by Dan Hiestand
The power of the attack was so incredibly great, that there was barely any debris to fall down on them. The entire top incinerated and blown away so that it was completely gone.
Jace had his hands on his head, then glanced up to see if Malcolm was alright and incredibly he saw him jump up and take a knee and start firing lighting quick shots in quick succession with speed that did not look human, firing out of the front of the building that no longer existed so that they were both essentially on the street themselves now. Then he followed the track of the perfect accuracy arrows and the Overshadows falling one by one, three in total and the other two of the group staggered back and fell down, as shocked, apparently as Jace was in witnessing it. As the two other robed figures fell back in surprise, tripping back to the ground only in panic, Malcolm shot one before it could even hit the ground, and the other as it hit the ground and tried to scramble up again and flee.
Then Malcolm looked over at the Jace. The threat totally gone, Jace forgot where he was for a moment standing straight up with no imminent threat seen. Even the commotion from the Square had gone quiet. Jace tooked a few steps over to Malcolm who was still crouched down.
“I thought they had shields,” he said, looking at the five corposes. With most of the building now gone even the one he had killed a little further down the thorughfare next to the circle was visible. Though enough of the far wall remained so that the Square could nto be seen.
“Yeah,” Malcolm said, rising to his feet. “But they’re vulnerable right they fire. They can’t fire with three of them dead. There’s a small window you have to take them out. Last time I had the opportunity I wasn’t quick enough, but I’ve been thinking about that opportunity for, practicing firing three shots like that.” Now the moment passing the scope of the destruction of the building all around him dawned on him and he looked around. “Woah,” he said. “Nathaniel’s gonna be piiiiiised.”
“Nathaniel has been dead for almost two years by now,” Jace said.
The booming airship engines came down around them at near deafening intervals, lapping like waves of deafening sound. Then from all over the trembling street and all over places in the city the comets of all different colors began to fire up into the sky, testament that there were many many of them hidden all over the city, and the airships did quite a few maneuvers, Jace looked up long enough see about twenty of the airships coming down it was a beautiful sight out of the clouds and many of them all broke off into different directions. Two came right down the thoroughfare as if about to make a landing on the thoroughfare, but it wasn’t a landing.
It was an attack run. They had tracked a couple of the comet attacks to a couple hiding places somewhere on the road.
Sparkling, purple energy raining down all around them, as the airships fired their newly installed weapons for the first time outside of training exercises. At first, a flickering yellow shield sprung up around them as debris from the street pelted towards them. The energy of the blasts from the airships, however, were not stopped, consuming the energy in violet flame.
“Woah!” Jace yelled as the ground shuttered below their feet, and he slammed the door, pressing his back up against it. After a minute, he looked over to Malcolm who was just staring blankly back at him, stunned by the sheer power of what he had just witnessed. “A little bit more effective than those oversized scissors they were using before, eh?”
Both of these men had their own, horrific experiences with those wizards the enemy referred to as Sky Fire Units, and so there was something to be savored by the sight of them coming to the same fate they had inflicted upon so many others. Both men ran behind the thick oak counter of the apothecary, peeking up to witness it all from that cover. Three sky fire units abandoned their hiding places and ran out onto the street, blown to bits and consumed seconds later. Huge parts of the street flew all over the place and exploded. But there was something else left behind in the wake of that awesome power. Something indefinable that tempered their joy. It was a feeling like dread, and it came over them both as unexpectedly as the silence.
Then the first run was over – a lull in the fury.
“It’s exactly the same attack,” Malcolm said. He had been looking away but now his eyes were back on Jace. “The wizardess gave them the ability to fire those comets!”
Jace nodded, but he had come back to the present enough to put it out of his mind. But then his head ticked to the side as if someone had suddenly called his name, and then he looked down as if listening to someone speak to him and he had to focus very intently to hear the words. Then he looked up and over to Malcolm who had noticed the strange display.
“We gotta make it to the dock complex,” Jace said.
