what his last name is …”
“Aringill,” he said with a grin, extending his hand to Jace. “Irick Aringill.”
“Jace,” he said, grasping it. “Dabriel.”
“Yeah, we know who you are,” Irick said. He released Jace and turned to Relic. “Both of you.”
Relic looked over to Jace with a somewhat sheepish expression. Dabriel only shrugged.
A ripple of amusement rippled through Foy and even Brayden, but none said a word.
“I mean …” Irick cleared his throat, and now he was the one looking sheepish. “We know who all of you are, of course. You broke the time loop out in Westwood. All of you did, I just meant that Jace and Relic …” He paused and looked back at them. “Can I call you Jace and Relic?”
“Um … yeah,” Relic said.
Jace just gave a thumbs up.
“G-good, thank you!” He gulped, clasping his hands. “I just meant – everyone here knows you. I just ... here.” Holding up one finger, he plunged his other hand into his cloak. A loud scrunch accompanied Irick whipping out a bit of wrinkled old parchment.
He held it out and Relic took it instinctively, turning it around before he began to scan the words. “Friends and neighbors,” he read aloud. “This chronicle of the Night of the Outriders shall ...”
Waiting no longer, Jace fixed a cockeyed expression on Irick.
“You get the herald delivered out here?”
“As a matter of fact,” said Brayden, letting out a low, thoughtful whistle.
“We have the latest one, too, if you need it,” Irick went on. “Of course, that’s not our only way of knowing – ah, thank you,” he said, accepting the parchment back from Relic and half-folding it, a futile gesture. “You should see what that old sparrowhawk is saying about you now.”
“Awright, take it easy there, lad,” said Brayden, stepping up at last. He had been content to stand by, rubbing his peppered beard in thought at the sight of four legends out of the pages of history, but now he extended his own callused hand to each Outrider in turn. “Brayden McTaggart.”
Cedwyn grasped his hand, looked him in the eye, and said: “I think we’re in a cellar, Brayden.”
Brayden smiled widely, pushing the cigar ever-so-slightly further into the corner of his mouth.
“Must be that famous Outrider intuition,” he said, the smile staying in his voice—
As he moved a sly step to his left to stop in front of Isabelle.
There he hesitated, reaching up to finally pluck the cigar from his mouth. His voice was like honey. “Faeries above and below,” he said, taking her hand as gently as to suggest he might bow and kiss it. “You’re a frightfully gorgeous one, aren’t you?”
Isabelle tilted her head to the side. “Yes,” she said. “As I’m sure you’ve heard.”
Foy opened his mouth to respond, but Irick’s dazed voice interrupted them.
“Why, nothing in the herald ever said that Isabelle Talabray looks just like—”
“Well!” said Foy, and all eyes were on him.
Irick crinkled the folded herald in his fingers and glanced away, abashed.
“Now that we’ve all remade those introductions I just said we have no time for, I wonder if you lot would indulge an old man a bit further.” He turned and made for the stairs, slowing only a beat to touch Irick’s hand where the paper was clenched in it.
Irick looked up, mouth opening slightly, and finally put the thing in his pocket. It was as if he and only he had caught a vision of the thoughts Foy left unvoiced, and his nervousness melted away. The Outriders saw a faint smile quirk one side of his mouth.
They didn’t need famous Outrider intuition to tell them what they saw there.
Love, as simple as shaving soap, Relic thought, and it hurt his heart to know it.
Foy gazed back at them from the top of the stairs: One eye green, the other hazel.
Irick and Brayden started to shuffle forward and the Outriders followed behind.
***
“Welcome to the Blue Sun,” Foy said, his voice the warmest it had been yet.
As he opened the door, light spilled over him and onto the stairs. The sounds washed over the assembled Outriders: Pools and eddies of heartening, happy noise. This was the opposite of the condemning darkness and the damning silence they had left behind.
Chatter filled every corner as men gathered before a great bar made of yellow birch. There was a bartender, so busy he hadn’t so much as looked up at the newcomers. He was moving mugs at a fast clip from two frothing taps – needing no orders as he served each outstretched hand.
“Stand pat,” said Foy. “I’ll return presently. That means later, incidentally.”
Relic leaned over to Jace as he watched Foy’s retreating form.
“The ladder downstairs must extend from a trap door behind the bar.”
