by Dan Hiestand
“Isabelle, I …”
“Shhh. Shut up,” she said with a conviction that surprised both of them, and she took his forearms in her hands. “We’re gonna do this. And it’s gonna be okay.”
Jace had no idea what to say, and even if he did, lacked all strength to say it. Isabelle did her best to stand straight and strong, but she was emotionally exhausted. They both were.
“That idea of yours is starting to look pretty good.”
“Offer’s still on the table,” he joked, but failed to muster the matching tone.
With a breath that seemed to take in the weight of the universe, Isabelle sighed it out slowly and closed her eyes.
“I need to hear you say it’s gonna be okay, too. I don’t care if you’re lying, just promise me.”
Jace leaned his head forward, resting it on the top of hers.
“I promise,” he lied. “It’s gonna be okay.”
And for almost an entire minute, a lifetime considering the circumstances, they just stood there, wrapped in each other and the echoes in the dark. But then Isabelle stood with a start. At first, Jace figured she had suddenly remembered the urgency of the situation. Instead, she reached up behind her neck.
“This is mine,” she said. “So I want it back.”
The only reaction Jace could manage was a half-hearted smirk when she finished fastening the thin silver chain around his neck, but after she tucked the jadeite under his shirt, he raised his hand to the side of her face.
“What are you thinking about?” he asked.
Nearly all of the tension eased from Isabelle’s body at the feel of his touch on her skin, but she was still as a statue when she looked over Jace’s shoulder to where the caverns went on forever.
“About how Cedwyn was right. About how there really is something inside you that belongs to the world.” Tears prickled into her eyes then, in spite of her strength in that moment, and she bobbed a little in place to fight against it, looking up. “I’m just so afraid it’s going to cost us everything.”
Jace immediately slid his hand around to the back of her head, uttering “sh-sh-sh” as he urged her chin against his shoulder, hugging her tight. Then he angled his mouth against her earlobe, hypersensitive to the feel of her and swearing he’d never let go.
“You’re my best friend, you know that?” he whispered, and she grabbed the back of his shirt in two scrunching handfuls at the words. “I love you. I love you more than anything.”
Isabelle nodded against him.
“I’m gonna go now,” she said, breathing fast. “And I’m not gonna look back.”
Jace loosened his grip, unable to speak.
Rising to her toes she kissed him, passionately but briefly, grudgingly breaking away by laying her hand on his chest and pushing back a pace, staring into his eyes in that piercing way only she could. That way that always made Jace feel like she could be browsing for his soul through a window. She reached up, touching his lips before turning away. He watched her vanish in shadow and torchlight.
A wingless angel that never looked back.
Relic waited, facing the blackness of a bend in the tunnel with a concerned expression. There was no sense double-checking Gabriel Foy’s record book at this point. He had committed the section to memory, so he knew there was something wrong.
The sound of echoing footsteps preceded Isabelle’s emergence from the gloom, and she stopped just a few feet behind him.
“Ready?” she asked.
“Yeah,” Relic said as he turned to her. His tone suggested the problem.
He would make no mention of Jace, ignoring even the redness in Isabelle’s eyes. Her conviction to leave him behind was far too fragile. Indeed, it was something of a miracle she was standing there.
She glanced down to the stream at her feet. It moved faster here and was deeper.
“What is it?”
“Foy’s record book marks this spot as an incline,” he said, motioning back over his shoulder. “Here, at the first bend. There’s supposed to be a way up, but there’s no end in sight.”
Isabelle didn’t say anything at first, taking a couple steps past Relic and leaning around the corner.
“Maybe you should check the map again,” she said. “Maybe you read it wrong.”
They exchanged a quick glance and Isabelle frowned. She knew Relic’s impeccable attention to detail full well. If he said this was where they were supposed to climb up, then it was.
“What do ya wanna do?” she asked, looking away from the bend. “Keep going?”
An impact tremor, the first they had felt in a while, traveled down through the solid rock above, and both Outriders ducked as stones clacked down around them.
“Yeah, I guess that’s the only thing we can do,” Relic said when he was sure the disturbance was over. “But these caverns could go on for miles. Thousands of miles. And to call this place a maze would be like calling the sun kinda warm.”
Isabelle arched her head back to look at the ceiling, perhaps in the desperate hope they had missed something.
“Do me a favor, Rel,” she said.
