by Dan Hiestand
The Hero of Fairlawn
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
Life was such a wheel that no man could stand upon it for long. And it always, at the end, came round to the same place again.
The Hero of Fairlawn
“I’m still pretending not to know what you’re talking about.”
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Standing atop a wooded ridge overlooking the Sindell coast, Jace could see Port Saint Lucie shimmering beyond Zarponda like polished glass. A site so beautiful it mocked him, like staring out through a window he didn’t belong in. Not anymore. Not after all he had lost.
From the bottom of the slope, the port city was a mile across the plain, but by the appearance of the outrider, the hillside might have been a labyrinth of razor-sharp rock. His face had not been shaven in weeks – months, maybe; his clothes muddy and torn, sweat-soaked skin deeply tanned, and a few steps from flat ground, he fell.
As he came to his feet, the groan of the gates stopped Jace in mid-motion. He raised his hand above his eyes, squinting at the form racing toward him; bright sparks twirling across its armor. All he could do now was wait. Wait and run the odds.
Killed without a word?
The grinding gears subsided, replaced by the rhythm of pounding hooves.
60/40 in favor.
Jace found his attention drawn to the sun; a eyeball inferno centered solely on him.
There was skidding and an animal’s breathing beside him.
“State your business, traveler.” Jace saw nothing but blotchy shadows, but that voice was crystal clear. “And I would advise you do so quickly.”
“Business?” Jace asked, his voice a rattle. “I’ve been wandering these god damned grasslands for…” He ran a hand through his grimy hair. “Hell, I don’t even know, to be honest.” He tried to blink away the sun, glance back on the rider. “My business, chief, is to survive.”
Jace’s vision cleared enough to confirm his suspicion that the man was a golden rider. Though he wore no helmet and his weapons had not been drawn. Testament to Jace’s appearance.
“You’re an Outrider of Veil’driel.”
“The…?” He squinted again. “I’m afraid you have me at a loss.”
The golden rider nodded, and then motioned to the ground.
“If you would, sir…,” he said, waiting for Jace to toss his crossbows as directed. The outrider did so without hesitation.
“You confronted the old man in the tunnels, that right? Hm? That’s how you got here?”
“I’m still pretending not to know what you’re talking about. So no.”
The Illumanairii nodded.
“It’s a pleasure to finally meet you, Jace,” he said. “You’re pretty famous, you know.”
“I do,” he said, slapping a bluish insect of his neck. He checked his hand and looked back. “Wait. I mean, who?”
“Champion of Veil’driel, the Hero of Fairlawn. Impressive, impressive stuff, Mr. Dabriel.” He looked him over and smiled. “Impressive, impressive.”
Jace slapped his neck again, this time annoyed.
“Alright, look, let’s just cut to the chase here ... would you say it’s ... impressive?” There was a strange pause then, and Jace winked. “Not what you were 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 looked up at the crest. “But, you know…” And back with a shrug. “Tumbling’s kinda cool, too, I guess.”
Desmond drew and fired in the space of a blink and the shot cut the air past Jace’s left shoulder. He collapsed to the ground as if forced there by the weight of a memory fallen out of the sky. Desmond held the weapons steady.
“You see, Hero of Fairlawn, as you likely know, Sindell is a nation of airships.” He crossed his arms with his crossbows still in hand. “What you may not is that conventional transportation is the heartbeat of roads, abandoned centuries ago.” Jace did not appear to be paying attention, but he went on none the less. “It can be difficult to find your way without roads, Hero of Fairlawn. Or do they not teach land navigation courses to all you high flyin’ Symbols of Propoganda?” A new bolt materialized to replace the expended shot. “All you … dem dare heroes and legends and such.”
“No, they do,” Jace said as he rose to his feet. He brushed the dead crabgrass off his knees and took a deep breath. “I was just hanging out with your mom that day.”
Desmond laughed loud and hard until the sound of it echoed back from the ancient wall around the city. He nodded at length and refastened the crossbows to his belt.
