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Rated: E · Chapter · Action/Adventure · #2190605
The Emperor of Ice-Cream
CHAPTER TWENTY-TWO

The Emperor of Ice-Cream


“?????????”

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Divider (2)

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 wasalready doomed.”

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: rare flowers glowing violet in the dark.

But Jace saw only the man in front of him.

“You’re Artemus Ward,” 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?”

Jace was motionless but his eyes were sharp, watching Artemus move, monitoring each subtle motion.

“I know.”

Artemus stopped.

“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. Stop the force field from being lowered around Sindell. Find their Communion Vault and warn Veil’driel to recall the legions.”

Artemus raised his eyebrows, impressed.

“Really?” he wrinkled his forehead and glanced away. “But …” Now he held up a finger. “I’m confused.”

Jace sighed, annoyed.

“About what?” he asked, reluctantly.

Artemus shrugged.

“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 did not 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 am 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.”

“Constable Thean wasn’t my primary instructor.”

Artemus nodded.

“If I had known that, I probably would have just drawn my crossbows.”

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 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 bright blue flare sparking to life above him.

Artemus had conjured one of the comet attacks, and the sapphire 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 Fairlawn, 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 sky-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 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 drawn out to intensify the pathetic anticlimax.

Artemus sighed, disregarding the entire display.

“That’s the second time you’ve found a way to evade that attack. Twice more than anyone I’ve known or 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 Duchyene 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?”

Artemus stopped.

“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 emotions,” 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.”

“Hm,” Jace mused.

“The greats have always ignored that one, anyway,” said Artemus, a quirk creasing a line in his forehead. “As you yourselfproved on the edge of Fairlawn Woods.”

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.”

“And a heroic act it was, 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.”

It was a notion Jace had considered many times.

“Who cares?” he said defiantly. “The army was an illusion. Your only real objection is that I ruined your plans. That, ultimately, my actions led to the truth.”

Artemus chuckled.

“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 cost 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 said, shifting around on the ledge. “Blinders to 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. He wavered against it.

“Relax, kid,” Artemus said. His tone was comforting, and no one could have said insincere. “The Republic has learned the entire continent is under attack. Do you 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 … she’s another story. It is, after all, a security risk.” Jace went on staring into nothing, and the legend’s lips curved into a razor thin smile. “The girl wouldn’t beofficially 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 just occurred to him. “She’s one of only … howmany female Outriders? Ten?”

“Eight.”

“Ah, yes. 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, Jace. 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, 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.

“No, I’m already there. 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. I can hear him too, you see. And 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 tell you about Bryce Valley. The catalyst that led me to this.” He was rounding the young Outrider now, 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.”

There was no bravado left in Jace’s demeanor. His tone wasn’t phony or brash. He didn’t seem to care about Artemus’ abilities; he just wanted to know the truth.

“How did you become the commander of the golden riders?” he added 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, centered in front of Jace after circling a couple of times. “But Jace, I promise you also, it will certainly mean your death.”

“You’re lying.”

“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 the cities with Relic and Isabelle, to a place where things make sense. Save yourself from the visions. Get away from the intrigue and drama, the conspiracies and dread.”

Quiet followed, and for a moment, Artemus thought he got 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.

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 Calloway.

“Down here, things are as real as you make them,” he said, and flipping the coin straight up, it vanished in a rainbow glint. “Whenever you hear someone call your name, only to turn and find nobody there. When you’re paranoid for no reason, or feel like you’re being watched. 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. “You’re taking steps into an existence beyond space and time. A world where there is no distinction between spirit and flesh. You saw Calloway because of some detail you once regretted. Wishing you had the coins for him that night on the Fairlawn Thoroughfare.”

Jace lowered his gaze.

“Like you. Using my thoughts against me,” he said.

“Yes, precisely. Exactly the same. One day you’ll have the ability as well.”

Jace ran a hand back through his hair, expecting Artemus to go on. He did.

“Regret and fear are thieves in the night meant to steal 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.

Artemus cleared his throat and rubbed his forearm.

“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. For this, they were branded as magicians, witches and sorcerers. Wizards. To the more enlightened, they’re known as Tears. Tears shed for utopia lost.”

Jace walked back to his short swords and picked them up, arming sweat from his brow with the action.

Artemus watched intently.

“You’re beginning to see now, aren’t you, Jace? Beginning to sense the inescapable web you’re entangled in. How far you’re in over your head.”

Jace secured the weapons back to his belt, sheathing them simultaneously.

“Geez, Art, what are you trying to do?” he asked. “Metaphor me to death?” He started again towards his pack. “Evil has to be confronted. I won’t stand by and do nothing.”

“The notion of evil, like good, is entirely subjective.”

Jace was no longer paying much attention.

Pack in hand; he took to gathering his scattered possessions.

“Listen to me!” Artemus yelled, standing up, suddenly urgent.

Jace did not respond, but stopped what he was doing.

“What do you think is happening here? You think I waited to sum things up for you? This is not the time for mustache twirling. I’m not some villain here to divulge the details of a grand and devious scheme. Wake up! I’m pleading for your life!”

