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Printed from https://www.writing.com/main/view_item/item_id/2190515-Chapter-Twenty
Rated: E · Chapter · Action/Adventure · #2190515
Operation Sunstone
CHAPTER TWENTY

Operation Sunstone


“There is no God, but Hell is real.”

VALITH
Divider (2)
Provinces
Sandia
Aquamarine (March) 17, 2013

All throughout Sandia, homes and shops still lay abandoned – but out in each doorway and thoroughfare, light crystals hung. It was enough for The Blades to see by as they made their last preparations: Laying down caltrops at choke-points, hauling casks of oil to rooftop positions—

And saying no small number of not-quite farewells, Isabelle noticed.

The Fallen Angel sat alone on the stone lip of the roof of Ali’s Books with only a few smaller griffon statues to keep her company. There was just enough light for her to add a last cityscape to her logbook: With a thoughtful frown, she dabbed a charcoal stone across the page just so.

Rough, but precise, just like The Blades themselves.

Everywhere around her, the ingenuity of these so-said thieves and killers was on display: The work of generations confounding foes with greater numbers trained only for a face-to-face fight.

On another day, it would be a fascinating composition. The twinkling of those lights, the arches and columns and domes stretching far away until the last hints of civilization faded into the sand.

Right now, however, she couldn’t keep herself from one thought:

How will they snuff all these lights? What if the enemy uses them to pick out targets?

“That won’t be a problem,” said a voice, and Isabelle suddenly realized she was not alone.

Instinctively, she slammed her logbook shut – as much for the confidentiality of the Outrider Order as her own feelings about her art. A grimace crossed her face as charcoal dust rose from the pages: The fine detail work on the architecture was sure to smudge now.

When she looked up, Jaden’s soft gaze on her made it impossible to feel bad.

The lady sorceress was standing just a few paces away – right there on the roof, in her customary garb, as if it were the most normal thing in the world. She offered a hand to help Isabelle up; the Outrider took it, using the other to slip her book back into concealment.

“All of these lights can go out with a single word from Gabriel,” Jaden told her. Her voice was soothing; her smile, moreso. “I’m sorry – I just had a feeling you’d be concerned about that.”

“It had crossed my mind,” Isabelle acknowledged with a taut little smile of her own.

“Gabriel asked me to bring you this,” said Jaden. As she dropped the pocket-watch into Isabelle’s cupped palms, the light crystals caught its surface like a brilliant flash of golden starlight, making it seem the crouched griffon etched on the cover would soon take flight.

Isabelle gently pushed the cover open with the tip of her thumb. The inside was as impressive: The hands were slender, yet angular, matching the long rose-gold chain. Beyond the numerals, the face was banded with a splendid, remarkably intricate border of subtly interlaced shapes—

Only after she’d looked at them for a long time did she notice the clock-face.

Isabelle let out a small, grateful sigh before asking: “What are these extra hands for?”

“One is for the millennium,” said Jaden. “The other is for the aeon.” Isabelle’s urge to laugh it off faded the instant she looked up and met Jaden’s eyes. “This watch is for ...” She considered how to put it. “Places between place, and times without time. It will keep you from getting lost.”

“You mean like in Westwood.”

“Yes. Among others,” she said. “Each of you will get one – except Relican. He has one.”

Closed, the watch was as warm as an egg, and Isabelle found herself loath to put it down.

“We only just made contact with Foy. How could anyone have made this so fast?”

“Most of the time, causes precede effects. Other times ... it’s just a suggestion.” Jaden was still smiling, but there was a tinge of sadness in it now. “Relic’s father made the set decades ago.”

“Are you saying he didn’t know why?”

“Do artists ever know why?” Jaden responded airily. “May I sit with you?”

“Yes ...” Isabelle glanced down, dusting off the lip of the roof. “Please.”

They sat in companionable silence for a while before Jaden asked, “How are you feeling?”

Isabelle answered with a single question: “Can the Blades handle this? Really handle it?”

“The Blades have been through many trials,” Jaden said levelly.

“Thankfully, none of them in front of a magistrate,” Isabelle offered. But her heart wasn’t in it. “It’s going to be dangerous,” she went on, gazing wistfully over the city. “It always is, but ...”

“This is different,” Jaden acknowledged. “What happens here tonight will change everything.”

Isabelle nodded. Her voice was quiet and serious as she worked slowly through her thoughts. “That’s true, too. Every day changes things, and there’s no going back. But most days ... even for us ... you feel like you can protect everyone. It might not be true, but you have to try.”

“I have one more thing for you, Isabelle. But you have to accept it freely, or ...”

She let her voice trail off there, and Isabelle looked up; her eyes wide, questioning.

Jaden reached once more into a pouch within her robes and withdrew what, at first, looked like just another chain. As it unspooled in her gentle hands, Isabelle thought twice: It was a necklace.

A jade necklace like the one Jace had before. Was it the one Jace had before?

Isabelle thought a moment; then slowly reached out and touched the stone—

As it came in contact with her fingertips, there was a chill, then an electric feeling that tingled all through her. Without another word, she turned in place so that her legs were dangling from the roof, her back presented to Jaden. The lady closed the delicate clasp around the Outrider’s neck.

With her head bowed and her eyes closed, Isabelle began to recite—

“Its polish represents purity; its hardness, intellect; its angles, justice; its sound, music; its colors, loyalty; its flaws, sincerity; its brightness, hope; its simplicity, temperance; its value, truth.”

In the silence left behind, she realized that Jaden had spoken every word along with her.

And she remembered.

She gripped the necklace in both hands, primal fear electrifying every inch of her skin—

Why?

“It was almost inevitable you’d remember it all tonight.” Jaden placed a comforting hand on her shoulder; her voice was succor, even though the words were bitter. “Your friends, too. When Valith comes, he’ll smell of that place. That’s where he belongs, not here.”

“Mirror Lake,” Isabelle choked. Tears misted her eyes—

Jaden drew her into a sudden, fierce hug, and she could breathe again.

Slowly, she found her voice. “Jace knows? And Relic?”

“They will soon,” Jaden said, watching Isabelle’s downcast face for any reaction.

“And Cedwyn?”

“Cedwyn never forgot,” said Jaden. “Cedwyn never forgets.”

“That bastard,” Isabelle whispered – then let out a laugh.

“What was it Jace said?” Jaden asked. “Here and now, we’re alive.” Jaden nodded to herself, dabbing the tears from Isabelle cheek. “Foy told me all about it. He was impressed with all of you.” She softly cupped Isabelle’s chin, raising it to look into her eyes. “You can’t save them all, not this time. But you can protect each other. That will never change – I promise you that.”

Isabelle’s next breath was still ragged and thready with emotion, but she began to settle.

“Tell me what I have to do.”

“No matter what happens, I can’t challenge Valith. Not here ... but you may be able to.”

“Me?”

“If something happens, if he reaches us somehow and there’s no other choice ...”

Jaden rose smoothly to her feet.

Isabelle wanted to reach out, to stop her—

But instead she nodded mutely, listening.

“You’ll feel something. It’ll feel like ... a memory. Follow that instinct. Listen to it. I can’t tell you any more than that ... if I describe it, you’ll look for it. And if you look for it, you’ll miss it.”

“I understand,” said Isabelle. “I think.”

“Don’t think. Trust yourself.” She brought her hands together. “As much as you trust him.”

“I’ll try, Jaden. Thank you.”

Jaden looked at her a moment longer as if there was something more she yearned to say.

Then she nodded and turned away—

Isabelle never saw Jaden leave, or even figured out how she had gotten down. For, right as she would have thought about it, the horizon was filled with a malicious red glow – something that dredged terror from deep in her soul. This time, she was ready; she watched without flinching.

A crimson comet sailed from someplace far down the road leading into Sandia.

She knew that if it were to fall in the city, to fall on her, there would be no escape. So, she didn’t run. She retrieved the watch once more, cradled its warmth in her hand, and told herself: Remember everything. About this and everything else. Never, ever choose to forget.

The comet passed harmlessly over the city, its arc drifting earthward at last—

Somewhere in the far desert.

As Isabelle ran to join the others, a second one – blue, now – did the same.

She didn’t know what it could mean, but she knew it wasn’t good.

***

The cloudless night sky was a spiral of ten thousand stars, all silent and distant and changeless as they had been since the days of the ancient desert-kings. The moon was still high when Irick, leading a small band of other highwaymen, settled on the road leading into Sandia.

They crouched low in the brush, setting no fires, and waited.

About an hour had passed when they first noticed shadows wheeling across the moon.

There were five, then ten, then twenty – pitch black ripples against the smoldering cloak of starlit night, blotting out the heavens where they passed. The Stopwatch Gang waited in silence, Irick’s knuckles white against the handle and stock of his weapon.

He remembered the legends. Before his eyes, the shadows became slavering, hungry things.

He let out a whistle – the sound of a desert thrush – to warn the others to seek better cover. But there was no place out on the road where one could escape the open sky, and the darkness was so heavy that it would be impossible to fire until the last instant.

His Adam’s apple bobbed as he gulped, cleared his throat, and made the sound again.

This time, a hundred voices rose in answer: Caw! Caw!

The sound echoed for miles, shaking the very sands of the desert for minutes before it faded.

That fresh strangeness cleared Irick’s mind, and he realized the shapes he had taken for monsters were nothing more than birds. They had emerged from the depths of the desert when Sandia was attacked, lingered for a week or two, then returned to the sands.

And now they were coming back.

Irick sought Brayden’s eyes in the gloom. The older man had dropped his cigar. Looking away – a polite gesture the other probably didn’t see – he peered this way and that, counting the others.

Certainly, a bunch of crows couldn’t harm them.

Or were they ravens?

It was then he realized something else was out of place.

It was a smell, a scent he could barely remember. Like the sea—

“Get down!” Irick shouted, bursting out of cover to sprint up the road.

He had no sooner said it than the sky above them began to bleed. Even the hardened men of the gang were struck dumb for a moment as crimson spilled across everything, turning the sky into a horror of half-seen afterimages that lingered behind the eyelids long after the light was gone.

Finally – after what felt like an eternity too long – they began to scatter.

The comet arced overhead, past Sandia and far out into the desert.

But only Irick had the time to trace its path, his head rolling in place as he ran. He was moving without thought, but not without purpose: His weapons were in his hands, already loaded. The two clicks, not quite simultaneous, sounded like disjointed thunder in his ears.

His breath burned in his lungs when he summited the overlook alongside town—

Finding himself face to face with something unspeakable.

The last thing he knew was a memory. That smell. The storm.

Something his father had taught him.

The storm is what we call—

***

The sky had gone red, then blue. A great comet lingered long over their heads like a blue sun.

Gabriel Foy knew what it meant – though he wished, more than anything, he could be wrong.

More than that, he knew where to look.

