by Dan Hiestand
Smoke and Mirrors
Smoke and Mirrors
“Not everything real is true. Not every dream is false.”
Screaming, obnoxious laughter came through the blinding light that Jace shielded his eyes against. There was the strange, yet all-at-once evident scent of stale ale, and the ambient rhythm of cluttered conversation: a stark and startling difference from the grim night he had just been standing in.
Relic was gone, even before he could make out the scene, Jace could sense that much. Amidst the laughter, the first few notes of a drinking song would drift up before the chorus collapsed into disarray, each man crowing his own version of the lyrics.
A few more blinks, a little more time, and the surroundings came into focus.
Jace's eyes adjusted and his senses grew more attuned.
Then, as if on cue, the instant he felt a little more settled, a little more focused, a familiar man entered what could now be identified as a tavern. The tavern itself was familiar, but not as familiar as the man.
He was a tall man, movements brisk with a gentle awareness of his own strength. He was younger. He looked the way he did when Jace had first met him almost a decade earlier, during the Harvest Festival in Fairlawn City.
He was Cedwyn Knight, and he took hold of the door carefully, so it wouldn't rattle in the wind long after he sat down at a table. A storm was coming, and it fought him on the threshold for a while, but he waited patiently. His boots were dry. They left no prints when he crossed the floor.
Jace narrowed his eyes a little, watching his friend's lips. This younger version of Cedwyn was looking for someone.
"— looking for a friend of mine," Cedwyn told the barmaid. It took a long moment before she looked at him, expression blank. "Calls himself Kerrick." Glancing down, rubbing thumb and forefinger together, he added: "When he's in a good mood, Lord Kerrick. Tall, dark ... older fella. You see him?"
"Can't say I have," she said, smile a little strained.
"I guess you'd know if you had." He suddenly realized she was waiting for something. He ordered. "Lumen ... err ... Orinel Lin is fine. Yeah. What's the news around here?"
"Nothing ever happens in Mirror Lake, mister," she said, and left in a flutter.
But something had happened. He could tell by the way her smile was stretched thin, even though there was nobody else there to pester her. Afternoons here were ruled by the mists and the cats and the grunts of hard labor that could be heard from anywhere.
All of that and something unspoken besides.
The weight of unspoken words was the heaviest.
While she busied herself by the bar, Cedwyn watched. There was something about her — not just the lustrous red hair or the blush of youth this place couldn't snuff out. The way she lingered at the drink cabinets; the long looks she gave everything, like she was really paying attention.
Then he saw what he was hoping for.
She stopped. Bit her lip ...
There was definitely more to this girl than met the eye.
He wondered what was on her mind.
She set his glass down with a clink; even gave a deft little curtsey this time. As he glanced down with an appreciative smile, he noticed flecks of reddish polish dappled her nails, as if they'd been picked at in a nervous habit.
"Got a minute?" he asked.
She could hardly say she didn't, could she?
"Sure," she said. "Can I get you something to eat?"
"Czernina?" he asked, and seeing her weird look, clarified: "Blood soup."
It was a test. He was trying to see if she would know the Mazhiran name.
If she did, she was smart enough to pretend that she didn't.
"I'm sorry," she said. "The butcher didn't make his deliveries ..."
She trailed off.
"What do you have?"
"Potatoes," she admitted with a sigh. "Every day ..."
"... potatoes," Cedwyn concluded. It was not surprising. "What happened to him?" Her green gaze was shaded by her lashes as she looked down. "You can tell me," he said, and his smile flicked a few degrees warmer.
That was all the encouragement she needed; she dropped to the side of the table, leaning her elbows on it, and a bright grin matched his even as she said: "They had to take him away. He slaughtered every pig on the Minch farm. Did it so fast it scared off the cats— they're all gone."
"Yeah ..." Cedwyn said slowly, contemplatively. "Cats are like that. They can see things coming that only exist in potential." He paused. "So, what's wrong with a few slaughtered pigs?"
"Well, the thing is ..." She looked to the side an instant. "No one asked him to slaughter a thing."
