“Feels like they’re gonna come alive and attack us.”
Cedwyn crouched low to the floor with his arms stretched out in both directions. He stared down one end of a long corridor running away to his right. Directly in front of him, an immense portrait of a proud-looking watchman looked out at the Outriders from atop an ancient bastion, as if they were in the place of some unseen battle.
Beneath it, a small placard read:
Captain Khayn Ahara
Etched in smaller print were numbers that appeared to be a date, but like the uniform the figure was wearing, Cedwyn found the system utterly unfamiliar. Ahara’s flinty eyes seemed to watch him as he moved, reminiscent of Jace in better days.
To the left, the passage led to a short flight of stairs which ascended to a landing, and small foyer, where a quaint table stood.
“Which way we going?” Jace asked. He glanced back over his shoulder from where he was still covering the library. “Left or right?”
“One’s as good as the other,” Cedwyn answered, bouncing his stare between the two directions. “That commotion could have come from either.”
“Left then,” he said.
Cedwyn was off, without hesitation, hunched in a way that sacrificed his pace for defense. The stretch to the stairs was short, almost excessively decorated. The Outriders never paused to examine any of it, passing portraits, busts, and even a display case without sparing so much as a glance.
“I’d say this way leads back to the lobby,” Cedwyn said when they reached the top of the stairs. They were both standing in the foyer now, and Cedwyn opened the door he was talking about. He peeked through, then turned back to Jace and nodded. “Top of those grand staircases,” he confirmed, turning his attention to the other door on their right. “It’s a pretty safe bet that whatever we heard came from there.”
Jace said nothing, only waited for Cedwyn to take up position beside him. Two tall sconces made of copper or bronze flanked the door before them, their purpose more aesthetic than practical.
When Cedwyn was ready, he looked over to his friend.
“How ‘bout we just go?”
Cedwyn thought on it a second, shrugged, and kicked open the door, jumping to the side so Jace could burst in immediately.
It was another hallway, but this one was grandiose. It had high, vaulted ceilings and walls far wider than the one they’d just passed through. It was stunning, but Jace had no time to process the beauty before the sight of a man, crouched over a fully armored knight, seized his attention.
In an instant, Cedwyn was in the corridor as well, and he sighed with a look of annoyed relief when he recognized Relican Avery rising to his feet.
“Relic?” He clipped his crossbows back down to his belt. “What. In the hell. Are you doing?”
Cedwyn laughed, having the words taken out of his mouth.
“Looking over the place,” Relic said, going back to what he was doing, which was apparently trying to stabilize the suit of armor and stand it back up.
Having regained his bearings, Jace noticed that these suits of armor, all poised in various positions – some parrying, some standing at ease, some with weapons and some with none – lined the entire length of the hall on both sides.
“I don’t know what’s weirder, Avery,” he said, examining them. “Finding you here, knocking one of these things over,” his surveying eyes stopped on Relic. “Or that you’re actually trying to put it back together.”
Relic smiled, but said nothing as he continued the work of fastening a particularly stubborn leg joint. It clicked, and he picked up the knight, returning it to its post, guarding the small space of wall at its back.
“This place is absolutely amazing,” he said, still gauging the balance of the thing.
“How long have you been here?” Cedwyn asked, still amused.
“Lucas said I just missed you, so about the same as you.”
“Never thought of calling for us?” Jace asked.
“Yeah, great idea,” Relic said, his sarcasm a symptom of frustration with his task. At the moment, the knight was twisting slightly whenever he tried to let it go. “Announcing my presence to whatever might be in here. I didn’t see you in the lobby so I went looking. Took the door at the top of that giant staircase, had a look around—”
“What were you doing in here?” Cedwyn asked, getting the point.
“Trying to look out that window.” Relic nodded up to the one he meant, just over the shoulder of the knight; one of many spanning the wall at equal intervals. At the moment, a bar of bright sunlight was streaming in, highlighting motes of dust and turning them to white sparkles in its path. “To get my bearings.” Finally, he appeared to have accomplished his task and let go, taking a step back to admire his handiwork.
“I don’t think there’s a single Tri-State faction unrepresented here,” Jace said, more to himself than anyone else. “Or country for that matter.” He was looking at an ancient set of Sindell armor. It was from a bygone era that preceded even the airships. Cedwyn seemed to understand the revelry, but neither commented further.
