by Dan Hiestand
The Counsel of Artemus
The Counsel of Artemus
“Hypothetically, my motives could be unknown.”
“I have to say, Legis Duchenne, I’m a little insulted,” Isabelle said, relaxing into her chair as Jace retook his seat next to her. “I mean, here we are, on the very edge of the republic, talking to you through a magical wall, and we’re not even important enough to warrant an audience with First Consul Leverette?”
The Legis, too, now relaxed into his chair.
“Well, those three are,” Aleister said in a serious tone, nodding to the other Outriders. “You, on the other hand, he has no time for.”
“Huh,” Isabelle mused. “I’ll just have to run for office, then. Take your job, maybe.”
Isabelle reached for the kettle.
“I’m serious,” she said, taking a tin cup and pouring herself some tea. “I wanna be a senator or something when we get back. This whole Outrider thing’s for the birds.”
“How are you all doin'?”
“Fine,” Cedwyn said, bringing his elbows up and resting them on the table. “We’ll be even better when you tell us what’s going on.”
“We were under the foolish impression that the Outrider Point Team was on the cusp of military intelligence,” Relic chimed in. “Apparently, that’s not exactly the case..”
“What’s the matter, Relic? No appreciation for exciting twists?”
“For annoying ones.”
“Ah.” Aleister stood from his chair, walking out of frame for a second before returning with a cup of his own. “I can see why you might feel that way,” he said. “But trust me, you’ve fulfilled your mission in exemplary fashion, as we knew you would.”
“Did we transcend the era in which we live?” Jace asked.
Aleister sighed as he sat down again, the sound of a man working 20-hour days.
Still, he was clearly amused.
“Ha,” he said, taking a sip of whatever it was in his cup. “Oh yeah. That was a good line.” Then he placed it back down on his desk and sat back. “Ask your questions, and we’ll get you up to speed. It should be obvious by now how our legendary friend here knew you were coming. But I’ll go out on a limb and guess that wasn’t the extent of your curiosity.”
“Good guess,” Isabelle started. “Because it’s obvious that you two have been talking through this ...” she hesitated, trying to find the words. “... place. But then how does Artemus have a copy of Valiant Notions?”
“Or a copy of your latest book,” Cedwyn added.
“Well, that’s a question even we would like an answer to,” Aleister said, crossing his arms. “After Jaden arrived here, thanks to your efforts in Sandia, the first thing she did was request an engineering team to locate and excavate all this,” he casually motioned around. “Naturally, we were more than a little skeptical. All the way up until the point where it actually turned out to be there. And, uh,” he gestured to them with an upward nod. “This is hard to argue with.”
Jace’s eyes widened slightly.
“Me?” he asked, pointing to his chest.
Isabelle rolled her eyes.
“The wall, idiot,” she said, and then squeezed his leg under the table in a not-so-subtle reminder that he’d been drinking.
“The second major development,” Aleister continued, without paying any attention to Jace. “Was when she informed the Parliament, along with First Consul Leverette, of her ability to send things back to her manor; over distances that would normally take months. Instantly. That she had an agent who could meet her and take care of the arrangements. From that point forward, whatever we gave her has ended up in the hands of Mr. Ward here.” He glanced down to Artemus. “All attempts to discover further details ... have been fruitless.”
Aleister’s tone bordered on accusation, but Artemus responded casually.
“And with good reason. The method is as dangerous as it is amazing. To share how it’s done would invite temptation to the uninitiated; and through it, disaster on a scale none can imagine.”
“And yet hasn’t kept you from using it to gather items from all over Ciridian,” Relic said. “You have flowers growing here that are indigenous to the furthest reaches of this continent. Food, suits of armor …”
“Wine,” Cedwyn added, and he exchanged a meaningful glance with Jace.
“I’ve had three decades and counting to learn about the craft. And much of what you’ve seen here, as I’ve pointed out many times now, are not my own doing but Jaden’s; over the course of … hell, I don’t even know. A very, very long time. She is not bound by the politics of this world. She transcends its petty laws and differences. Much of what you have seen here came to her as gifts; the fruits of sacred relationships of which we need not ask.”
“So, you can’t even tell us how it works?” Aleister pressed. He was leaning forward, eyes keen with intensity, although he sounded defeated even as he spoke; this argument had gone on to exhaustion long before now. “We are capable of restraint. Just because we have access doesn’t mean we’ll use it.”
“Perhaps,” Artemus said. “For a time, at least. But sooner or later, and with the right set of circumstances, noble convictions erode to nothing. A leak from an aide, corruption, curiosity. Every person who passes through what you seek leaves their mark. Imprints of their consciousness forever. To pollute such power—”
“... is to invite disaster on a scale none can imagine,” Jace said. “So we’ve heard.”
Artemus pointed at him.
There was an awkward silence then, before Isabelle finally spoke.
“Well, maybe it’s a good thing,” she said in an attempt to break the tension. “Being able to travel like that would put us all out of a job.”
