by Dan Hiestand
The Tunnels of Armageddon
The Tunnels of Armageddon
A heavy shudder rocked the stone beneath the Outriders’ feet, but Jace had yet to move, standing halfway up the stairs Cedwyn pushed him down moments before.
“Time to go, Jace,” Relic said, and even as the words left his mouth, another rumble rolled like thunder throughout the cavern.
Jace nodded immediately, but then hesitated, plodding the rest of the way down despite the intense urgency. After reaching the landing, he bent beside Cedwyn’s cigarettes, staring at them in the ghostly incandescence of the fountain above.
“Jace,” Relic pressed after an exceedingly uncomfortable delay, and his worst fear was confirmed when there was no reaction at all. So he whistled, the shrill sound deafening in the confined space.
Isabelle brought her hands sharply to her ears, casting an annoyed look in Relic’s direction, but the purpose had been served. Jace was looking at them, and Relic was holding up the gold-plated flint box lighter.
“Forgot to give this back to you,” he said, tossing it.
Jace reached up, and in that instant, was struck with the first flash he had experienced since he had seen the young Artemus Ward. As he tracked the lighter’s progress through the air, he found himself in the day they set out on this mission; when Cedwyn had tossed it to him as a gift. When he caught it, he was back in the present.
“Time to go,” Relic repeated.
Jace rose to his feet, stowing the lighter in the cargo pocket of his pants and placing the leather-bound cigarettes on his belt; to the exact spot Cedwyn kept them. Then he picked up the golden sapphire and turned to the opposite side of the landing, where both Isabelle and Relic were waiting, and the three descended into the depths together.
Although this second staircase was perfectly linear, the rock face on either side was perilously jagged, fluctuating under the illumination of torchlight that deepened its rust-colored hue. This passage was so narrow they were forced to walk single file. Relic led the way with Isabelle close behind. Jace brought up the rear, and none said a word.
The way went on for what felt like forever, and before long they had traveled so deep that even behind there was only darkness; the arcane glow of the crystal fountain no longer visible with the small chamber so far in their wake. They were descending on an island of torchlight through an endless sea of black, never more than a few feet visible in front or behind. Even the interval by which the torches were mounted was mind-numbingly exact, and the lack of change was disorienting, as if the stairs were moving beneath their feet instead of the other way around.
So when Isabelle noticed a pattern of spherical gemstones embedded into the walls, similar to the golden sapphire, she jumped at the opportunity to speak.
“What do they mean, Rel?” she asked, assuming he had noticed them too.
“Acrostics,” Relic said quickly, eager to disrupt the monotony as well. “Thean wrote a little about them in his record book.” His eyes were still straight ahead, focused on the gloom, but he held up a hand as they passed another series of four: yellow, black, white, and green. “The druids who used to inhabit Bryce Valley used them.”
“For what?” she asked.
“Don’t know.” Relic shrugged. “Markers, religious reasons. The one we just passed was a series of heliodor, opal, pearl, and emerald. Hope.”
“Who the hell knows what Heliodor looks like?” Jace asked suddenly, speaking for the first time. “I mean, really, Relic.”
Relic did his best to feign little interest, but he was relieved to hear Jace’s voice again. “It’s one of the commonly used ones,” he said, smirking. But then his face went altogether serious. “Commonly used ones,” he said again, very deliberately, and he stopped. “You guys hear that?”
“Yeah,” Isabelle said.
Jace leaned forward a little over Isabelle’s shoulder.
“My voice bouncing back,” Relic said, and then moving down a few more steps, he reached his good hand ahead, into the darkness. “It’s a wall. There’s a wall here.”
“A dead end?” Isabelle asked, holding her breath.
At first, Relic didn’t answer her, feeling around.
“No. No, there’s a crack we can get through,” he said, sighing and coming back up the stairs and into the torchlight again. “And I hear running water on the other side.”
“Then what are we waiting for?” Isabelle asked.
Jace raised his eyebrows, sharing her sentiment.
“Right. Okay, let’s go,” he said, then turned and started back down.
Jace and Isabelle followed.
Turning sideways and sidestepping, the three started through the crack, and the space expanded slightly the deeper they went. But the way was uncomfortable and shrouded in complete darkness. When a light was finally glimpsed shining in the darkness ahead, it was a welcome sight. It wasn’t long before Relic passed into a breathtaking expanse; Jace and Isabelle emerging thereafter.
Here and there, torches burned with an unearthly pale light, the flames rising tall and thin, rippling and blowing with a disturbance that seemed to come from below, and a light that bleached a thin but intense halo across the air. It was as if swamp ghosts, the will-o-the-wisps of legend had been trapped on these polished pedestals to light the underground passage. The strange rays touched upon a cavern that seemed made of ridges and sheaves of unknown stone, rising together in grottos, peaks and valleys as complex as anything above. Where the torchlight was not, everything faded into total darkness. In many places, only the echoing trickling of water betrayed the presence of streams, invisible to the eye though they may be hundreds of feet long. Their true depths were hidden, their currents seen only from the faintest caress of the chalky phantom-light, so that the only sign of a deadly plunge might be the dimmest impression of gloom, like a handful of remembered stars, on the foam of the murky, churning water.
The Outriders had little choice but to slow down, observe, take their bearings.
Even as before, there was no way of knowing how the torches stayed lit. There was no sign that mortal things had ever trespassed on these grounds. No sign except one: a figure of a man carved from the same hard, sharp stone of the titanic caverns. Time had worn down none of the man’s features, though he was a stranger to all the Outriders. He wore sturdy boots, the shirt and coat of a sea captain, and a bandolier of knives so realistic they looked as though they could be taken and used; even the blades shoved into his belt were precisely detailed, each a curving hook of foreign design, precise enough to be the fang or claw of some great animal. But the most striking feature was the man’s missing right eye, which Jace could easily imagine was meant to hold a stone much like the golden sapphire. The weathered face was twisted in fierce anger and determination; a placard giving the man’s identity was the only aspect worn away by time.
