by Dan Hiestand
The Goat and the Singing Wolf
The Goat and the Singing Wolf
“The end is beginning.”
Artemus cleared his throat and rubbed his forearm.
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 reached back, sheathing his blades simultaneously.
“What are you trying to do, Art, metaphor me to death?” He started again towards his pack. “Evil has to be confronted. I won’t stand by and do nothing.”
“Your notion of evil, like good, is entirely subjective.”
Jace shrugged, no longer paying much attention.
“Pretty sure that’s the excuse of every tyrant throughout history, but whatever.”
Pack in hand, he took to gathering his scattered possessions.
“Listen to me!” Artemus yelled, standing up, suddenly urgent.
Jace didn’t respond, but he stopped what he was doing.
“What do you think’s happening here? You think I waited around just to sum things up for you? This isn’t me mustache-twirling. I’m not some villain revealing the details of some devious masterplan. 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.”
“And you’ve already exhausted mine. Because of you, Veil’driel will fall. The latest victim to your scheming, and that madman you serve.”
“First of all, Sindell assassin, Veil'driel adopted you, and not for the reasons you think. You'll have to square with that someday, but for now, let's just leave it at the fact that my lineage goes back to the founding. If not for the Ward, Calloway, and Talabray bloodlines, Veil'driel would still be an unscrupulous empire. The Republic of Veil'driel is in my blood, boy. So don't presume to blame me for where she finds herself. I spent years," he paused to emphasize the point. "Years, devising a plan that could save her." He paused, but drifted a little this time. "As much as she can be saved."
Jace narrowed his eyes.
"You sure you’re still talking about Veil'driel here?"
Artemus huffed out a breath and refocused.
"Thinking there was a large enemy host at their doorstep would have had Creed second-guessing himself and playing shadow games until all this was over," he continued in a tone that was much more controlled. "And what I said last night was true. Valith and his brother were morons. Trying to ingratiate themselves to Arkhelan, they devised their whole ... circus time loop stunt, and in so doing, meddled with forces they couldn't possibly comprehend, let alone control. Forces that will not permit being tampered with, which explains how that horn fell into your hands, and Relic, with Jaden's help, was able to put you in the position to use it, letting Kerrick through. Right place, right time sort of thing, except on a cosmic level, understand?" Artemus smiled. "No ... of course you don't."
Perhaps it was that air of smug entitlement returning to Ward's demeanor that triggered him, but Jace stepped forward — threateningly — for the first time since they fought.
"We stood against Valith in Sandia! We helped save Jaden, and that counts for nothing with you?"
"She was only in that sand flea pit of a town because of you. All you had to do was report what you saw of that army — which was an incredibly difficult illusion to pull off, by the way -— back to Creed and Thean. Coming from you, they would have bought it, and you could still be oblivious, doing that stupid stunt ride display you do for your troops, with the nation you claim to love, safe."
“Safe? And what about that armada out there!”
Artemus remained calm, but if he felt even the slightest twinge of guilt or sorrow, it didn’t show. It could have been because he had a sense that this argument would 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!”
“Well ... all of them in a manner of speaking. As many as it takes to restore the rightful state of things. Your concept of death, what you think you know, is a lie. You wanna talk about tyrants? Every tyrant starts from the fear of death, whether their pleasure is to starve you into servitude or make you kneel in worship. And without death, every tyrant will lose their power, just like that. 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. Death is humanity's only real enemy, Dabriel. All the rest, we make for ourselves.”
“And as long as I breathe, I’ll fight to stop you!”
“Oh, please. Spare me the melodrama, alright? It embarrasses us both. The winds of change are shifting, sweeping aside the ruins of an Age of Ignorance, and I’m helping to restore what needs to be. Out of this chaos, a sublime peace will rise from the ashes.” The man appeared suddenly regal, something innate he had suppressed as part of his stagecraft. Then he leaned a little closer. “The end is beginning.”
Something profound, a twinge of belief Jace did not expect, shown in his stormy eyes.
"That isn't ... none of that can be true."
Artemus could sense the change, 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 may not have known the Overshadows' origins before now, but you were a member of the Adamant Gaze. You were being groomed to lead it by your father."
"So then I'm betting you know their language."
Jace sighed, shook his head, and threw up his hands.
"A little. What's your point?"
"My point is that veil'driel is an Overshadow word. And directly translated means—"
"A veil lifted," Jace said.
Artemus nodded, slightly spreading his arms.
"Which is the literal translation of apocalypse. It's a self-fulfilling prophecy, you must see it. My attempts to keep Veil'driel —ground zero for that apocalypse -— out of this ... to keep Jaden out of it? It was never a possibility, I understand that now. History is a weapon forged to destroy the truth. And history is already written, it repeats itself over and over again. It's no different than Valith's time loop over Westwood and needs to be broken just the same. The truth needs to have its day, and it will."
Jace never moved a muscle, just stared down into the dusty ground.
"History doesn't ... nothing needs to be broke—"
“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.”
“As a great soldier, maybe. For my feats during the Looking Glass War, 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 Veil’driel out from nothing. Sacrificed everything so that a nation 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. And 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 one of those ... visions I had …” he said. “Not the one from right before you found me, I mean the one last night ... I saw you with your point team. All of you were young. So ... some part of you has to regret what you’re doing. Some part of you knows this is wrong.”
“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.”
“If the rumors about Aleister Duchenne are even half true,” 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 will blend the sacred time with the present. End the division that made it so easy to conquer Ciridian. 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 me simply 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. Yes ... that feverlew. The herbal amphetamine you were hopelessly addicted to before that last time skip you caused by blowing that horn. You see, for someone like you, it takes away inhibitions, enhances focus, gives limitless energy and makes everything interesting. I know. Because when I was your age I used it for that very same purpose. But now I need it just 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 didn’t say a word, he 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.
