by Dan Hiestand
The Emperor of Ice-Cream
The Emperor of Ice-Cream
“Forbidden love is only romantic in fairy tales.”
The breath came in and out of Jace’s chest in great gasps, like a hurricane stoking a wildfire. He was furious and heartbroken all at the same time, surging adrenaline blocking all thought and speech.
Slowly now, Artemus raised his hands, palms outward like a criminal caught by town guards. He was showing that he wasn’t a threat, but the gray blaze in Jace’s eyes showed the attempt wasn’t working at all.
“If this is how Outriders convey gratitude these days, I gotta say,” his eyes drifted finally downward. “The world was doomed already.”
Jace let out a blood-curdling scream of rage, leaning over the blade in his hand so that his face was a shade from Artemus. But he applied no more pressure, then lowered the weapon and took some steps back.
He hadn’t yet registered the surroundings, paid them no mind at all.
There were three enormous sea serpent heads along the farthest side, exquisitely crafted, rising from an ocean of stone; jowls open wide to expose cavernous throats, identical except for their gemstone eye sockets. The one on the left had rubies. The middle serpent, emerald. The creature farthest right looked on with shimmering sapphires. Whoever it was that created the beasts, they left the rest of the enclave untouched. Even the way Jace had come, now solid, was otherwise unremarkable. Spreading across the floor, and all around that side with the caves, the rock was peppered with shadow blossoms: flowers that glowed violet in darkness.
But Jace saw only the man in front of him.
“You’re Artemus Ward. The man who conquered the sky. Hero of The Looking Glass War,” he said, struggling to maintain his composure. “I won’t kill you like that.” His arms straightened down at his sides, muscles tightening. “Draw your swords.”
Artemus smiled, rounding the Outrider in study.
“How noble,” he said, without sarcasm. “But how do you know I won’t just draw my crossbows and shoot you in the face?”
Jace was motionless but his eyes were sharp, tracking Ward’s movement, monitoring each subtle motion.
“And after you’ve killed me? What then? Or haven’t you thought it out that far?”
Jace leaned his head to the side, his words taking on more of an edge.
“Walk through one of those dragon mouths. Get to Sindell. Find their Communion Vault and warn Veil’driel to recall the Helix Legions.”
Artemus raised his eyebrows, impressed.
“Really? Wow, look at you. Doing the whole Prodigal Son thing.”
Jace sighed, annoyed.
“What the hell is the Prodigal—“
“But ...” Artemus cut him off, then he wrinkled his forehead and glanced away. “But …” Now he held up a finger. “I’m confused.”
“About what?” Jace asked, reluctantly.
“Well … when will you find the time to walk on water?”
Jace charged in like a wild animal, his short swords reflecting the shadow blossoms, glistening with their amethyst glow.
Artemus exploded into motion, drawing his weapons with startling speed to fend off Jace’s strikes and keep the younger man at bay. He was on his heels, but the retreat was deceptive; he maintained perfect balance with each backward step, his movements always light and limber, his strength ready to twist and flow with the battle. At any moment, Jace expected to kill the man, but Artemus was always waiting to counterstrike.
What ensued was a masterful ballet of grace in motion, danced to a symphony of steel, heard from the farthest reaches of the Tunnels of Armageddon. Two Outriders, separated by a generation, mirrored in style and destiny.
But the tables inevitably turned.
Artemus became the aggressor, stunning Jace into frenzied parries, jumping back as the attacks came ever closer.
“Can’t just wing it like that, kid,” Artemus called out, unleashing a feint followed by a swift slash that almost cost Jace his footing. “Be calm.” He struck again, hard, and Jace grimaced, the impact sending a pain corkscrewing down his arm. “Calculated.”
Jace didn’t speak, focusing only on his very real desire to stay alive. Focus that paid lifesaving dividends when Artemus had his momentum play out and carry him too far forward. A mistake he realized only too late, when Jace shifted his weight to the side and cracked him in the mouth with his elbow.
It was the same move Cedwyn used to knock Jace down into the tunnels.
Artemus backed away, but Jace could not take advantage. He had not expected such a violent exchange. In all the years of endless training sessions and relentless sparring matches, no one had ever come close to matching his skill in short sword combat. Not even Constable Thean could contend with him in the end. But now Jace was forced to recover, to concentrate on regaining the breath he’d been holding.
