by Dan Hiestand
Nathaniel’s Potions and Herbs
Nathaniel’s Potions and Herbs
“Today we start taking back.”
Ear-splitting whistles echoed from every direction and off every structure in Raven Square, as a maelstrom of arrows cut down every golden rider and every Tear around Jace. Hazel was gone, but he had no time to think about that, as the concussion from the blast above sent everyone ducking for cover. Glass and masonry showered down all around them. A giant, 2,000-pound, copper bell flew through the air, signaling out one final alarm as it rang out its own destruction. When it crashed down into the open city square, it tumbled like a massive cannon ball cutting a wide swath through a condensed group of robed figures attempting to flee the chaos.
The grizzly sight caused Jace to wince and look away for a second, but it also provided him with the perfect opportunity to run for it, which he did, toward the building Malcolm had jumped into.
The Whistlers rose from concealment all at once, sacrificing their personal safety for the best shot. Some fired down at the Tears who comprised the Sky Fire Unit that had attacked their leader. Others took aim on the golden riders and Tears threatening Jace, saving his life more times than he saw.
Jace could feel the bolts whizzing by him as he zigzagged and dodged, arms flailing in a desperate mess. No strategy was possible but a blind hope that he wouldn't be hit. Adrenaline dulled the pain, a sensation he was well familiar with, as if even pain was unable to rise above the fray. The Outrider was holding his breath, tunnel-visioned on the door of the shop he was running toward. He risked a backward glance toward Raven Square to see if anything was chasing him that could catch him as soon as he stopped to open the door.
The golden riders who had been firing at him only moments before had now apparently let him go. They had shifted their full attention to the Whistlers. There was still no sign of Hazel and Jace tried to steady himself. He was running at full speed when when, even under such heavy exertion, he managed a sigh of relief. His mind was on Malcolm more than himself, but now Jace found himself distracted by memories of those comet attacks in Fairlawn, Westwood, and Sandia. He remembered thinking once that they had been both horrifying and beautiful. But now he was thinking they were neither. Now they were just a mess. They were nothing, reckless and mindless, void of definition or feeling.
Suddenly, one of the only Sky Fire Units to survive the barreling bell came into Jace's peripheral vision, and one of the robed figures emerged from a small alleyway just a few feet beside him. It swung its empty hands as if miming swinging a weapon, but halfway through the swing, a barbed-wire staff appeared out of thin air.
Jace sucked in a breath, instinctively sliding down on the dusty smooth gray stone of the street; directly under the swing of a now very solid weapon. He came out of the slide by vaulting back to his feet like a coiled spring, turning around again. The Overshadow swung its weapon even harder this time, slicing the Outrider's hand and forcing him to drop one of his crossbows. In a split-second, Jace raised the other one, but his robed enemy instantly countered with a move that knocked that one free as well. Just like that, in a blinding whirlwind, Jace was completely unarmed.
The Overshadow thrust its staff forward in a stabbing motion, and Jace turned to the side and jumped back to dodge it. The weapon went right passed, and across his stomach, and Dabriel took the opportunity to grab it and rip it free from his enemy's grip. As soon as he did this, however, the barbed-wire staff disappeared in a wisp of purplish smoke and Jace found himself staring down at his empty hands as the weapon rematerialized in the Overshadow's. It raised the weapon up to strike again, its cowl falling back to reveal a normal-looking man, though his eyes were glassy and empty. And then something came to Jace. A memory like lightning out of a clear blue sky. He reached out and grabbed its glowing, red necklace and pulled it off. As he did this, the man started decomposing. The barbed-wire staff vanished and the body hit the ground face-down; looking now like an ancient, mummified corpse. Its robe hovered eerily above it for a moment or two, and then descended over the boy like a burial shroud.
Jace glanced down to his hand and saw it was bleeding, but not badly. He shook it, then quickly picked up the crossbows from where he dropped them and opened the door. Despite the fire scorching through his veins, again, he had to calm himself. Couldn’t just barge through this door without thought. So he worked his way through a slower, more tactful approach. He couldn’t let his concern for Malcolm cloud his judgment. He’s be no help if there turned out to be a group of Tears, or minotaurs, or a dozen golden riders waiting on the other side.
He glanced left, perhaps with no other purpose than to delay his entry to this building a little longer. If he didn’t actually see his young friend’s body, it wasn’t real yet. But as Jace looked in that direction, he gasped and his eyes opened wide as dinner plates. From all the way back in Raven Square, not far from the gate of The Greywall, the rest of the Sky Fire Unit had retreated back, having witnessed his dispatching of their leader.