There was a gazebo along the road leading to Sandia, not far from the overlook, and that’s where Gabriel Foy first set eyes on Valith. The wizard was not alone; a younger man stood close by, his mirror image except for a few pale scars. Only the elder was flawless.

Two others, hooded and nameless, stood one to either side. The sight filled Foy with disgust.

Valith himself was toying with a pineapple, gripping it in one gloved hand while he worked his knife into it with the other. The terrain around them was already pockmarked where his men – if men they could be called – had pried up the griffon statues and heaved them off the overlook.

As an afterthought, they had strung up some lanterns with barbed wire.

How polite of them, thought Foy.

Peering over his glasses, Valith surveyed his handiwork; raised the pineapple in one palm so his brother could admire it as well; then set it aside and plunged the knife into the table before him.

“Let’s get this over with,” Valith said, his calm voice seething with something unnatural.

“So be it,” said Foy, drawing close to the table. “We’re prepared to accept your surrender.”

Valith slammed both palms flat on the table, gazed at Gabriel Foy, and laughed. Foy knew it was a real laugh, deep from the depths of whatever the hell passed for his soul, just as well as he knew he should cover his ears. The vibrations still made him feel ill—

Valith twisted like a distant, distorted image. Then, he was there.

“I am ...” He took a breath that fell from his mouth like ice. “The Demon of the Four Winds, the Alchemist-King Who is Called Markos the Magician and Many Other Names, First and Father of Sophists, Speaker for the Son of the Sun, Who is Himself True Lord of the World.”

Foy’s face was like stone. Valith waited a beat, then tilted his head ever so gently to the side.

“Perhaps you’ve heard of me?” he prompted.

Still Foy stood there, his arms crossed.

“I know who you are. What do you want?”

Valith seemed to think on this question. “A smoke. A whiskey. For the sun to shine—”

At his side, Irenus snickered. Valith gave him a little sideways nod of acknowledgement.

Then, quick as that, Valith’s eyes hardened as he focused on Foy:

“You’ve had such a long time to figure that out and it still eludes you. Just one thing, always the same thing ...” He held up his finger. “Is it not a matter worthy of lamentation that where there is such a vast multitude of worlds, we have not yet conquered one?”

Foy eased himself into his seat and rested his elbows on the table, locking eyes with Valith.

“Better get back to looking, then, ‘cause it sure as hell ain’t gonna be this one.”

“Who’s going to stop me? You? Your little band of miscreants is hardly in a position to try a thing so bold. I think you’ll find the people of Sandia more than glad to hear what I have to say. In fact, why should I bother talking to you? Why couldn’t I just talk to them ...?”

He snapped his fingers.

“Ah, yes. They can’t hear me. So, listen well, hunter.”

Foy glanced down and back up. He was toying with a little nub of chalk in his fingers.

“I take it this is your idea of a blue flag. So, I’m listening. Say your bit.”

“It’s simple. All you have to do is leave Sandia and no one comes to harm.”

“What? Me personally?” Foy pressed his free hand to his chest. “I’m touched.”

“Not just you, you daft old goat. Everyone. Pack up your donkeys and go, I don’t care where. It won’t matter to me. You should’ve died long ago, but out of professional courtesy, I’ll give you a chance to put your affairs in order. All you must do is give me this useless no-water town.”

Gabriel Foy gazed down at the table, taking a long time to deliberate.

The chalk went back and forth, back and forth, as he rolled it in his palms.

Then he said: “Go suck a lemon.”

“You’re about to learn a lesson I should have taught you a long time ago—”

“Third time’s the charm,” Gabriel interrupted, his voice full of malice.

“—by the end of this night, you’ll know,” said Valith, “There is no God, but Hell is real.”

“I think they say hell is other people. Having met you, I’m inclined to agree.”

“Last time – that was but a friendly visit. This time, I’m not joking around!”

Valith’s voice eclipsed the sky. But when Foy whispered his answer, it was clear just the same.

“No matter how the wind howls, the mountain cannot bow to it.”

Valith leapt to his feet.

“How dare y—”

And then he stopped. In a flash, out of the corner of his eye, perhaps he saw Foy shiver in the cold. Perhaps he remembered his past or thought about his purpose. His gaze, the pitiless storm, went down – down to the rotting pineapple.

“Would you care to see your son’s last moments?”

A strangled cry came from Foy as if he’d been struck—

Valith turned the pineapple around. There, in grotesque detail, was Irick’s screaming face.

“They looked just like that,” said Valith. “I knew I recognized that stench – it was yours, wasn’t it? He wouldn’t even have been born yet last time. Wouldn’t you know, he fired a shot at me?”

Irenus reached down to hand over a crossbow bolt, which Valith peered at with a strange, thoughtful expression. The wood was warped and blackened like it had frozen over, then thawed. Despite it all, a faded and broken pattern of chalked runes still circled along the shaft.

“At maybe arm’s length and he still couldn’t hit me. That should’ve tipped me off, really.”

Foy still hadn’t answered, but he was on his feet now, his breath like a bellows—

His fingers working the air as if he would strangle Valith with his bare hands.

Valith handed the crossbow bolt back to his brother, then stood and stretched.

His yawn was just wide enough; moonlight on too-sharp incisors, there and gone.

“We threw him off the overlook ... well, actually, I guess you could say I flicked him off – it got to be kind of an instinct from back in my days hunting through the tundra.” Standing, Valith stepped over to the ledge and mimed the movement of thumb and forefinger. “Poing! But don’t worry, Gabesy ... he didn’t go alone. We sent him some company ...”

With that, he seized one of the griffon statues and hurled it over.

“Ka-pow!” Irenus supplied, tapping the bolt against his forehead to signal a brilliant thought.

“Ka-pow, indeed, brother!” Valith said, letting out another laugh. Tears of undisguised glee poured down his face. “Oh, don’t take it so hard, old friend – you know what they say ...” He gave a resounding clap of enthusiasm. “Whatever doesn’t kill you ... severely disappoints me.”

Foy, his head bowed, returned his own slow clap of grudging acknowledgment.

“The feeling ...”

One.

“I assure you ...”

Two.

“Is mutual.”

Three.

“Brother, look o—”

On the third clap, the chalk sigils on both of Foy’s palms ignited in a whirlwind of sapphire.

The gazebo was obliterated in an instant – nothing but fiery splinters raining in all directions.

It threw a shaft of light as bright as the sun for miles—

And when it finally faded, there was only the dark tide of Valith’s troops filing down the hill.

The battle for Sandia had begun.

***

The tree the Outriders waited beside was ancient – the first on the continent, in some legends.

It was an angel oak, Relic knew, and that name would be impressive enough if anyone ever used it. To the Sandians, it had another name: The Mana Tree. Its canopy spread skyward in a thousand shades of green, alive with the bounty of spring despite meager, colorless soil. Its roots were big enough that any Outrider could sit between two and be completely lost to sight.

Relic thought of Westwood Forest – and, for the first time, the memory held no dread.

He wondered if Jace felt the same way, but before he could look, his gaze was drawn upward – to the highest boughs of the sacred tree. There: The tiniest tremor of leaves, lost to the others.

Was something watching them? Or maybe just me?

Jaden’s comforting hand on his shoulder shook him out of his reverie.

They shared a look – just a glance, but it felt longer – that seemed to say everything.

“This will only take a minute,” she said.

Relic straightened up and stepped away from the tree. As he strode toward the waiting horses a few feet away, he caught a glimpse of Cedwyn, who had been standing with one palm pressed flat against the bark. Side by side, they rejoined Jace and Isabelle—

Isabelle, he noticed, had not looked away from Jaden for even an instant.

Jaden leaned forward and placed both her hands on the tree. Her eyes were half-lidded; a small smile – almost a smirk – sat on her lips The four of them watched with wonder as she gently coaxed a soothing blue light from deep within the tree.

The life of the Earth, Relic thought. Isabelle gave a delighted gasp, and he smiled.

The light shifted to a lighter, softer lavender, and Jaden let her eyes open.

The tree shuddered. Its large branches folded in on themselves like wings behind an angel.

There was revealed the crude outline of a tunnel; and, just beyond, a fine carriage. It was marked with an intricate rune symbol. Relic gazed steadily at it, but the deeper truth there remained elusive until his eyes began to water. All he was left with was a single thought: “It’s beautiful.”

Jaden’s smile turned on him. “Yes,” she said. “That and more besides.”

Lifting her eyes to Dabriel, she went on.

“These tunnels will lead us under the mountains. They come out at the Gap of Ezru.”

“Would’ve made our trip a whole lot easier if we’d known,” Cedwyn drawled.

Suddenly, it was all Cedwyn could do not to shrink under the heat of her gaze.

“The tunnels aren’t safe. Not even for you.” Anticipating his next question, she spoke on. “If we stay together, there’ll be no problem. Alone ...” Her eyes unfocused. “Sandia isn’t the only place where the flow of time is different. And you wouldn’t want to see that again.”

“And again, and again,” Cedwyn added grimly.

The numinous feeling was gone, leaving something raw and painful behind.

“It was part of the trailways. The Continental Railroad that could’ve united Ciridian.”

“No work has been done on that for generations,” said Relic. “Not since the Civil War.”

“Yes,” Jaden answered. “But the trail was poisoned right away.” Her eyes scoured the dark. “As soon as Valith arrived here from Sindell. It’s a serpent’s road now, and it’s not the only one.”

Jace was standing a few paces away beside the horses. He had not spoken a word on the ride, and whatever sublime force was cloaked in the guise of that tree had no effect on him. His hat was in his hand; his gaze leveled across the brush and sand, through the shadows.

Back the way they came: To Sandia.

“Hey,” Isabelle said, touching his shoulder. Even then, it took a heartbeat more—

“Foy said the attack wouldn’t begin until dawn,” Jace said, almost to himself. “Or shortly after.”

Jaden narrowed her eyes. “He did,” she acknowledged with a nod. “He was wrong.”

“Dawn is over an hour away,” Jace continued, voice stern. “What’ll it do to his plan?”

After a long silence, Jaden sighed. “I ... I don’t know, Jace.”

“But you discussed it. You must have talked about it last night.”

“Yes ... we spoke, but not about strategy. I don’t know how he’s planning to defend the town.” She leaned back slightly against the tree, fatigue evident in her body, her voice. “Somewhere down the line, getting me back to Veil’driel became the most important thing.”

“To Duchenne,” Jace said, indicting the man as if he were standing right there.

“Gabriel believes it, too.” She considered. “He wouldn’t listen to anything else.”

“You tried to tell him?” Jace asked. Now, at last, he turned to face her.

“Jace. Tonight is – it’s a chance to change fate. It might save the Republic. Save ...”

“What good will that be to them?” Jace asked. “They’re all going to die.” He paced forward, a slow and almost unsteady step: One, two. The fires of those first comets that had streaked across the sky in the darkness of the desert behind him glimmered still in his eyes.