“Ah, no,” he said. “Never that.” He picked up his cup with both hands, settling back and holding it on his lap. “Artemus, you wanna move us forward?”
“The forces that attacked Fairlawn City, Sandia, and are attacking the Kingdom of Sindell as we speak, are doing so at the bidding of one man. A man named Arkhelan, whom you would call …” Artemus paused, as if the word he was about to speak made him want to cringe. “A wizard.”
“We’d call him?” Isabelle asked.
Artemus answered immediately, having expected the question.
“Yes. Wizard is a silly term, really. A way for the ignorant masses to dumb down reality.”
“Really?” Jace said, taking some offense. “That’s funny. Considering the first time I ever heard the term was when I was researching—” Relic cleared his throat, briefly drawing Jace’s attention. “Relic was researching the classified records of your mission to Bryce Valley thirty years ago. As a matter of fact, according to Constable Thean’s record book, you were the first to use it.”
“Indeed,” Artemus admitted. “As I said, it’s a term used by the ignorant; a way to explain what they can’t understand. As you have noted, that was thirty years ago.”
Relic was so excited he could barely sit still. That original point team mission to Bryce Valley was the single greatest unexplored mystery of his generation. Even the records they had been permitted to view while Jace was recovering in Fairlawn were heavily censored. The only Outrider record books they had from that historic Point Team were Foy’s and Thean’s, but their contents indicated that either they hadn’t personally witnessed the event, or that they hadn’t recorded it. The highest authorities, in the Outrider Order and beyond, had guarded the secrets of it with their lives for decades.
But certain elements were known for sure. By the time it was over, Artemus Ward was banished into self-imposed exile. It drove Gabriel Foy into ignominy and obscurity; he wasn’t heard from again until the Outriders came in contact with him in Sandia. It cost Ailmar Duchenne his life; eight months before his son, Aleister, was born.
Only their leader, the now Constable Fenlow Thean, had apparently emerged unscathed.
This was Relic’s chance, and it was a big one; an opportunity to learn what no other historian had ever known. To discover the details of what had truly happened from the mouth of a man who was there and saw everything. The man to whom Jace Dabriel was compared to on every Veil’driel street corner, in every pub and tavern, and in every home.
“And speaking of Bryce Valley,” Aleister began. Relic didn’t know where to begin. What would be his first question? “You need to know how Jaden made it to Sindell in the first place.”
Relic’s shoulders sagged immediately; it was like being punched in the gut.
“Oh, no,” he tried to protest. “We’re already familiar with that. Right, guys?” he said, desperate for support from the others. When none came, he looked back to the wall and Aleister. “We read the article in Bren’s herald. Malcolm Hawkins was able to—”
“You read the propaganda version,” Aleister corrected. “On the details of Mr. Hawkins’ actions, it wasn’t far off. What was omitted, however, was the classified information revealing more about our enemy.”
“Sir,” Relic persisted. “You cannot possibly stop there. Bryce Valley is a—”
“I most certainly can stop there, Avery,” the Legis interrupted, “and for the love of everything holy, don’t call me sir.” Relic sighed and sank deeper into his chair, resigned, as Aleister went on. “And I know what you want to talk about, but as far as Bryce Valley is concerned, what happened there two months ago, not thirty years, is the pressing issue at hand.”
Artemus smiled at Relic.
“The Republic of Veil’driel has been ignoring the events you wish recounted for decades, son,” he said. “As far as learning anything further, I wouldn’t hold my breath.”
Aleister’s reaction was subtle. In fact, it went totally unnoticed by everyone but Isabelle, who knew the man well enough to sense his annoyance.
“We’ll talk when you return, Relic. You have my word,” he said. “But not tonight. This communication is not to be taken for granted. While we have benefited greatly from it, we’ve had suspicions, at times, that others may be listening in.” He looked to Artemus. “Isn’t that a possibility?”
Artemus glanced up at Aleister, then back to the Outriders.
“Unlikely,” he said, and it seemed to Cedwyn that he let the pause draw out to intentionally ratchet the tension. “But possible,” he conceded at last.
“And in light of that,” Aleister went on. “We should keep this conversation as short as possible.”
At this, some of the tension eased from Relic, and he nodded; reaching for a tin cup as Jace slid the kettle to him.
“Then let’s get to it,” Cedwyn said, his palm pressed to his forehead so that he could massage his temples with one hand. “This is starting to give me a headache. I mean, what are we talking about here?” He dropped his hand and looked up at the wall, to the visage of Aleister again. “Is it what our boy, the sharpshooter, did in Bryce Valley? Or this wizard, Arkhelan?” There was a brief pause. “Sorry,” he added sarcastically, before anyone else could speak. He held his hands up on either side of his face, shaking them to emphasize his annoyance. “Phrase only the ignorant use Arkhelan.”
Aleister, still leaning back in his chair, held the cup completely vertical as he finished off its contents.
“The two are linked,” Aleister said, not even acknowledging Cedwyn’s attitude. Most likely, he appreciated their frustration. Even expected it. “Not long after you departed Sandia, everything changed; and your mission to report on the enemy forces occupying our outer provinces … took an unexpected turn.”
