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Rated: E · Chapter · Action/Adventure · #2190516
Long Shot
CHAPTER TWENTY-ONE

Long Shot


“He will be remembered.”

NASH
Divider (2)
Provinces
Bryce Valley
Diamond (April) 26, 2013

There was no way an arrow could have flown through that wind—

Yet Jaden saw first as a single spark fell through the sky. It caught the updraft and swirled, a lone ember flickering before a twilight void. Before them pulsed an abyss that defied the stuff of life; even she could not imagine what her companions would see in its depths.

It was gray at first: Then, the black of a starless night, a thousand years before fire.

She despaired in how long she could hold it off – or how far the others could run.

The dark reached down her throat, heedless to all her strength, and tore the air from her lungs. There was nothing more inside her but mist that burned cold as it came out. Before the ravenous wind, she raised hands that burned like torches. Only that gesture kept her on her feet.

“Jaden!” Duchenne was shouting, and she mourned for the breath he let go.

In a moment – faster than words could say, she would blaze like a funeral pyre.

As the shadow washed toward her, she saw only one thing: The single bright spark.

It held in place for a moment and the wind shuddered – then, just as quickly, lost shape.

A thousand layers of strife and sorrow melting away in an instant.

As the cocoon of wind was shed, Valith still stood in its center.

One hand was closed into a fist over his chest, the other bracing it. His staff had fallen to the side and was gently smoking – no, it was haze, cold meeting sudden warm. When he took a tentative step, then another, cat-tails shattered like glass beneath his boots.

His black gloves were already stained with blood.

“You imbecile,” he whispered, chin raised a bit. “My heart’s not even on that side.”

He closed his eyes tight as the earth shook; the two minotaurs fell like timber, lost to his control.

“You should escape while you still can, Valith,” Jaden told him.

“Escape?” A little dribble of blood escaped between lips parted in a grin. “My dear, I’m afraid you’ve got it all wrong.” One by one, he peeled off his gloves. There: Runic symbols etched in flesh, frost-bitten fingers twitching in the still air. “Into death I must go, however briefly. The only question now is – do I visit alone, or shall I take you with me?”

He tightened one fist and a spiral of eldritch energy arced across it.

“Don’t,” said Jaden, yet she raised a sunlit hand protectively before her.

“Your misplaced pity means as little now as ever,” he said. “Save your breath; tell me what you’ve learned of sorrow from these beings born to suffer. That will be a lesson worth hearing.”

In a voice almost kind, she answered.

“It is my greatest sorrow that one who was given everything has, after all this, learned nothing.”

Valith staggered back as she reached for him, then fell to one knee, his eyes swiveling up to the heavens. “Then your sorrow is still not great enough,” he said. “But there’ll be time for that yet.”

Rising swiftly, he took two steps closer, each leg freezing solid as it struck the ground—

Flesh and stone alike fell like powder, the form of Valith sluicing away as the storm had.

When it was all gone, there was naught left but a nameless, ice-bright beast, twice as tall at the shoulder as the minotaurs. It was little more than a silhouette, the memory of something primal that prowled through long arctic nights.

Its form glittered with thousands of sharp points, scarcely visible until it moved.

A nightmare wolf with the tusks of a boar; in its eyes, the storm.

It fell upon Jaden, and the black-clad wizards surged behind it.

“Now! Now! Now!” shouted Ferris Lang.

Divider (2)

The wind shrieked at Malcolm, the dull ache of his sprained and swollen foot all he could feel.

The wind. It had picked up suddenly, coming from nothing – more intense than anything he had ever felt, even in Winterwine. He’d thrown himself against the sturdiest outcropping he could find and stayed pinned there with all his strength.

But there was something wrong. The wound was so intense—

Icy gales buffeted the archer, threatening to throw him from the cliff-side in an instant if he so much as breathed wrong. When he closed his eyes, the wind painted frost over his lids; he had to wipe furiously to open them again. And when they were open ...

