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Rated: E · Chapter · Action/Adventure · #2190672
Welcome Back to Westwood
CHAPTER TEN

Welcome Back to Westwood


“Faith and luck are all you need.”

TALABRAY
Divider (2)

The animal’s jaw was open in a silent roar of death, and in the lantern-light, its vacant eyes glistened like a pair of wet opals. Even more disturbing, or at least as disturbing to Isabelle, was the way the man just stood there — his own eyes apparently surveying them in the same fashion as the bear’s.

“You once told me you experienced things in Westwood that were beyond my imagination,” she said. Her one remaining short sword was completely unsheathed now, and she held it down at her side so that the tip pointed down to the dirt of the road. “Where would this rank on that list?”

Relic remained dead-set on the sickly sight, knowing better than to take his eyes away from it, even for a moment.

“It’s up there,” he said plainly.

And then the man began to speak:

“Hail, Outriders, hail!” said a voice that might otherwise seem cheerful. “I see you have encountered the sheriff there.” He gestured elegantly to the headless bear corpse, and then bowed awkwardly as he finished. “ Prithee, allow me to introduce myself. I am a The Leather Apron as it were, in certain circles, if you follow. I have also, on occasion, been referred to as Barnabas Collins as sort of an … inside joke if you will. I am the Butcher from Mirror Lake, but you may know me as Papa Bones.”

“The sheriff,” Isabelle said, completely calm. “That’s interesting.”

Relic said nothing.

There was something intensely, eerily familiar about this. Not just about what he was looking at, but the perspective he was seeing it from. As if this had happened all before … and yet … not quite.

The lifeless bear head cocked to the side.

“Interesting, Fallen Angel? Interesting, how?”

Isabelle sounded strangely as she was known to be in these moments, ignoring how this thing had known who she was.

“You’ve skinned a bear, and you’re wearing its head.”

She was not at all shaken. As a soldier and an Outrider of Veil’driel, she had seen more than her fair share of distressing events. What she found most curious was Relic, who had braved and survived similar events as these not 9 months prior, in this very same forest. He remained serious, intent on the thing, and if Isabelle guessed correctly … deeply concerned.

“Due courtesy, Outrider, due courtesy, I implore you,” Papa Bones continued. “The sheriff’s name is George Corwin, and well, it would seem while signing those warrants for the arrest and execution of the condemned, he became the most condemned of all. He certainly paid the price, that is, and I’m afraid he’ll be here forever. With me.” The strange, humanoid creature shrugged. “More wait, indeed.” A rattling noise followed. The man inside the bear head was laughing, and that was the sound of the wind over bleached bones. “Even so, rude to omit his title when referring to him, I find. Certainly you agree.”

Isabelle raised her brow.

“Yeah, you know what, Mr. Bones? I’d bet courtesy is pretty low on George’s’ list of priorities about now.”

There was a pause.

The bear head returned to an upright position on the man’s neck, and when he spoke again, the aggravation in his tone was poorly disguised.

“We find you interesting, Fallen Angel. And would-be Ciridian Illuminate, can’t forget that one. Very interesting, indeed. Yes.” He turned his head suddenly to the side and then back. “Agreed, yes, and for this we have agreed to forgive your transgression. Yes, your little transgression, you meant no offense.”

Isabelle sighed as she looked over to Relic.

“You believe this guy is really who he says he is?”

“I don’t know,” Relic whispered, still staring ahead. He talked slowly, as he did whenever he was studying, drifting further away. “He said your name and seems to know who we are.”

“That doesn’t necessarily mean—”

Relic nodded, still in that distant way..

“I understand that,” he conceded. “Still … I wonder if …” Now the bear head cocked the other way and there was a crackling sound like someone disturbing the woodland ground. It came from the skeleton, as if it had twitched. Relic’s response was not what Isabelle had expected. “Hail, Leather Apron. Hail, Papa Bones, and well met!” the Outrider greeted. He took a step closer to the man, studying him - always studying - as he moved his hands away from his miniature crossbows secure at his hips. “You must forgive my companion here. She has never seen the things you showed me in the wagon and so not quite as cordial as we would like. Such is the way of military members, no?”

