by Dan Hiestand
“Been that kind of night, kid.”
All sound ceased completely. It was like being engulfed in a vacuum. Then Jace heard something: Howling wind on a cold night. A night that felt exactly like the one he and Relic had set off for Westwood Forest. He could hear the sound of shuffling armor, he could smell cigarette smoke, and when he finally opened his eyes, he looked down to his hands and saw nothing.
Jace was completely disembodied. But he felt no fear.
Could it be November?
It was all absolutely real.
Jace could sense thoughts and feelings in the people before him. Just as he could when he had been trapped in Mirror Lake before Cedwyn and Isabelle rescued him. And he could feel. He could feel a cool breeze as it—
—brushed across the ramparts of the Greywall, bringing with it the scent of autumn air. Khayn Ahara welcomed it openly, knowing that it would not last long. He took a long drag on his cigarette, savoring the flavor for a moment before letting the smoke drift into the oncoming wind.
“Nasty habit, that,” said the guardsman he had stationed with him that night, a grizzled veteran named Emory Dale. “You ought to give it up, Captain.”
“I know,” Khayn said. “Soon.”
“That’s what you always say, sir.”
Khayn could feel the soldier studying him, eyes poring over his lean and narrow features. The first few lines of gray had appeared in his otherwise raven-black hair these past few months. He certainly wasn’t getting any younger. However, there was something comforting about the smoke’s aroma. Perhaps it was that, if only for a moment, it blotted out the scent of virulence that the breeze brought along with it.
The Greywall was the primary bastion of defense around the Sindell City of Zarponda. In past years, Sindell had always maintained good relations with their neighbors, and thus no more than a small contingent had been situated there for little else than formality’s sake. Recently, the times had taken a darker turn. It had been late the previous winter when the first, and indeed the last messengers from the Tri-State Commonwealth had arrived over the mountain passes; bearing news of a plague that had begun to sweep through their populace. It was a strange contagion that had taken the land like a flash fire, seeming to infect those who came into even the slightest of contact with other victims. A number of villages had been quarantined, but it was perhaps too little, too late. The people from the Tri-State had reported that even animals appeared to carry the virus, though they were not quite so susceptible to its negative effects -— sickness, and ultimately, a violent, spasmodic death.
As suddenly as the messengers had appeared, they then departed from the Kingdom of Sindell, looking to see to the fates of their families and countrymen. Months passed, and winter faded into spring. There came no more word from the Tri-State, and so Sindell’s king, Marcus Bryce, sent his own scouts to see what information they might find of the bordering nation.
Those brave souls had never returned.
The days grew shorter and spring, then summer was gone. Another winter was coming and a strange, nameless shadow seemed to crawl out over the mountain range that marked the boundary between Sindell and the Tri-State. The late-autumn breeze carried with it the unmistakable scent of death. When whispers of this reached the capitol of Hamon, the king decisively shut the great walls around all his cities. Zarponda lay along the eastern coast, against the Hezlin Sea, and stood at the bottom of several commonly used trails that led into the kingdom. As such, Zarponda was often the first city visitors came across, and so its defenses were particularly formidable.
The Greywall was a vast edifice erected by Sindell’s laborers centuries before, when the kingdom had warred against what had then been known as the Empire of Veil’driel. In times that were no more than a distant memory, the ruling dynasty of Veil’driel had been overthrown and replaced with a democratically appointed Parliament. The new leaders of the former Empire had initiated peace talks with Sindell, and the Greywall had remained open from that day forward. Until now.
Now, every gate of the Greywall had been shut. Guardsmen manned the ramparts at all times under strict orders to turn their crossbows upon any Tri-State refugees that made their way to the border through the mountains. At first, there had been a general outcry, but not a single refugee had come, and mercy soon turned to suspicion and fear. Marcus Bryce went one step further then, assigning members of the Adamant Gaze, Sindell’s elite fighting force, to the various posts along the Greywall in order to boost morale and keep the soldiers under control.
That was where Khayn had come in.
There were certainly a number of reasons for his assignment to Zarponda and the Greywall. Indeed, one was every bit as compelling as the next. He was an officer of the Adamant Gaze, renowned as a fighter and a huntsman, and greatly honored amongst Sindell’s forces. He was also, however, an infamous troublemaker, often given to drunken revels and debauchery. His presence at the Greywall served a twofold purpose: giving the men a leader whom they respected, and removing Khayn from King Bryce’s hair.