“Define … unexpected turn,” Isabelle said.
Artemus jumped in.
“The siege of Fairlawn City was the only thing keeping Jaden from making contact with Veil’driel, but after you two,” he nodded to Jace and Relic, “ended that in the greatest feat of bravery ... and stupidity I have ever heard of, we had a window of opportunity for the briefest of moments.”
Jace and Relic exchanged a glance.
Artemus walked over to the table and picked up one of the chairs not in use, dragging it near the wall from which Aleister was speaking so that he was still facing the Outriders.
“So we took it. On her way, she made a stop in Sandia to tend to the plague victims, and to meet with Gabriel and his Blades or whatever they call themselves. The enemy made a predictable attempt to capture her there, and to simultaneously commandeer the Communion Vault, which is why you were temporarily rerouted. Due in no small part to your efforts, those designs were ultimately foiled, and the four of you have my sincerest, deepest gratitude for that.”
“We never got a clear answer as to what those poor people were suffering from,” Isabelle said. “Or what specifically caused them all to get sick. I know Jaden used us all, as instruments somehow, to ease their suffering, but—”
Aleister had gotten up again, moved out of frame, and was just now returning, his beverage refilled.
“We’ll get to that,” he said. “I told you that the first thing Jaden did was show us how to find and use Veil’driel’s Communion Vault,” he went on, staying standing for a bit. “The second was to suggest we change our tactics, reporting that she had encountered no enemy army on her journey to us, and aside from the skirmish at Sandia, no enemy activity at all. Which meant having a Point Team scouring the countryside was no longer necessary.”
“Skirmish,” Relic scoffed, rolling his eyes.
Jace, on the other hand, never missed a beat.
“You mean like an Outrider … pointless team?” Jace asked, appearing quite pleased with himself. He felt Isabelle’s hand over his thigh again and flinched, but this time, she let him off with a warning.
“Yes. Very clever,” Aleister said. Sitting again, he was careful not to disturb a tall stack of papers as he placed his cup down beside it. “And so, unbeknownst to you, your primary mission was altered.”
Cedwyn’s headache was getting worse as he spoke.
“So … you let us believe we were scouting to the edge of Veil’driel, to report on the enemy’s army and activity … even though you knew there wasn’t one?”
“Basically, yes,” Aleister said bluntly.
After a second or two, Cedwyn asked the obvious.
“That answer lies with Sindell,” Aleister said. “Specifically, their call for aid. You remember? The one from about a year ago?”
“Yeah,” Jace said. “The one we chose not to respond to.”
“Couldn’t respond to,” Isabelle corrected, elbowing him. “It wasn’t long after that that the comet attacks began on Fairlawn.”
“Right,” he said. “We learned that the enemy at our doorstep was not the only deterrent from rendering that aid. The Sky Gate, the massive door that controls access through Bryce Valley into the—”
“We know what it is,” Relic interrupted.
Aleister was taking another sip of his drink, pausing just long enough to respond.
“Good for you,” he said, looking at Relic over the rim. “Well, someone closed it.”
“And why would they do that?” Isabelle asked.
“We think it’s because Arkhelan was growing suspicious of Jaden,” Artemus broke in. “She’s his Luminate here on Ciridian …” he nodded, expecting their perplexed expressions. “It’s like a governor-general,” he specified. “Only instead of having command, her role was that of a supervisor, an envoy between Arkhelan and his forces here.”
“That’s amazing,” Jace said suddenly, drawing all eyes to him. “I actually understood that.”
“As such, one of her duties was to conduct weekly meetings with him.”
“Arkhelan?” Relic asked.
Artemus nodded, slouching a little.
“So you’re saying this chamber can be used to communicate all over the world as well?”
“I am,” he replied. “All continents. But in the time it took for her to journey to Veil’driel, there was a significant lapse in that communication. An unavoidable risk from the beginning, but one we decided worth taking.”
“She continued meeting with Arkhelan after reaching us. From right where I’m sitting,” he said. “The plan was to make him believe that this communication chamber was,” he pointed to them. “That one. That she was still at Lornda Manor.”
“But we think that initial lapse, despite her well-devised excuses, drew enough suspicion from Arkhelan to alert two of his agents to watch the valley,” Artemus explained. “She transcribed every detail of those meetings from memory, and about two months ago, based on intelligence missions provided by the Outrider Order, and the information Jaden got straight from Arkhelan’s mouth, it was determined that conditions were as good as they would ever be to pass through Bryce Valley.”
“But things didn’t go as planned,” Jace said knowingly.
“No.” Aleister shook his head. “They did not. They went the extreme opposite of planned, actually. I was there, a fact that you won’t read in any Valiant Notions article, I can assure you. It was a trap, sprung the moment Bowman Hawkins completed his mission to open the Sky Gate. Two ... wizards were waiting for them, joined by a pair of minotaurs and a sky fire unit. That’s what they call those circular formations who launch the comet attacks.”
