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Rated: E · Chapter · Action/Adventure · #2190575



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“That’s right,” Artemus said, knowing what Jace had just seen, and then he stepped into the cave. “Come,” his voice beckoned from the shadows.

Jace took a deep breath, but he no longer feared the darkness. It was as if it 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.

Stepping into the cavern, there was nothing but blackness at first, but then the hard rock beneath his boots softened as the stifling air grew cool. A familiar sizzling sound followed, his hands felt the bite of winter, and Jace knew where he was even before the light restored to reveal the lush green plain.

He was standing on the edge of Westwood, staring out at the enemy army camp he had seen so clearly that night.

The wizards were formed in séance circles all across the field, their gemstone necklaces sparkling with the work of summoning comets to attack Fairlawn City. All around them, enslaved minotaurs lurked, brooding behind their carts of the reagents that fueled the hellish fire.
Absently, as if he had no conscious choice in the matter, Jace found himself walking up to one of the wizards, close enough to hear the quiet chanting emanating from within its dark cowl. Without hesitating, he reached out and touched the being’s robe, recoiling his hand when it disrupted in waves like a reflection in water.
“Wondering how they hide those barbed wire staffs?” Artemus asked from off to the side, watching as the wizard rematerialized.
“No,” Jace said, looking up into the sky. “I was wondering which one of those seven hells I’m in.” He turned back to Artemus. “You know, for drinking that wine.”
“Yes, I got it. Good one.”
“But now that you mention it …”
“Their weapons are summoned as they need them,” Artemus explained, and he pointed to one as it left its circle and started off into the woods. “It’s why that one was unarmed after you shot him in the face.”
Jace watched the robed figure until it disappeared into the woods, trying desperately not to think. He was actually grateful when Artemus started speaking again.
“Everything you’re seeing here, everything you experienced that night, was just a diversion,” he said. “An elaborate scheme to keep Veil’driel from rendering aid to Sindell. To keep the Republic out of the war.”
The roaring crackle of another comet spiraling into the sky startled Jace by its close proximity, and while he turned to watch it arc over the Fairlawn Woods, he never stopped listening to Artemus.
“Relic asked the right questions tonight. Why would Artemus lie about armies occupying Veil’driel? What would he have to gain? But he didn’t have enough of the big picture to follow through.”
“Then why?” Jace asked.
“He reported them to Jaden because she had to believe Veil’driel was under siege and cut off from her, in effect, keeping her completely isolated.”
Jace sighed and ran his hand back through his hair, trying his best to understand.
“No,” he said defiantly. “Veil’driel only believed the outer provinces were occupied because Relic and I reported an army at our doorstep. So the High Council and First Consul Leverette had their information from the Outrider Order, not by some lie told by Artemus Ward.”
“You’re right. I … he didn’t tell them the lie directly. He told them through you. The illusion of an army here was not a failsafe as Cedwyn suggested in the Communion Vault. It wasn’t meant to serve as a backup deterrent in case the scouts made it through. That night you made it here, to the edge of Fairlawn Woods,” he motioned around. “This night. It was the final stage of the plan, Jace. Artemus knew minotaurs would not be enough to stop Outriders, and that Fenlow Thean would eventually send them.”
“Wait a minute, wait a minute,” Jace said, taking a couple steps closer to Artemus, visibly angry. “We were sending scouts through these woods for weeks before Relic and I were dispatched,” he said, his tone bordering on accusation. “If what you say is true, and Artemus wanted the sight reported to General Creed, then why not just let the original scouts pass through and report it themselves?”
Artemus nodded, and he appeared pleased that Jace was thinking logically.
“Tactics,” he said simply. “Artemus was going up against Fenlow Thean, who might have, for reasons you will one day understand, suspected a trick like this. But he has a weakness.”
“Yeah, what’s that?” Jace asked, almost threateningly.
“His deep-seated love for, and overwhelming confidence in, that which he treasures most. “
There was an extended pause then, as if Artemus had purposely left the space open.
“The Outriders?” Jace asked at length, annoyed by the delay.
Jace’s shoulders sagged immediately. He had been clinging to his anger, Artemus knew, as a last resort to maintain strength, and then in that moment it was stolen from him.