“Cool,” Jace replied absently, and in turn he leaned over to Cedwyn.
“He means the large building we saw through the archway last night?”
Cedwyn nodded slowly as he looked around, taking in as much as he could. Through the crowds, his eyes focused on the corner: There, where he’d expected a virtuoso playing the piano, stood a great mechanical half-clamshell: A gramophone. There was a piano, too, but it stood empty.
“Probably,” Cedwyn said, distracted. “But I’m not so sure it was last night.”
“What do you mean?” Isabelle asked, listening in as they shuffled forward. To anyone watching – and they saw no one – it would seem they were looking for a place to accommodate four. They orbited in a slow circle, keeping to themselves.
“There’s something about those tunnels.” Cedwyn said. When he unexpectedly caught the eye of a patron, he turned his chin away and added curtly: “We’ll talk about it later.” The others understood, and he indicated the machine in the corner with a broad wave.
“Nice music,” Isabelle said, not quite glancing toward the fleeting face in the crowd.
“What I’m wondering right now,” said Cedwyn, “is where they got that thing. Eh?”
“These were new when we left the Republic,” Relic pointed out. “It would cost thousands.”
“Couldn’t help but notice their weapons, too,” Jace added, letting his meaning hang there.
Cedwyn nodded, appreciation on his face at just how subtle Jace could be when he wished.
Under the light of a massive wagon-wheel chandelier, the Outriders stood back to back in loose formation. Yet, no matter where they looked, they saw nothing but a roadside inn any town would be glad to have. The only problem was that it was a hundred miles underground.
Irick approached from the bar; Jace was the first to accept a glass of vivid orange-brown liquid. He brought it to his nose, then downed it in one shot – warm, mulled apple cider. His other hand flexed instinctively for a few seconds, then he gave the kid an appreciative murmur.
Irick nodded back and went about serving the others.
Jace found his attention drifting to the stuffed trophies that lined the wall above the bar. Their gazes were vacant, pelts tattered and dusty, though they’d been staged with care: The massive grizzly bear looked ready to spring forth, despite the corn cob pipe stuck in his mouth.
“Thank you,” Relic said, never lifting his eyes from the gramophone as he sipped his cider.
“You like the song?” Irick asked; Relic only half-heard the question, but nodded. “It’s a Julia Duchenne piece, one of the first pressed in wax.” He turned briefly to the others and was still blushing from Isabelle’s acknowledgement when he looked back. “Pineapple Rag.”
“I was just thinking about that,” Relic said, and he would’ve gone on—
But at that moment, Foy – who had been speaking to another group of his men in hushed tones – jumped up on one of the tables and raised his voice so all could hear. “And just who told you lot you should break out the good wax before our honored guests even got here?”
“Nice to see you too, boss!” an unidentified wise-cracker responded.
Gabriel held up his hand to dismiss the comment, much to the amusement of the others.
“Hey boss,” shouted another. “Jaden is lookin’ for you – she says someone broke her lamp!”
“Good!” Gabriel bellowed. “I always said that thing was ugly as hell, and I’ve been there!”
He stepped down spryly and faced Brayden, who had been conferring with a second group.
“They made it as far as Ordeals around sundown,” Brayden told him without preamble. He reached up to touch his cigar with a disgusted expression. “Then crossed to Parnassus and made camp on the pass, just as you suspected.”
Foy nodded. “He’ll attack at dawn or soon after. Under the sun, so Arkhelan can see.”
“Right.” Brayden cleared his throat. “We’ll be ready this time.”
“See to it you are,” said Gabriel Foy, and excused himself, starting another orbit of the taproom.
Irick turned to Jace. “Valith, Irenus, three or four sky fire units, and at least two dozen minotaurs.” When the Outrider looked at him blankly, he added: “In case you were wondering.”
“Interesting,” Jace said with a contemplative pout. “Too bad I have no idea what that means.”
Brayden let out an amused sigh.
“You’ll have to excuse the lad. I’m fair certain he expects The Hero of Fairlawn to know everything … even when naught’s been told to him just yet. You have to understand, this new Point Team ya’ll got goin’ has been our outfit’s mission since Citrine.”
Irick was almost falling over himself to add, “Back when you broke the time loo─”