"Ooooh ... that's rough. The nearest big farms around here are ..."
"Out in Fairlawn, sir," she said politely. "It'll be another week before anything changes." She bit her lip again, nervous. "When you asked for, well, blood, well ... word is that's how they found him. Licking up the very blood out of a newborn calf." She shivered. "I don't believe it."
"I understand," Cedwyn soothed. "Blood's an acquired taste." Her eyes widened; she couldn't tell if he was joking. "I want you to have this, he said, and unfolded his hand. Until then, she hadn't realized he'd been holding on tight to the charm at the end of his necklace; when he released it, it glittered as bright as the sun in a shade of green she'd only ever seen in the mirror.
"What? I-I ... I'm honored, sir, but we've just met ..."
"Name's Cedwyn," he said. "And it's not an engagement present ... I found it on my way here on the Fairlawn Thoroughfare. Figure it must've been dropped by a trader ... so if you hold on to it, they're bound to come back for it. You can keep a secret, right?"
"I'm Hazel ... and ... thank you." She was gazing at it steadily, intently, with something far deeper than simple greed. "It's jade," she breathed, and he nodded to concede the point.
"Do you know what the Luna Scarlet Monks say about jade?"
Finally, her gaze rose to meet his in a silent question.
"Its polish represents purity; its hardness, intellect; its angles, justice; its sound, music; its colors, loyalty; its flaws, sincerity; its brightness, hope; its simplicity, temperance; its value ... truth."
"We don't have many of those things here," she said mournfully.
She looked down to see him press the necklace into her hand.
"You do now. And for as long as you need it."
Cedwyn's eyes closed against a sudden, stabbing pain in the temples, one that burned starched green lights into his vision. Images flooded his mind, unbidden, of her life if she remained in this place. Next year, maybe even as soon as next month ...
"Cedwyn? Are you okay?"
It would happen slowly, but sure enough, just as night follows day, this place would hunt her. It would slip into her daydreams and rot them. Her physical beauty, that would stay; but this place would build walls in front of the world she dreamed of and take everything else she had—
He felt her hand on his, but couldn't respond.
Maybe her father would break his leg and it wouldn't mend; maybe her mother would go mad.
Her words were nothing but a muzzy burble around him now.
Whatever happened, it wouldn't touch her until it absolutely had to. But sure enough, week after week, month after month, and year after year, it would show her that she was helpless to leave.
Cedwyn's eyelids floated open gently.
"I'm sorry. I'll be fine ... just hungry, that's all. Bad headache."
"I can go fetch the healer."
Helpless to leave.
Helpless to change.
Helpless to grow.
"You stay away from him," Cedwyn said, the words out of his mouth before he ever formed them in his mind. A wan smile softened it, but not by much. He raised the Orinel Lin, sniffed it gently, and took a little swallow as if to prove he was okay.
He was not.
The vision wouldn't leave him.
Potatoes ... every day, potatoes.
She stood up gently, and he imagined how beautiful and wide and deep she could be—
If she ever got out.
"There is no greater obstacle to the Gods than time," he whispered; and though the words seemed grim, they made him smile in private recollection. When he opened his eyes, they were bright again. Timing is everything. "Are you sure," he said as if sharing another secret. "Really sure there's no other news?"
"Well ..." She glanced to the door as if expecting another visitor. When none came, she went on. "There was this one boy. Dark hair, gray eyes ... real handsome ..." For an instant, she let herself be embarrassed; but at Cedwyn's knowing look, she was emboldened to continue. "He came in with an older guy and we all thought he'd passed out drunk ..." Now her voice dropped to a whisper once more. "But he was actually dead, and no one's seen the boy since."
Cedwyn sat back to consider—
Slowly, but certainly, he realized what had been bothering him all along. What was clawing at his mind, desperate for the chance to get in, and was even now pounding on his skull. The smell of rust; the savor of blood. It was all over this place, as fresh as the gossip.
