by Dan Hiestand
The massive doors leading into the spiraling staircase rotunda were much bigger than the one at the other end of Paladin Hall, and the rectangular, silver handles extended outward just enough to slide the halberds Cedwyn collected through to bar them.
“Good luck getting those open,” he said.
Just as Artemus Ward before them, the Outriders were oblivious to the sparkling splendor around them, descending to the level below without so much as a sparing glance. When they made it to the bottom, no one said a word.
The short hall where the Communion Vault waited was only a few strides away, and already they could see the tapestry that marked the illusory wall. All four of them bolted in that direction, thankful that there were no more doors to watch down here.
Cedwyn was the first to reach the tapestry and ripped it down, sending the depiction of the quaint little town wafting into a heap on the floor. Then he pushed his hand up against the wall, expecting it to go through.
But it didn’t.
Cedwyn turned to Jace.
“No!” Jace yelled, nudging Cedwyn to the side and touching the wall himself. It was totally solid. “No, damn it, no!” he screamed, kicking it.
Isabelle put her arms around him, guiding him away.
Cedwyn just sagged his shoulders.
“So much for warning Veil’driel,” he said.
Jace stepped once more to the solid stone, placing both hands against it and hanging his head.
“That armada has to be carrying ten thousand men, at least,” he said, closing his eyes.
“We can still ride ahead of them and warn the First Consul,” Isabelle said. “Inform the High Council and –“
“The High Council?” Jace said, motionless. “Without the legions, the Council is just a group of defenseless civilians.”
Isabelle sighed, knowing there was nothing she could say when he got like this and hating it.
“It’s better than nothing,” she said.
“No. It isn’t.” Jace turned around to look at her. “The Republic is going to fall.”
Cedwyn turned his head to the side, spitting.
“Then we’re gonna be there to fall with it,” he said, and then started to the end of the hall where Relic was already sitting.
“That’s it,” he said when Cedwyn came beside him, staring out into the conservatory with Gabriel’s book on his lap. “That’s the fountain there.”
“Where?” Cedwyn asked, turning to look out into the chamber for the first time. But when he did so, he almost fell over. “Guys,” he managed to whisper. Swallowing hard and clearing his throat, he tried again. “Guys!”
Jace and Isabelle were staring at each other when Cedwyn got their attention, and Isabelle still looked annoyed even as they moved to join him. But then everything was gone from their minds; their last steps to Cedwyn’s side not even conscious.
Jace could remember being impressed by the grandeur he had glimpsed here the previous night, and on some level, perhaps, he had been floored even then. But then Artemus had shuffled everyone into the Communion Vault, his attention had been diverted by magic walls and the impending meeting with Aleister, and this stunning place must have simply blended into a memory already saturated with stunning places. But nothing could have prepared him for seeing the place in full, and in his own time. Nothing could have prepared any of them, for this.
The ceiling was impossibly far overhead, birds flying near it only visible as fluttering specks against a dome that was illuminated as though a white sun shone through it. Numerous paths snaked through lush green fields of mandrake, leading toward the intertwined canopies of trees in shockingly vivid colors. Purple nightshade bushes lined the lane nearest the Outriders, going some forty feet on both sides before dipping beneath the boughs of two towering trees whose long, spearhead-shaped leaves glistened an unearthly golden color, running with nectar from strangely shaped fruits. As far as the eye could see, fields had been neatly planted in alternating rows of crimson, ivory, and a dozen other colors that undulated in a gentle breeze, from what source the Outriders could not even imagine. Ropes of ivy and ginseng had been coaxed into growing along panes of latticework, and spikes and spirals of greenery swept through and along gazebos whose edges and columns were picked out with weird symbols in silver gilt.
It was as if an entire forest had somehow been encompassed by some unseen, ethereal master and placed within bounds only known by those hands. Each element seemed as if it had been sculpted with exquisite care, creating a true paradise.
Some distance off was a fountain made of what appeared to be glass, a serpent towering overhead. But this one was visible only by its shape, as thousands of butterflies covered most of its body, even within its opened mouth. The wings of the creatures were swirled with psychedelic patterns in as many colors as the wildflowers around them.
“Well,” Cedwyn muttered, having been holding his breath. “I guess we know where those comet wizards get their reagent supply.”