“Cowards,” Jace muttered under his breath, remarking on their preference to deal death at a distance rather than physically confront him when they had the chance. But then he took half a step back and squinted as he realized the beginnings of a comet had already manifested. It was a beautiful, glittering copper color. “Son of a—“ the Outrider blurted, and then he scrambled toward, and then through the door with every ounce of strength he could muster. With a combination of sheer terror and adrenaline, he propelled himself forward with such force that had the entryway been barred with stone it could not have resisted his effort.
The Outrider wasn’t even on his stomach, on the dusty shop floor, before the comet shot straight down the street he had been standing on. He felt no heat as it grazed his back, but something else. It was more like … the threat of heat; something beyond normal perception he couldn’t explain. After a few long seconds lying flat on his stomach, Jace finally stood, turned, and closed the door behind him, as if to snuff out the terrible memory of what he had just seen. Then he took a deep breath and bent to pick up his golden rider crossbows from where they had flown out of his hands for the second time in as many minutes. He walked to the a large, rectangular window facing out on the street and opened the wooden shutters, letting in the first full blast of sun the shop had seemingly seen in quite some time. Angling his vision in each direction, Jace could see the group that had fired the copper comet was not pursuing. The commotion raged outside, slightly muffled by his being inside, and a division of golden riders ran right past the window and back toward Raven Square. So close in fact, that the Outrider had to turn and press his back against the wall to avoid being detected.
This action left him facing the shop’s interior, and offered him time to get his bearings. It didn’t take long to realize that he was standing in an apothecary; the smells of stale medicines and salves hanging in the air like a musky curtain. Behind the proprietor’s desk, there was a board with a list of certain herbs and projected delivery dates, meant to inform customers as to what was out of stock and when it was due to arrive. The most recent shipment was dated nearly two years prior, not long before the city first fell. Now Jace looked up to the ceiling, and to his surprise, saw nothing. There was no hole, no sign of Malcolm whatsoever, and the first shades of doubt started creeping into his mind.
Had he made a mistake in all the chaos?
Was this even the …
… no, this was the building.
“It has to be,” Jace whispered out loud. Then yelled: “Malcolm! But the dried out herbs and evaporating potions did not respond. He weaved around tables and lattices full of overgrown, untended foliage. “Mal!”
Then he heard the sound of coughing and followed it to a small door he hadn’t noticed until now. Jace was on it in an instant, running at full speed. He ripped it open to reveal a space not much larger than a pantry.
In it, Malcolm was lying on his back, in a desolate garden. Whatever was meant to be growing there was unrecognizable, browned and dead. And while its thick remnants, combined with the soft material of the roof, had undoubtedly saved the bowman’s life, the impact still would have hurt.
When Jace came in, Malcolm groaned.
“Ugh,” he muttered, rolling slightly to his side. It was likely he had lost consciousness for a bit and was just now coming around. Remarkably, his bow was still clutched in his hand. “I hate those comet ones.”
“Yeah,” Jace said, walking closer. He shifted one of the crossbows under his arm so he could reach down. Malcolm took his hand, and the Outrider pulled him up to his feet. “Why don’t ya take a little longer next time? Don’t think she came quite close enough to shooting me.”
Malcolm was dusting himself off with his free hand.
“Seriously? You’re nitpicking?” Hunching forward and huffing out another breath, he pointed up. “I just fell through a roof.”
The bowman nodded. Then, for the first time, focused entirely on Jace.
The Outrider shrugged.
“More or less.”
“Good. Good to know.” Malcolm walked out of the little room, and he slapped Jace on the shoulder as he passed him. “Because she was really kicking your ass.”
Jace smiled again, but the amusement quickly faded, as if stepping back into the front of the shop flipped a dangerous switch. Malcolm surveyed the room, looking at a board that said: Nathaniel’s Potions and Herbs above the counter. Together, they walked to the shop’s entrance and Malcolm stepped to the side, letting Jace move into position. As soon as the Outrider cracked open the door, the two exchanged a glance. Malcolm nodded, but then Jace suddenly winced, trying to subdue a grunt with his teeth tightly gritted.
“What is it?” Malcolm asked.