“To sell it, he had to make General Creed, but especially Fenlow, work for it. When you came through, it was expected. There was nothing to doubt.”
Jace said nothing; he just took an unsteady breath.
“But the plan was only a partial success,” Artemus went on. “And what was meant to be a permanent solution became a temporary one.”
At this, Jace looked up and found Artemus sitting on the edge of the massive reagent wagon from which the minotaurs loaded their carts.
Artemus smiled and nodded to the southward ridge, and the illusory army camp.
“You didn’t just report the army. You attacked the sky fire units, and when that happened, their concentration was broken. The consequences went well beyond losing their hold on the minotaurs. They maintained the illusion as well, and if you hadn’t been so busy fighting for your life, you might have noticed that the army disappeared as soon as you tossed that lighter in here,” he said, patting the reagents he was seated on.
Jace looked back up to the ridge, to the army that still appeared to be there.
“So while I was recovering in the city,” he said. “And the minotaurs left the Fairlawn Woods, it opened the door for more scouts to make it through. It would have appeared as if the army had retreated.”
“And the inevitable deployment of an Outrider Point Team to report all enemy activity in Veil’driel,” Artemus added.
“And so while the powers that be wasted their time with strategies based on armies and scenarios that didn’t exist, effectively keeping us out of the war a little longer, our reports started disproving the illusion.” Jace turned slowly to the young Artemus Ward, seeking validation, perhaps. “And then Jaden arrived in Veil’driel.”
“At which point it was only a matter of time before we came to tonight’s culmination. Rendering the plan …” He paused again, leaving the space open as he had earlier.
“Temporary,” Jace said, nodding to himself.
Artemus looked to the trees.
“Yes, congratulations. I do believe you’ve got it now.”
Jace turned away and took a few steps from the reagent wagon.
“That’s what scares me.”
A few moments passed, and as Artemus expected, an awkward robed figure, which was Jace in disguise, emerged from the woods. The present Jace, however, was lost in his thoughts.
“Hypothetically, my motives could be unknown,” Jace said, recalling Artemus Ward’s words in the Communion Vault. “Every agent of Arkhelan can read the Outrider code.” He stuck his arms out at his sides and screamed into the air, an unbridled rage surging through him that he hadn’t felt since the night he was reliving. “It’s so obvious now, and I made his case for him!” he yelled. “I sat there and helped!”
“But not by your own volition,” Artemus was quick to point out. “His eyes. They changed color, didn’t they?”
The look on Jace’s face was all the answer Artemus needed.
“You were being manipulated,” he said. “All of you were. The way you suddenly felt the need to defend him. The way his explanation of events made so much sense …”
Then, in an instant, Jace went from seething anger to stunned shock, his mind going blank with the bizarre perspective of watching himself approach the reagent cart in disguise. For a moment or two, he remained transfixed, and when he spoke again it was like he was daydreaming.
“You said Artemus is the one who tried to kill me,” he said, focusing.
“Yes.” (Imprison you in Mirror Lake)
Jace finally turned to face him and Artemus leapt from the reagent wagon.
“Show me why,” he said.
Not a single word was spoken; Artemus’ only response a bare nod before the terrain under their feet sped by in a blur, as if the landscape were a rug pulling them closer to the ridge and the army.
An army that was gone when they got there.
There were two golden riders, mounted on steeds equipped with crystals casting unnatural light on their surroundings, while less than twenty yards behind them an entire troop was poised for action. Both were adorned in crimson robes that flowed around them. The closest was Artemus Ward as he appeared in the present day, looking strong with his helmet on his lap.
Jace’s guide throughout this absurd experience was nowhere to be found.
“Well that’s one way to commit suicide, I guess,” the other rider commented. Her helmet hid her face, but it was the voice of Hazel Lien.
“Do not dishonor his courage,” Artemus remarked in a tone as casual as his movement to reach for his spyglass. Looking at Artemus, Hazel merely nodded before turning back to observe the developing action.
“How does this change things?” she asked.
Jace moved to face the plain as well. He was too far away to track the events of that night completely, but he could see fire coming from the wagon.
Artemus did not answer her.
“Shouldn’t we advance?” she pressed.
