by Dan Hiestand
As Jace positioned himself next to Cedwyn, the man managed to barge through, his golden mask frozen in a solemn expression. The impact sent Jace to the ground, and that’s what drew the golden rider’s attention as he made it into the foyer; a moment later, his shock was heard, but not seen as Isabelle grabbed his hands, twisting his gauntleted arms behind him. The move put such strain on the man’s shoulders that he was forced to the tips of his toes, and he dropped his swords with an agonized grunt.
Relic was on the landing now as well, pushing past Isabelle and the man in her hold to help Cedwyn slam the door shut again just as several more golden riders joined in the effort to ram it open.
Down the hall, the door leading into the library opened and three more golden riders spilled out, standing in the narrow corridor just in front of the Greywall captain’s portrait, their armor hidden beneath cloaks, their helmets under cowls.
Jace started firing at once, scattering them back into the library for cover, all while he was still on the floor. But the respite was short-lived, as the enemy took cover, only leaning into the corridor to fire back.
Isabelle turned the enemy in her grasp into a human shield, and the man was eerily soundless as bolts ricocheted off his armor and she shot back over his shoulders. Then, in the instant she saw her foes reload, she released the golden rider, grasping his helmet with both hands and kicking him in the back, the helm pulled away as he fell.
She fired a crossbow bolt into his now-exposed head, killing him instantly.
Behind Isabelle, Jace threw the table down, sending trinkets crashing to the floor as he fell behind it and pulled her down with him. They had some cover now, a place they could counter the attacks from – but Cedwyn and Relic, who were still bracing the door beside them, had none.
Now the door at the back of the dining room flew open. These golden riders were more careful, peeking out just long enough to assess before snapping out several well-aimed bolts. It was only dumb luck that Cedwyn and Relic were not hit, and then the door they held opened long enough for a gold-clad arm to reach in.
“Damn it!” Cedwyn yelled. “I hate being right!” He turned around, propping his back against the door so that he could bend his legs and face Jace and Isabelle. “We better come up with something quick! Otherwise, this is it!”
The door to the dining room was open again. This time, with their backs against the door, Relic and Cedwyn could aim their crossbows and counter, and with Jace and Isabelle firing behind the table, they sent the riders scurrying back into the doorway after a shot or two.
Even with all the commotion and shouting coming from the lobby on the other side of the door, Cedwyn heard a grunt clear as day, and when he turned, saw Relic had dropped one of his crossbows and was holding his forearm tight against his chest.
“How bad, Rel?” Cedwyn asked, trying to see for himself.
Relic looked up at the ceiling with the top of his head against the door, then closed his eyes tightly in a mixture of anger and pain.
“Just grazed me,” he said, but it was much worse than that.
Another hard hit rocked the door, and Relic slumped forward, leaving Cedwyn to hold it alone. Isabelle and Jace jumped up to help, but now they were all exposed.
Relic had fallen back behind the table, lying beside the helmet Isabelle had ripped from the golden rider as he focused on the hall. He was waiting for either the library or dining room door to open, preparing to give whatever cover he could for his friends.
But when neither did, he spoke.
“I don’t think they’re trying to come this way anymore,” he said to the others, his eyes fixed in that direction.
“Probably realized their chances are better this way,” Cedwyn noted, grunting at the latest impact at his back. This one was, by far, the most severe, as if an angry giant were pounding away at it with a hammer. The door was made of heavy oak, but it was splintering now. They were running out of time. “Make that definitely.”
Suddenly, Relic’s eyes shot wide, and the adrenaline pumping into his bloodstream was enough to completely eclipse the throb in his arm. His mind was racing, but he didn't say a word, only rolled to his side until he reached the staircase leading up into Paladin Hall. He jumped to his feet, scaled the stairs in a flash, and flung the door open.
“Hold it a little longer!” he managed, disappearing within.
“Relic, what the hell are you –” Cedwyn almost got out before his words were lost in another crash.
“Just a little longer!” Relic’s voice repeated. He had vanished into the Hall, but by the sound, he wasn’t far away, and then almost immediately, he returned to the top of the stairwell; framed perfectly in the arched doorway, to the backdrop of the knights beyond.
“Right where I left it,” he said, remarkably calm, and he held out his good hand to the group. “Lighter?”
Jace saw the lantern in Relic’s hand as soon as he came back, and thought his heart might leap right out of his chest. His hands were trembling with excitement when they reached for his belt, and then he grabbed his flint box lighter, flinging it from his hip.
Relic caught it cleanly as he descended the stairs, and wasted no time smashing the lantern against the wall where the table had been. Oil splashed all around them: over the floor, the table, the walls. Then he stood still, holding the leaking lamp in his good hand, while his wounded arm hung limply at his side, blood droplets rolling off his fingers to the expensive landing carpets.
“When I say,” he said, focusing on the door.
The others said nothing, taking Relic’s lead.
There was another strike, this one almost forcing the three Outriders to fall forward, but they managed to get back into position just in time. Then, in that instant, Relic whispered: “Now.”