"Is that so ..." he said slowly, as evenly as he could. "Tell me everything you remember."
Weeks passed before Cedwyn made it to Fairlawn.
Leaving Mirror Lake was like stepping out of a steaming jungle into autumn. He crossed the vast plains of the Tri-State Commonwealth, carefully swerved around the city of Ursinus, and made his way through the Gap of Ezru— and at last into the Republic of Veil'driel.
As he crossed Westwood Forest by the Fairlawn Thoroughfare, one day melted into the next.
But there had been plenty to keep his mind occupied.
The mad butcher - or as those in Mirror Lake had taken to calling him: the Leather Apron - had been taken to Fairlawn City for trial, but before a magistrate could be called from Telminster, he vanished. There was blood in the cell, but nothing more. A week later, a couple known for posing as gypsies to take money from gullible travelers disappeared from the phony caravan they kept on Westwood's western edge.
And the caravan rotted away the first night they were gone, the rumors said.
Nights had grown long out in the wild, and he had lost track of time. He exited Westwood Forest, crossed the Tenzan Plains, and entered Fairlawn City. As he did so, he saw the gates were carefully woven with rings of black poplar and cowslip. Here and there, shadow blossoms waited to bloom.
Tonight was First Night.
The official start of the annual Harvest Festival.
It must have been Citrine already ... but to Cedwyn, it didn't seem possible.
The thought made him smile for the first time since he'd left Mirror Lake.
In Calafree Square, children were shouting and playing. Cedwyn closed his eyes, leaned back into the curve of a bench, and let the rumors swirl around him.
A teenage girl named Isabelle had recently made forerunner. In the esteemed Outrider Order, that was the final rank before Outrider itself. Out here, in places like this so close to the Tri-State, that still meant something, and now her name was on everyone's lips.
There was talk of the impending Grassland Campaign, or as those he had just been mingling with called it, the Tri-State Civil War— as the ancient tensions continued to mount once more.
Rumors of fear in Telminster's great halls, lives and careers potentially torn apart by the first book of a young, upstart senator named Aleister Duchenne.
Wind the clock, wind the clock went the jump-rope rhymes, little voices fading one by one with the last embers of dusk.
And then there was the rumors of Papa Bones, and other shambling things in patchy garb that walked by night in Westwood Forest. The children who only just escaped their grasp said they had the faces of those they'd lost, and they rattled heavy books and chains in talon-sharp hands.
Cedwyn opened his eyes to realize there was a cat staring at him.
It was great and strong, with a long, tawny coat over sleek muscles. At first, it was seated; it gazed at him speculatively as its fluffy, white-tipped tail swept the street. When it rose, he could see its legs were long and lean, and it stood twice as high at the shoulder as a housecat.
Cedwyn reached down gently to scratch its ears.
"You're a Mazhiran hunting cat," he informed it, looking past the beast to watch the crowds in the park. There was a cool wind, and the children were being called in as the shadows lengthened. "There must be a Luna Scarlet Monk of some repute visiting, hm?"
But the cat gave no answer except to lean up and rest its big forepaws on his knee, then shove its slender face into his coat pocket, pink nose working all the while.
"Yes ..." His scritching became a little more playful and intent. "Very astute, squire."
As he slipped a pickled sausage from the little mason jar in his pocket, Cedwyn saw a young lady carefully scraping sacred sigils in the brown grass with a long stick. Her braid danced over her shoulders as she worked, a long coil of the finest mahogany silk.
He couldn't hear her, but could imagine the crackle of the stick through the brittle blades, a very familiar sound. More: He could feel the weight of the heavy, ceremonial armor she hid beneath her cloak. In spite of himself, his nose started to work the air just like the cat's.
And he knew two things in that moment.
The first, was that the people may have been talking about Isabelle, but they obviously didn't know what she looked like— because the girl he was watching was undoubtedly her. And she was being left alone, unbothered, as she conducted what to them would have seemed her mysterious work.
The second thing, was that the one Cedwyn was looking for was there as well.