It had been inconceivably tedious for Khayn, to say the least, but nothing more than he expected after looking up one too many skirts in the royal court. Besides, the stores of Orinel Lin and tobacco in the cellar were more than enough to keep him company. No matter.
A pall of unease had settled over the Greywall. Khayn could feel the bile rising in his throat. Something was coming. His hackles rose as a fell wind blew in from the north. For the first time since his arrival, Khayn heard the harsh cries of a lone bird emanating from the Bryce Mountain foothills below.
“What is it, Captain?”
“I don’t know.” Khayn rubbed his rough growth of stubble in contemplation. His eyes scanned the foothills’ edge looking for something, anything which might betray even an inkling of why he felt so unnerved. Suddenly a figure seemed to burst from the shadowy border. At first, Khayn thought it was an animal from the manner in which it ambled so low to the ground, but he quickly realized that it was a human being.
“I know,” Khayn said.
Emory cocked his crossbow, ready to fire a deadly bolt into what could only be a Tri-State refugee. Khayn laid his hand atop the weapon.
“But sir, our orders,” Emory protested.
“I know our orders. But we haven’t heard anything from the other side of the mountains in months. This could be our only source of information.” The Tri-State man had made his way to the gate. “Hold your fire!” Khayn roared, drawing looks of confusion and fear from the others on duty. “I’m going down there,” he said.
“No, you ... you can’t sir! What if he has the plague?”
“If he had the plague he never would have made it this far. Think about it. We haven’t had word back from anyone, not from the Tri-State, not from Veil’driel, not even our own messengers. If this one had contracted it he would surely be dead by now, along with all the others.”
“If you say so, sir,” Emory said. “But if you go down there, and he is plagued, you know we can’t let you back up.”
“Yeah. That’s a risk I’m willing to take.” Khayn had an uncanny sense of intuition, and it had never proven wrong. He was getting that familiar feeling, that strange prickling in the back of his mind. And he knew he had to go down there, whether his men liked it or not. “Keep watch,” he said. “If anything goes wrong, I’ll be sure to shout.”
Khayn turned away from the ramparts, carrying himself down the spiral stone steps of the tower as quickly as his legs could carry him. When he reached the bottom, the men at the gate stared at him, uncomprehending.
“Open the gates.”
They looked at him blankly for a moment.
“You heard me,” Khayn said.
“But, Captain, you—”
“But King Marcus, sir, he—”
“Is the King here? No, seriously, do you see His Majesty standing over my shoulder?” Khayn looked around as if to show them. “Open the damned gate now or I’ll have the lot of you reported for insubordination,” he very nearly shouted. This seemed to garner the desired response and the two jumped to attention, turning the levers to open the Greywall to the foothills and the Sindell countryside beyond. “Close them behind me,” Khayn said, and then he stepped out into the unknown.
As the massive portcullis shut itself behind him, he bore down upon the object of his intent, a figure that had collapsed only feet from the entrance to Zarponda. He now understood why he had mistaken the refugee for a beast. The man’s clothes hung ragged and brown like patches of fur. He was caked in mud from head to toe. When Khayn approached, the figure jerked upwards and fixed him with a haunted stare, as if he had seen a ghost.
“Stay where you are,” Khayn said. He placed a hand upon the hilt of his blade in warning. “State your name and your purpose.”
It was like the refugee had thought himself dreaming and, with the realization that he was not, let out an uncontrollable sob. He groveled in the grass before Khayn, wringing his hands.
“Oh lord,” he cried, “oh kind and benevolent lord…”
“Your name,” Khayn said, utterly impassive. “And your purpose.”
“My name… oh yes sir, my name…” For a moment he seemed to pull himself together, rising to his knees and leveling Khayn with a look that might have been proud had the man not appeared so pathetic. “I am Augustine Calloway,” he said, “of the House of Calloway.”