“Jace,” Cedwyn started to say, but Relic put a steadying hand on his shoulder. No. When Cedwyn glanced back, he knew that the sight of those comets had affected Relic just as much.

“The men, women, and children in those tunnels. Gabriel’s gang …” Jace’s hand drifted slowly down to his belt. Where the horn had been all those months ago. Where his feverlew had been.

The hand recoiled—

Like the branches of the great tree.

Or like touching something hot.

“I think ...” A sharp breath hissed out through his clenched teeth. “I think we have to go back.”

“That would be a direct violation of our orders,” Cedwyn said.

“Would it?” said Jace, and then looked to Relic. “How do we know those pages are authentic?”

“I’ve read every word in Thean’s logbook backwards and forwards at least a hundred times,” Relic said; his voice a plain recitation of the facts. “I could write a treatise on the subject of how he writes in his own handwriting. Every loop, every—”

“Please,” said Cedwyn, waving a little. “Go on.”

“They’re authentic,” Relic concluded. “But honestly? I don’t necessarily give a shit.”

“How does this thing move?” Isabelle asked suddenly. She was looking at the carriage; her hand hovered just an inch from touching it. “Did you have horses and a driver when you got here?”

“It doesn’t need those things,” Isabelle told her, then looked back to Jace. “We should go.”

At once, there was a flash of electric blue light. A blazing pillar pierced the sky from somewhere near the town, miles from where the comets had fallen into the trackless wastes. The Outriders shielded their eyes as, for a full minute, the entire sky lit up and glowed like noon.

Not only had the attack come long before Gabriel expected—

But, as Jace took out his spyglass – his mounting trepidation weighing his movements until they felt like the slow crawl of a nightmare – he already knew the truth. Knew before he could see it.

Centered in his sights, a black tide of troops was flowing down from the mountains. There were more than Gabriel knew, and part of Jace wondered just how they’d concealed their number.

That part was distant, as far away as Jaden’s voice repeating the words: We should go.

In fact, she had said nothing—

And everyone was looking at him.

Jace raised himself up into Highfly’s saddle.

“I agree. We should go,” he said—

Then reared his horse around and started back toward Sandia. The others knew what they were seeing: The very same force that had propelled him down that hill toward the reagent wagon.

On a fateful night just like this one.

“Where the hell have you been, Jace Dabriel?” asked Cedwyn, voice full of surprise and awe.

“He’s been here all along,” Relic said as he climbed astride Midnight. “Gods damn it to hell.”

Relic snapped the reins and Isabelle and Cedwyn followed suit.

“I’ll see you there,” said Jaden, and Relic looked her way with his question on his face. “I have my ways,” she said, and in her violet eyes he saw a glow like the one that had lit up the world.

As the Outriders began their return, they heard the creak of the angel oak’s branches moving back into place, protecting the carriage. When Relic looked behind him again, Jaden was gone.

***

In their long years, The Blades had seen many foes and many battles.

As Brayden paced the ridge that ran alongside the road into Sandia, he could only be thankful for Gabriel Foy – the legend who had practically taken it upon himself alone to give every man the means and inspiration to add archery to their skills before they faced another hardship.

That night, long expected, was tonight. And they were as ready as they could be.

Brayden shifted the cigar to the other side of his mouth. The sky had nearly returned to pre-dawn murk, but off in the direction of the pillar of fire, he could still make out the faintest pale sparks.

It looked almost beautiful – and that gave him hope, however faint and fleeting, that its maker had been Foy instead of the enemy. But hope alone wasn’t enough: Hope for Irick, now long missing; hope that the others in the town would have their steel prepared long ahead of plan.

Brayden’s eyes were fixed on the crossroads and the tree about a half mile ahead.

It was just beyond, on the road leading down from the Parnassus Mountains, that the flicker of torches came into view far away. They were not using light crystals, which could have been concealed until they were even closer. No; such tactics mattered nothing to them now.

They’re using fire so Arkhelan can see.

Brayden’s teeth clamped hard on his cigar, thinking of the old motto before Foy abolished it.

No one dies in bed in The Blades.

The day it was retired for good, Brayden vowed to Foy – and, by extension, to every one of the men there – that he would only smoke that cigar on the day he knew that he was sure to die.

Right now, he had never wanted to smoke it more.

“That is not the leading edge,” he warned, and indeed, lines of minotaurs were soon spotted much closer than the torches, traveling swiftly and silently through the darkness. That feat alone from the hulking beasts was almost as impressive as their horrific presence.

Brayden’s eyes glittered eagerly in the starlight as he narrowed them through the quiet colors of night. He kept the cowl of his cloak – to protect against the unnatural cold – high over his head. The advancing minotaurs came on. Now and then, they stopped to scent the air.

In those moments, moonlight glinted on their horns. They never faltered and didn’t pause long.

Around Brayden, the men readied. Great longbows bent back; stout arrows poised to strike.

Not a single one of the highwaymen trembled beneath the pull of those weapons. Their arms were steady, but they glanced here and there: Each man was taut, like their bowstrings, and waiting for Brayden’s word. With every step the minotaurs took, their discipline was tested.

Now, those ominous forms passed by the crossroads; now, the tree. And finally—

Down the road toward them.

Brayden moved down the line quickly.

“Two arrows away and fall back to the gate,” he instructed, using a secret code of hand signals and hushed whispers. He thought again of Irick, whose aim and heart were true. “On my call.”

The enemy host, which had looked so fearsome when first it crested the summit, had stalled. The minotaurs’ huge hooves cracked the paths beneath them and sent rocks skittering in all directions – turning the first wave into a halting procession at a crucial juncture.

Hooded magi stood close behind, prodding them forward with the ends of their barbed staves.

Then, as if in answer to Brayden’s silent prayer, it happened. One of the minotaurs put its weight down on a stone step that shattered into dust. It pitched forward, rolling its horns in the direction of its fall and spreading its arms wide. It would be up in seconds once it landed—

And from there it would charge. But it wouldn’t have the chance.

“NOW!” shouted Brayden.

There was a tang of lamp oil and sulfur as a dozen arrows soared through the night sky. The head of each trailed sparks, and as they reached the top of their arc, they burst into flames. One, two, three – then eight, then ten – struck within inches of each other.

As the luckless beast rose, it was transformed into a blazing effigy.

Its footprints burned deep into the road as it lurched onward—

Then it fell, crackling and spattering as fat melted and bone seared.

The dark wave down the hillside slammed to a stop. The minotaurs were no longer advancing. With a quick glance through his spyglass, Brayden confirmed what he had barely dared to hope: There was recognition there. The flames were flickering in their dull, dark eyes.

Minotaurs did not like fire. They liked it even less since the Night of the Outriders.

He watched the snout of one minotaur – the closest now – work the air.

One of the magi reared up behind it, dared to touch its shoulder with a prod.

With a simple shift of that shoulder, the minotaur struck with battering ram force, crushing the specter with an awful squelch that told of many bones indeed cloaked in its wraith-like form. When it landed, it was nothing but a smear.

“AGAIN!” shouted Brayden.

Another hail of arrows was loosed, but none among the archers waited to see their luck play out.

With the powerful grace of pouncing lions, the Blades leapt as one toward the road and landed in a dead run. Their footsteps broke lightly on the sandy path, confounding the eye with their speed. They did not need to look back—

For they heard the first fearsome roar, a sound that could have frozen their bones had they not been moving. It was joined by a second and a third – and if such a sound could be comforting, it was on this night. Bodies had fallen, and with them, torches.

They knew the minotaurs were shaken now. Vital moments had been won, but only few.

“How’s that for fighting fire with fire?” Brayden growled, slapping the shoulder of a scar-faced bandit – though neither one broke the hunched, bow-legged posture they had learned from the desert lizards. Behind them, the screams and stench grew stronger.

“To the walls!” Brayden called.

What is this pitiful display of incompetence? Must I truly do everything myself?

The voice had spoken as if from inside Brayden’s skull, nailed a few inches deep in the bone.

Despite himself, Brayden overbalanced and nearly stumbled. He was forced to slow even as the others raced ahead, closing the last crucial mile to town. He raised his head to take stock of them, but they stayed so low and kicked up such dust even he could not tell them apart.

Hear me well, you wretched sand fleas, said Valith – his voice shaking with rage that made a black pit open in the stomach. My brother lies stricken, but I will water the dust of his grave with your weeping eyes once I pluck them out. Turn, now, and die! For if you do not—

Shaking his head, Brayden staggered on. The world around him moldered in a grayish haze: The faces of his friends and comrades were formless, their voices a babble that lapped around him. Even so, he scooped two stragglers up, one in each arm, and kept going.

—if you do not die, I promise that you will live instead.

The gates loomed before them: The first Blades were many paces ahead.

But to their call, there was no response. No one waited at the mighty gate.

There was nobody to let them inside.

You will live beyond your last memory of love, live longer than all your ancestors put together. You will live until there is no stone resting upon another stone anywhere in this world you fight for. You will live until there is no light left to kindle a spark in all the universe. Each bone, each muscle, each still-beating heart will live on and on and on and on—

Brayden could not feel his legs, could barely sense the arms around him, the silent wetness of breath and sounds – shouts? – he knew should be there, but didn’t hear. All around, those who hadn’t yet reached the gate were stumbling and falling into the road.

I vow it: All shall endure ... and ... suffer!

Brayden had only seconds to see the whirlwind coming up from behind him before a wall of sand plowed him over; he sucked down a steaming gulp of it, enough to feel it burn as his body was tossed aside. Crouching low, arms over his face, he bobbed in the midst of its ferocity.

It won’t end, he thought woozily. You can try to wait it out, but you’ll die.

The thought made him stand, fighting against fingers of sand threatening to pull him asunder.

The sand was scouring every inch of his flesh, oozing up the road in a tide that would strike the gates in moments. But it was still too slow: Two of his comrades were there already, forcing the way open. More of them arrived in that instant, putting all their strength into it.

When they looked back at him, he waved—

Don’t stop! He wanted to shout. Don’t come back for me!

A few seconds more and they were massed at the gate, pulling it open together.

His legs exhausted, a bloodied Brayden rested for two breaths, leaning heavily against the outer wall. The fire-tongues of the great sandstorm, the very same that had sheared the boiled leather off his gloves in the space of six steps, were creeping closer and closer still.

He looked up to see a thousand eyes looking down on him in judgment—

Ravens, a whole murder of them, had settled on the outer walls.

And they were staring.

“Heave,” came the blessed sound of a friend’s voice. It was that same scar-faced man, smiling.

“Ho!” Brayden shouted, throwing himself into it with renewed vigor. Sounds were filtering back into his world – but even with that, he was shocked anew when he slammed his shoulder into the gate only to feel it easily give way. Then, a face peeked into the widening gap.

