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Witness Marks
CHAPTER TWENTY

Witness Marks


“Men rarely believe that which they have not seen.”

ARKHELAN
Divider (2)

Can you hear me? Jace heard Damien Calloway ask.

Yeah, the Outrider answered, but he had more thought it than said it. It was a difficult phenomenon to describe. It was like being there and yet ... not there. He could feel himself breathing, he could talk, but it was more like existing as an idea.

Relic had experienced something similar in Westwood Forest, and again in Sandia. Jace had as well, when he had watched Cedwyn talk to Hazel in Mirror Lake, then followed his journey after into Fairlawn.

Relic had obsessed over the sensation ever since.

Jace was already concentrating on the amazing scene before him.

This is Mazhira said Calloway’s voice. Again. 222 years ago. This is what drove my ancestor to the Greywall in the first place. He was the governor of this city. It’s what set all of this in motion.

All of what?

Just watch. It’s what Cedwyn trained me to show you.

Jace nodded. Or at least, in his mind he did.

If we talk after this starts, I won’t be able to maintain it. I’m still kinda new at this.

Alright, Jace “said”. I got it.

He felt tightness in his temples, then pain, as he squinted his eyes. Every detail was clear now, as if he were an eagle soaring overhead.

The city of Mazhira had been abandoned. Its bright market stalls and tents lay strewn among the ruins of violence, bloodied bodies twisted in pain beside stone buildings. Here and there, the city's granaries tilted sickly, spilling mounds of discolored wheat like pus from plague sores— which is what they now were. The sky was a steely mantle, pricked by only a few bland shafts of dull, whitish sunlight, which looked down on the shocked faces of the dead.

​Through the city, the only signs of life came from a few scurrying rats, the occasional chicken poking through the rubble, or a dog wandering forlornly from place to place. Of man or woman, nothing was seen save for a fire— a fire that had been deliberately set and stood like a bulwark around the dark, stone body of a moldering old ziggurat. The flames, crimson and gold, snapped high into the air. Flustered occasionally by a heavy wind, the blaze remained as solid as a wall.

​"We must reach Jaden." Augustine Calloway, the city's governor, peered through a window in the temple at the ziggurat’s summit. Most of the city was veiled from his sight by the fires his men had set; the ziggurat, itself many centuries old, had not been built as tall as some others. But he could see the sky well, dull and dark. It was going to rain.

​"Word will reach her at Lornda Manor, even if we do not," said the Luna Scarlet Monk. He and his initiates, dressed in the fine ceremonial robes of their craft, had gathered in a circle in the center of the room. A single hole had been bored through the ceiling above them, covered in glass and encircled with mirrors and runes strange and arcane. "It is time," the monk said. "Governor, you may observe, but do not speak."

​The governor turned. He was a lank man whose emblems of honor had always disguised a sickly visage and overwrought nature. Nonetheless, he felt, he had acted honorably in these last dark days, and was prepared to die if the monk and his students failed.

​Think not, came the monk’s voice. For, in magic, what enters in is what returns out.

​They had chalked a complex series of symbols on the undressed stone of the ziggurat floor, the arrangement in a circular shape that echoed the runes above them. Around this, they sat; the Luna Scarlet Monk, his arms outstretched, took up the northernmost part of the arc. Calloway could see his long, gray beard, but his face and blue eyes were shadowed in a crimson cowl.

​Suddenly, the air grew charged as if in a storm.

​They began to chant mystical words, so low at first that the governor could not hear them, but was only aware of the vibration of their voices entering into his body; a collective throbbing that seemed to reach deep into the stone walls. Slowly, he became aware of individual sounds, though they made no sense to him.

​Ah-za-ka-ta-oh-rem-di ... ah-za-ka-ta-oh-rem-di ...

​A flash enveloped the room, as of lightning, and the monk reached carefully into the collar of his robes to produce a crystal on a thin golden chain. The crystal was a frosty, bluish-white, and had been carefully carved so that one point was very prominent, while the opposite side was almost rounded. This he placed in the center of the circle.