She lowered her line of sight back down to him.
“Keep stuff like that to yourself.”
Relic smirked, moving on.
“How’s the arm?”
“Throbbing,” he admitted as they rounded the bend. “But I’ll be fine as soon as we –”
Relic’s words cut off, and in a vivid emerald flash he was gone.
“Relic!” Isabelle yelled, answered only by her own shocked echo.
Hesitating for only a second, she crept forward, extending her arm warily, trying to muster the courage to reach where Relic disappeared. She wouldn’t allow herself to contemplate the weirdness. There wasn’t time when her friend could be in trouble.
Closer. A little closer still.
She screamed and fell back as Relic’s face, and only his face, reappeared mere inches from her own; suspended in mid-air and outlined by the cackling green energy.
“Damn it, Relic!”
“Oh.” He stepped forward to come back in full view. “Sorry,” he said, reaching down and pulling her up. “It’s like the edge of Terrill Silva.”
Isabelle squinted to where Relic had rematerialized. To where the tunnel appeared to go on forever.
“An illusion?” she asked, regaining her bearings.
“Well.” Relic paused in a moment of contemplation. “That’s what I first suspected, yes. But knowing what we do now, I’d say we’re traveling over distance rather than walking through an illusory border. Same goes for Terrill Silva, and that wall in front of the Communion Vault. It’s remarkable, really. I mean, think about it. Who knows how large Terrill Silva really is? How many miles did we surpass simply by crossing that threshold? The thought of being transported alone is enough to –”
Isabelle waved her hand around.
“Okay, okay, okay,” she said. “What did you see?”
Relic took a breath, steadying himself.
“Exactly what I was hoping to. Come on.”
He spun around and vanished once more.
Isabelle sighed but followed immediately, and a viridian flash bleached her vision before fading to reveal a dead end. It was the same tunnel, but where there had been walls of solid rock within arm’s reach, there was now a drop into darkness on either side. The stream was gone and she was standing before of a cave-in, boulders and smaller rocks forming a steep ramp. Relic was beside her, and when she turned to him, he simply pointed to the ceiling, to where solid rock gave way to loose dirt and protruding roots.
“Ready when you are,” he said.
The notion that they might actually escape was like recognizing a landmark after being lost for a very long time, and Isabelle felt a wave of renewed energy willing her to climb. All they had been through would be reckoned with soon enough, all that shredded their hearts would come calling. But now there was something to concentrate on, a goal that demanded focus. There, in that moment, those rocks were not just an escape from the Tunnels of Armageddon or Lornda Manor. They were an escape from doubt and distraction. They were a way to hold back the tide.
Relic was navigating the unstable footing and making steady progress despite his wounded arm. Isabelle was right beside him, and then they were at the top.
“You should go first,” Relic said, raising his shoulder to refer to his injury. “Might need to help me up.”
They were breathing heavily, and although neither had been consciously exerting themselves, it was clear they had darted up the rocky slope with near reckless abandon.
Isabelle repositioned herself to the side and stepped a little higher, ducking beneath the dirt ceiling now directly above. She reached up and pushed through it, feeling air. They were at the surface.
“What is it?” Relic asked when she recoiled her hand.
Isabelle looked down at him.
“Nothing,” she said. “We can get through, but there’s no way to check what’s up there first. We’re just gonna have to risk it.”
A few loose pebbles fell loose under Relic’s boot and he watched them roll all the way down to the cavern floor far below. He turned back to Isabelle and sighed.
Isabelle stood upright so that the upper part of her body disappeared into the soft soil above. Her legs soon followed, ascending out of sight as she pulled herself out, leaving Relic alone. There was only the briefest delay then, but it felt like forever as he stared up through the hole Isabelle made. He could see the sky in its slow transition from black to the gray of dawn. Then Isabelle’s arm reappeared over the ledge, and Relic exhaled, taking it with a leap and a grimace as she helped him out.
“You alright?” Isabelle asked, but her attention was transfixed on something, stunned.
“Yeah, I’m okay,” Relic said. He was on his back, lying on the wet grass. The air was cool and the open space a welcome change from the narrow confines of the caverns. They were behind a lilac hedgerow and it was drizzling rain.
But it wasn’t until Relic brought himself up to a sitting position that he saw the startling state of Lornda Manor, squinting through the ash that fell like snow.