“I must be dreaming,”

“If this is a dream,” said Jace Dabriel, “I’d goddamn hate to see a nightmare!”

Brayden and his men fled in through the gate – and, all together, they slammed it fast again just before the tide of sand hit it with the force of an avalanche. The wall cracked, splintered, but held strong until the last tremor dispersed. A single brave sentry climbed the inner wall to report.

“The enemy comes! The fires are all out. No sign of—” His voice cracked. “Him.”

Brayden reached out to grab Jace by the shoulder, eyes wide as if he still didn’t believe it.

“What do we do now, Outrider?”

“We fight,” said Jace. “All of us, together.”

Beside him, the other Outriders were as fierce and resolute a group as ever stepped out of legend.

Jace shared a last word – in his ear – as he passed Brayden by.

And maybe, just maybe, you’ll have a good reason to finally smoke that cigar of yours.

In spite of all the pain, Brayden grinned. He didn’t have the heart to correct Jace there.

Sandia thrummed with the beat of old war-drums as all The Blades were summoned together.

***

It was half an hour before The Blades amassed in numbers at the gate – minutes more before there was any order in their ranks. Without Foy, a thousand competing strategies filled the air: Voices shouting, swords clamoring against shields as men strove to be heard.

But one thing, at least, brought them all together. None spoke of retreat, none of surrender.

“Listen, all of you!” Brayden shouted. “There’s no time to piss about. The boss ain’t here, that I grant. But there’s still a plan. And there’s none better to see it through than these four.” He paced along the street, looking at each patrol group in turn. “They’ve saved lives here.”

“We don’t answer to Outriders!” someone shouted – and a smattering of voices answered aye!

“Are ye daft?” Brayden bellowed. “Like it or not, we’ve been answerin’ to Outriders for a good, long time now.” He slowed himself, raising a bushy eyebrow. “And I’m sure, when this is all over, they’ll be seein’ to those long overdue pardons for the lot of us—”

This raised a few chuckles. He stretched a meaty hand to indicate the Outriders.

“These four were a long ways gone and they came back. They came back into this.”

He let that thought settle for a while.

“The least we can do is stand with ‘em.”

Jace’s head was bowed, his cap sitting on his brow and shading his eyes as he listened. When Brayden finished, and grudging acceptance started to burble amongst the gathering of bandits, it was Jace alone who stepped up on a crate and slowly raised his gray gaze to them.

“They say there’s all kinds of things of things that an Outrider can do,” he drawled, locking eyes with Relic for a moment before returning his attention to the Blades. “But there’s two things I can’t do.” He raised a finger, patting down his cloak with his other hand to find a smoke.

No one answered. The fading undercurrent of the last drumbeat was the only sound.

“Number one, I can’t ask you to sacrifice your life. Not for me, or your home, or your friends. If there’s anyone who thinks the fight is lost, you know the tunnels here a lot better than we do.” With that, Jace slowly lit a cigarette. “There’s still time. But before you know it, time runs out.”

Jace took a slow, savoring puff – Isabelle, watching him, nibbled her lower lip.

“Number two—” He held up two with his free hand. ”I can’t promise we’ll save this town. But I can promise we’ll make the enemy pay in blood for every inch of it. Starting with every inch of that gate. Blood—” Stopped to puff again. “Or whatever the hell they’re full of.”

“Shit!” somebody shouted, and Relic couldn’t tell if it was meant as the obvious joke or an expression of profound surprise. Scattered laughter defused some of the tension. To them, it must have seemed like Jace had transformed, in a flash, into a whole different person.

To Relic, it was all too familiar.

On another day, Jace could’ve whipped them into a frenzy – for or against whatever he pleased.

“Whatever happens, you’ve got to know where you stand,” said Jace. “It’s time to choose.”

As his last words died away, there was a great groan of masonry as minotaurs struck the gate.

“All those who want to fight, say aye,” boomed Brayden.

Almost as one, the voice of the crowd reverberated back: Aye!

It was so loud it drowned out the minotaurs’ next charge, leaving only a slight wince from Cedwyn and a shared glance with Isabelle to show it had happened. Silently, the Outriders spread out around Jace to receive their orders. He looked at each in turn before speaking.

“Isabelle, you’re with me. Cedwyn, with Relic. Relic, just like we talked about. Go!”

“You got it,” said Relic, and Jace scrambled up the ladder to the wall-top without another word.

As he threw his legs over the edge, a hundred ravens leapt from their perches and took flight, dappling Relic and Cedwyn in a deeper shade of darkness. Relic was just about to turn when Jace poked his head over – then gave the two below a rakish wink before pulling Isabelle up.

A few seconds later, he and Isabelle were out of sight.

***

Not a word passed between Jace and Isabelle as they took position. None of the Blades had climbed as far as the parapets yet, overwhelmed by the chaos and the oppressive storm. The wind greeted them with a sneer and a subtle taste of grit, but the worst had passed.

With his back to a tower, Jace carefully tipped his hat until the brim was empty of sand again.

Then he glanced wordlessly at Isabelle, his hands going down to his dual miniature crossbows.

She watched him in silence for a while, waiting to see if there was more.

Slowly and distinctly, he mouthed: I’m starting to see how this place got its name.

And with that, he cleared the distance to the far edge in a jump and unleashed hell on the minotaurs below. Isabelle was with him as fast as thought, and they soon stood side by side – concentrated fire killing two monsters in a heartbeat.

“We’re gonna need more bolts,” Jace said to himself, dropping to a knee as he aimed.

“Mmm ... maybe we can find some on layaway at the pawn shop.”

“You know what I miss?”

“No, what?”

“That stew we left behind. That would really hit the spot right n—”

At that moment, three more minotaurs charged up the path faster than even Jace ever imagined. Half his shots ricocheted harmlessly or landed with a loud plot in the sand. Isabelle, waiting a second longer, timed her fire to fall ahead of the foes, slowing them down.

That was all Jace needed.

Two minotaurs were down in a flash, their skulls broken by precise strikes. The third broke free, zigzagging as if to evade the rain of death overhead. It fell on the gate with hammering blows, each one shaking the Outriders where they stood.

Jace let out a loud, sharp whistle—

And when the thing looked up, he shot it between the eyes. It slumped against the gate, then slid sideways into the piles of sand. Jace watched it for a breath longer before glancing over his shoulder to Isabelle. “There’s one thing I don’t get.”

“What’s that?” she said. She was peering out at the far walls: One by one, more Blades were taking up sniper posts all throughout the city. She nodded to herself before her gaze fell on one of the griffon statues just below their own position.

“They have the comets. Why don’t they just blow the gate open?”

“Maybe they’re low on ...” Isabelle spun a finger in the air. “You know, that stuff.”

“Reagents.” It was one ten-cent word Jace would never forget.

“That stuff,” Isabelle confirmed, sitting at the outer edge of the wall and carefully lowering herself down. Jace watched her for a moment, confused, but then thought better. He walked over to the inside edge and shouted down.

“Hey! We could use some reinforcements over here!”

As a scarred, squint-eyed Blade scuttled up the rope ladder, Isabelle pulled herself back up onto the wall. Jace thought nothing of it until after he’d pulled the bandit up and said a quick greeting.

“Name’s Roskam,” said the man. “Can’t say it’s a pleasure.”

“Welcome to the team,” said Jace. “Just stick close to us, man.”

When he turned, Isabelle was brandishing a long, double-bladed lance. The head was heavy, with two mighty, symmetrical blades that could turn in either direction, both steel polished to a mirror sheen. The far end was capped with a steel knob that could crush armor.

“Whoa!” said Jace. “Where’d you get that?”

“Beak,” Isabelle said quietly, twirling the thing to test its heft with no small satisfaction.

“Excuse me?” said Jace, glancing to Roskam in consternation.

The man readied his longbow with intense focus. His scars made a leathery map of past battles as he worked, mouth quirked in concentration; for the first time, Jace could appreciate that, though Blades wore a patchwork of found armor, their bows were masterwork.

“Beak,” Isabelle said again, pointing the lance out to indicate something on the wall. As she moved it, even the smallest light twinkled brilliantly across the pearlescent surface of the haft.

Sure enough, weapons glittered faintly in the closed beaks of some of the biggest stone griffons roosting along the walls. After a while longer, when no other enemies stepped forward, Isabelle leaned against her new lance and looked out over the city skyline.

The wine-dark sky betrayed the very first traces of dawn.

“We should go shore up the defenses further in town,” Jace said.

But Isabelle wasn’t looking.

“Iz?”

Off on the eastern horizon, the first faint glimmers of golden sunlight were suddenly smothered, as if something viscous and dark were rolling up over the horizon. “Look,” said Isabelle, bracing Jace’s arm and directing his attention—

Just an instant before she realized what was happening.

“Get DOWN!”

Jace threw himself to the ground, but Roskam had no time to react. A vast shadow fell over him: His shot went wide, and the next sound was the crunch of wood and the snap of a bowstring as the weapon was effortlessly crushed to pieces. Isabelle dove through the air, hurling the lance—

But it fell inches short as the fiendish shape of a monstrous bat dug its talons into Roskam and dragged him to his feet. The thing stretched upward, its sinewy body becoming impossibly thin before it beat its wings for the first time. The man was hefted into the air with barely an effort.

Isabelle seized the lance and drove it into the thing’s ribcage, but it simply pulled its body backwards off the point that had skewered it. The blade came out along with a sputter of stinking smoke as if it had struck nothing at all. The beast let out a gurgling hiss, almost a laugh.

“Let go!” Isabelle shrieked, but surely Roskam didn’t hear her.

He was trembling, his gaze fixed on the thing’s rubbery skull, its wickedly curved horns – and, worst of all, the emptiness where eyes should have been. The demon swerved to regard the Outriders, then hurled itself into the air with its prey in one talon.

At last, Roskam started to scream and scream and scream.

Isabelle could still see him flailing when the horror twisted its other talon impossibly far around and sliced his throat wide open. As it carried him away, its shrieks mingled with the answers of a cloud of hundreds like it, their long arms outstretched and leathery wings pressed close—

So they could speed through the air toward the exposed warriors.

“We need cover!” Jace shouted.

All around, winged creatures were descending on the wall’s defenders. Before the Outriders could even move to flee, they found themselves back to back, each facing a monster. The beasts crouched, bearing their fangs in a snarl, and raising their wings to full span.

The sky was black with them, a grotesque column emerging from deep in the desert.

“Any bright ideas?” Jace asked Isabelle. “Now would be a good time ...”

The lance pivoted back and forth as Isabelle kept a loose stance, one hand high on the weapon’s shaft and the other bracing its center. The monster turned its body with serpentine grace, an unnatural fluidity in how it presented the smallest target at every shift in battle—

And yet, even with all that, even with a weapon she’d never held before—

Isabelle bore gory rivulets into the winged creature’s body, driving it back.