​Ah-za-ka-ta-oh-rem-diiiii ... ah-za-ka-ta-oh-rem-diiiii...

​The clouds above began to move. They seemed, at first, almost to boil. Then, they broke away from the sky above the ziggurat, creating a circle that was clear and blue, through which the red moon could be seen. A lance of blue light streamed through the window and fell upon the crystal, which began to glow. Calloway fought back a gasp of astonishment. The chanting grew faster, more frenzied.

​Ahzakata-ohremdi ... ahzakata-ohremdi ...

​The light of the crystal grew stronger and stronger ...

​And then it exploded.

​The Luna Scarlet Monks lifted their hands to ward off the flying shards, but there was no need. Many of them vanished in a blur of green light even as they took to the air. Others skittered across the floor for just an instant before being consumed. The lead monk bowed his head, and the marks on the ground seemed, somehow, to lose their power.

​"I am sorry," he said simply.

​Augustine Calloway jolted, his posture straightening even further, as he put on an imperious expression.

"Is that all? Is there no way to get word to Lornda Manor?"

​"Perhaps," the old man said mildly, "if Jaden is at work, if the Communion Vault is being tended, she will know, at least, that we attempted to reach her." He rose slowly, and strode over to the window, even as the initiates worked carefully to rub out the magic circle.

​"That will not happen soon enough," Calloway snapped.

​"Perhaps," the monk emphasized again. Without further care for the governor, he regarded the window. "When the fires are put out, the plague will come— whether it is magical or not. But it will be some time soon before we are dead."

​"I fail to find that a comfort!" Calloway said.

​The monk shook his head, a strange look of sadness and admiration on his face.

"There is a great magical power out there, beyond the plague. Whatever it is, there was no opportunity for our magics to survive."

​Augustine took a moment to contemplate this. But there was little time, for before he could think what could be done now, the first shouts came from below:

"The storm has begun! The storm has begun! The fires are failing!"

​They could hear the sizzling from where they waited, and saw the flames waning under a torrent of rain. Plumes of smoke were struggling to rise, even these being pounded out by the waters, when Augustine Calloway and the others first saw a maelstrom of light moving toward them.

The governor's eyes widened in shock.

​"What in the world?"

Divider (2)

​He had come a long way, but he did not speak. The rhythmic tap tapping of his ebon wood staff on the ground was the only sound. The hems of his robes, crimson and gold like the fire he had seen from far away, swept almost to the ground. His slender hands were adorned with many rings, and from his neck hung many amulets. His staff was carved into the shape of a winding serpent; its head served as the top, and into its face were set ruby eyes, each one the size of a thumbnail. Occasionally, he would slow to a stop and tilt the staff this way and that, as if allowing the serpent to see the land around him. He was in no hurry; his gait was easy and straight.

​Others had followed him through the dead city. They were dressed all in black garb; a contingent of Overshadows, no doubt. They, too, did not speak, though their hidden faces were grim at the sight of the carnage, and they would sometimes stop to examine a home or a shop for survivors.

Their leader did not look around; he knew what to expect.

​They were in the central square of Mazhira when he stopped.

​He took a deep breath and gazed up at the sky.

"The storm is here," he said. A few of his Overshadows nodded. The storm is what we call progress. They were unused to seeing him in this contemplative mood— it did not bode well. "Stand back," he warned them; with the bottom of his staff, he carved an intricate symbol into the sandy earth.

​There was a long pause, and nothing happened.

​A slow smile spread across the man's tanned, angular face.

​He rolled his neck this way and that, his long, brown hair moving with the motion. At length, his gaze lifted once more to the sky, and the spell began. A few of his guards were golden riders on horseback, and their steeds began to whinny in alarm, a few bucking slightly.

​"Control those beasts," the man said. His eyes were closed, his voice distant.

​"As you say, Arkhelan," one of the guards answered.

​The fire seemed to flash up from everything at once. Wherever there was a spark -- a torch, a lamp, the still-smoldering embers of a funerary pyre -- the light came out of it and entered into the staff. When the time was right, he twirled the staff and plunged it headfirst into the ground, and there came a great explosion that left him and all his followers encased in a great dome of fire.