The high towers of the centermost part of the mansion blazed like a torch held aloft by some legendary giant, a peal of crimson smoke rising here, orange there, and new gouts of flame sending up oily spirals of smoke with each new whistle, pop, and snarl from inside. Tiny, spinning dervishes too bright to look at were being hurled up from that centermost tower and had caught many of the other spires alight; streams of bright energy crackled along the marble columns and leapt across the porches as if seeking the ground. The delicate but strong metal gates were shredded to pieces, falling as spatters of superheated metal; the great wooden doors exploded into a hail of cinders. Below, golden riders fled beneath an onslaught of smoke and ash, many of them bearing some priceless morsel of the manor’s splendor in their arms. Paintings melted beneath their efforts; some of them ran only to escape their own flaming cloaks streaming behind them.
Within moments the entire building had begun to shake and rumble, and each and every one of the towers was soon ablaze, five massive funerary pyres rising into the light of day, blotting out the now-diminished light of the ballast walkway below. Even the stonework threatened not just to collapse, but to melt away under the unfathomable heat of dozens of explosions. Finally, one wall came down in a deluge of molten slag, covering three screaming riders, and a chain reaction seemed to follow, the biggest explosions yet hurling flaming chunks of stone and steel into the air and threatening to cover the landscape in a choking haze of ash for who knew how far. It was as in a nightmare, a black storm ripping and tearing at everything, until finally, all five of the blazing towers had collapsed, and all that one could see through the shiftless gloom was a whirlwind of beating wings as thousands on thousands of butterflies escaped into the sky. Beyond that, not even their enemy could be witnessed stirring in the smoldering wreckage – but they knew well it was not because they were not there.
Relic didn’t think of the waste of artifacts and such within, but for an instant only of his friend, and the ache in his heart he had fended off and saved until later threatened to overcome him before he was able to bear down again. Wondering, in a sense, if he would ever truly accept it.
They were on the other side of the moat by several hundred yards, at the base of the mountain range that towered above the small passage they crawled out of. They had come from the bowels of the mountains themselves, and now the High Council’s interest in them suddenly made perfect sense. Even from here they could see the beginnings of mountain trails bending and swerving up and out of sight.
Finally, Relic took a deep breath and faced Isabelle.
“We have to get move –”
But he stopped when he saw she wasn’t hearing a word, crouched with her back to the lilac hedge, mesmerized and frozen.
“Hey,” he said, shaking her a little, and Isabelle looked at him, dazed.
“We have to get moving. It gets any lighter and we’ll be completely exposed.” At this, he stood up a little, risking a peek over the hedge at their backs. Not far in the distance was an ancient and long-neglected piece of farming equipment; a cross between a giant wagon and rusty metal tripod for which even Relic could not speculate a purpose. Beyond that, the stables: unguarded. “Well, wherever the golden riders keep their horses, it isn’t there,” Relic said, coming back down to Isabelle. “Not near large enough.”
“How far?” she asked.
“Seventy yards or so, with an old wagon thing in between.” He drew his crossbow, inching around to the end of the verge. “We’ll stop there. See if we can get a better look. If it’s still clear, we’ll make a break. Sound good?”
Very slowly now Isabelle brandished her weapons, preoccupied with the dash they were about to make.
“Yeah,” she said simply, and with a nod they were moving.
The pace was furious but short, with Isabelle matching Relic’s crouch in lockstep all the way to the wagon. They dropped low amidst the high grass and tangled weeds growing rampant over the contraption, and were so close to the stables they could almost see through the rectangular windows. Here, the mountains curved around the peach orchard Artemus spoke of before ultimately rounding the stables and backing right to the rear of the building. There was no entrance but the main one, no way to enter discreetly. It would be another instance of do or die with nothing in between.
“Don’t think anyone saw us,” Isabelle said. She swallowed hard and looked over. “Looks clear.”
“Yeah,” Relic agreed, glancing back to the hedges they had run from. From this distance he could see they were part of a pleasant courtyard of sorts; complete with brick walkways and charming stone benches.
Beyond the moat, golden riders were scrambling in chaos, trying to rescue their comrades from the ruin of Lornda Manor. Those closest to the blaze had been forced to snatch their masks off; here and there, one could see a small team of them pulling an ash-drenched victim to relative safety. Buckets came down in an effort to keep the whole field from catching ablaze, but it seemed that with the reagents spent, even the fire they had birthed would, for reasons known only to the very few, die down, leaving only the scars on the landscape. It was easy in that moment to think of the golden riders as the enemy’s Outriders, but they could not allow themselves to do it.