Relic stopped, waiting for a reply.

The bear head shaded just slightly to indicate the man had been staring at Isabelle and was now concentrating on Relic. And so Relic continued.

“Sheriff Corwin is very well met as well,” he went on. “And to encounter you, sir, is a very great honor indeed. I know of you, Papa Bones. And I know you as the Butcher from Mirror Lake. You dispatched Madame Rogette, did you not? Set that trap for me, that proving ground?”

“Well, we had to see if you were worthy, of course. Worthy to proceed at long last or go around again and again from the start.”

Relic nodded as if he followed every word. As if he were having a casual conversation with someone on the street.

“You are the phantom of children’s nightmares and something of a fable around these parts.”

Still no response. Only a silence that seemed heavy and cold. Chillier than the wind on the plains back in Citrine, when Relic had obsessively stared and wondered and dreaded this place.

And it was clear now to Isabelle that Relic was trying to get the man to speak, to interact for some reason, like its idleness was a threat in some way. She could finish his sentences and read the tone of his voice in moments like these, and that’s what made their Point Team, and relationship, so special.

And then finally, as if on cue, the muffled voice spoke again.

“Your beautiful friend has something to learn of propriety,” it said. “There is a certain decorum, a certain expected behavior if she is to ever ascend to Illuminate you see.”

“Oh, agreed. Absolutely agreed, and she does,” Relic responded warmly and without hesitation. He had slipped effortlessly into this role. “But she is a woman of honor nonetheless, I assure you. As am I.” A quirky expression twitched across his face and then it vanished just as quickly. “Except a man,” he added in a self-berating tone. “A man version.” The body language of the deranged humanoid relaxed back to where it had been at the onset of this encounter, and Relic went on, soothingly, trying to keep things headed in that direction. “As are you. May I ask what brings you this far east? You’re a long way from the Tri-State”

Another pause. This one not nearly as long. Then:

“The provinces,” Papa Bones corrected. “They call them the provinces now. It’s where we need to go. It’s the place we need to get. These are desperate days for your fair republic. A storm is coming, you see. Yes, a storm from across the sea.”

Relic nodded as if nothing about this were even remotely odd. He felt as if he were back in the wagon that night. Where nothing had made sense, and yet, everything did. It was impossible to articulate. Impossible to convey, but …

To Isabelle, it seemed he had come to an understanding.

“You used the crossroads, then. Beneath Ciridian. You were among the escapees in Mirror Lake.”

“Crossroads, kind fellow, good sir? A mortal term. A close-minded term. No, not crossroads. Not tunnels or labyrinths or catacombs. The Tunnels of Armageddon. The man hesitated, and the bear head nodded. “Or a mine or a passage, Sheriff Corwin reminds. Or a …”

“Thank you for clarifying,” Relic interrupted. “I understand now. But beneath The Faraway Cry. Hazel Lien escaped the same way by the use of a jadeite necklace.”

The man took a step closer to Relic, and while the Outrider did not retreat, Isabelle raised her short-sword.

“Ahhh,” came the bear man’s muffled voice. “You know much now, young one. I don’t know how you know it, but know it you do. Yes, the Illumanar’s daughter escaped the same way,” he said. Then he tilted his head back so that the bear’s was looking into the air. “Hazel Lien Ward you might be interested to know. A guarded secret of sorts. Quite right.” He looked back to Relic. “The daughter at the heart of all this. She’s sick with this pestilence, I’m afraid. This plague, this … mmm, yes yes. Artemus won’t let her go, Peter would like to add. Arkhelan has shown him the way. Arkhelan Will Rise Again, as it were, as I wrote around here somewhere. Once upon a time. So many ins and outs. So many what have yous.” The bear head cocked slightly and then the muffled voice reverted more to the tone that originally greeted them. “Yes, you know much, good stranger. Indeed, you know much. But we were separated, you see. You were saved from the wagon by an interloper. One I saw a moment ago. Or thought I did.The other is in Sindell with the next big thing. But I believe you knew that as well.”

