by Dan Hiestand
The lush meadow flew past in a blinding blur beneath pounding hooves, creating a kaleidoscopic mesh of flowers growing in great clumps throughout the tall grass.
The few miles to the mansion melted away like a flash, the towering structure looming ever larger with each moment. In the air, the scent of the sea saturated the Outriders’ senses, firing bitterly down their throats and rushing into their lungs. The breeze was warm against their skin, but heavy with the sting of salt as they raced, their trial by fire upon them.
Cedwyn and Jace rode side by side, and the field seemed to grow brighter as they neared their goal, a swath of cloud passing unnoticed away from the sun.
If Cedwyn was wrong, and there was someone or something waiting for them, then it was already too late.
They were committed now.
There was no safety net, no Plan B.
It was a game Jace had played before, recently, and one he was not happy about being pushed into rolling the dice again. Easy as it was to submit to Cedwyn, two years his senior, Jace was regretting it now. A consequence of the night that made him famous.
A night that left scars of hesitation and doubt.
Or as he liked to justify it to himself, even after Sandia:
Neither Outrider so much as glanced at the other, their horses neck-and-neck, their eyes trained on the destination as the details of a lighthouse came into focus. Closer still to the mysterious estate, immense bodies of sandstone rose into view off shore; the action of the waves with the wind and salt in the air had eroded the rock into a fascinating gothic landscape that collected dull light as if it were dew. It appeared as if the stones had not been worn away by the passing of ages, but had risen from some unfathomable darkness of the deep, only to melt away with the first kiss of fresh air; hanging, eternally, upon unseen rocky roots, they grasped desirously toward the unreachable sky.
Nothing intercepted them on their journey, and in what felt like no time at all, the Outriders found themselves at the base of an immense stone archway. An elaborate suspension bridge lay just beyond, leading the way across a wide and treacherous moat, and ultimately to a massive door, aged wood inlaid with dark, solid steel. Though the manor they had seen so far ached with beauty, the approach ached with phantasmal hints of combat that suggested the building could just as easily become a fortress.
They dismounted, immediately drawing their crossbows and standing back to back: Cedwyn facing down the cobblestone path to the mansion, Jace surveying the open grassland behind them. The plain was empty, a beautiful riot of blossoming color that swayed in the same warm breeze sweeping over him. Had he been somewhere else, Jace may have closed his eyes to cherish it. Here, the unseen danger was too strong for that.
“Clear?” Cedwyn asked.
The whole peninsula was quiet, save for the rhythmic beat of a glittering tide stretching on for eternity around them. When Cedwyn finally spoke, it came as a discordant clash, as if the sound of his voice did not belong.
“Wow,” he said, and Jace turned to find him standing in the middle of the bridge, staring down at the choppy water. “The moat is connected to the ocean.” He waited for Jace to come and join him so he could fully appreciate the view. Indeed, there was an inland waterway cut into earth at the far end of the circular moat, extending through a high cliff overlooking the beach, where it opened into the Hezlin Sea. “Can you imagine how many engineers it would have taken to create that?”
Jace shook his head.
“No,” he said, distracted. “I really can’t.”
“Something on your mind?”
Jace turned back from staring down the rest of the walkway.
“Yeah,” he said, shocked by the question and a little offended. “How about this gigantic mansion we’re standing in front of?” He gestured up to it with the crossbow in his left hand and Cedwyn laughed. “Yeah, it’s hilarious,” Jace went on, looking away. “It would take forever to clear a structure this size.” His gaze drifted up to the elegant balcony perched above the main entrance. “We have no way of knowing what’s in there, and you wanna strut through these giant doors like we own the place.”
Cedwyn looked unconcerned as he stood and took his first steps across the stones.
“We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it,” he said, then paused and looked up at the suspension system above. “No pun intended.”
Jace hesitated at first, but now matched Cedwyn’s stride. Soon they reached the doorway.
“Nice,” Cedwyn said, his voice fluctuating slightly as he turned the brass handle and found it unlocked. Then he lunged forward and the door crashed open, the Outriders bursting inside.
Moving instinctively, they took defensive positions and went about securing an immense lobby, with three grandiose staircases; the steps themselves were carpeted in red and gold, the banisters carved in an oceanic motif. One set of stairs stood straight ahead. The other two swept off with a graceful symmetry one to each side, extending up to a terrace that wrapped around the perimeter above like a crown on the room. On the higher level there was a fountain, gently running even now, and half a dozen doors all around them, with several corridors running adjacent to the chamber in which they stood.
Jace had been more right than he could have imagined. A hundred Outriders couldn’t have secured this place, let alone two over-anxious ones.
