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Rated: E · Chapter · Action/Adventure · #2190673
It’s Only a Paper Moon

It’s Only a Paper Moon

“No one should know where their dreams come from.”

Divider (2)

Kingdom of Sindell
Capital City of Hamon

Bells were ringing out on the morning Jace was called to Sinowa Castle to meet with Jaden.

​Up a dozen wide steps railed with polished bronze, he found himself standing beneath the shady portico before a set of great, golden double doors. Masked guards with halberds propped in their arms stood on each side, but none approached him or spoke a word, well aware of who he was and his appointment.

Through the great doors was a wide courtyard, enclosed by the white walls of the keep and dotted with ornamental fountains that sprayed high into the sky. Delicate windows with sinuous golden frames looked in on a dozen lavish rooms, but Jace was more interested in the people. A few adults chatted quietly on benches, but the clearest sound above the trickle of water was the whoops and cheers of children who raced from place to place, playing and tossing coins into the fountains, even as the king’s servants swept the stones quietly.

​Through a crimson door, Jace passed into a long marble hallway that looked on other gardens. Small, fuzzy creatures skittered and hopped about, chasing one another in a great impression of the children, and he recognized them at once. They were the strange cat-rabbits he had known as a boy and hadn’t seen since he was a teenager under the tutelage of Donovan Kerrick. They seemed to have been given the run of the grounds; one or two lazed in every pool of light beneath a window. A few regarded him curiously, but same as the guards, none approached.

​At last he came to an antechamber adorned with a great floor-mural of the entire Ciridian continent, encircled by a large serpent that swallowed its own tail. Now he could see where he had been and where he was.

And the serpent was encircled further with the motto:

Dum vita est, spes est.

​This was the place where the main corridors of Sinowa Castle converged; a hub of activity where the frenzy of urgent business was all around him. Pilots passed to and from the Royal Hangar which lay beyond a large door not three or four paces away.


He smiled immediately at the sound of the voice that had screamed his name. It was small, but also excited, and it echoed up and down the great hall. By the time he turned to face it, the little blonde-haired girl he expected to see was already running towards him full speed. Her ​coming was further marked by a ceaseless tide of small shoes slapping marble, which stopped abruptly as she jumped headlong up into his arms.

​“Hello, Casey girl!” Jace yelled, grunting a little with the exertion of catching her weight. But then he winced at the sudden reminder of his ribs, and the handiwork of Hazel Lien.

​Casey Lang remained blissfully unaware of this, too busy choking the Outrider with a hug around his neck. Two blue ribbons tied her hair into pigtails, and they matched her sky-blue dress. Jace closed his eyes and hugged her tightly, rubbing her back a little as he sighed.

​“I’m so glad you’re back,” she whispered directly into his ear. Her breath smelled like peppermint, and this made him smile again.

​“Me too, buddy,” he said, transferring the girl to the crook of his arm. He winced again as he did this, and then bounced her a bit into a more tolerable position. ​“How are you?”

​“Good,” she said, distractedly reaching up and touching his cheek. “You shaved all the hairs off your face.”

​“I did,” Jace said, and he leaned back to give her a better view. “What do you think?”

The little girl shrugged.

​“I don’t know. You just look normal again.”

​Jace smiled again as he shifted his focus back to the bustling activity all around them.

​“I’ll take normal. Where’s your mom?”

The question was barely out of his mouth when he spotted Danielle Nash surrounded by a large group of people near the mouth of the hallway called the Corridor of Kings. She was deep in conversation with Constable Thean, and while she barely acknowledged Jace, she glanced towards him just long enough to track where her daughter was.

Then Jace’s attention was jerked suddenly back to the task of holding Casey when she leaned back hard in his arms. A maneuver that required his focus turn completely back to her so that she didn’t fall out of his grasp. This had no doubt been the intended result of the maneuver. She never could have known how close he had come to actually dropping her, or the intense relief he felt that it didn’t happen. And this blissful ignorance seemed to be the epitome of what it was to be a child,

​“Talking to daddy’s big boss,” she said, giggling at the fun of the dip. “See?”

