by Dan Hiestand
There Is a Knight That Never Goes Out
There Is a Knight That Never Goes Out
It was completely clear, massive, and empty, with even the elongated curve that was the neck of the serpent above them appearing far more grandiose than it had in the short hall. Relic was the first to jump in, looking up at the serpent head. Unlike the others he had seen in statues, murals and other depictions throughout the mansion, this leviathan was calm. Regal and serene, its teeth were exposed but not threateningly, and the crystal of which it was crafted sparkled and glimmered in the surrounding light.
As they approached, the butterflies leapt in a torrent of color, a pillar of them rising upward and then breaking out in all directions to escape the first humans to disturb them in who knew how long. But Jace was not looking at the serpent, nor was he looking at the butterflies. He was peering down at the base of the fountain.
Jace was astonished that he could see a cavernous platform below with a set of stairs carved into the rock leading down. There was more, but it faded into darkness beyond the torchlight below.
Isabelle had the golden sapphire in her hand, staring at the serpent with Relic.
“Help me up,” she said.
Jace looked up from the transparent bottom and interlocked his knuckles, lowering his hands down enough for Isabelle to step into them.
Outside the rim of the fountain, and several paces away, Cedwyn watched Jace give Isabelle a boost, and as she placed the golden sapphire into the serpent’s empty socket, he turned away, wanting to take the place in for as long as he could. He would never see anything so majestic again, he knew.
Then, despite the situation, Cedwyn smiled a little in a sudden burst of optimism.
It was the rumbling of the fountain sliding open, the loud grating of tile on stone that led his eyes back again.
Jace was lowering Isabelle down in front of him, his hands on her hips, her arms around his neck and she was laughing. The golden sapphire sparked to life, taking on a somewhat darker hue like copper flame, spreading its brilliant luminescence throughout the entire fountain before fading just as quickly. Cedwyn crossed his arms, watching it rotate towards him. From this vantage, he could not see the crescent opening now revealed on the other side, but Relic was standing right next to it, still inside the fountain with his foot on the ledge. Jace and Isabelle soon joined him to see down for themselves.
Jace was the first to look back Cedwyn’s way, smiling widely and nodding. Telling him everything he needed to know. It had worked. But then he hunched over as his gaze shifted slightly beyond. Cedwyn started back towards him, thinking he was witnessing the onset of another one of Jace’s visions.
But he turned back when Jace pointed, seeing for himself that it had not been a bout of paranormal activity afflicting his friend, but a drawn out moment of panic.
Cedwyn had barely even turned before a crossbow bolt hit him in the shoulder, spinning him back and to the side before the momentum was viciously reversed by another shot above his hip on the opposite side. Staggering backward amidst a storm of enemy fire, he tripped a few steps before falling hard into the fountain.
Jace was on him in an instant, a small miracle, or perhaps not so small, that he wasn’t hit himself. He had Cedwyn gripped under both arms and was pulling him around to the opposite side of the stone, right beside the staircase.
The clang of the golden riders filing into the conservatory echoed throughout the cavernous room. There might have been thousands of them, but the Outriders were hardly paying attention.
“I guess…” Cedwyn took an awkward breath, shivering badly. “Hall isn’t the only way in here,” he said, amused with himself for being the first to refer to Paladin Hall by its new name.
Jace had his crossbows on the ground beside him, hovering over Cedwyn with an expression of steel. Relic and Isabelle were crouched on either side, Isabelle assessing his wounds.
“Left b-behind a small … a small contingent, huh?”
“Yeah, well,” Jace said, completely calm as he tore the shirt around the bolt on Cedwyn’s shoulder. “Let’s just blame Relic. It’s what I always do.”
Cedwyn laughed, but then arched his back in violent spasm.
At that moment, Isabelle stopped. Her prognosis a single tear rolling down her cheek.
Relic hung his head, balling his hand to a fist and closing his eyes.
Cedwyn’s eyes were shut as well, tight against agony.
Jace’s reaction betrayed nothing. Isabelle might as well have given him a thumbs up, and there was a horrible moment where she seemed to be asking him what to do with her stare. Eyes locked with Jace, she flinched at the sound of a booming voice coming down on them.
“Outriders of Veil’driel!” it came from the other side of the fountain. The deafening shuffle of their efficient entry had ceased. “Surrender yourselves and all will be forgiven!”
“Jace,” Cedwyn said, reaching up and touching his hands. “You’re gonna have to leave me now.”
“Further aggression will only result in your deaths!”
Some of the pain eased from Cedwyn’s face, but his lips had taken on a deep shade of blue.
“Get … get me a cigarette.”
Jace immediately conformed to the request, reaching down for the leather case on Cedwyn’s belt. Placing one of the cigarettes in his mouth, he slid the lighter from the case as well and lit it.
“Even … if I manage … to get down there,” he said, inhaling the tobacco deeply. “They’re just gonna follow us.”
Jace shook his head, dropping the lighter into Cedwyn’s hand and closing his useless fingers around it.
“No,” he said. “The way is narrow on the map. If they try it we’ll just pick them off as they come.”
“Our orders are to contain you if possible! Despite the atrocities you have committed, unprovoked, we are willing to hold to that objective!”
“Heh. Coulda fooled me,” Cedwyn groaned, his eyes swiveling back toward Jace after a moment. “Right,” he said heavily. “We’ll just sit and pick them off. Instead of escaping.”