Khayn was stunned for a moment, though he let none of it register upon his features. The House of Calloway bore the last direct traces of the Veil’driel Imperial line. If what this man said was true, he was a noble of no small consequence and the Governor of Mazhira. Some members of the House of Calloway even had a part in establishing Mazhira: the capitol city of the Tri-State Commonwealth, not far from the Gap of Ezru and the Republic of Veil’driel border.
“And what, Governor Calloway, is your purpose here at Zarponda?”
Calloway seemed to consider for a moment.
“First, tell me good soldier, has the plague reached Sindell? Is your nation still free from its virulence?”
Calloway let loose a ragged sigh.
“Then I have made it in time, thank the heavens.” He cleared his throat. “I have used The Tunnels of Armageddon to escape Mazhira and bring warning, brave warrior of Sindell. Grave warning.”
“Warning?” Khayn asked, his grip tightening around his sword. That fell wind had begun to blow again from the north, and it made the hairs on the back of his neck stand on end.
“A plot. There is a plot in motion. A rogue Tear has taken advantage of the unrest in our nation. He has the support of some of your Overshadows, maybe the Three Tribes, and a contingent of the Illumanar. He means to replace Mistress Jaden as the Illuminate! This would bring pestilence to the good people of Sindell, no… to all of Ciridian ... to all the world! Your ... your king is…” Calloway gave a strangled gasp and sank back to the ground, face buried among the weeds.
“The King? The King’s what?” Calloway shuddered a moment in the grass and then lay still. “The King’s what, Calloway?” Khayn roared. “Answer me!” Unable to resist the sensation to extract this information by force if necessary, Khayn strode to Augustine Calloway’s bedraggled and unmoving form, lifting him bodily by his collar.
The governor’s face, however, was no longer his own. He responded in kind, seizing Khayn’s own tunic in gnarled hands. His face was contorted as if by some baneful and maleficent force. The whites of his eyes had all but vanished, replaced by a green light that roiled and pulsed as Khayn stared into their depths.
“Don’t look, or it takes you,” he hissed, baring teeth in a hideous grin. “Almonds scream for more water as they are smashed to bits beneath my struggling feet. Their voices are so loud that I leap onto the train tracks, heedless of the danger.”
Khayn did not wait to hear another word. He shoved Calloway back, drawing his sword in a single fluid motion.
“Stay back, Calloway!”
Calloway chuckled and raised his hands as if in surrender.
“No, no, you can call me Papa Bones now, young one. The Leather Apron, perhaps? Every rail is jagged, and even the ones that don’t stab at my heels wither my skin with cold.”
“Captain!” Khayn heard Emory Dale’s shout from the ramparts.
A moment later, bolts came whistling down, plunging deep into the governor’s neck and torso. This only seemed to amuse him.
“It is too late,” Calloway said. Whatever seemed to have possessed him vanished suddenly. He collapsed backwards, his body convulsing violently for a moment before he was still once more. Thin trickles of blood flowed from his orifices, eyes, ears, nose, and mouth alike. Khayn could see the dark stain of urine spreading upon his pant leg. The man was unquestionably dead.
“Open the gate,” Khayn shouted. There was no answer. “Did you hear me?”
“Yes sir,” came the tentative reply from behind the gates.
“Then what’s the problem?”
“That one, sir, he… he collapsed. He must be plagued, and now…”
The soldier had no need to finish his sentence. It was clear enough that his men thought him infected with whatever foul pestilence had overtaken the people of the Tri-State.
“Nonsense,” Khayn said. “I don’t know what that was ... but you can be certain it was no disease. Now let me inside.” Again no response. He sighed. “Fine then, you idiots. Don’t open the gates.” Khayn cleared his throat, hoping his voice would carry. “Dale, can you hear me up there?”
“Yes, sir,” he managed to shout with unbecoming timidity.
“I require supplies, then. Flint, tinder, and bedroll.” Khayn thought for a moment. “And a bottle of Orinel Lin. And some hard rations so I don’t starve out here. Is that clear?”
“It is, sir, right away!”
“Also, a pen, parchment, and ink. We have to get word to Hamon immediately. His Majesty must know what has transpired here tonight.”
“Yes, sir,” the guard replied.
“Well? Don’t just stand there slack-jawed. Get to it. Now!”
