by Dan Hiestand
Fragments of Memories
Fragments of Memories
“You are not your thoughts.”
Jace's eyes ached as the dark pressed in on him, but the first sight to break across the black abyss was the whites of Relic's eyes staring down at him.
He groaned over Relic's words—
"Is this real? I mean ... are we sleeping? Is this a dream, or—"
Jace stretched in the dirt, testing his limbs one at a time.
"I don't know, Rel. I have no idea what this is whatsoev—"
"I was in the library. I saw Gabriel Foy, only he was young. I thought I heard music. Something about ... I don't know, a watchtower, and then suddenly I was here."
Jace nodded slowly, propping himself up on his forearms. He took a deep breath, closed his eyes for a second, and tried to slow everything down.
"Alright, alright," he said quietly. "Let's just calm down for a minute, hold on."
Relic was breathing hard, but Jace could hear it growing a little more rhythmic. A little more controlled. The twisted forest canopy above them was gnarled together like tentacles, the husk of some sea-tossed leviathan who withered at the first touch of air — only the occasional shiver of its entwined limbs giving some sense of the life within.
It made Jace think of the tile work covering the walls of the rotunda at the end of Paladin Hall. That, in turn, blended what was real with what they were experiencing now, which had led him to speak.
When he focused on Relic again, he found him staring back at the Westwood Forest tree-line. Back in the direction they had come on that fateful night.
"All of this postponed the Harvest Festival," Relic said. "I hadn't really thought about that, but I read it in Bren's herald." He looked back to Jace, who was eyeing him intently. "They moved it to spring. So there couldn't have been any Shadow Blossoms like usual. They would have had to celebrate the Lunar Roses."
"Relic, are you—"
"Yeah, I'm fine," Relic answered immediately, and it was clear he had anticipated both the question and Dabriel's assessment.
To Jace, it was as equally clear that Relic was just going through his own process of getting his mind right.
"So what are you thinking?" Jace asked.
Relic sighed, cleared his throat, and moved his hands up to his hips — resting his palms on his crossbows.
"Well, at first," he began, looking away again. "I was thinking that we may never have left this forest that night, and everything since has been - or had the possibility of being - an elaborate illusion. Our experiences in Westwood, as well as my interactions with Jaden in the wagon, and some things that happened in Sandia while we were staying at Ali's Books ... could suggest that as a distinct possibility."
Jace held his breath. He almost didn't want to ask his next question.
"But ... but you're sure that isn't the case now?"
Jace looked around with a gleam of frightened suspicion in his eyes.
Unveiled, the wavering moonlight made Westwood a cauldron of shadows. A passing comet painted the darkness, leaving each man a washed out silhouette.
"Yes," Relic said simply. "That's not what's happening here."
Jace rose to his feet.
"Okay ..." he said with some relief, but it wasn't in his nature not to press the issue. Seeing things as they were, instead of how he wished them to be, was one of his greatest strengths. It also, in this instance, did not allow him to rely on wishful thinking, as much as he wanted to. As much as his fear tried to convince him he may actually have a negative effect on the situation simply by speaking the words: "But how do you know for sure?"
It was a stark role-reversal from the night these events actually happened. In the realm of action, of being in the moment, Jace's attributes shined the brightest. Not just between he and Relic, but perhaps the Outrider Order as a whole. But here, not being in the moment was precisely the situation. Here, reality was the daydream, and in this land, Relican Avery was king.
Cool and collected, the beginning of a smile twitched across Relic's mouth.
"There's no moor grass here," he said. He paused, narrowing his eyes as he considered something in the sylvan shadows. The moment stretched out forever under the moonlight as they held still. "And the horn you were hiding the feverlew in isn't on your belt."
Jace glanced down.
"I didn't know you knew about that."
"But it disappeared after I used it to reset the timeline. So—"
"No," Relic interrupted.
Jace hadn't realized he'd been holding his breath, but now he let it out. It felt like something impossibly vast had passed over them.
Relic shook his head a little, then he buried his hands deep into the pockets of his cloak and looked back to Jace. He knew what Jace was thinking, even only seeing the vaguest outline of his form.
"You said you blew that horn when you felt like you were about to die, right? I mean, that's not what you put in your report, but that's what you told me."
"Then we appeared here exactly 88 minutes earlier."
Relic nodded as he withdrew his pocketwatch.
As he suspected, it was running backwards.
"This is closer to the first time we entered Westwood than the second," he said. Then he dropped the watch back into his pocket and kept his hands within both. "No wagon. See?"
In the darkness, Jace couldn't see anything for sure. There were no mysterious green lights. No comet-light, no ... he shot a look back to Relic.
"No moonlight," Jace said.
From somewhere far away, reeds whistled like windchimes on an abandoned storefront.
