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Rated: E · Chapter · Action/Adventure · #2190571
Chaos and the Stillness of It
CHAPTER SEVEN

Chaos and the Stillness of It


“You eat the impossible for breakfast or people die!”

WARD
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Jace stood in his room, arms crossed, staring out at the balcony and the torrents of sweeping rain that had chased away any idea of retrieving the Orinel Lin. It wasn’t a concern over getting drenched so much as knowing the bottle would be diluted and ruined by now, which would make said drenching pointless. Then the double doors rattled against the vicious gusts beyond; a final emphasis to accept his disappointment.

Anticlimatic, he thought.

“This bed is really soft,” Isabelle observed, lying in its center and leaning against the headboard.

Jace turned, twisting his mouth a little when he saw her.

What?” she asked, defensive.

“Nothing, you’re just,” Jace raised his hand, motioning towards her before trailing off. “Your cloak is still wet.”

Your cloak is still wet,” she said, mimicking him.

From the corner, Relic laughed a little, drawing Jace’s attention.

“So where were you on this whole Communion Vault thing, Rel?” he asked. “Isn’t that something you usually see coming?”

“Ah. Well, believe it or not, Jace, there haven’t been many books on the subject,” he said. “Anyway, there was no indication at all that the one in Sandia was used for that purpose. I’m actually wondering why Jaden didn’t tell us that now.”

Jace started over to where his pack sat open on the floor.

“I was pushing her pretty hard to prove she wasn’t our enemy. Maybe I distracted her or something, I don’t know.”

“It is perfectly logical when you think about it, though,” Relic went on, ignoring the comment. “If these wizards, or shamans, or whatever Artemus wants to call them are as advanced as he suggests, they would naturally have a method of communication more advanced than our own.” He turned away from the painting he had been examining to face his friends. “And not just that. Imagine what else they would be capable of. Certainly they had a hand in Sindell’s airships, for example, and Artemus already told us Jaden played a part in their force field. Emeralds power their airships, did you know that? Utilizing precious stones the same as this mansion does. You really think that’s a coincidence? I might even go so far as to say—”

“Alright, alright, we get it,” Jace said, raising a hand in the air while he rummaged through his pack. “I love how your mind works, Relic, seriously. What we just experienced makes me wanna sleep for a month. Yet, why do I get the feeling it was barely an appetizer for you?”

Relic turned back to the art.

“Overreaction clouds the reality of a thing. Stands in the way of understanding.”

Jace smiled, finding the jerky he was looking for.

“Yeah, well, what would you say,” he stood up and came to Relic’s side. “If I told you getting overwhelmed from time to time is the sign of a healthy mind?”

Relic turned to him slightly.

“Don’t know. Point out that healthy minds and Outriders don’t go together?”

Now Jace was taking in the painting for himself.

“Fair enough,” he said, taking a bite of the dried out meat. “So what’s your fascination with this?”

The artwork was most definitely old, but strangely, the only signs of wear were on the frame where the paint was chipping. The painting itself was vibrant; depicting the scene of a large, well-lit structure nestled against the woods off a well-kept sylvan road. Two quaint lanterns flanked a welcoming entrance at the end of a short walkway, over which a sign on silver hinges was branded with a crescent moon; stars dotting the i’s of the words Inn Twilight.

“It seems familiar to me,” Relic said. “Like I’ve been there before.”

“Looks like our boy Duchenne has taken a serious interest in those mountains out there,” Cedwyn said, storming in. He was holding Aleister’s book in one hand and stopped to close the door with the other. “Chapter ten,” he reminded as he hurled the book at Jace.

“Yeah,” Jace said, catching it and opening it to the right page. At a glance, it appeared to be just the start of another chapter, the format matching the rest of the volume exactly. The text, however, was a note, cleverly hiding in plain sight. “Hm,” he mused at length. “Not just these here at the coast, but the entire Bryce mountain range.” He looked up at Cedwyn. “How did he know Artemus wouldn’t read this?”

“Guess he thought it was worth the risk,” Cedwyn said with a shrug. “At some point, you’re gonna have to explain to me why your relationship with Duchenne is much closer than anyone knows ...”

Jace’s only response was turning the page.

“What does it say?” Isabelle asked.

He didn’t answer her at first, reading the rest of Aleister’s message before handing the book to Relic.

“Apparently, despite tonight’s mystical meeting, Aleister still doesn’t trust Artemus as much as he let on,” he said, walking over to where Isabelle was lounging on his bed.

“There was more to Malcolm’s mission than we were told,” Cedwyn added from his spot near the door.

Isabelle watched Jace sit down at her feet.

“Like what?”

“Like he came into contact with Gabriel Foy,” Relic said as he read for himself.