Impossibly deep purring interrupted his reverie, and he shared a knowing look with the cat.
There is no greater enemy to the Gods than time.
"Through you, my friend, I commend my dinner to all the gods," he said. It nibbled the first morsel out of his fingers, and he ultimately left the very full Mazhiran hunting cat lolling in his wake.
An hour later, limestone benches outlining an outdoor amphitheater had blossomed brilliantly on the gray-green hills. As he sucked the last bit of vinegar from his fingers, his gaze landed on a broad-shouldered older man who was seated all alone.
Cedwyn licked his parched lips. His gaze pivoted up, but there was no sign yet of the eclipse to come. When he could delay no longer, he strode into the darkness, coming to stand by his long-expected contact.
Smiling young families were all around; women with newborns in their arms despite the autumn chill, sisters in swaying skirts walking hand in hand.
Cedwyn risked a casual glance over his shoulder to Constable Fenlow Thean — dark and lean, as the kids rhymed.
"Mr. Knight," he said. "Take a seat."
Legs that suddenly felt steel-stiff folded uncomfortably to deposit Cedwyn on the bench.
"He's here," Thean said. "I don't know when he arrived in Fairlawn, but I take that to mean Kerrick was already dead by the time you got to Mirror Lake."
"Yes, sir," Cedwyn said dutifully. “And the plague is getting worse. Everywhere I go, it’s getting worse. There was this butcher ... he ...”
The older man did not look up again.
"Mm,” he mused, staying focused. “Relic has already made an introduction, and the two have become fast friends. That's a good start."
Cedwyn looked towards the stage. Then he took a deep breath.
"From what I've been able to gather, the old grievances are different this time. This ... Grassland Campaign, or whatever Parliament is calling it now ... it’ll escalate from a policing action to all out Civil War. I have no doubt of that. All the signs are there, it's inevitable now. And when it does, sir, Avery's family is one of those who will be right there making a stand. His father, especially is—"
"I will handle Relic. You just keep your attentions where they belong."
"They're out there somewhere, right now. Dorsey has already started closing his mind, the Luna Scarlet monks will take care of the rest."
Cedwyn cocked his head to the side.
"The monks? Even they know about him?"
"The name they will give him is Jace. Jace Dabriel."
"Jace Dabriel," Cedwyn said, raising his eyebrows.
The significance was not lost on him, but he said nothing further.
"After that happens, what he knows of his past will be whatever they create, but don't pry into it, is that clear?"
"Let him see the girl's speech and then pair them together. She has made forerunner, which means she's in need of a prospect to be assigned to her. You and Avery will handle his recruitment into the Outrider Order."
"Will he be able to pass the trials?"
The constable scoffed.
"He'll not only pass them, he'll break all the records."
A cockeyed expression came across the Outrider's face.
"Break the records? They all belong to Artemus War—"
"Cedwyn, don't worry about it. You'll see for yourself soon enough."
Cedwyn sighed, letting it go.
Although the skeptical look remained.
"What makes you think he'll even want to be recruited?"
"After he sees her, he will. The pieces are moving now."
Cedwyn sat a little straighter on the bench.
The sky began to darken.
"Constable, honestly, who is this kid? I don't understand."
Thean narrowed his eyes.
"No, I know you don't," he said. "But after this storm passes ... you will."
Then they were lost in the crowd as the people of Fairlawn rose, as one, to their feet.
Jace gazed down at his hands to steady himself. He felt tightness boil in his chest, the tightness he had felt for almost ten years — the hidden fear he could never face. But this time, even as it started to sap his breath, he knew he was on the verge of a great discovery.
The thought strengthened him enough to fight back against the familiar tightness.
But then, in an instant, he felt the clarity, the certainty, receding.
He realized that Relic was back standing beside him. He was mouthing something to him, but Jace couldn't grasp the words at first.
Had they just been somewhere?
Westwood Forest, right? On that night they had ...
... no ... no it was that wagon in the clearing ... or ... no!
No, it was Mirror Lake, in that tavern he couldn't remember the name of. Wait. It was the Faraway Cry!
