by Dan Hiestand
The Champion of Veil’driel
What Light Remains
Do not go gentle into that good night.
In the very first times there was no light in the world. Everything was in darkness, the lands could not be seen, and the animals could not be seen. […] This is the way they lived in the very earliest times, times that no one can understand now, times when magic words were made.
Shamans, Healers, and Medicine Men
The place where you made your stand never mattered. Only that you were there...and still on your feet.
The Champion of Veil’driel
“I’m still pretending not to know what you’re talking about.”
From atop a wooden ridge overlooking the Pendragon Coast, Jace could see Zarponda’s Hyperion Bay shimmering through a cover of fog that shifted like ragged wraiths beneath his gaze. Seen only in glimpses, it was a sight he knew would be beautiful—if only he could reach it. But that Jace, the one who could have made the journey, was lost even to him.
It seemed so close that he could have touched it. From the bottom of the slope, the port city was only a mile across the plain; but to look at Jace, the hillside may well have been a labyrinth of razor-wire. His face had not been shaven in months. His clothes were muddy and torn, his sweat-soaked skin deeply tanned. Even if he could have made those final steps, it would not be Jace Dabriel who would cross the threshold into that imagined city.
It hovered like a mirage at the edge of his watery vision for a moment or two: Clothed in chill darkness that was swept back and forth by the breath of the wind and the pull of the tide. After what felt like a moment, but could have been any length of time, the fog broke for the first occasion he could remember. A smile broke across his face which made him look like nothing so much as a faded, weathered statue on which the ages made their final play.
Just like such a statue, he collapsed. A few feet from flat ground ...
The groan of the gates froze Jace before he could even imagine standing. Those gates were massive and distant, yet the mechanisms so intricate and clever that what must have been a thousand tons of steel and stone slipped away as easily as the fog. It was something he knew Relic would appreciate, but his lips had frozen and would not permit him another smile.
Out of some semblance of pride, he forced himself to stand. He thought he had to do so, or else he might just be run over: The grinding of gears had been replaced by a frantic pounding of hooves. He raised his hand to shield his eyes, squinting through cold sunlight at the metallic form that raced toward him, bright sparks twirling across its armor. All he could do was wait.
Killed without a word?
Jace found his attention drawn to the sun, burning like a bright, joyless eye.
60/40 in favor.
The animal skidded to a stop. Its breath spurted beside him like steam from a forge.
“State your business, traveler.” Jace saw naught but blotchy shadows towering over him, painting the world with a different shade of cold. But the voice was crystal clear, and though he had not heard it before, he could not help but think it was familiar, somehow.
He almost didn’t answer; but some shift within the rider prompted him to go on.
“I’ve been wandering these god damned dustlands for ...” He swept his grimy hair back from his face with one hand. “Hell, I don’t even know.” His gaze flicked down and then back up: “My business, chief, is to survive.”
Jace’s vision cleared, and he knew with certainty the man before him was a golden rider. But this rider wore no helmet, and his weapons rested at his sides, undrawn. Jace’s appearance was enough to give even this sworn enemy pause ... he could hear it in the man’s voice now, just as sure as the sternness that had been there.
“You’re an Outrider of Veil.”
It was not even a question.
“The ...?” He squinted up again. “’fraid you have me at a loss.”
The golden rider nodded, then motioned to the ground.
“If you would ...” he said, waiting for the clank of Jace’s crossbows on the ground. Jace surrendered the weapons without hesitation.
“You confronted the old man in the tunnels, is that right? That’s how you got ...” His horse’s tail flicked as he concluded: “Here.”
“I’m still pretending not to know what you’re talking about. So: No.”
The rider nodded. “It’s a pleasure to finally meet you, Jace.”
The Outrider could only raise his eyebrows thoughtfully at the lack of malice.
“You’re pretty famous, you know,” the rider continued.
“I do,” he said, and without thinking, slapped at his neck—where a bluish insect met an untimely end with the sort of ugly squishing noise both of them could hear clearly. Jace rubbed his abused palm against his pants to no avail. “Wait. I mean—who?”
The rider chuckled.
“Champion of Veil’driel, hero of Fairlawn ... impressive, impressive stuff, Mr. Dabriel. Few men are ever thrust into such circumstances.” Looking Jace up and down, the man smiled for the first time. “Shall we really stand on ceremony?” Jace was silent. “Do me the honor ...?”
“Knock yourself out,” said Jace.
“The name’s Desmond. It’s an honor, Dabriel. Well played.”
Jace slapped his neck again as some compatriot of the blue beetle sought to avenge it.
“Not what you were—“ Splat! “—expecting?”
“Well, I don’t know. I mean, judging by your reputation, I would have expected to see you come charging over that ridge.” He gestured with an open palm toward the ridge at Jace’s back. “But, you know ...” He shrugged. “Tumbling’s kinda cool too, I guess.”