​"It is time," he said, opening his eyes. He seemed suddenly tired. He turned slowly to where one of his men was trying to control his horse. "If you do not stop that beast," he said quietly, "it will be burned to death."

​The golden rider struggled; he had been unseated now and was trying to force the horse to stop with his arms alone, as the creature jerked wildly and prepared to bolt. Some of the others made to help him, but Arkhelan raised a hand, stopping them.

​The horse broke free and began to run toward the edge of the fire shell.

​Arkhelan pointed a finger.

​The stead collapsed, all four of its legs seeming to give out at once. Yet, there was no sign of pain or struggle. Its eyes simply closed, and it stopped breathing. When the Tear began to move, the fires moved with him, and the carcass was untouched.

​"It didn't suffer," Arkhelan told his man. "Let us go."

Divider (2)

​Governor Calloway and the Luna Scarlet Monk stood before the gate at the top of the ziggurat’s massive staircase. There was fire. It was not of their make, it wasn’t even the same kind.

The stranger had halted just outside, covering the whole building in a protective blaze. He and his guards seemed untouched; Augustine found rivulets of sweat running down his face.

​"Who are you, stranger? And where do you come from?"

​"By order of Jaden Brielle, Ciridian Illuminate and Imperatrix of the Antanjyl hermitage," said the leader, "survivors of this city are to be brought to Lornda Manor. We are here to escort you. I am Arkhelan, a Tear of the Antanjyl hermitage. One of its last survivors." He raised his arms in a benevolent gesture. "Come out, and let us go to safety."

​Augustine looked to the monk.

"Could his words be true?"

​"I do not know," the monk answered.

​"What proof do you have of these orders?" cried Calloway.

​Arkhelan removed one of the charms from around his neck, a plain pewter circle.

"You will find Jaden’s message to Mazhira encoded in a stone in this pendant," he announced. "I trust you can read them, monk?"

​The Luna Scarlet Monk stepped forward.

"I can."

​"Then come and take it from my hand. It will shatter if it leaves me otherwise."

​"Go," Calloway said.

​The monk took a deep breath.

"As you will, governor."

​"Who else has weathered the plague?" Arkhelan asked.

​"None other than the two you see before you, and the guards," Calloway said.

​"What of the people?" Arkhelan asked, his Overshadows and golden riders arrayed behind him.

​"Those who could not flee to Sandia are dead," Calloway announced.

​"You have remained here, while allowing the people to die?" Arkhelan asked.

​"I could not leave my post," Augustine Calloway said. "I have been charged with assuring this ziggurat flies the flag of the Tri-State Commonwealth, and it will do so even if I must die here. The others stood a better chance by fleeing." The governor took a deep breath. "We have been trying to contact Lornda Manor for weeks. Now, at last, our prayers have been answered ..."

​"Gone?" Arkhelan demanded. "The people are all gone?"

​"Yes," Calloway said. "The food stores were not enough to keep them here ..."

​"You fool," Arkhelan sneered. "Your heroic thoughts of hanging on to the bitter end here have condemned countless people to die, and you stand secure in your honor all the while."

​"I fail to see how my choices are any business of yours, Tear," Calloway called.

​"You could have saved them," Arkhelan countered.

​"How?" Augustine Calloway demanded. But Arkhelan did not answer.

​The Luna Scarlet Monk had neared, and now he took the pendant. The old man nodded, stepping aside for a moment— as he closed his eyes and clasped the message in one hand, Arkhelan spoke:

"You knew enough to know that the power of fire would hold the plague back from the Ziggurat of Ur as long as it stood. What few people would have stayed could have shared in your stores. When they died, they could have become stores themselves, by way of that fire. At least then, some could have lived!"

​"Hold your tongue, Tear," the governor said, his hand falling to his sword.

​"Very well," said Arkhelan. He turned away lazily to look at the monk, whose look of concentration was finally broken by one of sheer terror. The old monk's eyes snapped open, and his head whipped to Arkhelan and then toward the governor.