“Yes, lad,” Brayden said, laying a hand on his shoulder. “Cool your forges now.”
“Outfit?” Isabelle asked.
Brayden took the cigar out of his mouth as he turned his attention to her.
“Tribune Duchenne came to an agreement with the boss. It was all their doing, together.”
“Aleister Duchenne, the lawyer?” Jace asked.
“And philosopher,” Relic added.
“And playwright,” Isabelle said without missing a beat.
“And senator,” Jace concluded, “dealing with a bunch of two-bit outlaws?”
Irick was blushing again, hotter this time. Brayden pressed on.
“We’re his foothold in the provinces, you might say. Keystone – that’s him – says there’s no way to imagine the future without understanding the past. These provinces, this desert, that’s where the past comes alive, innit? Sometimes, if you’re unlucky, it even hides in your boot.”
“There is no greater obstacle to God than time,” Cedwyn muttered.
Brayden nodded as if he’d heard something profound, but didn’t like the sound of it.
“We’ve been watching and watching out. For any sign that violence might be afoot. For anything at all that might end the peace between heartland and provinces. Sure enough, this seems like the beginning of the end. When things went wrong, we were called in.”
“Is that so?” Relic said, and Brayden raised an eyebrow before answering—
“Well, some of us have been in a bit longer than others,” he admitted, a bit shaken. “When there was a mite less action around here, that’s when we all worked together to build up the wall. It was one of the first things the boss—”
“Show me that,” Relic said all of a sudden.
“What?” said Brayden.
Relic pointed to something at the man’s hip. “That. Now.”
Carefully, Brayden brought up a metallic object dwarfed in his massive hands.
Relic forgot himself, forgot all courtesy, and snatched it from the man.
It was ...
“This pocket-watch ...” He turned it over, ran a thumb along the bottom edge. “My father made this.” Relic’s teeth clamped together in a stressful tic; he would have started pacing if not for the other Outriders around him. “That makes you – this – all of it ...”
“The Stopwatch Gang,” Cedwyn said aloud. “That’s been plaguing the area forty years.”
“How did you get this?” Relic demanded of Brayden, who had raised his hands.
“We bought it,” said Brayden. “As you well know, Relican.”
This took some of the tension out of Relic’s shoulders – and he calmed more as Cedwyn spoke.
“It was said the Stopwatch Gang could pick a coach completely clean in three minutes and disappear without a trace in three more. But after the armistice set in, they took on a much older name: The Blades. The blades in question being—”
He gestured to each man before him in turn.
“A barber’s scissors, a tailor’s shears, and a butcher’s knife. Fighters who couldn’t be disarmed by an occupying force even in times of peace. It’s said Sandia was founded by three blades – their own jailer let them go when the fourth escaped, rather than face execution.”
Taking a long, shaky breath, Relic surrendered the pocket-watch back to Brayden.
Cedwyn went on. “I take it you’re not robbing coaches any longer, are you, boys?”
“No, sir! N-not in my lifetime, sir!” said Irick. “And even before—”
“And the crossbows?” Jace interjected. “How did you lay your hands on those?”
“His doing,” Brayden said, looking to where Gabriel now stood on the landing of another set of stairs in the corner. “Built from scratch, mind you, with his own drawings – not stolen, a’course.”
“Foy trained all of you?” Relic said, a strange mixture of awe and disgust in his words.
“Some of us better’n others,” Brayden admitted, nodding companionably toward Irick.
It was as if Gabriel knew the moment his name had been spoken. Having completed his rounds in the taproom and gotten all the information he needed, he let out a low whistle like a bird’s. The Outriders each knew the sound instantly and came together as a group—
An arrow pointed toward Gabriel Foy.
“Never a’thought they’d be so impressive in person,” Brayden admitted into Irick’s ear.
The younger man nodded vigorously, his hand closed on the shell of his pocket-watch.
They watched the assembled Outriders go a few paces before they fell in line to follow. Foy paused a touch longer, nodding to himself as the song playing over on the gramophone changed to something else, something Irick well knew was among the old man’s favorite tunes of all.
On this storm-tossed sea of time ...