Jace couldn’t answer. All at once, he felt like he hadn’t slept in weeks. His arms and legs would not obey his mind’s commands, and he slouched back into a sitting position on the floor. He fought the urge to wheeze and reached down to the small pouch of feverlew on his belt. In one quick motion, he reached inside and put a pinch in the back of his mouth, between his cheek and gum. And then he waited. Waited for the powerful effects of the amphetamine to hit him, which happened quickly. Jace sighed as he pulled the string to the pouch and returned it to its place on his belt. The symptoms of what Artemus Ward called the plague had been mild so far, but persistent after starting a week or so prior. Now the Outrider wondered how long the feverlew would keep him level, how much more dependent on the drug he would get, how long he could hide it. The time skip in Westwood Forest had miraculously, and absolutely, cured him of his addiction once. This time, what could possibly save him if …
… he noticed Malcolm staring at him.
“What?” he asked, a little defensive. “It’s under control.”
“It is.” Jace said again, but he sounded as if he were trying to convince himself as much as Malcolm.
The bowman just shook his head.
“Yeah,” he said. “I remember saying the same thing every other day for months.” But then, as much out of necessity as anything else, Malcolm let the subject drop. He couldn’t afford to think about it anymore. He had already started to sweat and felt his hands tremble just at the thought of being so close to it again. The Alina Scarlet Monks in Fairlawn had helped him break his addiction once. This time, what could possibly save him if …
Jace looked back to the door he was crouched beside, very intentionally breaking Malcolm’s concentration on what he knew he was thinking about.
“Don’t let Cleo down, kid. Don’t let yourself down, and I’ll do the same.” he said, opening the door a little wider and looking out again.
“You won’t let Cleo down, either?”
“Smart-ass,” Jace said absently, but now their minds were back on business. He saw more of the Sky Fire Units moving into place, but they weren’t walking in formation down the main thoroughfare. They were taking up positions not thirty yards from where he spied behind the door. In fact, they were taking up positions, from what Jace could see, in shadows and nooks all over the city. He could also still hear the arrows of the Whistlers back in Raven Square, but could no longer physically see them.
“What are you thinking about?” Malcolm asked.
“Your men,” Jace said, still studying the street. “Can they retreat back through the Greywall? The way they came?”
“No. By now they’ll be engaged from elevated spots all over the city. A retreat was out of the question the minute the first shot was taken. We’re reliant on the rest of this continuing to play out the way we planned.” At that moment, another explosion rolled down from Raven Square. The shock of it caused both Jace and Malcolm to flinch and duck.. “Start to play out as planned,” he corrected.
Jace closed the door.
“Alright,” he said, reaching over to the small sapphire hanging from a string on Malcolm’s arm. With a hard yank, he ripped it off in his hand. Jace tapped it twice with his thumb and it sparked to life; pulsating blue. “Brandon, you up there?” he asked, glancing upward as if it were possible to make eye contact with those he was calling. “This is Dabriel.”
For a few moments the sapphire blinked silently, no response. Then:
“Yes, my prince, we read you, and it’s good to hear your voice. How’s the view from down below?”
“—good,” Jace’s voice came back through the cockpit. “I wish you were here to see it.”
Jaret laughed a little as he coordinated the levers on each side of his seat to direct all turbines aft.
“Yeah, I bet you do,” he said, and then pushed to full power with all the finesse of a master pilot. His eyes were fixated on the the sea cliffs and rocky overhangs that ran around Glate Bay, rising and sitting like a rock face crown. Very carefully, he brought his airship down as low as he could to make sure no enemy was entrenched there. If they were, it would have provided prime strategic ground over the Dock Complex. His first pass complete, he found nothing, so he arced around again to start his second run.
“… front door’s open,” the Outrider was saying from somewhere down in the city. “How you holdin’ up?”
“Can’t complain,” Jaret said, banking around, and his voice fluctuated slightly with the exertion of the maneuver. “Though I might if Hawkins isn’t with you. One of his people called up a few minutes ago. Said he jumped off a tower or some crazy ass thing.”
There was a pause, and then:
“Yeah. He said it was faster than taking the stairs, so …
“Well tell him we’re glad he’s okay. And good job.”
“He heard you. Anyway, we’re in one of the shops off the main thoroughfare. It’s an apothecary. Don’t remember it from back in the day.”
Jaret’s airship drifted little bit lower still, this time over the uneven precipice. Still nothing.
“Yeah, because it wasn’t there back then. I know the one you’re talking about, and I know where you are,” he said, arcing back towards the city. The emerald fluctuated slightly. “I don’t know how easy it’s gonna be to get where you’re going from there, but everything appears secure on the back end of the city. And there’s no sign of the enemy around the Complex or the cliffs around the bay.”