The interaction between these two men was just as bizarre to Isabelle as the bear-man himself, but she was distracted when another crackling noise emanated up from the skeleton. Drawing the Outrider’s attention, she found the bloody mess remained dead and still, undisturbed. Annoyed at herself for succumbing to the distraction, Isabelle refocused her attention back on the bear-head-wearing Papa Bones.

“How many of you escaped Mirror Lake?” Relic asked.

Another pause.

“Nevermind that, White Raven. Nevermore. There is a plot,” said Papa Bones, ignoring the question. The bear head shifted slightly again to show he was now looking at Isabelle. The Outrider sensed it, as clearly as if she could see the man’s face staring at her beneath the animal’s head. “A plot that involves your First Consul. General Creed. And Dorsey Trent.”

Now Isabelle took a step forward.

“What about him?” she asked.

Relic turned his head to the side, extending his arm out.

“Isabelle, stay back,” he said.

She gave no sign of breaking her stride.

“No. If this thing knows something about Jace, I wanna know what it is,” she said to Relic. “And I’m getting tired of this.” Again, Isabelle was looking into the dead eyes of the bear. “What about him?” she demanded.

“Isabelle!” Relic yelled. The Outrider didn’t turn to acknowledge Relic, but halted her advance. “Tell us what you know!”

“I will tell you, Isabelle Talabray, I will,” said Papa Bones, and the sound of her name caused Isabelle to step back. “He is the second prince of a false throne. A blasphemous throne. He is the son of a far more ancient and glorious kingdom. The only kingdom.”

“Rambling nonsense,” Isabelle said, anger rising in her tone. “More mindless rambling!”

Relicc was clearly agitated, but he held back; staring at Papa Bones now, his patchwork clothing heavy, dirty, and motionless in the stifling air, ready to react to whatever might happen next.

“The escapees of Mirror Lake have tried to alleviate Ciridian’s burden, Fallen Angel. The heretic monks of Luna Scarlet attempted to dispose of the truth. Overshadow it as it were.” Isabelle said nothing as Papa Bones brought his hand up to scratch the bear’s chin, as if it were his own. “Peter reminds that it was with their blood that the trap was set.”

“Butcher,” Relic said abruptly. “Are you still there?”

The question went unanswered, but it was growing increasingly apparent that the answer was no. When the encounter had first begun, there appeared to be at least some ruined semblance of what this man once was. Now it was taking a disturbing turn of which both Outriders were all too familiar.

“Valith was meant to contain you, Outriders of Veil’driel. But he was too weak. Yes, weak and overmatched by Gabriel and Jaden herself. You died in these woods, Mr. Avery, as did your partner before the horn. 21 times in all. But no matter, no matter. By our design did you reach our Scalywagon. By our design did you arrive on his doorstep.” The voice laughed hysterically, as what was once the simple Mirror Lake butcher crossed its arms. The sound was like the convulsing of a corpse and the familiar squawk of some bird swept down around them. “But the confrontation will not be denied,” it yelled, raising its humanoid hand in salute. “‘Tis destiny, Outriders! A bloody, convoluted destiny for all!”

Isabelle’s jaw dropped.

“You are, without a doubt, the most freakish maniac I have ever—”

“Iz, behind you!” Relic screamed, pointing.

She instantly ducked and spun, swinging her short-sword on instinct as it crashed into the bones of the bear corpse, which was standing upright behind her, arms outstretched, reaching. Isabelle struck again, toppling it to the ground. She hadn’t the time to process what had happened, but as Relic watched the events unfold, he made the foolish mistake of turning his back on Papa Bones, just as an intense burning seared his wrist.

Isabelle felt it too, inexplicably, and she grunted in pain. It was like fire on her skin and she fell to her knees; incapacitated.

Despite the agonizing burn, Relic managed to stay on his feet and turn, only to discover the Leather Apron was right on top of him; the putrid breath of the bear in his face. There was a blinding green light and Relic fell backward, landing on his back and slamming his head on the road. Disoriented, with his vision blurred, the Outrider saw two shadowy silhouettes, standing side by side: Watching.