“I gotta say,” he said, gaze drawn towards the glimmering jewels on the fountain’s bottom. “You seem to have taken on quite a reckless streak lately.”
“Ya think?” Cedwyn said, frozen as he concentrated on the surroundings.
“Makes me wonder if you’re trying to impress me.”
“Well, of course,” Cedwyn responded, scanning the lobby with his crossbows. “You are a national hero now.” Satisfied they were alone, he looked over. “What, you’re gonna tell me you’re not impressed by my courage and stoic bravado?”
“No, very impressed, actually,” Jace said, lowering his weapons.
“Good,” Cedwyn said, standing down as well. “'cause later I’m gonna ask for your autograph.”
Without another word, he started off to the right. They both knew that by their usual standards, they had already lingered too long.
“This is so stupid.”
“Yeah, probably,” Cedwyn acknowledged, shrugging as he came to another door. Then he hesitated, turning back to Jace after realizing he hadn’t followed. “Aw c’mon, doing stupid things is what made you famous. Why break old habits?”
“Hmm.” Jace mused, somewhat annoyed. “Must be that whole almost dying thing,” he said, moving to join him.
Now it was Jace’s turn to lead as they burst through the door. The routine was the same, covering the room as they had countless times. There were no enemies, and the Outriders found themselves staring into an enormous library. The surroundings were easier to sweep, more confined, but the upper levels went back as far as either could see. Seemingly endless bookshelves ran all the way into shadow from every vantage. Slowly, they pushed deeper into the room.
Neither man had ever seen so many books gathered in one place, a number of them bound with fine leather, while some were so huge or old that the yellowed pages were gathered between leaves of iron. The walls were richly decorated with oil portraits of various important-looking people, many dressed in fine clothing that recalled styles long out of date – and just as many completely foreign. Many wore jewels worked into fanciful shapes and swirling colors that seemed as if they must have come from the imagination of the painter, one mind behind them all. The colors were bright, vivid, as if the entire collection had been created at once. A pleasant-looking, ornate lantern sat extinguished on a very large table in the center of this first level.
For a moment longer Jace looked up to the higher ground around them, surveying with his crossbows as they had in the lobby. “Clear,” he said, knowing it was hardly conclusive.
Cedwyn had both crossbows lowered at his side, walking over to an open book on the table.
“What are you doing?” Jace asked with a double take away from the high veranda.
“What do you mean?” Cedwyn asked. With the crossbow in his hand he used the tip of the loaded bolt to prod the already half-turned page. “Gods of Sun and Sacrifice” he read aloud, then looked up. “Catchy.”
“I asked you a question,” Jace repeated. “What are you doing?”
“Catching up on my reading?”
Jace answered Cedwyn’s light tone harshly, and he took an almost threatening step towards him.
“We just walked into an unsecured room, complete with unexplored high ground, and you walk over to that book? What the hell, Ced?”
“The place is abandoned,” Cedwyn remarked, still calm in stark contrast to Jace.
“Is it?” Jace asked. His advance stopped, but he was standing close. “You smell that?” He nodded towards the lantern. Cedwyn looked up from the book and around, taking a moment to sniff. Then he looked back into Jace’s eyes.
“Yeah. This lantern was extinguished recently,” Jace said.
“So? How many of these places do we have to come across? People fled for the cities and dropped everything. When people are panicking, they don’t sit and pack their belongings or turn out the lights. They haul ass.”
Jace relaxed a bit, sighing and running a hand back through his hair.
“Who knows how long this lantern burned after whatever nut lived here left?”
Trying to calm his nerves, Jace still looked tense.
“What makes you say he was a nut?” he asked, pulling out a chair and sitting down. It was an odd thing to do for someone so concerned with security not two minutes before.
“Anyone who builds a mansion, never mind lives in it on the edge of civilization, is a nut,” Cedwyn said, and he pulled out a seat opposite Jace, right in front of the book about sun gods. “And I don’t do anything without thinking,” he said, swiping a finger over the page in front of him, leaning back comfortably in the chair. He held it up and the dust there was thick. “Haven’t seen an enemy in months, Jace. Not a wizard, not a rider, not a minotaur or whatever else. This place is a lot bigger than most, but it’s the same as the rest. Left behind by a scared citizen of Veil’driel.” Jace didn't respond, and Cedwyn took the opportunity to look around again. “A very rich, scared citizen.”
Jace almost laughed.
“I feel like I should start telling you about my childhood now,” he said with a smile. “Seems like we’re having these little therapy sessions every week now.” Jace’s tone was light, but there was a clear truth to his words. Cedwyn knew it well.