***
The group was several paces behind Foy when they started moving again, yet not a word was spoken until they’d gone some way. Relic had fallen naturally into the center of the group while Jace took point: All eyes were on the Librarian until his breath shifted and his shoulders relaxed.
But his eyes were like coals – as if he had discovered something all but unimaginable.
He did not even glance aside at the paintings or the wall-mounted torches illuminating them.
Now, he swore, he could hear the ticking within the cloaks of both of their guides.
They came to a T-junction where the door dead ahead had been decorated with a ripe pineapple, casually skewered by a brass blade that held it in place. It was sweet and pungent, but had not yet begun to rot. Its smell mingled with flowering vines like the ones at Sandia’s gates.
Isabelle gulped back a laugh as she noticed the griffon statue standing watch at the door.
Someone gave this one a little hat.
“When you’re done, you’ll find your weapons and supplies in your rooms: 223 through 226. Yes, that includes the cloaks and whatnot we found at Ali and Burnhardt’s places,” Brayden said with a nod. “Your horses have been extremely well cared for and are in the stables out back.”
Isabelle let out a sigh she hadn’t known she was holding.
“Thank you,” she said, looking to each in turn. “Both of you. Very much.”
As the Outriders crossed over the threshold, Foy signaled them to look out below. Instantly, they noticed the intricate shapes chalked over the floorboards. Sinuous spirals wended their way up the doorframe, hidden by the vines. Knowing without knowing, they stepped around.
Only Isabelle stopped, her eyes unfocused for the briefest moment.
It was Cedwyn, coming up behind her, who tried to brace her shoulders—
She snapped out of the instant they touched, glanced up at him with wide eyes—
And punched his arm. Hard.
“Ow!” Cedwyn yelped – and then signed silently: What was that for?
She said nothing, crossing the threshold first in line. Cedwyn followed.
“You do that?” Gabriel asked Brayden, indicating the sigils with a sweep of his hand.
“It was all Irick’s work,” Brayden answered. Gabriel nodded slowly, adjusting his hat.
“That’s some really good form, boy. You might actually get the hang of this someday.”
“Th-thank you, sir,” said Irick, before glancing over his shoulder. “Hey!” He reached out to stop Jace and Relic. “You oughta know, the plumbing and the heating stones are working, even if most of town ... well, isn’t. You’ll want a hot shower by now. I-it’s the Outrider way, isn’t it?”
“Once the mission is over,” Jace acknowledged. “Something tells me this one isn’t.”
“In that case, gods alone know when you’ll get to wash up,” Brayden said with a grin.
“We’ll give that some thought,” Jace mused, but it sounded like he wouldn’t.
“Reckon we’ll take our leave, then. Maybe see you below when you’ve done.”
Brayden plucked the cigar from his mouth and raised a hand to bid farewell. Irick smiled silently.
Before they could turn the corner, Jace called after them.
“Hey, Irick!” The unexpected sound made both men turn to face him. “I didn’t mean that whole two-bit outlaw crap. I have a habit of saying stupid shit, especially when I don’t know what I’m talking about. It’s obvious what you all are doing here is special and important, and thank you both very much for all you’ve done.” He blinked once, pointed at them. “I mean that.”
Perhaps they both realized that Jace could not have known what was going on.
Perhaps that made his words matter all the more.
Whatever the case, Irick’s mouth dropped open.
From just behind, Relic saw that un-nameable something take hold in the two. They wouldn’t know quite what to say about the Outriders, not tonight. But when they looked back, in tonight’s taproom chats or in weeks to come, they would remember Jace Dabriel the best.
Somehow, that’s how it always worked.
Relic turned toward the door – 222 – and left the ticking behind him.
He was surprised to find the door did not lead directly into an inn room, but to a sort of foyer where the occupant’s guests could wait in comfort. The chalk-marks continued all through the hall and across the floor. By the end, getting past them was almost like hopscotch.
Chalk lines swirled like tentacles leading out from a big rectangular painting.
The gilt of the frame had faded, but the browns and reds of the deep desert were surely as bright as the day they had been painted. In the midst of the trackless wasteland, centered in both the painting and the crazy whorl of chalk, a massive ziggurat stretched into a crimson sky.