“You see them, I know,” said the voice that had belonged to the Butcher. “How horrible that your sight be restored now, only too late. How wonderful.” The figure knelt down just inches away from Relic’s paralyzed body. “So passes Relican Avery. So called storm we call progress.”

The forest floor glittered like broken glass.

In the boughs of the trees, he spotted pairs of ghost-lights hanging, half-hidden, above the mist: Like lighthouses, they searched the blood-dark gloom with lamps that barely pierced the shadows.

There was nothing Relic could do. The light intensified, forcing his eyes shut. Clover-green changed to Crimson, then white.

“Nothing but a dog.”

Again and again, they passed over him – white and red, white and red.

A heeled puppy.

The blinding lights swirled like a cyclone into the creature’s decaying hand, where it collected and faded to a glow. The silhouettes were gone. Night was fully restored, as a purple blade glimmered at Relic’s throat.

“A sacrifice to Arkhelan!” The blade was raised, poised to strike. “Arkhelan will rise ag—”

The bear’s eyes flickered to life. It ceased to be an abhorrent mask and proceeded to be alive! The fangs were mere inches from Relic’s face when it let out an ear-shattering roar. His limbs were heavy and cumbersome; useless. All he could do was scream back defiantly into its face, as the bear head tried to attack, wildly, independent of the body. A body that, inexplicably, appeared desperate to hold it back. His night vision returning, Relic saw the arrow that had interrupted the Leather Apron’s sentence.

There was another roar of pain.

And the body of Papa Bones fell, crashing into the dust of the Fairlawn Thoroughfare as three more arrows pierced its rotten flesh. At the same moment, the bear’s headless skeleton, which had risen once again over Isabelle, collapsed into a harmless pile.

There was a shadow running out of the trees, followed by another. And then two men were standing over Relic as the Outrider tried to recover.

“Out for a leisurely stroll, Outrider Avery?” a voice asked him.

Relic recognized it, and the newcomer helped him to his feet.

Isabelle was still on the ground, rubbing at her wrist where she had felt the mysterious burn, and where a rune symbol was now glowing brightly.

“Staring at that is going to seriously impair your night vision,” the second man said, helping her to her feet. “You okay, Outrider Talabray?”

“I am,” Isabelle said, somewhat shaken and confused.

Relic pushed past the man who had helped him up and charged Isabelle on a beeline, clasping violently onto her shirt and tightening it around her throat. “When I tell you to do something, you damn well do it!” Isabelle thought she saw something in his eyes similar to what she saw in bear’s. Of things she had seen in Mirror Lake that night Cedwyn had— “You don’t understand what this is!”

“Wha … what?” Isabelle managed, stunned.

Relic pulled her collar so that he was yelling directly into her face.

“If you ever risk my life like that again, I’ll—”

“What!” Isabelle cut him off, breathing hard. “You’ll do what, Relic? Kill me?”

“He could have given us more information!”

“He was wearing a dead bear’s head, Relic, what exactly did you expect him to share?”

“You don’t know what you’re talking about!” Relic said, pushing her back. Hard. “No one can know except for me. Because of what I’ve seen, what I’ve experienced here. Negative emotions give them strength! There was still something left of the butcher before those cute comments of yours! Before you pushed him with that crap about Jace!”

Who is Jace Dabriel?

Isabelle narrowed her eyes.

“That’s it, isn’t it? You’re jealous, I should have known,” she said dismissively. “You want to be him.”

Jace is – Jace is ...

Without warning, Relic launched into a barrage of lightning fast attacks, assaulting Isabelle with a fury of, what appeared to be, deadly intention.

My friend.

Even caught unaware, Isabelle blocked every single blow. Then, to the sheer astonishment of the observers who had saved their lives, she bent and twirled into a sweep kick that sent Relic falling hard on his back.

Who was Jace Dabriel?

“This what you want, Avery?” Isabelle yelled, pinning him into the dirt. “Me on top of you?” She pulled his torso off the ground, pressed her body against it, but then slammed it back down. “Would you even have the courage to make a move?”

There’s nothing left of who he used to be.

Relic screamed in rage, and before he knew it, Isabelle found herself staring down at a razor sharp blade held at her throat.