“That doesn’t exactly seem like it conforms out good friend the Sky Lord’s advice up there, Jace. Why?”
“Hazel’s there.” Now he looked back to Malcolm. “Don’t ask me how I know. I just-”
“I don’t need to ask,” Malcolm said. “We’ve been on enough missions now that I know. If you say she’s there, I have no doubt she is. But if she’s there, she’s not going anywhere. Why can’t we just wait for the The Outrider STARs Special Tactics and Recon?”
“I don’t know. It’s a crazy warzone out there. ” He stood up and preparing to run. “I’m not gonna ask you to come with me,” he said.
Malcolm stood up as well.
“Shut up,” he said, rolling his eyes and shaking his head dismissively as he pushed against the ledge of the doorframe. Jace watched him and smile. There was a moment when he waited for Malcolm to clear the area but then there was just silence as he looked out at all the drama. Apparently Malcolm was unmaware. “So you gonna go, or….”
Jace wasted no time, got up and ran out, jumping over the lower part of the blown away wall like a hurtle out into the vast clouds of dust attenuating the sunlight. Every wizard on the continent could have been standing ten feet away and be totally hidden.
They left the apothecary for the suffocating dust filling his nose and mouth as he ran. Blinded, he stumbled like a man in the dark, waving his hand in front of him and hoping he wouldn’t find a barbed-wire staff. His foot caught on something, briefly, and instinctually he looked down to see one of the wizards, dead, the cowl pulled back, the corpse showing decomposition that should have taken years, strangely slightly preserved and yet looking as if it could have been lying there for centuries. Just as it had that night he killed that one in Fairlawn, he thought as he pressed on.
Then, to their relief, it started to clear, dissipating to reveal another large square, similar to the front one. In studying the maps of this city, Jace knew this was the Something Square, a place where a marketplace was set up and he waited to get his bearings, standing at the base of a towering, empty flagpole.
He spun around in a slow circle to take it all in, the scent and feel of saltwater intensifying and he glanced up at the pale blue sky. Across the way was what appeared a series of alleyways, somewhere beyond which he hoped the Dock Complex waited, but this place was the extent of his bearings. Seeing the city on a map and being in it were two different feelings. Especially one in such chaos. The Main Square was far enough away now that whatever was happening there was totally out of sight. But from all over different parts of the city airships dipped and dived and evaded and fired their purple energies, while sky fire units shot up their comets. They glanced around.
They stopped at the base of something cool, huffing and puffing, and Malcolm looked over as they reassessed the situation. “Why do I get the feeling like you know exactly where she’s going? You’re running around this town like you grew up here!”
“I wish that were true,” he said. “Cuz then I’d have some clue as to where the hell we’re going now!”
A big attack came and there was a huge crater and something fell.
“Well, we have two options. Run for those alleyways or explode!”
Together they started towards the alleyways in that started in that direction, following his instincts and the smell of the sea. The sound of Jace’s boots slapping the stone marked his progress, and that of the only soul in what would have normally been the busiest point in the busiest city in Sindell. A sound drowned out by the sweeping blasts of airships attacking some distant part of the city.
Across the square, was a crossroads where two long cobblestone lanes converged into the residential alleyways Jace had seen from the other side. Clothes lines, all of them empty, connected the walls of joined buildings for as far as the eye could see. It was a labyrinth of townhouses and interconnecting streets; no indication at all of where the docks lay. Following the wrong way could mean circling back or around to anywhere within these great walls. The only promising aspect of the situation was the lack of enemy in the area, a fact for which Jace was grateful until the sound of a creaking door spun him around. Malcolm has an arrow loaded in his bow and aimed in a searing flash.
What he saw was an old man, standing bravely but foolishly in front of his trembling family. His weapon of choice was what had to be the largest ladle on all of Ciridian.
“You’re … you’re not a wizard,” he whispered as if lost in a dream, stumbling out of his house. “Or one of those gol,” he dropped the ladle with a resounding clang, both of his hands on the outrider’s face as a blind man might do. “… golden soldiers.”