​“Oh yeah? Is that what she’s doing? Huh? Talking to your daddy’s big boss?” He started to tickle her and she squealed with uncontrollable laughter that echoed off of the walls. “Your daddy’s big boss?” he repeated and she howled on.

Constable Thean, dark and lean,” Casey started to sing, but then stopped at the upside down view of him standing with her mother directly beside them, having apparently started over when she was distracted.

​Jace rocked her back to a sitting position in his arms and then lowered the little girl down, lightly hugging Danielle Lang and kissing her on the cheek as he did so.

​“Hello, you,” she said. There was relief in her voice, but Jace thought he detected a certain tension there as well.

​“He shaved his face,” Casey pointed out.

“Yes, I can see that,” Danielle said, glancing down to her daughter standing happily beside her leg. “You clean up good, Dabriel.”

“I know,” Jace said absently.

She shook her head and rolled her eyes, but smiled as she did both.

“I know you know.”

A team of pilots took Jace’s attention, and he followed their path to the giant door. In doing so, he saw the tension again when his eyes scanned back to her face. He recognized the expression.. Or rather, what lay beneath the thin veneer of strength maintained for her daughter.

“He’s fine,” Jace said. “Everything’s fine.”

​Danielle nodded and sighed a little.

​“I know. The constable was just telling me, it’s just…” She paused. “It just like back home. I can never really believe it until I see him, you know? Until I hear his voice.”

“Yeah,” Jace said. “I do.”

“He and Darvin are expected back this afternoon,” Thean confirmed. “All is well.”

Jace turned to him and nodded.


​And the constable nodded back.


Danielle read the meaningful pause between them with all the learned deftness of an Outrider’s wife.

​“I think that’s our cue to get going, little one,” she said, and reached down to take Casey’s hand. “See you at the ball, though, I’m sure.”

​A line of confusion wrinkled Jace’s brow.

​“The wha—?”

​“I got a dress!” Casey chimed in.

​“Oh … yeah?” Jace said, still confused.

​“A green one!”

​Danielle put her hand on Jace’s arm, squeezed lightly, and smiled at Thean that conveyed full understanding of Jace’s reaction. Then she took a step back, winked at the Outrider and started away.

“Thank you so much for your time, constable,” she said.

​“A pleasure as always, Danielle.”

As they continued to move away, Casey looked back and waved at Jace who waved back.

​“Daddy’s boss is always grumpy,” she said in a not-so-quiet voice, and in the echoing hallways it came back to them clearly.

Danielle Lang shushed her loudly, glancing back to Jace to make an exaggerated, mortified face. He watched after them until the throng of crowded activity swallowed them up.

Then he turned back to Thean, looking calm, cool, and collected.

“It’s true,” he said. “You are.” A throaty grumble emanated from the Constable but other than that he didn’t respond. “Ball?”

​Thean sighed.

​“Walk with me,” he said, and they started together down a short corridor leading north.

, up to a small flight of stairs leading up to another section of the castle. “That was good work on the Zarponda mission,” he said. “Damn good work.”

​“Thank you. Team effort and all that.”


​They were in route to Jaden’s room. A place Jace had gone at least once a week since he had arrived in Sindell, and that Constable Thean had started leading him there, knew that he had an appointment with her within a few minutes. It was starting to be apparent that as Jace’s relationship with Jaden got closer, the more nervous he became. When he had seen them joking around in one of the gardens one day, he did not seem to disapprove, but the accompanied visits started then, he was told to meet him at the base of the pillar and wait before going to the weekly appointments. It was only ever trivial things they discussed, sometimes even walking just in silence all the way to her door, but he always looked like there was something he wanted to discuss, but in typical Thean fashion couldn’t. Tight as a drum.

​ “The Ball is tomorrow night. In celebration of the Zarponda victory.”