They could only press on and be thankful for the distraction.
“That’s the second time he’s saved our lives tonight,” Relic said, focusing on the stables again. “It’s the reason no one’s guarding this place. They’re all trying to save the mansion.”
Isabelle took the moment to open Cedwyn’s bag, taking it off her shoulder for the first time. It was stuffed full of bread and fruit, from when Cedwyn had raided the kitchen the night before.
“Thank you, Ced,” she whispered, closing it and snapping the pack’s buckle back around her free shoulder. Then she turned to Relic. “Listen. Just in case there’s an entire troop in there waiting for us … I want you to know that –”
Relic put his hand on her shoulder, cutting her off, and a quiet moment, as palpable as the ash and raindrops swirling about, passed between them.
“I know, Iz,” he said at length. “Me too.”
Isabelle smiled and picked her crossbows up from the ground. There was nothing left but to trust to chance, and she stood from her crouch into plain sight, taking off in a sprint. Relic was right behind, and the adrenaline pumped like fire through their veins.
The distance to the stables closed so fast, that it was as if they had leapt across it in a single bound, hurtling over the knee-high fence encircling the compound and dashing wildly for the entrance. There was no door, just a wide, rectangular opening, and then the Outriders were standing on the hay of the stable’s interior.
The place was surprisingly warm, held together by massive beams running across a roof both sturdy and old, constructed by the hands of expert craftsman to withstand the endless test of time. On both sides, stable blocks ran all the way to the end, flanking a wide center aisle beneath the glow of golden illumination. All the stalls were empty.
All except two on the right.
Isabelle and Cedwyn’s horses shared a space, both perking up as soon as the Outriders entered. Beside them, one spot further, Relic and Jace’s mounts waited. The sight might have offered some relief, but there was no time to process emotion.
“You’re sure you can ride?” Isabelle asked, short of breath.
She was already running towards her horse.
“Are you serious with that question?”
Relic wasn’t running, but walked briskly, trying to be mindful of the surroundings. He didn’t like it, but then he wasn’t supposed to. There were too many places to hide, and it was too damn quiet. Their horses had spent an entire day and night here, and yet their saddles had not been removed. It was all too perfect. Too inviting.
“Sorry,” Isabelle said. Having reached the short door of the stall, she was lifting the latch on the door. “Had to ask.”
Relic saw movement at the last second, but it was too late to warn her, and as Isabelle took a step inside, to her mare, the burly stableman from the day before leapt up from behind Cedwyn’s horse, grabbing her by the shoulders and spinning her around.
“Easy!” Gunther screamed, holding a curved blade against Isabelle’s throat. “Drop them!”
Isabelle dropped her crossbows, grunting with the strain of her back being bent.
Relic froze, and Gunther stared at him over her shoulder.
“You too, gimpy,” he said.
Slowly bending his knees, trying to buy a little time, Relic was about to release his weapon.
“Behind you, Relic!” Isabelle cried out, and he spun around on his heels.
The other stableman, Luther, was not more than ten paces behind Relic. He was holding a scythe, although he looked pitifully awkward brandishing it and stopped in his tracks when spotted.
Isabelle screamed in pain as Gunther wrenched her arm.
“Hey!” Relic screamed. His eyes were back on Isabelle with a rage in his voice. “Alright! I’m putting it down,” he said, dropping his crossbow.
“Kill him, Luther,” Gunther instructed.
Relic never flinched, his eyes still fixed ahead.
“Should have been more careful,” he said.
“Yes,” Gunther agreed, amused. He twisted the blade back and forth in his hand so the edge grazed painlessly up and down Isabelle’s throat. Then he craned his head forward to bring his face nearer her mouth. “You Outriders have a habit of that, yes? An all-too-common tendency to leap without looking.” Closing his eyes, he took a deep breath of his beautiful hostage, rubbing his stubby face against hers.
Then he looked to Relic.
But the Outrider’s reaction was not the one Gunther expected. His face was stone, confident even, and he was ignoring Lester, who was mustering the strength to advance.
Then, shockingly, Relic winked.
“I wasn’t talking to her,” he said.