Relic nodded as he crossed his arms.
“And then some,” he said. “Some of these armor styles are outdated by hundreds of years and it goes all the way down the hall.”
Cedwyn took a step closer to a knight standing next to him, the armor a deep shade of scarlet. Above each was a coat of arms to indicate the nation the suit represented, emblazoned on a standard that hung from a long pole. He peered up to inspect the closest one. The banner featured a rearing griffon, and though the style was familiar enough to know the creature, it looked like something from Veil’driel's pre-republic past. Other suits were so strange that they spoke of wholly different climates and cultures; a few were so primitive they would be of no use against today's weapons.
At least one was so massive it stood head-and-shoulders above Cedwyn, the tallest.
“Some of them I’ve never even heard or read about,” Relic said, and the comment drew a glance from both of his fellow Outriders. He was, after all, a master historian. “And be careful,” he went on, taking note of Cedwyn’s distance. “They’re not exactly the most stable displays In the world.”
Cedwyn leaned back a bit, his eyes narrowing with scrutiny as he looked into the empty void behind the slited helmet.
“Feels like they’re gonna come alive and attack us.”
Jace smiled, perhaps imagining such a sight. He just happened to look past Relic where a certain coat of arms caught his eye and changed his demeanor. Without another word, he stormed toward it, catching both Relic and Cedwyn by surprise.
“What is it?” Relic asked, confused as he watched Jace pass.
When he did not respond, Cedwyn too showed concern.
Several long moments passed before Jace turned around, blocking the suit of armor he was standing in front of.
“Where’s Isabelle?” he asked, his expression like stone.
“Where is she?”
“I don’t know,” Relic said, spreading his arms. “She wasn’t back yet. I told Reese to wait and tell her we were here. She should be here any—”
Jace was at full speed in just a couple steps, and was out of the hall in a flash, his famous quickness on display. Neither of his friends immediately pursued, just exchanged baffled expressions.
Then Relic noticed it, the knight he couldn’t believe he had missed before: the armor of the golden riders. They had plagued the Outriders since they had set out from Sandia, and had almost sent Jace to his death nearly seven months before in Westwood Forest.
Relic opened his mouth to say something as he took his first steps back, but no words were needed.
“Yeah,” Cedwyn said as he turned and ran out.
Relic was right behind him. As he broke into a sprint, his elbow clipped one of the suits of armor as he passed. He was nearly at the end of the hallway before he heard the knight crash to the floor behind him.
“Son of a bitch!” he yelled, and was through the door.
In the short time it took Cedwyn and Relic to make their way across the foyer and into the lobby, Jace was already out of the main entrance of Lornda Manor and into the warm day beyond.
“Dabriel, wait!” Cedwyn called, but he was completely ignored as he and Relic followed him down the grandiose staircase. By the time they emerged onto the cobblestone walkway themselves, Jace was almost to the horses. Relic had left Midnight near the other two horses, and even with Jace's lightning pace towards them, only Highfly stepped restlessly in anticipation of action to come. He soon had one foot in the stirrup, and then in a flash was in the saddle.
“Jace!” Cedwyn tried again.
At the last second, Jace veered around, on the verge of taking off back toward Terrill Silva.
“What!” he screamed, and his eyes were so fierce that Cedwyn actually hesitated. “What?” he asked again, forcing what little calm he could muster into his tone.
Relic pointed to the field even before Cedwyn could. Jace turned to see for himself, tension easing instantly from his shoulders. Even Highfly sensed the release and calmed as Jace leapt from the saddle. As soon as his feet hit the ground, he was on a beeline straight for Relic. Avery, distracted by Isabelle’s approach, hadn’t even noticed until Jace had two fistfuls of his shirt.
“You don’t know to stay in pairs out here?” he yelled, pulling Relic closer with the action. “Huh? Why didn’t you wait for her?”
Two grips clamped down on Jace’s shoulders like iron vices before he ever knew what hit him, twisting him away from Relic and tearing him back with such force that he nearly fell to the ground. Regaining his balance, and without missing a beat, Jace swung back around towards Relic, but he didn’t advance again.