​Jace glanced around.

​“Hell’s wrong with these people?” but he didn’t say it like he was really that disgruntled, then glanced back to Thean as they reached the part of the hallway that was the end where Jaden’s room was and stopped outside the door. “I don’t know what’s weirder. Having a Ball now, or the fact that the Veil’driel legions actually brought dress uniforms.”

​“Everything of a military nature came with us,” the Constable said, though he looked annoyed himself, either at the Ball or that he was now forced to explain something and use extra words to do so. Annoyed especially that he had apparently been seeking out Jace, maybe even as Danielle Lang had spotted him. That much was clear to him now. “Everything. It is our business to represent Veil’driel to the fullest and under the best light and that is what I intend to do. If the King of Sindell says we’ll have a Ball, we’ll have a Ball. Even if it is the most asinine thing I’ve ever heard of. And by Gods if we’re to look like jackasses having a Ball in the middle of the apocalypse, then we’ll look like sharp jackasses who represent our nation to the fullest.”

​Jace laughed a little. Thean was not exactly known for his sense of humor, and it was hard to tell if he had been humorous on purpose. He glanced towards the closed door and waved his hand around.

​“Good luck with this.”

​“Thanks again.”

​Oddly, Thean seemed a bit nervous and this threw Jace off a bit.

​“Your ride for the troops is at noon. That gives you …”

​“About an hour,” Jace said, already aware of the time. Then he smiled. “The irony of you setting this up …”

Thean hesitated, but only for a moment. He brought a hand up to his hip, glanced down the hall at the top of the steps and squinted. It was the look of the man reflecting, a look Jace had never seen before. And when he turned back to Jace, the Outrider understood that the Constable had never been so … present with him.

Present in your presence he heard Jaden’s voice say in his head. That’s funny.

Jace may have reacted to the sound of it, but when Thean went on it took the full of his attention.

“Yes, well … morale is important. And if we’re having a Ball …” He paused a moment and sighed. “Perhaps this has all just been a carnival after all.”

​“Yes, sir,” Jace said, almost laughing. “I’ll be there.”


​Jace offered a little half salute.

​“Noon,” he acknowledged, then he turned, opened the door and passed through it. Thean stood by a little longer and looked at it.

Then nodded, turned around, and started back down the stairs.

Divider (2)

As Jace took his first steps into the room, it looked as if it had been abandoned for centuries, nothing more than a ruin.

Then, as he continued, it was as if time itself were reacting to his movements, rippling as lake would after a stone was thrown at the surface.

His surroundings shifted now to a more modern appearance, only dusty and worn, exactly as the library in Lornda Manor had appeared to he and Cedwyn upon their arrival. The room seemed unused in its current state for months, not hundreds of years. And then Jaden appeared and all was back to the present.

“You’re getting good at that,” she said, sitting back in a large alcove and looking relaxed. Her backdrop was an immense, ornate window that looked out on some of the roads behind the castle. Jace could see the bustling marketplace out near the southern gate, alive an active with the busy commerce of the capital city of Hamon. From this comfortable perch of the wide stone ledge, Jaden narrowed her violet eyes on the kid with whom she had met like this many times. “But be careful. Bending temporal prisms and walking through them is a very thin line.”

Jace sighed and slid his hands into his pockets.

“Literally or metaphorically?” he asked. But then he smiled as he finally made eye contact with her. “Or let me guess … both.”

She smiled back at him.

“Both,” she said softly, and the subtle nod that followed seemed the perfect complement to her tone. “You can’t twist the fabric of reality without it snapping back.”

The light of the beautiful late-summer day outlined her slender body like an aura that made her shine. She was so beautiful that Jace actually found it distracting sometimes, having only experienced the phenomenon with one other person before, and he wouldn’t let himself think about her at the moment. That would have made him vulnerable, and that was something he old never let himself become in these sessions.

Still, she just continued to stare at him. To the point where he started to feel self-conscious.