The Ziggurat of Ur, Relic thought, an instant before he read the plaque at the bottom.
It was precisely the same as the one he had seen earlier in the booksh—
... had he seen it in the bookshop? The more he tried to remember, the harder it was.
No. There was no painting in the bookshop, he told himself. And again: No painting.
The nagging feeling in the back of his mind gave way. His comrades were waiting.
Cedwyn and Isabelle had gone deeper within; there was no doubt they’d been talking—
Isabelle flashed a small, enigmatic smile, and Cedwyn greeted him with an upward nod.
It was a few moments later when Jace entered, stepping aside to let Gabriel pass in turn.
The elder Outrider placed one hand on the door—
As the other withdrew a green stone that lay on the end of a chain like a pocket-watch.
It was the same green as his own eye.
A green that filled the whole world in a flash.
***
As the green radiance receded, it left behind a darkened room like a benighted shore.
The first thing they noticed in that room was the pair of green eyes gazing at them.
Even Relic could hardly pierce the gloom, but that flutter of motion, that flash of presence, those were things Outriders understood instinctively. They had the strange sensation of snapping their attention on it at the same instant – and coming to the same conclusions almost as fast.
The eyes narrowed and the thing favored them with a big, pink yawn displaying tiny fangs.
Foy’s rangy body was bent forward in the tentative light of a little spark; the first touch of fire on a fresh candle. As the flame took, it began to burn yellow – then settled into a watery, pale color. The candleholder, too, sat within a gentle circle of chalk runes.
Foy brought his face up to the wick, holding the candlelight in his gaze a moment—
Then snuffed out the fire-starter with a big, callused thumb and turned to his guests.
“Please, have a seat. Mind you don’t tread on Rathyost. Or anything else, for that matter.”
An overstuffed couch sat sedately at the end of the room. The Outriders helped themselves, not needing to coordinate at all before Jace and Isabelle settled in the center with Relic on Jace’s far side. Cedwyn leaned back against the couch-arm, closest to Foy.
“Tea?” asked Foy, raising the cup he’d poured himself in the interim.
“I’ll have some,” said Relic, and then remembered himself: “Please.”
“Very well,” said Foy, handing the cup over to Relic. As Foy turned to pour himself another, Relic pressed his palms against the pewter and was gratified to feel how warm it was. He had not noticed steam or heard the whistle of a kettle, and yet—
“Would you like to wash your hands?” Foy asked.
Relic recoiled before realizing the old man was not making fun of him.
“No, thank you,” said Relic, letting himself sink further into the sofa’s plush folds. He ignored Jace’s glance, closing his eyes and savoring the first sip of tea, but he never stopped listening.
Had he been watching, he would have seen that Foy was just as slow, just as intent. The tea was strong, yet subtle: A creamy emerald green. Sprinkles of some unknown, sweet spice danced lazily within. Foy spooned some fresh red honey from a mason jar before his first gulp.
He suddenly looked very old. His Adam’s apple bobbed as he swallowed.
His strength gathered, he spoke in a measured, resonant voice.
“A storm comes. A gale for some. A blizzard for others. None other like it in winter or summer.”
They sat in silence for a long time before Jace spoke up.
“Back to speaking in riddles, old man?”
Gabriel Foy met Jace’s commanding gaze—
He whet his lips, but there was no sign he would wither under that stare.
“No,” Foy said, tone unassuming. “It’s a simple observation. Stormur figlir kyofar.”
“A storm follows in his wake,” Relic said – the characteristic too-loud whisper of a thought that had leapt unbidden from mind to mouth. “Vinish, from Winterwine.” Foy nodded tightly but said no more, lips pursing like a desert lizard. “Who does it refer to? This Valith character?”
“Aye, lad. He and his ilk are called Tears. Mark that word well and forget the synonyms your imagination entertains, if you can. “This is no matter of wyse-ards and sophists, no fable or fairy tale, but a grave threat. And if you are not very careful, a grave threat. Yes, indeed.”
Foy dropped at last into his own armchair, and Rathyost was there in an instant to rest in his lap.
“So, do me the kindness to – how do the kids say it? – keep the word wizard out of your mouth.”
Foy scratched the little calico behind the ears and it began to rumble—