“What the hell’s wrong with you!” Cedwyn barked, standing between them.
Jace was catching his breath, the exertion of his run now hitting him all at once. He opened his mouth to speak, stopped, hunched forward, and then half gestured to Relic. As if explaining himself, he managed: “You don’t travel alone out here.”
“You really wanna have that conversation?” Cedwyn asked. “You and I coming out here like this isn’t exactly by the book, either.”
“Which I told you was a bad idea,” Jace shot back, suddenly redirecting his anger to Cedwyn. He was standing fully upright again.
Now it was Cedwyn who took a full step towards Jace, suddenly finding himself on the defense and not at all pleased about it.
“You wanna get knocked on your ass, is that it?” he said, getting up in Jace’s face. “You better get your mind right, quick, cuz now you’re starting to piss me off.” Jace just sighed, regaining his wits as he looked away. The response seemed to sober Cedwyn as well, and when he spoke again his tone was far more composed, even somewhat regretful. “Alright,” he said, putting a hand on Jace’s shoulder and turning back to Relic. “Alright?”
“I came here alone,” Relic started unexpectedly, as he readjusted the crossbow bolt belts intersected across his chest. Remarkably calm, as usual. “Following your lead.” When the belts were straight again, he looked up. “And I didn’t leave her alone. Like I said, Reese was waiting for her.”
“Alright!” Cedwyn yelled again, his hand still on Jace’s shoulder. “Both of you!”
It was then that they heard the sound of Snow’s approaching hoof beats, seizing their attention.
“You guys go in yet?” Isabelle asked as she dismounted. Her mood was high and her smile flashed bright as she strode to them, breathing hard from the exhilaration of the ride. “And thanks for leaving me back there. Nice to know I matter.”
Completely oblivious to what she had just walked into, it made her sarcastic remark all the more amusing to Cedwyn who actually laughed a little. But it didn’t take her long to sense the overall tension.
Jace was looking away to the mansion and Cedwyn lowered his hand from his shoulder. Relic, after pulling down the bottom of his shirt to straighten it, was the first to make eye contact with her.
“What?” she asked with honest curiosity.
Jace cleared his throat.
“Um,” she paused, confused by the unexpected gravity she had been met with. “Yeah?”
“Lucas head back?” Cedwyn asked, trying to keep the uncomfortable silence from returning. The question was basically rhetorical.
“He did,” she said immediately. “He’s gonna report that,” she cleared her throat and lowered her voice to say: “We’ve swept the edge of Terrill Silva at a five mile range in all directions, and that finding it void of enemy activity, have commenced reconnaissance of Lornda Manor in accordance with our orders.” She stopped and was met with another pause. At this, her jaw dropped slightly when none of them acknowledged the mock formality. “Okay, seriously,” she said. “What’s going on with you guys?”
“A tiff, dear girl,” a loud voice came echoing down upon them. All four Outriders had their crossbows drawn in a flash, trained steadily on the small balcony extending out from above the main entrance. “Between that one,” a tall, strong man was pointing down at Relic, “and that one there,” he finished, moving the same gesture over to Jace.
“Who are you?” Cedwyn asked, startled.
“Who am I?” the man said, touching his chest. “Invading another man’s home and then asking: who are you? Besides being rude, that’s not the question that you should be asking, son. But I’ll go ahead and answer it anyway: I’m part of the reason you’re here.”
“We’re not in the mood for games,” Jace said. “Everywhere we’ve come across out here has been abandoned. By the looks of the library we were just in, this place is no exception. So why haven’t you fled with the others?”
“And where did you come from is what I wanna know,” Cedwyn added. “We were just in there. Place was empty.”
The man’s body language suggested something like amusement. One could almost imagine him smiling, although imagining is all one could do as the clouds parted and an almost absurdly well-placed sun glare obscured his form in shadow.