What?” he asked through an awkward chuckle, and he looked down at himself as if he were missing something. Jaden didn’t answer him, nor did she relieve the tension by allowing the intensity of her stare to waver. “Seriously, what?”

“I’m assessing you,” she said.



“Assessing me for wh—”

“On whether or not you’re ready for what I need to show you. What I … what Ciridian needs to trust you with.”

Jace pursed his lips. He thought about rolling his eyes, he wanted to, but didn’t. Instead he just moved slowly to the sturdy oak chair he usually sat in during these meetings and dropped himself into it with another sigh.

“You do that a lot,” Jaden said.

“Do what?”


Birds were chirping pleasantly outside the window an the breeze carried the scent of freshly cut grass and flowers. He felt relaxed when he came here. He felt like he could rest in a way he couldn't anywhere else. When he sat in this room, with Jaden, he felt at home. He felt content.

He felt ...

"What are you thinking about?" she asked him, and when Jace came out of his thoughts his eyes flicked back to hers.

"Nothing," he said, and his tone sounded more like an admission than answer.

Jaden laughed.

"This place has never felt like home to you, has it?"

"Not really," he said.

"I gather you met with Neville Katic."

At this, Jace suddenly stopped his fidgeting.

"You'd think I'd be used to that by now," he said, looking at her again. "You knowing things you logically shouldn't."

"There's nothing logical about Cygnus," Jaden said. She moved over to the large alcove in front of the window and sat, crossing her arms. The beauty of the morning seemed somehow to accentuate her own in a way that couldn't be described. Not with words, at least. Maybe in feelings. "The questions that need answering now have to do with if there' any logic in you."

Jace raised his eyebrows, finding the statement odd and confusing.

"I might sigh a lot," he said. "But it's better than talking in riddles a lot." The Tear laughed again, but it faded into a smile and then nothing at all. Her expression turned reflective. Maybe even a touch regretful. "What are you thinking about?"

Her eyes turned on him and caught the sun the same way the jewels on her fingers did. Two amethysts glittering in the sunlight.

"Of how much you remind me of him," she said, and the amethysts narrowed. "Of the future ... and of whether or not you're aware of the hope you engender."

"Yeah," Jace said. He crossed his arms and leaned back in the chair. It was an effort to appear relaxed, maybe even convince himself he was relaxed, thought he was anything but and had a feeling Jaden knew that. This meeting was already far different than those the two had in the last few months. And now even the air felt heavy with the weight of wherever this was going. The truth was he was never comfortable when he was here, not in the strictest definition of the world. When he was around this woman, he ... and yet ... that restful, comfortable feeling was real. Still that comfort now was chaotic. A strange, indefinable contradiction, like Jaden herself. "Remember that whole talking in riddles thing I was talking about?"

Jaden seemed more serious now. More focused. And she didn't react to his comment.

"Mmhm," she mused, and while Jace could not recall her moving, she was suddenly directly before him. Hovering over him. "That whole thing," she mocked, making her voice absurdly deep with a peculiar expression of someone trying not to laugh.

Jace swallowed hard and didn't even try to hide it. There was a tightening in his chest, and he felt cold, as if this beautiful summer day was turning to winter in the blink of an eye.

"What's happening?" he asked, and as he spoke he could see his own breath. The walls started closing in. He felt the floor begin to shake. The glass in the window was breaking.

"The calm before the storm," he heard her say, but she was faded. He tried to stand but his body was no longer his own ... at least ... at least it wouldn't obey him.

"That came without warning," Jace said, but there was no thought behind it. And he heard an echo come back as: ... or what we call progress." The air was getting thinner with every frosty breath he took ... like steam from a forge.

Then everything faded to black and every sound was an echo like the voice he had heard.

The echo he heard now, he thought, was the rumbling wheels of a wagon and then that empty void of blackness was replaced with a blinding flash of green, followed by the sensation of being sucked through a straw made of light.