At the same moment Relic felt Jace begin to boil.
“I’m sure we’re not here for a grammar lesson,” he said. “We could’ve got that from him.”
Relic knew Jace was pointing his way; he concealed his eye-roll with another sip of tea.
“Indeed not, young one. But precision is required, for it is one of the few advantages you hold over our foe. Valith is an enemy who rendered legions – your legions, if you recall – powerless. He is no less dangerous for being known to you, though the danger has changed.”
“Then tell us about it,” said Jace. “What is he? Why is he here?”
“In due time, Dabriel,” Foy said, now casually dismissive as only an old man who was set in his ways could ever be. “Funny name, Dabriel. You lot, educated by the likes of Thean, must know the origin of that name. The Angel of History stands with his face turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe, which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet.”
As the cadence of Foy’s voice drifted off, Cedwyn continued – looking down as he recited.
“The angel would like to stay and make whole what has been smashed, but a storm is blowing from Paradise. The storm blows him inevitably into a future he cannot see, while the ruin before his eyes grows ever skyward.” Cedwyn looked up to Foy. “The storm is what we call progress.”
“If you wish to know what Valith is, consider him the storm. There is raw power there we cannot match. We cannot capture the wind, but we can adjust our sails. That is why you are here.” Foy’s one green eye glinted in the candlelight. “If we are to endure, Jaden must reach Bryce Valley.”
“Operation Sunstone,” Isabelle breathed.
“Well, yes,” said Foy. “I wanted to call it Cornerstone, personally, but what can you do?”
“If he’s coming,” said Relic, “why not make a stand against him here? Couldn’t Jaden ...”
“Absolutely not,” said Foy, cutting him off so harshly Rathyost looked up. “You cannot imagine what it is you ask for and you do not wish to. But if you must try,” he added, exasperated by the unspoken question he saw on every face, “envision a hundred Fairlawns. A thousand.”
Relic let out a long breath he didn’t realize he’d been holding.
“I see.”
“Such battles once shaped the world, and there’s no telling how it might be reshaped if they were fought again today. No, my friends, that outcome we must avoid above all others. The course you will take was cleared for you months ago – in some ways, years ago.”
Foy raised his hand from Rathyost’s soft flank and the candle’s flame began to rise.
“Before the enemy set its sights on Fairlawn, a man named Burnhardt Stone led a group of his fellow Sandians to Telminster – to the steps of the capital. It was said to be a protest march.”
The candle flame stretched toward Foy’s palm and grew, painting a vision of multicolored fire in which the stern, careworn face of Burnhardt Stone could be plainly seen, his fellows at his back.
Isabelle’s eyes widened, her mouth forming a silent oh of surprise—
But Relic sat up straight and tense, putting his teacup aside.
“In truth, Burnhardt was there to deliver an artifact: The Horn of Chobin. That horn came to him from the royal treasury of Sindell, where it, in turn, had been deposited by Valith himself.”
The flicker flames formed a visage all of cruel, sharp edges; cold, even rendered in flame.
“Naturally, Sandia has many grievances with Telminster to choose from. With this ruse, it was a small matter for a man of Burnhardt’s experience to get the horn to a dear friend: Alarick Dale.”
As Foy half-closed his hand, Jace Dabriel saw Alarick’s unmistakable smirk etched in flame.
The other Outriders were looking his way.
“Fairlawn Bazaar,” Jace snorted. “My ass.”
Foy tightened his hand into a fist and the fire winked out. With delicate care, he lifted the little calico and deposited it on the floor before striding to the window. This he threw open, letting in a stream of light from the torches set up outside.
“It was not so long thereafter that lauded barrister – eldest son of my best friend, may I add – began his long game of regicide against Valith, the so-called demon of the four winds.” Foy closed his eyes tight as if fighting against a sudden headache. “Full of hot air that he is.”
Slowly, Foy paced back across the room.
“What you most need to know, to have the utmost faith in, is this: Without that meeting, without Aleister Duchenne, Jace and Relic would not have been the exact right people, in the exact right place, at the exact right time, under the exact right circumstances to do what had to be done.”