Artemus brought the back of his hand to his lower lip, glanced at the blood there.
“Ow,” he said simply, smiling as he looked back up. “Nice move. Though in my defense, I’m more than twice your age.” He winked. “So I’ll give myself a pass on that one.”
“Yeah,” Jace said, catching his breath. “Probably wouldn’t have been so noble if I knew you had this much left.”
Artemus laughed a little.
“Yes, well, I figured on recognizing the tactics of your instructor. But you don’t fight like Fenlow. Or even Donovan Kerrick.”
“They weren’t my primary instructors.”
“And if I had known that, I probably would’ve just shot you in the face.”
Without another word, Jace stepped forward, slowly at first before speeding into a charge, chopping, thrusting and slashing. This barrage, however, was different, as he had taken Artemus’ pseudo-advice to heart, thinking about moves before making them.
All the while, Artemus kept his feet moving, perpetually one step ahead. Even when Jace would suddenly reverse his angle, or cunningly change his momentum mid-strike, he fended off everything to answer with blows of his own.
Artemus knew he was better. In fact, it wasn’t even close.
Finally, Jace stumbled back, tripping and crashing to the ground.
And even then, Artemus was right there, hovering over top of him.
“Aren’t you even the slightest bit curious as to why I waited for you?”
Jace staggered to his feet, nodding ever so slightly, looking down to the ground.
“Yeah,” he said weakly, his voice resigned and strained. His arms hung loose like his weapons were anvils, not short-swords. “I was wondering why—” Then he sprung into motion, shedding his defeated act and whirling around, working his blades in blistering harmony, sending Artemus backpedaling.
Artemus’ confident smile was gone, replaced by something more dangerous: Anger. Intense anger at what was little more than a trick and cheap shot. He thrust both of his blades forward, fanning them out with a twist.
Jace stood motionless, perilously vulnerable, stunned. He had no idea how his powerful drive had been stopped, only heard the crystal clear ring of his blades clashing. It happened so fast he didn’t even have time to curse before crossing his swords overhead, barely blocking an attack that buckled his knees. Then, by some miracle, he managed a backward roll, dodging Artemus’ slash and springing back to his feet.
Everything Jace did from there was instinctual, by the seat of his pants. It was a tactic he often resorted to when riding the gauntlet, acting without thinking. Usually, that was right before he was struck down; which was unfortunate, because for the first time, he knew, Artemus was trying to kill him.
Jace crashed back against the jagged cavern wall, and it forced the air from his lungs even as he dodged to the side. Artemus’ blades missed the mark twice, each time in lightning-quick succession, sparking against solid rock as Jace escaped death by mere inches. The legendary Outrider took only a second to change his grip on the hilts, but Jace was able to take advantage of the miniscule pause with one final, desperate effort.
Pressing his back hard against the wall behind him, and letting go of his swords, Jace jumped into a mid-air sitting position, landing a dropkick to Artemus’ chest. The older man stumbled back, dropping his weapons to the floor with an ear shattering clang. It was success, however, that came at a price when Jace landed awkwardly on his backside, weapons out of reach, with a green flare sparking to life above him.
Artemus had conjured one of the comet attacks, and the emerald orb lent an acrid smell to the subterranean air, disrupting the sweet aroma of the shadow blossoms the way cigarettes might clash with perfume.
Without conscious thought, Jace dove forward, gripping Artemus’ ankles with all of his strength. His eyes shut tight against the prospect of being blasted to cinders, but then, just like that night in Westwood, nothing happened.
Artemus was calming, the rage in his eyes dimming, and he looked at the Outrider with something like awe. The crackling energy in his hand disappeared, leaving only the reagents he used to summon it, and a clover-colored afterimage behind.
Jace, consumed with the sudden rush of still being alive, leapt to his feet in an instant, swiping the reagents right out of Artemus’ still-open palm.
“Yeah!” he yelled victoriously, following with somersault to open space between them. He took out the jadeite necklace and pulled it up over his head, then held it up like a talisman. Awaiting an energy orb to materialize, he punctuated what he thought would be the end of Artemus Ward with: “Well, how about this!”