Only a grasping instinct.

“Relic!” Irick yelled. “Stop!”

And then ...

“Put the weapon away!” Brayden pleaded.

Then he’s gone.

Isabelle and Relic held each other’s unwavering gaze, both Outriders breathing heavily.

“Your inferiority complex is not his fault, Relic. And it isn’t mine. It’s yours.”

You must answer the question.

Gabriel Foy’s men from Sandia, Blades now wearing the uniform of the 305th Westwood Sentinels, were completely frozen. Frozen in time, it seemed. Held hostage by the edge of a moment that might as well have been the edge of that blade.

Yes. Listen carefully. Who are you?

The intense standoff was abruptly halted when the hand of Papa Bones reached out and grabbed Relic’s wrist. Isabelle jumped to her feet, realizing that her short-sword was still where she had dropped it earlier. Relic rolled over on his side, redirecting the blade against the dying creature’s chest. Both of Foy’s men had their bows knocked and drawn in a flash.

The hand that grabbed Relic’s wrist released and fell limply into the road. Muffled groaning emanated through the bear’s head that was once again lifeless, and the sound of tightening bowstrings was met with Avery’s raised hand.

“Wait,” he said urgently, glancing up.

They lowered their weapons and Relic crawled up to his knees, sliding closer to the head of the bear. Hesitating for only a moment, he gripped its head with both hands.

“I, uh …” Brayden exchanged a quick glance with Irick. “I would not recommend that.”

Relic slid it off with a sickening squish.

… something he was sure Fairlawn’s 305th Sentinels would be just thrilled to know about at a time like this.

The two men diverted their eyes and covered their noses.

The face of Papa Bones, along with his hair, were encrusted with dried blood and innards, but while he attempted to speak at once, his voice gave out before any discernible words could be uttered. Relic wiped away the gore from his eyes and mouth.

“Can you imagine when this race is won?” The body of the man wanted to quit, it was obvious, but the mind willed the words. There was great strength within what was left of the man. “Turn our golden faces into the sun.”

Starting to convulse, and with great effort, Papa Bones raised himself up on his forearms so that he might whisper something closer to the Outrider. Relic assisted him into a sitting position. “Praising our leaders, we're getting in tune,” he forced out, his head bobbing aimlessly on his shoulders. “The music's played by the … the madman.” He coughed, fresh blood mixing with the dried of the animal’s; it flowed from every orifice.

Papa Bones, the Leather Apron, the butcher who turned into a thing … and then a ghost story … was gone.

Relic didn’t say another word. He closed the man’s eyelids and lowered his head gently back onto the road. Then he got to his feet and secured his dagger to his belt with the other.

“Burn it,” he said, moving further down the thoroughfare.

Brayden followed Relic immediately, while Irick stayed behind with Isabelle.

“First time I’ve seen that,” the young man said as he withdrew a small canteen from a pack on his shoulder.

Isabelle was looking down on the corpse.

“Well that makes two of us. I’m sorry, what was your name again? Sandia feels like a lifetime ago.”

“Irick,” he said, pouring some sort of accelerant from the canteen over the body. “The other guy’s Brayden.” He could have been watering flowers for all the concern he gave the task of dousing the creature. “And I’m not talking about this guy,” he finished.

Isabelle looked up to make eye contact with him.

“Hi, Irick. Thanks for saving us. I don’t know … I’ve never felt that angry before.”

“It’s the plague. It’s spread to Westwood, but at least it’s opened the Crossroads again. That’s why you’re here. Right?”

Isabelle sighed and brought her hands to her hips.

“I guess,” she said.

“And anyway, I wasn’t talking about that.”

“Talking about what?”

“Whatever this guy is, wearing a bear head.” Irick bobbed his head slightly side to side as he continued his work. “Well, I mean yeah, it’s the first time I’ve seen an old wives' tale wearing a bear’s head too,” the young man clarified, “but I was talking about your fight with Relic. Never saw anyone move that fast before. Looks like the stories about you are true.”

No one’s exactly sure why,” Isabelle whispered to herself as she looked back down to the corpse.

“I’m sorry?”