The wind had faces. The faces of awful, hungry monsters.

They were all around him now, snapping, snarling.

And there was one that he feared most of all.

It was the face of Shane Bevan.

Now! Now! Now! shouted Ferris Lang.

Daring death, Malcolm twisted around and tried to make sense of what was going on far below. An updraft caught him in the face; his leg screamed, and he thought he did, too. But nobody could have heard it over the wind.

Great arcs of energy crackled from the dark wizards’ sticks—

In the midst of it all stood Jaden, her palm raised toward a towering beast.

Before his eyes, Malcolm saw one of the wagons catch fire. The legis – Duchenne, he reminded himself – was setting torch to it. The young man had only the faintest notion of betrayal before the sickly knot of dread vanished. Jaden was directing the fire, waving it forward through the air.

Then the creature was upon her and he saw her no more.

A volley of bolts flew from the Outriders; some of the hooded figures wilted and fell beneath it.

“Into the caverns,” Malcolm told himself, and rose to a half-crouch.

Even the darkness would be better than—

Malcolm! Malcolm, can you hear me?

Malcolm gasped, clapping one hand over the sapphire he had nearly forgotten. As it pulsed in tune with Jaden’s voice, its calming glow suffused him with unexpected warmth. “I hear you. Are you – are you okay?”

“Yes.” There was a pause. “Malcolm, you’ve got to get ready to run – the convoy is moving.”

“Moving? Through that – that thing? How in the hell—”

But now he saw that the wagon that was afire was moving, though no driver or horses could be seen – plunging ahead of the rest, straight into the flank of the monstrous wolf. It had only the time to raise its huge, shaggy head and bear its teeth before the flames.

Then, the crackling projectile barreled into it and it was vaporized.

The hooded figures dove for cover as the thing dissolved away in a flash, its great forepaws and fang and ear tracing a misty sketch in the air for a few seconds longer before they faded into eternity. Two bright, icy skid marks scarred the grass where it had been.

One of the black-clad mystics turned to stare at the space—

A final mistake as Malcolm renewed his volley and an arrow, the first of many, brought it down. “Good t’know,” said he. “Would you kindly get over there before something else happens?”

The next sound was a relief—

“Get on the wagons!” Jaden shouted – and the sapphire’s glow went dim.

Divider (2)

Soon, the convoy was racing through the valley anew. The wind was calm, and Malcolm sidled along to survey the black-clad magicians who marched like ants at the site of the battle. They knew he was there, now, and ran to spread beyond even his reach.

That could have made him smile—

But the Sky Gate still loomed in the distance like an omen, and the strange mirth passed quickly.

“Looks like the hoods are ignoring you,” he told the sapphire. “Any idea what they’re doing?”

“Malcolm, listen to me,” Jaden answered. “Don’t fire another shot. You need to get out now!”

Malcolm shifted, feeling his injured foot nearly give way as he risked a look up to the cavern entrance. “That could pose a bit of a problem.” Gazing down, he watched the loathsome figures spread a strange powder between them, coaxing it into a circle with their staves.

Ah-za-ka-ta-oh-rem-di ... ah-za-ka-ta-oh-rem-di ...

Malcolm felt he was watching from outside his body – just a step behind and as much above – as the hooded figures completed their preparations and leaned on their sticks so each one could clasp the necklace it wore. The amber stones on the chains shimmered with light.

Ah-za-ka-ta-oh-rem-diiiii ... ah-za-ka-ta-oh-rem-diiiii...

Then that faint trace of dawn-light became a fierce, steady glow—

Ahzakata-ohremdi ... ahzakata-ohremdi ...

Lances of yellow lightning leapt from the stones’ hearts, lacing together as an intricate web that swirled at last into a rising sphere of molten gold. Malcolm recognized the scourge of Fairlawn at once, but he was not prepared at all for what he felt as he saw it before him—

Nothing.