“But didn’t you say she was in charge of all of the wizards on this continent?” Jace asked. “Why couldn’t she just order them out of her way?”
Aleister glanced over to Artemus, and the Outriders’ eyes followed in unison.
“It’s as I said,” Artemus began, “she is not their commander, and passage across national borders on Ciridian is strictly monitored. Needless to say, they would have known she wasn’t supposed to be there, and worse, that she was attempting to cross without permission or purpose.”
“So Arkhelan thinks Jaden might be about to betray him and offer aid to Sindell,” Cedwyn said, sorting it all out in his head. “And all he sends to Bryce Valley is two wizards, a couple minotaurs, and a Sky … whatever whatever?””
The legendary Outrider leaned forward, taking his cue.
“It’s curiously poor tactics by a man who just doesn’t do that,” Artemus explained. “To confront Jaden in the valley wouldn’t make sense. Too many unpredictable variables, and even if an engagement were successful, it may be at the cost of getting the information to Arkhelan.” He was staring at Jace now. “It’s like what you did that night in Westwood,” he said. “Only it worked and you became a hero.”
Instead of taking offense, Jace nodded.
“You’re saying these wizards tried to assassinate her without authorization?”
“Yes,” Artemus said, leaning back again.
Jace wondered if there might be something special about the tea he had now started drinking as well, with the effects of the Orinel Lin subsiding a bit.
“You seem pretty sure about that,” he said.
“Yes. I am. Based on who the assailants were, I’m almost certain.”
Isabelle brought her elbows up to the table.
“Who the wizards were?”
“Valith, a pretentious fool, and his idiot brother Orinus. Stereotypical villains, the both of them.”
“Yeah, we met. You knew them?” Isabelle asked, her eyes widening a little.
“Yes. Egocentric thugs with delusions of omnipotence, neither with any real understanding of the powers they wielded,” he said, and the mention of the names visibly angered the man. “For those two, wizard is an apt description. Glorified magicians. After their failure in Sandia, there’s not a doubt in my mind they took matters into their own hands, and tried to finish the job in Bryce Valley.”
“And they had minotaurs with them? I thought they had all retreated back to their lands,” Relic said as he glanced around to the others. “Scouts were reporting that as far back as when Jace was recovering in Fairlawn City.”
“Yes,” Artemus said, already beginning to calm and remember himself. “The minotaurs’ … participation in this conflict was never voluntary. They are being used as slaves… or rather, they were.” After a few moments staring out into nothing, Artemus brought his line of sight to rest on the Outriders. “Their minds were being bound by a perversion of an ancient charm used by the Luna Scarlet monks to train horses. But Westwood exposed the danger in doing so, leading Arkhelan to issue an edict barring the practice. As they found out, any break in the caster’s concentration lets the beasts revert to their wild nature.” He looked over to Jace. “Lucky for you, blowing up that cart of reagents was a good enough distraction. If not, we wouldn’t be having this conversation.”
Relic nodded, remembering the observation he had both made, and then confirmed, in the course of that night in Westwood.
“I noticed there was something off about their behavior from the very beginning,” he said, then he leaned forward so he could look around Cedwyn to Jace. “You remember?”
“Yes,” Jace said, uninterested. “You’re very smart.”
“That would be another indication that Valith and Orinus were working alone, then,” Cedwyn realized. “If they were using minotaurs.”
“So I guess that’s where Malcolm came in,” Isabelle said.
Aleister had taken to writing something during Artemus’ explanations. Now he looked up again.
“Yes, that’s right. And in addition to everything else, his actions saved my life when I was separated from the others.”
“What was the name the of guy we lost?” Jace asked, remembering the report of the casualty in the herald. “Senator Bren has a habit of forgetting to include the names,” he finished with some annoyance.
Aleister knew the question was coming. He knew Jace’s reputation, as did most these days, all too well.
“A kid named Shane Bevan.”
There was a pause then, as the name hung in the air like a moment of silence. In the middle of the quiet, Cedwyn leaned over and whispered to Jace.
“You know him?” he asked with a tone conveying that he himself did not.
Jace had his elbow on the table, resting his chin on a balled fist; his response, a slight shake of the head.
“Those boys,” Aleister said. “And girls,” he added with a slight smile to Isabelle. “Have done, and continue to do, amazing things.”
“And their sacrifice has not been in vain,” Artemus was quick to add. “It’s true, there may be no enemy army in Veil’driel, but the agents working for Arkhelan, left unchecked, would be absolutely devastating to this nation. They are responsible for the destruction, and subsequent occupation of the theocracy of Morrah. They have completed the near annihilation of Sindell, and while I have received no word from Mazhira, based on what we’ve seen from Sandia, which is essentially the suburb of that desert country, I have little hope. If not for the sharpshooters striking from the shadows, these agents could unite; organize further attacks. Summon demons of abysmal horror the likes of which you cannot even begin to imagine.”
“No,” Isabelle said, recalling the terrifying flying creature they had seen on the wall from Sindell. “I’m pretty sure I can imagine them.”