He had been watching Cedwyn, who looked younger, talking to that redheaded scout.
There’s something seriously familiar about that girl, Cedwyn had said on the balcony.
He had been looking for someone.
I started to read his lips, and then ...
"Is this real? I mean ... are we sleeping? Is this a dream, or—"
"I don't know, Jace," Relic said. "I don't know what this is whatsoev—"
A yawn interrupted him.
Now, as the people of Fairlawn rose all around them, Jace felt himself gasp, and clubbed gently on his too-tight chest muscles as if to clear his mind. The pressure had started again — when? He couldn't be sure.
"I'm losing it, Relic," Jace admitted. "I'm totally lost. None of this makes sense. This is no place for me—"
"It's a memory, I think," Relic said in his ear, before he turned to face the stage. "Let it absorb you and relax, partner." He laid his hand on Jace's shoulder. "Not everything real is true. Not every dream is false. The storm is what we call progress."
On stage was the most beautiful girl Jace had ever laid eyes on. Her skin had been tanned to a warm bronze by hours in the sun, no doubt the same hours that had made her lean and strong. Her dark hair was bound in an intricate braid, and her eyes held all his memories of the Zarponda seaside.
"Who ... who is she?" Jace asked, but then the world went silent—
"—troduce Forerunner Isabelle Talabray of the Outrider Order."
Under the approving smile of some old politician, she began to speak.
"Seven hundred years ago, the people of Fairlawn rose up against the tyrants. Their bravery shaped fortresses into courthouses and turned prisons into print-mills that brought the dream of the republic to life in the streets. On this, the first night of the Harvest Festival, our cherished first city looks forward with hope."
"She's nervous," Jace whispered to Relic, who stood a little straighter.
Isabelle tossed her long braid behind her, and Jace let his eyes lower. In the corner of his vision, he could see the red-clad monks moving from group to group; they would tap someone on the shoulder, clasp that person's hands, and share a few words before moving on.
Their cats were at work, too; children reached out to touch them as they padded past.
"No, shes not," Relic said. There was a long pause, but Isabelle's gaze was steady. "She's waiting."
The pale moon of children's fairy tales was fading as a distant pinprick of searing fire twisted behind it. That was Luna Scarlet: An all-consuming tide that ignited the sky in its wake. The clouds that wreathed it lit up like embers. This part of the memory was different, though. Like the strange overlapping details of a dream - where some things are accurate, or make sense, and other elements don't - Westwood Forest was on top of the city, in the place of the wall that was there in real life. It was as if the Tenzan Plains didn't even exist ... as if Fairlawn City and the woods were almost one.
"The breath of Fairlawn is the breath of Veil'driel, and the strength of Fairlawn is the strength of Veil'driel. Tonight, we remember where we've been and raise our voices to the heavens for prosperity and peace."
Relic wanted to say: See? She was just thinking.
But as the world melted into rusty shadows, his voice died in his throat.
Children were crying now, clutching tight to their father's leg or mother's skirts.
Then there was a crimson cowl in Jace's own face—
Looking one of the Luna Scarlet Monks in the face was a fast way to have the spirits see what you'd done in your eyes.
And he jerked suddenly and peered down at the ground.
And as much as he could say that he didn’t believe—
"Your eyes," the monk whispered, and somehow Jace knew to close them.
In the old stories, the only ones who’d faced a Red Moon Monk on purpose were tyrants—
He felt his breath quickening as the Tenets raced through his mind—
You could not look a Luna Scarlet monk - or Red Moon as the uninitiated called them - in the eye.
He felt two fingers tracing a cool liquid over his forehead.
And they were forbidden to give you their names.
A cross, then a circle—
For demanding so was the last crime of the tyrants.
Two strong hands braced his shoulders, a fatherly gesture.
And their act of hubris created a better them, a Not-them ...
"Why?" Jace asked the presence hovering before him. "Why me?"
Sure, steady — bright with a predator's instincts, incapable of even imagining failure.