And when it faded there was the almost deafening squawk of some far off, nocturnal bird.

A raven, a voice said and that was the sound of wind over bleached bones.

He was staring at himself in the reflection of an abandoned storefront, wind chimes jingling just beside him. He stared at his own semi-transparent reflection for what felt like a long time and then another sound drew his attention. A sound that drowned out all the others. The sound of a sign creaking on rusty hinges. A sign that read: Viktor's Arms & Wares.

Thunder rumbled and the wind chimes fell from its hook, crashing down at his feet in a discordant heap. But it was what it fell next to that was the far more curious thing. He had never seen anything like it. The flickering orange glow splashed over his boots. He tilted his head slightly sideways to improve his vantage, but when this was not enough, he stepped back off the rickety porch so that he was standing on the ground. A couple more steps back and he could see the object in its entirety.

It was a hollowed out pumpkin with openings cut to represent human eyes, nose, and mouth. There was a candle placed in it and it seemed to grin at him.

"It's called a jack-o'-lantern," a familiar voice said behind him, and while that sudden sound had startled him, Jace did not turn around. Instead he looked back up to the window reflecting only his shoulders and above now with his lowered position off the porch. What he saw behind him was not a surprise. Another reflection had joined him, with fireflies all around like when he had seen him Westwood. "In Ireland, people started to carve demonic faces out of turnips to frighten away Jack's wandering soul. Of course, here he's known as ...

"Papa Bones," Jace said. He instinctively slid his hands into his pockets to find he was wearing a heavy black cloak. Beneath he felt the shape and bulk of his miniature crossbows.

Kerrick's reflection nodded.

"When they moved to the U.S., they began carving jack-'o-lanterns from pumpkins, as they were native to the region."

Jace finally turned around.

The shadows seemed to melt away from the man, but only just so, leaving him ensconced in darkness. The leather he wore were dark - dark as his eyes, which peered soft and approvingly into Jace's own.

"I have no idea what you're talking about, but I'm fairly certain you know that."

Donovan shrugged, and he crossed his broad, weathered arms.

"A little intrigue never hurt anyone. And besides, it's fine to be fairly certain. When what we're fighting for is a fairer life, after all." He cleared his throat, still sounding like it was touched by too much tobacco smoke. "Anyway, death will do that to a person. Just because you can't understand yet doesn't mean it's intrigue."

He nodded down the road.

"Come on."

Jace stepped from the island of flickering pumpkin-light, without hesitation, to match his mentor's stride into the shadowy sea beyond. As they walked, Kerrick kept watch ahead of them, his gaze always scanning the streets, the alleys, the windows, and doors.

What is he looking for?

Was it all just a test?

Even after all these years it was hard to know.

Jace found himself growing tense, an electric feeling dancing all over his skin. A familiar, heavy mist lingered in the streets and he could see road-lanterns in his peripheral vision. In his memory, when he had walked this same path as a kid, those lamps had been green. But tonight they glowed a traditional yellow; hardly seeming capable of penetrating the fog, let alone lighting the way.

Jace was starting to know this place like the back of his hand. Like a recurring nightmare he couldn't stop having. And yet it also felt safe somehow. Something about it felt right.

He peered down the alleys, each one a ragged gash in the night swallowing up even the suggestion of light. The glowing gazes of stray cats, and now he knew them to be Mazhiran Hunting Cats, looked back at him here and there. The alleys were mad with them, infesting half-tended shrines.

"This feels safe to you," Kerrick said as he continued to walk. "Because it's the place of eternal past, and that's what the past is."

Jace didn't react to his mind being read by Kerrick. After what he had experienced at Lornda Manor and in his meetings with Jaden since his arrival in Sindell, he questionsed nothing like that. In fact he took it all as a matter of course.

"Safe?" he asked simply, sinking his hands into the deep pockets of his cloak.

"Yes," Kerrick said. "The past is in stasis. The same. Forever."