No sooner were his words on the air than Desmond drew his crossbow and fired, fast enough that if Jace could have thought anything, he would have thought of himself. As it was, he collapsed to the ground—pinned there by the weight of a memory fallen out of the sky.
“You see, Champion of Veil ...” The voice was distant and hard. “As you likely know, Sindell is a nation of airships.” He crossed his arms, crossbows still in hand. “What you may not know is that conventional transportation—roads, abandoned centuries ago—is still an echo here, or a mirage. Enough left over to mislead anyone who doesn’t know the countryside well.”
A new bolt materialized to replace the one he had fired. It was ready in an instant.
“Do they not teach land navigation courses to all you heroes and legends and such?”
“No, they do,” Jace said as he rose again. He brushed dead crabgrass from his knees.
“Then how do you explain this?”
“Well, there’s just one thing ...” Jace said in a drawl. “I was fucking your mom that day.”
Desmond laughed long and loud until the sound of it echoed back from Zarponda’s ancient walls. When at last he was finished, he nodded and refastened the crossbows to his belt. “There’s the hero,” he said approvingly. “Short swords too, hero.”
Jace slid the blades from their sheaths and flipped them, point-down, into the earth.
“You said you don’t know how long it’s been, eh? Three months almost to the day. Three months since you and the others decided destroying Lornda Manor would be a real heroic way to go out.” He snapped his fingers suddenly. “Three, like the number of outriders you thought would be coming home with you. You know—since Cedwyn got shot a shitload of times.”
“Got it,” said Jace evenly.
“Good. So, mind telling me what you did for food and water out here?”
“Wha—“ Jace grunted. “What does it matter?”
“It matters,” said Desmond.
The outrider sighed.
“What this land lacks in roads, it makes up for in streams and rivers.”
“Nearly all of which are saltwater.”
Jace withdrew a small, teardrop-shaped aquamarine from his pocket and tossed it up to the rider in the span of a blink. Desmond caught it, but the speed threw a shadow over his face even as a caravan of clouds began their slow march across the sun.
“Don’t do that again,” he warned.
“Converts saltwater to—“
“I know what it does,” said the rider. “But where did you get it?”
“Place out on the Veil coast, you might know it. Pretty nice before my boy blew it up.”
Darith nodded distractedly, jogging the stone from one palm to another as he looked at it.
“He’s the one you were talking about before ...” said Jace.
“The one who’s dead now?”
“Got it,” said Desmond, tossing the stone back. “And for food?”
“There’re these animals ...” he said. “Sorta like deer, except white.”
“Kalweit,” said Desmond. “Well, you must be quite the shot.”
“As good as they say?” the golden rider pressed.
“Nobody’s ever that good, brother,” said Jace.
They fell into a long silence, the lull opening a void filled only by wind and the lapping sea. Somewhere, far off, seagulls sounded their calls. “Sometimes I wish I were one of those birds, you know?” Desmond took a moment to stare toward the distant noises before suddenly digging into his saddlebags. “That sound stupid to you?”
“No,” Jace said. “I know exactly what you mean.”
Desmond withdrew the irons.
“Shouldn’t have said what I did about Cedwyn.”
“Yeah, well.” Jace locked the first ring around his left wrist. “I’m still glad that he blew up your shit.” He followed with the right, and when the deed was done, the enemies laughed together. “Good to finally meet you, too, Desmond.”
“Jace Dabriel,” Desmond proclaimed. “By the sacred authority of Illuminate Sir Artemus Ward, Paladin of the Holy Covenant, you are hereby made a prisoner of war with the protections and responsibilities thereof. Do you s—“ Desmond’s brow wrinkled as a hawk dove low, circling shady halos over them both. “Do you hereby submit to these terms?”
Jace squinted, his gaze leaving the hawk to return to Desmond’s earnest face.
“Wait,” the golden rider blurted. “Don’t answer that. Answer me something, first.”
His foe’s expression softened. “Was it worth it?”
Jace eyed him suspiciously for a long time—but then, unexpected even after all this, he saw something in the other man’s eyes that deemed the words sincere. He found himself wondering about all the other warriors whose faces were covered in the same way; whether they, too, had secrets and doubts that they always kept hidden.
He tried to respond. Stopped and looked up again.
His chains jangled like heavy wind chimes as he tried to shield his face from the sun. Now, and for the first time, it beat down hot on his face. “Tell you what,” said the Outrider with a smirk. “Let me think about it for a bit. It’s been sort of a long three months.”
Desmond was straightening in his saddle even as the smile left his lips.
“Jace Dabriel: Do you submit?”
The shackles jingled again as Jace scratched his forehead.
“You know,” he began, “when I said ‘shoot’ before, I meant it figuratively.”
Desmond’s expression was unchanged. Something shifted in Jace like a tide.