But the Outriders knew it wouldn’t be enough.

“We’ve got to break,” Isabelle said.

“Ngh,” answered Jace as he dodged a swinging claw, knees bending as far as they could go as he swung down, then up: The grace and tenacity of a prizefighter used to struggle. He sawed one short sword across his foe’s shoulder, if only to slow it.

Then, when the clicking of its rear claws told him it would yield a step—

He leaned into it and fired one of his miniature crossbows straight into the blankness of its face.

“Now, Jace,” Isabelle said. “I’ll cover you, get down the ladder!”

They spoke at the same instant:

“I can’t le—”

“I’ll be right behind y—”

The last word was cut off by the ferocious clang of huge claws striking the lance’s broad blade. If Jace wondered why Isabelle hadn’t gone for her short swords yet, he understood as she used the smallest opening to jam the polearm’s bladed head into the thing’s open mouth.

The distance a polearm put between them was just enough to continue the fight.

The winged creature he had shot stumbled back and fell, and in the effort to clamber over it, two of the others stumbled. As Jace bounded for the ladder, his mind registered what happened next in some far distant place, like a nightmare that still clung close upon waking—

Instead of getting up and separating, the beasts bled together: All heads, claws, and wings.

Jace found himself thinking of the obstacle courses he’d run thousands of times as a forerunner.

He never understood why you would need to sprint down a ladder so fast without looking—

As the body of another winged creature plummeted off the wall, it finally made sense.

That thing might have reached for him as it was falling, but when it crashed to the ground it was good and dead, twitching and shuddering in a sizzling pool of black ichor. Jace was two thirds of the way down the ladder before he jumped, landing safely and bobbing to his knees.

He stayed down for a blink, judging the threat, then stood and peered up the wall.

Isabelle was backing off – slowly, slowly – but she hadn’t even made the ladder yet.

“Isabelle!”

Jace Dabriel launched a blitzkrieg of crossbow fire unlike any he had unleashed before. Running backwards for a better angle, he adapted as naturally to the distance, arc, and wind as Relic might have if he were plotting out the whole scheme on paper.

“Damn it, Isabelle! I’m running low on bolts – you’ve got to move!”

***

You’ve got to move!

Isabelle heard the words, but there was no time to conceive what they meant.

The head of the lance steamed where the winged creature’s blood touched it. The dark fiend was gone, no sign of it left up here but the deep gouge of its claw-marks in stone, and there was a heartbeat of breathing room – enough for her to spin in the other direction and thrust.

She had only half-known that she would hit something when she did—

She didn’t expect the three-headed abomination that would be snarling at her.

It was a crazy mess of limbs and streaming, poisonous viscera; and taller even than any of its brethren, as if its bones had welded together as soon as the three winged creatures touched.

She held it back with all her strength, then began to gain ground—

Somehow, even over its shrieking, she could hear its claws screeching deep grooves in the wall-top with every step it lost. But there was one blessing: Its faces were now more than two feet over the top of her head. Try as it might, it couldn’t quite sink its fangs into her.

Jace was still firing, still shouting, his voice becoming more anguished.

A strange calm stole over Isabelle.

If there’s something I’m supposed to do, she thought, then please.

Frustrated at last, the horror started to punch at her with its mangle of a half-dozen arms—

Whatever it is ...

She could feel the blows raining down on her, beating her shoulders bloody—

I’m ready.

Within seconds, her numb, exhausted arms would fail; the lance would fall.

And her with it—

Oh. I see.

Isabelle released a breath she didn’t know she was holding. She felt the reassuring presence of something new that she had always known: A magnificent warmth draped over her, protecting her muscles from the cold that precedes death.

The dual blades of her lance exploded into flame.

She knew quickly it was no natural fire: It curled into the air in tiny waves and swirled around the weapon’s fearsome head like a living wreath that turned now red, now yellow, now white. The winged creatures knew it, too: They took one look at it and screamed.

First, the two that could see her – then those near them – then more and more.

A sound from the depths of hell.

Their advance was halted for a few pale, precious instants. With the flames glittering on her sweat-soaked face, Isabelle pounced on them; a roar tore forth from her lungs with more air than she dreamed she had. The beast closest her ignited, its ribs giving way like kindling.

She spun in a blazing arc and slashed off the burning head of the one creeping at her back—

Then she took stock of what was below and jumped, her braid streaming behind her until—

She landed along the inner wall on an outcropping of stone, a pedestal where griffon statues were meant to sit. But there was no such statue there now, only Isabelle herself; and she made one leap and another with the pole to guide and balance her.

Until, at last – without ever lowering her weapon – she landed in a crouch beside Jace.

“Isabelle ...”

Jace’s voice was ragged with raw emotion: Love, awe, fear—

And just enough what the hell? to know that it was still him.

In his sight, Isabelle was cloaked in flame; her weapon alight with divine judgment.

Just like it was on that night, in that terrible place.

“Jaden,” Isabelle said by way of answer. Giving Jace a quick once-over, she snapped off some bolt belts and began tossing them over. He took them in numb, unresisting hands at first before he fully understood. “At least, I think ... this is what she was trying to tell me.”

She was no “Fallen Angel.” She was just ... an angel.

“Mmm ...” Jace occupied himself with the wordless, delicate ballet of replacing his belts. The ones that were expended – almost all of his own – he simply dropped to the ground. “We’re not trained or supplied to be in a siege, Iz. We’re going to run out of munitions.”

“I know,” she said, but she was looking down the road—

“We have to regroup with the others,” Jace said firmly. “Before ...”

His thought was cut off by the renewed shrieking of the winged creatures.

“They forgot already?” Jace asked, looking meaningfully to the still-fiery lance.

“I won’t let them forget,” Isabelle said, allowing herself a small smile.

Jace could’ve sworn that it made her halo burn brighter.

The leathery rustle of wings, the shift of shadows, told them more would be on them in seconds. The air had begun to smell of blood, and the struggles of Sandia’s defenders were one long, lingering howl of defiance and despair; the air pregnant with copper and a terrible wetness.

The Outriders ran.

***

The Blades had an uncanny genius, Relic had to admit. In their own way.

It took the relative leisure of a pitched battle, not a brutal melee, for him to finally comprehend where their enemy was weak. Time and again, the Outriders’ allies drew minotaurs into traps, dousing them with flaming oil and closing off entire boulevards in gouts of flame.

When the hooded figures took to alleys and byways – to escape from rooftop snipers or their own beasts driven mad by the encroaching fire – they were sure to be shredded to bits by horrific barricades of sharpened metal. Every approach was lined with jagged glass.

Those who strayed too near the bulwarks had their flesh sluiced off in a seething wave of wax.

In the midst of all this, Cedwyn and Relic had worked together with the coordination and clarity of brothers-in-arms. Each knew the other’s mind and capabilities; each knew how to set up and support the other. Each knew the other man’s weaknesses, too.

The Outriders had fallen back slowly toward the central pavilion with the sheriff’s statue—

Covering Blades when they were surrounded or pulled out of position; leaving heaps of bodies in their wake at every turn. From their vantage point atop what used to be city hall, they saw that the enemy’s forward press was in disarray. There are too many bodies to climb over.

Relic checked instinctively – or perhaps compulsively – on his dwindling ammo.

He looked over to Cedwyn and blew out a long, thoughtful breath.

More air than he thought he had.

“I’m running pretty short on bolts. Think that’s all of them?”

The words were no sooner spoken than Cedwyn’s attention snapped up—

To where the sky pulsated with an unrelieved wall of suppurating black flesh. Winged creatures were arriving in such numbers that they were wingtip to wingtip, blotting out the stars in the sky. Now and then, two or three or even more would collide and simply meld together.

“Me and my big mouth,” said Relic, his hands reloading even as he stared up.

“What in the god damn hell are those ... things?”

Two thoughts occupied Relic’s consciousness back-to-back with lightning speed:

That there was something, anything, Cedwyn did not recognize was truly Bad.

And, as they turned and scuttled down the ropes Foy’s men had put in place:

I know what they are.

It was all Relic could do to keep his hands from trembling as he worked his way down the rope. Fear gripped him, threatening to let him slip and scald the flesh from his palms. He imagined falling, and that made him stop entirely as he swayed side to side.

Relic, focus!

At first, Relic was sure it had come from Cedwyn, so loud and insistent was the voice.

He knew full well that these were the horrors he longed to leave behind in Westwood.

Relic’s feet hit the ground and he ran at a crouch to join Cedwyn, who had scouted ahead far enough to be sure they weren’t pushing straight into an ambush. Cedwyn waved him on and the relief Relic felt rode overtop a stew of embarrassment and horror.

Those are the Mourning Men of Westwood, Relic thought. The winged creatures. They’re real!

“Yes. But you knew that.”

Relic’s head whipped around as if the Devil was on his tail. No matter where he looked, though, there was no sign of anyone else: Just Cedwyn himself. His face was blank, but his eyes burned.

I’ve fallen behind again, Relic thought as he saw the look in the other’s eyes—

It felt like he would melt away out of shame before the enemy had the chance to kill him.

A cry went up: Long, intense, horrid, and shrill. It was the hunting-cry of a hundred ravenous predators, at least, giving way to the unthinkable grinding of meat and tearing of human flesh. It was like a symphony, a chorus of the damned; the woodwind of men dying everywhere.

The staccato of death rattles—

And now a new sound pounded in his ears, above even his own heart:

The percussive thump of winged creatures dropping from the sky.

“We’ll retreat to the pavilion,” Cedwyn said. Relic was shoulder to shoulder with him at last, and their eyes met in earnest for the first time: Relic’s pallid face, like a ghost floating in the red-tinged gloom, was enough to shake even Cedwyn. “Stay with me, bro. We can do this.”

“I ...”

I know, Relic had wanted to say, but the words weren’t in him.

They fled at a full sprint toward the statue. The shifting battle around them was witnessed only in half-snatches of movement; flaming arrows soaring high overhead; whole groups of men snuffed out in final acts of valiant desperation; their voices joined in one long wail of despair.

Better they should die than get caught, Relic thought.

He and Cedwyn were steps from the central pavilion and the sheriff’s statue – one of the few places in all Sandia still lit fully by the crystals strewn about – when they nearly ran headlong into a member of Foy’s gang fleeing the other way.

Quick as a flash, Cedwyn stepped between Relic and the bandit, his hand shooting out to brace the latter. One step more and they would have fallen into the street together. Bloodshot, horror-stricken eyes rolled to Cedwyn, then Relic, as the man caught his breath.

Under caked blood and bile, they almost didn’t recognize Brayden.

“How many with you?” Cedwyn asked.

