by Dan Hiestand
Isabelle reached up, grabbing Gunther’s forearm with both hands and pushing the knife away as she twisted in his grip, smashing him in the face with her elbow all in the same maneuver. Her second strike came like lightning, in the form of a roundhouse kick that crushed the giant man’s nose and cracked his teeth with the heel of her boot.
Staggering back, Gunther dropped the dagger and Isabelle spun low, catching it in midair and driving the blade up into his chest. He tried to scream, but only gurgled, falling in the wake of her whirlwind, bleeding to death in the hay.
Luther was slack-jawed and terrified, holding the scythe parallel to the ground across his thighs.
“I know. Crazy, right?” Relic said, appreciating the stableman’s demeanor. He picked up his crossbow and reattached it to his belt.
“Wait,” Luther pleaded. “Wait … I …”
Relic tore the scythe from Luther’s grasp and loosened his grip so the length of it slid down in his hand. Then, with a nonchalant flick of the wrist, he spun the blade away and cracked it against the stableman’s forehead.
Luther was out cold, but his life had been spared.
“You alright?” he asked after looking to Isabelle. She was already in the saddle of her snow-white mare, centered in the aisle with Cedwyn’s horse in tow.
“Yeah,” she said, but her hands were trembling.
Relic tossed the scythe to the side and jogged past her to the stall where his own horse was waiting. Half a second later, he was mounted up as well. He could not actually hold the reins of Jace’s horse, but it followed along nonetheless.
“You know, technically,” Relic said as he came back to Isabelle’s side. “Calling me gimpy is incorrect.” He leaned forward, petting the neck of his steed. “Implies a limp, or a problem with my leg. Not my arm.”
Relic met her sidelong glance with his own, smiling, and a quirky expression brushed across her delicate features.
More seriously this time, he asked the question again.
Isabelle took a deep breath and steadied herself.
Relic accepted the answer, and they looked forward together, out through the stable exit with a clear view into the paddock. Every impulse in the Outriders’ body ached with the urge to break for Terrill Silva in that instant, but both had the presence of mind to ease towards the opening instead, wisely waiting for one final survey.
The paddock was empty, the gate at the opposite end open wide. The ash still drifted like a rain made of fire. The destruction of Lornda Manor still raged. There was still no enemy in sight, and seeing all of this, they broke.
Though riderless, the horses behind them were the best in the world, keeping up with a natural grace. So natural, in fact, that it felt like Jace and Cedwyn could still be sitting vigilantly in their saddles, and as the gate at the end of the paddock grew closer, Isabelle refused to turn around … fantasizing that they were there as long as she could.
The trees were in view now, beckoning across the plain between high bales of hay, and Relic pulled back so Isabelle could pass through the narrow opening first. But at the very last moment, they were forced to gather the reins, skidding to a violent stop before a single golden rider who stepped out to block the way.
“You gotta be kidding me!” Relic shouted with genuine disgust.
The rider was without helmet, revealing a head of curly red hair and a well-trimmed goatee on his pale white face. His horse was raven black, and he looked pleased with himself as the reagents he held swirled into a kaleidoscopic cyclone.
“You know, I thought I saw something scurrying over here.” The energy in his hand formed an orb. “Almost didn’t bother to check.”
“Must be your lucky day. Congratulations,” Relic said, wishing in that moment that Isabelle still wore the necklace that, in Fairlawn, had saved Jace from this very same attack. “So how ‘bout you spare us the theatrics?”
“Oh. Yes, well, the dramatic nature of my entrance is not without purpose, rest assured. I really must know where you came from. How you escaped the caverns.” He reached, with his free hand, down into the deep leather pouch on his saddle again, and a much smaller energy mass formed instantly, which he released high into the dusky sky. “A beacon. For reinforcements,” he explained.
“Fair trade anyway. A few Outriders for,” she turned to Relic. “How many of these riders, would you say?”
Relic raised his eyebrows in feigned contemplation.
“A lot,” he said. Then he looked into the eyes of his enemy. “Yeah. A whole lot.”
The man nodded.
“Brave. Very brave,” he remarked pleasantly. “But I would expect nothing less from Outriders of Veil’driel.” He would not be baited. That much was obvious. “So I pray you do not take the coming torture as a sign of disrespect. Rather the opposite. And when that bravery… that smug stink of arrogance fades, I will not think any less of you. No. On the contrary, I believe it could very well increasemy –”
The golden rider’s words caught and jumbled in his throat, his attention torn away by the most bizarre sound any of them had ever heard; like a cross between an orchestra full of discordant instruments and the wail of a terrified house cat.
It was growing closer, approaching rapidly. It was all the Outriders needed.