Atop the wall, Khayn thought he could make out Emory Dale’s silhouette in sharp salute against Luna Scarlet, before he disappeared from view. Khayn pulled out a small sack of tobacco and thin paper from his pocket and set about rolling himself a cigarette to quiet his nerves. He was aggravated to no end by his soldiers, but at the same time he understood their fears and would humor them, if only for a night. When the morning came, and they could see that he was still in perfect health, he would not acquiesce so easily should they still prove uncooperative.
Behind him, he heard the gate creak ever so slightly open. He turned in time to see a pack and bedroll dumped unceremoniously upon the ground.
“Wait a minute,” he growled.
“Captain?” said a soldier on the other side.
“My message to the King must be delivered immediately. When I’m finished, I’ll place it inside the pack at the foot of the gate. Then I’ll rap on the door three times, and you’ll take the pack, the fastest horse we have, and make your way to Hamon. Is that understood?”
“Good.” The gate of the Greywall was then shut once more, leaving Khayn alone with his thoughts. He retrieved the supplies and fished out the flint, a small piece of tinder, and the liquor he had requested. “Good man, Dale,” he muttered. Khayn lit his cigarette and took a long, satisfying drag. Then he ripped the cork from the orange bottle with his teeth, and indulged in guzzling several large gulps, letting some of it dribble down his chin as it lit a cheery fire deep in his belly. It was all he could do to keep his mind from the terrible, interminable eyes that had taken hold of Augustine Calloway.
He felt as if he had stared into the very abyss itself.
Finishing the last of his cigarette, he walked cautiously to the corpse that lay still before him. He held the Orinel Lin over the once-nobleman, letting as much of it as he was willing to spare saturate Calloway’s ragged, patched clothing.
With a last thought to commit the man’s spirit to the Gods, he flicked the still burning butt upon the body.
The flames consumed Calloway’s form far faster than anticipated. It seemed to have wanted to purge itself of whatever foul entity had taken hold of it. Khayn thought he could almost hear dark laughter being carried on the wind with the scent of burnt flesh. And there was something ... something about that bird he had ...
Disturbed, he took another swig of Orinel Lin and then fetched his pen and paper.
And in that moment, for the first time since first arriving on the wall, Jace could feel the cool breeze again.
A midnight fog cast a hazy blanket over the dark mountain passes, and the air felt wet and heavy. He could smell the scents of the trees up in the foothills, and there in that instant, he looked down at his hands and could see them again. Jace stopped then, looking up to stare at the Red Moon.
Luna Scarlet ruled the night sky like nothing he'd ever seen.
Looking back down and forward, the Greywall was an intimidating sight.
The distant, menacing presence had grown a hundred times bigger, into a globe so bright and massive he could swear it hung just a few feet above the Greywall.
It was as if the masonry itself were alive.
He could see every mountain and canal on its pockmarked surface.
As if awakened by dangerous times.
Then the scene before Jace froze, he felt nothing on his skin, he felt nothing at all. The vacuum had returned.
Jace's eyes settled on the fascinating, motionless Khayn Ahara. With the Red Moon's light draped over him, he lingered like a lounging statue in the cool shadows. A statue in the midst of writing a letter.
Last Call, he heard a quiet voice say on the wind, but the sound seemed to come from some far off, unimportant place.
With hardly a thought, Jace moved to Khayn's side. He stood over the legendary Greywall Captain, and oddly, his attention was drawn to the orange Orinel Lin bottle, as if mindful not to accidentally knock it over.
Jace bent down then, put his hands on his knees and hunched forward, trying to read the words Khayn had already scribbled down.
But they were impossible to read.
The man's famous penmanship — Jace had once seen his signature on an ancient-looking parchment in a museum in Hamon once — was flawless, but the Outrider couldn't read the words. It was like being able to read and ... not read all at once.
It was the same sensation of having seen that portrait of Khayn in The Faraway Cry with Kerrick all those years ago. He should have recognized him, even though he was just a kid in it, but ... But that was a memory, not a vision or a dream or ... whatever this was exactly. It was a disorienting situation, but still, Jace felt no anxiety about it. For better or worse, he was getting used to this. However, in the process of leaning over to try and read the letter, Jace suddenly realized he was essentially cheek-to-cheek with the lifeless legend who was in the midst of writing it.