“None,” Brayden bit off. “All dead.” He wavered, and Cedwyn moved closer to take his shoulders with both hands; but it didn’t help at all, and Brayden slid, in a stupor, to the road. He sat for seconds that seemed endless as Relic and Cedwyn looked at one another.

Do we help him or leave him?

Neither had the answer, and neither had time to think of it before Brayden spoke again.

His voice was calm and measured: “Do either of you gentlemen carry a lighter?”

Cedwyn’s eyebrow quirked. He started to pat down his cloak, pouches, and pockets.

“I have a match,” he said, gamely handing it down to Brayden.

“Thank ye,” said Brayden, struck the match on the cobblestones, and lit his battered cigar.

He took a puff ... and though he didn’t say anything, the sound he made was unmistakable:

Finally.

There he sat in the dust of the road, puffing and simply ... waiting.

There was only one sight that could have roused them at that moment.

And there it appeared before them: Jace Dabriel and Isabelle Talabray working their way up the road with fire and fury, the latter bathed in illumination like the sun that made the winged creatures avert their eyeless heads and slither out of her sight.

“Well, I’ll be damned,” huffed Brayden.

“Not today,” Cedwyn countered.

They ran the last of the way and met, at last, under the steely eyes of the old sheriff. Instantly, the four Outriders took formation back to back; Brayden was shoulder to shoulder with Jace. The bandit was – if not restored – more lively than they could have dreamed.

He leaned over to look at Isabelle, doffed an imaginary hat, and said: “Glowin’ wit’ beauty.”

Isabelle nodded. There was something predatory about her smile, but a smile it certainly was.

“As ever,” she said.

“What do we do now, fearless leader?” Cedwyn asked Jace.

“Just one thing,” Jace said, knee bending to steady his stance. “Our best.”

Cedwyn nodded. As they prepared for their last stand, he whispered: “Inveniam viam.”

One by one, the other Outriders responded in kind – and even Brayden, after a delay.

A hooded figure, back bowed under the weight of some horrid bundle, came shuffling up the road toward them. Jace squinted, stretched his arm, and prepared to squeeze off the first shot of a salvo. The first tremor of an avalanche – one that would only end when they did.

He didn’t expect the figure to straighten and look him right in the eye.

“Inveniam viam, you god damn ungrateful punks,” said Gabriel Foy.

***

Foy paused only long enough to lay Irick’s unconscious body gently on the ground.

A spool of thick rope was coiled over his forearm, which he dumped nearby as well.

Then he strode up to Jace and began to strike him on the chest in time with his words – emphasis so strong as to raise a welt right then and there. “I thought I told you four morons to get the hell out of Sandia.” Spittle flew from his mouth as he turned to look at them all. “Where’s Jaden?”

“Safe,” Isabelle said – and though she didn’t know how she knew, she was sure.

Silently, Jace wiped off his cheek with the back of his hand.

“God damn better be,” said Foy. He turned to face Relic, who shrank back a little. “All right, bird mom, I need your help. So, shut your mouth – both of ‘em – and follow my lead, got it?”

“Yes, sir!” Relic squeaked, coming to rigid attention. Foy turned his attention next to Cedwyn.

“Same goes for you, Wolfwood. Irick should have been here to help me with this, but I guess he’s just as stupid as the rest of you egotistical little bastards. He thought he could fight ...” Foy rolled his head sideways to indicate the swarm. “That. Even if he’d been right,” he continued, almost sputtering the words, “even if you’d been right, what good do you expect to do—”

By dying here, he didn’t say; the last words came out in a frustrated, wordless hiss.

Relic looked to Cedwyn for reassurance, but the other man was already peering down. Gabriel Foy had bounced down to one knee with the speed and grace of a much younger man and was scribbling on the floor with such intensity that the others stepped aside.

“You know this one,” Foy said to Cedwyn, tossing him a piece of chalk. To Relic: “And you’ve at least read it, even though you shouldn’t. So, you should have no problem following along.”

“No, sir!” said Relic, bumbling the chalk for a second or two before catching it.

In the far corner, Brayden crouched over Irick’s form – he just looks asleep – and watched. In seconds, for seconds were all they had, every part of the pavilion floor was rife with odd runes.

“Good on ye, Fotamecus,” Foy whispered half to himself, then rose. “You two better not screw up.” To Jace and Isabelle, he added: “Cover that road. And a prayer or two wouldn’t go amiss.”

Isabelle nodded curtly; she had spent the time tying a scrap of leather to secure the lance alongside her swords. It wasn’t perfect, but it would hold for now – and no more than that was promised. She took one last look at Jace and each one knew the other’s thoughts.

With only one Outrider to cover each direction, they would be lucky to halt the onslaught for five minutes. Even then, it would take a full supply of bolts ... far more than they had left. As Foy, Relic, and Cedwyn began to burble a muted mantra, Isabelle shrugged one shoulder at Jace—

Pursed her lips in a pout that only he saw—

And prepared herself for the inevitable.

That was the last thought in her mind before the world boiled away in a storm of orange light.

***

Relic’s eyes had been closed; the only feeling in his body was the words pulsing through him and the warmth of the others’ hands on his own. In the darkness behind his eyelids, the chanting took shape as wild, leaping things of flame that fought every attempt to control them.

He was gripped by a half-forgotten, familiar sensation—

That if only he could hold on a little longer, he would finally understand.

That thought filled him with a renewed, manic energy. He thought that perhaps he was smiling; but his face was numb and he could not be sure. His body faded like footprints under the tide.

When the orange radiance came, all illusion was burned away at last.

This is the creation of the world, that the pain of division is as nothing.

He felt one last thing: Cedwyn gently squeezing his hand.

And the joy of dissolution all.

Relic did not know how much time passed before he was aware of anything more. He was alone. The delicate, perfect sphere of orange light had given away to darkness. In that darkness there was only himself: All around him, a comforting presence.

“You’re here,” Relic whispered.

I have always been with you, it responded.

Now he recognized the voice in his mind, so alike and so different from his own.

“What am I supposed to do?” he asked.

If you bring forth what is in you, what you bring forth will save you.

Relic felt a subtle, vibrant pulse of potential stirring in the world far beneath his feet.

If you do not bring forth what is in you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you.

Relic knew that he belonged here – that they all did. But where is here?

With an effort, Relic remembered himself and the battle raging on below.

The world continued on beneath his feet like reflections adrift in a murky lake. But there was no reference point, nothing to anchor him to that present: He was not even sure which body was his.

He found himself, instead, among the ravens.

They were everywhere! As numerous as the winged creatures themselves and much more sly.

There was not one inch of Sandia, inside or outside, that they did not see. There was not one spoken word, not one thought plain or hidden that they could not intuit. He drifted among them, floated as the king of their number, and they brought him to what he must see.

The gates of Sandia had fallen. But more than that—

The enemy was not just waiting; it was alive with purpose and moving fast. Two whole wagons – how had they concealed those wagons? – were trundling the last few feet to a new position. Around them, cloaked magi began their fearful work right at the foot of the outer wall.

Show me Valith, Relic thought.

And he was there: In the clarity of Relic’s dream, Valith was no more human than the winged creatures. He was a twisting maelstrom of wrath and spite, his ill-fitting flesh only a talisman standing in for something far worse. Relic could only barely conceive of its outlines.

Where Valith’s attention turned, buildings were blown flat in the blink of an eye.

It was not true to say that men stood before him; they were torn asunder as by a tornado.

And through it all, he laughed and laughed and laughed—

Then, the alchemist stopped. Turned toward Relic. And stared.

Head perked sideways like a curious dog, he mouthed: How?

Relic let go of a breath he didn’t know he was holding.

I remember.

When he came to himself again, his eyes opened slowly: Centered in his misty gaze was Cedwyn. Relic waved frantically to him and the man sometimes called Wolfwood bent close.

“You bastard,” Relic whispered in his ear.

A little abashed smile crept onto Cedwyn’s lips, and he would surely have said more—

But that was the moment the great twisting column of sunstone-light rose from the spot where Gabriel Foy had been standing. In a commanding, noble voice, the voice of passing centuries, the old Outrider intoned: “It is done.” And then: “Come and see.”

Relic turned to the side and seized Brayden by the shoulders.

“Find as many men as you can and get back to the gate,” the Outrider told him. “Move quietly if possible, but be ready to fight.” As Brayden turned, Relic continued: “No! Not that way – use the side road. Follow the ravens.” Now, the older man’s mouth was wide with shock. “Go!”

Relic was uncomfortably aware of the unearthly echo that had been in his voice.

But no one else was looking at him.

Whorls of red-orange light swirled up in great galloping arcs from the pyre Gabriel Foy’s voice emanated from. They passed harmlessly across and over the roof of the pavilion and spread out once they hit the open sky – a million tiny, shimmering missiles.

Was this the secret? A way to strike the whole enemy horde where they stood?

“No ...” Cedwyn said to himself. “I can’t believe it!”

Before their wondering eyes, banners of orange light streamed down into the waiting griffon statues. Their touch was as delicate as lace, tracing across each stone feather with the care shown by the artisans who forged these artifacts long, long ago.

The light pooled and blazed in the eyes of one statue—

And then those eyes opened.

Stripes of light locked together in a brilliant, beautiful lattice, enshrouding each griffon in a cocoon of noon-light. The cocoons swirled; the shapes there, half-seen, grew and grew and grew.

The light was coming off Gabriel Foy in strips, rising to meet its destiny all over Sandia.

In homes and shops, on curbs and street-side poles, beside the wells and along the walls: Everywhere, everywhere, the effect was the same. Sandia’s protectors were coming to life – and now, a griffon thrice as big as a horse bent its titanic beak low into the pavilion to regard Foy.

The light had dissipated. Gabriel Foy stood before an avian eye as tall as him and far wider. Foy’s arms were outstretched, a sunstone balanced in both palms. This he returned to his cloak.

The griffon’s pupil, the color of molten bronze, narrowed on him as he rested a hand on his hip and looked back at it. The Outriders scrambled aside as a red-gold paw like furry foothills came to rest inside the pavilion and the beak opened to let out a high, creaky squawk.

Gabriel Foy reached out to stroke its feathery head, but his voice remained all trumpet-brass.

“By the Illuminate and the Paladins of the Sun, go forth and do the duty that lies before you.”

The griffon drew back in what could almost be a nod, crying out as it lifted its monumental head out of the pavilion and into the open air. Its call was answered: Dozens leapt one by one into the sky. Their bodies were bulwarks of corded muscle, their wings as broad and bright as heaven.

“Guardians,” Isabelle sighed, and she looked to Gabriel. When he nodded, she took two steps out of cover to look up at these majestic legions. Countless winged creatures were smashed against their wings before any of the birds even unsheathed their claws.

Griffon roars resounded across Sandia and echoed through the desert.