​"Dead!" the monk shouted. "They are all dead! I've seen the monks wasting away in Bryce Valley! The Antanjyl hermitage has fallen!" He whirled again, raising his hand toward Arkhelan. "What false hope you portend, scoundrel!"

​"Blasphemous Tear!" the governor shouted, drawing his sword.

​A crackling bolt of crimson lightning burst from the monk’s outstretched palms toward Arkhelan, but he merely raised a hand and the blast was deflected, arcing up and over his enemy's shoulder to strike the steel breastplate of the governor, who was charging forward with his blade at the ready. Augustine, shocked, fell backward, even as a dozen guards began to pour forth from the ziggurat.

​"Very good," Arkhelan said. "This is a more honorable thing than hiding behind those walls ... the guilty and the corrupt may at least die well." He raised his staff. "Mazhira will be free of the plague when you are all destroyed.

Divider (2)

Walls of crackling flame, reaching high into the air, divided Mazhira. Most of the city stood as piles of charred, barren wreckage. The last of the once-festive marketplace was disappearing in a swirl of violent ash as Arkhelan became aware of footsteps echoing down the stone corridors of the ziggurat. He stood before the highest window in the temple, gazing down upon the city that the former governor had looked on only a short time before. The view had been transformed forever, and the blaze the viewer himself had started, glittered against the backdrop of the open desert beyond.

​A shadow positioned itself before the passage leading out into the hall. The door had been blown away during the last resistance the ziggurat’s old masters could muster. It lay in splinters in the hallway beneath a swath of stonework that had been gouged and partly melted by magic. The sound of footfalls ended as Arkhelan cast his jade gaze toward them.

His visitor had paused respectfully just outside.

​"I have been waiting," Arkhelan said.

​"My apologies, teacher, but the work has been difficult ...”

​"Come," said the Tear. "Do not make me wait any longer."

​Grasping his staff, the Tear came forward to meet Valith in the center of the room. Another magic circle had been drawn upon the ruins of the old one, and the one they called The Alchemist paused again beyond its outermost arc. His gaze wavered between his master and the strange symbols on the floor. Arkhelan stood in the center of the maelstrom of arcane signs, his staff planted before him.

​"Don't be foolish," he said. "Speak your piece!"

​Valith was one of the younger Tears to have defected from Bryce Valley to join Arkhelan’s Overshadow Order, his armor and clothing a mix of black, ash gray and burnished copper. He fell prostrate before Arkhelan, his forehead touching the circle less than a pace from where the serpent staff was planted. The staff seemed to waver in Arkhelan's grip as he listened.

​"As you predicted, teacher, entrances to the Tunnels of Armageddon have been found. One in the governor's private residence. Another was found in the city's bank." Arkhelan rapped his staff against the ground impatiently, and the man suppressed a gasp. "A third has also been found ..."

​"Where?"

​"Beneath an apothecary ..."

​"Curse them!" Arkhelan raised his staff in both hands, and the man beneath him shook and began to plead, but the Tear barely seemed to notice, and continued to speak. "A failure! The tunnel under the governor's manor is no escape route," he mused. "If it was so, that rat would have fled with the rest."

​"Yes, teacher, of course ..."

​"Stand up!" Arkhelan demanded. "Don't take such a tone with me! I chose you each for your strength of will, not your lack of it! Be up!" The man rushed to stand, and Arkhelan extended the staff toward him as he spoke. "We will find the same thing beneath the bank and the traitor's mansion— hoards of money, gold. Blast those tunnels, cover them!"

​"Yes, sir!"

​"The apothecary ..." Arkhelan's eyes narrowed. "Who has been sent there?"

​"My brother, Irenus, so please you."

​"Of course..." Arkhelan seemed to relax, and rested his staff on the ground, beginning to walk. "The slowest student has finally served a purpose. He would have smelled the blood ..." He shook his head. "We must go there, then, to that tunnel. The time is growing near to fulfill my promise to the people of this city."

​Valith rose and began to follow close at Arkhelan's heels. The Tear swept out of the temple, heedless to the many places where the stones were crumbling or stairs were melted together by great blasts of heat.

"Your promise, teacher? Whatever do you mean?"