But the monk gave no reply; only laughed a jolly laugh before clapping his shoulder once more.
Whom someday every proud person would be forced to face.
A moment passed before Jace thought it safe to look. He searched around for Relic, but there was no sign. Instead, something stranger still greeted his eyes; all the monks were gazing intently into Westwood Forest. All of the monks ...
And all of their cats, so eager and friendly before, stood tense and watched with them.
It was its own little miracle that Jace opened his eyes before anybody else. He turned his gaze to the one called Isabelle. For the first time, he spotted the heavy armor beneath her cloak, which was pulled back. At last, he recognized her for what she was: A warrior.
And whatever an Outrider was, that was what he wanted to be.
Their eyes met across the crowd, and what should have been an impossible distance—
There was a scream.
"My daughter," a woman cried. At first, the scene was bizarre: A woman in tears, pleading before three identical and faceless cowls. "She's gone. She just stepped away to take a bit of food to the cats and ... she's gone!"
A murmur of fear rippled through the crowd. Jace's head whipped around to scan the trees: But now Luna Scarlet climbed to its apex, and there was no seeing through the gloom. Isabelle's face, everyone all around her — it was a blur.
If she's gone into the forest, we'll never see her again! someone yelled at the top of their lungs.
Jace moved without thinking, slipping between one group and the next, his breath stuck in his chest until it burned. Up he went against the current of humanity until the trees were right before him, close enough to touch, and the breeze against his forehead burned cool.
He took his first step into the darkness, tripped, and fell—
There was something terrible waiting in the trees!
It had been lurking there all along, but he'd never noticed; twice the height of a man, smothered in a ragged, patchy cloak. One leg was bent at a grotesque angle, leaving lopsided footprints in the grass. The moor grass— wherever it stood, green crisped black beneath its feet.
One weathered hand was tucked in its pocket: The other, a spindly claw, held aloft a lantern.
Its back was to him as it gazed through the trees, but that awful light—
It burned clover-green, and in the center of its flame he saw a screaming face.
Jace himself made to scream, but nothing came out. And before he could command his limbs to move, he felt himself hoisted up— like that night in Westwood with that minotaur ... that night that would make him famous. Unholy strength wrapped around his shoulders, threatening to squeeze the air from his lungs—
Through the tears in his eyes he saw—
The end is never the end
He thought about stories.
"Don't say anything," Relic was telling him.
is never the end is never
Jace tried to point, to warn him—
the end is never
But the monster was gone.
Instead, there stood Relic, smiling as bright as ever. A girl no older than seven was bundled in his arms, and he was sweating like he had run a mile, the air was chilled with frost.
"How did you—" Jace rasped.
But Relic shifted the child against his chest with one arm and steadied Jace with the other.
"It'll be okay," he was saying, to the child, not Jace, though Jace knew that if not for Luna Scarlet, his friend would see how his cheeks were burning. Relic snapped a quick glance to Jace and mouthed: Follow my lead.
That was the last thing Jace saw before the red moon's light grew so bright, and so blinding, that it completely filled his vision.
And when it faded, he found himself, once again, face to face with the young Artemus Ward. His hands were buried deep into the pockets of his antiquated cloak— with all the patches sewn into it.
Jace was back in Bryce Valley.
In a manner of speaking.
"That's right. You're awake again Dorsey Trent. Best to let that name die in the past, however, where it belongs," Artemus said, knowing what Jace had just seen and been through. Then he walked past him and into the cavern. "Come," his voice beckoned back from the shadows.
Jace took a deep breath, turning around so that he was now facing the cave, but he no longer feared the darkness. It was as if he had been purified somehow. Or was it merely my perception that changed? he wondered. Looking down at his hands, he exhaled. He felt the warmth of the sun overhead, the air in his lungs, and a wave of compelling willpower sweep over him.
Turns out burying your past down the deepest hole you can find doesn't make it go away.
"Yeah, well," Jace answered himself. "I've found sunlight is the best disinfectant."
And with that, he took his first steps forward.