"Exactly," Relic agreed. "The first time, Luna Scarlet was dim, like it is now. The second it was blindingly bright. The way I've only ever seen it in this recurring dream I used to have. Which, I have a feeling, you're gonna get to see later as well."
"If all this is a dream to you ... it's more like a ... lucid dream for me. Because of Jaden. And what I went through that night in the—"
"Yeah, the confusing wagon from hell. I got it."
"Okay, yeah ... so ... then I should still have the horn, right? If this is the first time?"
"You should still have the horn," Relic quietly confirmed. He breathed out as the world slowed even further. "And we can't see our breaths like we could that night. And we're not sweating. And I bet your shoulder doesn't hurt." Jace slowly rotated his arm, dumbfounded by his friend's almost preternatural calm. "And Midnight and Highfly just disappeared."
Jace took a step back, as if he'd been pushed. He couldn't for the life of him have said when the horses had disappeared. He also couldn't have said whether or not Relic himself had caused it just by saying it.
"Alright, alright, man. Again. I got it," Jace said. "This isn't real." He was suddenly, irresistibly compelled to look down at his hands, surprised to find a blade of grass - no thicker than thread - between the tips of his forefinger and thumb. He let it fall, staring as if in a trance as it floated back down to earth. "So what is it, then?"
The screech of some far-off bird rang out.
Then there was silence.
Jace listened a moment longer to the nothing.
Or perhaps the Nothing.
Relic turned and motioned deeper into the forest with an upward nod.
"No idea," he said.
The wind ...
"So then what do we do?"
Red sky in the morning ...
"You are not your thoughts," Relic whispered to himself.
"What'd you say?"
Relic raised his hand, calling for quiet. He cast his gaze this way and that, and the wind followed his attentions. A thousand pairs of footprints entered the forest, but there was no trace of any that journeyed more than a few steps.
Some were thousands of years old, others fresh.
"In answer to your question ... what are we supposed to do? I don't know that, either," Relic said. "When this happened for real, though, you seemed much more confident."
As a cold gale pressed his back, Jace realized he could smell rain coming up fast.
"Yeah, well ..." he started, taking a few steps closer to Relic. “There's something about being in this forest, in places like this, that seems to ... I don't know, man, seems to open other parts of my mind or something. I can't explain it."
"Actually, that's a fine explanation. Matter of fact, I'd say unlocking your mind might be the reason we're here. The reason I'm here to help you."
"You don’t say."
There was something unsettling in Jace's tone, and Relic watched him a moment, sensing unfamiliar, unspoken doubts.
"Listen," Relic said, throwing a light backhand into Jace's chest to lure his eye contact. "I'll do for you what you did for me that night, which was to help me focus, stay in the present, and just deal with the situation. That ... other part of your mind ... isn't opening right now because like I said, we're not really here. I don't know if it's like a dream or a vision or whatever but we're not really here. Before you knew all about the veil between physical reality and Mirror Lake, you knew all about what that kid Calloway was going through ... you even knew about the wagon I was going to encounter that would start me on this path. The one I told you about. Or tried to. Which is why you refer to it as ... what did you call it, the confusing hell wagon or something?"
Relic held up a finger to cut him off.
"Whatever this is, I have a feeling it's meant to unlock that hidden compartment in your head permanently. The most important part of keeping a secret is that no one should know that you have one, not even you — that's true. But in this case, your past, who you are ... it's a secret to only you. I learned of it on this night in Westwood. Cedwyn and Isabelle have always known. But I can't tell you, just like I couldn't be told. That's impossible. This just has to run its course, so let me ask you a question."
Relic was pacing in a slow circle over the spongy carpet of grass, the cold earth squishing and crackling as he trod across dried leaves. As he peered over at Jace, the glint from the Helix Nebula shining overhead seemed to permeate the trees, and he blinked his eyes to clear away the bluish-green halo around the young Outrider.
"Have you ever heard that expression I just referenced? Have you ever heard the phrase: The first rule of keeping a secret is that no one should know you have one?"
"No one," Jace said, but it seemed more out of instinct, an impulsive reaction to something more than actual knowledge.
"Not even you."
For a while, they said nothing further.
Each had on a similar, contemplative silence.
And then Relic continued.
"Does the name Treinen seem familiar?"
"What about the Adamant Gaze?"
Jace didn't answer at first, but shifted uncomfortably.
Relic went on.
"Alright, man, follow me."
Jace kept up the pace — first behind Relic, then off to the side. With every step, it seemed, the weight of silence grew heavier on his nerves.
"I remember you trying to tell me about something unspeakable that you saw," Jace suddenly blurted. "I remember that."
His tone was defensive.
Relic let out a wordless grunt, but never stopped walking.
Then he added: "Good. That's actually good, you remember something at least. And anyway, you remembered longer than you thought you would. You said it wouldn't be long before you forgot the time skip. But you actually never did, based on the conversation we just had about it. And you remembered using that horn to set things in motion long enough to tell me about it, and how you left it out of your report."