But the reagents Jace threw at Artemus remained just that; plant life falling harmlessly towards the ground. Light on the air, their time of descent drew out, and intensified, the pathetic anticlimax.
Artemus sighed, disregarding the entire display.
“When I used that on you in Westwood, I meant to imprison you in Mirror Lake. This time I would have killed you. So that’s twice now you’ve managed to evade that specific attack. Twice more than anyone else I’ve known or even heard about.” He was still breathing hard. “Call me crazy, but I doubt that’s coincidence.” He narrowed his eyes, rubbing the peppered growth on his chin. “At least I didn’t wait here for nothing.”
Jace cleared his throat, dusting himself off for some reason.
“I’ll definitely call you crazy,” he said. “But not because of that.”
Artemus went on as if Jace hadn’t spoken at all.
“Jadeite,” he said, more to himself. “Makes sense that it would be the stone named for her.” Then he came back to the present, staring at Jace again. “How did you know that?” he asked. “That if you were touching me, the energy would destroy us both?”
Jace raised his eyebrows, interested in the reaction to follow.
“Would you believe that a young Ailmar Duchenne told me?”
To reach into his leather bag of reagents, Artemus had sheathed one of his short swords. Now he sheathed the other.
“Yes,” he said, starting towards the serpent caves. “Unfortunately, I would.”
Jace glanced around for a moment, slowly taking everything in.
“So for some reason, you wait around for me,” he said, wondering at the glowing flowers. But his eyes were back on Artemus as he finished. “Then you try to kill me before telling me what it is?”
“Temper got the best of me,” he explained. “Though I doubt it’s in my power to actually take your life.”
Jace made a disapproving clicking noise with his tongue.
“Never act on emotion,” Jace recounted, like an instructor berating his student. “They’re blinders on logic and reason.”
“Ah,” Artemus said, sitting on a ledge near the center serpent grotto. The shadow blossoms, now closer to him, cast a deeper shade of violet across his features, and he groaned like a man taking a load off after a hard day’s work. “Policy and Procedure Manual. Section eight, page four. Code nine.” He crossed his arms. “I wrote it, I think.”
“Mm,” Jace mused.
“The greats have always ignored that one, anyway,” said Artemus, a quirk creasing a line in his forehead. “As you yourself proved on the edge of Westwood Forest.”
Jace tensed; a resurgence of unchecked anger in his tone.
“It had nothing to do with ignoring procedure. Nothing to do with greatness or being a hero. I told you. I acted on a chance to stop death and destruction.”
“Ah, but a heroic act it was nonetheless, proven beyond all measure by the fame and adoration it’s brought you. After all, what justifies foolish gambles if not the excited whispers of adolescent girls?” Artemus paused for a moment, then tilted his head to the side. “Small matter that critical intelligence would have been lost if you were killed. General Creed would have remained in the dark, and you would have paid the price you fear most, even if you weren’t alive to see it. Once you actually used the Horn of Cambria, had you died again, that’d been all she wrote for you.”
It was a notion Jace had considered many times.
“I thought Relic had gone back to the camp, to report back like we agreed. I assumed he had made it back and—“
Artemus rolled his eyes.
“You thought. You assumed.”
“Who cares?” Jace snapped back defiantly. “The army I saw was just an illusion. Your only real objection is that I ruined your plans. That, ultimately, my actions led to the truth.”
“Oh no no no, son,” he said, genuinely amused. “You’re a long way from the truth. All you ruined is Veil’driel. And the only thing your actions will lead to is the destruction you hoped to prevent.”
“We’ll see,” Jace whispered, suddenly not so sure.
“Indeed. But that’s all beside the point. It isn’t the price I was talking about.” He waited for Jace to look up from his boots. “The comet attacks were real enough, weren’t they? Had you died, who would have been sent in your stead to discover their source?” Jace knew where Artemus was going even before he opened his mouth again, frozen and unprepared for the tweak that shot to his heart. Maybe it was the pain of their goodbye still fresh in his mind, but whatever the reason, the thought of Isabelle weakened him. Artemus saw the change. “Yes, you know all about risk,” he went on, shifting around on the ledge. “Blinders on logic and reason — that pales in comparison to the other inconvenient edict you ignore.”