“See now theeere he is. There’s the hero.” He cleared his throat and chuckled again. “Short swords, too, hero.” Jace slid the blades from their sheaths and flipped them point-down into the earth. “You said you didn’t know how long it’s been, yeah?” Desmond sniffed. “Three months, almost to the day. Three months since you and the other three heroes decided destroying Lornda Manor was a real heroic way to go.” Desmond’s eyes drifted to the ridge. He snapped and looked back down. “Oh, wait, I’m sorry. Did I say three?” He laid a hand on his chest plate, pursing his lips as a cloud blocked the sun. “I meant two.” The interval it took the cumulus to lid and blink past the eye passed in silence. “You know, get it, because Cedwyn got shot a shit load of times?”
“And then died?”
“Good. So mind telling me what you did for water? For food, while you were out being one with nature?”
“Wha-” Jace grunted and lowered a hand to the left side of his ribs. He winced, took a breath, looked up again. “What does it matter?”
“It matters,” he said.
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 an aquamarine from his pocket and tossed it up in the space of a blink. Desmond caught it, but the speed made him flinch.
“Don’t do that again,” he warned. “Your hands don’t go near your pockets without my permission.”
“Converts saltwater to-”
“I know what it does,” the Illumanarii said. “Where’d you get it?”
“Place out on the Veil’driel coast, you might know it. Pretty nice before my boy blew it up.”
Desmond nodded, tumbling the stone in his hand.
“He’s the one you were talking about before.”
“One who’s dead now?”
“Got it,” he said, tossing it back.
Jace flinched, catching the aquamarine right in front of his face.
“And for food?”
“There’re these animals…” he said, lowering his arm with the drag of annoyance. “Sort of like deer, except white,” Desmond nodded. “With black ears,” the outrider added.
Jace raised his eyebrows.
“What they’re called.”
“You must be quite the shot.”
“Better than average, I guess.”
“As good as they say?”
“Nobody’s ever that good, brother.”
They fell into a long silence, the lull opening a void filled only by wind and the lapping sea. Somewhere, far off, the call of a group of seagulls drifted in.
“Sometimes I wish I was one of those birds, ya know?” Desmond took a moment to stare, and opened one of his saddlebags like a blind man searching for sight. “That sound stupid to you?”
“No,” Jace said, eyes following his enemy’s hand. “I know exactly what you mean.” Desmond was still lost in the burnt-out grass as he 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 he blew up your shit.” He followed it up with the right and the enemies laughed. “Good to finally meet you, too, Desmond.”
“Jace Dabriel. By sacred authority of Illuminate Paladin Artemus Ward as deemed just by the Holy Covenant of Shaman Ciridian, you are hereby made prisoner of war. Do you sub-” Desmond’s brow wrinkled in time with the low dive of a hawk circling halos borne of shadow around them. The golden rider did not appear to have even seen it. He had paused over something else. “Do you hereby submit to these terms?”
Jace squinted, glance coming back down to the golden rider.
“Wait,” Desmond blurted. “Don’t answer that.” He saw his expression of before mirrored back at him in the face of his worthy adversary. “Answer me somethin’ first.”
Desmond’s expression softened.
“Was it worth it?”
Jace looked back at his captor suspiciously until he saw something that let him know it sincere. He tried to respond. Stopped and looked up again; chains jingling like heavy windchimes with the action of using both hands to shield his eyes from the sun.
“Tell you what,” The Outrider, said with a smirk. “Let me think about it for a bit. Been sort of a long three months, I’ll get back to ya.”
An echo of the silence of before lasted not half as long, and Desmond was straightening in his saddle even before the weak smile left his lips.
“Jace Dabriel.” He sighed and made no bones of the reason. No nod followed, though. The intermission was over. “Do. You. Submit?”
The shackles jingled again as Jace scratched his forehead.
“Do you understand that when I said shoot before, I meant it figuratively?” Desmond’s expression remained unchanged. Something shifted inside Jace like a tide and his tone lowered at least a single octave. “I submit.”
Desmond bowed his head in a final respect between soldiers, and Jace started to the wall on his way to the noose – and just that, he knew, would be lucky. Jace Dabriel was a prisoner and was off to see the Ward who ran it.
The intermission was over.
He could already hear the jeers and yelled taunts from the guards on the wall. It would be music to what he would hear passing through.
The end had just begun.