Jace smiled at Isabelle’s reaction.
“Golems, too,” he said. “They have golems.”
“Yes. That would have been the work of Orinus.”
“They call these sharpshooters Whistlers,” Aleister said, steering things back on course. “And the actions of Malcolm Hawkins that day, in Bryce Valley, have given them a leader.” He finished the contents of his cup for a second time, then placed it down empty. “With the combined efforts of he, Jaden, Outrider Darvin Nash and Outrider Ferris Lang, the wizards were neutralized, their minotaurs with them. That is how the convoy arrived safely in Sindell ... and why I am still alive.”
“Malcolm Hawkins,” Relic mused, looking over to Jace again. “If you hadn’t decided to run the gauntlet that night—”
“Pretty impressive, actually,” Cedwyn agreed, cutting Relic off in the process and leaning further against the table. “Even when you’re looking like a jackass you’re making contributions to the cause.”
Jace laughed, and leaning back, extended his arms to rest on the backs of Cedwyn and Isabelle’s chairs. Then he looked up to Aleister.
“Why wasn’t any of this mentioned in our correspondence with General Creed or Constable Thean?” he asked. “You could have told us we were heading to a meeting with Artemus Ward. That he was waiting for us in this mansion, and that he was an ally.”
“Honestly, because it wasn’t pertinent to your mission. At least not enough to risk the interception of a letter that might have conveyed Jaden’s plans.”
“Or that I was still here at Lornda Manor,” Artemus added.
“Besides,” Aleister said, his tone lightening. “From what I’ve heard, whether an enemy or ally was in that mansion, you would have approached it the same way.” Artemus looked up at the wall, exchanging an amused glance with Aleister as the Legis continued. “Across a wide open plain in broad daylight, huh?” he said with a chuckle. “I’ll do you a favor and not pass that bit of information on to the Constable.”
Jace shot a look over to Cedwyn with an immediate frown.
Artemus Ward and Aleister Duchenne both laughed at his consternation.
“You could have written it in the Outrider code,” Cedwyn spoke up to get back to the point, and perhaps also in part to deflect the embarrassing tactical decision that had been his idea. “The enemy can’t decode that.”
“No, actually, they can,” Artemus said, his face straightening. And immediately, all attention went to him. “Every agent of Arkhelan ... every,” he paused, as if saying the word physically pained him, “wizard can read the Outrider Code.”
“How in the hell is that possible?” Isabelle asked angrily.
Artemus just shrugged.
“In addition,” Aleister said. “We knew where you were ultimately headed.”
Artemus motioned around the room as the legis continued.
“The risk of compromising intelligence seemed foolish when we would soon be speaking like this. Kind of renders the post rider system obsolete.”
“I’m starting to think we’re two steps from being obsolete,” Cedwyn muttered under his breath. Jace smiled, holding up one finger and mouthing the correction: One step.
Although concealing the action well, Jace had raised his hand from Isabelle’s chair and was tickling the back of her neck, making it more than a little difficult for her to concentrate. He didn’t appear to be doing it consciously, however, and Isabelle made no attempt to stop him.
“Still,” he said. “If you had the ability to communicate to the coast like this, and you trust Jaden, then why are we out here? What annoys me most is the risk of life. Ours, and even moreso, the post riders’.”
“Right,” Cedwyn agreed. “If Artemus is the leader of her scouts, why didn’t you just talk to him through this,” he twirled his hand in front of him, “wall? His people could have done everything we just did.”
“Or at least met us half way between Sandia and here,” Isabelle pointed out.
“Wow,” Aleister said as he signed another parchment. “That might be the record for most people trying to make the same exact point at the same exact time.”
Isabelle sighed. Her attention having returned to Jace's fingertips and the fight against closing her eyes.
“The short answer is that the Republic of Veil’driel doesn’t trust me,” Artemus said, looking at the Outriders. “Despite Jaden vouching for me, its leaders cannot take my word on what I report to them. So you four are their insurance that things are as I say.”
“Right,” Aleister said, and he was looking down to Artemus. “You understand that it was nothing personal, but considering what’s at stake ...”
“Not at all. You would be foolish to do otherwise,” Artemus said. “Especially when I had been telling Jaden the Tri-State ... I’m sorry ...” He threw up a set of air quotes. “Prov-in-ces ... were occupied by enemy forces, only to have her find that information incorrect in route to you.” The Outriders looked to Artemus. “It’s true,” he went on. “Until recent months, my scouts and I had noted large enemy hosts throughout the grasslands, and most of the abandoned towns were occupied as well. Obviously, that intelligence seems more than a little suspicious now.”
“But why is it suspicious?” Relic asked. “What would be your motive for lying?” He looked up to Aleister, then back to Artemus. “Am I missing something? What would you gain from making Jaden believe Arkhelan had armies in Veil’driel?”