A pins-and-needles sensation spread into Jace’s hands, and he flexed them to fists. Some of the color drained from his face and he felt lightheaded. It was like the weight of his emotions ailed him physically in this place as well, and he wavered against it.
“Relax, kid,” Artemus said. His tone was comforting, and no one could have said insincere. “Veil’driel has just learned all of Ciridian is under attack. Do you really think your relationship, even if they knew, would be at the top of their priority list?” Artemus waited for some tension to ease from Jace’s shoulders. Waited for the affliction he understood better than anyone to alleviate. “That is to say, nothing would happen to you. The darling of Veil’driel. But, well … Isabelle’s another story, isn’t she? It is, after all, a security risk. If you want, I can cite the code verbatim like you did. It’d be a really cool zinger, right? ” Jace went on staring into nothing, and the legend’s lips curved into a razor-thin smile. “The girl wouldn’t be officially demoted, mind you, but certainly off the point team. And yeah, it would be a highly publicized affair. That old windbag, Bren, would see to that.” Artemus sighed as if some barely relevant afterthought had just occurred to him. “She’s one of only … how many female Outriders in history? 10?”
“You know it’s 8.”
“Yeah I do. And they have a name for them, as I recall.”
“The Fallen Angels,” Jace said, in a trance. Then he blinked and looked up.
Artemus nodded, feeling his point across.
“Forbidden love is only romantic in fairy tales. Only sexy when it involves someone else.” Stretching, he straightened his legs, crossing them at the ankles as he had in the Communion Vault. “For what it’s worth, though, it isn’t your fault. The two of you share the same soul, I’ve seen it. But again, that’s beside the point.” Artemus leaned slightly forward, letting the statement linger. “Isn’t it?”
For a long while Jace said nothing, but then he smiled, surprising even Artemus.
“You’re trying to get in my head.”
Artemus grinned right back.
“Trying? Jace, I’ve been there since the moment you and Cedwyn walked through my door. We’re connected, you and I, all of us are. I’m sure you know by now, it’s the reason you heard Fenlow that night in Westwood Forest. Saw Kerrick who told you to use the horn. It’s how Cedwyn and Isabelle saved you from Mirror Lake, it’s why what Relic did in the wagon was ...” Artemus stopped, sighed, and cleared his throat. “Listen, I can hear and see all of them too. Especially Gabriel. Unfortunately, the connection has diminished over the years.” He laughed. “Most of what I hear now are thoughts they had years ago.” Artemus stood up, walking ever-so-slowly towards Jace, staying in darkness as if the shadows moved with him. “It’s how I know you want me to make sense of all the visions you’ve been having, as you incorrectly call them. How you wanna know all about Arkhelan, and about Bryce Valley — the catalyst that led me to this.” He was rounding the young Outrider now, just as he had in he beginning, and Jace didn’t even make an attempt to watch when Artemus passed behind him. “You wanna know how looking into the eyes of one of the world’s simplest creatures can grant the vision to see through illusion.”
“You forgot the most important one, actually.”
“What’s the deal with all the pineapples in Sandia? They’re everywhere, it’s weird.”
Artemus roared with laughter, and the sound of it echoed around them.
“I can see why everyone likes you, Dabriel, you know that?”
But Jace’s expression remained blank as stone. The laughter, even in response to his joke, seemed to mock him. There was no bravado left in his demeanor. His tone wasn’t phony or brash.
Jace didn’t care about Artemus’ abilities.
He just wanted to know the truth.
“How did you become the commander of the golden riders?” he asked seriously. adding this mystery to the list.
“If you follow me into Sindell,” Artemus said, “I promise you’ll find out. I promise all of your questions and more will be answered.” He stopped, centering himself in front of Jace after circling a couple of times. “But Dabriel, I promise you also ... it will certainly mean your death.”
“No. I’m not. And stop pretending you think so.” Once more he went back to the ledge, shaking his head before taking a seat. “Go back to Veil’driel with Relic and Isabelle, back through the Gap of Ezru, to a place where things make sense. Forget the provinces. The Tri-State is rising again. And it’s mine. So just ... take my advice and save yourself from these visions. Get away from the intrigue and drama, the conspiracies and the dread.”