“Wow, he made it, good for him,” Isabelle said, surprised. “Guy’s been busy.”

Relic could only sigh as he read the same sentence over and over.

“This is insane,” he kept saying. The color had drained from his face, as apparently, the revelation that the enigmatic Gabriel Foy had not only survived the battle in Sandia, but had taken part in the events of Bryce Valley, was enough to void his aforementioned overreaction motto. “He saved Malcolm’s life. He saved his life in Bryce Valley. He showed Aleister how to get back to— This is insane!”

“What was he doing there?” Isabelle asked, preferring to hear about it rather than read for herself.

“They don’t know,” Cedwyn said. “He had been assumed killed in Sandia, based on our reports. But when Thean realized he wasn’t, he called a meeting with General Creed, Aleister, and First Consul Leverette. Seems to have something to do with how Jaden and Artemus are able to travel great distances instantaneously.”

“And so Alley Cat wants us to do … what exactly?”

“Confirm that the Bryce Mountain range extends all the way here to the coast,” Jace said, leaning forward from the edge of the bed and resting his forearms on his knees. “To add credence to their theory.”

“Which is?”

Jace shrugged.

“Didn’t say. Has to do with the caverns within them, though.”

“I’m beginning to think Constable Thean knows quite a bit more about this situation than he’s revealed to us,” Relic said, regaining his composure. “More than he even put in his record book. And why ask that? Any grade school kid knows that the mountains go to the coast.”

“Well, regardless,” Cedwyn said, reaching down to grab the doorknob. “It looks like they want us to bring them a piece of this puzzle, but for once, we’re not being asked to solve it.” Smiling, he opened the door. “Is the countryside clear of an enemy army? Yes. Does the Bryce Mountain Range still extend all the way to the coast? Yes. Done and done. We could even throw in that the sky is still blue and the sun is still in it.”

Jace had been staring into space, but now focused on Cedwyn.

“You seem awfully chipper all of the sudden.”

Cedwyn spread his arms.

“Mission’s over,” he said. “We’re heading home tomorrow and I’m about to sleep a full night in a very soft bed. We have a powerful wizardess, not to mention a man I’ve admired since I was five, in our corner, and we’ve confirmed there’s no sizable enemy force in Veil’driel. I’ll admit, I may not be absolutely, one hundred percent certain about every aspect of all this… but we’ll learn even more upon our return, and we’re fighting back. We’ve won in Veil’driel. Now we’ll win in Sindell and beyond.”

There was a pause before Isabelle broke the silence.

“That’s …” her gaze shifted from Cedwyn to Jace. “A really good reason for being chipper, actually,” she said, laughing.

“So anyway,” Cedwyn continued. “There’s something cooking in the kitchen again, which is where I’m off to.” He paused, noticing the jerky in Jace’s hand. “And you’re still eating that cardboard … why?”

Jace shrugged.

“Craving normalcy?”

Cedwyn raised his eyebrows.

“Riiiight,” he said, then turned, disappearing into the hallway and leaving the door wide open behind him.

“Hm. And I’m gonna make one more stop in the library,” Relic said, looking up from Aleister’s book and closing it. “Steal as much material on the Bryce Mountain Range as I can fit in my pack. I’m sure there’s stuff here you can’t find anywhere else.” He was standing in the doorway now. “Might help in the hands of the right people back home.”

“Yeah, that’s a good idea,” Jace said. “Just don’t spend all night down there. You’re gonna need your sleep.”

“All night?” Relic was holding the book at his side now, tapping it against his thigh. “I’m thinking it’ll take an hour. Tops.”

“Mmhm. An hour tops and libraries don’t get along in your world, Rel.”

Relic laughed as he left, closing the door.

There was a pleasant calm then, with all voices given way to a melody of rain against stone and glass.

“So did I tell you about this idea I had?” Jace asked. He was still on the edge of the bed and twisted towards Isabelle.

She tilted her head to the side.

“No.”

“Okay.” Jace tossed the jerky back into his pack. “Tell me what you think.”

“Oh blah,” she said, rolling her eyes. “Thinking isn’t something I feel like doing any more of tonight.” She stood and started to the dresser, throwing her wet cloak over top of it.

“You sure?” he asked. “It’s a good one.”

Isabelle showed no reaction at all when the bed creaked, and she intentionally kept her back to him when she knew he was coming over.

“Fine,” she said, feigning annoyance in spite of her fluttering stomach. “Go ahead.”

He was right behind her now.

“Okay, you ready?”

She could feel his breath on the back of her neck, and while her posture remained unchanged, her eyes fell closed.

“Mmhm.”

“Alright. Don’t tell anyone.” His finger was on the small of her back, tracing a figure eight. “But I think I want to quit and pursue my lifelong dream of becoming a mime.”