Cedwyn, Jace, and Isabelle dashed forward, past the table they had used for cover, up the short stairwell and into Paladin Hall.
Slowly now, Relic backed halfway up the stairs, with his friends staring at his back. Staring as he waited, cool and calm, locked in with the same uncanny focus that allowed him to pour over books for days at a time. Then, without looking down, he flicked the lighter with his bloody hand and raised the flame to the lantern, sparking the broken thing to life. The ruined instrument of light cackled wildly, and Relic was holding fire by a thin metal handle.
The door exploded open, and a pair of golden riders fell into the foyer with the unexpected lack of resistance, two more abreast stepping over them. It might have been startling to see the enemy’s full number, but Relic never flinched. Rather, it was the opposite, as the two golden riders closest to him stopped in surprise at the sight of the Outrider just standing there on the stairs.
It was a hesitation Relic didn’t even need, and clenching his teeth against the ache in his arm, he hurled the fiery remnants of the lantern straight ahead.
The golden riders’ screams were blood-curdling as they reached up to claw at the flames on their metal faces. One by one, the enemies unfortunate enough to have been standing in the foyer were consumed as the flames roared to life, burning into them as everything around was engulfed. Those who had not entered now struggled to pull the door shut, not only against the intensifying flames, but the heavy smoke filling the area, blinding and choking them. Their burning comrades were abandoned to die.
The scene was horrific, but then it was closed off as Relic retreated back into Paladin Hall and the door slammed shut behind him. Coughing a little from the smoke, he didn’t even turn back to the others before walking to the nearest knight display, grabbing it, and tossing the armor in the middle of the Hall. The plan was to clutter the floor and take away the enemy’s capability to simply run in pursuit, but as Relic only had one good arm to do the job, he was thankful for the displays’ instability; a sharp contrast from his experience the day before.
Cedwyn, Jace and Isabelle joined in at once, throwing the armor down in frenzy amidst a terrible ruckus. From the other side of the door, the screams died down, but the crackling blaze still popped with dark smoke funneling in under the door.
The Outriders were nearing the end of Paladin Hall, almost to the opposite door, when Isabelle paused before the golden rider display instead of just pulling it down. She cocked her head slightly to the side, sticking her hand through the space where the shoulder of the armor met the neck, astonished.
“What are you doing, Iz?” Jace asked, standing at the end of the hall with the others.
“There’s a flaw in this armor,” she said, finishing her study before crashing it down around her feet. “For maximum maneuverability of the neck, they’ve sacrificed plating around the throat.”
“That’s great, bud!” Jace said, his sarcastic tone more than suggesting, in that moment, he couldn’t care less. “Now hurry the hell up!”
She kicked the rest of the display into the hallway and started trudging through the sea of clashing armor, weapons, and helmets. Then, when she finally reached the end, she turned back. It looked bigger now, with not one of the elegant knights still standing; just a mess of polished metal in every color, mixed up and glittering in the arcane light.
“I wonder what they’ll call it now,” Cedwyn wondered, breaking the heavy tension that hung in the wake of the grizzly scene.
Jace thought on it a moment.
“I don’t know,” he said. “Hall?”
“Thank you, Relic,” Isabelle said, rising to her toes to kiss him on the cheek.
Relic’s expression didn’t change in the slightest.
“It’s strange,” he said with a faraway stare. “They didn’t fight like golden riders.”
Cedwyn started gathering up several long halberds that were lying nearby.
“What do you mean?” he asked.
“You saw how many of them there were when that door opened,” Relic said, and then he turned to Jace who was watching him intently. “They should have just rushed us. Sent as many as they could through the library and dining room.”
Finished with the task of gathering up the weapons, Cedwyn stood straight as he spoke.
“Maybe they weren’t willing to lose as many people as that would have cost.”
“No,” Jace said, seeing something familiar in Relic’s eye. It reminded him of when he spoke of the minotaurs back in the Fairlawn Sentry House. When he suspected something was off. That night, Jace had dismissed his friend’s observations. He wasn’t about to make the same mistake again. “They don’t care about that, Relic’s right,” then he turned to Isabelle. “We should be dead.”
“Well, we’re not,” Cedwyn said, juggling the halberds into one arm so he could reach out and open the door. An effort made unnecessary when Isabelle opened it for him, and they both left Paladin Hall.
“C’mon, Rel,” Jace said, and he waited a second for Relic to look at him, but he didn’t. “Let’s get down there and get this over with. Get that message to Aleister, let Isabelle check out that arm.” But it wasn’t until Relic felt Jace’s hand on his shoulder that he finally turned to him. “We’re gonna need you with that whole magic fountain thing,” he went on. “’cause you’re crazy if you think I’m going down there first.”
At that, Relic laughed a little. Then he cleared his throat and rubbed his hand across his mouth.
“You trying to make me feel better, Dabriel?”
Jace winked at him.
“No,” he said simply. “I don’t like you enough.”
And at that, Relic sighed, smiling as he passed through the doorway.
Jace turned and watched him go, nodding to himself after a second.
“I’m serious about that fountain, though,” he said, following out.