Some local hero ...
Now Jace was beginning to find it difficult to move.
... but the gilt was gouged where some had been scraped off the frame.
He couldn't move his hands, as if his mounting, crippling fear had become tangible and cemented his hands to his knees ...
All that could be made out was the first name Khayn, but the legend was too dull to read.
Suddenly, Khayn's eyes flicked over to Jace, who was paralyzed. Nothing else on the Greywall Captain's body so much as twitched, but those eyes ... those eyes were now staring at Jace as much as they could without having turned his head.
The Outrider's back began to ache, but still, he couldn't move.
Slowly — the kind of agonizing, horrifying slowness of nightmares — Khayn's lips began to curve up into a smile ...
The last stroke, the last instant, that's the easy part ...
... and as the lips peeled away, Khayn ran his tongue over fangs.
... mark this well, or someday soon you'll wish you had.
Jace tried to scream, but not even his jaw would move now. How could he have looked at this situation and not have seen the danger?
Night traders. Like old friends come back in the dark.
It was the identical feeling he had experienced when the young version of Artemus had come to him and led him to Bryce Valley. That feeling he had with that cavern entrance at his back ...
They'd betray him to any one there ...
It was the feeling of being instantly humbled, that sick sensation of hesitation and doubt; everything that had haunted him as Dorsey, that he had tried to outrun and hide from as Jace.
... or to the Devil himself.
Khayn was starting to lean ... creep closer to Jace now. So slowly that the actual movement was imperceptible, detected only by the gradual, excruciating decrease in the already far-too-narrow gap between them.
Desperate, Jace tried to close his eyes, and when they did snap shut, it came as a strange relief. That is, until he found that he couldn't open them again. A terrifying thought — that he had been permitted to close them — came into his mind then. As if he had been permitted to turn off the light in a room with a demon it. Or something worse.
And his grandfather wouldn't be coming in to tell him everything was all right.
Not here. Not in this room. Wherever it was.
The crimson of Luna Scarlet streamed in through his eyelids, just as the sun in Bryce Valley earlier. By choosing not to face the darkness, it permeated his every thought.
The negative energy you feel is entirely manufactured ...
Jace felt as if he had stared into the abyss itself.
A figment as it were ...
"Just a figment," Jace heard himself say, but he still could not open his eyes.
To repel the unitiated.
"But I am initiated!" he shouted, and then, to the sound of a thunderclap, like the one that had woken him from sleep in his room when he had first seen Artemus, the red light pouring through his eyelids turned green.
From Crimson to Clover, quick as lightening, and in the blink of an ...
Jace could open his eyes, and as he did so, he was also able to stand completely straight and sighed with the action. Everything around him was as it had appeared before he had moved beside Khayn and tried to examine the letter he was writing.
As if the Greywall Captain had never moved at all.
Stretching his back, Jace closed his eyes and sighed. Before he could open them again, the green light filtering in through his eyelids vanished just as the dim torchlight in the tunnels had.
"I don't know why you even went over there. You won't be able to read what he's writing," a voice came from off to the side.
Jace opened his eyes, turned and saw Damien Calloway standing there, looking exactly as he had the last time Jace saw him in the camp on the Tenzan Plains.
"That's what you were trying to do, right? Read the letter?" the watchman asked. "Can't do that in dreams, don't you know that?"
"Is that what this is?" Jace asked without hesitation. "A dream?"
Calloway paused, took a breath.
"No," he said. "Not really." He had been staring down at his pocket watch, which was running backwards, but now he let it fall back down to hang loose on its chain. His eyes followed the ramparts in both directions, to where they stretched on for miles, encircling Zarponda, and vanishing into the mist under the now regular, white moon. The Moon of Fairytales. "I mean, dreams are just your memories and imagination all mixed together. A kind of ... haze of what's real and what's made up. This is more like ... more like ..." Calloway repeated, voice distant.
"An echo?" Jace suggested. "Or the manifestation of an echo?"
Calloway's eyes with wide with surprise.
"Yeah, actually," he said slowly. "That is a really good description of what what ... how did you—"
"Been that kind of night, kid," Jace said. "Cedwyn is—"
Calloway's breath caught in his throat.