“You’re trying to destroy the world,” Jace said, rather calmly.

“Yes, as it is now!”

“I don’t care. I’m not interested in your motives or why you think what you’re doing is right. To me you’re just another megalomaniac, rambling about delusions of grandeur I neither understand nor care to.”

Artemus took a deep breath.

“You try my patience, boy.”

“And you’ve already exhausted mine. Because of you, Veil’driel will now fall. The latest victim to your scheming, and that madman you serve.”

“Do not presume to blame me for Veil’driel! I spent years,” he paused to emphasize the point. “Years devising a plan that could save it.” A pause, and he drifted a little. “As much as it can be saved.” Then he refocused. “Thinking there was a large enemy host at their doorstep would have had the Republic playing shadow games until this was over!”

Jace stepped forward, threateningly for the first time since they fought.

“And what about that armada out there!”

Artemus calmed, but if he felt even the slightest twinge of guilt or sorrow, it didn’t show. Perhaps it was a sense that this argument could serve no purpose, but he calmed and slid his hands into his pockets.

“A measure made necessary by your actions,” he said in a level tone. “I did what I could to ensure Veil’driel might exist in the world to come, but you forced Arkhelan’s hand by playing hero, and now I’ve played my part in this contingency plan as well. Now I mean to end this.”

“To bring suffering and death, you mean.”

“You assign morality to an utterly amoral circumstance.”

“There’s nothing amoral about genocide! How many people will die for your utopia!”

“As many as it takes to restore the rightful state of things. Your concept of death, what you think you know, is a lie. The truth of it, like the Sun Kingdom itself, is beautiful, simple, and profound. Each soul that departs its body is but a trailblazer to the paradise that will soon come to pass for us all.”

“And as long as I breathe, I’ll fight to stop you!”

“Oh, please. Spare me the garish light of your self-righteous halo. It embarrasses us both. The winds of change are shifting, sweeping aside the ruins of an Age of Ignorance. I am helping to restore what needs to be, and out of this chaos, a sublime peace will rise from the ashes.” The man appeared so suddenly regal, something innate he had suppressed as part of his stagecraft, and then he leaned a little closer to the Outrider. “The end is beginning.”

Something profound, a twinge of belief Jace did not expect, shown in his stormy eyes. Artemus sensed it as well, knowing that his words had landed in a way that required he say no more. After a long quiet passed between them, he changed the subject.

“You know, before I led those sky fire units in the assault on Fairlawn City, Senator Bren didn’t even know what an Outrider was. One of the highest-ranking members of your government needed to be reminded. Reminded of you.”

“The entire nation remembers you,” Jace said quickly, feeling as though he was watching himself in a dream. “No one needs to be reminded.”

Artemus never moved a muscle, just stared into the dusty floor.

“As a great soldier, maybe. For my feats, but not as an Outrider,” he said. It was hard to tell in the darkness, but Jace thought he saw the man wince. “All Outriders are descended from the point teams that carved this nation out from nothing. Sacrificed everything so Veil’driel might be born.” He was looking at Jace again, a wistful expression on his face. “And what is the Order now but another gear in the propaganda machine? Churning out daily lies to children and wide-eyed morons. All of its glory forgotten. So it is with the world as a whole.”

Jace could hardly believe the turn his thoughts had taken, or the roiling emotions swimming inside him. For a moment, he considered the possibility that Artemus was manipulating him again, as he had in the Communion Vault. But then again, somehow, he knew to dismiss the notion.

“In that vision I had…” he said. “I saw you with your point team. All of you were young. Some part of you has to regret what you’re doing. Some part of you knows this is wrong.”

Artemus smiled.

“Trying to save me now, Jace?”

Remarkably, in that moment, he wanted to.

“Maybe,” he admitted.

“I don’t know what you saw exactly, but I’m not that person anymore, and nothing you will experience, if you decide to follow me, will ever be as straightforward as it seems.”

“I know my cousin,” Jace said, still not giving up. “He’ll be First Consul someday. Politics will change in Veil’driel. You can help. Tell the truths that have been forgotten, covered up, or lost. Don’t do this, Artemus.”

When the legend took his hands from his pockets, crossing his arms in front of his chest, Jace knew a corner had been turned. He could almost see the walls go up again. Jace understood this, because he often did the same.

“I’m not doing this just for Veil’driel,” Artemus said. “The Sun Kingdom of Joran will blend the sacred time with the present. End the division that made it so easy to conquer this continent. Had there been even the slightest communication between nations we could have never hoped to succeed. We will bring eternal union and harmony back to existence, Jace, but to do that, the decay must be purged.”

Jace was fighting the urge to agree, fighting against the new thoughts and perspective he wanted to ignore. Fighting against knowledge he could not yet hope to control or understand.

“I’m following you into Sindell,” he said. “You can’t stop that. So tell me what you meant when you said it would mean my death. I know you weren’t talking about being killed.”