“Well, nothing,” Artemus said. “But that isn’t the point. Hypothetically, my motives could be unknown. Truthfully, Jaden already suspected there was no army here, for as I told you, she would be the first to know if there was.” Artemus shrugged, an odd change of pace from the man who had been a limitless source of information, now appearing quite honestly confused. “I can’t explain it, I can only report what my scouts and I saw, and that was several large enemy forces.” There was a long pause then, and no one spoke as Artemus stared off into nothing, as if trying, somehow, to come up with an explanation. “Ah, well,” he said, snapping out of it and smiling at the Outriders. “The simple fact is, while I have given my word and that was good enough for Jaden, it wasn’t, nor should it have been, good enough for First Consul C. R. Leverette. There were two possibilities when Jaden saw no enemy armies between here and Sandia: One, a massive force had seemingly vanished into thin air. Two, that there’d never been a massive force in the first place.” Artemus smiled, wide and genuine. “If you were the betting type, what odds would you play?”
“For what it’s worth,” Aleister said. “I am a betting man, and I spoke up for you. There were many in parliament who did the same, including Bren.”
“Ah, as I said, there’s no need to soften the blow,” Artemus chuckled. “You have a sound tactical mind is all. Like your father before you.”
Aleister nodded, smiling politely, but he was quick to move on.
“And to answer your earlier question,” the legis started, addressing the Outriders again. “The First Consul could not join us because he is at the front with our military forces on the Ezru Plains; giving a speech before they break camp. All pending your final confirmation.”
Isabelle looked a little overwhelmed.
“That there is no army in our lands to threaten Veil’driel. With your word, our forces will march to Bryce Valley and on to Sindell,” he said, then he paused. “After tonight, a single infantry brigade, along with a solitary troop of sharpshooters, will be all that is left of our fighting force here in the homeland.”
The gravity of those words swept over them.
“So, you see,” Alesiter went on. “While it may be true that, unbeknownst to you, the nature of your mission had changed after you set out from Sandia, having made Jaden’s arrival here possible; its importance is second to none. In fact, it may be the most important ever.”
“Well, you have it,” Cedwyn said, the only one of the Outriders who remained unfazed. “Our confirmation, that is. There is no enemy army in our country.”
Aleister nodded just as a pretty young girl walked up to lay a few parchments, and what appeared to be a map, on his desk. She purposely avoided looking at the wall, a little intimidated by the idea of staring into a room of four celebrities and a legend.
However, the legis didn’t plan on letting her off the hook.
“This is Cleo Bright,” he said, and the girl turned to them after dropping the papers on the desk, her arms straight down at her sides. “Former civilian aide-de-camp to General Creed, recently transferred to my staff with the Helix Legions moving out. She was with Malcolm at Bryce Valley, and earned a meritorious service medal for her efforts.”
“Nice,” Jace said. “Congratulations.”
“Thank you,” Cleo replied with a nervous smile, bouncing a little before looking away. Finally, she turned back to Aleister, brushing her hair behind her ear. “Sir, I really should check on those—”
“Yes, of course,” the legis said with a knowing smile. “Go. I’ve embarrassed you enough.”
“Thank you, sir.” Before walking out of frame, she risked a glance back to the Outriders. “Bye,” she said, holding up a hand, and was gone; whatever menial task she was off to accomplish having never looked so good.
It was only by chance that Jace happened to make eye contact with Artemus Ward after smiling at Cleo’s awkward exit, but when he did so, he found the legendary Outrider had been staring at him all the while. There was a moment then, more like a flash in time really, when the hue of the man’s eyes shifted through every imaginable color. It reminded him, strangely, of the comet attacks that had ravaged Fairlawn City, similar to his other visions, but nowhere near as intense. This experience was subtle, oddly comforting even, and then Relic’s comment about the crossbow belts, which had seemed so insignificant at the time, fluttered profoundly into his thoughts; triggered something in him that led him to Aleister.
“You know,” he started, folding his hands. The effects of the wine were completely gone, although the strangeness of that was far back in his mind. “It really isn’t unfeasible at all.” He had everyone’s attention now. “Artemus and his scouts reporting large enemy forces that turned out never to be there.”
“We’re back on that again?” Cedwyn asked, pouring himself tea for the first time.
“I’m just sayin’,” Jace continued, glancing for only a second to Cedwyn before facing Aleister once more. “I know it might seem suspicious. Hell, even a little deceitful. But we’ve encountered phenomena out here beyond that.”
Aleister was growing serious.
“Oh?” he asked, sitting straighter in his chair. “What kind of phenomena?”
“Illusions,” Jace answered. “Used to camouflage certain areas; make other things appear to be something they aren’t. Chief among them, the border of Terrill Silva.”
“So what are you saying?” Artemus asked, looking interested. “The armies my scouts and I saw occupying the Tri-State were illusions?”
“Is it really so hard to imagine?” Jace asked, a bit surprised by his own words. These thoughts came unbidden, automatically, and yet they made perfect sense to him. He was sure he was speaking the truth, and wanted nothing more to defend Artemus; he had a connection to the man. Indeed, he admired him.