"I know," he said, and this seemed to steady him. Focus him even. "He's also the reason I'm here. To guide you. Show you a couple things without you getting lost in oblivion. And then to get you out. Same way he and Isabelle did back in—"
"I remember. You were there, too."
"Yeah," he said. "Sort of. So ... should I call you, like ... Dorsey now, or ..."
Calloway cocked an eyebrow and shrugged.
"Cedwyn was what the Luna Scarlet Monks used to call a Due Timer," he said. "By the use of a mirror, and a few other ... preparations ... he could enter and leave the dimension we're in right now. The place between things."
"So ... the central question about magic." He emphasized the word by throwing up a pair of air quotes. "... isn't about how it works. The question, which Cedwyn helped me answer, is whether or not it's possible for humans like us — you and me — to interface with those forces the same way Tears do, but without the benefit of either their blood or their perspective ... without losing what makes us human."
"Relic would really like you, you know that?"
"He does like me," Calloway said without missing a beat, obviously missing any implications. This obliviousness made Jace smile a little, and then Calloway was back to talking a mile a minute. "See that guy?"
Jace kept his feet firmly planted and gently twisted to look where Augustine Calloway's body was consumed by frozen flames.
"I do," Jace said, facing forward again.
"That's my great, great, ..." His voice faded and he started counting his fingers. "Great ...?"
"Uncle," Damien blurted, his attention actually startled back to Jace. "When those flames die away, it'll reveal the Horn of Cambria, which he had smuggled out of Mazhira and came here to bring to Sindell. That horn that you will eventually use to save your life, my life, and ultimately break the Alchemist's time loop in Westwood."
"Valith. Didn't you guys talk to Foy in Sand—"
"Yes, Damien, we did. And kind of a lot has happened since then, so could you please just get to the damn—"
"Alright, alright. Sorry." He pointed up to the ramparts, to the motionless silhouette holding a crossbow. "That guy right there? That's Alarick Dale's ... great, great ... great ..."
"Seriously?" Jace urged, and this time he rolled his eyes in a way that seemed somehow annoyed and amused all at once.
"Grandfather." Calloway was looking at Jace again. "Somehow, the horn ends up in his hands and is passed down through his ancestors until it gets to you on that fateful night. Or ... nights ... depending on how you look at it, because it actually took 20-something times before you finally used it. Kerrick had something to do with that, I'm sure. And then Relic did what he did against Valith in the wagon and the rest is history. No pun intended."
"Just so you know ... I'm following like ... ten percent max of what you're talking about right now."
"I'm here to help you, like I was saying before. Like I'm still trying to say, I guess. And you need to trust me."
"Good," Jace said. "You said it. And I do."
"Yes. Because as screwed up and confusing as all of this is, your mentor and mine told me to. So why don't you just relax, take your time, and tell me what the hell I'm looking at."
Calloway stared at a moment, disbelieving. It was clear he had not expected to be the one in need of calming down.
"Right. Okay. What you just saw ... where we are, happened 222 years ago last Citrine.
Jace glanced around again. He sighed and rolled his eyes.
"What a coincidence."
Calloway shook his head.
"Coincidence, fate ... synchronicity ... those are all just words. The truth is that—"
"I don't care."
"Oh. O-okay. Well ..."
"222 years," Jace cut in. "Still about 50 before airships, then."
"Yeah," Calloway said. "More or less. And they'll be invented right behind those walls."
Jace took a deep breath, and then arced his head back to stare straight up at the dizzying heights of the tower above the gate.
"Alright, then. Whatever I'm supposed to have seen here, I think it's fair to say I've seen it," he said. In a fairer— "So how do we get out of here?"
"You could wait your turn," Calloway said. "Probably only a few thousand years."
"You're hilarious, man."
Calloway smiled and started out of the courtyard, past his burning ancestor and on to one of the larger mountain passes.
"Yeah," he said, never breaking stride as he spoke. "Or you could just follow me, I guess. You need to see what led up to this moment."
Jace watched, as motionless as the scene around him. Calloway disappeared in a bright green flash — the same color Luna Scarlet had briefly turned— and then he turned his back on the Greywall for good, starting toward the mountain pass himself, following the Due Timer to wherever they were headed.