Isabelle gasped, turning around.

“Oh.” Gently grabbing his arms at the elbow, she pressed against him. “That. Is. Hot,” she said, slipping off into a sarcastic daydream. “No, seriously. Can I just be serious for a minute? I have always ...” She leaned her head to the side, pausing and nodding a little. “... had a thing for mimes.”

“Yeah, I actually knew that,” Jace said, leaning his forehead down against hers. “I knew you liked mimes.”

“Mmmm,” she hummed. “Did you?”

“Yep.”

Isabelle tilted her chin up ever so slightly, brushing her lips against his as she spoke.

“You know, just for future reference,” she whispered. “All that sparkle and charm of yours? Highly overrated.”

His hands drifted down to her belt.

“Damn. It is?” he asked, fiddling around with the buckle, taking his time. “How am I supposed to seduce you, then?”

“Don’t know,” she said softly. “You’re out of luck, I think.” But then her eyes opened wide and she pulled away, her body going rigid as if startled out of a dream. “Wait, wait, wait,” she said, shifting her weight to the dresser. “There was something I needed to tell you, remember?”

“Yeah,” Jace said, following her back. “I know you don’t really like mimes.”

“No, stupid. That necklace you gave me—” she tried, but her words trailed to breathy nonsense when the back of Jace’s hand slid up her thigh. “When … I was outside … it started—” Reflexively, she hugged him in tighter, biting her lower lip. “Glowing,” she groaned in his ear; then trembling, she finally kissed him. “Rain,” she added, pulling away just long enough to say the word.

“That’s crazy.”

Jace’s other hand, on Isabelle’s waist until now, moved up to unbutton her blouse.

“Yeah, so that’s what happened,” she whispered.

“Got it.”

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A clap of thunder jolted Jace out of a sound sleep, springing him to a sitting position and drawing his eyes to the balcony. The storm had not let up, but Isabelle had slept through the ruckus, her bare back bobbing rhythmically in the hall light seeping under the door.

Sighing, he was about to lie back down when another flash flooded the room and almost gave him a heart attack; the adrenaline rush so intense it felt as if he had been struck by the bolt that revealed the silhouette standing motionless at the end of his bed. It should have been bright enough to reveal the person’s identity, but it didn’t, and Jace opened his mouth to say nothing as the figure started away; a deathly stillness in its wake.

The rumble of thunder followed, and somehow, Jace mustered the focus to move to the edge of the bed, knowing his weapons were just out of reach on the nightstand. Whoever this person was, he was intended to follow and so he did, picking up his crossbow belt and fastening it around his waist as he glided quietly to the door.

There was another flash of lightning then, illuminating the room just long enough to highlight the scars on his chest and track his progress. His crossbows were drawn, and he used one to nudge the door open a little further to reveal this shadow of a person standing in the hallway, arms crossed.

Salvēte, Jace Dabriel.”

“Who are you?” Jace asked, glancing up and down the hall as he stepped into it. He was perfectly aware that his tone lacked the appropriate level of outrage, considering whoever this was had just invaded his room, but the terrifying shock was still coursing through his veins, and now relief was numbing his anger.

“I think you know. Pay more attention to the voice.”

Jace was annoyed but he didn’t immediately respond, occupied with surveying the corridor, making sure there were no more surprise guests lurking about. Satisfied they were alone, he turned his attention back to the mystery man.

“Yeah, you know what? I’ve about reached my tolerance for intrigue tonight, so why don’t you just go ahead and tell me who you are,” he said, crossbows aimed steady. “Because honestly, I’m thinking about just shooting you and going back to bed.”

“Shoot me?” the man asked, surprised. “Harsh, young Outrider. Harsh.” He stood upright, taking half a step away from the wall. “For if I had meant you harm, I would have just killed you in your sleep.

Sensing the advance, Jace tensed before the man’s face was revealed in the light, and then his arms fell limply to his sides. It was Artemus Ward, there could be no denying that, but as he appeared in all the paintings and history books. How he looked at the time he disappeared: a man in his twenties. The gray cloak he wore was of an Outrider of Veil’driel, but his various citations and accomplishments were signified in the form of patches sewn into it; an antiquated practice, now decades out of date.

“That’s right, Jace,” he said matter-of-factly. “For your sake, I hope that tolerance ain’t been reached quite yet.”

Artemus was still mostly in shadow, but not in the same way. In the last several seconds, the surroundings had grown steadily brighter, as if Jace had walked suddenly from the darkness into the full light of day. He squinted, raising his forearm to shield his eyes as he turned back to the doorway, finding instead the gaping entrance of a cavern.