Malcolm lowered his bow, in shock.
Jace was in shock as well, taking a slow step forward as if the old man was the most incredible thing he’d ever seen.
Malcolm stood in awe as well but did not move, Jace moving back a little and grabbing the old man’s shoulders until he was steady. In truth, he was as equally shocked, all at once stunned and deeply relieved.
“No,” Jace managed, now his tone as if lost in a dream. “I’m not.”
Now the rest of the family were on their way out as well, unable to resist. All around, shutters were creaking on rusty hinges and other doors cracked open to provide hopeful peeks.
“Oh … oh …” the man whimpered, on the verge of tears. “It’s a miracle! Please sir, tell us your name!”
“I’m Jace Dabriel. An Outrider of Veil’driel.”
“An Outrider?” one of the little kids behind him said, probably the man’s grandson. “My daddy told me story about the outriders. You don’t look like one.”
Despite the circumstances, Jace smiled at the kid, so overcome with emotion that his eyes were watering slightly.
“Heh. Yeah,” he said, regarding his own appearance. “That’s kind of a long story.”
“Actually you look kind of like a funny line,” Malcolm said.
“The Outriders? Here?” asked a woman, presumably the daughter of the man before Jace. “How is this possible?”
Now Jace took a step back, remembering himself and the gravity of the situation at hand. This battle was not yet won, and it wasn’t safe for these people in the streets.
“Listen to me,” he said, starting by looking into the eyes of the woman, but then expanding his attention to the other eyes he knew were on him. “I can only imagine what all of you have been through, and the questions you all must have. But now I need you to stay inside. General Lockhardt is leading an army to secure the city and the Air Force is conducting aerial operations to do the same. So for now, guard your families until you’re told it’s safe. Those airships can’t distinguish anything down here.”
“The airships? They’re ours?” the woman asked.
“Of course, who else would they be?”
“The airships haven’t stopped flying the whole time. Over the last year. Flying a bit strange if you ask me. We’re used to that, as this is where the dragoons are trained, they’re mostly students, but this is different. They’re teaching the Tears how fly them.”
Jace looked over to Malcolm who had both hands on his bow on his shoulder, he barely moved, only very briefly glanced over to Jace and crinkled his forehead, looking back to the woman before he did. And she continued on.
“Why would the school still operate when the city is occupied?”
“We don’t know,” the old man said. “We’re only allowed in certain areas of the city and allowed outside for very short intervals of time. No one has been over to the Dock Complex since all this began.”
This was confusing but Jace was running out of time.
“Right, well, I have to go. General Lockhardt is securing the city.”
“General Lockhardt!” an unseen voice yelled in triumph.
“Our general lives!” cried another.
Now the young woman was helping her father back in through the doorway, and when he was safely inside she turned back. “Is there nothing we can do?” she asked.
Jace bent down and picked up the ladle the man had dropped.
“Guide me towards the Dock Complex?” he said, handing it back to her.
She pointed, her trembling arm extending down the way, but before Jace could turn and go fully, he thought he saw a strange shadow, just beyong the edge of his perception over her shoulder, inside the house, but then it was gone and he refocused.
“It’s on the far back end of the city,” she said. “You’re there. It’s just past the alleyways and Something Arcade that way, but they’ll be guarding it. Even now. They don’t let anyone get past there.”
Jace looked over to Malcolm who knew what to do and was already moving. He started climbing the flower boxes under all the windows. Using them as stepping stones. Someone had taken the time to plant and care for them, no doubt in a distracting activity. As he stood there with a moment to think to himself as Malcolm climbed towards the roof, he saw the whistler captain of the hawkeyes, the leader of the group that had been his personal body guard in over a dozen highly secretive operations, he saw him making a conscious effort to step around the flowers that were planted there, doing so unconsciously, and he knew then why he liked him so much.