At some point, the noise had fallen away to where you could hear a pin drop; the background commotion on Aleister’s end had ceased, and while those around him could not be seen out of frame, it was obvious they had fallen silent to hang on Jace’s words.
“Why would someone want to give the illusion of an army occupying our lands?” Aleister asked.
“To keep Veil’driel bottled up,” Isabelle said, joining in. “Keep our forces where they are.”
“And yet there wasn’t anything illusory about the army that attacked Fairlawn, Jace,” the legis pointed out. “As I recall, it almost killed you.”
“Yeah, I saw an army,” Jace admitted. “But only came in contact with those circles of wizards launching comets at the city.”
“Which could have been a failsafe to the plan,” Cedwyn chimed in. “It’s what I would have done; to buy time on the slim chance that scouts, or in this case Outriders, actually got through the minotaurs, golems, and supernatural funhouse of Westwood Forest.”
“And to make it seem as if, later, an army had been there, but retreated,” Relic added.
Jace was enthusiastic now, pleased by the support of the others.
“I never actually came in contact with an army, but I reported one, didn’t I? We assumed they retreated because they were stunned by my actions, but something about that reasoning always seemed wrong to me. Especially in light of these wizards you’ve described. They’ve toppled other governments on Ciridian without an army, right? What if this is just another one of their tactics? They’ve proven they don’t need them to destroy or occupy nations.”
“And you know,” Cedwyn started and then paused to think something out. Finally he nodded and held up a finger, a clear light of certitude in his eyes. “What if it’s our sharpshooters’ doing? What if they’ve taken out so many of these guys over the last few months that it’s become impossible to maintain these complex illusions?”
“You’re saying Veil’driel has simply been lucky, then?” Aleister asked. He did not appear to be overtaken by the wave of enthusiasm that had swept away the Outriders.
“Lucky?” Cedwyn asked. “No. I’m saying that Veil’driel just might be the first to have beaten them back. First with the actions of,” he held his hands up at his side to extend his thumbs and point at Jace and Relic simultaneously. “These two idiots. Then with what we did with Gabriel and the Blades to turn back the assault on Sandia. Then with the efforts of—”
“The Whistlers,” Artemus blurted unexpectedly.
Aleister glanced down to Artemus who did not look back at him. Instead, the icon kept his concentration on the Outriders who were defending him, appreciation on his face. This new generation of Outriders was defending one of their own, plain and simple. The sacred bonds of camaraderie were melting the decades away, and even if for only a moment, Artemus Ward was just another Outrider of Veil’driel.
“And the golden riders, then?” Aleister pushed.
“Well, yeah. They’re obviously real,” Jace acknowledged. There was an extended silence, as Aleister appeared to digest all this. “They were sure as hell real that night in Westwood, and we’ve even skirmished with them a few times since Sandia, but look,” Jace went on, perceiving Aleister’s racing mind. “I’m not saying we have all the answers, but I am saying that given everything we’ve been through, my gut tells me that the famous Artemus Ward has been serving Veil’driel faithfully once again.”
“And if it helps,” Relic broke in. “Constable Thean and Gabriel Foy’s record books refer to the golden riders as elite riders and marksmen. Sadly, that’s about all the detail they give.”
“Ah,” Artemus said, smiling. “So you do have Foy’s record book as well.”
Cedwyn nodded, wondering why he had been so apprehensive about sharing that information earlier.
“We do. Sorry to have kept that from you, but we didn’t know if we could—”
“No need to explain, son,” Artemus interrupted, and those words felt like they were becoming a theme with the man. “As I said upon your arrival, you would have been foolish to trust me so quickly.” He stood up then, stretching his back. “Unfortunately, you’re right. We did encounter the golden riders all those years ago, but they were a much smaller force then, and I’m afraid my old friends recorded all there was to write down.” He turned away from the Outriders to Aleister. “It wasn’t until after the Bryce Valley mission that they even appeared, and then mysteriously, they vanished. Never to be heard from again,” and he was facing the Outriders again. “Until recently, of course.”
“This is all very interesting,” Aleister said, rubbing his chin, and staring back to the table and the outriders. “And it would appear that even as your mission veered away from information gathering, you managed to gather some nonetheless.”
“You should run it by Jaden,” Isabelle said. “See what she thinks.”
“Yeah,” Relic agreed. “And how are you communicating with her, anyway?” He motioned back over his shoulder at the wall behind him; where the Sindell Ciridian Communion Vault had been previously displayed. “It didn't look like their communication room was exactly … accessible.”
“No. It isn’t,” Aleister said. “Theirs is located near the city of Zarponda, which has been occupied by the enemy. It’s also in ruins from what I understand. I’m sure Jaden has told King William where it’s located by now, but it’s impossible to get to. As Artemus mentioned, their land is under siege by a troop of wizards and the winged demons under their command.”
For just a second, Jace hesitated. That name ... that person, the king, felt like it meant something to him. Something just beyond the reaches of ... he couldn’t describe it. It was like the specific memories of the time skip back in Westwood. It barely made sense, and yet ...