“No, not yet,” Artemus said with traces of amusement, watching through the spyglass. “Outriders are deployed in pairs on missions like these. The other could be watching from the woods.”
“The other one could be dead,” she said.
“Perhaps,” Artemus admitted. “We’ll know soon enough.”
He was still focused on all the activity, watching as one of the wizards landed a solid blow to Jace’s shoulder with its barbed wire staff.
“Outriders may be trained to regard their reconnaissance above all else, even the lives of others,” Artemus said, sounding distracted as he lowered his spyglass for a broader perspective. “But they never abandon their own. He’s good, that one.”
Hazel shrugged, looking at her master again.
“Perhaps we should allow him to return,” she said. “If he survives this, he will surely report the army he has seen. As you planned.”
“No, that contingency is forfeit,” he said, closing the spyglass and stowing it away in his saddlebag. “The illusion depends on them to maintain,” he said nodding down to where the sky fire units were in complete disarray. Some were pursuing the Outrider, others being decimated by the minotaurs. “And it’s safe to say they have other things on their minds. The illusion of the army is gone. Now it’s only a matter of time.”
“These events will be impossible to conceal,” Artemus said, turning to his protégé. “Jaden has more sources of information than us alone. She’ll come here when she hears. Veil’driel will enter the war.”
“But …” Hazel’s horse took several steps in place, anxious. “She’ll know you were lying. She’ll know there’s no enemy host occupying the Veil’driel provinces. She’ll see for herself!”
“Calm,” Artemus said gently, holding up a hand. “We were prepared for this.”
“But, this means –”
“No plan survives the battlefield, love,” he said, cutting her off with a disarming smile that commanded assurance. “This only means a more aggressive approach must be taken.” He sighed. “One I was hoping to avoid.”
Some of the tension drained from Hazel’s shoulders and she nodded, looking back down to the plain to see Relican Avery exploding from the Fairlawn wood line.
“There!” she yelled, pointing.
Artemus hardly reacted as he opened the saddlebag down to his left, withdrawing a small pouch of the herbal amphetamine known as feverlew and placing some in the back of his mouth. Beside him, Hazel Lien followed suit, removing her helmet just long enough to do the same. Now Artemus checked the contents of a deep leather bag dangling from his saddle, opening it to reveal the reagents inside.
“Prepare to advance.”
“Yes, sir,” Hazel acknowledged, and twisted in her saddle to convey a series of hand signals to the golden riders behind them.
“Now. Let us test the extent of their fortune.” Artemus rolled his armored shoulders back and flexed his hands on the reins. “On me,” he bellowed, and they were off, pounding the ground like rolling thunder, forming lines of three abreast; gliding with an uncanny gracefulness despite their heavy armor.
Jace was left in their dust, motionless even as the last rider passed him, watching their frenzied yet organized departure towards the plain. In the distance, the reagent wagon was utterly engulfed in intensifying flames that had taken on a deep purple hue. A moment later, it exploded, rocketing a pillar of smoke miles high and a rainbow colored shockwave in his direction. It was beautiful and horrifying, like the comet attacks. Instinctively, Jace raised his arms to shield himself from the blast, but just as it reached the ridge and swept over him, all was whitened out again.
He found himself back in Bryce Valley.
“The golden riders were once the protectors of the shamanists who inhabited this valley. What Veil’driel historians would refer to as ancient druids,” the young Artemus said, standing in front of Jace again. “Artemus became their leader thirty years ago.”
Jace tried to speak, but he couldn’t find his tongue, and Artemus went on.
“You must get to her, Jace, and things will grow clearer. She can answer questions. Make you see in a way that even I cannot.”
“But?” Jace hesitated, steadying himself and taking a deep breath. “How? Artemus has our horses in his stable. I mean, assuming we can even get to them. Is he just gonna let us leave?”
“No!” a voice yelled from behind Artemus, and when Jace looked past him he saw three other riders approaching, the sun flaring over their shoulders from behind so that their faces were revealed only gradually as they grew closer.
“Constable Thean,” Jace said, throwing up his arms slightly at his sides and just shaking his head. “Sure. Why not?”
But it wasn’t just Thean. It was the original Outrider point team all in a row, legends all, young and strong. Beside them, a riderless horse.