Quiet followed, and for a moment, Artemus thought he may have gotten through. But then Jace crossed his arms, and the cockiness returned.
“You’d like that, wouldn’t you? If I turned around and walked back through that horror show?”
“Nothing you saw out there was real,” Artemus said seriously, calming. “I mean, whatever that all along the watchtower Due Timer kid showed you probably was, but nothing in the here and now.”
Jace raised his eyebrows, searching the floor until he found what he sought.
“Looks real enough to me,” he said, picking up one of the coins. He flicked it over to Artemus who, despite the considerable distance, caught it with little effort.
He turned it over in his hand, exactly as Jace had done during his conversation with Hobson. Or not-Hobson as it were.
“Down here, in these tunnels, things are only as real as you make them,” he said, and flipping the coin straight up, it vanished in a rainbow glint. “Have you ever swore you heard someone calling your name, only to turn and find nobody there? Ever become paranoid for no reason, or feel like you’re being watched? That’s what this place is. That’s the Tunnels of Armageddon. It’s the energy living around us.” Astonished, Jace’s mouth dropped open, and he continued to stare upward as if waiting for the currency to return. “Places like Westwood Forest, Sandia, and Mirror Lake have one a foot on each side of the Veil. But down here, you’re taking steps into an existence beyond space and time. Beyond primitive, three-dimensional terms. A world where there is no distinction between spirit and flesh. You saw Hobson because of some detail you once regretted. Wishing you had coins for his eyes or something that night on the Fairlawn Thoroughfare?”
Jace lowered his gaze.
“Like you. Using my thoughts against me,” he said.
“Yes, precisely. It’s exactly the same. One day you’ll have that ability as well.” Jace ran a hand back through his hair, expecting Artemus to go on. And he did. “Regret and fear are thieves in the night meant to steal away unguarded souls. For here, in this place, emotion is tangible.” Artemus glanced around as if he could see something Jace could not. “The excavation of these tunnels produced every precious stone known to man. The creation of a primordial civilization and power, before the breaking of heaven and earth.” Jace appeared to be drifting, and Artemus tried to simplify things. “It’s like the difference between time and a clock, you see. Time gives the clock its purpose, and while it might be wrong or destroyed, time goes on nonetheless.” He sighed, preparing to try again. “It’s like—”
Whatever the reason Jace was distracted, it wasn’t what Artemus thought.
“Yeah, I understand what you’re saying,” he said, annoyed and surprised by the attempts at explanation. “I thought you could read my mind.”
Artemus nodded and there was affection there. But there was also a rising approval, perhaps a new level of respect.
“It’s the power of a civilization lost too long to myth and legend. The grace and glory of a heavenly sovereignty known as the Sun Kingdom.”
This, Jace immediately recognized. It was in the book on the library table. It was on the pages he gave to Relic, and on the sails of the invading armada.
“It was a paradise where people lived in happiness and peace. Death was unknown; sickness likewise. Supernatural forces were commonplace and every word was magic. All of mankind spoke with the gods, and the universes were open and connected. Spirits, animals, and people were united. Today, what is possible only for wizards, through spiritual concentration and paranormal power, was a general condition of life.”
Jace did not reply. He bowed his head down to the side, massaging the bridge of his nose, trying to fend off the beginnings of a throbbing headache. But it was that word, wizard, that caught his attention.
“Only the ignorant use that word. Isn't that what you said?” Jace smirked. “You’re not ignorant … are you, old man?”
Artemus grunted, almost sheepishly. Earlier, Jace had underestimated him, now he had apparently returned the favor.
“I thought you might be more comfortable with the term,” he said. “But I see you’ve already moved beyond it. You’re right, of course. They’re not wizards.”
“Then what?” Jace asked.
Artemus took a deep breath and crossed his arms, wondering where to begin.
“Through some mysterious, primordial misdeed; some cosmic catastrophe, the Sun Kingdom fell into ruin, its fracture giving birth to division, echoing through eternity in every instance since. Only a few maintained their original wisdom and supernatural gifts. And for this, they were branded as outcasts, and with the pejorative term of wizard. Over time, even this group split into factions: Luna Scarlet Monks and Overshadows. But the purest of these, to the more enlightened among us, are known as Tears. Tears shed for utopia lost.”