"Because it's the past," Jace said, feeling like he understood, as absurd as these circumstances were.

"No, greenhorn. Because it's dead."

"So is this really Mirror Lake? Is this even real, or-"

"Some have called it that, sure," Kerrick said. "Some have called it Erebus. The Luna Scarlet Monks call it one of their hells, and it's because of them, one in particular's recommendations that we're here one final time. One way ot the other. To see if it's tie or if this has all just been for nothing.

A chill ran up Jace's spine and he shuttered before clearing his throat.

"So ... this is a test?"

"It's a magical place," the master assassin said with a nod, but then he said no more. The only sound was the odd screech of that raven searchign for a nest. Sometimes they would hear one take wing from the desicated boughs of a tree bent low with frost. There was a lingering sickly sweet smell; the last testamet of dead fruit, withered on the vine when a storm had rolled up without warning.

"We're being watched," Kerrick said. He paused before adding, "I wagered my soul on it."

Across the road, a suspended sign carved with the words Horns of Cambria for Sale creaked as it blew in the wind. The proprietor's wide, wooden smile was roted from rain. Windchimes jingled on the edge of Jace's hearing from somewhere deep on the night.

"I remember."

Kerrick raised his hand, commanding quiet.

"You remember nothing, boy. Memory has no meaning in a place like this."

"What do you mean?"

"I mean history is always being rewritten. That's how it works."

In a flash, Jace's weapons were out: single-shot crossbows, one in each hand.

"I don't see anything," he confessed in a whisper.

Donovan pointed of the road.

Jace turned in that direction, but the voice came from behind them.

"In his blue gardens men and girls came and went like moths among the whisperings and the champagne and the stars."

Jace shot a glance to his mentor.

"I know that voice," he said.

"Yes, well, I should hope so," that voice responded. "It's only been a few days."

Kerrick turned toward his apprentice.

"You showed restraint on the docks. And becaue of that you're here.

"But ..." Jace stuttered, stunned. "I thought this ... I thought ..."

"I suggest you stop doing that," Kerrick said, and then he motioned around. "Thinking can drive a person mad here."

"We're all mad here," the still disembodied voice responded.

And Kerrick smirked.


"Zelda Sayre, case and point." Up and down the tone went, like an echo - the last word, a stab. "Released a pair of Mazhiran Hunting Cats on acount of it. And before you know it, people are praying to the cat-god, barely a generation since."

Kerrick turned away from Jace, staring into the darkness.

"If it's all the same to you, Cygnus, I'd rather just get on with this. You and the Illuinate say he's ready. So let's find out."

The reply drifted in from far down the road.

"As you wish."

In that instant, Kerrick's ruby ring sparkled crimson, and then faded. An when that light faded the ring was gone.

Put of the darkness came a Luna Scarlet Monk in a robe like Isabelle in his tent and when she was making her speech. To look in their eyes was to ...

"Not an ice-blood after all, I guess," Jace said.

"No," the robed figure said, and flicked the ruby ring to Jace.

"I believe this belongs to you."

Jace caught it, only registering in that moment that his crossbows had disappeared which allowed him to do so. He slipped his ring onto his finger without thought, and then continued to justt stare at his hands for what felt like a very long time. He felt transfixed by the sight.

"Ah yes. Symmetry. I like that. I do."

Jace heard the tightening of gloves as the first mentor he ever had balled his hands into fists.

"So whaddya think, you old ghost? You gonna give'em a chance to prove he what we all hope, or not?"

A rattling noise followed as Cygnus sighed and it made Jace think of the snakes he had been taught to capture and hold in his youth.

"You've passed every step so far."

The Scarlet Monk took another step forward and pulled back his cowl as he did so. So far the red moon could not be seen, ut the white one was right and illuminated his face clearly as if it were daylight.