​"My boy," Arkhelan said as he walked, "you are about to witness a miracle beyond anything you have ever imagined. I am a man of my word, and Mazhira shall be awakened from the death-song of plague that has fallen upon it!"

​Valith gasped.

"Surely you speak the truth!"

​"You do not believe me," Arkhelan said evenly as they descended the staircase and stepped into the brimstone squalor of the city. "Neither did Jaden. Neither did our enemies. Do you not think they would have surrendered if they had known? Men rarely believe that which they have not seen." The Tear paused contemplatively, trying to gain his bearings. "This is a lesson I have had a long time to learn."

​"It is so, teacher," Valith said. Though the air was thick with the stench of decay, his wits were about him now. "What we each saw of you was the seed of our loyalty to you, not the stories we heard."

​"Anyone who'd fail to say so is a liar," Arkhelan agreed. "Which way?"

​"Down that street, if it’s safe."

​"It is," Arkhelan said. "You are with me."

​They went down the street and came to another plaza, as yet untouched by the flames, where there were many houses all stacked closely together that would go up like kindling when the first spark touched them. Beyond this plaza was another broad thoroughfare that ended with a sturdy wooden building, two stories, with a shingled roof. From within, Arkhelan could hear speech.

​"Stop," Arkhelan commanded. "What do you hear?"

​Valith paused for a long time.

"I hear nothing."

​Arkhelan twirled his staff in a slow circle before him, and the world took on a sharpness, a strange clarity. The wooden building seemed to stand in the center of a storm of wind, but there was no storm, only the clouds of ash. From within there was a great brandybling, punctuated by unearthly screams.

​"The city is silent?" Arkhelan asked distantly.

​"There is only the crackling of flames," Valith said.

​"The gods of Luna Scarlet bless you then, sir. Return to your work."

​"As you bid..." Valith said uncertainly, but he could think on it no longer, for it seemed to him that Arkhelan was in a rush to enter the apothecary. As he turned, he did hear something, words on the wind, which seemed to come in the voice of his teacher: Irenus, don't be a fool!

Divider (2)

The longer they were down here, the more they longed for the sun, though it burned red and distant in the sky over Mazhira. Up there it was a blazing hell; here, at least, it was cool and dark. Some had torches, but many of the golden riders bore lanterns on poles to light their way, glad to have glass and steel between them and the fire.

But Irenus walked ahead. He held nothing to light the way, and made turns before anyone else. His boots, which were steel, clattered against discarded coins and then, much later, crunched against bleached shards of bone.

​"We're close," he hissed. "We're close!"

​And so, on they went, seeming to bore into the heart of the earth. In the rear ranks there was talk of turning back, but only Irenus could have known the path he was taking — if even he knew it — for they left no marks at all. Slowly, the walls grew into undressed stone, and the spicy scent that they had left behind in the apothecary shop grew into an ever stronger, bitter one.

​"Scones there," Irenus said, waving one leather-clad hand toward a wall. "Put the torches in so I can see." There was a brief and fruitless search before someone found what he was speaking of, and eventually all the scones bore lit torches. The room revealed was round and plain and had many tunnels divided by large pillars.

Irenus' shoulders heaved as he raised his face to a half dozen passages. He was a tall man, his body covered in a red cloak. "A moment," he growled. He began to pace back and forth, moving a few paces into each tunnel, snuffling and snarling, hissing and groaning and stomping. Finally, he screamed, racing out of the tunnel. "The scent is too strong here!" The light of the torches glinted off the steel mask he wore; a mask twisted into a snarl, with tusks and sharp fangs, a heavy worked mask that depicted a wild boar. "They've smeared every one of these tunnels with that disgusting stuff from above!" He stamped one foot, sending echoes down and down and down the tunnels. "We've been had!"

​The golden riders began to murmur amongst themselves.

​"Well, one of us will have to take each passage ..."

​One of them stepped out from the crowd.

​"Sir Irenus, this is dangerous. We should report to the master."

​Irenus took hold of the ax that lay at his side with one huge hand.