He was fully clothed now, outfitted as he would be in the midst of a mission.

“We don’t have much time,” Jace heard, and by the time he turned back, his eyes were adjusted, finding the young Artemus Ward leaning casually against an axe-like outcropping that extended from the rock face. “You’re speechless, I see.”

“Yeah,” Jace said, taking in the new setting. “I wonder why that is.” Artemus smiled a little. “Is this …?”

“Bryce Valley. In a manner of speaking. In reality, I suppose, you’re still standing in Lornda Manor.” Jace found something uncomfortable about having the cavern entrance at his back, and it was a sensation he had grown to know well. It was the feeling of hesitation and doubt, everything that had haunted him for months; though he wasn’t facing it, the darkness permeated his every thought. It took all of his effort to finally step aside. “The negative energy you feel in there is entirely manufactured,” Artemus remarked as he watched the young Outrider move. “A figment as it were. To repel the uninitiated.”

“From what?” Jace asked, still recovering.

“From what the Veil’driel Republic wishes to know most of all, as I’m sure you’ve figured out by now.” He walked to the edge of the cliff they were standing on and peered over the side. Then he turned towards the end of the valley, to the massive Sky Gate. “The ability to travel great distances instantaneously.”

“And are you really Artemus Ward?” Jace asked, surprised at how easily the absurd question passed his lips.

“Partly,” he answered, distracted, and he buried his hands in his pockets. Most of his attention was still on the ancient door that controlled access to the Kingdom of Sindell. “More like an echo, really.” He shrugged. “Or the manifestation of an echo? I don’t know.”

Jace couldn't look away. Despite the extreme circumstances, he was remarkably easy to talk to. The imposing authority he would command as an older man was all but gone, replaced instead by a sort of intense magnetism.

“An echo? An echo of what?”

Artemus turned around against the breathtaking backdrop of the valley.

“A part of the man who died here. Before his heart was corrupted forever. Before he followed it at the expense of his principles.”

“But … how is any of this—”

“I’m not here to give you a lesson in supernatural forces,” Artemus said, shaking his head and waving his hand dismissively. A mounting urgency was evident now. “You’ll understand more than you can imagine in time. Trust me.”

Jace sighed.

“Then why are you here? What is this?”

“I’m here to help you,” Artemus said, sliding his hands from his pockets. “What this is depends on you. It could be the turning of the tide, or the end of life as you know it.”

Jace reattached the crossbows to his belt.

“Okay,” he said, looking down and massaging his forehead with the tips of his fingers. “Whatever.”

Artemus curved his lips into a broadening smile.

“A little overwhelmed?” he asked lightly. “Can’t say I blame you. Tonight’s been pretty intense, right? What with the Ciridian Communion Vault, and now,” he gestured around him. “All this. I mean, up until a few hours ago you didn't even know what a Communion Vault was,” he chuckled.

Jace laughed a little, appreciating the understanding.

“Intense,” he reflected. “Intense doesn't even begin to describe it.”

“Heh. Yeah,” Artemus nodded, but then the amicable expression on his face disappeared in a flash, his features hardening to stone, and he charged. “You are an Outrider of Veil’driel, and a member of a point team!” he screamed, grabbing Jace by his cloak and pulling him closer. “You objectively internalize your circumstances, and then you deal with it. Having your head spin comes with the territory. You don’t have the luxury of waiting for your mind to catch up. You eat the impossible for breakfast or people die!” Jace pivoted to throw Artemus back, but he was released before he had to. “You think you’ve been suffering from the symptoms of a mind recovering from trauma? You haven’t. The visions, the flashes, the doubts and worry; they’re the price of a greater perception.” Artemus took another step backward, some of the tension easing from his shoulders. “You were closer to death that night than you’ve let on. Closer than even Isabelle knows.”

“Yeah.”

“That was your first step into this world. Into an existence you’re destined to be a part of,” he said on his way to the cavern. “And a cosmic irony to be sure.”

Jace turned to follow, matching Artemus’ stride all the way to the jagged opening.

“What do you mean?”

“I mean that the Artemus Ward you know will lose the most by what you’re about to see. By what you may one day become.” He glanced sidelong to Jace and waited for him to make eye contact. “Yet, that night in Westwood, it was his arrow that made it possible. He’ll tell you as much when you meet again. Because you’ll ask the same question.”

Jace sighed. He could simply do nothing else.

“You’re all wrapped up in the supernatural now, kid. But it’ll bleed into the physical world, too. Always does. Ask Relic.”

An abrupt burst of light filled Jace’s vision, overtaking him with such intensity that it almost knocked him over.

And when it faded, there was screaming.

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 Chapter Eight  (E)
Smoke and Mirrors
#2190573 by Dan Hiestand
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