"Ghosts are visions of the dead," he said, and as he spoke, his eyes never left Jace. Rather his gaze was so adamant it seemed to look through him, to the core of him. Add weight on him, like the air had felt in Jaden's room. "We are something more than that." Then some of the tension eased from his shoulders and a deck of cards appeared in his hands. And he casually started shuffling, so casual it was almost absently. "Umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu."

Kerrick simply shrugged, and squinted as he looked down the street.

"I guess," he said.

Never breaking his ceaseless shuffling, Cygnus flicked his eyes back to Jace.

"On the other side of the Veil, they would call you a son of Erin," he said. "On the side you know you're either an assassi or an Outrider. By which do you relate?"

Jace frowned but he never looked away.

"Assassin," he said with something like contempt. "Sounds so exotic." He looked over to Kerrick a moment before returning his stare to Cygnus. "We were just murderers."

"That doesn't answer my question."

Somewhere in between. I don't know."

Cygnus and Kerrick exchanged a glance, and while Jace never turned to see it, Donovan raised his eyebrows and Cygnus stopped shuffling. He nodded slightly, as if in approval or concession or both. And then he was looking back at Jace.

There was none of the jovial spirit he had shown in Zarponda. Indeed, this man seemed completely different than the one who had beaten him at cards and taken the win he had just returned.

He stepped so close to Jace now that he seemed to absorb him. You weren't supposed to look a Luna Scarlet Monk in the eyes. He didn't care. This wasn't like the first night he had arrived in Fairlawn, met Relic, saw Isabelle making her speech. This wasn't like when every instinct told him to look away. None of this made sense. But he wasn't afraid. He didn't care.. He wouldn't look away. He wouldn't swim against the tide.

"No," Cygnus said, and his eyes flashed brightly through every color of the rainbow, reminding Jace of the comets over Fairlawn and in Westwood. The comets he still saw in his nightmares. "People like you can breathe the water."

Jace took a deep breath but never wavered.

"I'm not running from my problems," he said, and the words came from his lips as if they were scripted. As if he were meant to be thinking what he was thinking and saying what he was saying.

Cygnus took a step back and straightened a little. The deck of cards disappeared and he crossed his arms.

"You're not sure if this is real or a dream, but the lens with which you see it is focusing.

"We call that seeing through The Looking Glass," Donovan said.

Cygnus nodded.

"You showed restraint on the docks," he said. "You stood in the presence of Neville Katic and never wavered."

"Katic is a backstabbing politician!" Kerrick suddenly boomed. "I don't trust him as far as I can spit!"

Jace was jerked from his thoughts by the echoing shout. It should have been enough to bring everyone in the community running, their heaviest tools in hand. But in the wake of it, there was nothing but the squawking of restless ravens and the occasional answering wail of cats.

The echoing was disorienting, so strong that it was like the noise of it had feel. Jace swallowed and hated himself for it. But what was worse was that he fell to his knees, down in the grave dirt. He felt small and pathetic as he looked down at his hands, fingers splayed against the ground. Feeling just as he did at the gates of Zarponda, at the Greywall - vulnerable, uncertain. Afraid.

The Luna Scarlet Monk did not hesitate, and as he spoke, his words came from above him like thunder. And they fell on him like rain.

"The last person to stand before me here. Like this. To face this final test now holds existence hostage on the edge of a knife. Do you know of whom I speak?"

Jace balled his hands into fists and his knuckles scraped the road. It was painful but he like it. Felt like he deserved it.

"No," he liked through clenched teeth.

"I think you do. I know you do. You've been meeting with her since your arrival in Sindell, is that correct?"

The pain from his knuckles radiated through his hands up his arms and up to his shoulders. Settling where he was shot in Fairlawn. It rolled down his back and he felt heavy. Even the idea of looking up from the road felt like an insurmountable feat. Like a barbed-wire staff slicing his back on the Ezru Plains.

"Yes," he managed to grunt, and he was panting now.

"That man tried to imprison you here in Westwood, but you were rescued. Is that correct?"

"I ..."

"Is that not correct?"