“Sky Fire Units,” Isabelle corrected in a dazed whisper, eyes alight with every color of the rainbow.
“Hey,” Relic said. “Snap out of it.” He was trying to make some comparison with the notes in Foy’s record book. “And also, get out of my way.”
When Isabelle looked down to him, it was not his words but the look of his arm that snapped her back to reality, and she reached up to unbuckle the strap around her shoulder at once, scooting up beside him and taking out her medical supplies.
“Alright,” Jace said, trying to settle himself as he slid the spyglass from his belt. He glanced down to Relic before bringing it up to his eye. “That’s the fountain, right?”
“Yeah,” Relic said. He was no longer looking at the record book but at Isabelle as she worked on his arm.
“It looks like it’s made out of glass,” Jace observed.
“Crystal,” Relic corrected, and he flinched as Isabelle sanitized the wound.
“This is far from a graze, Relic,” she said, but his focus was on Jace again.
“There should be a serpent at the top.”
Jace raised his line of sight a little higher, the sense of their purpose returning.
“You see it?” Relic pressed after a brief delay.
“One of the eyes should be missing.” Relic glanced back to his arm when Isabelle started to wrap it. “That’s where the golden sapphire goes.”
Between the flitting of wings, Jace saw the empty stone socket, and smiled.
“Got it,” he said, retracting the spyglass and stowing it. Then he turned to Cedwyn. “Almost home.”
Cedwyn nodded, slapping Jace on the back.
“Alright, give me your waterskin,” he said and Jace did so without hesitation. Then he moved to Relic and Isabelle, crouching down next to them. “Waterskins, guys?”
“In my pack,” Isabelle said, motioning to where she placed it down.
Relic’s was lying on the floor, but still attached to his belt, and so Cedwyn gingerly removed it.
“I’m gonna head back to that smaller fountain we passed and refill these,” he said. “That should give you enough time to finish up here.”
Isabelle, intent on what she was doing, just nodded.
“Careful it isn’t saltwater,” Relic advised, grimacing as Isabelle moved his arm.
“Right,” Cedwyn said, rising to his feet and moving back down the hall. Within seconds he was back in the spiral staircase chamber, making his way to a rather unremarkable fountain he had, luckily, noticed the night before. “Wouldn’t I be able to smell it by now?” he called to Relic, laying the waterskins on the ledge. He couldn’t see him from where he was, but all were clearly in earshot.
“I couldn’t,” Relic’s voice echoed back, remindful of the episode in the lobby.
Cedwyn stuck his hand into the steady stream flowing down from a square, one tier lion head, letting the water splash over his fingers before touching his tongue.
“We’re good,” he said.
Back near the conservatory, Relic nodded, clenching his teeth when Isabelle slowly bent his elbow. Having bound the wounded forearm to his chest, she had just finished putting her medical supplies away when Cedwyn returned with the waterskins and passed them out.
“How does it feel?” Jace asked, extending his hand to pull him up.
Relic, on his feet again, reached down and drew his one crossbow like lightning. Good arm extended, he checked the sights, fired and then swiped it over the bolt belt around his waist to reload.
“Good enough,” he said, then turned his head to Isabelle. “Thanks, Iz.”
Buckling her pack back around her shoulder, she winked at him.
Jace sighed, expelling a little nervous tension. They were standing at the end of the hall now, all of them, at the mouth of the surreal conservatory.
“So … do we, like, have a plan here?” He shrugged, slightly shaking his head. “Or …”
“Yeah,” Relic said, and the other three looked at him. “Run like hell.”
Cedwyn glanced out to the crystal fountain.
“Good enough for me.”
“Yeah,” Isabelle agreed.
And then they were off, Jace leading the way, none even bothering to sweep the place, as there was no point. The Outriders were utterly dwarfed by the surroundings, looking like four tiny motes in the grand scheme of it all. The options for the enemy to hide and take cover here were limitless, and so as the fountain grew ever closer, the only remaining strategy was to have none.
They ran for what felt like miles, around gazebos, under the decorative arches loaded with twists of trailing plants, around statues and through trees. Jace passed one sculpture that registered as a famous Republic philosopher, but not which one, and then the thought was out of his head.
They had reached the fountain.