Artemus cleared his throat, and Jace snapped back to the present.
“We've heard,” Jace said, glancing toward him. "Only the capital city of Hamon remains. Protected by a force field."
“Yes,” Aleister nodded. "And to answer your question, until recently, we were communicating with Sindell through sapphires. Whatever energies make this possible, Jaden is able to strengthen the connection so we can communicate with her for short amounts of time. But the communication is often sporadic, unpredictable, even with her boosting the stones’ power.” He sighed. “Then, earlier today, we lost that ability altogether.”
“So …” Isabelle started, concerned. “You have no contact with Sindell at all?”
Aleister shook his head.
“That sounds like a pretty serious problem to me.”
“It is,” the legis admitted. “Which is the reason Artemus was called away from you earlier, so that he could be informed.”
Artemus looked over to Relic.
“And where Hazel was headed when you saw her,” he said. “We have a theory as to what the problem might be. You’ll have to pardon my earlier secrecy, but there are forces in this mansion that could be manipulated by those who know what they’re doing. Unwelcome surveillance is a very real possibility around here, and I would sooner die than put her life in jeopardy.”
Relic shook his head and held up his hands, more than satisfied.
“We know, however,” Aleister went on, “that Jaden is improving upon their technology. With her help, their airship production has doubled, complete with new and improved models and incredible strides in weaponry; rendering aid beyond measure to their nation, just as she had for many months with ours. The woman is truly a savior.”
At that moment, all of the torches flickered as if a strong gust had swept through the room, although none of them felt it, and then the urgency with which Artemus fumbled for his sapphire caused the Outriders to stand.
“What was that, Artemus?” Aleister asked.
He did not answer right away, just held up a hand, glancing around.
Then his sapphire began to glow.
“Charles?” he asked, but he looked around the room again and then to the ceiling, not moving so much as a muscle, as if he were standing on a sheet of thin ice.
“No explanation, master,” the voice came through. “But there was definitely an interruption of some kind.”
Artemus turned to Aleister.
“Could just be the nasty weather moving in,” he said. “It’s been known to happen. But I don’t think we should take any chances. We should end the connection immediately.”
Aleister agreed wholeheartedly.
“Right,” he said, racing to speak his last words to the Outriders. “Get a good night’s rest, pack up, have a good breakfast, and meet Mr. Reese in the woods tomorrow morning. The post riders have all been ordered to return, but as Lucas is at the end of the line, he won’t receive word. You tell him the mission is over and he’ll return with you.” There was a flicker and the image of Aleister faded before returning. “And one more thing,” the legis said, the sound of his voice distorted with the diminishing quality of his image. “Chapter ten of my latest book, Jace. I suggest you take a look. It’s devoted to your mission to Saddle Creek. The one you ran as a forerunner. Guarding that convoy of windmill parts, do you remember?”
At that instant, the wall returned to normal, the torch’s flame restored to its natural hue, and Aleister’s visage was gone; the surreal conversation unceremoniously ended.
“I don’t like it,” Artemus admitted.
“We got what he wanted to tell us,” Jace said. “I think we can call it a night.”
Relic reached down, withdrew his pocket watch, checked it, then stowed it back away.
Seconds were still passing.
One, two, three, four—
He reached for his cup one more time and took another sip of the tea.
Five, six, seven, eight, nine—
“This is amazing. Peach, is it?” After a sip, he chuckled. “From some far distant corner of the world, no doubt.
Ten, eleven, twelve, thirteen, fourteen—
Artemus smiled, though he appeared somewhat anxious.
—Seventeen, eighteen, nineteen, twenty—
“An orchard near the stables,” he said, and then he extended his arms outward, addressing the rest of the Outriders. “Now I must leave you for the night, and rather abruptly. To have something like this happen, on the same day Veil’driel has lost contact with Sindell, is more than a little disconcerting.”
“No, we completely understand,” Jace said.
“We’ll speak tomorrow before you depart,” Artemus said, and he appeared on the verge of moving to the illusory wall before hesitating. “You know your way back?”
“We do,” Isabelle said.
“Hey, Artemus,” Jace called out abruptly.
He had already taken his first steps away, and turned back.
“I did it for the people suffering in Fairlawn City, and even then I didn’t really think it through.” Artemus nodded, giving the appearance that he was the only other person in the room that understood why Jace was saying this. “The truth is … I was scared to death.”
Artemus walked back, slowly, until he was standing directly in front of Jace.
“Fair enough, son,” he said, placing a single hand on his shoulder. “Consider me corrected.”
Then he smiled, patted the side of Jace’s face, and left.
When Relic finally broke the silence, it was for a simple observation.
“I don’t remember you ever having a mission to Saddle Creek.”
“Because I haven’t,” Jace said, still looking forward. Finally, he turned his head to the side. “Where’s that book?”
“My room,” Cedwyn said.
“Gonna need to take a look at it,” he stated the obvious.
“Yeah,” Cedwyn agreed, and he was the first to walk out through the wall.