To Malcolm, it looked as if that unspeakable weapon was a snowball that, instead of rolling down to cause a great avalanche, was rolling up. Fifty feet above him, it smashed the incline into powder, sending spikes and stones sailing into his body.

Luckily, the biggest boulders sailed past harmlessly.

Malcolm didn’t even realize he’d cried out in pain.

Until, again, Jaden’s voice floated into his consciousness.

Malcolm!” she shouted. “This is your last chance!

Only the twang of his bowstring in action answered her.

Another blow fell short and Malcolm steeled himself to try again, realizing in that instant that his chest was slick. In his mind, it could only be blood, and a lot of it. He hardly heard Jaden as he gingerly tested his cool, painless chest. And then, glancing down, he was seized by intense relief.

“What is it?” she asked at his hesitation.

It wasn’t blood.

“I’m not dead,” he told her. “But I’m gonna need a new waterskin.”

He brought his wet fingertips to eye level for a moment, then resumed his position.

A third shot – and now, he was sure he would kill one of them.

A shell of amber-colored force lit up briefly, reducing the arrow to ash in the air.

“Ah ... well, that would be that shield your buddy was on about,” Malcolm mused.

“Malcolm,” said Jaden. “This is important. Please: Is there no way you can climb?”

“No,” he said, and his voice trailed off—

It sounded like Jaden was on the verge of tears now. “Malcolm, are you there?”

“Yeah,” said Malcolm. “For now. And there’s something I gotta tell you.”

“It can wait—”

Malcolm plunged on:

“I have a habit of thinking I know it all. I was wrong for what I said this morning. I don’t know what you went through to get here, but I know we owe you. I owe you. When it’s all over, do me one last favor – just pretend I never doubted you. I never should have.”

There was a long pause.

“Now’s not the time for goodbyes, Malcolm. I plan on seeing you again soon, okay?”

“Yes, ma’am,” Malcolm answered, smiling suddenly.

“When the comets launch, their shielding must fall – but only for as long as a breath.”

Malcolm stared down at the wizards below.

“How many do I have to take out to stop them?”

“Three,” Jaden answered. “Three in about as many seconds. Can you do that?”

Malcolm laid his head down on the rock so he could get a better view while staying low. His enemies were busily mashing reagents into the ground. It wouldn’t be long until their next salvo was ready. He turned, peering vacantly into the gray sky.

Jaden was still speaking, but her voice had faded to background chatter—

Until a new one joined it: Ferris Lang.

We’re going back for him! We’re going to stop those things!

“Hell no,” Malcolm barked, holding the sapphire closer to his mouth as if it might amplify his voice all the more. “I already told Bright to relay our success to the general. I’ve looked pretty dumb today, Outrider – don’t make me into a liar, too.”

There was a pause that seemed to stretch on forever—

“I understand,” said the Outrider, but he was clearly shaken.

“As for the shield ...” He shook his head. “I’m good, but nobody’s that good.”

Before the new projectile was even fully formed, its corona seared Malcolm’s eyes. He was left with a last impression of lashing flames that scoured the air as if eager to consume everything around; as he tucked into a ball, he felt his stomach rumble.

If the blow struck, he’d die without seeing it—

And the last thing he knew would be hunger.

As the mountain shook, it was all he could do not to cry out again; a hard-won bit of dignity, but no protection against the new shower of debris that rained down on him. After the comet was no more, the stones around him continued to grumble, moments from collapsing.

When he opened his eyes again, the world was nothing but a silhouette; dawn and darkness in senseless, alternating patterns. He wiped at his eyes, but that only sent sickly swirls of color scattering in every direction. It felt like something was gnawing on his eyes.

“We’re starting to come out of the valley, Malcolm,” Jaden said. “We’ll lose contact soon.”

“Aye-aye,” Malcolm muttered, not sure if he should feel embarrassed or simply laugh at it all.

“There’s something I want you to know, Malcolm.”

“Mrrh?”

“I want you to know ...”