Relic clenched his fists and let out a wild whoop! as, with the sweep of one mighty paw, a lion-bird sliced asunder three winged creatures, leaving nothing but a hail of sinew and bone in its wake. It was a miracle, a sight he never dreamed he’d see and a relief he would never forget.

The Outrider witnessed three demons soar beneath a griffon and turn on a dime to lunge at its underbelly. All three were caught in its powerful back legs and butchered with a snick-snack of claws. The hideous sound of the winged creatures was silenced at last as they fell, slaughtered.

Jace at last dared to look full-on at Gabriel Foy; seized the elder by a still-warm shoulder.

“How long?” Jace asked.

“A few minutes at best,” Foy answered. “Even less if he gets involved. Go!”

Jace nodded, steadied his cap with one hand, and turned to regard the others.

“You heard the man,” he said. “Let’s get the horses, get Jaden, and get gone.”

With a nod, they drew together in a diamond formation. Jace looked to Isabelle, a silent question in his eyes, and she nodded, taking point. Not far, she mouthed; when she looked around, she felt Jaden’s presence like a beacon. A flaming arrow urging them forward.

She had taken the first step toward it when the town hall – the grandest building within their sight – was obliterated in a vortex of wind and fire. The blast was so massive that they had to grip the base of the sheriff’s statue to ride out the shockwave. The ground groaned and heaved, leaving the pavilion a lone island of stability bobbing on the petrified waves of a stone sea.

Blue-grey smoke poured from the crater with the force of a volcano.

A comet – the other scourge of Westwood – had fallen right in their midst.

How very rude. Are you leaving so soon without saying goodbye?

At once, the Outriders focused on a silhouette just visible within the coiling columns of smoke. A hooded form stood with head slightly bowed – now all concealed by the wafting, noxious patchwork, now revealed again. But there was no doubt who it was.

The embers of the blazing fire outlined a grin as cruel as an assassin’s dagger.

“I don’t think so,” said Valith.

***

Brayden never stopped for breath as he ran from the pavilion as fast as his legs would carry him.

Here and there, he found pockets of survivors. There was no time to explain, but they understood without knowing. Some part of that dire energy within Relican Avery’s voice had reached out and taken root in Brayden himself. His voice had not changed, but they could see it in his eyes.

With a growing column of men at his back, Brayden moved as though carried by the wind.

They took a snaking course through the devastated town of Sandia. Some ways were clogged by reeking piles of dead; some, he noted with the wisp of a smile, were still closed off by the very same spike-topped barricades he’d helped build with his own hands.

And, ever moreso, some were gutted by flame or rendered impassable by heat and smoke.

Brayden had been far from the pavilion when the first comet fell, and couldn’t have known its target. But he could feel the tremors under his feet, bright flashes pulsing through his skull with every impact. “Stay together,” he ordered his ragtag band. “We’ll meet resistance.”

Wan, smoke-stained faces gazed back – men, a dozen or so, who would never be the same.

Yet, there was something here they had to do. He knew it as well as he’d ever known anything.

Town-hall, town-hall, the ravens croaked. Brayden, who had been gauging which way to go next, snapped his attention to them. The distant roar of another comet struck his ears and ran through his legs, leaving them aching – then mercifully without any feeling at all.

Book-place, book-place, went the ravens. So-much-for-that!

Brayden braced his head in his hands. I must be going mad, he thought.

With a final look at the rest, he forged ahead on the gateway road. He didn’t know what to expect, but the sulfurous stench clinging to his skin and stinging his eyes warned him to be alert.

Old-gods-place, old-gods-place, reported the ravens.

“Oh, shut up,” Brayden said. He peeked around a corner, gestured for the others to follow, and—

Not-that-way, the ravens chided him.

He stopped short, arms wide to halt the others.

NOT-that-way, not-THAT-way, the birds repeated.

Brayden turned, backtracked, and found a new side-street that was cluttered with refuse but surprisingly undamaged besides. When he saw no ravens nearby, he decided to linger. The smell of whatever lie ahead started to itch and burn; hair came off his forearm where he scratched it.

A few feet away, the road he’d planned to go down collapsed like a sore on the earth. With nothing to sustain them, buildings on both sides slid inward and plunged into the tunnels below.

Brayden raised his eyes to the smoke-smeared sky.

“Thank you,” he murmured wearily.

Told-you-so TOLD-you-so told-you-SO ...

The rubble was still settling when Brayden signaled they must go further still, and executed a final dash that brought them within reach of the town wall. What they saw sickened them: Their comrades lashed to the inner wall with barbed wire, spread eagle and splayed apart—

But that was not the sight that sent their group scattering, each seeking separate cover.

Just outside the open gate, a pair of wagons stood side by side.

Hooded figures were arrayed around two circles in the earth that smoked like sepulchers. There were three minotaurs to guard each gathering, and the shifting light of the ritual betrayed many more in snatches of light against horns and teeth. Those others were crouched, waiting.

The hanged Blades moaned and chattered, all half-heard warnings and pleas for mercy.

Brayden narrowed his eyes on them: All were covered with great black scabs.

Just like the flesh of those damn winged things.

If he held very still, he could see the lesions writhing with something that defied words.

Don’t-look-close!

That was enough to shake Brayden out of it – and this time, he didn’t even question it.

With the accustomed silent signs, he let the others know what would follow.

Two arrows away and fall back.

Fingers together, he gestured a circular motion with the wagons at the center.

Took one long, deep breath. Then another. And another. In the trembling near-silence, he could appreciate a miracle: All of them still had arrows. He could faintly smell the saltpeter even here.

“NOW!” shouted Brayden.

A storm of flaming arrows arced across the sky, bursting from different angles but all converging with masterful precision on the same central point. All found their mark easily, and Brayden dared to hope that here, the Night of the Outriders would be re-enacted in blood.

The minotaurs raised their heads and their masters started to hiss and chatter.

One stood and thrust a scepter in the direction of the Blades—

Each arrowhead was a hive of bright sparks that dribbled in knots and snarls from the canvas roofs of the wagons. But even as Brayden turned to escape, he knew something was wrong. All of them had hit their mark, but not a single one found purchase in the fabric.

The sparks, too, spiraled and fell harmlessly – melting away into wisps of white smoke.

As realization took hold, the Blades saw an image from their nightmares: Minotaurs charging their position with massive axes and clubs held overhead. The hooded thing set its staff aside and knelt down again. The defenders of Sandia did not even have time to turn their backs.

They would die here, and the hooded foes hadn’t even been inconvenienced.

And Brayden, most of all, knew the Outriders would not save them this time.

“We make our stand,” said Brayden, and drew his knife with a defiant shout. It was a final kindness that his brothers joined him; they gathered, relying on him to lead their doomed charge.

The magi started to babble their horrible up-and-down language once more.

Then, with a deafening roar, the first of the two reagent wagons detonated.

Brayden thought at first that perhaps, against all sense, the wagons had ignited after all. But he knew in his heart this wasn’t so; and even as he drew back to whatever semblance of safety the alley offered, he squinted watery eyes against the piercing glare to see—

“Fairies above and below.”

Standing just outside the ruined gate was none other than Jaden herself. She burned all over with a glorious, terrible aura; and as she raised her hand to strike again, wings made from the most intense fires the human mind could fathom burst into view on her back.

Two minotaurs who had been close were charred in seconds—

Leaving nothing behind but a tiny heap of blackened briquettes.

Brayden smothered a sudden, startled laugh in his throat. He turned his back to Jaden and all but shoved the men near him back into the darkened lane. It was the best instinct he’d had all night.

No sooner had Brayden turned the corner than Jaden’s violet-eyed gaze came to rest on the two wagons. All of the magi were on their feet, screaming in words she understood but would not acknowledge. They flittered before her like moths before a scorching, all-consuming flame.

She raised her hands and five lances of fire shot each of the wagons straight through.

A dozen magi were taken in an explosion so hot nothing even rose from it as smoke. Their forms flickered and vanished in the heart of hell; their shadows were impressed on the wall of Sandia.

The others turned to run and found their only escape blocked by a triumphant, grinning Brayden.

Jaden drifted through the wreckage, directing relentless fire into every crack and crevice where she detected Valith’s work still intact. Brayden and his comrades fell on the dark figures and massacred them in moments; but all of this didn’t attract Jaden’s notice in the slightest.

She may as well have been alone, and that realization filled Brayden with a new kind of fear.

When the sorceress finished her work at last, she raised a gentle, beckoning hand. Melting out of the shadows came a band of men and women with sallow skin and hardened eyes. Their footfalls made no sound and their breathing was as silent as the grave.

With her beside them, they fell on the fire-mad minotaurs and slew them one by one—

All without making a single sound.

Only then did Jaden look to Brayden at last, but her smile did not soften her alien power.

“Where are the Outriders?” she asked him. A familiar echo lingered in her voice.

Brayden paused a moment to listen to the ravens.

“They are together at the pavilion. He waits for you.”

“I understand.” Then, after a moment – as if she’d nearly forgotten the words: “Thank you.”

“Don’t mention it,” said Brayden, and he meant that sincerely.

Jaden and her procession filed past the remaining Blades, who looked down in awed respect as if the queen of the fairies had just passed them by.

And perhaps she has, Brayden thought.

They were still like that – frozen stiff, waiting for someone else to move first – when Brayden heard the breathy, shuddersome hiss of a new gust of magical flame. The cries of the prisoners went silent, their pleas extinguished forever.

Brayden turned to lead his men out of the alley.

Not-that-way, not-that-way, the ravens told him.

Brayden McTaggart amended his course without a word or suggestion of response. He found another way and did not take his men – his survivors – under the shadow of the inner gate again.

But it would be a long time before he stopped thinking about it.

A very long time indeed.

***

“Isn’t it wondrous?”

Valith moved with extravagant, dancelike steps – now weaving forward, now back again – as he meandered up the path to the pavilion. As he went, his boots crushed the spikes of stone his own magic had so recently raised. Then, he began crushing the spikes on purpose with his black staff.

A truly sublime grin crossed his face at the wretched sound.

That grin widened and widened until nothing could hide the sharp incisors; then widened further still. The man might have been twenty, might have been thirty; he was handsome, surely, but now the Outriders saw clearly that his was the beauty of a statue—

Without even the blush of warmth that good marble could provide.

Foy raised his chin, but never took his eyes off Valith.

“This ain’t the fight I wanted,” he told Jace. “But I’ll take it.”

With that, the old man strode to the pavilion’s edge, passing within reach of Cedwyn and Relic.

“Hold the door,” he told Cedwyn, who nodded and pulled Relic a step back by the forearm.

If Valith had noticed, he gave no sign. He swayed back and forth, brim-full of exaggerated ecstasy, a pantomime of drunkenness that saw him peer up and down and scent the air with a snort. A dozen necklaces covered in strange, secret charms rattled with every movement.