“Yeah,” Jaret heard Malcolm’s voice in the background. “Well we got plenty of sign down here.”
“Looks like they’re waiting for the rest of you. I’ve seen at least half a dozen Sky Fire Units,” Jace said. And it sounded like he may have been stretching around for a better vantage through the window. “They’ve fired a few times but now appear to be digging in. Preplanned positions by the looks of it.”
Jaret raised his eyebrows over his oxygen mask.
“What makes you say that?”
“I don’t know,” Jace’s voice came back, and Jaret Brandon had worked so closely with the Outrider over the last few months, that he could almost see him shrugging his shoulders by the tone of his voice. “They seemed too specific, and they made it to them too quickly and efficiently to have been random. The Overshadows are divvying out reagents. Safe to say this is a strategy of some sort.”
“Understood,” Jaret acknowledged as he zoomed almost directly over the location for himself. “We figured as much. What about any sign of minotaurs or golems?”
“No,” Jace said. “No minotaurs. No golems, either, looks like Jaden was right yet again. So far we’ve seen Overshadows forming Sky Fire Units and golden riders, that’s it.”
“Alright. I’m passing over Raven Square now. Still a sizable group of Illumanar … golden riders … going for the nests of the Whistlers. Getting cut down left and right by the looks of it. Sky Fire Units are taking up similar concealed positions to what you’re describing.”
“They’ll have exposed themselves by now,” he heard Malcolm’s concerned voice again, just as he expected. “Won’t be able to hold them off forever.”
Jaret nodded to himself.
“Don’t worry, my prince. You and your people didn’t let us down, and I promise we’ll return the favor.”
“I’m surprised you haven’t been fired on yet,” Jace said.
Jaret cleared the Greywall, blazing now over the Pendragon Plains to the ridge Jace had stood upon.
“Most likely not to risk revealing the hidden positions they just moved into. Smart. Listen, I’m passing over the ridge and I’m gonna lose you. I’m giving the status update to Lockhardt, and wherever you two find yourselves when I get back, I strongly recommend staying there. Sindell just had her second prince come back from the dead. It’d be a shame to lose him again.”
“Message received,” Jace said.
General Lockhardt nodded at Jaret Brandon’s message, pleased to hear that the Greywall’s main gate was open. They were hungry for the chance to exact at least some measure of revenge on the people who had spent years destroying and occupying their country. He could almost feel the frustration of his men as the massive illusory army they had walked through dissipated into multicolored vapor. But it was important to be careful what one wished for. Lockhardt knew all-too-well that it was only a matter of time before their prince reported a large enemy host to not be an illusion. And secretly, he was happy it was not today.
Now his mind shifted to the task at hand, and that was getting into Zarponda.
“Alright, then,” he said. “Mr. Nash?”
Darvin Nash immediately turned and went down the fro t of the mine at their backs, relaying the order of of another advance, this time all the way into the city.
Lockhardt took a deep breath and narrowed his eyes ahead. All around him, wind snapped the blue and gold pennants of Sindell alongside the green and gray of Veil’driel. He looked to the port city that had built his country long before the days of airships. And he couldn’t help but imagine what his ancestors would think of these two nations fighting side by side. Nations that had fought each other in countless battles all throughout history, one of the greatest right here in the shadow of the Greywall itself.
But today they were united, allies in a single purpose.
Today they would taste victory, he could feel it in his bones. Now he closed his eyes to calm himself as the sound of the horns signaled the march to come. He couldn’t let it tempt him too much – the thought of walking the streets of Zarponda for the first time in over two years. When he opened his eyes he was focused, and he watched as the wisp of shadow that was Jaret Brandon’s airship flew back over the city and climb away into the clouds.
“Welcome back,” Stellan Fox’s voice came through Brandon’s sapphire. “Dragoons report ready and standing by.”
The Lord of the Sky leveled out his aircraft’s upward arc after emerging from the whiteout of cloud cover over Zarponda, rejoining his hand-picked, private squadron designated by the Sindell fleet as the Sun Downers, the elite of the elite. Together they hovered as one, waiting to start their attack.