Now there was a flash of green light, and then an alien silhouette stood in the distance, half-hidden by the swaying trees that bowed before it.
Jace's attention snapped to Relic, accusation there — but the other Outrider looked serene. Slowly, as he gazed on Relic in profile, the familiarity of the moment set in on him. He looked away, then blinked owlishly as he noticed something beckon in the gloom.
The thought of a ... watchtower, was it?
"Relax," Relic spoke up again. "You are not your thoughts. That's good advice, trust me, remember that."
Jace's eyes narrowed on the half-seen something partly submerged in the shadows, his words distracted.
"Seriously, Avery. How do you know all this?" he asked. "Tell me ... why do you seem so comfortable with what's happening right now, and I'm the one totally lost?"
Relic pushed aside a low-hanging branch, then held it so Jace could follow him past it.
"That would take years to explain, but sufficed to say, my encounter with Jaden at this wagon opened a few doors for me. Is continuing to open doors. Doors that have never closed. I've also read Gabriel Foy's record book cover to cover half a dozen times, and I talked to him ... well, that's a little hard to explain as well."
The clouds fell aside like a curtain the moment they passed into the clearing that housed the large object. It ruled silently over a cleft of gray-green pallor that seemed far more ancient than time and war could permit.
Jace straightened a little.
"Hard to explain or not, Rel, I'd appreciate it if you'd try."
"Do you even remember how we got separated that night? How I stayed behind and went through what I did with this wagon? Do you remember interacting with what you would have seen as Kerrick? Treinen paid you a visit as well, he’d been shadowing you. He wasn’t a vision or anything, though. I mean like the actual guy."
"I ..." Jace's head was spinning now. "I told you, I don't know those names let alone those people. And no, I don't remember how we were—"
“Years to explain, remember? ... or I can just show you."
"Show me how?"
Relic motioned ahead. The fallen hulk was a close imitation of the bow-top wagons, and Jace did remember something about it, but said nothing. The material stretched over the hooped frame, however, was cheap canvas, not the greenish carpet that would have made it authentic. Worst of all, it was lifeless. Abandoned and just slightly tilted, as if some great force had pushed it to its side.
"This will last for 88 minutes," Relic said, and then he gestured to where he should approach the opening.
"Relic!" Jace put a hand out to grab Relic's shoulder, fearing the other wouldn't stop. Mercifully, he did, and words tumbled out of Jace in a torrent. Like a storm. The storm is what we call— "How do you know that? How do you know any of this? You were as confused as I am when we first found ourselves here, and now—"
"You sound like a broken record. And yeah, it took me a minute," Relic said. "It's something about Lornda Manor that's making this possible. I'm just doing what Jaden told me to. What she wants ... what she needs me to." There was a spark of empathy in Relic's eyes, and the sight of it confused Jace all the more. "I had my time in that wagon, partner," he added. “Now it’s your turn.”
Jace was holding fast, hanging on Relic's every impossible, confusing, fascinating word.
Relic threw out one arm, presenting the caravan to Jace.
They turned together on the back of the wagon, the opening that yawned like a black mouth.
"You have your lighter on you?" Relic asked, and without a word or a thought, Jace absently reached into his pocket, withdrew the lighter and handed it over. It was the gold one. The one Cedwyn had given him, and Relic considered offering up that fact as further evidence that this could not be real — as at this time, Jace would not have had it yet. He refrained, however, correctly assessing it wasn't necessary.
Instead, he glanced up to where he knew the lanterns were kept.
He stepped up, struck the lighter, and lit one.
When the lantern came to life, it exposed the corpse.
Jace's eyes were drawn to it — a man wearing the gray cloak of an Outrider, face hidden by an old map. The body was riddled with crossbow bolts. He took the lantern from Relic, unconsciously, and leaned in for a closer look. He didn't have the courage to take away the map and reveal the face, but every fiber of his being screamed with a terrible revelation. And then the chill of cold certainty shot up his spine.
"This is Cedwyn," he said, then oddly registered the fact, at this closer proximity, that the map was of a network of tunnels.
Jace felt a knot growing in his stomach as he looked at it.
He dropped the lantern and it went out when it hit the floor.
He staggered back.
He felt an uncontrollable urge to look down at his hands, but couldn't see them in the darkness.
He felt that same urge to call out for Relic, but now found he couldn't speak.
With mounting dread, he tried to stand but found himself paralyzed.
He finally felt the fear he hadn't permitted himself to feel, the fear he couldn't face — and an indefinable, surreal sound obliged him.
It was a sound like unraveling — a sound that could only come from one place that now felt impossibly familiar: Mirror Lake.
There was a tightness in his chest, followed by the sensation of being sucked through a straw made of light.
And when it faded, there was screaming.