"How dare you? Arkhelan is busy with important business. We'll clean out these tunnels, then we'll report. Unless you're all too afraid!"

​"Who do you think you are?" one of the golden riders said, joining his comrade at the fore. "You can't speak for him!" His words elicited cheers of approval from the group behind him.

​"You stupid grunt! I was with him long before you ..." The masked man raised his axe in both hands. "You don't know, you can't imagine what we've been through! I've come through worse than this ..."

​"Are you planning to make the Tunnels of Armageddon your grave?" the bold one asked. His hand was on his sword. Irenus' eyes, hidden beneath the mask, traveled from one to another and found the same malice reflected in each.

But ... something wasn’t right.

Golden riders had small, single-shot crossbows as weapons. Not the swords, spears, and maces they had now, all painted red by the torchlight.

Then, with a flash of enraged effort, Irenus pushed the doubt and confusion from his mind.

​"I'll make it yours ..." Irenus said, and he prepared to lunge forward.

​No...

​Something stopped him. Perhaps it was the way they seemed to lift their weapons all in unison, as though they had been considering killing him for some time now. Perhaps it was the way the man who had been their foreman snarled at him, teeth bared, as he raised his sword to defend himself. Perhaps it was the way their shadows seemed to melt together on the walls, even their bodies losing definition, and how, for one instant, they were like one great steel serpent with many heads, all their mouths open to reveal the hidden fangs.

​"Ah-HAH!" In one motion, Irenus swung his great axe, knocking one of the torches from the wall. It fell to the cold floor and sputtered out. Then he struck another, and another, until they all went dark. Now, when he faced the mob, their own torches had only a ghostly pallor, which soon fell away into total darkness.

​In that darkness, the only sound was his own breathing, muffled by steel.

Very good. The words seemed to arise in his mind unbidden, like the silhouette of something deep within the ocean, a great and terrible something better left unexamined. It struck a shudder of fear through him though he knew it was but a fleeting glimpse.

​"Where are they?" Irenus asked the air.

​They are gone. Or perhaps they were never here.

​It seemed to sneer now.

​Perhaps you are not here.

​After a long moment, the scent of oil reached him, then the tunnel he had come from showed the faintest spark. Within a short time the teacher, Arkhelan, was standing before him.

​"Have you seen any bodies?" Irenus asked him.

​"None," Arkhelan said. "There is no one here but us."

​"Prove it," Irenus demanded, his hand still wrapped around the hilt of his axe.

​"Very well," Arkhelan said, and clapped. The scones burst into magical light.

​"There is a dark presence here," Irenus said warily.

​"Yes," Arkhelan agreed. "One you should not have faced alone."

​"I was searching for Augustine Calloway," Irenus said, finally securing his axe to his belt again. "The wretch governor escaped during the battle. He’ll try to make it to Sandia, and from there, use the tunnels that lead to Sindell.”

​"Yes," Arkhelan said. "And down this tunnel he went, I'm sure. But he knew that you would be here with me, so he dumped all the reagents of the apothecary and the alchemist down here, so you couldn't scent their passing."

​"But I could smell the blood," said Irenus. "I always do."

​"Something Calloway had not bargained on?" Arkhelan asked. "I doubt it. Perhaps he was with someone else and there was some betrayal down here, and someone was stabbed. Maybe they are even still alive ... if so, we will find them," he said quietly. "But right now we have found something far more important."

​"What?" Irenus asked. "This is nothing but a damned ratty catacomb."

​"No," Arkhelan said with a smile, which remained on his face even as he planted his staff before him and closed his eyes. "You have so much yet to learn ... you all do. But that’s okay— there is much time. Fate has provided for us a wonderful testing ground, and we should all be thankful...”

​Don't listen to him, that sibilant voice hissed, but Irenus was sure only he had heard.

​"Do you not hear the heartbeat of the earth? This place is far older, far older than you think ... it dates back to a long-lost empire. It is the heart of the city, the centermost place, for it is beneath the spot where the ziggurat stands. Where the central obelisk once stood...”

​Irenus was glad for his mask, for he did not understand.