“Copy,” Jaret said, hoping his sigh didn’t come across in the cockpits of the others. “Here’s the situation. Things haven’t exactly gone to plan down there. I don’t have to remind you of everything those heroes have done for us since their arrival, and what they mean to our cause. I don’t have to remind you of the gift fate granted us back when it gave us back our prince. I don’t have to. But I’m reminding you anyway. For years we’ve been pinned down, kept isolated, on our heels and retreating. That ends today. Today we start taking back. That’s our city down there, that’s our country. Dragoon, Sky Knight, none of that matters now. You’re one of mine. Think fast—”
“—but not too much. Trust yourself and your ability. Arm your amethysts and check in when it’s done.”
Samantha Riller held her amethyst in her hand, as she had since Jaret began his surveilance run over the city. The knot in her stomach felt more like a boulder now. She had volunteered for the first squadron to field test using the purple stones as weapons technology, as Jaden had taught them to do, but this is the first time it would be used in actual combat, as the winged creatures hadn’t attacked the capital city of Hamon again since that night the Tear arrived. The night her brother was killed.
Now she raised her hand in front of her face and squinted, addressing the purple stone directly.
“Please don’t blow me up,” she whispered to it, then kissed it and attached it to the assembly mounted beside her seat. It sparked to life, just as the emeralds that powered their ships and the sapphires they used to communicate. There was something comforting about that symmetry, and she had always thought so, even from the earliest tests. She listened to all of the other pilots checking in, relaying that they had done the same, and she was fastening her oxygen mask as her turn came up, the blue aura of the sapphire embedded within splashing briefly across her mouth as she did so “Riller, weapon system—”
Jaret’s mask was already on over his nose and mouth, his own amethyst stone glowing, and he nodded a little as Riller was the last to check in. He expelled a little breath, nothing nervous in this one. He was taking command, ready to go. All doubt leaving him, these were the emotions he could afford to feel.
“Right,” he said. “You all know the steps, now it’s time to dance.” He turned his head slightly to the side, looking out and down at the clouds as his airship bobbed in the air, placing both hands on the control stick. “On me.”
“Two bolts? What in the hell are you supposed to do with two bolts?” Malcolm was asking, annoyed.
“Ohhhh I’m so sorry, bro. I didn’t have time to stop by the weapons shop on the way,” Jace said, still intent on the door. “And anyway … these things automatically reload, I’ve seen it.” Without looking, presumably for effect, he fired a bolt into the ceiling. And then it never happened. There was no white spark. No new bolt. Nothing.
Malcolm just stared at the small arrow stuck in the ceiling.
“Champion of Veil’driel,” he said, shaking his head.
“See, now we have one bolt because you made me to do that,” Jace said, tossing the crossbow aside. “But seriously, I’ve seen them just like magically reload before, I don’t know why it didn’t.”
“I’ve never seen that.”
“Yeah, well, it’s happened alright? Trust me.”
The door was cracked open again, and Jace was staring out. There was a Sky Fire Unit right across the way, the one he had been watching the entire time, and now they stood in a circle around a pile of reagents. There was nothing left to do but wait as instructed, to stay in this shop and do nothing, feeling useless.
Every Overshadow in the circle was looking up at the sky, and while Jace only had one bolt, and knew they would not magically regenerate, he couldn’t think of anything better than to take one of them out with his last remaining shot.
Jace stood and assumed a firing position. He fully extended his left arm and squinted his eye.
“Jace! Wait, don’t—” Malcolm tried, realizing only too late what the Outrider was planning to do.
But Jace’s uncanny focus persevered, and the bolt flew on a perfect trajectory toward the back of the lead Overshadow’s head. Only instead of its intended target, the shot was intercepted by a bright-yellow barrier. It flashed up around the entire group, a shield that looked similar to the one protecting Hamon, and the arrow fell harmlessly to the ground.
In unison, the Overshadows looked to the apothecary, their eyes away from the sky.
“Woah,” Jace said, more to himself. “I had no idea they could do that.” He looked over to Malcolm. “Did you know they could do that?”
Malcolm rolled his eyes.
“Yes, Jace, as a matter of fact I did.”
“At least we do t have to worry about the enemy finding our location by listening to us talk on the sapphires. Because I’m pretty sure they know exactly where we are now anyway.”
Malcolm couldn’t see what Jace was looking at, but he could see by his expression that it wasn’t good.
Jace motioned for him to get down and he did so.
A second later, and it felt like the entire world had exploded, as a blazing comet — the full size ones used to bombard cities -— was fired from all the distance of a single street-width away. The ground felt like an ocean of tremor waves, and the entire top of the apothecary was blown clean off.