Relic’s mind whirled with the possibilities as he listened—

“... and you can trace those events back and back and back,” said Foy. “As you no doubt will. But that must wait. We, all of us, have our roles to play in this. We are all pieces in this game, on this board. All actors in this series of … Acts.”
Relic could hold his tongue no longer: “Are you a Tear?”

Foy laughed a long, joyous cackle.

“There are no words for what I’ve become. In this, or any other language you care to search, Librarian.” Suddenly, fluidly, Foy drew eye-to-eye with Relic. “You’ve met with a terrible fate, haven’t you? You’ve read too much. I can see it in your eyes already.”

“I have taken all knowledge to be my providence,” Relic quoted.

“That’ll bring you nothing but misery,” Foy said with a smile—

And he was about to turn away; but then he stopped short—

“Huh,” said Foy, tipping just that much nearer, so that his own eyes took up all of Relic’s vision – as if he, the old man, could find something yet hidden in the younger’s face. “And yet you’ve overlooked the first lesson you ought to have learned: As above, so below. The disease you fought down beneath is no ordinary ailment: It is a symptom of the disease we are all fighting.”

Foy continued pacing, always stepping over the chalk lines on the floor without ever looking.

“The spirit of the world grows sick – and as goes the spirit, so too goes the body.”

Now he drew a pocket-watch, letting it catch the faint light from outside.

“There are places in this world that have been distorted through the machinations in Westwood and others.” His back was turned to the Outriders, but he raised the timepiece a little higher. “Yes, Relican, it is one of your father’s – the name of the Stopwatch Gang is his doing. Because only the watches he made keep ticking in those places, those times without time.”

He turned to face them all again, the pocket-watch jigging between gnarled hands.

“That was his power, his – shall we say, nature – and it is one of the gifts he has passed to you. For each one of you: Your birth, your history, your choices. These were not coincidences, but they aren’t fate. You must decide what they mean, and that choice will come soon.”

Foy stretched out his aching back, then returned to settle in his chair once more. The Outriders were silent, each in thought so private they would not have shared them even with each other.

“You oughtn’t be so hard on my boys, either. Thieves, yes. But we are all God’s thieves – living on borrowed time. You boys borrowed some, quite well – a fancy feat for one named Dabriel – but now, together, we must seize the moment once more. And it shall make all the difference.”

Instinctively, Cedwyn pulled his own pocket-watch free and looked down—

The hands were frozen.

At Foy’s will, once again, time had come to a stop.

Of course, Cedwyn thought, hiding a sour smirk best he could. This is the calm before the storm.

“Valith has scoured Sandia in search of the Communion Vault of Time. Were he to lay his hands on it ...” Foy glanced up as if seeking the answer. “... some hope would remain, but it would lie at the end of a long, miserable, desperate struggle. One in which the enemy knows every plan – and not only that, but every secret thought, every longing of the heart. Such is the power of the Vault that, with his will, it could render all the world like Westwood Forest.”

Cedwyn finally, slowly dragged his attention away from the stopped watch.

“How long?” he asked; and to Foy’s bland look his way: “How long were we in Westwood?”

“Best ask your friend Calloway,” Foy said. He held Cedwyn’s gaze, willing him to relent. When the younger man did not, Foy responded: “Many, many years. More than you’ve been alive.”

“A century? Longer?”

“What matters is,” Jace broke in. “We’re alive here and now.”

“That’s the spirit,” said Foy with a sudden, weary smile.

“Were you not here in Sandia, Valith would have the advantage in seeking the Vault. But: The chance to confront the Outriders, those few who blazed a trail through his net, is more than he can resist. That is his nature.”

“You know that for a fact?” said Cedwyn.

“I know him well enough,” Foy answered. “As principles follow postulates, so too the thoughts of our neighborhood wind demon.” The elder relished a long blink and a slow smile, looking at Relic to say: “Am I speaking your language now, young man?”

Relic nodded tightly. “Yes, sir. Thank you.”

“Good. I hoped so.” Foy brought a hand up to his mouth to clear his throat – and had the decency to look a little abashed when he admitted: “Even if he weren’t so predictable, it has gotten easier since I took the liberty of letting him know you’re here.”

Jace was about to rocket to his feet—

But his feet had barely touched the floor when Rathyost leapt into Isabelle’s lap.