“Better,” he said. “Those are better questions, but still below average. And besides that, you have your weapons trained on me, but have made no attempt at cover. If I were a threat to you, the way I shoot, all four of you would be dead. And if you weren’t, you’d be wishing you were.” The man allowed a silence to hang in the air, then. He had seized control of the encounter, and seemed to have paused and allowed that silence to prove it. There was the sound of the tide and a few seagulls. There was the sound of the wind, and then he continued. “Truth is, I wasn’t expecting you until nightfall, which explains my absence. You only searched a couple rooms in a mansion, which explains why you think the entire thing was empty.” He shrugged and added: “I guess.” Now he, or rather his shadowy silhouette, rose back to full height. “Not everything is always as it appears and all that. Don’t they still teach that sort of thing at Firefly Farms?” At this, there was an exchange of glances between all four of the Outriders. In the space of no time at all, they had seemingly gone from the greatest hope of their republic to children in this mysterious man’s presence. Though none of them could have precisely articulated why. “Then again,” he went on, his tone perplexed. “If your method of approach is any indication, perhaps they don’t.” He shrugged, sounding astonished. “Advancing on a building like this one across an open plain? In broad daylight? I have to say … I find that remarkable.” Jace looked accusingly to Cedwyn, but then his focus was back on the balcony. “So now ... let me see if I can’t figure out who each of you are.” A heavy sigh emanated from the silhouette. A steadying, centering sigh. One that reminded Relic of Jace, who often did the same th— “Well, my first guess is easy enough. You, my dear, are quite obviously Isabelle Talabray. Even more beautiful than I’ve heard.” He took a minute to reflect, and from the shift in body language, his reaction turned slightly more serious. “I knew your father, and I was sorry to hear of his passing. He was a good man.”
Isabelle wavered a second, but had the wits to keep her crossbows trained.
The man went on.
“You ... are most welcome,” he finished, then turned his gaze on the rest, surveying them with purpose. “Have I forgotten to mention, young Outriders, that the cobblestones you’re standing on are, in fact, the ballast of the Beacon Fleet?” There was a bit of confusion then, as the Outriders tried to understand the odd spontaneity of the comment. All except Relic, who took a single step forward, crossbows still trained on the man. “Ballast, you see, is heavy material carried in the hull of ships to provide stability whe—”
“We know what ballast is,” Relic said, and Cedwyn half-smiled at the response. It amused him that the earlier episode with Jace hardly fazed him, but as soon as someone challenged his knowledge of something, Relic was clearly annoyed. Jace and Isabelle just continued to stare. “And that’s impossible,” he continued. “The Beacon Fleet was completely destroyed; establishing once and for all that the cross tides could not be passed. Even if other continents exist outside Ciridian, travel between them could not.”
“Oh, there are other continents, son, but we can talk about that later. A pleasure to meet you, Relic. That was easy enough.” His attention now turned to Jace and Cedwyn.
“I’ll save you the time. I’m Jace,” he said. “That’s Cedwyn.”
“Really? Then where’s that hat I’ve heard so much about?”
“He stopped wearing it,” Isabelle said unexpectedly.
Jace looked her way for a second.
She winked at him without ever looking away from the balcony.
“Alright, so you know who we are,” Dabriel said. “Neat entrance. So now rude or not, who are you?”
“You could tell us how you know so much about us while you’re at it,” Cedwyn chimed in.
“Okay,” the man said, stretching his back. “Back to the beginning, as all things go. I am Artemus Ward, a former Outrider of some significance.”
There was complete silence and stillness then. The Outriders froze. They could have been four statues in that moment, if not for Relic unconsciously lowering his crossbows.
“No you’re not,” he stammered, in utter disbelief.
“Yeah. I am.”
“Like … Artemus Ward.” Jace said, speaking the name with a slow and deliberate drawl.
Cedwyn’s eyes widened to saucers.
“You’re a legend,” he blurted.
Just then, the mansion’s main entrance swung open, revealing two men dressed in expensive silks moving briskly towards the group. They walked side by side, each with a pleasant expression, although they could not have been any more different in appearance. While the man on the left had a typical build, the one on the right towered over him, standing nearly seven feet tall. Along with his height, the man’s muscles beneath his clothes was equally impressive.
“You can keep your weapons if you don’t trust me. In fact, not trusting me at this juncture would be the first smart thing you,be done since you got here,” the voice of Artemus came down again. “And if you’re worried about your supplies, speaking as someone who has been in your position, be assured there is more to be offered inside than anything you might have stowed in your saddlebags.” The two men were halfway across the bridge now. “There are stables across the moat. If you look off to your right, you'll see them off in the distance. Gunther and Luther here will lead your horses there. With your permission, of course.” There was a pause, and no words were required to convey the Outriders’ concern. “Yes,” Artemus went on. “As I say, I can appreciate your hesitation. But you’ll find no wizards, minotaurs, golems, or golden riders here.” He balled a fist and brought it to his mouth, clearing his throat. “Although, to be totally honest, I cannot actually guarantee Gunther is not a minotaur.”