​"... but that is trivial now," Arkhelan continued. "For the obelisk is long gone from this city and all the others of Ciridian. I am the obelisk now. I am the central pillar. Therefore, it is time...” ​Arkhelan drove his staff into the stone at the center of the room, and it split, sending out a spider web of crimson and clover cracks that seemed oddly regular and uniform to Irenus. At a gesture from Arkhelan, he stood back, retreating into the mouth of one of the other caves. The Tear began to glow with a faint green light. ​"Now you will see an ancient city—

Divider (2)

—restored to life...

The green light emanating from Arkhelan faded completely, the scene with it, and there was consuming silence again. That sensation of being immersed ... submerged in a vacuum had returned, then ...

There was a single clink, and a coin rolled out of the gloom to Jace’s boot, where it fell on its side upon impact. Strangely, he felt compelled to pick it up, sheathing his weapons and bending in spite of his fear. It was a silver piece, stamped with the likeness of Madsen Vhair, one of Veil’driel’s most distinguished First Consuls.

“Calloway?” Jace whispered. “Are you there?”

Jace stood to full height, rolling the coin over in his hand, looking up. He was corporeal again, though he could barely see himself in the darkness.

“Is that you, where are you?”

But then, with the sick dread of a nightmare’s foregone conclusion, the Outrider knew what was lurking before him.

Hobson?”

“At your service, sir. I’ve extended the courtesy of a coin, a civility you once denied me.” There was a pause and a crackling cough. “My generosity knows no bounds, sir. Indeed, I am a man amongst men.”

Jace drew his short swords again, twirling them.

The corpse in the darkness gurgled a laugh from what was left of its stomach. Its boots, which were steel, clattered against discarded coins and then ...

“Those will do you no good, captain. Not where you’re going. Wait. You’re not a captain anymore, are you?”

“No.”

“Shame, that.”

The horrible visage of Hobson limped out from the black, appearing as he had on the balcony. As he had that night in Westwood, when Jace and Relic found his body on the road.

“You hear them now, don’t you?” Hobson asked, the words passing out through fleshless cheeks. “The coins I told you about.”

Jace thought about the coin pouch on his belt, the one he had taken from the corpse after sliding down the railing. With strange, slow-motion logic he wondered if offering it might-—

​They are gone.

The thing smiled, eerie and slow, bones cracking in protest as it straightened. There was movement from beyond it as well, slight at first then glaring. The clinking sound of falling coins commenced, elevated to suggest thousands.

Or perhaps they were never here.

And then an endless parade of corpses, each in various stages of decomposition, charged into light — wavering and blowing like a noisome exhalation of decay, a corpse-light, a light that illuminated nothing — and at Jace.

​Perhaps you are not here.

Unlike Hobson, these were not hindered by their state of decay, and even though some were missing limbs they moved fast. One of the figures, a demonic looking thing with chomping fangs, was almost on him, holding its eyeballs in bloody hands and screeching with mad glee.

Panic-stricken, there was nothing Jace could do save hold his breath, and his eyes fluttered shut just as two powerful hands clamped down on him. He braced himself for what would come, retreating into his mind as he had beneath the blankets on his grandfather’s farm as a child.

But no pain followed, only a bright green flash that was blinding even through his eyelids. Jace fell back, crashing to the ground so hard his pack burst open, expelling its contents across the cavern floor. His short swords were still in his hands, and he jumped to his feet, silver pieces spilling off his body with the effort. He spun to his right, and there came a shock of a different kind: Artemus Ward, a comforting hand on his shoulder, smiling all the while.

At first, it was a wave of intense relief that washed over Jace, but then, like a crack of thunder, he remembered himself, and one of his weapons was across the legend’s throat.

Artemus never flinched, only lowered his hand.

Jace’s hands were slick and shaking.

His heart pounded so hard it hurt.

Then a tremor rocked the enclave. The death groans of Lornda Manor, rumbling down all around them.

“Gods, son,” Artemus said, ignoring the blade completely. “Ever go on a mission where you didn’t blow something up?”

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Chapter Twenty-One  (E)
The Emperor of Ice-Cream
#2190604 by Dan Hiestand
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