When he climbed over to the roof and out of sight, Jace looked down to the woman, to the others gathering around, and it was a little awkward and then he cracked a little smile to her just as he heard Malcolm’s voice. He was looking through the scope with a sliver of an orange stone in there, technology developed and provided by the work between Veil’driel and Sindell. Technology and mystic and practicality, a small scale version of the ultimate result flying around overhead. He was looking at the bay the buildings were too high to get any clearer detail of the activity or the battle unfolding all around them.
“If they’re trying to escape by sea they’re gonna be disappointed. There’s no ship there.”
“You see anything else?”
He waited trying to focus on something. Then at the sound of hooves he whirled around.
Then Jace’s attention was taken to the sound of tundering hoofprints slamming down. Jace immediately stuck out his arm as if to instinctively put everyone behind him and he stepped further. He stood and listened.
“Can’t see!” he yelled having already looked in that direction to see exactly what was coming. “It’s obstructed!”
He was already on his way down the side of the building, hopping with impressive agility to flower box and whatever else this time trampeling all the flowers to nothing. Stopping at one that gave him the perfect shot. However many of the enemy was going to round that corner, the first several would be cut down before they knew what hit them.
Jace glanced up to him, looking back to face down the end of the alleyway, the unknown when something at any moment was going to come around the corner. Then he reached down instinctively, for not the first time for his crossbows, to feel nothing but air, then he looked around, sort of panicked. He then walked over to a rake leaning against the wall, walked over and snapped it over his knee, so that he held two sides of the staff in his hands, and he twirled them, then stood there.
Malcolm was fixated with his scope and bow on the end of the alleyway, the hooves were growing louder now to the point where you didn’t have to be an outrider to know where they were coming. Jace twirled them in his hands, sighed and then glanced up to where Malcolm was stationed.
“Nice,” Malcolm said, without ever looking at Jace.
Jace had a little frown on his face and just barely started looking back to the end of the alleyway when the old man spoke.
“Maybe they’re just passing,” the old man said, breaking the silence in an eerie was because it was easy to forget he was there. It wasn’t just that his hearing was diminished by his age, as the average person would truly have no way of knowing. Jace did, however.
“No,” Jace said with certainty. “Definitely coming this way.” Then he did a double take as if he just registered also that the man was standing there. “You should get back in your house, sir.”
“I’ve been cowering in that house for near two years, son. I’d much rather die standing by the side of a Whistler and Outrider of Veil’driel.”
The horses grew closer. Jace was thinking of the solid frozen masks of the person who wore the helmets. Cold and unemotional, hiding perhaps the fear and humanity of the person underneath.
Jace had so been expecting to see the golden riders that he swore at first he saw the golden armor for a second, but Malcolm must have realized right away, because he lowered his bow well before the tension even began to ease from Jace’s muscles.
It was Ferris Lang at the head of a small group of STAR outriders. He was holding his sapphire and looked very surprised to see Jace.
“Jace, what the hell?”
“What’s going on?”
“Lockhardt’s on the city, infantry is moving but it’s as we feared. They have a lot of the comet ones that came out later, drawing us in. The golden riders seem to only engage as they have to buy the time and fall back like a stratedgy like they’re protecting something like:
“The dock?” Malcolm said and the outriders saw him for the first time. “He had a feeling.”
They knew what that meant and without much emotion Lang looked at him.
“What are you planning to do?”
Again, he glanced at Malcolm, who hesitated and then sighed, hesitating because he already knew what he was planning.
To get to the docks was a very hugely wide lane that led through the most bustling part of the city and compacted as stuff was built on top of it to fit as many stores, etc, from the days it was the training hub of the world. To get there the hugely wide lane was there so that giant pieces of cargo could be transported into the city into the main square, etc. compacted on either side and all over intervals were buildings built all on top of each other. Jace knew this from the extensive studying of the city plans.
In all of the commotion and attacks and chaos of the run to these alleyways, it had been easy to get turned around, and Malcolm had but Jace didn’t. But now, with the help of the civilians and the ladle-armed old man, he had a bearing, a picture of a blueprint. Malcolm was looking at it first hand from back on top of the roof. It looked deserted.