Jaden’s next words were faint, barely an echo.

Cleo Bright is in love with you.

Letting his bow lean to the side, Malcolm buried his soot-stained face in his hands.

From the moment she saw you until the moment she came to your tent today—

—tala for ten!

“The hell,” Malcolm whispered to himself as the last sheen of magic went out of the stone.

But then he heard it again:

Vox tala!

In the endless, encroaching darkness, with only scrawls of unnatural light anywhere he looked, Malcolm remembered something. Bird-talk. It was the hooded figures, far below; they were shouting to one another at a rapid clip in their strange up-and-down language.

As the words rushed out and no other attack came, a new memory stirred in Malcolm’s mind.

The words were the same ones from that night.

They know it’s you, he told himself. And they’re still just as afraid as they were then.

A new rush of strength came into Malcolm, twice as strong as anything he had ever experienced with feverlew. The clamor down below was so loud, he didn’t need to see a thing to know where they stood. Had they run out of their precious supplies? Decided to retreat?

It didn’t matter. What meant anything at all, now, was stopping them.

Malcolm used his elbows to dig in, test what lay before him, and inch out as far as he could.

All muscle memory and shifting weight, he loaded and nocked a new arrow into his bow. He had been without sight for minutes already, he knew. But that wouldn’t matter. He let his eyelids rise gently. The slightest light became a scant, silvery outline of what lay below.

The convoy was gone, and he was alone.

As he pulled the arrow back and began to visualize the shot—

He felt the warmth of the sapphire pressed against his chest as his arm moved.

And he knew that somewhere, Cleo Bright was still out there.

“Not alone,” he told himself.

He heard the roar of flames as the next comet rose—

Divider (2)

Under that same glow, the convoy had reached the final stretch of road.

The wizardess had sat, silent, since the sapphires went dark. Her eyes were closed; she did not budge. She was beautiful, Darvin Nash could grant, but it was more like the beauty of a splendid, ancient statue than of the wife he longed to comfort now.

Part of a world that was lost, or forgotten.

In the scramble back to the convoy, they had ended up together – but he was as unsure now as ever how to occupy the same space, to breathe the same air as this sage. Valith’s words haunted the Outrider: Not just the ones spoken to him, but those to Jaden as well.

Somewhere far behind, the tribune – bright-eyed and ashy-fingered – was with Outrider Lang.

When the sky stained with the third comet, he could no longer hold his tongue.

“He will be remembered,” the man said, and bowed his head reverently.

Jaden’s eyes fluttered open – she seemed to replay the words in her mind.

“Yes,” she answered quietly. “He will be.”

As the fiery hammer plunged earthward, the convoy fell at last beneath the Sky Gate’s shadow.

Divider (2)

Malcolm felt three arrows pass into his bow and leave him one by one.

His ears strained, but he heard neither the dull thud of an arrowhead striking earth or the sinister sound of flesh shearing away. He had not given up; he had stood his ground; he had fired, even when there was no hope. But he could do no more, and he would never know if it had mattered.

That’s the life of a soldier, he thought to himself. That’s what I was trying to tell her.

There was only one sound: The stone-rending growl of the incoming comet.

Malcolm reached down to the pouch that held his feverlew, but it had long since fallen open. Instead of finding the tiny pinch he wanted, the rest of the powder fell away into his hand and started to sear his palms. In desperation, he pressed some to his nostrils and breathed in.

It was not the way feverlew was meant to be taken – but there was no time for less.

In the air above Malcolm, the comet seemed to freeze in place.

He could no longer feel his injured foot. Dawn was breaking on his benighted world.

The rustling of fire stilled and the dull kiss of heat emanating over his exposed skin went dull. In the time it took to register a single tiny pop, no greater than a spatter of grease in a campfire, he had sprinted several feet. His eyesight was returning; he could see footholds he never would have spotted before. He wondered just how far he could go: All the way to Fairlawn, perhaps.