“Half minotaur,” Luther whispered to Isabelle. “On his mother’s side.”
Isabelle smiled a little in spite of herself, just as the men passed them in route to their horses. The huge man rolled his eyes good-naturedly while his companion grinned.
“Then maybe you can explain why you have the armored suit of a golden rider,” Jace said, turning back to the horses as if he were still debating whether he would allow the men to take them. “So prominently on display in that Grand Hall of yours.”
“Sure. Well, for starters, nothing here is mine,” Artemus answered without hesitation. “This estate is not my own. It belongs to Jaden, a Tear whose acquaintance I understand you have recently met. How is that quaint little desert town, by the way?” He expelled that heavy sigh again. “She used to be what was known as the Ciridian Illuminate, but for a whole host of reasons, you wouldn’t know anything about that. Or even, I’d wager, what that is. But sufficed to say, for now, she is the single greatest ally Veil’driel has.”
“How did you know my father?” Isabelle asked.
“All in time, young one. In time,” Artemus stated plainly, looking from Isabelle to Jace. “As to your question, Mr. Dabriel, there has never been an order of knights, in the whole fractured history of Ciridian, that isn’t represented in Paladin Hall.” Gunther and Luther now led the Outriders’ horses away, as Jace had apparently, reluctantly, decided not to object. “The answers to what I’ve no doubt are your many other questions are a bit more complex, I’m afraid. And they will require more time than I’m willing to spend standing out here on this porch. Now,” he spread his arms for a moment, then brought his hands together in a clap. “I am aware that I do not yet have your trust. Indeed, earning it is one of the main reasons you’re here. But bear this in mind: You have come here. Not the other way around. If you wish, I will give the word to my staff and your horses will be returned, along with all your supplies. You can head back to Terrill Silva and wait until morning for that post riding forerunner to return. No hard feelings, though I could assure you my old buddy Fenlow would be pissed. Or ... you could join me for an exquisite lunch, have your questions answered, and be fully informed as to the true nature of this mission you’ve been sent on, ever since the Westwood time loop was broken, and all roads led to me.”
“Did you say lunch?” Cedwyn asked.
“I did. And assuming the cuisine on long-range missions hasn’t changed much from my day, you’ll be happy to know jerky is not on the menu.”
Both Gunther and Luther were stopped, as having heard Artemus’ words, they were waiting for a decision. For a moment or two no answer came, the empty space filled by the sound of the tide once more, in the moat far below.
“You could be using the food to bait us,” Jace finally said. “Hoping our stomachs make the decision for us. Knowing we’ve been basically starving since leaving Sandia.”
“Yes, that’s right,” Artemus admitted. “Or I could simply order you killed right now.” Again, silence, as if the Outriders hadn’t considered that. “Now we could imagine hypothetical scenarios ‘til the setting of the sun, but sooner or later an actual decision will have to be made. I have offered you your choices, and now await your answer,” he finished, motioning to where his associates waited with the horses.
At this, Jace turned, realizing for the first time that they’d stopped and were waiting. Without even turning to the others, he nodded his consent for Artemus’ staff to continue.
“Excellent!” Artemus turned to the double glass doors leading back inside. “I’ll meet you in the lobby,” he said, then disappeared through a veil of gently wafting curtains.
“I don’t know why you seem so concerned, Jace. I don’t care if the food turns out to be poisoned,” Cedwyn said. He stopped, looked the rest of the way to the mansion and then back. “I’d eat it anyway.” He smiled and took a few jogging steps to catch Relic, who was already walking ahead of them.
Watching Cedwyn go, Isabelle turned to Jace, waiting for his eyes to meet hers. When they finally did, she just smiled and clipped her crossbows back to her belt. Then, bringing her hand to his shoulder, she squeezed it softly before starting towards the entrance herself.
Jace followed, with his crossbows still drawn.