“There’s a reason, even 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 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. It's like I said, Jace, everything I've done has brought about what I meant to prevent. As you did in Westwood by destroying that cart of reagents. As you're doing now. We cannot change the course of history, Jace. No matter how hard we wish to or try."
"Khayn Ahara changed it," Jace said. In his mind, he had mustered some defiance to go with the words, but none of it manifested in his tone.
"Remember that legend now, do we?"
"I do. I remember Khayn Ahara had help. His friend, Raven Lale. Our most famous Lord of Assassins. They stopped Arkhelan. And so then they must have also stopped this plague you’re talking about. It can be done."
Artemus clapped, very slowly and very softly. Then he dropped his arms and his expression went blank.
"Bravo. But there's a lot more to that story than what your grandfather or Donovan Kerrick might have told you. And if you knew it, you'd understand that at best they only delayed it a little. Our present is living proof, is it not? Again, I beg you. 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.
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. “In a very real sense, I owe him everything. Hazel was lost in Mirror Lake when she was just a girl. She had been sent there ... sent there by Jaden ...” Artemus hesitated, then cleared his throat. “Her mother to keep an eye on that highwayman piece of garbage, Tyrus Minch. In the process, she was trapped there, and would have been for eternity if not for Cedwyn Knight. He gave her a key that she could use to escape, to remembering her identity, and he didn't have to do that. That's not why he was there.”
“I was the reason he was there,” Jace said, recalling that part of his vision, understanding. "I have a feeling there's more to that story, too."
Artemus took a deep breath.
“There is. But right now, I want you to know that it was never my intention for any of you to be involved this way. Much of what I said in the Communion Vault was the truth."
“None of it was the truth.” Jace gritted his teeth, but there was no anger left in him. “We were just your pawns.”
“We’re all pawns, kid. All this ... everything we do, everything we are is just a show. We live life in its current form as nothing more than a series of Acts, and this world is just a stage. All the worlds; a stage. It’s only through sleight of hand and twist of fate that we’re here at all.” Jace didn’t even question how Artemus knew about Cedwyn’s death. He didn’t question how he knew seemingly everything. He didn’t care, and Artemus was moving on anyway. “That you are in possession of that golden sapphire means that you found my record book. And in it, there may be secrets that will help Veil’driel. But nothing, Jace ... nothing 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 Westwood. 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. Relic won't be there for a last second rescue. Cedwyn and Isabelle won't be there to free you from Mirror Lake. You’ll know you face certain death. And that, son, takes a different kind of courage.”
Jace looked on in fascination, waiting for Artemus to vanish.
“I have it,” he said.
Artemus frowned. He took Jace’s words for what they were.
“There's another book you might have found in the library if you’d had the time to look,” the legend said, tone lightening a bit as he stopped. "I used to read it to Hazel when she was just a little girl. No older than 7 or 8.” Artemus found a sigh rising unbidden from his throat. “I’d brought it back with me from my first trip to the other side of the veil. Not the Limbo, places-in-between, but the literal other side. The New York City side. The William Shakespeare side. The you couldn't possibly know what I'm talking about side."
Confusion twisted Jace’s expression.
“What are you talking about?” he asked, harsher than he meant to.
"It was about this goat,” Artemus went on, ignoring Jace. “This young goat is walking across a field, when suddenly, a hungry wolf jumps out of the bushes. The goat runs for its life, but the wolf quickly catches it. The wolf opens its jowls to eat the goat, but before it can, the goat asks for a favor.”
Artemus closed his eyes, and Jace could see the strain on his face as he thought.
“What was the favor?” Jace asked.
He couldn’t help it.
Artemus opened his eyes, but he was staring at nothing.
“The goat wants to hear music one more time in its life, so it asks the wolf to sing it a song.”
Jace leaned against the cavern wall he was standing near with a ghost of a smile on his face.
“Does the wolf do it?” he asked.
Now Artemus looked up and held the younger man’s gaze, a smoldering certainty kindling in those dark eyes.
“Yeah. After all, why not, right? I can still eat the goat after I sing it a song, the wolf thinks.” Not for the first time, Jace sensed a barely restrained energy in him, only half-disguised at best. “So the wolf begins to howl out a song for the goat, and its voice is loud and strong. But a pack of dogs lives on a nearby farm, and the wolf’s howls bring them running. And that pack of dogs chases off the wolf.” There was silence, and then Artemus let out a small sigh. “The wolf learns a hard lesson.”
"Don't become distracted when a goal's within reach," Jace said.
Coming back from his musing, Artemus tapped his temple with a forefinger.
"I’ll give you one last piece of advice. Don’t follow me into this one.” Artemus motioned to the serpent-cave in the center, the one with emerald eyes. “All three of these passages lead to Sindell, but this one goes straight to my stronghold in Lehdar, and that’s a place you don’t wanna be. I’m through playing savior. I'm through swimming against the tide, and I won’t be distracted again. 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, back in Westwood, staring at the golden rider he now knew to be Artemus Ward. It nodded at him, conceding, the mannerisms identical.
Blinders on logic and reason, kid.
Then Jace was back in the enclave, alone.
You have always had the mind of a cutthroat, Dorsey, but never the heart of one.
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.
Get out of Mirror Lake and don’t look back.
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 ...
If you don’t go now, you might never leave.
... 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.
Jace’s heart hammered, and yet, he felt calm.
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 who was described back home as the brightest star on a grim horizon, a ray of sun burning through the darkest night, and The Champion of Veil’driel, treaded into a mouth past stone fangs.
“Not if I see you first,” he whispered.
And in a sparkling blaze, he was gone.