Relic and Isabelle drew their crossbows simultaneously, their shots connecting in perfect arcs next to each other. But then, as the golden rider slumped forward to fall free from his saddle, the energy he had conjured released and careened into his chin, obliterating his lower jaw in a macabre mist of blood, and changing the corpse’s momentum in a ghoulish display of lifeless flailing limbs. Finally, the body crashed hard to the ground with a sickly crack, most of the face blown off. The eyes of the red-haired rider now stared wide with the eternal shock of sudden death and the last thing he saw. Panicked, his horse dashed away, streaking across the plain like midnight fleeing from the dawn.
Lucas Reese was looking at the mansion even before he skidded to a stop.
“Got a bunch more of these guys coming,” he said, and then glanced down at the body and winced. “Awww,” he added, repulsed, bending his arm to bury his mouth and nose in his elbow. “That just gives whole new meaning to shooting your mouth off.”
Relic’s eyes narrowed on the cabbit dangling by its scruff in the scout’s other hand. It appeared calm, suggesting that it was the speed of the dash that had frightened the creature, and nothing else.
“Uh, Luc?” he asked.
Lucas looked up to Relic, his nose and mouth still concealed.
“What. In the hell. Are you doing with that cabbit?”
Lucas looked over at the thing.
“You need it to get through the wood line, don’t ya?” he asked.
Isabelle couldn’t help but smile, and even she was aware at how extraordinary that was given the circumstances.
“You just need to look into its eyes,” she said, laughing a little.
Relic was still in awe.
“You must have watched as we left Terrill Silva yesterday,” he said. “You didn’t notice there were no cabbits in our hands?”
Lucas held the cabbit high so that it was kicking its little legs beside his face.
“Hm,” he observed with interest. “Chalk it up to sleep deprivation, I guess.”
The creature’s eyes drifted to focus on the man who had caught it, glistening like forest green globes between two furry, floppy ears.
The group of golden riders was well across the bridge, rushing to answer their comrade’s summons, and Lucas bent forward, lowering the cabbit to the ground as gently as he could.
“Sorry about that, buddy,” he said, and then turned his mount to face the woods. “Time to go.” Isabelle and Relic left the paddock through the entranceway, one after the other, seeing the approaching enemy for themselves.
When Jace and Cedwyn’s horses followed, their absence suddenly registered.
“Wait,” he said. “Where’s –”
“Later,” Relic cut in.
“But I thought –”
Relic’s stare snapped back to the forerunner in a flash.
“Later,” he repeated, sternly, and Lucas was taken aback by how much he resembled Constable Thean in that moment.
And then the trio was whipping across the plain through morning mist. To where the trees of Terrill Silva rose like sentinels in fog.
Jace looked over his shoulder, wondering what he had done more since separating from Relic and Isabelle; follow twists and turns or hesitate at the feeling of being watched. He had been walking for a while, but how long and how far was uncertain, as Gabriel Foy’s map had no specific units of measurement, no scale to translate the distance. But that wasn’t the most disconcerting aspect of the torn out pages.
Often, the mapped route would fall gradually out of synch with his surroundings until, finally, nothing matched at all. Then there would be a blinding flash of green, like on the border of Terrill Silva, and everything would change. The first time it happened, Jace thought about turning back.
He soon realized that, map or no map, he was much too deep for that.
He was turned around completely now, peering into the darkness, squinting beyond the grim haze of light from his surroundings. Streams trickled from unseen origins all around him, snaking their way over uneven contours to disappear in adjacent passages or collect in pools like puddles after a storm. Others dropped off into bottomless holes, waterfalls of liquid torchlight reflecting the fire from sconces. Here, on the final page of Gabriel’s map, was a wide expanse, complete with three grottos at the wall on the opposite end. According to the diagram, he should have been standing in it at that very moment, but the way ahead stretched for miles out of sight.
Jace folded the pages, still monitoring the shadows as he tucked them away. He was close now, he could feel it. For better or worse, the way to Sindell lay ahead. His concerns, the Outrider told himself, were nothing more than bouts of paranoia. So he turned to face what would be the last instance of the mysterious green light. His surroundings would change then. He would find himself in a chamber and –
A strange clinking sound stole Jace’s attention back the way he came, and even though the action wasn’t conscious, both of his short swords were drawn, gripped tightly in perspiring palms. The noise persisted, melodic like metal raindrops on stone. It intensified, tracking an excruciating progress that stopped on the edge of where the torchlight would have revealed it. Jace could detect no movement, but much to his horror, discerned something else when the jingle ceased.
“Jace?” a creaky voice croaked, straining as if moaned by a man on his deathbed.
Jace couldn't move, struck motionless by a mix of fear and curiosity pumping paralytic poison into his heart. An alchemical concoction that silenced his every thought.
“What?” he somehow managed, adrenaline pinning his eyes open wide.
“We’ve come for you,” said the darkness. “We’re coming to take you away.”