He was only vaguely aware of the whole mountainside unraveling behind him.

With wild abandon, he flung his dagger over the side and shucked his quiver so it fell, too.

He did not know where he expected to escape to, but he knew he had to go – fast!

In Malcolm’s mind, the rush of dust and debris flowing up from behind him was like the hand of a giant, swatting him aside and rolling over him. His nerves were a filigree of lightning, but there was nowhere for him to go but down. He brought his arms up and felt a gut-wrenching crack!

He did not know exactly how far he fell, or even where he landed—

A whole peak must have come down, he thought.

The rolling tide of dirt seemed to go on forever, lashing him against sharp rocks and bashing him against stones; at each twist and turn, something else snapped. When at last he came to rest, it was almost a miracle that he was able to test his limbs, one by one, and feel them all.

How’s feverlew gonna make sense of this?

But before he had time to wonder – before he had time to leave himself once more, perhaps never to return – his aching eyes answered him. Cleo Bright was bending toward him, her lips forming unheard words, her whole being surrounded in an aura of the purest light.

“This’ll do,” he whispered to himself, choking up some dirt the moment afterward.

His hands went slack; his arms and legs sprawled.

He asked himself, How long have I been this tired?

The angel Cleo Bright asked him, “What are you doing down there, you daft fool?”

Malcolm’s mouth dropped open. “I’m sorry?” he tried. “I was just thinking about ...”

About you, he tried to say, but couldn’t.

“Grab the rope!” Cleo Bright said again—

But it was no longer Cleo Bright. The light receded, and with it, the inkling of a vast, pure land filled with promise that lay just at her back. As that glow retreated, it took away everything it had once illuminated. Malcolm was left staring into the incredulous face of an old man.

“The rope, ya dumb bastard,” he said, gesturing emphatically. “Did you shake your brain loose?”

No – not an old man. The old man.

Thrust forward by the grave dust in his veins, Malcolm seized the rope and yanked it so hard he was snapped up the slope in an instant. Far in the back of his mind, in the distant place where he sometimes stood, he imagined being thrown far over the horizon.

“The young lady said you might need a hand,” Gabriel Foy was saying. Malcolm’s tongue was thick in his mouth, giving him no quarter to answer; spry as ever, Foy was already pulling him along by the time he thought to say a word. “And I ought to have left you! Daydreaming in the middle of the bloody apocalypse while I risk my arse up here!”

“You talked to Cleo?” Malcolm asked. “Is she alright?”

“Back to deliver your message,” said Gabriel, steadying him with a hand on the shoulder for one more moment before he set about untying the rope from where he’d fastened it beside the cave entrance. “How can you not have rope?” he demanded. “In my day, we always had rope!”

“Your day?” asked Malcolm. “You mean back when you dug this valley, right?”

Gabriel ignored the question, looping the rope in a practiced way before he rose back to his feet. “We also knew how to use feverlew in moderation. You have a problem – a big one. Seems she was right about that, too. I wouldn’t bet sausages she’s the only one who can tell, either.”

“Yeah, well ...” Malcolm peered back at the half-disintegrated slope. “A minute ago I figured I wasn’t long for this world, so I thought – why not go out with a bang?”

As he drew to the mouth of the cavern, Gabriel finally turned back to gaze at Malcolm.

“You up for some runnin’, lad?”

“Are you kidding? I just took so much feverlew, I could probably chew through this damn rock.”

Gabriel snorted, turning back to the cavern as he did.

Malcolm grabbed his shoulder, and the old man spun toward him.

“Thank you, Gabriel,” he said.

“Nothing to thank me for,” the old man answered with a shrug. He took his first few steps in the cavern, voice echoing gently. “Like I said – I cannot abide useless people.”

Malcolm smiled—

Then followed him into the dark.

Divider (2)
 
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Chapter Twenty-Two  (13+)
Objects in Space
#2190517 by Dan Hiestand
Divider (2)
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