Diverted by the sudden shift, Jace sat down heavily. Isabelle drew the cat into her arms and began to stroke its ears; the little beast looked to Jace, its gaze sedate and contented.

“The wisdom of cats,” said Foy. “In war, as in politics, timing is everything.” Foy paused to appreciate the sight of an Outrider, Isabelle, showing such tenderness – yet not swayed from the task at hand. “Valith is mightier than any one of us, but he will not miss the chance to seek out those who made a fool of him. That shall give me – and the boys – the chance we need.”

“The chance to do what?” said Jace.

“To end him.”

Relic broke in: “So the fight to protect Sandia is a diversion.”
“Excuse me?” said Foy.

“We’re nothing more than an elaborate form of bait,” Relic continued. “You plan to have us run – with the only person who can face this enemy head-on – so he chases us into a trap. Is that it?”

For the first time, Foy looked aggravated. He dragged his palm slowly over his face.

“I have done my best here, my sincerest best, to grant you some semblance of perspective into what we are dealing with. I have done this in the hopes that you might appreciate the history …” A wry look crossed his weathered face. “... that led us to this moment.”

“There’s one thing you’re forgetting,” said Relic. And when he looked over, an ashen-faced Jace was already facing him. “We saw what will happen if ... if we follow through with this plan.”

“I’m sorry?” said Foy.

“You sh—” Jace started to say, but Relic spoke over him.

“Jaden showed us what will become of this town. Above and below ... no one here survives.”

Relic held Foy’s gaze a long time before raising his eyebrows in a silent, emphatic question.

“It would have been best had she not. For, the river of time notwithstanding, there’s nothing you can do. The lives of the people here are in their own hands, and the odds are not in their favor.”

“You plan to sacrifice them?” Jace demanded.

“We’ll do the best we can, of course.”

“We ... we struggled with them for three days. We saved them,” Jace said—

An almost pleading note in his voice that made Isabelle draw subtly closer.

“And every moment of life is a treasure,” said Foy, “for as long as it lasts.”

A jag of wet coughing stopped him, and he patted his upper chest with his fist.

The Outriders looked to one another in stunned silence.
“But understand this. Even Jaden does not know the specific details of this plan. It was imperative that none, not even she, be placed in the position of being so compromised. Even in Westwood, in the effort to reach you, she fell again and again.”

Jace and Relic thought of the strange wagon and the dead woman.

Eyes wide, Jace addressed Foy in a tone filled with awe:

“Professor Marvelous?”

“Marvel, yes,” said Foy, his smile returning with an odd quirk; none of them could name that emotion, but it reminded them more of the cat than of someone like Thean. “One of many masks. Used and then discarded, but not lightly. Great pains were taken to keep Valith and Irenus from seeing through our disguises. But if Jaden were compromised again, she may be lost.”

Foy let out a long, deep sigh as he saw Jace and Relic look to one another again.

“We have only just met, Outriders, but believe me: I have always been with you.”

Foy stood and made a beckoning gesture. Without a second thought, Jace and Relic stood.

“It is no small matter to be burdened with knowledge as you two are. It was not my intent for Jaden, in her – courageous hope – to burden you further by showing you what she did. But perhaps it is best that you know the seriousness of that burden.”

He rested a hand on Relic’s shoulder, but went on speaking to both.

“This day will serve you well when the time comes to face what’s still forbidden to you.”

In Foy’s eyes, Relic saw himself.

“Your place is not here. For all we have done, I must ask you ... I beg you ... I order you to go.”

Jace saw someone else entirely.

“Outriders, on me,” said Jace Dabriel.

In the blink of an eye, the other Outriders had taken their places around him.

“Be ready to depart,” he told them, never dropping Foy’s gaze. “At oh-five hundred.”

Relief flickered, though only briefly, on Gabriel Foy’s craggy face.

“Aut inveniam viam aut faciam,” he intoned, and clasped Jace’s arm in the Outrider salute.

Aut inveniam viam aut faciam,” answered all of the Outrider Point Team in one voice.

There was nothing more to say, but still much to be done.

Divider (2)
 Chapter Nineteen  (E)
The White Raven
#2190514 by Dan Hiestand
Divider (2)
© Copyright 2019 Dan Hiestand (danhiestand at Writing.Com). All rights reserved.
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