“What are you gonna do?” Lang asked.
Jace hopped up on the lone horse they were dragging, the duty of an outrider to do for a fallen one if at all possible. He didn’t let himself think of the outrider who must have been on it in the saddle, the loss of yet another outrider and friend, there would be time for that later. There always was. But when he hopped up he caught sight of a blue beaded bracelet woven into the maine of the horse, and he closed his eyes and sighed.
“We don’t know,” Lang said back immediately, already answering the question before Jace turned urgently towards him, most likely not wanting to think about the potential loss of his bestfriend and get the thought out of his mind as soon as possible. “Got separated back there, horse came out of the dust.”
Jace was still on the ground, put his hands, rubbed his thumb over the blue beady bracelet, closed his eyes and sighed and then hopped up into the saddle. Without his uniform and scruffy and his appearance it was an odd looking site. There was no way to know he was the most talented, incredible outrider in Veil’driel. But even then he looked natural, like he belonged there.
Another huge bash and a squadron of airships raced over, one was hit by a comet and they saw it screaming down to the ground but before out of site and they only heard the impact, the wide trail of black smoke going down amidst emitting the scarlet embers of the comet that hit it trailing behind it reminding it eerily like the comets disappearing over in Fairlawn when this all began, the buildings the treeline behind them.
“You can’t be serious,” Lang said. “Jace, even for you you can’t be serious.”
“They’ll be expecting a group of STAR Outriders or infantry unit or something to walk down that lane to the docks. Not one rider.”
“Alright, I’m go’in with you,” Lang said turning around in his saddle, looking to an outrider Jace had never seen before “Rackham, give me one of your bolt belts,” he said.
“No,” Jace said. “I’m doing this on my own. Besides, you can’t evade to save your life.”
“Jace, wait. We’ll just have the Air Force blow up the buildings on either side of the road.”
“Yeah, and how’s that?” Jace asked, making some adjustments, then at the last second he looked up at Lang. “Sapphires don’t work in here. Besides, how do we know there aren’t people in there?” He motioned with his head looking down to adjust the stirrups, but never looked up. Lang looked around with the other outriders, shocked to see all the people around there. “Things have changed, as you can see. Who knows who’s in those buldings.”
“You’re not even armed!” Lang yelled, snapping out of it first.
Jace was adjusting everything, about to dart. He glanced up at the roof. The other two outriders were still shocked to see all the people but Lang looked up to see Malcolm finishing up sticking his arrows face down into another garden up there so they were in a straight line.
“You can get there by going around!”
“You go around, it’ll take too long. There’s something going on there, I have to get there. We can still get her, Ferris, I can feel it.”
“HOW can you know that?”
“Yeah, I know, you just do you crazy son of a bitch,” Lang said cutting him off, annoyed. And he looked all around to see all the people had been watching him, watching the encounter, hanging out of their window, motionless, transfixed by Jace. “And you’re just as crazy as he is, kid.” He yelled up to Malcolm.
“Actually,” Malcolm said, now totally focused, on his knee, his eye up against the scope. Calmly chewing his gum that was given to him by Jaden to take away feverlew cravings, strange creation, and calmly said: “This one’s a little nuts even for me.”
The look on Lang’s face was very serious, and as if Malcolm sensed it from the silence, he smiled, still looking into the scope at the alleyway and beyond to the Something Arcade.
“Go around the long way, get as many guys as you can.”
Jace glanced over, realizing he didn’t know the outrider.
“Have we met yet?” he said, super calm and either insane or just magical in moments before this.
“No, don’t think so,” he said, extending his hand. He was was rugged and dirty, and black blast damage was on him. Whatever they had gone through was intense, the three of them, but as he had done effortlessly, the kind of thing leaders all over the world fake and wish they had, it seemed to fade in Jace’s presence. Especially in light of what he was about to do. These two outriders did not know Jace the way Lang did, they lacked the years required to build at least a formidable resistance and immunity to the charm. At least, most of it. He took the hand of Jace. “Rackham,” he said, taking the firm grip and shaking it. “Sebastian Rackham.”