“A chance I’m willing to take.”
Cedwyn looked past Jace’s shoulder.
“And them?” Jace glanced around to see Isabelle and Relic had moved slightly away, staring over from pathetic defensive positions. “You’ll condemn them too.”
“Damn it,” Jace managed when he turned back, eyes flooding. His tone suggested he might yield, as he so often did to Cedwyn, like a younger brother to the older. “We’ll never even make it to the stables,” he whispered, confiding only in him, even now, as he always had. “They’ll be guarded. Don’t you see? … It’s over.”
“It’s not over!” Cedwyn said with as much energy as he could muster, and then he flicked his cigarette into the field of nightshade bushes past his feet. When Jace stood up, as if he might actually try to retrieve it, Cedwyn sparked the flint box lighter and tossed that in as well. “You’re about to have one helluva diversion.”
“I’m not gonna go without you!” Jace screamed at the top of his lungs, pulling him up from where he rested against the base.
“Damn it!” Cedwyn yelled. He appeared to be having an easier time speaking. He appeared to be in less pain. But heknew that was not a good sign. “Alright, you stubborn bastard, help me up!”
Jace shifted down to his side, so that he too was sitting against the fountain. He draped Cedwyn’s arm over his shoulders and stood up, careful to stay behind the cover of the massive serpent neck.
“Outriders, this is your final chance!”
Isabelle and Relic stood as well.
“We require your answer now!”
Jace motioned with an upward nod as they passed.
“Give it to them,” he said.
Isabelle nodded, and under cover of the serpent’s neck, she fired her shots directly at the spot where she remembered the armor from Paladin Hall was flawed, swiping her crossbows across her bolt belts with extreme skill.
One by one, the enemy began to fall, each with one strike to the throat.
Relic too began firing as Cedwyn and Jace moved ever closer to the stairs. The distance was not far from where they had been, a matter of twenty feet at the most, but with Cedwyn’s near inability to walk, it felt like much more.
The sweet smell of burning nightshade, which Relic and Jace knew well from experience, was already filling the air. Soon the flames would reach the lattices, the mandrake and ginseng.
And when that happened, they had all best be somewhere else.
At some point, though Jace could not have said precisely when, the commotion behind them had shifted away from the order of tactical pursuits to the chaos of panicked ones. The golden riders were barely even attacking anymore as the landscape caught aflame faster and faster.
“Water!” the man who had been dictating the orders screamed. “Extinguish the flames! By the gods, extinguish them quickly!”
“Go on!” Jace bellowed when he and Cedwyn were at the stairs. His lungs were starting to burn with the intensifying smoke, but his attention was only on the relief he felt when Relic and Isabelle made it to, and started down, the crescent staircase side by side. “Ready?” he asked, coughing.
Cedwyn smiled, saying nothing, only nodding a little.
“Yeah,” he said.
But as soon as Jace went to take his first step down, Cedwyn spun wildly to his left, elbowing Jace in the back with every last shred of his energy, and sending him plunging into the passageway. Relic and Isabelle, confused as they were to see Jace careening down at them, stepped up instinctively to break his fall, just as Cedwyn unbuckled his pack and hurled it down.
“Don’t waste these!” he yelled, tossing the leather of cigarettes as well.
Jace was on his stomach from the fall, saved from injury by his friends, but still disoriented.
“Cedwyn!” he screamed, scrambling desperately to his feet. But he only made it up two steps before the fountain started to close, and the golden sapphire marble bounded down the stairs, clinking against each one before rolling past him.
There was no sound now, locked out by the quiet hiss that marked the fountain above them sealing fully into place. There was only Cedwyn as he came back to view, and only the pane of crystal that was the fountain bottom separated them.
For a second, Cedwyn just stared down, his face ghostly pale. Then he appeared slightly amused with himself, as he so often did, reaching down with great effort to detach his record book from a large pocket sewn into his pant leg. It was an expression Jace knew he was seeing for the last time, but he didn’t dare consider it.
As his friends watched, Cedwyn slid the sliver of charcoal from the small book’s binding, writing something against trembling hands and desperate blinks to focus. When he was done, he threw the charcoal aside and ripped out the page, holding it face down so Jace could see it.
It was just a single word, written in the Outrider code.
There was no emotion on Jace’s face as he reached up to the crystal. Whatever else, he swore, for both Cedwyn and himself, he would be strong in these final moments. If he could.
Beside him, Relic and Isabelle reached up to touch Cedwyn’s hand as well. Holding it there. Neither of them understood the scribbled word, but not even Relic found himself curious.
The last thing Cedwyn Knight did in life was wink, before everything above was consumed in a wild flash of purple fire as the reagents ignited, and then the fountain started to glow again, blazing to an opaque brilliance that was impossible to look at. It was as if the energies it had displayed earlier under the golden sapphire’s influence now served to protect it against the fires and explosions above.
Isabelle’s arm fell away first, landing around Jace’s shoulder. On his other side, Relic repeated the action before Jace turned to complete the three-way embrace.
They were in the caverns mapped out by Gabriel Foy. In what he called The Tunnels of Armageddon. But for those moments, those seconds out of space and time, they were nowhere. Amidst nothing.
Cedwyn was gone.