“What you did and went through would have shaken anyone up.” Jace just shrugged before Cedwyn leaned forward across the table, now taking his turn to match a light tone with a serious one. “I’m not kidding, Jace,” he said, emphasizing the point with an extended, wordless stare. “Anyone else, myself included, would have recorded the enemy position and returned to camp that night.” Now he sat back in his chair again. “And I gotta tell ya, I don’t think it’s even possible to calculate how many lives you saved by attacking instead.”
Jace looked blankly into the distance, resting his forearms on the table, hesitating for just a moment as Cedwyn had come to expect.
“And look what it’s gotten me,” he said, almost whispering. “I can’t even clear a room without being affected. Six months ago you wouldn’t have been able to keep me away from here. Today, it took all my courage just to come with you.”
“Ah, yeah, well …” Cedwyn picked up the heavy book and put it on his lap, flipping through the pages. “It’ll pass in time. Only natural.”
Jace smiled, a hollow gesture that might as well have said: I'm not so sure. At length, he said more. “I thought the visions would go away, and they have. But lately, it happens when I sleep. They're so vivid. So real.”
“It's the mission, Jace,” Cedwyn said. “We've all been pushed hard on this trip. But look, all the better we should spend a night, maybe even two, here. There's not an enemy in sight. And don't forget, you got the Veil’driel Star out of the deal,” he went on. “How many people in history have received the highest military honor we got?”
“Seven,” Jace said, thinking out loud.
Cedwyn never looked up from the book, expending great effort to remain unconcerned.
“Right, well, I was asking rhetorically, but there ya go,” he said, distracted by an illustration of a massive obelisk. “Give it time. You’ll get that annoying swagger back soon enough.”
Jace raised his eyebrows.
“Six months isn’t soon enough?”
“Actually,” Cedwyn paused, squinting to read the rune symbols etched into the art on the page. “It’s been closer to seven.” Then he looked up at Jace and closed the book, apparently losing interest in whatever was there. “So yeah, maybe you’re just screwed,” he said with a smirk, tossing it back on the table with an echoing thud. “Maybe fatalistic attitudes can last forever.”
Jace smiled wide, his eyes narrowed and he tilted his head to the side.
“Yeah,” Cedwyn said. “Fatalistic,” he repeated.
The continued pause on Jace’s part caused Cedwyn to elaborate further, his tone taking on confusion as he did so.
“Fatalistic. Like being consumed with thoughts of death and all that. Having it affect your confidence.” Jace appeared thoroughly amused, but said nothing. “Like fatal. What?”
“That’s not what it means.”
“Whatever,” Cedwyn said. “Yes it is.”
“Fatalistic like fate,” Jace corrected, on the verge of laughing.
“No, you’re wrong.” Cedwyn looked around. “Matter of fact, where’s the dictionary in this place? I’m gonna prove you’re –”
A sudden crash interrupted him, rocketing both Outriders to their feet, and sending Jace’s chair falling hard to the floor. There was nothing calm about Cedwyn’s demeanor now, his crossbows expertly surveying the veranda above and all around. Jace did the same before they made their way to the far wall for some cover. When they were reasonably sure there was nothing above them amidst the shadows, they concentrated on the direction from which the crash had come: a small door in the middle of a wall that was, itself, an immense bookshelf.
Cedwyn took his first steps away, taking the lead, conveying a series of signs to indicate he would go to the door while Jace covered him.
“You’re seriously communicating with hand signals?” Jace asked. “We’ve been talking in here for the last ten minutes.”
Cedwyn frowned, though it was unclear if he was doing so because he knew Jace was right, disapproved of the talking, or both.
Jace nodded to the door.
Cedwyn darted forward as Jace stepped out into the center of the room, sweeping over the veranda above yet again. Cedwyn crouched beside the door, his back against the books. Jace moved directly to the door itself, his arms stretched out at his sides.
“Yeah, this was a great idea,” he said as he backed to Cedwyn’s position. “Remind me to take your advice more often.”
Now Cedwyn, crouched on the side, reached up and put his hand on the silver doorknob. Jace maintained his surveillance, but when more time than expected passed, he risked a glance down again.
“What are you waiting for?”
Cedwyn did not respond right away. He just sat there quietly.
“I’m listening for a minute.”
“Sure you’re not just hesitating?” Jace asked. “Wouldn’t want you to get all fatalistic on me.”
Cedwyn turned the doorknob and nudged the door slightly with the back of his hand. It creaked open ever so slightly.
“I hate you,” he said, peeking through the crack. Then he slammed it open, Jace raising his crossbows to guard his back.