Relic recognized only a few: The signs of blood cults and fallen empires that had scourged the world and then died screaming. But there was more than that, a smoked glass vial that reminded Relic of his darkest dreams—

The instant he noticed it, Valith closed both hands around it.

“Don’t give me that look. Just because something’s not nice doesn’t mean it’s not wondrous.”

The tear stood a few steps from the edge of the pavilion now, his way barred by Gabriel Foy. The old Outrider’s heels were poised firmly on the outermost ring of chalk sigils. Jace and Isabelle were three steps behind Foy; Relic himself stood with Cedwyn at the far edge.

“You aren’t wanted here,” said Foy. “Get gone, demon.”

“I always thought it might happen this way,” said Valith. He bent down double to peer between his own fingers at the vial, ignoring Foy entirely. “Senile at last.” Then he rose up tall again – taller than ever before – and pried the vial’s cork loose with his thumb.

There arose a shrieking that ten thousand years of winged creatures could not brace a human’s heart for. Relic could not tear his eyes away from the seething blue-white of what looked like fireflies scrambling madly to escape – a burning nebula at the heart of darkness.

The tides receded still further from the benighted shore of Relic’s memory—

And he remembered himself, untold numbers of him, trapped and burning amid the branches.

The screaming grew louder by the second – but all was silence when Valith stoppered the bottle.

“I am he who rules over nature,” said the magus, his blazing eyes never leaving Gabriel Foy’s own. “I shall destroy and hate mankind. Before me, brave words turn to dust in the mouth ... hopeful thoughts wither into regret ... and the confident heart melts into naked fear.”

The Outriders felt magic heavy in the air, some magic far darker than even the comets. The disease they had faced was only a prelude to this – and there was nothing they could do but endure and stand fast, feeling the spark of Gabriel Foy’s life before them.

Hotter than ever, yet wavering—

Flesh was only a pallid shroud over what they were beginning to see clearly now.

As slow as the fade of history into myth, myth into legend, Foy gave up one step.

Valith rushed to fill it, moving sinuously – bonelessly – forward.

He began to intone again, and all the world quivered beneath the weight of his proclamation:

“If thou open’st not the gate to let me enter, I will break the door, I will wrench the lock, I will smash the door-posts, I will force the doors. I will bring up the dead to eat the living, and the dead will outnumber the living.”

Pale wisps of smoke started to rise from Gabriel Foy, but still he stood fast.

Locked in silent struggle—

The Outriders heard Foy’s skin start to seethe and sizzle, yet they could see no wound.

Foy tilted his head just so to peek sideways around the slender, haggard form of Valith.

“What’s behind you?” he asked idly.

Valith’s face contorted in disgust just before they all felt – and heard – the blast. The nightmare figure turned his back on Foy, crossing his wrists before him, and a shell like solid lightning fell over him. Jace and Isabelle scented tin, ozone, and—

Then it hit them, Jace first of all: The pungent wreak of burning reagents.

“How?” Valith asked the air, then turned on Foy. “How?” Without hesitation, he seized Foy by the throat – and without hesitation, Foy broke his iron grip, separating the outstretched arms with two fists. Valith simply let them drop, his mind far away and going ever further.

“These humans couldn’t possibly have done this,” he whispered.

“Believe it,” said Foy. “You’ve underestimated them again.”

“No ...” Valith raised his head again and began to sniff—

Jace and Isabelle broke apart, each taking a fighting stance.

“I smell her ...” Valith announced, voice shaking. “Where is she?”

Against the pain he no doubt still felt, Foy smiled. “Aces full, pal. How ‘bout you?”

Valith’s head was bowed; he had begun to breathe faster and faster, letting his too-thin form pitch forward in the effort. “She’s so close,” he told himself. “It stinks in the fires ...” Closing his eyes tight, he shifted his staff from one hand to the other, bringing it closer to Foy.

I’m going to enjoy freezing the marrow in your bones.

Valith raised the staff high and it crackled with eldritch power—

Foy stepped aside, and just as quickly, Jace moved into his place.

Staff and dagger met in a single tremendous blast of energy. Forks of lightning swirled around the two warriors and the pavilion around them seemed to breathe, the chalk sigils taking in the energy and then throbbing with it – a web of ghastly scars in time.

But Jace held no Outrider weapon; instead, it was the blade of Dorsey Trent—

It fed on the magical power around it, seeping it from Valith, who roared.

“You ...”

Valith braced both hands on his staff and pushed Jace back to face him squarely.

“I know you,” Valith said, voice roiling with new rage. “I see you squirming under that mask, you disgusting maggot.” He glanced left and right to the other Outriders, even took a moment to lock eyes with Foy again. “Don’t you feckless fools know who this is? Whom you obey?”

In Jace’s mind, he is in the tavern. Kerrick is beside him – around him, the dead and their gods.

“This petty disguise has you all fooled? This vile usurper, the blood and seed of your enemy?”

Every moment has a color, a sound, a feeling. There is no man before him; just an idea.

“I should have drowned you when I had the chance—”

With no center of mass, there is nowhere to aim. With no flesh, there is nothing to cut.

“But now ... at last, I can make up for my oversight.”

Jace Dabriel thinks of Kerrick’s face and remembers.

Valith’s breath was cold like the angry sea on his face.

“I’m right here,” said Jace Dabriel. And then—

He struck.

Valith bent his staff to the side to deflect the strike. The staff crackled with power – and so, too, did his body, for Jace could see now that they were one. With a quick turn of one knee and a flick of his blade, the Outrider bypassed his guard—

And sliced through every one of the chains around his neck.

The glass vial crashed to the ground with such speed even Valith couldn’t retrieve it. A torrent of ghost-light burst forth as it shattered, gray and blue and white swirling together as the stolen voices of Sandia found their mark and settled within the chests of those who’d lost them.

The shrieking would have brought anyone else to their knees—

But Jace felt Isabelle step into fighting formation just beside him.

In her arms she bore the flaming lance. Her Outrider cloak and leathers were resplendent with a blazing golden aura; and as she faced Valith, he raised a hand to shield his face; for massive, burning wings now burst forth from her back, making her all the brighter.

So be it, said Valith. Let their screams be yours to cherish in Hell.

He straightened and his own wings issued forth: Slashes of pure darkness, night beyond night.

Jace let his eyes go to the side for the briefest moment to find Cedwyn in his peripheral vision.

And he whispered what he could only hope the other would hear:

You bastard.

Jace took in a long, deep breath, more air than he thought he had—

Valith fell on them with pitch black claws, each one a dagger of moonlit ice. He was perhaps eight feet tall; his wings twice the span; brittle and sharp, slender as a switchblade and long as the winged creatures. He bent like coiling smoke, without muscle or bone to bar his way.

With every breath, his form stretched and pulled; but the runes answered, glowing the more.

Again and again, Isabelle’s lance flashed out and caught his claws—

Again and again, Jace sought to drive his blade into that fraction of a moment. He circled and circled, slashing and chopping with all his speed and power; yet even when Valith’s head was turned away, every limb was poised to react. All Jace’s blows were swatted aside.

Each time, despite his own strength, he would falter – but he would not yield.

Just beyond her ring of fire, through the haze of flames that burned but did not consume—

Isabelle thought she saw Dorsey Trent fighting beside her.

As Relic nurtured the power that lay within him, he felt as if his entire being was but a candle-flame, tempest-tossed amidst the great storm: Cedwyn was guarding him, somehow, but when he looked at the other man he saw only his old friend, eyes unfocused, breathing in and out.

That sound became what Relic honed in on – in and out, like a bellows. Relic could feel the heat from it: And the more he held it in his mind, the more he let it fuel that which was within him, the clearer his vision became. Dorsey Trent was only part of the picture – a small part.

Relic saw Valith struggling to hold more power, Gabriel Foy’s runes fighting him at every turn.

Carefully, Relic stretched out his hand, feeling the seed of magic as hot as a newborn sun.

Then, at last, it happened—

Valith’s massive fist struck Jace’s face and he felt his head twist far around. He thought certainly his neck would snap, and as his shoulder struck the stone hard enough to crack it, he knew his cheek was broken. He watched, helpless for a moment, as Isabelle fought on.

She, too, was losing ground – barely fending off a claw, then a knee, then the snapping jaws.

But it was Gabriel Foy who he found standing over him next, Foy who dragged him to his feet and shoved a water skin in his hand. Foy whose words, though he couldn’t hear them through the ringing in his ears, prompted him to pour the burning contents down his throat.

Foy who took his place and faced Valith alone just in time for Isabelle to withdraw.

Now. Run.

The voice sounded like it was in Jace’s skull – nailed a few inches deep into the bone.

But it was Foy’s voice this time.

Valith’s relentless assault had relented as he regarded his old rival with something like ...

Thoughtfulness.

“What can you do for them?” Valith asked. What can you do that no one else can do?

“You’re about to find out,” said Foy. Turning to Cedwyn, he roared: “Bar the door!”

Jace and Isabelle ran from the pavilion without looking back. Only in a passing flash did they see Cedwyn lift Foy’s sunstone from his own cloak and raise it in both hands. Instantly, the chalk runes began to react; the venomous blackness ran out of them.

Both hands extended, Relic reeled in the power he had tapped and gave it to Cedwyn.

Foy’s sword crashed against Valith’s claw—

It was all Relic could do to hoist the fallen form of Irick before he fled into the street, toward Jace and Isabelle, with Cedwyn close behind. When the Outriders were gathered, they saw the sunlight-brightness of orange energy spreading like vines over the pavilion.

“Is Jaden waiting for us?” Jace asked.

“Yes,” said Isabelle. “But ...”

“No,” Jace interrupted. “Run – and don’t look back.”

Only Relic was still staring at the pavilion when the sounds of battle were replaced by a horrific, inhuman screaming. The veins of sunlight had branched and spread – now, the whole pavilion was enveloped like an egg. When it was nearly too bright, Relic was still looking—

Only he saw what happened next:

Grotesque, twisted claws slamming into the magic bubble; a fang-filled maw open in a scream.

Don’t-stop-here, DON’T-stop-here, said the ravens. Not-here-not-here-not-here!

Relic adjusted Irick’s weight and concentrated on the man’s barely-there breath.

As the Outriders fled the square, a brilliance like molten gold hounded their every step – sapping away first the color, then the lines of form, then the very essence of everything it touched. On it went, disintegrating the heart of Sandia – and on they ran, not knowing when it might end.

Two streets were subsumed, three blocks, four, a whole neighborhood, more—

It was only when they saw the inn afloat in its own dome of pale, pleasant light that they knew Jaden was there; that there would be one safe place, even if it was all that still stood in Sandia.

When they greeted her, the horses were ready.

They did not look back.

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 Chapter Twenty-One  (E)
Long Shot
#2190516 by Dan Hiestand
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