“Hold it together, boy,” Thean said, reprimanding him in the same way Jace was used to despite his youthful appearance. “His servants, his staff. They are, or at one time were, golden riders. A small contingent set to stay behind and guard the Manor.”
“The rest are en route to Sindell. Carrying with them the knowledge to lower the force field over the capital,” said Ailmar Duchyene, the father Aleister had never known.
Artemus moved over to the horse with the empty saddle, climbing up, and with that, Jace was facing the original Outrider Point Team in its entirety.
“Artemus will be joining them by different means,” he said.
A blinding flash of light consumed the surroundings, but when it faded none of the others gave the impression they had seen it.
“But … what am I supposed to do? What do you need me to do?” Jace asked, desperate.
“You will have to figure that out for yourself, son,” Thean said. “Your fate is with Jaden, but we cannot interfere beyond telling you that.”
“The library is a good place to start, though,” Gabriel Foy spoke up for the first time. Tall and lanky, he was the only one with a coiled rope hanging from his saddle. “Twenty, four hundred two.”
“Twenty, four hundre –?”
“Veil’driel will be undefended now,” Ailmar cut him off. “You must make your own decisions. Trust your own instincts.”
“We’ll help as we can, but our purpose is served and our influence must fade,” Thean added.
Just then, Jace found himself struck with a sudden revelation; a moment of clarity in the senseless madness that was this experience.
“You,” he said, looking at his mentor. “It was you I heard talking to me that night.”
“Don’t even think about it, boy. Your partner should be back at the camp by now and I suggest you join him,” he heard Thean’s voice quote himself from that night, although his mouth didn’t move. Then he nodded.
Jace understood.
“Follow your own instincts,” Artemus said, reinforcing Ailmar’s point. “As you did that night in Fairlawn.”
“This night will parallel that one,” Gabriel said.
The blinding flash consumed the scene again, but at a longer interval this time.
“It’s your time now, and things can fall into place if you let them,” Artemus said. “You can become what I failed to.”
Jace looked around, noticing for the first time that hundreds of druids were staring down from the cliffs and down to the valley floor. He didn’t have to see their eyes to know they were focused on him; he felt it, and he found himself wondering how long they had been there as the rumble of airship engines rumbled overhead, growing closer.
The young incarnations of Fenlow Thean, Gabriel Foy, and even Artemus Ward looked up at the approaching commotion, but strangely, Ailmar Duchyene did not. He locked stares with Jace instead, and there in that moment, Jace thought he saw Cedwyn Knight in his eyes.
“Reach for the ankle,” Ailmar said, but the sound of his voice was distorted, his movements having become sluggish with the rest of the valley around them. “He can’t attack you if you’re touching him.”
There were explosions then, as the airships’ attacks rained into Bryce Valley, kicking up massive chunks of ground and leaving tremendous craters where they struck. All was slow motion, and the last thing Jace saw was the energy dispersed from above, shocking him with the realization that they were exactly the same as the comets fired by the wizards on Fairlawn City.
Then the vibrant concussion of pure white blinded him, enveloping him in a blanket of bleached vision and absolute silence. When it waned, Jace found himself on the balcony attached to his room, the vibrant flash that consumed his every sense merging with the lighthouse shining in his face. The rain had stopped, and while he was shirtless, as he had been when the vision began, he was comfortable. The sun was not yet above the horizon, but it was warm, unseasonably so for spring, even on the edge of Veil’driel.
He jumped, startled by the feel of a soft hand on his chest.
“What are you doing out here?” Isabelle asked from behind him.
Jace didn’t speak, but he reached up to touch her wrist.
“Hm?” she asked again, kissing his neck.
“How long have I been out here?”
“A while,” she said, moving her mouth down to his shoulder. “Why are you so far away?” Again, he did not respond. “Hey,” she said, biting him gently but hard enough to snap his thoughts fully to her. “What are you thinking about?”
Jace glanced down and to the side so she was in his peripheral vision.
“My grandfather,” he said. “And the summers I spent with him before I was recruited by Thean.”
“Tell me about it,” she whispered, resting her head on his shoulder.