“Jace Dabriel,” he said.
Sebastian smiled and nearly laughed just a little.
“Yeah,” he laughed a little, glancing up to all the people staring down at him from their windows. “You’re famous, ya know?”
“Yeah.” He glanced around, smiled, kind of enjoyed it, and then winked when he looked back. “So I’ve heard.”
“Rackham,” Jace said, as if the two were meeting on this city street on a casual, calm day. He cocked his head slightly to the right. “Why is that familiar?”
“I don’t know,” he said, amused.
“Maybe it’s cuz you’re so damn good look’in,” he said and lightly slapped the side of his face. As he did so he looked over at the other outrider who started to open his mouth.
Jace acknowledged the other with an upward nod reached across to him.
“Darin Shardson,” the other outrider said.
As soon as he heard that a slow smile and revelation spread over his face. He had it, and both of them knew it.
“Shardson,” he said out loud, and then he had it and both of them knew it. “Rackham and Shardson. A pleasure to finally meet you guys. Damn you’re good look’in for dead men.”
Spent over a week living on grubs, leaves, and snow, dodging minotaurs. Weren’t found until two days after that night by the Fairlawn Sentinels.
“And look at ya now. Outriders.”
Malcolm’s voice brought all of their attention back to the roof.
“Jace,” he started, motionless save for the gum being chewed by his jaw. “You might wanna hurry up and get on this before I lose my nerve.”
At that instant there was a gasp audible from all around in the alley, so loud that Lang’s attention was first drawn up to them and around the alley and then he saw all of them looking away to the other end of it to where it opens up to the wide lane leading to the Bay. He felt his stomach drop and looked forward to see nothing but a bunch of papers flying swirling through the air. Over the intensified airships flying around, where their attention was drawn to as well, they never even heard the hooves, but when he looked back from the commotion, for some reason his attention went to the people looking out to the end, and the swirl of papers in his wake.
His next instinct was to look up at the roof where Malcolm was tracking something with his bow but on his face and in his body he betrayed nothing of what he was seeing of the stress he felt. And then after what felt like an eternity, he fired and the arrow whistled and zoomed in a wild blur out of sight forward. With the only view of the proceedings going on on Malcolm everyone in the alleyway looked up at him.
Lang stared, unbreathing, and though he knew the commotion of the battle all around Zarponda had not diminished he heard nothing but the sound of his own breathing in his ears and pounding of his own heart. He couldn’t imagine whatever Jace was doing on the open walkway being anymore impressive than the sheer concentration of the bowman and the blinding rapidity to which he reloaded, grabbing arrows out of the flower bed.
Then at the end his lighting fast hand shot down to one of the final arrows in the flower bed and then just as impressively froze right before grabbing it. Then his hand in position to grave it opened up in his hands and he flexed it, but still was looking through his scope. After a little while longer he slowly lowered his bow, stood up against the high cityscape behind him, turned and walked further along the roof.
Staggered and looking suddenly very vulnerable, he said, as if he was saying it for it to become real and also inform himself at that moment.
“He made it,” he said.
A deafening cheer went up in the alleyway, and immediately, wasting no time, Ferris Lang shook his head and couldn’t help but laugh a little though it looked like it was truly against all his effort.
“Crazy bastard,” he said as his horse whirled around to go back the way he came, Sebastian Rackham and Darin Shardson fast behind him.
The old man looked up and hollered up at Malcolm, very slowly he finally acknowledged him.
“You two were sent from the Ancientg Shamans themselves! Fortune blesses us all! You hear me, boy, the Shamans themselves!”
More life than that street had seen probably even longer than two years. People celebrating, even as the battle continued thoughit was dying down and the smoke rising up from all parts of the city.
“You hear me boy!” old man asked jubilantly.
Malcolm was very slow to look up and acknowledge them but then he did.
“You were sent from the Luna Scarlet Monks themselves!”
His eyes widened a little and gave a clearly in shock thumbs up.