Relic had opened Gabriel Foy’s record book, reading intently before looking up and around. “It’s this way,” he said, staring down a wide tunnel with a stream flowing right down the middle. “This should take us to the stables.” He closed the book and lifted it a little. “According to this, at least.”
Isabelle took one last look around the cavernous expanse; the natural beauty enough to make her sigh before taking her first steps away. Relic turned from it as well, but it wasn’t long before both realized Jace was not behind them.
“Hey,” Isabelle said, concern in her tone as she came back to him. “You ready?”
This time, Jace’s hesitation did not carry an aura of distraction. He was looking over Isabelle’s shoulder to Relic, perfectly lucid and focused. “I need to see that book,” he said, clipping his crossbows to his belt.
Relic, walking back without a word, handed over Gabriel Foy’s record book.
“Do we really have time for this?” Isabelle asked.
Jace spent several seconds searching, flipping past the section that mapped the chamber they stood in and skimming through the rest. Finding what he was looking for, he ripped out several pages.
Relic stepped forward, appalled.
“What are you doing!” he yelled, trying to swipe the book back.
Jace pushed the record book into Relic’s chest, halting his momentum.
“I’m gonna need these,” he said, reaching up to his shoulder pack and withdrawing the pages he had taken from the book in the library. “And you need to take these to Duchyene. Maybe there’s something about that fleet in there, if we’re lucky.”
Relic took the pages, but paid them no mind.
“Knock it off. You’re coming with us.”
“No,” Jace said. “I’m not. And you know I’m not, Rel. You gotta get everything we’ve learned here,” he nodded down to the record book. “Including that, back to Aleister and Consul Leverette. Tell’em about Artemus’ betrayal. Tell’em what’s happened here.”
Relic drew a deep breath to calm himself, taking a couple steps back and running his good hand back through his hair.
“Listen to me,” he said. “That army on the ocean will be at our doorstep in a matter of months, do you get that? No amount of information is going to change that fact! The only thing we have left is to survive and deliver what we know. Together!”
“It’s not what I’m supposed to do,” Jace said simply, but his words only added fuel to the fire ablaze behind Relic’s eyes.
“This isn’t all about you! And you’re not gonna use Cedwyn as an excuse to fight this war on your own!”
“That’s not what I’m –”
“No, it is, Jace! It is what you’re doing. It’s like Fairlawn all over again! Only this time, I won’t be there to save your life! No one will! Now let’s go!”
“No,” Isabelle said softly, and the sudden surprise of her voice froze Relic in place. “You know something. Something we don’t … don’t you?”
Jace said nothing in response, but the expression on his face answered for him.
“I felt it on the balcony,” she said, moving closer but only slightly. “Then again in the library. It was in your eyes the moment you saw the map of this place.” She was closing the rest of the gap now, past Relic who stood aside. “Tell me.”
He hesitated only a moment.
“These caverns are how Artemus and Jaden travel the world,” Jace said, finding it impossible to look away from her. “This is it. Right here. The Tunnels of Armageddon.” His line of vision drifted back to Relic, and he held up the pages he’d ripped from Gabriel’s book. “I have to use these to get to Sindell.”
Relic had the wind taken out of his sails, but he was doing his best to stay angry.
“How can you possibly know that?” He was calming against his will, and by the time he asked his second question, it came out through a relenting sigh. “You gonna tell me that was in your vision too?”
“I just know,” Jace said.
Relic was right in Jace’s face, closer even than Isabeele now, and he stood there in a drawn-out pause, staring at him.
“Assuming you’re not completely insane, and quite honestly, that’s not an easy assumption to make, you have no idea what would happen if you do this. We don’t know the effects it could have. How do you even know it’ll work?”
“Instinct,” Jace said. “I feel it with every fiber of my being. I know I can get to Sindell. I know I can warn Jaden that Artemus has betrayed her. I might even be able to warn our forces to turn back and guard Veil’driel!”
Relic was quiet, just listening now.
“You’re hurt,” Jace went on. “And who knows what I’ll be facing? I have to do this, Relic. You gotta trust me. I can get to Sindell, and when I do, I might even be able to find warn our forces to turn back and guard Veil’driel.” Relic sighed, but Jace continued undeterred. “And if Artemus succeeds in whatever he’s planning to bring down that force field, what’s left of Sindell will fall, and it won’t even matter if we manage to –”
“Fine,” Relic said, bowing his head.
Relic looked up again, the emotion raw in his eyes.
“Gotta admit, Rel. That was easier than I expected,” Jace said, trying to downplay the circumstances, but managing only a halfhearted effort at best. “You’re in danger becoming a pushover.”
Relic pulled Jace into an embrace, turning his body just slightly to protect his injured arm.
“I could always just order you to come with us,” he said.
Jace smiled, catching the reference without missing a beat.
“You wish you could, you mean.”
Relic stepped back, finally tucking the Gods of Sun & Sacrifice pages into a compartment in his pack.
“It’s called seniority, pal.”
Relic glanced over to Isabelle who had remained motionless since speaking last, just staring at Jace as she still was.
“I’ll be waiting in the tunnel,” he said to her, expecting no reaction and receiving none. Then he turned back to Jace. “I’ll see you soon.”
“Yeah, you will.”
And with a final nod, Relic was off, running alongside the stream into darkness.
Leaving Jace and Isabelle alone.