She shrugged, never looking away from the body, not even when Irick struck a match against his bow.

“Nothing,” she said, looking back to him. “Lead the way.”

He nodded and dropped it on the butcher.

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As Isabelle walked beside Irick, she strained to hear what Brayden and Relic were talking about in front of her, but they were talking so fast that their words were lost on the wind. Occasionally, she looked to the trees, and found herself desiring the shelter of the sentry house.

She was coming to appreciate just how precarious the situation was, and she found it odd that this was the first time she had done so. It was these times to think, these torturous times to think when that happened.

It wasn’t until they had started walking that she wondered where Foy or Cleo had gone. What happened to the wagon? And as the adrenaline waned with every step, her body hurt. The thoughts coming back with the pain, as if they were one in the same.

They were alone here, completely dependant on Foy and his plan. A plan she had jumped into, so eager for any kind of progress. But she had jumped without looking and now—

“Convenient, you coming along when you did,” Relic said as they paced around a sharp bend.

“Yeah. You can thank Gabriel for that. Somehow he knew you would be in trouble. He also said you would understand.” Relic turned his head towards Brayden, but his stare wasn’t met, only acknowledged with a nod. “He arrived at the sentry house hours ago. Him and the girl.”

“The senator,” Relic corrected.

Brayden nodded.

“He told us where and when we’d be able to find you. Even what the attacker would look like,” he said, then looked back a second for a glance at Isabelle. “Gabriel and the … and the senator have gone on to Bryce Valley. They have taken your horses and supplies as well. Highfly is with them also.”

Jace’s horse? I wasn’t even … I mean when did …” Relic sighed and shook his head. “You know what? Nevermind. It doesn’t matter.”

He looked down at his pocket watch:

2:22

Behind them, Isabelle watched intently. She saw Brayden twist back to her, and wondered what they could be talking about.

As Irick and Isabelle rounded the bend themselves, a large, well-lit structure seemed to materialize in an instant. Nestled off the road against the woods, the building stood in sharp contrast from the last time she had seen it. The last time she had been here with Relic, the sentinels had only come back to Westwood months before. Tonight she might have gone so far as to describe the structure as cozy. The lantern sculpted to look like a miniature sentry house blazed brightly by the knee-high metal gate. Two more lanterns flanked the well-kept cobblestone pathway that stretched to the entrance. An entrance that glowed warmly with the activity within.

A few armed sentries were hovering around the doorway, their postures loose and comfortable as they talked casually to Relic and Brayden.

It wasn’t long before Isabelle and Irick reached the group, and with every step that brought her closer to them, she found the sensation grow increasingly awkward.

“—the well,” one of the men was saying to Relic. “Too big for horses or carriages, but you two will get there right away.”

“I’ve seen it before,” Relic said to the young man. “And it’s good to see you again, Arthur,” he said, shaking his hand.

“Likewise, captain,” Arthur said, releasing the grip. “That night feels like it was—”

“A lifetime ago, I know,” Relic said, turning toward Marcus White. “Marcus,” he said.

“Captain,” the sentinel said.

“You look good outside of a watchtower.” Relic smiled and clasped his hand. “One might make the mistake of assuming you’re actually competent by your appearance.”

“No one would ever make that mistake,” one of the sentinels behind Isabelle said, lighting a cigarette. “Trust me.”

And they laughed.

“If you run into anyone from the Unicorn Brigade over there, captain, could you do me a favor and tell them Arthur says hello?”

“Will do.” The Outrider started to walk past the men, taking his first step into the open doorway. “Volunteer to stay behind?” he asked, looking back.

“Yes, sir. Something told me I should. Like it was important, I can’t explain it.”

Relic stopped in his tracks.

He exchanged a glance with Isabelle.

“Well,” she said, knowing what he was thinking, and she took it as a cue. “Faith and luck is all you need.”

It was something Cedwyn used to say when they were kids.

Relic just sighed. The exchange seeming like an unspoken reconciliation of sorts as the effects they had experienced began to fade.

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STATIC
Chapter Eleven  (E)
It’s Only a Paper Moon
#2190673 by Dan Hiestand
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