“His house was old,” Jace began, breathing deep of the saltwater air. “In the night, I swore it was haunted. I’d wake up at the howl of some faraway animal or creak in the floorboards. Sweating and hiding under the covers.” By the subtle fluctuation of Isabelle’s chest against his back, Jace could feel her amusement. “I never called out for him, though. Not once. But it didn’t matter; he always came to my room. To this day I don’t know how he knew I was awake, but he was always there. Like clockwork.”
“What would he do?” Isabelle asked.
Jace shrugged.
“Not much, usually. Most of the time he would just sit there, puffing his pipe in the shadows of the corner, reciting the details of some monotonous aspect of farm life from a rickety chair he made.” He paused, laughing a little at the thought. “You couldn’t have paid me enough to sit in that thing. It was literally the worst craftsmanship you could imagine. I mean it almost collapsed every time he sat down, but he loved it.” Jace paused, sobering a bit. “He loved that damn chair.”
“He sounds sweet,” Isabelle whispered, but she sensed him growing distant again.
“He would talk until I fell asleep, always from that corner,” he went on, giving no indication he had even heard Isabelle. “Except this one night. This one night he sat on the edge of my bed. I remember he seemed so serious. I knew there was something different about him, but I couldn’t bring myself to ask. I could only listen. He hadn’t brought his pipe with him, and he set the lantern near my bed on low. Then he waited for me to look into his eyes before speaking.
Jace hesitated again, closing his eyes and listening to the tide. This time, Isabelle could only wait for him to continue. There was something she sensed in him that was frightening. Something foreign she couldn’t define, and it stole away her speech.
“He told me never to be ashamed of my fear. That fear was our defense against those who waged war from the shadows. To deny concern … or foreboding … was to accept disaster. He said deception is the fire that forges the armor of demons. That they guard themselves behind shields of betrayal, wielding weapons of deceit.” Now he opened his eyes as the first ships broke over the horizon. “He said when demons wage war on the angels, they can't win through strength of arms. They come sideways to achieve their means. They lull them to sleep with their lies.”
“Jace, you’re scaring me.”
Jace turned around, taking her in; the intervals of sweeping light highlighting the sheet she was holding around her, making it look like ghost. He put his hands on the sides of her face, pulling her lips to his, kissing her deeply before pulling her into an embrace, waiting for her to look at the ocean from over his shoulder. Waiting for her to see what was coming.
It was only a second before her entire body tensed. Her hand on his back grabbing so hard that her nails broke his skin.
“That’s …” she trailed off, pulling him closer. “That’s impossible.”
He closed his eyes, wondering how many times that phrase had been used since they arrived. He inhaled the scent of rose oil on her, keeping it in his lungs as long as he could.
“Who are they?” she whispered as if the armada on the horizon might hear if she spoke any louder.
“The demons,” Jace said, letting her go. He backed away and moved to the rain-filled bottle of Orinel Lin. Then, without so much as a glance to the sea, poured it out over the side.
Isabelle wasn’t looking at the ships anymore, either. She was staring at Jace, as if she didn’t know him.
“You don’t have to be afraid.”
A part of her wanted to approach him, before a different part caused her to stop.
“How can you say that?”
When Jace raised his head again, the look in his eyes was as intense as she could ever remember. There was a fire there she didn’t know how to interpret, and a terrified excitement swept over her like a warm breeze in winter. She wondered if this was how he appeared that night in Fairlawn. If she was seeing that side of him he had never, until now, dared to show her.
“Because my eyes are open,” he said. “I can finally see through the shadows.”
Isabelle shifted to hold the sheet with both hands, and while Jace didn’t touch her, she craned her head to stare at him.
“I love you,” she said, without thought.
Jace’s lips parted slightly as he made to respond, but it wasn’t his words that came out. For in that instant, an eerie warbling note echoed over the sea, vibrating the air with its rumble long after it died away. It was answered a few seconds later by another terrible chord; massive horns heralding triumph.
Coasting low to the surface of the deep, the armada could still scarcely be seen, glimpsed only by the light of a handful of stars.
The lookouts had caught sight of land.
“I remember everything and it’s like I’m more lost than ever. “I don’t even know who I really am.”
“You’re mine, Start with that,” she said, standing up. “Now it’s time to go to work.”

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Chapter Eleven  (E)
The Gathering Storm
#2190577 by Dan Hiestand
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