"I don't know!"

"Is Dorsey Trent dead?"

At that moment the ruby in Jace's ring began to glow ...

"I don't know!" Jace screamed.

... and it glowed so bright that the crimson light consumed him. And when it faded he could feel cool air on the back of his neck again. He could feel. The heavy pain was gone.

And so was Cygnus.

Don't be afraid to fall because I won't let you.

Jace could no longer see the Monk's boots or the bottom of his robe.

You have my permission to find out.

Jace was suddenly aware of the sounds of the night slowly filling the well of silence Cygnus left behind. When the Outrider found he had the strength to stand, he di so with a grunt, and as he rose to full height, found too that his crossbows were back in his hands. Without thought, he hooked them back to his belt.

"Kerrick," Jace said. "What the hell is this?"

"Hell?" Kerrick curved his lips into a razor-thin smile, withdrawing a rolled cigarette from beneath his cloak. "No, not really," he said, lighting it. "I mean, not unless you make it that."

Donovan turned and started down the road toward the tavern. An inn: The Faraway Cry. On winter nights like these, an outland tavern was good enough to huddle in for warmth, even for travelers accustomed to better. None of them seemed to notice that the hearths were not hot enough. That the halos of light were short and all the shadows were far too long.

In that tavern, all the cliches were true.

And Jace stood motionless.

"Just tell me what's going on, can you do that much, at least? After all this time ..." He stopped and sighed. "After everything an you do that much?"

Kerrick kept walking.

"Kerrick!" Jace tried again, but his mentor didn't stop until: "Donovan, please!"

Kerrick turned his head to the side. The coral glow of his cigarette splashed his features as he took a long drag. His expression, revealed in that instant, was blank.

"When I first saw you in Westwood that night, I said you weren't ready for what you needed to see yet." He could have interpreted the silence to mean Jace had walked away. Somehow he knew he had not.

Could not.

"Yeah," Jace said.

"Well, we're gonna see if you're ready now. Just remember one thing."

"What's that?"

"No one should know where their dreams come from. And this will make sense just as long as you don't wake up."

Kerrick continued on, but Jace did not follow.

"So what do I do now!" he shouted.

Donovan did not respond, and Jace continued to watch him go until he felt a hand drop down on his shoulder. With cat-like reflex, without any thought whatsoever, he spun on his heels and had his crossbows drawn like a flash of lightning.

"You wanna get knocked on your ass, is that it?" the man who had grabbed him said, and Jace gasped - literally gasped when eh saw him. "You better get your mind right, quick, cuz now you're starting to piss me off."

Jace took a step back and almost fell over as he did so. He tried to speak but the air from his lungs was too jagged, too stilted, to fuel the words. His reaction seemed to sober Cedwyn an when he spoke again his tone was far more composed, even somewhat regretful.

"Sorry, brother. Just a little flashback humor." Jace's second mentor buried his hands in his gray cloak ad motioned ahead with an upward nod. "Of all the Lin joints in all the towns in all the world, am I right?"

"Wh ... what?"

Cedwyn smiled and raised his hand gently from Jace's shoulder to tap the side of his face.

"Quite the fatalistic encounter we got on our hands here, eh?" Cedwyn bowed his head to the ground, and as he started walking again, he handed Jace a golden lighter. "You forgot this," he said as he passed. "It's time for your first steps ..."

Jace's heart hammered, and yet, he was calming. He moved as if lost in a dream within this dream as he put the lighter in his pocket. He didn't realize or feel the tears streaming down his face.

“Life … existence is really only a series of stepping stones. It’s time to start on your final ones.”

"Final stepping stones towards what?"

He followed his second mentor.

"The finish line, Jace."

The Faraway Cry was waiting.

Have you heard of the Ghost of John?
Long, white bones and the rest all gone!
Wouldn't it be chilly with no skin on?

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 Chapter Twelve  (E)
Stepping Stones
#2190675 by Dan Hiestand
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