Artemus expected the question and was already rolling up his sleeves, revealing scars like smears of gray ash on both arms.

“Yesterday, in the dining hall, it wasn’t just Aleister’s summons that required I leave. It was my need for feverlew. I need it to function at all. All that I’ve told you about the physical and metaphysical converging has already come to pass. What began as a virus of the heavenly mind has spread to plague the earthly body.”

Jace said not a word, simply knew it was the truth.

“Here, in these caverns, where the body and mind merge as in time immemorial, ignorance has become corporeal, seeping in like poison into a spring. What I told you about humanity leaving its imprint on this magic was true. What I didn’t say is that it’s already happened. If you use this energy, you too will be infected as I am. As my daughter, Hazel, is. We are, both of us, already dead.”

Jace thought he had whispered your daughter? But in fact, he had said nothing at all.

“Didn’t you ever wonder why, with this power at her disposal, Jaden didn’t just transport herself to Veil’driel at any time? Why she needed to travel by convoy through Bryce Valley to reach Sindell? With the Sun Kingdom of Joran restored, we’ll live forever. My daughter will live forever.”

Isabelle came unbidden into Jace’s mind, the last memory of her touching him so palpable he could feel it. He could feel her soft breath against his neck. Her body rose in his arms as he kissed her lips.

“So I ask you one last time to turn back. Stop clinging to this world, and avoid a futility I’m guilty of myself.”

Jace forced himself to focus. To let the thoughts of Isabelle drift away.

“What do you mean?”

“It was my arrow that started your progression into this world,” Artemus said. “And in so doing, I brought about what I meant to prevent. As you did in Fairlawn by destroying that cart of reagents. We cannot change the course of history, Jace. No matter how hard we wish to or try. At best, we can only delay it a little. Turn back where I failed to, and allow me to end this war.”

Jace’s eyes drifted down to his belt, settling on the golden lighter.

“I can’t.”

Artemus sensed the thought.

“I’m sorry about Cedwyn,” he said, and the way his face softened when the name passed his lips suggested real regret. “It was never my intention for any of you to be involved this way.”

“No.” Jace took a deep breath, but there was no anger left in him. “We were just your pawns.”

“We’re all pawns, son. It’s only through sleight of hand and twist of fate we’re here at all.” Jace didn’t even question how Artemus knew about Cedwyn’s death. He didn’t care, and Artemus was moving on anyway. “That you are in possession of the only golden sapphire key in existence, besides my own, means you have found what I have searched decades for. Gabriel’s record book. And in it, there may be secrets that will help Veil’driel. But nothing, Jace, will be able to save you. Even if you survive, you’ll be killed.”

Artemus had begun drifting towards the central sea serpent cave, its pulsating emerald eyes giving the impression of watching him hungrily.

“So here you are again,” he said, backing further within. “On the edge of Fairlawn Woods. Trying to save a world with a rotten soul. Staring down on a danger you can’t understand, and ultimately, will never defeat. But this time, there will be no miraculous escapes. You’ll know you face certain death. And that, son … that takes a different kind of courage.”

Jace looked on in fascination, waiting for Artemus to vanish.

“I’ll give you one last piece of advice,” said the legend, tone lightening a bit as he stopped. “Don’t follow me into this one. All three of these passages lead to Sindell, but this one goes straight to my camp, and that’s a place you don’t wanna be. I’m through playing savior. If I see you again, you’re my enemy.”

“Then tell me which one to take,” Jace blurted.

“Weren't you listening?” he asked, backing off. “I told you. That was my last piece of advice.”

Artemus nodded ever so slightly, striking Jace’s vision with a familiar flare. It was another flashback, but this time, there was no air of disorientation, no overwhelmed sensation. He was back on the Fairlawn Thoroughfare, staring at the golden rider he now knew to be Artemus Ward. It nodded at him, conceding, the mannerisms identical.

Then he was back in the enclave, alone.

Jace took a moment to himself, reaching down for his waterskin that had somehow stayed attached, and drank deeply. Not knowing which cave to take had forced him to change his perspective. There was more to consider now.

Hooking the waterskin back to his belt, Jace gathered the last of his supplies off the ground, loading them into his pack and fastening the strap across his shoulder. He had come to a decision, walking back in the direction he came from, away from the serpent caves ...

... To retrieve his hat from where he spotted it in the blush of the shadow blossoms.

It had been crushed at the bottom of his pack, smashed and forgotten, and now Jace dusted it off, reforming its shape before wearing it for the first time in months. He turned back to the caves then, lighting one of Cedwyn’s cigarettes, holding it between his thumb and forefinger.

He debated between sapphires and rubies before his gray eyes centered on the serpent to the right, and without another thought, he walked on; a single breath away from a hopeless dream.

Then the outrider described back home as the brightest star on a grim horizon, a ray of sun burning through the darkest night; The Champion of Veil’driel, treaded into a mouth past stone fangs.

And in a sparkling blaze, he was gone.

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 Chapter One  (E)
The Champion of Veil’driel
#2190662 by Dan Hiestand
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