His voice was low when he declared: “I submit.”
Desmond bowed his head in a final respect between soldiers, and for an instant, Jace’s only hope was that he might die before the man and his comrades could torture him. They were not five steps from where they had begun when he first heard the jeers and taunts from the guards on the walls—and he knew that the end had just begun.
The Greywall swept onto the plain from two stretches of coast, wrapped around the face of Zarponda, and created a fortified niche around Hyperion Bay that had once been dotted with statues and tombs of the founding-kings—many of them now half-submerged. It was a glimpse into the bygone naval era, an ancient time when these ramparts had looked on upon the conflicts of legend instead of the vast, empty expanse of passing centuries.
What little there was now was steeped in the shadows of slow decay: On their approach, Jace saw the crooked body and outstretched arm of a monumental, half-submerged statue that had simply been left to decay as if the plains were further away than the ocean floor. Whatever grandeur its posture had one day evinced, now it was impossible to tell whether it was waving to the sky or saluting the earthworms. For it, the end had come and gone and come again.
And it was quite the same for Jace.
None of the riders or their Tear compatriots stood along the plain; their legions of illusion were more than enough. By the time the long shadows of the gates loomed over prisoner and captor, the iron jaws had been thrown wide to accept them. Although that vision was not a familiar one, it reminded Jace at last of the memory that had been at the edge of his thoughts all along: That painting he’d once seen outside the Lornda Manor library. It drifted to him like a dream, how similar they were—like statues sculpted by the hand of a single artist.
And then he was struck by something else—
The heel of a heavy boot crashing into his back.
His elbows and wrists crashed onto the courtyard, bound arms and knees protecting him just barely as he found himself eye-to-ankle with a pair of golden shin plates, each one polished to a high sheen. Arcing his head in a rush, he found a featureless female silhouette looking down at him against the glare of that damnable sun. An inch further and it might have been a corona of pristine light – for now, though, he saw only shadows.
That didn’t matter. He knew well who she was.
“Sorry about that, Jace,” said Hazel Lien, her voice oddly sincere. Her voice took on an edge as she went on: “My guards were instructed not to touch you—but I guess some of them just couldn’t resist.” When Jace glanced back, the first thing he saw was Desmond, disapproving scowl on his face. The second was the guard, a far younger man, who had kicked him.
“Not a problem,” Jace said, getting up. “I wasn’t expecting the warmest w—“
As Hazel stepped to the side, the full blast of the sun blinded Jace to what happened next. His vision melted into coruscating light as she landed a blow to the back of his head, dropping to a knee in the motion despite the heft of her armor. He sank toward unconsciousness, but was not quite there before a new, searing pain bloomed in his brain and he was yanked back sharply by the hair. He faced the woman through streaming eyes, her breath playing on his face.
“The old man warned you not to use the tunnels, didn’t he?” She released him and stood up, her body dissolving into sunlight far too bright for Jace to face now. Then she kicked him viciously in the stomach, driving him onto his back amidst the cheers of a gathering throng of dark wizards and bright riders. She made to kick him again, he thought, but held back when she saw him flinch. Perhaps that was enough—at least for now. “This time there was no parade waiting when you charged down that hill.”
Her disdain cut through the air, clear to all the others. But none of them risked saying anything at first. For several moments, she gazed down silently at Jace. As his wildly arcing mind came to rest within his center of gravity again, there was something terribly familiar about her. But more than that; there was something deeply personal here. He knew it ...
But there was no time to reflect; the others had gathered their nerve.
“What’re ya gonna do with him, captain?”
Her eyes never left the outrider; she acknowledged the question with an upraised finger.
“Interesting question, isn’t it? What should I do with you?” She turned around, arms spreading as if to call upon the full imagination of the crowd. The smoldering anger he had seen eye-to-eye was gone, or at least hidden for the moment. “Anyone have any ... suggestions? Now’s the time, boys—don’t be shy!” She waited a moment or two for their laughter to subside before she stopped full: She saw, like a hawk gliding above the fray, that Jace had slowly raised his hand a few inches, never abandoning his position on his back.
For an instant, there was a kind of amusement on her face, but it was not the same smile she had favored her own men with. Her eyes were cold and hard, something unnatural and grotesque on a face of such captivating beauty. Her voice held a cold and foreboding hatred, and he knew that he was the only one who could witness this side of Hazel. For, all around them both, thousands looked on upon her in open adoration. Jace slowly lowered his hand, and before he could think to speak, her boot crashed anew into his chest.
She held the posture, and for an instant or two he thought she might just use that leverage to crush the breath out of him and kill him. To him, the moment lasted forever, but it must have gone on only the space of a heartbeat or so, for nobody made any reaction ... either to cheer or object or restrain her passions. As she loosened the pressure the smallest bit, he knew again that none of them had noticed it all. Even if they had looked right at it, they wouldn’t have.
“Let me go?” he suggested.
She giggled, then, and somewhere in his half-delirium he recognized that there was something distinctly sexy about that sound. There was something about her he could like in a different world ... a fairer world. His mind grasped at it, but everything beyond the most pressing danger was a void; the beating so far had been light compared to what a minotaur could have done, but it had undammed countless memories of exhaustion and starvation. Her voice was above him again, echoing like a herald of the angels: Like the trumpet that would blow and break the world. He groaned as he forced himself to focus, to look up.
He was going mad, he thought—he was sure he could smell rose oil ...
The Champion of Veil suggests letting him go!
The troops around them whooped and hollered their disapproval, their cries mingling together in one formless mass. Before he knew it, she was looking back down at him again; leaning down into his face by bending the leg she was using to pin him. “Uh-oh,” she said, ticking her head to the side as she made a disappointed cluck in the back of her throat. “Don’t think you’re gonna get the votes on that one, outrider.”
As her face came closer to his, he didn’t dare speak—couldn’t ...
Now he was sure of that smell ... the fringes of light painting her into a mirror image of—
“I know who you’re thinking of right now,” Hazel Lien said, and the words froze Jace to the core. Again, she saw his reaction, but this time she didn’t relent. “Do you know why I remind you of her? No. No, of course not. Well, I guess the rose oil was a little much ... I thought it might be, but then ... what’s life without a little risk, eh hero?”
His mouth opened and closed uselessly, dry as a desiccated sea.
“I had a vision, you know? I knew you were coming—that as soon as father told you not to go through the tunnels, that’s the first thing you would do. He probably knew it, too, whether he’d admit it or not. I sensed it ... I felt that you were out there, even from the moment you set foot under the open sky again. You don’t know what’s in that tunnel, you damn fool. There are things in there that can swallow you up and make it so you never even existed. He was trying to protect you from that, believe it or not ... but he failed, and so did you.”
She pulled her boot from his chest and he knew: All along, he’d been holding his breath. He gasped for air, but nothing he could do would drown out her next whispered words: “Isabelle is dead, Jace.” There was anger in his eyes—anger that could be seen only a moment. He was helpless to stop them from watering up in an instant, and he hated himself for it. He was paralyzed now, as helpless with this woman as he had once been with Isabelle.
“She’s dead, but I can promise you her suffering has only just begun,” Hazel whispered. “After your ignorance killed Charles and the others innocents at Lornda Manor, she and Relic got into the stables and rode hard for Veil. But they were caught near Shadow Plain ... when they started to feel just what they stirred up down in the tunnels. They couldn’t handle it, just as you won’t be able to handle it. They made mistakes ... that scout, Lucas, he got away. So did Relic. But Isabelle ... the power down there killed Isabelle, ate her up, and our Order caught on to them because she was screaming. Haven’t you felt it yet? If you haven’t ... you will.”
He did not know—would not accept—what it was, what the power was she spoke of. It didn’t matter to him. The words were trapped in his mind, the images clear as could be: First of her pain and her suffering, then of her lonesome last moments as she was abandoned. But worst of all, knowing that it was her own mistake that bought danger on the others. She wouldn’t blame him; if there was something she couldn’t control, some effect from the tunnels she wasn’t able to reckon with, she would blame herself—and those last moments, those moments of shame would bring down everything she had worked her whole life to achieve.
Because of him ... that would be her legacy. Her suffering has just begun.
When he spoke, he was not the broken man Hazel Lien expected; from the corner of his eye, he saw her run her tongue over her teeth, not her lips, as though she was starving. But what she saw then didn’t sate her hunger; instead, the familiar, cocky smile had returned. It was as if there was some inside joke the two of them shared ... something that was so unexpected that even Desmond’s stone-faced gaze shifted at once, and he leaned forward in the effort to hear. It was strange; the way commander and soldier suddenly looked so very ...
“Honey,” Jace whispered, and it was so low Hazel wasn’t sure she had heard it. “If Cedwyn knew I let you make me feel guilty over his death ... he’d find a way to come back and kick my ass.” She did not know how to respond, but her mouth closed with a click, her urges unsated. She didn’t react at all as Jace grunted with effort, forcing his way ponderously into a sitting position with his bound arms draped over his knees. One gold-clad guard stepped forward, but she raised a hand to still him. The chatter around them died instantly. Something was wrong, but none of the troops, in their splendor, dared say so or even speculate.
The sun fell behind an errant cloud ...
“So tell me, Jace,” she said. “How is my mother?”
Jace’s answer died on his lips as an ear-splitting cacophony of whistles rained down upon the square, an unfamiliar melody that set the enemy’s teeth on edge. It was a sound even Jace himself had known only rarely—but now, he heard the first faint strains of his own salvation.